One Evening, Two Seasons

Altitude can make a big difference to what kind of climate you encounter. After all, Mount Kilimanjaro is only just south of the equator, yet owing to the fact that its summit is over 19,000 ft above sea level, it has a perpetual covering of snow. On a much smaller scale, you can experience a similar effect here on Crete. But, before I get to that, here’s a shot of the island Bar on the town beach taken a few days ago. Nice eh? –

Last year, when we visited friends in Ierapetra and, whilst doing so, found our new house, we’d been taken up to the village of Oreino for an evening meal at the house of some friends of friends. Those friends of friends have since become simply friends, as we’ve been here for almost a year now. But whilst we’d been up there, we’d briefly met some other friends of our friends, and this couple also have become firm friends since we moved here last autumn. Our very first visit to the village was the subject of one of the last posts I did on my previous “Ramblings From Rhodes” blog. Have a look at it if you like.

Last week, our new friends (very ‘friendly’, this post, eh?), Mihalis and Soula, fulfilled a promise they’d made to take us up to the village to a) become acquainted with Mihali’s mother, who is well into her eighties and, although mentally very sharp, physically not able to leave her house any more and b) to see their house, which is next-door to Mihali’s mum’s place, where they often go for a weekend retreat. Also, c) to have a bite to eat while up there. As we drove along the coast, well before sundown, the temperature was around 33ºC. The village is set in a high valley over 2100 ft above sea level, so it’s quite a climb up there from the coast road. As you climb up the extremely winding road to the village, the scenery is simply stunning…

The sharp shadows in those photos give away the fact that the sun was sinking ever lower as we made the climb. Mihalis was worried that we’d be cold, since we turned up at their house for the trip in shorts and sleeveless t-shirts. Of course, I told him I wouldn’t be cold when he told me what temperature I could expect to encounter once we got to the village. I asked him just how much cooler it might be up there, and he suggested a difference of up to 10ªC. Just, though, returning to the photos in the gallery above, did you notice that photo no. 3 shows a sign pointing to a local beauty spot, not far below the village, where there are waterfalls and even a butterfly gorge, putting us in mind of the famous ‘Butterfly Valley‘ on Rhodes. Mental note made – must come up here for hike come the winter time.

You might also notice, in photos number 6 and 7, a beautiful pine tree growing out of the sheer side of the rock. Mihalis stopped the car for us to get a better look. “It’s my favourite of all the trees growing up here,” he told us. It sort of symbolises triumph over adversity, since it has virtually no soil, and yet has rooted right in the crevice of the rock itself and grown there to quite a large size. The photos don’t do it justice, that’s all I can say.

As we neared the village, Mihalis took us around the far side of the valley, so that we could observe the village from a similar altitude, but a kilometre or so away. Entering the village from the more remote end, you pass this house on your right…

The owner was outside watering, something which, I imagine, he does rather often, and you can just see his shoulder to the far left. He turned, and we exchanged a “kalispera“, with him adopting a kind of ‘Can I help you?’ expression, without actually saying anything. So I said I’d just like to take a photo of his garden, the reply to which was another knowing look that said, “Oh, yes, well, that happens all the time.”

When we’d started out from Ierapetra, probably 45 minutes earlier, the temperature had been around 32ºC. Here in the village it was reading 23, and felt decidedly like another season altogether from how it had felt all that way below. Small wonder that Mihalis was worried that we’d be under-dressed for the village during the evening. He hadn’t bargained, however, on the fact that we’re British, and to us this was still like a good summer’s evening.

After a pleasant, although fairly brief, visit with his family, we made our way to the village kafeneion/taverna, where a small selection of locals was waiting to ogle the ‘xenous‘ arriving with Mihali and Soula. Of course, Mihalis knew everyone, and they knew him. So there followed a succession of ‘briefings’ on both sides about how they were doing, who’d been taken ill, who’d died recently, and whose son or daughter was setting off back to university, all that stuff. Plus a few others, getting wind of the fact that a couple of strange faces were seated at table in Taverna Orno, made their excuses to ‘turn up by chance’ and have a good stare. They were all friendly stares, though, nothing like the kind you may have received in, say, the Georgia back country.

Mihalis had suggested we stop by the taverna owing to the superb mizithropitas they do there, but the meal soon became much more extensive than that.

By the time we approached the end of the meal, we’d been served up with a superb dish of fasolakia with cubed potatoes, home-made chips, Mihalis had some stifado, and we all had several other home-cooked dishes, too may to remember. All in all, one of the most enjoyable village evenings we’ve ever spent. When it came time to leave, we had to admit that Mihalis had been right. No, it wasn’t freezing, but we were glad of the extra layer we were able to put on, courtesy of Mihali and Soula’s wardrobe in their house in the village. Strolling back to the car, the Milky Way above us shone like a silk scarf spread across the sky from end to end, since the light pollution away from the sparse village street lighting was virtually nil.

Before we left the village, we were handed a double bunch of freshly picked grapes, humungously heavy and (since we tried a couple there and then) exceedingly tasty. This was how they looked once we got them home…

Climbing back into the car, we had to admit that, yes, although we’d eaten al fresco, by the time it had become really dark, we had got the shivers just a little. It was like going straight into a Cretan winter. By the time we got back home, we were soon back in summer, with the temperature once again reading around 30ºC at something approaching midnight. Small wonder, though, that our friends beat a retreat up to the village as often as they can during July and August.

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A French Emperor and a Ftochos

In 1798, Emperor Napoleon engaged in a campaign against Egypt and travelled across the Mediterranean to fight a battle or two. It’s known that he stopped off in Malta on June 9th, and that he arrived in Alexandria on July1st. In between the two dates it’s alleged, but not proven, that he spent one night on Crete while en route, and that the house he allegedly stayed in, with his family by all accounts, and in cognito, was the one in the photo above, situated not far from the waterfront in the Old Town of Ierapetra. He is said to have left a note revealing his identity, which was found after he’d left. Whether you believe it or not, and I must admit there do seem to be some gaping holes in the story, one of which was that he had a flotilla with him, so it would have been a bit hard not to have caused a stir when coming ashore, it’s a fun story.

