Chafed in the evenings

I love movement. I quite like standing still too, please don’t get me wrong, but movement does it for me. The act of travelling thrills me. I know that some people like to get all blase and tedious about these things and complain about air travel for instance, but I get a kick out of going somewhere that can always usefully be described as ‘away’, no matter how irritating the security checks, no matter how annoying your fellow travellers.

Boats too. Rolling on a sea swell lifts my spirits and makes me realise that life has many deep purposes. Hoping to avoid drowning is probably one of them, and getting soaked in the spray thrown up by breaking waves is enough to remind me of my mortality there.

Obviously, I don’t get many chances to travel long distances, so the three mile walk to work in my little high street retail bakery slash coffee shop and back every day is about as close as I get to being a local Marco Polo. Spooning the sugar slowly into my coffee and watching the grains sink and dissolve is as near to excitement as I come most days, so don’t mock my everyday limits, please. This is my life I’m talking about here.

So, in order to lift the everyday experience from torment to something resembling endurable banality, I go cycling every evening. I don’t go far, and I don’t wear any special gear. Just my swim shorts, a tee shirt and my battered, oldest pair of slip on beach shoes. And a facial expression that hovers somewhere between grin and grim. I always follow the same route as well. It’s a five mile ride from my house, down the hill, along the estuary trail, beside the gently sweeping bay past the Tidemills, skirting the Martello tower and along past the beach huts to Splash Point. Then I stop, admire the scenery from the base of the cliffs, and return home the same way. Occasionally, very occasionally, I take the beach path to Tidemills and back over the railway crossing rather than the more direct route, and boy do I appreciate the variety that life can throw at me.

I was chatting the other day to one of the girls who frequent my shop about my evening bike rides, when she asked me ‘Why do you do it? Why do you ride your bike when you’ve been here in the shop all day?’ I had been expecting my raunch factor to increase due to my sporting prowess and all round fitness. I was wrong.

“Because there are no hills my love” I replied. “And also, I really enjoy the feel of salt air whistling tunelessly through the hairs on my naked limbs. That’s one reason why I neither wax nor shave. Try it.” She looked at me like I was talking Chinese. Maybe that’s something I should learn.

One strange and mysterious phenomenon I have noticed on my evening journeys is the growing tendency for dog owners to bundle up their vile companions’ turds in small plastic bags and rather than dump them in the bins provided, they simply drop them on the path. I don’t like dogs, I’ll tell you that now. I don’t go in houses where dogs live, and relatives and acquaintances who have dogs know better than to risk the inevitable upset that they face if they try to enter my house with their dogs in tow.

So peculiar habits like wrapping poo in plastic and abandoning the end result on a public path is behaviour that I for one expect from people who choose to share their lives and homes with the creatures. But why, dear friend, why? What do they expect to happen to their little parcels? The contents won’t degrade in the normal fashion, owing to the limits on oxygen and bacteria available. I can only imagine that some form of fossilisation is expected to occur, with some future archaeologist confidently deciding that some members of 21st century society were in the habit of leaving strange little ritual objects all over the place, wrapped in sandwich bags. They’ll probably let their children play with them too. It’ll be alright though, the smell should have cleared by then and the ancient dog poos will be as hard as rock.

I just do my best to avoid them.

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My time away

I love my wife. I love her very much. But you can sometimes have too much of a good thing, so we tend to go our own ways on occasion, and for various reasons I recently fancied indulging in my own company for a while. Having decided back in June that a holiday alone would be a good idea,  I booked a week away in Corfu for the beginning of July, and very nice it was too.

I arrived at the studio at about three am, and was kept awake for a short while by passing traffic and revving motor scooters, but soon fell asleep. Only to be woken shortly before six by the local roosters having a competition to see who could be the most strident and loud. The place where I was staying was pretty much on the outskirts of Paleokastritsa, way up high on a hill on the road leading inland. Once the day had begun properly I wandered down to the Aris supermarket to get supplies, then returned and breakfasted on doughnut, coffee and orange juice. After showering, I decided to take a stroll inland to find the Aphrodite studios to see the Olympic rep and check out my fellow British holiday makers. After a mile or so I realized that although I’d seen some beautiful scenery, I’d gone much too far, as Paleocastritsa was now far behind me and we’d dropped off the Aphrodite people only a minute before I’d left the bus last night. So I retraced my steps and found the Aphrodite less than a minutes walk from the studios where I was staying.

No walk through Greek Island countryside is a walk wasted though, especially when you are breathing deeply upon the scent of mountain herbs and sweet ripe figs. Lunch for me was tomato salad and juice on the balcony followed by a long siesta through the afternoon heat, which really set the routine for the coming week.

