Cristo- The Zorba of CorfuTheresa Nicholas has kindly allowed us to reproduce her private scrap book and notes about her friend Christos Vlahopoulos.
The Story is best viewed by scrolling down with your keyboard arrows, all images can be enlarged by clicking them.
From Douglas Bottings biography of Gerald Durrell, p.347
When writing to friends who intend to visit Corfu, Gerald gave them some typically irreverent advice about who and what to see…’a rather well-preserved bandit called Cristos was worth knowing….they couldn’t mistake ‘because he has got a voice like a toad with laryngitis and a brand of English which makes Shakespeare turn in his grave’
Cristos Vlachopoulos was born in 24th December 1919 in Corfu, to Yannis and Calliope Vlachopoulos. He was their second child but their first son.
His parents story is a romantic one and scandalous for the moral climate of the day. Yannis Vlachopoulos was one of several sons born to a well-to-do lawyer, and his wife, the Countess de Vejia, a Countess in her own right. These titles were of Venetian origin and were relinquished during the British Protectorate. The De Vejia crest is of a pony with a wooden pack saddle sitting down: a pony couchant. (It is amusing to think of this in relation to Cristo, who was always up and running)
Cristo’s mother, Calliope, was the daughter of the cook in the Vlachopoulos’ household, so she and Yannis grew up together. When Calliope’s father, a soldier in the garrison of Corfu, killed a fellow soldier in a fight, he had to flee to Turkey, from where he sent for his wife and daughter to join him.
Yannis, as a well to do young man, joined the army as an Officer Cadet. When the Greeks made their push into Turkey in 1922, Yannis was sent to Istanbul where he rediscovered his childhood sweetheart, the cook’s pretty daughter, now married to a Greek army officer and the mother of a child. She was still on 18 (probably having been married off at 16 by her father) It was enough to meet each other again for it to be the coup de foudre. She left her husband and baby to elope with Yannis back to Corfu.
Yannis’ middle-class family was horrified at the scandal. Calliope was divorced by her Greek husband in Turkey, and married, Yannis. But he had to leave the Army, and take a job as a clerk in the Electrical Company D.E.H. to support their family of nine children, 6 girls and 3 boys. They grew up in the Jewish Quarter, as Yannis’ family virtually disowned them.August 27, 1923: Mussolini’s forces invaded Corfu and took the town. The Greek government protested to the League of Nations and Mussolini withdraws his troops after holding the town for a month. Cristo remembered, as a child of 3, seeing these funny soldiers going through the streets with bird feathers in their hats and strange uniforms. The Greeks called them the ‘Macaronathes’. As he grew up, his fiery temperament got him into continuous trouble. At 17 he spent a month in jail for fighting another boy. He recalled his father coming to see him in the prison and saying wearily “How much I want to lose you, my son…” Yannis, a man of gentle nature and a talented artist, was dismayed by his son’s fiery temper. “I was not a bad boy, but when the blood arrive in my head, it is difficult to control me” Throughout his life he was forgiven his excesses; it was recognised he had a good heart but a very short fuse.
1939: War is declared between Britain and Nazi Germany. Cristo (aged 18) joins the Greek Navy and causes trouble on his first day.
At the meal time, he and another young Corfiote, were teased for their Corfiote accents. This was too much for Cristo! When the casserole of bean soup was brought to the table, he grabbed it and threw it at his tormentors and a fight ensued. Cut and bruised he was dragged in front of the Commanding officer. On hearing his name, the Captain recognised in this young man a nephew of Admiral Vlachopoulos, so he hedged his bets and replied dryly “Welcome to the Greek Navy, Mr Vlachopoulos”
Later, on another occasion, selected for Shore Patrol when their ship was off a small Aegean island, Cristo performed his duties impeccably. They got all the drunks back on board. The job done, he said to the young officer “Now we can go and have a drink and something to eat at that taverna over there” Where they were charged an extortionate amount for miserable portions. Cristo has a fight with the taverna keeper and he is the only one carried back on board with a black eye. Once more, dragged before the Captain (who now knew the character of the man) who did not punish him saying “I want the bloody fool who chose him for Shore Patrol!!”
