When I first came to Greece there were lots of things you couldn’t get in the local shops. You couldn’t for instance get coffee. Well, you could get Nescaff, and the dust Greeks use to make thimblefuls of hot mud, but not coffee. A couple of shops sold dull, pale beans for people who like to grind their own dust, so I used to get these and roast them to a decent colour in a device I made by punching lots of holes in a Quaker Oats tin. Yes, you could get porage oats — they came in a tin. I bought lots, and got funny looks when I explained to the shopkeepers what I did with them.
Vegetables? In winter anyway only onions, potatoes, cabbages and carrots. Fruit? Oranges of course — many people in England don’t know that they’re winter fruit. And I didn’t know until I tried to pick some that orange trees have long vicious thorns. Oh, and you couldn’t get bananas. Not that that bothered me; I don’t like bananas unless they’re still hard and green. But the reason you couldn’t get them was interesting: their import was forbidden as it might damage the indigenous Greek banana-growing industry. Er… the indigenous Greek…? Well, quite. Actually, some years later I did come across, in southern Crete — if you look in the atlas you’ll find southern Crete is further south than much of north Africa — a few very high plastic greenhouses where they were, not very successfully, trying to grow bananas. I suppose that was it.
In those pre-Common Market days, Brits weren’t supposed to stay in Greece more than three months at a time. I often got away with much longer, but once I was caught and told I had ten days to leave. So I took the ferry to the mainland and got a lift the width of the country with a very nice Kiwi who was driving her ancient Chevrolet through Europe. As we rolled down from Yannena to Igoumenitsa the clutch packed up, and we coasted into a garage where we were told the spare parts would take months to arrive. But, as is the way in Greece, they cobbled something up, and Kiwi and Chevrolet limped onto the Ancona ferry.
My ferry took me to Brindisi, and I planned to take the same boat back in a few hours. I whiled away the time looking at Roman remains, bought myself some outrageous electric blue swimming trunks, (I was much younger then), and, of course, a lot of proper shiny hundred-per-cent-Arabica coffee beans. Oh, and at the last minute, a big bunch of bananas for a friend back in the island.
I got back on the boat. Passport control was on board, and I noticed to my horror that the chap with the rubber stamp was the very one who had let me into Italy a few hours earlier. I handed over my passport and gazed nonchalantly out of a porthole, hoping he wouldn’t recognize me. He did of course: ‘Just a minute — aren’t you the chap who only just got off this ferry?’
‘Um… er… well, yes, I suppose I am.’
‘So what the hell are you up to?’
‘Oh. Well, you see, I have this friend who likes bananas —’ (holding up my bunch of the said fruit) ‘And so… er…’
He said something very rude, which I shan’t translate, about what one might do with bananas, but he stamped my passport and let me back into Greece.