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NOT REALLY A PREFACE
(People tend to skip prefaces)
How Greek Was My Valley. That’s what I was going to call this book because I rather liked the play on words in reference to the 1941 film, How Green Was My Valley. However, there were two main reasons why I eventually decided against it:
- We don’t live in a valley at all, so I really can’t claim it as mine or have any idea how Greek it may or may not be. On the contrary, we live halfway up a mountain, and since it’s very definitely a Greek mountain, there didn’t seem to be much point in speculating about its Greekness.
- The film, How Green Was My Valley (and the novel that it’s based on), is about a coal mining community in South Wales, and I didn’t want to mislead anyone into believing that this was a book about coal mining in Greece – which it very definitely isn’t.
In the interests of accuracy, I suppose I could have called the book How Greek Was the Place Where We Live That’s Halfway Up a Mountain, but it didn’t strike me as particularly catchy as a title. Driving Over Olives had a rather nice ring to it but was perhaps a little too derivative, so in the end I went with A Kilo of String which, coincidentally, is the title of my podcast series about some of our experiences since moving to Greece.
And why did I call the podcast series A Kilo of String? Because it comes from an incident that epitomises many of the things that have seemed bizarre to my partner (now wife) Penny and I during the thirteen years we’ve lived here. I certainly wouldn’t have expected that our first encounter with culture shock would be over something as apparently straightforward as buying rope or string, but that’s exactly how it came about.
In Greece, they don’t tend to go in for the B&Q-type DIY megastores except in the bigger towns and cities. Instead, they’ve stuck more with the traditional style of shops such as the kind of hardware stores that used to be on every British high street until about the 1980s. The first time I went into one of these places, I wanted to buy some rope, so I found a display rack which had several different thicknesses of rope and string on individual spools.
‘I’d like some rope, please,’ I said to the shopkeeper in a rough approximation of Greek, having previously looked up the words in our pocket dictionary.
‘Málιsta. Poιó thélate?’
I was fairly sure he was asking me which sort I wanted, so I pointed to the appropriate spool.
‘Entáxeι. Pósa kιlá tha thélate?’ said the shopkeeper.
The question totally floored me. Primitive though my knowledge of Greek was at that stage, it sounded a lot like he was asking me how many kilos I wanted. He’d obviously misunderstood me, so I patted the spool and gave it a sideways nod for emphasis.
‘Yes, I know,’ he said in English and with more than a hint of impatience in his tone. ‘But how many kilos?’
This was getting ridiculous. How should I know how many kilos?
‘I’ve no idea,’ I said. ‘I just want ten metres.’
‘Okay,’ said the shopkeeper and waved me aside before reeling off some of the rope, using his arms as a measure until he’d got about ten metres’ worth. Then he cut it off, took it to the counter, weighed it and charged me at the rate per kilo.
As far as we or anybody else can work out, there doesn’t seem to be any particular logic for selling things like rope, string, wine, olive oil and even bubblewrap by the kilo. If you ask a Greek, more often than not they’ll just shrug and say they’ve always done it like that so what’s the problem? Well, it isn’t a problem at all once you get used to it or the multitude of other examples in Greece for which there doesn’t appear to be any logical reason.
In supermarkets, for instance, you’ll often find a free gift taped to a particular product even though the two items bear no relation to each other whatsoever. Take a jumbo-sized pack of washing powder. What’s the free gift? Bottle of fabric conditioner? Some other household cleaning aid perhaps? No, it’s a can of Coke or a packet of crisps. So where’s the logic in that? Okay, you might be able to make a case based on people getting hungry and/or thirsty when they’re doing the weekly wash, but it’s a bit on the tenuous side, isn’t it?
In Greece, you just have to accept that there aren’t any logical explanations for a lot of the weird stuff you come across here, which has always struck me as rather ironic considering it was the Greeks who pretty much invented logic – the word itself coming from the original Greek logιkí. But maybe that was so long ago that they eventually became bored with it and decided to do chaos instead, which is of course another Greek invention, “chaos” coming, oddly enough, from the Greek word cháos.
