Monday, 28 August 2017

The Ouzo Bell

On board The Triton with Captain Makis and wife Nikoleta last week I asked Nikoleta about the above two picture frames, hanging on the wall in the cabin down below. In case you haven't already seen the Triton (Where've you been all my blogging life?), here she is...

Nikoleta's family roots are on the island of Symi, and so we often compare notes about it, because I know the island very well. Before I get around to the story about the Ouzo Bell though, her comments about living on Symi were, I thought, rather interesting and threw up a perspective that kind of illustrates why we live here on Rhodes, albeit quite a long way from 'where the action' is, as it were.

Lots of folk ask me why we moved to Rhodes and many of my regular readers (maybe you need to try therapy) will know that I often surprise them when I say that we never holidayed here before coming to live on the island. When I say "moved to Rhodes" I mean it in the context of location within Greece and not so much with regard to why we moved to Greece herself (There are some who'd say that I need therapy). So many ex-pats who live out here moved here after having had a dozen or so holidays on Rhodes and, having fallen in love with the place, the decision as to where in Greece to put down roots was already a done deal (cue the same explanation regarding ex-pats Greece-and-indeed-planet-wide!).

When me and the better half discussed possible locations, we had on our list a series of islands (curiously, nowhere mainland) that we considered as representing 'the real Greece'. So, on our list were places like Skiathos, Skopelos, Samos, Paxos, maybe a smaller island in the Cyclades and, of course, Symi. Ending up here on Rhodes was an accident that's explained in my books, notably "Feta Compli!" and one or two of the others. But, and this is a big 'but' (as John Cleese once said in a Monty Python sketch), we're so glad we are here now because there are some very practical reasons why living on a smaller island wouldn't have suited us.

Now, of course, at this point (assuming they're still reading this) there will be ex-pats living on Symi and other smaller island that are reaching for their keyboards in defence of their chosen Shangri-La even as I speak (metaphorically). But as I so often find myself saying, "each to his/her own" OK? No need for feelings of insecurity or instant knee-jerk defensive action. It's only my take on things. Well, Nikoleta's too, which is what prompted me to write this stuff up anyway.

So, I asked Nikoleta if she perhaps missed her native island. Would't she, given the choice, prefer to be back there rather than living on the much busier Rhodes?

"WHAT? NO, NO NO!" Was her rather surprisingly emphatic reply. "It's nowhere! I'd go crazy."

You're probably already ahead of me now. Would she care to explain? Care to she would...

"Here I can go to a good-sized supermarket and get my shopping at prices that won't bankrupt me (well, not quite). Here I can go to town and see some life, sit in a café/bar and not have to answer to every neighbour and family member about what I'm doing and why. I even have more than one choice of hairdresser. Island life [small island life I would interject here, because the smarter among my readers will probably have noticed that Rhodes too is an island] in winter is like living in a cemetery, only quieter. There is nothing there! Even if we had a car there it would mean an expensive trip to Rhodes to do the KTEO test every year. If I want to buy clothes or shoes..."

She continued in similar vein for quite some time, leaving me in no doubt as to why she preferred living on Rhodes. Now, not every reason that she cited would be among ours for not living over there, but some would. Having lived here for years I am rather glad, I have to admit, to easily be able to buy some timber for a DIY project, to go to the hospital without incurring ferries and hotel bills, to get my car tested in one morning and be home for lunch. OK, you could argue that living on a smaller island would mean you may not need a car. It's all very subjective as I said earlier. Must admit, both me and the better half like the fact that we can nip up to town in less than an hour during the winter months and get a fix of 'street café culture', maybe go window-shopping and such like.

In times past small island life was very geared around farming and fishing too. Villagers would have year-round jobs to do to put food on their tables. These days so often everything's geared to the tourist industry and thus in wintertime there is precious little to do for months on end. Frankly, from what I've learned about the ex-pat community on some small islands, it's the sad fact too that in more than one case I could refer to, the British (for example) are split into at least two camps and neither talks to the other. I don't want to dwell on that side of things, but it is a sordid fact. Grown-ups? It's debatable.

Anyway, let's get positive (well, almost). To return to the Ouzo Bell. This story is admittedly a bit nostalgic for the golden days of tourism in the Greek islands too I suppose. Nikoleta's dad Sotiris used to run a ship, you know, one of those "Shirley Valentine-esque" ex-fishing vessels that lend themselves perfectly to lazy excursions in and out of deserted coves and the smell of fish barbecuing at the back of the beach in an old oil-drum while the guests take a dip to cool off before eating a delicious lunch to the tinny sound of Bouzouki music under a few tamarisk trees behind the beach. That's got you going already, eh?

Well, twenty or even thirty years ago he would run an excursion on board his boat every day, out of Symi harbour. He'd cruise around the coast, stopping at coves and generally giving his guests a splendid day out in impossibly beautiful and restful surroundings. Sotiris was the type who loved to be with his guests. He'd interact with them, tell them stories, entertain them by being himself. He was old-style Greek and would treat all his guests as if they were long-lost family. He always too had a ready smile and, at around mid-afternoon on every trip, would ring a bell on the vessel as she lazily cut through the turquoise waters to signal that it was time to break out the ouzo, the free ouzo at that.

Well, one summer he had a really good group of guests who seemed to gel perfectly together. They came from several countries. Most of them were British, but among them were a few from Germany and Scandinavia too. This was getting toward the end of Sotiri's working life. These good folk enjoyed their excursion on board with Sotiri so much that they all came back the following day to do it again. The second day proved to be better even than the first and thus they all decided that it would be fun to do it a third consecutive day.

This same group of now fast friends ended up doing the trip ten days on the trot. By the time their holidays were drawing to a close they'd become really fond of their aging Greek host and loved that moment when he'd ring that bell and declare: "Ouzo time!!"

Needless to say they all decided to keep in touch and when, sadly, their host Sotiris died, they all clubbed together to purchase that bell, before his boat had to be disposed of, and they gave it to Nikoleta as a fond memento of their appreciation for her old now-departed dad. Thus it was eventually that it came to be installed on the Triton, where it still hangs today. The guests all got together and sent that message, the one you see in the left hand frame above, listing all of their names and concluding with those words of nostalgia and appreciation:

"Ring the bell for Sotiris and ouzo time forever".

Go on, tell me you don't wish you'd been one of that group.


  1. I was! And I contributed to the bell. RIP Sotiris.

  2. I wish I had been one of them but,as you know John, I would have been far too young in those days!