I had never really thought of Greece before.
I knew others went there, but my family summer holidays had always been taken, without fail, at home. Somewhere like Scarborough. In the rain. I knew of Homer and Alexander and of the bearded heroes and the myths and the vengeful gods of course. But, to be honest, if I had been asked to close my eyes and picture Greece as I imagined it I feel some image of a paunchy leathery man poured into a pair of small speedos would have come to my mind. A gold chain nestling deep in a rug of chest hair, glinting in the sun, as he beckoned me into his restaurant. Cheap pictures of the Acropolis hanging on the wall behind. Moussaka and Heinekens shimmering on the table in this dolorific nightmare.
All this changed quite suddenly and quite irrevocably for ever though, when I met a rather quiet, unhappy-looking, beautiful Greek girl who had come all the way to teach for the summer in an old boarding school in Winchester.
Within a year I was with her, heaving my way to the top of Mount Olympus, a ring in my pocket and Greece, its people, its places, indelibly fixed in my mind.
My introduction had begun in Athens.
I crept into the city in August in the dead of night, with the only souls to be seen the comic Evzone guards in their tasselled hats, pleated skirts and pompom-ed slippers – changing the guard in front of the parliament building at 4am. A pantomimic routine of slow motioned raising of the legs, twirls of the feet, a hoist of the rifle, a slap of arms.
I was in that drugged-like state from the plane travel, and with the heavy thick blanket of heat that was wrapped around me, even now, at this early time of the morning, I felt I was viewing Greece as if from the centre of a dream. Which I was later to find out is really the only way you can ever see Greece of course. I dropped my bags and stood and watched a while. Just me and the two white stocking-legged guards, their slippers slapping the empty marble in the centre of Greece’s capital.
I had arrived.
Next day I woke to find a completely different city.
The late-morning heat mixing with the city noise and the traffic. The full skips of piled-up rubbish with carrier bags of used toilet paper thrown on top – no flushing in Greece – marinating in the hot sun. A cat working one one to tear it clean open. My skin was prickled and stung by the sun, flaming down through the dark-edged streets.
I was staying in the area of Exarchia, a world away from those taverna scenes of moustachioed men I had previously pictured. This was the area of anarchy. Agitator politics. Every spare space graffitied over, and then graffitied over again. Every citizen clothed in black. Beards. Everyone was arguing in the cafés, drinking the constitutive bitter Greek coffee, heads thrown backwards, jaws pushed forwards, emitting smacked “tut”s to emphasise disagreement with their companion’s views. People’s hands going round in small circles, contemptuous little windmill movements.
We met a friend of the girl I’d come all this way to Greece for. A sweet, funny girl who, a year on, would become one of our ‘koubaras’ (bridesmaid in Greek, but actually meaning much more than that here. Once you’re koubara-ed, it is a life-long relationship, like some sort of mafia pact). We sat and talk for hours, as all Greeks seemed to do, usually over just the one coffee on the table. And when she finally got up to go to her job in an under-5s children’s playgroup, almost as an after-thought this small, demure girl in her flowery dress turned to tell us.
“Oh. I forgot – I’m to go on trial next month. For making Molotov Cocktails upstairs in our anarchist coffee bar.”
She shrugged as if to say what a silly triviality it all was and skipped away. And I was left the bewildered Englishman in Greece. San tin myga mes to gala. The fly in the milk.
While I was caught by the level of political interest and the debates that seemed to rage, just as they did 2000 years ago high on the hill of Pnyka, still hanging over the city today, the roots to this modern day dissatisfaction were pretty clear. High unemployment, habitual accusations of corruption, failing services, and always the sight of large numbers of policemen gathering together, lounging on motorbikes, insouciantly, eyeing the public with some sort of slumbering menace about them. Tensions in the city felt on a permanent high.
