Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Stitched up by Nursie

A month and a half ago, I was fortunate enough to have some varicose veins removed on the NHS. They had been causing me discomfort for some time, and occasionally bleeding. When I initially asked my doctor he told me that I could have them removed privately for "very little cost." I asked him how much he meant by very little. He said "about £2000." I didn't bother telling him how hard it would be for me to find that amount of money. But when they bled again I returned to him, and expressed concern about them complicating into DVT. He begrudgingly referred me to a surgeon, who took one look at them and agreed that they should be removed.
I understood how fortunate I had been. I love the NHS. I'll support it at every opportunity, especially now when it seems like people are looking for reasons to make it look bad. And whether or not he did it begrudgingly, my doctor did refer me, thus sparing me lots of discomfort down the line.
At Chelsea and Westminster Hospital I was fortunate to have an excellent surgeon in Dr. Gibbs, and the anaesthetist totally put me at my ease before knocking me out, which is handy considering I freak out at needles. When I awoke, the surgeon was very clear about what was to happen next.
"The operation was a complete success. But you need to make an appointment with your GP in two weeks time. You have three stitches that need to be removed at the surgery. *indicating my groin area* The paper ones on your leg will fall off of their own accord, but if they don't, just pull them off in a couple of weeks. Don't forget to make an appointment with your GP. Keep renewing the dressing in your groin until you have the stitches taken out."
Very clear. He gave me a letter as well, and used highlighter pen over the section saying that some stitches needed to be removed. So I did everything according to his instructions. A week or so after the surgery, I started to develop a rash around the area of the incision in my groin, roughly in the shape of the dressing. I was concerned by this, and treated it very carefully. I thought it might be an allergic reaction to the dressing but since I had never had a surgery wound before, I was concerned. About the rash, and also about how the wound appeared to be constantly open. I had been very active right after the surgery, working on the boats for hours some days, and walking in the park. I was worried that some crap from the Thames had got in it. I was looking forward to having my fears laid to rest, and counting the days until the stitch removal when that would happen.
I had made an appointment with the nurse rather than the doctor for the stitches. My last few flatmates have been nurses so I know that nurses remove stitches - (Tara used to love it. Had she still been here I probably would have got her to do it and this whole sorry nonsense wouldn't have happened). So I rang my surgery and asked if I should see the doctor or the nurse to have stitches removed. They said the nurse. So off I went. I didn't bring the letter from the surgeon, as it said nothing specific.
It's a sunny morning, and I am in a good mood. I am looking forward to getting advice on the rash, and having my mind put at rest about the upturned edges of the wound. I bound into the nurses room:
"Hello! I need to have three stitches removed! I should warn you though, I think I've had a reaction to the dressing, so the skin is raised around the incision wound. It's pretty unpleasant. I'm worried about it to be honest - could you have a look?"
I show her. She gets me to lie down, puts some cream on a cloth, and before I realise what she is doing she jams the cloth into the scabbing, rubbing right over the top of the open wound. This is completely at odds with how gingerly I have been treating it all week. It also hurts and comes with no warning.
"Ow!" She stops. I am instantly really angry - I feel weirdly violated. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" (Not the right way to start this, but I am feeling violated.)
"I have to remove the scabbing so that I can properly see where the stitches are."
"You should have warned me. Also you were going right at the incision wound. Careful of that."
"Yes of course. can I carry on?"
"Yes of course."
She then pokes around for a while. "You have no stitches." 
(Still angry. Still doing myself no favours.) "What are you talking about? I have three - it's probably just that the skin around the wound is raised because of the rash. I definitely have three stitches that need to be removed by you today."
"Do you have your surgeon's letter?"
"No - I left it at home. But all it says is that there are stitches. It doesn't say where or how many. But the surgeon pointed at my groin and said the number three. And that was the main incision so one would assume...
"I can't do anything without the surgeon's letter.
"Well I don't have it. Can you just find the three stitches and remove them? I definitely have three.
"I can't do anything without the surgeons letter."
(So I continue to be a dick.) "God. Ok, fine I'll get the sodding letter and it won't say anything more than what I've told you. It says stitches need to be removed by your GP after 2 weeks. I'm here. It has been 2 weeks. You're not my GP but you're the nurse so that's fine. I can get this bloody letter if you need, but if I get it will you remove the stitches for me?
"I can't do anything without the surgeon's letter.
"Please just get the stitches out.
"The stitches he was referring to are the paper sutures on your leg. I can remove them for you?
"No, God no - I can do that myself. You'll probably take the scab off with them. You really want me to go home and get this letter?"
"I can't do anything without the..."
"Oh for fuck's sake ok fine whatever."

