Way back in the seventies, I was hitchhiking through South-eastern Europe and took a ferry from the lovely port of Kavala (east of Thessaloniki) to the island of Thassos. I had read about the densely forested Thassos in a book when I was in my last year of school. I had vowed to go there and three years later there it was ahead of me on the horizon, floating in an incredibly azure Aegean Sea. It was not a long voyage. Probably little more than half an hour if my memory serves me correctly. The first stop was the seaside village of Skala Prinos. It had seemed logical to me to go first to the main town, but Prinos looked so inviting and undeveloped that I could not resist disembarking there.
Thassos - The larger town of Limanos back then
I Too Much Young For Work
The jetty at Skala Prinos was tiny and in need of repair. Three or four of us climbed ashore and waved the small ferry off as we stepped over the missing planks and headed towards the one single cafe. This was a laid-back kind of a place even by Greek standards, I could see that. I sat myself at a small, wobbly table and ordered a coffee. Despite being on a tight budget it seemed the right thing to do if I wanted to meet people. I surveyed the beach and the wooded hills behind.
It was just as beautiful as I had hoped. In those days, Prinos amounted to a collection of about twenty or so little whitewashed houses in front of the ferry stage, with a few larger houses that I could see further along as the little road rounded the headland. Unfinished reinforcing rods poked through the flat concrete roofs, visible among the trees. The beach would be quiet along there, with little hidden coves, so it would be perfect as a place to sleep so long as there were no sewage pipes. These attracted mosquitos. I had a sleeping-bag and a military waterproof groundsheet-cum-poncho, which had served me well down through France, along the French and Italian Rivieras and down through Yugoslavia before arriving here in Northern Greece. I was straining my eyes, looking for the best coves, when someone stepped into my field of vision. It was a stocky looking young man with dark curly hair and a few days growth of beard.
"Kalimera," he said, holding out a hand.
"Kalimera," I replied, although it was now afternoon rather than morning.
"No England. My name is Mark, have a seat."
The young man sat down casually and put his feet up on the spare chair. Perhaps his family owned the cafe, I wondered? He smiled a lot, almost like he knew me from the past and I hadn't realised it. But I didn't know him, I was sure of that.
"I am Kiriyakos. Say me Yakos. Jour friend in Prinos!"
Yakos shook my hand again and ordered a coffee from the young waiter. His manner with the waiter was rather surly, I thought. A local pecking order thing, perhaps?
I was unsure of Yakos at first, convinced that at any moment he was going to ask me to come to look at blankets, sandals or bazoukis in his friend's shop, but he did not. He only wanted to talk. His English vocabulary was sparse but what little he knew he used inventively. He asked me about my life in England – about school, art college, work. He wanted to know about what kind of houses or apartments we lived in, what cars people drove in England, but most of all he wanted to know about girls.
"I too much like England girls... oh yeah, wow!" He mimed some girlish mannerisms and we both laughed. "You like see Prinos?" he asked. "Walk for the beach?"
I finished my coffee, paid and we got up. The waiter would not allow me to pay for Yakos' coffee, yet Yakos did not pay either. Perhaps he had an account, I wondered?
Prinos People No Pay
"Prinos people no pay here," he muttered as we headed along the dusty road past the small makeshift car park. "Look my uncle." Yakos pointed out to sea at a fishing boat bobbing about on the waves. "I too much like fish."
"Is that your job – your work I mean – fishing?" I asked, miming the casting of nets and pointing to the boat.
"Yakos don't to make job. Yakos too much young for work, my friend," he laughed. "Work later. Now I like to make all days for enjoy the life."
I was not sure if he was talking only about today or whether this was his general philosophy of life. We walked the length of the beach in one direction, about a mile I suppose. When we got back to the cafe I was expecting to continue in the other direction towards the coves and the big houses.
"No no my friend, first come to cafe. Too much hard for walk. Muchas illios! Too much sun. Yakos very tiring. Sit, sit down please!"
We sat and Yakos explained how life was, in his opinion, too full of opportunities for pleasure to be exerting oneself.
"Too much working, Yakos die young man, same like Yakos father."
I questioned Yakos further. Had I understood correctly? Had his father died young? It was an uncomfortable question in a culture that I so far barely knew.
"He has forty years. Too much working, working. Try to make money, money. Athini, Thessaloniki, Germany. Heart..." Yakos clutched his chest and grimaced.
"My father too," I said. "Thirty-seven years. Heart." I too clutched my chest and adopted a pained expression.
Yakos looked hard at me. "Your father same? Die thirty-seven years?"
"I was fifteen years old," I told him.
"I ten years. Too much small boy," he replied, tears in his eyes. "We are brothers, Mark. Yakos and Mark, brothers no?"
"Yes brothers," I said, patting his shoulder. I was moved, though clearly not as much as he was. My North European reserve, perhaps? Yakos waved to the waiter and shouted something. A moment later he arrived with a pair of brandy glasses filled to the brim.
"My brother," said Yakos proudly, presenting me to the waiter. The waiter shook my hand. "Metaxa.
The Carrot & The Donkey
I drank the brandy, eventually. I was surprised, it was not at all bad. Fairly weak, thankfully. We talked more about our fathers. Yakos told me his mother was always angry with him for not working. She called him lazy. He didn't want to die young like his father, he told her. Did she want to lose her son as well as his father? This was his usual repost, he said. The fact was that I too extolled the virtues of a relaxed, carefree life. Who needed money when they had free time, shelter and fresh food from their garden or the sea? I was too idealistic, people back in England told me. It was a man's natural instinct to work to achieve more. A bigger house, a better car, a boat, holidays and a good education for their children. But I was never convinced by this theory. As far as I could see it was the carrot that spurred-on the donkey that kept the wheels of industry turning. I had listened to too many rich people grumbling about how unhappy and pointless their life was for me to believe in that.
