Quote of the decade

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“The beer had the kind of flavour which, he suspected, advertisers would describe as full bodied, although if pressed they would have to admit that the body in question had been that of a goat.”

Neil Gaiman. From: “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar” in Smoke and Mirrors.

Headline Book Publishing.

London (1999)

…and if you haven’t ever read any Neil Gaiman, you should correct that fault at once!

16. Sheep Ahoy!

First, an apology

 I’ve been told off about my last missive, “A load of bowls”.

According to Spiros I got it wrong about the “silver water”. In fact the reason for spraying meat, fish and veg. with the stuff is not only to render them safe for human consumption if they’re past their sell by date, but also to lessen the spiritual trauma of the said meat, fish and veg. when they are cooked. Similarly, one should always freeze food, vegetables in particular, as soon as possible; that way the spirit of the food is put to rest quickly and doesn’t suffer the lingering pain of remembering being picked, killed or caught, as the case may be. Never let it be said that these jottings don’t teach you anything.

On the subject of apologies, I must also apologise if I have given anyone the impression that it was the action of the wind and waves over the winter that accounts for the diminishing quantity of sand on the previously ‘sandy beach’. While taking an afternoon stroll the other day I found out where the sand is going – I think the sheep are eating it. At least that’s my impression having watched as a flock of 100 or more moaning sheep were being driven along the water’s edge the entire 700 metre length of the beach. It transpires that in the run up to Easter- which was on April 15thin 2012 in spite of what the heretics in the west may think – the flock is brought down from the hills to graze on the odd bits of green around the edges of the village. According to Spiros, driving them on the beach serves several purposes, firstly it keeps them off the road, though some might say that the sheep show more roads sense than many, if not most, Cretan drivers and secondly the resistance of the sand when walking on the beach builds up their leg muscles and makes for a bigger and more tender joint of meat when they keep their appointment with the barbeque at Easter. This then, of course, raises the obvious question: if you build up their leg muscles too much, will you be able to catch them in order to slaughter them? Who knows…but since we’ve been invited so far to three barbeques on (Orthodox) Easter Sunday, if there’s no lamb on offer, we’ll have our answer.

Sheep preparing to eat the beach. Photo courtesy of KRITIguide*

While we’re on the subject of drinking, we were in the kafenion the other night and sitting in the corner when we got there was an elderly (almost as old as me) German hippy, complete with dreadlocks, home knitted striped jumper, sandals compulsory sleeping bag, drinking Frappe (iced coffee- but you knew that) with milk and getting very twitchy and agitated. We thought he might have been suffering withdrawal symptoms brought about by a lack of non herbal substances, unfortunately not an unknown occurrence here, until Spiros told us he had been there for three hours drinking coffee non- stop and getting progressively worse and worse with respect to twitching. It appeared that he had arrived and, having bought his first Frappe, had left his bag and gone to the supermarket across the road, returning a few minutes later with a large tin of instant coffee and a tin of condensed milk. He had then asked for and obtained, a jug of iced water and had proceeded to manufacture his own Frappes, consuming in the process and over the three hours, most of the 250g tin of coffee and all of the milk  – hence his state of agitation by the time we had arrived. After three hours and spending only 2.50 Euros, Spiros was about to ask him to leave, but just then his friend rolled up on a one seated scooter – it should have had two but this is Crete. The friend ordered a karafaki of tsikoudia (a 200ml carafe, 2 Euro without the mezede) and two glasses and the pair sat in silence, finishing the karafaki in less than five minutes. They then ordered another and then a third and a fourth, finishing the lot in about 20 minutes without speaking a word to each other. All this time the twitcher carried on twitching at an even more alarming rate. Finally, having drunk roughly the equivalent of a bottle of scotch between them in under half an hour, they drove off into the night; the coffee addict driving and his friend sitting precariously on the petrol tank of the scooter.

I was rather glad we were walking home that evening and I think I’m beginning to see that the sheep are being rather sensible in keeping to the beach.

 

 

* Many thanks to Sascha at KRITIguide (http://www.kritiguide.com/paleochora) for permission to use her photograph when mine turned out to be a disaster.

 

15. A load of bowls

#15  A Load of Bowls

There are undoubtedly two prerequisites for being a beach bum; the first is access to a beach and the second, according to the memsahib, is an inherent quality that I possess in large quantity.

