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.
If I pictured Greece at all it was paunchy leathery men, poured into small speedos, a gold chain nestling deep in a rug of chest hair beckoning you into restaurants with cheap pictures of the Acropolis hanging on the wall behind them.
All this changed quite suddenly and irrevocably, when I met a rather quiet, unhappy-looking, beautiful Greek girl who had come to teach in a summer school in Winchester.
Within a year I was with her, slogging my way to the top of Mount Olympus, a ring in my pocket and Greece, its people, its culture, its landscape, its refusal to be like anywhere else, indelibly in my mind.
My introduction to Greece began in the capital, 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.
They were still changing the guard in front of the parliament building at 4am, with their pantomimic routine of slow motioned raising of the legs, like frozen flamingos, strange twirls of the feet and slaps of the 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 time of the early morning. I was viewing Greece as if from the centre of a dream.
Which is really the only way you can see her, of course.
The guards have an air of aloof impassivity, but there’s also a tinge of what I perceive as faint embarrassment as I drop my bags and stand and watch them a while – just me and the two pirouetting stocking-legged guards in the dark.
I’m told these are the very elite corps of the Greek army. God help them if they’re ever invaded.
Next day I wake to find a completely different city.
The dazzling sun and late-morning heat mixing with the city noise and the traffic.
I am staying in the area of Exarchia, a world away from the taverna scenes of moustachioed men I had previously pictured. This area is the arena of anarchy. Agitator politics. Every spare space is graffitied over, and then graffitied over again. Every citizen clothed in black, beards to the fore.
Everyone is 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 contemptuous little windmill movements.
We meet a friend of my future wife. A sweet, funny girl who will, a year on, become one of our ‘koubaras’ (bridesmaid in Greek, but actually meaning so much more than that here. Once you’re koubara-ed, it is a life-long relationship. Almost like a mafia pact).
We sit and talk for hours, as all Greeks do, usually over just the one coffee. And when she finally leaves 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 turns and tells us:
“Oh. I forgot – I’m to go on trial next month. For making Molotov Cocktails upstairs in our anarchist coffee bar.”
She shrugs as if to say what a silly triviality it all is and skips away and I’m left as the stunned Englishman in Greece. The fly in the milk, as they say here – san tin myga mes to gala.
While I am caught by the level of political interest and the debates that seem 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 dissatisfaction seem quite 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 a slumbering menace. Tensions in the city feel permanently high.
As I climb the Acropolis on the unavoidable tourist trail, winding my way up the dusty path to the Parthenon – the aetoma and the columns above, the colour of smoker’s brown teeth – I note how at every turn a policeman appears to be looming over or aggressively moving on shrinking figures they feel shouldn’t be there. Men who appear to be doing no harm, as far as I could see.
Becoming bored watching this relentless roughing up, I take to asking each mirrored-sunglasses wearing, groin-thrusting cop I pass, quite unnecessarily, “Acropolis?” pointing to that most famous wonder of the world behind me. Tapping the next batsos on the shoulder “I wonder, could you tell me, is this the Acropolis?”
Each one then turning annoyed from his work bullying his particular immigrant to grunt confirmation and irritably waves me along.
The strain on the city is clear, as I later skirt the large Omonia Square, now stripped of its centre-piece monuments, and pass neighbouring streets where poverty is quite visible. Well-dressed people rifling deep in the bins, distress flowing into the streets.
The flags of Golden Dawn flowing above.
The atmosphere feels clearer in many ways as I travel out of the city, past the gnarled olive trees that line every Greek road as lampposts do in England, and out towards that wonder of the modern world, the Corinth Canal.
The sight of boats passing through this eye-of-a-needle channel is a pretty remarkable sight, as I pass over into the Peloponnese and down the long route to my future family’s home.
The journey hugs the blue Ionian Sea to my right. And it really is a blue. The Greeks even have a special word just for the blue of their seas and skies: galano.
Mountains rising up on my left – parched and convulsed high ground.
And a donkey in front of me.
The donkey stand impassively for hours as we journey along. Riding on the back of a heroically unroadworthy, falling-apart, pick-up truck, its ears flying in the wind.
