I think the most significant thing I can say about Corfu in the Sixties, is that there was ample space for parking! And this photograph proves it. [photo of Cristo on a bicycle in the middle of the Platiea, without a car in sight. About 1962]
There were only about 10 cars. on the whole island, When I said this to a taxi driver not long ago, he promptly replied, ’And now there are 93.000 ! . And Anni Merlin was telling us that she remembers when there were only 2 cars, her Uncle had one and Dysilla of the Olive Oil Factory had the other, . And they managed to bump into each other!
The Commercial centre was not San Rocco as it is now. It was Nikiphorou Theotoki street. …. leading from the back of the Liston to the Port . There were Tsirigoti’s grocery shop, Thymis’ Ouzerie, The cake shop, the chemist, the Bank and the Churches, and the Bakeries. Oh! The smell of fresh baked bread in the mornings from the bakers ovens.
. The Street leading up to Vlakioti square was full of vegetable shops, heaps of colourful locally grown fresh vegetables, and the street leading back into Theotoki st. was full of fish shops FRESH FISH! No frozen fish – they didn’t have the refrigeration then. There were two fried fish shops, too.
THE VOLTA A feature of the Summer evenings in town was the ’Volta’. From 7 -8 pm. Theotoki street was packed with people of all ages, strolling slowly down to the bottom of the street, then turning round and strolling back up toward the Liston;…. women on one side, men on the other , girls and boys eyeing each other flirtatiously and giggling. Staid married couples promenading without a word to say to each other; husband fingering the indispensable worry beads.
It was the magic hour of twilight, the cicadas scissoring away in the trees, the screaming swifts swirling like tea leaves overhead,…….. the lights were on……. a party atmosphere on the Liston , ……. the sky a luminous iris blue, hanging like a veil above the trees gradually deepening into darkness. The shops were still open - Vegetable Market street a blaze with colour like a Van Gogh painting, and in Fish market street the fishes gleamed in pinks and greys on the white marble slabs.
When did it stop? It was the changing of the Clocks, when Summer Time was introduced in 1975 the romance of that evening moment was gone forever.
The town was riddled with little taverns, ouzeries and wine shops, like the holes in a Gorgozola cheese. where the older men spent their time playing cards and dominoes. There were 5 taverns in Panton Street alone. And about the same in Guilford Street, Van Gogh interiors with wooden tables, barrels of wine on racks against the wall. Shelves for bottles containing dubious looking liquids.
There was usually an old war time ’Wireless’ set’ on special shelf with a little cover over it to keep off the dust from this precious piece of technology. – and also a large Alarm clock with bells on its carapace, which never told the time. Several one out of date calendars offered a selection of days, months and years. It could be 1954 in one street, and 1966 in another. Time has never been a problem to the Greeks who have only one dimension of time : the present moment.
Many of these taverns had doors onto different alleys, and if you knew your taverns you could circulate the town entirely by the taverns. Cristo said that during the Wartime occupation, [he was only 19 then and up to all sorts of tricks], it was a useful escape mechanism to dive into a tavern , exit quickly by the other door into the next street… open another door into another tavern, and out again, he could be three streets away in seconds.
I’d better introduce Cristo – because he is the key to the stories I have to tell…. In Douglas Botting’s biography of Gerald Durrell’ page 347 Gerry writing to Sir Giles Guthrie and his wife, telling them who they should meet when they visited the island, says :‘ and there is a rather well preserved bandit called Christos who is worth knowing…. You can’t mistake him because he has a voice like a toad with laryngitis and a form of English that makes Shakespeare turn in his grave!’
Actually I think Shakespeare would have loved Cristo’s English. He used words uniquely making you see a word in a new way. It was more like Shakespeare’s than ours.
At the top of Panton Street was Kontostanos’ Pantopoleion or ’Everything’ shop ’
It had a very high ceiling, a stone flagged floor; huge windows deeply recessed formed show cases for a forgotten items, wooden shelves right up to the ceiling, mostly inaccessible, carrying the stock of bottles of wine, Brandies, White Horse whisky and ‘Tzonnie Valker’ and Gordon’s Tzin – (rare and expensive imports) as well as tins of tomato paste, tinned milk, spam, sardines. On the wooden counter stood the canisters of Greek coffee and herbal tea and the large glass bottles I remember from childhood containing boiled sweets and cough drops. Alongside the wooden counter was the refrigerated counter ( a new feature) containing the perishables, cheeses, ham and fresh butter. You could buy wine from the barrel – and loose honey from a canister stored under one of the tables. Customers brought in their own empty bottles to be filled, and jam jars for the honey. Everything else was wrapped in a screw of newspaper- everything was recycled then
Mr. Kontostanos was in his fifties. He spoke French and had a little bit of English. Few of the ordinary folk spoke English in the early ’60’s. French was the foreign language because of the Club Mediterrane . Kyria ‘Leni, his wife was much younger, and they had a daughter of 10 who did her homework at one of the tables, before playing Hop Scotch on the stone flagged floor. In the evenings she did her homework in the corner. A teacher came to give her extra lessons in subjects she found difficult, at which she looked sheepish and remained baffled.