 The first requirement, access to a beach, is proving to be slightly problematic. As I have mentioned previously we live on a peninsula sticking out into the Libyan Sea with mountains immediately to the north of the village. This means we have an unusual climate or climates since, depending on the wind direction, more or less anything can, and does, go. There being two long sides to the peninsula we have, in theory the choice of two beaches; the sandy beach and the pebble beach. The latter is rather uncomfortable to stroll on without walking boots and the former has gone on holiday to Libya – apparently. I should explain at this point that the sandy beach, 700 metres long and 20 metres wide has been the pride of the village and a major tourist attraction for years. Unfortunately this year the north westerly winds, which have been the prevailing winds throughout the winter, have stripped the beach of a significant amount of its sand leaving a three or four metre band of rock between the remaining sand and the water along nearly the whole of its length. In the past this problem has been resolved by the judicious use of a bulldozer to shift the sand from the back of the beach to the water’s edge but this year there is none to spare at the back. So if anyone out there is thinking of taking the opportunity of going to Libya this summer, please bring a suitcase of sand back with you; there’s a village in Crete that’s crying out for it.

Preserving the sand by pushing the sea back.

 

As to the second requirement, you cannot, or at least I cannot, spend your time doing absolutely nothing: for a start the said memsahib tends to make pointed comments if I stay in bed too much beyond noon.

Accordingly I’ve been passing some of my time doing copy editing; checking tixts for the proper using of the English! and punctuaations: and spilling. This is usually fun since you get to read all sort of stuff you wouldn’t normally read, (a thesis on Ottoman balconies in the Balkans anybody?) and, if you’re lucky, you get paid for it as well. However, I recently had an assignment which stretched my patience to its limits.

Now the one thing you must remember when copy editing is that your job is simply to check/improve  the English, it’s not to edit the content of the text, no matter how much you would like to. My most recent job involved checking some advertising material for a new online guide to our village which had been translated from its mother tongue into English. My issues were not with the English, which was very good, but with the content, which was, to put it politely, absolute rubbish!  Now one thing you need to know about the village we live in is that in the summer it attracts not only tourists, but those who prey on the tourists; in particular practitioners of various forms of esoteric woo-woo. By the machinations of the non-existing gods, I had ended up having to check and improve the English on an article advocating what I can only call, extreme, high level woo-woo. It was trying to convince people here on holiday to give their hard earned cash to someone who would come and give them a spiritual massage with holy oils and then place Tibetan singing bowls on them.

Paleochora singing bowl

Small Tibetan singing bowl...not sure what sort of bowl a large Tibetan uses

The outcome of all this, the reader is assured, will be that the molecular structure of their body would be brought into tune with the vibrational* frequency produced by the singing bowls resulting in relaxation, spiritual enlightenment and, no doubt, an emptier wallet. (Unfortunately it didn’t mention whether or not you could request the bowls to sing any particular song though I suspect they only do the one made famous by the Beach Boys….a free Chuck Norris calendar to the first one to get it right!)

Paleochora - not a singing bowl

Not a Tibetan singing bowl

In spite of my fear and loathing I managed to get through the job and the client seemed to be satisfied. The next evening I was sat in the taverna with Spiros and mentioned this to him. He didn’t seem at all surprised and told me the tale of the chef in one of the restaurants in a nearby village who had been convinced that the application of ‘silver water’, apparently water that has been in contact with silver, to meat that was past its sell by date would render the meat fit for human consumption again. This chef was also apparently convinced that this silver water would do away with the need to refrigerate vegetables and fish; a rather a bold assertion given that the summer temperatures can get up to 40 degrees C. (Now you may think I’m making this up…but such loonies do exist. See: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Colloidal_silver) Needless to say I was rather horrified at this, but Spiros assured me that it was now perfectly safe to eat out there now; the chef had left the village several years ago…shortly after a German tourist ended up in hospital with salmonella poisoning. He also remarked that he was not particularly surprised at these events occurring where they did; that particular village is apparently known amongst the locals as ‘the mad village’ because of the large number of woo-woo artists that seem to be attracted there in the summer- even more than our village. Apparently they have a resident shaman, two reiki therapy practitioners, an aura massage specialist and someone who does ‘family constellation’ workshops…and that’s just in the winter: not bad for a village of 25 people.

Anyway the winter appears now to be over, the first (German) tourist has been spotted swimming in the sea, the first swallow has appeared –inside my favourite taverna, perched on a light fitting, the memsahib is off on another island with every possibility of being marooned there if the wind changes direction and so, leaving my singing balls behind, I’m off to seek an elusive Ottoman Fort in the mountains.

 

 

*My spellchecker offers the word ‘irrational’ as an alternative……..

 

14. On Animals

#14 On animals.

