I’m turning into one of those people who say things like – ‘oh, you’ve never tasted a mango until you’ve had one fresh from the tree’, or ‘you’ve never had a orange until you’ve picked it yourself’, or ‘you’ve never tasted a potato until you’ve pulled it directly from the ground and shoved it into your face, dirt and all.’ I’ve never liked those people, partly because it sounds pretentious, like they’re shoving their life experiences down your throat as if to say ‘look at me. Look. I’m interesting and exotic and well-travelled, pay attention while I speak of my life’, but mostly because I never got the chance to experience these things for myself and I was a bit jealous. But now I have I’m turning into one of them, I’m getting these life experiences and I have my own blog with which to shove them down other people’s throats.
Take olive oil for example, I always thought I’d tasted olive oil, it was oily and it had a bit of extra taste that you didn’t get from sunflower oil but it wasn’t anything to go mad about. Whenever I went to a farmers market or a food fair and they were offering out samples of oil with bits of bread I’d taste them and nod my head and make the requisite yummy noises along with everyone else while thinking ‘hmm oily bread, could do with some balsamic vinegar, or cheese, and probably some butter instead of the oil,’ it never really tasted of anything to me.
But it turns out that I’d probably never tasted bona-fide one hundred percent olive oil before, because in the UK extra virgin olive oil can be blended with up to forty nine percent ‘other’ oil, such as sunflower, vegetable or sump, so the chances are that unless you’ve spent a dramatic amount of cash on a tiny glass bottle of genuine one hundred percent extra virgin you’re more than likely to be getting something that’s as near as dammit to the stuff you fry your chips in, and you’ll never quite understand the depth of flavour that people at farmer’s markets are pretending they can taste.
Our olive harvest was drawing to a close, one set of volunteers was replaced by another, friendships had been forged, promises made and goodbyes said, all in all it had been a quite an eventful couple of weeks and it was now time to take some olives to the press. A group of workers piled into Edmund – Edmund is Heidi and Patrick’s ever reliable VW Camper Van and has so much personality he feels like another member of the family. We wound down the olive tree lined country roads of Stasio passing tractors with burly looking men sitting on piles of full olive sacks all heading for the same place as us. These were serious olive farmers, teams who could get through seventy five to a hundred trees a day and took a tractor-trailer load of sacks to the press every day. In comparison Edmund was laden down with about ten sacks of olives from three or four days work by a team of ten who periodically wandered off to look at plants or stroke dogs, we worked hard but we weren’t exactly hardcore.
At the olive press everyone bounded out of the van excitedly like children on a school trip, and started looking round, pointing at things and taking pictures. It was very much like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory except with middle-class adults instead of spoilt children, plump farmhands instead of Oompa Loompas, and the place was centred on pungent green liquid rather than chocolate. This was all much to the amusement of the serious olive farmers whose livelihood we were treating like a tourist attraction. No-one minded though and we were shown around the massive press by workers who explained how things worked and what each machine did with the Greek version of the stalwart British method of communicating with foreigners – pointing and speaking slowly and loudly. Despite the fact that none of us understood Greek at any speed I was able to understand a bit about what the machines did, mostly by the process of looking through the little windows and wild stabs in the dark.
Firstly a huge man who picked up sixty kilogram sacks of olives as if they were pillows, poured the contents of each sack into a ground level hopper which fed the olives into a machine, this machine blew the unwanted olive leaves up a tube and out of the building to a huge conical shaped pile of its fellows. My inner child desperately wanted to jump in the pile of leaves but unfortunately my outer adult was sullenly having none of it. The olives then had a bath before being delivered onto a water-powered vibrating plate thing with holes in, the olives fell through and the remaining twigs and leaves jittered around until finding their new home in a slimy bin. The washed and sorted olives then went into another hopper which fed them into the first of a series of machines which ground, pulped, mashed and generally mangled the olives until they looked exactly like mushy peas. After a lot of serious mashing the mushy pea mixture then went into another machine that drained the oil from the pulp in various excitingly noisy ways, before pumping the oil into another large vat for a final straining before it was sent through a hose held by a serious looking woman wearing a headscarf and glugged into a vat for collection by the customer.
We looked around for a while and oohed and aahed at the various machines, smelling things and sticking our fingers in stuff, we gazed at the piles of olive sacks and watched in wonder at the Albanians and Greek farmers coming in with their huge crops on tractors or trailers and I realised a terrible truth – I’d become an olive geek. I’ve geeked out over a good many things in my time: music, TV shows, films, videogames etc but I never thought I’d start obsessing about Greek oil producers and how much work they could do in a day, what techniques they used, and how good they were at doing it.
When we came to pile the sacks of olives up in the factory yard Patrick and I grabbed each end of a sack and started putting them on them crates. This caused a few stares for a couple of reasons – one being that we had ‘English’ sacks – which are sacks that the Greeks do not deem full enough, even though to our eyes there was hardly any room left at the top of the sack to tie them up, the other being that it was taking two people to do the job. On average a full olive sack weighs sixty kilograms, and it takes a special kind of person to lift one, the Greek farmers and Albanian workers are those special people, the kind of people who looked like they came from a pretty limited gene pool and were bred for thousands of years specifically to be able to throw sacks of olives around like a juggler who’d been on the steroids and bull shark testosterone. Each person who came into the place looked like they could be brothers, they were all short of stature and wide of body, they looked like they were made of pure meat or that they had absorbed a twin in the womb and gained their power, they were olive farmers and we were just playing at it. Not that they minded at all, there was no animosity towards us, they just thought we were funny.
After we had piled the sacks the owner of the press told Patrick we had piled them all wrong and that we had to do it again or they would all fall down, from what I could tell they were exactly the same as everyone else’s and seemed solid enough but apparently in the eyes of the man in charge they were little more than a death trap. We started to heave the sacks back onto the ground while proper olive farmers watched us with amusement. One of these farmers offered some words of encouragement or tips, in acknowledgement Juliet shouted ‘Yassas’ which is a general greeting in Greece that roughly translates to ‘your health’ and it’s as near as possible to a magic word as you’re likely to get.
