Where I live is fairly close to the centre of Patras. On the scooter, I can be in the central square in about ten minutes, but I would guess that at the time my house was built – somewhere about 1950 – it was probably outer suburbs, and still fairly rural – a new development on the outskirts of town. They had obviously put in the infrastructure, subdivided the land into plots and sold them like that, for the new plot owner to build what he wanted (within the planning laws-ish), because no two houses in this fairly densely packed little area are the same. Most of residential central Patras is dominated by apartment blocks, but round here the majority of buildings are small houses, so it still retains the feeling of an actual neighbourhood, rather than the anonymity that high-rise buildings seem to inculcate.
The house is almost at the end of a cul-de-sac, and at the end of the road is a large area which is undeveloped, and given over to olive trees and orange trees. Being a dead-end road, there is of course no passing traffic, so given its proximity to the city centre, it’s remarkably peaceful. The local residents have from the outset been both friendly and welcoming; delighted with the exoticism of having a resident Englishman (the Greeks as a rule have a fondness for the English), and even more delighted that this newcomer spoke enough Greek to be able to answer those all-important questions, like details of family, origins and history, and reasons for being in Greece.
I’m the last-house-but-one at the end of my street (the name of which rather endearingly translates into English as ‘heavens’, or ‘celestial’ – or even ‘uranium’ in a slightly different form!); the house at the end next door to me is unoccupied, and on the other side of me is a little old Greek lady called ‘Pigi’, who is an absolute delight. She lives on her own, never married as far as I know, so no children, but is never lonely. There’s a constant stream of locals in and out of her house, helping her out, taking her plates of cooked food, weeding her small patch of garden, and bringing her bits of shopping to save her going out. She in turn welcomes everyone warmly, including local Albanians and the domesticated Roma (Gypsies) at the other end of the street, both of which groups are not well liked by many Greeks. In the summer, which tends to be very hot, at night she sits out in the street where a cool breeze is funneled through, and is joined by a few of the neighbours who bring their own chairs and a few bottles of beer and they have an impromptu ‘παρέα’ (parea), which is a singularly Greek word meaning a gathering of friends or family, very often spontaneous. They sit out there and chinwag for a couple of hours, enjoying the breeze, the beer and the banter.
On the other side of the street opposite me, at the end next to the orange / olive grove there is a tiny, old, and somewhat decrepit house – I’d guess it can’t be more than 20 m² in all. It is used as an office by a rather large and formal but friendly woman called Evangelia. Quite what she does there I have no idea, I’ve never asked, but it seems to be something to do with church matters, as it’s not unusual to see priests going in the door. Evangelia keeps the most peculiar hours. Sometimes she won’t appear for several days at a time, and when she does turn up, it’s often mid-morning or mid-afternoon, and she’s there very often until 10 – 11 pm, sometimes as late as 1 or 2 in the morning. Whatever it is she does in there, it’s obviously a nice little earner – she bought a new Lancia last year to replace the other, nearly-new Lancia she had.
Next to her, and opposite me is a single-storey flat-roofed house belonging to Georgos, the bird man. He breeds songbirds as a hobby and probably a little income side-stream. I haven’t talked to him a great deal, but he appears to be retired. He’s about 60 I’d guess, but probably retired at fifty if he worked for the government in any capacity. (Which is one of the reasons Greece is broke). He’s widowed I’d imagine, as there’s no sign of a wife and he has three adult children, two girls and a boy, two of whom (a girl and the boy) still live with him. They’re friendly, but keep their distance a bit. Georgos sometimes wanders over when I’m working in the downstairs apartment to see what I’m doing, and to add a few pearls of wisdom to the proceedings. He’s a nice guy, but doesn’t often show his face outside.
Next to him, and also opposite me is another single-storey flat-roofed house which when we moved in was occupied by Katerina and her daughter Athena. Sadly while we were in Thailand last February / March, Katerina died suddenly, so now there is only Athena. Katerina was a bit of a character. Invariably dressed in a slightly grubby and moth-eaten housecoat and with a pair of old, falling apart slippers on her feet. She would greet me with an almost toothless grin and loud cackle of laughter. “Ah, you’re back!”, she’d cry, “Welcome, welcome! Nice to see you!”, and kiss me on both cheeks. (This was before we actually moved in, and were making monthly trips to get the place livable). Athena the daughter is plump, around thirty, and seems never to have had a boyfriend. The only men I’ve ever seen going into that house have been workmen or her older brother. She is nice to the point of obsequiousness, which I find a tad grating, but her heart is in the right place.
Much as I liked Katerina, there was one thing she did which really used to piss me off, and that was to put out yesterday’s bread on her roof for the pigeons. And they loved it. Bloody hundreds of them. And they all used to sit on the edge of my roof (which overlooked their feeding patch on the roof opposite) and shit all over my balcony. And it was a lot of shit. And when I had the windows open, there would constantly be feathers swirling round the house. One one occasion, when we were doing the monthly runs from Corfu, we arrived to find half the top apartment (where we stay) 2 cm deep in stinking water. The combination of heavy rain the week before, and a few weeks build-up of shit and feathers on the balcony had blocked the balcony drain pipe. The balcony had flooded to a depth of about 20 cm, and the water had seeped (poured?) through the French doors. What a fucking disaster! And this when we arrived after a six hour ferry / drive from Corfu. Fortunately (thank heaven for small mercies) it’s a Greek house, and as such has no truck with unimportant details like level floors, so the water in the house was confined to half the living room and the spare room next to it, neither of which had anything of great value in the flooded areas. And also in the hall, where it had found an outlet by cascading down the stairs and out under the front door.
