Greek Time

It is so too hot in Athens to fight the way the Greeks keep time – or rather the way that they don’t. You just have to get used to it and go with it. I quit going to bed early with a view to a bright start in the cool of the morning, once I realised that unless I was trading with Asia or anyone further ahead of us in time, it was pointless trying to get anything done first thing in the morning, as no one was up nor anything open.

Most Greeks spend little time over breakfast (usually a short black coffee and a smoke), but then they will spend a leisurely morning sitting around in cafes, reading the paper or exercising before sauntering to work mid-morning to organise a lunchtime meeting for about 4pm. Lunch might start at 4 or 5 in the afternoon and go on for a couple of hours (the time at which some Northern Europeans are thinking about supper), after which people might go to bed for an early evening nap; before going out for coffee at 8.30pm and to eat again at around 10 or 11 at night, with drinks and dancing getting underway from midnight and the small hours of the next day.

The days when work started at 8am and finished at noon, with most people going to bed after lunch for a siesta in the heat of the day and returning to the grind from 4 until 8pm, seem to have been confused by the global market place and international time keeping and communications. Shops keep reasonably traditional Mediterranean times: 8 or 10am to 2pm then 5 to 8 or 9pm, depending on the region and what they are selling, but basically most businesses keep whatever hours they feel like.

Even my Greek friends think that it’s amusing to consider how random time-keeping in Greece is – tavernas are invariably empty at noon and packed at 5pm. Don’t think about trying to get a late table at a top restaurant for dinner: everything will be fully booked, but they might squeeze you in at 1.30am…

As a nation of Southern European insomniacs, people go to bed when they are tired and hate waking each other up with the phone or doorbell, no matter what time of day it is – you politely and quietly leave a message, knowing that whoever you are trying to contact will get back to you when they are awake. Once you’ve been here for a while, it all makes sense – it’s too hot to rush anywhere and everyone is very up front about the fact that they might be going to bed in the next 10 minutes and can they help you before they do so?

My battles with the language continue, although I am determined to crack it. I have nearly mastered the alphabet, which is key for cracking the code and my favourite book of the moment is Teach Yourself Modern Greek, closely followed by Nautical and Marine Terms in 10 Languages, including Greek, Turkish and Finnish, as well as a weighty Oxford Greek – English Dictionary. My friends here don’t believe that I am doing anything to learn Greek, and are then surprised at how much I understand, even if I respond in English. But then there is the way that the Greeks speak and write English that takes a bit of getting used to, as well…

IMG_0584One thing I do love about Greek media, though, is the love of film and the fantastic summer cinemas that entertain the nation in the open air. These are not drive-in outdoor movie theatres as you might find in the new world, just lovely old-fashioned outdoor cinemas on the beach or at the foot of the Acropolis or in any built up urban or leafy suburban area. At my local, Cine Flisvos, you can see the rigs of supersail yachts in the marina one one side of the screen, hear cicadas chirruping on the other, listen to the Aegean lapping the beach behind and view the stars above the screen as the credits roll. While Cine Paris in Plaka has a fab view of the Parthenon illuminated beside it.IMG_0583

Many people view Greece as being a bit of a crazy country, but I just enjoy its charming eccentricity…

Grecian Dayz

Their country might be on the brink of bankruptcy, but the Greeks are nowhere near losing their sense of humour and are just getting into the swing of a standard sultry summer.

I was buying phone credit and as I paid my percentage of that to the government, the sales clerk apologised for the extra tax, muttering “Economic Crisis” drily. Then while watching England play badly (again) in the World Cup, I was bitching that as the nation that created the game, we were now its shame: to which my Greek mate retorted: “We were the founding nation of Western Civilisation – now look at the state of us!”

So life goes on as normal. Everyone drives at breakneck speed on narrow and congested city streets or else corners on two out of four wheels on coastal cliff roads. You are overtaken by huge motorbikes, the rider of which has no crash helmet and whose girlfriend is the pillion passenger in a bikini and flip-flops.

They don’t have milkmen here (in the heat the dairy produce goes rancid at an alarming rate), but they do have all manner of sales trucks that cruise around residential areas calling out the price of their wares via a loud hailer. When I first lived in Athens, there was an election coming up, so I thought all the annoucements were part of political parties’ campaigning. I didn’t understand enough Greek (not that it is easy to make out what is being blared through the loud hailer) to realise that these were either the rag and bone man calling “Bring out your junk!”, or someone selling watermelons and letting all and sundry know what they were charging for them, or a mobile terracotta pot shop, or some other guy flogging baskets – until I saw the vehicles and then asked for a translation of the anouncements. And now I rather like this old school style of door to door selling. You have to hand it to people who improvise in business like this: taking the market to the customer, rather than the customer having to go to market – although the local markets here are excellent, selling the best fresh produce and anything else you might possibly want or need.

