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Conversations in Greece

Not knowing the language when you’re travelling through Greece can make for some interesting conversations, not to mention interesting approaches, to make one’s self understood. This goes for the Greeks as well.

Here are a few I came across on my recent trip.

The ‘In Your Face’ Approach

The ‘In Your Face’ approach doesn’t work so well with the Greeks, confidence is alright but not aggression, although it can get you served before everyone else in a Gyros bar. The most striking example of this approach was coming off the boat in Santorini and encountering mass confusion as people tried to sort out which bus to catch. A bus driver was talking to a Greek woman when an Asian girl marched up to him interrupting their conversation and shouted loudly in his face “This bus? Fira?” Suffice to say the man was a bit taken aback, and didn’t reply straightaway. The girl said it again, even more loudly. To give the bus driver credit he handled the situation quite well, he slowly raised an index finger asking her to wait, continued his conversation with the other woman and then slowly nodded at the girl when he was ready.

The ‘I Want It Like This’ Approach

This also doesn’t work too well with the Greeks. They’ve done their best to cater to tourist whims but some of the finer points of how Westerners like their cuisine can be lost in translation. At a fast-food stand I overheard an American guy ordering a hotdog. He wanted to know if the sausage was ‘crispy’. Not understanding, the vendor mimed the length of the hotdog. The American guy insisted on knowing if the sausage would be ‘crispy’. The vendor looked blank. I wondered how the guy was going to mime ‘crispy’ but he gave up and settled for ‘no mustard’ instead. I hope the sausage he got was satisfactory in the end.

This reminded me of a snippet of conversation I’d heard the day before between a couple, also American, who were sitting behind me on the local bus. The husband was obviously displeased about something that had happened. Unfortunately I don’t know what exactly but he said “I hesitate to say the trip has been ruined, but it has been diminished”.  Perhaps he also didn’t get “crispy” sausages?

The “You Didn’t Ask” Answer

Whether you end up lost or didn’t get what you ordered, quite often the standard Greek response is “You Didn’t Ask!” This also tends to be the answer if you don’t do things in the way they should be done.  This happened to me in the post office when I mixed up the “to” and “from” addresses on a package I was sending overseas as there was no indication which address lines were for which. The woman therefore, thought I was sending the package to Greece and didn’t charge me enough. When I pointed out the mistake she huffed at me and I said “How was I to know? I am not Greek”. “Yes, but you didn’t ask!” she replied stonily. This stumped me. It was true, but I hadn’t asked because I didn’t know I was doing it wrong.

A variation on this can be “I did ask you!” this was used on me when I said I didn’t drink coffee and the waitress brought me coffee.

Although communicating in Greece can be frustrating at times, you’ll get what you want (or a variation of it) and also get where you need to go eventually if you’re patient and polite. It helps to learn a few Greek words as well, like “yiassas” (hello), “parakaló” (please) and “efkharistó” (thank you) and “signómi (excuse me).  Being courteous may not work in every situation, believe me there will be times when you lose your cool, but most Greek people will respond pleasantly if you’re pleasant to them.

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Service With A Smile on Ios

You don’t need to stay in a five star hotel or dine in the best restaurants to feel well treated and looked after.  Sometimes all it takes are a few simple touches to give you a nice experience when you’re on holiday.  The most important thing is a smile because when it’s lacking you really notice it.

My recent experience on the Greek Island of Ios is a case in point.  My host, Katerina, meets me at the port, and transports my luggage by bicycle, her riding, me trotting along behind. She asks where I’ve come from, where I’m going. She explains a bit about the area when I say I haven’t been here before. She smiles, and smiles some more.

At the studios she runs around explaining how everything works, there are free bottles of water in the fridge, and mosquito strips for the mozzy light. She’s apologetic about the wifi and says it only works downstairs, but then organises a makeshift table and chair so I have an outdoor office. She brings me homemade pastries. She says if I need anything to call her on her mobile and she will come within ten minutes. She gives me a map, and shows me the outside light switch. She then leaves, smiling.

All this takes place within half an hour but already I feel at home, comfortable, armed with directions, food, internet connection and well treated. The next day she brings me a homemade pasta dish, baklava and an orange.

Not that I would expect all places to deliver this kind of service but it really doesn’t take much just to give a smile and say a few pleasantries. It really could be the difference between a guest leaving an excellent review and a poor review, or choosing to avoid an entire island in the future.