There were six tables for those who wished to pass the time away with an ouzo and mézé. Kyria Leni made delicious tiropittas – the best I ever tasted - She also cooked a plat de jour of Bean Soup, or stuffed Aubergines and stuffed tomatoes Kyria ‘Leni was often occupied in making up small packets of fresh butter wrapping them in greaseproof paper, and banging them into shape with her fist. I called it ‘Hand Banged Butter’. It had a rather rancid taste. Once a week a huge leg of Pork was sent off to be baked in the Baker’s oven . The small boy brought it back carrying the dish on his head.. For the rest of the week It sat on the counter to be sold in slices or featured in the mezes. The shop was open from 8.30 in the morning, closing for a couple of hours in the siesta time and then stayed open till Midnight. No early closing in those days
In winter with no more foreigners bumbling about, Kontostano’s had its habitués in the evening. Its own caste of characters, it’s own soap opera. Mr. Babbi, who sat near the door with his glass of koniak eyeing with insatiable curiosity everyone who came in , discussing afterwards their family history. Scandal and gossip were communal property. The elderly Music master would come for his supper muffled up in coat and scarf, and always kept his hat on. He preferred my corner and his face registered disapproval when he saw me in it. A woman’s place was in the home, not the wineshop.
. . The man who would come in just to look at himself in the big mirror above the sweet cabinet, adjust the angle of his hat and go out again. He was referred to affectionately as ’Vlakas’ the Stupid ].
And when another regular customer who had married rather late in life, and had produced her first child, she brought it into the shop for everybody to admire. When somebody asked ‘Is it a girl?’ she whipped off its diaper to reveal its gender. She had produced a Boy. Kontostano’s was truly An Everything shop’ ~~
TRAFFIC: so what did the traffic amount to? Mostly hand barrows and horse carts - it was a fine sight in the early morning to see the horse drawn carts coming into town, the horses fresh and full of energy, arching their necks like warhorses. They parked under the trees in San Rocco, waiting to transport goods out to the villages.
There were plenty of Fiacres parked under the trees in the Platiea. One Summer there was an explosion of Horse Hat Art. Confections of tinsel and bobbles and tassels as the drivers tried to outdo each others confections. I recall one horse wearing an Achilles helmet in basketry.
But the Piece de Resistance - wait for it – was the Funeral Cart! The Horse drawn hearse. I remember the shock it gave me when I first saw it on a rainy day as it paused behind the Liston during a funeral. A large black tumbrel with driver perched up on the box, wearing a top hat. The four horse draped in black with plumes on the heads.
Three gilded cherubs the size of six year old children stood over the coffin, two at the foot and one tacked to the back of the Driver’s box. holding out carved wooden wreaths With expressions of supercilious grief on their faces, as they vibrated gently with the movement of the car. It was only after visiting Venice and seeing the motorboat hearse with the gilded lions on the foredeck with the same expression of supercilious grief that I made the connection with the Corfu Hearse. By that time, it had been replaced by a motorized hearse with electric candles. What has happened that old Cart? # For a long time it was housed in a garage at the top of Alexandros Avenue, but it disappeared when that was turned into a Fashion Shop. Does anybody know what happened to it. It should have been preserved in the Social Museum Corfu does not have.
#[apparently it does still exist in a garage somewhere.]
A slight increase in traffic about 1963/64, made it imperative to have a policeman on duty at the edge of the Liston where the bus crossed Capodistria to go down Voulgariou Street, towards San Rocco.
It shows how small the bus was. I reckon you could fit one of those old busses inside the busses we have today, and it would take up only ¾ of the space]. . The Traffic policeman stood in a special white tub directing the occasional car French style in white gloves. On New Year‘s Day [New Year was more important than Christmas} , presents of ouzo, wine, cakes, sweets where heaped around this tub, from the grateful public. Later, traffic lights were fixed to the side of the Liston. I don’t think they ever worked. But that’s nothing new.
Here are photographs I took in 1963 which shows Mandouki and how the water then came right up to houses and the Abattoir. Just opposite the gates of the present day harbour. Think of this when you drive past the harbour as it is now. You would have needed a boat then.
The countryside began at the very edge of the town. just beyond the Platitera monastery where the road goes north - was countryside full of market gardens, and little cottages with vine trellises…. Think of that as you drive through the commercial stuff now. Where the Kerkyra Golf is, the frogs croaked at night. And the only traffic you might meet was anything from the horse carts, donkeys, women carrying bundles on their heads, , snakes, tortoises, huge toads, and bright green lizards I am not exaggerating. !!
To give an idea just how narrow the road was, When I had my tiny Fiat 500, if we met the
bus , I would have to put my little car right into the side to let the bus pass. I was glad my driving wheel was on the near side, so I could avoid the pitfalls at the verge.
At night the Lime Kilns at Alikes were Dantesque infernos blazed with leaping flames The road went through Kontokali,, a real village then, with Pipilas restaurant, Takis taverna where the Hippies found cheap accommodation, there was a barn in the middle where a man mended bicycles and kept a tame monkey. He also allowed Hippies to spread their sleeping bags there for a few dracs. There was this Barber’s shop without electricity only paraffin lamps. And there was Phillipos’s Butcher’s shop cum taverna who now has the big place where they have the posh wedding parties. This was the original place
Gouvia Bay was virgin . No Marina. No houses on Koumeno, except the Actons lovely old house with the tall Palm tree. And a clutch of little fishermen’s cottages on the other peninsula.