The road is long. I arrive tired and apprehensive at the family home – shaded and cool and decorated in stone and dark wood against the white light of the Greek sun outside, as many Greek homes seem to be.
Unlike the many Greek homes I later see though, this one at least doesn’t have the common touch of knitted white doilies hanging over every surface in the house. Some of the older residents in Greece even ludicrously place their doily – the semedakia – over the top of their tv sets, completely obscuring the top half of their viewing experience.
I have little time to consider any sort of nerves at meeting the parents for the first time as, within the first five minutes, they’re removing their clothes, bundling me into a car and taking me to the beach.
And so it is I find myself half naked, wimpily frolicking in the surf with the prospective in-laws as the sun sets into the sea with an explosion of reds and oranges.
We drive back for a dinner of rabbit, caught by the father, Vasilios.
Gruff, bald as a shiny dark pebble, Vasilios has hardly a word of English. I am 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-school that pretty much all students are sent to for extra topping-up lessons, so poor and ramshackle are Greek schools and the state education.
Most Vasilios’ in Greece are given the English nickname ‘Bill’. They all seem rather proud of this.
“Call me Bill,” they say in a pleased-with-themselves way.
I work out, however, that the western version of Vasilios is actually the rather more comedic ‘Basil’.
All Greeks have a name day – a onomastiki yiorti – when they celebrate the saint of the same name as theirs and get visited at home by friends and family – who all arrive expecting to be treated. It’s a bigger occasion than a birthday in Greece.
Vasilios’ onomastiki yiorti is on 1st January: the same day as the feast day for the Latin St Basil.
At the dinner table, I watch as the apple of my eye, new love of my life, greedily fights with her family for the delectation of sucking out the rabbit’s brains.
I smile weakly at them as if this is usual behaviour in suburban London too.
As expected, all meals in Greece are a big deal and always accompanied by a piece of feta the size of a house brick on the side of the table. Olives everywhere. Homemade olive oil, kept in huge barrels in the basement.
I am once sent out with orders to get bread, but find that ora koinis isyhias – the ‘time of common quietness’ – has fallen. Work stops, the background din of Greece dies away, the town falls into one huge siesta.
Greeks get very intense about their 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 might just find the neighbours have called the police.
(The Greek afternoon sleep is quite the greatest thing you can imagine: falling 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 far more manageable.)
The baker has left warm fresh bread, on the sill of his dilapidated shop, for those stupid enough to be up and still wandering around town and not adding to the somnolent symphonies floating down from shuttered windows.
A hand written card has been left next to the bread on the baker’s window: leave whatever coins you want.
What a country.
I ask for ouzo with my dinner but the Greek “tut” and furrowed look of disapproval I’m given show I’ve made a grave error.
“Tsipouro” I’m told “This is what you should drink.”
“Ochi, ochi! No, no!” says another “Raki. We drink raki in the south. Tsipouro in the north.”
So a glug of raki is handed to me. It is strong and takes my breath, but I can’t really tell the difference. But my hosts are very particular on this.
For a country so laid-back that it often seems to be only just about hanging together at the seams (“halara” – take it easy – said perpetually, especially if anyone looks dangerously close to breaking into anything that could be vaguely considered as action), Greeks 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??” they cry. “Give me meat!” Serve a yemista with meat in southern Greece and you’ll be greeted with equal disapproval.
Coffee is religion.
Once on a rough ferry boat – my first sea travel in Greece – crossing the Aegean in obvious lowly ‘steerage’ class: the boat packed with lost souls, passengers sprawled on benches, packing cases, 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 – never by electricity – stirred constantly with a intricate long brass implement. The Greeks even have a word for the froth on top of the coffee – kaimaki – and obviously the thicker and cloudier the kaimaki, the better.
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.
I think it may be the first time I had 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…”
Having been force-fed at the family home, I am to be taken off to another beach by my prospective nifi – sister-in-law – who wants 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 – gliding silently along the path.
“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.
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 appears, is 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 races towards them, hollering and shouting, then returns to his shack and his bottle of Fix beer. It seems a great life.
Greece must 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 walk past, the apologising Englishman.
A huge bar has 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 has been a lone figure patrolling this beach for years, now wears a haggard look as his peaceful life with his slow moving friends has changed immeasurably and heartbreakingly.