When you smile and say Yassas at a Greek person something happens to their minds and they are suddenly more disposed to help you, be nice to you, or give you free cake, and it happens a lot more than you’d think, the downside is that they then start talking at you in their native tongue, and no amount of shaking your head and saying that you don’t understand can stop them.
This particular casting of the Yassas magic caused the smirking farm hand to immediately come over and start taking our sacks off the crate, on his own, one at a time, and reassembling them in a manner that would be deemed acceptable by the guy who ran the press. The Greek hulk refused any offer of help and was finished in roughly two minutes, when the final sack was safely piled our group gave him a huge round of applause and he modestly slunk away to do the same thing with his own harvest.
The next day we received the freshly pressed oil back from the factory and everyone gathered for a taste of the fruits of our labours, or if you prefer – the oil of the fruits of our labours. Heidi cut some bread and we all sampled olive oil that only the day before we’d been shaking off the trees, there was a distinctive depth of flavour which tasted like the smell of freshly mown grass and left a pleasant peppery aftertaste that lingered on the tongue. The oil was delicious and as far away from the stuff I’d bought in supermarkets as it was possible to imagine, and I got the sinking feeling that I’d be telling people at some point in the future ‘oh you’ve never tasted olive oil, until you’ve tasted freshly pressed one hundred percent extra-virgin olive oil from the groves of the Peloponnese.’
The oil from the olives that we harvested is available to buy here. It’s delicious.
Back in England, whenever people quizzed us about what we wanted to do while travelling, our first answer was always the same ‘we want to help out on an olive harvest in Greece’. I’ve no idea where the idea came from or who had it first but it’s one of the only things Juliet and I have ever agreed on so wholeheartedly, so we definitely had to do it. It was probably that we knew we’d be setting off at around the time that the olive harvests started in Greece and so we thought it would be easy to find a host who’d feed us and give us somewhere to stay in return for picking a few olives.
Our host Patrick told us the date that the harvest would start and volunteers started to turn up just in time for the big event, some were travellers such as ourselves, some were friends , others friends of friends, until the house was seemingly teeming with people and the day grew closer. Everywhere you looked across the panoramic view of the Greek countryside white columns of smoke from the olive branch fires billowed into the sky, signifying that in that particular grove harvesting was already in full swing.
The olive harvest in Greece runs from November until February and everyone has their own reasons for why they harvest at that time and why that time is a better time than anyone else’s. It’s all down to the flavour of oil apparently: the earlier you start the harvest means that the olives are smaller, greener and produce smoother flavoured oil, but there’s less oil because of the size of the olives, the older olives give much more oil but have a more bitter taste, everyone’s got an opinion and they all think they’re right, there have probably been wars about what makes for the best flavour of oil so it’s best to keep out of it.
The day arrived and our team of harvesters assembled ready for action, at as close to the crack of dawn as it was possible for a bunch of slightly effete, mostly middle-class office workers to manage without access to a Starbucks. Of course two of our number did know what they were doing, Patrick and Heidi – the couple whose house we were staying in and whose olive grove we were about to decimate had been harvesting olives since they moved to Greece a few years before.
I’d heard bits and bobs about the process before, having been in an olive region of Greece in the middle of harvest time, there was precious little talk about anything else: instructions and tips came from all sides by expert olive farmers and enthusiastic amateurs alike, most of which were wildly different and flatly contradictory of each other. All this nonformation began to make me wonder if any scientific study of the olive farming process had been made at any time in humankind’s three thousand plus years of cultivating them for oil, or if all the collected knowledge was just educated guesses and wild speculation by the people who talked the loudest.
Fortunately the basic techniques of olive harvesting are the same all around the region, spread two large nets, one either side of the tree to catch the olives, hit the branches with a beater so that the olives go in the net, gather up the errant branches, and put the olives in a sack. Easy, you could train chimps to do it; hell chimps are clever you could teach something stupider to do it, like P.E. teachers or racists.
So we set off, spread the nets and let loose. It’s a curious thing about the British that they’ll give absolutely anything a go, to the best of their ability and with absolutely no half measures. After an initial session of instructions in which Patrick showed us how to knock the olives off with a beater, beaters are long metal poles with a large plastic fork on the end, designed to hit the branches without damaging the trees.
Everyone raced for the beaters and gave a few tentative swipes before gaining confidence and going batshit crazy. People who mere days before were doing paperwork and gossiping about minor celebrities around the photocopier let rip on branches with astounding ferocity, battering olives into each other like miniature shotgun blasts with no one uttering a word of complaint. It was like watching a remake of Braveheart set in a shopping centre. When all the olives we could easily dislodge were gone the group descended on the trees like a pack of locusts, picking every last olive from the branches until the tree was clean.
Being a mostly English group we would break every day for ‘Elevenses’, a quick fifteen minute cup of tea and a few slices of cake and some biscuits gave us the sugar rush we needed to last the couple of hours until lunch time. Our Englishness set us apart in various ways from the Greeks and the Albanians that the Greeks employed. We were definitely much slower, we heard tales of Albanian crews of four doing a hundred trees a day, whereas our team of about nine could manage about twenty-five on a good day. I imagined the Albanian workers as huge barrel-chested titans, capable of removing every olive from a tree with one swing of an improbably large beater, then dragging the nets away to the next tree with a single sweep of their massive forearms and doing it all again a few more times before sorting and bagging the olives filling ten sacks In less than a minute. In reality they were mostly just paunchy Eastern-European manual labourers who’d had more practice than us, they also didn’t really give a shit if they did a good job or not. Sometimes when we saw their trees there were so many olives left behind you’d have thought they’d been doing it blindfolded.
It wasn’t all bad for the Brits though, our trees were much cleaner, and we hardly even left an olive thanks to nine pairs of eyes scouring every tree, the Great British work ethic and some good old fashioned obsessive tendencies. We also enjoyed it more than they did, looking around at the group most people had a smile on their face, there were constant conversations about how much better it was to work outdoors, how beautiful Greece was, and how quickly the time flies when you’re mercilessly attacking a tree with a metal pole.
