An eminent tourist

MANY YEARS AGO, a now deceased Greek friend, ‘S’, related the following story.

S was born in a small port in the Peloponnese long before WW2. It was a place that tourists disembarked from their boats to visit the Ancient Greek archaeological site of Olympia. S left school at an early age (by the age of about 12 to earn money by working on the docks of the small town. When cruise ships called in at the port, he offered services as a tourist guide to earn a few extra Drachmas.

Most of the tourists swallowed the tales that S told them as they wandered around Olympia. However, one day he met his match. An English gentleman accepted his offer to act as his guide. Soon after they reached the site and S had begun giving his customer his ‘spiel’, the Englishman stopped him, saying

“Listen, young man. It is clear that you know nothing about this site and its history. Let me tell you the correct story.”

S listened to his well-informed customer with interest and amazement. It turned out that the knowledgeable gentleman was no other than the future Prime Minister of the UK, Winston Churchill.

Many years later during one of my several visits to Olympia, I was standing in the lobby of a hotel near the site on a warm afternoon. The place was filled with members of an American tourist group. One lady asked her friend if she was going to take a tour around the famous site. The friend replied:

“Aw, no. It’s too damned hot to see more of those old rocks.”

Honey for tea and death in Greece

THE SHORT-LIVED POET Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) lived outside Cambridge in the nearby village of Grantchester, where he rented a room in The Old Vicarage between 1909 and 1912. In May of 1912, Brooke was sitting in the Café des Westens in Berlin and feeling nostalgic about his life in Grantchester. He put pen to paper and composed his poem “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.” Clearly fed up with Berlin, the poet begins the final verse of his poem with:

“God! I will pack, and take a train,        

And get me to England once again!       

For England’s the one land, I know,      

Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;                

And Cambridgeshire, of all England,     

The shire for Men who Understand;      

And of that district I prefer        

The lovely hamlet Grantchester…”

The final verse ends with the famous lines:

“The lies, and truths, and pain?… oh! yet          

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?     

And is there honey still for tea?”

Inside the old pavilion at the Orchard in Grantchester

Having recently visited Grantchester, I can sympathise with Brooke’s desire to return to this charming village whose meadows run along the bank of the winding River Cam. The parish church of St Mary and St Andrew contains structures created as early as the 12th century, but most of the building dates from the 14th and 15th centuries. The west tower is mainly early 15th century. The clock on it no longer stands at ten to three, but it was stuck at that hour during the era when Brooke was in Grantchester.

The Orchard, which lies across the High Street from the church and between it and the meadows by the river, was planted in 1868. Before moving into the Old Vicarage, Brooke had lodged in a house in The Orchard. In 1897, a group of Cambridge University students asked Mrs Stevenson of Orchard House if they could enjoy tea under the blossoming trees. Thus began The Orchard Tea Gardens, now a popular haunt of students and tourists. Because of the unreliability of the English weather, a wooden pavilion was built at the end of the 19th century. In case of rain, tea drinkers could sit in the pavilion and enjoy their tea without getting soaked. Rupert Brooke was one of those, who used this place often. The Orchard’s website (www.theorchardteagarden.co.uk/history-new/) noted:

In taking tea at the Orchard, you are joining an impressive group of luminaries including Rupert Brooke (poet), Virginia Woolf (author), Maynard Keynes (economist), Bertrand Russell (philosopher), Ludwig Wittgenstein (philosopher), Alan Turing (inventor of the computer), Ernest Rutherford (split the atom), Crick and Watson (discovered DNA), Stephen Hawking (theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author), Jocelyn Bell (discovered the first pulsar) and HRH Prince Charles (future King of England). There is a list of some of the famous people who have visited in a separate page on our web site, and there are photographs of many of them on the walls of the Rupert Brooke Room.”

The Rupert Brooke Room was constructed later than the pavilion. The famous visitors included several noteworthy Indians including Jawaharlal Nehru, Salman Rushdie, and Manmohan Singh. There is a whole host of other well-known personalities who have taken tea at The Orchard including a group of Cambridge students, who achieved notoriety for their involvement in espionage for the Soviet Union: Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby.

