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.

Eating on a train

 

OHRID BITOLA 77 Train from Medzhitlija

 

IN THE SUMMER OF 1973, I was on holiday in Greece. Our family and that of ‘K’, a good friend of mine were guests of an extremely wealthy Greek. We had been put up in luxury hotels. We stayed in the George V Hotel in Athens and K’s family were put up by the sea at a luxurious resort at Vouliagmeni. Before leaving England for our Greek holiday, K agreed to accompany me on an excursion north from Greece to a lake in southern Yugoslavia, Lake Ohrid, a body of water now shared by Northern Macedonia and Albania. I was curious to gaze at the then very mysterious Albania across the water from Yugoslavia and K was just being a ‘good sport’ in agreeing to join me.

One day in Athens, K and I left our very comfortable accommodation and arrived at the railway station from which northbound trains departed. The route between Athens and Thessalonika was long and slow, the train having had to wind its way across mountain ranges.

Every twenty minutes, an attendant arrived at our compartment carrying a tray with pork kebabs, lumps of cooked pork on thin wooden skewers. The barely warm meat was delicious. Each skewer seemed better than the previous one. We kept on buying them each time the attendant arrived.

After several hours and many skewers, K said that he had eaten enough of them and he was not feeling too well. My reaction to this was that being an inexperienced traveller compared to me, his stomach was weak compared to mine. I continued munching the delicious kebabs as the journey continued.

At a small place, which was probably Platy, in northern Greece, our train left the main route and headed along a branch line towards Edessa, where we disembarked. Before leaving the station, we had to have our tickets endorsed by a railway official so that we could continue our journey the following day. As soon as we disembarked, K thrust his ticket into my hand and rushed to evacuate his bowels in a field of ripe corn next to the railway.

We booked into a small hotel, the Olympus, in Edessa, where we paid the Drachma equivalent of £1 Sterling for a room with two beds. I gave K some of my anti-diarrhoea tablets, and he ate some plain yoghurt for supper. At this point, I was still thinking how sad it was that my friend’s stomach was so delicate. Surprised to be hungry after having devoured so many pork ‘souvlaki’ on the train, I ate a normal supper.

The beds in the hotel were very short. My feet projected beyond the bed end. I slept well. The next morning, K was feeling much healthier. However, I was not. I had a terrible pain in my stomach which made it difficult for me to stand up straight. I took some of my tablets and tried without much success to enjoy a bowl of plain yoghurt upon which there was a puddle of oil.

We returned to the railway station and boarded the train which took us westwards to the small town of Florina. We had a short stay, a few hours, in Florina, where I recall buying a roll of toilet paper. The daily train, a single motorised carriage, from Florina to the border with Yugoslavia departed in the early afternoon. K and I were the only passengers. At the border, the Greek carriage drew up next to a Yugoslav motorised train with several carriages on the neighbouring track. A Yugoslav soldier instructed us to move from the Greek to the Yugoslav train and then we set off northwards through southern Yugoslavia, crossing a flat plain with well-tended fields.

We disembarked at Bitola, once known as ‘Monastir’, and transferred to a long-distance bus. As the sun set, this carried us north westward over the mountains towards the historic city of Ohrid on Lake Ohrid.

It was dark by the time we arrived at the campsite on the lakeshore about a mile north of Ohrid city. Both of our stomachs had settled down. For the next few days, I explored the beautiful sights along the lake and enjoyed the local food, much of which was in the form of kebabs. K, having been made wary as a result of our experiences with the Greek railway ‘souvlaki’, avoided this kind of food, preferring to feed himself at our campsite.

 

Picture taken in 1977 shows the train in Yugoslavia between the Greek border and Bitola

A walk in Greece

LEAR TEMPE BLOG

The River Pineios, which drains into the Aegean Sea near Stomio, runs along a ten kilometre, often very narrow, at times almost a thin cleft, the Vale of Tempe in Central Greece. Ancient legend has it that the valley was cut through the rocks by Poseidon’s trident. The Vale was believed to be the haunt of Apollo and The Muses. Other mythical characters are said to have visited in this valley. Whatever the truth of all these, the mythological associations and beauty of the Vale attracted the attention of the writer/artist Edward Lear (1812-1888), who was touring what is now Greece in May 1849. He was very keen to visit it.

In 1851, Lear published an illustrated account of his travels in the Western Balkans, “Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania”. Although most know Lear best as a composer of verse, much of it humorous, he regarded himself as a painter primarily. He was without doubt a good painter and sketcher, but this is not what gave him lasting fame. The title of his book included the word ‘Albania’. This is appropriate because much of his travelling in the Balkans was done in what is now Albania and parts of central Greece that used to be important centres of Albanian people during the existence of the Ottoman Empire. Lear’s book on Albania is one of the loveliest books ever written about the country.

