It was a hive of activity. The good sergeant at the Kardamili nick who lives in Kambos was there with his harvest. Arresting Brits on suspicion of drink driving – a safe bet – can wait for another day. This is the Elias season. My friend Vangelis, the man in the pink shirt, was there. His deliveries for Dixons can wait another day, not that I imagine there are many these days. He was dropping off a large harvest. Everyone said “yas Tom” and the man in charge, another Vangelis, summonsed his son who speaks a bit more English than I speak Greek. That is to say, not a lot.
Eventually it was understood that I was asking when my cash would be paid into my bank account? As was the case three days ago the answer was the same: avrio. That is to say tomorrow. It will arrive,of that I am sure. But I rather suspect that it will not actually be arriving avrio.
In a couple of days time I head back to the Mrs, in Bristol, and so I thought it prudent to start washing my clothes and that it might earn me major brownie points if I washed the bed linen as well. And we now have a washing machine up at the hovel. Prudently I handwashed a pair of underpants and a pair of jeans and put them outside to dry. But all of my socks and much else besides was put into the washing machine with some detergent in the right place. Problemo.
As you can see the washing machine and the instructions are all in Greek. I selected a wash at random and switched it on. The machine started beeping. A timer came on and after two minutes and nineteen seconds it went off to be replaced by a sign saying 4 degrees. The machine carried on beeping. It was locked. My socks are trapped and nothing has happened. After about an hour of beeping I could stand it no more and turned the wretched machine off. No more beeping but it has stayed locked. I am without socks.
Thankfully George the architect is here later today. He can translate and I might just be able to retrieve my socks or maybe even wash them.
The books, tables, wall art and chests of drawers plus four Belfast sinks were transferred from the white van of the wretched Bulgar to my hire car, a jeep and a workman's lorry as you can see in the first photo below.
The sweaty Bulgar did little of the shifting, that was down to myself and two burly Greeks. Up at the hovel we shifted the stuff inside the now completed and secured bat room. The second photo shows a heroic Greek carrying a Belfast sink as if it was a pillow case. The box in which the sink was has strict elf 'n safey wording about how it must be lifted by two men. Maybe it is the overt and shocking sexism of that warning that caused the Greek to ignore it?
And now everything, including a new purpose built mattress for an unusually sized bed, sits in the bat room waiting for my return in a few weeks when I shall be staying up at the hovel awaiting the arrival of the Mrs, Joshua and Olaf.
Once before I arrived at the Greek Hovel to find workmen proudly admiring a construction made of brand new shiny bricks. Much to their pleasure I had it torn down, an extra days work for them. I rather assumed that the message had got through. You can imagine my horror when arriving at the hovel yesterday to find piles of shiny new bricks in the new wing and the rat room. Cripes!
George the Architect is not around, for family reasons, but his business partner Sofia and a young trainee who acts as translator soon arrived and a heated discussion with a gaggle of workmen ensued. It is the way of the Greek language that a discussion on the most trivial matters becomes so animated that it appears as if all parties are trying to solve some major international crisis. I stood my ground.
In the rat room, the walls are the old ones and are, frankly, not that beautiful. So they will be plastered with a smooth white finish. As such I showed that I can compromise and accepted that in that room, a narrow room, bricks can be used to house the eco-loo and then plastered. They will fit in.
But in the new wing the stonework is magnificent. A brick and plaster enclosure for the eco-loo and shower would simply be wrong. One of the workmen who spoke reasonable English agreed with me and it was agreed that stones would be used. There was a rear-guard action in some quarters. Do I not realise that this will make the bathroom that bit narrower as the walls will be thicker. We worked out the maths and it was agreed that my net loss would be 24 centimetres. I do not see that as a problem. Eventually folks conceded.
Sofia, the trainee and I wandered around the house ironing out numerous other little points as we waited for the doors and windows man to arrive. He, I gather, is also the man who will build the floors/ceilings in the new wing and above the rat room. Eventually a rather large and unshaven chain smoking individual toddled up. Now for the bad news.
The roof, which was meant to have gone on three weeks ago will start to be erected early next week and will be finished by the end of July. But the windows, doors and floors? Er.. September said the man. What the fuck? I was wielding my olive pruning axe and started waving it angrily, as would a Greek, to show that I was cross. I had made it quite clear to George that in late August the Mrs, Joshua and Olaf arrive for a holiday and that while I had no problem with a lack of windows and doors the women of the household would do. The man said he would do his best and started measuring up the windows and doors. FFS why did he not do this weeks ago?
It has been agreed that at least some windows and doors will be installed by the time the Mrs arrives with an aim of getting everything done. Pro tem, at least the bat room has a door, a window, a shower and an eco-loo. It might be cramped but we could all stay in that one room but surely we could at least get the rat room made wildlife diversity proof? Amid talk of how ferocious Olaf can be (what do they know about my charming daughter?) it has been agreed that they will work all hours to hit our targets.
I needed to calm down as the all parties meetings continued, without the windows man who was measuring away. So though in shorts and sneakers, not the jeans and sturdy boots one should wear in the snake fields, I headed off to prune my beloved olive trees. Now and then I was called back to settle another minor point. In the end I gave up as pruning, especially when you are being extra careful as to where you tread, requires concentration and some semblance of tranquility.
Notwithstanding my concerns about snakes and other members of the wildlife diversity community I cannot stress how much I feel at home working in the fields. I accept that I am perhaps not the most efficient of workers and it is also very possible that I may not be the greatest of olive tree pruners or harvesters but as I work, amid the almost deafening but soothing noise of cicadas, there is a real sense being at peace. One can forget about work back home, indeed it helps you to realise that it really is not that important or, at many levels, enjoyable. The frustrations I feel almost every day as I stare at my computer just disappear.
The view, BTW, is of the new wing ground floor looking away from the mountains.
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.