As for Brooke’s question “And is there honey still for tea?”, I forgot to ask during our far too brief visit to The Orchard.  Brooke was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve force at the outbreak of WWI. In early 1915, he set sail with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. In late February, he developed a serious infection following an insect bite and despite the efforts of surgeons on a French hospital ship moored near the Greek island of Skyros, he died. He was buried in an olive grove on the island. In the churchyard of St Mary and St Andrew, Brooke’s name in carved on the church’s simple war memorial.

The year Albania proclaimed independence

IN WARWICK, I chanced upon a fascinating book in a charity shop. It is Part 2 of “Stanley Gibbons Priced Catalogue of Stamps of Foreign Countries 1912”. When it was published, it could be purchased for as little as half a crown (2/6, which is 12.5 pence). I paid a lot more for it, but not an excessive amount.

I felt compelled to buy it because of its date and my interest in Albania. For, on the 28th of November 1912, the independence of Albania was proclaimed in the seaside town of Vlorë. Albania’s independence was formally recognised when the Treaty of London was signed in July 1913. The catalogue I bought in Warwick was published some time in 1912 and most likely before independence was proclaimed. As far as the publishers and the compilers were concerned, what is now Albania was still part of the Ottoman Empire.

The index of the catalogue contains an entry for “Albania (Italian P.O.)”.  This needs some explanation. Throughout the Ottoman Empire, there were postal services operated by foreign (i.e., not Ottoman) countries. A website (www.levantineheritage.com/foreign-post-offices.html) reveals:

“In the 18th century, foreign countries maintained courier services through their official missions in the Empire, to permit transportation of mail between those countries and Constantinople [sic] the Empire capital. Nine countries had negotiated Capitulations or treaties with the Ottomans, which granted various extraterritorial rights in exchange for trade opportunities. Such agreements permitted Russia (1720 & 1783), Austria (1739), France (1812), Great Britain (1832) and Greece (1834), as well as Germany, Italy, Poland, and Romania, to maintain post offices in the Ottoman Empire. Some of these developed into public mail services, used to transmit mail to Europe. The Ottoman Empire itself did not maintain a regular public mail service until 1840, when a service was established between Constantinople and other major cities in the country and this was slow to develop and expand. The gap in this capacity was very much filled with the various foreign post offices which continued functioning right till the beginning of WWI in 1914 …”

Left: Ioannina in the 1970s. Right: examples of over-printing texts

Hence, the entry in the catalogue’s table of contents. I turned to the page listed and found the section on Albania. The Italian Post Offices in the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire issued stamps, to quote the catalogue, which:

“…surcharged or over-printed for use in Italian post offices abroad.”

These stamps were the regular issues but, to quote the catalogue:

“… distinguished by the removal of some details of the design, over-printed with Type…”

Different Italian stamps were overprinted with names of places and a Type number. For example, Italian stamps were over-printed with: “ALBANIA.  10 Para 10. 201” (where ‘10 Para’ is a monetary denomination and ‘201’ is the Type number), or “Durazzo. 4 PIASTRE 4. 205”, or “Valona, or other place names. 10 Para 10. 208”. Durazzo and Valona being the Italian for the Albanian names Durres and Vlore.

Within the Albanian section of the catalogue there is also an illustration of the over-printing “JANINA. 4 Piastre 4. 205”. Janina is the name of a town now in Greece, Ioannina (Ιωάννινα).  In 1912, this town was not in what was then Greece, but in the Pashalik of Janina, part of the Turkish Empire. In February 1913, following the battle of Bizani in the First Balkan War, the town was absorbed into Greece. Many Albanians still consider that by rights Ioannina should be a part of a Greater Albania. The large Albanian population in the town was forcibly reduced by population exchanges in the early 1920s and also the pre-WW2 Greek government’s policy of strongly encouraging people of Albanian ethnicity to regard themselves as Greeks. When I visited Ioannina in the 1970s, there were the remains of Turkish buildings but many of them were in a sad condition. I do not know whether they have been restored since then.

My purchase in Warwick has proved to be of interest. It records the state of postage stamps on the eve of great changes that were about to happen in the Balkan peninsular as well as illustrating aspects of European colonialism, both political and economic.

