Wednesday, June 30, 2010

House of Suns -- Alastair Reynolds.

I finally got round to reading this (I really needed the escape) and enjoyed it immensely. Mr Reynolds also got double royalties from me due to my increasingly disfunctional memory – I bought one copy through either Amazon or The Book Depository, and then picked up another in Waterstones.

It has everything I want from him: huge concepts played out on a vast stage, enjoyable characters, gobsmacking technology (bollocks to nanotech, he goes straight for the jugular with femtotech) and a great story extending across aeons. I particularly liked the way, at one point, that he sneaked around causality. Some might think, with his adherence to the galactic speed limit, that he’s made a rod for his own back as far as story telling goes. It strikes me that a consequence of him limiting himself to sub-FTL travel is that the stage expands to somewhere approaching its true size. What Reynolds does best is give some sense of the true scale of what lies out there. Maybe that’s something difficult to achieve without spending years peering through a telescope and letting the vastness of what you see settle in your bones.

I’m probably speaking to the converted when I say, ‘Highly recommended,’ since most of you reading this blog have probably already read this book.


The character Purslane in this book received a hologram of an emerald beetle. I can’t find that particular section at the moment but it sticks in my mind because this bugger landed in Caroline’s lap only a week before I started reading the book.

The interconnectness of things? Just the inevitability of human brains full of experience and knowledge interfacing with large books full of ... experience and knowledge.

More Greek Stuff

We have a guy here who used to be a social worker in Britain and therefore accustomed to dealing with the socially challenged (scum). He expressed some concern about the boy up here in our village, opining that the kind who set fire to puppies as children tend to become even bigger shitbags when they become teenagers. I think it a given that most teenagers are shitbags – they have the total self-regard and lack of empathy of children combined with hormones, pre-adult bodies and, nowadays, a huge sense of entitlement. But I understood what he meant about us not wanting to set ourselves up as targets when this boy turns into the village hoody. I don’t think we need to be too worried.

It goes back somewhat to my previous post. In Britain, if a child was to do something like this, he would have done something completely outside of accepted mores. It would be an act of rebellion and a rejection of ‘society’, and regarded by most as something he should be locked up for. Here, with many adults hating dogs and having grown up in a time when if you hated a dog few people would object if you strung it up from an olive tree; here where many adults find setting fire to a puppy amusing, his biggest crime was not checking to see if the puppy had an owner before torching it.

It is also the case that this child, and his two brothers, are generally just boisterous boys. They play like boys did a number of decades ago in Britain before computer games, and TVs in the bedroom. They take the rubbish down to the bins, collect food from the veg delivery man and collect loads of wood – we often see the youngest labouring up and down the steep paths here with a heavy wheelbarrow. They work in their parent’s large vegetable plot, help with the olive harvest, are polite to us and bugger off when we tell them without any danger of one of them pulling a knife, and they get a belt round the ear when they do something wrong.

The problem here is that the casual cruelty we have seen is not regarded as something terrible. And I fear that the child concerned was just trying to be an adult – using an accepted method to drive off a stray dog and thus protect the family’s chickens.

Incidentally, going back to that dogs ‘strung up from an olive tree’. A recent case in mainland Greece actually resulted in prosecutions. Three dogs were strung up all together with the same rope, or wire, their back paws just touching the ground so as to prolong the entertainment.

Stress Diet:

Over a period of ten days I’ve lost about 8lbs. Stress, anger and lack of sleep certainly burn off the calories. Seeing an animal in pain is an appetite suppressant, and the smell of burnt fur, burnt skin, Betadine antibiotic commingled with with a hint of putrefaction certainly puts you off the meat course. Enjoy your lunch.

Some Greek Learned:

I believe Gamoto kakos apovrasma translates as ‘fucking evil scum’. I was going to go for ‘bastard’ rather than ‘scum’ but whilst my Rough Guide has that word as keratas my dictionary has it as nothos or palianthropos and lists keratas as ‘cuckold’. I tend to feel that it’s the Rough Guide that’s wrong because it contains so many mistakes. Opening it at random I get the standard one: anafero for ‘mention’ when it is ‘I mention’, again totally ignoring the verb endings I’ve mentioned before: anafero, anaferis, anaferoome etc (again the disclaimer: I’m no expert so correct me if I’m wrong).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

No Happy Ending.