Me, and rage: when I walk into a lamp post, my instant reaction is rage. Rage at the lamp post. That bloody lamp post how dare it hit me! This is always my first reaction to unexpected pain. I kick out at it. But also she unexpectedly caused me pain in a really intimate area, where I had invested a lot of concern. I really didn't want to have a septic groin. So I was angry, needlessly and stupidly angry. And I was doing myself no favours. And then she tapped into my pet hate - people being officious and stating the rules in the absence of common sense. Nothing makes me angrier than the whole "It was in the terms and conditions when you signed up for X". I get like Michael Douglas in Falling Down when they won't serve him breakfast.
I was still fuming when I got back into the surgery clutching the letter. I marched up to the reception brandishing it.
"I need to make an appointment with the doctor. Your nurse is an incompetent." (The nurse is, of course, in earshot. I'm really not interested in doing myself any favours here.) 
But they fit me in - brilliantly. I think the nurse has had enough of me. The doctor, however, is not particularly interested in giving creedence to the fact that I know I have three stitches in me. He is more concerned with closing ranks with the nurse. In fact he barely looks at the wound, and tells me I have no stitches. I'm calmer now. I say I do. He says I don't. I tell him he is going to send me away with stitches in my wound.
He shrugs. "If you do have stitches that aren't removed then your body will reject them. The worst that can happen is that you'll get an abscess.
"Great. Well, I'll see you when I get the abscess.
"Do you want the nurse to remove your paper sutures?
"I'm not letting her anywhere near me. Look, please - the surgeon told me I have stitches that need to be removed. Why would he do that if I didn't?"
"I used to be a surgeon. Stitches that need to be removed have a bobble on them. I can't see anything like that in your wound."
So I go home. That evening, I carefully take off the paper sutures on my leg and discover TWO BLUE STITCHES WITH BOBBLES ON THEM in one of the wounds on my leg. My leg! dammit I thought it was my groin. That was where the surgeon indicated. My leg? Now I look like a twat. I poke around looking for a third, but to no avail. "Weird," I think. "I wonder where I got the number three from." I go in the next day, and ask the nurse to remove them. We are courteous to one another. I ask her if she might look for a third stitch. She says there are only two. I feel like I have been a dick. I apologise to her for my behaviour the previous day. I am annoyed with myself - I was sure the surgeon was indicating my groin. Why would he have done that if there was nothing to remove there? Either way, I should have been more calm and then we would have probably found the stitches in the first appointment and there wouldn't have had to be so much bad karma floating around. The nurse does not apologise back. She uses my apology to explain how I was wrong.
"If you had told me they were in your leg...!"
I respond - "Well, yes. But in the end, I'm the patient here."
Weeks pass. As for the wound in my groin, it remains open. Constantly weeping. I am cleaning it carefully and regularly and trying to stop it from going septic and wondering when it's going to heal. Operation scars are a new thing to me, and they don't seem to work like normal cuts and bruises, I think. I know there isn't a stitch in it, but I wish the flesh wasn't turned up like that. I worry it might scar. I assume I am being too active, but I can't bear not to be. It's a constant background worry, but I try not to let it get in the way.
A month later I am dancing in my kilt at a wedding, when I feel the half closed wound open yet again. IDIOT! Why am I dancing when I know this wound isn't healing properly? Especially considering I've been cancelling shifts on the boats, worrying that being on a speedboat won't help the healing process one little bit. I don't want to go to my doctor. I've already wasted their time, besides they'd just talk down to me and tell me it was normal for that sort of wound. I ignore it, but it keeps bothering me.
At home the next evening I decide to get some light on it and shortsightedly peer and poke at it. My eyesight is not good at the best of times. My lenses are a very old prescription and I lost my glasses on holiday so I only have sunglasses without them. But oh my God what is this? Stitches! Two knotty bobbles either end of a ligature running the length of the wound. I get a really close look and realise that the weeping is coming from the holes where at the top and bottom where it punches through the skin. That night I hardly sleep at all. The next morning I am at my GP as the surgery opens, and thankfully the nurse has a slot first thing. By this stage I am not interested in "I told you so." although I am very glad that I was not delusional. I just want the damn thing out of my body. There is already some scar tissue that there wouldn't have been if it had been taken out when I first came in, but nobody tends to see me naked - although I have stood on stage stripped to the bollocks. But I'd never need to look perfect - I'm no porn star. 
So I say to her "I need to have a stitch removed from my groin.
She knows me. "Another one?
"No, the same one as before. It's been there for a month now keeping the wound open.
She takes a look. Then, quite astonishingly, she gets a large pair of big blue tweezers. I calmly think they are some sort of cutter, until - again with no warning and no sense - she actually yanks the top knot upwards, trying to pull the bottom knot through the wound and out the other side. I am getting deja vu here. This great big knot slides wetly into the hole in my skin and then jams on scar tissue as it travels through the wound.
