Sunday, October 28, 2007

Geia Sas, Paidia

I bet you were all wondering where I was, huh?? Well, I was in Greece!

Day 10 is now below... the other Days are under that, so scroll down if you want the beginning!!

(And if you want more of this kind of stuff see: PAME!!)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Day 10: The Last Time I Will...

I had heard from Munich that this flu virus had a sting in its tail. Both T-M and William had been really stricken for three days and then felt better on the fourth day, only for the virus to return refreshed on the fifth day and render them even more stricken.

Now the fifth day of this flu virus for me happened also to be my last full day in Greece and I always like to imbue my last days anywhere with a kind of sentimental, melancholy, bitter-sweet procedure which requires me to keep on thinking, “hmm, that’s the last time I will do x”, where x is some poignant activity such as buy bread here or see the afternoon sunbeams slant in through the window or clean my teeth in this bathroom (this procedure is closely related to the incredibly masochistic thought process which starts with “this time yesterday/this time last week/etc…”).

So I simply decided that if this virus wanted to make its comeback on my last day it could quite simply fuck off.

I was therefore going to ignore the virus, to ostracise it, to send it to Coventry, to shun it.

The first step in this plan was to shun peppermint tea and drink coffee for breakfast. This would be proof that I was ok.

Shunned peppermint tea.

Drank coffee.

Couldn’t face breakfast.

Felt dizzy.

Shunned dizziness.

One thing on my list of ‘things to do in Greece’ which I still hadn’t managed was to have a meal in one of these typical restaurants I mentioned in Day 2, which serve the ready-cooked food: etoima. So I decided to go and have lunch in one, expecting to be hungry having shunned breakfast.

I set off, carefully negotiating the sheer downward slope of the road - possibly for the last time. All the way down I successfully shunned the shakiness and the wobbly feelings in my legs. The restaurant I was heading for was just after the fourth parallel, Egnatia on Sophou Leontos. Felt a bit light-headed now and there was a slight film of perspiration on my forehead but I also shunned this, arguing it away as the result of not eating breakfast.

Anyway, there it was, my estiatorio, Ta Nea Ilysia. Fairly busy but only Greeks eating there and amongst them a couple of Orthodox priests and if you want a sign that the food is good and cheap there is none better.

Now, I love mousaka but I always feel a bit awkward about ordering it because it’s just so ‘typical tourist’ – like a bunch of Japanese going into a restaurant in England and saying, “ah, we hwan the fish han ship”.

So I went in and looked at all the other things they had, considered them carefully, almost ordered one meal…almost something else and then said, ermmm…mia mousaka”.

Things normally happen slowly in Greece but when you order your meal in a place like this a frantic burst of activity ensues. The cooks shout the order, “vale ena mousaka” in the kind of loud, urgent voices which sound more as if they are warning the customers that the place is on fire, the waiters scurry around getting your table laid, bringing a bottle of water, a basket with cutlery and slices of bread, salt and pepper, toothpicks and then, within 5 seconds of ordering and sitting down, your meal is in front of you.

I thought about having a drink, a beer maybe or a glass of retsina but decided not to. This staggeringly obvious danger signal I shunned by thinking that in Ioannina we often only had water with lunch.

I had one mouthful of the really excellent mousaka and I realised I was full. I hadn’t been hungry in the first place. I actually felt pretty ill.

Shunned that – munched my mousaka manfully. I could actually feel the colour draining out of me as I munched – but I managed to get through the mousaka. Paid the bill with shaky hand and left.

I will draw a veil of discretion over my golgothic struggle back to the flat and the various manifestations of red-hot vitriolic invective I directed at this flu virus which, I now admitted, I had failed to shun. Suffice it to say that, thanks to this execrable virus, I didn’t even have time to think, this is the last time, etc…

I have since read that it is in fact not the flu virus which makes you feel as if you had died three weeks earlier, it is in fact your very own immune system which produces stuff like prostaglandins, interferons, interleukins (cytokines), leukotrienes, defensins to fight the virus and turns your body into a devastated chemical warfare zone – however this does not mean that I have any intention of apologising to some sub-microscopic strand of nucleic acid – I have my principles.

And my principles I shall not shun.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Day 9:

So I was threading a metal cable through lots of eye-hooks which were hammered at about five yard intervals into the side of a long wall which stretched off into the distance …ah, it was dream! I thought I had gone insane.

Anyway, dream means sleep, so I must have had some. It definitely didn’t come until dawn was breaking though because I lay awake tossing and turning until I saw a vague light from outside. I have no idea why I can’t sleep now after putting in some fine slumberous stints at the start of last week.