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Life on a Greek Island

My first day solo on Salamina.  Life on a Greek Island definitely isn’t boring, although everyday tasks are somewhat difficult when you don’t speak Greek.  Posting a parcel for instance.  How was I to know that the ‘to’ address goes at the bottom and the ‘from’ address goes at the top when they’re both on the same side?  The woman at the post office thought I was posting a parcel to Greece and got huffy at me when I said it was going to New Zealand.  “It is wrong!” she said.  “I’m not Greek, how am I to know?” I replied. “You didn’t ask!” was her answer.  Nothing really to say to that.  I hadn’t asked, I had assumed – incorrectly.

This sorted (by buying another bag, re-addressing it and buying more stamps) I cycled to the market which was spread out down near the port.  After the post office experience I was too scared to buy anything but tomatoes, but there were all sorts of vegetables, fruit, fish, clothing, textiles and the essential must have – Greek music cds.

Cycling on round the port road I stopped at a small beach with stunted palms trees and blue wooden seats.  The water was acqua and so clear I could see fishes swimming around.  A local woman waded slowly out to sea and I heard her exclaim as she took the first plunge.  But the water wasn’t cold, it was verging on lukewarm as I found out soon enough.  The water is also so salty that it makes you very buoyant, you basically can just sit there and you don’t go under.  Of course if it gets in your eyes that’s a different story.

After swimming I got some bread, milk and fruit at the local supermarket and pushed my bike up the hill back to the house for lunch.  This was nearly consumed by hungry kittens as I left the table briefly to go to the kitchen.

Half-way through lunch I heard a mewing sound coming from the next door house which was now empty for the autumn. On inspection I discovered a tiny tabby kitten who had been abandoned by its mother.  I climbed the fence to discover although cute it hissed and spat like a wild tiger.  Reluctant to get scratched by a feral kitten, I hurried across back to the house to get it some milk. The mewing continued for a couple of hours. I got it some water, it looked at me with big frightened eyes and then spat at me.  Not knowing what to do I rang my house-sit owner.  She explained that this was what it was like in Greece, there were many kittens and though she had saved some it would probably die.

It just seemed too cruel.  I refused to let it go.  I got it some canned cat food as well.  It hissed and didn’t look grateful.  Later on I checked on it and it was gone.  Either the mother had returned to claim it or the neighbours had gotten tired of its mewing and disposed of it.   I really hope it was the former.


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One Out of Five Museums in Florence Isn’t Bad

A rare sight in Florence – a museum open door.

Florence is definitely the place to go if you want some culture, it has over 70 museums in the city centre alone.  The problem is, sometimes it just doesn’t want you to visit them.

Take today as a case in point.  The morning started off successfully enough with a visit to the Museo Galileo, which I had duly noted closed after lunch.  Fair enough.  Then I got cocky.  I decided to visit a few more museums.

After lunch I made my way north to the Museo Scientifici and Museo Archeologico.  One had a large dinosaur in the process of being removed from its premises and the other was shut.  Slightly annoying but there were still others on the map to try.

What about the Museo Firenze Come’era (Prehistoric Florence)? Nope, that was only open on certain dates and today wasn’t one of them.  Ok, what about the Museo della Casa Fiorentina Antica? That sounded interesting.  It may well have been, but its doors had shut firmly at 1.30pm.

Bearing in mind that it took at least 15-20 minutes to walk between each museum, plus multiple map readings, you can understand why at one point I muttered something unpleasant and shook my fist into the air.  (NB: No one actually cares if you do this in Italy as Italians do it at least once a day and I can see why, it did feel quite pleasing. As did the gelato I had to console my aching feet.)

The moral of the story is, make sure you check museum opening and closing times on the web before you go traipsing around Florence. And if they’re still shut you have permission to mutter unpleasantries and shake your fist in the air, just make sure you’re not holding gelato at the time.


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Dennis Severs’ House: A Step into the Past

Dennis Severs’ House is not a museum.  The custodians of this 18th century time capsule are most anxious to point out this fact.  It is also not a collection of antiques or a heritage house.  So what is it then?

Everyone has time to ponder this as the queue outside 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields doesn’t move for quite a while. The outside of the house doesn’t give much away either. It’s part of a four-storey brick block and has red shutters.  A gas lamp with a flame burning hangs above the door and over the entrance way is a face of an old bearded man.

I’m hoping the promised ‘short introduction’ will shed some light on what it’s all about.  Eventually, the queue starts moving and one by one people are ushered into the house.  Others that have finished their visit come out looking surprised, bemused or completely blank.  Not knowing what’s inside seems to add to the tension that’s building – in my mind anyway.