I first came to Crete about 20 years ago and the one thing that struck me at the time was the manner in which Cretan villagers treated their animals, dogs in particular. There appeared to be little or no overt cruelty, but an animal was rarely considered a pet and if it didn’t work it didn’t eat. Some might think that a harsh regime but having been brought up on a farm it didn’t bother me that much. Now it seems that things have changed. For example, my friend Spiros has got three dogs; one a hunting dog, one a guard dog on his goat pens (though who would want to keep goats let give them pens to write with is beyond my comprehension) and one which serves no purpose whatsoever.

Yes, unfortunately Spiros has succumbed to the temptation and has joined the growing number of Cretans who now possess, what I can only describe as a bald, four legged, bat; I’m sure there’s a name for the breed, other than s**t-hound, but If I ever knew it, I’ve forgotten.  I suppose the things can’t help the way they look but given the diminutive size of their bodies and the grossly over proportional size of their ears, it’s a good thing no one takes them for a walk on the beach: one good gust of the, currently prevailing, north wind and they’d end up in Libya…..maybe not such a bad thing.

The fashion for these beasts seems to be growing rapidly and their owners appear to lavish an inordinate amount of attention on them, which is strange in light of the older Cretan approach to animals. As far as I can see they’re a poor excuse for a dog since the things can’t cope with loud noises, drops in temperature below 15 degrees C., not being the centre of attention or walking anywhere. The pampering lavished on them is outrageous: Spiros once turned up in a restaurant with his wrapped up in it’s nice little doggy coat, a tasteful Santa Clause outfit since it was nearly Christmas, and a pale pink blanket; the animal sitting in a custom made walking/carrying out bag. Spiros then commenced feeding it from his own plate – and this from a fully grown, otherwise very sane,* man!

And another thing: when did dog owners start to lose the ability to walk? I ask this because a not uncommon sight in the winter was dog owners taking their dogs for a drive; the owner sitting in the car and holding the dog’s lead out of the open window while the dog ran alongside. I just think it’s rather bizarre owning a non working dog here, there’s nowhere you can take it out of the village; the shepherds will have no hesitation whatsoever in shooting a strange dog on sight even if it’s nowhere near their flocks. The other rather unsettling thing about modern Cretan dog ownership is the approach taken by many owners, mostly male, to neutering or sterilising the animals; they don’t. As a consequence are then surprised when litter after litter of mongrel puppies are produced.

However, least you think I’m biased against pet dogs (and I am) I would point out that I’m friends with ‘Bella’, formally the ugliest dog in the world but now, having had her protruding teeth removed at long last, the second ugliest. Bella occupies a place in the heart of the community simply because she lies in the middle of the road at crossroads in the middle of the village and only moves in her own time. It’s a heartbreaking  heartwarming sight to see a bus driver attempting to get a 60 seat coach around a very sharp corner only to be thwarted by Bella declining to move and the driver then having no recourse other than to get out of the cab to physically pick up Bella and put her back in her second sleeping spot; across the doorstep of the main Pharmacy. (I would point out at this juncture that such is Bella’s hold over the village that such events are usually played out in front of spectators in the two kafenions by the crossroads. However, none of the spectators would even think of going and shifting Bella.) It’s from this position by the Pharmacy that Bella gets to know everyone and when Spiros, her nominal owner, shuts up for the afternoon, instead of jumping in the carrier on the front of Spiros’ moped, she is after all an old dog, she will often wander around the kafenions gazing lovingly at anyone who is having a mezede…particularly if there’s meat or fish in it.

Did someone mention mezedes?

I have to declare an interest at this point since I’m sitting 2 metres away, and upwind, of a rather nice young white and ginger cat that has adopted us.  I mentioned sitting upwind of it because we don’t feed it and whoever does, and it is well cared for, apparently feeds it on baked beans and cabbage, at least that’s the aroma that occasionally comes wafting in your direction if the wind changes or the cat moves upwind. She is rather fun though, once you are used to her idiotsyncracies. The biggest problem, other than the olfactory experience mentioned, is the cat’s inability to understand the word ‘Psssssssst’ when directed to her in English; apparently it’s different in Greek according to the memsahib. Unfortunately, my inability to speak the Greek version of cat means we don’t know her real name, so I’m reduced to calling her ‘Ella’; which appears to be the name of most Cretan cats and dogs.

Finally, a word about the village Carnival: I did attend but I don’t remember much. However, I’m told there are various photos of me floating in interwebnettycyber space. If you find them, in spite of the announcement that came with the last of these missives, I will not be wearing my basque – I know this will come as a shock to those of you (and I know where you live, Sid Bonkers) who expressed a somewhat suspicious eagerness to see me so dressed, but the lack of basque was beyond my control. I did in fact originally have a choice of three basques to wear, one red, one red/black, one a very tasteful shade of ivory; however, the evening before the carnival there was a fire in our apartment and we had to evacuate. I threw the basques out of the emergency door and jumped out of the window. Alas, the basques got stuck in the door and were all destroyed in the fire. It’s my own fault; I shouldn’t have put all my basques in one exit.**

 

 

*Sane for a Cretan man that is.