Luckily I had one of those ‘wet-and-dry’ vacuum cleaners, so we spent the next hour or two sucking up all the water and tipping it down the loo, and then had to mop the place out with bleach to get rid of the smell of shitty water, and then again with a scented floor cleaner to try to get rid of the smell of bleach. All the while cursing Katerina for feeding those verminous birds. Perhaps had I been a long-time local, I would have spoken to her about it, but being the ‘new kid on the block’, and a foreigner to boot, I thought it probably wiser in the long run to keep my counsel. So, if I couldn’t do anything about Katerina, then I’d have to do something about the pigeons. Cue ‘Google is your friend’. Having read about all sorts of ways to deter pigeons, some of which were patently bonkers, it seemed to me the most practical solution was anti-bird spikes. They do sell them here, but they’re metal, ugly and dangerously sharp, so at great expense (well, a couple of hundred quid) I ordered clear plastic spikes from UK, which seemed to be a superior product to the locally available ones. Also, being clear plastic, they’re barely visible from street level.
I glued a couple of rows along the front edge of my roof, where the pigeons would congregate, and a row along the ridge tiles. To my delight (and surprise, to be honest), it worked. In fact it worked brilliantly. From that day on I only got overfly bombs of shit on the balcony, which wasn’t very often. I was able to clean the balcony once a month instead of daily. The pigeons were still around, but they’d decamped to next-door’s roof and the overhead power lines. I still had to hose down my van every day when I got to the workshop, though, as I park it right below the power lines. But better that than washing down the balcony daily!
When we returned from Thailand to the news that Katina had died, I said to my wife that hopefully the feeding of the pigeons would have stopped, but alas no. Athina had been indoctrinated with the bread-on-the-roof ritual, and continued to do it. Until a couple of months ago. She had the builders in doing all sorts of stuff, and one thing she had done was have her flat roof painted with a very white sealing / waterproofing paint. Since then, she stopped feeding the pigeons; probably because she didn’t want to sully her squeaky-clean white roof. After a week, the pigeons gave up, and moved to power lines a few blocks away. Oh bliss! No more shit all over the van windscreen! My spikes are now redundant, but that’s ok. They did their job. They can stay, as a deterrent to any passing pigeons who think my roof looks comfy.
Next door to Athena is another little old lady called Georgina. She’s very sweet, and very friendly, but not much in evidence. She has a large family who visit her on most feast days, and they all sit on the roof terrace, eating, drinking, smoking and talking until the early hours.
Beyond those people, there is an intersection which essentially turns this bit of road into a little island enclave. Beyond the intersection, I don’t really know anyone (here there be dragons…) apart from Kostas, who lives at the end of the road. Kostas is Roma, but one of quite a few Roma here who have given up the nomadic life and become part of the system; buying a house, sending their kids to school, getting a job etc. Kostas is a complete rogue, but I actually like him a lot. He tried to rip me off big time in the early days here, when I asked him for a price to take away a load of old wardrobes and shit when I was clearing the house. He quoted me a silly amount of money, and I told him to fuck off. A heated discussion ensued, and we eventually settled on a price that I thought a tad high, but not too much so. Since then, he greets me like an old friend.
He has two adult sons, one of whom lives with wife and kids next door to him. The kids are clean and well turned out, unfailingly polite when they talk to me, and never miss school. This may not seem unusual, but here it is common to encounter Roma kids in supermarket car parks, and they are generally filthy, barefoot and in rags, and harass you relentlessly for money. They’re a real pain. They follow you when you come out of the supermarket to load the car and hassle you to let them take the trolley (which has a €1 coin in it) back to the holding area. I would guess they make quite a lot of money, because a lot of people just can’t be bothered with being constantly pestered, and just give them the trolley. The Gypsies (Roma) here are unlike Gypsies in UK, who mostly seem to be of Irish descent. Here they retain the features of their origins in the Indian subcontinent. As I mentioned earlier, they are tolerated, but not much liked by the Greeks, who generally consider them a bunch of lawless, thieving bastards. Which, it has to be said, some of them are.
Anyway, just a small peek into the microcosm of a Greek city backwater, for those who may be interested. I’ll leave you with a photo of my recently painted house. It was a bloody nightmare to paint, as it has a rough finish to the wall – but I won’t bore you with that. The door on the right opens on to stairs which lead to the top apartment, where I live, and the door in the centre opens into the ground floor apartment, which is currently just a gutted shell with the studwork for a wall I knocked out and moved. I’ve made new window frames, windows and shutters, and I’ll be fitting those sometime fairly soon. I haven’t yet decided what to do with the front doors – patch up and paint, or build new ones. I’ll ponder that one over the coming months.
I don’t much like the metal doors, but they seem to be sort of traditional in this area, and I like to stay with the local style if I can.