The road wound through olive groves to Paleokastritza .Each bend in the road offering another unspoiled vista and there were a lot of bends in that road then .
I remember my first sight of the Bay at Paleokastritza. In 1961. It had only the very modest Xenia guest house, at the centre of the beach, and a ramshackle wooden taverna tucked up against the rocks at the end of the beach. And the Olive grove - filling the area between Paliokastritza and Liapades bays. where there was another little cottage taverna and a wooden jetty. Marie Aspioti told me when she was a child, several families would camp in that olive grove for the whole of August, transporting their stuff by Fiacre. It must have taken hours to do the 25 kilometres in a Fiacre - but what a beautiful journey .
It was during the Junda, the road was made straight by N.ATO who intended to keep their weaponry in the hollowed out rocks on Alepou bay. We were driving through Kontokali on the day the bulldozer was smashing the trees, which grew right up to the edge of the village where the main road is now. We stopped to look. There was an old peasant man watching too. He simply could not understand why they were destroying these trees which had been the life blood of village. He turned to Cristo and said, ’Why are they doing this?’ Cristo said, ’ they are going to make a new road, Baba..’ The man must have spent his whole life tending these trees… as he turned away in a state of grief he said, ’ But to see that tree to be down is like to see a man die….’ Time changes all values….
From the junction at Tzavros you couldn’t follow the coast road, further than Ipsos. The Police check post was in a café where the road turns up the hill. You had to have written permission from the police to pass it. Caiques sailed from town to Cassiope but could not drop anyone off at any of those beaches.
I can’t remember what year the ban was lifted. But even when it was free that road was so bad, it wasn’t worth the wrecking my little car to drive that way. Often it was on pure rock.
So what was on the roads… Before cars, everybody walked. Women walked from outlying villages with baskets on both arms, or balanced on their heads to sell their produce in the market. I remember seeing a woman walking the road with bare feet, a bundle on her head, and on top of the bundle were her shoes. She would put them on when she reached the town, the most painful part of the journey. But it was de rigeur to be properly dressed in the town.
There were the walking salesmen with baskets on both arms filled a variety of things, from religious icons, coffee cups, little vases, plastic flowers - much as the Africans do now. They walked miles in the hot sun between villages. Sometimes one came across one of them having a siesta under a tree. Sometimes they had donkeys piled with blankets and coverlets to sell. And once I saw a donkey shop with a neat cabinet with glass doors built onto the wooden saddle, which contained the needles and threads, and bits of jewellery, combs, hairbrushes. Outside the cabinet were hung the boots , shoes, kitchen utensils and enormous ladies brassieres. The largest I’ve ever seen.
It was a pretty sight in the early evening to meet a troupe of women returning to their village, the older women riding the donkeys, often with a grandchild straddling the donkey’s rump and holding on to granny’s ample skirts; the younger women singing as they walk. , and to receive the gracious greeting ‘Xaireti’ [Be Happy] The women’s friendly faces quickly light up with smiles as they give the greeting. Every evening this cavalcade was on the roads - the only traffic in the early ‘60’s. How the heavy broad beamed older women get up into those high wooden saddles remains a mystery. In all my years here I have never seen how they do – especially when out in the olive groves with no mounting block.
And this from my diary for August 5,1966 As we came back to town late at night from Dassia, we passed many groups of village people walking the road towards the big mountain. They had children with them, the women carrying small babies in their arms, a man with a big bag on a stick over his shoulder, and the donkeys piled up with their blankets and foodstuff. ’Where on earth are they going?’ ’They going to the Monastery at the top of the Mountain for the festival. ’ Cristo said, They walk through the night for coolness - .
‘Tomorrow they will see the dawn from up there. and roast sheep, and be very happy. Then they will walk back to their villages They walked up the mountain from Spartela to the little chapel, and then across the plateau to the final climb to the monastery. The way is marked with red paint – the pilgrims way. I did it with Hilary once in a fog and we were very grateful for those marks. . [ now . they just get into their cars and drive up there, but surely the spiritual dimension has been lost.]~ [Apparently the older people still do it on foot]
I must describe Dassia as it was in the Sixties. After 11 Kilometres of the potholed main road from town you bumped down a rough track through the olive grove to the bay which had just 4 little tavernas with their tables set out under the trees next the pebble beach, each with its own Juke box, worn records,— worn needle,— full of sand and grit. sprayed the air with the heavy Greek melodies.
Michaelaki’s Taverna (Now the Dassia Beach Hotel – but run by the same family)
offered basic accommodation in a block of monk’s cells, an iron bedstead with thin mattresses, a chair, a peg to hang your clothes on and a piece of mirror hanging by a red cotton thread. The facilities were ‘exo’ , a basic earth closet with a hole in the ground, two places to put your feet. The shower, was a pipe with a spray nozzle where you rinsed off after a swim. What more did one need in those days?