Shay the Olympic rep had told me that it was a 45 minute walk down the hill to Paleo, so I thought I’d test his timing and walked down into town. It took precisely three quarters of an hour to reach the Agios Spiridon beach just below the monastery, so good on you and your timekeeping, Shay. It’s a lovely walk, winding down the hillside past the various hotels, shops, tavernas, bars and olive trees, and the boat cruise cabin where dwells the lovely smiling blond morning mermaid, with views of the numerous bays breaking through the roadside vegetation as you go. I could get used to it. And I did.

Jenny of the Irida had, when I asked her, recommended the Spiros taverna as somewhere good to eat. I liked this recommendation, partly because they had a charcoal roasting pit outside on which they were constantly roasting lamb, pork and chicken on revolving spits, but mainly because it was the closest place to the Irida. The permanent special was Prawn Saganaki followed by Squid stuffed with garlic prawns and rice, so that’s what I chose and it went down very well indeed, especially when washed down with a couple of bottles of Mythos. I didn’t mind the smoke from the barbeque, I didn’t mind the flies. I was happy. The Greek sun was shining upon me, until it set. And then I sat there in the Corfu dusk, finishing my meal with the complimentary crepe, spread with chocolate and hazelnut, dredged with cinnamon sugar.

On the way back to the room, I went into the Aris and bought a can of the most vicious looking insect exterminating spray I could find. The flies were beginning to take the edge off of my joy at being on Corfu. I sprayed the room well, then sat out on the balcony to soak up the Greek night air, watch the bats and the occasional owl, and listen to the occasional bit of passing traffic. All was good. The evening settled gently into the valley and a light breeze gently rustled the leaves of the olives, the roses and oleander and even the little lemon tree which stood guard next to my balcony. This is nice, I thought.

The next morning, Sunday, I fancied a swim. There was a pool outside my room, but I like the sea. So after a light breakfast of coffee and peach nectar I got me a bottle of water and a towel and took the long early morning stroll to Ag. Spiridon beach. Because it looked like a nice beach. And you don’t have to climb down a hundred steps or a cliff-face ladder to get to it – more of this later, dear friend. It’s a small shingle beach surrounded on both sides by rocky outcrops climbing up to green wooded hillsides above. The monastery lies hidden in the pine and oak trees on the hillside to the left. As Paleocastritsa is the main stop on the round island coach tours, the place starts to fill up by late morning, so an early start is a good idea if like me you prefer to avoid crowds whenever possible. I lay on my towel in the sun for a while, hypnotizing myself with the gentle breathing of the waves as they rose and fell on the coarse sand at the water line. Despite what some people claim, the Ionian in July is not a cold sea. There’s the initial chill, but once you’re in it’s comfortable and mildly warm. I stayed in for half an hour or so. I have no watch. I’d left my phone in the room safe, so it wasn’t possible to measure time, even if I’d wanted to. Which I didn’t, because it simply didn’t matter. After drying out in the sun for a good hour I suppose, I noticed the beach was beginning to get a bit crowded for my liking so it was time to take the leisurely stroll back up the hill and smile hello to the mermaid in the travel kiosk. She always smiled back, so that made the walk a tiny bit more pleasant. I made and enjoyed a lunch of tomato, onion, mortadella and olives, soaked in oil and vinegar and then mopped up with village bread. And then Mythos. Life is sweet.

After the long siesta I decided to walk up the mountain to Lakones, the village above. It’s two or three miles away, uphill all the way and there are some stunning views and a light slightly cooling breeze on the way. It made the olive trees tremble and their rustling sounded like the waves collapsing softly on the beach unheard, a thousand feet below. Just below Lakones is a roadside stop where a man calling himself Georgios gives you a free glass of his wine and expects you to buy a few bits from his shop. It seemed a very fair deal to me, especially as his wine was so refreshing. I tried the dry red. I bought a bag of rigani and a little pot of beeswax salve from him.

I was soon in Lakones, which is home to most of the summer population of Paleo, or so I’ve been told, and a lovely little Greek hilltop village it is too. In the first café I saw sat a grey haired, beautifully tired looking elderly widow who smiled at me as I passed. I said ‘kali spera’ to her and vowed to call back in for a cold drink on my return. But halfway through the village I wandered off, as I tend to, through the narrow lanes and eventually found myself on a different footpath leading back down to Paleo. There was a small hand painted wooden sign pointing down to Paleocastritsa. I trust these signs, I follow them. It’s all part of the mystery of existence. Another day for the iced coffee at the house of the grey haired widow then. There were many spent shotgun cartridges littering the woodland floor, along with very few signs of bird life. I got ready to duck and hoped that I didn’t make a tempting target. It can sometimes be a blessing, not having feathers wrapped around you. I eventually made it back to the studio and threw myself under a cooling shower, and then I had a cup of coffee. It reminded me of home, so I had a glass of peach nectar as well, which restored my spirits and got me to thinking positively.