It was 9.30 and time to test my flu. I gingerly coughed – not bad, still a bit chesty but nothing like the bubbly, tubercolic rumbling of last night. Nose? Hmm, clear. Dizziness? Nothing more than the normal level caused by the change in altitude from lying in bed to getting up.

And the final test; do I fancy peppermint tea or coffee as a breakfast beverage? Most decidedly coffee…

Diagnosis: virus vinctus est – quod erat demonstrandum, etcetera post mortem!

This meant I could put plan A into operation – which was finally to have myself a bougatsa. This is a sort of flaky pastry and buttery thing with a sort of vanilla filling but that doesn’t begin to describe how scrumptious they can be. There was a tumbledown old bougatsa shop in Ioannina near the main square where we would sometimes go for a taste of heaven. This place was actually still there last time I was in Ioannina, although I fear for its existence; it was just too non-flash for this slick day and age.

Rickety door, hospital green walls, grey marble floor, Formica tables on tubular metal frames, non-matching half-broken chairs, fluorescent strip lighting, dusty old fan in the ceiling; no expense had been spared to make the place look hideously uninviting. But the bougatsas were fantastic!

On the way down to Dimitriou there are some places which look a bit like that but if you are not a bent and wizened old Greek with thick glasses, a two-day beard and only about seven and a half teeth, the effect of going into a place like that is a kind of John-Wayne-enters-saloon-where-outlaws-are-gathered scene. Everyone stops doing what they were doing and follows your every move and every mouthful until you leave and I hate that when I am on my own!

So, I was looking for a place not too rickety but not too slick and as I turned into Dimitriou I found the very place. Went in and ordered mia krema, watched him slice it from the plate they keep warm on, then watched him slice it into little squares, then shake on icing sugar and then cinnamon…mmm. I ordered a frappe to go with it, “not too sweet”, I said.

And I went outside to consume it. At the next table was an archetypal Greek pair, the doting grandmother with the cheeky grandson. He was between 2 and 3; she was between 50 and 129. She had bought him a bougatsa too and was trying to get him to eat it by holding out a piece on the little cake fork and trying to get it into his mouth, he was kneeling on his chair, lips pressed together, head tipped up and wagging from left to right.

Not really needing this kind of entertainment, I shifted my chair to an angle where I didn’t have to watch them. But I could hear their little battle of puny wits going on behind me... and the smoke from her never ending chain of fags (these were fags not cigarettes – there is a difference) was blowing straight over to me.

I remembered often coming back from university at lunchtime, when I lived in Ioannina, and finding the little lads playing football in the streets and their mothers running around behind them with spoons of food in one hand and bowls of the food in the other trying to coax them to eat their lunches.

I just wanted one of the mums, one time to break and say, “if you don’t come in and eat your dinner now, little Janni/Tasso/Georgo/etc mou, then I will BEAT THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS OUT OF YOU!”

My bougatsa was … good, not brilliant but still very good. The not-too-sweet frappe was SWEET!

The Greeks have this thing about sugar which is a bit like their language. There is no satisfactory way in Greek to say “too much something”. You can only say “VERY, very much something”, which is nothing like the same thing and really used to irritate me.

In the same way Greeks also lack the concept, “too much sugar”.

You know those little Greek coffees you can drink? Well there are supposed to be three levels of sweetness:

Gluko = sweet

Metrio = medium

Scheto = no sugar

So far so good.

The problem is that what these words mean to a Greek waiter in a café is a bit different.

To him:

Gluko = so much sugar dissolved into that tiny cup that it should be too heavy to lift

Metrio = same as gluko

Scheto (this is the one, don’t forget, which should mean no sugar) = same as gluko

So by the time the little love next to me had screamed, “PAME!” 20 times to his granny and she had given in and gone, I was ready to cruise on sugar highway!

This was just as well seeing that I was feeling a bit unsteady from the 4 days on flu and I had been walking like a 90-year old.

I went on cruise mode and wandered fairly aimlessly down to the Rotonda and on towards the harbour and came out by the White Tower, which I thought was down the other end of the town! Just before that I was amazed to find a statue to the women who took up arms against the Italian invaders in the Pindos mountains in 1940. That’s the first time I have ever seen a statue to women fighters. (Before anyone misunderstands this, I think it is a tragedy that anyone of any sex or creed ends up having to fight in a war – I would be more than happy if we could get along without wars. But the fact that women have found themselves embroiled in this madness too deserves recognition.)

One war which seems to have been ended is the one which used to go on around the White Tower. I am pretty sure that there used to be a roundabout encircling this tower where loony drivers would fight it out all day trying to find their way into or out of Thessaloniki. The problem was that all the main roads converged on it and no one knew which exit to take due to the fact that all the road signs had been put up behind the branches of the leafy trees which line the roads.