Once he was swept off the tender between ship and shore in a gale. He quickly exploited this near death experience, by assuming a coma, until the ships’ Doctor, a Corfiote like himself, after trying unsuccessfully to revive him, whispered “What do you need to wake up Cristo” The answer came swiftly “Ten days shore leave” “Okay! I’ll see you get it – but come to!”
1932: The British fleet of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Seas visit Corfu in a show of might aimed at Mussolini’s ambition to take Corfu. The Prince of Wales, Duke of York, and Lord Mountbatten on board the Dreadnought ‘Queen Elizabeth’ Ninety-six ships fill the Corfu channel. (Cristo 12 years old)
1940 Italian Navy Torpedoes a Greek Destroyer in the Aegean. Greece enters the war on 28th October and Corfu is bombed 3 days later.
Cristo’s family house is destroyed in the bombardment and both his parents are killed. The four youngest children escape. Spiro, (Cristo’s brother, aged 8) was playing in the harbour when he saw the Italians flying towards Pantokrator mountain range on a range finding run. He ran home as the sirens sounded. Calliope out Marina (aged 16) under a bed and the three youngest children under a settee in the hall. Then the bomb struck, Mariana was trapped in the ruins for three days, a neighbour searching for his own wife heard her calling and she was dug out. Anna, Spiros and James managed to crawl out through a hole in the building. Anna (aged 12) finding a playmate badly wounded lying in the street, ran off to get help for her. Spiros and James (aged 6) left alone, began to walk away from town to a small farm owned by the family, where peasants took them in. Spiros had to carry James most of the way. The older sisters, Katina and Rena were living with relatives in Athens. When Katina heard the news, her impulse was to get back to Corfu to find out what had happened to her siblings. It was impossible for a girl of 19 to travel across Greece alone. Transport almost non-existent, nor roads to carry it. In desperation, she went to the Military Commander in Athens and begged his help. He has a Cretan officer going to Igoumenitza (opposite Corfu on the mainland) who was prepared to take her with him in the jeep. They could not do the 350 mile journey without putting up in a hotel, which were then simple doss-houses with dormitories. Her put her in a dormitory alone and locked her in. A little later he knocked and brought her a chamber pot “you see what a gentleman he was!” she said years later after being married to him for 35 years.
By the time they reached their destination, the Cretan officer, Georgos Vardolakis was determined to marry the girl. He put her on a caique to cross to Corfu. She had great difficulty finding her family; Anna was with her Aunt living rough in the tunnels of the old fortress which were used as air-raid shelters. Spiros and Dimitris were at the orphanage out of the old town at Moraitika, in the south of the island, which was then as difficult to get to as to cross Greece. Marina was in hospital wounded in the leg and suffering from tuberculosis.
Vardolakis, the Cretan officer, determined not to lose this young women, sent a formal proposal of marriage via a caique. She received the letter, and with the help of her aunt, composed a serious reply saying she was honoured by his proposal but she had too many concerns for her family to think about marriage at that moment. She took it to the harbour to give to a caique to take across the water. At that moment another caique came in, Vardolakis leapt off it. Refusing to take no for an answer, he took her to St.Spiridon’s Cathedral, where he vowed she would be his wife. They were married a few months later.
Then the resourceful young women had to get her brothers and sisters to Athens across Greece, never the easiest country to travel in. First by a caique to Igoumenitza, then by an old bus to Ioannina. It was full of wounded soldiers from the Greek/Italian front. It took 12 hours (2 hours today) Then by Arta and Agrinon, along the Peloponnese to Corinth, 350 miles with some parts done on donkeys. Marina was frail but cheerful and always joking, she later died aged 18 in hospital in Athens.
When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Mussolini invaded the north western part of Greece and was held at bay in a magnificent display of valour by the ill equipped Greeks. Cristo was at sea, he described the ship as being strafed by Italian airplanes, when the Greeks had no ammunition in their guns “It made me so angry – it took off my shoe and threw it at them!” As the situation worsened, they received the order to scuttle the ship so that it should not fall into enemy hands. Cristos said it was one of the saddest sights to see their ship go down. The crew rowed for the nearest shore and dispersed “No more Greek Navy!” He made his way to Athens (possibly with only one shoe!) where he lived by his wits pilfering food stuffs from the Germans and syphoning petrol from their vehicles to sell on the black market.
