20 July 2016

No day at the beach in Crete
can be counted as a day wasted

Setting out the tables for evening dining at the Poseidon Restaurant at the beach in Platanes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I have awoken each morning to birdsong in the garden beside my rooms in Julia Apartments, and from the terrace have caught glimpses of the sunset each evening.

Almost every day, I have enjoyed the opportunities to swim at the beach, which in just 300 metres away, or in the pool. On the two or three days I have not gone swimming, I have been in the mountains behind Platanes, visiting monasteries or exploring Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman remains in the mountains.

There have been day trips to Gramvousa Island and the lagoon at Balos Bay on the north-west tip of Crete, to Elafonisi Island with its lagoon in the remote south-west corner, to the village of Panormos, perched on rocks above two tiny, sandy coves, and to the mountainside villages of Piskopiano and Koutouloufari, in the hills above Chersonissos.

There have been numerous trips into Rethymnon, a small city I have known since the 1980s, to wander through its narrow cobbled streets, visit its churches and museums, and browse in its bookshops and art shops.

There have been two visits to Iraklion, to dine with friends and to stroll along the old Venetian harbour.

Swimming most days has been beneficial for my lungs, providing some relief for the symptoms of my sarcoidosis, and has helped the gnawing memory of old complaint in a shoulder.

The north winds and the full moon that rose last night churned up the waters on the beach at Platanes all day yesterday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

But the north winds and the full moon that rose last night churned up the waters on the beach at Platanes all day yesterday so that the waves could be seen breaking out in the far distance and as they rolled in and broke on the shore were higher than my own height.

Red flags were flying all along the long stretch of sand east of Rethymnon, and lifeguards patrolled the shoreline in a beach buggy, whistling at the foolhardy and warning people not to get in to swim.

Of course, there were the defiant and foolhardy who thought they were displaying their courage and strutting their manliness. There have been too many drownings already in this season alone, but this news seldom reaches tourists who are here for only a week.

Dining on the beach at sunset at the Poseidon Restaurant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Despite those days when it was wise not to try swimming in the sea, it was possible to walk in the foam and along the edges of the water, with an awe in and a delight for the wonders and beauty of creation. No day at the beach was ever a day wasted.

I managed to read two books by Bill Bryson at the beach, The Road to Little Dribbling, More notes from a small island and Mother Tongue, the story of the English language, and started reading The Establishment, and how they get away with it by Owen Jones. I have often returned to the beach again in the evening to watch the sun set in the distance, behind the fortezza in Rethymnon.

As two of us were leaving the beach in the late afternoon yesterday [19 July 2016], we saw four tables being set out on the beach in front of the Poseidon Restaurant at the Minos Mare Hotel. It was like some setting for an Angelopoulos movie.

We booked for the two of us, and returned to have dinner as the waves churned up on the beach before us, the sun set behind the Fortezza, the lights came on along the long stretch of seashore like a string of bedazzling jewels, and the full moon rose behind us.

It was the most romantic setting for dinner at the end of a holiday. No day on the beach was ever a day wasted, and this was the most beautiful evening in three weeks.

I am now waiting at Chania Airport, ready to board a Ryanair flight back to Dublin, watching the other travellers and wondering about their experiences. Did they complain about the red flag days on the beach? Did they enjoy the sunsets? Did they eat Greek food, listen to Greek music, visit other beaches, the offshore islands and lagoons, the mountain villages and monasteries?

And it’s back to work tomorrow morning … refreshed, revitalised and thankful.

Sunset on the beach at Platanes last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The kiosk on the street corner in
Greece is preparing to fade away

My neighbouring kiosk in Platanes is a source for bus tickets into Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

The iconic kiosk that was once seen on every street corner in every Greek town is soon to become a thing of the past as owners retire or die and their licences are not renewed.

Recent legislation passed late last year in the Greek parliament means that the unique períptero (περίπτερος), the traditional “mini market,” is not so much going to die, but in the words of the old adage about old soldiers, is simply going to fade away.

According to the new law, when a kiosk closes down or the owner dies, the licence cannot be renewed or transferred.

One count a few years ago estimated there are 46,000 períptera throughout Greece, with 5,500 were Athens and 1,500 in Thessaloníki. But the numbers are dropping, and the most recent count I found said there are now about 12,000 kiosks in Greece, and their numbers continue to dwindle rapidly since the onset of the latest economic crises.