*That joke probably copyright ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’, circa 1968

Happy Summer Solstice.

 

The Axial Tilt is the Reason for the Season

Happy Summer Solstice

23.09 GMT/UTC/Zulu

 20 June 2012

(Those not in the UK will have to add or subtract as the case may be…you don’t expect me to do everything for you do you?…Those in the UK can do your own sums since you’re on BST in case you’ve forgotten.)

13. Sacked!

# 13    Sacked.

 My many fans, Sid and Doris Bonkers, have repeatedly asked me what the effect of the Euro crisis is having on the Greek economy. In response, I can only say that the English version of the online daily Greek newspaper Ekathimerini (http://www.ekathimerini.com/) has, within the last week, finally stopped advertising  private jet hire at 5,000 Euros per hour (plus fuel and crew) so I guess things are getting pretty ropey among the jet set. Here in the south west of Crete things are not noticeably bad other than the never ending rising price of petrol. However, out of public view, there are, so I am told, at least 12 families in the village who are totally destitute and depending on the local social services office for food and clothing; the council workers, including the social workers, haven’t been paid for six months and public infrastructure upkeep in the shape of the road repairs etc. is more or less nonexistent at the moment. The truth is that the correlation between paying tax and in return receiving some sort of benefit from the state, has yet to take hold in many Cretans’ minds because of the widespread belief that all politicians, other than the ones looking after you personally to whom you may on occasion make a small undeclared cash payment for services rendered, are a bunch of crooks and on the take.

The pheasants are revolting! Teachers join the Indepenence Day parade with a banner protesting the 25% cut in their salaries and the withdrawal of funding for local schools...the mayor was not a happy bunny

From personal experience I know of one politician who most definitely cheats.

Last Sunday, in the run up to Carnival, the all powerful ‘Women’s Committee’ held a ‘Traditional Games’ evening in the community hall, to which the memsahib and I were summoned upon pain of death invited to attend. I have to admit that the prospect of doing any such thing did not fill me with deep joy so I wandered into my local taverna for a degree of fortification beforehand. There, sat in the corner and drinking a glass of 12 of tsikoudia, was the mayor and a number of his friends. I said hello to them and sat down reading my book and sampling the house red. About an hour later I received the call to go to the hall across the road because they were doing strange things with yoghurt. The mayor must have been under the same three line whip as I was because he got up at the same time and followed me over to the hall where they were, indeed, doing strange things with yoghurt.

The evening was not quite what I had expected, the organisers had brought in a professional entertainer, a man who had collected lots of old Cretan games as played by the children in the pre television era; he was demonstrating these games to the kids and, with a great deal of success, getting them to join in with them. It rapidly became apparent that the problem wasn’t the kids; it was the adults of a certain age who were being reminded of the games they played 40 or more years ago and who wanted to have a go themselves. I should have known it was not going to end well when one particular game was hijacked by the mayor. The game involved a victim, standing in front of a group of their friends and having to hold their hand behind their back. One of the ‘friends’ then gives the hand a slap and the victim has to try and guess who did it; if they guess correctly the slapper takes their place, if incorrectly, they continue to be slapped.* (I suspect it was the pressure of having to play games like this to pass the time that led directly to the invention of television.) Watching it being played, the Mayor decided that the youth of today were a load of cissies and that the slaps were delivered much more forcefully and painfully in his day. He then decided to join in as did a group of his friends and, apparently, some of his political enemies – at least I assume they were his enemies because while their version of the game didn’t quite draw blood from the force of the slaps, it wasn’t far off doing so

About an hour, several more games involving doing strange things with yoghurt, X more tiskudias and at least one bottle of retsina later, the adults had taken over and the organiser announced a sack race would be held, the course being from one end of the hall to the other and back.  At this point, with, I am sorry to report, the apparent connivance of the memsahib, I was physically assaulted and forcefully manhandled onto the starting line where I was thrust into a sack. Now as many of you are aware I am not one who takes the slightest bit of interest in sport but being placed on the starting line, next to the mayor no less, in a Cretan sack-race and instructed to uphold the honour and dignity of the expats in the village, I had little choice but to participate.