Picture – Katina
August 29-30 1941: Italian forces occupy Corfu.
In Athens Cristo notices a man sitting in a dark corner of a Taverna one day, “I knew he could only be an Englishman. I went to him to warn him that the Germans came in here” The man told him to sit down and have a drink and then asked lots of questions. This was Major Sankey, one of the British officers parachuted into Greece to organise the resistance. As Cristo could speak enough English and German, Sankey told him to return to Corfu “keep your eyes and ears open and report back to me however trivial” “where do I find you?” Cristo had asked him. “You will find me” he said. He was not as stupid to tell Cristo where to find him in case he told the Germans. Cristo accepted the challenge and returned to Corfu. Finding Major Sankey meant getting across to Igoumenitza and making his way up into the mountain area of Paramythia. On one occasion he was taken for questioning at a German check point. They burned his hands with cigarettes but “I make the party of the stupid” They let him go and knowing they were watching him he went straight to the Taverna next door “Then they think I am really stupid” he said and continued on his way later that day.
Back in Corfu, Cristo living by his wits, looks for any opportunity to exploit the situation, hanging about the harbour when damaged ships are brought in, the holds swamped with water but containing precious cargo like coal. He persuades the Italians to let him and his cronies dive into the hold to bring it up and take away to sell, as everything was in short supply on the island and coal was like gold. One day a ship came in, to stock up on stores, seeing that the two officers don’t know where to go, he offers help, brings a cart and a friend to push it. He leads them by the sea wall to the old fortress, they load up with packets of spaghetti (made with egg!) sugar, salt, beans etc. By now the officers trust him completely, so he manages to dupe them into finding their own way back to the ship, while him and his pal brings the stores by an easier route. The officers seeing a chance to stop off at a Taverna, agree. The stores never make it back to the ship and Cristo and his pal quickly disappear into the rabbit warren of old town to disperse the goods between their families and friends.
The story of the Hand
He was not the only one ‘on the game’, hanging about the harbour watching for any opportunity to steal from the damaged ships anchored off shore guarded by one security. One day Cristo at the end of the harbour, notices Pericles at the other end. Knowing they have their eyes set on the same ship, they walk toward each other, discuss the difficulties and decide it not for them. After dark Cristo, with his accomplice, row out and sneaks aboard, disappearing into the first hatch, finds himself in a locker room. He is feeling around in the pitch dark when his hand touches another human hand. “I am ready to kill!” when another voice says “Cristo! It’s me – Pericles!” They join forces, empty the contents of the locker into the waiting boats and getaway. Later, when the tourists began to come to Corfu, Pericles sold souvenirs and rugs around the port. Whenever he and Cristo saw each other, they would commemorate this story, simply by lifting one hand.
Cristo’s arrest and 1st escape
In a moment of foolhardy bravura, he was singing “It’s a long way to Tipperary” in a back street taverna when the Italian patrol passed and arrested him. He was taken to the prison built by the British in the 19 century, on the cartwheel principle, there was no escape from there. Unknown to him the young girl who lived above the taverna had seen him arrested. She was 19 years old and secretly fell in love with him. Every day she went to the prison to take him food.
She was very pretty and spirited, the captain of the guard began a flirtation. In playing up to him she formed a scheme of her own. When the captain put pressure on her
She gave him an ultimatum. She would give herself up to him, if he would free Cristo from the jail. Being a chivalrous man, he kept his side of the bargain.
One night in his cell Cristo heard footsteps approach the door. They took prisoners to execution in the middle of the night. He braced himself to give fight, he would take someone’s ear or eye to the grave, the girl had warned the Captain of this. To Cristo’s surprise he heard a voice say “Come quickly I am a friend” Puzzled he followed the Captain through the dark ways to a side door in the turret. The Captain opened it and shoved him out. The girl was waiting for him among the trees. “When I see her there I understand everything, what she do for me I carry on me for the rest of my life!” It led to no lasting romance, the ‘times were out of joint’ but they remained friends all their lives.
