LOTS OF MEAT AND PLENTY OF THE OTHER

LOTS OF MEAT AND PLENTY OF THE OTHER

In August 1982, on the boat back from Samothraki, an old man was dying in public view. His face was both grey and white, and he was shivering violently with a lethal fever. That pitiful trembling made me think of typhoid or cholera, but it couldn’t possibly have been those, or they would have hidden him and his contagion away from the passengers. Instead, he was lying under a thin sheet on a kind of stretcher in the middle of the public saloon, and the whole of the boat could watch his delirium. I was impressed and half tearful, at such a no-nonsense public acceptance of our common and inevitable mortality. For if I were that old man, yes,  I would sooner be dying in among the cheerful animate world, than hidden away like a curse or an article of shame.

But not everyone was as impressed as Annie and I were. About five yards away with his back to the quivering old man, and completely oblivious, was a fat and oleaginous man of maybe forty. He had standard issue jet black hair, a retired pimp’s costly sunglasses, a big and sprawling belly, and a look of narrow-eyed complacence. He was the unreformed Greek male of the good old days, probably pampered and fussed over as an overweight kid, and assured every day by his doting Mamma that he was the apple of her eye, and also the sun shone out of his precious Gargantuan backside. Back in England as a man of forty, he’d have been morbidly depressed by his quaintly flopping breasts and his three waltzing chins, but here in Greek Thrace in 1982, he positively relished all his lovely meat and his gorgeous massive paunch.

That was the return trip, but getting there had been an eye-opener too. We entered Greece at Evzoni on the Yugoslav border, and bussed the length of northern Greece via Thessaloniki,  Kavala and finally Alexandropouli. In Thessaloniki we stayed in a dirt cheap slum domatia where the toilet would not flush and the previous occupant’s waltzing turds were smiling at us as if to say Kali mera sas! Kala eesai? In the city centre I was bawled at by an irate old market seller because I asked for half a kilo of apples, half a kilo of grapes, half a kilo of peaches. I was a five star pansy because it was all half, half, half, not one, one, one like a real man, like a good Greek! The truth was that the half kilo weight for his scales was somewhere hard to find, and he had to bend and ferret when he could have been serving someone who wanted five kilos of everything like a true pallikari whose appetites were guaranteed to be as massive as his shoulder muscles.

We also dallied a few hours in Kavala, where there are several important Ottoman monuments. A curly-haired curator who chainsmoked aromatic roll-ups and spoke only Greek, showed us round a sultan’s harem with great wink-wink relish. We were impressed to learn that the Greek for harem is xarem (most Greeks words are nothing like English, the memorable ones that are being flertaro, I flirt, parkaro, I park, and symptomata, meaning symptoms). En route to Alexandropouli, where we would catch the boat to Samothraki, we passed through Xanthi and Komotini, two Thracian towns inhabited by sizeable minorities of ethnic Greek Turks. At one country stop, a young Turkish couple got on, and the wife who could have been no more than 19, was wearing a very handsome decorated headscarf. Annie remarked on her astonishing beauty and I remarked on her oh so touching young girl’s shyness.

Alexandropouli is an unpretentious, shambling town close to the Turkish border, but we had no time to look at it as our boat was pulling out. We ran and with the bawling encouragement of the gleeful deckhands, took flying leaps like the two fearless athletes we were not. In those days, you may recall, well  before the tragedy of the ship capsizing in the vicinity of Paros,  you could conveniently buy your ticket on the boat. It was invariably provided by a fat smileless man, with a leather cap, a satchel slung over his shoulder, and a roll of what looked like economy raffle tickets. The tickets bore no purchaser’s name, because there were no computers smaller than a four-bedroom house in 1982, and thus if the boat were to go and sink, it would take a very long time to work out which poor buggers exactly had gone down with it.

As we disembarked, a white-haired old lady was waiting for us. I don’t of course mean we had prebooked a room, because likewise there were no mobiles in 1982, and no one would waste their time in a mainland phone box when their Greek was as basic as mine. So far German had been the handy lingua franca in Northern Greece, as thousands of men in the Seventies and early Eighties had migrated to Germany to be Gastarbeiters. Most of these  émigrés who had returned to Greece for a holiday, spoke a German far worse than my Greek, but we had managed to communicate nonetheless. In this case the beatific old lady had a few handy rooms, and she wanted them filled and would not take no for an answer. She didn’t deign to ask us thelete domatia? but seized my wife’s hand and led her away saying ‘Rum, rum’, a bit like drunken Johnny Depp in that excellent movie The Rum Diaries.

The room was all one could hope for. It was newly whitewashed, had a huge springy bed, a bare floor minus even a single rug, and by way of decoration a great many cheap copies of Byzantine icons. Perfect, Annie and I said to each other in synchrony, perfect, this is absolutely perfect. The old lady had vanished, but soon returned bearing an enormous cucumber and beaming at us her new children. She told us the room rate was 1000 drachmas which was possibly the equivalent of £1 in 1982. She advised us of this, while peeling the giant cucumber and dividing it down the middle. She gave me half the monster vegetable and Annie the other monster half, and plonked herself down on the springy bed to make sure we ate the bloody lot before her eyes. Personally I really like cucumber but I don’t normally eat it by the chain or furlong. The Greek for the vegetable is anguri, and that is rather how I felt as I worked my way through the infinite length of it. It was to cool us down, she insisted, and to emphasise the heat, she took us outside and indicated the shower. The shower was of the spartan very-much-outside, as opposed to handily-inside variety, and was just an old squeaky tap sited upon a pole, and surrounded for modesty’s sake by a makeshift cubicle. The water, you’ve guessed it, was optionally either cold or very cold.

Teleia, I said to her.”It is perfect, your shower,  Kyria.”

Soon we were exploring the port and noted a gaggle of a dozen very young Germans who were sleeping on the beach, and partying peaceably as now during the day. Before long it had turned 6 o’clock, and it was the time for the village volta. Dressed in their best shirts and summer blouses after a refreshing siesta, couples of all ages but mostly fifty plus, paraded up and down saying hello and ti kanoume? to their friends, just  as they did every day at this hour. At length they plonked down in their favourite cafe and the men ordered ouzo and the women lemonade or occasionally wine. They were given copious complimentary mezzes with their drinks: olives, feta, cucumber (agh), tomatoes, octopus and anchovies. They nibbled away and bebbed and joyously yattered, and we said to each other, this is so bloody civilised and sensible, so why don’t they do this in bloody old Britannia? The answer of course, is as obvious as they come. Because of the infernal British weather. I for one have seen it snow twice in August in Cumbria, once in Alston and once in Whitehaven, and yes right enough those two towns are geographical poles apart.

The following day we decided to visit the Hora. The next bus wasn’t for two hours so we set off walking in a blazing August heat. I felt well enough,  and we had plenty of water, but Annie suddenly complained that she felt faint. We were in the middle of nowhere, as she turned very red and looked very woeful, so when the next vehicle passed I put out my thumb. It drew to a halt immediately, and was a pick-up with six young workmen in the open  back. They were builder’s labourers, it turned out, and they shuffled and made room for the pair of us. The journey was only about ten minutes, but in that time they managed to openly snigger and titter about what could only be the foreign couple sat amongst them. This was anomalous to say the least, for in over forty years of visiting Greece I have only experienced it the once. Greeks are all sorts of things but they are rarely flagrantly impolite or inhospitable. I would have liked to have kicked and sworn at them, seeing my wife was so obviously poorly, but there would be no sensible mileage in that. At any rate, we leaped out in the middle of the Hora and they tore off loudly into the hills. With Annie overheated, our first priority was a handy cafe. But bugger it, we had managed to hit on siesta time, when even the Hora cafes and tavernas had decided to have their idle hour. A cafe door opposite was open right enough, but there was no one inside and no signs of anyone about to return.

In the end we found some shade and sat on a wall drinking our litre bottle of water. Annie gradually recovered and remarked that it was such bad luck when the siesta effectively made a place more dead than alive. Why, she said, it was like a Cumbrian pit village Sunday of twenty years ago, when all the Primitive and Wesleyan Methodists went to chapel twice, stopped their kids playing football or even skipping, and forced them to sit indoors reading the teetotal Rechabite comics with illustrated stories of people ending in  ruin because of the demon drink. And just as we were reminiscing about those pit village puritans and their legendary Sunday school trips, that were always to, heaven knows why, bloody old Annan in Dumfriesshire…a middle aged man passed us leading a vast herd of goats.