The photo above shows the house as it comes into view when you come looking for it from the waterfront, where, incidentally, there is a battered old sign pointing you in the right direction…

There are quite a few web sites that carry photos of the house, but I couldn’t find any that show it in its current state, having evidently been restored to some degree. Some show an A4 printout in a plastic envelope stapled to the front door stating simply “Napoleon’s House,” but as of this week, that’s not in evidence. Of course the epithet ‘Napoleon’s House’ in itself is a bit of a misnomer, since he only [allegedly] spent one solitary night there as a guest. Still, never mind, eh? It’s fun to go and see it and it may yet be opened to the public in the future, since someone is certainly doing it up, judging by those other photos that you’re sure to find if you go Googling. Here’s one, just to show you what I mean.

Such stories abound all over the planet, don’t they? And I for one think they’re great because they make for a fun holiday and a photo opportunity too, quite often. So if you’re along the south western end of Ierapetra’s delightful waterfront any time soon, not fifty paces from the old fortress that stands at the entrance to the fishing harbour, you’ll spot the sign, I’m sure. Just go along that street and take the right at the t-junction. The house is then only a few metres on your left.

Ever since moving here we’ve been promising ourselves a proper visit to the beach and modest promenade at Pacheia Ammos, just a few kilometres to the north of us, over the mountain. It’s set at the most southerly part of the massive Agios Nikolaos Bay, or Mirabello Bay, to give it its proper title, just where the road from Ierapetra intersects the road from ‘Ag Nik’ to Sitia. The seafront consist of a row of rather traditional-looking tavernas and bars and a beach that starts out to the east as shingle and rock, but finishes at the western end as a really nice, shallow, sandy horseshoe.

At the furthest end of the beach there’s a harbour wall, and beside that a large parking area, right next to the sea. I took this piece of video from that area…

The sea at this end of the beach is usually calm, even if there’s a swell beyond the harbour wall, which can mean that further along the beach it’s quite choppy. We did come down here way back when the full lock down was just easing and the cafés and bars were allowed to re-open, just for a reccy, but everything was still closed up and it felt bereft, abandoned. This time, though, it looked extremely inviting, and, after we’d been up the hill to the Panorama Café/taverna for coffee and a portokalo’pita (Orange pie), we arrived here ready for a dip. Looking at that sea, it would have been a crime not to, eh?

So, there we were revelling in the warm, shallow safe waters off that beach when the better half remarked that it was a shame there were no sun-beds under those straw umbrellas. No sooner had the words tripped from her lips when a chap swimming a few metres further out replied:

“Oh, but there are usually. But this is a strange season, what with the coronavirus and all that. Normally the beds are there under the umbrellas and they’re free.” We both looked in the direction of the voice to see a head, that of a Greek local, probably in his sixties, but well blessed with a crop of silvering hair, and ready smile on his lined face. He wasn’t at all bad-looking.

So began a conversation, the three of us treading water (even though it was shallow enough to have stopped for a rest and touch the bottom with our feet!) like true Greek pappous and ya ya. Andreas was his name, and he said he swims here twice a day every day during the summer season. He has a house up in the hills, not far from the very impressive cleft in the mountains that is the Ha Gorge (Φαράγγι το Χα). In fact he told us that it would be a pleasure for him to entertain us up there some time, with a glass of Raki. Well, this is Crete, what did you expect?

We asked if this beach would normally be very busy in high summer, which would affect our desire to come here or go somewhere else. He assured us that it was never overcrowded. All the voices we heard were Greeks, with a couple of Bulgarians in the mix. I couldn’t help thinking about the huge difference between this glorious little paradise, with just enough restaurants and bars to satisfy one’s food and drink needs, and the Spanish Costas, like Benidorm, or Alicante. Two worlds further apart would have been difficult to imagine. The backdrop to Pacheia Ammos is open countryside and impressive mountains, and it seemed to us to be a very handy place to de-stress now and then. Plus, we can get there in around 15 minutes from home. Another one to add to our list!

I asked Andreas if any of the restaurants along the short water front were specially worth a visit, having in mind the fact that next week my sister and hubby arrive from the UK and we’re looking for places to bring them. Now, you’ll know all too well, if you’re a regular visitor to Greece, that if you ask a local where to eat, he or she will always direct you to somewhere run by a relative or friend. The fact is, though, that this is fine, because it still means that the food will in all probability be very good. Plus, if you turn up and mention the person who referred you, you’re virtually sure of a warm welcome and most probably too a freebie or three.

Andreas pointed across the shimmering surface of the water to a taverna just metres along the beach from where we’d left our things. “I’d go to Merminkas,” he said, then proceeded to tell us his connection to the place, which was far too involved to go into here. But he finished off by telling us, “Just tell them o ftochos’ sent you!”

Now, in case you didn’t know, ‘ftochos‘ [ο φτωχός] means ‘the poor man!’ Evidently it’s a bit of a joke going back to some time ago when Andreas was involved in some renovation work that went on there. Either way, we laughed and asked him, “So, you’re a poor man, then?” It was pretty evident, even from just seeing his head, that he was anything but. He’d told us, too, about his working career, and the fact that his BMW motorbike was parked up on the quayside also lent the lie to that belief!

Anyway, if you’ve clicked that link in the previous-but-one paragraph, you’ll have seen that on Tripadvisor (there it was again) the place has glowing reviews, so we’ll give it a try. In all honesty, I could just order an omelette to enjoy the location, since it’s right on the beach.

Here are a couple more photos from that day…

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An Accidental Avocado

When we lived on Rhodes, we had a Greek friend there who used to grow avocado plants from a pit. My better half has kept on about us having an avocado for ages, but we were put off trying to grow one after watching Lena, our friend, and her method for getting a pit to sprout roots. What she would do was to get an electric drill (I kid you not), select a very narrow drill-bit, the size that would just fit the diameter of a cocktail stick, then she’d drill right through the centre of the avocado pit, which, as you’ll know, is about the shape and size of a small egg. She’d then insert a cocktail stick, pushing it right through so that the same amount of stick stuck out from either side of the pit, then she’d take a small drinking glass, just the right size to rest the pit on top of using the ends of the cocktail stick, and she’d put water in the glass until it just covered the lower part of the pit.

“What you do then,” Lena would say, “is you wait until the pit splits and roots start to grow from the bottom, in the water. Once it does that, you can take out the cocktail stick, put the pit into some good compost in a small pot, and wait for it to sprout green shoots above the level of the compost.

