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.

Very late at night

MY PARENTS USED TO go to bed early, usually just after hearing the 10 pm BBC news on the radio. When I was a youngster living at home, this used to upset me because I did not want to go to bed so early or to stay up without company. However, my aunt, my mother’s sister, and her husband were ‘night owls’. They lived a few minutes’ walk away from our family home.

BLOG BED Autumn leaves viewed nocturnally_500

Often, I used to wander over to their house after my parents had gone to bed. I would join them in their comfortable living room, and we would chat. Every now and then, our coffee cups would be refilled. And as the hours ticked by, the empty cafetieres would be replenished with coffee – one with normal coffee and the other with decaffeinated. As night merged into early morning, the three of us would nod off for a few moments and then wake with a jolt.  This would happen several times during the early hours of the morning. I used to love these late-night sessions with my relatives. Frequently, I left my aunt and uncle’s home at about 3 am.

I used to walk home along the tree-lined streets of Hampstead Garden Suburb that were illuminated by the strange orange glow from the bulbs on the concrete streetlamps. The streets were deserted, without cars or other pedestrians. If you were lucky, you might have spotted a fox scuttling past. To be honest, even in daytime, the thoroughfares of the Suburb were almost as dead. Occasionally, I would encounter a policeman on his nocturnal beat. Usually, these encounters led to me being questioned politely. What was I doing out so late? Where was I going? My answers, my innocent mien, and the lack of a sack of swag probably reassured my questioner that I was innocently going about my business.

On weekdays, despite going to bed late, my uncle was ready to drive with his wife to Golders Green station at 8 am. This was the time I headed in the same direction on my way to school. Oddly, although my parents had retired just after 10 pm, they were always still lying in bed when I left the house at 8 am, having prepared my own breakfast.

Something that has only struck me whilst writing this is that my parents did not give any hint that they were concerned at me wandering the streets alone in the early hours of the morning. When our daughter reached the age when she went out with friends at night, often returning at 3 or 4 am, I could not fall asleep until she returned home. These days, so many decades after I was a youngster, the streets are not nearly as safe as they used to be. I am not saying that the streets of London were 100 percent safe when I was old enough to first venture out alone, because there were hazards. However, many new dangers have been added to those that I might have had to face ‘when I was a lad’. ‘That’s progress’, you might say, but, remember that, speaking medically, a disease that progresses is one that is getting worse.

By train through Hungary and a slice of watermelon

I USED TO VISIT HUNGARY regularly in the 1980s before the end of Communist rule in that country. Sometimes I drove, other trips I travelled by rail.

BLOG KAP 1 KAPOSVAR 85 Hotel Kapos

In 1985, I boarded a train at London’s Victoria Station. As I was settling  down in my seat, a couple accompanying an older man asked me if I could look after on the journey to Hungary. He was their relative and only spoke Hungarian. My knowledge of that language was limited to a vocabulary of less than 100 words including ‘fogkrem’ meaning toothpaste and ‘meleg szendvics’ meaning heated (toasted) sandwich, and ‘menetrend’ meaning timetable and ‘kurva’, which you can look up yourself! I agreed to do my best to look after the gentleman.

After taking the ferry across the English Channel,  we boarded an express train bound for Budapest. The gentleman and I were in the same couchette compartment along with some young people.

We stopped in Brussels early in the evening. A late middle-aged Belgian couple entered our compartment, and we set off eastwards. After nightfall, the Belgian couple left us. Several minutes later, they returned. They had changed their clothes. They had dressed in pyjamas and silk dressing gowns. Clearly, they were either unfamiliar with travel in 2nd class couchettes or had formery been used to travel in 1st class Wagon Lits sleeping cars.

We arrived at Hegyeshalom, a Hungarian border town close to Austria. As I was planning to visit southern Hungary, I disembarked there. So did the man who I was ‘looking after’. He was met by some of his family. Although they spoke no English,  they expressed their gratitude for me, and kindly offered to drive me to Győr, where I wanted to catch another train.

