I’m not really sure why I decided to start writing a blog. A combination of factors, I suppose.
I have for some years been a serial commenter on various blogs, newspapers, magazines and forums online; when I come across an article which piques my curiosity, or a comment which I view as disingenuous, or a blog which covers subjects in which I have an interest, I find the urge to add my two-penneth quite irresistible. So it’s sort of been in the back of my mind to start writing a blog for a while, the reasoning being that I could expand a little on some of those comments I’ve penned, and cogitate in print about some of the random thoughts which pass through my mind. Much of what interests me is to do with the issue of smoking; or more pertinently, with the issue of the war which has been declared on smokers by a small but powerful and very well-funded minority of fanatics; ideologues who have used their funding to disseminate a quite astounding avalanche of misinformation. So that’s a subject I will doubtless return to quite often. Plus I’ve lived a somewhat varied life, and will probably on occasion touch on some of the experiences I’ve had in my travels through the Near / Middle East and Asia in my younger days, when things were very different to today.
But as well as being a serial commenter I’m also a serial procrastinator; so the idea of writing a blog remained just that, an idea. It was only fairly recently, when I responded to a request from ‘Grandad’ on his ‘Headrambles’ blog for some guest posts, and submitted a couple, that at his gentle urging the nebulous idea of starting a blog began to coalesce. This coming to fruition was very much aided and abetted by the fact that ‘Grandad’ happens to be a master of the technicalities of building a web page, and was able to do stuff that I wouldn’t have believed even possible, let alone to have attempted myself. Left to my own devices, it’s very doubtful this blog would ever have seen the light of day. So I owe ‘Grandad’ a huge debt of gratitude for all the hard work he’s put in to create a blog page that at least in appearance, if not in content, looks highly professional.
There is a general Greek theme to the site, because I’ve been living in Greece for the past fifteen years, and some of what I write will naturally pertain to the country where I have made my home; however, my musings certainly won’t be Greece-centric, as my interests range far beyond the borders of my adopted land.
The blog was actually supposed to go ‘live’ about a month ago, but just before I was about to bite the bullet and expose myself to the scrutiny of the blogosphere, I found a workshop which met my criteria – something I’ve been searching for since I moved to Patras more than six months ago. So all of a sudden, I was dragged out of my state of torpor and into a frantic flurry of action; buying materials, building workbenches, racking and shelving, getting my saw out of storage and delivered to the workshop (not as easy as it sounds, as it weighs more than 350 kg) and transferring all my tools and equipment from the apartment below us to the new premises. ‘The Blog’ was thus consigned to the back-burner and allowed to simmer untended. But the time has come to lift the lid and stir the pot. The workshop is up and running, and I’ve run out of excuses to delay any longer. Amusingly, as I write this, we have no internet. It’s been very dodgy for the past few days, but during the past couple of weeks the phone company has been digging narrow trenches and laying in cables, and shiny new boxes are springing up on the street corners, so it looks like the long promised fibre-optic network is finally coming to town! I assume the dodgy internet connection has something to do with this latest activity. I will be making a visit to the local office to see what speeds I can sign up to, and (inevitably) how much extra it’s going to cost.
Still, for Greece, this is indeed progress! Up until about ten or so years ago, I was still on dial-up.
I arrived in Greece for the first time at the end of March in 1967, a fresh-faced young lad setting out on his travels, having dropped out of school at the age of 16 because of an insatiable urge to see the world. Education seemed unimportant to me when compared to the wealth of experiences waiting to be sampled in exotic locations, so I walked out of school (much to my parents’ dismay), got a job on a building site to earn some quick money (also to my parents’ dismay), and some six months later set out on my travels.
I made my way down through Europe to southern Italy, where I bought a ferry ticket from the port of Brindisi to the port of Patras on mainland Greece. In those days, the ferry always stopped en route at the island of Corfu, and the ticket permitted one to disembark at Corfu for a few days and then re-join the ferry (or a sister ship from the same line) a few days later, on the same ticket, to continue the journey to Patras.
When I was a boy of twelve, I’d read the delightful book ‘My Family And Other Animals’ by Gerald Durrell, a zoologist who had spent his childhood years in the 1930s living on Corfu with his eccentric (bordering on barking mad) family, and the book was an account of their sojourn there. I’d been absolutely captivated by the book as a child, so when the opportunity arose to visit the island, there was no hesitation whatsoever. I disembarked.
The island of Corfu was all I’d anticipated and more. A beautiful old town with a strong Venetian influence from the period when the island was ruled from Venice, and a verdancy that had to be seen to be believed. This was a time before Greece was a mass tourism destination, so most of Corfu was much as it had been for hundreds of years; but with the advantage of a good road and sanitation infrastructure, put in place by the British when they ruled from 1815 to 1864. Another quirky legacy of the British rule was that cricket became the favoured sport, and until recently there was a cricket pitch in the centre of town, where every Sunday you could sit at one of the cafés next to the pitch and relax with a beer (or maybe an Ouzo accompanied by a small plate of meze) to the sound of the thwack of leather on Willow as two teams battled it out under the hot sun. If the ball broke a windscreen in the adjoining car park, it counted as a six. Needless to say, the locals never parked their cars in that car park on Sundays.
I was bewitched by the magic of the place. I had a tent which I pitched in an olive grove just outside town, and settled in. The original intention of re-joining the ferry in three days evaporated like the dew under the morning sun. I was captivated.
The weeks passed, and I got to know, and be known by some of the locals. I’d stumbled upon a café-bar in town where the drinks were cheap and the locals were friendly. I spoke no Greek, and they spoke no English, but it didn’t seem to matter. The clientele was largely made up of the guys who worked on the trucks that collected all the garbage around town, and they were a hoot. I’d go there of an evening, and the beer, Retsina and Ouzo would be flowing freely. Someone would fire up the ancient juke box in the corner and we’d all end up singing along and dancing the Sirtaki together into the early hours. In their enthusiasm for the moment, the guys would be grabbing glasses, plates, ashtrays and anything which would break with a satisfactory noise, and dashing them on the ground at our feet; whereupon we would dance like maniacs on the broken shards and grind them into dust. Michalis, the unflappable owner, would just add the broken items to the bill of whoever threw them. So the bills at the end of the evening would read something like: “Spiros: 3 beers, 5 Ouzo, 1 ashtray, 2 plates”; “Dimitris: 6 beers, 4 Ouzo, 1 Retsina, 3 wine glasses, 2 beer glasses, 4 plates”, and so on. And when I was walking in town during the day, if a dustcart went past me on the street, all the guys hanging off the side would be whooping and shouting greetings to me as they went past. I still smile at the memory.
So my three day stay turned into a three month stay, and I probably would have stayed much longer had I not been offered a lift to Istanbul in exchange for sharing driving duties. I didn’t have a licence to drive at that time (a mere detail), but I accepted anyway.
Thus began my affinity with Greece and its people, which seems never to have left me, and has repeatedly drawn me back to the place.
Chaotic, anarchic, bureaucratic, iconoclastic, deeply religious, stubborn to the point of stupidity, honest, trusting, passionate, contemptuous of authority, fiercely patriotic, tolerant, lethargic, hard-working, generous, dismissive; it is a country of paradoxes which continues to surprise me even today.
We are, as everyone knows, in the midst of deep recession here (and have been for seven years), the reasons for which (as I see them) I will doubtless expand upon another time. But the Greeks nevertheless maintain a stoic optimism, and continue to reject stupidities like smoking bans for the obvious attempts at social engineering that they are. Despite the train-wreck of an economy that currently pertains, Greece is still a fantastic country to live.
I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.