In 1996, I flew with a friend, Fern, to England, where we met up with Kevin and Margaret, friends of Fern, and then all four of us flew to a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, Corfu.
Most of the famed islands of Greece are in the Aegean Sea. Corfu is a little neglected island tucked away between the mainlands of Greece and Italy. There is much influence of Italy in the architecture and food of Corfu, but at no time will you mistake where you for anywhere but Greece. The national colors, blue and white, decorate many of the buildings, the views of the towns and of the water are often breathtaking, stunning in their beauty.
We arrived at the hottest time of the year, temperatures seem cold when described as a mere 41-43 degrees, until a quick conversion from centigrade to fahrenheit scales gives you a number above 100 degrees.
I had spent a few days in England and had come to love a pint at the pub, while learning to loath the unimaginative food offerings; so faced with the furnace blast upon deplaning, we went in search of a beer before checking into our hotel. Our only options at the airport were Heineken or Amstel Light, neither a beer I like the flavor of, but I drank away some of the lingering effects of the flight, and the heat, with a Heineken.
Out hotel was basic. We were shown to our two rooms, next to each other, by Stephen(os). Stephen, an enormous Greek, was our clerk when we checked in, and our bell man. Stephan easily handled the luggage of four people without the use of a cart. Our 2nd floor rooms each had two bed bedrooms, a bathroom, and a balcony. From our balconies we could sit and see the Ionian Sea, blue beyond the bluest blue imaginable.
In 1996, I drank; that is to say, I still maintained my ability to over drink. I had picked up 2 bottles of Jose Cuervo gold tequila duty free for my week. Kevin had picked up two bottles of Pernod. I don’t remember what Fern and Margaret picked up, but let me assure you, they each picked up 2 bottles for the week’s holiday. We consumed those eight bottles of alcohol in shots, with water, with mixers; we drank on our balconies, we drank by the pool, we drank at the beach; we drank. In less than half a week, we had emptied our 8 bottles of assorted alcohols. This was a vacation, every one of us was a well practiced drinker, and we were maintaining a constant state of lubrication.
Mind you, we were consuming lots of liquids, water, Heineken or Amstel Light (these were the only two beers I found on the entire island in the whole week we were there), coffee. It was hot, and the heat meant lots of fluids were called for.
We also ate. I love food. The food in England had been uniformly boring and horrible. Remember, England is the country where the best chef in the country is Gordon Ramsey, a Scotsman.
Corfu, it turns out, is largely a holiday island for vacationing English and German tourists. Our hotel was in the town of St. Georges, and it seemed our entire town was populated with English holiday goers. Fern and I were the only Americans I saw on the entire island in the week we were there. Breakfast at the hotel each day was an English breakfast. Each morning, our waiter and busboy was Stephen. Stephen would bring out 4 plates with eggs, sausage, tomato, beans and toast, along with tea for the English and Nescafe instant coffee for Fern and I. Before our week was done, I had Stephen bring Fern and I an American breakfast; sadly, I didn’t have a single decent cup of coffee during my entire European vacation (bring your own!).
I would snack each mid day on lighter fare; often having Tzatziki, a yoghurt, cucumber and garlic dip, usually scooped up with torn pita, light, tasty, refreshing; or Xhoriatiki, a Greek salad with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, feta, olive, and herbs; or both. Limited in choice, I usually washed it all down with either a Heineken or Amstel Light. Stephen acted as both my snack bar attendant and beer-tender.
During the days, we traveled by bus to the only real city, conveniently named Corfu; or to the most beautiful town and harbor, inconveniently named Palaiokastritsa. We visited the olive orchards and farms in the hills, and spent time on the beach below our hotel.
To get to our beach, we walked out the front doors of our hotel, waving to Stephen, down a path past the pool, across the beach road, and down a steep and narrow path cut into a hill side cliff. On one side of the narrow path, rebar had been hammered into the hillside to keep it from falling, and remained dangerously exposed; on the other side of the path, a cliff offered a sheer fall of over 50 feet to the beach below.
At the beach, bottled water, sodas, beer (Heineken or Amstel Light) and alcohol helped fight the heat of the sun and the cold of the sea, I thought that the Mediterranean Sea would be warm. Perhaps is is, at least in some places. The part of the Med around Corfu, known as the Ionian Sea, is not warm. Not so cold that swimming is impossible, it could definitely be warmer; it was a bit uncomfortable.
I travel often, and often by myself. I am almost always in charge of myself when I travel. I was not used to traveling with others, being forced by politeness to do what others want to do, to have to listen to the often drunken ramblings of others. I’m good, I can handle quite a bit of it; but I couldn’t handle it 24/7. Each day when the sun was at it’s hottest, and we four were gathered on our balcony, shaded from the sun, and drinking; without warning or comment, I would get up, walk to the railing of out balcony, climb over it, hang from the other side, and drop to the ground below. My companions could not follow my example, and I would walk to the beach and swim alone for a bit each day. I found great comfort in my daily alone time.
Each night at midnight, I would do the same thing, except the beach was always deserted. Being the only one swimming at midnight, I shucked my clothing on the beach and swam nude under the moonlight, feeling incredibly free.
My first Corfu beach memory is of a food vender who wandered up and down the beach with a stick. Impaled on the stick was a stack of giant doughnuts. What I remember best was the shouts of the vender. It has been said that sex sells. This vender must have heard that as well because her shouts of, “sexy doughnuts, come and get your sexy, sexy doughnuts,” still makes me smile in amusement.