So, despite all the shit that has hit the fan this week the work on the ruin is looking good. All the ‘sovar’ or rendering has been done inside, the plumbing is in and there’s actually running water up there now, the electrics are also in and the ‘karistoo’ path has been done down the side. Last week, before the puppy incident, we visited a window shop to get some prices and later a guy stopped off to take a look at the work. He was another that Mikalis had put us onto and I warned him that if the price was a piss-take I would be saying, ‘Oshi’. As it turns out we were pleasantly surprised. The price was high, but not rip-off. We had already checked what it might be by looking at wooden windows for sale on the Internet in Britain, then adding extra for the shutters and the fact that these would be made to fit. It seems that very shortly it will be time for tiling, and then going out to buy things like toilets and sinks.

Thursday 17th

So here we are precisely one week after the subhuman child nearby set fire to a puppy. ... You know, I write the words but they keep seeming ridiculous to me. They are the kind of words you use metaphorically or in analogy: ‘He looks so pissed off you’d think someone set fire to his puppy’. Anyway, getting back to that child; what is subhuman or, more precisely, subnormal? In Britain, when a child does something like this, the reaction of 99% of people is disbelieving horror. An army of child psychologists and social workers would be on the scene to deal with this problem child and his problem family. But I’m pretty certain that’s not the case here.

In the evening last Thursday, after Mikalis and his crew had gone, the child and his little brother finally ventured out. This was not a good move on their part since, at that time, Caroline was out watering the plants, and she of course went after them and started having a go at them. Shortly after this, three men turned up, possibly relations or friends of the family, at which point I joined in (I was tending to avoid the kids as my reaction would not have been verbal). I explained to the men, ‘Vazi fotia se mikro skilachi’ which is, ‘He set fire to a puppy’. One of the men laughed then stopped when I said, ‘Oshi ha ha ha ha’ and he saw my expression. I also at one point had the little brat concerned by the throat so I guess they figured I wasn’t happy. I thought the laughter due to the man thinking, ‘Ah, the Englishman is no good at Greek and has said something silly’. Now I don’t believe that.

Ever since we arrived here three years ago, when we go shopping in Sitia, we stop for a giros and a frappe in a Greek fast food place. The wife in the family that runs the place likes chatting to her English customers and I’ve learnt some useful words and phrases from her. This week I went shopping whilst Caroline stayed home to look after the puppy. I stopped at the fast food place for takeaway giros and as usual got a cheerful, ‘Ti kanis?’ which means ‘How are you?’ but translates as, ‘What do you do?’ (I’ll figure it out one day). Rather than reply, ‘Ime kala,’ or ‘I am well,’ I replied, ‘Then kalo,’ or ‘Not good’. The woman asked me to explain, which I did, both in Greek and English. There could be no misunderstanding. Her reaction was precisely zero then, when she turned away to work at something on a nearby counter, she looked to me like she was smirking. As he handed over my two giros her husband, however, could not have been clearer. He was laughing, with tears in is eyes. He then asked me, ‘Spirito?’ squirting an imaginary plastic spirit bottle – sold in all the shops here – towards the ground. Perhaps he had misunderstood. ‘Neh,’ I replied, ‘Yes’. ‘I love that,’ he said, obviously carried away by the hilarity of it all. I snatched my order from his hand and left. In retrospect I wished I’d asked him how amusing he’d find it if I shoved his head in his chip fryer.

A little thought later and I realised something. Long straight burns on the puppy’s back had puzzled me. I now realised they were caused by the long thin streams of spirit from the squeezy bottle. Most likely the person using the bottle lights the tip first then uses it as a mini flame-thrower. Something else occurred: there’s a picture of a badly burnt dog in the Gecko Bar – someone collecting funds for its treatment. This, I reckon, is a common occurrence here and, quite probably, the mountains and ruins are littered with the bones of dogs that have died in agony, saturated either with burning spirit or hot oil (Mikalis’s first assumption). And now I see that to these people, a boy doing such a thing is just acting precisely as it has been raised and to his parents is just normal.

I asked Mikalis if the people of our village probably think we are crazy, and he didn’t hesitate when he replied, ‘Yes’. A lot of the old people of the village have known starvation and when dogs are in competition with humans for food they’re going to lose. They keep lots of free-range chickens too and I perfectly understand their dislike of strays wandering into the village, I also think that in these circumstances it is perfectly acceptable for them to shoot any dog that is a danger to livestock. I don’t, however, understand the fear many Greeks have of dogs – a phobic reaction with elements of hatred and disgust in it. And this was a small puppy. It would have run in terror from the massive chickens here. It probably ran up to the boy, wagging its tail, waiting to be petted. It probably followed him about while he went to get his bottle of spirit and light the spout. Plain ugly cruelty; plain joy in seeing an animal in agony.