A couple of days into the harvest we received some new additions to our equipment in a pair of ‘ticklers’ complete with a generator with which to power them. Despite sounding like something Ann Summer’s would sell at the back of the shop, Ticklers are actually motorised olive harvesting tools consisting of a long metal shaft with a handle on the bottom, and a rotating head of plastic protuberances designed to knock olives from branches with greater efficiency. After seeing them in action the name seemed woefully inadequate, the name Tickler evokes the image of a gentle oscillating motion causing a soft cascade of olives to fall from the trees, rather than the haphazard blasting of painful, green pellets in every direction that we actually got. Because they were so loud and looked so powerful no-one wanted to take up the mantel of tickler initially, they looked like fun but they were heavy and hard to control and there always seemed to be the distinct possibility that you could slip and flail someone’s face off.
Always willing to take up the challenge Juliet decided that she would have a go and became as she called it ‘the tickle master’ which sounds like a gritty reboot of everyone’s favourite Mr Men character. After a while of watching her pelt olives at everyone without any casualties I felt confident enough to have a go with the other one. It was heavier than I thought it would be, it was also harder to manoeuvre and control, and it kept getting caught up in the branches and making a noise like an asthmatic hamster running for a bus, nonetheless I soon got the hang of it and Juliet and I became a team. We were working together and we were doing what we’d set out to do, we were helping out on an olive harvest in Greece.
The oil from the olives that we harvested is available to buy here. It’s delicious.
Before we arrived at Heidi and Patrick’s house in Kyparissia, Greece we had been told that one of the jobs we could do before the olive harvest was to fox-proof their chicken coop. Despite the fact that neither myself nor Juliet had ever animal proofed anything before and had no real clue of what to do apart from some half remembered tips from River Cottage we readily agreed.
A few weeks before we arrived at the house a fox had made a hole in the wire fence of the chicken coop and gone on a murderous rampage, decimating chickens left, right and centre as if he had a personal grudge against them, like he was John Matrix and the chickens had kidnapped his daughter.
So to protect any future feathered friends from the vulpine spree killer we were tasked with reinforcing the chicken wire with another layer of thick wire mesh around the bottom, to do this we would have to dig a trench around the walls, cut the wire to fit and make channels of cement around the bottom to ensure the fox couldn’t dig underneath. That last bit was the worry for me ‘cement’, cutting wire and digging stuff I could just about imagine, wire cutters are just hardcore scissors and a spade is essentially a big spoon but cement is something different, cement is something men use.
I’m not very manly, I’m a man in the sense that I have the genitals to prove it (but if you ask to see them I’ll just run away) but I’m just not manly. I don’t even see myself as an adult, in fact I still call adults grown-ups so I clearly have a long way to go until I can safely consider myself manly without the voices in my head snorting with derision. In my mind men like football, boxing, hardcore drinking and getting into scraps with people who look at their girlfriends funny, they have jobs like labourers, or plasterers, or builders or bricklayers, they read Loaded and Nuts and the sports pages of newspapers and newspapers that still have page three girls, I don’t do any of these things.
But men use cement; I imagine they’ve always had an innate knowledge of every aspect of the cementing process, from what quantities to mix, to putting up the guide things, to the exact measurements of sand, cement and water. I didn’t know any of this stuff; I had no idea what I was going to do.
In fact, I didn’t have a clue what we were going to do about anything; we’d had the general idea explained to us, but because it was such an alien concept to me and so far beyond anything I’d ever done before my brain seemed to have rejected it. Fortunately Juliet didn’t have that problem at all; she understood what to do immediately and formulated plans and strategies in order to build the chicken equivalent of Fort Knox. Juliet’s brain plans things much better than mine, and seems to take in more information. My brain tries to listen but then I start hearing the theme tune to The Banana Splits in my head or seeing the shapes of superhero masks in the clouds, sometimes by the end of an instruction I’m not even sure what job we are doing.
So Juliet took the job as project manager and I did what I do best in these situations, which despite my previously mentioned lack of manliness is all the grunt work.
While Juliet bent the wire to shape, I’d dig channels around the fence, while she fixed wire the mesh together I’d make the guides for the cement. It worked pretty well, she was the brains and I however unfitting to my character it seemed, was the brawn. Mixing the cement came strictly under the ‘brawn’ category, all you had to remember was five parts sand to one part cement, and that you needed water at the beginning, but not too much, also you could under mix the stuff but couldn’t over mix it, the cement mixer also had an on and off switch but you probably guessed that.
The thing about mixing sand and cement is that it’s very strenuous work, especially for a non-manly man like me, after twenty shovelfuls of sand your muscles start to burn, presumably out of overuse but possibly through confusion, I’d never really used them for such strenuous activity before and I got the feeling they had no idea what was going on. When it’s all finally mixed you have to pour it into a wheel barrow and push it down a hill while trying desperately not to tip it out or bash your shins on the stand bit at the bottom, despite the fact that it seemed to be exclusively designed with shin-bashing in mind. this bit was harder than it sounds and you find your mind drifting to a world where some genius had invented a wheelbarrow with two wheels on the front as standard, rather than the rickety single wheeled misery chariot that inexplicably became the go to design for manual shit conveyance.
So with the cement safely down the hill I loaded it into buckets which Juliet emptied into the guides and smoothed out, it wasn’t an elegant system or even an elegant chicken coop, but it worked for us.
On the last day we had to put a new roof of chicken wire on, to keep the pine martens from taking a bite out of the chickens. Chickens are such easy prey for all sorts of animals that it’s a good thing that they are so delicious and produce the basis of an omelette otherwise they’d have been extinct years ago.
Fortunately we got some help with the roof, the day before a French woman called Emma had turned up to help during the olive harvest and together we cut huge rolls of wire to cover the roof, pushed it into position with olive beaters and wired it together at the sides. It took an entire day of awkwardly positioning rolls of wire, pushing sticks into each other’s faces and getting our hands cut up.
