There was un jolie postman …

Standard

THE STORY OF THE POSTMAN’S FOLLY

Folly (noun) : a lack of good sense.

We live in a culture that values technology over art, prefers practicality to dreams, and rewards concrete achievements over creative imaginings. But where would we be without the dreamers? The men and women who peer deep into the gaps between what is already known, and glimpse the possibilities? The Newtons and Copernicus’s and Curies? Wasn’t Einstein deliberately casting aside all good sense in order to ask:-

‘What if I could ride a beam of light across the universe?’ 

And what of Tim Berners-Lee, who foresaw a web stretching over the entire planet, connecting all of humanity, connecting you to me, at this very moment?

Visionary (adjective) : thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom.

I wonder who decides whether someone is foolish or a visionary? Is it just the passage of time, or a general consensus of opinion? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that the object of this story, Ferdinand Cheval, was considered as both, even in his own lifetime.

IMG_8327

Ferdinand was born in 1836, to a poor family in rural France. As a young man he tried his hand at various trades, before becoming a postman at the age of thirty-one. At that time, the main requirement for the job was fitness – his daily route covered a distance of twenty-eight miles, carrying all the post, and on foot.

When he was forty-three, he tripped over an unusual looking stone on his rounds, and stopped to look at it. It was at this moment, this exact moment, that we see how this unsophisticated man was indeed a dreamer of the most extraordinary calibre.

In his own words:-

‘I was walking very fast when my foot caught on something that sent me stumbling a few metres away, I wanted to know the cause. In a dream, I had built a palace, a castle or caves, I cannot express it well… I told no one about it for fear of being ridiculed and I felt ridiculous myself. Then fifteen years later, when I had almost forgotten my dream, my foot reminded me of it.’

This original stone is known as The Stumbling Block, and Ferdinand put it in his pocket and took it home. This is it, below.

Facteur_Cheval_-_Pierre_d_achoppement

Stumbling block (noun) : a circumstance that causes difficulty or hesitation.

Many of us consider stumbling blocks a problem, something that can throw us off course, or dissuade us altogether. But not Ferdinand:-

‘The next day, I went back to the same place. I found more stones, even more beautiful, I gathered them together on a spot and was overcome with delight… it’s a sandstone shaped by water and hardened by the power of time. It becomes as hard as pebbles. It represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, any kind of caricature.

I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture.’ 

He started collecting stones, first filling his pockets, then a basket before, finally, loading them onto a wheelbarrow. He found some land in the small village of Hauterives to build his dream castle on, and then every night, after he had finished his long rounds for the day, he set to work, literally cementing his place amongst the visionaries of our past.

‘What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?’ – Vincent Van Gogh

‘Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing …. must be attained.’ – Marie Curie

Now Ferdinand lived in a time of great change. There were the results of the Industrial Revolution, the advancement of the railways, the second French colonisation of Africa and Asia, and continuing developments in photography. There were periodicals documenting the changes, and, more pertinently to Ferdinand, the creation of picture postcards. The images he was exposed to fed his imagination and became embedded in his work.

IMG_8319

IMG_8310

Piece by piece, and stone by stone, he constructed an elaborate temple to his vision. He incorporated all the elements that he could dream: all the animals, real and imagined, the giants who had inspired him (Caeser, Vercingetorix and Archimedes), and all the architectural styles that were wonderful, strange and exotic to him.

‘Everything you can imagine is real.’ – Pablo Picasso

‘In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.’ – Miguel de Cervantes

The man and his wheelbarrow became a familiar sight, as he worked laboriously by the light of an oil lamp.

‘You just keep pushing. You just keep pushing. I made every mistake that could be made. But I just kept pushing.’ – Rene Descartes

‘A diamond is just a lump of coal that stuck to its job.’ – Leonardo Da Vinci

It took him thirty-three years. Can you imagine that? That’s more than half my life.

‘1879 – 1912, 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of trials: let anyone more stubborn than me set to work,’ he said.

Stubborn (adjective) : having or showing dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good reasons to do so.

The thing is that good sense and good reasons don’t create anything magical, or fantastical, or awe-inspiring, and Ferdinand’s Palais Ideal (as it became known) is all of these things.

IMG_8292

Since its completion it has attracted many great artists and thinkers, including Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Picasso and Dali. I saw this photograph in an exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s work, last week, in Prague. It shows Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at The Palais Ideal in 1939.

IMG_9694

And both Dali and Picasso have featured it in their paintings.

IMG_8328

Ferdinand had hoped to be buried in his castle of dreams, but the local authorities refused. Undaunted, he spent another eight years building his tomb in the corner of the local cemetery, before passing away at the age of eighty-eight.

‘We build…now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine.’ – Tim Berners-Lee

We first stumbled upon the story of Ferdinand as we were driving up through France. It was cold, wet and windy, and we were tired and hungry. But none of that mattered once we stood in front of the Palais: all was forgotten, and we became child-like with wonder, and quiet with awe.

IMG_8326

I bought a postcard with a picture of The Stumbling Block on it to keep in the van. It will remind me that hard work and persistence pay off. It will inspire me when obstacles in my path upset and re-route me. It will help to keep me on course in following my own dreams.

And I will remember Ferdinand, with his ability to see beauty in the smallest of things, and his courage to turn that into the grandest of realities, in the face of everyone calling it folly.

Advertisements

Another day, another car park

Standard

There are patterns in any life that have a predictability to them, a sense of normal consequence, an inevitability. Take, for example, the look on people’s faces when I tell them that, for a significant part of my time, I travel around Europe in a large, American, RV. I have always interpreted it as a mixture of surprise and excitement, with a genuine delight for me that is sometimes tinged with happy envy.

But I’ve been living this life for a while now, and I wonder if I am mistaken: perhaps that look actually means, ‘Shit, you’ve no idea what you’ve let yourself in for, have you, girly? Rather you than me’.

They might not be wrong – allow me to elaborate on some misconceptions I once foolishly had.

We can go anywhere we want.

Er, no. Not in our particular van, Georgie.

Can’t go down narrow roads, under low bridges, or over 6 ton limit ones. Can’t go into large towns with complicated one-way systems, or through tiny villages with chicanes at either end.

Can’t do really sharp corners in less than a 15-point turn, or go up very steep hills at any speed greater than 8 miles an hour. When we do, we worry all the time that Georgie’s not going to make it, and that we’ll have to attempt that 15-point turn, on a mountain road, with a sheer drop to one side.

Can’t park on sharp inclines because our levellers can only redress this a certain amount, and if it’s too far out of whack, we can’t open the slide-out without the risk of Georgie tipping over onto her side. Plus, the bath won’t drain, and the water pump keeps freaking out because all the water in the tank has gone to the other side. And how does a water pump freak out? Well, it sort of screams.

Also, can’t park on grass if it’s likely to rain because… this.

img_1021

We can just camp where we like.

Again, no, not if we want any services. Like a laundry or wifi.

I recently watched a film starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland: they played an elderly couple who just took off in their old camper van. One morning, Donald’s character (who was ill) wet the bed, and Helen promptly stripped the bed to wash the sheets. Then they drove off along the highway, and I spent the rest of the film wondering where the hell she’d hung that sheet to dry. Seriously, where? It never appeared again and, can I just say, her sink was the size of a walnut.

As for wifi…

Before we left England we were under there impression that McDonalds always had wifi. To which, yes they do, but its speed is slow to impossible, and it is also restricted, so that I can never get to this blog, for example. So when we are a bit off-grid, most of our time is spent wifi hunting, which, in many ways, is the safari of the 21st century.

We went to Menton, a perfectly gorgeous little town in the south of France, just near the border into Italy. An artist friend of ours has been going there for years and his descriptions of it are utterly enchanting. I pictured myself wandering along the sun-speckled promenade, before stopping at a delightful little bistro and being served croissants and coffee by a super-slim, dark-eyed, waitress.

But in reality? Yes, it was very pretty, and yes, we raced down the promenade, but mostly we needed to go online in order to pay our bills and check our bank balance.

