School’s out for summer!

I hear from friends and family that it’s the end of term in the UK and finally schools are out for summer. Whenever I think of the end of term I hear the Alice Cooper song screeching “Skools out for EVER!‘” Schools here in Greece finish in mid-June, so for them it really is a long stretch of holiday before going back in in September. The local children are always playing around the village, zooming through the streets on BMX bikes, playing games and swimming on the beaches. It seems idyllic compared to when I think back to my childhood when those six magical weeks felt like an eternity of days spread out on the horizon. Mine were mostly at the mercy of UK summer weather and day trips to the coast, August bank holidays in Blackpool – and the longevity of the family joke “Beans or tomato’s, duck? Always delivered in a thick Black Country accent to impersonate the eccentric B&B landlady we stayed with near the North Pier aka ‘the posh end’ of Blackpool. Every few years these six weeks were punctuated by a holiday to Greece with my family. It was 1993 when we visited Crete and I came back with blond sun bleached streaks in my hair and freckles that joined up on my nose. There I was at age 11, the summer before starting secondary school when I developed a growing penchant for Greece. It was like the first kiss of a lifelong holiday romance with a country I just can’t break up with.

Also, look how cool I was with those 90s shorts on and I still dress the same…summer fashion has gone full circle!

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As holiday countdown starts for most families and the newspapers report on the gloom of fluctuating currencies (yes, pretty dire at the moment – every cent counts), it also the time of year wherever you turn there is a helpful list of things to pack ‘for the capsule holiday wardrobe’ and things that are the ‘must-have‘ fashion items for this summer. We met a couple last week who are travelling around the world over 12 months, starting with Europe and are here in Syros for a month. They only have hand luggage – yes, for a year! It’s really made me think about necessities. Since realising I have clothes and beauty items that I have discovered are entirely surplus to requirements. I have a pang of regret like I was tricked by that tiny voice of consumerism when packing for six months in Greece. A lot of what I brought was totally needed: jogging bottoms, yoga pants, jumpers, wool socks and a Northface fleece – absolutely needed for the cold Spring nights (and days, like the sullen afternoon in April I went out for a walk to the Aquarium in Kini just to stay warm). Then a lot really wasn’t necessary; dressy stuff just feels pointless –there are 3 dresses I may not even wear, just too ‘showy’, earrings and jewellery doesn’t get much of an airing, also that orange pair of H&M sandals – not even comfortable. Honestly though, most things clothes-wise seem to get a good use – but there is a full on staple of bikini/vest/denim shorts and flip-flops in regular rotation. But for anyone packing for a week or two in Mediterranean climes I would heartily recommend the less is more approach –think basics, mix and match dresses for day and evening, comfy trousers, shorts, vests and t-shirts – no heels, nothing bulky – cardie/jacket for the evening chill. A lovely friend of mine whatsapped me photos of her holiday purchases while in a sweaty high street changing room on Oxford Street – I tried to be constructive but shuddered at the horror of pre-holiday shopping!

Summer beauty routine
In the past 4 months away I have not only relinquished the overstuffed beauty bag with its various lotions and potions, stripping back to basics. First to go was my love of garish nail varnish, which just cannot withstand the reality of handwashing loads and daily applications of mosquito repellent, as well as gardening. I don’t miss it at all and my nails have never been in better shape – I have also ‘almost’ quit biting the skin around my fingers as a nervous habit…almost. Given that I thought I’d have to go to a hairdresser at some point, I have instead decided to let my hair go and do what the bloomin’ heck it likes. Apart from a treat of frizz ease every once in a while and some ‘silver-purple-shampoo’, my hair seems to relish the humidity and stays soft, in salty tousled curls. I have reached what beauty editors could describe as ‘untamed beach hair’ without the help of any products. Okay, I admit there may have been some lemon juice involved but that’s all-natural! The hair-straighteners still mock me from afar, having only been used once to ‘iron’ a shirt. All you really need is basic shampoo’s, a better grade conditioner and decent shower gel. Most branded beauty items are expensive here – nivea – johnsons – elvive,  all around twice the cost of at home. So I frugally scour the supermarkets and Lidl for special offers, having recently discovered the joys of the French-brand Le Petit Marseillais which is reasonably priced and paraben free, so I am embracing their shower gel and moisturiser. My other essential item is bio-oil- few drops on the face for a treat or dose on any dry patches of legs, elbows etc. Less is definitely more. Sometimes I think that my lax attitude to personal appearance is weather dependent – it’s hot, so why bother. But I think I have also been slightly freed from the tyranny of my appearance. I generally spend less time near a mirror, maybe I ‘look’ but I don’t ‘see’ my face under the same level of scrutiny I once gave it. Every day back in London you are accidentally confronted with your own reflection from a range of unflattering angles, from glimpses in the train door, the chrome toaster in the work kitchen, shop windows, hopping on the bus and the under the neon lights of the tube, then reflected down through ceilings as you stand on escalators, the revolving door of the office, and especially in the work toilet mirror checking your eyeliner in between meetings…it’s impossible not to be horrified with your sallow skin and tired eyes every hour of the day. But here, I have a mirror in the bathroom and one in the bedroom – and they don’t get much attention. Not that I have somehow lost interest, I think it just doesn’t matter. I might wear mascara once a fortnight and go ‘BOOM’ that makes your eyeslashes POP! But I like my lines, my ruddy red cheeks, the freckles that have joined up and the wild-hair (I saw a photo G took and said, “wow I have actually turned into Charlie Dimmock” and was quite pleased). The downy blond hair on my arms and legs is so bleached, I couldn’t bear to mess with it and I went through a phase of not shaving because I had a theory that the mossie’s bit hairy legs less often…I was wrong!  I seem to be reminded of the First Aid Kit song lyrics to ‘Heaven knows’ which captures this kind of daily obsession women face about their faces, especially as we age; “you spent a year staring into a mirror, another one trying to figure out what you saw, paid so much attention to what you’re not, you have no idea who you are”. I am about to start reading Selfie by Will Storr – so expect further thoughts on this soon. Anyway I digress – this piece was meant to be about summer beaches and bloody well not worrying what you look like in a bikini and it’s gone all over the place.