Have to admit, couldn’t really be bothered with all that fuss. Some web sites even recommend the three-cocktail sticks approach. Honestly, they do, Look! Another deterrent for us was that we love eating avocado, adding it to finely-chopped salads being one of our favourite ways, as a kind of chunky guacamole; but growing a plant (and they do become trees eventually) from the pit means you won’t be liable to see any fruit for anything from 5 to over 10 years. We don’t have that kind of time left to wait for our guacamole any more.

So, we just carry on buying avocados to eat. But, and here’s the amazing thing, I hadn’t even considered that there may be easier ways to get an avocado pit to germinate. Lena’s method had been, she’d often insisted, the only way to make a success of it. So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I dug a germinating avocado pit out of the soil in our upper garden a week or two ago.

Apparently, the given wisdom is that you ought to eat fruit early in the day in order to get the best benefit from it. Also, if you do eat fruit with a big meal, it’s not really as good for you to eat it after the meal, as a kind of healthy dessert. Fruit is much better absorbed if you eat it as a starter. See? You learn things on “Accretions,’ eh? Anyway, I only mention this because, since we have a habit of piling loads of chopped fruit on our muesli of a morning, we always end up with a plastic bowl full of banana skin, apple core, and all kinds of other stuff that we shave off of the fruit before it goes into the breakfast dish. There’s usually quite a lot of stuff, because in the climate we have here, fruit doesn’t last long in the bowl on your table, not even in the fridge. This means that we’re often rushing to eat those nectarines before they go mushy in places. Thus the mushy bits end up in that bowl of fruit detritus to be discarded.

Because we don’t actually have a compost bin here, what I do each day is to go out into the upper garden with that bowl and a garden spade. A couple of spade loads of soil dug out means I can shoot the organic waste into the hole, then scrape the soil back over it with the spade. Job done, and organic material is added daily to the garden without more than two or three minutes fuss. Win-win, right?

There it is, our modest little ‘upper garden’ in all its glory.

It was on one such occasion a couple of weeks ago that I must by coincidence have dug at the same spot where I’d dug some time before, only that time there had been an avocado pit in amongst the waste, probably from some salad preparation, since we use the same method then as we do with the fruit at breakfast. As I dug the hole, there, at the bottom was what looked very much to me like an avocado pit, split right down the middle, with some fine-looking white roots poking out on one side, and a shoot of about two inches long sticking out the other. Of course it was very dusty and covered in small lumps of dried soil, but, picking it up, I decided that it was well worth a try and seeing if it would grow.

Back in the kitchen I gave it a wash, dug out a small pot from the outdoor cupboard, and filled it with some compost that we were fortunate enough to still have on hand from an earlier potting session. The shoot I positioned so that it protruded from the compost about an inch and a half, and it was very sorry-looking, truly. The shoot was whitish, with just the merest hint of green at the top, which resembled a knuckle. There were no leaves, but the green-ness gave me hope. Three weeks and some careful watering later, and that photo you see at the top of this post is the result.

To say we’re thrilled would be a major understatement. So, folks, check back in anything from five to ten years time and I’ll show you our first home-grown harvested avocado fruit…

In the next post, BTW, boy, have I got some photos to show you! And Jane (Jane’s my sister), you’ll need a lot more than three weeks to see everything I post here, you know!!

Read about the books: https://johnphilipmanuel.wixsite.com/works

Playing ‘Snap’?

Time for a brief post of mainly photographs from the last week or so. Hope you like these.

Above: Around midday on Friday August 21st. Town beach Ierapetra, The Island Bar, where you don’t pay for the sun beds and umbrellas as long as you have a drink. You can order at your umbrella, but we rather like the directors’ chairs that sink into the sand as you sip your freddo espresso at the back of the beach.

[Above] My home office, up on our ‘patari‘, where I do most of my writing these days. After 14 years tucked away in their gig-bag, my bass guitars are finally out on show, and I’ve even begun the occasional excruciating (to the better half’s ears, anyway) practice session to try and regain what I’ve lost through all that time! Not sure how successful I’ll be though!

Both of the above were taken seconds apart, on the beach at Gra Ligia, after we’d had an early evening swim with a few friends. This was around 8.30pm, after the sun had gone down behind the mountains to the west.

[Above] The group of three pots in the corner of our sundeck. We waited many years before finally being able to plant some red cannas in our garden back on Rhodes, only to have to move out of the house a matter of weeks later. It would have been an impossibility to bring any plants with us here to Crete, so we’ve been thrilled that the red cannas we bought a couple of months ago have already spread in this pot and are putting on a pretty blousy show right now, agreed?

[Above] The two ancient olive trees in our lower garden, just below the sun deck. We love them, even though my beloved is constantly sweeping up the olives that fall from them on a daily basis. The car you can see belongs to Maria, Evangelia’s daughter, who lives just across the lane. It’s the very spot where Manolis fell (see this post, second section), and where our neighbour Angla’i’a told us that the concrete incline hides the ancient stone steps that had served the village residents for probably centuries before the day of the motor vehicle came upon us.

The gallery below is s series of snaps I took during an early evening stroll around the village at between 7.00 and 7.30pm last Monday. You can see the remnants of a formerly thriving village from decades ago everywhere. The photo of the beloved on those steps (found further up near the top of the village) shows what the lane outside our place would have looked like in the days before the concrete was poured all over them.

And finally, the snap below is of the sea front at Ierapetra, at the Symbol café-bar, at 1.00pm on Tuesday. As you can see, it’s rather quiet in comparison to a ‘normal’ season.

Read about the books: https://johnphilipmanuel.wixsite.com/works

Driving us nuts (and a tumble)

Almonds are a superfood. They’re apparently among the best things one can eat on the planet, and they grow on trees everywhere here in Greece. Almonds, to buy, are not all that cheap, as I’m sure you know. We usually wait until there’s an offer on and then buy them, but we do like to keep some in. At the very least we crack a few to add to our muesli in the mornings. There’s not a lot of point in my going into all the wonderful ways that almonds help us here, but suffice it to say – if you have a free supply of them, you ought not to take it for granted, right?