After much dithering about we found a cafe that advertised wifi – but, frankly, that was just boasting. In two hours I only managed to upload three pictures onto my already-written-in-Word blog, and I was close to kidney failure from all the coffee. The super-slim waitress had become super-surly, and my legs had fallen asleep.

We can leave behind all the responsibilities of a house.

If you want to know about ‘responsibilities’, just try taking a week’s worth of wee with you, everywhere you go. After Menton, we tried to find an Aire that had the right facilities, because our waste was nearly at critical mass, and we were running off to the public bogs every chance we could in order not to cause overflow. Our water had run out, too, so we were making do with a bucket and cup to hand-flush the loo at night, and a couple of bottles of bought water for drinking.

And then Clumsy Week happened. You all know about Clumsy Week, right? Those days when everything you touch breaks, snaps, fuses, or is smashed? Just imagine when that happens in a van, with limited tools, or space to store spares.

Imagine, also, that you are probably some distance from the shop or the repair person that is needed to solve the problem (if you even have a clue as to what shop that is, of course, because you are somewhere foreign and remote, and DIY is not universal). Trying to explain to the only person you can find with even a smattering of English, in the unpronounceable village miles from nowhere that you’ve fetched up in, that you just need to buy a small rubbery thingy, with a hole in it, about so big, or possibly a sort-of gromity whatsit, is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

On Clumsy Week I basically broke everything, including our door handle, roller blinds, glassware and taps just by looking at them, I swear. Our normally functioning leisure batteries decided to go on strike, and however many times Steve re-did the wiring, nothing happened. When he climbed onto the roof to check the solar panels, the ladder broke away from the back of the van.

Ergo, we had no lights, and the fridge and freezer had to be turned off. I located a box of candles I’d intended to use for mood-lighting rather than emergencies, but they’d been stored too near a heating duct, and they’d all melted together to form one, long, wobbly candle, with several night-lights and a glass holder sticking out the side.

We couldn’t turn on the heating because the fan wouldn’t work without electricity, and our generator is too noisy for built-up areas. Plus, and God knows why, our steps suddenly decided not to retract, so we couldn’t move anywhere anyway.

We will see places we never knew existed.

Well now, this one is true, as long as we’re talking car parks. Georgie’s too big for supermarkets, but Chinese Shops don’t seem to mind us. Motorway Truck Stops are usually free when abroad, and a much better place to stay now that we’ve learned to park as far from the refrigerated trucks as possible (they literally chunder all night long).

But we were still having the same trouble with Georgie breaking down all the time that had been plaguing us since taking on fuel in Albania. Some of our desperation for wifi was so that Steve could find out what was wrong. Research suggested we needed to source the right fuel filter. This entailed locating mechanics who worked on diesel trucks, and hoping that our Chevy engine wouldn’t confuse them too much.

So the Renault truck garage forecourt at Beaune was home for a little while (no picture, it’s too depressing), as was the Scania truck version at Montelimar (where we were locked in at night). My daily view was now of burly, grease-stained, middle-aged men, with sloppy trousers and butt-cracks (FYI the Czechs call these coin boxes – isn’t that brilliant?) using noisy tools and glaring at me a lot. Ah, the romance.

It will be wonderful to drive along without a care in the world.

Until the sodding Mistral gets you. Again.

The Mo Farrah of the wind world, it rips up through France looking for old RV’s to scare the bejesus out of. Apart from the alarming rocking from side to side along roads that favour ditches over hedges, there is the awning that flaps itself into unrolling and tearing, and the outside lockers that burst open, ready to spill all your shit under other trucks tyres. If I weren’t driving behind in Nibbles, I dread to think how much damage would be done, and how much stuff left littered across Provence.

It will be an adventure.

Well, this just makes me snort tea out of my nose.

So why do I do it?

Why do I travel around knowing that Another day, another car park is a pretty adequate description of my life?

Because even though most Aires and Sostas do turn out to be the corner of a car park, this is often better than it actually sounds. Okay, it’s not the romantic view down a vine-covered Italian slope that I once envisaged, but it can often be quite near a beach or other local landmark.

The following were all in the space of a week or so. This one, at Coucy-le-Chateau-Auffrique, had a nice ruin on a hill to gaze at (ooh look, there’s Nibbles, my Smart car)…

IMG_8440

…and this one overlooked a river.

IMG_8436

Here we had an interesting view of some troglodyte houses…

IMG_8237

…and this was in the car park of a vineyard and wine warehouse. With free wine tasting. Nom nom.

IMG_8266

And where else but in a car park would we have met Bid and Ger, the Irish couple just starting out on their year’s journey, and who write the Facebook blog, Pilatesinavan? Super nice.

Or see the trucker obsessed with Joan of Arc?

Or have the wonderful opportunity to understand, to really understand that it is not where you are, or even where you are going that matters: it is how you travel.

And – if you are lucky enough – who you are travelling with (like a man who’ll wear this hat because his granddaughter wanted him to). IMG_8745

NEXT TIME: The story of the postman and the stumbling block. Thanks for reading, and ciao xxxx

Unexpected Italy

Standard

Ah, the romance of Italy; the beauty of Venice, the pomp of Rome and the cypress-speared vistas of Tuscany, all punctuated by the sharp scent of basil, the tang of olives, and the cool wash of wine from an earthenware jug. Then there’s the lemons, large as oranges, from the Amalfi coast, and the wonderful, mad, gesticulating language, the ancient architecture, and the imposing ruins. I love all the towers, piazzas, and pavement cafes, the frenzied markets bursting with colour, and the extravagant churches leading into cool, calming cloisters, echoing with whispered penitence and the chime of bells. Given a choice of where I’d like to be, Italy is the word that spills from my mouth before I’ve even had a chance to think about it.

But…

…that’s in summer.

And this was February. When the Beast from the East had been chucking its weight about all over Europe (yes, I know it’s May, but I’ve had no internet, so I’m still on catch-up blogs).

IMG_7864

So far I’d made it to Trieste in my unheated car, only to be told I needed to carry on driving another 165 miles to Ferrara, in the hope (note – not the certainty) that they’d have the part to fix my heater there. So I girded my loins (mostly in many layers of fabric and a hot water bottle) and drove to the area around Ferrara.

Which is where we found something unexpectedly nice: FREE aires, or sostas, as they are called here. And the word FREE sometimes applies, not just to the parking space for your campervan, but also to the water and electricity!!! Well bend me over backwards and call me Susan, how great is that?

The first one we stayed at was at Castelgulielmo, in the car park of a cemetery. The services were all free, and there was a little shop in the village where you could buy necessities.

Like water.

Because the drinking water had been cut off in case of freezing.

But even if it hadn’t, I still wouldn’t have wanted to drink it as it tasted like liquid Savlon. Not being funny, Italy, but for a country that prides itself on its food and drink, you should pay a little more attention to the basics.

This is where we met Mitia – a nice chap, from Slovenia, with a gorgeous Boxer dog. He had the campervan opposite to us and came over for a beer and a chat. He said he never worried about the security aspects of travelling alone because he’d been trained in a particular Martial Art when he was in the military.

If I even touch Steve, I am in BIG trouble, he said.

So, basically, you’re classed as a weapon? I quipped, (I know my humour doesn’t generally transcend language barriers, but I can’t always stop myself).

But he said Yes, and nodded very solemnly, clearly pleased that I’d got such an accurate grasp of the situation.

We went for dinner at a local pizza restaurant where, as usual, we were the only diners apart from the owner and his wife, who’d settled at another table and were watching a quiz show on the telly. While we all ate, Steve and I tried to guess the quiz show questions by the intonation of the voices and the looks on the contestants’ faces. Our twenty or so words of Italian weren’t quite up to the job, but we got so involved in our little ‘game’ that I began to think I knew some of the answers and started shouting at the telly.

This backfired slightly, as the owner (mistakenly thinking we actually understood it) turned the volume up for us, and then spent the rest of the show making incomprehensible comments to us about the contestants, the compere, or the results. Best I could do was nod, and try to intuit whether I should look appalled, amused, celebratory, or disappointed. I might have said Yay too many times.