And in case I’m beginning to sound like the stereotypical British expat who’s constantly moaning on about the perceived shortcomings of whatever country it is that they’ve chosen to settle in, I’d be the first to admit that we Brits aren’t exactly innocent when it comes to weirdness. Apologising to the person who’s just run over your foot with their shopping trolley, believing that tea will cure almost anything from a broken heart to a broken leg, obsessive compulsive queuing disorder, and spending entire weekends on a freezing cold station platform jotting down train numbers are only a few examples.
But because I’ve grown up with these kinds of weirdness, I don’t find them weird at all – except the trainspotting one, obviously – and it’s only when a non-Brit points them out that I can begin to understand that they might not be universally acknowledged as perfectly normal. By the same token, it’s purely because I’m a foreigner in Greece that certain aspects of the Greek way of life strike me as odd or even downright weird, whereas a Greek would find them as natural as selling string by the kilo.
When Penny and I moved here in early 2004, our most overused word for the first few weeks was “bizarre”, and you’ll find many reasons for this through the pages of this book. Hopefully, however, you’ll also discover why it is that we’re still here thirteen years later and have no intention of leaving unless some major catastrophe occurs, which, knowing my luck and the way European and global events have been going lately, it probably will.
What you definitely won’t find out is anything at all about a Greek valley – mine or anybody else’s – and therefore no indication whatsoever whether it’s green or some other colour of the spectrum. Sorry about that.
I’d like to make it clear right here and now that neither Penny nor I are completely insane. In fact, Penny is a fully qualified psychological counsellor, so she should know, right? There were, however, quite a few people who thought we were – to use a technical term – stark staring bonkers when we first announced our intention to move to Greece.
Maybe they’d been watching too many of the various “Brits moving abroad” series on TV where, in almost every programme, the narrator would say, ‘But they soon discovered that their savings were haemorrhaging away.’ Not dwindling or seeping, but haemorrhaging. The line was always delivered in the hushed tone of a David Attenborough crawling around in the jungle and describing the mating habits of a bunch of silverback gorillas, and it scared the hell out of us every time we heard it.
In almost every episode, somebody’s savings were haemorrhaging away, and it could easily have put us off the whole idea of moving abroad except for one thing. An awful lot of the people they filmed for these programmes seemed to have about as much idea of a sound business proposal as whoever invented the inflatable dartboard or the helicopter ejector seat.
Take Mr and Mrs X, for example. They’d sold their house, cashed in all their life assurance policies and bought some dilapidated hotel that they were going to turn into a winter sports centre and run skiing holidays. But here’s the part which seems to indicate that they hadn’t really thought things through properly. It was in Benidorm.
Actually, I made that bit up, but seriously, they were planning to do the whole Swiss chalet thing on such a tight budget that all they had left in the bank for “emergencies” was about five hundred quid.
Anyway, sure enough, they had all kinds of emergencies, unforeseen expenses and whatnot which, to be honest, would have been easily foreseen by every single viewer watching the programme. So it didn’t exactly come as a huge surprise to anyone except Mr and Mrs X that their money was “haemorrhaging away”.
While I’m on the subject, the production company responsible for one of these Brits-moving-abroad TV shows approached a couple of friends of ours who were in the process of doing exactly that and asked them if they’d be interested in participating. But it soon became clear from the researcher’s questions that they were actively looking for people who were likely to fail. You can hardly blame them, I suppose. Failures, cockups and money haemorrhaging away makes for far more interesting telly than when everything goes smoothly.
When we were in the early stages of making our own arrangements to move to Greece, somebody asked us what we’d do if we were invited to be in one of these shows, and we said we’d freak out if we applied and got accepted. Why? Because it would mean that the production company had spotted a serious flaw in our plans which we hadn’t foreseen ourselves and which would inevitably lead to the whole haemorrhaging away scenario.