As I climbed the Acropolis on the unavoidable tourist trail, winding my way up the dusty path to the Parthenon – the famous pediments and columns above looking the colour of smoker’s old brown teeth – I noted how at every turn a policeman appeared to be looming over or aggressively moving on shrinking figures they felt shouldn’t be there. Men who appeared to be doing no harm, as far as I could see. Becoming bored watching this relentless roughing up, I took to asking each mirrored-sunglasses wearing, groin-thrusting cop I passed, quite unnecessarily, “Acropolis?” pointing to the most famous wonder of the world behind me. Each batsos turning annoyed from his work bullying his particular immigrant to grunt confirmation and irritably wave me along.
The strain on the city was clear, as I later skirted round the large Omonia Square – unity square – now stripped of its centre-piece monuments, looking run-down and bare, just a hang out for depressed migrants and drug dealers. I passed neighbouring streets where poverty was clearly visible – well-dressed people rifling deep in litter bins. Distress flowing out into the streets. The flags of Golden Dawn flowing above.
The atmosphere felt clearer in many ways as I was taken out of the city, past the gnarled olive trees that line every Greek road as lampposts do in England, and down towards that wonder of the modern world, the Corinth Canal. The sight of boats passing through this eye-of-a-needle channel was an impressive one to have as we passed over into the Peloponnese and down the long route to my future family’s home.
The journey hugged the blue Ionian Sea to my right. And it really is a blue. The Greeks even have a word just for the blue of their seas and skies: galano. Mountains rose up on my left – parched and convulsed high ground. And a donkey stood in front of me.
The donkey travelled impassively for hours on the back of a heroically unroadworthy falling-apart pick-up truck in front of us. Its ears flying in the wind, as our car bounced along on the potholes. Like a boat out on a rough sea.
The road was long and I arrived tired and apprehensive at the family home. The house was shaded and cool and decorated in stone and dark wood against the white light of the Greek sun outside, as many Greek homes seemed to be. But, unlike the many Greek homes I was later to see though, this one at least didn’t have the common touch of the knitted white doilies hanging over every surface in the house. Some of the older residents in Greece even ludicrously place their large doily – the semedakia – over the top of their tv sets, completely obscuring the top half of their viewing experience.
I had little time to consider any nerves at meeting the parents for the first time as, within the first five minutes, they were removing their clothes, bundling me into a car, and taking me out to the beach. And so it was that I found myself half naked, wimpily frolicking in the surf with the prospective in-laws on our first evening together, as the sun set into the sea with an explosion of reds and blues and pinks and greens.
We drove back for a dinner of rabbit, caught by the father, Vasilios. Gruff, bald as a shiny dark pebble, Vasilos hardly had a word of English whatsoever. I was told he burst into tears as a boy when his mother would march him by the hand to his English lessons at the frontistirio – the private after-schools that pretty much all students are sent to for extra topping-up lessons, so poor and ramshackle are the Greek public schools and state education.
We sat at the table and I watched as his daughter, new love of my life, greedily fought with him for the delectation of sucking out the rabbit’s brains. I smiled weakly at them as if this was usual behaviour in suburban London too. As expected, all meals in Greece seemed a huge deal. The murmur of simmering food in vast iron pans. Every dinner accompanied by a piece of feta the size of a house brick on the side. Olives rolling everywhere. Homemade olive oil from their small olive tree plot kept in huge dark barrels.
I was once sent out with orders to get bread, but found that ora koinis isyhias – the ‘time of common quietness’ – had fallen. Work stops, the background din of Greece dies away, the town falls into one huge siesta. Greeks get very intense about this quiet time. You can hare around the streets on motorbikes without helmets, smoke wherever you like, triple park on pavements, no one will stop you – but have your radio on between 3pm and 5pm and you could find the neighbours have called the police on you.
(The Greek afternoon sleep is of course truly the greatest thing you can ever experience: falling deep under the dark surface of consciousness as the intense white glare outside gets too much. Waking later to find that, while you were out of it, the afternoon has turned itself into a pattern of rich colours. The heat more manageable. Life can begin again).
