Severe case of foot in mouth

Greeks are in disbelief at the way they are being blamed for the crisis by right-wing European politicians. German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged them in the recent elections to vote for parties that would enforce the European Union’s proposed austerity measures. Last week British Prime Minister David Cameron courted the Little England vote by saying that immigration from Greece might be restricted. Then Christine Lagarde, who enjoys a tax-free salary of almost half a million dollars as head of the International Monetary Fund, said that this was “payback time” for Greeks who hadn’t paid their taxes. Everyone here knows that the tax-evaders are the plutocrats – the great mass of wage-earners pay their taxes, and they’re the ones who are being hit by the measures forced on Greece as part of the bail-out package.

In an excellent piece in this month’s London Review of Books Richard Clogg takes Cameron to task over another howler – his statement on a recent visit to the US that in 1940 America and Britain stood alone against Nazism. In 1940, Clogg points out, Greece was Britain’s only ally against Germany. And what a heavy price Greeks paid for that stand. The following year came the German occupation, which unleashed inflation on a scale five thousand times worse than in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. In five years prices went up five trillion times. After the German invasion British, Australian and New Zealand forces were evacuated and many Greeks gave their lives helping them to escape. Many more died – 200,000 of famine. 49,000 Greek Jews were deported and exterminated, many thousands of resistance fighters were tortured and brutally killed, and 1.2 million people were made homeless.

Clogg concludes that when Cameron next opens his mouth, “a recognition of past Greek sacrifices in the common struggle against fascism … would not come amiss.” 


Our latest expedition here in the Peloponnese has taken us through Kalamata and down into the western peninsula of Messinia to Koroni castle. Alex proposed the trip, intrigued by pictures he’d seen of its ruined fortifications on a rocky headland.

Think Greek ruins and images of classical times come to mind. But this was a medieval castle, built in the sixth or seventh century AD on the site of the ancient town of Asine as a Byzantine fort. From 1206 it was captured successively by the Venetians and the Turks. The French seized it in 1828 and turned it over to newly independent Greece.

This part of Messinia is less wild than the Mani. Our road to Koroni passed through orchards laden with citrus and villages with narrow streets where bougainvillea and oleanders spilled in full flower over stone walls and iron balconies.

Reaching the castle, we were astounded by its extent. It was greatly enlarged by the Venetians, and inside the broken-down walls there had been an entire town. Even today a few white-washed houses remain inhabited among the crumbling stones. And in the most sheltered part of the fort, an oasis of calm, a whole complex of churches stands around a flower-filled cemetery still tended by the townspeople. There’s a Byzantine Aghia Sophia, a 17th century Venetian Church of St Rocco, and a more recent Orthodox church and monastery.  

From the ramparts the bay beside the fishing village below looked inviting. We went down to swim in the clearest blue waters, then lunched at one of the string of quayside tavernas. For reasons we couldn’t fathom fresh seafood is much cheaper on this side of the gulf. We chose grilled sardines, squid and a local fish very like a bream, all from that morning’s catch.

A memorable day.


Our landlord’s family, who are also our neighbours, can’t do enough to make sure all is well with us. Every couple of days, when they see us passing, they come over with tomatoes and cucumbers. Last weekend they had a big baking session, and presented us with a round loaf of that thick Greek bread that seems specially made to soak up olive oil and cooking juices.

The other night there was a knock on the door some time after 11pm. We’re just about to have a birthday party for our little nephew, they said. Would you like to come?

We haven’t quite adjusted to the local hours yet, and after getting up at 6am we’d had it. We thanked them warmly but explained we were still recovering from our travels. But you must have some food, they said. It’s OK, we said, we’ve eaten. Then have some for tomorrow, they said. And before we could say more a plate of tender baked lamb and golden potatoes was thrust into our hands. We had it next day and it was unbelievable delicious.

Temeo Danaos et dona ferentes, says the old Latin saying – I fear Greeks bearing gifts. We don’t. Our only problem is how to thank them.

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