I watch him charging and waving and pirouetting up and down the beach like a Delhi traffic policeman at rush hour.
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 ask how long each of my wife-to-be’s friends are going to spend at the beach during the summer, if the answer is anything less than two solid months it is as if some gross human rights travesty has taken place.
I tell them it’s 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.
A regular summer conversation, even with passing strangers, is to ask the number of swims someone has had. Then you desperately hope to be able to name a higher figure than whoever it is you’ve just met in the street or in the bakalikos – the local minimarkets.
I watch a group of Greeks naming islands they’ve been to for the summer. Getting more and more obscure. Each one in the group shrugging, unimpressed. “Of course I’ve been there.” “I went there before anyone had heard of it.”
Eventually I get the impression they’re just making the islands up “Piperi?” Yes! “Pitta?” Of course! “Stroggili?” Who hasn’t?!
My Greek and I, however, are to take off on a road trip. Heading inland instead.
First we take care to make sure we’re not setting off on a Tuesday. Tuesday is 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’m told many take the legend to heart and will do very little, hiding out, waiting for this grim, cursed, day to pass each week, before even thinking of undertaking some sort of exertion or endeavor.
We set off though, and take to the roads.
I’m 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’m 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 and 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 take sends us passed many roadside churches, from the regal and grand to the broken-down and squat. I watch all the elderly drivers going along in their cars, crossing themselves as they drive past each one.
We stop at the site of the ancient games at Olympia, run the ancient track, contemplate the columns and plinths. Then carry on up past the city port of Patra and after this we are back over the ‘ditch’ of the Corinth Canal once again – this time heading north though.
Having stopped and consulted the oracles at Delphi, we carry on through the ancient traditional area of Roumeli – central Greece – now known as the states of Sterea Ellada and Thessaly.
And it is in Thessaly that we stop and set ourselves to invade the home of the immortals.
Early one September morning we are staring up from the valley at an immense and mysterious Mount Olympus.
Setting off in thick, hot sunshine, the lower reaches of the mountain are full of woods with birdsong and butterflies and deserted pools where we can swim in the water alongside breast-stroking frogs. The smell of open flowers and thyme and origano hang in the air.
We climb higher, the paths start to rise vertically, the rocky landscape slipping down the slopes beside us.
We climb higher still, the vegetation thins out. Paths of clouded rocks, scraggy grass and trees clinging to the mountain side with vulturous claws.
I start to notice several stone circles that have been made along our path.
As they become more elaborate, and some even accompanied by offerings and small pyres, I ask about their significance and am taken aback to find they are small pantheons, shrines, made by those climbing this route to give honour to Zeus and the other 11 Gods of this parish.
I learn there are Greeks today who still believe and pray to the ancient Olympian Gods. They live their lives by the antediluvian traditions of the Greek 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.
The climb is long, limbs ache and progress slows. Light falls fast in Greece and we’re in real danger of being stranded in the high uplands, as daylight starts to give out.
This is 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 Giagoulas and they shot him down and celebrated, I am told he called out from his dying position ‘Mou klasate t’ arhidia!‘ – ‘You only farted on my balls!’. “We still say it today,” I’m told “When stupid people try and scare you with 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 don’t want him to get me, so we strain and sprint and scramble our final push to the top: 10 hours, 3,000 meters and 20 degrees celcius lower since we set off from the sun-drenched small town of Litochoro below us.
The wind is hard here, snow lies in patches on the loose, bird-haunted, rocky ground. And the high peak – Zeus’ Throne – is an imposing wall of slate grey in front of us as we arrive and, enervated and exhausted, I fumble for an engagement ring.
I try to look the valiant, romantic hero but, utterly tired, feel I resemble more an old Greecian statue kicked in the privates as I make my intransigent proposal to join this new Greek life forever and turn this new Greek family into mine.
For reasons best known to herself she agrees and we race, hugging and grinning, to the refuge for climbers at mountain’s top.
“I’ve just got engaged!” I announce, as we burst through the door, to the climbers eating their fasolada – heavy bean soup – in their climbing gear, lamps strapped on their heads.
They turn to look at me, slowly contemplate my announcement, and go back to their chewing. “Perastika” one mutters 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 are wrong.
