This post appears a little early and the next one will be on Sunday, February 5th
THE BALLET OF THE MAD DOG
Last Thursday was one of those days where despite eating frequently and copiously, I felt hungry to the point of being unfillable, or perhaps like some oriental sheikh, I was unappeasable. I felt more or less like some stray cat or dog, for as the wise ethologists tell us, the single strongest primitive instinct of both our boon companions, is the constant hungry search for food. Departing the UK from Stansted airport, at 7am I was guzzling smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches, which theoretically should take some digestive effort, especially at that time of day, because as you all know smoked fish has a habit of mercilessly stomachically repeating. Once reached Athens and then changing buses at Markopoulo, I bought a delicious kaseiropitta cheese pie and fed half of it to a very nervous and handsome black mongrel which had I lived in Markopoulo I would have immediately taken in, it was so obviously homeless and needing love and guidance and someone to dote on it and christen it Billy Joel or possibly Clint . The bus went no further than Lavrio, meaning I had to get a taxi to my Sounio hotel whence I would catch the 7am boat to Kythnos on Friday. That gave me ample time to buy a second exquisite kaseiropitta and a bottle of wine for the evening in the hotel. I then crossed the busy main road and headed for the taxi rank, where my chosen driver proved before long to be an unusual and highly original Greek male. He was perhaps 55, with jet black hair, a neat pony tail, and a look of profound and placid independence. Two things confirmed this as soon as I got in the car, one being that he smoked a pipe which no other Greek does, the other being that Tchaikovsky was percolating mellifluously from his CD player. There must of course be classical music lovers in Greece, but even among academics and intellectuals I have never met any, for they like every taxi driver other than this one, were always fiercely partisan for Greek music and asserted that everything else was equal last, whether it be Miles Davis or Des O’Connor or King Crimson or Mrs Mills and her Party Medley. Parenthetically, the same thing applies to cosmopolitan food, and while they will politely shuffle Indian or Chinese cuisine around their plates, most Greeks will only really tuck in with passion to ladhera or kreas or souvlaki or psari.
“It’s the Nutcracker Suite,” I said with profound delight, and believe me I had to rack my brains for the verb ‘to crack’ and even more so the agent noun ‘cracker’, though karpos for ‘nut’ came easily enough. I told him that it was one of my very favourite bits of music, as it reminded me of childhood and the euphoric intensities of infant joy, in a way that few other things did. I added that back in England I had recorded no less than 3 different performances on video tape of which my favourite was the 1990s Bolshoi version specially designed to appeal to the remnant child in all sensitive and discerning adults as well as to children themselves. Suffice to say the toys were all dressed as very old fashioned Russian peasant toys, that the poignant and dappled snowfall was done by ingenious stage lighting across a vast rear curtain, and that the skinny rag doll who did his high velocity spinning rotation was not a young man but a little Russian wizard magically possessed. Best of all, and it always brought tears to my eyes, was when he was picked up by a hefty fraternal companion so that all his limbs alternately flopped and stiffened in contrapuntal gravitational response, a comical passivity belied by the whirling dervish mania that followed. The taxi driver nodded his connoisseur’s pleasure and indicated a massive collection of classical CDs on the passenger door shelf and boasted that he played no other.
When it came to pipe smoking he was similarly exclusive and he showed me a tin of Erinmore tobacco, his one and only brand. I told him proprietorially (my grandparents were Scots) it was from Scotland, but looking grave he answered no, no, it hailed from Denmark. It was unobtainable in Greece, he explained, and he had to get it on the internet from Denmark. Yes, but no, I artfully countered, for I was sure it was made in Scotland, even if for whatever reason they had a warehouse stuffed to the gills with Erinmore in Denmark, the name was Scottish Gaelic, because the ending -more was a corruption of mor meaning megalo or ‘big’. That said, and embarrassing to admit, subsequent internet research proved that he was right and I was wrong, and weirdest of all and smacking almost of the occult was that up until 2005 the tobacco was made by Murray and Sons of the UK, before shifting to Scandinavia! Yet ignorant of all this and as I paid his fare I reflected with emotion that my own pipe-smoking Dad, Ian Murray (1915-1992) inhaled nothing other than St Bruno, and what he dreaded more than anything else was to receive pipe tobacco as a Christmas present, as his dozy relatives always got it wrong and bought him every damn thing from Old Holborn to, God help us, Baby’s Bottom (‘as smooth as’), but never ever St Bruno.
