I’m writing this on my last day in the Peloponnese, sitting on a friend’s veranda in the boonies somewhere near Koroni. It’s a blessedly cool evening after a day of enervating heat and humidity when my clothes felt like shrink-wrap and my balls reached my knees. Yorgos is asleep, or at least he’d better be. Otherwise I’d feel resentful at being ignored. Cicadas rasping in the many trees, moths battering the lamp. The occasional whine as a mosquito comes sailing through the dark. We have no insect-repellent spray or incense coils to burn, so I am sitting here generously slathered with Body Shop men’s cologne, hoping it will make mozzy eyes water as much as it does mine.
It’s been a curate’s egg of a trip, nice bits and less nice bits. Nice to see people I had not seen for some years, less nice when what I had hoped would be a nostalgia trip often made me think ‘shit, that’s one of the things that really used to get up my nose.’ I checked in to a hotel in Kalamata for one night, and felt I was inconveniencing the owner and staff by my presence, as they all gave the impression of having better things to do than make customers feel appreciated. Some of these irritations are shamefully trivial, though. Elderly and middle aged men are much given to faffing with komboloia, metal chains threaded with chunky beads which the owner whizzes round his index finger, or tells like a rosary, or tosses up and down in his palm, and so on. Komboloia are said to calm the nerves. They do not have that effect on me. Five minutes in a café next to some old bugger rattling and clacking one of these things and I want to snatch it out of his hand and drop it down a drain. Go here for a tutorial on the handling of your komboloi, but do not come practising your technique near me.
There’s an old joke about two Englishmen marooned on a desert island for many years. When at length they are rescued it turns out that neither knows anything about the other, because ‘we were never introduced’. There’s some truth behind this. There are people I see every day on Stamford station with whom I have never exchanged a word. If a third party introduced us, this would ‘break the ice’ that Brits assume must exist between strangers. Greeks find this quite baffling. You should not fall for the Greek line that ‘we are all so gwarm and freddly’, for this is self-flattering hyperbollocks, but do please note and maybe admire the sense of being utterly at home, entirely en argumentative famille, that obtains between Greeks everywhere, whether they have been introduced or not.
On the tram today from Palio Faliro on the coast to Syntagma in the centre of Athens, a young man from Bulgaria or Romania was playing a squeeze-box and holding out his hand for money. Nobody gave any, as times are hard.
‘They should go back to their own countries, all of them,’ said a lady opposite me. ‘Far too many of them here now. Enough’s enough.’
‘Well by that logic,’ rejoindered the elderly woman next to me, ‘all the Greeks in America, Australia, Canada and places should be sent back here.’
‘I’ve been to America’ said the first lady, looking away with Hellenic hauteur, ‘but I didn’t go to steal.’
‘To steal?’ said the old lady contemptuously. ‘Is every Greek that ever went abroad to find work a thief? E, mi milás esy! Don’t give me that!’ This was delivered as a real telling-off, and at this point I lost track of the discussion because everyone in our corner of the carriage chipped in to support one side or the other and there was quite a debate. I was entirely with the second lady but said nothing. Blaming other people for escaping economic deprivation by emigrating to other counties is something Greeks especially have no business doing.
I don’t say it doesn’t happen, but I have never seen such an unrestrained exchange of views among strangers on public transport in England. The educated reserve such discussion for private places with trusted friends, the underclass just hold drunken slanging matches. In Greece, though, it is commonplace, and everyone behaves as though they were all members of one big querulous family.
My last night here. I’m in Athens, sitting on the terrace of a top-floor flat in Palio Faliro at dusk, surrounded by concrete and television aerials. It’s about eight o’ clock, and below and around us the district is coming to a gentle simmer as people go shopping, sit in cafes, have a natter on their balconies, crash their cars, remonstrate with kids. Back home the streets will be dark and silent by eight. But I'm ready to go now and I can't wait to climb into my own bed.
My bed, waiting for me.