The long days at this time of the year, mean that the temperatures have already hit 40 degrees C and the Meltemi, a cooling Northerly wind, has yet to kick in and freshen Attica and the islands of the Aegean. So the southern beaches on the Saronic Gulf – the Apollo Coast or the Athens Riviera, call it what you will – are packed. The morning beach goers are senior Athenians, who swim every day of summer wearing big knickered bikinis or shorts and sun hats, as they bob around in the water flapping their arms and not really going anywhere – just cooling off. Only tourists and foreigners are foolish enough to go to the beach at lunchtime. Then in the late afternoon the cool crowd rock up, take a table, loungers, umbrellas and so on and settle in for the five to sunset session with iced coffees and cold beers.

We bucked the system completely, by doing a shore dive at a popular swimming spot in Varkiza, which was very cool – fab visibility, colourful fish, octopus – although a little disconcerting for the swimmers on the surface above us.

At work I’ve been busy with cyber marketing for my boss, as well as cramming in a couple of small yacht deliveries. The business is as improvisational as any here in Greece: our dock is a short floating addition to the ever-increasingly busy marina of Lavrion, the fleet’s container is a couple of old cars and we have little in the way of  facilities, but we give our clients top notch service.

Blue water days…

Adventure volta face?

The last 6 months have hardly been the roller-coaster ride I was expecting them to be – more of a gentle paddle, albeit upstream…

Having abandoned the notion of sailing westerly to the Pacific, I relocated to the adventure sports capital of Western Europe, that is Chamonix-Mont Blanc, for some crisis-management work, ego re-building at altitude and some serious off-piste skiing. I got so wrapped up in all of the afore-mentioned – as well as agonising for a couple of months as to what to do once I could ski no more – that creativity was a tad neglected (not helped by the rural standards of WiFi access in Argentiere).

After 18 months of working on the water in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, I took to Alpine village life like a marmotte does to the high alpage… While I didn’t ski quite as much as I would have liked to during the season, when I did, it was some of the best skiing I have ever done, on the most challenging and stunning terrain. In short, I fell in love with Mont Blanc. And I managed to go to Verbier for Easter to see some old chums and ski all of that, too!

Living at the foot of Les Grands Montets, woken by avalanche blasting most mornings and being able to hear the main cable car make its first ascent, brought me back down to earth and cheered me immensely. I also met and worked with some truly inspiring people and remembered who I was once more. Little by little, I began to write again, take pictures and think creatively, while still maintaining a seriously active lifestyle. I realised that I had almost had my head held under water by certain former colleagues and it was refreshing to breathe clear air.

A whole raft of new opportunities presented themselves to me as projects for the summer season, and while I was tempted to take the biggest challenge, I erred on the side of caution, familiarity and experience and packed the go-anywhere Kia car and drove back to the UK in May to catch up with the family, before driving back to Chamonix and then on to Greece via the Mont Blanc Tunnel and Italy – a major road trip and much more of an adventure than I could have imagined…

Crikey, driving in Italy on Italian motorways is akin to the Grand Prix or Le Mans – everyone has their headlights on all the time and floors it! The speed limits are high and everyone seems to ignore them: one of the fastest cars to pass me by was the local caribinieri – and they most certainly didn’t have their blue lights flashing, they were just in a hurry to get to lunch. The ferry from Ancona was a civilised break from all the driving, it was good for me to hear everyone chatting in Greek again and I managed to wave to a mate of mine delivering a yacht to Corfu. I was on my way to Athens and the sparkling Aegean Sea to work for the company I worked for last summer.

Athens is hot, humid, dusty, polluted and chaotic, but I have to say that I do like it. And, thankfully, I had spent 4 months there last year and so was used to its Eastern Mediterranean manner. And I am lucky enough to live in the charming southern beach suburbs. But nothing had prepared me fully for the way that the Greeks drive on motorways. Now I knew that speed limits were generally viewed as vague guidelines and that downtown Athens traffic could be seriously congested, but you just can’t explain to people how to drive on the one road from Patras to Athens. It is mostly a single lane highway full of huge trucks that people queue behind until there is an overtaking lane or else they just hassle slow traffic into the hard shoulder and go for it. The fact that this road takes you through the very heart of the city with no warning or exits whatsoever (before you know it you are passing the Acropolis and the Temple of Zeus), and you go from a 3 lane highway to narrow, old inner city streets in a trice. This combined with the fact that street signs are written in Greek script, means that driving in Greece for the non-Greeks is not for the faint hearted and it most definitely helped me that I had been to Athens before and knew my way around.

But I guess the vast cultural difference between Western and Eastern Europe (even though both nations joined the EU at the same time) is what I love about living in Greece – it could not be more different to England if you tried – despite the facts that nearly everyone speaks English, many Greeks have homes and relations in England, our Queen is married to a Greek, they have Marks & Spencer here – this is, most definitely, the doorstep of the Orient. It’s also the Land of the Gods, the crucible of Western civilisation and is bankrupt and utterly bonkers – what’s not to like?

So it’s back to the grind in the heat: scrubbing boats and organising charters out of Lavrio, the gateway to the gorgeous Cycladic Islands. There will no doubt be some beach action, lots of swimming, hopefully some water skiing, as well as a fair amount of creativity and some lovely sailing. Beautiful Greece.

