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.

Herodotus and ants in the refrigerator

My PhD supervisor, ‘Prof’, and his wife ‘Wink’ used to spend their summers camping by the sea in northern Greece. Prof spent his days profitably studying an aspect of the area’s local fauna.

Prof, a good scientist, had an insatiable curiosity about everything. This knew no rest periods. Quite a few years before I met him, Prof and his family began taking summer holidays in Greece. They camped there in their caravan, which they hauled across Europe with their old Land Rover. At first, they visited many of the tourist sites in Greece as well as spending time relaxing by the sea. One of the beach resorts that they visited was Platamon in the Greek part of Macedonia. While his family were enjoying the sun and swimming, Prof noticed some large ants scurrying about on the sand. They were large enough to be seen from quite a distance. What interested him particularly was that they were most active around midday when the air temperature was at its greatest. At this time of day, hardly any creatures, let alone insects, were active. The temperature of the surface of the sandy soil on which these ants were busy carrying out their daily chores was in excess of 40 degrees Celsius. The two-coloured (red and black) ants whose bellies were carried vertically were members of the species known to taxonomists as Cataglyphis bicolor. Prof nicknamed these ants ‘catas’.

These desert ants caught Prof’s interest. After all, they were far more interesting to him than swimming or reading books. Why bother with fiction, he would have asked, when life itself is so interesting? This fascination with insects was not new; it began in his childhood days, when he had been keen on entomology. He began observing the ants in his usual methodical way. This had two results. First, their behaviour began to obsess him to such an extent that his interest in connective tissue gave way to his study of the ants’ behaviour and ecology. Secondly, because of this interest every summer holiday had to be spent in Platamon. He could not get enough of his ants. I will return to them later.

Prof’s curiosity was unending.  It extended to bizarre extremes as I was to discover shortly after I began working with him. Wink was keen on arranging large parties at their home in the Home Counties. Prof noted that the guests standing chatting with glasses of drinks in one hand helped themselves to whatever was offered to them on trays. At one of these parties, Prof, who was not keen on small talk, retired to the kitchen and opened a tin of fish-flavoured cat food. He spread this in thin layers on salty Ritz Crackers before laying them out neatly on a tray. He called the pretty young daughter of one of his guests, one of Wink’s cousins, into the kitchen and asked her to offer his unusual snacks to the guests. He wanted to test his theory that people at parties would eat anything that was offered on a tray. The young girl, who was aware what Prof was up to, began carrying the fishy snacks towards the living room, but halfway down the long corridor she turned around and returned to the kitchen. She told Prof that she felt a fit of giggles was about to begin, and that she would not be able to keep a straight face whilst offering the crackers to the guests. Wink, who told me about this later, was both furious and amused.

After many years without one, Prof and Wink acquired a small camping refrigerator. This allowed my friends to refrigerate bacon and butter and to keep milk for longer periods in the summer heat. It also allowed Prof to refine his research in an interesting way. He used to pick up a cata and then pop it into a small specimen jar. Ant and jar were then put in the refrigerator for a few minutes. The ant’s metabolism slowed down in the cold, and the creature became immobile. When it was so anaesthetised, Prof removed the ant and painted a small identification mark on its belly with the kind of paint (it was the ‘Humbro’ brand) that was used to decorate model aeroplanes made from kits such as used to be manufactured by companies like Airfix. When the ant warmed up and awoke, Prof placed it carefully exactly where he had found it.

ANT 1

Prof ‘stalking’ marked ants in northern Greece

Prof was delighted when he saw his first marked ant reappearing the following day, and again the day after. Now, he was able to follow the activities of individual ants. The marked ants were not given numbers; they were given names. Thus, ‘Alybel’ had a spot of silver coloured aluminium painted on its belly; ‘H’, who had a particularly plump belly, was named after Prof’s school friend, the larger than average Canon H; and so on. Another was named ‘Canon’. These names appeared in the scientific papers that Prof published eventually.

Once he had developed a method for tagging ants, Prof began to follow them about as they carried out their daily labours. He bought an enormous number of aluminium garden tags before leaving England for Platamon. Each of these had a rectangular part that was to be used for writing the name of a plant and a contiguous tapering section that was supposed to be stuck into the soil next to the labelled plant or seedling. Prof numbered his miniature labelling stakes from 1 upwards and kept them in numerical order on a long wire. When a marked ant poked its head out of the nest, Prof began stalking it. Every 10 seconds, he placed one of his numbers with its sharp point on the position where the ant had been, beginning with tag number 1, and then 10 seconds later number 2, and so on until the ant returned to its nest. Thus, he left a trail of aluminium labels that mapped out the ant’s footsteps. After the ant returned to the nest, he plotted out the ant’s exact path on a paper map. He did this without difficulty as he had learned how to draw maps during his spell in the army at the end of WW2.

