I rather regretted that third jug of local rose the night before, when my alarm started ringing at 5.20 AM. For Thrasher Bell had to get back to London and that meant getting him to the bust station in Kalamata before 6.30. Feeling a bit groggy I drove him into town and dropped him off. Stopping off at an ATM on the way back to load up with cash to pay my Albanian troops I arrived back in Kambos in time for an early morning coffee at the Kourounis taverna owned by lovely Eleni. The news was bad...
George the Albanian's brother had been hospitalised late last week so he was running half a day behind schedule. I headed back to the hovel with a hot cheese pie for Bernard and as I walked to my car who should I meet but George being driven by his son, an English speaker. I was assured that five Albanians would arrive by one. My next encounter was with the local golden eagle sitting on a fence as I drove down the back track towards the valley floor.
ShareProphets reader Bernard and I laboured manfully all morning. And at two o'clock the Albanians pitched up. As you can see below, they know what they are doing. But we only enjoyed two and a half hours of their work before the dark descended.
My worry is that George reckons he will be done in a day arguing some trees are empty. He has another job to go to. I know that and having walked my land with Bernard I know that there are an awful lot of good trees. That will be a battle for day four. Can we get an extra half day out of the Albanians? So far we have c470kg of olives either down at the press weighed and waiting for pressing or up here bagged at the hovel.
I discussed this with Eleni after supper. This is Greekenomics for you. There is mass youth unemployment in Greece. But as this country;s economy has tanked some Albanians have gone home or to go work in a car wash in Britain. So there is a shortage of Albanians. Thus Eleni has no-one to crop her olives. Everyone is fighting for Albanians meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Greeks sit there not working paid welfare by a country that is bankrupt. Go figure.
My best friend in Kambos, bar lovely Eleni, that is to say Nicho the communist said that he would, this weekend, give his verdict on my olives – will the harvest be good, bad or indifferent? He is by nature a pessimistic fellow and so, though I was filled with modest optimism, I was braced for a more downbeat assessment.
It was early afternoon on Sunday when I encountered him. I had finished my writing for the day he was starting his first beer. I asked him how he was and he said that he was tired. Drinking last night? I asked, for Nicho can be a thirsty fellow. Too much work, he assured me. We agreed that he would pop up for an inspection in 15 minutes and sure enough, thirty minutes later, he pitched up in his truck.
I showed him my trees. We agreed that some were better than others. He looked at the sprinkling of olives downed by Zorba or the flies around each tree. He gave one of those hang dog expressions which are so much easier if you sport a large moustache. “Not too bad” he professed. His “not too bad” is my “jolly good” But he believed the crop would be commercial and asked who would be harvesting with me. He seemed reassured that it was not just me and a couple of other Englishmen but that I was bringing in real workers, otherwise known as Albanians. The crop is commercial.
Nicho has an interest in the wild olives on the edge of my land. He wants to harvest them to see what their oil tastes like. But sadly, as per normal, the wild trees bear little fruit. We have made plans to address that in 2020. We always make such plans but this time we are serious.
When I am in England I do not think much about snakes. Okay, three times a week I pick Joshua up from his nursery and he says "snakes" so, on the way home, we pop into Pets At Home and go to see the snakes. They are tiny little creatures, corn snakes, which nearly always hide in their houses and only rarely peek out. When they do, Joshua gets very excited. Most of the time we see no snakes so Joshua just says "bye bye snakes" and we head on past the fish where Joshua says "fish," past the hamsters and gerbils where he says "mice", and to the rabbits where he says "By Bye Babbits" and we head home. And I think nothing of it.
But now I am back in Greece and as soon as I started driving out of Kalamata, where there are few snakes, and up into the hills towards Kambos and The Greek Hovel I started thinking of nothing else. Would I see one on the road? Would I swerve and kill it as a Greek driver would? What about up at the hovel? Surely by now the place is crawling with snakes?
And thus I arrived to find snake killer Gregori and his team of ethnic Greek Albanians hard at work. After a brief pleasantry or two "tikanis, cala, etc, etc" I asked the big question. Apparently since they came out of hibernation about eight weeks ago two have been spotted. There was a big one but it was dead. And a smaller one nestling under a T-shirt someone had discarded. After meeting Gregori it was also dead.
Small ones, this year's crop of adders, are the most dangerous since if they bite they have no idea how much venom to inject so just keep on injecting. But this one met its match in the snake killer and he had a photo of the corpse on his phone to prove it.