The baker had left warm fresh bread on the sill of his dilapidated shop, for those stupid enough to be up and still wandering around town. A hand written card had been left next to the bread on the baker’s window: leave whatever coins you want.
What a country.
I asked for ouzo with my dinner but the Greek “tut” and the furrowed look of disapproval I was given showed I’d made an error.
“Tsipouro,” I was told. “This is what you should drink. Ouzo is for old people and tourists…”
“Ochi, ochi! No, no!” said another “Raki. We drink raki in the south. Tsipouro in the north.”
So a glug of raki was handed to me. It was strong and took my breath, but I couldn’t really tell the difference. But my hosts were very particular on this. For a country so laid-back that it often seemed to be only just about hanging together at the seams (“Halara” – take it easy – said perpetually here, especially if some fool looks dangerously close to breaking into something that could be vaguely considered as action), Greeks seemed to work themselves up to incredible passion for the correct food. Have yemista – stuffed tomatoes – in northern Greece with rice, not mince, and you will be given a look of disgust. “Why are you serving me orphans?? “Give me meat!” Serve a yemista with meat in southern Greece and you’ll meet similar disapproval.
Coffee is religion of course. Once on a rough ferry boat – my first sea travel in Greece – crossing the Aegean in miserable lowly steerage class: the boat packed with lost souls, passengers sprawled on benches, packing cases, sleeping on sacks… I approached a small grubby galley cafeteria and asked for a coffee. Even here in the grim surrounds, the coffee (Greek coffee of course – elliniko cafe) had to be made, as it is across the whole of the country, with a dimpled brass pot with long wooden handle: a briki. It can be heated on gas or on hot sand – but never by electricity – and stirred constantly with a intricate long brass implement. The Greeks have bothered to come up with a word just for the froth on top of the coffee – kaimaki – and obviously the thicker and cloudier the kaimaki, the better. Some of the older women even told me they can even read my future in the mud and grains left at the bottom of the cup, like the clairvoyant char woman with their tea leaves back in Britain.
I looked out at the waves, the ship rocking, with the hope of gaining some sea-legs. I let out a little sighing moan to myself. My coffee maker instantly threw the coffee out of the pot into the dirty grey sink. It may have been the first time I’d heard a Greek apologise. And he did so again and again, effusively.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It is no good. Tell me. How do you like your coffee made? This is very important to a man. I know… It is… how you say? It is…sacrosanct. Tell me how I should make it for you…”
However, water too seems to be some inherent and essential element to the Greeks. Because of the heat? The salted food? The Greeks seem to cherish water. Old men savouring and smacking their lips in the cafes over the glass of water served up with every meal and every coffee. Everyone seem to be connoisseurs of water. Able to talk at length on the qualities of the local nero. Closing eyes and appreciating all the flavours they can detect. Directing visitors to the best places on their island for water. Anxiously asking if the water is good when visiting somewhere new.
Raising their glasses of water in the sun as if in benediction. The angled light congregating.
Having been force-fed at the family home, I was to be taken off to another beach by my prospective nifi – my sister-in-law – who wanted me to meet her boyfriend. We set off for the car, my eyebrows briefly rising at the sight of my the family’s next door neighbour – a giant elderly priest with huge flowing beard, black robes, kalimavkion hat and colossal jewel-studded gold cross round his neck – as he glided silently along the path as if on wheels.
“Skordo” the ever-superstitious Greeks mutter to themselves when they see a priest out of church, in the street or browsing in the supermarket. Skordo meaning garlic. And garlic being hung everywhere in Greece to ward off bad spirits.
We met Kostas, the boyfriend, looking like a shipwreck survivor. Thin, in loin cloth with frayed beard, skin burnt deep from the sun, next to his tent of sticks and canvas on a beautiful stretch of beach.
This beach is one of the few breeding homes for turtles in Europe. His job, it appeared, was to sit on this beach from May to October, stick in hand, waiting and watching for anyone walking down the sand near the nests. If spotted, he raced towards them, hollering and shouting, then returned to his shack and his bottle of Fix beer. It seemed a great life.