On body-confidence
I think I hate that word, ‘body-confidence’ it jars with me – wear what you want and enjoy the beach. Having spent a fair amount of time on the beach this summer, I can make the following observations from the shores of Greece.

All bodies are ‘beach-bodies’ and the Greeks are a nation poised for summer at all times. They enjoy the hot weather in all its glory, the sea, the beach, ready to pose, to swim, to tan (apply your factor please!) and even play slightly annoying bat and ball (the Greeks love this – it’s like a competitive sport!) Also, this year there is particular trend that must be gathering pace across every Mediterranean beach, yes, following on from last-year’s horror that was the inflatable pink flamingo, this year we have an even wider range of inflatable novelties direct from China. So far I have witnessed; ink iced donuts, ice cream lollies, white swans, and even 5ft unicorns (I shall not name the guilty purchasers you know who you are and you loved it!). Please avoid with care or harpoon these nasties at will!

The beach is a microcosm of the world at play. From the perma-tanned aging ‘Adonis’ in his tiny speedos to the teenage boys showing off at beach volleyball, sucking in their six-packs for photos. The pasty-newly arrived-holiday makers with sunburnt shoulders, snoozing after a bottle of retsina at lunch, hands clasping heavyweight novels in the shade.  I have watched elderly couples in their 80s holding hands and helping one another wade into the waves, paddling about without a care in the world. Their creaky joints relieved by the weightlessness in the sea. Ladies swimming in little groups wearing floppy sunhats and gossiping as they tread water – these old-timers care not what they look like, but are proud to be enjoying the sea.  I have seen babies and toddlers scream with both delight and fear as they paddle for the first time and learn to swim on this beach. Teenage girls, veering from shy to flirtatious in their skimpy 2 piece newly purchased swimwear ready to parade and tan. There is a growing trend for very skimpy bikini’s this year, high cut thongs and it takes a kind of sassy bravado to wear this style which I respect. But is surprising how popular they are in such a conservative country such as Greece. Those bums certainly attract attention! I have also seen a fair share of everything else on some of the ‘clothing optional’ beaches. Embracing the full spectrum of shapes, sizes and sheer grandeur of the human form is what being beach ready is all about. The best way to get over the body fascism that is peddled by the fashion industry and clothing lines to sell swimwear, is by celebrating what real bodies look like and what real bodies do. They save lives, make lives, give pleasure and pain, they grow, they heal and most of all, they change.

I am 35, I have cellulite, I am no perfect 10, but quite frankly I have never felt better on the beach. I feel the first step to being comfortable is defining your own body by what it can do rather than how it looks in a bikini – I can swim a kilometre, run a 10k and sometimes, hike up to the top of a mountain without passing out.

No matter what I dress it in, my body would always rather be in the sea than sat on the sidelines.

And wherever you go this summer don’t forget the suncream!

 

 

Ferry survival tactics!