And here was the Diktia beach- restaurant run by the Boas family who had the Castello Hotel Their clients could spend the day swimming , and sun bathing and having their lunch at the tables set out under the olive trees. with fishing nets slung in the branches. Ta Diktia means ’The Nets’. But at night it was transformed with the entertainment provided by a live orchestra imported from Athens and a Basouki player. to provide the authentic Greek music of Theodorakis, and Hadjizakis It was a wonderful atmosphere with Emi Boas, looking like an Elvis Presley in his brightly coloured Hawaiian shirt , wandered from table to table, greeting his guests. .
The young French boys and girls poured out from the Club Mediteranne, scantily dressed and uninhibited, showing us the modern way of dancing, flinging themselves about jiving gracefully on the crowded dance floor. Greek men would get up and dance Zembejikoes and Hasapikos…. And all the while, just beyond the noise and light on the quiet dark surface of the bay , would be a fisherman in his boat , with a big lamp in the prow, standing at the oars, peering down into the water looking for Octopus…. And often the full Moon rising…it’s sad face peering down at the strange goings-on. .. It was pre-Disco
On Saturday nights, we would stay over in one of Michaeli’s cell like rooms, and wake up to the sun forcing it fingers under door and round the closed shutters. To walk out into the warm air with the sun rising over the mainland mountains. The sea like glycerine blazing like a shield under the sun. The tables deserted, and the waiters asleep on camp beds under the trees. [ The waiters stayed on the job for the whole three months of the season. ] On Sunday morning, the barber would turn up on his bicycle to shave the waiters; his equipment in a bag on the handlebars. One by one the waiters sat on the chair placed in the shade of a tree, to have their chins shaved.
To slide into the cool water, to be suspended as if in air, while below you the fish parade in dignified silence, with rainbow shadows lilting over the sandy floor. The cage of live crayfish was kept under the jetty . I remember a lobster the size of a dachshund dog was tied up outside the cage by a piece of rope around its waist! I heard on the BBC just recently that a 9 kilo lobster was fished off the American coast, and was reckoned to be 150 years old. So the one I saw that morning must have been 100 years old. The American lobster was put back into the sea, the Greek one went into the pot. What does a 100 year old lobster taste like? A bit tough I should think.
Another morning I remember seeing 6 men on the narrow beach drawing in a fishing net as they did it in the Bible . 3 on one side and 3 on the other, each with a harness on the chest to which they hooked the great U shaped net and walking backwards up the narrow beach, the last man on each side doubled to the front , hooked up again and so the plodding went on with a special rhythmic step. It took them hours of plodding backwards up the narrow beach, before the huge net was brought on shore.
About 11 o’clock the caique docked at the jetty bringing the families from the town for a day on the beach. The air instantly filled with anxious mothers screaming, ‘Don’t run! Don’t fall over! Don’t go near the water!! as the children scrambled off the boat and dash on to the beach shrieking with excitement. The mothers came primed with food but It wasn’t a question of having a picnic. It was a form of the egg and spoon race; as the mother pursuing her infant with boiled egg, or pot of cold macaroni. Every time the child turned its head to her, she stuffed the spoon in its mouth. They seemed to think their children would starve if not perpetually fed. You would see them doing it in the Platiea too.
THE VILLAGES; It was on Sunday, after staying the night at Michaelaki’s we would go off to visit a village somewhere. I’ll read you this extract from my diary for 1968 because it gives a picture of the real village life as it was then
….. Went to Makrades . walked through the narrow alleys peeping through doorways at courtyards full of flowers, washing tubs, and the paraphanelia of peasant life. We saw through an arched door, into a big room. Where a man was sitting at a table with two women. They asked Cristo . what he was looking for. ‘A tavern’ he said, at which they laughed heartily and invited us to have a glass of wine with them.
I was enchanted at the contents of the room; the large vats of oil oozing at the seams – . A distaff and spindle stood against a sack of potatoes; garlics hung from the ceiling beams with strings of onions. A hook holding a gun and a cartridge belt, and well as a dead rabbit. [No fridges remember]. The man took a large bottle of wine, pulled off the stopper and dashed a little onto the floor before pouring it into the glasses. [ They seal the wine with a little olive oil]
The yard at the back of the house was full of flowers growing in tins and pots. A tub of celery, one of Basil. Nuts lay in a heap on the ground. Fig cakes drying in the sun, . . The woman picked a huge bunch of zinnias and Michaelmas daises to give me, together with a generous amount of fresh Basil. It was one of those mornings which confirm the abounding friendliness, curiosity and impulsive generosity of the Greek character.
On leaving these people, . We were invited into tavern by invitation of the company within. This was a shop as well as a tavern , with donkey bridles and cruppers, a tank of paraffin, sacks of beans, lentils, earthenware crocks, aluminum casseroles, donkey shoes, scythes, knives, tin lanterns, empty cartridge cases which they fill themselves, as well as the more modern commodities such as bleach and washing powders. On the counter, a box of cured herrings packed in Great Yarmouth.