When building his house at Kardamili, 20 miles down the road from the Greek Hovel, all round superhero Paddy Leigh Fermor decided that he needed to go back to England for some literary business. On his return, some months later, he decided that the builders, though following plans, were building his house the wrong way round. Thus he instructed them to tear it down and start again.
I arrived at the Greek Hovel this morning to meet George the Architect and to inspect work on the bat room. The builders had been hard at work creating a bathroom space. Quelle horreur! I suppose it is what was in the plans but it was not what I wanted. Bricks rather than stone had been used and the walled off area was enormous devouring far too much space in what will be my residence this summer while the rest of the eco-palace is completed.
All change. George got out his tape measure and we have agreed that there will be a small room for the eco-loo with a sliding wooden door. Next to it will be a semi-open plan shower with an external wall just five foot high to keep the water in but and spare the modesty of whoever is using it. Outside that there will be a sink with storage space. The footprint of the bathroom area has been slashed by almost a half and my bolt-hole will feel all the bigger at the end of it.
The builders were, naturally, delighted as they started to tear down their work. There is an extra day and a half of labouring in it for them. Once again I am doing my little bit for the Greek economy.
The good news is that we are still under budget even with this minor hiccup since the old house was in marginally better shape than George had feared. The even better news is that the bat room will be finished and snake secured by mid April. The rest of the hovel will be finished and ready for fit out by August or September which I take to mean Christmas.
Perhaps 2018 guests might have to think about 2019 now but as I wandered around with George we started to discus where beds will go and where power switches will be situated. We have redesigned the rat room bathroom on the hoof to take out a shower and create more space, and additional bookshelves. I can, at last, really feel my retirement home starting to take shape.
I turned up as agreed with George the Architect at 11 AM to discuss progress at the Greek Hovel. Twenty four hours of solid rain with more coming down today has left the site a bit of a mudbath and I was not greatly surprised that there were no workers present. But I was rather expecting George. He was not answering his phone so I kicked my heels and tried to start the process of burning off the branches cut down from last year's olive harvest.
In my defence the whole place is sodden. But I noted on other hills nearby that fires were burning away happily. If my neighbours could do it...
With some lawyers letters from Roger Lawson to use to start the blaze I set to work. I knew old Lawson would come in useful one day. But let me tell you that there can be smoke without fire. I managed it several times before giving up and heading back to the village of Kambos.
Sitting in the Kourounis taverna an old man approached me and started babbling away in Greek. He seemed friendly enough and after a while managed to grasp what everyone else in Kambos knows, that is to say my Greek is rudimentary at best. But I did gather two words: spiti (house) and fire (demonstrated by him producing flame from a lighter). He was laughing.
Given that there is no-one for miles around the hovel I do not understand how news of my pyromaniac failings have reached the village already, but it seems to be the way. At last I got hold of George the Architect who was sitting in his nice warm office in Kalamata. Apparently work on making the bat room habitable starts first thing tomorrow. I shall be there. I will not be betting the ranch on anyone else being there too.
The shock is for any google pervs out there who have alighted on this page and though the photos are wonderful will be rather disappointed by their nature, The Miranda's I refer to is, of course, the restaurant next to the Kourounis taverna on the square where the road through Kambos makes a sharp right angle as it heads off to Kardamili.
Miranda's boasts a wide menu but in fact normally has one dish a day. But the food is awesome and so cheap. And thus for 8 Euro I enjoyed a sort of beef burger containing some cheese and also very sharp and spicy peppers. Okay, that is high on calories but I had done several hours of manual labour up at the Greek Hovel. The point for a type 2 diabetic like myself is that it was carb free. Moreover I shared this with a cat which does not really belong to Miranda's but just wanders around begging as Greek cats do. Aaaah what a sweet pussy.
To accompany that there was a vegetable side dish: peppers, zucchini and a few slices of potato which I ignored all topped with local feta. Just wonderful.
I must take The Albanian, said Nicho. Great he has hired an Albanian. I felt much happier. No offence but Nicho is getting on a bit and when it comes to hard work here in Greece you can't beat an Albanian. Moreover, since my status has been elevated to that of snake killer, I have sensed a diminution of the previous bravado of my friend when it comes to serpents. I rather feared that if we encountered one he would join me in flight. Say what you like about the Albanians but they are as hard as nails. They will kill snakes with their bare hands.
And thus I set off in my car, Nicho followed behind in a battered truck with the young Albanian, who greeted me like an old friend "Hello Thomas", sitting beside him. That, it turned out, was the full extent of his English but in Nicho we had an able translater. He is the best English speaker in Kambos, not that there is much competition for that title. For what it is worth I like it that way. Coastal villages might lose their character. Kambos stays resolutely Greek.
When I go poisoning by myself I use a 5 litre bottle which is jolly heavy. But what i was about to witness was industrial scale poisoning. It was genocide. No other word is appropriate for the slaughter which was set to unfold. Nicho drove his truck past the hovel, past the ruin where a snake lives to the far end of the fields. I have never seen that done before and as he squeezed past rocks and over stones the truck became that bit more battered.
As you can see the truck contained a cylinder into which we added 20 litres of poison to the 380 litres of water it contained. I saw we, of course I mean Nicho and the Albanian. The Albanian started a motor and a long hose was unwound and Nicho started spraying. It was not just the frigana but all sorts of bushes and flowers. Everything in fact. The poison does not harm olives trees and of course the trees were spared but everything else got the treatment.
After a while Nicho handed the hose to the Albanian. "I am old" he said. "The Albanian is young and faster." I thought both were frighteningly efficient. My role was limited to helping pick up the hose when it snagged on a rock or a plant but three hours traipsing around the hovel was enough to leave me feeling pretty drained. I thought about trying to explain about diabetes and blood sugars and the dangers of them falling too low but thought that this might be lost in translation and just be seen as a sign of being pathetic. So i soldiered on but celebrated greatly when the 400 litre tank ran out.