When I say man he was more of a walking pageant. He was dressed like a peacock in a foustella skirt and sported an embroidered hexagonal hat, meaning that he looked the real business and he knew it. He was maybe 50, wore square-framed glasses, and strutted like a circus star. He was his own proud and  unflinching audience, and took not even a glance at us, two insignificant young foreigners. His goats followed him as they would a sovereign or a deity, and he didn’t bother looking at them either. I was tempted to clap and applaud his progress but I restrained myself.

And then we were joined by company. An old man of perhaps 85 who had evidently spotted us from afar, came and sat on the wall adjacent to Annie, with her long-haired husband conveniently on the other side. The old man was very tanned, thin, freckled, and  wore a smelly and grubby shirt. When he grinned, which was often, his teeth, which were not plentiful, were covered in numerous tobacco flecks. A real beauty in short, and he, like the goat king, knew it.

“Where are you from?” he croaked at us with an odd little smirk.

We told him and he nodded admiringly. To our surprise he was even aware of world events and spoke admiringly of Kyria Thudger recently smashing or maybe he meant extirpating the malakas of Aryentina!  I considered telling him we ourselves were no admirers of Mrs Thatcher, nor of her approval of the war crime of sinking the General Belgrano. But what, given his age and our currently skewed horizons in the back end of nowhere, what on earth was the point?

None at all, as it turned out, because his mind was emphatically on other things. He might have been 85, but he certainly liked sitting next to my 27 year-old, blond-haired and beautiful wife. And though not actually touching her leg, his arm was contiguous with hers, and you could tell he would have liked to have extended the hand of international friendship to the foreign lady’s knee. And yes , to be sure, who knows where else would be nice and handy and altogether fitting to rest his wrinkled old Samothrakian paw?

Kreas, “ he said winking vividly at me. “Krassi,” he added, grinning not unmoistly at Annie.

“Meat, “I translated for her, trying hard not to laugh at the old goat. “Also wine.”

“Eh?” she asked, mystified. “Is it a song he’s starting? Or a nursery rhyme?”

I told her she had me there. I had no idea why he was lilting away at the two ‘krs’, kreas and krassi, the two totemic manly victuals and the evidence of virility, Dionysian vigour, and everything else that certain Greeks like to think they have inherited from their classical forebears. Until, and clarity came like a shot of electric lightning, like a wizard or a crafty shaman, the old man went and surpassed himself with the luridity and baroque grandeur of his singular vision.

You, me, the woman,” he chuckled, enumerating the three items on three dirty fingers, as if he had serious problems counting from one to three.

“Eh?”I said, suddenly feeling my skin grow cold. “What about me, you…and my wife?”

He guffawed. “What do you think? Bed, krevati. Me, you, the kopela.”

He dozily repeated his ‘kr’ mantra of kreas and krassi, and then I realised the ingenious old bastard and unabashed Thatcher-admirer, had just added a third ‘kr’. Kreas, krassi and krevati. Meat, wine and BED!

“The dirty old fucker!” I gasped to Annie. “He’s just gone and mentioned krevati, meaning bed. D’you get it, my alluring little English wife, his very unpleasant and extremely uncalled for triadic mantra?”

“Eh?

“Oh come on, missus! Meat, wine, bed. HIM, YOU, ME. The senile old bastard wants a go at troilism with the bonny young Englishwoman.  As mezze starter that is, as warm up hors d’oeuvres. Then while he’s at it , he’ll have a no-holds barred crack, if that’s the best word,  at her long-haired and bearded English husband!”

“Oh my God!” she shrieked, before erupting into the wildest of laughters. Next she took a swift but scrutinising look at the octogenarian orgiast, and decided to seriously split her sides with mirth.

I turned to the old satyr who was still conscientiously counting the three ‘krs’ on his dirty old fingers.

Malaka!” I stormed. “Fuck off right now! D’you hear? Or I’ll come and tell your poor old wife about you!”

He stared at me in amazement, and then gradually his astonishment turned into an unmusical merriment.

“I never married,” he snorted, as if that were some considerable and admirable achievement.

After which he started off with his demented finger abacus work again: kr, kr, kr, like a bloody old Samothraki crow. Without a second glance, I seized Annie’s hand in the same way the old domatia lady had, and took her over to the bus that was rapidly tearing down the hill and parping away frantically as it did.

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ANNIE’S LAST TWO ISLANDS

ANNIE’S LAST TWO ISLANDS

My wife Annie always said she loved Greek islands above all other destinations because she liked above all things to swim in a nice warm sea. We were also two devout Portugal addicts, but the Algarve capital Faro which we visited at least twenty times, has at nearby Praia de Faro massive breakers (Odeceixe pronounced ‘Odd-saysh’, in the remote far west, is a surfer’s paradise) and unless you are a powerful swimmer, it is very heavy going. Annie couldn’t take it, and as I only learnt to swim aged 49, under eleven year-old Ione’s tuition in Kimolos in 2000, I am, as they say, a permanent novice. I can swim a breadth, which is about the same as saying I can eat half a crisp or walk five yards on a good day. As for the beaches in the north of Portugal, the Costa Verde, they are very beautiful, but as windy as hell, and in for example fabled Viano do Castelo, downright cold outside of July and August.

Ione taught me to swim in tiny Cycladean Kimolos in August 2000, and on the same holiday we spent a week on adjacent Milos. Memorably, one day on a crowded Milos beach, Ione was trying to remember the name of that exquisitely funny film starring John Cleese, Jamie-Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin. She definitely wasn’t trying to be rude, but eventually she came out in all innocence with… A Fish Called Wanker. You should have heard our uproarious family hysterics, we all thought we were going to die of paralysing laughter, Ione included. In retrospect, fifteen years on, I realise that her replacing ‘Wanda’ with ‘Wanker’ could have a more than adequate and environmental as opposed to heredity-style explanation, inasmuch as in every village and town in the whole of Greece, the word malaka meaning ‘wanker’, not to speak of the abstract noun malakya meaning ‘wankerdom’,  is uttered in every conversation in absolutely every adult mouth, on average about every three seconds.

There was a ramshackle beach taverna on Kimolos, where the overweight and complacent owner Giorgos, was about 65. He did nothing all day but sit on his kingly backside and talk to his pals, while all the considerable graft was done by a pretty Russian girl of 20, Tatiana. We went there several times, and eventually Tatiana confided as she extended a plate of aubergine imam to me, that one of the employment conditions was that she slept with Giorgos. She had no option she explained, as jobs back in Russia were both rare and pitifully rewarded. And it is true that even now in 2015 many elderly Greek males with puckered jowls and faces like pustuled behinds, expect very young women to be their bedfellows as their natural right. Incidentally, the name imam indicates that my aubergine lunch was of Turkish origin, its full title being imam bayeldi or ‘the imam fainted’. The apocryphal reason why the venerable Muslim cleric fainted, was that the dish was swimming in so much delectable olive oil, it made him dizzy. Suffice to say that obese Giorgos was possibly close to terminal fainting because of swimming in the rich but suicidal oil of his exploitative hold over Tatiana. In short, I expected him to take a heart attack one day while during the act of love, in which case I hoped that his and Tatiana’s coital position was not the conventional missionary one. If he died on top of her, she would have to be a female Tarzan to get the bladder of lard off her diminutive Russian stomach, is what I mean….

In all, Annie and I visited about thirty-five Greek islands, starting with Skiros, Evia, Chios and Samothraki in 1982, and finishing with two very small and distant Cyclades shortly before her death from secondary cancer. The last two islands we visited were on the same trip in September 2009 and I can give you the precise dates, because believe me precision can have its virtues, it is not always a sign of finicky obsession. Our final Greek island visit together was from September 8th to September 22nd , 2009. By special request, though neither of us remotely expected her to  die in three months time, she asked for Sikinos, her eternal favourite, a tiny island we had visited earlier with Ione in 1993. Ione had had her fourth birthday there, and I recall buying lots of birthday knick-knacks and plastic dollies and Greek sweets in a motley supermarket in  Folegandros, before we took the boat to its minuscule island neighbour. In 1993 the Sikinos port, Allopronia, had only vestigial tourism and the room we got, shuttled there at speed by the owners’ jeep some 500 yards, was touchingly simple. It was whitewashed, had bare floors, and was right over the sea, meaning the vivid green waves sloshed against the slabs of rock that held up the domatia. There was no wardrobe, and only three motley nails to hang our garments on. The shower had only cold water, but as it was June and inordinately roasting we were glad the water was so cool.

The owners Sofia and Kostas were in their thirties, both handsome and amiable, and  they had two boys called Zafiris and Angelos, plus a daughter Tasia the same age as ours. Inevitably all the kids played together on the impressively primitive beach, with its rusty swings and barely rotating roundabout, and before long our infant daughter was gnashing souvlaki as if she had never gnashed anything else. Angelos who was 9 years old belied his name and was far from being an angel. Once I saw his grandad, Iannis, aged 70, land him a massive clout across the chops for some seriously reckless misdeed. He cried of course, but when his beautiful and peaceable mother came out and learned exactly what the commotion was about, she landed her little Angel another one, but this time on his indignant backside. Sofia was thin and statuesquely attractive, but was a gold medal arse-smiter and he all but nose-dived the hundred yards into the sea with the frictional impact.