On the contrary, our plans – or so we hoped – had been meticulously laid, and our preparations had begun about a year before the big move itself. The first thing we decided to do was to take a fortnight’s holiday in Greece to try and get an idea of the kind of area we wanted to move to. This in itself presented us with our very first hurdle as I hadn’t been on an aeroplane in over twenty years and, to put it mildly, wasn’t overly keen to repeat the experience.
My main problem with flying isn’t that I think the plane is suddenly going to plummet to the ground for no apparent reason – or even a perfectly logical reason. I know all the statistics about how flying is supposed to be the safest form of transport and that you’re more likely to be eaten by a pterodactyl than die in a plane crash. It’s just that I hate the idea of being locked inside a metal tube for hours without any means of escape. At least on a train there’s an emergency communication cord you can pull when you’ve decided you’ve had enough and want to get off. There’d be a hefty fine which I’d be reluctant to pay, of course, but I take some comfort in knowing that a way out is available if the claustrophobia got too overwhelming.
The last time I even contemplated getting on a plane was when I had the opportunity to visit some friends in Russia, and flying seemed to be the only feasible way to get there. So, I went to see my doctor to ask if there was anything he could prescribe – something along the lines of a long-acting horse tranquiliser. But when I told him about my terror of flying, he said, ‘Oh yes, I know. I’m exactly the same.’ Then he went on to tell me how his worst ever moment on a plane was when he’d had to go to the toilet, and as he sat there, he looked down at the floor between his feet and thought, ‘God, all that’s between me and the ground is thirty thousand feet of fresh air and this piece of metal.’ He wrote me a prescription for beta blockers, which didn’t seem to have any effect at all, so I never did get to Russia.
But back to the impending threat of having to get on a plane to Greece…
‘Well, why don’t we take it one step at a time and do a short flight somewhere else first?’ said Penny. ‘Ireland maybe.’
This seemed like the perfect solution in theory, but the proof of the pudding was in the sheer terror I experienced during even that short hop across the Irish Sea. What I hadn’t taken into account is that the shorter the flight is, the smaller the plane, and every slight gust of wind and mechanical “clunk” is amplified several times over. Somewhat foolishly in hindsight, we’d also chosen to sit as close to the middle of the plane as possible, which unfortunately turned out to be directly above the landing gear. “Unfortunately” because when the wheels were retracted soon after takeoff, this particular “clunk” came from directly under my seat and felt like the whole plane was about to split in two.
To be perfectly honest, Penny hadn’t been much help either.
‘I’ll be right next to you the whole time,’ she’d said when she’d first persuaded me to get on the big iron bird in sky. ‘And after all, I am a fully qualified psychological therapist.’
This had certainly been reassuring until the moment we’d boarded the plane and were sitting on the runway, waiting for the inevitable roar of the engines which would announce our imminent and wholly unnatural departure from terra firma. My knuckles were already ivory white from gripping the armrests of my aisle seat, and I stared directly ahead, desperately trying to imagine I was on a train. Penny was next to me in the window seat, gazing at the outside world and taking not the slightest notice of my rapidly mounting anxiety.
‘Er, Penny,’ I said through teeth clenched as tightly as whatever animal it is that you have to break their jaws to make them let go when they bite you. ‘I’m really struggling with this.’
There was no response, so I slowly pivoted my head towards her and placed my hand on her arm. ‘Are you listening to me? I said I’m really struggling here.’
It was at this point that she turned to face me and removed one of her earplugs. ‘Sorry, what did you say?’
And I always thought that one of the most important qualities in a psychological therapist was the ability to listen.
Not long after this and the landing gear trauma, I was still staring fixedly ahead and trying to imagine I was on a train when she said, ‘Oh look, that’s Anglesey down there.’
When it came to the flight home, I decided I ought to get used to the idea of being airborne since we’d already booked the Greece flights, and they’d be more like four hours instead of the current thirty minutes. Consequently, I dispensed with the “I’m-on-a-train, I’m-on-a-train” mental mantra and tried to convince myself that being thirty thousand feet up in the air was perfectly natural and not really terrifying at all.
