Gordon G Hall
Writer and Neo-Philhellene

Articles about Greece
Plus ça Change

It had to stop. The noise that is, it was too much at this time of the morning. Yesterday the Municipality of Thessaloniki took it into its head to close off Proxenou Koromila and carry out a major suction exercise on the main sewers therein. Okay, so I have no doubt that it needed doing, but at 7 o’clock in the morning it was disturbing to a retired old man.

Today I lay in bed idly wondering if this new intrusion was an extension of yesterday. Certainly the sound was different, more like a man wielding a pickaxe, again and again and again. Perhaps one of the sewers was blocked and needed digging up? So, on it went, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP. Whoever was doing it must be getting pretty warm. Even at this time of the morning the temperature would have been approaching 20 degrees (that is just short of 70 degrees Fahrenheit to those of you, like me, who find Centigrade a bit of a thermal challenge!).

I am not, by nature, an early riser, but there was all too little hope of dozing off again until I had found out what was going on. I slipped from my bed and padded across the sitting room to the front balcony. There was a momentary hiatus as I pulled up the blind – to my potential embarrassment I realized I was stark naked. This unfortunate lapse remedied I paced across the balcony to the rail and peered down eight floors of apartment block at the miniscule street below. Nothing. There was just a car making its way to the ‘Parking’ and a couple of blokes walking in the other direction. No sign of anyone in a fit of macho fervor swinging iron at concrete.

And yet the noise continued, unabated. I looked to my left and there, a couple of floors beneath me on the far side of the road was a middle aged woman knocking seven bells out of a carpet. Said carpet was trussed up over her balcony and she was laying into it with a large and fearsome carpet beater. She did not, even for one tiny moment, relent. With metronomic precision her arm flailed at the innocent carpet. She was too far away to be certain but I felt sure I could see bulging muscles under her light dress. My thoughts turned to her husband.

So, I mused, as I regained the sanctuary of my bed, it was mid-May and Spring Cleaning time had come to Greece. All over this city, and no doubt elsewhere in the country, carpets were being hit, walls washed down, matrasses thumped, and everything in, or out of, sight being vacuumed.

Then there is the ‘Carpet Holiday Syndrome’. You did not know that Greek carpets have a summer holiday? Not did I until my friend texted me that she was ‘having her carpet put into storage’. I asked if she had decided she did not like it. There followed one of those strange text conversations when neither side has a clue as to what the other is trying to say and assumes that they are just very stupid. Eventually we resolved this as being a culture-barrier thing. For the price of no more than €12 a firm will come in May and remove your sitting room carpet, clean it, and store it safely until you are ready for its return in October. In the meantime you are left with a lovely cool tiled floor for the summer.

With Carpet Holidays and Spring Cleaning comes a wardrobe change. Clothes of the summer months would be being reinstated in their wardrobes, whilst winter wear was banished to attic and cellar. The precise date of such frenzy may not be immutable but it has been borne upon me that the process by which a Greek, most particularly a Greek woman, changes her wardrobe is fast, sudden, and absolute. In March we had some lovely weather. I strolled along the Paralia in what to me seemed blazing sun. The temperature was in the high 20’s (there I go again!) and the sky blue. Whilst forswearing shorts as I did not wish to make too much of a spectacle of myself, I wore a short-sleeved shirt and thin trousers.

Not so my fellow strollers. Everyone was wearing coats. I do not mean the flimsy sort of thing that might adorn one on a mild summer evening, no we are talking Puffa jackets, great black padded affairs, designed to keep out snow and gales. At the onset of winter the street market vendors switch from selling cotton dresses to Puffa jackets. The change, in mid-October, is quicker than the blink of an eye and not dissimilar to the peripatetic vendors of umbrellas who are normally invisible but who appear in the streets as soon as the first drops of rain start to fall.

And then there are the boots. Stroll along Tsmiski in the winter and the multitude of shoe shops are stuffed full of black, tan, white, and brown boots of every length, design and price. Venture there at the end of May and a thousand boots have sounded the retreat and retired to their winter quarters, making way for shoes, and of course sandals.

I come from a part of England where it has been known to snow in June, and where 25 degrees is considered a heat-wave. The weather is driven mainly by a capricious Atlantic ocean that only occasionally gives way to a bubble of high pressure from the East; the weather changes; often. Thus we only have one wardrobe. We may have as many clothes as Greeks, but we need to reach for any of them at any time throughout the year. There is no closed season on Puffa jackets or boots. To this end it is helpful that most of us do not live in apartments, with their limited space for everyday clothes storage.

As that great British poet TS Elliot said (okay he was born in the States, but was an Anglophile and became a British citizen) ‘April is the cruelest month’. And indeed here in Greece it is possible to see why. The weather will not yet have settled into its summer haze of sunshine and warmth. A lovely hot spell will be followed by a week of cold rainy days, indeed it is not unlike High Summer in England! And it is indeed cruel upon those that have two wardrobes. Fearful of the danger of too early a change most Greeks hang on until the middle of the following month before committing themselves to summer.

Thus it was that throughout the latter part of March and early April, when the weather was warm and dry here in Thessaloniki, that my fellow walkers were clad in full winter kit, more befitting to a snowy mountain hike than a sunny stroll along the Paralia. Poor things they had nothing else to wear.

There may however be another reason for such laggardly acceptance of summer. As I write the weather is gorgeous, the temperature in the shade is 28 degrees (okay 83 F) and there is a gentle breeze tugging playfully at my papers. However June is just around the corner and as that pleasing month draws to a hot end we have to face the daunting prospect of July and August. Urban Greece of course closes down for those two excruciatingly hot months. Everyone makes for the seaside and sanity to avoid 40 degrees and more (dear dinosaur, you are on your own now – that is well over 100 F, something totally alien to the British Isles). So there needs to be preparation for such heat, and one answer lies in acclimatization.

If you feel a bit hot in April whilst clad in your Puffa jacket. If your feet are a bit sweaty, tucked snugly into long warm boots, then this is but the merest foretaste of August in Greece. Best that you get used to it or your very survival will be at stake. Nevertheless I claim exemption by Englishness. I will wear my shorts and sandals just as the weather dictates, and when July bears down upon me in its full rage, then I will find an accommodating beach house and go and sit in the gloriously warm Aegean sea and be oh so happy that I am part of this wonderful country.


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