Back to the puppy, because I guess some of you reading this will want to know. It is eating, drinking and manages to wander about a bit. The rest of the time it is crying in pain when trying to stand up or lie down, or sleeping. It still manages to wag its tail, surprisingly. In retrospect, however, I wish I’d picked up the nearest rock the moment we got hold of her and put her out of her pain, rather than have put her through this last week.

No Happy Ending, Wednesday 23rd.

Too much, in the end. As some of the puppy’s skin started to fall off I hoped this a sign that it was healing. More and more fell off and the creature ended up in much more pain. I knew, as it lost all the skin across its stomach, that the skin on its back would go next. It would probably lose 50% of its skin and even if it grew back it was doubtful there would be any hair on it. A dog with exposed skin on its back on Crete is never going to be able to go outside for long. It also stopped eating and its suffering was such that we knew it could not go on. We said we would take it to the vet in Ierapetra to have it put down – an hour and a half to two hour drive away. Mikalis said no and took it the 15 minute journey to his home to put it out of its misery. He, or a friend of his, had a gun.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Bad Week for Mikalis, and for us, and for a puppy...

Crete seems to be a place of extremes, on one hand you have magnificent beauty and humbling kindness, and on the other extreme there’s greed, ugliness and unbelievable cruelty. So now I’m going to tell you about the week my builder has had, and the week we have had.

So, as you can see by the pictures here we’re reaching the stage where the electrics need to be installed prior to the interior walls being rendered. I already knew of an English electrician in Makrigialos who would do the job, but he’d told me that it would be three weeks before he was free. Mikalis informed me that he had an electrician who would look at the job and if his quote was okay he would start the following Wednesday. For an easy life I said to get him in for said quote. That weekend, the day before this electrician was to turn up, the English one called me up. I’d screwed up. Things had been so busy that I hadn’t realised that nearly three weeks had passed since I’d spoken to him. I had to apologise profusely and say that I had someone else in. Foolishly, because those Mikalis has had in for work have all been good, I didn’t forsee any problems with the coming quote. There were problems, it was an obvious out-and-out rip-off number. Even with the guy being on a hundred a day,for four days, the figures simply did not add up. Most likely that Greek calculation for ‘rich English’ was employed: think of what you want and double it.

I now had to eat humble pie and phone up the English electrician, fully prepared for him to tell me to fuck off. ‘Ah, you got a Greek quote,’ said he, then came up, looked at the work, and delivered a quote more in the range I expected – neither too high nor too low. I said he’d got the job and paid over part of the price so he could buy the materials. He drove to Ierapetra to buy the required wiring, plugs, fuse box etc. We knew this because he phoned to ask about leaving the stuff at our house. However, he got us on Caroline’s mobile because we were in Sitia that day, shopping.

This was also a day that Mikalis and his workers did not turn up, which was odd – he was normally here at 7.30 punctually every morning six days a week. I assumed he’d got a hangover and left it at that. Then, whilst we were in Sitia, I checked my phone and noted a missed call from Mikalis. I phoned him and, upon hearing that he’d had a bad day, jokily asked if he’d had too much raki the night before. No, his wife was in Agios Nikolias hospital and he was there with her. He then went on to inform me that I must stop my English electrician coming because if he does the Greek electrician along with other Greek electricians is going to cause big problems. I wasn’t sure whether these problems were tax related or whether they were going to come here and beat up my guy.

Not wanting any problems, and unable to talk face-to-face with Mikalis because, quite obviously, he wouldn’t be coming for a while, we decided on a course of action. We drove over to see the English electrician, paid him for the materials he’d bought and gave him an extra 50 Euros because he’d been pissed about. He seemed to accept that and agree that avoiding problems was the best course, though whether privately he thinks I’m a prat I don’t know.

That was Tuesday. On Thursday Mikalis arrived and I managed to talk to him. His wife was now back at their house with people looking after her. The Greek electrician was now nothing to Mikalis and, because it was through him that this problem arose, he was getting another electrician in who he would help, and he would pay the difference in price to the English electrician’s quote. Okay, fair enough.

Anyway, whilst I was learning all this, I noticed a little black and white puppy following one of the builders up and down the ramp to the ruin whilst he was pushing a wheelbarrow. I thought a stray had arrived (there’s too many of them here). Yes and no. Mikalis has a couple of dogs and apparently his mother wanted one. He saw this puppy abandoned at the side of the road and picked it up that day. Lovely little thing, all waggy tail and licking your hands, and it would sit on command, which was surprising.