After lying low in the countryside, he was soon up to his old tricks again and arrested again. This time he was sent to a prison in Paxos, off the Bottom of Corfu, which the Italians used as a prison island.
The second escape: On the island the prisoners were left to fend for themselves. They could not easily get off the island as all the boats were confiscated and the channel between the two islands has dangerous currents and sharks.
There was nothing to do but hang about in Gaios, the chief port of the island. The only way to be repatriated to Corfu was to be seriously ill, or injured. One of his fellow prisoners got Cristo to smash his hand with a stone. Cristo preferred to wait for his own luck to present itself, it did quite soon. One night of very bad weather, three caiques put in Gaios to shelter from the storm. The Germans, at that time, used Greek caiques to carry stores and ammunition to avoid attacks from British planes, the boats had Greek crews and German officers. Cristo went to greet them straight away. The officers were glad to find someone with enough of their language to communicate. Cristo swept them into the nearest taverna, told the woman to kill a chicken to make a feast of whatever she had.
The made a merry night of it, the Germans getting very drunk on ouzo and singing their drinking songs. Though the Germans and Italians were still in the war together, these men had no idea the island was being used as a prison by their Italian allies. When they asked Cristo what he was doing in such a place, he told them he was a commercial traveller unable to get away from the island because of the storm. They invited him to “Komm mit uns” At first light when the storm had passed, he sailed out of his prison. “You see!” he would say, “I use the Germans to escape from the Italians!” The caique dropped him off at Preveza and he made his own way to Athens riding on the lorries carrying oranges (which the Germans collected to use for the zest to make explosives)
The Christmas story 1942
The rest of his family were living in Athens in the suburb of Holargo (then in the fields) they didn’t know where Cristo was. On Christmas Eve, with hardly any food and nothing with which to make a feast. It was cold and they huddled together in blankets with Marina ill in bed. No light except candles. It was dark outside when there came a knock at the door. Afraid to open the door, Katina went to the window but could not see anyone. The knock came again, she opened the door a crack. There was nobody there but on the doorstep was a basket. They quickly dragged it in to find it contained potatoes, a cabbage, and onions: things they could not get. Joyously the set about making a Christmas meal, when they heard a characteristic laugh outside. Cristo! He had pilfered all the things to bring to them.
1942: The Germans are now in possession of Athens and all of mainland Greece.
The Third Escape: In Athens Cristo had the nearest escape of his life. Leaving a taverna, he saw the street being blocked off by the Germans who were doing a street sweep. He ran back into the taverna to warn the others there but it was too late. He was scooped up, thrown with others including Jewish people into a cattle truck bound for the labour camps in Germany.
The train stopped at Thessalonika, the last station within Greece. Cristo had worked his way through the crush of people in the truck until he was just beside the German soldier guarding the open aperture. Thessalonika station was crowded with Greeks bringing what food they could spare for the unfortunate people of the train. In a split second when the German sentry’s attention was diverted, Cristo leapt onto the platform and turned to face the train rather than make a dash for it which would have drawn attention to him. At the same moment the train pulled out of the station, leaving him among the people on the platform “That was a moment!”
Free once again, he made his way back to Athens.
1943: The Italians surrender. Collapse of Italian-German alliance. The Germans bomb Corfu, September 14th and take over the island.
The Major Sankey story here is a repeat from an earlier page so leave off.
Above Picture: Dandi – Cristo’s childhood friend, who grew up with him in the Jewish quarter of Corfu, was not so lucky. He was swept up and transported to Dachau, where he spent two years. He got back to Greece, his health impaired but not his resilience.
Among the things he did see, which turned out to be very important, was when slinking back into Corfu town after curfew along the edge of the Platiea overlooking the Contra Fossa (the moat between the Old Fortress and the town) He saw that a submarine had come into Mandraki, the small venetian harbour beside the fortress (now a swimming place) He watched and saw a chain of men passing the stores and munitions from the tunnel within the fortress to the submarine. What impressed him most was that it was done without a sound – not a word of command or chink of metal upon metal, a totally silent operation. He knew this was very important. Till then, the Allies had not suspected the German submarines harassing the British Conveys, were being recharged at Corfu. Cristo passed the information on by the secret network operating on the island to be relayed out by a radio operator on one of the tiny islands at the top of Corfu, Othonoi, Mandraki and Ereikoussa. Shortly afterwards, the fortress was bombed by the Allies.