Altogether the chicken coop took about four days to complete over the space of a week, as sometimes the weather didn’t allow us to work outside. We watched the chickens clucking around in their new home with a sense of pride and felt sure that the only fox that could get in there would need access to wire cutters or a blowtorch.
As well as gaining a sense of pride in our accomplishments something else had changed. I had muscles, somewhere over the course of the week my arms had taken up the challenge and had produced a set of biceps, not exceptional ones I’ll grant you, but they hardened up when I flexed them, which is something they’d never done before. The biceps combined with my newly rough and calloused hands made me feel, dare I say it, slightly manlier.
At least it did, until I bought some hand moisturiser.
Patrick and Heidi rent out their home to tourists during the summer months, it’s a beautiful place set in stunning countryside at the base of one of the mountains of the Peloponnese in Kyparissia, Greece.
Check out their website for more details and booking information here.
It may surprise you to learn that as a graphic designer who spends much of his time sat at a computer and whose hobbies include: sitting watching television, sitting watching films, playing videogames, blogging and relaxing, I don’t get too much exercise. It’s not all my fault and I always wanted to be more active but things always got in the way, such as: no-one wanting to accompany me, the schizophrenic British weather or the overall comfiness of the sofa. As a result of all this you could say that I’m fairly unfit but a better way to put it would be “biscuit fuelled panting machine.”
Of course being interested in everything and wanting to see as much as possible of the stunning Peloponnese region of Greece means that I needed to get out of my comfort zone or as other people call it ‘chair’ and go exploring.
Fortunately our hosts knew all the best walks in the area and were more than happy to take us along on their family outings. On the first full day we were there, Patrick and Heidi packed up a picnic and we all jumped in the van and went to the beach. The first thing I noticed about the beach was just how empty it was, despite it being a beautiful, clear day and hot for mid-November it seemed that no-one else in the vicinity had a yearning ambition to be pouring sand out of their shoes for the next few days.
Patrick told us that Voidhokilia Bay was one of the best unknown beaches in the world and that David Beckham had been there, despite the fact that I couldn’t give a shit where any professional footballer has ever been ever I could still see why everyone’s favourite ball botherer would want to spend some time there. It’s a beautiful beach surrounded by water on both sides, and is protected as an important habitat due to the two hundred and fifty eight species of birds that live there, there are also loads of ants but no-one cares about them.
Above the beach is Nestor’s Cave which is famous as the stone-hole from Greek legends where Hermes hid a load of cows from Apollo, I’m pretty sure that bit didn’t make it to the movie of Clash of the Titans as it’s hard to imagine crow barring a tale of a baby god making cows moonwalk into a film about the guy from Avatar fighting Liam Neeson’s Kraken.
Above Nestor’s cave are the ruins of a thirteenth century castle known as Old Pylos castle, and it was there that Patrick and Heidi suggested we take a walk to.
Now I don’t know what consists of a walk to you but what we did certainly doesn’t match my description. We walked certainly but mostly in a diagonal direction; we also trudged, ran, climbed, hopped, clambered, scampered and jumped over rocks. But the weird thing was I didn’t struggle, despite my lack of fitness, the fact that I was wearing flip-flops and muscles that would confound doctors by their sheer non-existence; I was fine, not as fine as Patrick and Heidi or their kids, who all strode up the mountain like it was a gently inclined strip of tarmac, but fine nonetheless.
We visited Nestor’s cave but unfortunately couldn’t see any recent signs of cow activity, although we still spent some time peering into the darkness and making weird noises to echo off the walls. After that we continued up to the castle and enjoyed the spectacular view.
The castle itself was quite interesting in the same way as any pile of rocks constructed in the thirteenth century is, you wander round, look at the rocks and think to yourself “wow these rocks were put here a long time ago”, and then what? Nothing usually, you try to be more interested but your mind still comes back to the fact that you’re looking at some old walls, you try to think of the people that lived there or the poor sods that built it, but it’s too abstract, you imagine labourers heaving huge bricks, hewn from the side of gigantic quarry but In the end your mind just pictures some raggy looking blokes pushing a brick up a hill.
But the view of Voidhokilia Bay was breathtaking; the bright golden semi-circular strip of sand set in the azure water seemed unreal, like a specially designed landscape for a sci-fi film. We explored the old walls for a while and did some more scenery gazing then set off back down to the beach on the opposite path, we saw a tortoise, it was awesome.
The beach itself was like a place that you see on TV in a programme about places you’ll never be able to afford to visit, I sat on the sand and felt the warmth of the sun invigorating me as I stared out to sea and enjoyed the picnic, I thought about what we’d be doing back home if we hadn’t decided to do something different and I came to the conclusion that my comfort zone, was perhaps the least comfortable place I could be.
It was like a scene from a holiday show, so much so that I half expected to see some berk with skin like a handbag bleating on about it. The sun was beating down from a cloudless bright blue sky onto the beautiful sandy beach and out onto the Ionian Sea, to the left: trees, hills and the occasional brightly coloured house punctuated the greenery. We were sat on the balcony of our room looking out at the splendour, the trees, the hills, the Ionian Sea, the beach and the clear blue sky.
We were absolutely miserable.
The reason for our misery and the absoluteness thereof was this: we had travelled across Greece from Athens to meet a Workaway host who had fallen through at the last minute, we’d taken a room in the world’s emptiest hotel for the night and spent the best part of the evening looking for answers of where to go next and crucially not finding any. I’ve never been in such stunning surroundings and felt so depressed; travel really was giving me new experiences.