We start again tomorrow at 9 AM. The job is 80% done. Nicho assures me that the snakes hate the smell of poison and will flee. And also that within ten days everything sprayed will be dead. We will have another session to finish off anything we missed in a couple of weeks but the land will then be clear and so we can mark out cleared spots for planting new trees in October. And the snakes can bugger off to plague my neighbours. What's not to like?
I handed the Albanian some Euros but Nicho refused to take payment. I mentioned bottles of whiskey and that seemed to meet with his approval.
I arranged to meet architects George and Sofia at the Greek Hovel at 11 AM. I arrived twenty minutes late but no-one was there. This is Greece so eleven sharp means any time before twelve and at about twenty to twelve my friends arrived. They brought with them the head builder, an ethnic Greek from Albania, so a man my father will approve of big time. I got down to the main point quickly. I showed them the snake I had killed and asked the builder how he felt about snakes. "I kill them with my bare hands" he said. I like him a lot and said that "you can have the next one."
I sense that town dwelling George and Sofia are not, like me and the builder, brave snake killers and they trod carefully and nervously as they inspected the property. The good news is that after three years one permit has come through. That is to say the permit to demolish the illegally added concrete blocks and bricks put up without any permit at all by Athena, the slippery former owner. That permit will also allow us to start digging out the rock floor of the bat room, into which I have not yet dared to venture, to unpick some bad external plastering and to cut down the giant oak tree whose roots threaten the bat room.
There are one or two other trees which the forestry survey may or may not have noted but which might accidentally get cut down by mistake over the next few weeks as well including a clutch of giant friganas which are entangled with wire netting and where, I am sure, many snakes live. We will start work as a crew on May 5 when I return from a brief visit to England but I will work alone until then. Although the giant frigana and wire snake nest is a treat I will leave to my new friend the builder.
The actual building permit is still "in process." It is now expected to arrive in late May. Once again I asked if we might consider bribery but George assured me that he would not know how to do that and he is sure there is no bribery in the building permit department. I was only kidding as I know that this is not a country where such practices occur. Next to arrive was the man who will provide stones and cement. All was going swimmingly until the group of four worked out that one or two of the roads and tracks needed widening to allow big lorries to access the Hovel. This will require lovely Eleni to allow George to chop a few branches off some of her olive trees and my eccentric neighbour Charon - who harvests a neighbouring grove - to allow us to concrete over a few of his rocks. In a normal world this would be easy. But this is Greece. I imagine the conversation:
G: We would like to concrete over five of your useless rocks of no value, is that a problem? C: But these rocks have been in my family for hundreds of years...it would be like selling my mother G: But until last year they were covered in frigana and they have no value whatsoever? C: You are insulting my dead mother...reaches for gun G: Would 500 Euro ease your suffering C: For my dead mother how dare you...shall we say 1000 Euro?
Rather George than me. Lovely Eleni seems a bit more relaxed about losing a few branches. She did ask how many but i said not very many. But then I mentioned that it was to build a swimming pool which she and her family would be free to use at all times. Her eyes lit up. I think that conversation might be rather less challenging for George.
I have remarked many times before on Paddy Leigh Fermor's good Greek bad Greek thesis. 99% of Greeks are generous, honest, good folks. The other 1% are such complete and utter bastards that their actions serve as a stark reminder of how incredibly good their fellow countrymen are. The lying traitor of a PM, Alex Tsipras is firmly among the 1%. So too, are more than a few taxi drivers in Athens.
The Aegean flight to Athens was staffed by 99%-ers. All passengers were given a candle with a ribbon as we boarded. This was to celebrate Easter. The hostesses smiled. Not the fixed, forced and robotic grimace of a Ryanair staffer but a warm smile like they really were happy to see us and share some Easter joy with their fellow human beings. After a lovely lady handed me a pre-ordered diabetic meal as she whispered "here is your special meal," as if my condition need be kept hidden, the crew were even more kind to an ailing old man. Actually I feel greatly improved.
At Athens airport I met a 1% man.
The meter showed 50 Euro as my cab from the airport pulled up at the bus station. So I handed over a note. 5 more Euro for the toll said the driver. I have done that ride many times so know full well that tolls are not "on top". So I waved my finger and told him in "Greeklish" where to sling it. But many first time visitors to Athens will fall for what is just blatant theft. It is a bad first impression to give a visitor. It is the sort of thing that discourages a return visit. But the 1% do not care about that. They are just bastards to the core who will steal and cheat whenever they can.
But if you happen to meet such a Greek, please just smile, think of Paddy and think of the 99% who, in spite of the unforgivable misery heaped on this country by the EU, the banksters, Tsipras et al, remain the most hospitable and warmest folk on this planet.
Angela Merkel arrived at Athens the other day. At passport control she was asked "Nationality". She replied "German". The Officer continued "Occupation?" "Not this time" she replied.
Yikes! I thought I was safe with Greek TV from the likes of Lineker & Graham Norton but then up popped commie media tart Paul Mason lecturing the poor bubbles on why the EU and the Euro was the only way forward. Mason is an asset millionaire. My neighbours here in Greece are starving, unemployed, emigrating and angry. Mason just has no idea and worse still he talks rot. Greece does have a choice and I urge it to take it.
As the road enters Anelion there is a sign advertising the fact that there is now a four star hotel in the village. Boy is this different from 40 years ago when here was not even a road to this place and there was no main street either. We just walked along cobbled pavements. The houses of today are nearly all post road, modern constructs and it brought back no memories at all. The smell of woodsmoke had not changed but everything else had. I started to panic - how on earth would I find Mike the vlach (if indeed he was still alive)?
Suddenly, almost at the point of despair, I saw a little path to my left and something clicked. I wandered down and saw a house which looked terribly familiar. 40 years ago this house was one of the biggest in the village. The initials on the gate confirmed my suspicion - that was Mike's house.