"Ow! What the hell do you think you're doing?" (Again) 
"I have to pull it out.
"Well, yes, God, but there's a bloody great knot on the bottom - surely you should cut it off before pulling it through the wound?
"There wasn't a knot on the bottom." 
"Of course there was a bloody knot on the bottom. I looked at it really closely."
"There wasn't a knot on the bottom."
"There was. It was bigger than the one on the top. You've just yanked it into the wound!" 
"There wasn't a knot. It's just a bit of scab, like this." *she shows me a bit of scab, as if that explained everything* She is world weary in tone now, fed up of this delusional idiot, patronising. I am really trying hard to remain measured. I will not allow another atmosphere like last time. Despite her protestations she starts digging in the hole into which she has pulled the knot, sticking the unsterilised blue plastic tweezers right into the wound, trying to pull the knot back the way it came. Which implies that she might realise she's made a mistake.
"Stop a second. Look, the only reason I came back to you was so it was on my record that there WAS a stitch in my groin. I could have cut it and taken it out myself. I wish I had now. I almost did because I was scared you'd do something like this. This is unbelievable.
"Wait here."
"No it's fine let's just get this done."
"No - wait here. If you are calling my competence into question I have to get the doctor."
She leaves the room, and comes back with a doctor - a different doctor from the first time, thankfully. 
The nurse tells the doctor that I am kicking up a fuss because I think there is a knot on the end of the stitch she is pulling through my wound, whereas I am mistaken and it is just a bit of scab. I tell the doctor how she has just unnecessarily pulled a great big bobble halfway into my wound and ask her if she thinks it's better to try and pull it back the way it came and cut it off, or to just get it all the way through now. The doctor - this one - takes a tiny bit of time to understand the problem and the history of the problem. She appears willing to listen. The nurse however is using her talking to an idiot voice "There was a little bit of scab on the bottom of the stitch and you are saying it is a knot. There is no knot." I am totally past caring. "Please," I say to the doctor. "Just get it out. I don't care how much it hurts. I don't want it in me any more." The nurse types something on the computer and asks the doctor to look at it. I assume it's something about me. It doesn't matter. Nevertheless, carefully and slowly thank god, the doctor manages to pull the stitch all the way through. It hurts because there IS a bloody great bobble on the end. The doctor shows it to me. It's the larger of the two knots. The nurse is now silent and withdrawn, looking at the screen where she has written something. The doctor apologises, even though she has done nothing but good. The nurse says nothing. I thank the doctor for her apology and make a note to myself that if I ever need to come back I should come on a Tuesday.
Now what upsets me about this whole episode is that - apart from the final doctor - nobody ever appeared to think that what I had to say about my own body and what was wrong with it had any relevance. As someone that lives in my body all the time, surely my opinion is worth something? But both the first doctor and the nurse were unwilling to accept what I had to say, in the matter of the surgeon's letter, and in the matter of my own pain and understanding of my healing process. In fact they didn't ask me any questions or seek to understand anything. I very quickly lost my faith in the nurse, and I never have qualms about making it clear to people when that happens. But on the first visit I felt so talked down to, that had I not found the stitch in my groin, I would have been very unwilling to go back to the doctor unless I was puking blood. Also I had an allergic reaction to a dressing. No interest was taken about that - surely it could be useful to have on file for future reference?
It is this kind of episode, taken in isolation, that allows for those who are looking for the cracks to attack the NHS. And it was so needless. I was moody, but lots of sick people are moody. I made matters far worse for myself but shouldn't they treat the disease not the patient?
We make our opinions based on our experience. It is easy to go from the particular to the general. Someone on twitter asked me "How is it the NHS at fault when it is only 1 doctor?" If I was punched by a Chelsea fan I could be forgiven for thinking that all Chelsea fans are bastards. It may be irrational, but it is often how we work. Nonetheless, this was to do with the NHS, but not the fault of the NHS - the hospital was fantastic. My nurse, and the aftercare just sucked.
But is this slipshod aftercare endemic? I am healthy, outspoken and determined. I avoided infection (thus far) and had enough basic knowledge to get things fixed for myself eventually, even if I put up with an open wound for too long as I didn't know how a surgical wound might behave. But someone more afraid than me or more vulnerable than me might well have ended up in a far worse situation a few months from now with a septic groin. All I lost was a couple of shifts at work and a bit of confidence. Someone else could have lost their willy. The attitude of both the first doctor and the nurse was from the same dangerously flawed standpoint: "I am knowledgeable and qualified. This person is not. Therefore I am right, and this person is wrong." With internet self-diagnosis everybody thinks they have cancer if they have a lump on their tongue, but surely this is not enough to dismiss everything the patient has to say for themselves?