We went down to breakfast and constantly checked our emails. I could hardly eat, every morsel of food was like ash in my mouth, everything we ate was like chewing a corpse’s finger. After thanking the staff for a miserable breakfast we sat outside to drink coffee and formulate a plan, it was a terrible plan filled with awful decisions and financial idiocy but it was the only way we could stay in Greece and keep travelling; I was convinced it would spell the end of our travels almost before we’d even begun. We we’re going to stay in a hostel for a week until we could find our next placement. We knew we couldn’t afford it, but it seemed the cheapest option, flights out of Greece seemed to have skyrocketed to frankly insane proportions, presumably due to the entirely non-existent mid-November holiday season.
I’m not sure where people find their hostels but I seem to be going to the wrong websites, you hear tales from people who say things like “we stayed in this beautiful hostel, we had our own bedroom, breakfast was included, it had a gym, bar, Jacuzzi and a private beach and all for just two Euros a night”. Whenever I try to look for hostels they’re almost as expensive as hotels only in shittier locations and the rooms look like someone’s thrown dirt around an IKEA reject bin.
We were about to take the plunge and book a moderately priced not too terrible looking Hostel nearby when I got an email notification. It was from a couple called Patrick and Heidi that I’d sent an email to the previous night. The night before they’d told me that they were having some time off from helpers but that we were welcome to come for the olive harvest which started two weeks from then. I’d replied back saying thanks but we were probably going to leave Greece as we couldn’t find a host and didn’t think we’d be able to find anything to do for a fortnight. It was possibly more depressing than the summary makes it sound, but that’s probably because I was at my absolute nadir when I wrote it.
This new email was like an angel had visited my inbox, I read it and I couldn’t speak, I was so choked up with emotion. Tears started pricking the insides of my eyelids and a sudden wave of relief and happiness swept over from me, I felt like we had been saved by divine intervention and that my earlier prayer to any possible deities who happened to be listening of “can you please just give us a break?” had been answered, via the internet by an angel called Heidi.
The email said that that they were sorry to hear we were having a bad time in Greece and they’d hate for us to have a bad impression of the place and to leave so soon, so they’d had a chat and decided to offer us a room in their home for a few weeks, they had plenty of jobs to do before the olive harvest and that we were very welcome to stay. With tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat I answered immediately that we were on our way, and we packed our things and arranged a taxi before they had chance to change their minds.
The receptionist arranged our taxi back to Kalamata bus station, and the cost of the journey proved that we had indeed been ripped off the day before, as the price had magically gone down by seven Euros. Vowing never to trust taxi drivers again we dragged our cases into the bus station and found that the bus to Kyparissia wasn’t leaving for two hours.
After a couple of coffees and use of the café’s free Wi-Fi our wait was over and we boarded a bus to Kyparissia, the front of the bus was emblazoned with religious imagery and the legend ‘Jesus is my co-pilot’. I’m not a religious person but with the morning already consisting of my prayers being answered and now the holy chariot taking us to salvation, I had to wonder if there was a higher power watching over us and that he was possibly laying on the religious symbolism a bit thick. Unfortunately for celestial beings everywhere Instead of finding religion and running off to join the priesthood I found a new faith in people, a couple of total strangers had decided to show us some kindness and let us into their home at our darkest hour.
When we got off the bus in Kyparissia we had to find a phone box, we had Patrick and Heidi’s phone numbers so all we had to do was give them a ring and they would come and pick us up, what could be simpler?
As with a lot of things in Greece many things could be simpler than making a call from a pay phone, such as knitting soup, or building a working helicopter from bits of wood. As far as I can tell there are no phones in Greece that take coins, there are loads of call boxes run by the OTE network but they all use pre-paid cards, the only problem with this is that no one actually sells the pre-paid cards. This isn’t the first time the problem had come up, in Athens we wandered the streets asking people in little kiosks if they sold the cards, no-one did and they didn’t even know anyone that did. You got the feeling that people had seen one once and dismissed it as a daydream, that these cards were as rare as a politician who told the truth, and that no-one believed they truly existed. In the little town where we were it was much the same story, Juliet set off on her own while I watched the bags, sticking her head into little shops and chirping ‘OTE?’ at the confused vendors. She was gone for so long I started to suspect she’d been kidnapped and sold into slavery, I was just thinking about contacting the police when she came back from the opposite way. Her quest for the card had taken her right around the town until she finally found one.
Another quest completed, we decided to buy a drink at a café then give Heidi a call from the phone mounted on the wall outside. I use the fabled card and called the number, it rang a couple of times and our saviour answered, I introduced myself and then something weird happened, she said something along the lines of ‘are you standing at a pay phone beside a café?’ I turned around and there she was right behind me, if there was a cosmic superpower playing with fate he was definitely overdoing it a bit by now.
After a brief chat in which Juliet and I thanked Heidi so much it all got a bit embarrassing, we went to the villa that they own and met the rest of the family: Heidi’s husband Patrick and their two youngest children Robyn and Louis.
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Previously on Roz Flies Off: Rory and Juliet travel to Kalamata to meet a Workaway host and are shocked to find out that the placement has fallen through. They book a hotel room and take a taxi ride which seems to take them miles from anywhere. Once at the Hotel they wander around its darkened grounds and come to the staggering realisation that there are hardly any other humans around.
We decided to go back to the reception and ask if we were the only guests staying at the hotel, it turned out there were some other guests, but ‘not many’. We asked if the restaurant would open later ‘it’s not going to open’ was the reply. We asked about the bar with its delicious range of meals and bar snacks as boasted about in the hotel’s guide book ‘it’s not going to open’ came the reply again.
We knew the answer before we asked – ‘Is anything open?’ The receptionist then confirmed our suspicions when she told us that both restaurants and the bar were closed as there were too few guests. We asked how we were supposed to eat and the receptionist asked us if we had a car. We stood in disbelief; the hotel was closed except for us and a couple of other suckers, after a brief discussion we asked the question – ‘can we have our money back, so we can find a place that’s actually open?’
It seems that asking for your money back when services are woefully non-existent, is a great way to make receptionists call their manager.