They also owned the village shop tended by old Zia, Iannis’ wife, and two bonny if brainless hens would cluck and pirouette both inside and outside the shop, and be petted and chatted to by Sofia’s doting mother. Sixteen years on we stayed by choice in the identical room, after recognising Sofia and Kostas immediately. Sofia now had a lined and pallid face and her good looks had all but disappeared. She looked both depressed and resentful, though seemingly not of us. Zafiris and Angelos were now 27 and 25, and both working in Athens. Tasia was 20 and married and living in Santorini. We told Sofia about our 1993 visit and she nodded significantly, but it was clear she had no memory of our previous visit.

The word ‘identical’ is inaccurate, because although the room was the same one, it had been refurbished to a sumptuous 2009 standard, and now had inlaid wardrobes, an enormous new TV, a bathroom with a bidet, and enough embellished mirrors to suit the most demanding Narcissus. It was definitely bad luck in September, but in the six days we were there, there were occasional torrential showers, especially in the evenings, and a warm bedroom was somewhere we were glad to retire to. Annie was as brave and optimistic as ever, but she could not leg it along the roads like she did less than six months earlier in Kythnos. Then with student Ione for company, we were hiking to idyllic sandy bays, ten miles a day for twelve consecutive days, and loving every minute of it. Annie had been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, meaning she had ugly liver and bone tumours, for a whole year, and in that time had used minimal painkillers and for most of the time none. Going by past experience, I hoped she was invincible, and she hoped she was invincible, and 18 year-old Ione definitely wished her to be invincible. If you think there is any fey fantasy at work there,  I advise you try it yourself with someone you love with all your guts. You hope for the moon because you hope for the fucking moon, it is as simple as that. She had had primary breast cancer in 1998 when she was only 43, and had endured a mastectomy, lymph node clearance and a few  months of intensive chemotherapy. Like the hero she was, she kept on working throughout, and miraculously there was neither any vomiting nor hair loss. She thought she was invincible and I thought she was invincible, and Ione who was only eight and had never heard of cancer, had no opinions either way. Annie had had a beautiful convalescence from her mastectomy operation, when the three of us went  to tender and comforting Dodecanese Tilos, just about the least known of that island chain which basks opposite Turkey. Then had followed almost ten years of her being cancer-free, or at least that’s what we thought…

In the frightening small hours of one night in April 2008, Annie was seized by an agonising pain in the extended breast area. It went on and on terrifyingly without remit, and in the end there was nothing for it but to ring the out of hours number for the local surgery. After what seemed an eternity, but was probably only an hour, a young Indian lady doctor arrived in a car with a driver, and gave her a morphine shot for the utterly unbelievable pain. The businesslike but patient doctor assumed it was gallstones or similar, and rang for an ambulance to attend. That arrived another hour later and was staffed by two sturdy, attractive and very heartening  women in their early forties. They gave Annie more morphine plus oxygen, told her to hang on in there, kid, lass, kiddo, and then drove her off to the hospital. She was 52 but she was still a kid, still a lass, still a girl, still a kiddo, and I really appreciated that, and I thought those two tough North Cumbrian women were the finest thing I’d seen for the last century or so.

I drove down to the hospital a couple of hours later, by which time she’d had umpteen tests and scans, including a CT scan. A youngish frightened-looking haematologist who happened to be on duty but was no cancer specialist, took us into a room and in hushed tones told us the worst. The terrible pain was because Annie had massive secondary tumours in her liver and a great many smaller ones in her bones. In brief the chemotherapy of nine years ago had almost done the job, but sadly a few cancer seeds had remained in circulation. Over the next nine years they had grown very slowly, which was of course a blessing. Nonetheless last night one of the liver tumours had reached a critical size and it had suddenly infarcted.

“You mean burst?”I asked, while Annie sat and shuddered. “The liver tumour exploded?”

Exactly, he whispered guiltily, as if it was his fault. And that was why the pain level was off the scale, about as bad as a very bad heart attack. He sighed and muttered something inaudible, then ushered in an earnest and embarrassed woman nurse who was supposed to offer sensitive counselling for such times as this. She was a homely, friendly, altogether bland, wholly insight-free woman of about 50, and about as much good at subtle counselling of someone like consultant trainer Annie, as she was at reading Akkadian or Elamite or Hittite. Our dog Bonny could have done the job better, and indeed she did. She licked Annie’s hand a few hours later, and Annie smiled and then burst into convulsive tears. Her biggest grief you can easily imagine. She had to tell her young student daughter Ione she had secondary cancer which could not be treated, but only held in check by medication. The medication was antihormonal tablets all generically similar to Tamoxifen, alongside bone strengtheners called Bondronat. Once out of bed you swallowed the latter first, and had to fast for an hour before you could have anything to eat for your breakfast. Annie like me liked her pequeno almoco and her proino, to quote the Portuguese and the Greek, one reason being we had had such wonderful and romantic breakfasts in both countries so many times.

Now in  Sikinos in 2009, Annie and her newly volatile and painful liver and bone tumours sat on the beach while I took a solo walk up to a little chapel above Allopronia. She would never have remained behind until recently, because she liked hiking in Cycladean Greece as much as I did. In any case, the day  before she had walked with me to the west of the island, along a stony and lengthy and  not  very exciting monopati, and something quite extraordinary had happened. On the return hike, we had bumped into a wispy and likeable looking Frenchwoman of about 70, and I had made some light-hearted jest which she had taken entirely the wrong way. She thought I had said something demeaning, and stomped off huffily and left me baffled, even hurt. I double checked with Annie and all I had said was, I bet you are tired after that long hike…and with the unspoken hint that the two of us talking to her were completely knackered by it as well. After her petulant rebuff, I wished I could have met her again and said, by the way, my wife of thirty years has had eighteen months of painful secondary cancer, tumours in her bones and liver, and she is  now having regular flare-ups that need urgent morphine tablets. If she can deal so courageously with all of that, how come an obviously sensitive woman of your mature years take the fucking huff about absolutely nothing? Are you half mad or just nine tenths boring or both? Could it possibly be related to the fact you are elderly and French perhaps?

We moved on to fabled tiny Anafi, the last of the Cyclades, a place we had only read about. Our travel guide was only just out of date, so the multiple domatias in the port, one of them run by a foreigner, resolved to only one run by two irritable old Greeks and their much more reasonable daughter visiting from Athens. The room was already booked, but the person had not confirmed it, nor were they confident the woman would turn up, so they gave it to us at thirty euros a night. It was just and so tolerable, without being remotely atmospheric, and nothing like the refurbished munificence of our Allopronia quarters.  Had she not been getting nasty tumour twinges and needing morphine pills, I imagined Annie would have held out for something better. However she decided to take the path of least resistance. There were two dour and friendly German couples in their sixties in adjacent rooms, and we nattered away amiably and humorously in German and English. As we bantered, I was still thinking of today’s strange behaviour of our Sikinos domatia owner Sofia, the one who sixteen years on had lost most of her looks and seemed resentful or everything and possibly everyone. The boat to Anafi had been late, and when I went back to the shop to ask her a polite question about when it might arrive, she was outstandingly rude. She muttered something to the effect that it would turn up when it would turn up, and implied I was an idiot for asking inane questions. We had paid for our six days in her domatia, so likely she couldn’t give a damn if she drastically upset us now. I thought again of the rude Frenchwoman and  wondered if I was some blunderer who got up everyone’s nose if I tried hard enough. Of course neither she nor Sofia knew that Annie had secondary cancer, or perhaps they might have been gentler with her husband. And perhaps not. People are very strange, as was once mooted to me by a very wise young American woman called Barbara who lives in Jamaica, but who attended one of my writing courses in Cambridge.

There are a great many extremely odd and extremely peculiar people in this world. Don’t you ever forget it, and you will save yourself a lot of soul searching and wrongly blaming yourself perhaps.

The domatia owner in her mid seventies, was a prime candidate for eccentric old Cycladean lady of the decade, or possibly the century. She kept a big and ugly wooden pole which she flung at any stray dogs that came begging food. She always missed them and they scuttered off with drooping tails, but you could tell she would have loved to have hit them hard. Annie suggested it would be good to see her hit between the shoulders or the arse herself, with such a hefty weapon. I said I might do it at dead of night in the pitch dark, but was worried I might hit her on the head to fatal effect.  By way of slyly punishing her, we made sure we dined up at the Hora every night, and refused her smirking blandishments of what she had on the go here at the single eatery in Anafi’s little port.