I started writing this blog post about Greek ferries 10 months ago. I know, crazy, 10 months and still only sat in the draft section of my blog. Lazy, probably. But also I had unshakable desire to travel on more ferries. I feel in a better place to write this now than when we were just back from Sikinos and I couldn’t describe how much I loved the Greek ferry system; but I am still learning to love its quirks and mysteries. We had travelled on Zante Ferries ‘Adamantios Korais’ on a midnight sailing from Sikinos to Santorini and I was mesmerized her bubblegum pink and mint green leather seating reminiscent of a down-beat disco bar. It was built in Japan in the late 1980s and has this futuristic interior that was a wonderful reminder of the lost glamour of sailboat travel.  When we were home G encouraged my ferry interest by buying a random book from Amazon which captures a little slice geekery called ‘5 Days in Greece: the Greek Ferry Industry at a crossroads”. This book is something of a gem as it is written by a couple of ferry fanatics who capture a key time in Hellenic maritime history. It has amazing photographs of ferries and detailed descriptions before several of the older ships (often ex-cross-channel boats) were about to be retired following the change in legislation in the aftermath of the MS Express Sanmina disaster in 2000. If you don’t know the tragic tale, the Sanmina sank outside Paros in September 2000 – it was due to end its service after 35 years the following year. 82 people lost their lives in the disaster and the cause of which was not only the ship shunted into rocks and let in water, but the crew failed to lock nine of the ships eleven watertight doors. I saw some underwater photos of the wreck at the Kini Aquarium last week which prompted my thoughts on it.  As a result Greek law was changed to ensure that all boats retire at 30 years and are subject to extra safety procedures as well as voyages now having ‘black box’ recorders. This meant that in the 2000’s many of the older characterful ferries that had metamorphosed from one country route to another shipping company altogether, were taken out of service. But there are still some wonderful boats on journeys across the islands, charting between major and minor ports. It’s not just the boat that plays a role here but also the voyage and the views, as well as the stories that people bring with them as they travel.

Last week we stood waving my parents off at Ermoupoli port as they took the Blue Star Naxos to Mykonos to catch a flight– little did I know there had been a mix up at the ticket agency and I’d mistakenly managed to buy them tickets for July travel instead of June (I can’t even blame my bad Greek, the whole transaction was done in English!) Although afterwards they reassured me all was sorted quickly and the ship staff shrugged when realising that someone must have let them use the incorrect tickets for their outbound journey. Meaning that no one knew they were on-board, contravening the basic sea-travel law of having a passenger manifest!  Some things never change.

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Whilst we waved we watched two glamorous looking young American girls disembark the Blue Star and stand around on Syros port – they ambled over to the store to buy beers and stood waiting around. Like most ports the accommodation owners are allowed to tout for passing trade when a boat comes in – as the girls had been standing around for a while the lady who runs a hotel in town asked the girls if they had a place to stay in Syros. I didn’t over hear the exchange but we certainly started watching when the Greek lady started pointing to the Blue Star ferry and shouting “No, this is Syros! After here is Mykonos…Quickly! Run! Go”. The girls screeched some expletives and then started running back towards the ferry they had just left, arms flailing, wheelie suitcases falling over and bouncing over the perilous concrete, one lost a wedge heel shoe…all the while they both miraculously held onto their beers! It was quite a commotion for the port in the midday sun, but too late for them to hop on the Blue Star, as the harbour master had unhooked the ropes and it had started reversing out of port. Luckily, the old faithful Aqua Spirit was still tied in and from what I could see the Greek lady helped negotiate them onto the ferry  and off to Mykonos without too much fuss! I imagine that will be quite the story for those travellers, but I also think it must happen all the time – perhaps if you’ve arrived on a 10 hour flight and are jet-lagged, it’s could be plausible to mistake the venetian hills of Ermoupoli for the sugar cube houses of Mykonos. But they do always make announcements in English as well as Greek…and Mykonos and Syros don’t even sound similar…

Sometimes it seems like you need a Rubik’s cube to figure out the timetables – believe me I do spend a considerable amount of time looking at them.That being said the ferry network confuses most people, myself included. Sometimes it’s easier and quicker to go to the main islands on a slow boat overnight like Crete, than it is to go shorter distances to smaller places! The ferry timetabling is much part of the local news media here, Cyclades24 has news stories dedicated to timetabling, which boats ran late, which failed to run at all. Things like the fast connections to Syros from Athens only started late in June, so people think they don’t bring enough tourists out of the peak season – then connections to close by islands like Sifnos are badly served by the boats.

The boat service throughout the year is a life-line, yet we travellers often forget it isn’t just there for Greek island hopping and zipping between beaches. It isn’t so as much a complex method of travel for tourists to navigate and understand– it’s a complex industry which primarily is designed to move local people and goods to keep the islands functioning! They need regular heavily subsidised routes for locals to access basic services – when we were trapped in Tinos in May due to the union strikes – the only boat going back to Syros took 4 hours and went via Andros, which any you look at the map is a four hour detour. But that network has an obligation to provide at least a bi-weekly accessible route to Syros, as it has hospitals, law courts and tax offices.

