Classic Tragi-Comedy

It was as if someone had flipped a switch: the day that August rolled into September – even after one of the hottest summers on record – temperatures changed. We still had 30 degrees plus in Athens/Attica in the afternoons, but suddenly evenings were only 20 degrees and everyone started wearing jeans and jumpers. It felt weird sleeping under covers and not having a fan whirring at 100 miles an hour and blowing directly on me in bed, after 3 months of hot and humid nights.

Then on the 11th of September it rained for the first time since June. ‘Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower’, wrote Albert Camus and nowhere is this truer than in Greece. The longed for autumn rains give all the plants a growth surge and trees take on the fluoro green of new shoots, while all the plants’ colours brighten as the summer dust is washed off their foliage and petals.

Autumn in Athens, means that it might be a bit chilly to swim in the mornings, but it is still nice and warm enough to take a dip off the beach in the afternoons. The die hard senior Athenians, who swim every day of the year, get in the water no matter what the weather – they have their regular time and place and swim with fins, hats and sunglasses – they might not be swimming that hard and taking much exercise, but they are swimming daily none the less and the water will most likely make them live forever. Every New Year, there’s a report on local television, interviewing Athenians who swim year round and it generally features the same folk.

The shops are full of wintery clothes in dark shades and heavy fabrics, which seems a bit farcical when it is 30 degrees outside and everyone is still wearing shorts and sandals. But the shopping in Athens is amazing. And in a financial crisis is seriously competitive – bargains are to be found all over. If you want edgy looks at keen prices, you browse the racks in the boutiques of the backstreets of Pireaus. For designer labels, high art, antiques, Greek and Euro-chic it is downtown Athens – Kolonaki and Plaka. For the hip musos, clubbers, media and contemporary crafts it’s Gazi and Psirri. And if you just want an up-market high street on the beach, you hit Glyfada.

It is sad, however, to see so many businesses go to the wall in these tough times. Pireaus, the port of Athens and traditionally its much less glamorous neighbour, has been hit very hard, with shops closing down, buildings left empty and renovation projects remaining near derelict. Even in the wealthy beach suburb of Glyfada, I was shocked to see a really good eaterie disappear within 6 weeks of my discovering it – I was dismayed when I suggested going there one Sunday lunch time to find that it had closed for good.

While on the subject of food, I have been living all summer on a fairly staple diet of souvlaki – classic Greek sandwiches, which we would call kebabs in the UK (but are far nicer than those horrific things you buy late at night after the pub and you are too drunk to care what they taste like). Souvlaki is traditional Greek fast food/barbecue: there’s a number of variations on the theme, depending on what meat you want (lamb, chicken, beef or pork – on a wooden skewer or cut from a gyro or meat balls) and how you want it (wrapped in pitta bread, on its own or with salad), but it is all fresh and tastes great. I love the fact that McDonald’s doesn’t make a profit in Greece – the Greeks much prefer eating that which is Greek and traditional.  Some souvlaki shops, such as Bairaktaris in Monstiraki, downtown Athens, have been in business for 100 years and attract local and international celebs.  Souvlaki, it seems, will never go out of fashion in Greece.

There are such wonderful things to buy here and at such incredible prices (particularly when I think about returning to the high French Alpine economy) that I have gradually been doing my Christmas shopping – ideal for the family in Australia, with their upside down seasons and beach lifestyle, I can get much more appropriate pressies for them in Greece. While for myself I have picked up cowboy boots for 60 euros, stunning jewellery and body adorment for less than 50 euros apiece in precious metals and with real stones.

The jewellery traditions and culture of hand crafting it are very strong in Greece. There is a jewellery museum down the road from the Akropolis, the Ilias Lalaounis House, and hundred of shops where you can buy directly from the gold and silversmiths who have made every unique piece thay are selling. Very inspiring if you are into jewellery – which I am. Late in life, I’ve had an elegant and exotic ear piercing – done in Pireaus, which is most appropriate for a wannabe pirate…

My confusion over Greek men continues, however. After some research and particularly painful mind games, I realised that much of their odd behaviour in relationships, is to do with Greek women – many of whom have similarly tricky temperaments to French women. French men are persistent because French women say ‘non’ a lot; Greek men are persistent for similar reasons. In France it is seen as coquettish and charming for women to be a bit bad tempered – in England the men would write off such behaviour as being a stroppy bitch. In Greece, women like to cook for their men, make the house nice for them and dote on children, but complain endlessly if they are not given the opportunity to do this and are terrible nags. But then Greek men are hopeless in the mornings, unable to get up early unless a lady is gently waking them and brewing fresh coffee. Which explains why the women become so nagging: they have to ask men over and over to do things for them or questions or whatever. Greek men hate being nagged, but obstinately ignore what women are trying to communicate, until they are good and ready to respond – usually after the 10th request!

Where I come from, girls generally just lie back and think of England – it was bred into them during the world wars of the last century. Although, while many Greek men are encouraged by this, I think they might be a bit scared off by the ladette behaviour illustrated by Brits in the popular resorts on Rhodes, Kos and Corfu. And strong, self-starting girls who get up early in the morning, do chores and work out – all before breakfast – completely freak them out. So I’m a little stymied.

But then, Greece has largely gone out of fashion for many British holiday makers – it is quite far, it is nothing like as cheap as it used to be when the drachma was the currency. Although, this year that has changed with the country being near bankrupt, it is bargain central. But Greece will always be in fashion for the Greeks – particularly those who live abroad (mostly in the UK and the US). At the kiosks here I can buy all the English newspapers, English Hello, Tatler and British Vogue. A lot of what is shown on the telly is in English with Greek subtitles, which is great for practising my reading of Greek.

Athens might be 2000 km farther East from home than Chamonix, but it feels a lot closer. I shall miss it.