 I’m absolutely convinced that the tactics I adopted, holding myself back in the first stretch up the hall in order to surge to victory on the return leg, would have worked. However, I hadn’t calculated on the desire to win at any cost that got the mayor to his lofty position. Honestly, I was just about to put on the spurt that would have seen me triumph, when by means of a strategically placed foot within a sack and hence in theory unidentifiable but clearly belonging to the mayor, as was the elbow in my back, I was sent base over apex. For some reason this seemed to appeal to the baser instincts among those in the audience and was greeted with loud cheers and laughter; however, not as loud as the cheer when the mayor went over having misjudged the slipperiness of the intersection of a polished floor and a jute sack. In spite of my setback I didn’t come in last…quite.

I would like to report that I triumphed in the next leg of the sack race, but unfortunately I was disqualified for wearing the sack on my head. The mayor did apologise and even invited me to join in on his team in another game. However, since this involved doing strange things with yoghurt, I made my excuses and left.

 

 

* The game also involves people making noises like a bee, but that fact is too silly to include in this missive.

12. Chuck Norris

My friend Sprios has a son Girogos, who at 17 is in the final year of high school; in fact he’s the Chair/Treasurer of his sixth form committee, the sole purpose of which committee being to extort raise money for extra -curricular activities. This sort of activity is universal amongst all the years at the local schools and a common weapon of choice is the sale of calendars to parents and unsuspecting friends. Giorgos is also a Chuck Norris fan. Now for those enlightened people (i.e. all readers of this missive other than Doris Bonkers) who don’t know who Chuck Norris is, he’s very right wing American actor who used to specialise in martial arts roles…think John Wayne with added evangelical Christianity. He’s also apparently and for reasons totally beyond my comprehension, an iconic/ ironic idol for many young Cretan males. This goes some way to explain why, back in October, I was coerced into buying persuaded by Giorgos and several of his friends to buy  one of the limited edition, of apparently several thousand,  Chuck Norris calendars that Giorgos had had printed and was selling in aid of the school trip to Prague. (A trip to be carried out for strictly educational purposes only; when I suggested that they use the money and the opportunity to pursue sex and drugs and rock and roll, they were most offended and denied that they would ever do such things… perhaps because Giorgos’ mother was there at the time)

A week or so later I was approached by one of the infant school teachers and a small group of her monsters  children offering me a calendar of the kids crayon drawings; the worthy cause this time being more text books for the infants library. OK, in spite of my life membership of the King Herod and King Dipendra of Nepal Appreciation Society,* I succumbed under societal pressure and now had two different calendars. However, five minutes later the teacher came back with a sad story…it appeared that the calendar I had bought was the last one of the batch and when they had gone down the street after selling it to me, they had met the teacher who had taught the little brats children last year and she really wanted a memento of their work…would I mind swapping the calendar for another one? Being the kind hearted person I am, (pause for nods of agreement from those reading) I agreed and was duly presented with a Chuck Norris calendar.

Two days before Christmas and there was a knock on our apartment door. Standing outside was our landlady’s nine year old daughter Maria and several of her friends, singing Christmas carols that were all more or less out of tune to a musical accompaniment consisting of two triangles. Society, in the guise of the memsahib, kicked in again and, rather than allowing me to turn the hosepipe on them, dictated that I give them a few Euros to bugger off reward their efforts and so, clutching their ill gotten gains they disappeared. Two minutes later there was another knock on the door and there was Maria again, this time holding a large envelope which she thrust into my hands with a muttered ‘Xronia Polla’.

‘What a nice thought’ said the memsahib, opening the envelope to reveal a Chuck Norris calendar.

At this point, bearing in mind the continuing turmoil surrounding the Greek economy and the Euro, with my detailed and encyclopaedic knowledge of macro-economics, I realised I was beginning to discern a pattern; if Greece bailed out or was thrown out of the Euro, the new currency was not going to be the Drachma but rather Chuck Norris calendars…at least in and around our part of Crete.

All was quiet on the calendar front, other than me receiving a Christmas present of a calendar featuring ‘Goats in Trees’, and then last weekend we attended a party in the village community centre organised by Giorgos and his committee. As usual we were embarrassed by the hospitality of the people with whom we went and they refused point blank to let us pay for any food or drink.  However, in order to reciprocate for their hospitality, I felt that the least I could do was to buy a load of raffle tickets and give them to the kids who shared our table.

The draw duly took place. One of the children won a torch, one a mobile phone; several won boxes of sweets or chocolates and the memsahib won a Chuck Norris calendar.

I won two prizes, the first being a bottle of perfume which had an aroma, or rather a smell, which fell somewhere between Chanel No.4 and Sweet Essence of Giraffe, an odour that was, to my mind, overwhelmingly reminiscent of rotting strawberries. You will appreciate that this was not particularly to my taste but it did appear to attract nine year old Maria, so I presented her with the bottle with my complements. In return she presented me with her unwanted prize; a Chuck Norris calendar.

