Sunday, 8 June 2014

People I've Met On The Road – John

In Greece With No Shorts

It was autumn 1979 and I was languishing on a sandy beach in Greece. On the south coast of Crete to be precise, in a village named Matala. It's bigger now but back then it probably had around three B&Bs and a very basic bamboo clad hotel named the Bamboo Sands. I fell out of a 1st floor window there trying to help a lady friend (Tessa) break into her room after curfew. The place was run by the local shyster who's sole ambition in life seemed to be to fleece foreigners. It was the only place in the area where you could change money and the exchange rates were criminal. Other local business-people were as friendly as you will find anywhere in the world, however. There was an old widow, affectionately known to all as 'Mama', who cooked superb food in her beachfront cafe / restaurant and trusted everyone to help themselves to whatever food and drink they wanted. We would then tell her what we'd had at the end of each night. Another restaurant taught me to make decent firm moussaka you could cut like a cake. I had to go there in the early hours. It's all about letting it get cold, then reheating it later (not too much) before serving.

Ready to leave. His name was Bernd Bartsch, hers Barbara. They kindly gave us their cooking pots when they left.  I remember he had a thing about asking girls he didn't know in Mama's restaurant if he could snog them. He was a university lecturer, she one of his students. He'd be up in court with DLT and Rolf Harris now if he was famous!

Matala was an idyllic place where the hangover of the hippy era collected each autumn as the cold weather invaded the lands and islands further north. The poorest backpackers camped out in the ancient caves that overlooked the bay on one side. You could see them all candlelit by from the beach at night. Others (like my girlfriend and me) slept in a tent in the beachside campsite, which did not charge after mid-September. The three or four cafes on the beach were so cheap, most of us ate there at least once a day. Dishes were typical basic Greek fare, like moussaka, calamari, Greek salad, lamb kebabs and chip omelette (the latter was the most popular dish throughout Crete at that time). We had been there nearly two months and had made friends with quite a few people, hence the reason we had stayed so long.

Typical dress of the time for Matala visitors

One couple we had noticed on the beach for a few days seemed to be American. I should say at this point that most of the people on the beach each day wore no clothes or swimming costumes. After nearly three months this seemed unremarkable. Very few Greek people used the beach and those who did seemed comfortable with this casual nudity. The young couple in question were more noticeable due to the fact that the young woman was naked but wearing a metal body brace to support her torso and neck. We had not actually spoken to them, however. Not until one fateful day in November.

It was a hot day and my girlfriend and I had grown tired of reading – books were passed around the backpackers daily. I remember a Dutch hippy woman (beautiful) in a 2CV van. She had travelled in it with her boyfriend to India and back. She lent me a small Indian book called 'My Village My Life'. Pretty special.  So back to the beach; we had both fallen asleep face down on the sand. There were plenty of people on the beach that morning. Shaken from my lazy dreams, I was awoken by a searing pain in my bottom accompanied by shouting in Greek and a slashing sound. I leaped up with a start and turned to see a pair of policemen in uniform and dark sun glasses. One of them had a thin stick with which he was whipping me. I had enough Greek to know that he was insulting me violently, but not as violently as he was whipping me. All around, people were hurriedly putting on clothes or wrapping themselves in towels. The two men shouted in English at my girlfriend and other naked people nearby as I struggled to pull on some trunks. Everyone was covered now but they were still angry. "Prostitute!" they shouted at the women.
The one with the stick whipped me again. I wanted to hit him but resorted to pacification instead and soon enough they did begin to calm down. "This is forbidden!" said the younger policeman.
"We are very sorry," I said, "we didn't understand it was forbidden."
"Who are we bothering?" asked an older woman.
"The young Greek girls," they replied angrily.
"But there are no Greek girls here, she replied pointing to the assembled foreign bodies along the beach.
"They can see from village with telescope!" said the older policeman indignantly.

Others joined me in apologising and trying to calm the situation. We were all beginning to think the crisis was over when we noticed the woman in the brace becoming agitated.
"John, John, get back in the water. Get... back... in... the... water!"
We turned towards the sea. Out of the water a wet and bedraggled man was emerging, lumbering clumsily towards the water's edge. He was sunburned but still had the telltale white swimming costume marks of a new arrival. He was hard to miss.
"What,?" he burbled, seawater falling from his mouth. "Pass me my glasses!"
It was now obvious from the disorientated way John was stumbling forward, that he had very poor eyesight and had removed his glasses for swimming.

"Get the hell back into the sea John for Christ sake!"
Eventually the two policemen noticed her and turned to see who she was calling to. There stood John, no more than six feet away from them, a full frontal with his white genital area screaming, "hey look at me!!"

John almost walked into their arms. The two policemen screamed in unison as if he might be a zombie. They seemed genuinely horrified. Both rushed around him, one whipping him, the other having grabbed a towel was trying to cover him up. The verbal abuse and the whipping were merciless. Only the actions of the woman in the brace made them stop. Yet for the enforcers of Crete's ancient conservative laws and the official guardians of local girls' honour, this was the final straw. Having thought a mere moment ago that I was off the hook, the two policemen now arrested John and then on second thoughts detained me too. I tried in vain to calm them again but no, their blood was up. We were almost dragged along the beach to their waiting car and driven away amid hoots and jeers from the assembled backpackers and locals.
"Don't worry," shouted our two girlfriends, "we'll come and find you."

The police car hooted to displace the onlookers who had surrounded it.
"Where are you taking us?" I asked (perhaps in Greek, which I have since forgotten).
"Heraklion. To prison!" the older man said. He seemed serious.
"But Heraklion's nearly seventy miles away - it'll take all of three hours!" said John with incredulity.
"Four hours," said the policeman, smiling at his partner.
There was silence for a while as we drove out of Matala along the narrow mountain road. John and I began sharing notes. Where in England was I from? Where in the USA was he from? Why did his girlfriend have that brace?  All of a sudden the car pulled over and stopped. What was happening, we wondered. Slowly the older policeman turned from the front seat and fixed me with a hard stare. John and I waited. Finally he spoke. His words were laboured, serious and his eyes searching. He pointed a fat accusatory finger.
"For why, you are in my country no shorts?"

To be continued... (please enter your e-mail in the box at top right to receive future posts)

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