Spurred by former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne’s, recent (improbable but possible) lockdown revelation that he “once danced with Jennifer Lawrence -but she probably doesn’t remember it” (I think that’s a certainty George); I can now reveal, that I once was a Greek fisherman.
The occasion was not a glam post-Oscars party with bouzouki music, plate smashing and Madonna’s infamous taramasalata dips but a (now once beautiful) Cretan beach. I was 18 and travelling solo. It began with a cheap Interrail ticket to Athens, followed by an overnight (sleeping on the deck) ferry from Piraeus to Heraklion, and a local bus at dawn to a junction with a mountain track and a waiting donkey. I had a map, a sleeping bag, a bottle of duty free Johnnie Walker Black Label and a romantic spirit. If you want to get into the Life business these are some of the most important ingredients. The map showed me that the nearest small coastal hamlet to Heraklion without road access was - Ayia Pelagia. In another life lesson, always seek out the least accessible places for here you will find treasure. And so it was to be. Me, my bits, the donkey, his bit, two crates of bus-delivered limonade on a wooden pannier and a beret wearing, snaffling one tooth, donkeyman. I uttered the place name, he grunted and pointed steeply downhill, down the warming kebab herb-scented path, towards the shimmering sea and off set our tiny, dangerously wobbly troika towards our unknown caravanserai. Two thousand dusty donkey poo avoided footsteps later we arrived at the beach smelling like a sweaty stable.
Under a dark green big-lobed fig tree, a small group of shaded hat men wearing sea-burned skin and charcoal black moustaches sat smoking, drinking ouzo and water - with long thin slices of cucumber and sea salt on a plate. The donkeyman grunted and pointed at me whilst unloading a crate from the fly bothered beast of burden. In a spirit of xenophilia I was offered a chair by the wrinkled village elder and a glass of the drink in the cool shade. Conversation was by gesticulated introductions and naming and nodding. It was slow, involving fingers and mutually incomprehensible words apart from those I knew from the Greek names of various fossil parts. Bigging it up , I leapt on each of these with megálo-megálo excitement. In the driest conversational moment a gecko fell out of the fig tree onto the table and caused collective relieving mirth. The seven a.m. home made ouzo was also warming up the party so for my party trick I produced the magic bottle from my magic sack. This aroused instant interest and I pointed at the bottle with the universal gifter’s expression for ‘ave some of that’ to the collective. A glass was quickly made fresh from ouzo taint with water and the cap and cork released. The elder had to taste it first. A man in a bruised vest respectfully poured the old man a very hefty slug. The crowd leaned forwards like a lamplit scene in a De la Tour painting and waited. A sniff, a sip, a swallow and the broadest grin of welcome surprise that any battered beret could scarce contain. A hefty clap on the back was my confirmation that this was his first ever taste of a wee dram and my honorary route into my new life as a Cretan fisherman. I did not know this yet as, in a suddenly unstable situation, a tanned, recently lithe, Dutch girl in a wet black bikini who had trodden on a sea urchin limped unselfconsciously but painfully into the happy painting.
Life lesson #3 the Dutch will have always got there before you. Manolis, the man in the vest, was called to discharge his medical training as the table was cleared. In Cretan fishing custom this meant propping the throbbing purple pinpricked foot up on the table, gulping a glass of ouzo and blow-spitting it over the foot like a violently eruptive aniseed-flavoured shower head. The girl (who later taught me the Dutch words for ‘let your cat shit in a bucket of sand’ to the tune of ‘Little Brown Jug’) winced but then Dr M having sterilised the wound gently leant over and gingerly extracted each embedded toxic serrated barb with his front teeth. Nibbling nurture treatment that you wouldn’t get on the NHS. It was showy but successful and, with a final slosh of ouzo, the patient was discharged to sit on the beach and soak the foot in seawater.
Manolis then took my arm and we walked like old pals arm in arm barefooted down the beach to a bamboo hutch that fronted a hidden small concrete box building with the traditional leftover reinforcing rods sticking out of the four corners. A small caïque bobbed at anchor just off the sloping sandy beach and Manolis indicated proudly that it was his boat. I was his headman-appointed guest and it seemed that I was to be treated as a member of the family. We sat at a brown wooden table and an unfazed wife appeared on command with raki and bowl of salty pistachio nuts followed by bitter coffee and sugar cubes with ice cold water and several snake-thin skinny cats. Small children approached to grab a father’s cuddle, wide-eyeing me warily before heading back to play. Manolis indicated a patch of sand where I was to lay my sleeping bag en route to the nets drying on the beach and a young but somewhat taciturn Manolis junior fixing holes with a sailor's darning needle. By much pointing and small words I got the drift that when the sun (point) went down (point) we would all go out on the boat (point) lay the nets (point) and return the following morning when the sun (point) came up again (point). Manolis then started to speak to me in German put his hands flat to his ear and said ‘schlaffen’ pointing to his chest and walked away.
His black clad wife was sitting dark-eyed beneath the contrasting crimson of a dark shaded flower bursting hibiscus bush de-scaling a basket of fish. I broke the man job-female job taboo by offering to help but this was dramatically declined as if the world was about to end, although with a sly grin. Crazy English. More children arrived to be scolded for their noisiness or were sent off on short errands but Maria (point) hand to her bosom then named (point-point-point) the tiny tribe who clung to her and gawped at the crazy English . From my throat I produced my magic duck voice universally guaranteed to break the ice at the frostiest of children’s parties. It was also found to work in Crete. The children roared with perplexed delight and spontaneously started to dance their dusty feet in the sand wanting more crazy entertainment. Maria rocked back in her black bags and roared too. My fate was sealed.
Next time: ONCE A GREEK FISHERMAN 2 - blowing Triton’s trumpet and cooking with dynamite