At a table by the window a couple of men playing cards noisily slapping the cards down on the table; one was a big old man in a panama hat, big white moustache streaked with yellow. At our arrival, the tavern quickly filled up with the curious, who stood around while Cristo joked and yarned with them. We drank some rather horrible wine. At the end of half an hour the company wouldn’t let Cristo pay for anything, not even the earthenware pot he wanted to buy simply to spend money in the little store. They were grateful for the entertainment and to see new faces. ~~
THE DOMESTIC ARRANGEMENTS. I have been thinking back on the domestic arrangements. In the early Sixties, The first place we lived in was a newly built construction over a cow byre - I think it was £5 a month. It had an inside toilet [the Loo’s had just about moved inside ] , but you had to flush it with a bucket.. There was no running water. No tap. No water heater. We had a little tin tank hanging on the wall above stone sink, which had to be filled with water from the well outside. That was traditional. I remember coming back from England one time, and having to cope with the difference. Cristo came home from work, looked at me and said, ‘ Why you have a face like a shoe.’ I replied, grumpily, ‘ Water come out of taps in England , hot and cold….’ ‘ Oh’ he said ‘ in four day‘s you forget all that..’ And you know what - in exactly four days , I did!
Refrigerators were a rarity – . I brought a little camping fridge from England – it was small enough to fit on the backseat of my tiny Fiat 500, - it is still with me!
Simple table top calor gas stoves were the norm, and the women were still cooking in blackened pots over a wood fire in their gardens,
The only washing machine was a woman bent over a wooden wash board in a tub. the water was boiled up on a wood fire.
No central heating - apart from a paraffin stove. Or a dish of charcoal with a piece of aluminium foil over it placed under the table. . Log fires were a rarity. Only the Luciola had a log fire in Winter, and the Ragnatela Bar in Town, It was such a joy to approach a wood fire.
In Winter, when the sun shone, everything came out of the cottages: clothes festooned the trees, shoes decorated sunny walls, mattresses propped on chairs stand out side every cottage door, blankets and sheets are draped over the branches of trees, windowsills and balconies, and the huge black umbrellas are hung out to dry.
Another thing, No fresh milk, tinned milk was the norm, and later on the Long Life milk came in. But there was the Donkey Milkman A little cripple man who kept a couple of cows down near the cemetery, and delivered his own milk by donkey around Kanoni, and garitza. The women would come out to meet him with their bowls into which he ladled the milk from the cannister strapped to the wooden saddle. When I came in 1961 The village women wore their traditional costumes with the padded head bands and kerchiefs, the young girls were not in traditional costume, but wore skirts, never – trousers. A foreign female wearing trousers, driving a scooter and astride was considered indecent. Women sat on the pillion behind their man, with their ankles neatly crossed How they stayed on I don’t know, because their bums were bigger than the pillion. I wore trousers during the day, and drove a scooter – but Cristo insisted I dressed properly to come into to town in the evenings. I had to were a skirt.
I remember On the Eve of the St. Spiridian procession in August, the peasants from the villages would camp under the trees in the Platiea to be on time for the procession next morning. . That evening the village ladies in full regalia were wandering around the town, shop gazing. . And in contrast to them were the English and American girls - bare legged, in mini skirts with no bras under flimsy blouses….The Greek women took no notice of them, as if they were things from another planet. They more interested in the shops .’ it was I who was shocked! Having put myself into a Greek straight jacket. When I remarked on these girls to Cristo, he said, ‘ What do you expect of the British!
Before television it was normal for men to pass the whole evening in the tavern singing in harmony. My first experience of Tavern singing at Yioyas Taverna in Guilford Street where the big barrels stood against the wall, on a wooden rack. The proprietor served behind the simple wooden counter; .his wife tended charcoal cooking range. Steps led up into an inner room with four or five tables; The walls decorated with crude hand painted cartoons – like the old seaside postcards.: the drunk under the lamppost; the Bride dragging the Bridegroom horizontally behind her from the Church. I think these cartoons may have been painted by a British soldier stationed here at the end of the war.
Here were four men sitting round a table singing – to a guitar. We joined them - and I was the only female apart from the Proprietor’ wife. women did not frequent taverns. We sang the night away. Greek songs, Corfiote Cantathes, , folksongs and even Opera. .weaving harmonies like Bumble bees, Spiro the Shoemaker, with a light tenor voice was rather too vain about his top notes – sounding off at random like a demented rooster. . They vied with each other who could sing the loudest, and weave the best harmonies . .The singing went on and on, though there was a notice on the wall saying NO SINGING AFTER 11 pm. When the policeman came in to remonstrate, everybody raised their finger to their lips beseeching him not to interrupt, so he leant against the wall till the end, then gave the caution and went away. The singing stopped while they sucked up some wine, , then slowly and quietly began again and ended up as loud as before. There was nothing to do on a winter night but to entertain themselves. They also formed the backbone of the Church choir. In the Easter processions.
This was the life I discovered when I came to Corfu – the singing – the dancing was a spontaneous expression of Life itself. It wasn’t done for the audience or applause – It was for themselves – I remember Cristo dancing Zembekiko and translating the words of the song as:
Our destiny is written…one road we must take…we must make our life sweet…because for us there is no other dawn… two doors has the life… we go from one to the other…..
A stark philosophy but they rose up to it with spontaneous vitality. They were not depressed by it.
But all this came to an end with arrival of package tourism and television.
I remember a night when Gerald Durrell ’s film THE GARDEN OF THE GODS was being made. .