Now it has been made into a kind of park/esplanade which will one day be very pleasant.

I sat there for quite a while just looking seawards and listening to the sloop of the water hitting the harbour mole. Lovely!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Days 6 to 8: Time Flu


Read…watch TV…snooze…herbal tea (I know I’m ill when I think, “mmm, peppermint tea”)…read…go to bed…kept awake by cough…sneeze…etc.

Like the pullover and the extra socks I didn’t really need, I brought this flu virus with me from Munich. My youngest was just coming down with it the morning I left and T-M came down with it the day before I did. It was having its own little holiday, incubating slowly somewhere in my bloodstream or wherever these bastard things incubate and finally burst into the attack on Friday afternoon and quickly overwhelmed my immune system.

Hate the flu. Hate this feeling of suddenly being a hundred years old, of being dizzy without having had a drink, of aching without doing exercise and the horrible, painful dry phlegmmy coughs which rattle and burn in your chest. There is just no choice but to lie forlornly in a sweaty feverish heap, reading books through tired dusty eyes or watching Greek TV just to try and get the time to pass a little less like thick treacle. It also doesn’t help that just outside you can hear everyone enjoying the weekend in the tavernas all around.

I dragged myself out this evening for a walk. Just had to get out but you can’t argue with the flu. I went up the hill and through the old Byzantine walls, avoiding North Face of the Eiger Street, to the little supermarket I had discovered the other day to get a few things. I was already feeling dizzy and sweaty. On the way back I passed a gyros place and I thought I have to have one. Haven’t had one yet and who knows if I will have time – so I went in and ordered a gyros. Up until fluday on Friday I had always looked forward to having a chat with people in shops and things but here I really didn’t and there seemed so many questions to answer.

Ena gyros



Na balloume ap’ ola?


Yia to cheri i se paketo?


Yia to cheri?

Oh, just give me the bloody thing, pal…

I walked up to the walls to eat it not realising he’d put ketchup on it. Ketchup!!!

Apart from that it was horrible, extremely salty and greasy…or was it just me?

I struggled flufully to eat half of it and threw the rest in the bin …ho hum. By the time I got back to the flat 10 minutes later I was quite exhausted and this was without the mountaineering normally required. I concluded that I was still not quite right.

Oh, and just before I got back to the flat something happened to me which invariably happens whenever I am in a place which I don’t know. Someone stopped their car next to me, rolled down a window and asked me where Blah Blah Street was. At that moment there were probably about twenty or thirty people in the street, excluding myself, all of whom were Greek and probably three-quarters of whom lived in the area and they all looked Greek which I decidedly do not. So why did she ask me? Why do people always ask me? People who are lost, drunks on the street and the sort of mentally deranged who travel on local trains and carry on long conversations with themselves all turn to me when they need something. Why???

Anyway, when I got back I risked a coffee, the first since Friday, and that seemed to go ok.

Now I am just counting up what I have drunk since I got here and I think it is true to say that the last time I drank so little on a holiday was the last holiday I had with my parents when I was a kid!

I wonder if I could slip a little drop of duty-free Hennessey past the flu police…perhaps with a coffee.

Good idea? Bad idea?

I will know tomorrow.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Day 5: Plans, Mice, Men, Best Laid

Plan was to get up early. Plan didn’t work.

Ah, plans of mice and men and all that…

I had to go into town though, finally, to find an Internet café – some things just had to be done, emails, bank, stuff like that. So I set off down the hill… down, down, down. You would think going down would be ok at least but as I discovered coming down the only mountain I have ever climbed, Mitsikeli opposite the town of Ioannina where I may have mentioned that I once lived, coming down can be worse than going up. It is something to do with gravity, mechanics, angles of momentum and all that. Of course it is not helped here by the fact that the road surface consists of flat, shiny, marble-like stones and that the Greeks have a habit in the morning of sluicing their front steps and immediate part of the street with water to clean then and keep the dust down.

That makes these streets really slippery and makes walking down even more of a chore as you have to keep testing the ground to make sure your foot doesn’t slip and you don’t end up with a clatter on your back!

I got down as far as the second parallel, Kassandrou, when I realised I had forgotten my list of secret numbers which I needed for bank transactions…

Skata, gamo to, re malaka…

I stood there frozen for about 5 minutes trying to think if there was any way I could do this without having to go back up the hill for these bloody numbers.

There wasn’t…

So having just thought, “well, that’s the worst bit over with…”, I had to turn round and go back up the worst bit, up, up, up, and then come back down, down, down the worst bit again.