Meanwhile every morning Annie got up before me and swallowed her bone strengtheners, and had to wait an hour before she could eat. She read her phone and sent messages related to work and to her best friend who lived in Aberdeen. She always had the same copious breakfast, yoghurt with seasonal fresh fruit of peaches and melons and apricots,  and double Greek coffee sketo. The old bat of a landlady took our orders and nodded as I asked for the kanoniko proino, the regular breakfast. She also, and it was the only time I ever witnessed her showing any kindness to anyone, looked at Annie with great reverence and told me every morning in a strange voice that my wife was a truly remarkable woman. I translated for Annie’s benefit and Annie smiled. Bizarrely I wanted to tell the angry old lady that this remarkable woman had ugly secondary cancer, as if her unique adoration of my lovely wife might somehow be transformed into a magical cure by an old crone’s witchlike intervention. I know it sounds completely mad, but you will know exactly and uncomfortably what I am talking about if ever you need to walk the same stony path as Annie and I did in late 2009.

We spent many hours just sat reading in the little cafe in the port, run by a young boy in his mid twenties. He was fine-featured, sleepy, and looked outstandingly unGreek, even English. His patience and plodding calmness of manner were mesmerising. Annie read her first ever John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicles, and was so moved and touched by the delicacy of comic tragedy that as she related her impressions to me, she broke down and  wept. I reread The Trumpet Major by Hardy, which coming from a towering Dorset genius struck me as downright bad and inane. I also read a Patrick White novel which culminated in an individual going mad, and I was both impressed and thoroughly annoyed by the eerie forensic distance from the creatures he had created.

We walked to the far west of the island and stopped and picnicked by a lonely chapel. I went inside and prayed for Annie to recover, while she sat outside and slowly ate a tiropitta and sipped retsina from what we always called a Liokri or Malamatina or Kourtaki pop bottle. I didn’t tell her I had prayed for her, and I never knew if she guessed or not as to my heartfelt petition on Anafi. The  next day we went to the east to a monastery and viewed Kalamos, the huge pap of a mountain at the far end, where every year they have a solemn and rugged and difficult panagiri pilgrimage. Our out of date guide said there was no proper road heading east, but now it was asphalted all the way to the monastery. The guide also stated there was no nudist bathing permitted within the vicinity of a Greek church, but right enough at the beach before the monastery there was plenty of nude swimming. An ill-looking German man of about 70 was naked as the day he was born, and was pale, ugly and with both a swollen hairy belly and a shrivelled and hideous penis. If he wanted to swim naked, of course, why not, but why within sight of the venerable Greek monastery, why not back in Baden fucking  Baden or down by palmy Bodensee aka  Lake Constance, come to that?

The last day on Anafi we walked due north. There was a little bus went to the Hora several times a day and it was this we used in the evenings to get our excellent taverna dinners, and also to start us on the day’s excursion. The view from the elevated Hora to the still and magnetic sea below, would have made a solemn atheist an instant clamorous convert, for it was as vertiginous and delightful as a rapturous dream, and also as disturbing as every worrying fantasy you have ever had that perhaps this thing called Eternity actually means what it says…for ever and ever and ever and ever, you poor little oh so human clowns, who really think you have all the time in the world to keep on getting it ever so wrong….

We headed up north for about an hour, and after passing a cemetery with its massive sarcophagi and the poignant, dusty photos of all those loved ones…we reached a tiny crossroads. Immediately before us was a dazzlingly white little Orthodox chapel, and beyond that an enticing narrow road that obviously led to the end of the world… and just possibly the secrets of Life and Death and the Reality which of course is Neither, and all the better for that. Only  a few months earlier Annie would have delighted to have followed that sumptuous mirage of a welcoming and symbolic eternity. Instead she looked at me with all her infinite and unassuming courage and said:

“You go ahead. And I’ll sit just here in the churchyard. I’ll check my phone and I’ll sit and sunbathe here. I’ll be quite happy, John, I promise you.”

I kissed her gently, held back my Aegean ocean of salty tears, and wanted the fucking universe to swallow us both. For the second time this holiday, she had admitted she was too weak to hike another kilometre. I did her bidding and set off on the remotest road in the Cyclades, to the parish of Drapano, Anafi, that of the three scattered farms and the towering precipitous abysses that gazed down so dizzily yet fearlessly over the sea, a place only the old and the helpless would cling to rather than forsake their ancestral homes.

I did not reach as far as Drapano, as it was a very long walk and the farms were only just discernible as radiant and enticing specks. And I was worried and infinitely sad  about my lovely wife of thirty years. In a week’s time she would have another agonising liver tumour infarction while working in the South of Scotland. She would be rushed at dead of night into Melrose hospital, but she would not die, for she would recover and last another ten weeks. We had one more little holiday in beautiful Berwick on Tweed at the end of October 2009, where she hobbled about on her painful legs but never once complained. Five weeks after that she passed away, once and for all.

Someone at her funeral, a close friend in her nineties and therefore wise with her many years, said that Annie Murray as a woman and as a friend was simply ‘pure gold, right to the core’…

Mostly human beings get it wrong about almost everything almost every second of their lives. But for once these testamentary words, were, like the one above, an absolute distillation of the only truth that matters…

ARE YOU REALLY CALLED ARMSTRONG?

ARE YOU REALLY CALLED ARMSTRONG?

Annie and I were travelling in the remotest reaches of the Mani, in the Peloponnese, in August 1982,  and it was like nowhere on earth. Barren, beautiful and infinitely austere, on almost every mountain and hillock there were the melancholy ruins of fifty or sixty year old Maniot ‘towers’. The towers were in fact peacock-strutting display items, meaning not strictly functional, for they were a sign of clan status and clan power. The higher your tower and the more inaccessible it was, the greater the hero you were, and hence the greater your Maniot clan. In order to achieve that sunny status, you had to knock down any and every tower nearby that was threatening to outdo yours.

Those of you who like me spent some formative years in the Debatable Lands of rural North East Cumbria will know the score. The 16th century Border Reivers in the lands that were debated i.e. argued as to whether they were rightly English or properly Scots, functioned by an ad hoc piracy law, as administered by the Wardens of the Marches. It was acceptable to demoralise and conquer other reiver neighbours, by burning down their houses and farms, and of course stealing all their cattle before you did that. Hence they were nothing short of riffraff cattle thieves, or unprincipled homicidal scum, to put it politely. But the beaming clowns in Carlisle and Dumfries tourist offices with their howmayIhelpyousirmadam? and their tweeting i-pads, who promote The Reiver Country for profitable visitor purposes, will even vauntingly brag about their own reiver ancestry: Armstrong, Moscrop, Elliott, Nixon, Bell, Carruthers, and all the rest. All shiny teeth and hexagonal specs, they will tell you po-faced how really underneath it all, they with their blazers and smart women’s suits, are bloody old reiver pirates too! Because they are called Bill or Sheila Armstrong, geddit? To which the proper answer might be, well so am I squire/madam, my name is quite a famous reiver bandit one, Richard Nixon, and I’m coming round to completely incinerate your Stanwix bungalow tonight, if that’s all right by you, old reiver oppo! In lieu of stealing any cattle which I seriously doubt are tranquilly grazing up there in Carlisle’s choicest bungalow suburb, if it’s OK by you I shall simply steal your splendid 4-wheel drive before I set about my immolation!

That is a digression from the Mani, but the same 16th century North Cumbrian ethical principle of stealing and vandalising and despoiling, because it was cathartically good for you, and for society as they knew it,  long held true here in the remotest Peloponnese. The Mani consists of the Mid Mani and the Deep Mani, and the deeper you get, the wilder it is, and the more barren and naked. Areopoli was for us the Deep Mani gateway, a titchy, comical little town which in 1982 had mosquitoes by the mile, shuttered domatia windows that claustrophobically blocked all light to keep the little bastards at bay, and a single taverna whose non-existent menu you wouldn’t believe. They had gristly bony souvlaki that your dog might throw back at you and bugger off out for a carry-out in bigger and smarter Githion…meaning the Areopoli eatery had war economy kebabs, and that was it, like it or lump it. Luckily we had just turned vegetarian, so were able to get kolokythia tiganites, fried courgettes, plus chips, and of course the ubiquitous tomato. On a good day in 1982, if you went in some flea-bitten lightless cafe anywhere in rural Greece, the only food on offer was variously tomato salad, tomatoes sketo (tomatoes so to speak in the unspoilt nude), tomatoes with salt, tomatoes with olives and onions, but very curiously, no tomato-flavoured retsina or ouzo.