Katina married Georgos Vardolakis and went to Thessalonika with him where she had her first son. Vardolakis was operating a clandestine radio transmitter in contact with the Allies in the middle-East. He was tipped off that the Germans were coming to get him. He eluded them and got down to Athens. Katrina had to fend for herself. Afraid the Germans would take her, she gave her baby to one of her husbands trusted officers to take it to her Mother-in-law in Athens. She got to Athens walking much of the way. She spent a night in a church porch. But she reached Athens and reunited with her child.
Spiro recalled the night Vardolakis came to the house in Holargos on the outskirts of Athens. A few hours later a ‘tall man’ came, Vardolakis and he left together. Not long after the German patrol cars screeched up to the cottage from different directions. Firstly, they asked Dimitri, (6) if he had seen his sister’s husband. Fortunately, he said “I don’t know” They asked Spiros next. He said he had not seen him for a long while. The Germans left telling the family to tell Katina she must report to the police station. If she did, she would not be treated badly, if she didn’t, she was in for trouble. She was at another house and the children went to tell her. She decided it would be best to go to the police station. They questioned her but let her go, no doubt leaving her free to lead them to George, but he had been taken off by the British Submarine, to the middle east. He returned to Greece when the Germans went into retreat.
1944: Summer – The Germans round up the Jewish population of Corfu to transport them to the extermination camps.
The man in charge of Corfu was Hauptmann Gumm. Ordered to collect the Jews he had dragged his feet on the issue, until a troop off SS were sent to the island to do the job, going from house to house, the Jews were herded into the Platiea.
Cristo had an affinity with the Jews, he had grown up in the Jewish quarter. On that day, he was coming up one of the small streets that lead to the Platiea – probably on his way to witness this terrible event. A 12 year old Jewish boy running pell-mell down the street flung himself on Cristo “Help me” Cristo took him to people prepared to hide the boy. Then he went on to the Platiea where he saw an SS Officer grab a crying baby out of its mothers arms and smash its head on the ground. There was nothing they could do but remember the face of that particular office and make sure he ‘did not return to the Fatherland’
Picture – Cristo’s identity card under the German occupation.
In 1965 Cristo was in Thymis Ouzerie in Nikiforos Theotoki, a habitual place for him. A young man sitting at a table (obviously a tourist) kept starting at Cristo “I thought him crazy looking at me all the time…” Then the young man said “Cristo! Don’t you remember me? I’m Sammy!” The 12 year old Jewish boy he had helped in 1944, now a lieutenant in the Israeli Navy. He had brought presents for him and the other people he hoped to find alive and well.
October 1944, the Germans pull out of Corfu and Greece.
During this last phase, German soldiers realizing it was all up with the Nazi war, began to desert. Cristo was one of the contact agents for these deserters. One day two Germans turned up asking for asylum. He took them to a taverna but was suspicious of them noticing a slight bulge under their jackets which meant they were carrying guns. He put them at a table, ordered wine for them and then excused himself to go to the toilet but in fact he had nipped out of another door into the street. These small tavernas in town were divided in half with a partition in the middle and with doors into different streets. “Many times I escape this way!” When the Germans realised he was not coming back, they smashed up the taverna.
As the Germans leave Greece, there is trouble in Athens with Communist Guerrillas, which develops into the Civil War till 1949.
Corfu not much affected by this conflict but living conditions force many of the Islanders in the post-war period to emigrate to Germany, Australia and America to make a livelihood.