The photo at the top of this post is of the almond tree (well, one of about half a dozen) which belongs to our neighbour behind us and up the hill. I can reach those almonds from over the wall, which is only a couple of feet high. The owner, who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, is a working man who lives alone (he had a wife once, he told me) who’s out six days a week and often seven. He leaves the house at the crack of dawn and returns at around 3.00pm, when he eats, sleeps and often gets up to go out again in the evening. Basically, if I talk to him once a month, it’s often.

You can see from the photo that those almonds are more than ready for harvesting. The husks are cracking on the tree, revealing the inner shell, within which is found the actual almond, which isn’t a nut at all, but rather the seed, but who cares? To us they’ll always be nuts.

When I was a child my parents would always buy copious quantities of nuts in their shells at Christmas. We’d all sit around to watch Billy Smart’s Circus and Dad would take control of the nutcracker, with shells flying every which way, he’d dispense the newly revealed nuts around the family equitably, like a benign monarch dispensing favours to his expectant subjects. There would be almonds, walnuts, peanuts, brazils, hazelnuts – all purchased with their shells on and only for this one occasion through the year. The peanuts we’d manage to crack open ourselves, my sister and I, because a fingernail correctly inserted would do the job just fine.

Anyway, to return to the almond tree behind us. I know our neighbour’s a busy man, but it’s a crying shame that he has so many of these wonderful nuts going to waste, so, since a large part of the tree overhangs the wall, I decided to take matters in my own hands and go save some from a decidedly wasteful fate. They grow in a fruit that, in spring, rather resembles a small unripe green furry peach or apricot, but they never get to the size of such juicy fruit. The furry fruit dries and becomes a husk, which you then prize open to reveal the pitted shell, within which resides the prize, the extremely beneficial almond itself…

Thus, during my sleepless periods this past few nights, I’ve been up watching the TV news, or maybe something on YouTube (all right, go on, tell me that I should be writing that novel!), while busily cracking away at the almonds cases in order to top up our jar with free nuts, saving a not insubstantial sum in the process, but also reminiscing on my happy childhood and my lovely dad doing his stuff while the clowns’ car fell to pieces on the TV.

We had a bit of a drama outside our side gate a few days ago. Old Manolis, who, just after we moved to the village last October, had been hospitalised after a fall which had broken his hip, was negotiating his way up the steep incline with his walking stick, when it caught in one of the groves in the cement (put there to help stop people slipping, it’s that steep) and he went down on his face. The first I knew of it was when my wife began shouting (she was fortunately down in the lower garden watering at the time, which was around 6.45pm) after she heard a moaning and, looking over the fence was alarmed to see Manolis on the ground, blood all over his forehead, cheek and lips.

Frankly, someone in his physical condition and age ought to think about not trying to negotiate such a steep climb, but he does it almost every day, to reach a small property that he still owns in the higher part of the village, where he stores stuff that he occasionally needs. And who are we to tell him not to do it any more? He’s fiercely independent, having lost his wife around six years ago, and would no doubt insist that he can manage, despite the fact that he’ll be 88 years old in a week or two. I rushed out into the lane with Yvonne-Maria and we managed to lift him off the ground and get him over to the step outside our gate. While I ran into the house for a cloth and some warm water with a spot of Dettol in it to swab his wounds, Evangelia appeared from across the lane. She joined us in fussing over him and, as we heard his account of what had happened, told him, “Do your stavro, do your stavro [‘make the sign of the cross,’ x2!)” My wife couldn’t help it, she laughed a little and replied “That’s not going to help!” To so many ageing Greek ya yas, though, it’s the panacea to everything.

Apart from some blood from facial grazes, he seemed none the worse for wear, despite evidently having hit the concrete with his face. We couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened had he been coming down the hill instead of going up. Doesn’t bear thinking about. Once he’d recovered from the shock, he was soon chuckling over the whole affair as Evangelia and my wife walked him slowly down to Angla’i’a’s house, which is only a few metres from his own front door. She’d been a nurse during her working life, so that was a smart move. Once she was sure he was in good hands, the better half came home.

A day or two later, in the early evening, we strolled down to Angla’i’a‘s house to see how Manolis was doing, and there he was sitting under the massive rubber tree across the way from her front door when we got there. Instantly Angla’i’a appeared and told us to sit while she fixed us an elliniko. We got to talking about the steep lane outside our side gate, and mentioned how worried we were when we saw not only Manoli, but Evangelia, and kyria Sofia (she who now has a little dementia) trudging up and down that so-steep incline past our home. Angla’i’a told us, “Not so many years ago that wasn’t concrete. like it is now. It was stone steps. In fact, if you chip away that concrete, which was laid to enable a few residents to get their cars just a little further up, so as to be closer to their houses, the steps are still there, under the concrete.” That struck us as rather sad really. But we’re the hypocrites, because our vehicle is one of those that benefits, now that it’s a concrete lane and not stone steps.

Aa she said this, she laid before us not only our Greek coffees, but a couple of piping hot mizithra pancakes…

I dunno, eh? the things we have to suffer in order to be good neighbours. Anyway, Manolis was now sporting a heavily bandaged right wrist, so, while we exclaimed our horror at this, he exhibited a cheeky grin from ear to ear, revealing what few teeth he has remaining in all their difficult to locate glory. I say ‘difficult to locate,’ owing to the fact that they’ve not been white for probably many a decade and so you have to study the aperture between his lips to see exactly where the lone remaining teeth are actually located.

He was in ebullient mood, fortunately, and was apparently revelling in the fact that he’d been whisked off to the hospital after my better half and Evangelia had escorted him down to Angla’i’a‘s, and there they’d discovered that he’d actually fractured a bone in that wrist. “Doesn’t hurt,” he said, and added, “I’m all right, really. Can’t remember the last time I had anything wrong with me, apart from the hip last year of course. But that was mechanical, like this. I don’t ever get ill.

So, all in all, I guess we’re relieved that Manolis is relatively still fighting fit at almost 88, and completely brushes off any well-intended advice about walking up that hill with his bastouni [walking stick]. It’s hard to disagree with a man who says he’d much rather pop his clogs walking up a one-in-three hill than sat outside his front door vegetating.