The workers are making a lot of noise now and have heavy machinery up there. My hope is that the snakes have done the sensible thing and moved away from the house and, I pray, onto the neighbours land. The odds are that as I prune my olive trees over the next ten days in the further reaches of my land, I shall discover otherwise. There were certainly plenty of lizards in evidence and I am sure that my old adage "where there are lizards there are snakes" is not far wrong.
There is a reason that the Greeks, or rather the Albanians the Greeks hire to do manual labour, start at 8 AM and finish at 3 PM. The reason, I think, is snakes. That is to say the snakes are at their least active in the morning. During the day they sunbathe and so by dusk they are really quite frisky. I have hitherto been working to a different schedule. Silly me.
You see when I awake I start writing articles for you my dear readers. By the time you open up your PC at seven I have already been generating golden prose for at least ninety minutes. As such by the time I had finished generating golden prose and had my lunch (Greek salad) in Kambos today and got back for olive pruning it was 4.40 PM.
And so I headed straight for that part of the property which, when I first arrived, was a thick frigana jungle. I was convinced then that it was the sort of place that snakes really would want to hang out in but two years ago cleared it none the less, wading into the bushes in a fearless manner and, as it happened, encountering not a single snake.
It is not an area where the olive trees yield much. I think that is because for years they have never been pruned or fertlised as they were simply immersed in frigana, in dense jungle. That, I have determined is all to change and so I started work. On one tree a wild olive, non fruit bearing specimen, had attached itself to the trunk and I sawed away, eventually dragging the parasite trunk in three cleanly cut pieces onto what will be a huge bonfire at Christmas but is for now just a huge pile of branches, a sort of sanctuary for the wildlife diversity.
As the evening light started to fade my limbs started to tire. It is hard work olive pruning. One must bend down to remove little shoots of olive at the base of the tree with your axe and also reach up into the highest branches to axe and saw away new growth that cannot yield fruit this year. I was sweating and tired and on my penultimate tree. And then I heard a rustle and looked around to see something shoot off into a bush.
Lizards shoot off in a straight line. Their back legs propel them like a bullet straight to safety. Snakes slither so you can see the S shaped movement as the tail disappears. This was a snake. It must have been a small one which suggests it was poisonous but it headed away from me and must have been sitting in a bush two yards from my feet as I heard no more noise.
"Fuck me" I said rather loudly although the only creature that could hear me was the snake. I chopped a last few branches from the tree and decided that maybe the Greeks were right not to prune as dusk approaches. I decided to walk the "safe" way back to the hovel, that is to say along the goat path that runs between our land and that of our neighbour and onto the main track. It is rarely used but surely safer than walking back through the bushes. It goes without saying that within thirty yards I heard a very loud noise and something slithering off into the bushes.
As I wander I carry my pruning axe in one hand and my pruning hand saw in the other. So the snakes should be aware that I might be a hard Albanian who will go for them, not a Western pansy who is fecking terrified. Anyhow, I shall write late tonight so that I have a clear morning of pruning tomorrow. When in Rome do as the Romans do.
When in Greece do as the Albanians do because the Greeks are too lazy.
I preface this all with some comments of Paddy Leigh Fermor in his book the Mani. Paddy has just been ripped off by a mule owner who had acted like a total bastard. Paddy reflects that this happens just now and again in Greece but is made all the more memorable because 99% of the time the hospitality of the people of Greece, their honesty and generosity is unmatched. Paddy puts it rather more eloquently but is correct. And with that preface…
The Mrs decided that during her stay with me this summer we should take some time out from the Greek hovel and enjoy a bit of luxury in Kardamili. We could not leave my guest alone at the hovel with the snakes and so she was booked into one hotel in the centre of town while the Mrs and I stayed at a wonderful place the Meletsina Village at the far end of the beach road which leads away north from the town
I cannot speak too highly of the Canadian Greek family who ran our place. It was there that Julie Despy and Ethan Hawke had stayed while filming “Before Midnight” in the town and it gets a thumbs up on all counts.
My guest was not so lucky. On the first night in town she took her laptop out to work in a restaurant and was promptly followed back to where she was staying, the Papanestoras Apartments run by the loathsome Valia Papanestoros.
After waiting for her to start snoring (which she does), those who had followed her entered her room – she had unwisely not locked her door – and stole her computer and wallet (later retrieved minus 70 euro in cash).