Catching the wind

Cambridge, UK

LOOK UP AND if your eyesight is reasonably up to scratch, you might well be lucky enough to see a weathervane on top of a church steeple or some other high point on a building. The ‘vane’ in weathervane is derived from an Old English word, ‘fana’, meaning flag (in German the word ‘Fahn’ means flag). Weathervanes are simple gadgets that indicate the direction of the wind. They usually consist of an arrow attached by a horizontal straight rod to a flat surface that catches the wind. The rod is mounted on a vertical support in such away that it can rotate as the wind catches the flat surface. The horizontal rod with the arrow rotates so that it offers the least resistance to the prevailing wind. Beneath the rotating arrow are often indicators that are labelled with letters denoting the four points of the compass. If, for example, the wind begins to blow from east to west, the horizontal rod will rotate so that the arrow is above the ‘E’ denoting east. Some weathervanes substitute the horizontal rod with a single flat asymmetric object that can catch the wind and rotate. Often the object seen above churches is a cock or other bird, whose beak will indicate the direction of the wind. I suppose that for birds wind direction is quite important.

The weathervane is not a recent invention. It was invented in the 2nd century BC both by the Greeks and the Chinese but separately. Some of the oldest Chinese weathervanes were shaped as birds and later, at least by the end of the 9th century AD, bird shaped vanes became used in Europe. Although avian weathervanes are still very common, a wide variety of other shapes have been used. Sundials, weathervanes, now archaic, only give an approximate indication of time and wind direction respectively. However, unlike sundials, which do not work when the sun is not shining, weathervanes work in all weather conditions and in day and night, although they are somewhat difficult to see at night-time. Despite their relative inaccuracy compared with modern instruments for measurements of  wind, weathervanes are attractive adornments to buildings both old and new.

Late arrival in northern Greece

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.

Burgers and the Parthenon

THE HARD ROCK CAFÉ at 150 Old Park Lane in central London opened its doors to customers in June 1971. It has been a popular eatery and tourist attraction ever since then. Often, a queue of hungry customers can be seen at its doors. I ate an enjoyable meal there once soon after it opened. I was then an undergraduate at University College London. Since then, I have not entered this place again. Some years ago, when the Hard Rock Café opened a branch in what had been the Tract and Bible Society bookstore in St Marks Road in Bangalore (India) in 2007, we had an indifferent meal there under the watchful eyes of a huge poster portrait of the singer Tina Turner.

Few of the customers of the Old Park Lane branch of this American-style diner in Old Park Lane are likely to have raised their heads to see what is above the eatery. It is worth doing so to see the:

“Bracketed cornice over 5th floor, shaped gable end to attic storeys finished off by giant broken segmental pediment with green brick banding and figure sculpture crowned by ornamental obelisk-finial.” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1266274).

This green (and white brick) banding gives the building an eye-catching appearance. There is a crest between the two large bow windows on the fourth (American fifth) floor. This shield with three chevrons and ten circles bears the date ‘1907’.

The building, 149-150 Old Park Lane, was built in 1904 to the designs of the architects Thomas Edward Colcutt (1840-1924) and Stanley Hamp (1877-1968), who worked together as a partnership.  So far, so good, but what was the building used for when it was built and why did it deserve such an elaborate and unusual pediment? Various descriptions of its architecture describe that it consists of ‘flats and chambers’ above ‘a former showroom, now restaurant’. One source (www.foodepedia.co.uk/restaurant-reviews/2010/nov/hard_rock_cafe.htm) states that the Hard Rock is situated inside a former Rolls Royce showroom. This is confirmed by Anthony Knight, who wrote (on a restaurant development website):

“Two shaggy-haired Americans living in London were fed up with the fact they couldn’t find US-style burgers in the capital so they started a small burger joint in a Rolls-Royce dealership. In 1973 they hosted their first live gig, with the singer none other than Paul McCartney” (www.elliottsagency.com/opinion/greateststories/).

The brand name ‘Rolls Royce’ has been used since 1906. The building at 150 Old Park Lane was constructed two years earlier. I have not been able to ascertain when the luxury car company first opened their show room in the current premises of Hard Rock Café.

Looking up at the pediment, there is a sculpture of a kneeling muscular man supporting a sort of obelisk on which there are interlinked letters, which look like ‘D’, ‘J’, and lower-case ‘l’. What this stands for remains a mystery to me. However, the crest mentioned above, is identical to that on the coat-of-arms of the city of Gloucester (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/glos/vol4/pp368-371). This is appropriate as the building is known as ‘Gloucester House’.