So, some time later I got down to Demetriou and walked along it to the east into the rising sun. Very different to the Monday evening bustle, it was pleasant, sunny but fresh. There is this adjective in Greek, droseros, which describes that kind of cool-but-going-to-be-warm-later-ness that you get on days in May or sometimes, if you’re lucky, in October and this was a morning for that adjective. It was great, walking along this typically Greek street on a Friday morning in that wonderful slightly hazy light and feeling relaxed - just enjoying it.

I turned down whatever street it was I had to turn down and caught a glimpse of the Rotonda. When I got there the high, narrow street miraculously broadened out into a huge square at the other end of which are the remains of the Arch of Galerius. I think without realising it, this was what I had been looking for – a square, a space, a centre. A place where I wasn’t just on a road to somewhere else, a real terminus where I could sit down and cogitate.

The Rotunda is a brick building from late Roman times. It was built by the Emperor Galerius, same bloke whose triumphal arch is at the other end of the square, and he intended it as his mausoleum. Perhaps the thought of that comforted him as he died his grisly death which Eusebius (the Roman historian not the Portuguese footballer) lovingly describes thus:

Suddenly a deep-seated fistular ulcer appeared in his private parts and ate its way into his very entrails. Hence there sprang a multitude of worms and an intolerable stench, since his members had changed, through gluttony, into an excess of soft fat which became putrid and swollen past all hope of recovery.

Well, despite all that, he never made it into his mausoleum because the Emperor Constantine came along and decided that the Rotonda should be turned into a Christian church.

Mice and Men, Plans of…

I found an internet café just around the corner and did my e-business. Then I had a little chat with the proprietor.

Hey, I could speak!! Suddenly words were there when I wanted them. Slowly but surely it was coming back.

As I was strolling back to the flat, I finally felt as if I had arrived.

Treated myself to lunch at the Blachou round the corner and went back up to the flat where I promptly came down with the flu…!!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Day 4: Re-speaking Greek

I am starting the day with the almost perfect breakfast. Yoghurt, honey, instant coffee (yes, I know, I know but I couldn’t be bothered making Greek coffee!) and bread, fresh bread from the little corner shop, just delivered from the bakery…mmm.

And I found out the proper way to ask for a normal white loaf. She had remembered me asking for a normal loaf the other day and said:

Aplo? Etsi?

Ah, aplo, ochi kannoniko, malista.

Another of the little words or phrases which are occurring to me as my memory of Greek is slowly being prised open.

She was stocking the shelves when I went in and as she stood up she put her hand to her back and said, “ow!”

From nowhere the word, ponaei, came into my mind so I said it:

Ponaei? Hurting?

Nai, nai, dyskolo einai.

Never being one to avoid a conversation in a shop I suddenly had little pictures of my legs, stiff muscles, walking up and down the steep streets and I wanted to say something like, “yeah, my legs are killing me too from walking up and down all these bloody streets.”

And I could feel my brain frantically searching as I stood there, probably looking a bit vacant, but all it found was a black chasm, an empty abyss where once words and phrases would have been ready to jump joyfully into a conversational sentence and, frustratingly, where words and phrases suddenly appeared again after I had left the shop and walked a few steps down the lane …I suddenly knew how to say what I had wanted to say – but it was too bleedin’ late, wasn’t it. Just too late to go back in and say, “ah, you know you said ‘ow’, well, my legs …blah blah blah.”

That’s going to bug me all day that now…as it does when you think later on of all those clever things you could have said in an argument, etc…

Snatches of language are starting to light up, though, as my brain goes searching around the archives, looking in the Foreign Language Centre: Greek Section but sometimes it just can’t get the filing cabinet open in time.

Perhaps this is how a stroke patient feels as he or she slowly renegotiates the speaking ability.

This language speaking thing has always fascinated me. To begin with of course I used to make the mistake that everyone makes when they learn their first foreign language. I doubt if it is possible to avoid it in fact. You think first in your own language and then translate the sentences you have thought out into the target language. This is where all the hilarious errors come from when foreigners speak English (and when the English speak foreign languages, of course) because languages just do not work in parallel on a one-to-one basis and a sentence which is perfectly correct in your language can sound a bit weird when translated literally into another. An example from yesterday was my waitress in the Tsinari:

You very very good speak the Greek!

Apart from the ‘you’ at the start which in Greek wouldn’t be there at all, the Greek verb form already expresses the personal pronoun, that is pure Greek vocabulary and word order translated into an English sentence. In this case it works but in other cases it doesn’t!

For example when a German looks pale, holds his head gingerly in his hands and says,

"I have a cat."

You could be confused if you didn’t know that the German sentence he is translating means, I am suffering from a hangover.