They were a lovely couple, though. He used to be in a blues band in the 60’s, and there were framed photos of them on the wall – all long hair, and Afghan coats, and embroidered waistcoats. There was probably a flute. There usually is.

IMG_7875

His wife showed us YouTube footage of them performing recently at Deltablues, as the Caledonia Popexa Blues Band. Then he got his guitar out and played us Blackbird by The Beatles.

IMG_7878

The next day, inspired by Italian cuisine, Steve went to the supermarket and bought back a packet of ravioli. He hadn’t a clue what was in it though, so I asked him what the picture on the packet showed – the Italians are usually helpful that way. Er, meat, he said? Something red, anyway. He showed me the packet; it was radicchio. Which is lettuce. Steve bought lettuce ravioli. (To be fair it tasted great, but that might have been down to the fifty million things I put in the sauce, including meat).

By now my car was booked in to have the heater fixed the following week, so we moved to another sosta, this time at Migliarino. It was situated in a car park, next to a rowing club, that had lots of strange, sea-themed sculptures. Here we met Frederik, the local beggar. Most days he would stand, quietly and respectfully, outside the Coop and Steve liked to make sure he always had some change for him.

IMG_7914

Frederik told us that he came from Nigeria three years ago and had no intention of going back because he liked the cold. He gave Steve his CV, which described him as an agricultural engineer and farm worker. I’m not sure what he thought we could do, but he liked us, and I suspect it was all he had to give. The following day it snowed heavily, and Steve went to check on Frederik, who cheerfully informed us that he had a mate whose floor he slept on, if it was too cold even for him.

While we were snowed in, Steve got out his Dremmel (not a euphemism) and reproduced the broken part of my windscreen wiper from a tiny rubber gromit that he’d found. It took a couple of goes, but then it worked perfectly. As my friend Anna once said, Steve is a legend.

To celebrate we went out to a local restaurant for dinner. I hadn’t quite realised it was a fish restaurant, of course, and happily asked the waitress to recommend something – but not fish (I wasn’t in the mood, that day). Ooh, the look I got!

She made up for it later by leaving a bottle of Limoncello on the table for us at the end of the meal, and then not charging us for it. I love Limoncello. I prefer to drink it until I can’t actually say it. By the time we left to go home it was just that lubly lemony stuff.

Ferrara itself is a smashing little town, half Renaissance, and half medieval in architecture. Both sides meet in the middle of town by the properly moated Este Castle.

We walked down a street of original medieval archways…

IMG_8008

…and then back up past all the renaissance buildings, admiring the door furniture as we went. Lots of lovely knockers (don’t embarrass yourselves).

We passed a strange little park with allotments run by a local co-operative, that sold honey, and some utterly unidentifiable produce, from a log cabin under the trees. And ended our walk at the Diamante Palace, with its studded walls casting impressive, constructivist shadows in the waning light.

And then, car fixed and Ferrara seen, it was time to crack on with our journey home. We drove a long way to a sosta – that turned out to be up too steep a hill and too windy a road for Georgie, our RV, to manage. So we drove further – to a sosta that we found had been taken over by a circus. So we drove further still – and ended up at a sort of lay-by in Vezzano Sul Crostolo.

But the long drive had left tempers, not so much frayed, as completely unravelled. We had a good shout at each other and I huffed off to the bedroom, disgusted, yet again, by the fact that my bedroom door refuses to slam. Steve went for a walk in the nearby woods to cool down.

He came back later and said dear?

Yes love? I said, hoping he’d come to apologise first.

No, he said, deer. Come and see.

And there they were – a whole herd of them in the field next to the van: wild, and skittish, and part of a nature reserve that also boasted wild boar and wolves.

Following them, we found an abandoned cottage that had once boasted a rather fabulous outside loo – complete with bidet and everything. Not like the tiny concrete or wooden shacks I remember from my childhood (FYI I’m not that old, they just hadn’t all been demolished then).

IMG_8040

So it seems that some lovely wildlife, and a broken bog is all I need to cheer myself up. I picked daffodils, apologised to my lovely, car-fixing, husband, and went home to cook weirdly-stuffed pasta behind my non-slamming doors.

Next time – the south of France, clumsy week, and that Mistral again.

The hunt for heat

Standard

After thirty years of being with Steve, I have become less of a stick-up-the-arse, I-know-how-it-should-be control freak, and more of a roll-with-the-punches, take-it-as-it-comes kind of gal. Which is just as well considering how the next stage of our journey turned out.

CROATIA AGAIN

Croatia had been a beacon of hope to me all the way up through Albania. But as I drove, shivering, from one town to another, and totally failed to source a new thermostat for the iceberg on wheels I was stuck in, that beacon dimmed a snidge, it must be said.

Driving ever northwards, perhaps Split would come up with the goods, or failing that Zadar? And, if not, surely Rijeka would tick the box? Well, no, nothing, nada. And not much we could do other than keep on with our journey and keep looking.

The coast road was proving far too wibbly for Georgie, who was having her own problems after Albania. Ever since we’d bought fuel there, she’d developed an alarming tendancy to suddenly lose all power (including to the steering and part of the braking systems) and grind to a halt. So we took a road through Slovenia, hoping that Trieste, on the other side, would be a large enough town to help cure our automotive ills.

SLOVENIA

This, of course, is where I, in my misted up and unheated car, drove headlong into a Beast from the East blizzard. Rolling with the punches? I was practically rotating. My first line of defence was to mainline Jaffa Cakes, which is the one single thing we’ve found in every European country so far. Jaffa Cakes – whatever they are called – are a universal language.

IMG_7863

I kept telling myself that the cold was doing wonders for my immune system, which was probably one cocky shit by now. I measured my fortitude against the lengths of the icicles hanging off Georgie’s downpipes.

Also, the road signs helped to take my mind off things: at one place (thanks, I suspect, to the joy that is Google Translate) I was offered the chance to appreciate ‘a honey cheese water toilet’.

Further on there was a sign telling us to watch out for wolves and bears. WOLVES AND BEARS! I’ve literally never been so excited. I could feel myself spontaneously heating up with the anticipation. Then my husband, Mr McKilljoy, kindly pointed out that it was winter and they’d all be hibernating. So, yeah, thanks for that.

We stopped for the night in a snow-clad town and went out to eat. We had two huge pizzas (half left for the next day), with chips, and mayo, and four glasses of wine. Pizza was as good as any we’d had in Naples, and the whole lot came to €13. Brilliant. Helped me to forget that the only shoes I currently own are backless or made of cloth.

IMG_7872

SAT-NAVS

When we were still in Greece, Deirdre the sat-nav slut had developed quite a crush on Steve. Whenever he drove down roads with long names she’d try and impress him with her pronunciation (always wrong). But when I got in the car, and we drove down the exact same road, she’d affect an icy silence. She’d also got into the habit of warning him about slow traffic conditions that would turn out to be a farmer, on a dirt road, spreading his nets to pick olives.

But despite her obvious devotion, my husband (the heart-breaker) had decided to give other sat-nav voices a go. First he tried Pritti, the Indian lady, and then he moved on to Sheila from Oz. Sheila had a way of going completely wrong, but in such a reassuring manner that you knew she was probably only detouring to the nearest pub, no worries. He went back to Deirdre for a while, but some hearts can’t be mended, and so he was following shonky Sheila all through Slovenia.

I WAS TIRED, ALL RIGHT?

As we drove on towards Trieste, I started to get hopeful that some of our problems might find solutions. The snow was starting to melt, and the roads were more down than up hill. But Steve was obeying the instructions of death-before-toll-roads Sheila, and I was listening to just-fling-money-at-it-and-leave-me-alone Deirdre. Ergo, when some kind of checkpoint turned up in the road, Dierdre directed me right to it, whilst Steve and Sheila  scooted off the other way.

