In many ways, I would prefer it if 2016 were rerun. Rebooted even, and the present incarnation booted into touch. At the beginning of this year I could still nurture fantasies of seeing David Bowie live, acting with Alan Rickman or swapping jokes with Victoria Wood. Somewhat far-fetched fantasies, admittedly, but technically possible nonetheless. Donald Trump was still more of looming orange buffoon (bouffant?) and 17.4m Brits didn’t have to start most of their sentences with “I’m not racist, but…”
From a personal point of view, though, I can’t really complain. I took the show I wrote about my wife’s treatment for and recovery from breast cancer to Australia, toured it throughout Europe and had my first proper run at London’s Soho Theatre. I ran my first marathon. I have also just completed my first theatre tour of Greece, where, thanks to a slightly bizarre set of circumstances, I now find myself selling more tickets than I do at home. Indeed, the one positive to Brexit for me is that I was away earning Euros the week the pound dipped to its lowest point in 168 years. If you had told me a couple of years ago I would find some tiny level of fame in Greece, I would probably not have believed you. That I have is entirely thanks to my good friend Giorgos Xatzipavlou (George) who asked me to appear in a benefit for Unicef that was shown on Greek TV. I joked at the time that only I could get big in the most screwed up economy in Europe. Little did I realize that a mere eighteen months later, thanks to the foolishness of a significant minority of my countrymen, touring Greece would turn out to be an astute financial proposition.
Athens was to me, for many years, the answer to that question often asked of comedians – “What was your worst gig?” In 2008 I performed at a dreadful corporate to two separate audiences of diplomats’ wives, many of whom didn’t speak English, on either side of a tent in someone’s back garden, sharing a non-existent stage with a full size crystal carriage, a life-size Father Christmas and a faulty microphone. They may have wanted to laugh, but thanks to the enormous amount of Botox and facelifts on display, sadly that was a physical impossibility
Now, I am far more well-disposed to the place. Athens is a wonderful, vibrant city, and Greece is a thoroughly lovely destination with amazing food, superb hospitality, unique history, delightful people, terrible drivers, dangerous pavements and, very importantly, sold-out theatres.
Thanks to George (and his manager, Alexandros,) we visited Thessaloniki, Athens, Syros, Crete and Patra and it looks very much as though we will be repeating the experience in 2017. The shows were exceptionally good fun, and, as I discovered on my last trip, so was the hospitality. Once again we ate incredibly well, including another memorable trip to the brilliant Botrini’s as mentioned in an earlier blog. We did three dates in Crete, and were lucky enough to have two rather good meals in Heraklion, one of which I thought I would write about here. Not that the first wasn’t pretty exciting too – our hotel had various succulent cuts of lamb roasting around an open fire in its huge dining room, which was also home to an enormous tank housing a rather large crocodile for reasons no one seemed to wish to explain.
The next day however, we took a trip to Knossos and the very impressive Archaeological Museum, then wandered around the city to find something to eat before flying back to the mainland. Parasties may be a slightly unfortunate anagram in English, but in Greek it’s a rather marvelous restaurant, specializing in local, er…specialities. A lot of this stuff is the sort of thing you can get at any taverna in Greece, but there was an attention to detail and an emphasis on quality ingredients here that elevated it to the really rather special. We were sat on a sort of roofless terrace/front room where the décor was comfortable and on the tasteful side of funky. Lots of wood and earthy colours, reflected in little idiosyncrasies like serving the bread on what appeared to be an old roof tile. Not that easy to hand around, but it was excellent bread, so who’s complaining?
We weren’t. A Greek salad arrived, with one of the finest, creamiest fetas I have ever eaten. This tasted good in a way that made you think of the whole process, from field to sheep to milk to plate. I hesitate to use words like organic, because I don’t know if it was, but it was certainly made by someone who knows their feta. George said it was excellent, and George is someone who knows his feta. Dishes then came thick and fast. We were going to Botrini’s that evening, so were attempting restraint, but that is really quite difficult in a Greek restaurant, especially when George is ordering.
Grilled oyster mushrooms (something of a general find this trip) were superb – beautifully woody with the carbonized char of a well-directed flame. Similarly a spinach pie was all blistered outside and moist, tasty greenery within. Dolmadakies were a huge step up from the disappointing versions we’d had at an expensive tourist trap in Chanai a couple of days before – small, succulent and not served anywhere near a heavily tattooed stag night. There was also a very serviceable plate of puréed fava beans with sweetly caramelized onions. For me though, the absolute highlight was a pastrami pie that George insisted we try – all salty meat, melting cheese and perfect filo, although I’m very glad we also had the snails too – a Cretan speciality – swimming in hot olive oil and rosemary.
Having eaten far too much of this, we should not have been surprised when a rather nice marmalade cake was brought, unbidden, as that is just what happens at the end of meals in Greece. A lovely tradition no doubt, but one that has just caused me to loosen my belt on the plane seat I am presently sitting in as I’m fairly sure I am returning from the Mediterranean with rather more than I brought with me.
I have no idea how much the meal cost thanks to George’s enormous generosity and almost pathological refusal to allow me to pay for anything. Luckily by the end of the trip I had managed to sneak into a few establishments to get the bill before he realized – much to his consternation as I was apparently using ‘his trick’ which is exactly the sort of underhand deviousness the Greeks have come to expect from the British. Well, the British Museum, anyway.
George’s generosity was reflected in far more than his insistence on paying bills, it was evidenced in his eye for detail on the shows, his (and Alexandros’s) hard work in setting the whole thing up in the first place, and their friendship and hospitality throughout the trip. I have never been made to feel more welcome on my travels and there have been many. Looking at the diary, I can only hope Switzerland, Austria and Hungary are half as delightful in the coming months.
As they say in Greece, Efharisto, which means thank you, as being polite to other people, in other countries, in a language other than your own is something we should aspire to, not reject as a weakness in some feeble effort to ‘take back control.’ I appear to have got my country back. Sadly it seems to be the one from the late seventies, and I’ll be honest, I don’t like it very much at the moment. Which is very different from how I feel about Europe in general, and Greece in particular.