The Sounio hotel proprietor is a fine and handsome man in his seventies who has been married twice, has no less than 6 children, one as young as 22, and currently has a very nice girlfriend, a status he finds so much more relaxing, however alluring, than his maintaining a third wife. He often breaks into spontaneous and very passionate Hellenic song, especially if the hotel is full to the rafters. Today I was the only guest which seemed to please both of us, and no random singing was to be had. As another striking accommodatory quirk, next to the breakfast recess as you enter the hotel, there are two enormous stuffed animal toys, a lifesize leopard and a tiger, so much better than the disgusting slaughtered versions. He also has a charming and very real little cockatoo near his desk with its permanently open cage, so that often as you are eating breakfast the cockatoo will be perched 2 tables away, watching you eating with an incredulous look, and making melodious and always polite little squeaks as he stares. Finally, the hotel has an extensive library for guests, but none of the books are in Greek, all but one being in German, as it transpires that one of his wives was from Munich. There is precisely one English tome on the shelves and it is the autobiography of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. I had turned to it hopefully on an extended stay in 2014, as I had nothing else to read and we were miles from any bookshop. The first paragraph I was delighted to see was surprisingly well written and then behold the subsequent 100,000 words were Keith in luxuriantly unedited free flow (from memory ‘an then we went to the bar, an then we got really effin pissed already being well stoned as you’d expect of course, an then this rather fat and not very good looking at all but downright ugly chick showed up an then cos I had had more than a few beers, an not bein too discriminatin…’)
I unpacked, sat down on the bed and read some Henri Bosco (1888-1976) the truly extraordinary writer from Avignon, and quaffed a glass of very pleasant Greek white wine. But hunger treacherously overtook me once again, and this time specifically for something sweet. To be sure the wine was sweetish but not sweet enough for me and my urgent primal needs. I recalled there was a fine zacharoplasteio cake shop half a mile down the busy main road to the Temple of Poseidon, Sounio’s special glory, always swarming with tourists, January included, and an extortionate fortune to get in and take a reverent dekko at. The problem was it was 6.30pm by now and pitch dark out there, and it might well be shut. Next to it was an excellent Italian restaurant run by Greeks, but I was stuffed with the almira savoury of 2 cheese pies and wished for the glyko sweet of say baklava and some Rowntrees’ Smarties for good measure. Yet it was worth the gamble I decided, and I put on my posh new duffel coat purchased in good old Bradford by always generous and lovely Jan, and wandered downstairs where the hotel owner was laughing raucously over the phone with some chum or possibly ex-wife or one of 6 kids. It was freezing cold on the highway and I strode as fast as I could to generate heat. On both sides, there are posh exclusive villas, as Sounio is a very class address, even though bafflingly it has nothing in the way of shops or any focal centre (that’s the rich for you, eh, no centre of gravity, all random points bedamn). To the right there was the clamorous barking of an evidently outsize dog and it was noisily charging up and down its spacious manorial garden, woofing at someone who had the unHellenic gall to walk the highway by night like a sneaking and despicable footpad.
Confident it was safely behind a barred gate, I vauntingly lobbed insults at it, as, although being an indiscriminate dog lover, I don’t care at all for the big ones that intimidate with their size and their vocal power. Fuck you, I hurled at it, go and get fucked, and other puerile admonitions to an animal which after all does not understand the imperative or any other grammatical variant of the impolite and let’s face it cliched obscenity. I certainly wouldn’t have bawled the insults, had I known the truth of things, which was that amazingly the dog was not barred in at all, but free to roam the road through an open gate, an anomaly which only fathead, who gives a shit, devil may care Greeks, whether rich or poor would permit. There was barely any traffic tonight, but otherwise this highway was a lethal race track, fit for speeding show-off macho motorists to prove their naïve mettle, and that includes macho smileless women in their thirties and forties and fifties ditto.
Not to speak of the truly criminal wickedness of allowing a bad and giant dog to importune a harmless foreigner bent only on obtaining a stash of Smarties to appease his urgent historical hunger. I was very frightened of course, as it stalked me from about 20 yards, creeping ever nearer barking and slavering, and it was so dark I couldn’t see whether it was a bulldog, a pitbull, a wolfhound, or a rampant and bilingual German shepherd. Uppermost though, was my anger against its moronic pampered plutocrat Sounio owners who let it roam the fast road like the worst of negligent Greeks, the inverse being their charming practice of acquiring a dog to guard their oh so precious allotments and estates, and tying it by a rope to an upturned barrel which is to be their permanent address for evermore, with fuckall working chance of any exercise or anything but the scantest food and dirty drinking water. When they are not cheerfully doing that to their dogs, they are blithely imprisoning songbirds in cages the size of tea caddies, with nary a blind thought of what it feels like to be a chained dog, a caged bird, an unchained hound vulnerable to speeding traffic, whilst also ripe in the interim for wresting a phantasmal limb from an irritating and impudent spectre of the pitch black night.