"Come, we greet my mother!" said Yakos, jumping up.
Yakos' mother seemed accustomed to meeting tourists and wastrels befriended by her son. She was polite but maintained a definite air of scepticism. Yakos told me to leave my rucksack in the kitchen. His mother snapped grouchily in response and I quickly retrieved it again, but only to be told to put it in the living-room where it would be safer. I hoped Yakos wasn't going to try to persuade her later that I should stay with them. I would have to refuse. Walking along the beach, however, Yakos pre-empted any further concern I may have had on that front.
"You sleeps here on Prinos beach this night, Mark?"
"Yes I sleep on the beach, absolutely, yes."
"OK OK... Look, Mark, I am so much sorry you don't can stay my house. My mother she is angry for me. Too much friends coming. She say, Yakos no more! I am sorry my brother."
I told him I preferred to sleep on the beach. The sound of the waves. The sinking sun and dramatic magenta skies. I painted him such an attractive picture of it all in the hope of sparing him his embarrassment.
"The gulls," I said. "The stars – shooting-stars sometimes. The glow of the rising sun preparing to peep over the horizon and bring the dawn. It's so beautiful. So peaceful." Yakos seemed touched by my description. He became pensive.
Yakos was entranced by the stars, almost as if he had never noticed them before. The next morning we swam in the sea, then went and washed under a hose in the garden of a nearby hotel. A woman and her husband came out, clearly the owners. I was worried but they just laughed and brought us a towel each. Other people were watching from the windows. Yakos introduced me. Mama and Papa Angelos. They spoke no English but Papa did speak German. A guest-worker, like so many in Northern Greece. Yakos told them all about me and they shook my hand.
"Yakos bruder, jah? Guss Gott!" Said Papa. "Komen sie hierein bitte."
He led us inside and sat us down at a table amongst their smiling hotel guests. Breakfast was laid before us along with strong coffee. Greek coffee – exactly like Turkish coffee, except of course you must never say that, not to either nationality. Yakos could see I was concerned about money. It would not be necessary to pay, he said. Prinos people didn't pay, he explained. They do some work when it is needed or they bring some fruit, fish or bread when they have extra.
"Ah, barter," I said.
"Yes yes, sometime shoes also," he replied, pointing at his sandals.
Yakos asked what I would like to do for the day.
"You like to fishing?" he asked. "I am like too much fishing, my friend. We go fishing yes?"
The best place for fishing was a small jetty in the next village, apparenty. It was about three or four miles away. Yakos would not want to risk an early death by exerting himself in the walk there and back, I felt sure of that. Approaching the cafe Yakos went into the kitchen where they were busy making a moussaka. Kalimera's were exchanged all round. Dishes were examined and sniffed at. Compliments paid. Was anyone driving along the coast road, Yakos asked? A man appeared from out of a cloud of steam over a large pot of fish broth.
"Seega seega, Kiriyakos!" the man said, "Seega seega!"
This was, I learned, an important expression in Greece. Slowly slowly!
We returned outside and sat on the wall by the ferry. I didn't like to question Yakos over the arrangements. It was nearly twenty minutes before the man arrived and got into a three wheeled scooter with a home-made pick-up platform at the back. Yakos began helping the man to load some crates onto the back. I assisted as best as I knew how, tying some rope around the load before joining Yakos on the back, wedged between crates. The coast road was bumpy but the views were amazing. Colourful lizards scuttled off the road ahead of us and into the rocky verges.
"Mark, my friend. You can to find me one England girlfriend?" asked Yakos, lying back against the crates and gazing dreamily at the sky.
I considered asking him if he would find me a Greek girlfriend in return, but I knew too much of the culture already to risk that.
A vision of Yakos in years to come perhaps?
Yakos' fishing tackle was crude to say the least. No rod. An oversized hook on undersized line, or so it seemed to me. The kinked and knotted line was simply wrapped around a beer can. A coin with a hole was used as a weight. I was amazed that we caught anything at all but Yakos had the technique. The fish, being fairly small, were not generally caught by the lip. Instead the large hook was used to snag the fish in the abdomen or the tail as they massed around a piece of bread dropped into the clear, shallow water. In this haphazard way we had a bucket-full of three or four inch long fish within about an hour and a half. At this point Yakos packed up the tackle, took the bucket and headed for the bakery. Handing over a dozen or so of the shimmering fish, Yakos received in exchange, a large loaf and a couple of small coconut madeleine-style cakes. Next-door he borrowed a sharp filleting knife, a bucket of water and a couple of long barbecue skewers. Having prepared the fish and found a suitable amount of dry driftwood and kindling, Yakos then built a fire on the beach. Even the matches he scrounged from a fisherman. His slovenly attitude masked a practiced skilfulness. In no time at all we were tucking into delicious barbecued fish and fresh bread. The woman in the cafe even came down the beach and brought us a chopped up lemon.
"Sometimes I sharpen her knives for her," said Yakos. "She is my mother's friend from the school. My father's girlfriend before my mother," he laughed.
Riding home to Prinos in the back of another vespa pick-up truck that we had helped load with cabbages, I wondered about the lives of people back in England. Even the lives of Greeks in Athens or Thessaloniki, come to think of it. Why on Earth would anyone want for more than this? But there I was, being idealistic again.
If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.