I suppose I'm disappointed. I want to believe that the NHS is fantastic, even as Nye Bevan spins in his grave at what's happening to it. I think I will continue to believe in it. But if the wolves were closing in on me, and I worked in healthcare, I would do everything in my power to prove the detractors wrong and provide the best possible service. More and more I am considering - if my career ever takes a turn for the better - getting health insurance. In ten years time I fear that the wonderful experience I had with the surgeon - which cannot be overlooked in all this - would be impossible for anybody. In that sense I was extremely fortunate. But if I ever end up in front of that nurse again I will scream and run away, even if she has already accidentally amputated my legs.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ithaki, Greece - what's open in the off season?

As I walk up the hill and away from Vathi, I look down over the bay and there’s an eagle. It glides a full circle of the bay, looking for fish and thermals and vanishes out of sight. A moment later a car passes, and without any indication from me, stops and picks me up. He drives me to the ferry port. As we reach the crest of the hill the eagle is sitting on top of a cypress tree, at the site of Odysseus’ Palace, looking at us. I defy augury… but…

This has been an extraordinary auspicious stay in a beautiful place. There's trouble beneath the surface, but these are good people and they are as hospitable as they can be. And visitors are their main source of income. In case you’re travelling round that area and happen on this blog, I’m just going to pop in a few recommendations of places that are open in the off-season. They would welcome people at this time of year, even if the tourist machine is not in gear right now.

You’ll need Alpha Car Rental, in Vathi, easy to find behind the road with the 2 banks, if you haven’t brought your own wheels. He’s closed 2-5 every day for siesta and currently only operates 1 car in the off season, so it might be wise to book so he can sort out insurance for more if need be. Nico, a friendly South African expat runs it. Hitchhiking is an option in a pinch, as most of the roads only have 1 destination. I managed it fine for 2 days. But it would stop being an option if everybody did it. The schoolbus leaves Vathi shortly after 7am as I remember, and then again at 2pm for certain. It goes all the way to Kioni stopping along the way. But there is no bus back after it. The driver tends to charge 1.50 no matter how far you’re going. Nobody rents scooters in the off season.

I stayed at Grivas Gerasimos. They were clean rooms, a little way from the centre, overlooking the harbour. I was in half of a twin rather than a double. It was very reasonable though. This website probably has a good number of reasonable ones. At this time of year everyone has rooms that they want to fill, the whole island is full of them. If you want something more plush I reckon go to Kioni, but you’ll need a car if you do that.

There was one easy place for meat in Vathi. There's no menu, so check the prices before you order. In Stavros is a very touristy looking place called Ithaki Grill. It’s not cheap and the food will be from the freezer at this time of year but it's still very good. The guy was surprised to see me, and he and his wife had a massive argument about the fact that he’d given me a discount. Still, the tourist menu is marked up a lot, so it’s worth asking and risking her wrath. But make sure you get an apartment with cooking facilities or you’ll regret it. And there are no menus at this time of year so do ask the price, in bars as well – once you’ve eaten it or drunk it you can’t negotiate if they ask for way too much. The best food suppliers tend to drive around – the fish guy sells his catch in midmorning in Vathi outside the banks, and there’s a vegetable guy I came upon in Kioni who sold me the best orange I’ve ever had, and some good broccoli too.

The language barrier is an issue. English is a school subject, but often people clam up when they have to speak it. They can communicate perfectly well in it, but it’s that thing of trying to get it right rather than just said. I wish that I had boned up on some greek, but it was all too last minute. And being the only foreigner in town meant that any conversations I joined instantly became awkward and stilted as people accommodated to me. Being a tourist is one thing, being the only tourist is another, being a broke tourist? I felt like people were wondering what the heck I was for. Broke tourist? A truck without cargo, taking up space and bringing nothing. Right now, the aesthetic of sharing what a beautiful place they live in is much overtaken by the brass tacks of getting as many euros in the bag as possible. It's right next to Kefalonia, and let's face it, Homer is a good deal better than Louis de Bernieres. I am surprised there were not more people there. I arrived in Athens and the whole place is rammerjammed with Americans.