You could write a book about these problems (in fact I have: My Book)

When you have finally got far enough with a language that you don’t do that any more, you realise that you are actually thinking in the target language and that what you are expressing are simply ideas and thoughts which are somehow constructed non-verbally.

And this is what I do and am doing at the moment. Because of the fact that I used to be fairly fluent in Greek and because the Foreign Language Centre in my brain knows that if I want to say something in Greek I have to think Greek, I basically wait for the words, phrases and sentences to arrive more or less ready to be spoken and sometimes, at the moment a little too often, nothing arrives!

Imagine a combination of the feeling you get in your head when you have to broach a difficult subject and you say to someone, “hmm, let’s see, how should I put this …” and you look up in the air and perhaps finger your chin looking for the apposite expressions, and the feeling you have in your head when you say, “oh, what’s the name of that guy who was on TV last night…” and you just CANNOT remember.

That combination is the feeling I have quite often at the moment trying to re-speak Greek.

I have a plan though. Trying to speak and learn languages in the respective country is all about strategies; asking people questions to which you already know the answers just to hear how they express themselves is one strategy, another is learning the equivalent of “thingymajig” in the target language and saying that with a wave of the hand as if you have forgotten the word which you don’t actually know and thereby inviting the other person to supply it.

The plan is simple but ingenious. I go back into the shop, ask for something low down on the shelves. When she gets it and stands up there is a good chance that she will say, “ow!” And then we have lift off and I can launch into my sentence!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Today’s plan was to get up early and get down into the city before it even started becoming too hot.

The aim – I feel almost ashamed to admit – was Starbucks but ONLY because I had seen, during yesterday’s reconnaissance stroll, that they boasted a hotspot which I wanted to exploit to go online, check my emails, bank account and all those other things which tie us down to reality.

The alarm peeped at 7.30 and was roundly, and unfairly, seeing as though I had set it myself the night before, cursed and immediately fumbled into not peeping again until 8.30. In the end, being wide awake, I compromised and got up at 8, had a shower, shave, and went out. It was still delightfully cool, in the shade at least; in the shade of the wonderful, low-slung trees which grow along the streets and boulevards of the city. These trees, strangely, give the city an air of structure, of premeditation and order which the buildings, leaping chaotically up 5 or 6 storeys with ugly air-conditioning units hanging from every window or dirty net curtains billowing out ‘like the underskirts of a slattern’ (that’s Steinbeck again - if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best), completely lack.

The trees paradoxically bring a calm regularity, peacefulness, organisation and majestic serenity to all the loud frantic noise and hectic bustle of your normal Thessalonican street.

I don’t know why but when I am faced with having to do something which could be considered a bit of a pose like, go into an establishment and get out my laptop and go online, I tend to get a bit self-conscious and compensate by being over-nonchalant. Maybe it’s a bit like mistakenly turning up at a funeral in a clown outfit and trying to face it out as if I always go to funerals dressed like that. I walked past Starbuck’s first sneaking a glance with the hope that someone would be in there already online with their own laptop, but no, only people drinking ‘coffee’. As I said, I don’t know why I am like this but perhaps I can hear a distant mocking echo from my intolerant, non-travelled youth saying, “get a load of him with his bleedin’ laptop, posing git!”

Finally, after a last bout of dithering, I went in, ordered a ‘coffee’, discovered that there was an upstairs, went up to find it empty (probably because it was hot and horrible) but decided to set up the laptop there in a secluded corner.

My experience of hotspots is that you either get online time free or you have to pay for an hour, or five hours, or whatever, using your credit card – that is, after you have finally managed to set the laptop to accept the signal.

Not Starbucks, though; the provider they use wants you to have a monthly subscription and a card with a log-in name and password they would have supplied you with after taking said subscription out!

Bugger! But one more reason never to frequent a Starbucks again!

So I packed up my poor laptop who had done his best to set up a connection and went downstairs to take a seat outside and watch Egnatia (another parallel) slowly come more and more to life. This is, in the end, what drinking coffee in a street café is all about isn’t it? Lolling lazily in your seat, sipping at your cup while the world goes careering past in an insane frenzy? Pure, unadulterated Schadenfreude – and is it good!

I wandered down to the harbour, strolled through the strangely deserted passenger embarkation halls, and then turned up through a little square with pubs and cafés, and up through the city, steeper and steeper, like walking up the inside of an octagon, back to the flat, arriving back at 11 o’clock; sweaty and not having made contact with those things which tie us down to reality, and actually …who cares?

My reward for doing all this was to go and have lunch at a taverna just around the corner. Not the same one as the other evening but one up a little pedestrian way where no rattling cars or whining mopeds would go past.