In Athens where people were dying of starvation in the streets, a lorry went around at night picking up the bodies. Spiros and Dimitri were at an orphanage in Kiffsia. The women in charge of the 50 children was at her wits end to feed them. In desperation she went to the German Commander of a nearby camp demanding food for them. He said he had only rations for his own men but ordered two huge loaves of bread to be delivered to the Orphanage every day. The loaves were cut into 100 pieces to give each child two slices “We kept them I our pockets and nibbled them like mice to make it last all day. One day the two boys walking the 6 Kilometres to Holargo to find Katina. She was on her way to them with oil and bread she had saved. They meet halfway. As she was pouring the oil onto the bread for them to eat, a shell landed on the rising ground above them and rolled and summersaulted towards them. It came to rest 3 metres from them without exploding.
In March 1946, Cristo was working at Hassani Airport in Athens for three months and receives excellent references. He can never he cannot stay away from Corfu for too long, otherwise he, too, might have emigrated. He belonged to the Island.
Back in Corfu he turned his hand to anything. The British and American ships were in and out. Cristo made his livelihood trading on board the ships with anything from souvenirs, to cabbages and canaries. He told the story how a Chinese cook on a British ship wanted canaries. Cristo managed to find three canaries but on his way to the harbour he stopped off in a taverna. A cat got one of the canaries and another died of fright but it was even worth trying to sell the one canary. When he got to the harbour he saw the shop was ready to leave. He had himself rowed out to her, where the cook was waiting anxiously on the gangway for his canaries. The sea was rough that day, it was difficult to get near but the cook managed to grab the cage. But when he tried to pass over the money, the boatman could not get the boat close enough. The ship sailed and Cristo was left fuming.
On another occasion it worked the other way. Having been paid in advance to bring a Turkey, the same thing happened – rough sea – the boatman was unable to get close enough to hand over the Turkey, the ship sailed and Cristo’s comment “This poor fella pay now for the canaries….”
Bottles: When trading on board a vessel Cristo noticed a pile of empty bottles in the corner of the gallery. He asked what they did with them, the answer was to chuck them overboard when out at sea. He asked if he could take them away “Yes, sure…” He filed his boat with this priceless commodity. Bottles were in short supply and needed for the loose wine and olive oil the island produced. A bottle even in 1961 was worth 10 drachma, when drachma was 80 to the pound sterling.
The Gun-running Story
He went back to ships for a spell on small vessels trading across the Mediterranean. On one trip he twigged that the cargo they were carrying was guns for Israel. He had plenty of opportunity to join the Black Marketeers and knew their tricks but “I never trust the other bastards for I am the King of the good Bastards” He jumped ship at Alexandria but he had to get his seaman’s papers. He sent word to the Captain to meet him at the harbour bar to discuss the cargo. The Captain offered to cut him in on the deal. Cristo knew if he went back on board he would meet with a little accident. He held firm, the Captain made the best of it, gave him his papers. He worked his way back to Greece on another boat and quit the sea. He could never stay away from Corfu for long.
After spending 8 years in Hollywood, she returns to Greece to become a legendary star of Cabaret, stage, films and television. Her personality (akin to her brothers – “Only they pay to see me!” she would say) make her a comedienne in the tradition of Greek humour since Aristophanes.
Cristo becomes an Electrician…..and an artist
He takes a regular job with the National Electrical Company of Greece D.E.H. working as an engineer stringing the lines across the land and manhandling transformers up mountains to bring electricity to remote villages.
Now the artist in him emerges. In his spare time, he begins to make pen and ink sketches of the streets of the town and the villages. Working at a café table on the Liston, with a glass of Koniak and a coffee. Soon the tourists want to buy his sketches, he has a ‘commodity’ and is selling again.
His father, an amateur artist himself, had always discouraged Cristo as a child from trying to draw. “An artist never gets rich” Parents do not see the ‘turn of events’. Cristo made more money selling his pictures to tourists than from his regular job.
The Niarchos Story
One day when Cristo was very broke, as he was on a daily basis, a friend said, “What’s up Cristo?” “I haven’t a drachma for my coffee” The friend said, “Niarchos is here with the Creole. He buys paintings, I’ve read it in the newspapers, why don’t you sell your paintings to him?” Niarchos, the shipping magnate, often brought his yacht, the Creole into Corfu. Cristo immediately took up this idea, grabbed up his portfolio and rushed to the harbour. Only to find the yacht had just sailed round to Palaiokastritsa, a rocky bay on the western side of the island. 25 kilometres from the town by a very bad road. His friend had a taxi “Take me to Palaiokastritsa and I pay you later” said Cristo. The friend had no business either, so he agreed and off they went in his taxi, bouncing through the potholes of the beautiful old road to Palaiokastritsa before it was made straight by NATO, in the late sixties.