We were heading from the village of Laggia in the Deep Mani to the hamlet of Kotronas on the coast. We were hitchhiking with heavy rucksacks in broiling heat,  because we were on a budget eight week pan-European Balkan and Turkish jaunt. The Greeks on Samothraki island had earlier told us not to go to nearby Turkey, because they would charge us extortionately for a humble glass of water, which was of course one hell of a  lie. I had never heard a single Turk badmouth either Greece or the Greeks, and I told the Greeks as much, but they just shrugged their heads and said it was a trick, a bit of typical guile by the old enemy.

We had been trying for a lift for about an hour, when suddenly a pick-up stopped, one of those battered low slung 4-wheel drives owned by smallholders and olive-growing farmers. The driver was probably in his early fifties, while I was almost 32, and Annie had just turned 27. He was stocky, white-haired, sour-looking, fine-featured and could easily have been a market trader or a morose bus conductor. It was so hot that my wife wore khaki shorts and I noted the driver cast an aspiring glance at her thighs, while at the crafty speed of light looking away simultaneously. However at her beardy and hairy joke of a so-called husband, he looked all too critically. Suddenly he started loudly shouting at me, as was the standard way thirty-three years ago, hectoring and bawling, regardless of distance or age difference or international protocol. Greece had been only one year in the EEC, only eight years free of Junta Fascism, and in most respects the Greeks inhabited a wholly different universe. Ask many of them a civil and all too English question, and they raised their eyebrows with undisguised chagrin. It was as if being a blockhead in search of laughably inessential information (‘Scuse me. How far might it be to Kotronas, sir?) was a far too demeaning way of presenting yourself. Worse, should you be a dogged and plodding and nosy Cumbrian bastard like myself, and dare to ask a second or even a third question, they glanced at you with plain hatred, raising their eyebrows at least one metre with an infinitely patronising  disdain.

The second question I asked him was, “Is this the quickest route?”

He snorted and spat, and looked at me with such depthless scorn. Quickest? What the shit was that supposed to mean? Why not ask him which the most tidy, most verdant, most birdsong-filled, most apt for a television advertisement about chocolates or honey or scented soap? What an idiot I was with my pansyish and feeble desire for facts, facts and more stupid facts…

I made the most obvious move which was to sit in the front with him. He stopped that brusquely and indicated that the handsome wife, not the skinny, hairy husband was to sit up front next to him. Scowling, he pointed his grubby thumb to the back of the pick-up. I had noticed a bit of a strange and worrying smell but it was only when I turned round to look at my berth as designated by him, that I saw it was full of…skinned goat carcasses…

They were bloody and sticky and riddled with flies. There must have been about twenty skinned skeletons piled up in the back and the odour was fleetingly  tolerable but mostly infernal. The hides themselves were heaped close to the driver, as if he feared some highway bandit might ambush him and take his only decent source of income. He peremptorily indicated I should sit right at the back, meaning furthest from my beautiful wife, and the less beautiful him, but helplessly in proximity to these horrible bloody carcasses.

“Where are you from?”he snapped as he accelerated down the dusty highway. “Are you Germanos and Germanida?”

His voice was full of rancour and I really didn’t know whether he wanted us to be Germans or not. I hesitated a second or so  and considered lying, on the assumption he would speak no German. But finally the naive truth seemed the safest option.

“No, we are English. From the far north of England. My wife is…”

He snorted rudely. He wasn’t wanting a CV, and again I realised I knew absolutely nothing about how exactly modern Greeks talk to each other and why they emphasise and interrogate they way they do.

“I don’t like Germans” he muttered roughly. “ If you had been young Germans, you can bet your life I wouldn’t have picked you two up.”

I nodded assent, because I could not fault this. It was only four decades since 1942, and in a village close to nearby Sparta, there had been a major Nazi reprisal where every shootable male and adolescent was brutally executed. Forty years is nothing in the scheme of things, once you get to be say 50, his age that is. Why, I was 24, forty years ago, and it all seems like five sodding minutes to me. And it’s perhaps worth emphasising that nobody was executing me, other than metaphorically, four decades ago.

“I thought with the woman you say is your wife, her ksantha mallia… “

Her blond hair? All blond-haired women being Germans, to invert the message in the Hitler propaganda movies? But why the austere qualification, that it was only my word that she was my wife? What was she supposed to be then, if not my wife? My floozy, my mistress, my cousin, my sister, meaning in the last context that I might be as unabashedly gay, as he was very obviously not.

“Yes, “I said rather moistly. “Other Greeks have said they thought she was German, but no, she’s not. She doesn’t speak German, and she’s only been to Germany once for a day. In Heidelberg that is.”

He turned round and shot me a listless but dismissive glance. It was that tendency I had towards being feebly discursive which clearly riled him…for adding more and more titbits of wishy-washy and very womanish information. Why tell him about bloody Heidelberg, when the incendiary word ‘Germany’ was quite enough to raise his bile, thank you?

The pick-up accelerated and he continued to shoot rapacious and discomforting glances at Annie and her shorts and her handsome legs. He addressed her in a shotgun Greek and seemed not to be concerned she knew not a word of the language apart from efkharisto and parakalo. Suddenly he pointed to the sun and cried ilio! and then waved his hand at some olive groves and bawled elees! Next he saluted a pissing dog on the side of the road and roared skeelo! It felt on the one hand like a 1980 LP version of Let’s Learn Greek! with the matter of fact paradigm nouns being rattled off musically by a goat skinner turned dhaskalo teacher. On the other hand his voice was so harsh and loud, there seemed to be more than a hint of raw machismo bullying, orchestrated so resoundingly because he had the stunning pseudo-German Beauty sat next to him at fondling distance and the risible Beast in the form of her hirsute bearded partner who quite rightly had been shoved in disgrace in among the stinking blood-sticky goat skeletons…

He drew to an abrupt and disturbing halt, as if either needing to urinate or to shoot us, either one or the other, with no other option. Annie who had comprehended nothing of our bizarrely unequal Greek discourse, didn’t seem too ruffled by his yelling at me and indeed at her, for she understood by now that foghorn interlocution was par for the course in much of rural Greece. The driver shuffled in his glove compartment (though parenthetically the Greeks don’t often wear gloves, not even in the iciest days of January). I had little doubt he was looking in there for a gun, but instead and believe me, it offered but scant relief when instead he pulled out a rather strange and very vicious looking knife.

I am no student of offensive weapons, so I have to compare it to a carpet-cutting implement crossed with something you might get in a biology laboratory, as used for animal dissections. The word dissection blew through my head at just that point, and in a second I had innocent Crippen and truly diabolical psychopaths, fighting it out between my stricken neurones and synapses. His knife was made of spotless shiny metal and seemed very sharp indeed. He lifted it and waggled it wildly, first at me and then at Annie. Then he said something I didn’t catch, but wrongly interpreted as kapou esee, a nonsense sentence meaning ‘somewhere you are’.

 

“Somewhere I am?” my oh so little and oh so stupid Cumbrian brain echoed in terror.“Ooh fuckaduck,” was what was soundlessly articulated inside my head and nowhere else. Meanwhile Annie continued apparently wholly unconcerned by his carpet knife brandishing. I admired her blameless sangfroid while also roundly astonished that she seemed to have no vision or intuition that we were in the unenviable company of a homicidal maniac. For consider, if you were a bloodthirsty Maniot mass murderer and rapist, what possible profession might you indenture yourself to by way of zealous prior preparation? Might it not be as a peripatetic goat skinner as opposed to a peripatetic Peloponnese trumpet teacher?

The driver ushered us out of the pickup, waggling his glistening knife even more violently. Annie smiled her way out into the blazing sunshine, as if he were a children’s circus act pretending to be loud and menacing, while I stepped out as stiffly, by which I mean nitrogen-frozen, as they come. The driver then tersely yanked a white sack out of the back of the pick-up, which I  imagined might contain a goat’s nekrokefalo or Dead Skull, of the emphatically infernal as opposed to the neutral butcher’s shop variety.

He dropped the sinister skull on the grass, and in fact it bounced. It bounced because it was a bright green watermelon and I understood that I had misread karpoussi as kapou esee. He raised aloft his hideous blade and grinned like a seasoned madman at the pair of us. I looked at Annie who was still smiling and thought, she is such an infinitely sweet soul that she cannot imagine that other souls are born ineradicably diseased from their very inception.

“Let’s go, “I said to her sotto voice but more than audibly.

She thought she had misheard. “Back into the van?”