I wandered on and two doors down came to a bar which looked a bit like Mike's new house. I found a young man who spoke English and his girlfriend who also spoke English but not Greek as she was Bulgarian and I established that Mike was indeed alive and lived next door. But he was not in.
I sat in that bar and a couple of old men said they remembered my father "Tom". My father says that makes them very old. After about an hour the young man tapped me on the shoulder as a little old lady walked towards Mike's bar. Alega! It has been a tearful reunion. Mrs Mike is a Greek not a vlach and speaks no English or - unlike her husband - not even bad German. But she asked after my sisters. I showed her photos of Joshua and I called my father and they talked. This is a test of his Greek and he scores only a Beta Minus. Mike is not as he thought coming back from Ioannina tomorrow but later today and so I sit at his place and wait, tapping away loading photos..
I can hear Alega on the phone talking very excitedly and I know enough Greek to know what it is about - my arrival.My father is happy and they have promised to swap letters after all these years. The young man next door has translated for me so she knows about my step mother, how my father is doing, about the Greek hovel in the Mani and I have promised to bring the Mrs and Joshua up to Anelion this summer. Thank heavens the Mrs speaks Greek. So i just sit and wait for Mike and to re-unite him by phone with my father.
We can swap a few facts with my truly minimal Greek. She is amazed that I am almost 50, I have changed a lot since the 1970s. I am amzed that she is only 60. Mike the Vlach is 74. back in the late seventies she msut have been a young bride.
Pro tem I am thinking of going on a little walk to the Church as I stroll down memory lane.
So asks a daughter of the 21st century.The answer is that I could discover whether my father's oldest Greek friend is alive and make contact via the interwebby thing.
I tracked down a long lost cousin of my father's who had feuded with the family. He is a Mason living in Lancashire and we chatted very amicably. I managed to make contact with my father's American cousins, the offspring of the actress Anna Lee and now swap emails with cousin Jeff Byron, the man who gave Tatum O'Neill her first on screen kiss.. And I tracked down and met up with Pete Bowen, now living in Crete and one of the very few folks from the University of Warwick my father actually liked. I track down all sorts of folks as part of my job. Retired dentists once living in Denver or bitter ex wives who want to rat on fraudster husbands. No problem.
But that would not be as much fun as trekking up to the Pindus Mountains of Greece in the snow and wandering to the village of Anelion to struggle with minimal Greek, even less Vlach and a bit of rusty German. I think I remember where Mike's house was. I have no idea what I shall say. But that makes it more of an adventure does it not?
I do hope he lives. An overweight drinking smoker last time we met fifteen years ago and who must be seventy if he is alive I guess it is an evens bet. He was fit and thin as a young man so that must improve the odds as will him having lived on a traditional country diet. But I reckon it is an evens bet. Fingers crossed.
As you know, I head off soon for Greece and will be making a pilgrimage to the tiny village of Anelion in the snow covered Pindus mountains of Northern Greece. The aim is to see if my father's oldest Greek friend, Mike the Vlach, is still with us, as I explained here.
My sister N was, I think, seven when we first visited Anelion and she is today with my father so we chatted about the forthcoming trip. I had been puzzling about the name which means "without sun". My father offered up the Vlach alternative which means the same but which I cannot remember. He noted that Anelion is on the south side of a deep valley, Metsovo - from where I shall walk to Anelion - is on the North side.
Hence Anelion is deprived of sun by the mountains all around it for much of a winter day and so it will be far colder then Metsovo (minus 6 last night, just above zero today). It explains, perhaps, why Metsovo grew into a town and Anelion stayed as a village.
For my sister on that first trip the abiding memory was of her small panda, known by the Greeks as kukla. N was devoted to it and would burst into tears if, knowingly, parted from it for any time at all. On our last day in Anelion we walked with battered old suitcases and with my father carrying N down to the valley bottom and up the other side to Metsovo to catch a bus to Ioannina to begin the journey home.
Miss the bus miss the flights, there were few buses or flights in those days. As we arrived at the bust station N realised that kukla was missing. We searched our bags but it was nowhere. My father being a man who has never missed a train or bus in his life, punctuality being his middle name, had allowed a bit of time but the bus was due in 20 minutes.
It had taken us forty minutes or more to walk to Metsovo but Mike the Vlach started to sprint to see if we had dropped Kukla. He ran down the valley to where the rover flows and then he ran up the other side to his house where Kukla was lying on a bed. He then ran back, arriving a sweaty wreck but able to reach through the bus window and put Kukla into N's hand as we sat waiting for the bus which was, in true Greek fashion, running a bit late, to leave. The story of Mike the Vlach and kukla is one we all know in our family and one we could happily reference in conversation today.
I am so tired. As soon as I press "publish" on this article i am off to bed. Today there was no break other than 20 minutes for lunch and so I did a solid six and a half hours. It is not that I am spectacularly unfit (cue jokes from health guru Paul Scott), it is just that I have to try to keep pace with hardened professionals, viz George the Albanian and his two female assistants. Boris Johnson likes riding bicycles but he would be some way off the pace in the Tour de France. It is similar here.
But I am proud to say that although I thought about bunking off early I stuck it out to the end. And I am getting quicker at my given tasks, the ones normally allocated to the old ladies, they having been promoted ahead of me.
The progress was rapid today. I reckon we might just be finished in two days time and we must have lifted at least 550 kg of olives once again today. If not more. What is surprising me is that the trees the other side of the ruined cottage on the property which yielded very little, even in the bumper year of 2014 and almost nothing last year are also dripping with olives. Naturally I put this down to my skilled pruning in the summer. It is just possible that we will need another three days to finish so great is the harvest.
Today saw us tackle the tree that lies inside the ruin. It is a not a tree that I think about with anything other than fear as I have often observed a snake slithering into the bushes around it. I have not actually seen the snake because as soon as I see a slithering motion in the grass I run as fast as I can in the opposite direction shouting "fuck it is a snake." Not that is ever anyone around to hear me. But the number of times I have seen the slither makes me certain that it is the lair of the snake.
