Saturday, May 23, 2009

Getting away from prison England

Three years ago I had absolutely no idea that by November 2007 I would have been living in Crete for over a year and a half, that I’d wake up to the sight and sound of the sea each morning, that I’d be seriously considering buying a donkey because, of all things, I’d become an olive farmer.
Back then in the UK our son had left uni and effectively left home, our daughter was at uni but was probably the most travelled and independent kid in the world. We could cut the apron strings and fly.
I was desperate to get out of the place before I went mad. Or got mad. Perhaps it was all the security cameras? Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you has always been my adage.
Other than wanting to escape, I had no fixed plans……..
The first job was to browbeat the wife, God bless her long suffering soul, into joining me in my insanity. “The kids are grown up “, the argument went, “lets go on an adventure. Sell all this rubbish we’ve managed to surround ourselves with and go to India and buy a tea plantation, go to Italy and do up old houses, something, anything other than another 15 years of this until we retire, then a few years weeing into a chair and dribbling in some care home until we die At which time Tony Blair or whichever cloned fascist is in power at the time will tax us again“. Of course, I had to repeat myself a few times.
Eventually, she bought it. If only, I suspect, to get a little peace.
Years ago we used to dream of going to France. Learnt the lingo, cruised the internet for old farmhouses for £500 to renovate, took our holidays with Eurocamp Then we realised that every other Brit was doing the same, Brittany was becoming “Little Britainy” and the French, quite rightly, were getting fed up of “les rosbifs.” And La Belle France ,as the years progressed ,was becoming more and more like the UK anyway. So where?
Like so many of the friends we have here in Crete we sold everything we had, went through the trauma of a major life laundry (“I’m not selling my sofas!“) put a few books and photographs (and the kitchen table our kids had grown up sitting around and painting on) in the back of a van and set off.
Unlike those friends , although we had a vague idea we were heading for Crete we weren’t certain. Mostly because we’d never set foot here. Indeed the only experience of Greece we had was a week in Kephalonia some years back, and then only my wife and the kids went. So the future was a little hazy.
I won’t bore you with details of the road trip because I guess if you’re reading this you’ve probably done the same or similar. What I will say is that when we emerged from the ferry at Souda bay we were still talking. But only just.
The van, by this time, had become “Michael”. We’d decorated him with flowers on the basis that if thieves thought it was a hippy van they wouldn’t bother trying to steal the contents. He was terrifically, dangerously and almost certainly illegally overloaded, creaked and groaned around every bend, lurched frighteningly at every rut in the road, and became our best and most loyal friend.
Of course Crete did everything it could to put us off right from the start. We couldn’t have felt less welcome if we’d parachuted in with the 31st Sturmabteilung (or whatever) in 1942. The wind was giving the island some serious attention, it was raining and cloudy, the roads were full of potholes, everyone was honking their horns when they passed Michael (which we thought was some sort of aggressive behaviour at the time) and when we got to Iraklion we were greeted with a fifty meter long pile of stinking rubbish in the street. We were getting to the point of turning back at this stage. What we didn’t know, of course, is that the rubbish was due to a strike by the collectors (this was April 06). We thought it was usually like that. Oh my God, what had we done?
We pointed Michael in the direction of Sitia on a whim and because we’d read there were already lots of Brits in the West of the island and what would be the point of joining them. If we did that we might end up playing golf, or spending our evenings in Brit pubs drinking Tetley, watching Corrie and eating sausage and mash. Heaven forefend, although the sausage and mash sounds good.
I’m sorry , by the way, if you play golf and go to the Red Lion every night. It’s just not for me..
It’s worth noting at this stage that the better half has long held an entirely unwarranted hatred of Wales. All those dark, lowering mountains. The rain. Dark little villages. I’ve grown to dislike the place myself. If you’ve ever had occasion to travel from Agios Nikolaos to Sitia on a dismal and rainy April evening you’ll know what I ’m driving at. Needless to say, things were a bit grim in the van. Michael was making the best job he could of pulling 3.5 tonnes up steep mountain roads round S bend after S bend without grumbling, trying to keep our spirits up.We drove into Sitia down the Iraklion road, not it’s prettiest aspect, took one look and kept going.