A kiosk on a street corner in the old town in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In Rethymno at one time, it seemed there was virtually one on every street corner. They usually open all day long, from morning until late at night, seven days a week. Some kiosks are like 24-hour mini markets, selling so many things from chocolate and chewing gum to cigarettes and condoms.

I have bought bus tickets at the corner kiosk beside me in Platanes as I waited to catch a bus into Rethymnon these past three weeks. But it also sells local newspapers, packed ice, yoghurt, nuts, ice cream, beer and what seems like everything but the kitchen sink.

In the days before mobile phones, the kiosk was the place to make a phone call or buy phone cards – do you remember them? The kiosk sells pens, lighters, postcards, stamps and disposable razors, as well as kombolói (κομπολόι), the worry beads that serve every Greek male as an antidote to smoking.

At archaeological sites such as the Acropolis in Athens or Knossos in Crete they sell guidebooks, maps, tourist trinkets and cheap figurines.

For over a century, the períptero has been a part of everyday life in Greece and an essential element of the streetscape of every Greek city and town. The first kiosk opened on Panepistimiou Street in Athens in 1911. The idea of the períptero quickly spread throughout Greece and it soon became a national institution.

Local newspapers on sale in my local kiosk in Platanes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Most kiosks string the daily newspapers up like washing on a line – many even use clothes pegs to secure the afternoon editions to make front-page easy reading for passers-by.

The poet Kiki Dimoula portrays everyday life in Athens in her poems. In ‘Mourning in Kypseli Square,’ she talks of

... the kiosk.
Standing on its feet all day
with its small-stock melancholy,
in its afternoon papers.

I remember during the political scandals that surrounded Andreas Papandreou in 1988 and 1989 how people gathered in large numbers around kiosks in Rethymnon as they started hanging up the newspapers, eager to catch up on the latest news and to debate the headlines about the Bank of Crete and Dimitra ‘Mimi’ Liani.

Once the kiosk operator was known by everyone on a street. He could tell you all the gossip and was well informed about the latest political news or the sports results.

But in recent years, the recession has hit the kiosks hard. Rising prices have driven people away. In the past, people bought cigarettes, sweets or soft drinks from the kiosk; now they go to the supermarket where they buy them at lower price.

The present economic crisis seems to have marked the beginning of the end for the kiosk. One recent report says that of the 1,080 remaining kiosks in Athens, almost half have closed down and another 300 have been abandoned. The city has removed most of them from the streets and very few closed ones have been left standing.

What would life be like on Tsouderon Street without its local períptero? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Some of my other favourite períptera have included one in Syntagma Square, outside the Finance Ministry in Athens, where I found a toothbrush and socks late at night after my luggage failed to arrive with me, and another in Venizelou Square on Iraklion which has the most bedazzling range and variety of newspapers.

At one time, kiosks were big business throughout Greece, contributing up to 5% of the annual GDP of Greece. In those days, the average daily turnover of a single kiosk could total €1,500 – with its takings boosted at this time of the year by the tourism sector.

A kiosk by the seafront in Rethymnon, boosted by the tourist season (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

But you could never buy a períptero. A law dating back to 1949 allowed only wounded soldiers drawing a pension from the Defence Ministry to own a kiosk.

Although Greece sent troops to the Balkans in recent decades, traditional tensions with Turkey eased long ago, and Greek troops have not fought in a war in the memories of most Greeks. So, the proprietors are often soldiers’ widows, or policemen and soldiers who have been injured in peacetime activities. Most are not involved in the daily management of their kiosks, and many kiosks have been have been passed down the family line.

The law allowed owners to rent their períptera for three-year periods, so that fewer than 5 per cent of kiosks were owner-managed, while more than 95 per cent were rented. Licence owners often demand high initial down payments and high weekly rents.

In the past, because this is a cash-based business, kiosk operators faced the constant danger of armed thieves demanding cash or phone cards. In recent years the new threats to the survival of the kiosks were the disastrous downturn in the Greek economy, new anti-smoking laws and increased taxation on tobacco.

Now, it seems, like the old soldiers they were first supposed to rescue them from poverty, that the kiosks are not going to die but are going to fade away.

A traditional kiosk in the old town in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)