We listened intently to the conversation but it was all in Greek and we couldn’t glean anything of importance from it. Listening to a Greek conversation is an interesting experience as you can’t seem to hear individual words; they all mingle together into a stream of sounds that seemingly cannot be discerned from each other, until all you can hear is one prolonged word punctuated by the occasional breath. It’s like listening to someone name every train station in Wales. On the other hand listening to other foreigners speak Greek is much more informative; they usually speak the words clearer and make what sound like actual sentences, bizarrely if you’d like to learn to speak Greek it’s probably better not to learn from an actual Grecian.
So the conversation wrapped up and the receptionist gave us a run down of what she and the owner had discussed. We weren’t allowed to have our money back, this was a bit of a shock, but frankly I wasn’t too surprised, hotels can’t just give people their money back and let them leave, that would be chaos, so the owner had come up with an offer.
Basically the receptionist offered to order us a take away paid for by the hotel and let us have drinks for free, as we hadn’t paid too much for the room anyway this seemed like a potentially financially suicidal deal, no wonder Greece has an economic crisis. We went through our options with the receptionist who had really got into the idea of giving us free stuff, ‘get what you want!’ she would explain, ‘would you like a huge bottle of wine?’ we gratefully declined the offer of seriously depleting the hotel’s alcohol stocks in favour of a beer and a fruit juice, we were tired and didn’t want to drink too much as we had the small matter of trying to find another host as quickly as possible.
I didn’t really want a takeaway, the receptionist had offered us burgers and pizzas, but we’d not travelled a couple of thousand miles to eat stuff we could easily pick up while drunk in any town in England, so we asked for Greek food. The receptionist prompted us on what to order: meat, tzatziki, potatoes and a Greek salad, the receptionist may have bunged a couple of items onto the final order as when it finally arrived seemed to have been given more than we asked for. They opened the bar for us and we sat there drinking our free beverages in the empty hotel, waiting for our takeaway and looking for options on the internet. While we were waiting a few emails came through from potential hosts, everyone was full and not accepting workers at that time. Our optimism ebbed away like a sandcastle at high tide, the flights to wherever had become prohibitively expensive and all there seemed to be left to do was look up inexpensive Hostels in the area, and pray that someone would take us in.
Our meal arrived; the receptionist and her lonely accomplice plated it up and brought it to us in the bar, we chewed our Souvlaki with worried intensity. Souvlaki is meat or vegetables grilled on a skewer and covered with herbs and olive oil, a chewy meat lollypop a little like the skewers of meat you can pick up in kebab shops in England, it’s nice enough but you’d hardly expect it to be everyday food for an entire nation. In Greece if someone offers you ‘potatoes’ they are talking about French fries with salt, herbs and oil, they are delicious, but again you couldn’t eat them every day and hope to keep your heart in a good state of repair. There was also a larger selection of grilled meat products, including two things that looked and tasted almost exactly like beef burgers but gave you the slight impression they might be trying to pull a fast one.
We ate our meal in almost complete silence, the bar was empty, we were tired and miserable and I had started to worry that the entire travelling thing wasn’t for us, and that we might be better off admitting we made a mistake and going back to England.
After we finished we went upstairs and sent some emails to potential hosts, the Hotel’s book had mentioned it had international TV channels so I desperately searched for an English channel. Unfortunately, the nearest thing I could find was a Greek channel showing an English documentary about depleting fish numbers that looked like it had been made in the mid-nineties. Despite the fact that at the time I couldn’t have given less of a shit about the depleting numbers of our piscine pals I watched the documentary, I didn’t care what the subject matter was I just wanted to hear something In a language I could understand, even if it did come from a sad faced man in a cagoule talking about overfishing.
As miserable as we felt the hotel woes continued; the water was cold, the bath wasn’t really designed for people with legs, the air conditioning didn’t work and one of the electrical outlets had a lethal looking pin sticking out of it. We should have complained, but we’d already kicked up a fuss and got some free food and didn’t really want to make a fuss, we are English after all.
After a couple of hours of fish documentaries, host rejection and futile web searching we did what anyone would do under the circumstances, we went to bed and decided to worry about it all in the morning.
I have a love/hate relationship with the internet, I love geeky websites, twitter, reading about films and am even quite partial to a funny picture of cats or a hilarious autocorrect fail or two. There’s not much really that I don’t like, except trying to find things that will cost me real world money. Before we headed to Greece we had to book flights, which is a nightmare of epic proportions as anyone who has ever done it can tell you, they tell you that airports don’t exist when you know you’ve been to them, they insist on making you ask for destinations that the airports don’t fly to, “want low cost flights from Doncaster to Malaysia? Click here!” they exclaim, only to find when you finally click that no such flights exist. The only tip I’ve got for searching for flights online is to remove all cookies from your browser and open up an incognito window to browse flights. Apparently travel sites take account of how many times you look for flights via your cookies and then up the price accordingly, thieving bastards.
I’m not sure if hotel websites do the same thing, but I wouldn’t be surprised. We were sat in Kalamata bus station, taking advantage of the free WiFi to choose our next stop. We’d decided to book into a hotel for the night, and then while checking our emails found that the Workaway host we had taken the trip for had fallen through, I won’t go into details but it was a great shock and we weren’t in the best of moods. So there we were trawling through cheap places to stay in Kalamata, while a small group of shifty looking young men eyed our electronic devices with suspicious sideways glances.
We found a hotel, in light of our disappointing news we had decided to splash out on a remarkably reasonably priced four star hotel, we looked at it on the map, it didn’t tell us anything, we didn’t know the area and it didn’t seem to be in a position to educate us. We approached a gaggle of Taxi drivers who we managed to convey our destination to and agree a price, fifteen Euros, which seemed a little steep, especially as one of them said twelve, but quickly changed it as the ring leader said a lot of things loudly to him in Greek. We decided to let it go, we were tired and the hotel sounded like a paradise where we could ease our troubled spirits, after all what other option did we have? Walk?