There were only a couple of guests and a young disinterested waitress who looked chronically glum. There will be no “very very good speak the Greek” from her – doubt if I’ll even get a smile from her. I looked at the menu and she came over and plonked some cutlery on the table. I ordered:

Mia mprizola (love that word!) a chop

Choirini? Pork?

Nai, kai ena tzatziki … kai mia patates.

Ti tha pieite? What would you like to drink?

Ah, to krasi, to kokkino, einai gluko? The red wine, is it sweet?

(The local wines from the barrel are sometimes sweet …just wanted to be sure …and I couldn’t remember the Greek for “dry wine”.)

Ochi. No.

She didn’t feel the need to elaborate so I ordered half a litre.

She went off. She wasn’t unfriendly or rude – it just seemed as is someone had cut off the gas supply to her inner fire.

The wine came and the bread, normal white bread and warm pita bread. The wine was purply-red, I poured myself a glass and sipped at it …wow, bloody great. Tzatziki came, mmm, big plate of patates, even mmmmier, and then the grilled mprizola, simply grilled. I must have eaten hundreds of them in Ioannina – just love the succulent grilled meat and the grilled bits of fat … definitely mmmmmiest.

I hope you know this feeling; good food, half way through your wine and you are gradually suffused with a feeling that the world is not bad, nay, indeed verrily, the world is good. This is followed by a deep inner sigh of relief and contentment. It is at times like this that I would, if I were at all religious, offer up a prayer of thanks to Dionysos or Bacchus. I would also like to think that he is not amongst the dodeka theous whom my graffiti spraying friend would want to gamei!

That moment of rapture was interrupted by the ringing of a mobile phone. It was the waitress’s.

Geia sou, re!

I had to sneak a quick look round…and yes, her face was lit up with a big smile …someone had obviously put a shilling in her metre. She took my look to be a sign I wanted something and got up but I gestured to her that everything was ok.

I had all I needed.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Day 2: Living Next Door to Alice

Funny how sometimes you roam far and wide and then find what you want on your own doorstep.

Oh, hang on a mo, that’s not really what Living Next Door to Alice is about, is it? Ah, sod it.

Anyway, I slept in quite dramatically this morning and didn’t manage to get up until 11.00 which constitutes a minor miracle for me.

When I lived in Ioannina back in the distant past I got into the habit of nipping out early in the morning before it got too hot and getting a loaf and a sheep’s milk yoghurt and coming back for a breakfast of Greek coffee, yoghurt with honey and bread and butter.

Starting every day with a wonder taste combination.

The only problem this morning was…no bread; my cinema/supermarket last night hadn’t had any and all the other bread shops I passed on the way back were closed.

I went out to do a cursory search for a loaf without going down too many highly sloped streets…found nothing, so came back to the wonder breakfast without bread. Still 90% wonderful.

My plan for the day was a kind of mixed thing. I needed to find a bread shop nearby and I thought I would combine this with a walk down to the station to check the train times and then stroll along in search of estiatoria and Internet hot spots where I could get online with my laptop and see what was happening in the world.

Something I learned long ago from John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie” is that you need an aim if you are going to explore a city; it doesn’t matter if it’s totally unrealistic or useless but it lends your exploring a structure and purpose: hence, train times, estiatoria and hot spots.

I wandered down a different way from the flat and round the fourth or fifth corner found a bread shop. “Right, get bread there on return”.

I used to think Thessaloniki was Athens without the Ancient Monuments but that’s a bit unfair. Much more than an Athenian, Periclean, Akropolean feeling, it has its own Byzantine character, not so much marble columns and temples as brick arches and domed churches. Realising this has also made me realise that Ioannina, which provided me with my first taste of Greece and so painted my basic picture of the country, is neither Periclean nor Byzantine but, at the considerable risk of shocking and insulting any Greek readers, actually more Turkish than Greek. When I lived there the churches still had minarets harking back to the relatively recent Turkish occupation and they were invariably topped off, perhaps deliberately disrespectfully, with storks’ nests.

I suppose there are lots of little things in Thessaloniki which go together to give this Byzantine impression …the churches themselves of course snuggled down between the great, chaotic blocks of flats with their air-conditioners hanging out of every window, the names of the streets, Saint This and Saint That, the icon shops and so on.

What all Greek cities I know have in common though are the smells. I must someday try and work out what the more obscure ones are, but the smell of coffee, sweets and grilled meat are ubiquitous and wonderfully evocative.