After seeing the spectacularly located monasteries at Meteora (close to the River Pineios), Lear wrote on 16th May 1849:

I had been more than half inclined to turn back after having seen the Meteora convents, but improvements in the weather, the inducement of beholding Olympus and Tempe … prevailed to lead me forward.”

On the 18th of May Lear recorded:

“…I set off with Andrea, two horses and a knapsack, and a steeple-hatted Dervish, at whose convent in Baba, at the entrance to the Pass of Tempe, my night’s abode is to be.”

Baba is described in the Seventh Edition of “Handbook for Travellers in Greece” (published by John Murray in 1901) as:

A pretty Turkish village. On the opposite side of the river stands the ruined fort of Gonnos, which commanded the entrance to the defile.”

The village of Gonnoi close to the southern end of the Vale is, I imagine, named after this fort. The long out-of-date guidebook pointed out that in Greek ‘tempe’ means ‘cutting’ or ‘chasm’.

On the next day, Lear noted:

The early morning at Baba is more delightful than can be told. All around is a deep shadow, and the murmuring of doves, the whistling of bee-eaters and the hum of the bees fills this tranquil place.”

After visiting the village of Ampelakia near the southern entrance to Tempe, Lear moved towards his goal, the Vale. He wrote:

“…I went onward into Tempe, and soon entered the celebrated ‘vale’ – of all places in Greece that which I had most desired to see. But it is not a ‘vale’, it is a narrow pass – and although extremely beautiful, on account of the precipitous rocks on each side, the Peneus flowing deep in the midst, between the richest overhanging plane woods, still its character is distinctly that of a ravine or gorge.”

After much wonderful descriptive writing, Lear concluded:

Well might the ancients extol this grand defile, where landscape is so completely different from that of any part of Thessaly, and awakes the most vivid feelings of awe and delight, from its associations with the legendary history and religious rites of Greece.”

Lear continued:

As it was my intention to pursue the route towards Platamona…”

‘Platamona’, or Platamon, to which Lear referred is a small seaside town on the coast of the Aegean Sea. It is overlooked by Mount Olympus and within sight of the mountains Pella and Ossa. It is some miles south of Katerini.  It played an important role in my life.

Every summer, my PhD supervisor Robert Harkness (died 2006) and his wife Margaret (died 2003) drove their caravan across Europe to Platamon, where they camped for about eight weeks on rough ground near the sea. I travelled out from England to Platamon with them on one occasion and did the return journey on another. Travelling via France, Germany, Austria, and the former Yugoslavia, the journey took almost ten days. During one of my visits to Platamon, in 1977, I mentioned that I was keen to follow in Edward Lear’s footsteps by visiting the Vale of Tempe. Robert and Margaret were keen that I should do this.

The modern road along which we drove, the Athens-Thessaloniki National Highway, ran high above the gorge along one of its edges. From this road, there was little if anything that could be seen of the Vale. Looking at today’s maps, it is evident that that road still exists, but a newer highway travels in a straighter route in a long tunnel, marked on the map as “Platamon Tunnel”. The latter only opened in 2017. It shortens the journey from Thessaloniki to Athens by several hours.

Robert and Margaret drove me to a spot near the southern end of the Vale and left me there, planning to meet me again when I reached the northern end of the gorge. I had no idea where exactly the Vale began and if there was a footpath in it that I could walk along. I began walking up through a sloping field to two men who were sitting there looking after their goats.

My Modern Greek was limited to a very rudimentary vocabulary. Using sign language, pointing at my feet, and mentioning the name ‘Tempe’, I managed to convey to these gentlemen my question about how to walk through the Vale. They pointed to a railway embankment high above where we were. I understood, or at least believed I did, that one had to walk along the railway track to see the Vale.

I climbed up to the embankment and began walking on a narrow gravelly path next to the railway track. Soon, a long passenger train with carriages belonging to various different European national railways passed me quite slowly. I could see from signs attached next to the doors of the carriages that this train was an express that connected Athens with Munich.  I continued walking in the direction of the Vale. The track was on an incline and the further I walked, the higher the embankment was above the terrain below it.

Eventually, the track entered a curved cutting lined on each side with jagged rocks. Suddenly, I heard something behind me. I forced myself against the rocky wall of the cutting just in time to avoid being crushed by a diesel locomotive travelling at a high speed. The engine sped past and I continued walking, somewhat nervously.