GETTING THERE: Is pretty easy from the airport. Regular buses run from the airport to Kifissos station - x94 as I remember, but not hard to find. A ticket was 5 euro. I expect there is a cheaper way, but they don't want you to find it. From Kifissos you're looking at around 20 euro and a 3 hour bus journey to Patra, and from there there are 2 ferries a day - or sometimes, like on Saturday, just 1. The ferry is about 4 hours and is anything from 10 to 18 euro depending on who you ask. A lot of it is booked by agents and resold. When you land in Vathi you don't have to be a mule like me and walk up the hill. There are always taxis to meet the ferries. And I expect they're pretty reasonable.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Never anything can be amiss - A play in Ithaca

Last night I went to the cultural centre in Ithaca to see the dress rehearsal of an amateur show. The cultural centre is opposite the KKE office, and directly outside the door there is a plaque commemorating Byron’s visit to the island. Byron gave a great deal of money and his life for the Greek revolution that won them Independence from the Ottomans. The story goes that he arrived from the boat in a suit of armour, just for the hell of it, and got himself backlit as he went down the gangplank. His money was certainly welcome, and to give him credit he was passionate about it. He unfortunately fell sick and was bled to death by doctors trying to cure him.

I was not expecting to be able to make much of the play. And my presence in the hall was not entirely welcome – one of the actors bristled aggression towards me as he came on stage to rehearse his opening number. He strode across the stage, leading from his pelvis, mobile knees, fag in his mouth, and made a fist at me. I make out something a bit like “Inglesi” being used a few times in heated muffled discussions with the director. Nobody addressed me directly which is a shame as I would have liked to have let them know that I was not there in any way to make judgements. And that I would have been happy to leave if I was asked to, without questions. Although I wasn’t going to go unless asked. There were a fair few other people in the room watching – Tommy described it as a “general”, and I get the sense that rehearsals are always thrown open for the last week. I think his issue was just that I couldn’t speak Greek.

Some things never change about rehearsals – actors were late, the director was growing more and more frustrated, and an eight o’clock start time slowly melted into 9.30pm once all makeup was applied. The play itself appeared to be a political piece, possibly written in the early 1900’s, and dealing with a country that has got itself into dire straits – with an unlikely love story thrown in for good measure. And lots of great live music and songs – one sad song in particular was terrifically resonant. There is something extraordinary about watching a group like that – about 14 actors of all shapes, sizes, voices and ages – all singing in their own raw voices, right in front of you. To a band that included a brilliant balalaika player. It felt like the company was united in a way of thinking, and not putting this on as tonic for someone’s bad ego, as is often the case of amateur shows in England. It felt like this was motivated by a message, and by passion. And refreshingly, nobody was afraid to speak on stage. I wish I knew the name of the play – all I know is the director’s name – Pericles. It chimed to me with all the KKE stuff that I have been seeing around the island. I am leaving Ithaca thinking that – certainly in this pocket of it – Greece is close to revolution. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out over the next few years. Perhaps I need to get a suit of armour and reappear in Ithaca to support them. Although keep those bloody leeches away from me.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Priest vs Goats

After going on about the climate yesterday, the fates have clearly decided to throw me a curveball. The clouds descended this morning and stayed down all day. Miserable cold windy rainy wet day. But I’ve got a hire car and I’m not afraid to use it. Well, maybe a little bit. This morning I headed up to Exoggi – roughly translated that means The end of the earth. It’s an isolated little town right at the top of Mount Neriton, which is the highest peak on this island.

The road up was wet and visibility was down to about 3 foot in front of the car, which would have been okay if parts of the road hadn’t fallen off the cliff. Well, and if there weren’t rocks the size of cowheads sitting plum in the middle of the road saying “Hiya!”. And goat-shit generators wandering around in the middle of the road wondering what the hell this idiot is doing in a car, and whether or not they can eat you. But I’m still alive. Exoggi itself is a shell at this time of year. Today it was inside a cloud, all the shutters were closed, many of the houses seemed full of birds, others probably full of goats. I did see one human being. But just one – an old man, walking away from me up the road and into the fog, holding a stick, followed by a white cat.

Above the town are the ruins of an older town, shrouded in mist. I wandered up there. Not much to see. The sad remains of old stepped cultivated gardens, now covered in rocks. Many of the walls seem freshly sprayed with hammer and sickles.

It is really striking how prevalent the KKE (The Communist Party) is at the moment in Ithaca. They have a respectable looking office on the main street, with a hammer and sickle over the door.

I find it odd to see a hammer and sickle again – I haven’t seen one since my childhood. Everywhere is graffiti in support of them. I suppose in a financial crisis that’s blamed on the excesses of capitalism, the obvious backlash is into communism. Especially in a community where the guy that spends his day fishing can’t grow oranges and the guy that grows the oranges can’t catch fish.

