As readers of yesterday’s blog will know, I have just come back from two weeks holiday on the Greek island of Paros in The Cyclades where I woke up to this view from my balcony every morning and felt the Aegean sun’s healing warmth the moment I opened the shutters and turned off the air conditioning.
I was renting a small apartment in the town of Naousa (www.scorpio-paros.com), just behind the bakery and the butcher’s shop and next-door to a health club with the beach just five minutes walk away and some unused land immediately across the street where I went every morning to practise my kungfu and taichi patterns – my landlady, the charmingly optimistic Kiki, thought I was mad but she lent me her broom handle so that I could do my staff patterns when she thought I would be better off on the beach.
I think we made friends even though she did give me more than one queer look when she saw my “mad dogs and Englishman” out in the midday sun act. It felt good to be doing my kungfu again (with the special permission of my instructor back in Britain) there is something fundamentally warrior-like about doing marital arts in the land of Achilles and those other Greek heroes who fought and died on the battlefields in front of Troy.
Kiki shrugged when I told her that, it might have been a language thing, but she did invite me to a barbecue dinner out in her garden on a starlight and balmy night – her husband Michalis was there too by the way but his English was on the same level of my Greek.
I knew no Greek at all when I boarded my flight but, with the help of a small Greek phrase book that I bought at the airport, I had learnt the Greek alphabet by the time I landed on Greek soil at Santorini airport. Once you know what the letters represent, the language doesn’t seem quite so, well, Greek somehow.
I have always enjoyed learning languages even though I never get that good at them but I made an effort to learn enough simple Greek phrases to show that I was willing to be communicative, friendly even, and that I wanted to experience as much as any tourist can, the ordinary life of the island. The gesture was appreciated, I think, because soon I had made at least a handful of holiday friends such as Stelios who started out by trying to get me to hire one of his motorbikes but eventually settled for a daily chat.
I walked by every morning on my way to my post-kungfu, morning coffee in a cafe in the middle of town. After a few days, Stelios and I were firm friends even though I never did get to hire one of his bikes.
I was on my way to hide from the most aggressive heat of the sun under an umbrella outside my regular cafe where I could watch the world pass by on its way to and from the little harbour. It reminded me of a wild west frontier town and soon I recognised many of the local people about their business.
Island life means that everything that isn’t made or grown here has to come in by boat so, all day long, men with trolleys push boxes, packages and various products up through the square – all of Naousa life passed my table.
For all of that though, my main reason for coming here was my lifelong and unapologetic addiction to coffee and nowhere did it better than Xamithothiris’ even if I never got very good at pronouncing its name.
I started with a filter coffee with hot milk, a glass of water and a small biscuit as a way of acknowledging breakfast and then progressed to simple black coffee. Caffeine paradise brought to me every morning by Maria who was also helping me with my Greek.
Maria has a face that could have come straight out of Homer’s Iliad, my holiday reading in the wonderful English translation by one of my favourite poets, Alexander Pope. The range of expressions in her face from hilarity to tragedy always surprized me. We communicated in broken English and Greek but found an ease which allowed her to cry one morning and not to feel that she had to hide it from me. I will never know, of course, what had happened but our goodbye hug was long and drawn out.
My other friend at the cafe was feline – one of the many sleekly beautiful cats that, I suspect, rather over-populate the island. Greek cats look like those mysterious Egyptian ones, long and thin and exquisitely delicate in their movements. This one wasn’t really only my friend because I gave her the odd titbit from my table, I hope.
Friends have doubted that I would be able to relax on this holiday but I think I have suceeded in proving them wrong and, like a cat, I too had a siesta, after lunch, in the extreme heat of the day.
This usually happened after a desultory wander around the little harbour which is still, in spite of the tourist trade, a proper working fishing port….
In former days the centre of the village, with its tiny narrow streets, could be gated off at night to protect itself from pirate invasions (or, shhh, even Turks) when the women folk would pour the boiling contents of their cooking pots from their balconies onto any unsuspecting invader who got through the gates. Today, it is all very smart and full of very classy designer clothes and jewelry shops where, mostly, beautiful French, Italian and German tourists invest some well-needed Euros into the ailing Greek economy. If I wasn’t already so hopelessly trendy in my t-shirt and shorts, I could have been persuaded to buy some new clothes in the oddly named “Kinky Wear” – I think I looked kinkier in what I was wearing but maybe not quite so elegant.
Naousa, if you want it to be so, can be very exclusive – just the place to dock your luxury yacht for a spot of late-night shopping. This is especially true now before the high summer arives with its hordes of vomit-prone eighteen year olds.
Down one of these little side streets is my favourite restaurant in Naousa, Glafkos where you can sit outside on the beach and watch the sunset whilst eating some excellent fish which you may well have sen being gutted on the quay-side.
At Glafkos, you are made to feel as if you are a local resident even though everyone knows that you are not – soon we were all old friends of course, and, in holiday mode, I began to wish that I really did have one of those little houses in the harbour.
There is a genuine spirit of hospitality on Paros and no one showed that more that the owner of Glafkos, the charismatic and irrespressible Nikitas who probably gets his energy from his champion Greco-Roman wrestling grandfather.
Maybe I am just too easy after a few glasses of ouzo but whilst I am on the subject of furry friends, I have to mention the butcher’s dog who guards the short cut between the butcher’s shop and my apartment with an aggressive show of barking which was just much too easily turned into tail wagging if you don’t run away. After making friends it was more a matter of preventing this joyful creature from moving into the apartment.
Homer, in the elegant heroic couplets of Alexander Pope, was a constant inspiration over the holiday and the epic tale of the Trojan Wars coloured everything I saw….this is where so much of Western culture began that is was impossible not to look for Homer everywhere.
This was true even at the health club, Technofit (www.technofit.gr) next to my apartment where I took out a temporary two week membership. I was the only tourist member as far as I could see and I had to work hard at the warrior stakes to compete with all those silent war-like Greeks lifting weights.
Manos, a bit of a Greek warrior himself, gradually saw that I was serious about fitness and he even let me use a wonderfully airy upper room which had no roof but which was the perfect space to end my daily exertions with a calming session of very private taichi.
It was the only place to be when the temperature rose to nearly 40 degrees Celsius and I was happy to lie there with only occasional forays into the warm sea. Others, inevitably, had more energy that me and, at weekends, there was an influx of local lads who, like their heroic ancestors, were never happier than when they were fighting even if it was simply a seaside ball game.
Rather like the evocative ending to Visconti’s film of Death in Venice, these lads, soon I suspect to be conscripted into the Greek army, took out their pent up energy in an aggressive marine wrestling match where they could well have been remembering Homer’s tale where warriors willingly accepted the choice of death or glory.