Greece should be congratulated for resisting the commercial exploitation of its beaches. It has the longest coastline in Europe, and surely the most beautiful. But unlike, say, Spain, hotels and mega-resorts are quite rare and the coast is protected against privitisation. Despite tourism providing one of the solitary, vital, incomes into the country, the beach is a preserved utopia. Miles and miles of beach remain unspoiled and alone for sunworshipping, for swimming, for nude bathing, or for a couple making love – not stopping as I walked past, the apologising Englishman.
Except here. A huge bar had been built right on this turtle beach. Lights flashing and a disco pumping into the night, with randy guests tumbling and spilling down onto the beach. Kostas, who had been a lone figure patrolling this beach for years, now wore a haggard look as his peaceful life with his slow moving friends had changed heartbreakingly.
Greeks will always demand their time at the beach of course. No matter how tight finances are, no matter what extraneous issues there might be, when I asked how long each of my wife-to-be’s friends were going to spend at the beach during the summer, if the answer was anything less than two solid months they pulled a face is as if some gross human rights travesty had taken place. I told them it was really only usual to spend a week or two in my country, but I might as well have told them to sit in a sewer for the summer.
And competitive! A regular summer conversation in Greece, even with passing strangers, is to ask the number of swims someone has had. Then desperately hope to be able to name a higher figure than whoever it is you’ve just met in the street or in the bakaliko – the local minimarkets. They do this with the number of ice creams they have eaten over the summer too. Then I watched a group of Greeks naming islands they’d been to. Getting more and more obscure. Each one in the group shrugging, unimpressed.
My Greek and I, however, were to take off on a road trip, heading inland instead.
First we took care to make sure we were not setting off on a Tuesday. Tuesday considered a day of momentous bad luck in Greece. Constantinople fell to the Ottomans on a Tuesday in 1453. Greeks have been wary of Tuesday ever since. I was told many take the legend to heart and will do very little, hiding out, waiting for this grim day to pass each week, before getting on with their week.
We hit the road. I was slightly confused at seeing petrol stations and garages here selling just the little metal buckle of a seat belt by their tills. Do they wear out more regularly in Greece than elsewhere? Then I was shown the trick. Drivers buy them to plug into the seat belt holder to stop their car beeping at them to plug in their belts, so they can be free to drive happily unencumbered by anything as tediously unnecessary as safety regulations. And they sell these, officially manufactured in packaging, at service stations all along the motorways.
What a country.
The road we took sent us past many roadside churches, from the regal and grand to the broken-down and squat. I watched all the elderly drivers going along in their cars, crossing themselves as they drove past each one. Cicadas in the fields were in full voice. We passed through villages with old men outside cafes sweating freely and happily. Pavements being hosed down and smelling of wet dust and the jasmine and citrus all mixed up
We first stopped at the site of the ancient games at Olympia, ran the ancient track, contemplated the stones and plinths, the blue sky sweeping through the columns. Then we carried on up past the port city of Patra. And after Patra we were back over the Gulf of Corinth, onto the nothern Greek mainland once again – this time heading north.
We stopped and consulted the oracles at Delphi. We carried on through the ancient mythical area of the Roumeli – central Greece – now known as the states of Sterea Ellada and Thessaly. And it was in Thessaly that we stopped and set ourselves to invade the home of the immortals.
Early one September morning, we were there, staring up from the valley at the immense colossus of Mount Olympus.
Setting off in thick, hot sunshine, the lower reaches of the mountain were full of woods with birdsong and butterflies and deserted pools where we could swim in the water alongside breast-stroking frogs. The smell of open flowers and thyme and oregano hung in the air. We climbed higher. The paths got harder and started to rise vertically, the rocky landscape slipping down the slopes beside us. We climbed higher still. The vegetation thinned out. Paths of clouded rocks, scraggy grass and trees clung to the mountain side with vulturous claws.