And so my pruning of this tree has not been as diligent as on other trees. I did some hacking but trod gingerly and the prune was not complete. Of course the snakes are all hibernating or, as they say here, asleep. But where do they sleep? I think of the Gruffalo and look nervously at fallen logs. Maybe it is underneath stones or in holes? I do not know but there are plenty of places around the ruin for Mr Snake to sleep. So what if I tread on him or kick over the log or stone by accident? Will he wake up in time to bite me before I scarper, screaming as I go?
George went for the tree and chopped off lots of branches. One of his ladies pointed at the fallen branches and pointed to me and said something in Greek or Albanian. I knew what she meant. Gingerly I picked up each branch and threw it onto the pile that I was assembling for flailing. I think I lost about a stone and a half of nervous energy during that task. But no snake was seen. None the less I have been thinking about snakes ever since.
At the end I was so tired I considered just crashing out with the rats at the hovel. But then I thought of my nice warm bath, nice warm bed and snake and rat free hotel in Kalamata. It was no choice.
The Mrs and I bought the Greek Hovel about 28 months ago. Naively we rather assumed that by now it would have been renovated and we could both head over to enjoy the forthcoming olive harvest in comfort. Au contraire. If there was an Olympic gold for bureaucracy then the Hellenic Republic would be winning it every year. But there is good news today.
You may remember that I had to make a few, ahem, adjustments to the land before submitting an application for forestry clearance. that is to say that I had to hack away 2000 square metres of snake infested frigana which I did in the summer of 2014 enabling us to submit a forestry permit after I had burned the evidence in February 2015. That should have taken three months. I think it came through after various misadventures in May 2016. Aha so we can now submit the building permit application said I?
Not so fast said George the Architect. First we need the approval of the architectural council but that will take just 4 weeks. We submitted on June 2nd. It will not surprise you to hear that we have yet to receive clearance. But this morning George says that the Council meets tomorrow and we are on the agenda. Hooray!
If we pass this hurdle then it is just the Building Permit which we will be ready to submit at once and should be given within three months. The Building inspectors are based opposite the office of George so he can harass them and says that he will. I have again raised the issue of bribes but am assured that things like that just do not happen in Greece. Whatever.
Three Greek Months is, about six to nine English months which means that we could well start rebuilding between April - when I fly out anyway - and June next year. Hooray!
The fifth film in this series, with the simple title Jason Bourne, has won mixed reviews but the Mrs and I really enjoyed an afternoon showing yesterday. For us, naturally, the early part of the movie shot in Greece was a hoot.
For those who do not know Bourne, he is a CIA agent from a top secret programme - Treadstone - who went off the rails and pops up every few years to find more corrupt bastards inside the CIA who want to kill him but who he kills first. Ching ching, more money for Matt Damon and come back in a few years for another installment.
Anyhow, Jason (Mr Damon) is in Greece and the film is set at the time of all the anti austerity riots in 2015. Boy those were the days with great riot porn at Syntagma Square almost 24/7. So I was enjoying that bit and recognising familiar streets and places I know well when suddenly the CIA realise that Bourne is there and start tracking him by hacking into cameras operated by the Greek rozzers across Athens. What? You have to be kidding me right?
I am sure the CIA has the technology to hack into a working surveillance network anywhere in the world. But in Greece? The idea that the Greek Rozzers would have a system that actually works is crazy. They might have bought the kit in the good times with EU cash but no-one has had the cash to replace batteries, supply power, mend broken parts for years.
Back in the 70s were were in a remote Greek village called Anelion in the Pindus mountains, with my dad trying hard to make a phone call to sort out some travel matter. My poor father just could not get through. "Dad, dad are you sure you know how the phone works" asked three annoying children. "I know full well...it doesn't" said an increasingly exasperated father. That was Greece then and now. Mr Damon should have done his homework better.
The charming woman next to me on the plane back from Kalamata was a Greek living in Cardiff. She said that she was frightened. So were her friends: Italians, Poles and other bubbles living in Britain. How could they plan for the future when it looked as if they would be booted out post Brexit?
I asked: Who said this was going to happen? Which of the leaders of the vote leave campaign: Boris, Gove, Priti Patel, Nigel Farage, Carswell, Gisela Stuart, who? She did not know but she said that on social media it was everywhere. My wife reports that our Greek friends in Bristol have the same worry and their fears are intensified every time they meet the lefty friends of the Mrs who insist, incorrectly, that Brexit was driven purely by Xenophobia and racism.
The truth is that no Brexit campaigner, not even nasty Nigel Farage, said anything about repatriating EU migrants who were already resident in Britain. They arrived legally and that is the end of the matter. Indeed Brexit campaigners stressed that there would be not a single expulsion of such folk.
But that does not matter to those in Project Fear. They lied ahead of June 23 and they continue to lie. At every chance the smear the 52% of us who voted for Independence day as racist little Englanders and they smear our leaders as bigots as they try to thwart democracy by making us all vote again by pretending the last vote was somehow dirty.
Those folks on the liberal left who claim the moral high ground need to realise that what they are doing is spreading fear and panic amongst those they claim to support, EU Nationals who are residents in this country, immigrants. The sanctimonious left are telling lies as part of a cynical campaign and causing misery and fear among, often vulnerable folks, as a result.
They should be ashamed and desist. But they will not because they are always correct and holier than now and anyone who disagrees with them is simply a wicked right wing neanderthal. As such there can be no discussion of facts. Here endeth the lesson from the book of Toynbee.
Some people are just good at languages. The Mrs speaks perfect English (for a Northerner), very good Swedish and very acceptable Greek. Some of us are bad at languages. Other than English I speak poor French and a smattering of Greek, Latin and German - all poorly. And some of us are bad at languages but think we are rather better than bad. I think of my father.