Now, previously, he’d studied the map and assured me that there were no more tolls on our route. Consequently, we’d spent all our Kuna at the last petrol station (I needed more Jaffa Cakes, ok?) So when I pulled up to the booth, I whipped out my bank cards.

How much for the toll? No toll, she said. Oh, my mistake. I looked again, and considered the idea that it was a really flash looking border crossing. I gave her my passport. No, she said, politely handing it back. It was at this point that I heard sniggering from the cars behind me. Turns out it was a sort-of toll booth, but I had to pay for a weekly ticket to go on the motorway.

€15.

I didn’t have €15 (I’d eaten at least that in orangey chocolate). And her machine wouldn’t accept any of my cards. What I did have was a massive queue behind me, no way to back up or turn around, and a husband who’d gone right when I’d gone left, and was now way out of walkie-talkie range.

But I have an emergency technique that I’ve learnt to deploy in these kind of situations: I ask the other person what they think I should do, and then I smile. A lot. I’ve found this to be very effective now that I’m edging towards little-old-lady status, far more so than it ever did when I was young and hot. Plus it has the added advantage of making everything their problem. So I smiled at the girl in the booth, and waited.

In the end it was decided that I could go onto the motorway but I’d have to pull in at the first service station and pay there instead. So I set off, found the service station, pulled in – and then paused, because that’s how I roll. First I checked the map: the next exit was really close. If – instead of forking out €15 for seven sodding minutes on the road – I took that exit, what was the worst they could do? I still had no cash or a card that their machine would accept. I still had a smile or two up my sleeve.

So that’s what I did, and there was no gate, booth, or person at the other exit anyway. But I think I should add that the initial confusion of route arose because there was a diversion, so it was NOT MY FAULT.

ITALY

I caught up with Steve (which was so much easier now that Georgie was breaking down all the time), and we got to Trieste in time to locate a Mercedes garage. Yes, they could get me a thermostat (hooray) but it would take until Friday (this was Monday. Boo!).

We looked at the weather forecast for the next week. If we stayed here until Friday we’d get snowed in. So that meant, you guessed it, more frigging freezing in my stupid little Tupperware of a car, with Steve breaking down every six steps as we limped off across Italy.

My glamorous life, not.

NEXT TIME – I’ll tell you about Ferrara, how not to buy pasta, and the man who claimed he was a weapon. Thanks for reading xxxx ciao.

 

 

The best driver in the world

Standard

It’s me. I’m the best driver in the world. Or I was, for at least one day.

It all began quite normally: Steve and I set off to drive back up from Greece to Croatia, crossing Albania and Montenegro on the way. Travellers be warned: I have found the original road that is paved with good intentions, and it is the A5 north out of Patras. It is advertised as having plenty of service stations, but they are actually all still in construction. Ergo, the look of panic on most of the motorists’ faces, as their fuel dials drop precipitously low, is so common here it counts as local colour.

The first place you can get off the motorway and fuel up is at Amfilochia, a little town on the shores of a sheltered inlet. They say that all journeys begin with a single step, but ours frequently seem to start with a handy restaurant, a table of locals taking us under their wing, and some lovely old drunk bloke giving Steve a hug.

IMG_7843

This chap was the husband of a friend of Costas’ mother (stay with me here), and all four of them adopted us when we stopped at Amfilochia and went to find somewhere to eat. Costas is an interior designer of the calibre that is required in super-swanky hotels all around the world.

Being a nice Greek boy, he takes his mum on trips all around the world too. He showed me pictures of the two of them everywhere from Bali, to Dubai, to Graceland. The drunk fella chatted away to us quite happily, regardless of the fact that we couldn’t understand each other, and bought us another jug of wine. The mum and her friend just smiled and nodded and laughed. Good times.

IMG_7834

Now, I’d had a problem with my windscreen wipers, but Steve had bought me a new one, so that was sorted. And we’d also discovered that my heating had stopped working on the drive up. Steve reckoned it needed a new heat sensor, so we kept our eyes open for a likely place to get a new one, fuelled up, and headed off up to Albania.

Albania. A place that even Google Translate can’t cope with: when we stopped at a café it told me I was eating ‘connection specs’.

At this point I’d like to say that I’m sure the coastline is beautiful (we didn’t see it), and I’m sure it has lovely cities (again, didn’t go near them), and that the people are as nice as it’s possible to be (didn’t actually meet any).

But we drove straight up the middle, in winter, in the pouring rain. And it was even more of a grim and unrewarding experience than the first time, because it was daylight, and I could see more.

For a start, they have a significant rubbish problem, as two-fifths of the country’s waste is never collected. And because the land alongside the rivers is free, that is where two-fifths of the population go to get rid of it.

We saw them doing it as we drove through, just parking up and lobbing bags of the stuff into the river. Recent flooding had scattered it all, so that the land was covered for about twenty metres on each side, and the trees and bushes that bordered it were totally festooned with plastic. I’ve never seen anything like it.

(I couldn’t stop to take a pic so I’ve borrowed one from another site. It gives you a slight idea of what it was like, just imagine it on a much bigger scale.)

BraritBridgeAndTrash

And I have to mention the potholes. Because you know those holes so deep that Chinamen pop out of them in American cartoons? They were that sort, but full of rain (I’m sure I mentioned the eternal sodding rain), so you couldn’t see how bad they were until after you’d lurched to one side with a sickening crunch of your tyres. I spent the whole day apologising to my own car.

And then, of course, there were the drivers themselves, who like to overtake you on single carriageway roads – on both sides at the same time! – horns blaring, and never indicating or using their lights, even (or especially) at night.

In towns, it is just a big free-for-all at any junction, and there are no lights at all in the tunnels.

What with the endless rubbish, the awful weather, and the nightmare drivers, my preferred descriptor – Albania, the armpit of Europe – seemed appropriate. When we passed a village called Puke, it didn’t surprise me in the least.

And of course, there were the technical problems that added to the experience. My windscreen wiper (my DRIVER’S SIDE windscreen wiper) wasn’t fixed by getting a new one. So that was … challenging. Georgie kept losing all power (including the power steering) and grinding to a halt, after being filled with Albanian diesel. And then Steve’s phone cut out (with the sat-nav on it).

So, to recap: it is winter and I am in a soft-top car with no heating. I am wearing woolly tights, jeans and leg-warmers. I have on a vest, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a really thick, hooded sweatshirt and a body-warmer. I have shoved my legs down the sleeves of Steve’s padded coat to simulate salopettes, and have buttoned it up to my waist. I also have on gloves and a scarf, and I can barely move. Later, I add joggers, another jumper, and a hot-water bottle, just to stop me shaking.

Also: it is pouring with rain, and I have to duck down and to the right to see out of my window every time the wiper cuts out. The traffic is coming at me from all sides, and there are no road signs or markings that either make sense or are adhered to. My windows are misted up due to the lack of heating, and the only way to clear them is to open the side window until I turn a fetching shade of lavender.

Furthermore, I am desperately trying to avoid the potholes, as well as the dogs, children, donkeys, mopeds, and little old ladies that just march in front of me with some kind of mad, Albanian death-wish. And now Steve is several cars in front of me and he’s asking me to give him directions through the town, because his sat-nav has gone bye-bye. WTAF?

My visibility is shit, my life-expectancy – either from hypothermia or multi-car pile up – is on the low side, and I’m having to work out what instructions he needs before it even appears on my phone screen.

Major driving skills and endurance? Yes, I think so.

By the time we get to Montenegro I am long past all rational thought. We get a ferry over the river, and I am halfway across before I notice that Steve and Georgie aren’t even on board. They put him on the next one, thankfully, and I wait in a layby for him to disembark.

But the cold, and the long drive, and thinking I’d lost him freaks me out so much that I forget to turn on my lights, and immediately get stopped by the police. Steve is unaware of this and has already gone ahead. By the time I’ve worked out what the cop is saying, Steve is well out of range of the walkie-talkies.