“No, what I mean is let’s just fuck off as fast as we can run. This guy is a real madman with a menacing and very ugly voice and he has a fucking great knife that could slit our throats as fast as Jack Frost, to mix an unseasonal metaphor. Add to that he has a dozen stinking goat skeletons in the back of his van, and they are riddled with fleas and before long me and you could be thoroughly skinned and flea-ridden too…”

Annie shivered and gaped, but as she offered no contradiction it occurred to me she was taking in the cruelly transparent meaning of our utterly appalling situation.

At last she managed to whisper, “But maybe he’s just offering us his watermelon…”

“Possibly, possibly yes, I agree. But he’s playing a cruel and demented game and the game is called Sadistic Ambiguity. He’s playing kindly hospitable with his fucking karpoussi while acting like a bullying and pathological brute. He really likes to look at your bare legs and your shorts, and waggling a knife at the pair of us is definitely because it gets him off. But also it’s partly because he likes to show his peacock colours as a real and strutting and very mannerless man, as opposed to a polite and timid and pretend young Englishman like myself.”

She shuddered as if the whole scenario had suddenly made a déjà vu and calamitous sense.

“So what do we do?”

“Get fucking walking!”

“But where?”

“As far away from fucking twatface as we can! Down that road and get going like you were being chased by a pair of prize bulls. Don’t for a second look back, and don’t talk to him and don’t accept his fucking melon and don’t…!”

“I understand!”

And off she set down the road as fast as her elegant sunburnt pins could take her. The goat skinner started a whinnying monologue of angry incomprehension, but I looked him full in the eye and let the See You Next Tuesday scumbag know that I knew the colour of his fallen soul. Nonetheless I was stupefied when he suddenly stopped his jagged blathering, and blanched. What’s more, instead of scowling and rallying, he just gaped at me and said sweet f.a.

Malaka, “I snarled at him.”Go on  and go on, and fu…”

The trouble with malaka is it can mean ’fucking wanker’ but it can also mean ‘my dear old mate’.

Malaka”, I repeated, then imitating my wife, set off at road-runner pace, shouting her name as I.ran behind her.

THE LAST TWO ON EARTH

THE LAST TWO ON EARTH

I have seen some exceedingly strange things in my 64 years, but few as unlikely and unheralded as what happened yesterday…

My guest A. and I were at Livadhakia, one of the remotest and loneliest bays on Kythnos, on a  warm but windy January day. Livadhakia, way up north, is below Loutra and Agia Irini, the latter a tiny perfect jewel of a bay, with a fish taverna so exquisite, sometimes Greek celebrities decide to marry in the tiny church adjacent, and hold their lavish not to say televised wedding breakfasts at the beautiful Arias Yeusis. Agia Irini has for long had a good if narrow asphalt road, but Livadhakia hasn’t even a dirt road, nor even a monopati footpath. Of course it must have a monopati of some kind, or how else could its only inhabitants, a couple of elderly goat farmers, Manolis and Sotiria, get down there from the Hora capital with their shopping? The answer is that when gentle Manolis was younger, he would do almost everything by rowing boat, and nearly all his shopping at Loutra. He sold goat cheeses by the cart load, and until last year when he was 84, he could be seen most days in a little boat laden with sacks of feta, skiffing his careful way towards the venerable spa village and honorary capital of the far north of Cycladean Kythnos.

Sotiria is one of the shyest women in the world. She is 74, hence eleven years his junior. She is thin but rugged, and invariably wears one of Manolis’s cast off caps, always the same one which is a dull green. She does all the goat herding, as Manolis is now very weak on his legs. The goat herding and less frequent milking, probably happen four or five times a day, but seem continual, a kind of conveyor belt husbandry, as she moves the herd from field to field, accompanied by an entirely ornamental Alsatian ‘goat-dog’. The dog looks terrifying, but is as daft as a brush, an absolute gannet when it comes to begging food, and prone to take adoring flying leaps at you by way of sending you flying arse up. They have about fifteen cats of all sizes and ages, which cluster outside their compact green and white smallholding. The cats have a special bucolic mellowness, a tender furry appearance, which is a function of being safe, well-fed, even loved after  a grudging Greek fashion, and left to their own devices when it comes to where they sit or squat or run or snooze. Some have narrow and delicate Sino-Tibetan eyes, and you expect them to murmur to you in sibilant Chinese, should they ever deign to go beyond yawning and luxuriating, in their idle stretching and lunatic racing and demented tumble play with their silky companions.

The farm is rickety and handsome at the same time. The Livadhakia couple have three strapping sons in their fifties, all from the port, who get here by motorboat and do renovation and repair jobs from time to time. The house has an inside toilet and a shower and every other convenience, TV included, which made it all the more surprising when A. and I suddenly spotted Manolis in a familiar crouching position, about  200 yards from the deserted beach where we were picnicking on spanakopitta and sipping Cretan wine.

His dusty grey cap was visible as he bent down not very discreetly with one of the cats attending his master’s private, so to speak, ‘doings’.

I said to A., “Look at old Manolis. He’s taking a bloody crap behind that bush.”

My guest nodded judicially. A. is neither Greek nor English and lives a very long way from Kythnos. She murmured, “Very good. Yes. It is very healthy. In fact, Kyrio John,  it is impressively poetic.”

I swigged the Cretan wine. We had forgotten to bring plastic cups, so had to quaff alternately from the bottle. Most of us can probably confirm it always tastes far better that way.

I handed her the bottle and asked, “ Shitting in the open air is impressively poetic? Mm. But they have a nice modern flush toilet over there in the farmhouse. Mano is 85 and very arthritic, but he’s stooped down there to crap, as if he’s as lithe as a fifty year-old. I think I see a worrying dynamical problem connected to force vectors, rotational torques and so on. Once he’s finished his al fresco log-laying, he needs to get upright, and with his severe arthritis, he will need to find some support. The ear of that little cat that is chaperoning him, will not suffice, will it A.?”

She chuckled and asked what I meant by ‘log-laying’ and I quoted my source, a joiner friend from Bermondsey relocated to Cumbria, who never used any other term for defecating. The same man had his own special vocabulary which included ‘king’ for ‘good’, ‘jowl’ for ‘bad’, ‘a jowling bowler’ for ‘someone who is a notable pain in the arse’…and ‘bail’ and ‘bailed out’, for, you’ve guessed it, ‘hashish’ and ‘stoned’.

After a couple of hours sunbathing, we walked the four kilometres back up to the Hora by the endless tangled scrub. The Greek word for sunbathing is iliotherapeia, which is a very wise use of allusive language, and altogether more poetic than Manolis’s ad hoc fertiliser treatment of his remote estate. We were stout walkers who were both clad in shorts, and our ankles and lower legs were soon scratched and bloody. In vain, we looked for any sudden excrescence of a helpful monopati, but there was nothing other than meandering goat tracks, all of them absolutely useless, going-nowhere tracks at that. Tell me, I ask you as sincere writer to sincere reader, would you follow the ambulatory instinct of a goat, much less a kid, if you wanted to make any cogent progress in any possible endeavour of life? The only occasion you might, is if like Sotiria, you were a Kythniot goatherdess. And believe me, there is such a word, I am not making it up. In this connection, vide also the gopis who dance round the Hindu deity Krishna, those who, as in the Gitagovinda, are usually translated as ‘cowherdesses’.

But of lanky, moustachioed flat-capped Sotiria and the mysterious instincts of her goats, we will say something altogether profound before very long.

As for the thorns and the scratched and bleeding legs, we genuinely couldn’t give a damn. It was as if life in every aspect, was suddenly copiously rich and tenderly raw, in all its remotest island reaches. As in a novel or story by Jean Giono or Giovanni Verga or Panos Karnezis or Vangelis Xatziyannidis, you felt the true tang and savour of this gift called life, as if you had been fiercely  touched to the quick, by the scent and timbre and rhythm of all that this single and ineffable existence on earth can possibly offer us.

I doubt whether Sotiria or even gentle and pacific Manolis ever saw it that way. As if to confirm it, suddenly there was a hell of a shriek behind us, and we turned to observe Sotiria pacing both sides of the valley as she ascended and descended the barren but sun-graced hills through we had just made our bloody defile. She was a long way off, so I could make no sense of her Greek, which echoed the length of the valley in a confusing stereophony. I didn’t know the words, but right enough I could easily construe the obvious sense. This might have been the remote Cyclades in January 2015, but just as easily it could have been the pages of Homer, assuming Sotiria had been ready to renounce her second hand flat cap which looked no more than a meagre forty or fifty years old.

