New Year’s Eve, and there are yellow flowers in the thick wet grass of my garden in Corfu, and snow on the mountains of Albania. The island is extraordinarily quiet this season – as I discovered last night. My koubaros Philip, who owns the bar in our village, and I went out for dinner at nine o’clock, intending to eat whitebait and mussels at The Pumphouse, a venerable and favourite haunt in the town of Akharavi, down on the coast. Or we would go to another place, five miles westward in Karoussades, a grill room where they make the best rolo on the island. Rolo is pork belly stuffed with onion, garlic, masses of herbs, salt, sweet paprika and sometimes feta cheese. You roll it up, bind it with wire and spit-roast it slowly over a charcoal grill. I hadn’t eaten anything but a bowl of soup all day and was thoroughly looking forward to it.
Well, The Pumphouse was closed, much to Philip’s surprise – and mine, since this was the Friday night before New Year’s, at the height of the holiday season. Nothing daunted, we pushed on for Karoussades and the famous rolo. Zounds! That place was closed, too.
“Okay,” said Philip. “We can go to a really interesting place back in Roda where they always cook traditional but unusual dishes.” Sounded good and we drove on into the increasing rain, passing an occasional car. Philip turned off the main road into Roda and then started to swear under his breath. The empty restaurant’s windows were dark, the chairs stacked inside.
“You know, we could go back to my house and I’ll cook spaghetti,” suggested Philip, but we were both looking forward to the conviviality of a busy restaurant. He suggested a more casual grill room back in Akharavi that was always open. It too was closed. By now we were laughing and also sighing. It’s the economy here in Greece that is to blame, keeping people at home, even on festive nights like this one. We ended up at another town called Kassiopi, miles to the east, where one of Philip’s friends has a good, honest taverna. It too was locked and silent. Indeed, the only place open on the entire northern coast was a take-out, neon-lit burger bar by the bus stop in Kassiopi and the only customers were adolescent youths who would presumably rather be anywhere on earth than at home with their parents at half past ten at night.
We sat down at one of the two or three tables. Five minutes later, we stood up and placed our own order at the counter – souvlaki and a salad, twice, and a half-bottle of retsina to share. The mood of frugality is contagious. The souvlaki were surprisingly good and the salad was fresh and crisp, a jumble of cucumber, tomato, olives and feta. We were soon putting the world to rights. Philip’s view of the current state of this country is that anything would be better than years of fiscal oppression. He has always described himself as an anarchist, an advocate of chaos and revolution as catalysts for change and rebirth. Then the conversation turned to a debate about the merits of pressing green, unripe olives for oil (my position) rather than ripe black ones (his). Despite the bitter recession, it is only the old who still farm olives seriously on this island, the price of oil is at rock bottom. The young have been cutting down the trees and selling the wood. Lorryloads of it leave on the ferry for Italy every day.
“The trees will grow again,” said Philip. Will the economy?