Not Like Paris

Mrs Moss was staring hard at me across a crowded cafe. Or my shop, as I like to call it in my more lucid moments. She glowered, in fact. Nothing unusual there, but I was deeply troubled and wondering what it was that I could possibly have done to warrant her glower.

She wove her way through the other customers toward me and I idly wondered whether she was the warp or the weft, and if there were any way of squeezing any more words with a ‘w’ sound into one sentence. And, strangely, what would it feel like to actually be woven, like a bit of cloth. Pretty bloody intense, I’d guess.

“I always thought that it was crowded in here, but we went to Paris the other week and we went into a cafe there that was even more crowded than this. No room at all.” I didn’t welcome the tone of accusation in her voice. Like I was doing some damn thing wrong. Or something.

“Ah, Pat. I see you’re playing the alliteration game too. Or something. And anyway, this isn’t Paris. Never was. Never will be. Nothing like it. There’s a whole sea between us. It’s wet and wavy. And what do you want me to do? Do you want to buy the shop off me? I’m sure it wouldn’t be anywhere like as busy as this if you ran the place. And anyway, we have no Eiffel Tower. Where would I put it? Tell me! ”

She was glowering at me again. Actually she hadn’t stopped glowering. Luckily a lifetime of customer service and the fact that I’m practically a part time fucking saint has left me innoculated against glowering, inappropriately overweight women in the wrong end of their middle years with an inconsequential bone to pick. With me.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course it’s not Paris. I was just saying.” She obviously didn’t want to tell me what it was that she was just saying, for with that she turned and returned to the table where sat her sighing husband Clem, who was currently guarding a cooling mug of coffee and a half eaten croissant.

I’ve had the idea for a while, planted in my mind by the sight of an aerial photograph of the Estonian capital’s Old Town within its encircling wall, of visiting the Baltic city of Tallinn. Also an old acquaintance of mine named Gerhardt, now in his eighties, was a cadet engineer on one of the Kriegsmarine’s last vessels to leave the city when it was still known as Revall in early 1945 with the damned Soviets hot on his heels, and he has recommended it to me as an Eastern city well worth visiting, especially now that the Russians have gone. The armed ones, anyway.

So I thought that I’d take my little Anita there in January, as we like to visit Eastern European cities in the dead of winter, partly for the food and the gluhwein and the becherovka, but also, it must be said, for the general ambiance and the glittering, frosted roofs and the uneven, stumbling cobbled pavements. But then I looked at a map, and decided that while the longitude was just about right, the latitude of the place suggested that the hours of daylight in January might be a bit of a limitation. I’m all for atmosphere, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I like a touch of natural illumination in my life; preferably for more than four hours out of every twenty four.

So, we went off to see my friend Nicky at the travel agents to book something. I booked my last two holidays online, and the guilt I felt at depriving a high street business of my custom has almost kept me awake at nights.  Also I haven’t seen the girls in the travel agent for months and it was nice to go and spend a couple of hours in their company again. They used to be in the shop next to mine, but it closed a few years ago and their company relocated them to Lewes, a town about eight miles away as the crow flies, but sixty four in sparrow years.

We booked a week in March. One of the girls asked if it was a trip to mark a special occasion.

“No,” I answered, ” we don’t have special occasions in our house.” My wife looked somewhat cross, I noticed at this point.

In answer to another question she asked, I told her we’ve been married for 32 years now, and the recipe for a long and happy marriage is to forgive everything and have lots of secrets from each other. And only use the C-word when you’re very very cross.

Anita sighed. She does that a lot.

“Thirty three years,” she said, her voice all wistful and dreamy. ” Thirty three years. Not thirty two. No, thirty three. Definitely thirty three.”  I thought I detected a slight note of resignation, despair almost, in her voice. She was gently shaking her head, overcome with gratitude and emotion, probably. I think she was close to tears. And who could blame her? So would you be.

So, March it is.

Rabbit and Eternity

Sticks stopped me in my tracks. They were very well fitting tracks, colour co-ordinated to my aura, so I was quite happy about things. We were in the High Street, just out of sight of my little coffee shop/bakery. We were safe.

“eeh, Graham,” he wheedled, shaking my hand as is his wont, “do you eat rabbit?” Sticks likes to give me lots of freshly caught sea bass in exchange for a steady supply of the 5 and 10 litre mayonnaise buckets which I empty at a frightening rate.

“Not any more, Sticks,” I replied, “my tastes tend more to the conventional nowadays. But I did have a really weird and to be honest, quite sickening dream the other night about…why? Why rabbits? You’se a fisherman. What are you doing with rabbits?”

What does he do with the buckets is a good question too. I had to make him promise faithfully to keep well separate the bait and fish storage buckets from the utility bucket. One does have hygiene standards.

He told me that he’d taken up rabbit shooting in his spare time. He’d developed a way of converting the saddle and thighs of the wee beasts into steak type joints suitable for quick flash frying. Did I want some. No. I grew up being force fed rabbit because it was ‘economical’. Never again. I let him down gently, told him I’m always in the market for any fish, and if he should ever find a stray goat carcass on his travels I’d be willing barter more than a few mayo buckets.