By 5 AM my guest was reporting this to Kardamili police who at once pointed the finger at their usual suspects…Albanians. Whilst this might seem a bit unfair I am afraid that 99% of burglaries in the Mani happen in the tourist towns and are indeed perpetrated by Albanian criminal gangs. In the non-tourist villages, burglaries are less common as the Maniots have less to steal and will have guns with which they will shoot you.
In the days that followed my guest, understandably felt angry – having lost much of the book she was writing – and violated. I wish I could say that the Old Bill bust a gut for her but I cannot.
At first the owner of the hotel was sympathetic and said that my guest could leave early and pay only for the days she had stayed. My guest took her up on that and flew back to London but because the hotel had no working credit card machine had to assure her that I would pay her in cash.
And so just a few hours after my guest left, I heard a loud knock and opened the door of my hotel room. The Mrs was sunning herself on the beach. Standing in front of me was the hotelier and an enormous and menacing looking man. She instantly demanded the full week’s payment in cash. I explained that she was not entitled to that, that she had agreed to accept 5 days payment and that I would pay later. The man stepped forward a bit. “Alright I shall come up to town later and pay, said I”
That evening I went to the Police and reported her for demanding money to which she was not entitled. They called her and she came in. She admitted that the booking had only been for six days but insisted that my guest was lying in saying she only had to pay for five. Let us not forget this woman ran an establishment where burglars can just walk around stealing and shows no contrition for that.
I agreed – simply for the sake of a quiet life – to pay the six days and said I would pay tomorrow evening. The Policeman told her to agree and she did.
As I was preparing to head into town the next evening to go to an ATM and collect the cash to pay this woman a policeman arrived at our hotel. Before I knew what was happening I was being bundled into a Police car and taken to the Station. I was not allowed to go collect my cigarettes or phone but the Mrs ran and got them and passed them to me as the Policeman pushed me into the car.
While my wife managed to get lift into town to get cash, I was driven off in the Police car. On the way the Sergeant stopped for a chat with his mate. He then passed the vile hotelier Valia who was stuffing her over-tanned face at a restaurant with her old crone of a mother and two kids. The policeman pulled the car over and they joked and laughed with her in Greek. I sat in the back feeling rather despondent and a bit humiliated as folks walked past looking at the “criminal” being led away.
I was bundled out of the car and pushed into the station. There was one other cop here, a man looking a bit like the nasty gay character on Corrie (Tod), who looked hugely embarrassed as the Sergeant interrogated me and demanded I get documentation to him to prove who I was,. My passport was with John the bike man in Kalamata but he faxed over a copy and the Mrs arrived with 360 Euro. At that point the vile Valia was phoned on her mobile by her pal the Sergeant. She trotted up took her money and said “have a nice trip home”
“Oh no, I’m not a tourist, I am a Greek resident” I piped up. “You will be seeing me again.” That did not seem to make her terribly happy at all and she stormed off. She wants to rip off tourists, demanding cash to which she is not entitle, with menace, and to use her pal in the Police to enforce her actions in the knowledge that she will never see her victims again and there are always new folks to rip off next year. I guess that I don’t fit the bill.
Eventually the Sergeant said to me “Get out!! And so the Mrs and I walked the one mile back to our hotel contemplating how events had unfolded. Paddy Leigh Fermor was right about the Greeks. This one bad experience of the summer only served as a reminder of how wonderful everyone else is.
For my guest and I, this experience has tainted our feelings towards Kardamili. I now effectively boycott the town, preferring to go to the ATM in Kalamata and everything else I can do in Kambos. I know this is a bit unfair and also self-destructive. For Kardamili is a lovely town as tourist towns go.. The buildings are wonderful. As you head up the hill towards Stoupa the first restaurant on your right is the best “ordinary fish restaurant” in the region and has amazing views over the sea and a little harbour.
The Mrs, who is nicer and more forgiving than I, insists that we must visit again to purge our bad memories. I have no gripe with the people of the town who are overwhelmingly great folk. Even the Police station is staffed largely by good men, notably the chap who looks like the nasty gay in Corrie and also another Sergeant who is a Kambos resident, a regular at the Kourounis taverna and a good man. Had he been around that evening I am in no doubt that stern words would have been had with his colleague. Bullying tourists is one thing, but your neighbours? That is a whole different ball game.
Go to Kardamili. Have a wonderful time. However be warned, do not under any circumstances do business with Valia or stay at the Papanestoras Apartments. The Mani has a tradition of blood feuds, quarrels that can go on for generations. Valia you have started such a feud. You will regret it as your infamy spreads across the internet.