My fiancé of five minutes launches into typically Mediterranean attack on how rude they’ve been. Shouts and gestures ring round from all sides of the room, chairs thrown backwards, and I start to regret the turn of events racing out of control in front of me as I see us being thrown out to fend for ourselves for the night.
But then, suddenly bottles of retsina and tsipouro are brought out of a cupboard. Laughter, backs slapped, congratulations. “Vion anthosparton!” – have a life covered with flowers!
We spend the night with this crowd, drinking and toasting under a million stars, the clearest sky I have ever seen in my life, on the very roof of Greece.
Next morning, the cold air, sharp as a blade, clears the lingering hangovers as we head down the slopes.
Far, far below us the Aegean sea can 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 impressive flats line the road stretching by the sea along to the White Tower – the emblem of the city though, curiously enough, 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, however, 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 territory. 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 new-build buildings around the country.
The owners of these new buildings, so I’m told, will leave a column lying unfinished or a small window still needing rounding off in their property 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.
Ano Poli, however, is wrecked with beauty.
Old friends of my now newly engaged girl – my kopela – have arranged an evening for us to celebrate in an old bar in Papafi Street.
Musicians living around the city, they arrive with bouzoukis, baglamas, guitars and violins.
Again, endless glasses of tsipouros are drained. I share my paidakia, my lamb chops, with one of the bearded friends, and typical English manners are trounced by typical Greek straightforwardness…
“You’re not eating this are you?” I gesture to my final piece, hoping – expecting – a no, my fork hovering ready to take it. He doesn’t even look up, the ambiguity of trivial English politeness passing him by. “Eh? Oh… yes…” comes the reply and 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 ntropi – 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 a 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, apparently, in Greece…)
Then the music starts.
Rebetiko. Music direct 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 Jewish cultures, to create this extraordinary outsider music.
Coming from the serried downtown hash cafes with tales of love, lost love, pain, poverty, and intoxication, these songs from the edges of society and are now explored by the new generations of Greeks.
Some of the tonality is difficult for fastidious western ears like mine, but just the same the tunes are infectious, the pained passion inescapable.
We stay late. Very late. My final, woozy, tableau of Greece before my flight home later that morning is of this local tavern, hidden in the streets of Thessaloniki, filled with smoke and song, the locals joining in lustily on the sad but inspiriting numbers from Greece past.
One year later, I am stood outside a barber’s shop in a quiet, shaded square on the heat-baked island of Samos, in my wedding suit.
The barber is nowhere to be seen. I am due to be married in the town hall in a little less than an hour.
I call to the stout old lady arranging flowers on her stall in the centre of the square
She looks vaguely concerned but offers only a shrug, a Greek tut and jut of the chin and then, having shouted something which I had no understanding, disappears.
So I find myself completely alone, aside for a sleeping stray dog, lying next to me, looking stone-dead – nekros – in a patch of midday sun.
Minutes tick by and I grow increasingly concerned for my rumpled, ungroomed state and start to be aware of just how uncomfortable I am in the rising summer heat.
Suddenly, from nowhere a moped appears, haring fast round the corner with the fat old flower seller on the back, beaming and clutching onto the young driver, the barber, in front. She had gone to his house and woken him up for me.
“Natos!” she shouts, pointing at him “Natos o barberis!”
We have 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 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 even a swimmable distance away.
Life is slower, sweeter, more easy. People going about their lives relaxed, fat with time. Conducting their business at roughly the pace 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 produce milk.
“Kai tou pouliou to gala…”
This old annonted proverb now taken as the slogan on the gaudy sign of Greece’s biggest supermarket chain.
The registrar of marriages in Karlovasi in Samos works from an office straight out of the 1950s. No computers. Papers flapping under old desk fans, desperate to be let free, wedged under paperweights. They seemed to have never faced the problem of an Englishman wanting to marry here before.
The registrar scratched his head under his huge picture of Kolokotronis – the Greek general who drove out the Ottoman Empire from the land – and hits on a plan.
“We’ll make you a Samosian!”
He set about creating some fabricated documents that, it seems to me, somehow show that I am born and bred from Samos. He seemed very 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 – am in a large aureate hall, on my island, in front of the Mayor of Samos. Waiting for my bride.