I started to notice several stone circles that had been made along our path. As they became more elaborate, and some even accompanied by offerings and small pyres, I asked about their significance and was a little taken aback to be told that they were small pantheons, shrines, made by those climbing this route to give honour to Zeus and the other 11 Gods of this parish.
I was told there are Greeks today who still believe and pray to the ancient Olympian gods. People who live their lives by the antediluvian traditions of the gods and call their religion Dodekatheism or Olympianism. Still believing bearded, vengeful, lusty Zeus is here, hiding himself as a bull, a swan, or morphing into a ray of sunlight, destining and guiding their lives.
What a country.
The climb was long. Limbs ached and progress slowed. Light falls fast in Greece, so fast you can see it. You can time the sun as it falls down the sky. Like a drop of orange paint running down a blue wall. We were in real danger of being stranded in the high uplands, as daylight started to give out.
This part of Olympus was the area that Giagoulas and his infamous gang of bandits hid out while praying on hikers, robbing the rich to give to the poor, back in the 1920s. When the police finally caught the terrible Giagoulas and they shot him down and celebrated, he called out from his dying position ‘Mou klasate t’ arhidia!‘ – ‘You only farted on my balls!’.
“We still say it today,” Giristroula tells me. “When stupid people try and scare you with their empty threats.”
So much did Giagoulas terrorise the country that mothers still tell miscreant children “eat your vegetables or Giagoulas will get you…” Well I certainly didn’t want him to get me, so we strained and sprinted and scrambled our final push to the top: 10 hours, 3,000 meters and 20 degrees celsius lower from when we had set off from the sun-drenched small town of Litochoro below us.
The wind was hard at the top. Snow lay in patches on the loose, bird-haunted, rocky ground. And the highest peak – Zeus’ Throne – was an imposing wall of slate grey in front of us as we stood on a high ledge and, enervated and exhausted, I fumbled for an engagement ring.
I tried to look the valiant, romantic hero but, utterly tired, I guess I resembled more an old Greecian statue kicked in the privates as I made my proposal to join this new Greek life forever and turn this new Greek family into mine. For reasons best known to herself this free-spirited girl from this other world agreed and we raced, hugging and grinning, to the refuge for climbers at mountain’s top.
“I’ve just got engaged!” I announced loudly, as we burst through the door, to all the climbers eating their fasolada – heavy bean soup – in their climbing gear, lamps strapped on their heads. They turned to look at me, slowly contemplate my words, and went back to their chewing. “Perastika” one muttered to his plate – get well soon.
Clearly they thought the over-excited Englishman hadn’t brought a Greek speaker to the top of Olympus with this odd intention of proposing. But they were wrong. My fiancé of five minutes launched into typically heated Greek attack on how rude they’d been. Shouts and gestures rang round from all sides of the room, chairs thrown backwards, hands waved in faces. I started to regret the turn of events racing out of control in front of me as I saw us not being taken in for the night, left to fend for ourselves outside.
But then suddenly bottles of retsina and tsipouro were brought out of a cupboard. Laughter, backs slapped, congratulations given. “Vion anthosparton!” – have a life covered with flowers! “Marrying a Greek girl – are you a crazy man?” the men cackled in my face. We spent the night with this crowd, drinking and toasting under a million stars – the clearest sky I had ever seen in my life – on the very roof of Greece.
Next morning, the cold air, sharp as a blade, cleared the lingering hangovers as we headed down the slopes. Far, far below us the Aegean sea could be seen, brilliant in the sun and, beyond, Greece’s second city. Thessaloniki.
The Avenue Nikis on the front at Thessaloniki could be the Brighton promenade. Grand buildings of apartments line the road stretching by the sea along to the White Tower – the emblem of the city, though not actually white – where cosmopolitan Thessalonikians go to be seen, to drink coffee, to watch old Greek tragedies in the modern new theatres.
