FOR SEVERAL YEARS, mainly in the 1970s and early 1980s, I used to join my former PhD supervisor, Robert, and his wife, Margaret, at their favourite camping spot on some rough ground a few yards south of the northern Greek seaside town of Platamon, a few miles south of Katerini. Robert favoured this spot because it contained colonies of a form of desert ant, whose behaviour and ecology he studied. Robert and Margaret followed a predictable daily routine.
After breakfast, which could only be eaten after all had taken a dip in the sea, Margaret usually set up a deckchair or a folding sunbed under the canopy attached to one end of the caravan and began reading one of the huge numbers of paperbacks that were stacked on shelves inside it. When not reading, she repaired Robert’s socks. Throughout the year, she collected his damaged socks, and saved them to mend. It helped fill the long hours at Platamon when there was no one apart from Robert with whom to chat. He was too busy watching and studying the ants to talk to her during the day. This was why she welcomed others, like me, to join them in Platamon.
Lunch varied little at Platamon. Almost always we ate sliced tomatoes dressed with sweetish vinaigrette. The tomatoes, which were both large and delicious, were bought from the ‘tomato man’. He was a Greek fellow who wandered along the shore with his donkey laden with tomatoes and other vegetables. Robert used to practice speaking Greek with him while he weighed out tomatoes on a hand-held weighing machine. The ‘tomato man’ did not appear every day, but the ‘goat man’ did. He wandered along the shore with his heard of goats, and always stopped to greet Margaret and Robert, who appeared not to mind when the goats stepped all over the area in which he was trying to conduct observations.
After lunch, everyone did whatever they felt like. Margaret sheltered in the shade. Robert, bringing to life the words of the refrain of Noel Coward’s song “Mad dogs and Englishmen …”, continued watching his ants out in the noonday sun. It is curious that these ants, which are so active at the hottest time of the days are referred to by some as ‘Englishmen’.
At about tea-time, we all took another bathe in the sea, which was by then pleasantly warm. Often after bathing and when we had tea and biscuits (just as if we were still in England), we would set off for Platamon in the Land Rover. Our first stop was the level-crossing at the southern edge of the village. There was a water tap close to the road that crossed the tracks that linked Greece to the rest of Europe. We used this to fill the large jerry cans that stored our drinking and cooking water. The water was then ‘sterilised’ by adding generous, but unmeasured, handfuls of small white chlorine releasing water purification tablets to it. Some of these tablets looked quite old to me. I suppose that they must have been effective because none of us ever got sick after drinking this water. During the water collection, Robert practised his Greek with the railway workers who looked after this manually operated level-crossing.
From the railway crossing, we drove into Platamon – or ‘Plat’ as my two friends called it – and parked. Margaret used to make a beeline for the railway station where, if she was lucky, she might discover a single copy of an English newspaper that was usually 2 or 3 days out of date. Few English speakers visited this seaside resort; there was little demand for the English press. Most of Platamon’s numerous visitors came either from Thessaloniki or from towns like Skopje and Bitola in what was then land-locked Yugoslav Macedonia.
Margaret left Robert to do most of the shopping in ‘Plat’. He had his favourite shops in Platamon. Typically, his choice of shop was dictated by the friendliness of its salespeople, which he considered more important than the quality of their merchandise. The three shops that he usually visited in the Greek village were a butcher, a fishmonger, and a grocery store, whose walls were lined from floor to ceiling with what seemed like every conceivable food and household product. One or two of its owners had lived in Australia and spoke English well, but with an odd accent that was neither fully Australian nor fully Greek. Each shop provided Robert with an opportunity to chat in Greek, which he did fluently but with a less than perfect accent. His attempts were much appreciated.
After my first visit to Platamon, I used to join Robert and Margaret there often during my rambles around the Balkans. I used to arrive at Platamon by train, never sure whether they had either reached it safely and/or were still camping in their usual spot.
Once, I disembarked at Platamon station at about 11 pm, and began walking towards the place where I hoped to find my friends. The grocery that Robert patronised was still open at this late hour. Its owners recognised me as I approached and beckoned me to join them at the small table where they were drinking beer out of tiny (shot) glasses suitable for spirits. They offered me a glass, which was the same size as theirs and filled it with the smallest amount of beer that I have ever drunk. After we had imbibed together, I walked through and then beyond the town to the place a couple of hundred yards south of the Platamon Beach Hotel, where I hoped to find my friends. I reached the darkened camp site where Robert and Margaret were fast asleep under the canopy outside their caravan, protected only by mosquito netting. Without disturbing them, I pitched my tent and fell asleep.
Next, morning, they were genuinely surprised to discover my tent pitched close to them. It was lucky for them that I was not someone who was visiting them with ill intention. They slept quite unprotected under their canopy and used to leave the caravan unlocked while they were away from it. Rural Greece was truly a safe place in those days.
Robert and Margaret stopped visiting Greece as they approached the end of their lives in the first decade of this century. The vacant land upon which they camped was owned by the inhabitants of a small village, Pori, on the slopes of nearby Mount Olympus. For all the years that my friends camped there, nothing was ever built on the land and it was never fenced in. Today, where we camped and sat drinking Martini whilst the sun set is now built upon. It is the site of Nea Pori. After many years, the villagers of Pori decided to make use of their seaside plots. I believe it would have broken my friends’ hearts had they arrived to discover where they loved to camp had been built on, probably destroying the habitat of the ants that Robert studied and wrote about in learned publications.