We got talking about the shop. My shop. Sticks asked me if I’d always been there.

” ‘Always’ is a very strong word, Sticks my dearest old friend, and an even stronger concept.” I told him. “Although it often feels otherwise, I have not been in those premises throughout the long cold endless corridors of eternity. I was not there at the initial moment of creation. I was elsewhere when ancient stone monuments were being erected. I didn’t see nothing when somebody slipped their hand under my then would-be girlfriend Linda Partington’s mum’s bum at Linda’s 16th birthday party. No. I have not always been there. It used to be a butcher’s shop until the late 80’s. And some people, seeing the carnage I wreak upon the contents of their wallets, may still see it as a butchery of sorts. I’ve been there twenty years now in my current incarnation. Why do you ask?”

“Just wondered. You don’t want rabbits then?”

Dear friend. This convo made me reflect. It made me look deep inside myself. I went immediately to the dentist’s and made an appointment for a check up for next Thursday. Then I went to my accountant’s office, two doors away from the dentists. I asked him to make extremely confidential  inquiries among a carefully chosen selection of his clients to find out if any of them were looking to buy a fully fitted, twenty year established and reasonably successful, but he knows that anyway, small town High Street retail bakery slash coffee shop business with lashings of good will and one careworn owner to achieve a mutually satisfactory outcome, purchaser to pay all vendor’s costs. Open to negotiation, discrete viewings available.

It’s something that’s been tempting me all summer, but so far I’ve resisted. Now I’ve pushed the door to the future slightly open. Go me.

More Time Away

I know what you’re thinking, and it’s true. I am. So to try and put things right, I took my little Anita on holiday to Kefalonia back in September, partly because that was the only time she could get some time off work and partly because it’s one more Greek island to cross off the list. We do like our Greek island holidays.

It all started very well when, sitting on the train to Gatwick, I realised that after charging my camera’s power packs and making sure I had a spare memory card, I had then proceeded to place the whole kit in the bottom drawer of my bedside cabinet. Where it still resided. So Dixons at Gatwick did quite well out of me that day. I’ve got a(nother) lovely new camera though folks!

Then on arrival at Kefalonia airport, I picked my suitcase off the carousel and found a huge rip down the side of it. Anita was pestering me to report it for the insurance, but I just wanted to get out of there, I assured her that it was nothing that a bit of gaffer tape wouldn’t fix and I really couldn’t be bothered with all the fuss and anyway the Goldair handling office was deserted and I started walking out of the airport. Anita then grabbed hold of a quite hot looking blond who worked for the travel company and told her about my damaged luggage, and the hot blond told me I’d better report it, don’t worry she’ll call Goldair, they’d sort it out. And then Anita sort of tweaked me in a quite unnecessarily vicious kind of way, spiritually speaking.

‘Have you actually looked at that suitcase?’ she asked me. I did. It dawned on me that although yes, it was a black case, and yes it did have a lime green luggage strap around it, no it really didn’t, when you looked at it more critically than I had so far, look anything like my current suitcase, which, upon looking back through the airport window, I could now see going round, unclaimed and quite lonely on the carousel.

I told the hot blonde that everybody makes mistakes, even me, and I ran the wrong suitcase back inside, put it back on the carousel and grabbed mine. Then I made a run for it, quickly. Anita does tend to sigh a lot, sometimes.

Our first two days were spent lazily wandering around the town and we spent both mornings in the sea, swimming in the lovely sandy bay. There were some strange little fishes which seemed to be quite curious about what was going on above water, as they kept hurling themselves out and flipping back into the water. I decided to get me a snorkeling set so as to become a bit more at one with the underwater world. I bought a set on Tuesday, knowing that I wouldn’t have a chance to use it until the Friday, but that’s me, living wild and close to the edge and playing hard to get with the future.

Food? Monday night we started with a dish of courgette fritters which I followed with a stuffed squid while  Anita had roast lamb, and we washed it down with a jug of the lovely local red wine.

On Tuesday we shared a dish of assorted dips which should have been enough, which was enough, but then I had to have a sea bass and Anita forced down some lamb chops which were too much for her so I had to help out by eating a few. Then we had some Galaktoboureka, which was gorgeous! We drank Mythos.

During the afternoon on Tuesday we took the long walk to Argostoli, having been told that there was a scenic two hour walk and a more businesslike twenty minute walk, which we were looking forward to for the return journey. Nobody had told us that you have to go half way to the other end of Argostoli to find the short route back. Anyway, the long scenic walk is very nice and long and scenic. You go past the Fanari lighthouse, built by the British and with its lovely 19th century concrete Doric columns, you see the katovothres sink holes and the replica water wheel, and you can visit the Italian war memorial. We did all this, on the way there and again on the way back. Anita got a blister on her toe. She wasn’t very happy. Somehow it was all my fault and the sighing had been replaced by a chilly but temporary silence

So, Wednesday dawned fair and sunny so we took the coach to Vathy and hopped aboard a boat headed for the lovely green nearby island of Ithaca. You want to know the villages we saw? We went to Frikes, and Kioni, and Stavros, where I tried the delicious local rice and honey cake, and stole the recipe but haven’t got around to making it yet, and also visited the church of Joachim the Ithakarian where I stole nothing, especially Joachim’s bones, sitting in a beautiful chased silver ossuary, then we returned to Vathy, back to Sami on Kefalonia and on to the studio. A lovely day indeed.