The building housing the Hard Rock Café is not the first edifice on this plot to have been named ‘Gloucester House’. According to the authoritative book edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert, “The London Encyclopaedia”, the first Gloucester House, which like the present burger joint was located on the west corner of Old Park Lane and Piccadilly, was constructed in the early years of the reign of King George III (he was on the throne from 1760 to 1820). It was in this building that Lord Elgin (1766-1841) first exhibited the marble fragments that he had removed from the Parthenon in Athens. They were displayed here, where today burgers and milkshakes are consumed, before he sold the marbles to the nation in 1816. That year, Gloucester House was purchased by William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester (1776-1834), who despite being nicknamed ‘Silly Billy’ became Chancellor of Cambridge University. The last owner of the house was George, 2nd Duke of Cambridge, who died in 1904. Soon after his death, the old house was demolished. It seems that its successor, the present Gloucester House, was built almost as soon as the old one was demolished.

In 1850, when the old Gloucester House was still in existence, Peter Cunningham wrote in his “Handbook of London” (published in 1850):

“At the Duchess of Gloucester’s, at the corner of Park-Lane, once Lord Elgin’s, and where the Elgin Marbles were placed on their first arrival in this country, is a very beautiful carpet in sixty squares, worked by sixty of the principal ladies among the aristocracy.”

At that time, William Frederick’s widow, Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh (1776-1857), who was born in Buckingham Palace, was residing at the house. After her death, the house was sold to its last owner.

It occurred to me that quite accidentally the Hard Rock Café with its main entrance on Piccadilly is aptly named given that it is located where some ‘rocks’ that occasionally give the British Government a hard time, The Elgin Marbles, were once housed.  What gives the precious ancient marbles a sort of hardness is that from time to time the Greek Government wants to have them back in Athens. So, next time you bite into a burger at Hard Rock in Gloucester House, spare a thought for the Greeks who have lost their marbles.

A barber in Belgrade

YESTERDAY MY WIFE visited the hair salon for some routine hair maintenance. On that visit, her hair was treated by ‘G’, a hairdresser from Greece. He told my wife that he had had a salon in Athens and had come to London in March 2020 to try his luck here and to satisfy his dream to live in London. Nine days after he arrived in London, everything closed because of the covid19 ‘lockdown’, which put an end to hairdressing for several months. He was pleased to be back at work again.

Hotel Moskva in Belgrade in the 1980s

G spent a great deal of time with my wife’s hair. She told me that he had sprayed various things on her head, far more than other hairdressers at the same salon usually used. When G was finished, he showed her the result in the mirror and took several photographs because he was pleased with his creation, as was my wife. G had used the various chemicals to give her hair more body than it had previously. He explained:

“You are now like beautiful Greek lady. You have style like Greek ladies. Much better than British, English like only too simple: no style.”

When my wife walked out of the salon, she looked as spectacular as ever, but even more so. Seeing the wonderful hairstyle that G had created reminded me of something that happened to me sometime in the 1980s.

I was staying in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia. As was often the case, I stayed in the centre of the city with my good friend, the late ‘RR’. One day, he suggested that we should visit his barber and that I should have a haircut. The barber, who was clearly a good friend of RR, said that he was thrilled to have a British customer. I felt honoured to be the first of his British clients. He told me (RR was translating) that it was his ambition to work as a barber in London. I expressed the hope that his dream would be fulfilled.

The barber spent an hour and a half working on my hair, far longer than any other barber had ever taken to deal with my coiffure. Some years later, I attended a hairdressing school near Holborn (London) and volunteered myself as a model for a trainee. After more than two and a half hours, the trainee had barely done anything. Fortunately, the teacher came to my rescue and completed my haircut excellently and in only a few minutes. But, returning to Belgrade, my Serbian barber had not been idle during the ninety minutes I was in his capable hands.

Both the barber (‘бријач’ in Serbian) and my friend were very happy with my new hairdo. I looked quite different, but not improved as far as I was concerned. I felt that at least I had made two people happy by submitting my ‘Barnet’ (Cockney rhyming slang for ‘hair’) to the care of a ‘Dover Harbour’ (‘barber’) in Belgrade.

When we left the barber, I tried to run my fingers through my hair. It was impossible. All of the hairs seemed to be stuck together. My hair felt rigid rather than flexible. My hair had the texture of cheap dolls’ hair. A comb just bounced off the carapace that was covering my skull. The barber had used some kind of lacquer to render my hairstyle immutable. Not wanting to hurt my friend’s feelings, I made no complaints. However, as soon as I left  soon as I left Yugoslavia, I washed my hair more thoroughly than usual and managed to get rid of whatever had given my hair its unpleasant rigidity.