It will come as no great surprise to learn that my second prize was.

 

 

*The only two monarchs I have any time for: Herod‘s attitude to children is well known and matches my own, Dipendra,in spite of being a king for a short while, treated the institution of monarchy in the manner it deserves… see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nepalese_royal_massacre

 

 

 

 

……………………………………………………..Tear off here……………………………………………………………..

To:

Mick

In  Crete.

Please send me my free Chuck Norris Calendar; I enclose a 55 Euro note to cover post and packaging.

11. Grave Matters

For a Cretan beachbum used to the NHS, the Greek health system comes as a bit of a shock. The good news though, is that the European Health Insurance card system does work admirably well when dealing with emergencies and the level of clinical care offered is every bit as good as in the UK. I know this because I had to accompany my friend Simon to the A&E in the nearest (2 hours over the mountains) hospital  just after Christmas. On arrival I was surprised to see so many people milling around outside the clinic and I initially thought there had been some major disaster. It turns out though, that custom and practice in Crete dictates that if you have to go to the A&E, you take your whole family, grandmothers and babes in arms included, with you.

The first thing to bear in mind is that they charge you the princely sum of 8.10 Euros to register at the admin desk; no major shock there, but why the 10 cents? Anyway, the next thing to remember, should you ever have the need, is that nearly every procedure carried out has to be approved by admin before it can go ahead and each procedure requires a trip to admin to get the appropriate piece of paper stamped. Since Simon was stretched out on the inspection table and in no position to go anywhere, I began to see why it was necessary to be accompanied. On the strength of Simon’s EHI card, the tests were all approved, but since one of them was a blood test, the question then arose as to who was going to get the samples from the clinic to the lab and the results back to the clinic, for I should mention that the AS&E is staffed by Doctors and a few nurses but no porters or auxiliary staff. The answer is that the patient’s friends/family takes the samples to the lab and the results in this case were delivered by a pneumatic tube system. The same system arises with X-Rays, the patient’s family/ friend has to scrounge a chair/bed and wheel the patient to the X-Ray suite and, since the patient clearly cannot fit into the pneumatic delivery tube without severe distress or bending the tube and/or the bed, then wheel them back to the clinic with the results. While this is clearly not too difficult a task, to those conditioned to the concerns for privacy and secrecy in the NHS, it’s somewhat disconcerting to see people standing around the hospital corridors holding their X-Ray images up to the window and earnestly discussing them with their friends, family and the neighbour from across the road who wasn’t going to miss out on the fun. I thought at one stage I was going to be asked my opinion of an X-Ray of someone’s leg but fortunately the people concerned though the better of it.

Finally if the patient has to be admitted, as Simon was, guess who has to wheel them to the ward and get them into bed?

About three weeks after all this, with Simon still in hospital, on a sunny Sunday the memsahib and I went out for a jolly to the hills about 3 hours away from where we live. The village we went to is in a spectacular position on an isolated spur on the very edge of the mountains, about 600 metres above floor of a valley along which runs the only road to a small fishing village. From this natural viewpoint, the port, the whole of the valley and the plains behind it can be seen. The reality of the village’s strategic location is really only appreciated though when you look at the village war memorial and the graveyard. While it’s a sad fact that many of the local villages have memorials to those who were executed by the Germans between 1941 and 1945 and a few villages have memorials to those who died in the major rebellion against the Ottomans in 1866, this village had memorials to named villagers who had died fighting the Venetians in 1527 (in a rebellion lead by a villager known affectionately as ‘Rabid George), the Ottomans from 1669 onwards, Bulgarians in the late nineteenth century,* Bulgarians  again in the Second Balkan War of 1913 and finally Germans in the Second World War.

creetan beachbum village memorial Kustogerako

The village memorial

In spite of these depressing historical reminders, on looking at the graves, the memsahib an unnamed botanist with me was heard to remark:

“Well, they all seemed to live to a ripe old age; unless of course they were killed by somebody.”

The day being bright and sunny, we sat and had a picnic lunch on the wall just outside the Byzantine church in the middle of the village. All was going well until the memsahib unnamed botanist looked over the wall and remarked that there was a large skeleton behind us. When I finished choking on my kalitsounia, I looked and there was indeed a large skeleton on the edge of the graveyard immediately behind us. Fortunately for the sake of my digestion it was the skeleton of a sheep.

cretan beachbum

Byzantine church - recently renovated

We returned eventually to the middle of the village where we had parked the car and were packing up ready for the trip back when, suddenly, from a group of men who were loading olives onto a lorry,** one came running across the square towards us waving his arms and shouting;

‘Sir! Sir!”