And my mother-in-law is spitting lightly on my head – “ftou ftou ftou”.
Apparently this is 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 am now finding, to have someone close to you 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 arrives 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 goes through with the long traditional Greek declaration…
“Sou paradido tin kori mou...” – I am delivering you my daughter…
Even though I can only nod, bovine-dumb, and try and look suitably thoughtful.
Friends who have come from England mix, a little stiffly at first, with the Greek family and friends.
One friend of my new family, with a house on Samos, is the daughter of one of Greece’s greatest historical poets – Yiannis Ritsos.
Ritsos is studied by all school students, his poetry full of politics and struggle and depth, banned at first but later celebrated and recognised by the Nobel Prize committee.
His daughter has had a complex and cultivated life but is here now keeping the English contingency happy, making light-hearted conversation and 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 fo us?”
“Ugly. That’s it. That’s the name for the English. In plural. One Uglos, a country of Ugly”.
As we sit on the boat taking us from the wedding in Samos to the party on the next island along the chain, Ikaria, I look at my English friends – suits off, shorts on, white legs out, and feel that perhaps, after all, the Greeks may have got it right.
But we’re soon disembarking on this wild and weird island.
Ikaria is named after where the most famous, shortest, one-manned solo flight took place. I have vague thoughts about bad omens between being here on the land of Icarus and my just hatched marriage. Greeks are, after all, a very superstitious race.
Ikaria has a slightly crazed feel about it.
Once we’re away from the handsome crescent harbour – with its cramped clutter of old buildings watching with inscrutable faces at the incomers coming onto their island – the interior landscape turns 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 seem winningly odd. Eccentric. Time seems to be no concept here. Shops opening at midnight.
The island bursts with flashes of light at all time, as folk stand at the upper window 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 have just arrived though – the island still a mystery to be discovered – and have been met to be helped from the harbour by the brother of one of our two koubaras.
Some of us load into cars for the drive on to the wedding party – the gledi – but the English group are nervously piled into the back of Yiorgos’ beaten-up old van.
The convoy makes its way through rolling and twisted hills with a cacophony of blaring horns, as the ‘Ugly’ are thrown from side to side in the van as each corner is taken by Yiorgos at speed.
Every car horn in the procession is repeatedly blasted and fat old lady Ikarians lean from their windows as we pass each tiny stone village, to shout and wave handkerchiefs for the good luck at the newly-weds.
Kids run up behind the cars. Men in the fields look up from their cattle for a moment, note the married strangers, and raise tools in salute.
Ears ringing, disoriented, we arrive at our hotel and get ready for the party as a rubescent sun gently flops into the sea.
We have chosen to be here as, again, there is 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, are for later though. The party gets underway.
Wine flows – we are, after all, also on the island where Dionysus, the God of drink and bacchanalia was born.
There’s 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 dust from the taverna’s old stone floor.
A goat and a pig have been freshly slaughtered just for us, making me feel a guilt for the cursed fate of the animals. Though not a single Greek understands this, greeting my compassionate words with a knot of furrowed eyebrows.
The randy, hugely-bearded, Rasputin-looking owner of this stone tavern on the rocks tumbling down to the sea where we are holding the gledi – who has an instant eye for the females of the party, particularly our second koubara – had forgotten the animals for the dinner 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 provides us with great Greek hospitality. By a certain point in the evening he is 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 have of the over-sexed Greek Rasputin, 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…and that’s just because I’ve been cursed in life – Me ehoun katarastei! ”)
My mother-in-law at the party has moulded me a special Pythagorean cup for the occasion, and presents it to me during a drinking routine in the gledi where everyone has 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’s all rather too late for me.
As the gledi continues and the sun slowly climbs out of the sea again and my first day married into this world dawns, I take a walk away from the party and look out over the water.
Stupid-faced with a newly given happiness, I think of the country I’ve joined, rolling away in the sun-bleached land behind me.
I think of the orange groves, the baked roads, the blue seas and sapphire skies, the bearded heroes and the countrymen of today. And as I stand and stare and think of Greece, part of a poem on the country by Ritsos that I was once told comes 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