The fine is thirty euros, but Steve has all the cash, and his phone died in the middle of Albania. I have nothing on me, apart from all the clothes that I own and a rather stupified smile. After a long discussion the cop says I have a week to pay, but I point out that I’ll only be in his country for another half an hour. Eventually he gives up and lets me off with a warning.

So, considering I got pulled over, why do I claim I’m the best driver in the world?

Because I drove like that, from the freezing pre-dawn darkness, through the wet, grey and terrifying day, and back into darkness again, FOR THIRTEEN HOURS!

THIRTEEN HOURS!

Who’s the fucking Man?

I am, that’s who.

I absolutely dare you to disagree.

 

Greek Moments

Standard

I spend my life shouting at the telly, which I find it quite therapeutic. I am particularly vocal during films where medieval castles are getting bombarded (I have sons – I’ve had to watch a lot of these) and all the equipment the invaders needed were a selection of big ladders. I mean, for God’s sake, stick some spikes out of the wall why don’t you, or cover the gaps in the battlements with a sodding wrought-iron fence. If all the baddies have to do is climb up and climb in – well just do something, ok? (I’d personally favour a trench full of alligators.)

But the Palamidi Fortress in Nafplio (our local town where we over-wintered in Greece) has actually nailed it, in my opinion. Big strong walls – tick, plenty of bastions surrounding the heart of the fortress – tick, high on a hilltop where you can see the invaders at least a week before they reach you – tick. In fact so high up it has 999 steps that trudge up to it. I’ll say that again: 999 steps.

IMG_6988

In Vienna we’d climbed to the top of the tower in St. Stephan’s cathedral, but that was a mere 343 steps. I remember how my thighs complained (as my muscle tone is on a par with my gran’s old knicker elastic), and so before attempting the Palamidi, I did some training. By which I mean I used the stairs whenever I could (but probably no more than 20 at a time) and walked a bit more than usual. So, not that trained, really.

I also waited until Joe came to visit, so he could climb the steps with me. Steve’s medical history includes a quad bypass, two stents and a stroke, so he was getting sent up the long way around, by car, no arguments. But my son Joe is a bit of a mountain goat anyway. As a child he used to shimmy up the walls of the hallway and wait, arms crossed, until you walked below him. Then he’d drop to the ground behind you, giggling hysterically, while you double-checked to see if you’d actually peed yourself.

So, the pair of us set off and, to be frank, my legs were aching on the short walk up the hill just to reach the steps. At about halfway I made Joe stop and come back down a step, so that when we got to the top, we’d actually have done a thousand steps (this is what passes for fun in my head). I had to sit down a lot on the way up, but I could see the walls of the castle getting nearer and nearer and it felt do-able.

IMG_7323

And this is where I think the Palamidi architects were so clever, because I reached those walls (having paced myself accordingly) and then found it was merely a bastion – and only two thirds of the way up. Still, literally, hundreds more to do. But I pushed on, got to the gate, paid our entrance fees, and turned a corner only to find … lots more steps. The Palamidi is not flat, it seems.

IMG_7296

But it was a stunning view, once blood had returned to my brain. From the top we could see the Bourtzi (which is another fortress, built on a rocky outcrop in the bay, and reachable only by boat). Honestly, these Nafplions knew what they were doing.

Nafplio itself is rather lovely. It was a major stronghold of the Ottoman Empire until the Greek War of Independence, and then it became the capital of Greece (until King Otto decided Athens was everything, and moved there instead). We sat at a café and watched sea bream swimming around by the quayside, and then walked through the narrow streets of the Old Town.

In the main square is a stone lion, which is worth a look, because over the years, children have happily filled the holes that delineate his whiskers with BB gun pellets. And there is another lion carved into a rock face just behind the local Lidl. He’s the Lion of Bavaria and commemorates the sad death of Bavarian soldiers in a typhoid epidemic. However, the locals believed it was death by cucumber (the Bavarians are said to have eaten too many) and consequently call the statue Agouroon (which means cucumber in Ancient Greek).

We visited the Archaeological Museum and I found some more nipple-tweakers and a shocked-looking lady saying, ‘talk to the hand’. Feeling you, sister.

But my favourite was the Folklore Museum, which is a gem of a place – full of wonderful costumes, fabulous painted furniture, and traditional dolls.

IMG_7258

I would have killed for this blouse, it had so much detail on it.

IMG_7261

And there was this pair of twin dolls in their natty knitted gear. I like to think of them as representing my grandkids, Kit and Sky, if Satan was their dad instead of Laurence.

IMG_7238

And that was it for our time in Greece, as we needed to make our way back to the UK to MOT our vehicles, and catch up with family. This meant driving through Albania again and – now that I’d got over the shock of that – I was prepared to review my opinion of the place. Next time I’ll let you know whether or not I did.

P.S. I found so many things about Greece to be brilliantly bonkers that I posted them on Facebook, under the title Greek Moments. If you haven’t seen them, I’ve reproduced a few of them here. I hope they make you smile the way they did me. Ciao xxxx

GREEK MOMENTS:

When you ask, ‘I wonder what’s on at the big screen?’ but this is the size of the cinema…

IMG_7061

When even the furniture makes you feel fat…

IMG_7062

When the Virgin Mary has had all she can take…

IMG_7355

In case you’re not sure which bit of a house the roof goes on…

IMG_7357

When the local DIY store caters for all your goat-herding needs…

IMG_7623

And the local hardware shop also sells …. yes, it’s wine…

IMG_7622

Bit harsh – what’s wrong with the naughty step?

IMG_7828

And, finally,

the chap with the impressive arse is painting his own yellow lines on the road.

Cos, why not?

IMG_7817

The delights of Drepano, and Xmas-on-wheels

Standard

THE VILLAGE

Drepano is a funny little village on the coast of the Argolid. It has one big church in the middle, surrounded by cafes full of old blokes, a decent baklava shop, no police, and one benign, homeless chap with a mental health problem and a lot of different hats.

There’s also an old, nay positively ancient, lady who sits in front of her house and gives you sweets as you pass by. The sweets are mastic masquerading as mints, and there’s a skip you can spit it into just up the road, so no worries. Once when we passed, I glimpsed her through the doorway, trying to sweep around a series of cloth-covered tiny tables that were groaning with stuff. She was so hunched I think the broom may have been holding her up. Another time I saw a woman leave a plate of Spaghetti Bolognese on her doorstep.

One of the local restaurants is manned by Stephan, who’s the owner’s son and a really nice lad. He’s shy to start with, but when he gets to know you he opens up more. We also found that, the more he got to know us, the cheaper our meals became. I think he works by assessing how much trouble it is to make, and if he likes you, then it’s barely any trouble, is it?

IMG_7810

THE BEACH

When we first arrived we tried several times to go to another restaurant nearby, but it was either shut, had odd opening hours, or we were turned away. One day we met the proprietors on the beach – Vicelis and her husband. They had brown plastic ‘milk churns’ beside them, and were standing out on a rock, heaping things into a big garden sieve and swooshing it through the seawater. It was the olive harvest from their small plot of land, yielding masses of fruit from five different varieties.

20171125_164254.jpg

We helped sort out bruised or damaged fruit, bits of stalk, and leaves, then Vicelis rinsed them in the sea before tipping them into the churns. Her husband filled my pockets with olives. He said I had to slice five cuts down the sides and put them in salt water. The slits would speed the curing process and they’d be ready for Christmas. If I left them uncut, then they’d take three months.

I was very excited by this. I raced home and put them in seawater, one lot cut, and one lot left whole. After a week they’d developed a rather unhealthy-looking froth on the water, which had also gone distinctly murky. I asked Janine what she thought and she suggested I put more salt in. So I got fresh seawater and added more salt, and then waited for Christmas, to be impressed by my olive-curing prowess.

But ready by Christmas, my arse. I tried one then and it was absolute pants. Rock hard, bitter, not good at all. Obviously the instructions I was given were for someone who had at least a basic knowledge of the process, or perhaps just far more common sense.