On arrival, there was the Creole resting on the jade water of the bay. Cristo told a boatman to row him out to the ship. Cristo sprang up the gangway and was stopped by a sailor on guard duty who spoke to him in German. “Wass vollein sie?” Cristo replied in German “I wish to see Herr Niarchos” He was told to wait, he waited. Another officer came and asked him what he wanted, he was told to wait again. He waited and waited until he had smoked all his cigarettes and was boiling with anger. Suddenly he saw Niarchos and his company come out onto the afterdeck. It was enough, Cristo pushed the sailor aside and made straight for the great man, introduced himself very courteously, saying he wished to show him his pictures. Niarchos said he would look at them and told an attendant to show Cristo into the bar, he would follow shortly.
As Cristo would describe it “The Barman was ‘a lofty English one” He ask what I want to drink “Whisky!” I say “A whole bottle of whisky was placed in front of him with a glass. He poured himself a stiff one. Then he looked at his surroundings “My god…..I see a Van Gogh on that wall….a Renoir on that wall…Gauguin….Monet….Cristo, I say to myself – you are stupid! How are you going to get out of this situation now…?
He poured himself another stiff whisky and another one after that. Still no sign of Niarchos. Cristo decided he still had time to get to the gangway. As he came out of the bar, Niarchos looked up and saw him and said “oh, the artist…I will see you now…” having forgotten all about him. Cristo, in a rage at his own stupidity, shouted “Too late!” dramatizing the situation by tearing his portfolio in two and throwing the pieces over the side. Making for the gangway, he saw the boatman had gone – there was only one thing to do now. He dived overboard where he had flung his pictures. This set the ship in panic. They had to do with a madman. A boat was quickly lowered. It was only a short distance to the shore and Cristo was a good swimmer. When they tried to rescue him, he shouted “I know how to swimming!” He may not be Van Gogh, but he could swim.
On the shore “I fighting with the boatman” who wanted his money. “I fighting with the taxi” who wanted his money. “Go away and leave me alone” The taxi-man went back to town without him. He was alone as Ulysses on the same shore where Ulysses watched up.
There was one guest house right on the beach, called Xenia, built after the war to accommodate the minimal tourist trade. He went there, the proprietor knew him well. He ordered a Koniak and a packet of cigarettes, though he had no money. He would pay sometime. He often came here in the summer. Wherever he went he often left behind him a small cache of paper, his pens and inks which he carried in a French soap box. He looked around the window sills and sure enough he found things left from the summer before. He began at once to scratch out a picture to sell to the Hotel keeper for his Koniak. It was early in the season, but two elderly English ladies staying at the hotel were sitting at a table nearby, watching him. They asked if they might see his picture when he had finished it “Certainly, Mesdames…” and began to finish it in haste. He showed it to them, they liked it and asked could they buy it.
“Of course! Mesdames” “How much is it” they asked. “Wait a minute please and I can tell you” He sat down at their table and began a complicated sum on the back of his cigarette packet. Finally, he presented them with an itemized bill which included the taxi, the boatman, the Koniak and the cigarettes. They said “But we haven’t had any of those things…” “I know that very well” He said, and then he told them the whole story of the fiasco. They were so amused and delighted with the story and his honesty they were happy to pay three times the price for the small ink sketch “Women always help me much…..”
1952: The Club Mediterranee brings the French to Dassia. His French improves. The English come as individual travellers en route for the archaeological sites at Delphi, Corinth and Athens. Later the package Tourism brings more and more to the island.
A typical 24 hours in the summer life of Cristo. From 6.30 to 3pm he has a job with the Electrical Company, climbing poles in the burning sun, manhandling transformers up mountainsides to bring electricity to remoter villages. One week in the month, he is given a job around the town delivering bills or disconnecting electricity where bills have not been paid. This gives him the opportunity to spend time chatting to foreigners at the cafes on the Liston and having extraordinary encounters.