Okay, some of you might like to stop reading now, especially those who turn away from RSPCA adverts or find Animal Hospital too traumatic. You’ve been warned.

Now, whilst Mikalis and crew were working, the puppy was happily wandering around with them until it wandered off a little way. Caroline and I were inside the house, mostly. Next thing we knew there was an uproar outside. I saw Mikalis charging down the path to a nearby house, hammering on the door and shouting. He managed to switch to his broken English to say to us, ‘Find dog!’ My immediate assumption was that one of the kids nearby had thrown a rock at it and it had run off, injured. It’s a pastime they enjoy with the village cats.

No, it was much worse than that.

A septic little cunt in this village had, allegedly, decided it might be fun to soak the puppy with something like petrol and set fire to it. I have to say allegedly even though there was only this shit and his little brother in the relevant part of the village, and puppies don’t spontaneously combust.

We found the dog, hiding in another nearby building. Mikalis wasn’t sure what to do, maybe some Betadine on the burns. I told him it needed to go into water, now. I used a bottle of cold water from the fridge and also filled up a bucket with a hose pipe and we dunked the puppy in that. It screamed, of course. We finally wrapped it in a wet cloth and brought it to our terrace. It got up and ran into our house, hiding in some bags under our spare bed. Terrified, in agony, stinking of burnt fur. Mikalis called the vet in Sitia, but he wasn’t there. Caroline called our nearby English neighbours – just outside the village – and Terry, the wife of the couple, immediately came over. She was very good. She managed to get the puppy out from under the bed – I didn’t want to grab it for fear of hurting it – sat it on her lap and put Lanocane on the burns. We then put the puppy in a box with towels and cloths for it to bury itself in. Terry then gave us directions to the vet in Ierapetra.

This was an hour-and-a-half drive. We first drove down to Makrigialos where we saw Jacko, a Dutch guy we know, walking down the road for his carafe of wine. We stopped and told him, mainly because he has dogs and almost certainly knew the location of the Ierapetra vet, which we were vague about. He got in the car and directed us there.

The vet used some sort of antibiotic powder on the burns, injected both antibiotics and a pain killer, then provided us with antibiotic pills, painkillers and cream. We brought the puppy back here to look after it for as long as necessary – if it survived – before Mikalis took it to his mother. Terry returned to find out how things were and, at that time, the subhuman village child, who had been in hiding all the while, showed his face out of the door to his house. Mikalis immediately began shouting at him, then rushed down to catch him and ... well, it was most satisfying, but nowhere near enough. That evening Caroline and I also had a go at the little cunt. The parents of this monster finally turned up at about 8 or 9 in the evening, and we told them what their little darling had done. Whether they are doing anything about it I don’t know. My guess is that they’re keeping their heads down until this all blows over, and that the child his planning his next animal torture session.

Friday Morning, Early.

The puppy is sleeping now, mostly, when not whimpering. She’s drunk water and drunk evaporated milk. This morning we haven’t had a chance to give her any pills because she hasn’t eaten anything. Mikalis is here and he will be going to have a word with the parents. I decided, last night, that if this puppy dies I will grab that village child, drag him up here, rub his face in the corpse whilst asking him if he likes it, in Greek, then I’ll make him carry it down to his parent’s garden and bury it. That’s if he doesn’t have some unfortunate accident on the way, you know, like falling into that large prickly pear cactus beside the path.

Monday Morning.

A traumatic weekend, of course. It’s very difficult to put on the cream the vet provided but now we’re there – I dribble it onto the burns whilst she is asleep. I also put aloe vera cream on the less serious burns. After some initial problems getting the pills down her I now wrap them in a piece of soft cheese, then hold her mouth open while Caroline inserts cheese and pill to the back of her tongue, then I hold it closed until she swallows. She’s now eating solid food – sardines in oil were the first success – and has managed to walk about a bit. She’s also well enough to complain about her pain. She also often wags her tail when she sees us, which is amazing, considering the pain we keep causing her whilst treating her. I still don’t know if she’ll survive – one infection and that’ll be it – nor do I know if she’ll ever see out of her right eye.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A Word on Words.

First I have to make a big disclaimer here: I’m no expert on Greek, far from it, and doubtless there are those who will read this and pick me up on all sorts of errors.