I hadn’t actually communicated this new strategy to Penny, however, so when she looked horizontally out of the window and said, ‘Oh look, we’re just going through Anglesey Station’, it was with the best of intentions.
‘Oh my God! We’ve crashed!’ I shrieked, and I braced myself for the impact.
We did eventually make it safely back to Planet Earth, and a couple of weeks later we were boarding the plane to Greece. During the intervening period, I’d read almost everything there was to read on the subject of “How To Avoid Completely Freaking Out On Aeroplanes”, and one tip I picked up was that you should tell one of the stewards that you’re a nervous flier as soon as you get on the plane. So that’s what I did. Not that it seemed to make the slightest difference though. I didn’t notice any of the cabin crew keeping a particular eye on me or coming to offer me soothing words of reassurance every few minutes. As far as I could tell, the only difference it did make was when I was hurrying towards the exit door after we’d landed, and the steward I’d spoken to when I’d first got on the plane gave me a beaming smile and said, ‘You made it then.’
I spent the next fortnight trying not to think about the flight home and concentrate instead on the job in hand – checking out the area we were staying in to see if it was the part of Greece where we might want to live. We were in a village called Agios Nikolaos, which is near to Stoupa on the Mani peninsula, and if you know anything at all about the shape of Greece, there are three long pointy bits sticking out at the bottom and the Mani is the middle one.
We did quite a lot of exploring, and in many ways it was the perfect location, location, location. Amazing scenery, dramatic mountains, great beaches, etcetera, all of which were very appealing except for a couple of fairly major drawbacks. Stoupa and its fairly immediate surroundings are very much a tourist hotspot, which means that the place is heaving with holidaymakers during the summer. For the rest of the year, there’s hardly a shop or taverna that stays open, and the area is almost entirely deserted apart from a few expats, most of whom are British. We’d no intention of moving to Greece just to become part of some British expat enclave, and we probably wouldn’t have been accepted anyway because we’re not that keen on gin and tonic and neither of us has got the faintest clue how to play bridge.
By the time we’d come to the conclusion that the Stoupa area wasn’t for us, it was too late to do any exploring further afield, and we realised that there was nothing for it but to go back to England and begin the serious process of biting bullets, upping sticks and burning some bridges. (There may have been some other metaphors – appropriate or otherwise – but I can’t remember what they were now.)
Roses Are Red, Ferraris Are Blue
So there we were, back in good old Blighty, having made the decision (bitten the bullet) that we’d sell up (burn our bridges) and move (up sticks) to Greece even though we hadn’t yet found anywhere to move to.
Of the many other metaphors which sprang to mind at the time was “You can’t fit a quart into a pint pot”. (For the benefit of younger readers, this would translate loosely as “You can’t fit a litre into a half-litre pot”, which, in my opinion, isn’t an expression that’s likely to catch on.) This was a problem that became disturbingly evident once we’d arranged for a forty foot container to transport our furniture and other goods and chattels to Athens, where they would stay until we’d found somewhere to live. Consequently, we now had to get rid of about an eighty foot container’s worth of stuff which there wouldn’t be room for.
This involved several trips to a variety of charity shops, but we also thought that some of the bits and pieces we were discarding might be worth a few bob, so we got in touch with the local auctioneers. They sent someone round the next day, but he clearly had a very different idea to us about what was a valuable antique and what was worthless junk.
‘What about this table?’ I said. ‘It’s been in my family for generations,’ I lied. ‘An antiques dealer once offered my parents three hundred quid for it, and that was thirty years ago.’ (This last bit was true.)
‘Ah yes,’ said the auctioneer with a scratch of his chin, ‘but tastes have changed since then, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh really?’ I said. ‘You mean people don’t like tables any more?’
He ignored my question, but I ploughed on with another one. ‘And what happens when people eventually wake up to the realisation that Louis Quinze furniture is ridiculously ornate and really rather ugly – not to mention bloody uncomfortable? All of a sudden it’s worthless?’