In disconnecting the electricity he often used his diplomatic skills in saving the face of the bank manager, whose bill had not been paid. Rescuing a swallow trapped in the electrical wires or pacifying a mad old women who is convinced her electric meter is running too fast, convinced she is being charged too much. She has complained so many times to the company, they are fed up with her as there is nothing wrong with her meter. Cristo tackles the problem another way “Madame you are right, the meter is going too fast, but I will tell you what you must do, bring me a glass of water” He places the glass of water on top of the meter and a piece of paper on top of the glass. “Now madame, you must keep it like that. You won’t have any more trouble” She is delighted and the company has no more trouble with her.
Next he tackles a butcher who is known to chase with his cleaver anybody from the company who tries to remove the main fuse. Cristo, undaunted, removes the fuse and puts it in his pocket. When the butcher realises his fridges have gone dead, he comes at him like a bull. Cristo holds up his hand “Not with me!” The butcher stops, Cristo reasons with him as a friend. “Spiro, its Saturday – the fridges will be dead till Monday at best. You will lose all your meat. Go to pay your bill now – I wait in the taverna over there. Bring me the receipt…I will put back the fuse” The butcher takes off his apron and goes like a lamb “All day comedy” says Cristo.
At 3 pm, he takes a siesta on the grass in the Platiea. He then starts to make his pen sketches at the Corfu bar. When he has done enough, he mounts them on card at the bookshop – they are his ‘ammunition’s for the evening. He rents a scooter, drives out to the Diktia nightclub/beach restaurant, where he dances impromptu Zembikikoes and the Hassapico to the delight of the tourists who have never seen such a dance and want to learn it. He guides them through a simple version. He sells them his pictures. The night continues to the early hours, drinking, dancing, and singing. After no more than two or three hours sleep he is back at his job at 6.30 a.m.
But the winter nights are long and without pocket money he gets from selling his sketches to the tourists. But he has gained respect as ‘An Artist’ and ‘A Boheme’ so, he sells to his friends among the local bourgeoisie.
He makes his life around the taverns with his cronies, a masculine world where nights are passed singing in harmony, dancing Zembikikoes and Hassapico and joking with each other, while waiting for the tourists to return like the swallows in spring……
21st April 1967 – The ‘Colonels’ Coup d’Etat
For the next 7 years Greece is ruled by and oppressive Military Regime. But life goes on and Tourism goes on at an accelerated pace.
The ‘Celebrity summers’ of the 1960’s
Corfu is discovered by the discerning traveller. The life is very simple, basic accommodation, apart from The Corfu Palace, The Miramare and The Castello Palace hotels. No night clubs except the ‘cottage’ night clubs with music provided by the jukebox. The food is the dish of the day, such as ‘bean soup’ or pastas like ‘bicycle wheels in tomato soup’ roast lamb on high days and holidays. The wine is ‘village’ wine.
The entertainment entirely spontaneous Greek dancing: Hassapico, Zembikikoes and village circle dances as danced by the Greeks themselves.
1968: Meeting with Morris West, the bestselling Australian author of THE SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN, THE DEVILS ADVOCATE AND THE DAUGHTERS OF SILENCE.
At paleokastritza, no longer the virgin rock bound bay, but a prime tourist attraction, it was the time of the Junta and tourists were few. Cristo came upon a family of Australians at the Hotel Zefiros. Learning that it as the party of a little girl’s birthday, Cristo presented her with one of his pictures and entertained the party by dancing the Zembekiko. Morris Wet, the little girl’s father was so impressed with this character, he went into the kitchen to ask for an old tablecloth on which he wrote a poem for Cristo.
For Cristo Vlahopoulos
First a man
Just a man
Then a Greek
Which is twice a man.
Then an Artist
Which three times a man.
Then a man, who gave a dream
To a little girl on her birthday,
Which is four times a man.
And this shall be remembered
When all the rest is –
Not forgotten – but vague
In the sun which has buried
Homer and Praxiteles
I offer these lines
Written in the intoxication
Signed: Morris West, and
The little girl, Melanie J West