Above Exoggi, right at the top, is the Monastery of the Katharon – allegedly built by heretic Cathars, it stands at the top of the island on the original site of a Temple of Athena. I drove up there, expecting to have to climb over a fence as usual. But for the first time, there is someone there. The local Orthodox Priest, in full robes and fuller beard, is up there with a broom and a dustpan and mop, keeping the place clean. He smiles and lets me in. He's cleaning up goatshit. On the main gate there is a sign in 4 languages – “Please keep this gate closed at all times.” It is the only sign in more than one language anywhere on the island. This man is evidently on a one man crusade against the goats. I wish him luck. He’s outnumbered.

Having been to so many places of worship for the old religion for my research, it amuses me to see the priest here having a goat problem. Many contend that the origin of the idea of Satan as a horned God comes from the idea of Pan and the other horned gods, and the need to demonise them in order to prefer the Christian God. And in this place where goat heads pop out of every bush, and there's such tremendous solitude and natural power, it is easy to believe that one of those heads might be Pan. So here on the site of a Temple of Athena, it makes sense that the clergy are at war with goats.

Any trace of Athena has been purged from this site by centuries of devotion, and it’s gorgeous. Man made beauty is often at its richest when made for a deity or collection of them. I light 2 candles to speed my uncle and mother through purgatory. They were catholics. It feels quite special to see theirs as the only two burning here on top of this little world, and in such a shiny and devoted place. I wonder what the place it was built on top of would have been like.

**edit - For all you geeks out there, I wanted to put in this passage from Plutarch. Paxos is near Ithaca, and I find it an extraordinary and moving piece of history or metaphor. The essay is titled "Why the Oracles are Silent". Pan is dead /Pan(theism) is dead? It's not the sort of thing Plutarch tended to report which is part of why it's interesting. The date is anytime between 14 and 37 AD - it was the reign of Tiberius Caesar, which has been found to roughly correspond with the emergence of John the Baptist and what followed in Judea. An odd, sad and inevitable tale though, and I find it fascinating. He has been talking about Gods;

"As for death among such beings, I have heard the words of a man who was not a fool nor an impostor. BThe father of Aemilianus the orator, to whom some of you have listened, was Epitherses, who lived in our town and was my teacher in grammar. He said that once upon a time in making a voyage to Italy he embarked on a ship carrying freight and many passengers. It was already evening when, near the Echinades Islands, the wind dropped, and the ship drifted near Paxi. Almost everybody was awake, and a good many had not finished their after-dinner wine. Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, Cnot known by name even to many on board. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, 'When you come opposite to Palodes,a announce that Great Pan is dead.' On hearing this, all, said Epitherses, were astounded and reasoned among themselves whether it were better to carry out the order or to refuse to meddle and let the matter go. Under the circumstances Thamus made up his mind that if there should be a breeze, he would sail past and keep quiet, but with no wind and a smooth sea p403about the place he would announce what he had heard. DSo, when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them: 'Great Pan is dead.' Even before he had finished there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement. As many persons were on the vessel, the story was soon spread abroad in Rome, and Thamus was sent for by Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius became so convinced of the truth of the story that he caused an inquiry and investigation to be made about Pan; and the scholars, who were numerous at his court, conjectured that Ehe was the son born of Hermes and PenelopĂȘ."69

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Ithaca and tourism.

Nico the car rental guy finally rents me a yellow Fiat Panda, so I can get out to the more isolated parts of the island.

“It must be very different with tourists here,” I say, by way of making conversation. “Nah man, fuck that we need the tourists. We need the tourism.” He responds. “Now don’t you crash. And don’t drink drive. Stick to the roads, ok? And don’t park isolated or some fucker will break the window. Pay me in cash. Don’t you dare crash.”

He fails to mention that I should remember to drive on the right as well. One narrow escape later, I am at the site of Odysseus’ Palace. There’s a dilapidated booth, that maybe in season charges a couple of euro and gives you a map of the earthworks. But since the excitement of the discovery it has proved to be way way post Odysseus. In fact, they’ve stopped bothering to tourist it up in any way, slung in a load of corrugated iron, and filled it with goats. The whole palace stinks of goat. And there’s a donkey. I call it Eurymachus. It doesn’t throw anything at me, but I keep out of reach of its legs.

In the afternoon I drive up the mountain to the little path that leads down to Arethusa. It’s a spring, allegedly the one Eumaeus took his swine to drink from. It’s a long way down. Halfway, I stash my laptop in a bush. Too much to carry back up this slope. I’m not worried, there’s nobody for miles. At the bottom, the water trickles from the rock and then spreads and mostly pools back into a reservoir behind the fountain. It’s clear and tastes fine, which is just as well as I didn’t bring a bottle. Down there, with the sound of the spring behind me and the sea in front of me, I feel more isolated than I ever have done. Unfortunately there's recently been a massive rockslide right by the fountain, so there is nowhere to sit but on the rockslide itself.