Learning Cretan Greek is like learning Glaswegian when all the tapes and books you want to learn from are in old-time BBC English, that’s the first hurdle when trying to learn the language here. But that aside, I’ll just focus on what’s called Athen’s Greek and pick on a few examples from my experience.

‘Expensive’ here is akrivos whilst that same word in a different context, tense, whatever, can also mean ‘exact’. This is of course an over-simplification when, for example, from the root word agapi for love (if it is the root) we get agapo for ‘I love’, agapoome for ‘we love’, agapoone for ‘they love’, agapi (again) for ‘he, she, it loves’ agapis for ‘you love’ or agapate if it is formal (polite) or plural. I’ll stop there because that agapi goes on to form over 50 different words depending on whether the word concerned is present, present imperfect, imperfect imperative ... you get the gist. Then of course, in Greek songs, you hear sagapo which, I’m guessing, is a contraction of se agapo, or ‘in I love’ or ‘I am in love’, but don’t quote me on that.

Though in the two versions of akrivos the stress is on the same sounding letter (though different letter; one is omega whilst the other is omicron), this stress on letters is very important in Greek (and context). Two buggers for me have been póteh and potėh, the first with its emphasis on the ‘o’ the second with the emphasis on the ‘e’. The first means ‘when’ whilst the second means ‘never’ – imagine the confusions arising from that!

Learning a language is full of confusions like this. ‘Then’ is meta, whilst then is ‘not’. Then thelis afto is ‘you don’t want this’ whilst then thelis afto meta prospathis ekino is’ ‘you don’t want this then try that’ ... but I’ve gone beyond three words here so probably got it wrong.

Some words are easy: blue is bleh, lemon is lemoni, stone is petra and water is nero. However, there are some big buggers it is difficult to get your tongue wrapped round like (opens dictionary at random) andilamvanomai for perceive or χristooyennitikos for Christmas – that first letter being khi, which in pronunciation is like you’re about to cough up something nasty. Oh yeah, don’t forget, this is all in a very different alphabet with different dipthongs that you need to learn before you can even read a proper Greek/English dictionary. And you need to, because phrase books are full of errors. Mine has beno mesa as ‘come in’ when it really means ‘I come in’. ‘You come in’ is benis mesa.

Stories abound of mistakes that can be made. I’ve seen some myself from the other side, and much hilarity has been had from our builder here confusing chicken and kitchen. Then there’s an English woman here who, whilst in the process of trying out her Greek, went into a bakers to ask for a large loaf of black bread and apparently ended up asking for a large black penis. Peos is penis whilst psomi is bread so I’m not sure how that happened – certainly some word I don’t know was involved.

And on that smutty note, consider that the verb endings I mentioned for agapo apply generally, then consider that the verb ‘I drink’ is pino. The English here generally choose the formal plural form of ‘you drink’ so as to avoid collapsing in giggles. But it’s one hell of a toast when you’ve had a few.

Let me re-iterate the disclaimer: the more I learn the more I know I know bugger all.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Ruin -- Part Three (And Other Stuff)

Okay, more now from your correspondent in Crete. We are still occasionally getting clouds in the sky here, but 19 is the lowest the temperature has dropped in the last couple of weeks, and that in the middle of the night. Oddly, up here in the mountains the temperature has often been higher than down in Makrigialos, which is a first for us. Only yesterday we went to Sitia for shopping, came back pouring with sweat to then provide drinks for the workers who were likewise boiling. After they went, at about 3.00, we decided to go to Makrigialos for a swim, since the temperature up here was 30 in the shade. We didn’t swim, we sat in a bar shivering 23 degrees centigrade. Crazy.

With the change in the weather (and the lack of wind) the plants are really taking off. Here’s a picture of our datura tree grown from a cutting about eight inches high last year.

The aforementioned lack of wind has also enabled us to spend more time outside (though of course it is impossible to use a laptop there). Here then is a picture of a writer hard at work on our front terrace...

The ruin proceeds apace. Here’s a picture of the garden walls that have gone in, and a distant shot of ruin and house. Some stuff you can’t see, like the plastic tank that’s been buried beside the building, and the connecting pipework. Next is the ‘apothiche’ (garden shed), all the internal pipework, all the internal electrics, the concrete floor, the concrete path covered with ‘karistoo’ (lovely shiny stone from one particular Greek island), digging the ‘vothros’ (cess pit), the internal rendering and new walls, the windows and doors and then, of course, little essentials of life like a toilet, shower, sink ... oh, and tiles.

Damn but I need to work harder!