Love at first bite

I WAS A VERY FUSSY eater when I was a child. Because the first few weeks of my life were fraught with medical problems and then later I was a poor eater, my mother was extremely anxious about me, She allowed me to eat only what I liked and not what might have been good for me, but which I did not even want to try. In short, I was a spoilt child when it came to being fed. As I grew, I remained unadventurous gastronomically. We travelled to places like France and Italy where food is exciting and varied, but instead of exploring the wonderful foods that my parents ate in those places, I stuck to a boring diet of steak or ham (or, occasionally, Dover sole) and chips. Looking back, I regret turning down the undoubtedly delicious alternatives to these mundane foods.

FOOD Pizza Etna_800 BLOG

My parents were not keen on pizza. At least, I never saw them eat it even though we had holidays in Italy every year. They ate pasta and many other delicious Italian dishes. Naturally, given my unadventurous approach to food, I never ate it, at least not until I was about 17 years old. When I reached that age, I decided to spend a few days travelling alone in Italy whilst my parents stayed elsewhere. I used local transport to visit Volterra, Grossetto, and then reached the city of Orvieto. Believe it or not, I was extremely shy at that time and minimised speaking to anyone. Consequently, by the time I arrived in Orvieto, I was feeling miserably lonely. I felt to shy to enter restaurants and wandered around Orvieto from one eatery to the next, becoming ever hungrier.  Finally, I reached a shop that sold squares of hot pizza at a counter. The aroma coming from the pizza ovens was irresistible. I bought a square, took a bite of it, and … it was love at first bite.

Although she died forty years ago, people still fondly remember my mother’s cold rice salad, which was cooked white rice mixed with small specks of red and green peppers. Whether it was in my mother’s much praised salad or in the school rice pudding, I refused to eat rice when I was a child. This situation changed just before my 19th birthday. I was travelling around France with a friend who was studying at Cambridge University and four of his friends. One of these was Matthew Parris, who would later become a Member of Parliament and is now a frequently read columnist in the London “Times” newspaper. He was our driver. He drove us around France in an old car, which he had driven from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) across Africa and Europe to England. One day we camped near Cerbère on the Mediterranean. As we were close to the Franco-Spanish border, we crossed it one evening to eat a meal in Port Bou (in Catalonia). Everyone wanted paella, which is a rice dish. For some inexplicable reason, I decided to try some. It was the first time that I ate rice. It was love at first bite.

During that trip around France, we used to eat our midday meals ‘al fresco’ at scenic spots. The money we saved by having picnics was spent eating more lavish meals at restaurants. Usually, everyone ordered meat (often beefsteak). One evening at a restaurant in Provence, I decided, unusually for me given my history of conservative eating tastes, to order something different. Without knowing what would arrive, I ordered an andouillette. I regretted my choice as soon as I cut what looked like a sausage. As I incised the skin covering the andouillette, little bits of what looked like rubbery material leapt out on to my plate. The thing was filled with chopped-up innards, and I was filled with disgust. Winding the clock forward a few decades, I now enjoy various kinds of innards (e.g. liver, sweetbreads, and tripe, but not kidneys) if they are prepared tastily.

My parents favoured Mediterranean cuisine. My mother was a keen follower of Elizabeth David, whose recipe books help bring the dishes of France and Italy onto British dinner tables. There were often bowls of olives available, especially on the many occasions that my parents entertained guests at our home. Having smelled these olives a few times, I decided that I was not even going to taste them. In 1975, I travelled across Europe to northern Greece with my friends Robert and Margaret. Every summer, they spent about six weeks camping by the seaside just south of the village of Platamon. Every evening while camping, as the sun began setting, we used to sit outdoors on folding camping chairs around a rickety table. Robert mixed himself gin and tonic and I joined Margaret with a glass of red (sweet) Martini. There was always a bowl of Greek olives on the table. On the first evening that I enjoyed an aperitif with my two friends, something inside me made me lean forward and pick up an olive. I popped it into my mouth … it was love at first bite. Since then, I cannot resist eating what I had avoided for a quarter of a century. My favourite olives are, just in case you are interested, the black Amfissa variety. They are plumper and juicier than Kalamatas, and at least as tasty.