For I am sitting in Miranda's taverna in Kambos enjoying a lunch of chicken and peas before returning to the Greek Hovel for some frigana slashing. The roast chicken is not bad, the peas are amazing. And I laugh as I think of my father and the chicken.
Many years ago, as he travelled around rural Greece, some villagers asked him what animals he kept. Since my parents were into self sufficiency there was a good choice and my father announced loudly that he owned twenty five chickens. There was a stunned silence as he had plucked the wrong word from the ether. The assembled crowd looked at him in a strange way. Did he really have 25 penises? Someone explained.
Perhaps my father shoukd have remembered his French oral exam aged 13. He was asked "quelle profession a ton pere?" Unable to remember the word for civil servant, he replied "mon pere est mort" and looked sad. Straight A. Nailed it.
There was I having a late afternoon doze in the Greek Hovel when I awoke to a sound which seemed right outside my window, the sound of sheep. For those living the other side of Offa's Dyke this might sound like the climax of a wet dream but for me it was reality as I went onto my balcony on the Monastery facing side of the hovel and, you can see what I saw right beneath me.
I was delighted. I am very happy for the shepherd to let his flock wander across the land here. It tends to scare away certain members of the wildlife diversity community and the sheep eat anything, grass, frigana and olive branches I have cut so I want them here.
I pulled on a T shirt and sneakers and wandered out of my door on the mountain facing side and headed off down the track to greet the shepherd who naturally spoke to me in Greek, which he knows I don't understand, and I answered in English, which he does not comprehend. That is how we fail to communicate when we meet, as we do almost daily. After a while he wandered off, cajoling his flock with a long stick and by speaking to them in whistled messages as well as shouts. Clearly, the sheep understand more Greek than do I. I wandered back to the hovel.
Bugger me. On my return I looked out of the balcony to see two sheep standing there on their own bleating and just looking stupid on their own with no shepherd. Since I cant speak Greek I could not tell them where to go and the Shepherd was long gone with the rest of his flock.
I tried to cajole them in the right direction but they don't understand English and my instructions fell on deaf ears. As I tried to user them one way they went another. Eventually after a bit of a chase through the groves, we headed the right way down the track towards the gate but instead of turning left to go to where the Shepherd had headed they pushed on into a neighbouring olive grove. Exasperated I gave up and jogged off in the other direction to find the shepherd and after about a quarter of a mile I found him putting his flock in a pen where they spend the night.
I said "Thee-oh" and pointed at the sheep and gesticulated towards where I had come from. He smiled and spoke some more Greek to me. Suddenly I could hear bleating from where I had come. The Shepherd shouted something in Greek and the bleating grew louder as two sheep cantered past me back to their master, homing sheep delighted to be reunited with their brethren. All my herding was pointless, the sheep knew what they were doing. These sheep are a lot cleverer than some folks think.
If you do not speak Greek you might just struggle with this. It would be all Greek to you. But this card is for the folks in the small village of Kambos in the Mani, Greece, the nearest settlement to where the Mrs has a property needing, er, one or two repairs. And so from both Tom Winnifrith's here is a few words for Christmas.
I fly tomorrow morning and will arrive in Kalamata so late that I shall enjoy one night of luxury in a hotel before heading off to the Greek Hovel for the olive harvest. George the sprightly 60 year old Albanian and his Mrs are ready to lead the harvest from Wednesday or Thursday and we are off. But there is a bit of a problem. I still speak no Greek and have hitherto relied on the lovely Eleni from the Kourounis taverana to assist. It is either her or Nikko the commie, no-one else speaks more English than I speak Greek in the village of Kambos.
In May I wondered if Eleni had put on a couple of pounds but did not like to say anything. By the time I arrived in August I was fairly sure that she was with child but being a gentleman and not wishing to offend I dared not ask. Aha. I speak to Eleni tonight and she is going into hospital tomorrow. Don't worry she says, she will be back at work by Sunday.
Well that is very good, none of this maternity leave nonsense of the West, back in the kitchen with you young lady. But pro tem I must now work out how to communicate with George - who speaks not a word of English - as well as to the rest of the village.
Nikko the commie will be hard at work on his own olives and so his presence cannot be guaranteed. This could be an uncomfortable few days as I struggle to heat the hovel, deal with the rats and communicate with absolutely anybody.
A people cannot enjoy true liberty if they are crushed by a debt they cannot service let alone repay. If they are, in addition, forced to cut financial support for health, education and assisting the old and truly needed they are little more than slaves. Such is the condition of Greece today.
I live in Greece for much of the year and my family have been writing about the country for more than 150 years. It is in the blood. But my support for Greece is not a romantic gesture it is driven by basic common sense and humanity.
I urge the Greek People to vote oxi! in the referendum and to say, as was said to Mussolini in 1940, to the oppressors of today, the banksters, Oxi! No. For enough is enough. If Greece is to have hope it must walk away from its debts, from the Euro and start again as a free nation.
I was just planning to return to the Greek Hovel after an hour of subbing Zak Mir's golden prose. I had forgotten just how appalling is the way that he mangles the English language and am feeling pretty shell shocked. It has taken two ouzos to get this far and my task is only 30% done.
And at that point I heard a cry from the bar at the Kourounis taverna "Tom, ouzo". It seems as if my pal Vangelis has bought me another drink. Ok I shall be marginally over the limit as I drive home but I will be the only vehicle on the track and after what Zak has inflicted on my brain I feel I deserve it. And anyhow it would be rude to refuse.
I said Efharisto and there then followed a conversation in Greek between the mother-in law of lovely Eleni and Vangelis about how I really need to learn Greek. I understand eniugh to know what they are saying and agree with them 100%. But first I have the rest of Zak's quite unintelligble gibberish to translate into English. At least I know what pergatory will be like.