The taxi journey gave us our first clue that something was amiss, we got to the coast and stared out into the beautiful Messenian Gulf and the Ionian Sea beyond, on the other side hotels passed us by, lots of hotels, the ones we’d been looking at on the websites, we kept going. Far past the hotels, restaurants, fast food takeaways and campsites the taxi sped off into the night, I flirted with the notion that the taxi driver was taking us to an isolated area so he could kill us and take our stuff, but it seemed a lot of trouble for a couple of ratty suitcases and a rucksack so I didn’t take the idea too seriously. After a suspiciously long time we finally arrived at the hotel, we’d long since stopped seeing the hustle and bustle of a seaside town, instead there were a few houses and some trees, it was clear we had picked a quite isolated place. The sun was going down and as we took our luggage out of the Taxi and paid the driver something seemed wrong that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
We entered and spoke to a lonely looking receptionist, our shoes echoing on the gleaming marble floor, we got our keys and went to our room, and we saw no-one.
After changing and having a read of the hotel’s guide book, which told us of all the exciting things the hotel had to offer we decided to go for a little walk, peruse the restaurants, and see what we were going to have for dinner, then we would get around to the problem of finding a place to go next.
We went into the hall and down to the elevator in silence, down in the reception no-one was around, we peered into the dark dining room and bar, silence. We walked out into the grounds and up to have a look at the swimming pool, everything as everywhere else was silent. A hotel with no people is a strange thing, it immediately started to feel like the Overlook hotel, we hung around chatting for a while and quickly came to the same conclusion – There’s no-one staying in this hotel but us…
Will Rory and Juliet discover the mystery of the Hotel? (there isn’t one), will they get a new Workaway placement in time to save themselves from becoming homeless on the streets of Kalamata? Will they get a decent night’s sleep? Tune in next time for the next ‘exciting’ edition of Roz Flies – Off Hotel of the Damned Part Two – Free Food and Fish Documentaries.
We must be the only people ever to go to Athens and not visit the Acropolis. I reflected on this while leaving Athens via a KTEL bus to Kalamata. KTEL buses are like the Greek equivalent of the Britain’s National Express coaches in almost every way, except that The Divine Comedy has never written a song about them. It’s not like we didn’t try to go to the Acropolis, we’d been past the gates on a whistle stop tour of Athens with our host and we’d planned to go back later but it never happened. On one day we were off to visit, our host had asked us to visit some Art Galleries in Metaxourgeio to review them for a web project he was doing, so we decided to do that then visit the Acropolis later. We then went to our first port of call The Municipal Gallery of Athens, on what must have been the worst art gallery experience of my life.
The Municipal Gallery of Athens is located on Advi square in a recently renovated neo-classical building from the nineteenth century, the outside is inconspicuous with a couple of small signs in Greek being the only indicators that there is anything inside, and they don’t exactly look like signs for an art gallery, more like a police station, or a place for processing refugees.
We started badly, after taking a couple of pictures of the front of the building so that people would actually know what they were looking for, a huge security guard came out and accosted us ‘no pictures’ he growled, we deleted the pictures. If the security around the front of the Gallery had been a little oppressive, inside was even worse. A female security guard explained in broken English that we were not allowed to take pictures of the front of the building but no explanation was forthcoming, I’m pretty sure she made it up. After that the made up rules came thick and fast, we went into the gallery despite the fact that we were clearly unwelcome and started taking pictures and making notes. We’d already been told that we could take some shots of the art, but after Juliet had taken five shots the female security guard changed her mind. Juliet dutifully put her camera away and we trudged around looking at beautiful works of art from the last couple of hundred years feeling pretty dejected. But the guards still weren’t satisfied, they shadowed us from picture to picture, sometimes the man, sometimes the woman, but they were always there, just watching. At one point Juliet and I were in two different parts of the gallery and the security guard’s head was flitting between us like he was watching a tennis match. After he seemed to jump out on me while I turned a corner, we both simultaneously decided enough was enough and marched out of the gallery. Juliet complained loudly to the security guard but he just shrugged his shoulders, indicating he couldn’t give less of a shit that he’d ruined our experience.
After we’d been chased out of The Municipal Gallery of Athens by the art police, we went to find the other two art galleries in Metaxourgeio. They were both closed. Our day was ruined and we decided it was too late to go to the Acropolis and that we’d go the next day.
The next day it rained.
The rain in Greece isn’t like our British rain, we Brits love our rain, we love to moan about it, we love the way it makes our potatoes grow, and we love to moan that despite the downpours there will still be a hosepipe ban a couple of weeks later. British rain is a constant threat, but when it comes it goes just as quickly and doesn’t really cause much upset. Greek rain is epic, it shoots out of the sky as if it is in a war against pavement, and there’s so much of it, at one point I thought it was just a solid block of water, I felt like I was in an aquarium, looking out at the strange creatures bobbing around in their world shaped tank. To put it another way it pissed it down and thus ruined another opportunity to visit the Acropolis.
The day after that we’d received some news, we had an offer of a Workaway placement in Kalamata, our week in Athens was almost up, and so we decided we would go down a day early and get a hotel room for the night, so we could relax and get to the next host early the day after. We packed our bags, told our host and a day later we were heading West out of Athens and into the Greek countryside. As we left the city and entered the Greek countryside the sky brightened and even though it was November the temperature soared to that of a very good British Summer’s day.
We looked out of the bus windows at nature’s majesty, at the mountains, olive groves and exotic looking trees, and suddenly we weren’t too upset about missing out on a trip to the Acropolis.
During our travels we won’t be staying in hotels, we’ll be using a website called www.workaway.info to connect with locals and work with them in their homes and businesses in exchange for room and board. I’d like to say that we are eschewing the comforts of traditional travel in order to see Europe from an insider’s perspective, to live, work, eat and sleep like the locals and thus gain a greater understanding of what it is to be ‘of’ a certain place. There’s a little bit of that certainly, but at lot of it is to do with cash. Yep money might make the world go round but you can’t get round the world without an awful lot of it.
The other side of this is that the places we might go are not always going to be for tourists, here in Athens we’re staying in an area called Metaxourgeio with our Workaway host to help him out and lend our various areas of expertise to some of his artistic community projects.
