I pedal away from the beach, away from the pasty skinned holiday makers from Northern Europe, the temporary migrants in search of vitamin D, past the kiosks and the shops selling knock off sunglasses and gaudy beach towels, past the boutiques selling dresses that will never be worn back home, soon I am on the open road, cicadas belting out the rhythm from the roadside verges, swifts whirling above me. Each house I pass seems to own an old man, in an old man white vest tending to a vegetable patch. Lords of all they survey, one hands on his hips surveying his little kingdom of tomatoes & beans strung on bamboo sticks, another watering now the heat of the day has subsided, up and down rows of aubergines & peppers, mint & parsley. One has sunflowers the size of dinner plates turned to the afternoon sun, I envy these old men, in a gentle kind of way, the connection to the land, getting their hands dirty, growing at least some of their own food, no supermarket necessary, no shink-wrapped, chemical washed, here the simplicity of less is worth infinitely more.
On I pedal, past butterflies & bees busy in hedgerows, along a dusty road past olive groves nestled between the sea and cypress dotted hills. I’ve travelled this route each day for more than a week, only yesterday I noticed one place along the way which I’d taken to be a house, and realised it was actually a bar. It was easy to miss, set back a little way from the road, half hidden behind almond trees and shrubs. No signage at all, as though it was a little secret of a place. I noticed a couple of old boys sitting at tables outside, beers and drinks in front of them. Mental note to self, check out the secret bar.
So this particular sunday afternoon I park up my bike and decide to have a drink or maybe two on my way home.
The bar is empty, I am the only customer, in fact I am the only person there at all, it is a ghost bar. Empty stools, empty tables, a wood burning stove in the centre of the room, I wonder what it’s like here in the winter, when the tourists have all gone, but then where is anyone now? Then I clock that it’s Sunday afternoon, Greek men, good men will be at home with their families. Only mad dogs and Englishmen venture out in the sunday afternoon sun. Then I hear the chink of bottles in a room behind the bar and shortly after a figiure emerges, a chap in his early thirties emerges, speaking Greek to me, which of course I can’t understand but nevertheless makes me very happy, to be mistaken for a native makes it just possible that maybe I look like I belong. I like that idea.
I explain I’m sorry, I’m English, I always seem to do this, apologising for my Nationality, often its not a bad idea, after all at one point or another we’ve screwed over most countries in the world, I’d like to call myself European, but if Boris gets his way which seems somewhat inevitable then that avenue will be officially closed. Maybe I can be an unofficial European, or failing that a Londoner, anyway the Barman speaks good English, so its all academic, I order beer and then spend an inordinate amount of time choosing which table to sit at, there are too many to choose from.
The empty bar means that there’s not much in the way of work for Yannis as I learn his name is so he sits at my table and drinks a coffee and we chat. This is my good fortune, the lack of customers gives him time for me.
We talk about where we are from, I trot out my old tale of being a bit of a bum, spending winters in India, summers around the Med.
Yannis says he has owned the bar for ten years, they seem to hang heavy on him, he sighs, and sips his coffee. I ask if he is happy with the new prime minister in Greece, Myxamitotis? I am corrected, it’s Mitsotakis, somehow they sound quite similar. Yannis shrugs wearily, as if to say they all turn out the same, men of empty promises.
Yannis bought the bar at the wrong time, just before the crisis, his business hasn’t earnt him a fortune, that’s for sure. We talk about the difficulty of running a business in Greece, convoluted laws and taxation, of having to pay tax in advance, on money not yet even earnt, which seems to be rather arse about face. but that’s how it is in Greece he tells me.
So on we go, talking away, I graduate from beer to ouzo, Yannis brings me meze, he points out each little delicacy on the plate, grilled aubergine, olives, meatballs, chicken livers. They all taste divine, the ouzo slips down easily. We cover politics & private lives, pasts presents & the possible futures we have in store. He talks about his time at University, how now he wonders what point there was to his degree.
He has a girlfriend, he talks about needing to get married, but not yet he says, the time is not right, but it must be soon.
We learn that both or mothers died from the big C, his some two years before, it clearly weighs heavy on him. He goes on to say that when she became ill there were long queues for treatment in the local Greek Hospitals. In his frustration he looked at getting treatment for his ma overseas, but to no avail, just too much money. Then he said something which shocked me, he was told by the Oncologist that something could be done about the long wait for treatment, but that he needed to give a blessing. A Blessing I asked? Yes, said Yannis, 2500 Euros of a blessing is what he said I needed to give him, in cash. Then the queue would disappear. And did you I asked. Yannis said he had no choice, pay or no operation. I wonder at this, maybe I’m just naive, surely Hippocrates turns in his grave. How bitter that whole process must have been for Yannis, all his efforts ultimately a failure, the cancer terminal.
I find that I like Yannis rather a lot, he’s a decent man, an honest one, but what I clearly see in him is a bloke who’s had the stuffing knocked out of him, a kind of resignation in defeat. And it strikes me as sad that in one still so comparatively young to be stuck in this rut is a terrible waste. I want to say to him, fuck ’em all Yannis, you have to fight for what you want, otherwise life will just wear you down. You need to grab life by the balls & get on with it. Get yourself out of this bar & get on with your life. & as soon as I’ve had this thought it occurs to me that actually Yannis and I are not so different and that the words I would say to him are the same words I need to hear for myself.