I have no pictures of Charon. That is because he always pops up by surprise. If you arrange to meet he is never there. He just turns up and then disappears.
His house is the nearest one to the Greek Hovel. The long and winding road from Kambos does not end at the hovel but turns back on itself and up the next hill. I really had no idea where it headed but one day curiosity got the better of me and I turned my bike around and headed on up. After about a mile and a half you arrive at a ramshackle but clearly inhabited set of buildings, the house of Charon. He is one hill higher up than me. The next range of hills behind him leads straight into the mountains.
Charon is not his real name. It is Nikko but since half the village is called Nikko I stick with the name I gave him when we first met. The poor man was returning from a walk into the village to buy cigarettes. It was a blazing hot day and not being the fittest fellow on this planet he was dripping with sweat. His greying hair is longer than mine and with the sweat pouring off him my mind sprang to Virgil’s description of the ferryman to the underworld. Nikko’s rather long face always looks a little sad even when he is smiling.
There is only one thing worse that trying to chat to someone who speaks only Greek when you speak only English. And that is trying to chat to someone who speaks just enough English to think that he can communicate but in fact cannot. And thus when Charon and I chat it is a truly painful experience. He says a few words in English which are in fact the wrong words and intersperses that with Greek which I cannot understand at all.
So for cold Nikko uses the word hot. After a while I figured that out when we drank some “hot” water straight from the fridge. When Charon is around I grab my Greek English dictionary to dull the pain of non-comprehension but our conversations are still monumentally hard going.
The man appears from nowhere for our chats. I am standing there holding my strimmer hacking away at the frigana thinking about Bulletin Board Morons and suddenly I am conscious that there is someone behind me. If I turn too quickly leaving the strimmer on I’d cut his testicles off but I have learned to live with the appearance of the apparition. I am sitting tapping away at my PC with my back to the door and I hear no sound of anyone approaching but there he is standing behind me gazing into my screen.
Charon is a big music fan and tells me that he has four stereo systems at his hovel - that might in facr mean anything between 1 and five. But there is at least one because just occasionally the night time silence is broken by the sound of music blaring from the next range of hills up towards the mountain. It is as if there is a party but while there will be plenty of music and drinking there is only one man partying on all night.
Charon’s catch phrase is “English cigarettes good" at which point I hand over a few of my Greek fags as he appears to have run out. But it is not all one way trade. He brings almonds from a tree near his house and figs, not that the latter is in short supply at our Hovel. And it was he who showed me how to pick and eat prickly pears without taking in a mouthful of prickles. For that I am truly grateful.
How will our relationship develop? I have no idea. Occasionally I give him a lift into Kambos on my bike and we swear to meet up a day later for a drink. Of course he does not turn up although I am always there expecting for some reason that he will be. Perhaps as my Greek improves our conversations might progress a little further.
I do not speak Greek. And I cannot understand it. But given that virtually no-one in my home village of Kambos speaks English, I am exposed to it whenever I wander into town and I am now starting to “hear it.”
I was sitting opposite the olive factory with George the chief olive picker at the Greek Hovel as we waited out turn to drop off some olives. A little old lady, her back arched and curved and dressed in widows black opened the front door of her tiny house opposite, pulled out a chair and just watched the bags go in and out. She asked a question of George while looking at me and George replied. She nodded knowingly.
Whilst I did not understand the question I can guess what it was since the answer was “He is the Englishman who lives in Toumbia.” The lady’s response indicates that folks in Kambos know that there is an Englishman in Toumbia, that is to say me.
Toumbia is not actually a place. It is the name for the area behind Kambos up in the snake friendly hills on the way to the mountain where there are perhaps 20 houses of which, maybe, three or four are inhabited. My nearest neighbours may be two miles away on either side but we are all in Toumbia. So Toumbia is not really a place just an area which contains the odd farm-house, of which are few are not abandoned. It is a place where folks in Kambos may own olive trees, where the goats and sheep can graze and, of course, where the snakes can go unmolested.
And I am the man who speaks no Greek but can spend all day at lovely Eleni’s tavern writing and looking out at life passing by; the man who fell off his bike at 5 MPH outside Eleni’s providing the incident of the summer (until the double murder) in sleepy Kambos, the man who is terrified of snakes but lives at the top of snake hill. Ho, ho, ho…the fool! That is the Englishman from Toumbia.
I digress. My point is that I am starting now to hear Greek. Next up is learning to speak it. But that is for avrio (tomorrow)
Right now George and his team of two women ( sister, wife, both wives, I know what) are unloading their pick up truck. A ladder,a sort of mini-threshing machine, the strange forks they use for prodding trees and the mats have all been laid out on the ground. The great day has started..the olive harvest has begin at the Greek Hovel. Now I hear a loud noise...
George has started his chain saw becuase part of the pricess involves cutting off branches. I am not sure I quote get the hang of this yet but they are beavering away. I shall join them in a few minutes after quickly completing early morning ShareProphets duties.
Two wives? Is it Greek or is it Vlach but there is a word I remember from childhood holidays in Northern Epirus, "Mericlis" - which means the man with two wives. Perhaps they dont allow that sort of thing any more. Political correctness gone mad say I. How on earth can you do an olive harvest while still looking after the goats without it eating into your coffee drinking time unless you have two wives slaving away?
I have slightly cheated and brought in an local, Vangelis, to assist me with the frigana cutting. He has a few advantages over me. He is fit and young. He is fearless, wading into bushes not worrying about what wildlife diversity might be hiding there. His big advantage is that he has an ultra-powerful frigana cutter. In motorbike terms he has a 500 cc cutter, I have a 125 cc cutter. But he is also an artist. Watching him weld his frigana cutter is a pleasure, he twists and turns, stabs and swipes and the evil bushes just disappear.
My guess is that by Thursday at noon, 2000 square metres of frigana will be no more. His last patch is in the far corner of the property and is dense and old. Some of the frigana bushes have become trees and for them a saw is needed.