Above the centre, perching on Eptapyrgio Hill – Thessaloniki’s own Acropolis – meaning ‘seven towers’ though, of course, there are actually ten – is Ano Poli, the old town. A completely different place. This is the remaining part of Thessaloniki that survived the Great Fire and the later, equally ruinous, council planners’ butchery. Traditional architecture, mazy small streets opening into classic old squares. Thessaloniki is a rare Greek city to have held on to these old, beautiful but dilapidated homes – looking distressed through age and character rather than the grim new-build buildings around the country. Ano Poli is wrecked with beauty. The owners of the new buildings round Greece though, so I’m told, will leave the hint of another floor being built in their property, a staircase leading nowhere, or a few column lying unfinished on the ground as no tax has to be paid on your house if it’s not been completed. That one column will lie there, unerected, till the end of time.
Old friends of my now newly engaged girl – my kopela – had arranged an evening for us to celebrate in an old bar in Papafi Street. Musicians living around the city, they arrived with bouzoukis, baglamas, guitars and violins. Again, endless glasses of tsipouro were drained. I shared my paidakia, my lamb chops, with one of the bearded friends, and typical English manners were trounced by typical Greek straightforwardness…
“You’re not eating this are you?” I gestured to my final piece, hoping – expecting – a no, my fork hovering ready to take it. He didn’t even look up, the ambiguity of trivial English politeness completely passing him by.
“Eh? Oh… yes…” came the reply. The food swallowed in a flash before me.
Sharing food is the mandatory way of eating in Greece, but this man obviously didn’t feel the dropi – the shame that Greeks say of eating the final piece. Often this shame will bring attendant bad luck too. So, many times, you will see just one lone hunk of meat sat on every plate at the end of the night. However, drink the last from a bottle and there is no shame, in fact you will find tha s’agapaei i pethera sou – your mother-in-law will love you. (rare to happen in Greece apparently…)
Then the music started. Rebetiko. Music from the dark hearts of the Greeks. The Greek blues. This is as far away from the cheap plate smashing music as you can get. Originating around the time of the Great Population Exchange in Greece in the 1920s in the port areas of Pireaus and Thessaloniki, which were the centres of huge immigration from Turkey and the east. The sounds were mixed with Greek and Balkan and Jewish cultures, to create this extraordinary outsider music. Coming from the serried downtown hash cafes with tales of love, lost love, pain, poverty, intoxication. These were songs from the very edges of society.
Some of the tonality was difficult for fastidious western ears like mine, but just the same the tunes were infectious, the pain inescapable. We stayed late. Very late. My final, woozy, tableau of Greece before my flight home later that morning was of this local tavern, hidden in the streets of Thessaloniki, filled with smoke and song, the locals plaintively singing the sad but inspiriting numbers from Greece past.
One year later, I was stood outside a barber’s shop in a quiet, shaded square on the heat-baked island of Samos, in my wedding suit. The sun dripping down on me like honey.
The barber was nowhere to be seen. I was due to be married in the town hall in a little less than an hour. I called to the stout old lady arranging flowers on her stall in the centre of the square
“Pou einai…” The word for ‘barber’ deserted me. I mimed a pair of scissors above my head.
The old woman looked vaguely concerned but offered only a shrug, a Greek tut and jut of the chin and then, having shouted something which I had no understanding, disappeared. So I found myself completely alone, aside for a sleeping stray dog, lying next to me, looking stone-dead – nekros – in a patch of midday sun. I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable and aware of untidy rumpled state in the rising summer heat.
Suddenly, from nowhere a moped appeared, haring fast round the corner with the fat old flower seller on the back, beaming and clutching her arms tight round the young driver, the barber, in front. She had gone to his house and woken him up for me.
“Natos!” she shouted, pointing happily at him “Natos o barberis!”
We had chosen to marry on the island of Samos as this was where a young man – soon to be my father-in-law – while carrying out part of his compulsory national service in the army, fell in love with a girl studying on the island the traditional Greek style of ceramics, the style of patina. My soon-to-be mother-in-law.
Samos is completely different from anywhere else I had previously experienced in Greece. An island far east off the Greek Aegean coast, with Turkey clearly visible, perhaps almost even a swimmable distance away. Life seemed slower, sweeter, more easy. People going about their lives relaxed, fat with time. Conducting their business at roughly the speed of the specks of dust floating in the hot air.