Read about the books: https://johnphilipmanuel.wixsite.com/works

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” it’s an expression that most of us have heard of. I’m not really concerned with who said it first, although the given wisdom leans towards Mark Twain, apparently. It’s often used, though, in contexts such as I’m going to refer to here, and that’s when statistics don’t tell the whole story and can be (and often are) used to mislead or confuse the public. Recent figures about cases of Covid-19 here in Greece have led some to reach alarmist conclusions, including that the UK Government is going to slap its “14-day quarantine when you return from there” prohibition on this country too.

Whilst it is true that the number of recorded cases of Covid/CoronaVirus here in Greece during this past week or so have been at their highest since the outbreak began, the fact is that the figures alone do not tell the whole story and definitely do not give a balanced picture. I’ll give a for instance. Yesterday (as I write this) there were well in excess of 200 new cases recorded. “Alarm bells!” shout some. Yet something like 80+ were in Athens and 60+ in Thessaloniki, making up already a total of 150 or so in those two cities alone. Plus there was an outbreak in an old folks’ home in Thessaloniki numbering around 20. The number of cases on the islands remains very, very low. Many who’d be coming here for a holiday would be flying into an island airport and not leaving that island until they returned to their home country.

Of course, there is no room for complacency, but the Greek government health spokesman himself said that the cases in relation to tourism are negligible, despite the fact that at present thousands are still arriving and leaving by air every day. Here on Crete, yes, there have been a few cases this past week in Heraklion, Rethymnon and Chania, but these are truly a handful. Plus, the cases in Greece do seem primarily to be family and socially based. The reason why the government has slapped a curfew on bars and restaurants from midnight until 7.00am is precisely because the carefree good-timers, primarily young people (although not exclusively, of course) are being stupid and ignoring social distancing guidelines and mask-wearing where necessary. There have been a few irresponsible priests telling people to ignore the law regarding mask-wearing too, one of whom was fined for such a stance just yesterday. Plus there have been cases of weddings with far too many guests present, most of whom behave as though there were no such thing as Covid-19. DUH!

I suppose I do have sympathy for Spain, because when you break it down, there are vast areas where tourists go in that country that are not experiencing a spike at all, much like here, yet the UK government just says that the entire country is covered by the ‘quarantine on return’ policy. Portugal is another case in point. One could be forgiven for thinking that the UK government has an agenda to try and keep people at home, to have a ‘staycation’ and thus spend their cash within the UK, helping the home economy to bounce back. One can sympathise with that to a degree, yet freedom to travel is a fundamental human right in the free world, isn’t it?

One can only hope that the UK government, before adding yet more countries to this growing list of what then become essentially ‘no go’ areas for most working people, will consider in more detail the actual breakdown of the cases in each country, rather than acting in a draconian manner. Incidentally, the word ‘draconian’ comes from Greece originally, apparently. Only saying, you know.

Here in this part of Crete life goes on very much as normal. Yesterday we had a stroll around Agios Nikolaos and contentedly sipped our freddo espressos while people-watching. The only things that gave away the fact there is a pandemic on the rampage were the fact that staff in stores, cafés and restaurants were responsibly wearing masks, and the numbers of tourists about on the streets are well down. Both of the beaches at Ag Nik had lots of spare sun-beds and umbrellas, something that would be unheard of in August in normal times. Last night we enjoyed our favourite green salad, family-sized pizza and a bottle of retsina at the L’Angolo restaurant on Ierapetra’s delightful sea front, and afterwards took a promenade along that vibrant stretch of waterside bars and restaurants, where the atmosphere was relaxed and we felt totally glad to be alive and living somewhere as beautiful as this.

Here’s hoping that you will be here to enjoy it too some time soon. Here are just four photos from Agios Nikolaos yesterday…

Read about the books: https://johnphilipmanuel.wixsite.com/works

Early Morning Musings

It’s around five minutes to six, the light coming through the shutters and blinds indicates that the sun is not far below the hill now, and soon it will begin to get light. I’m not sleeping. I have slept, it’s true, from around 3.00am until about twenty minutes ago, but after tossing and turning for a while, I decide that it’s no good. I won’t be getting back to sleep any time soon. May as well get up and put my new running shoes to some use.

I bought them around a month ago, firm in the intention that I wanted to get back, to some degree, to the fitness level I enjoyed in the past. I won’t be running any marathons, but if I can go out for twenty minutes or so a few times a week and run without pause, then I’ll be happy with that. The thing is, our house is part-way up a very steep hill. I don’t know if these photos (taken later in the day, BTW) will help illustrate that…

The photo above shows our side gate, the one that opens on to the lane from what we call our lower garden. If you swing around 90º from that very spot, this is the lane…

I’ve no idea what it would be in percentage terms, but in the old money we’d have said in the UK that it’s probably a 1 in 3 rise. The wall to the extreme left belongs to our neighbour Maria, who’s Evangelia’s daughter. To the left of this shot is the tiny alley that leads past Evangelia’s front door, where both she and Adonis (the werewolf, of old) live.

So, anyway, I rise, grab a pair of shorts and a vest top, trying not to wake the beloved, who’s sleeping soundly, and quietly pull the bedroom door closed. Once I’m kitted out, I open the French windows, and step out on to the veranda. It’s just after 6.00 am and the temperature’s deliciously bearable, at somewhere around 28ºC, with a very slight breeze. I have my running shoes in my hand, so I plonk myself down on the patio chair and pull them on. I did push the boat out a little when I bought these. They’re Nike Air, although I did get them in a sale. But one of our close friends down in the town, who does do marathons on a regular basis, told me, “Never cut corners when buying running shoes. Your feet, your knees and your back will thank you in due course.” I’ve taken a deep pull on a glass of chilled water from the fridge before stepping outside too. Even before the sun puts in an appearance over the hills to our left, you can quickly become dehydrated in these conditions.