Sotiria was reading the riot act to a devious and antisocial goat, let us call him for convenience sake Stamatis. She was pacing angrily, indeed terrifyingly towards him, yet with Karl the Alsatian in cheery attendance. Sotiria sounded close to a nervous breakdown because of errant, straying Stamatis, but Karl was, to adopt a vivid West Cumbrianism, ‘grinning like a bag of chips’. The sum of Sotiria’s imprecations, as she by turns cursed and beseeched  Stami for his inexcusable conduct, was that he had been granted prefect status as head of his little sub-herd. This post of great dignity and distinction had been endowed by Sotiria herself, on the candid understanding that Stamatis would lead the nannys and kids where they were supposed to go. Not, Sotiria, rantingly qualified in an ascending and vertiginous rage, not so that the malaka, the egregious wanker Kyrio Malaka Malaka Malaka Stamatis!, should turn anarchist and decide to fuck off (the very words she used) up the other side of the hill and desert his charges. It would appear that my fine gentleman Stami was seeking a little heritable portion of the choicest eesikhia, meaning that ineffable and transcendent rustic peacefulness, especially as found on the islands.

Even Stami, though not beaming Karl, could see that eesikhia was not what the herd prefect was going be basking in now. Instead, Sotiria grabbed him by the horns and started to beat him very hard on the flank with her large and heavy hand. As she beat Stamatis, she gave forth a truly Homeric and very harrowing lament. What she said precisely I could not make out, but any fool could hear the sob of grief in her voice, the sense of  absolute betrayal, the edge of panicking hysteria, the sheer rawness of her sense of caprine and no doubt allied human perfidity.

My guest and I both asked ourselves the same question. This hymn of grief to the goat Stamatis, was it just about a betrayed woman and a wicked goat, and the anarchic volta on the latter’s part that had cost her perhaps ten minutes rather than the ten years’ suffering she seemed to be descanting about? Instead, it sounded in its hoarse desolation, like every accumulated sorrow in her life, from the famine privations in infancy of the Nazi-occupied Forties, all through the desolate years of her comically inadequate and highly miscellaneous Hora schooling (Sotiria knew the names of three Ottoman sultans who had reigned during the Turkish occupation, but she didn’t know what an equation was or where Thessalonika was to be found on the map). Then followed the early marriage, the difficult pregnancies, the two miscarriages, the two stillbirths, and latterly, fast forward half a century, and the fact that in 2015 her beloved husband was closer to 90 than she was to 80. Manolis could hardly bend or stoop or stand, and his chest was very bad. He might drop down dead at any minute and then where would she be?

Answer rebounded along the deserted hills that shielded the loneliest if sun-drenched bay on the loneliest if most hallowed and authentic of Greek islands.

She would be in bloody Livadhakia. No tarmacked road. No dirt road. No monopati, but only hard scrub that rips your legs to a patterned spider’s web. Electricity only since 2002, and they had had to pay a fortune and several backhanders to get it brought down here. An extortionate phone landline, because of course kinito cellphones did not work down here. There was, she had dimly heard, something called the internet connected with kafeneion idiots playing with their kinitos 24/7, one of her beefy sons included, but why should the goatherdess Sotiria give a damn about that? There was more chance of Stamatis the unloving and inconsiderate goat, or Karl the canine ever-optimist, going online, than of Sotiria ever clicking a bloody mouse or surfing a blasted web.

“Isn’t that true? “she bawled at Stami, with one long last buffet on his uncomplaining flank. He hadn’t made a squeak so far, and I doubted that he was any kind of hero, mythological or otherwise. It could only be that his hide was so hard he could not really feel it. For that she would have needed a stick, and there wasn’t one handy, alas. Karl meanwhile looked on seraphically as he if he had a mobile phone of his own stashed away somewhere, and could order e-baskets of tasty snacks any time that he wanted to.

“Isn’t that true” Sotiria repeated wildly, and that edge of raw grief in her voice could not be destroyed or discounted, not even by the dizzying valley echo nor the language gap that included the dialect and the phonetic distortions. A. herself remarked on it. Grief. The one thing we all claim to know how to handle.

And yet…

YOUR SPECS HAVE A FUNNY SMELL

YOUR SPECS HAVE A FUNNY SMELL

Here are some more Greek words that are easily confused, and can even cause a little swingeing embarrassment…

‘Embarrassment’ by the way is a very potent fictional motif, that most UK writers simply do not make enough of. For the real thing as evoked to the nth, take a look at A Nasty Story by Fyodor Dostoievsky).

1.‘Giagia’ and ‘gialgia’ = ‘grandmother’ and ‘glasses/spectacles’

Possible Howlers

a) Let’s have a look at her. Yes, sure enough your grandmother is filthy and an absolute disgrace. Spit all over her and rub her as hard as you can, and you might make some impression, but you’ll have to put your back into it. Otherwise you will never see further than the end of your nose. Also if I’m being totally candid, she’s altered your appearance, she makes you look all nose,  and her arms are pulling way too tight around your head and your ears. You’re always losing her too, aren’t you. Never thought of attaching her to one of those unbreakable  string things, so you never mislay her. Save you money in useless grandmas wouldn’t it, assuming you ever dropped her from a height and smashed her to smithereens. Once they’re in pieces and  knackered, there’s nothing for it but to get yourself a new grandma, no choice there. Of course some places nowadays, you can get a new one while you wait…

b) Your specs have a funny smell about them…I wonder do you maybe need to get some help in to look after them when, you know…they are getting on, your specs, 95 years old, aren’t they? But hell they’ve lasted well, and seen some dramatic sights eh?  They were only 25 years old when the War finished, and they’d seen a bit of German shrapnel embed itself in the vicar’s prize marrows and all his asparagus  more or less incinerated. Still, your specs were always cheerful  in any adversity, and often helped other specs to see the brighter side of life. Of course, life was hard in those days before the War, and likewise your specs heard from her own specs that back in mid-Victorian times a pair of specs would often end up in the Workhouse, a terrible fate if your glasses were separated from her husband, because they didn’t believe in putting the two sexes together.

 2.manteka’ and ‘mantalaki’ = ‘wax for a moustache’ and ‘clothes peg’

Possible Howlers

a)I took the clothes peg and touched the edges of my moustache with it and you never knew such a delicious sensation! Once I had finished rubbing my tash with the peg, I’m telling you Manolis,  it stood as stiff as a you know what…am I talking about cucumbers or the old fishing tackle when  its spots a juicy female minus the old underwear eh? Phaw! Paw! Anyway I took a look in the mirror and there was the old handlebar as curved yet rock hard, as a man who is thinking of the Friday night leg over with the old wife. And it’s the bloody old  peg I have to thank for it…let no one think of it as old fashioned or whimsical,  pegs are what make a man a real man assuming, he is man enough to have a moustache in the first place. In the old days of course a man without moustache was regarded as an offence to both manhood and womanhood. Here, do you want to try this peg on your own pallikari handlebar, and see if it stops it drooping, Manolis, hah!

b) The wife had done a ton of laundry in the washing machine, but then she got a phone call and had to rush out to her mother’s. So, Kostas, I was ordered to hang the washing on the line while she was out, or else I’d face the marital music. My wife as you know is on the big, by which I mean massive side, and I wouldn’t have minded so much, but most of it was her damn XXL frillies and undies. All it needed was for the young slob of a neighbour to see me handling her cow-size panties and bras, and the grinning and gossip would have killed me. Anyway I picked up a bright crimson bra that would have wrapped round your own skinny wife twice, and pinned it tight with my moustache wax as far away from the bloody neighbour as I could. Then her snake patterned gold and silver panties as big as the sails of an old felouka , I wedged the thing just where the old gal’s backside splits, with the first tash  wax I picked up and then thought no,  safety first, and clipped it with four of my  moustache waxes. The moustache wax, mind you,  wasn’t the old design we knew as boys, divided down the middle and all durable wood. No it was sold pink plastic  and with a metal spring supposedly  to help it do the job, but in fact these tash waxes are always shattering and flying half the way to bloody Thessalonika. I ask you…

On a banal note and thinking of the other way round, Kythniot Greeks who speak English, even ones who are very bright and fluent, will confuse the pronouns and say ‘he’ when they mean ‘she’ and vice versa. I’m not talking about inanimate objects with either male or female gender, but of their referring to a ‘daughter’ as ‘he’ or a ‘husband’ as ‘she’. I wonder what this signifies. To be honest I have no idea?

Anyway, any of you who did O level German at school, will know that the world for ‘girl’ is ‘das Madchen’ which is neuter, and therefore the proper pronoun when referring to a girl is ‘es’, meaning ‘it’.

