When we were 16 years old, my old friend Rob and I somehow secured the permission of our parents to go ‘inter-railing’ around Europe. This wonderful concept, which worked beautifully, before Schengen, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before the ruddy internet, allowed students, on payment of a flat fee of about £100, to travel absolutely anywhere in Europe, by train, for free. It seems hardly believable but, in 1983, Rob and I got ourselves and a tent to northern Greece for about twenty quid plus the inter-rail ticket.
We found ourselves in Porto Lagos, in NE Greece, in pursuit of the Slender Billed Curlew, which we found or, rather, Rob found and I admired, through his telescope. Porto Lagos was the first place I ever ate a whole cucumber, in a single sitting. A Greek cucumber farmer had hospitably invited us to sit and eat with him and, presumably having nothing else to offer, presented us each with a cucumber. Being well-brought-up boys and not knowing what else to do, we ate them, on the spot. Later in the day, Wryneck, Little Bittern and above-mentioned rare Curlew in the bag, we retired to a beachside taverna.
As I mentioned, I was 16 at the time but alcohol was already singing her siren song seductively in my ear. I ordered a bottle of retsina. Rob had a sip, spat it out and asked for a Coke. Let’s not beat about the bush. Retsina looks like piss. Many would say that physical resemblance is not the only quality it shares with human urine. But I liked it from the start. I ordered a second bottle. Rob recalls having to drag me out of the tent periodically through the night that followed, so that I could be sick, but I think he’s confusing that evening with another occasion, in Ghana, when vodka was involved.
To this day, retsina remains one of my favourite drinks, when I am in Greece.