I remember to do some warm-up stretches against the wall and then I trot down the drive to the lane, and turn right to make the climb you see in the photos above. If you look again at the shot that shows a small pile of logs to the left, that’s where Maria has to park her car each night. Must admit, I’d not be happy leaving my car on such a steep slope as a rule, but she has little choice. Villages like ours weren’t designed for the modern motor car, rather for the donkey, or shank’s pony. Nowadays, village residents who own vehicles have to be creative. I wouldn’t want to be her car’s handbrake cable for any money, though. As I turn the corner and start up the hill, it’s around 6.05am and Maria is just getting into her car to go to work. She’s startled to see me, and I her. She’s already in the car and firing up the engine as I pass, and we exchange a wave of recognition. Maria is probably in her late fifties, divorced (things are changing, even in Greek rural communities these days) and works in a hotel in Agios Nikolaos, about half an hour’s drive to the north. Many women of her age, in times before the austerity, would have been long retired by now, but no longer. She must carry on working until she’s 67. Her kids have flown the nest, and her son is a regular visitor, usually turning up in his white pickup, when he’s not at work, for a coffee and a chat with his mana.

Passing our side gate, I labour up the ever-steepening slope, where I pass Sophia’s door, she who’s about four foot six, always in black and with a babushka forever covering her head, and ever-so-slightly showing signs of dementia, although still living alone.

In the photo above you see Sophia’s front door, the one with the white bars. It’s here that the lane narrows to the point where a vehicle (with the exception of a motorcycle, of course) can go no further. You see, too, that what was a 1 in 3, is now getting even steeper. I have to admit to still being in the very early stages of my campaign to get back to my former fitness level, and I walk this section, since there’s no way at present that I could run it. Turning through 180º this is the view back down the lane…

You can see our side gate to the left, where the white fence begins. Turning back to the task at hand, I ascend through the predominantly still-sleeping village and pass the tiny church, which is decked all around with bunting. Yesterday was August 15th, which anyone who knows anything about Greece will know is the date when the Orthodox religion celebrates what they call the “Dormition of the Theotokos.” The government a couple of weeks ago slapped a forbidding order on all gatherings to celebrate this and any other festival for the foreseeable future, owing, of course, to the current precarious situation with the pandemic, as if anyone needed telling about that. The evidence as I pass the courtyard of the church shows, though, that such prohibitions don’t reach as far as a tiny village on a Cretan hillside. The bunting and other detritus shows that last night the villagers (or at least, the older villagers) all congregated here as they have done for centuries.

In, fact, as we were watching some snooker on the TV later in the evening, My wife went outside and then came in to tell me that it sounded like the entire village had been evacuated. There were, though, a few exceptions. As she was dawdling around the garden, enjoying the night coolness and checking her plant pots, she saw Evangelia’s bathroom light come on. Dear Evangelia probably hasn’t been able to make it up to the church for several years now, as it’s around two hundred metres and all uphill, and she’s well into her eighties.

Passing the church, which is almost the highest point in the village, a pickup comes towards me, its lights still on in the morning twilight, which will have to park up in the small terrace outside the church courtyard, since from there it’s impossible to go further in a vehicle from this direction too. The driver is an agrotis whom I know well enough ‘to nod to,’ so to speak. So we both acknowledge each other with a nod, and I wait for him to pass before starting up a trot, since it’s now downhill for a couple of hundred metres to the main road through the village. As I pass the few inhabited houses on the right of the lane as it descends, I pass a small courtyard where a woman whom I’ve yet to meet properly is just closing her front door, quietly, a small rucksack hanging on her back. You know the type I refer to, they seem to be all the rage these days. She’s surprised to hear my footfalls and we exchange a whispered ‘kalimera‘ as I pass.

This is a rural area, of course. I’m not really surprised to come across workers starting their day, even though it’s not yet 6.30am. After I’ve run up the road towards Meseleri a way, then turned and come back into the village, passing Angla’i’a and Giorgo’s front door, I see that the ‘lads’ as we call them, the many sons of the widowed Maria (yes, it’s all Marias, it seems) who live in the house below ours, have already left for work. They have a lot of land, plus sheep, goats and chickens, which they keep in a coop in amongst the olive trees some way from the village. Those boys are up and out at the crack of dawn, sometimes before, every day of the year, seven days a week, 365 days a year. After all, as anyone who knows the farmer’s life will tell you, animals don’t know what day of the week it is. It’s Sunday, by the way.

As I finally turn into our private drive, the last fifty metres are excruciatingly steep, but I drive myself on (photo below taken some hours later, as the colour of the sky shows)…

The sky is now much brighter than when I left the house twenty minutes earlier, but the sun has still a while to go before it peeks over the mountain and begins its relentless persecution of all it surveys for yet another August day. I enter the gate to our veranda, peel off the shoes and the rest of my clothes and take a wonderful outdoor shower. Drying off I let myself back into the house, open the bedroom door with extreme caution. Have you ever noticed how door latches are designed to drive you mad when you’re trying to keep silent and not disturb someone? You turn the handle extremely slowly, pulling slightly to hold the door against the frame and hopefully stop the latchbolt from making a noise, then, ‘click‘ the flaming thing throws a spanner in the works. You scrunch up your face in frustration and hope it hasn’t woken the beloved.

I think I got away with it. She didn’t move. Sliding back on to the bed and pulling the empty quilt cover across my middle (I like to keep my feet exposed to the air at this time of the year), I bury my head in the pillow and hope that this time I’ll sleep. Next thing I know, my wife says, “You getting up then? It’s ten o’clock.

Yippee! it worked.

Read about the books: https://johnphilipmanuel.wixsite.com/works

The Circle Game

Yes, a song on one of my all-time favourite albums, “Ladies of the Canyon” by Joni Mitchell, “The Circle Game” is an allegory of life, yet I feel like I’ve been living a microcosmic version of it this past few weeks, and for more than one reason. Firstly, I’ve been rather quiet on the blog front of late, owing to the fact that I finally got my long-sought-after new blade for my circular saw, which meant I had to get on and build the cupboard that I’d started in our back room, or the apothiki, as we call it. It’s two and a half metres high, by about a metre wide and almost a metre deep, the cupboard that is, not the apothiki. I’ve built it out of sawn timber, which would have been much easier than it actually has been, owing to a mix-up when ordering the wood from the timber merchant. Instead of receiving lengths of what we’d call in the UK 2.5×2.5 (inches, which translates into about 6×6 cm, what actually arrived was 4.5×4.5, which was just under 12×12 cm. Talk about a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Anyway, because a friend with a van had collected it from the timber yard and brought it to the house for us, it wasn’t going to be logistically a walk in the park to send it back. “No problem,” said I, “I’ll whip out my trusty Black and Decker circular saw and ‘rip’ the lengths into four, then I can build the cupboard in no time.”