I quote from my diary. 1st August, 1967
A terrific night filming Gerald Durrell’s film at “Tripa” at Kinopiastes. The little courtyard of the taverna was brilliant with white light from the arc lamps. Gerry was sitting with Theodore Stephanides. a fine looking old gentleman , in his seventies, with a white beard neatly trimmed. We asked Gerry what going to happen. He said it was to be a typical Greek Tavern evening with everybody doing as they liked in true Greek fashion. The singers from the “Yoyias” taverna were there, the Singing Shoemaker, letting off his top notes as usual. So much so, Gerry said to Cristo , “Can you do us a favour? Get rid of the shoemaker for ten minutes… Whiles the other chaps dance…. .”
Cristo accomplished this by telling Spiros the Shoemaker that a German girl wanted to speak to him outside. Spiro followed eagerly. Of course there was no girl outside. The shoemaker stayed outside for exactly ten minutes, then he was back, bringing his top notes with him.
The three brothers from Mandouki danced.a Hasapico , three tall fine figures, but managed to present their backs to the camera most of the time. Then one of the brothers danced the Zembekio (the male solo dance). While the camera was trained on him, a local policeman (not in uniform) emerged from the taverna holding a table in his teeth. I have heard of this feat of dancing with a table in the teeth but never seen it. The table is held between the teeth; certainly it requires those strong white Greek teeth capable of biting a man’s ear off - the leg of the table is supported in the groin - painful I should think.
So with the camera trained on the man dancing the Zembekiko, the policeman swinging around with the table in his teeth with the bottles and glasses upon it, suddenly a short stumpy little housewife jumped up and began a sort of belly dance, shaking her shoulders to the rhythm. And pressing her thumb into her navel. It was a great success.
None of It appears in the film! It would have been a unique record, but Alas Another moment lost forever.
THE DANCING BOYS
I think I may have witnessed the last generation of boys to use the Dance as part of their Adolescent rites of Manhood. It was at Kontokali, when it was still a real village, and before motorbikes became general. We were in an empty tavern early one evening having a drink, when it was suddenly invaded by about five teenage boys. They took the table next to the juke box, dragging out the Van Gogh chairs and straddling them with a masculine emphasis. One boy thumbed the buttons of the jukebox, and the heavy beat of the Zembekiko filled the place like an animal seeking blood. The boy with the heavy black brows over almond eyes – just like the Bronze Charioteer, dragged his chair to the centre of the floor, laid it on its back and began dancing around it, until with shocking suddenness and grace, he sprang onto the supine chair and balancing there, slowly tipped it upright with a skillfulness that was cruel. Leaping down, he took the back of it between his teeth, tossed it in the air like a dog killing a cat, and catching it deftly in one hand, plonked it back at the table and sat on it.
Immediately, two other boys took to the floor, circling round each other like classical wrestlers. Then one boy, placed his hands on the other’s shoulders, and with a jump, clamped his legs around his waist, arching his body backwards until his dark curls almost touched the floor. Thus they swayed like mating snakes to the music, snapping their fingers to the beat. Is this how they dancing in the Bath Houses of Plato’s day? They detach as lightly as thistledown from the stem. They have not glanced at anybody it the tavern, and to applaud would have been vulgar. They went as they had come without a glance right or left, and silent among themselves. It was before they all acquired motor bikes.
Later, these same boys would dance Hassarpiko nightly at Diktia at Dassia, dressed in Spanish bolero’s and cummerbunds, but not as they did in that tavern.~~
The Gri-Gri Another memory is of the Gri-Gri -. As they called the little fleet of Sardine fishing boats,, setting out from Benitzes after sunset for a night’s fishing. The mother boat towing the boat heaped with the nets, followed by the three or four small boats with the big lamps in the stern , a man in each boat. It was a poetic sight, like a mother duck followed by her ducklings. – later in the darkness The lamps made a galaxy of stars on the dark surface of the sea.
One morning we were sitting in a quayside tavern at the harbour at 6 o‘clock in the morning,, waiting to catch the first ferry. there was a sudden influx of these fishermen who had been all night, bobbing about in the small boats with the lamps in the stern. Bubbling with life and laughter, they tossed back the koniaks the tavern keeper had ready for them. On of the men eccentrically dressed in a suit, a trilby hat, his trousers rolled up to the knee and bare feet, raised his glass to us. ” I am 77!” he said .Perhaps it was his birthday.
It made me think of the dreary stream of commuters flowing to the London railway stations at the end of a `day at the office’ - something must be wrong somewhere. Which is the `the good life‘?
Before I get to the Military Coup, I can give you a flashback to The Summer of 1944 when the Germans rounded up the Jews to send them to the death camps.
The man in charge of the Town was Hauptman Gumm. He had been ordered to round up the Jews, but had dragged his feet on putting it into action.. Finally a troup of SS were sent to the island to do the job, going from house to house, and herding the Jews into the Plateia like cattle.
Cristo was on his way through the Campiello to see what going on, when a Jewish boy of 12 who had managed to break away from the herd, came running down the street , and seeing Cristo cried out, Cristo! Cristo! Help me! Cristo had been born and brought up in the Jewish quarter so knew all of them. He quickly took the boy to a neighbour who would hide him until they could think what to do with him. Then went on up to the Platiea to see what was happening. The Platiea was filled with the Jews like cattle. and near where Cristo was standing., a woman was holding her screaming baby in her arms. When A Gauleiter snatched the baby from her and dashed it down on the ground.