The track emerged from the cutting and traversed a high sided embankment at the far end of which there was the entrance to a dark tunnel. Seeing that ahead, I decided that it would be dangerously foolish to proceed any further along the track, the main railway line connecting Athens with the rest of Europe.

I stood on the embankment and looked around. To my right, I could see the River Pineios far below in what looked like an attractive narrow valley. I decided that as I was not prepared to risk my life in a dark tunnel, I needed to get off the railway track. So, with some trepidation I sat down and slid down the steep embankment until I reached its base far below.

At the bottom of the embankment, far below the railway line, I found myself on a level footpath that ran along an embankment that led down to the river. It became clear to me that this path was once the foundation for an old railway that had been replaced by the one which I had just left. As I walked along, I realised that this old railway bed was what the two gentlemen had meant by walking along the railway track.  The path wound its way through the depths of the Vale following the course of the river. The scenery down in the valley did not disappoint. It could not have differed much from what it was like when Edward Lear walked along the Vale 129 years earlier.

After a while, I reached what must have once been a railway station. I had arrived at the old railway station of Aghios (Saint) Paraskevi. This was part of a group ecclesiastical buildings. A suspension bridge for pedestrians ran from near it across the river to the other shore. Away from the river, there were some picturesque pools. The whole area was luxuriant with many trees, some with branches hanging over the stream.

The religious compound was not present when Lear walked the Vale. The old railway was built in 1910 as was the present church of Aghios Paraskevi (that stands on the site of a 13th century church). The bridge that I crossed was constructed in the 1960s. Before that, pilgrims could only reach the church by boat (see: https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2012/07/st-paraskevi-in-valley-of-tempe.html).

About two kilometres further on, the Vale reached its northern end. I found Robert and Margaret sitting in their Land Rover in a car park, enjoying hot tea from a thermos flask. I cannot remember whether I told them about my lucky escape whilst walking along the railway in the rocky cutting, but if I did not, which is likely because I would not wanted them to have been worried, now it is far too late. My two dear friends are now no more than fond memories, and the Pineios still flows through the Vale of Tempe.

Illustration is one of Lear’s pictures of the Vale of Tempe in 1848

 

On a roll

loo roll

 

Here is a subject that might not appeal to the squeamish.

Currently in the UK, toilet paper is in very high demand. So great is the desire of people not to run out of this commodity that the supermarket shelves are empty of toilet rools. Or, if they are available, they are priced much higher than usual.

The panic buying of toilet paper is quite ridiculous. Alternative methods of posterior hygiene are widely available, and often used. Years ago, I visited a monastery in Greece. The toilet was not supplied with toilet paper. Instead, there were properly sized pieces of newspaper threaded on a string. There is plenty of newspaper about – no shortage. So, why not use it instead of the scarce once used toilet paper. Using newspaper will not only wipe away what is not desired, but also by being used, the newspaper is being uemployed more than once – recycled. A word of advice if you plan to move to newsprint, most of which is more suitable for wiping posteriors than for reading. The advice is do not flush newspaper down the toilet. Instead, put the used pieces in a bucket with a lid, and dispose of it hygienically.

If you are not keen on using newspaper, then do as millions of people do in the Middle East and Asia. Just use water and your left hand. Many toilets in Asia are supplied with small showers that can be used to purify your posterior. Some toilet seats have a conveniently and appropriately located spray attached. A jet of water from this device cleans your bottom like a car wash.

After reading this, you might stop panicking about buying ‘loo’ paper, BUT remember to always wash your hands frequently.

Why I use an Android

android

A wise old friend of mine, Margaret, told me that once when holidaying in rural Greece, she developed an excrutiating toothache. Wary of trusting her teeth to ‘any old dentist’, she decided to go into the nearest town and visiting the local bank manager. She reasoned that the bank manager probably consulted one of the better dentists in the town. So, she visited the manager’s dentist, and was not disappointed.

Once, Margaret told me how she chose a new washing machine. She asked the repairman, who came to service her machine, which models he had to repair most and which caused least trouble. Based on this information, she chose her new appliance.

A decade or more later, I decided to acquire a ‘smart phone’ to replace my unsmart device. The choice was broadly between an iPhone and an Android phone, such as a Samsung model.

Remembering my old friend, who had been dead for several years, I consulted the man who ran a mobile telephone repair shop near where I used to work. I asked him which kind of ‘phone he had to repair most often. Quick as a flash, he said:

“iPhones.”

When I asked him why, he replied that the screens on Samsung models needed replacing less often than those on Androids.  That was enough for me to decide on buying a Samsung.

I have had several models of Samsung ‘smartphones’ since my first. Now, I am using an S8, which has a superb camera.

I am pleased I adopted Margaret’s method of decision making.