Hunger soon struck so I returned to Spiros. The routine, by now settled, is that minutes after taking a seat, you are presented with a small feta pastry doused in honey as an appetizer, and a drink and bread are swiftly brought to the table. Mythos again tonight. I started with an octopus saganaki, lightly stewed in a tangy tomato and pepper sauce and dripping in melted feta. Then I had a plate of lamb from the charcoal grill with lovely garlic roasted baby potatoes. More Mythos and a metrio Greek Coffee to finish, along with the usual crepe.

Back at the studio I sat outside with a Mythos and a book, helped by a swarm of flies. I went inside to spray myself with the Jungle Formula Insect Repellant spray, only to find that I had suddenly become an object of desire and fascination to two very persistent wasps who were staying out late for an evening on me. The swifts whose nest was a few feet above my head soon gave up swifting around for the day as darkness settled, and their places were quickly taken by the bats and a small owl which I noticed sweeping silently past a couple of times.

Monday morning dawned and I repeated yesterday’s routine of wandering slowly down to the beach of Agios Spiridon, having a couple of swims and a couple of lounging sessions, which today were enlivened by a couple of  dark haired Balkan mermaids taking some very artistic snapshots of each other on the rocks and the shoreline. By now I have tanned, and with no sign of the irritating tingle on my right ear which usually means a burn has taken place. I have been good with the factor 30. I took the longer stroll back up to the studio for a lunch of salad and iced coffee. My afternoon snooze was broken by Jenny and Ireni coming in to clean the room and change the linen, and I sat out on the balcony in a daze and a haze as they got about their work.

I couldn’t get back to sleep and it would have been a shame to anyway so I walked back down into Paleo and visited the small aquarium, where I got some ideas for dinner, and then climbed up the hill to the beautiful small Monastery of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I made eye contact with the Pappas and we nodded. It meant nothing really, but I went into the chapel and lit a candle and said a few prayers and made a few wishes, and left whoever knows about these things to tell if there’s a difference. I found it a very peaceful, dark and slightly tearful place to be, and wandered out into the shaded gardens where I sat under a heavily flowering bougainvillea, gazing down to the bay below and admiring the blueness of the sea. Colours can get to you. They can get to me, anyway.  Then I went under the vaulted passageway below the main building where I sat next to a rather mangy looking cat, and we studied an icon of Agios Spiridon for a while in the cooler air. We sat alone and silent with our thoughts, that cat and I did. The eventual walk back up the hill seemed hotter and longer than usual, but I was wearing slightly more clothing than usual, in deference to the requirements of the monastery so that was a mystery explained.

That evening, dinner at Spiros consisted of very healthy grilled long peppers in lemon juice and rigani, followed by a kalamari mi skordo, as I was required to order it in Greek tonight. A jug of the local red wine and a coffee went down too. I returned to the balcony for a read and an open air snooze and a small Mythos. I watched the bats come out again to do their silent business amongst the insects and I watched the stars come awake in the still warm night sky.

I awoke well before six the next morning, as usual, even before the swallows and the swifts had got started. I caught the first bus at nine for Corfu Town, where I wandered along the seafront and through the narrow lanes of the old town, which feels much more European than it does Greek.  I visited the church of St Spiridon and stood before the Saint’s massive silver coffin, clutching my wax taper and not really knowing what was expected of me, if anything. All the Greeks there were kissing the coffin, through which you can see his slippered skeletal feet and his grinning skull, and invoking his intervention and his help. I just stood there for a few moments wishing good wishes to Greece and the Greeks, then slipped away into the main body of the church. I didn’t light the candle, but took it with me to a café at the Liston, where I had a cappuccino and slipped the taper onto a stone wall near the Espionade, still unlit. Maybe it will count for something.

I climbed up to the Pharos, the lighthouse at the very top of the Old Venetian Fortress, where you get some of the best views of the town.  I had an extremely over priced frappe and a tiropita from a very optimistic menu at the café there by the fortress. I’m sure it was the same when I went there with Anita five or six years ago. The waiter had a very worried look about him, which is hardly a surprise with a menu like the one he had to cope with, and I left him an 80 cent tip to make him feel better about not being able so sell nine tenths of what was listed on his menu. He still looked worried as I walked away, but I wasn’t about to take any responsibility. There was a fine heat haze out over the Ionian, and I found that far more attractive and interesting than a worried looking waiter.