In the peak summer there are countless potential routes to get you across island groups by hydrofoil or highspeed line from Piraeus to Santorini or Naxos and Mykonos – all the most popular islands have the best connections (which again is a source of grumbles for Islands trying to attract tourism as they are tied by the ferry companies desire to be commercially viable). But come Winter the ferry’s reduce to a slow skeleton service connecting island networks at the mercy of being cut off by weather, and for the smaller and remote places the weekly ferry is a lifeline. They don’t have sources of food and supplies – a simple fact on some of the rocky outcrops in the Cyclades, communities have self-sufficiently existed there for years without deliveries of goods and services – small populations with enough farming and livestock for their villages. Now when these small islands like Tilos, Halki or Paros started attracting tourists from the late 60s onwards they needed roads building, construction, cabling, electrical supplies, and transport – every single thing has to be delivered by boat and that sometimes includes its water supply, although many now have de-salination plants thanks to the wonders of EU funding.

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Wherever you arrive or depart it is brilliantly orchestrated chaos.  If it’s a big boat it is chaos on a grand scale, huge swathes of passengers swarming on clambering for seats, cars and motorbikes revving their engines, trucks of goods, tankers and parcels being loaded on by people with endless clipboards and labels running on and off the boat. It is a feat of ingenuity that only the Greeks could master. If this was the UK there would be too many forms to complete and dockets to sign that a boat would never get out of port!

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There are a few good rules to follow: pay attention to where they ask you to leave bags when you board on the car deck and remember where it is, they usually have signs for each destination, but sometimes the man will just point and shout! If you really do want a seat and the option on bigger ferries tend to be deck or economy or the next class is airline seat, do pay the few extra euros for the airline seat. Some of the time you can just sit wherever you want on deck, in the cafes or in the air-conditioned lounges – but sometimes on busier ferries people reserve all the seats with their luggage and just leave their stuff, meaning no one else can sit down. Sometimes the staff ask people to move or the ticket inspectors check everyone should be sitting there. Most Greek people like to rush on and set up a spot for their families, but I do like to roam around the boat, perusing the café’s (usually for a decent spanakopita and espresso) and viewing the islands from the deck as we pass by. Its best to always wrap up warm even if its hot outside, once on-deck in the meltimi winds or in an air-conditioned cabin the temperatures can plummet. I safely take travel calm tablet on longer journey’s, I’ve never been sea-sick but its just insurance against it happening. But they do sell tablets on board.  It’s usually a lot simpler on shorter journey’s like the ‘Despina’ from Corfu to Paxos, or the aptly named ‘Meganisi II’ from Nidri on Lefkada or a personal favourite was taking the 70s aircraft-esque Tilos Sea Star from Rhodes Harbour in which they showed episodes of Blackadder with Greek subtitles. We recently ventured on Golden Star’s latest boat the highspeed SuperRunner to Paros which despite being in the middle of a storm was a smooth and swift journey in relative luxury!

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Travelling by ferry should always be seen as a big part of the holiday, whether you are there for a few weeks or just a short hop from Piraeus in Athens. One Easter on a small Dodekanise Express I left my luggage next to a crate full of live chicks on the hydrofoil to Patmos which was utterly cute to see the little bundles of yellow feathers chirping away, although I fear their destination may have not been so nice. We have seen herds of sheep, crates of tomatoes, fresh flowers and even prisoners being transported by armed police.  I spent 5 blissful days on Halki and actually enjoyed waking up at 3am to watch the towering Crete bound Anek ferry arrive into the tiny port, watching the chaos ensue on the sleepy harbour from the balcony as it unloaded trucks and passengers blinking bleary eyed. It’s lights on deck lit up the dock like Christmas!

I didn’t travel by ferry until I was about 6 years old on my first holiday to France, we would have driven all the way down to Dover to get the ferry to Calais. I have very little memory of being on the ferry, but it obviously stuck a cord somewhere. Now I see the ferry is a big part of the adventure in Greece, and we have lots of mini-trips that should incorporate more routes and boats. Although I have a feeling that the Aqua Spirit may become a ship we know too well this summer, and Hellenic Seaway’s Artemis, as they seem to be the only two boats covering most of the smaller Cyclades Islands.

Luckily getting my hands on some ‘Ferry Swag’ is a new hobby. So far I’m the proud owner of Blue Star Ferries cap which when I wear (mostly for gardening or running) I secretly want people to ask me about timetables…go on, I might even know the answer!