In 1976, I began studying dentistry at University College London. My year had 50 students. We were a friendly bunch. One year, Jayne S, invited us all to her home in north London to celebrate her birthday. It was an afternoon event. The only food on offer was fried chicken from KFC (then, known as ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’). There were large buckets of it, filled with legs, breast pieces, and wings: an ‘embarass de richesse’ of fried poultry.   As with so many foods, I had fought shy of trying this popular product. By then I was about 27 years old. I had eaten chicken, but never the crumb coated deep-fried variety. That afternoon at Jayne’s party, I do not know what over came me, but as soon as I saw the buckets, I seized a piece of chicken, bit into it, and …it was love at first bite. I would not go as far to say that KFC is my favourite chicken dish, but every few months I yearn for it.

Time passed, and my enthusiasm for trying new dishes and ingredients has grown exponentially. So much so, that once I was in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Chinatown when I spotted duck’s feet on the menu. I felt that I had to try them. I ordered a portion, and the Chinese waiter snapped:

“You won’t like them”

Defiantly, I responded:

“Bring me a plate of duck’s feet, please.”

“You will not like them.”

“Never mind,” I answered, “I want to try them.”

“You won’t like them”

“Look,” I said, “I want to try them. Even if I don’t like them, I promise to pay for them.”

The webbed feet arrived. They tasted quite nice, but I did not like their slimy texture.”

The waiter was right. I am glad I tried them, but was not … love at first bite.  

Before Cyprus was divided

MY ONLY VISIT TO CYPRUS was in 1960. I was eight years old and Cyprus was all one country. We went to Kyrenia, where my father was attending a conference in the town’s best hotel, the centrally Dome Hotel. We were all put up there.

It was not my father’s first visit to Cyprus. He had gone out there for a week in the early 1950s to give advice to a large Greek industrial firm based there. When he arrived at the airport in Nicosia,  the immigration officials threatened to forbid him from entering Cyprus because he did not have a yellow fever certificate.  The company for whom he was going to work had sent people to meet Dad. Not wanting to waste my father’s time and the company’s money, the officials assured them that they would make sure they would get my father vaccinated during his stay.

After a week, it was time for my father to leave. As he had not received the yellow fever ‘jab’, he asked his hosts about it.  He was told:

“Don’t worry, we sent someone from the company to be injected instead of you. We didn’t want you to waste your time.”

By 1960, the yellow fever certificate was no longer required to enter Cyprus.  We flew from London to Athens. As we stepped out of the cool aircraft onto the steps leading down to the tarmac, my face was hit by a blast of very hot air. I thought that this was being emitted by the aircraft engines. It was not. It was that never before had I stepped out of an air-conditioned space into outside air with a temperature over 30 Celsius.

GREECE 60s HBY Athens

We stayed in Athens a few days before flying to Nicosia. It was the beginning of the Greek Easter weekend when my mother realised she had left our travellers cheques in a small shop, which had closed by the time she discovered the loss. We went to a police station to report the problem. After taking many details including the names of her four grandparents,  they recorded the loss, but did little else.

My recollections of Cyprus are but few. The Dome Hotel had a swimming pool, which none of us used. Instead, we took trips to Six Mile Beach outside Kyrenia. This was a stretch of sand that looked idyllic at first sight. However, very soon after arriving, our would be covered with small specks of sticky black tar. Thinking back on this, I am surprised that we kept on returning to that beach.

Of the food we ate, I remember little except that we ate a surplus of thick stemmed richly flavoured spring onions (scallions).

My mother found a shoemaker in Kyrenia. She ordered a pair of sandals. This required daily,  lengthy visits to the craftsman. She was quite demanding and expected perfection. I suppose that there were many adjustments she wanted before she was satisfied. I enjoyed the visits to the cobbler because he listened to a radio station, which broadcasted a children’s programme in English.

We made several car trips from Kyrenia. At least twice, we drove along a winding mountain road to Nicosia. It took well over an hour each way back in 1960. We also took a trip  to visit the picturesque ruins of the 13th century Bellapais Abbey.  Although it is only just over 3 miles from Kyrenia, the roads were so poor in 1960 that this journey proved to be quite lengthy, as was an excursion to an archaeological site near Famagusta.