Later Cristo and his cronies had the job of getting the 12 year old boy off the island [if he had stayed he would have been picked up ].This meant stealing a boat by night and 4 hours rowing across to the mainland, to put the boy out there. – then he had to go it alone. . there was nothing more they could do for him.
And 4 hours rowing back and avoiding being caught themselves.
But there is a nice sequel to this story, In 1968 it must have been, Cristo was in Thymis ouzerie And there was a young man in his 30’s sitting a table, obviously a visitor to the island. But he kept staring Cristo who though he was ’a crazy tourist one’ , when suddenly this young man said, Cristo!! Don’t you remember me? I am Sammy - you help me 1944 when they take away the Jews ..’ So Sammy had survived and eventually got to Israel where he joined the Israeli Navy. Now he had come back to the island of his birth on a visit. With presents to give to anybody who might still be alive. He was thrilled to find Cristo. We took him with us every evening and. he had a very happy time. ~~
As far as I know out of the 6.000 or more Jews deported from this island to the camps, only 6 – 9 returned. Mostly those who had been young enough to survive.
Now we come to the The Military Coup of April 21st , 1967.
Cristo came back home in the middle of the morning, and switched on the radio and listened attentively to the Nasty rasping voice coming out of it reeling off a list of things it was now ‘Apogorévétai- [forbidden] it reminded me of watching my parents listening to the radio at the outbreak of the 2nd World War. ‘What’s happened?‘ I asked. Cristo turned to me and said,
We have a MILITARY DICTATORSHIP IN GREECE! . He was in a fury. Saying “ We have sit down under the Italians! We have sit down under the Germans and now we going to sit down under THE GREEKS! The Final Insult. A curfew was imposed from 6 pm. And the Police had orders to shoot anyone on the streets that night. It was a long dreary evening, he didn’t have enough cigarettes, and nothing to drink. The curfew went on for several nights, and then was raised to 9 pm. so we could go to town for a bit, but by 9 pm. there wasn’t a person on the streets.
But Easter was only a week later on the 28th April. So they had to lift the curfew for that. but ‘.In the evening during the ‘Volta’ the police patrol car drove up and down Niki Theotoki street, among the promenaders.
. Extracts From my diary: ‘The police are wearing guns and knives all the time now Consequently one of them has shot his fiancée, and then himself. I listen to the Greek News in English: : ‘False reports have been circulated, but in fact peace and calm reign throughout the country as never before and everybody is full of enthusiasm for the New Government.’
Posters have appeared all over the place, depicting a straight highway leading to the rising sun. [resembling a Japanese Sun] labelled The New Horizon. And To left and right volcanic erruptions labelled ‘Anarchy!! Communism!! Atheism! (the illusion being that the Coup has saved the Country from these threats) . Marching along the road towards the Rising Sun are a soldier , a sailor and an airmen following a female figure in a white nightgown with laurels in her hair, her raised arm pointing to the New Horizon. But . the artist had difficulty with the perspective , they are walking crab-wise off the road . and only the lady’s arm and left nipple are pointing to the New Horizon.
Another poster showed Christ on the cross, with a boy walking past him spitting something out of his mouth, The slogan was MI BLASPHEMEITE. Don’t Blaspheme.
It shows how naïve the Colonels must have been to promote such a ludicrous form of propaganda. And thinking that by telling the World they were Saving Greece from Communism, aethesim and Anarchy, Europe would clap hands and applaud. The boycotting of Greece must have come as a painful surprise.
May 25th. 1967 a new law in Greece forbidding beards except on Priests. Gerry Durrell arrived that week. When we met up with him, Cristo said, I’m surprised, Sir, you didn’t have to leave your beard in the customs!’ Then Gerry told us the story of his arrival on the boat from Venice. His Greek friends went down to meet the boat and sent a razor on board , with a note telling him he must shave his beard or he wouldn’t be allowed to land. He sent a note back to them with ‘ From where would you like me to shave it – above or below the navel ?’ He was never at a loss.
Another edict: The Colonels have banned Plate Smashing as a bad example to tourists - but it’s the tourists who love it! When a Greek is dancing a Zembekiko or the Hassapiko it is not etiquette to applaud. T he custom was to take a plate and chuck it on the floor at their feet as a sort of accolade But The tourists get quite carried away by this, and start chucking everything . EVEN THE SALT AND PEPPER. The restaurants had already got to the point of insisting the tourists ask for special cheap plates , and it goes on the bill. Otherwise they wouldn’t have any crockery left! . I remember an English woman was about to chuck a plate, her Greek boyfriend grabbed it, saying it was forbidden now, she said . ’ But that. what I come to Greece FOR!’
But at the same time as all these ridiculous edicts were being issued, bus loads of political prisoners were being brought from the Mainland. to the Prison here.
18 months after the coup, The Colonels decide to change the image of their dictatorship by having the ‘so-called’ Elections . The Greek people are to be given the change to vote for or against the New Regime. Posters appear everywhere ‘Yes to the New Government’ ‘Yes to anti-Communist Greece’ .