When we’d lived on Rhodes, we spent an awful lot of time during the winter months cutting wood for the ‘soba‘, or log-burning stove. This had in more recent years also involved cutting pallets into chunks that were small enough to go through the stove door. When I first used to rip pallets apart, I’d painstakingly prize them to pieces using a hammer and a couple of hefty screwdrivers as jemmies. I eventually got tired of this and simply tore into them with either the chainsaw or the circular saw. Of course, pallets are chock full of rusty four-inch nails, and I very soon destroyed the blade on the saw’s disk due to this fact. Thus, when I came to try and cut the lengths I’d ordered for our cupboard, the flipping saw was knackered, wasn’t it. It was like trying to cut diamond with a bread knife.

Now, I hadn’t intended when I started this piece to go into such detail about a circular saw, so, suffice it to say that three or four weeks and two different DIY stores later, I eventually took delivery of the new disk. And so the job of constructing the cupboard has kind of supplanted keyboard time this past week or more. Mind you, we’re now the proud owners of an almost complete (and already stacked full of stuff) cupboard to relieve our storage space problem.

Another reason why I called this post ‘The Circle Game’ was because I felt compelled to return (albeit with a tiresome air) to the subjects of CoronaVirus and all inclusive holidays and what they’re doing to the local businesses here in Greece. Some old friends from the UK who love to holiday in Greece emailed me a few days ago to ask my opinion before they took the plunge and made the decision to try and come here before this season ends. This was more to do with their worries over the rather ‘rantish’ comments they’ve been seeing from those ill-informed ex-pats living here who are breathing threat, fire and water at anyone considering a visit during the CoronaVirus pandemic. I re-iterate, for the umpteenth time: Anyone who accuses you of being selfish for wanting to come is probably among the numbers of those whose income doesn’t depend on tourism. To a man/woman (must be PC these days), everyone in this country who lives from tourism wants and needs you to come here. The Greek government also wants people to come.

Yes, there are measures in place to help stall the spread of the virus, and these are right and proper, the rest is a risk that local people here are prepared to take because their businesses, once closed down for good, will never re-open if that happens, with dire consequences for the families and employees concerned.

And on the ‘all-inclusive’ front, a bar owner on Rhodes posted this video on Facebook this week, and it says it all. I’m not going to add anything more on the subject, but please do watch that video and think.

“They don’t do things by halves” is an expression we often resort to when someone from the village comes up our lane calling our names. Here in Crete, and in much of rural Greece I’m sure, people set their tables with whatever vegetables and fruit are in season. The system works a treat and – as I’ve often commented before – you get something different each month of the year. The thing is, when a particular vegetable is being harvested, nature’s abundance becomes crystal clear if you live in a community where your neighbours grow their own. Right now they’re all harvesting cucumbers in the village here, and thus yesterday Evangelia from across the lane came up with a carrier bag to give to my wife. The bag was half full of cucumbers. Nothing else.

Now, I’m as partial to a slice of cucumber in my salad as the next person, but, if we were to attempt to eat all the cucumbers we currently have in the fridge ourselves, I’d very soon be green skinned and sought after by beauty therapists everywhere. And so tomorrow, as we go downtown for a spot of shopping and the inevitable coffee out, there will be one lucky friend whose door handle will soon groan under the weight of a bag of cucumbers. Why should we keep all that generosity to ourselves, eh?

That’s about if for this one, so I’m back off to my bed to play Joni Mitchell on my iPod while I make yet another attempt at getting some sleep.

Read about the books: https://johnphilipmanuel.wixsite.com/works

Up around the bend

We’re about 6km north of Ierapetra here in our village of Makrilia. If you follow the road through the village further on up the mountain, you go through a pass about 3 km up from us, and there’s a shallow ‘bowl’ before you descend toward the villages of Kalo Horio and Istro, where you hit the north coast and can join the road to Agios Nikolaos. Nestled into that ‘bowl’ where once there stood the ancient town of Oleros, is the village of Meseleroi (pronounced messeh-lairy). Here live a couple of friends of ours, who are now in their mid 80’s and yet still fiercely independent, Manolis and Marika. Last Sunday morning we took coffee with them, along with another couple from Ierapetra, and – as per usual – what we’d been told would be a coffee break, turned into a major feast. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account in this post, but it did give me the opportunity to snap a few nice photos, which I’m glad to be able to share with you here. Hope you like them…

That shot of the village square amuses me. You’ll notice that there are seven vehicles visible in-shot, and that five of those are pickup trucks. That’s when you know you’re in rural Greece!

It’s important to be aware that, should you visit the village, the streets are so narrow that there is a one-way system in operation, meaning you must enter the village (if driving) from the far west end and the exit road brings you out at the furthest point south of the village. If you attempt to drive through the village the wrong way, you’ll experience some major traffic issues! When you reach the square with the church, it’s a good idea to look carefully for the directional signs, one of which is visible in the photo (in the gallery above) that shows the two flags on the church wall.

Read about the books: https://johnphilipmanuel.wixsite.com/works

Taking stock

If the photo of my better half above looks slightly dull, it’s because it was taken at 8.25pm, right after she’d emerged from that changing hut, which is on the town beach in Ierapetra. This was last Sunday evening, when we went for an early evening swim, which was sheer bliss, followed by a visit to what is fast becoming our fave restaurant on the sea front, L’Angolo [Italian for ‘The Corner’], which is a pizza-pasta place that also does Greek food, naturally. It’s right on the water’s edge and that’s where we sat while we ordered a family vegetarian pizza, a green salad and a couple of drinks.

The photo above was taken just as darkness was taking hold, at around a quarter to nine, and the view across the table from me was…

Now, you can’t eat much closer to the water than that without falling in. Talking of falling in, we couldn’t help but remark (as we so often do) about the fact that the tables and chairs here are frequently within a metre of the edge of the quayside and, oddly enough, no one ever falls in. According to EU rules (and I wonder if the UK will still introduce similar ones when they’re finally completely outside the EU) you’d have to cordon all of Ierapetra’s sea front off while they install a cast-iron railing or something. All over Greece this is the case and, let’s be honest, Greece probably couldn’t even afford the expense of installing railings and bannisters everywhere where restaurants and bars have their tables so close to a precipice like this one. I get where they’re coming from, to a degree. How awful if someone were to fall over the edge, especially a child. Yet frankly, it seems to me that the vast majority of people do have enough sense to watch what they’re doing, and I’d be surprised if the incidence of people/kids falling over the edge were any greater where there is no railing that places where there is one. Occasionally it’s good to trust the public to know what they’re doing. That’s how I see it anyway.