My first thought was that we were in trouble for eating our lunch in a holy place or desecrating a sacred skeleton or some such and given the obvious history of the villagers’ resistance to outsiders and the fact that we were 3 hours from home, high up in the mountains in an isolated spot, I was feeling a bit apprehensive. Instead he came running up to me and though I’d never seen him before in my life, he shook my hand, greeted me like a long lost cousin and in fractured English asked:

“How is Simon? I hear you took him to hospital? Give him my best thoughts if you see him soon.”

As my friend Spiros once remarked:

“It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t fancy the job painting it.”

 

10. Bankers all

# 10 Bankers all.

 As the memsahib reminded me recently, Christmas day was on a Sunday this year. The previous Thursday evening we went to the local community centre to hear some carols sung by the newly formed women’s’ choir; and very nice it was too with 50 or more women singing in unison – harmonies are on the curriculum for early next year. This auspicious occasion was marked by the attendance of the mayor – never one to miss an opportunity for a bit of electioneering – and the newly appointed metropolitan (think archbishop – a man with a very big black hat) and his nine attendant priests. At the end of the carols the conductor was duly thanked and then the mayor got up to speak, much to the obvious discomfort of the majority of the audience who are well aware of his reputation of never using one word when 15 will suffice and of his ability to bore for Greece, let alone Crete. For once though, he was merciful and sat down top great applause after about two minutes – though I’m unsure if the applause was for the content of his remarks or his brevity. The new metropolitan then got up to speak.

25 minutes later I certainly had lost the will to live and by the look of them so had most of the audience. According to my friend Spiros, when I managed to wake him, the sermon speech had been about the need for the community to come together in these times of austerity and to look after its most disadvantaged members and the need for us all to acknowledge that the politicians, with a bit of help from the Orthodox Church and their God, will eventually find a way to the sunlit uplands of the glorious future – provided of course that no one votes Communist in the next elections and they don’t convict the monk from Mount Athos currently banged up on a charge of carrying out a massive multi million Euro fraud with the apparent help of the last but one Government (OK, so ‘m paraphrasing a bit but you get the general idea.) He and his retinue then left the hall along and got into their three illegally parked BMWs: the ones with the red and white ecclesiastical licence plates which indicate that the vehicles don’t require road tax to be paid on them and get their petrol duty free.

The following afternoon, Friday, we were sat in the kafenion opposite the XYZ Bank. Alongside us in the kafenion, drinking tsikoudia*, were sat two armoured car security guards waiting to make a collection from the bank. I know this because I could see the bank staff across the road cashing up and because I was told it by the guards’ companion and drinking partner, the bank manager, wearing his id badge, pass card and bank keys around his neck, who was celebrating his name day and keeping an eye on his staff from a distance.  After several or more small bottles of tsikoudia, his party was eventually joined by the assistant manager and, over the next half hour, by three of the four remaining staff and yet more alcohol. At about four pm the assembled multitude watched as the last, and presumably most junior, member of the staff struggled to wheel the loaded cash trolley across the street to the armoured car and then hung around while the guards finished their drinks, made their farewells, paid their bill, went to the toilet, said goodbye again and strolled out to open the security van. I was naturally fascinated by all this and cast my mind back to my job in a previous lifetime when I could conceivably have been called on to represent some of those involved in this type of activity. After a wistful 10 minutes or so I had worked out a theoretically possible defence but came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t have fancied trying it out in real life.

I thought no more of the incident until about 10 days later. I was up in a taverna in our favourite mountain village talking to Giorgos, the owner, who was not a happy bunny. He was bemoaning the fact that he had had to pay a 100 Euro bribe to get some electricians out on Christmas Eve to replace the heavy duty overhead power cable that supplied electricity to the kafenion and most of the village. To my surprise he blamed this on the XYZ Bank. I couldn’t quite make the connection (no pun intended) and assumed that it had something to do with the financial crisis, the calling in of a loan, a refusal to extend an overdraft or some such financial transaction.

“No” said Giorgos. “The Friday before Christmas the bank manager from the bank rolled up here at about five pm and started celebrating his name day and drinking tsikoudia. By six pm he was totally drunk and decided to continue celebrating by shooting his pistol at the electricity pole. Normally he couldn’t hit a wall if he was standing five metres in front of it but this time he was so drunk he managed to shoot accurately. He shot up the insulators, ruined the cable and blew out all the fuses in the village before we got the gun off him.”

At this point it dawned on me that I might have to rethink my hypothetical defence strategy.