I swore viciously and crazily flapped my arms at the invisible monster, and implicit in my unrestrained theatre, I was cursing the idiot owners who deserved neither an animal nor a glorious Sounio mansion but an upturned barrel in outer Dhaka or Mogadishu where they should be chained with a diet of vegetable mush and a bowl of dusty tap water, just to let the buggers know what it was like to repine for eternity on the other side of the animal divide. Meanwhile the deafening harassment and my righteous counter-bawling might also have gone on for ever, until I saw that I had reached the cake shop and the restaurant adjacent. I crossed the road as rapidly as I could, and the hysterical cur intimidated by the lights of the two shops, the presence of the law so to speak, slunk away in silence. Even better the cake shop was still open, and did not close until 7.30 every night, apart from Sunday. The stout and friendly female assistant of about 40 was mopping the floor in preparation, but welcomed me in and asked me what I was after and what she could hope to do for me.
She could offer me her sweetness of course, both that sweet respite from a mad and snarling dog and a whopping portion of delectable looking baklava with its fillo pastry, honey and walnuts beaming up at me from below the glass counter. I also opted for a bulky cosmopolitan Mars Bar rather than meagre transnational Smarties, and just to complete the excess I would also purchase another kaseiropitta cheese pie, on the proven basis that once I had stanched my sweet tastebuds, I would probably feel the stirrings of their savoury counterpart, and indeed those sweet and savoury riffs and my concomitant addictions might spiral on for evermore. The assistant smiled at my profligacy, put the baklava in a smart decorative box, took my 5 euros, and wished me a kindly sto kalo valediction. Then as a sudden afterthought, and a touching free gift, she gave me a little shortbread biscuit flavoured with portakali orange, something which I knew from experience to be only just tolerable between the jaws and nowhere in the league of sumptuous baklava or ekmek kadaif, both of which I’m sure you have guessed, are Turkish names for sweets, not Greek ones, along with their savoury counterpart of the delicious aubergine imam (properly imam bayeldi, the imam having fainted from an excess of the exquisite savoury oil…)
I strode back into the darkness, obviously fearful that the dog was still roaming loose and lethal, and wondering how the hell I could frighten it off now, as the proportions were worryingly reversed, and it lived 1/3 of the way to my hotel meaning I had 2/3s of the way to traverse with it snapping at my fearful arse and indeed at my most anxious soul. Thankfully though, there was not a squeak from it as I approached where I believed it lived…its dozy owners had evidently heard the earlier ruckus and decided to try that oh so elusive and unGreek tactic of commonsense and stick old Brutus in front of their massive flatscreen TV and the latest oh so passionate and frequently violent Turkish soap…which might in turn of course by regular viewing have encouraged Brutus’s latently and patently violent side.
Had they fuck….had they hell as like…
There it was again roaring its pampered Sounio bollocks off, and back on the quest of the loathsome foreign phantom who was now insolently clutching an aromatic treasure trove of country style cheese pie, Ottoman baklava dripping with aphrodisiac honey, and thus objectively worth murdering, meaning ripping ear to ear, for the wondrously tasty spoils. For a second or two I resorted to my own counter-rant, a kind of demented slavering Kythno-Cumbrian barking, calling the dog some truly deplorable things, most of them whimsically nonsensical, as I accused it of addiction to fellatio, of manustupration, of vauntingly co-owning an enormous brothel full of disease ridden odalisques and so forth.
The dog was just within a handy 10-yard rush for the kill, when in one of my far from frequent bursts of inspired lateral thinking, I decided to hearken once again to the ethologists and their talk of animal instincts, and that timeless urge to staunch their historical ravenous hunger, by which I mean frequent historical famine.
I reached in my carrier bag and unearthed with some struggle the flavourless little orange shortbread biscuit. I broke it hastily into four discreet portions and flung the first in the direction of the slavering wolf. The wolf immediately ceased its hysterical barking, and revealed itself cautiously and rather ludicrously under the lamplight as a very respectable looking golden retriever, a species which I know from long experience to be as soft as a chocolate marshmallow and which always will be. At once it began a diligent investigatory hoovering to locate the orange tidbit, so that just to fox it properly I flung the other 3 portions well behind it at successive 10 yard intervals. Brutus or more likely o Kyrio Apollo bothered me no more, needless to add, and its deafening silence was so beautiful to my freezing cold and magenta red English lugholes.
Back at the hotel, I confounded myself by wolfing down (note the crucial verb) the kaseiropitta pie in about three ravenous, nay demented bites. As I guzzled it, I felt as if I had been through about ten evolutionary aeons, and had been painfully and cruelly starved of everything I needed throughout the passage of all that hallucinatory time. Then I turned my becalmed attention to the baklava and the Mars Bar and delicious as they both tasted I realised that the savoury will always be essentially superior to the sweet, and I trust that you understand I am not just talking about something as transient as bloody old food.