The auctioneer ignored me once again and turned his attention to my prized collection of Dinky, Corgi and Matchbox toy cars and half a dozen Action Men (complete with a vast array of outfits and weaponry and most of them in full possession of all four of their limbs).
‘Now these have got to be worth something surely,’ I said.
The auctioneer picked up one of my all-time favourite Dinky toys – a bright blue, single-seater Ferrari racing car – and turned it this way and that in his hand with what appeared to be the beginnings of a sneer.
‘It’s not exactly what you’d call “pristine”, is it?’
‘Pristine?’ I said, failing to control my mounting indignation.
‘Pristine. It means “in its original condition”.’
‘Yes, I do know what pristine means.’
‘For a start, I’ve never seen a Ferrari in this particular shade of blue before.’
‘It got bashed about a bit,’ I said, ‘so my brother repainted it.’
‘As presumably he did with the orange and purple Rolls Royce Silver Shadow,’ said the auctioneer with a disdainful nod at the pile of toy cars on the floor.
‘The thing is,’ he went on, returning the Ferrari to the heap and wiping the lenses of his half-moon glasses on a neatly pressed handkerchief, ‘this sort of thing is only worth anything if it’s in immaculate condition and preferably still in its original box.’
Okay, this wasn’t exactly news to me, but I’ve always been amazed at how any toy could survive the decades so perfectly and why it would still be in its box. You’d definitely have to question the state of mind of the kid it was given to in the first place:
‘I say, father, thank you very much. I’ll just pop it up here on the shelf with all my other still-boxed toys and it’ll be worth a lot of money when I’m seventy.’
‘That’s the spirit. Good man, Tarquin.’
By now, the auctioneer had picked up Sergeant Troy Stone, the fearless veteran of many an Action Man battle, and his distaste this time was totally undisguised.
‘I mean, look at this,’ he said. ‘It hasn’t even got a face.’
I gave the kind of pouty shrug I’d begun to master when I’d been told off by my dad at about the age I was when I first started playing with Action Men.
‘He got burned,’ I mumbled. ‘Flamethrower attack.’
The auctioneer was obviously unimpressed by Sergeant Stone’s heroic exploits and dropped him unceremoniously back with his plastic and vinyl comrades-in-arms.
Suffice it to say, we made very little from the sale of the precious items which eventually got sold at auction, but I did keep back a few of my favourite Dinky and Corgi toys such as my James Bond Aston Martin with the ejector seat and the Man From UNCLE car where Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin take it in turns to fire their guns out of the side windows when you press a button on the top. As for my loyal band of Action Men, well I just couldn’t bring myself to part with them in the end, could I?
Something else which I couldn’t bear to part with was a single one of my rather large collection of books. Penny had other ideas and insisted – no, demanded – that I shed at least a third of them.
‘Why don’t you sort them into three piles?’ she suggested. ‘One for definitely keeping, one for definitely not keeping, and one for undecided.’
Well, I did my best to comply – honest I did – but it was an almost impossible task, and Penny was less than impressed when she came to inspect the three stacks of books when I’d finished. I say “stacks”, although I have to admit that this was somewhat of an overstatement in two of the three cases.
‘I presume these two books aren’t the “definitely keeping” pile,’ she said.
‘No,’ I said with more than a hint of pride. ‘They’re the ones that are definitely going to Oxfam.’
‘And what about these four?’
She then randomly selected one of the books from the “definitely keeping” pile.
‘A Haynes Manual for a 1970 to 79 Vauxhall Viva?’
‘It was the first car I ever owned,’ I said. ‘Besides, it’ll come in handy if we ever have another Vauxhall Viva in the future.’
‘1970 to 79.’