Strolling down to the station there is one familiar, typically Greek smell after another; it made me wonder whether I could navigate by nose alone…you certainly couldn’t navigate by ear alone as there is a constant background clattering and groaning of engines, car horns, footsteps and oaths. A lot of this horn hooting and oath shouting is due to the relationship between the road signs and the trees. The road signs were set up first, marked clearly in Greek and English to show where the various destinations were and which way you had to drive to get to them. The trees were planted later. Unfortunately the trees grew, as they do, and their branches and the leaves on them tended to hide the road signs. This is only my theory but I have seen it in operation in every Greek city I have driven in and as a result have been subject to many of these horn hoots and shouted oaths myself as I suddenly changed direction and veered left or right having seen which way to go only at the last minute!

Found the station and dutifully looked at the train times. Actually, this did put the idea into my head of doing a day-trip to Volos where I have never been, so my invented Steinbeckian aim might actually bear fruit.

I wandered down Monastiriou, another parallel, and discovered a couple of estiatoria which looked authentically shabby enough and were serving etoima on the menu; ready-cooked food which sits there all day keeping warm and tastes increasingly tremendous as the hours go by.

On the other side of the street there was a Starbucks…bleeuuugh. I guess I am not alone in finding it a travesty whenever I come across a MacDonalds or BurgerKing or whatever in historical cities.

Still, this Starbucks was advertising an Internet hotspot so I made a resigned mental note of it.

Right, time to go back before it gets too bleedin’ hot.

I was feeling pretty confident of my orientational abilities by now and my navigation had been reduced to “if it’s uphill it’s probably right”.

However I began to find myself not remembering if I had passed this or that shop and this or that church, and suddenly a Greek phrase from a long lost guidebook popped into my head, echo chathei – I am lost!

Much as I hated the thought, I felt I would have to go downhill a bit before finding where I had to go uphill again, so I did…and then there was my graffiti, gamo tous dodeka theous, so, echo brethei - I am found!

Bread! I needed bread. Stopped at the bread shop but they were looking a bit low on bread.

Mipos echete akoma psomi? Could it be that you still have some bread?

Ochi, teleiose! Nope!

None left…bugger. So, up the steep street and then the very steep street and on impulse I went along a little side street just before the flat…and there was a little corner shop. I went in and asked for bread…

Oh yes, I have this bread and that bread and the other bread…

Ligo periploko…erm…ena kannoniko psomi? That’s a bit complicated, erm…just a normal standard loaf?

Oriste, 70 lepta. Here you are, 70 cents.

So up the last little bit to the flat; and a lunch of gigandes, dolmadakia, feta, turopita, psomi kai retsina - µµµµµµµµµµµ… (mmmmmmmmm).

Monday, October 01, 2007

Greece: Day 1

Well, what do you know – I’m in Greece; Thessaloniki to be more exact. This is all thanks to a phone call from my daughter in June about cheap flights to Greece (thanks Bid) and my subsequent quick check on the web. Munich - Thessaloniki return for €40 …including taxes, etc!! And that’s what I would have paid had I booked straight away!

In my doziness I waited a day to book and ended up paying €80, but still, wow!!

So, as always seems to have to be the case, after a terribly busy week and weekend I was still stood there at home at 11 last night with nothing packed. I finally threw some stuff into my case and went to bed at 12.

I had discovered that the flight was at 06.05, so I set the alarm for 03.00.

Woke with a shock, having dreamt that it was already mid-morning, to find it was 02.26. So I waited for the alarm, got up when it rang, stumbled into the shower, slurped down a coffee T-M had made, phoned a taxi to the main station, caught the train to the airport, checked in, hung around, boarded, nodded off in the plane and arrived in Thessaloniki.

I decided to catch the bus into the centre for vague reasons of it being more ethnic and I suspect probably deep down cos I knew it was only €0.50 for the ticket. This was arguably mistake number 1. Monday morning traffic in Thessaloniki is not to be trifled with, in fact it is not even to be rhubarb-pie-and-custarded with and many hours seemed to pass as we jerked to and fro while the bus driver, with squealing brakes and copious honking of the horn, tried to squeeze past the commuters who were all busy trying to squeeze past each other also with squealing brakes and respective copious honking of their horns.

The tourists who had taken this misguided option were beginning to lose hope of ever arriving anywhere when the bus finally pulled up in front of the sparkling main railway station of Thessaloniki.

My plan had been to get here and then take a taxi to the flat where I was staying (thanks to Debbo) in Ano Poli – which I supposed just meant “Upper City”. I saw where the taxi rank was and even where people were supposed to queue but I got there to find a loud argument going on between the few people waiting at the front of the queue and the 100s of other people just running all over the place and nabbing taxis willy-nilly as they drove in.

I diplomatically joined the queue and it looked as if this was going to be mistake number 2 as the taxi drivers who were not getting nabbed before would drive up and shout over to ask where I wanted to go and each time I started my prepared story, “stin Ano Poli, Odos XX, apenanti apo ti taverna YY…” (to Ano Poli, XX Street, opposite the Taverna YY) they would wrinkle their faces and take someone else. Deborah had warned that they might not be keen on driving to Ano Poli and it seemed she was right.