We sat there eating a magnificent meal, enjoying the beautiful temperature that prevails in this part of the world on a July evening, and I fell to thinking – ‘I believe I’m finally truly appreciating quite what we’ve got here, in this little Cretan life of ours now.’ We arrived on Rhodes in 2005, full of ideas about how we were going to live our lives. Due to the financial crash of 2008, we spent the next eleven years working during the holiday season, to supplement our income enough to be able to survive without eating into our capital. In truth, the moment we were able to stop working virtually coincided with the moment when we found that the house we were living in was to be sold and we’d have to move on. There ensued another four or five months of stress while we accomplished our house-move from Rhodes to here in Crete.

Now, finally, after all the upheaval, we’re just beginning to discover what life can be like when you don’t have to set the alarm, you don’t have to answer to anyone (except, our Maker!), and you can decide what you’re going to do with each and every day. Yes, we do have a couple of DIY projects still under way at the house, but they’re not particularly urgent, and the main one is on hold while I wait for a new blade for my circular saw.

As we set about demolishing the pizza and delicious green salad (laced with slices of Graviera cheese, yummy), the sound of the water lapping just a couple of meters below took my mind back many years. I was going back over all those moments during the 28 years in which we came to Greece for holidays, or family visits, starting in 1977 and ending with our move to Rhodes in the summer of 2005. The water’s soothing swish-swosh against the quayside had me re-living so many moments when a visit to Greece was coming to its end. The first few years weren’t so bad. Everything was new and I enjoyed the visits immensely, but was often quite happy to be going home at the end of it. With the passing of the years, however, I found myself becoming infected more and more by the melancholy that used to envelop my lovely wife at such moments. She was brought up on Greek music and dance, on Greek conversation and visits to Athens to serve as a bridesmaid when a family member got married. All that heritage had her really feeling depressed when we’d be sitting on the beach, or perhaps enjoying a final meal (like this one) only hours before returning to the airport for the flight back to the UK.

When I first had a video camera, I remember one time filming five minutes or more of the water’s edge at our favourite beach, just so that I’d be able to play it over and again on the TV screen in the middle of a British winter to cheer myself up a bit. Here I was, last Sunday evening, July 26th 2020, talking to Yvonne-Maria about how I believe that I’ve finally only now, after having completed a mere 15 years of living in Greece, come to truly appreciate the life I’m living. Daily life is not a holiday, of course. Sitting on a Greek beach, or at a waterside restaurant, soaking up the smells, the sights, the sounds of the Greek islands isn’t what regular living is all about. Normal life is sewing on buttons, ironing shirts, fixing broken thingamibobs around the house, getting the car serviced, going food shopping, all that stuff. Up until the end of the 2018 season, we’d been busy with work during the Greek summer too, finding it quite hard to have a ‘beach day’ for example. Feeling too tired to go out for an evening to maybe take a swim, sit sipping a Campari and soda and people watching on the sea front, or eating a sumptuous meal of Greek cuisine.

Yes, now, finally, here we are in our own home, with only a couple of bills to pay regularly, and I sat there last Sunday and told my beloved, “You know, I truly do need to pinch myself that I don’t have to pack my case and take a plane and fly away and leave this place any more.” Yes, Greece has a maddeningly infuriatingly paperwork-heavy bureaucracy, and it takes some wading through now and then. Yet for all that it’s worth the hassle. It’s worth the running around from building to building getting bits of paper rubber stamped, because the rest of the time we can do this. We can lay on a Greek beach and take a dip in the wonderful Libyan Sea, go snorkelling and chase fish, sit beside the sea and eat a beautiful meal – and it’s all the better for the fact that we can do it next week too. And the week after that, and so on.

Yup, taking stock, I believe I finally appreciate quite what I have. This world is far from perfect, and we’re living through the weirdest time in living memory (and beyond) for sure, yet isn’t gratitude good for us? It most certainly is.

And right now, there’s no one more grateful than I.

My appreciation was further enhanced by what the lady who manages L’Angolo did for us at the end of our meal. We don’t yet know her by name, but she does greet us warmly now as we’ve eaten there quite a few times already. We’d only ordered a family-size pizza, a green salad, a soda and a Greek orangeade. When I asked for the bill, true to form the waitress brought us a small plate of fresh fruit, and a couple of slices of a delicious Greek sweetmeat made with chocolate and lumps of biscuit and cut into thick slices. Very bad for you, no doubt, but it’s only rarely that we eat it and it’s divine! The better half could give you its Greek name, but right now she’s in the land of nod as I’m typing this a something approaching 2.00am. I decided that I’d like a digestif to finish the meal off, so I asked our hostess if they had any Mastiha liqueur. Now, if you were reading my Rhodes blog then you might know that during our two wonderful holidays on Patmos, we got into the habit of finishing off our evenings at the Petrino Bar with a glass of iced Mastiha. The liqueur is great because it has no adverse effect on me whatsoever, but it greatly aids one’s digestion, something for which the actual resin from the Mastiha tree is famous for.

So, having established that they do indeed stock the stuff, I got up and went over to her and said, “Could I have a glass of Mastiha please? Only for me, not for my wife, thanks.” I’d gladly have ordered two, but the beloved had decided to give it a miss on this occasion. What did our hostess do? She only arrived at the table with two glasses, and as she placed them before us declared that they were on the house. Needless to say, the better half caved in and decided that, yes, maybe she should assist her digestion after all.

The total bill for that meal, which I have to say well and truly filled us? A princely €16.

Now, I’m not going to get in the habit of comparing our new location here in Crete with Rhodes, but one thing I must declare, as it’s a fact, and that is eating out (at least in our part of the island) is definitely around 30% cheaper than anywhere on Rhodes.

Something else which I declare I deeply appreciate!

Read about the books: https://johnphilipmanuel.wixsite.com/works