I did actually win the argument over this particular volume on the basis of its practical and sentimental value, but this was sadly not true of the four or five large boxes of other books from my “definitely keeping” pile. Penny insists that this is a gross exaggeration and that it was a single, medium-sized boxful, but however many boxes it was, I still had to dispense with far more books than I considered reasonable. This was after I’d failed to convince Penny that there’d be a lot more room for my books if she binned some of the pieces of “art” her kids had made at school many years ago. Perhaps not surprisingly, this suggestion didn’t go down at all well, especially after I’d picked up one of the many amorphous blobs of glazed clay and said, ‘I mean, what on earth is this supposed to be?’
Up until that point, I could never have imagined that anyone could pack quite so much venom into the simple phrase, “It’s a tortoise”.
The entente cordiale between us having been somewhat weakened by now, it received a further blow the following day when I was putting something into one of the black plastic sacks that was clearly destined for the rubbish tip. In amongst the rest of the landfill fodder, I discovered not one but three books, all of which seemed to be in perfectly good condition.
‘They’re my books, so I can do what I like with them,’ Penny said after I’d fished them out and asked her why she’d dumped them in the rubbish sack.
‘Fair enough,’ I said, ‘but you could at least have put them in the recycling bag. Better still, why not give them to one of the charity shops?’
‘Oh yes?’ she said, snatching one of the three books out of my hand. ‘And who’s going to want a 1962 book about the human anatomy?’
‘Well, I’m by no means a medical man by any stretch of the imagination, but as far as I’m aware, the human anatomy hasn’t really changed very much in the last forty years.’
As I recall, the “discussion” got a little out of hand after that, possibly because I may have made some passing reference to book-burners and Adolf Hitler. This also probably explains why I later discovered a dozen pairs of my underpants in the rubbish sack when there was still plenty of wear left in them, not to mention quite a few good-sized ventilation holes. Hell hath no fury like a woman who you’ve just accused of being a Nazi book-burner.
Pompeii and Circumstance
The entente cordiale having eventually been restored between us, and after numerous selfless compromises on my part, Penny and I managed to whittle down our worldly possessions to what we were pretty sure would fit into a forty foot container – with a bit left over to be taken with us in the camper van. – No, not “a bit” – a lot. We’d no idea how long it would be before we found a place to live in Greece, so we had to take everything with us that we might need over the next few weeks or even months.
By now, we were almost ready to hit the open road, but to make sure we hadn’t forgotten something crucial, I thought it would be a good idea to double-check the questionnaire in one of the dozens of books we’d read on the subject of moving abroad. This one was called Going to Live In Greece: Your Practical Guide to Life and Work in Greece by Peter Reynolds (2003), and the questionnaire appeared in a chapter called Getting There. Here it is and the answers we gave:
Q: How long will you be staying in Greece?
A: Quite a long time probably.
Q: What will the weather be like?
A: Hopefully much better than in England.
Q: Are you taking all your worldly possessions with you?
A: Yes, apart from quite a lot of books and several pairs of underpants which still had plenty of wear in them.
Q: When do you hope to return?
A: I just told you that in Question One.
Q: Will you be travelling alone?
A: Are you kidding?
Q: I’ll ask the questions if you don’t mind.
A: Sorry. The thing is, I’m feeling a bit stressed at the moment, what with all the burning bridges and upping sticks, not to mention the—
A: Er… what was the question again?
Q: (sighing heavily) Will you be travelling alone?
Q: What do you need to take with you?
A: So which part of “all our worldly possessions” did you not understand?
Q: Listen, sunshine, don’t get stroppy with me. I’m only asking you these questions in an obviously futile attempt to stop you making a complete hashup of the whole business and ending up with all your savings haemorrhaging away like so many of the other halfwits I’ve come across.
A: Clean underwear.
A: You asked me what we needed to take with us, and my mother always used to say that—
Q: Yes, yes, never mind that now. I want to get home to my tea. – What is your travel budget?
A: I’m not sure that’s any of your business, but put down “limited” if you really want to know.
Q: Where is your destination?