At night, seafood seemed an obvious island choice. unfortunately, fish was awfully expensive. I ate Sofrito, an Italian style tender veal dish featuring white wine, garlic and herbs over rice; and Mousaka, fried eggplant and beef, topped with a béchamel (basic white; butter, flour, milk; often including veal, onions, thyme, pepper, clove, nutmeg and/or salt) sauce.
Cheaper still were Souvlatzidika, kebabs made into gyros by wrapping them in a toasted pita with salad and tzatiki. It didn’t matter what meat was used, beef, veal, chicken or fish, as the marinade made it taste the same anyway. Tasty, but cheap, I ate many Souvlatzidika and liked every one.
Dessert, or a pre midnight swim snack, usually involved Baclava, honeyed filo puff pastry with chopped nuts; or yoghurt with honey, nuts and fruit; or, again, both.
The two big local alcoholic beverages were Retsina and Ouzo.
I love wine. Retsina, in theory, is wine. Retsina, in reality, is a Christmas tree in a bottle; a pine sap resin smelling and tasting wine. I found it horrible. I tried several different labels, from different producers; hey, I’m a wine guy, i wanted it to be good. Kind of like Pineapple wine from Hawaii, Retsina (or at least every one I tasted) is horrible.
Ouzo, on the other hand, is a tasty anise based, licorice flavored, thickly sticky sweet alcohol. It is similar to Italian Sambuca or French Pernod in flavor, but completely Greek.
One evening, out of tequila, I decided to drink ouzo. I started out sipping this thick licorice liquor from shot glasses, moved to drinking double shots from rocks glasses, and finished off the night drinking chimney tumblers full of ouzo. I think it is safe to say, conservatively, that I consumed at least an entire bottle of ouzo that night.
During my drunken evening, I won a slot machine jackpot and filled my pockets with foreign coins, and I took part in a trivia contest that I swear I knew all the answers to but the tavern owners claimed they couldn’t read my written answers.
At midnight, like a mechanical bird exiting a Swiss clock, I jumped off my bar stool. Drunk though I might be, I was heading down the road to swim at my beach – right up until the bush swallowed me.
In fairness, the bush that fronted the tavern I was exiting was no ordinary bush; it was large and shapely. It was very hedge-like. Perhaps it was a hedge. All I know is that as I tried to pass it, it leaped out at me. It certainly felt that way to me at least.
My friends report that as I got up to leave, on my way out, it appeared that I leaped into the hedge.
I extricated myself from the hedge, breaking off bits of it in my clothing, and continued down the road, staggering drunkenly toward the beach.
Let me be clear: at no time did I experience falling. I did, however, experience the ground rushing up to meet my face several times.
Over and over, the ground slammed into my body, my head, my face. I had no idea from which direction it would come at me next. Still, I moved toward my beach.
I have no idea how many times I fell on my way to the beach path. I knew intellectually that I was falling down drunk. I had never before experienced this. In spite of the novel sensations of having the Earth rush up to smash me and hedges reaching out to swallow me whole, I wasn’t having as much fun as you might imagine.
Getting to the beach had become a quest, my own Grail quest. Perhaps a swim would sober me (ignorantly unaware that I would likely drown). With my first step on the narrow path down to the beach, the earth smacked me in the head again. I lay against the path, unmoving, thinking. I probably lay on that path ten full minutes. I realized that with exposed rebar on one side and a sheer drop on the other side, this path would surely result in my death if I stayed on it. I turned around, without standing, and crawled off the path back to the roadway.
Stephen told me the next day that my path from the road to the front of the hotel involved a series of dives, head first, into the road, gravel path, and bushes and trees along the path.
My last pitch was intended to be through the doors of the hotel. Knowing I was going to fall, I squared myself up, and started running for the door, hoping to fall through it, into the lobby. I was very surprised when all of my motion was instead backward, away from the doors, and deep into another bush.
At this point, Stephen picked me up out of the bush, carried me to my room, opened the door while holding me pinned to the wall with one hand, then depositing me fully clothed in my bed to pass out.
I awoke to a horrible smell. Fern, who came in while I was passed out, had thrown up in her bed while asleep. I pulled her bedding from under her, wadded it up, and threw it outside, and over the balcony.
The next morning Fern realized with horror that the terrible smell in the room was her. Her hair had collected a bit of her stomach’s contents as she rolled when I took her bedding off the night before.
Fern, after cleaning herself, invited our friends to come view me in my passed out state. My bed had bits of trees, bushes and hedges scattered from my previous night’s battles; coins from the previous night’s jackpot were also scattered about the bed, some stuck to my body.
For the rest of the trip, I was known as Johnny Ouzo; the merest whiff of it, could produce the most severe nausea.
Fern was lucky, she got rid of her over indulgence of alcohol on her bed. I wasn’t sick; all the alcohol was still in my body the next day, and the most painful hangover of my life lay ahead of me.
Sitting hungover when the temperature is over 100 degrees is not a good way to spend a day of a Greek vacation. Getting sunburned while hungover may be the only way to make your day worse.
The tavern owners gave me a consolation bottle of (Retsina based) Champagne (sparkling wine) for my previous night’s attempt at the trivia contest. I didn’t drink that, or any ouzo, while in Greece. I did get back to being able to drink, if not enjoy, Heineken or Amstel Light.
I had a great time in Greece. I was ready, after a week. to leave Corfu and return to England to continue my vacation.
My son was born the following year; I have not taken overseas vacations since (Hawaii doesn’t count). I’m looking at a trip to Melbourne, Australia later this year (about 50/50 likelihood). I might enjoy some local Yarra Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but with 12 years as a father, I don’t have to worry about drunken battles in the outback with Dingos.