From Nicosia,  we returned to Athens, where we spent a few more days. Before leaving London, I had learnt about Archimedes and his legendary bath in which he is supposed to have been inspired to derive is principle of buoyancy. I was convinced that this famous bath was in Athens. I managed to persuade my parents to hire a taxi to drive around Athens in search of the bath.

Having explained to our taxi driver the nature of our quest, he gamely drove us around the city, stopping frequently to ask locals whether they knew where we could find the bath. Eventually, the driver revealed that he was Jewish. When he discovered that we were his coreligionists, he took us not to see the bath of Archimedes but, instead, to his synagogue. Some years later, I  discovered that our quest had been in vain because, if this bath ever existed, it was likely to be in Syracuse in Sicily.

Fifteen years following our stay in Kyrenia,  Cyprus became divided into two parts: one governed by a Greek administration and the other became governed by Turkish administration.  Kyrenia, where we stayed, is now in the Turkish part of Cyprus and is called Girne. The Dome Hotel still welcomes guests. Maybe, one day after the air is clear of coronavirus particles, I will revisit Cyprus and that hotel.

Photo taken in Athens, 1960

 

The importance of being British

HBY 60s 36 HW BLOG

I HAVE ONLY VISITED CRETE once, and that was in the late 1960s with my parents and sister. We were based in Heraklion and made excursions from there around central Crete, visiting sites including Knossos, Matala, the windmills of Lasithi, Malia, Aghios Nikolaos, and Phaistos. This piece concerns three memories of my late mother on that visit.

The first recollection is of the rather non-descript but very comfortable hotel where we stayed in Heraklion. It had its own swimming pool. My mother, who could not swim, and was always a bad sailor, could not bear to look at the pool; it made her feel seasick seeing its water.

The next memory is of a hot day somewhere in the Cretan countryside. We were all thirsty and ready for a drink. We passed a house with a garden. Some people were sitting at a table sipping the tiny cups of coffee that Greeks favour. They were drinking what many people call ‘Turkish Coffee’, which many Greeks prefer to call ‘Greek Coffee’ or even ‘Byzantine Coffee’.

My mother walked up to the gate leading into the garden and using one of the few words of Greek that she knew, called out:

Kafenion?

Kafenion (καφενεῖον) is the Greek word for ‘café’. Another Greek word she knew well was ‘siga’ (σιγά), which means ‘slowly’. She used it almost in every car that we were being driven in Greece. She was terrified that others driving her would have an accident because as a child in South Africa she had been involved in a dreadful car crash.

Getting back to my story, the coffee drinkers invited us into the garden and asked us to join them. My mother was mildly embarrassed to discover that this was a private house, not a ‘kafenion’. Soon, we were all supplied with Turkish Coffee. One of our hosts spoke rudimentary English. He had been a sailor when younger and excitedly told us that he had been to ‘Kong Kong’, in his own words.

Then, my mother noticed a single brightly coloured flower in the hedge surrounding the garden. She pointed at it, exclaiming “oreia” (ωραία), the Greek word for ‘lovely’. Our hosts burst out laughing. They found my mother’s reaction to the flower hilarious. One of them took Mummy to the flower and showed her it was artificial, attached to the hedge with a fine wire.

The third thing I recall about our Cretan odyssey relates to a commodity that was in great demand recently here in the UK: toilet paper. When we used to visit Greece in the 1960s and 1970s, there were usually people sitting at the entrances to public toilets. These folk, often elderly women, were there to sell sheets of toilet paper to people about to make use of the facilities.

We were in one small Cretan village when my mother needed to answer Nature’s call. We found a public convenience. An elderly toilet paper vendor was sitting by its entrance. My mother rummaged in her handbag for small change. While she was doing this, the lady asked my mother:

“Deutsch? German?”

My mother answered:

“British.”

The lady handed her some toilet paper and would not accept the customary two Drachma payment.

We were in Crete at least twenty years after the German occupation of the island had ended in spring 1945. The Germans had perpetrated many horrific deeds on the Cretan population. The woman outside the toilet was certainly old enough to have had strong memories of that ghastly time. Had my mother been German, she would have had to pay for the toilet paper. Being British, she was like the great writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) who fought the Germans in occupied Crete, a representative of  a nation which helped rid the island of its unwelcome occupiers. This toilet attendant’s small act of kindness towards my mother helped drive home how awful it was to have been occupied by the Germans during WW2.