The bus station was hot and full of fumes so I waited across the road for the Paleo bus, which left on time. For dinner at Spiros I had a taramosalata, then stifado. Very traditional, as was the red wine which washed it down. I can now get four sentences into a greeting conversation with Angelos.

‘Kali spera!

‘Kali spera! Ti kanis?

‘Poly kalo, efkaristo. Y sis?

‘Kala, poly kalo. Poly zesto!

It went something like that. He didn’t laugh at me, anyway. I’d stay at Paleo alone again, just to go to Spiros every evening.

I had booked a boat trip to Paxos and Parga for Wednesday, so made my way to the pick up point for 7.30, where I was relieved to see a couple of other holiday makers waiting for the bus. They were two ladies from up North, Jen and Judy, and very friendly and nice they were too. We chatted whilst waiting, but I didn’t see them again till the end of the day when we had another lovely chat. Which isn’t like me. We took a two hour cruise down the west coast of the mainland to Parga on the m/v Georgia, on glass smooth seas. I wasn’t too keen on the diesel fumes that I was sucking on all the way, but I had a lovely view of the coast as we sailed, and I wasn’t about to move seats for anybody. Parga’s a a lovely little village, clustered around a small harbour with the ruins of an old castle on the hill above. I went to a place called Zorba’s and had pork gyros for lunch along with lots of orange juice. I got chatting to the delightfully thin waitress with a prominent nose and she gave me a nice big ouzo on the house, I like to think because I’ve got a lovely smile, but probably because I was the only customer she had for at least half an hour and she was just grateful to have something to do and someone to talk to. It was nice ouzo anyway. After soaking up the atmosphere there for a while longer and making more conversation with the waitress and her newly arrived friend, I made my way back to the boat and we sailed for the island of Paxos.

Paxos is small and green. We landed at Gaios, and I took the ‘round island’ bus trip up to Lakka, a small and quite lovely village in the north of the island, where for the first and possibly only time in my life I tasted a drink made of bananas and sour cherries. It tasted better than it sounds. It was a good little village to explore alone. When we left for Corfu, a stiff breeze had come out of the south and the water was a deeper blue than I can ever remember seeing anywhere. I watched a seabird skimming along beside us for a long way and it constantly dipped the tip of its right wing into the crests of the waves. I wondered if birds can be left or right handed, and if they were, would they know? And would it matter to them?

A nice day out, and it was followed by a nice evening meal of gigantes followed by a gorgeous fresh grilled white snapper. With ouzo.

Poly nostymo, efkaristo. That means ‘thanks for a lovely meal’. Sort of.

I started Thursday with an early morning swim and sunbathing session which I  dragged out till lunchtime, realizing it was my second to last day there. Mid day brought lunch of tomato and onions and olives and feta again, followed by siesta again. Then I thought I’d walk up the hill to visit the church of Agios Simeon at the lovely little mountainside village of Doukades. There are some quite spectacular views to be had from up there, including the sight of the mountains of Greece and Albania through the heat haze far to the east. I took the walk back down as slowly as I could, soaking up the views and the bramble thorns and the scents of the herbs. A small dog came yelping out of a garden at one point and we had a bit of a stand off, but I faced him down and he skulked back to the shade, only sending a few shamefaced and restorative barks my way after I had descended the hill past a small stand of oaks.

Jen and Judy were at Spiros that evening and they were leaving for Manchester the next afternoon, so we said our goodbyes. They are lovely ladies. I had the Octopus Saganaki again, but followed with the mixed grill, which was the first meal I wasn’t able to finish, there was so much of it. I finished the red wine though. Oh yes.

I didn’t sleep at all well that night, the mattress seemed to have developed a slope and I kept waking up on the edge of the bed. I gave up trying to get back to sleep at two, and lay there till seven. I had a night flight to look forward to. I packed up my stuff, then walked down to Paleo for the last time and bought souvenirs and gifts, which meant that I then had to repack. I got talking to the honeymoon couple who told me that there was a beach only five or ten minutes away from the Lissipio. But you have to descend a cliff face and a ladder to get to the sea, apparently. So I hadn’t missed out on much really. The last day on Corfu passed painfully and gradually, the hours slowly creeping past.

My last dinner at Spiros consisted of Dolmades followed by a squid stuffed with feta and tomatoes. And Mythos and ouzo. Hugs, kisses and handshakes all round followed and I expect to go back there alone next year.

The plane was delayed by three hours, so I got back to Gatwick at nine the next morning. That was nice. I’m going to Kefalonia with my wife in September. That’s nice too.