Bob’s midnight swim


IT WAS a hot Greek night in mid-July and my friend Bob decided after a surfeit of ouzo that he fancied a swim. He climbed on to a railing and swan-dived into the Aegean Sea. The trouble was, we were on board a ferry at the time.

Fortunately someone raised the alarm and the vessel turned round. After an hour of searching they found Bob on the radar, calmly treading water, and pulled him in.

After holding him in a cell until morning, when we arrived in the port of Piraeus, the captain let him go following a mighty rollicking and we continued our holiday. I might add that I had been unaware of the night’s drama having passed out during the ouzo binge.

This was one of the more egregious events of my first trip to Greece in 1976, at the age of 21, with Bob and two other friends from school, Brian and Philip. Brian it was who organised the two-week jaunt, in which we planned to island-hop and if possible, for reasons best known to him, visit Turkey, then a mysterious country and difficult to reach.

Landing in Athens in the middle of the night, we repaired to a hotel in Glyfada, the nearby beach resort, after which we headed for Piraeus to take a ferry to Chios, the fifth-largest of the Greek islands separated from the Turkish mainland by a narrow strait.

We discovered that while Chios had good beaches it was uncommercialised and, given its proximity to the hated Turks who had invaded Cyprus two years earlier, full of Greek soldiers. Having found a guesthouse for the night, we set out to find how to get to Turkey. Nobody would tell us. Eventually we saw a small sign in the harbour area advertising boat trips across the strait and, after we had hung around for an hour, an elderly gent arrived who said we should turn up at 11am the next day.

That evening we found a bar and proved a source of great amusement to a gang of coffee-sipping soldiers as we set about drinking it dry. We started on FIX, a beer from Greece’s oldest brewery, founded in Athens in 1864. It was nowhere near as good as Amstel but it was all the owner had.

When all the FIX had gone we went on to retsina, the white wine flavoured with pine, in 500ml bottles with metal tops. A dozen or so later, all that was left was ouzo. After a few of those I’d had enough and staggered off to search for the guesthouse. By the time I found it the others were already back.

At breakfast the following morning I asked: ‘How much was the bill last night?’ Blank looks. It turned out that no one had paid. We tried to find the bar and settle our debts but what looked like the right building was firmly shuttered up and we had to be on our way to the boat. I still feel guilty about that poor bar owner.

The boat did indeed leave at 11am and after a short voyage we found ourselves in a Turkish port called Cesme. To our surprise there was no one hanging around offering accommodation so we found a taxi and asked to be taken to the nearest hotel.

This turned out to be a modern monstrosity known as the Golden Dolphin. We were staggered at the room rates, which accounted for a major chunk of our budget, but decided to give it one night while we tried to drink away our beer/retsina/ouzo hangovers. The bar prices were similarly outrageous, the staff hostile and we concluded that if this was Turkey, you could stuff it.

Next day we were back on Chios and found the bar still shuttered (I hope the owner hadn’t done away with himself in despair). With the ferry back to Piraeus due to leave that evening, we spent the afternoon drinking beer then bought several bottles of ouzo for the journey, the consumption of which led to Bob’s impromptu dip. Silly sod.

From Piraeus we headed for the Argo-Saronic archipelago and, having called at Hydra, Poros and Aegina, plumped for Spetses, setting for John Fowles’s pretentious novel The Magus, which I had in my rucksack (I was only 21, remember). A little man met us on the quay and said he had a four-bedroom villa which would suit us down to the ground. It was most pleasant, cost less for a week than the Golden Dolphin did for a night and I would have enjoyed it greatly had I not come down with dysentery.

As I battled agonising stomach cramps my friends found a pharmacy. It was shut for a public holiday lasting three more days, so while the lads were out on the lash I was confined to the lavatory with only a few mosquitoes for company. When the pharmacy finally opened it provided Entero-Vioform which sorted me out within hours. It’s since been banned as dangerous.

There is little else to relate about the trip, apart from a huge flying insect giving me a black eye in a pine forest, but there is a postscript.

Several years later at a friend’s wedding reception, I was on the same table as a suntanned couple who said they were the parents of one of the bridesmaids and had just returned from Turkey. ‘Don’t mention Turkey to me,’ I said. ‘Robbing bastards.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because I stayed at a hotel called the Golden Dolphin in Cesme and they fleeced me. They’d stab you in the back as soon as look at you.’

‘Oh dear,’ said the mother. ‘That’s where we’ve just been. And our daughter’s engaged to one of the waiters.’

It’s fair to say that, after this, the conversation flagged somewhat.

Old jokes’ home

A white horse walks into a pub and orders a pint. The landlord says: ‘I’ve got several bottles of whisky named after you.’ ‘What?’ replies the horse. ‘Derek?’

A PS from PG

The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like GK Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.

PG Wodehouse: A Damsel in Distress

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