Finally, though, a taxi driver actually allowed me to get into his cab, only looking slightly askew when he heard Ano Poli, and we set off. The usual stuff, squeal squeal, honk honk, one-handed driving while carrying on a heated conversation on the mobile phone, mopeds winding in and out, pedestrians appearing suddenly in front of the windscreen and disappearing somewhere behind; I know from past experience that the best thing is to become passive and resigned and allow Thanatos to dance his dizzy dance of death before your eyes.

There was a sign prominently displayed in front of the passenger seat which said: PLEASE RUT YOUR SEATBELT.

I tried to conjure up images of how that could be done to take my mind off the driving. Actually it worked quite well.

We turned up a side street which was quite steep, then another even steeper and stopped at traffic lights. Across this street there was a street which appeared impossibly steep.

I asked, prepei na pame ekei apano? Do we have to go up there!!?

Meta tha einai dyskolo, re! It’s only after that it gets difficult!

So we drove over and the taxi’s motor started to labour… and then came a street which looked to me as if it was simply perpendicular…

Apo ’tho einai diskolo! Now it gets difficult.

The north face of the Eiger in a taxi cab…he stopped at a bend in the road and pointed up at the taverna I had mentioned, opposite which must be Debbo’s flat. I got out and climbed the rest of the street to the gate.

No wonder the drivers wince when you say Ano Poli.

Got the keys, came in, had a coffee, decided to have a quick lie down, slept for three hours!

Evening 1

I felt I had to venture out – to get a few impressions and victuals – so after the main heat of the day had subsided, I set off feeling a little like Theseus navigating the Labyrinth…carefully unravelling a mental ball of thread behind me. Out of the flat and past the Taverna which had a sign on it saying “open every day” but was shut and looked more than shut - somehow Greek shops and restaurants don’t just look ‘shut’, they look more as if they have been shut, locked, sealed and abandoned for 20 years – clambered like a mountain goat down the first very steep street, changed to mountain climber mode as I negotiated the second less giddily steep street and came out on Odos Kassandrou which is one of what I am calling the “parallels”.

Thessaloniki is kind of laid out along four wide boulevards which run parallel to the coast. It’s as if some great urban planner in the sky just dragged a mighty rake across the side of the hill and said, “there you go, paidia, drive like loonies along those!”

For indeed these thoroughfares are used as race tracks to stage various classes of racing, all simultaneously; formula one bus races, stock-car racing, motor-cross, motorbike races, moped races and in fact even foot races for pedestrians desperately trying to reach the far side of the road before the lights change and they are mercilessly flattened in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes.

So, carefully hanging my mental Thesean thread over certain landmarks, such as a bit of graffiti or a sign outside a shop, I carried on downhill. Down a street with the usual higgledy-piggledy blocks of flats and beautiful trees with head high branches, down another street with kids playing and mothers trying to get them to come in.

I reached the next parallel, Agiou Dimitriou, the street named after the patron saint of Thessaloniki.

Cafés, little snack bars, boutiques, pastry shops but nowhere to get my victuals. Finally I found a place which looked to me at first like a cinema but turned out to be a supermarket!

And now back to base; would my thread still be intact? Passed the church of Saint Dimitrios, all lit up and looking impressive, so far so good… found my periptero on the corner, passed the tiny school of martial arts with space inside for just one mat on which a fierce Kung-Fu battle was going on while the instructor stood outside leaning against the door smoking a cigarette, found the pub sign ‘Texas’, passed the kids still playing outside who were complaining, then paixame akoma, then paixame akoma! (we haven’t played yet!) to their chivvying mothers, found my bit of graffiti, ‘gamo tous dodeka theous’ and turned up from steep, to steeper, to steepest and the last killer steps up to the flat.

Came in, had a shower, got changed, waited a bit till 9.00 so that it was late enough and went down to check out a local restaurant.

My diary:

…just had dinner at the Tsinari and am now onto my second beer. The waitress has just told me that I “very very good speak the Greek”. The fact that she told me in English makes the compliment a bit back-handed though!

It’s amazing here. I am sitting on the corner where I got dropped off this morning and what was as dead as a herring is now wriggling with life. People having dinner, chatting loudly, gesticulating energetically, cars growling around this narrow corner, mopeds, motorbikes, two on a bike, three on a bike, some with helmets on, some without …one guy, a real mangas – with NO helmet, just razzed past on his scooter, his shoulder scrunched up to his jaw to hold his mobile phone to his ear.

And Greek being spoken everywhere – and the smells, the unmistakable smells…