Thursday, 29 August 2013

Greece is the Word

Last August we foolishly attempted to enjoy ourselves during the hottest part of the year in a country dominated by the western Saharan desert. Bad idea in retrospect (bad idea any way you look at it). This year, we thought we’d spend the hottest part of the year somewhere with lots of water, and the Ionian Sea on the west coast of Greece was just the ticket.  The main part of the vacation was on a sailboat, but not before a few days on the island of Corfu, adjusting to the culture, food, and rhythm of country.

Part of Corfu town harbour.
Not much happened for the first few days, barring a few trips to the local beaches and a hot day spent checking out the old fortifications in Corfu town. To be completely up-front about the weather: some days were hot and sunny and some days were very hot and sunny. But I now know why the Brits go to Greece for their vacation: summer is guaranteed.

One afternoon at the beach, we were told the power was out in all the restaurants and had been all day. Our server told us there would be no hot food. However, you could order omelettes (hot), and fries (hot). Sandwiches (cold), on the menu, but sadly also not available that day. You could order salad (cold), containing everything you could ever want on a sandwich including chicken, ham, tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumber. Bread (cold) came with each meal. Apparently assembling the sandwich was not possible without power. Welcome to Greece.

Typical Beach
Later in the day, we were asked if it would be a problem for us to move rooms at our condo complex… to rooms at another condo complex down the road (double booking problem). We’re Canadian so, you know, “no problem”. The proprietor of our complex took me down to meet the proprietor of the other complex (“we are good friends thirty years”) where it appeared to me, with my limited Greek, no previous discussion about us staying the night had been had. Still, I meet the proprietor, nice guy no English, who eventually called three or four younger women, relatives I assume, to escort me to a pair of rooms that may have not been completely safe from an structural standpoint. Again, being a good Canadian and having seen air conditioning units attached to the rooms, because it was stinking hot, I shrugged and smiled accordingly. Then I figured I best go collect the girls and the bags, and bring them back to our new home. But first, the proprietor of the first place told me that the proprietor of the second place insisted on sharing a glass of grappa with me, in a way that suggested I should accept if I knew what was good for me. Best grappa in the world, apparently. Made in Crete. And curiously, available only in old 2 litre plastic water bottles with the labels scraped off. Grappa, grappa.  What can I say about grappa? I was immediately reminded of cheap tequila as the second glass seemed much less harsh than the first.  My first lesson in Greek hospitality was almost fatal, being a bit of a lightweight drinker. Apparently it is acceptable to have a lengthy conversation in Greek in front of a non-Greek-speaking guest, provided your guest’s glass of grappa is continuously filled during said conversation.  I believe I only narrowly avoided possible hospitalization for alcohol poisoning only because my first guy needed to get back after only ½ hour. Still, I’m pretty sure the two old guys were able to express their opinions on the entire Greek political scene in the short time they had. My contribution was nodding occasionally while diplomatically avoiding expressions of obvious revulsion after each sip of grappa. Good times.

The next day, after a short flight from Corfu to the mainland (don’t delay booking Greek ferry space on-line in August because there won’t be any after April – we learned that lesson for everyone), we arrived in Preveza, where our sailing adventure would begin. We had booked a boat with what is known as a flotilla holiday. A flotilla holiday is really just glorified house-boating, where the houseboat is a bit trickier to handle, and the lake is a bit bigger and much saltier. You get the picture. Essentially, you spend the day mucking about on your own, and in the evening you park your boat at the same place as the rest of the group.
Our Flotilla
These next two boats were definitely not part of our flotilla, but they seemed to hang around...

We called this one the BatBoat

No dinner invitations were forthcoming.

We had a big group (14 boats), so a big part of our day was waiting to park, or waiting to leave, which I found a bit tiring. On the bright side, we had an opportunity to try a new little tavern or restaurant almost every night, with generally good results. There were complaints toward the end of the vacation related to excessive portion sizes, but that is a risk every vacationer takes.

