There is a Winnifrith family phrase coined by my late father, for reasons I cannot remember, “a beautiful Balkan spy”. In my own family, when the Mrs is giving me, almost certainly with some justification, a bit of grief, I say to Joshua “That’s is it, we are off to Mother Russia where the streets are paved with gold and where we will be served caviar on gold plates by a beautiful Balkan spy who will then let us win at chess.” Having watched a TV show on life in Russia, Joshua is now suggesting that the streets of Moscow may not be paved with gold but he knows all about the beautiful Balkan spies.
I mention this, as the first book I opened at Heathrow and have now finished is a novel, Balkan Spies, which came from my father’s house. Set in 1940 and 1941 Greece, the Vlachs are mentioned and there is action in Metsovo and Ioannina, places we knew well from holidays as children. How I would have loved chatting to my father about it. I recommend it to you all. Am I allowed to mention ahead of tomorrow, without getting a life ban from soccer games, that the bad guys in this book are the Germans?
But there are other regrets now that Dad is not here. I would have called him almost every day while here for he loved Greece with a passion. He would have laughed at the bureaucracy at Kalamata airport as random covid tests were interpreted as tests for all, and at the way nothing had happened at the Greek Hovel despite our well flagged arrival. It was very much avrio, avrio. And now we are here, everything is happening almost at once. A large table we ordered moons ago has arrived at the Greek Hovel, a water tank to ensure we have water even though the pipes up the mountain are not working is also now installed.
Apparently the pipes have been out of order for a while but as the only other resident of this vast area of isolated farmsteads known as Toumbia has moved out, there was no need to fix it. We arrive and already, lovely Eleni at the Kourounis taverna has “had words” and a little man has been up here to start fixing it. Whether he actually will is another matter.
I remember as kids my father trying to use the only phone in the village of Anelion to make a call. He could not get through. “Dad, dad,” we said, “are you sure you know how it works?” “Yes,” he growled, “I do, it doesn’t”. These are the frustrations of Greece. The joys are the weather, the wonderful beauty of the countryside and, of course, the people. Every day there is another little episode only my father, and another great Hellenophile Uncle Chris Booker, would really enjoy talking through. But this holiday for the first time I cannot call. It somehow does not seem right.