In ancient times Samos was considered so richly fertile and blessed that they said that even the birds here produced milk. “Kai tou pouliou to gala…” This old proverb is now taken as the slogan on the gaudy sign of Greece’s biggest supermarket chain.
The registrar of marriages in Karlovasi in Samos worked from an office straight out of the 1950s. No computers. Papers flapping under old desk fans, desperate to be let free, wedged tight under paperweights. The old registrar seemed to have never faced the problem of an Englishman wanting to marry here before. He scratched his head under his huge picture of Kolokotronis – the Greek general who drove out the Ottoman Empire from the land – and hit on a plan.
“We’ll make you a Samosian!”
He set about creating some fabricated documents that somehow showed that I was born and bred from Samos. He seemed inordinately pleased with his schemes. A few weeks after this and I – now a Samosian, despite having only been on this island for the briefest time – was in a large aureate hall, on my new island, in front of the Mayor of Samos. Waiting for my bride. My mother-in-law, stood behind me, was spitting lightly on my head – “ftou ftou ftou”.
This was for good luck. To keep ‘The Eye’ away from me.
The Eye – To Mati – is the malevolent effect that comes from people staring at you because you’re too beautiful, or too clever, or too aggravating, or too annoying. Or maybe just because you’re standing like a fool in front of a large wedding crowd of gabbering Greeks, not really having much understanding of what’s going on. Symptoms are headaches and fatigue. The prevention is to wear a brightly painted eye around your neck or, as I was experiencing, to have someone close to you lightly rain spit down on your head.
There is also a spell – To Xematiasma. A prayer that is said three times with a glass of water and a glass of oil. After each saying of the spell you place a finger in the oil and then let the drops fall into the water. If the oil disperses, so will your headache. The spell was once told by my wife’s grandmother – her yiayia – to her as a girl, but sadly this is no good, she can’t do it herself. It only works if the spell has been passed down from a woman to a man.
My gynaika finally arrived at the town hall, and her father, who must have planned this moment since she was a child in his arms – though probably not with an uncomprehending Englishman involved – sweetly still went through with the long traditional Greek declaration…
“Sou paradido tin kori mou...” – I am delivering you my daughter…
Even though I could only nod, bovine-dumb, and try and look suitably thoughtful.
Friends who had come from England mixed, a little stiffly at first, with the Greek family and friends. One friend of my new family, with a house on Samos, was the daughter of Greece’s great historical poets – Yiannis Ritsos. Ritsos is studied by all school students, his poetry full of politics and identity and struggle which had been banned at first but now celebrated and recognised by Nobel Prize committees. His daughter was here now keeping the English contingency happy, trying light-hearted conversation – tipikotites – that the Greeks believe the Brits like, chit-chatting about the weather.
“What do you call the English?” I once asked my future wife.
“Yes, ok. We don’t have the olive-kissed beauty and all that sort of thing, but what’s the name for us?”
“Ugly. That’s it. That’s the name for the English. In plural. One Uglos, a country of Ugly”.
As we sat on the boat taking us from the wedding in Samos to the party on the next island along the chain, Ikaria, I looked at my English friends – suits off, shorts on, white legs out, and felt that perhaps the Greeks had got it right.
We were soon disembarking on a wild and weird island. Ikaria, named after the most famous, shortest, one-manned solo flight took place. I had vague thoughts about omens of being here on the land of Icarus and my just launched marriage. Greeks are, after all, a very superstitious race.
Ikaria has a crazed feel about it. Once we were away from the handsome crescent harbour – with its cramped clutter of old buildings watching with inscrutable faces as the incomers land onto their island – the interior landscape turned red and rocky. The roads beyond fringed with spiky, arrowed plants. The residents all supposedly live well into their hundreds around here, with their longevity secrets desperately sort out by emulous visitors to the island.