I sit on the rocks, eat an orange and think about this island, and what I am getting from it. The people are great, the vistas beyond description, the climate unpredictable at this time of year, but pleasant. I bet it's great in summer. Nico says they need tourism. Do they? If everything mechanical were to stop working tomorrow, while corpses build up in the streets of London, the life here would stay more or less the same. They have fruit in abundance, wool, wine, water, fish, salt, meat, eggs, bread. And they've got a pretty well established tradition of storytelling for the long winter nights.This was an important place in the ancient world. Defensible and totally self sufficient. Tourism will bring more money for electricity, petrol and luxury. But not much else besides dependence.

Still, if you’re after a peaceful holiday in a beautiful place you can’t do much better than Ithaca. Although that’s a pretty inefficient recommendation really: "Everyone! Come to Ithaca! There’s no one here!” But you know what I mean.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Walking, and how it makes you want to eat legs.

I can see why Odysseus longed to get back here. Coming at this time of year, in many ways I have been spoilt. I am currently sitting on this white stone beach

looking out at Arkoudi and mainland Greece.

There’s not a soul to be seen. Behind me on the hill I can hear the bells of goats, and always the birdsong. The calm of this place is beyond description. The whole island seems calm and slow, although everywhere I can see the signs of a tourist machine waiting to click into gear. Signs in English on locked and bolted doors. Advertising pinned to trees with maps to deserted tavernas plastered with slightly wrong Latin alphabet – “Spaghetti Boognese!” “Sandwitch!” “Ramp Stake!” "Lamp Shop!"

I couldn’t hire a car this morning. He’s only insured one of them. He tells me:

“You know how it is? It’s fucked. This whole country is fucked. Nobody came here for Christmas. I lost money on the insurance. So now I only insure one car until the tourist season.”

He’s lent it to a mate of his to take to Kefalonia for the day. He swore consistently in English for about 2 minutes – “Shit shit shit fuck shit fuck fuck shit shit” - went silent for a long minute while he seriously considered letting me have one uninsured, thought better of it and told me to come back tomorrow. I caught a ride into Stavros with a fisherman who sells sardines off the back of his van. He spanked it round precipitous mountain roads as fast as his little van could go. I was calm, knowing he does it every day, and making a mental note of how people drive here for my rental period starting tomorrow.

Down the hill from Stavros is a beach, and next to it is The Cave of Loizos – a much stronger contender for the cave in book 13 of The Odyssey than the one in Vathi. It’ll do for the one in my imagination now. It was a Mycenean “cult” sanctuary for years, and the remains of many votive offerings were dug out of it by Sylvia Benton in the 1930’s. She contended- according to the sign at the cave - that it was the most ancient site of “cult” worship, more so than even Olympus. I am suspicious of this. I also dislike an ancient and massive religion being referred to as a “cult”. But I can’t think what name it had – if any. Maybe it didn’t NEED a name – it just WAS. It does have two entrances – one for mortals and one for The Gods which keys in nicely with book 13. Unfortunately, the interior has completely collapsed now – another victim of the constantly shifting earth round here.

Then I caught the bus to Kioni, which is where I found the beach. I was surprised to see the bus – it came into Stavros just as I was getting to the top of the hill from the cave, and I managed to sprint to it. It was full of schoolchildren, who cheered when I made it through the door – they must have seen me lamming it up the hill. In fact it’s the school bus. It only runs twice a day. When I asked the driver “Do you go back the other way?” He gave me a massive cheese-eating grin: “Yes! Of course! Tomorrow morning, 7.10.”


Some hours later as dusk was falling I hit the road back, and am really pleased that not a single car passed me between Kioni and Frikes as I saw some of the most gobsmackingly beautiful vistas in the sunset while slogging up hills in my coat.

From Frikes I managed to hitch as far as Stavros. Only 7km to Vathi, but I’ll walk that after supper, or hitch, as I have found a place that does locally caught grilled octopus. Yes they’re as clever as dogs… But it’s just too damn tempting.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Clarice, are the goats still drowning?

The Cave of the Nymphs. Not having a hire car, this was my destination today. Once the storm passed – and it was one hell of a storm – I headed out into the afternoon.

According to current local wisdom, The Cave of the Nymphs is the same cave that Odysseus and Athena used to conceal all of the treasure given to him by Alcinous and the Phaecians.