’No’s’ appeared overnight painted in the middle of the roads. so now .the roads are patrolled at night by scruffy scratch militia with army rifles to prevent anymore NO’s appearing in embarrassing places. There is an increase in police everywhere. They come round the houses telling us to put out the Greek Flag. Taxis are flying the Greek flag. Most of the Hotels,, shops and restaurants are displaying the right propaganda to be on the safe side. It is not worth doing anything else.
29th September, 1968. The day of the ‘Elections’. No drinking allowed a from yesterday evening. Last night in the Corner Bar we were drinking retsina in teacups. Today all the shops are closed.
The method of the Elections is to hand out two papers to the voters, one saying Yes , one saying No. The voter has to take the one he wants and put it in a box. In the villages among the illiterate – the old women for instance - they were handed the Yes paper and told to put it in the box.
When Cristo went to vote, the policeman handed him the Yes paper. He demanded the No paper, but many would not risk asking for the No paper.. The result was , of course, pronounced as . All in favour.
Interestingly, when they had the second lot of Elections in 1973 Cristo went to vote his name had been removed from the voting list. He was unable to vote.
20th July ;1974 Greece declares war on Turkey. General mobilization puts the whole place in panic. Cars and scooters flying around and bumping into each other, men responding like lemmings to the Call to Arms, against the ancient enemy, The Turk.
Again Cristo came home in the middle of the morning. Saying dramatically, ’’We are at War’ we must fill the car with petrol. Driving to the petrol station was hectic. At The petrol station we had just filled up, when a young man drove in at speed. ’Hurry!,’ he shouted in a high state of drama and nerves, ’I’m off to the War!’ When he went to start the car again, it wouldn’t work. He rested his head against the window in despair. How was he to get to the war? We all pushed the car, but still it would not work. The car did not want to go to war Then the garage man reached and turned the ignition on..
We drove down to the Harbour where confusion reigned, as men tried to board the ferryboat to cross to the Mainland to report for duty. the call to arms is apparently irresistible. They responded like Lemmings - It was a phenomenon worth witnessing. . The radio is consistently exhorting ‘Greeks and Greek-esses’ to respond to the country’s need and fight ‘oplar to oplar’ – weapon to weapon – with the ancient enemy. Interestingly, instead of the Military band music on the radio they are playing Bazouki music - it activates the Greek soul more. Today they are saying the response to the war cry has been ‘enthusiastic’
The waiters have all disappeared from the hotels and restaurants. – gone to war – The Harbour is full of their abandoned motorbikes. The tourists seemed calm , the attitude being its is none their business. But are rather enjoying the excitement in the atmosphere.
22 July: 3 days later It’s over! They have agreed to a cease-fire. The rumour going round is that when they came to open up the boxes of weaponry they were filled with stones. . The weapons had been sold to the Middle East – They had no weapons to fight a war with. The Colonels are under lock and key. . Karamanlis is back. The only man who can sort it. They are dancing in the streets in Athens, and hurling paint at the US Embassy, Here in Corfu they are partying in all the hotels,
And after 7 years they are dismantling the big electric signs on the old and the New Fortresses which say ’Zito 21st Apriliou’ Trust in the 21st April !!
Just an amusing little cameo to finish up with
August 1967 when Gerald was making his film THE GARDEN OF THE GODS. We were at Paleokastritza one Sunday - and recognised Lawrence Durrell sitting at a table alone, We knew him through Gerald, so went over to him and he invited us to join him. As he and I were chatting Cristo suddenly said, ’There’s a woman over there blowing me kisses …. I must to see who she it….’ Off he went, and returned with a woman in tow. A middle aged folksy American lady, who had been told by the waiter that Lawrence Durrell was at this table, that’ s why she was blowing kisses at him. She was all of ’do-da’ at meeting the Great man…
Oh! This is such a thrill! I am a de-vot-ee of your books. I’ve just been reading BITTER LEMONS and its A MASTER-PIECE OF THE IMAGINATION!! [BITTER LEMONS is a factual book about the Cyprus situation, isn’t it? ] She went on uttering cliché’ after cliché’ without drawing breath. ’How long are you staying?’ she asked. ‘Only ten days, I have work to do …’
‘Oh yes! A writer has to sit and think and think… I KNOW. I write myself and know the AGONY and the ECSTASY! That’s right isn’t it. The ECSTASY TOO….
He nodded charmingly. She asked for his autograph. He scribbled it on a paper napkin and gave it to her. She clutched it to her bosom. ‘OH, MY CHILDREN WILL JUST BE CRAZY ABOUT THIS - ALL 500 OF THE THEM! [This came as a shock, it turned out she was a school teacher in the Mid- west.]
We have a list of some of the bee-ootiful things you have said in your books. We have written them out specially… ‘Would you put to Martha Brown …so they really know. ’ He did so and she fluttered away clutching to her breast.
Cristo followed her, to sell her one of his Corfu sketches, her friends bought some too. He came back pleased with himself. The Greek opportunist.
Lawrence was saying that people constantly mistake him for Gerald and vice-versa, and they sign each others books by proxy. When the American lady appeared again, this time in a bathing suite, and wearing a lacey bath cap making her even more folksy. This time it was Cristo she was after: ‘You must autograph your beautiful picture for me, too.’ He did so. As she fluttered away again, Lawrence said to Cristo: ’She took her clothes off for you…’ ###Return To The Life and Works of Theresa Nicholas