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?”
“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.