And Ikarians seemed winningly odd. Eccentric. Time seems to be of no concept here. Not a single Ikarian wears a watch. Shops opening some time after midnight. The island also regularly bursts with flashes of lightas folk stand at upper windows of their houses holding mirrors as ferries pass by the coast, tilting them to reflect the sun so as to send their friends on the boat a goodbye message as they sail away.
We had just arrived though – the island still a mystery to be discovered. We had been met to be helped from the harbour by the brother of one of our two koubaras. Some of us loaded into cars for the drive on to the wedding party – the gledi – but the English group were nervously piled into the back of Yiorgos’ beaten-up old van.
The convoy made its way through rolling and twisted hills with a cacophony of blaring horns, as the ‘Ugly’ were thrown from side to side in the van as each corner was taken by Yiorgos in happily reckless fashion. Every car horn in the procession was repeatedly blasted, and old lady Ikarians leaned from their windows as we passed each tiny stone village to shout and wave handkerchiefs for good luck at the newly-weds. Kids ran up behind the cars. Men in the fields looked up from their cattle for a moment, noted the newly married strangers and raised tools in salute.
Ears ringing, disoriented, we arrived at the location of the party. As a red ball of sun gently flopped into the sea.
We had chosen to be here as, again, there was a poignant family history associated with this island. It was on Ikaria that my wife’s grandfather was exiled after fighting with the communists against the Greek government army during their ultimately failed Civil War in the 1940s.
Emotional visits by my mother-in-law, whose father was taken from the family for many years, were for later though. The party got underway. Wine flowed – we were, after all, also on the island where Dionysus, the God of drink and bacchanalia was meant to have been born. There was a band playing traditional Ikarian folk music – Greeks and English in a circle attempting Ikariotikos dancing. Arms clamped on shoulders. Steps and kicks, swirling up the dust from the taverna’s old stone floor.
A goat and a pig had been freshly slaughtered just for us, making me feel a guilty . Though not a single Greek understood this, greeting my meek words for the cursed fate of the animals with a knot of furrowed eyebrows. The randy, long-bearded, Rasputin-looking owner of this stone tavern on the rocks tumbling down to the sea where we were holding the gledi – who had an instant eye for the females of the party, particularly our second koubara – had forgotten the animals for the feast needed to be dealt with. Only remembering once he heard the pandemonium of car horns and shrieks coming over the hills an hour earlier.
The taverna owner provided us with great Greek hospitality. By a certain point in the evening he was more drunk than any of us and genially indicated his support with a smiling, closed-eyed, thumbs-up as the English stepped over him to help themselves to more drinks from his cellar.
(The final sighting we had of the over-sexed taverna owner, the next day, was him being chased down the beach by a long-suffering girlfriend, throwing a variety of objects at him and furiously cackling “Ha! Failed again! Malaka! Their koubara wouldn’t sleep with you! Who would? Only me…Only me! And why? Because I’ve been cursed! Cursed in life! – Me ehoun katarastei! ”)
My mother-in-law had moulded me a special Pythagorean cup for the occasion, and presented it to me during a drinking routine at the gledi where everyone had to dance with their drained glass on their head. Invented by Pythagoras of Samos, the cup allows the drinker to fill up with wine to only a certain point. If you try to fill more wine, it pours out of a hole at the bottom. Created to ensure workers 2000 years ago stayed sober, I’m afraid it was all rather too late for me.
As the gledi continued and the sun slowly climbed itself out of the sea again and my first day married into this Greek world dawned, I took a walk away from the party. I looked out over the water.
Stupid-faced with this newly given happiness, I thought of the country I’d joined, rolling away in the sun-bleached land behind me. I thought of the orange groves, the baked roads, the blue seas and sapphire skies, the bearded heroes of the past and the countrymen of today. And as I stood and stared and thought of Greece, part of a poem about this country by Ritsos that I had been once told came instinctively to my mind.
A small bird that flies in the sun
If you look at it once, you will smile
If you look at it twice or three times…you will start singing