We carried on further east to Palekastro.
Now, you know when you go into the wrong pub and everything goes eerily quiet and all eyes are focussed on little old you? That’s how we felt driving through the square in Palekastro in our hippied-up van. Everyone stared at us . It was more than a little unnerving. Still, it was late and we had to find a bed for the night. Wearily and miserably we booked into the Hellas hotel in the square in Palekastro and went to bed. I can’t remember if we talked or not, but things were decidedly other than great. (Many times since we’ve been sitting in the square enjoying a beer with people who have become friends and we’ve stared at people passing through. It’s what you do.)
Isn’t it funny what a bit of sunshine can do to the spirits? The next morning the big friendly chap in the sky beamed down on us and all seemed to be just that little bit better. Oddly, it’s been pretty much a little bit better every day since.
We met an English musician who makes ends meet selling houses and who, in chronological order, became our third friend in Crete. This , in hindsight, was the beginning of the process that led to me thinking four hours on a steep mountainside hacking at huge “weeds” in the blazing sun was a time well spent and fun too! I recall thinking “Hey, we could probably afford a few olive trees…..”
The “fellow-escapees” we come across in our neck of the woods tend to fall into three categories:
Category a)… Great big chunk of cash in the bank and a nice pension ,thanks very much.
Category b)… As above, but with a less than great chunk of cash.
Category c) …, as b), but without the pension.
We, most decidedly, fall into category c). So, as we became more familiar with what was available for what sort of money we had to think of some way to add to our little all by way of generating an income. Two options offered themselves. Option one, buy an old house, renovate and restore it, sell it for a healthy profit and do it all again. There are still lots of empty old houses here in East Crete and in fact doing this sort of thing had long been in my mind. In fact nearly all of our English friends are doing just that. Option two; buy a few olive trees and at the same time make sure that the land is build-able on and in a spot where people might like to live , then sell off-plan as we sure can’t afford to build them first.
One day in June 06 we were gently motoring around the area and we happened upon the most beautiful valley close to a hamlet called Agios Spiridon. Studded with stately cypress trees, majestic mountain tops in the distance, white villages clinging to the hillsides, the sea glinting in the distance, buzzards idling on a thermal overhead and the greenest place we’d seen in Crete. We fell in love. Funnily enough, just a week or two later we were there again, buying 750 dilapidated olive trees and our own slice of heaven. This was surely no coincidence. Find me an English couple in love with the idea of being an olive farmer and I’ll find you a Spanish, Italian or Greek olive farmer willing to let you find out the hard way just why it is they all live to be a hundred. It’s the exercise, and they‘d rather you did it whilst they use your cash to get a widescreen tv and visit their grandson and his family in New York.
As I guess most readers will know, buying a property in Crete is a journey rather than a transaction. We’ve been farming the groves since January this year, but for various reasons only got the paperwork finally right last week! Over the coming issues I’ll be sharing with you some of the joys of Olive farming, just in case any of you are mad enough to follow suit, and some of the joys of Greek bureaucracy , in case you didn’t know. We are farming biologically, and will share what little learning we have with Crete Courier readers.
Panta geia, panta xara as they say in Agios Spiridon,
“Always health, always joy”.

1 comment:

Alan said...

Well after finding your Blog by a chance posting on a strangers Facebook wall I have just read your first post. And I must say I'm drawn to the story already. I noticed there wasn't a comment on this post so decided to rectify that. I'm an avid reader and will read them in the correct order and may leave a comment or two on my journey through your journey. I must attempt to elude madame insomnia now but you are bookmarked in my phone and I know I will always be able to reach under my pillow and read an installment or three.
Many thanks.