While Prof was stalking ants, he must have looked quite odd to the casual passers-by. Dressed in a khaki safari jacket and unfashionably long khaki shorts, his head, which was largely hidden by a wide-brimmed straw hat, bobbed up and down at regular intervals as he laid each successive marker. He hoped that no one would disturb him or his markers but made no fuss when the goatherd’s goats strolled over his open-air laboratory. Once, I remember him trying to explain to the goatherd (in broken Modern Greek) what he was trying to do. The goat man remained mystified. The Greeks, incidentally, referred to the catas as κλέφτες (‘thieves’ or ‘robbers’). Prof used to wonder whether the catas, which were capable of carrying loads much heavier than themselves, were the same ants that Herodotus claims carried gold in India.

Herodotus (c480-c429 BC) wrote

(see: http://www.livius.org/sources/content/herodotus/the-gold-digging-ants/):

Besides these, there are Indians of another tribe, who border on the city of Caspatyrus, and the country of Pactyica; these people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Bactrians. They are more warlike than any of the other tribes, and from them the men are sent forth who go to procure the gold. For it is in this part of India that the sandy desert lies. Here, in this desert, there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has a number of them, which have been caught by the hunters in the land whereof we are speaking. Those ants make their dwellings under ground, and like the Greek ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold. The Indians, when they go into the desert to collect this sand, take three camels and harness them together, a female in the middle and a male on either side, in a leading rein. The rider sits on the female, and they are particular to choose for the purpose one that has but just dropped her young; for their female camels can run as fast as horses, while they bear burthens very much better.”

However, these ants, according to Herodotus, hid from the heat:

When the Indians therefore have thus equipped themselves they set off in quest of the gold, calculating the time so that they may be engaged in seizing it during the most sultry part of the day, when the ants hide themselves to escape the heat.”

So, the ants that Herodotus describe differed from the Cataglyphis ants in northern Greece in that they became invisible during the hottest part of the day. Maybe, it was hotter in the area that the ancient Greek described than in Greece.

Veggie mush

I became such close friends with my former PhD supervisor, ‘Doc’, and his wife ‘Wink’, that I accompanied them on their long summer holidays in Greece.

PLAT 77 Campsite with moon

Camping at Platamon in 1977

Every year they drove down to northern Greece with their caravan, which they towed with their aged Land Rover. I accompanied them on several journeys during the late 1970s. Also, I used to join them at their favourite camping spot, a patch of uncultivated land just south of Platamon in northern Greece. This scrub-covered sandy area is now covered by a village known as Nea Pori.

On one occasion, I arrived at Platamon on a train, which I had boarded in Belgrade. It must have been almost 11 o’ clock at night when I disembarked. I was hoping that I would find my friends camping in their usual spot.

As I walked from the station through the village on my way to the camping spot, I passed the grocery shop that Doc and Wink always used. Its owners were sitting at a small table on the street outside it. They recognised me and invited me to join them in a drink. I was handed a tiny glass, such as one might use for shots of strong spirit, and they filled it with beer. We knocked glasses together and I downed the tiniest portion of beer that I have ever drunk. Then, they told me that my friends had arrived and were camping in their usual place. I walked there through the darkness, and saw them fast asleep under the awning. As silently as possible, I erected my tent and went to sleep. Fortunately, I did not disturb them.  

The railway station was at the north end of the centre of Platamon, well beyond the shops that Doc visited. Whenever we drove into Platamon, Wink would rush to it because there was a small newsagent’s stall near it. She was hoping to find a copy of an English newspaper. She did occasionally but it was always a few days out of date. Apart from her, there were few others in Platamon who would have wanted to read an English paper.

By the time that we returned from Platamon, the sun would have been setting for a while, and it was time for our sundowners and olives. Doc used to prepare supper (dinner, if you prefer). He often fried the fresh fish which we had just bought in Platamon. He was a good cook. The fish or meat, if we were eating that, was often accompanied by a mixture of vegetables that included onions, aubergines, peppers (green or red), and tomatoes. It never contained garlic because he did not like it. These were stirred together in a pot until they were cooked.

Doc referred to this dish as ‘veggie mush’ (pronounced ‘moosh’). When I told him that the dish, which he believed to be his own creation, resembled the classic French dish ratatouille, I could see that he was flattered that his own creation could be compared to something enjoyed by gourmets.  

The sky at Platamon was frequently cloudless. Where we were camping there was little ambient light so that the night sky could be seen easily. We used to stand looking up at the star-filled canopy that covered us. Shooting stars shot over us frequently, momentarily altering the map of celestial objects that twinkled down at us. Doc would stand with me and point out the various constellations.  He showed me how to identify the North Star. We stood in a glorious silence that was only occasionally interrupted on some evenings. Otherwise, we could neither hear the sea, the sound of whose waves were lost in the dunes that were between us and it, nor the trains that ran along the tracks a few hundred yards to the west of us.