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.