We dragged ourselves out to the Nefeli taverna and had mixed mezes to start followed by the lovely Kefalonian meat pie and some chicken in a pepper sauce. More red wine!

Then it was Thursday’s turn. We’d booked to go on a round island trip, which took in Myrtos Bay, followed by a couple of hours in Fiskardo, which every guide book will tell you was the only town on the island to escape unscathed in the 1953 earthquake. They keep telling you that, until you feel obliged to repeat it on every possible occasion. Then we went down to Asos, a lovely green peninsula with an old stone prison building on its slopes which were still remarkably pretty. We wandered around the tiny village, sat on the tiny harbourfront watching some very active tiny fishes, then we had some huge yemistes and a Greek Salad and some Mythos.

After lunch we visited the Melissani cave, where we were rowed around the underground lake on a picturesque little rowing boat, and then went to the Drogarati caves, where Anita chose not to enter, she much prefered the idea of sitting above ground in the shade and lapping at a pistachio ice cream but I decided to be a temporary troglodyte and a tall New Zealand lady joined me for the descent and the wander round among the stalagmites and the stalactites. She told me her husband wouldn’t go down with her because of an old rugby injury. I really didn’t know what to say without asking some pretty personal and intrusive questions, so I kept quiet and nodded understandingly. All very nice.

Then we were taken to the New Jerusalem monastery at Ormalos, wherein lies the mummified body of St Gerassimos, the patron saint and healer of the spiritually disturbed. There were some expat Kefalonians in our party who’d lived in Australia for twenty years or so, and the pappas agreed to uncover St Gerassimos’ remains in order for them to do their orthodox devotional bit. A touching scene ensued. All I’ll say about the mummified remains of the saint is that they were surprisingly small but the silver casket in which they are housed is vast and very beautiful. He may just have been a short man. Or he might have shrunk over the years. Then we went to a nearby winery for some free tastings and I bought a small case of various wines to bring home. Lovely stuff.

During our return to the studio we noticed that the sky was clouding over quite dramatically. It’ll pass over, I assured Anita, drawing on my vast knowledge and experience of weather and stuff, I’m trying out the snorkel tomorrow and it’ll be perfect beach weather!

Our travels had given us appetites, so we had kalamari and baked feta to start our dinner, then Anita had a moussaka which she said was the best she’d ever eaten in Greece, and I had chicken souvlaki. More red wine again! It’s gorgeous stuff.

There were some strange lights in the sky as we made our way back that night. It was constant lightning, but with no thunder. We sat out on out terrace with a bottle of wine and enjoyed the show. Still no thunder. Then in the early hours I awoke, with four or five inches of thin air separating me from my bed, as the thunder finally broke and the rain finally started. I’d never jumped in the air because of thunder before but in my defense I was asleep at the time. Bugger me it was loud.

So to cut a long story short, it rained, and it thundered, and the wind blew for a day or so and it got very boring. We walked down to the beach the next day and the beach had been washed away. All day Friday it rained. We walked around the village and got wet. We sat on the terrace with a drink and got wet. I read a book and Anita played on her phone and we stayed dry for a while. We had tzatziki and pork chops for dinner that night and we got wet going back to the studio.

The next day it was still raining on and off. I asked Anita if she fancied walking into Argostoli with me in the showers. She didn’t, so I went alone, and spent an hour or so in the archaeological museum. It’s a very small museum. I wandered aimlessly around Argostoli for a while and then went back. i tried to visit the botanical gardens on the return trip but the rain sapped my spirits and I gave up after getting very muddy and wet on a footpath which was probably a wrong turning.

When I’d got showered and dry, we went into town and bought the usual bits to bring home for the grandchildren and everybody. We inspected the beach and found that the tide had returned all the sand. The ebb and flow of inevitability. You see it everywhere.

We had stuffed aubergine, meatballs, Kleftiko and grilled prawns for dinner that night. We drank another big jug of local red wine and then it rained again as we went back to the studio. Oh how we laughed, carefree and sodden. Then for the first time ever in my life I had a reaction to the prawns.  Presumably. They were the only thing that I’d eaten and Anita hadn’t. I couldn’t stop sneezing, my face felt like it was going to expand forever and my airways started to constrict. I kept telling Anita and myself that it was merely a sneezing fit, between the strangled gasps. One benefit of being married to a healthcare professional with strong hypochondriac tendencies is the fact that her handbag contains a selection of medication suitable for treating 97.5% of all ailments known to science. She quickly administered an anti-histamine and the narrowing tunnel leading to a spot of blinding white light faded from existence. I like prawns, so why would they do such a thing to me?

On Sunday we came home.

Our next holiday was going to be a week in Estonia in January. But then I realised that they probably only get about four hours of daylight at that time of year. So I decided we’re going in March instead. It’s all good.