Because I’ve just checked them again, and now our van smells as if the King of the stink bombs has been released. Only from one jar, mind you. The other jar with the slit olives are pretty much there, if rather over-salted. However, smell is a strange thing – it hit me just after I’d taken a bite of the devil’s fruit. So, if I don’t finish this blog it’s because I’m doubled up with food poisoning, ok?

That walk on the beach yielded more than olives, though. I also found a shell as big as my foot. It was beautiful – orange and spiny on the outside, with a mother-of-pearl coloured core. I had to wade out to get bits of it, but it was worth it.

We Googled it and found it’s called a Pinna Nobilis, or Pen Shell, and it’s a type of clam that grows upwards from the rocks, by attaching itself with hair-like fibres that are known as sea-silk. This is where it gets special: the shell is rare, and has been sought after for thousands of years because the sea-silk is incredibly fine. A pair of gloves made from them can fit into half a walnut shell. And when the fibres are treated with lemon juice (of which, plenty around here) they turn golden and never fade.

CHRISTMAS PREP

When December came I started to decorate Georgie. I have a small box of decorations that are lightweight, unbreakable, or made by the kids (felt Xmas trees, that sort of thing). I also have a cardboard reindeer that flat packs, courtesy of M&S.

So I went for a walk to pick some evergreen stuff with which to make a wreath to hang around Rudolph. I didn’t want to scalp any of the bushes on site – that felt a tad like taking the piss. On the beach I found an old, broken, Japanese fan wall-decoration that would provide the struts I’d need to make the wreath foundation. Then I picked some green frondy things and headed back to the campsite.

I met Christina, the owner, and she was horrified that I’d gone elsewhere. She insisted I go into her own back garden and take as many branches as I wanted from her fir tree. Far superior, she said. And do I like lemons? Yes, I do. Well here you are, she said, piling me up an armful, because the ones on her personal tree are the best.

I find this level of generosity incredibly touching. Especially from a woman who, soon after we parked up, replenished all the gravel around our van causing us to live in the world’s biggest cat-litter tray because of the sixteen cats. We were very careful where we walked, and avoided anything hilly.

So, van duly decorated, I set about finding some games for us to play at Crimbo. I downloaded some pictures of celebrities as kids (inspired by a friend on Facebook) for Steve to guess. He did badly. Here’s a few of them, have a go if you like.

SHOPPING

I took Steve into our local town of Nafplio, where one of the cafes gives you a bowl of lovely, sticky little doughnuts with every coffee. Once fortified, I gave him a budget of no more than fifteen euros, and sent him off to buy a silly present for me.

I knew what I wanted to get for him, and headed straight for the pet shop to buy a cat toy for when Velcro shimmied under the toilet door. Then I saw a truly hideous travel mug that I just had to get as well.

He found me an exceptionally kitsch candle – purple, and glittery, with odd flowery shapes and bits of driftwood. If anybody out there actually likes it and wants me to keep it for them, let me know, because Steve nearly binned it on Boxing Day.

IMG_7476

Santa did make an appearance for the kiddies in town, but he arrived by pirate ship (as you do), his reindeer, perhaps, having taken a break in the Caribbean. He had this elf-man/MC hybrid inviting them in.

IMG_7219

Later that day, I bumped into Santa packing up for the day. In typical Greek-waiter fashion, he gave me a lascivious wink and said, ‘welcome to my boat’. Er, no thanks, matey.

IMG_7217

CELEBRATIONS

On the actual day I cooked a chicken, which is the only thing our oven does well (it thinks it has to melt The Terminator with every meal), and ignored the packet of stuffing mix that, according to Google Translate, required me to add 12 hard-boiled eggs and 750g of rats. Feeling happily fat, we walked along the beach after lunch, and cut through the orange orchard to pick mandarins to eat on the way home.

Then we played the games I’d prepared, including Make your own Christmas Jumper out of plastic carrier bags. Now I know I had an unfair advantage here as I’ve made my own clothes before, and I know that the pattern for a sleeve is much bigger than you’d expect. But to be honest, not giving Steve that information was part of the fun. We followed it up by watching Groundhog Day. Perfect.

For New Year, these perky chaps fetched up at the campsite and serenaded Christina. I saw them sit on her doorstep afterwards counting their spoils. They saw me watching them, and promptly fetched up on our doorstep and sang their tuneless and incomprehensible New Year song (with triangle accompaniment, no less). They were great. I bloody loved them. They got on their knees afterwards and took photos of all the cats under the van.

IMG_7518

In the evening we glammed up as best we could, considering it was a bit parky. For Steve this meant a clean jumper, and for me, well I washed my hair. We went to a restaurant that did a special New Year meal deal, where we’d previously had coffee while I admired the lighting.

The deal included a piece of the traditional cake that, like our Christmas pudding, traditionally contained a coin. In our case, that would’ve been a sixpence (2.5p), whereas this coin was worth 60 euros. Everyone else had made a bit more of an effort dress wise. These glamour-pusses were at the table next to us. And no, we didn’t find the coin. We found a lot of Sambuca though, so happy days.

IMG_7529

2018

And after that it was back to real life. We discovered a liquer (oh thanks, Stephan) called Tsipouro, which is 44% awful. I bought worry beads from a lady who wrote my name in Greek for me. And Christina’s husband, Vangelis (I know), got out the big tools, digger and forklift and – with scant regard for health and safety – trimmed the palm trees and levelled our bit of the beach.

IMG_7552

Well, I appear to have survived the evil olive, so that’s it for now. I’ll write about Nafplio and the 1,000 steps as soon as I can. Thanks, again, for reading. Ciao xxx

P.S. The celebrities are:- Meg Ryan, Benedict Cumberbatch, Freddie Mercury and Keira Knightly.

My life as a cat-herder

Standard

Triton II, near Drepano, is a lovely little campsite opposite a beach, run by an equally lovely lady called Christina. We’d read about it on Barry and Margaret’s website (magbaztravels.com), and they’ve been everywhere, so that made it easy. Here’s the beach – looks nice, right? Peaceful? Tranquil? Deserted?

IMG_7471

Well the beach was, but the campsite …

At first we were completely disarmed when two sweet little tabby kittens turned up and purred at us, gently rubbed our legs, and were no trouble at all. They’d sit happily on our laps, and meander along with us when we walked on the beach. We felt their little ribs when we stroked them and bought more cat food. We called them Sausage and Spot, and liked having them around.

And so it started.

After a few days of the tabbies, the fluffy gingers turned up. Thing 1 and Thing 2 began to camp on our doorstep. And several specimens (that after three months still each only had the name ‘Ugly Cat’) began to settle underneath the van. By now, leaving the door open with the fly-screen closed was not an option. Sausage had discovered she could climb up the screen and yank open the handle cover to climb in. Thing 1 thought this was brilliant, and all the others began to follow suit.

Still, not a massive problem, and so we started to put down our roots at Triton. We met travellers Bob and Lynne (who also fed Sausage and Spot), and Janine and Arno, who lived there permanently now, and had adopted three of the cats as their own (Charlie, Fritz, and Fritz’s sister).

Janine gave us the lowdown on the surrounding area – where to go for good, reasonably priced meals, where to shop, where the hardware stores were, the local sights etc. Really kind lady, makes beautiful jewellery (Esfera jewelry on Etsy). So when she asked us if we could feed her three cats, as she and Arno had to go to back to Holland for a fortnight, well of course we could.

And this is where the cats really played us.

They would follow us every morning and evening as we went to feed Fritz and co., and try and muscle in. Persistent little buggers they were too. Janine had left a broom there but it wasn’t enough to keep them at bay once word had got around. No, the only thing that worked was Steve enticing them all to one end of the site by rattling the dried food and feeding them there, while I sneaked off to give Janine’s crew their meal.