Finally I’m at the front and we’re given the ‘short introduction’ by a small man in a green-checked shirt and an empathetic face.  He says something like “This is not a museum it’s an experience, as you go round the rooms tune in and ‘feel’ the presence of the family, don’t touch anything, keep silent and mind your step it’s quite dark. Lastly, relax and enjoy yourself. Please start with the room on the right”.

I’m still none the wiser after this.  I was expecting a full-on spiel about the late Dennis Severs, the history of the house and the concept, not to mention the furniture.  I was expecting a bit much.  He’s right about one thing though, it’s very dark.  So dark that it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust.  As does standing in a room with other people who are all trying to ‘feel’ the presence of the owners.

This isn’t a seance or anything, it’s part of the concept.  The fictional Jervis family, Huguenot silk weavers, have ‘just left’ when you entered which is why the rooms have half-drunk cups of tea, burning candles and unmade beds.  Strangely enough, once you get used to the other shuffling visitors and Americans drawling in hushed whispers “I just love what they’ve done with the drapes!” you do tune in to the house somewhat.

Entering a bedroom does feel like you’re prying into someone’s private life, and half-finished letters and combs with hair stuck in them add a certain amount realism to the feeling. Some rooms are not for the faint-hearted however and make me feel glad there are other people around.  The top floor bedrooms, for example, are ramshackle, dusty and one of them has a huge four-poster bed with red velvet curtains and gargoyles peeking out from under cobwebs.  I wonder if this is where Dennis Severs slept, he’d have nightmares if he did.  He lived in the house surrounded by all this 18th century paraphenalia for years, no wonder he started thinking other people lived there too!

Though it’s difficult to ‘feel’ the Jervis’ presence with other people around talking and whispering to each other, I imagine being there on one of the evening tours would definitely be quite creepy, especially as the basement contains some unearthed ruins of the Spitalfields Leper Hospital.

I go for another jaunt around the house, there are 10 rooms but they’re quite small which explains why some people were coming out after only 20 minutes.  A visit can take up to 45 minutes apparently. One of the rooms, the Jervis’ bedroom, has an overpowering smell of cloves, and the recorded sounds of people bustling about in adjoining rooms.  Another has the sound of horses clopping.  Everywhere you go notices tell you to search for clues and not to look at objects but ‘feel’ the whole picture. I’m getting slightly tired of being told what to feel, and a group of American girls touching the vegetables in the kitchen and exclaiming over them unfortunately ends the visit for me.

In my book the hype slightly exceeds the experience, but it’s a place that’s definitely worth visiting. Even if you’re not into ‘sensing’ fictional characters, the house itself is an exceptionally well preserved time capsule of 18th century life, complete with sights, sounds and smells. And if you come away feeling short-changed remember the house’s motto is “you either see it, or you don’t” which acts as a disclaimer so you’ve really got no one to blame but yourself.

For more information visit www.dennissevershouse.co.uk.


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On the trail of Enid Blyton

On the day I meet up with Cliff Watkins from the Enid Blyton Society for my Enid Blyton tour it’s hot.  So hot in fact that The Famous Five would’ve been taking off on their bikes and picniking on doorstop sandwiches, fruit cake and lashings of ginger beer, not walking around the streets of Beckenham.  But I’m determined to see where this famous author who wrote 600 books, and who coloured my childhood with her stories, lived.

Street in Beckenham named after the Malory Towers series.

I’ve gathered already from email that Cliff is an intelligent man, but in person he’s even more so.  Ten minutes into the tour he’s already told me more about Beckenham than I’d probably learn in a history book.

In his 70’s at least, Cliff also posseses an old-school gallantry, worrying that he’s walking on the inside of the footpath and that I could be in danger if a car mounts the kerb.  We stop briefly at the Baptist Church where Enid was baptised when she was in her teens.  He manages to secure me a glass of orange juice from the ladies who run the church as he’s worried about me dehydrating.

As we’re closer to the three middle houses she lived in we do the tour in reverse order by starting in Elm Road and Clockhouse Road.  Cliff knows a lot about Enid’s parents, their separation and young Enid’s ‘adoption’ by the Attenborough family who encouraged her writing.  It appears she didn’t have much time for her father, a cloak-maker who ran off with a mistress.  Or for her mother either who tried to hide her failed marriage by asking Enid and her brothers to tell people her husband was away on business. In fact Enid didn’t show up to either of their funerals.

One of Enid’s two childhood houses in Clockhouse Road.

I ask Cliff if he thinks that grumpy Uncle Quentin in The Famous Five series was perhaps representative of her absent father?  Cliff seems perplexed about that, and is not sure.  I gather he’s not read much of The Famous Five, as he is more interested in Carey Blyton, Enid’s nephew who was a composer and wrote a song which inspired the Australian TV show Bananas in Pajamas. Shame, I would’ve liked to have an indepth discussion about Uncle Quentin.

