Sunday, 14 September 2014
Notes from the Greek Islands.
Today is our first day home from spending a delightful two weeks sailing ourselves around the Greek Islands. Sailing is imbued with many charms so I have embarked upon some home improvements to continue our enjoyment of them all year round.
I’ve left the tap running in the bathroom above my bedroom to provide that leaky hatch style Chinese water torture through the night, I’ve replaced the mattresses with yoga mats and placed them in a Sauna, I’ve set up nautical wind chimes in my and my neighbours' gardens consisting of 200 ft aluminium poles and ‘just not tight enough’ ropes attached, I’ve screwed random, not quite visible, blocks of toe-stubbing wood and metal to the floor throughout the house and I’ve taken a dolls-house toilet and fixed it into the shower cubicle, together with a bin of used toilet paper. I’ve placed a bucket of rancid yoghurty water in the fridge and thrown all the fridge contents into it, I've fixed a random time switch to the freezer power socket, I’ve unified the function of my washing basket and my wardrobe, I’ve tied every electrical wire we own into a huge gordian knot, I’ve relaid the drains using one inch diameter hose passing through a plastic matchbox on the way to our ornamental fishpond, I’ve put a wasp nest in the dining room and finally I’ve just managed to drag the car onto the roof. There, it’s just like being onboard again!
A few years ago I wrote "Notes from some small islands” whilst sailing around the Cyclades in the Aegean and most of the theme was based upon a general feeling of shock that a country that at the time was in abject financial crisis still carried on as if it wasn’t. But three years on and two trips later to the less bleak and more wooded islands of Homer’s Ionian Sea it is probably time to rebalance the view and add to the notes.
The first impression is that Greece is resigned to its lot and is just getting on with it. As a shop keeper told me "The Greek people are not poor my friend, just Greece”. Which at first had me thinking that the old game of tax avoidance hadn’t been fully addressed, but there were enough signs elsewhere that things had improved with regard to State collection of their kilo of flesh. Credit card machines are now widespread in shops and Tavernas. A mixed blessing as the convenience of presenting a piece of plastic is countered by the inconvenience of a large bill two weeks later in the midst of the post holiday blues. But for the restauranteur he has an audit trail for the taxman to follow and now that they are all being chased, there is less reason not to accept cards. One of the kids tried to haggle a trinket down on price and was greeted with a repost of the time “No way I can lower, I now have to pay 20% tax on that!” Though the cynic in me would suggest that blaming the taxman for high prices is an easy play in the game of haggling.
The level of tourism was noticeably higher than recent years, superyachts were brimming the bays of Fiskardo and Vathy and ferries were disgorging foreign day-trippers from large resorts yet the locals said the voices of foreigners belied the fact that few Greek nationals were contributing, as there is a noticeable slide in local tourists.
I am glad to report that Greek Economics is alive and well. Coffee priced at €3 for the smallest of cups in the shabbiest of cafe’s is still Alpine. Yet for the same price around the corner you can get two Gyros of beautifully roasted pork, salad and tzatziki in a homemade pitta for €1.50 each. (Gyros soon became our base unit of pricing and we suggest the Euro is pegged to it). If Greece wants to get back on a decent footing it only has to come over to the UK and peddle those Gyros beauties in place of the usual giant spam kebab-maggots on a stick we get here.
It still strikes me as odd that a small town can have so many restaurants all lined up next to each other selling exactly the same things. Walking along a quay reminded me of that old Goldfish Joke “Nice castle…Nice castle… Nice Castle”. Only in this case insert either ‘Taverna’ or 'expensive fish’. To be honest it baffles me how Brits can rave about a small grilled farmed sea bass costing 20 Gyros when the fish at home is so much better. I have to report that on the positive side a few Italian restaurants are sneaking in and when found were pounced upon as there is only so much Feta a man can take.
There are of course still glaring oddities about the infrastructure. If they spent as much money and initiative on the plumbing system as they have on the remote infra-red, hand approaching detection, lid opening and closing technology they have applied to the bins that still have to be used for used toilet paper, then the bins themselves would be mercifully redundant. It is strange too that whilst suffering the plumbing pleasures and the R2D2 bins in the most remote island locations, one can be getting high speed wifi that puts the UK services to shame.
Despite the odd minor exception, I felt that the old charms of Greece are returning. It may have been that Greece has dropped off the financial radar for so long that my impressions have mellowed but perhaps the crisis, having dashed the hubris and greed that was tainting the Greek experience, has moved through the stages of grief from denial, anger, bargaining and depression and reached the point of acceptance. As with the weather, the angry heat of summer has given way to a cooler relaxed evening.
Things are changing for the better and the irony of spotting a German street hawker was much enjoyed.
Thank you Greece, I will be back soon.