Initially, there were the tabbies, the Things, and the Ugly Cats. Then came a gorgeous, fluffy tortoiseshell with a bulbous tummy (that I wrongly assumed to be carrying kittens) that I called Mama Bear. She was a sweetie, so we fed her.

img_7574.jpg

Bob and Lynne left and we think they probably took Spot and Sausage with them, because we never saw them again. Good for them. But the gap had been quickly filled by some ginger and white jobbies, and one in particular was friendly and fairly devoted to Steve. We’d just watched the finals of Professional Masterchef and had been very impressed by one of the contestant’s tenacity: Louisa was a very young girl, with a great personality, who worked incredibly hard, and never allowed herself to be knocked off her goal of professional excellence.

Steve called his new follower Louisa-from-masterchef, because of her affectionate nature, combined with an extraordinary determination when it came to food. No other cat got a look in when she was around.

IMG_7567

Then we met Velcro. This little tabby could lift the skin from your bones and the carpet from your floor when you tried to pick him up to put him out. His ability to hold on was just extraordinary. His masterstroke was he made you give up trying to chuck him out because you prized your ‘surfaces’ too much. He quickly became Steve’s favourite. He’d follow Steve when he went to the loo and then shimmy under the door to be next to him.

IMG_7808

There was also a cross-eyed ginger we called Clarence (you have to be old to get that one), and one that sang all the time she ate – she became Geri or Ginger Spice.  Tricolour was ginger, white and black, and a bit of a cow, and Bruiser was a fat-faced, big-footed bully boy. He’d pick on the other cats, start fights, attack people (he once jumped onto Janine’s head and dug his claws into her scalp) and generally be a nuisance. He was a tabby version of Tom after Jerry has hit him in the face with a frying pan. At feeding time he would lurk.

IMG_7630

And now they were all living on our roof. Or under the van, or sleeping on Nibbles soft-top, or our doorstep, or outdoor furniture, or tucked under the slide-out. We’d have to check all our outside lockers before closing them in case a cat had sneaked in when we weren’t looking. At night I’d be woken by the thump of a cat landing on my bedroom roof. They knew what time we fed Janine’s three, and they’d all queue up outside each morning and yell if we overslept.

By the time we’d settled in for Christmas we were regularly feeding sixteen cats twice a day, and Steve had discovered a place to buy cat food in bulk. And even though Janine and Arno were now home, Fritz and co. would still come for ‘seconds’ at our place.

IMG_7708

We’d come back from the shopping to see three or four of them curled up on our coiled waste pipes, or occupying pride of place on our fold-up chairs. And then, as soon as they heard the car engine stop, they’d all come running and yelling for food, with others suddenly appearing from out of trees, or under hedges, or God know’s where.

IMG_7288

But then Doggo turned up, sometimes bringing his mate, and I thought maybe we’d get a little peace.

IMG_7557

Not a chance. He appeared every day for about three weeks, and just sat and watched. I think he was aware that he was vastly out-numbered, and that at least two of those cats were little shits.

By now Thing 1 thought she owned us, which in a Mafia sense, she probably did. She and Thing 2, Louisa, Mama Bear and Velcro would just climb into the van and make themselves comfortable, and honestly, it was easier to just let them be.

IMG_7442

Luckily, by the time we left Drepano, the season was beginning to open up again and more people were coming to stay. I saw other people feeding the cats occasionally, and the numbers of regulars under our van had begun to dwindle. The die-hards remained, of course, but by now they were fatter and healthy looking. Thing 1’s eye problem had cleared up after being repeatedly squirted with Optrex by Steve. Thing 2 had got brave enough to be stroked, just not on the head. Mama and Thing 1 would curl up on my lap and just be cats. Velcro and Louisa would still follow Steve to watch him on the loo.

And although I have many happy (and normal) memories of our time in Drepano (about which, more next blog), it is the cats that I’ll always remember it for.

P.s. Steve misses Velcro and I miss Mama Bear.

NEXT TIME –  still playing catch-up so I’ll fill you in on Christmas in an RV, and being a beach-comber. Love to all of you, ciao xxx

 

 

Tripping

Standard

There are obviously many things to see in Greece, but also a limit on how much broken, headless, collapsed or reconstructed stone stuff I can maintain an interest in. Ergo I suggested a trip out to the Lepida waterfall as a bit of a change. It is known to be a bit dry in the heat of summer, but this was the winter and it’d done nothing but rain since we arrived. I excitedly packed a very nice picnic and off we went.

After an hour or so’s driving, Deirdre the sat-nav slut kept insisting we veer off onto various dirt tracks. All the options she offered looked pretty dodgy, so we tried to find another route, and our drive got longer and longer. At one point we climbed up the side of a mountain that took us through ten of the sharpest hairpin bends I’ve ever encountered. Our ears popped on the way up, and on the way down again. It would be worth it though, because … waterfalls!

Eventually we submitted to the will of Deirdre and let her take us down a track – until it got to be a lot more rut than road. The sign said the waterfall was a mere 2km further on, so we parked up and started to walk. We passed tracks in the dried mud that I thought might be deer, mainly because I always want to see deer. Steve said no, those are goat tracks. We argued about it a bit and then I kept quiet, because I knew we were going to see deer.

It was a surprisingly long 2km, as it turned out, and so it was hours later that we came to the waterfall. Except there wasn’t any water and nothing was falling. Not a drop. We saw where the waterfall had been though, but it didn’t help; we sat in a totally dry riverbed to eat our picnic.

This is what a waterfall looks like without it’s clothes on.

IMG_7022

On the way back we heard bells. Cowbells? No, said Steve, it’s the goats. I really wanted it to be cowbells and deer tracks, but of course he was right. They all flooded across the road in front of us and eyed us with deep suspicion. Then they all trundled up the opposite hill, and had almost disappeared when we heard … the sound. To start with I thought it was an odd bird call – some kind of magpie, maybe? It was incredibly shrill and loud and went something like, ‘Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-ya, eeeeee-ya eeeeee-ya eeeeee-ya eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-ya.’ Yup, not a bird, just the goat-herders calling them back.

img_7050.jpg

We started the long drive home and immediately heard clonking noises from under the car. Steve got out and checked, but could find nothing. Later we heard a bang, as if we’d driven over something. We pulled off the road into an old lady’s driveway and found a very flat tyre. It was almost as flat as the frog I’d seen on our walk to the waterfall. The poor thing had been squashed by a farm vehicle, and then a dog had come and pooped on it’s head. This helped me keep things in perspective – whatever kind of day I was having, that frog had had a worse one.

The old lady said there was a garage a couple of minutes up the road, so we carefully drove up there, (Nibbles is a Smart car, and they don’t carry spare tyres – that’s how they stay so light). The guys at the garage couldn’t help us but said there was somewhere that could, about 4km back the way we’d come. They pumped up the tyre so we could get to the new place, and it lasted all the way. God knows how, though, because when the flat was removed, they found a hole the size of a fifty pence piece and the inside had completely shredded.

But we are incredibly lucky in that, whenever we’ve broken down or had a problem with either vehicle, we’ve found the right people to help us nearby. So even though they had to go and find a new tyre for us, it was all sorted within half an hour.

We drove back down the ten hairpins to a road that was merely very bendy, and had a sheer drop to one side. Despite the double white lines in the centre and the lack of visibility, a horn-honking lorry overtook us and the lorry in front of us, in one hit. Well, he has a death-wish, I thought. We caught up with him later: he had a banner stretching all across the back of his lorry, hanging below his number plate. It said, (in English?), ‘In memory of my beloved Uncle.’ I couldn’t help wondering if he’d run him over.

They are very keen on remembering lost loved ones here, especially by the use of roadside shrines. We’ve noticed this all over Europe but the Greeks seem to have taken it to the next level, and blurred the line between shrine and chapel rather effectively. Our local garden centre offers all the usual shrines, but also this rather nifty one-man job as well.

IMG_7820

And a local business has done even better – because you never know how many times in your working day you’re going to need a quick pray.

img_7814.jpg

On another occasion, we went down to Kalamata for the afternoon. Why? Because someone had told Steve it was really lovely. Did he check this, on Google, for instance (because my idea of ‘lovely’ could be different to yours)? No. And I suspect the dead of winter is not the best time to see any beach resort, you know what I’m saying?