At Győr, they helped me find my train. I boarded a basic looking local train bound for Keszthely on Lake Balaton. After a while, the train stopped in the middle of the countryside and everyone except me disembarked.  I looked out of the train. We were not at a station. Someone saw me and signalked that I should also leave the train. We all boarded buses that had been laid on to substitute for the train that could not proceed further because of track repairs. 

After a ride through flat agricultural terrain, we reached a small station,  where we boarded another train, which carried us to Kesthely, arriving at about 4 to 5 pm.

 

I looked around the station at Kesthely and for some unaccountable reason I decided that I did not want to stay in the lakeside resort. I looked at a timetable and discovered that a train would be leaving soon, bound for Kaposvár, which was on the way to the southern city of Pécs.

A Hungarian couple with one child ‘got wind’ of my plan to join the train to Kaposvár, and took me into their care. I boarded the train with them and travelled in their company as the train followed the southern shore of Lake Balaton.

My ‘minders’ left the train at the lakeside station at  or near Balatonlelle. Before they disembarked,  they asked a man, a stranger to them, in our compartment to look after me. He spoke only Hungarian.

As the train wound its way inland through hills south if Lake Balaton, the sun set and it became too dark to see the countryside through which we were moving slowly.  Although there were light fittings with light bulbs in our compartment, they were never turned on. The two of us travelled in total darkness. We tried conversing, but with little meaningful success.

We both left the train at Kaposvár station. Darkness reigned. I had no idea where or even whether there was a hotel (szálloda) in the town. However, my latest ‘minder’ led me to a large state run hotel, the Kapos.

The young receptionist spoke good English. She asked me if I had any books in English. I did. I gave her one that I had already finished. She was very happy.

After a heavy meal in the hotel’s large restaurant (etterem), I  retired to my room. The hotel had poor sound insulation. There was a party somewhere in the building and my room seemed to be throbbing with the loud music.

After a while, there was a knock on my door. I opened it and found a waitress holding a plate with an enormous slice of watermelon. She muttered something about  ‘recepció’. I realised that the watermelon was a thank you gift from the receptionist.

I took the watermelon into my room and stared at it. Then and still now, I cannot stand eating watermelon.  I could not throw it away because it was bound to be discovered and that would have seemed very ungrateful on my part. So, after a bit of thought, I carried the slice of fruit downstairs to the receptionist to whom I had given the book. I thanked her, and then explained, telling a ‘white lie’, that I was allergic to watermelon.  She seemed to believe me.

That night, I found it difficult to sleep partly because of trying to digest my heavy dinner and the noise from the party.

On the following day, I took another train to Pécs having stayed in a city I had never heard of before.

 

Picture of Hotel Kapos in Kaposvar in 1985

Foolish on foot

Taxi!_240

 

Years ago, I had friends who lived south of Hampstead Heath in South End Green, near where the writer George Orwell lived during the 1930s. I often visited my friends there and usually stayed with them until long after public transport ceased working late at night – those were the days long before 24 hour bus services. In those days, I was a student with limited means. Taxi and minicab rides to my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb to the north of Hampstead Heath were costly and if used too often would eat too deeply into my meagre funds.

So, often I used to walk through the darkness to my home, a distance of well over 2 miles. Most of this walk was across the wooded stretches of Hampstead Heath. Even back in the 1970s, this vast expanse of urban woodland was far from safe. Murders and attacks were not unknown. My parents and others would have been horrified to learn that I was risking my life to save paying a cab fare. Was I scared? The answer was both yes and no. I was concerned because of the news stories I had read. Yet, on the other hand I was not so afraid.

I felt that anyone encountering me on my nocturnal wandering deep in the secluded heart of Hampstead Heath might have had one of two reactions. Either he or she might have imagined that I was up to no good and possibly on the prowl for victims and would therefore steer clear of me, or that the person  whom I encountered was up to no good. If he or she was ill-intentioned, the person would have still had to be a little bit cautious because I might have turned out to be more than a match for him or her. This reasoning would have done me no good had the person I met been severely evil. 

Fortunately, luck was on my side. I never encountered anyone, innocent or evil, on my nocturnal strolls. However, I would never even dream of making this kind of journey across Hampstead Heath again, and would not advise anyone else to attempt it because London has become more dangerous than it was in the 1970s and before.