"Arfa, what would you say to me biking up to Mount Athos?"
"The Holy Mountain? All those monks? Have you been drinking ouzo?"
"It sounds like one of your ouzo ideas. Breathe out. Yup."
"How far is it?"
"Not sure. Five hundred miles?"
"You'll fall off. What about poor Harley? He's as decrepit as you."
"Nonsense. It'll do us both good. The open road."
"You're too old for a mid-life crisis."
"An end-life crisis then."
I take this wifely encouragement on the chin, one of them anyway, light the lamps and lay the table on the terrace under the vine. Arfa is her nickname. When offered wine she used to say a modest 'just arfa glass' until she decided it was too much trouble refilling it twice as often as everyone else. I fetch a bottle of Shed from the fridge. Instead of a chateau on the label it has a photo of the concrete shed where it was made. €2.50 for a litre and a half, cheaper than water. A couple of glasses and I hope Arfa will come round to the Athos idea. She brings out plates of green beans, creamy feta, octopus stew, a salad of cucumber and tomatoes still warm from the vine where they had been growing an hour ago. We watch the moon come up, applauding when it clears the hilltop, our tradition since the children were little. I fill our glasses.
"About my idea."
"Biking up to Athos."
"The ouzo idea. Why would you want to do that?"
"To take Father Makarios his books."
"Hmm. That's a flimsy reason. Why don't you mail them?"
"They might get lost in the post."
I try another tack.
"To explore the Greece I don't know while I can still remember where I've been."
"What do you expect to find?"
"Dunno until I find it."
"Hmm. It sounds like one of your frolics."
"I might climb Mount Athos."
"You? With your knees?"
She laughs. The moon smirks. Crickets snicker. I should never have asked. I should have just gone.
"Hmm. Promise me you'll wear a helmet."
If you look at a map of Greece you will see in the north what looks like a stunted hand with three fingers sticking out into the sea. The top finger is the peninsula of Mount Athos. It is a ridge fifty kilometres long and ten kilometres wide rising to the bare summit of the Holy Mountain before plunging down to the sea. The 'Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain' is a self-governing state within the Republic of Greece. It has been famous as the spiritual home of Orthodoxy for a thousand years and notorious for banning women.
I have been to Athos before. The first time was out of curiosity. The second out of fascination with a community that is glibly described as a throwback to medieval Byzantium. It is more accurate to say that the monks live in the modern world but according to a philosophy that predates modernity. I have been twice more in search of understanding, of what I haven't yet discovered. The strange beauty of the place promises mystery, in the ancient sense of truth beyond comprehension. And the books for Father Makarios? I met him on Athos last year. He is from Moldova and spent two years in college in America, so speaks fluent English. We got on well for the short time I was at his monastery. He gave me a crucifix that he had carved himself.
"Father, what can I send you from London?"
"Thank you. I got everything I need."
"Please. There must be something."
"Well, I guess there's one thing. My favourite author is English. I have some of his books but I'm missing a few."
The mind flipped through the canon from Shakespeare to Dickens as he was a favourite in Socialist countries along with Jack London and Rabbie Burns.
"I'd be delighted to get them. Who is it?"
"Pelham Grenville Wodehouse."
I felt my eyes pop and my jaw drop.
"My mom was corresponding member of the Russian Wodehouse Society. I like Jeeves and Wooster best. Top hole. Real funny and not a tad of wickedness in them."
Harley is a twenty-year-old Yamaha 50cc step-through. In motorcycle years that would make him about my age. Why don't I get a bigger bike? 50cc is the most I can drive on my ordinary licence and I'm too wimpish to get a motorcycle licence. Besides, Harley matches my temperament. Happiest on the flat, coasts downhill, weak and wheezy uphill. We rarely go faster than 40kph/25mph. Sometimes we are overtaken by bicyclists. On steep hills a brisk walker would leave us behind. Greek slang for such a bike is papaki, a little duck.
It's a good idea to give him a check-up before we go. Zervas's motorcycle workshop is on the main road into Aliveri, the closest town to our village. A row of bikes line up against a rail outside like horses outside a cowboy saloon, a couple of fancy thoroughbreds but mostly old hacks like mine. Inside is a knacker's shed of wrecks and parts, tackles and jacks, pipes and cables, tins and drums, fragrant with rancid oil, petrol, rubber and grease, and in the middle of it a mahogany desk with a penholder, calendar and a clickety-clackety Newton's cradle made of steel nuts. Zervas is getting on for fifty, wiry and cheerful. A shock of salt-and-pepper hair and a week's worth of salt-and-pepper beard meld into the salt-and-pepper complexion of men who work with machinery. His overalls match the workshop floor. His hands are surprisingly clean. He must wear gloves to work.
"Hello. What do you want?"
"Full service. Brakes, spark plug, everything." My automotive vocabulary runs out at this point but he gets the message.
"When was the last service?"
I am thrown back to childhood and a creepy confessional, peering through mesh at the shadowy cheek of one-legged Father Mallarkey asking how long it has been since my last confession.
Zervas stares at me, a damned soul.
"…but I only use it in the summers so it's half that really."
As mitigation goes, it doesn't travel far. Zervas winces and grunts and shrugs and tells me to come back in the afternoon.