But the Greeks give really good church. It’s always the most impressive building in the town/city/village/business forecourt, and Kalamata has a wonderful example of this – the Church of Ypapantis.

IMG_7714

And, as with all Greek churches, the inside is even better than the outside.

IMG_7724

At the front were pictures of saints with 3D silver relief panels over them, just exposing key points of the pictures underneath, like the faces, hands and feet. Nearer the door was an ornate shrine that people steadily approached, kissed, knelt before, and left offerings beside. A bottle of wine that was gifted was picked up pretty smartish. One lady even crawled penitently across the carpet, on her hands and knees, before kissing the shrine. I don’t claim to understand that kind of devotion, but I found it touching, all the same.

IMG_7730

At the beach end of the town is the Municipal Railway Park, which some websites claim is a theme park, where you can ride on steam trains and all sorts of shit. Not true. Maybe it was once, but now it is a place where a lot of old trains, carriages, and engines are rotting away on the grass. You are allowed to climb all over them but I didn’t fancy falling through the floors and gouging my legs on rusty iron. Interesting to look at though, and the kids still have fun.

IMG_7755

Easily our most successful trip out was to the island of Spetses, when Joe came to visit. I finally got to see some Greece that was a bit more akin to my foolish imaginings of it. Small, quiet, peaceful and pretty.

IMG_7361

IMG_7369

We wandered along the beach, skimmed stones, found the harbour, had an over-priced lunch, were offered a choice of ‘scrumble eggs’ or ‘scrabbled eggs’, and got fleeced by the guy in the water taxi. Perfect, just perfect.

IMG_7426

I’ll tell you all about the three months we spent at Drepano in my next blog –  My life as a cat herder. Until then, thanks for reading. Ciao xxx

 

My Olympian moment, and other legends.

Standard

Travelling in Greece brings to mind the opening lines of Harry Nilsson’s song, Remember:

               ‘Long ago, far away, life was clear, close your eyes…’

Everything here seems to have been glorious but it was all ‘once upon a time’.

It had a good run; from the eighth century BC, right up to when the Romans started getting a bit uppity over eight hundred years later. The first couple of centuries are known as the Archaic Period, and when Steve and I fetched up at Drepano, we were delighted to see a sign for an Archaic Temple just around the corner. Sadly, we were somewhat less delighted when we found it.

IMG_7639

The signs had been proud and proclaiming on the main road, but as we’d got closer to the site, they’d become vague, unhelpful, and pointing in distinctly off-hand directions.

When we eventually found it, we understood why – they clearly wanted you to know they had a Temple, but they just didn’t want you to see it.

Because said Temple was, in fact, a triangle of grass with a few rocks and a couple of holes in it, on a slope behind the church. The sort of place where all the rubbish blows, and people dump their old beer cans and Xmas trees, and dogs go to poo. Not very Templey. I genuinely mistook it for a bus-stop.

But who cares, because after the Archaic Period came the Classical Period, and this is when Greece really got its shit together.

MYCENAE

We waited until my son, Joe, came to stay and then we shot off to Mycenae. Here they have three Tholos (or beehive-shaped) tombs, and it’s also where the great golden mask of Agamemnon was found.

IMG_7185

IMG_7173

Steve made a ‘find’ of his own; scratching in the dirt on a pathway he picked up a tiny piece of painted pottery, circa 1200 BC. Joe adored the serenity of the Tomb of Clytemnestra, with its high, domed roof made of intricately over-lapping brickwork. And, in the museum, I found more of the strange little Grecian figures that I have come to think of as Nipple-tweakers. Happy days.

IMG_7177

NEMEA

You’ve heard of Hercules defeating the Nemean Lion? Well, this is where the legend takes place, and we thought it’d be a good place to visit. The story goes that, as the first of his ‘labours’, King Eurystheus sends Hercules off to kill a certain lion that has been causing havoc in the area, and to bring him back the skin as proof.

Fair enough, you think? No, not really – this particular beast has fur that is impenetrable, and claws that can cut through both swords and armour, which just shows what he thinks of Hercules.

Now, the H-man has been told about the lion, but he’s as thick as two short planks and tries to shoot it with arrows, which naturally just ping off. To give him his due, he doesn’t quit, and eventually corners it in a cave and chokes it to death. Round one to Hercules.

But now he has to skin it. Having totally forgotten (again) about the strength of the animal’s fur – it having been, ooh, minutes since the arrows bounced off – he tries to cut it  with a knife. Epic fail. Aha, he thinks, I’ll sharpen my knife with a stone. Fails again. This goes on for some time, until Hercules tries to hack it off with the stone. Not a lateral thinker, our Herc.

By this time the Gods are all placing bets and pissing themselves laughing. Zeus is wiping tears from his eyes, muttering, ‘he’s the gift that keeps on giving’. But Athena has had enough, and drops down to Earth to give him a nudge in the right direction.

That’s quite a lion, you’ve got there,‘ she says.

‘I know, right? Got claws that can cut through armour, too. I’m bloody heroic, I am.’

‘Cut through armour, can they? Wow, that’s really sharp.’

‘Yes it is, and now I’ve got to skin it, and look what it’s done to my best knife? It’s all bent up.’

Athena tries again. ‘If only you had something here that was sharp enough to cut through armour – that would do the trick, wouldn’t it?

‘The stone didn’t work either,’ says Herc, completely mystified.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, use the claws, the claws! Seriously, what is wrong with you?’

And that’s exactly how it happened, and I personally think this story has something that every one of us can identify with.

EPIDAUROS

There’s a sunken city off the coast near Epidauros, which you can swim out to, that’s a couple of thousand years old. So we took a drive out to that, only to discover that neither of us can swim that far, or that deep – not with a snorkel, anyway. So we trollied into the local town and went looking for ice-cream instead.

While I was deciding if mine had ever actually met a strawberry, we got befriended by a lovely young couple and an older chap; Sarah, Patrick and Petyr. They were looking to buy a boat to set up an island-hopping business. Sarah was a Brit who’d gone to the States to study acting, and had then gone on to be a singer/songwriter. She looked about twenty-two. I couldn’t work this out so I turned to Patrick and enquired if she wasn’t too young to have given up on one dream already? She laughed and said she was older than she looked, but he said, ‘I hope she hasn’t given up – I love hearing her sing.’ He looked so totally besotted I nearly hugged him. Best I could do was choke out, ‘Well, he’s a keeper,’ and then float off feeling awed by how sweet they were.

Further up the beach we saw a young lad who’d caught a small octopus for his dinner. Apparently, to tenderise the hard muscles which serve instead of a skeleton, it has to be beaten about fifty times on a rock. When we caught up with this lad he’d been dragging it up and down a well-worn rock for at least half an hour, liberally dousing it in sea-water. He looked exhausted.

img_7503.jpg

Of course, there’s more than just a sunken city here. There’s plenty of other ruins including an amphitheatre, cos you’ve got to see at least one, haven’t you?

20171126_115042

BUT OLYMPIA, THO

If you’re not going to Athens (which we are not), then the next best place for Classical Greek stony stuff has got to be Olympia. A lot of the temples fell down in an earthquake, but even seeing the size of the blocks that made up the columns is impressive. I really liked that one of the buildings in the surrounding (massive) complex was said to echo whatever you said, seven times.

They light the Olympic torch here, and you can still run down the original 100 metre(ish) track. So I made Steve run with me, whilst workmen and other tourists looked at us pityingly. So am I now an Olympian? I think I am.

But the best bit for me was the museum – lots of muscles and beautifully draped cloth.

IMG_6810

And stuff that was just plain interesting (this little lion probably never met Hercules – he’s too smiley).

 

And how come glassware can survive for over two millennia in the ground here, but every time we get back to England it’s another trip to Ikea for us?

I’ll leave you with this – a photo of me crossing the finish line at Olympia, that totally belies the twenty minutes of red-raced gasping for breath that followed, or gives any hint about the bit in the middle that I had to walk. Thanks for reading. Ciao xxx

20171106_133107