Walking round the harbour wall on my way out of town, I was struck by how clear the water was. I stopped to photograph a starfish, and saw something floating near it. “Whoa – it’s some sort of hairy jellyfish!!” was my initial thought. Nope. Freshly drowned goat. Must’ve bolted in there startled by the storm and not been able to get out. Poor thing.

And up the hill I go, guided or occasionally misguided by the eccentric local signposts. I ask the locals for directions – “Why the fuck you want to go up there? It’s closed.”

The Cave of the Nymphs is three kilometres up the hill from the harbour. Now, let’s think practically about this. Odysseus was given a trunk of gold by Arete. And then every single Phaecian nobleman present when he told the tale of his journey home gave him a tripod and a bronze cauldron. So that’s anything in the region of 40 to 100 cauldrons, and a big wooden trunk full of gold. I know he was a hero. I know he was buff. But a trunk of gold and 40 to 100 cauldrons up 3 kilometres of steep hillside? I ain’t buying it. If that cave was open back in the day, it would have been a place of worship, no doubt. But it ain’t the one in the book. The problem is that this region is sitting smack bang on top of a humungous fault line. In 373 BC Helike sank into the water forever. More famous because it was on the tellybox, Pavlopetri sank about 1000 BC. And in Ithaca, on the north east coast, Polis Bay is the hole left where the Byzantine city of Ierosalem sank there in 967 AD. There was a 7.2 quake in 1953 that flattened every building on Ithaca. They don't build high here, for a reason. The earth and the caves in it are going to move around, close, open, collapse and reform all the time here - this area is constantly being moulded by tectonics.

The cave itself has a very narrow opening.

Although there are iron gates, nobody has bothered to lock them, and the last time there has been any successful tourism here is at least 3 years ago, probably more. All of the toll booths and signs are in disrepair and the fuses to the lights are all blown. The cave itself is pitch black, but my phone’s flashlight app got me as far as a rusted and useless old cable lift that would have ferried people into the depths.

To the side of the lift is a rope, loosely strung on iron spikes down the precipitous slope, but only for a while. I went down as far as the rope would allow me, but the rocks were slick with rainwater that was still flowing, and without a rope I could have lost my footing and slid down. Nobody comes up there, so I didn’t fancy the idea of breaking my leg and having to claw myself back up the wet rocks in pain. So I stopped where I was and switched off the light. Profound darkness. As I sat in the darkness I suddenly got shot through with the understanding that I had not brought a sacrifice. If you go to a Cave of the Nymphs, you should bring a sacrifice. No food on me, so I rather clumsily said out loud “Er – there’s this dead goat in the harbour… It’s still fresh.” And then decided it was best not to stick around.

Now I am desperately tempted. It’s probably a good thing I don’t have a van, a load of tarpaulin and an accomplice, or that goat would be coming with me down to a deserted beach somewhere, and I’d be building a pyre and burning it. Not because I believe that it would achieve something, before any Christian friends of mine start getting concerned. Just because it seems like the right thing to do.

I won’t do it though. For something like that there really need to be two people egging each other on. Probably a good thing I’m on my own.

I am linking this very long and difficult essay by Porphyry, not because I even half understand it and recommend it but because I found it while searching for frivolous links to accompany this blog, and on a brief perusal, decided that I needed a bit of time and all of my English degree mojo to make sense of the bastard. But on a swift castover, there's something interesting there. And it's Porphyry so it's interesting to get an ancient Greek philosopher on an even more ancient Greek text...

The Stormbringer

It’s enough to make a man turn to Zeus. I walked out onto my little balcony overlooking the bay. I just did my finances after shopping for food for the week. 100 euros left after setting aside accommodation, travel back to Athens and 50 for contingency. The car hire man charges 30 euro a day, so I am a little stuck in Vathi, although I will probably blow 60 euros on car hire leaving me with 40 for petrol and nice things with whatever is left. Essentially, I am on a crazy tight budget. So I go out onto the balcony to make a decision in the open air.

“What shall I do today then? Is it a working day or an exploring day?”

No sooner have I finished the sentence, but there is a jagged lash of forked lightning off to the right of the bay, an almighty crack of thunder, the temperature drops about 4 degrees and it starts to shit it down with rain. Then a cloud descends over the hill opposite pretty much completely obscuring it from view. Well, according to Zeus, it’s a working day. This looks like it has set in for the morning, and I’m not renting a car to drive on the right on unfamiliar mountain roads in a fogstorm. In fact, thinking about it, we’re IN the stormcloud. Larding it on a bit thick aren’t you Zeus?

Well – perfect time for me to be getting on with some work.

I have a windy rain thing – what are they called? Lintel? Awning? That thing you get over shops. I wind it down. Now I am typing beneath it. I lucked out with this accommodation.