As it turns out, Ann and her sister really do know how to make a sailboat do that sailing thing. My job, as cabin boy, was making sure we had adequate gin and tonic source material, or failing that, coconut rum and fruit juice for the skipper and the first mate (Ann). I’d say I met expectations.

The skipper and her crew.
Perri working hard while Ann does ... something related to sailing.
The crew at ease.
The only downside to the sailing component was the wind, which was a bit unreliable. Some days we spent much more time lounging in some quiet bay, playing in the water or reading, rather than actually sailing. The water in the Ionian Sea is remarkably clear and a shade of blue which makes a cynic like me think someone sneaks out each night to dump a bunch of blue dye in the water (I kept an eye out, but saw no indication this was happening). Also, not much wind and lots of sun turn your average sailboat into the hotbox in ‘Cool Hand Luke’, which is arguably the sweatiest movie ever made. Perri and Samantha were able to lie on the tiny seats in the cockpit and get a proper night’s sleep while the rest of us were not so lucky.

Sleeping beauties?


Cliff jumping.

Each day blended into the next with only slight variations on the "eat, sail, eat, swim, eat" schedule. One day we looked at a cave with some bats, and another we went cliff jumping, and another we had a big group barbacue. Good fun all around. However, after seven days on the boat, I will freely admit I was longing for some space. People taller than about 5’8”, or anyone who is clumsy, should perhaps take a pass on a sailing vacation. I incurred more dents in my skull than I can count, plus a small collection of cuts, scrapes, and bruises, whose origins were difficult to establish. Sailboats are dangerous things, as it turns out. I won’t even mention the tiny toilet, which defies explanation in terms of geometry, odor, and function (there’s a hand pump thingy which I don’t believe I ever mastered).

One interesting side-effect of spending a bunch of time on a boat is the gentle sway the rest of the planet takes on for at least a day or two afterwards. You are convinced everything from the hotel bar to your own bed is ever-so-slightly leaning left and then right. It’s kind of a low-level, drug-free buzz (granted, I had been drinking).

On our first night back on dry land, we visited a classic family-run restaurant where the menu is ‘whatever mama’s cookin’ up that night” and the wine list is a three liter tankard of local plonk, for each table. I’ll admit I was a bit concerned about what version of candied tripe or sheep’s eyeballs might get dropped in front of me until I saw reasonably happy non-Greek people at the other tables. That, plus I’d never before been to a restaurant where the guest book had favorable comments from both Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. It only got better when the mama-mia found out we were from Canada, where, as it turns out, she had lived for ten years and had had a few kids. From then on, we were practically family, with the head chef regaling us with her tales of boxing-day shopping and eating at the CN tower. Leaving was a drawn-out affair involving more hugs than I’ve ever received from my own family.

Not enough for everyone.

The last day we spent driving around looking at Roman ruins advertised in the hotel brochure, which were all locked up, except for the one with no gate, which clearly stated it would be closed on Mondays. We're not sure how that might be enforced, since there was obviously no one looking after the place. Fortunately, there was a beach nearby and we were able to overcome our disappointment at not being able to look at old stuff by playing in the water one last time.

Skipper and first mate on shore leave.
In total, going to Greece was an extraordinary experience. I even began to like some of the wine (brought two bottles home even). I regret to admit I was unable to learn even the simplest Greek phrases while I was there, which makes it at least as hard as French . I think when I realized the Greek word for 'Yes' sounded a lot like "Nay" and the word for "No"  sounded a lot like "OK", it was probably best that I left the whole thing alone. Still, all went well right up to the last day when Ann’s checked bag blew a zipper somewhere between Rome and home, and much of her packed clothes were lost to the luggage management universe. For those of you travelling abroad in the next few weeks, please keep your eyes open for any of Ann’s underwear appearing on baggage carousels. Really, that stuff could turn up anywhere.

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