While it’s not too far from the main tourist areas of Athens, Metaxourgeio isn’t the kind of place holiday makers usually go, it doesn’t have many of the draws of the tourist areas and has a history of economic collapse that has left a lot of the traditional craftsmen’s buildings empty and decaying, in fact some parts could be referred to as ‘a bit of a shithole’. Drugs are rife, and on a couple of frankly terrifying occasions we actually witnessed people shooting up heroin in the street. Hellish side alleys aside though Metaxourgeio feels like a pretty safe place, and I’d feel more secure walking around its streets than go to a shop in Preston after Eastenders has finished.
Fortunately in recent years Metaxourgeio has started to make a cultural comeback spearheaded by an underground artistic community dedicated to urban regeneration, beautification and renewal. Art galleries such as the Municipal Art Gallery Of Athens have sprung up in the last few years and a new influx of cafes, bars and upmarket residential apartments have all added to the resurgence of the area and things are looking up for Metaxourgeio.
Our host is one of the proponents of the underground art scene, but he’s a pretty private guy so I won’t go on about him too much.
There’s street art on every corner and Advi square which is a sort of hub area for the arts scene, here you can sit in the sunshine and feed the pigeons. Feeding the pigeons isn’t as frowned on in Athens as it is in the rest of the world, which is probably because Athenian pigeons look like actual birds, rather than the stapled together, shit-covered dishrags full of germs we have in the UK.
Unfortunately the work we had to do in order to keep a roof over our heads didn’t really give us much time for sight-seeing and bird feeding, in my former life I was a graphic designer and our host wanted help with quite a bit of that sort of thing, not that I was complaining, at least when we went out for a break we were in an interesting and vibrant part of the city and not a grimy UK high street covered in Greggs wrappers and the aforementioned virulent pigeon-monsters.
Lunch breaks consisted of a trip down the street to a beautiful bakery filled to the brim with mouth watering pastry treats filled with spinach, feta cheese and different kinds of sausage. On really good days I got a Gyro, for a junk food lover like me Gyros are a rare treat, if you’ve never had one they’re like a socially acceptable daytime kebab, a delicious meal of spiced meat, tomatoes, onions, tzatziki and chips. Yes chips! All rolled into a cone shape for easier transportation while tottering around the streets of Athens. Whereas kebabs are a post-pub snack eaten almost exclusively by the very drunk, Gyros can be eaten at any time of the day without fear or shame. Gyros are a true feat of gastronomic engineering and should be a great source of pride to the people of Greece.
All in all we were having a great first Workaway experience, the work itself wasn’t too taxing, the area we were staying was interesting and vibrant, our host was a pleasant and generous chap and I could eat kebabs in the daytime, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
Roz flies off Completists (Hello Mum), may notice that between this and the last post several weeks have passed, I’m still writing up the missing weeks but I thought as this was supposed to be a travel blog that I’d better get down to some actual travelling, hence the swathes of weeks being cut.
I’ll eventually fill in the missing weeks, maybe with a Lost style flashback, so never fear, you may yet hear the story about how I turned vigilante in Barnsley and made a seven year old cry.
I love airports, the throngs of people about to embark on journeys all over the world, the general air of excitement from families of holiday makers, the overpriced biscuits… everything. Our visit to Manchester airport started off badly, we didn’t have a weighing scale to check our bags and they were badly overweight, we slunk off to a quiet part of the airport and started to lighten the load: Jeans, T-shirts, dresses, lotions, shoes all sorts of things were secreted into a bin liner and posted into a litter bin in the taxi rank. Having shed ourselves of yet more of our worldly possessions in order to avoid paying huge excess luggage charges we checked our newly lightened load in with the easyJet bag check and made our way through security.
I look like a bum, and judging by people’s reactions on the streets of England I look like a particularly savage bum, the kind of person who would steal your shoes or finish your crossword, a real dodgy git if you will. It’s not like I don’t make an effort, but for some reason people seem to make the snap judgment that I’m some sort of drug addicted asbo candidate and cross the street when they see me coming, it’s even worse with people in positions of authority. Therefore any time I go through airport security without being pulled to one side is a blessing, and if other people I’m with get pulled it feels like a victory. Everyone seems to feel like they are being judged in airport security, one woman who had been chosen for a random frisk was shouting and complaining loudly, as if they would say ‘oh she’s making a fuss, she must be innocent’ and let her go, we all filed through like sheep through a slaughterhouse and watched our carry-on luggage get x-rayed and poked on those little carousels and packed it all back together at the other end, to me it was all terribly exciting.
That’s the thing you see, to me everything is terribly exciting. After a quick and expensive breakfast in one of those restaurants that serve everything, all the time, for travellers who don’t know what time of day it is, we boarded the plane.
Everyone looked bored as the stewardess mimed her way through the safety procedure, I craned my neck for a better glimpse of where the emergency exits were, how to put on a life preserver, and where the whistle and the light were on them, not because I thought we were in any danger but just because I thought she was making an effort to tell us these things, and I should at least make the effort to listen.
The flight was uneventful, except that we travelled over 2,000 miles in a flying metal tube in just over three hours. It always surprises me how blasé people are about air travel, some people fall asleep immediately, some just sit looking through the in-flight magazine, others play games on their mobile devices, as far as I could see I was the only person gawping out of the window like an over-excited child who had just eaten a huge bag of Skittles. I sat for an hour transfixed by the majesty of the planet sprawled out before me from a position we were never meant to see. I still can’t quite understand how seeing the coastline of a country from 25,000 feet is less enthralling than trying to get three stars on Angry Birds.
Athens airport seems like any other airport anywhere in the world. The only clue that we were in a different country was when the airport official seeing us dither in trying to find a way out for EU citizens simply said ‘follow your heart’ in his wonderful Athenian accent, we went through the non-EU citizens Nothing to Declare Aisle, he didn’t care, he didn’t judge and he didn’t suspect me of having an ASBO pending.
I really did love this Airport.