Harley's colours are Byzantine blue and cream, picked out with chrome and rust. It's called a step-through because, like a scooter, you don't have to cock your leg over the saddle to get on. It's not a moped as it does not have pedals. The engine is a four stroke, I know because they don't put oil in with the petrol like my two stroke weed-whacker. They put it in a separate hole - I say 'they' because I leave technical things to specialists. That's all I can say about the inner workings of the machinery as the rest is a mystery.
The grip on the right handlebar turns to work the throttle. In front of it is the front brake lever. Underneath is a yellow thumb switch for the indicator. The thumb switch for the lights is on the left handlebar. I get them mixed up so that when I come to a turning I flash the headlight. Next to the choke stuck permanently open is a black button for the horn. With age, like Shakespeare's big manly voice, it now pipes and whistles in his sound. More of a squeak-squeak than a toot-toot. The top of the left handlebar sports a side mirror that automatically adjusts within minutes to a view of the driver's left elbow.
These are all the manual controls. Now for the feet. The left foot operates a heel-and-toe gear shift. You change up by pressing the front of the lever with your toe and down by bending your ankle and pressing down with your heel. Except in my case it's a toe-and-toe as I'm too stiff to get my heel down. There are three gears, all forward, no reverse, unless I haven't found it yet. The gear pedal under the left foot is not to be confused with the lever under the right foot that operates the enthusiastic rear wheel brake. In careless moments trying to change up results in a slithering rear wheel skid. A kickstarter is also under the right foot but folds away once its job is done and has led to no mishaps. Yet.
A blue plastic vegetable crate is wired to the luggage rack behind the saddle. It is a standard accessory on village bikes for trips to the market and the vegetable plot and the chicken house. My crate is the smaller runabout version so I need to upgrade to a touring model with higher sides for a backpack and other stuff. A lockable trunk would keep things safer and a crate detracts from the glamour of the bike but is practical and cheap. On main roads I put on a helmet bought in the Harley Davidson store in Glendale California. I got it partly as a tribute to Harley, partly because it was the only helmet I could find that fits my big head. I regret I didn't get the model with flames or Pegasus wings stencilled on the sides. For pottering round the village the helmet stays in the vegetable crate upside down for carrying eggs.
Time to find out what Zervas has done. He sits behind his executive desk chatting with a middle-aged man in the visitor's chair. The visitor has a facial tic that repeatedly winks one eye as if signalling a left turn. He stands up to let me sit down and I grit my teeth to stop winking back. He perches on the saddle of a venerable Suzuki 500cc. Laid out on the desk on a copy of Avgi, the left-wing newspaper, are Harley's former entrails. The oil filters are turned to putty, the air filter is packed with sludge, I won't go on, it was shaming. Zervas changed all the bits you can change, tightened nuts and spokes and other things, replaced the broken indicator from when I fell off avoiding a sheep, straightened the gear lever from when I fell off avoiding a different sheep, pumped the tyres, wiped years of dirt off the bodywork. I ask about the juddering when we speed up or slow down. Zervas launches into technical jargon. As far as I can tell the cure would involve the motorcycle equivalent of a heart transplant and not worth the expense for a machine so old. I pat Harley's saddle in a spasm of fellow feeling.
Getting your hair cut or the toilet mended or your bike serviced in Greece is to start a relationship. Zervas phones for coffee from the café next door. He opens with the usual gambit - where are you from, where do you live, how come you speak Greek? Greeks are overly impressed if foreigners string two ungrammatical sentences together. I tell him I keep my Greek up by playing in a band in London. I play the baglama, a miniature bouzouki, with a neck eighteen inches long and a body shaped like a tear drop. It sounds sweet, muddy, jangling, resonant, clear, silvery, brassy, leaden, depending on whether you pluck, stroke, caress or ham-fistedly strum it. We play rebetiko, urban blues from the first half of the last century, which is why my Greek is seasoned with 1930's lowlife Athenian slang.
"What? Rebetiko? Do you hear that Mitso? What do you play?"
"Baglama. I'm not very good. I like to sing."
"Sing something. Come on. I want to hear a foreigner sing rebetiko."
"I don't know many."
"One is enough."
I launch into a standard rebetiko number, Frangosiriani, the Catholic girl from Syros. Zervas and Mitsos grin and wink and make one-handed flicking gestures as if they'd burnt their fingers on hot chestnuts. The workshop resounds with three gravelly voices accompanied by percussion on an exhaust pipe, a petrol can, a pair of spanners. We finish with applause and handshakes but I'm not taken in. I feel like Doctor Johnson's dog 'walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.' Zervas thumps his chest.
"I'm a bouzoukist. And Mitsos is a guitarist. We play together."
This explains the pampered hands. It is mixed news. I like my mechanics to be mechanics and my musicians to be musicians. I don't take my bike to a luthier or my guitar to the garage. We discuss weighty matters like the respective merits of the three string and the four string bouzouki, of amplified and acoustic, of Smyrna style and Piraeus style, until I run out of vocabulary and ask for Harley's bill. 30 euros. Surely he missed out a zero.
"Special price for baglamists."
Boy, is Harley frisky now, like I felt when I had my hernia done. 0-25 in half a minute, uphill in second not first. The good thing on a road trip is I can get repairs in villages anywhere I'm likely to go. Harley I mean, not hernias.