My last patches are one half terrace on the Kambos facing side, a small patch next to the entrance the sheep use to get on the land and then the outside fences on the two tracks either side of the land. I managed five forty-five minute sessions today, after each one I was drenched in sweat and breathless. Even my 125 cc type frigana cutter is heavy and to tackle the plant at floor level and then on walls above head height uses every muscle in your arms. Five more sessions tomorrow and my bit is done.
The whole property is now covered in cut frigana branches. The oldest are golden brown, today’s cuttings are still a deep green, those from a few days ago are now turning light green. Walls, terraces and steps that have not seen the sunlight for years are now exposed in all their beauty. Two stone circles (threshing circles perhaps?) have emerged.
I shall post some videos when we are done to show you what I mean. But I feel very satisfied now as I can survey the land to its far extent. We are almost there.
Frigana cutting should be an Olympic Sport. You could design a standard course with bushes, rocks to climb and a sprinkling of snakes dispersed throughout and then the competitors would be judged as in ice dancing on technical merit (how many bushes cut right back to the root in an allotted time) and artistic impression, how skilfully the blade is weeded. Killing a snake should earn bonus points.
I reckon my Greek pal is a shoe-in for the gold medal. I see myself as an Eddie the Eagle Edwards competitor for team GB. I think the view in Kambos is that I have some idea what to do but everyone knows that it is a bit of a struggle and that the snakes are an issue, but applauds the effort anyway.
Sunday may be a day of rest for some but not for myself or my new best friend, Foti the Albanian. Foti is also my new business partner. We have agreed that the net proceeds from the olive trees will be split 50/50 on the basis that he does the work. I have insisted that I be allowed to do my part as you will see.
Foti speaks not a word of English. And I speak almost no Greek. So he speaks to me in Greek which I do not understand. I reply in English which he does not understand. On that basis we muddle along fine.
And so Sunday evening saw Foti and his pal arrive in a pickup truck to remove years and tears of rubbish. Broken chairs, rusted bed frames, empty drums and tins and piping: I have got the lot in the two first floor rooms: Grandpa’s bedroom (earth floor, broken window, rat friendly door) and the one below the snake veranda.
I am not asking too many questions about where the rubbish is going but am assured that it will remain in a safe place until October when we can once again light fires here legally. We piled the truck high as you can see. I reckon there are now only about five more loads to go. One day at a time…
I procrastinated and procrastinated as I dreaded what I would find when I arrived at the Rat Room – aka my bedroom for the next three months. So I bought a spade to bash rats with and to dig out the “estate” at the Greek hovel. For tomorrow I start work on my eco-loo and humanure system. Then I bought a few vegetables for supper, rather forgetting that I have no knives or forks although the previous owner has left me a fine collection of quite amazingly horrible plates as well as a can of warm beer, which I have binned. On this trip I plan to stay dry.
Then I had a coffee in the local taverna where I sit once again this evening having failed miserably to get my mi-fi internet connection working.
But in the end I had no choice and started the drive along the long and winding road. As I passed through the gates I turned the car music up to 11 determined to show the wildlife that I had arrived and they better scram. With spade in hand I wandered up to the building and peered nervously over the ledge of the snake veranda. Maybe the snake repellent had worked for it was deserted.
And so I unlocked the door of the Rat Room and raised my spade. The sticky pads had been flipped. Mr Rat had been in residence last night. And the blue “sweeties” I had left for him had also disappeared suggesting that he would soon be on his way to “a better place.” But there was no corpse.
This is what a rat sweetie looks like.
And so I started the process of sweeping the floor rather more thoroughly than the previous owner had done. Mirabelle you would be proud of me! The two cabinets were emptied and moved and I swept under them. And then to the two beds both of which had layers and layers of rugs upon them. One by one I removed the rugs banging the beds loudly every few minutes with my broom. And then there he was…Mr Rat. Alive and kicking.
He looked at me and I looked at him. I had already found his nest with three well-nibbled sweeties in it and so I know that he is “on his way” but before I could think about how to accelerate that process he darted away underneath the other bed. I finished with bed one, hung all the rugs outside to air and then repeated the process with bed 2. But Mr Rat had gone…I suspect here is a hole that I have yet to discover through which he escaped.
And so with the Rat Room thoroughly cleansed as you can see in the pic below I have escaped to the tavern and an internet connection.
Right now I accept that it looks like a student room. It is sparse but it is clean enough. The rat will find no food and no bedding if he returns only sweeties and death. For his sake, and mine, I rather hope that he does not come back.
As an aside I offer you the view from the bedroom window and balcony out over the valley at the front…such a sight when you wake up explains why both Mr Rat (RIP) and I are so fond of the place.
And at least the former owners left me some chairs. I spent a happy break this afternoon sitting outside on the level below the snake veranda trying not to think of what might be above me, listening to the cicadas and to the tinkling of goat bells on the hillsides. A shepherd wandered past with his small flock and tried to speak to me in Greek. That was not a long conversation. Tonight I really will start to learn Greek.
Even if you are a lawyer from one of my fave firms like Kermans or Pinsent Masons, tasked with monitoring my scribblings, you are included in this message. I have enjoyed 2013 at a number of levels both professionally and personally. I look forward to 2014 with a few clear objectives.
No doubt we are all making a few New Year’s resolutions. Among mine are to learn Greek and to stop smoking again (I managed two weeks before Christmas but regrettably succumbed when under the influence).
At a professional level I have two more websites to launch (the first of which goes live next week) and then I am done on that front and the resolution is simply to build them patiently and organically in a way that allows me to write more of what I want to write and have fewer distractions.
Fingers crossed for my resolutions. I wish you luck with yours.
I wish all readers of this blog a happy 23-14 and all readers, bar any lawyers who might be reading, a prosperous 2014.
— Tom Winnifrith
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