 

 

 

 

*A rather potent Cretan spirit made from the leftovers after grapes are made into wine. Its ability to cure all known Cretan maladies, and several unknown ones, is little short of miraculous; drinking it certainly has an effect on gravity in the drinker’s immediate vicinity.

 

 

 

 

9. Taverna Manners

#9. Taverna manners

As I have remarked before, Cretans are generally a law abiding lot, at least until it comes to paying tax and smoking in non smoking areas.* The tax issue is one that’s been around since the Dead Sea was first taken ill, the general view here being that since the ‘Turks,’ who effectively left in Crete 1898, imposed discriminatory taxation on Cretan Christians, over 100 years later it’s still ones patriotic duty to avoid paying tax of any kind if at all possible. However, the smoking ban in shops and restaurants is relatively new matter. For the most part the ban works, although it’s nowhere near as effective as in the UK. In general most taverna owners will allow smoking inside as long as no one objects, assuming of course that anyone is daft brave enough to object to very large men dressed head to toe in black and with interesting bulges in their pockets, smoking as they and their forefathers have done for time immemorial. However, if you think smokers in Crete are being discriminated against and picked on, think of the poor vegetarians.

I was sat on the veranda in the front of my favourite restaurant one evening earlier in the year, content underneath a canopy of vines and looking out at the sea. The interior was open but Spiros the owner was expecting a small German wedding party (small in the sense that it was going to be for 30 people, not small in the sense that the guests were of limited stature and German in the sense that it wasn’t a Greek wedding which would be considered small if there were only 300 present, irrespective of their stature) and was trying, and generally succeeding, to empty the inside dining room to prepare for the wedding bash. His wife, Maria, had the kitchen under control and his son was grilling food on an open air barbeque when along come a pair of Antipodeans who sat down not far from the grill. Within a few minutes, having had their table laid and having ordered their food, they proclaimed loudly to Spiros and anyone within earshot, that they were vegetarians and, as vegetarians, they were offended by the smell of grilling meat and fish. So upset were they at their close proximity to grilling flesh that they therefore demanded to have their table moved away from the offensive odours. By now the outside of the taverna was full and the only place to relocate them was to a table just inside the main area. Clearly Spiros wasn’t happy with this but ever mindful that the customer is always right, even if they are vegetarians, moved them. The wedding party arrived within a few minutes of the move and settled in, ignoring the veggies.

Ignoring them that is until the veggies, waiting to have their starter delivered (a Cretan salad without the cheese, naturally since they appeared to be of the Vegan wing of the Vegetable Liberation Front) both lit up large cigars. On seeing this, Spiros, who I know for an absolute fact always has a lit cigarette smouldering by the till, came forward with an evil grin on his face and pointing to the fading ‘No Smoking’ sign, told them to put out the cigars or leave. To no one’s surprise, they left. Two minutes later Spiros came out to start to take the orders from the wedding guests and, as usual, he was smoking a cigarette.

That was in the summer. In the winter the restaurant reverts to being a taverna with a much more limited, but still excellent, menu and as such is one of the more popular eating places in the village. So popular is it that it’s difficult at times to get a table, which possibly explained the sight, the other evening, of Spiros and Maria’s youngest daughter, sat at the till at the back, ignoring the Cretan food available to her and eating take-away gyros (think doner kebab without the taste but with added processed chips, yoghurt and tomato ketchup) from the fast food shop around the corner.

Mind you, the only reason I’d seen this was that we’d decamped from our usual bar because of the possibility of an outbreak of violence occurring between the mothers in the infant school PTA trying to run their Christmas bizarre (yes, I know) in the local community centre and those who had booked the said centre for an anti government/anti IMF protest meeting. Both the bazaar and the protest meeting were very well attended but the very noisy debate between the various political and non political factions, debate which spilled out into the street and to the local bars, was not made any calmer or more rational by the fact that the PTA bazaar carried on behind the top table throughout the meeting. One consequence of this was that the person chairing the meeting was never sure if those walking up the centre of the room towards her were coming to use the microphone, or to visit the PTA stalls to buy their last minute Christmas presents. I knew we’d made the correct decision to move the 200 or so metres when on arriving at Spiros’ establishment, we spotted, hidden away out of view from the street, the mayor; the man who is, naturally, held responsible for everything in the village that goes pear shaped, including double bookings in the community centre. Not sure if he was hiding from the PTA or the protestors, but my money’s on the former.

 

* Some might also consider that the possession of unlicensed guns and similarly unlicensed tsikoudia stills demonstrate something about one type of Cretan approach to the law, but I would never suggest such a thing.