At least the Greeks never stooped so low…

PARADISOS AND THE MASSACRE OF 1916

PARADISOS AND THE MASSACRE OF 1916

Unspoilt as applied to Cycladean Kythnos, for once is very accurate. Despite being close to the mainland, it gets few tourists, most of them Athenian weekenders, plus copious yet thankfully come-and-go yachties, principally from Scandinavia and Germany. The only time you fight for space on a sandy shore is in August, and the last two weeks of July in watering-holes like Episkopi and Loutra. In high season, you definitely avoid Episkopi, half an hour’s walk from the port, with its noisy bar and its wall to wall sun-loungers. But many of the finest sandy beaches are deserted all the year round, and like anyone with any sense, it is those I love the most. My favourite of all my many favourites is:

Gaidharomandra

This massive exquisitely sandy bay is in the south of the island, and adjacent to quirkily named Simousi, a nonsense word the equivalent of Thingumajig Beach. Gaidharomandra means ‘Donkey Fold/ Enclosure’, but there are no longer any donkeys there,  even though plentiful ruins of animal enclosures. There is also a lovely little chapel, Ag Sotiras, which has a crowded panagia festival every year. The chapel marks the end of the navigable road, and only 4-wheel drives, farmer’s pick-ups and motorbikes proceed any further. Taxis refuse to continue downhill the one kilometre of dirt road, though at the end of it is a cheerful dilapidated sign saying ‘Parking’. What they mean is, here is a bit of nondescript dirt road just like the rest of the scratty little dirt road, but we have decided in our civic wisdom to call it Parking, though we know damn fine you will park anywhere you bloody well like in God forsaken Donkey Fold…

Donkey Fold has half a dozen smallholdings and holiday homes, but I have been there May, June, September and October, and never seen a soul. I have taken three visitors from the UK, and they have all been eloquently enchanted, not least because it was roasting hot in all cases. In June there were myriad enormous crickets leaping at every turn, a hallucinatory light show of a kind as they made a queer skrarking sound as they leapt. The last time I was there was October 2014, when we were visited by a sad and starving cat, who must presumably have been left by cold-hearted August weekenders, to fend for itself or die. Luckily we had plentiful tzatziki and aubergine salad, both surprisingly good seeing they were proprietary brand convenience food. The cat thought they were surprisingly good too, but refused to come anywhere near us. I had to put its tasty picnic on the stone terrace of the abandoned, forlorn and tumbling villa which is only  a footstep up from the sand.

Zogaki

Zogaki was the most sympathetic and beautiful beach we discovered on Kythnos, back in June 2007, when Annie and I first came here. We walked it from the old hilltop capital Dryopida, an hour’s mesmerising ramble as you see all the glittering littoral glories of Lefkes, Kaka Maria (Naughty or even Bloody Mary), Liotrivi (Oil Press) and those other tender and misty mirages way down below. We walked it all back uphill as well, and that was a sweating slog in boiling heat, but en route we had a phone call from Ione who was dating unhappily in Zakynthos, and that made our day (when she got back to Cumbria she immediately gave his lordship the boot, and still in Kythnos we got out the fireworks and champagne and breathed easy again).

Zogaki is the most Hebridean of the island’s bays, by which I mean it feels like a child’s vision of perfect seaside joys, with its small comfortingly enclosed bay, its flaking little shacks and tattered smallholdings. But the sociological and historical reality were once very different. There are, as in Lefkes, Ag Stefanos, Skhinousa and Kalo Livadhi, old abandoned jetties, and other quaint industrial remnants, from a massive German-managed iron-quarrying concern that flourished, if that is the questionable term, in the early 20th century. The same holds true for the adjacent island Serifos, where in 1916 the local workers went on strike in protest at truly appalling work conditions. Police from nearby Kea were called in by the German manager, four of the strikers were gunned down in cold blood, and a dozen seriously wounded. Almost a century later, above Zogaki, the massive processing plant sits in rather handsome mellowing ruins. I had no idea what these ruins represented  in 2007, and bizarrely I had to ask about ten people in the port before someone was able to identify them. The other nine I interrogated were even puzzled that I was interested, and when I told them of the Serifos atrocity, a few of them admitted it was news to them, and shrugged their shoulders as if it had nothing to do with peaceable and predictable old Kythnos.

Adjacent to Zogaki, a ten minute walk round the headland, is pristine and paradisaical  little Kouri, with its seasonal taverna and its two crazy dogs. The bay is more of an open affair than Zogaki , though still tiny  and with a magnetic view of glistening Serifos and its uninhabited satellites Piperi (Pepper) and Serifopoula, which hearteningly always remind me of the tantalising and uninhabited Treshnish Isles off Mull. Beyond Kouri is Naoussa Bay where there is a little tidal islet with a snow white chapel perched like an elegant curious jewel upon it. Like the Hebrides and its sister bay Zogaki, it has that special melting poetry one associates with infancy and the tender euphoria of that lost and magical estate.

TO BE CONTINUED

ONE HELL OF A YOGHURT

ONE HELL OF A YOGHURT

No one enjoys a bit of hideous intersocial embarrassment more than me, and here are some pairs of very common, not obscure Greek words, that are easily confusable. I have confused them myself, much to the general amusement of Kythniots and other Greeks from 30 or even 40 years ago. Once, when my wife Annie and I were in a taverna in 1982 in wonderful Chios, disdaining the English version menu, instead of a ‘country salad’ I asked for a ‘nightwatchman’s salad’. The fiftyish and balding waiter who had looked depthlessly morose and very preoccupied before he took  my order, split his sides with merriment and went off to tell everyone he knew about my idiotic request. Later he asked me what I thought a bloody old Greek nightwatchman would like in his salad, and I said plenty of kautos (incendiary, cockle-warming) tsipuro, grape brandy in the dressing… and give the Chiot servitoros his due, he grinned his arse off at that as well.

1.Ntomata and domatia ( ‘a tomato’ and ‘a room’)

(NB,  the first is pronounced ‘domata’ and the second ‘thomatia’ where the ‘th’ is pronounced as in ‘there’).

Possible howlers

a) Give me a nice cheap one with a toilet that doesn’t stink, and a shower that isn’t blocked with body hair. I can tell you now, I don’t want  a tomato without a television, and I don’t want a boiling hot bloody tomato either, even if it is August. Nor do I want a dark tomato or a poky tomato or a noisy bloody tomato or a non-smoker’s tomato! I don’t want any drunken bloody Albanians singing next to my bloody tomato, d’you hear?

b)This outsize room here is frankly past it and turning putrid. If it was in good condition it would suit someone living on their own, and I could fill it to bursting with rice, or even rice and beef, but no bloody chance the way it is! Look, it’s swollen and split and mouldy and it’s even  cracking down the middle and oozing what looks like piss…

2.Pisina and pisinos (‘a swimming pool’ and ‘a backside’)

Possible howlers

a)Your backside is truly enormous, love,  but tell me do you ever get it looking unbelievably horrible all over its surface, with slimy green algae ? Common as anything these days, eh, some kind of modern biological plague? So how do you get rid of all the ugly scum off your backside, I’d love to know? I always think the ideal backside is one that is pure and clean and that you can see right to the bottom of. I guess you need to get those guys out to drain and clean and blow boiling hot steam into your backside now and again, do you?

b) I have an embarrassing condition with my swimming pool. It has pustules up the you know where, the thingy passage, and now and again they start to bloody suppurate. I mean it doesn’t do wonders for your love life when you have an oozing, bloody swimming pool that your husband wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. Mind you he’s a first class bastard, he really is, irrespective of my poor old swimming pool

3.Eorti and giaourti   (‘celebratory party’ and ‘yoghurt’)

Possible howlers

a)Let’s share a bloody big, truly monstrous yoghurt together, you and me, shall we, and show the world what we’re made of! Spread the word and we’ll get half the village and they can tell the whole of the valley about our no expense spared blow-out yoghurt. It’ll be a sell out, make  no mistake. and if the whole village isn’t laid up puking all tomorrow after a riotous night of crazy bloody yoghurting, my name isn’t Kostas Filippaous…

b)This so called party is kind of boring and tasteless, and needs a bomb in the form of a bloody big dollop of honey thrown everywhere, just so I feel some inclination to get stuck in to it. By the way, I don’t know whether it’s a sheep’s party or a goat’s party or a cow’s party, all I know is it’s got no bloody oomph to it!

Enough for now, and possibly more in the future. But how often do I, permanent albeit British Kythnos citizen, get these kind of things confused? Nowadays after 18 months on Kythnos and regular Greek lessons, I mostly know which word means which, but occasionally fatigue or too much ouzo me pago make me a bit stupid. Only yesterday, I confused kouverta (blanket) and kouventa (conversation) and said at full volume in the Glaros, I’d had a really interesting blanket with the good-looking woman on the other side of the bay who is a maritime lawyer. You should have heard all the wahooing and guffaws. It sounded faintly Carry On saucy of course, but then she lawyer Margarita is happily married, and I now have someone I really care about and am 1000% faithful to, without the slightest effort…