Gordon G Hall
Writer and Neo-Philhellene

Short Stories about Greece
Hello Kitty!

The girl looked me in the eyes, desperately attempting to make out what it was that this old Englishman was asking of her.

I raised my voice slightly, and tried for the third time, “Thelo ena petseta” and then, attempting to throw a little light upon her incomprehension, “Gia tin paralia.”

Clearly this was not working, which was disappointing. Travelling around Halikidiki on my own seemed to offer me the ideal opportunity to learn the language of the Greeks. So, with the merest smattering of linguistic ability aided and abetted by my Collins Greek Phrasebook, I was trying my best to speak the language of this foreign but friendly land.

Any visiting Englishman who is attempting to say a few words in Greek is bound to encounter the problem of accentuation. His inability to grasp the need for correct application of this vital ingredient is bound to give rise to native amusement, incomprehension, and occasionally considerable embarrassment as a perfectly reasonable word, wrongly accentuated, can mutate into something rather more basic that had been intended.

Almost everyone in Greece, under the age of fifty, speaks some English, especially in the cities and holiday areas. So I had little doubt that the perplexed young lady who was patiently trying to decipher my needs did, in fact, speak English. I weakened, I gave in, I surrendered, “Towel,” I said, “I need a towel for the beach”.

It was as if a light had been switched on. “Yes of course,” she said in almost perfect English, “this way.” And she led me outside towards a rack of assorted beach-ware.

“Prospatho na miloun ellinika.” I said, explaining why I was stumbling around in Greek rather than speaking to her in the English of which she so clearly had an excellent grasp.

“Good for you, not many visitors make the attempt.”

I took this for high praise!

The shelf of beach towels was not offering me the kindest of choices. I could only suppose that the inhabitants of this fair land have an unnatural addiction to cartoon characters. The towels were masterpieces of Disney marketing but hardly suitable for a man, a man of my age, or a man of my age who has a fairly substantial aversion to the close proximity of Mickey or Goofy.

Two days earlier I had enjoyed a long and very relaxing dip in the Aegean Sea and saw no reason not to attempt a repeat of the experience, alas without the company of my pleasant friend who exhibited a total understanding of how to enjoy a Greek beach.

How different this experience had been to that of swimming off my much-loved Norfolk coast back in England. There the pebble beach provides an uncompromising barrier against the pounding North Sea waves, whilst the ever-shifting shingle indicates the strength of the side-current that had created this natural barrier through long-shore drift. Swimming there is a test of the hardy, or foolhardy, stripping off at the last moment to dash into the freezing, grey, sand-laden water, trying to judge the best moment to immerse oneself between the crashing waves. Five minutes of brisk exertion then an equally well-timed retreat to the much-needed warmth of a pair of trousers and a thick jumper. I recall that in my childhood my mother would hand out post-swim ‘shivery bites’ – pieces of chocolate that we kids would chew to stop our teeth from chattering! Such were summers in England.

Today I had checked out of my hotel in Panorama. Not you understand PanorAma, like the UK television programme, but PanORama. We may steal Greek words but we don’t half muck about with their pronunciation! Anyway it had hitherto been simple enough to ‘borrow’ a hotel towel to take to the beach. Admittedly such an accoutrement was white, a little small, and smelt of lavender, but at least it was a towel. Departure from the hotel had removed the slightest possibility of my utilising even this rather dubious object.

I drove the decent dual carriageway to Neo Moudania. I am not a great enthusiast of air-conditioning in cars and as the outside temperature, according to Mr Skoda, was just under 30 degrees I lowered my car window to enjoy the scent-laden air. I took the rather lesser route towards Sithonia, where the Bougainvillea were stretching themselves in towards the centre of the road, making overtaking next to impossible, except of course for Greek drivers!

As I entered the small township of Kalyves I spotted a small shop on the left hand side of the road selling brightly coloured beach balls and parasols. I flung Mr Skoda to the right and onto the yellow dusty area of potholed wasteland that is this county’s interpretation of the concept of the ‘hard shoulder’. A blare of horn to my left indicated that I had failed to signal my intention to stop and had upset the driver of a large truck that was now disappearing into the distance. Clearly I was well on my way to becoming passably proficient as a Greek Driver! A nifty U-turn and a bumpy negotiation of some wayward concrete curbs left me mighty pleased that I was driving a hire car. And so here I was selecting my ‘towel of the day’ from an exceedingly unpromising collection of overprinted pieces of cloth.

I was feeling a bit stupid, dithering around whilst my friendly, English-speaking helper looked on with increasing wonder at the inability of this foreigner to make up his mind. I pushed Snoopy and Pooh Bear swiftly back into their rack and in desperation grabbed a towel from the bottom of the pile that seemed to have a cat on it. Oh well, not too bad I supposed. As I placed my new purchase on the sales counter the girl looked at me with what seemed to me to be just the merest twitch of a smile playing around her lips.

“Five Euros”, she said.

“Pende Evros,” said I, displaying, almost to the full my linguistic flexibility as I stumped up a twenty Euro note, took the proffered change and, with a cheery “Efferisto,” returned to Mr Skoda, bearing my brand new acquisition.