Bluebird days in Chamonix

It felt somewhat ironic leaving a snow blown UK for the slopes of Mont Blanc, but – not to be out done – I filled up the go anywhere Kia and set off in the dark from deepest Surrey for Dover. From there I caught a breakfast ferry to Calais and then hammered my way down through France – meeting lashing rains of resistance in the Jura – to the Chamonix Valley.

I arrived there in the dark, but it was at least dry and cold and then it tipped it down with fresh snow on Sunday and I had to dig my car out again to go to work on Monday… But I really don’t mind digging out my car outside my cute little chocolate box chalet to the tune of avalanche cannons being fired to open up the pistes. Yes, I was blessed in Cham with a new fall of the fluffiest powder, but the pressures of a new job/home/office have not allowed me to sample it yet, but you can’t do everything at once and I should be here for at least 3 months, so I think I’ll have plenty of time to jump down cliffs and play in the white stuff.

On the logistics front, I am flying somewhat by the seat of my pants; but I’m a fast learner and once I catch up I’ll be thoroughly enjoying myself, as well as putting myself through an intense fitness regime all over the mountain. Catch you on the slopes. Pretty pictures to come, hopefully.

Love and flocons BBx

Fate falls in mysterious ways

I never assume, prevent myself from presuming and avoid putting all my eggs in one basket, but, boy, did I not see the Gibraltan volta face that ended my 2009 coming… In short, everything fell apart and the next thing I knew I was on a bus in the bucketing rain, battling my way along the Costa del Crime to Marbella to go on retreat at a dear friend’s.

So I started the year in southern Spain, after being shocked on the Rock, and then flew home to Blighty beset with blizzards. I discovered my car (parked in the purportedly sunny South East of England) needed digging out of the snow, had to ram raid my storage facility for expedition gear and winter woollies, and then got very excited about taking my beloved Volkl Auras for a service.

Next stop – Mont Blanc: it’s never a dull moment with BB Ski!

Desperately trying to leave Gibraltar

After 9 days of rain at Europa Point/the Pillars of Hercules/the Rock known as Gibraltar, the rest of the crew and I lost our British and colonial (2 of them are Kiwis) sense of humour and got spectacularly drunk on Christmas Day, then moaned our way through Boxing Day, and then got angry the day after – that we were still stuck on the Rock by a gale in the Atlantic… Two days on and we have actually managed some sightseeing and I have cooked for a war of water: we have to go to the Canaries for a work rendez-vous and the weather is going to be appalling, but I have storm food to go. Speak soon and a Happy New Year to all – we will be at sea, singing to Neptune. Stay tuned and please comment – the weather is worth it alone. BBx

The Mediterranean doesn’t want me to leave…

After a very interesting birthday in Palma de Mallorca – for which the best present was getting the rig back in the boat that is currently my home/office. It was a beautiful Mallorcan day and the boat looked so happy to have its mast back – stay tuned for pictures. I went up to my oldest friend’s house in the campo mid island to huddle round the fire for the evening, before getting up with the larks to do a quick sea trial the following morning.

So we were all ready to leave Palma on the Sunday, until the Western Med decided to bite us with bucketing rain and howling winds. We eventually got a weather window on Tuesday and did well to get past Cabo de Gata, where the weather turned on us again and we spent the next few days limping round the Spanish coast to Gibraltar. But I did get to see a great buddy who lives near Marbella, whom I hadn’t caught up with for 5 years, so that was cool. And now we are in Gib, looking at the forecast and it looks like we will be here until Christmas, at least, and may have to come up with some cunning plans to get to the Canaries in time to meet the boss to cross the Atlantic – we have no sight of a break in the Atlantic weather at present, as the Gulf Stream is low and has pushed off the Azores High – oh, Happy Days!

Embarking on a second circumnavigation?

Who’d have thought it, that 5 years after setting off on a round the world yacht race, I’m suddenly getting ready for another circumnavigation… I’m on a lovely boat in Palma de Mallorca, but we are still waiting for a rig and 2 new sails and we are due to leave in less that a week! Well, there’s no time like the present.
Before I left home in the UK a week ago, I had been away for 12 months and I needed to downsize, archive and repack my life stuff for yet another period of storage. I put together a dozen photo albums, framed some pictures (only to then put them in storage) and ditched a load of stuff that I have no idea why I was keeping. I couldn’t quite bring myself to bury my ski gear in store, though: my lid, my SOS suit, my blissful boots and phat Vokll Auras are ready to go, but I have no idea when and how I’ll be able to pick them up to hit the snow. But you never know and I like to be prepared for any eventuality.
So I have been stuffing the white Swan (in between watching Christmas episodes of The Tudors – quite appropriate) with yummy food for Chrissie, New Year and beyond. We should be in the Canaries for the festivities and then crossing to the Caribbean in the New Year and I want everyone to enjoy the trip – well, the food at least. So I’m getting into the local supermercados and the fab fresh produce covered mercat. Happy Shopping! BBx