Moving on….we reach Enid’s first home in Chaffinch Road which is a quiet, green leafy street.  Cliff is interested that the home has just been sold and takes down the details of the real estate agent from the sign outside the house.  He says he tries to keep in touch with the owners of Enid’s houses and has been inside several of them.  He wanted to knock on the door of one of the previous ones and ask the owners if I could look inside as I was all the way from New Zealand, but I wasn’t keen on that idea.

Enid’s first home in Beckenham: 95 Chaffinch Road.

After Chaffinch Road we stop for lunch in a cafe and I buy us lunch, since Cliff is giving me the tour for free.  I eat my cheese, ham and coleslaw sandwiches while he nibbles on his cheese and pickle and keeps talking until his tea gets cold.

By now I’m beginning to appreciate the depth of Cliff’s knowledge of Beckenham’s famous people and famous people connected with Beckenham by any means possible.

I hear about Charles Darwin whose mail had to have ‘Beckenham’ written on the address, as that was where the sorting office was, otherwise his mail ended up in Northern Ireland.  Then there was Harold Bride a Beckenham lad who was a telegraph officer on the Titanic and who was the town’s hero because he’d jumped into the water (after helping lots of people) and managed to survive.

After lunch the tour continues and we catch a tram, and then a train, to visit Enid’s final two houses that she’d lived in when she was married.  By this time she was starting to make decent money from her writing and had children of her own.  I ask Cliff about this as I’d read she didn’t pay them much attention.  He said this was pretty accurate and that her own daughter had described her as ‘a bit of a bitch’.

Enid’s final house in Beckenham at 83 Shortland’s Road before she moved.

Perhaps ‘George’ in The Famous Five was actually Enid’s alter ego then?  And if she’d only had two children why was there Julian, Dick, Anne and George in the Famous Five? Unfortunately Cliff is not forthcoming about this side of things. But he does tell me there was a BBC TV drama starring Helena Bonham-Carter as Enid, and that there was a ‘primitive’ scene where Enid/Helena told the maid to ‘remove the child’ as she couldn’t bear it screaming while she was trying to write. Cliff thinks this is a bit over the top but says I should watch it anyway, even if it wasn’t filmed in Beckenham.

By this time it is mid-afternoon and I’m drooping from the heat.  In contrast Cliff still seems quite lively and able to talk for at least another hour. We catch a bus and head to his house to meet his wife Veronica who kindly makes us sandwiches (better than the cafe’s) and gives us orange juice.  Cliff then sells me a book he’s written on Beckenham for £6, discounted from £8.

Finally he escorts me to the bus-stop and waits with me until the bus arrives.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my Enid Blyton tour, even if it wasn’t about Uncle Quentin or George, it’s that chivalry is definitely alive and well in Beckenham.


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‘Private Property’ Was Invented by the English

I’ve been in London five minutes and already I’ve been told off.

There I was having lunch in Queen’s Park enjoying an asian noodle salad with prawns purchased from Sainsburys, and blissfully minding my own business.

I chose to eat this aforementioned meal perched on a low front wall in front of a block of apartments called ‘St James Residence’.  The fact that it was a ‘Residence’ should’ve have given me some warning.  But no.

As I munched away happily I thought to myself, isn’t it great you can just sit where you want in London, no one really cares.  Just then out of the corner of my eye I saw a middle aged english man appear and go off down the walkway behind me.  I felt a slight frisson in the air.

Black clouds gathered overhead and soon it began to rain.  I gathered up my belongings and stood under a tree in one of the residence’s carparks.  From behind the tree the man appeared.

“This is private property” he intimated sternly, with a face like thunder.  For a second I just stared at him not knowing how to react. I was literally one step from the public footpath.  “I’ll only be here for a minute”, I said.  He seemed to shake with some kind of anger, the source of which was only known to him. “This is private property!” he cried.  His intolerant red face started to twist in consternation.

Lord!  I never knew that standing under a tree could cause someone such distress, he was acting like I was vandalising his house.  Huffily I gathered my belongings again and stood under a tree further off.  I gathered this was not private property as he watched me for a minute and then shuffled off, collecting a stray plastic bag as went.

My inner devil was tempted to deposit the remains of my Sainsburys plastic lunch container in the ‘private’ hedge but I decided it would be stooping to his level.

I just imagined what it would be like to live in the residence with him as a neighbour, and decided the relief I felt of never having to was more than enough emotional compensation.  At least I know now without a doubt in which country the concept of ‘Private Property’ originated.