I took my time in choosing exactly the right place on the beach. It was not over-crowded, but plenty of people had beaten me to it and had set themselves up, presumably for the day, lying upon plastic mats under sunshades. Perhaps my beach-craft was a little lacking in that I had neither of these essentials, however at least I had a towel. I chose a spot near a small group that seemed to comprise two youngish families and grandmother. To my right and a little further away lay a couple of deeply tanned young men who had recently emerged from the sea.

It seemed to be the proper form in these parts that one should lie on the sandy beach for a little while before venturing into the water and whilst this was hardly the way we do things in North Norfolk I did not wish to flout local custom. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” seemed to be a curiously inappropriate phrase here in this country that had preceded the Roman Empire, and that had given that Italian state so much of its culture and heritage.

I removed my shirt shorts and sandals. I had taken the precaution of donning my swimming trunks in the hotel that morning, and was grateful for having had the foresight to do so. Although still wrapped in its packaging this new towel seemed a little small for anything other than the bare essentials! Well, seeing that I did not have one of those plastic mats. I would lie upon my towel. With a flourish I waved it open so that it settled upon the sand, a move that was beautifully executed so that the towel was lying fully unfolded and exposed.

An involuntary gasp left my lips and I took a pace to the rear. My discrete white towel bearing the picture of a cat was hardly that! Whilst it did indeed display the head of a white cat the main body of the towel was a shocking pink. The cat had a pink bow upon its fetchingly tilted head and a finger in it mouth, whilst all around it were multi-coloured little hearts floating around in a pink universe. At the top of the towel were the inviting words ‘Hello Kitty’.

I flung myself upon this extraordinary object so as to shield it from the inquisitive gaze of my neighbours. The family seemed oblivious to what had arrived almost in their midst, although I rather think that Grandmother’s right eyebrow twitched. However my two young Adonis’ to my right had seen all! They were looking straight at me and shaking their heads. One seemed to be laughing. I chose not to look. I buried my head into Kitty’s bow and shut my eyes.

Ten minuets passed. My back was starting to burn. I raised my head. All seemed quiet amongst my neighbouring beach lovers. With commendable speed I got to my feet, scrumpled Kitty into loose ball, kicked my shorts over her to cover a few pink hearts, and loped down to the sea.

I swam. I floated. I duck-dived. I cooled off. I enjoyed just drifting in this wonderful paradise of blue. I was as happy as a lone Englishman can be when he is living for the moment, and trying not to think about  a dread impending future event.

The skin of my fingers wrinkled. I felt a twinge of cramp in my right calf. My thinning hair was not protecting the top of my head from the mid-day sun. It was time to face my fate. Reluctantly I emerged, staggering slightly, from the warm friendly embrace of the sea and headed for my scanty pile of belongings. Was it my imagination, or had the two young men moved a little closer to me?

I walked my final few steps up the beach, as would a condemned man. Doom was upon me. I reached down and with a fixed expression upon my face I whipped Kitty from under my shorts and wrapped her around my torso. The world continued to spin. No one seemed to be greatly interested. I mopped myself down a bit and with the air of a seasoned ‘Hello Kitty’ fan I spread the towel and once again lay upon it, this time on my back.

I dozed.

A shadow fell across my eyes. I opened them. One of my Adoni stood above me. “You are English,” he said. It was not a question, more an accusation.

“Yes,” I said, fumbling my way to my feet. He was a fine specimen of a very hairy gorilla, clearly the sort of man who pumps iron on a daily basis and has sufficient chest-covering to supply a very busy wig-maker.

In getting up I had of course fully exposed my Kitty.

“Hi, I’m Dimitris,” he said,  “Nice towel you have there.” He was not looking at Kitty but running his eyes over my slightly paunchy white body in a somewhat discomforting manner. “My friend, Kostas, and I like it. It is funny! He does not speak English very well, but he understands . . .”

Kostas joined us. He was a slightly less hairy gorilla, but a gorilla nevertheless. He picked Kitty up and flipped the sand off her before returning her to languish in the sand. The two of them smiled at each other. I swallowed. “I didn’t mean to buy it.”

They smiled at each other and at me. “It suits you,” said Dimitris.

My imaginings of the sex-life of Greeks was a little limited, but I knew my Byron. How brazen was this pick-up?

“No, no, you have it all wrong!”

“Will you swim with us?” It was clear that Dimitris was the spokesperson, but Kostas reached out to take my arm.

“No!” I said, “Ochi”, and then in a flash of inspired Greek, “Mou agapo gyneeka, mou aresi mouni.”

My protestation that I preferred women to men rocked my new-found friends. It was, after all, a little unlikely that a lone man of a heterosexual disposition would equip himself with a pink Hello Kitty towel and lie upon a Greek beach.

I seized the moment, grabbing my shorts and shirt and slipping my feet into my sandals.

“Here you are,” I said.

As I fled I thrust Kitty into Kostas’ welcoming embrace, “You keep her, I doubt whether she is really my style.”


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