A: Oh for— Greece. How many more times do I have to tell you? I mean, why on earth would we have bought your stupid book about moving to Greece if we were planning to move to Guatemala or the Turks and Caicos Islands? And quite frankly, I think this whole questionnaire is a complete— Wait a minute. Where are you going? – Come back here. You haven’t asked me about the—
So that was the questionnaire double-checked, and a couple of days later we squeezed ourselves into the little space that remained in our rather elderly VW Transporter camper van and headed south. The van was so packed with “essentials” that you couldn’t have swung a proverbial cat in it, although we didn’t actually have a cat at the time, proverbial or otherwise. Instead, we had our Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Bessie, but she hated even being picked up, so the swinging experiment was never really a serious option.
Nor was it an option to take a leisurely meander down through Europe as we’d originally planned, and this too was because of Bessie. Not that it was her fault exactly. It was just the absurd amount of bureaucracy involved in the supposedly simple act of transporting a dog from one European country to another. When we’d first heard about the Pet Passport we’d need to get for her, we’d assumed it would be as straightforward as getting a human one, but that’s probably why they say that “assume makes an ass of you and me”. It took hour upon tedious hour of phone calls just to find out what we had to do and what paperwork we’d need to legally get Bessie from England to Greece, and in desperation, I ended up calling DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), which was responsible for implementing the Pet Passport Scheme.
‘All I want to know is what I have to do to get a dog from England to Greece,’ I said.
‘No, it’s not easy, is it?’ said the man from the ministry.
‘The whole Pet Passport Scheme’s a bit of a hotchpotch really.’
He was beginning to sound like Marvin the Paranoid Android.
‘The thing is,’ he went on, ‘it was never really designed for domestic pets. It was just kind of… tagged on to the EU legislation for moving livestock, and to be perfectly honest, it would be a hell of a lot easier if you were transporting a herd of sheep or cattle.’
‘Not in a camper van it wouldn’t.’
‘No, fair point.’
‘Look,’ I said, ‘I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but is there anyone else I can talk to about this? Your… superior or somebody.’
‘Well, you could,’ he said after a slow sucking in of breath, ‘but the next person above me is the Minister of Agriculture himself, and I really don’t think he’d have a clue what you were talking about.’
We did eventually get Bessie all the right jabs and official documents (or so we hoped) and she ended up with a file an inch thick all to herself. Part of the problem was that each EU country we were going to pass through had its own rules and regulations, even though the Pet Passport was intended to cover the whole of Europe. These included the maximum number of days you could have your pet dog/cat/gerbil/boa constrictor in each member state and varied widely. A particular anomaly was that we could have spent up to thirty days with Bessie in France but we were only allowed ten days to get her from the UK to Greece. Hence the need to forget about the leisurely meander and get a bit of a wriggle on – mainly because there was a strong likelihood that the van might break down and we’d have to use up several of our precious days while it languished in a French or Italian garage waiting for parts.
But as my mother often used to say to my brother and I when we were kids, “Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you”, which was rather ironic since she was the biggest worrier I’ve ever known. On this occasion, however, the advice would have been totally justified. The van behaved perfectly throughout the whole seventeen hundred miles from Calais, down through France and Italy to the port of Brindisi, where we caught the ferry to Igoumenitsa in northern Greece.
And not only was the trip itself almost entirely hassle free, never once did anyone show the slightest interest in checking Bessie’s Pet Passport documents at any of the border controls. The race through Europe had therefore been completely unnecessary, and if we’d have been able to see into the future, we’d have taken a far more scenic route and visited some of the sights. In Italy, for instance, we spent one night on a campsite that was almost directly opposite the archaeological site of Pompeii, but we didn’t get to look round it because it was closed by the time we arrived in the evening and we had to rush off again the following morning. This was a great pity as, by all accounts, it’s an extraordinary place and even has some ancient – and incredibly raunchy – graffiti, which might have been interesting. As Robin Williams once said, ‘Look at the walls of Pompeii. That’s what got the Internet started.’
END OF OPENING CHAPTERS
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