Herbert is our nearest neighbour. He has three olive terraces a few hundred metres down the track from our land. He has lived there for almost twenty years. For the first few years he lived on the site in a caravan until he got round to building something more substantial. What he built was a single story Tyrolean chalet with deep eaves, whose white walls I later adorned with the kind of painted baroque curlicues and floral swags favoured in his native village in Tyrol. Herbert used to live in a village called Madrei. He married, built a house and brought up his family there, but the marriage ended and he came to Greece to live.
He lives here alone, except for his animals. He has a great affection for animals of any kind, and over the years he has kept chickens, geese, cats, dogs, sheep, a donkey, horses, pigs. There was a time when he had forty cats. The cat population declined later, which he put down to marauding foxes, though he also kept two German shepherd dogs…
His donkey, Laura, was a retired animal, destined to be slaughtered, but rescued at the last minute by Herbert. It was an evil minded brute, taken to spinning round suddenly and attempting to kick you with its hind hooves. Laura finally fell victim to a curious disorder: she began to develop a list, like a ship, and would stand or walk noticeably off from the vertical. She fell over with increasing frequency as she wandered through the olive terraces with other members of Herbert’s menagerie: Yavila, the horse (in charge), sheep, geese, etc. Herbert used to stand her up again. Finally she disappeared. Months later, Stathi the shepherd found her bones at the foot of a steep terrace wall. I was given her skull and for a while it hung on the workshop wall, until I incorporated it into a piece of headgear for use in a film we were making at the time.
Herbert has always kept German shepherd dogs and since they are relatively short lived, we have seen several of them over the years, though they only ever had one of two names, Suloh and Attila. One Suloh, a very sentimental creature, became seriously agitated when Herbert brought back a crate full of new born chicks from the market in Kalamata. Suloh’s anxiety to keep the little scraps from harm was painful to watch. He would spend whole days attempting to keep them confined between his front paws and growling at anyone who came too close.
Herbert has not always been so lucky with his dogs. He left another young Suloh in his truck in Kalamata while he went into a shop, leaving the window open a little two wide, so that the dog was able to put its head out and bite a passing woman. Luckily the woman, though badly shocked, was not seriously hurt but Herbert did spend a night in gaol. Charges were brought the following morning. The affair marked the beginning of a change in Herbert. He seemed for a while to fall prey to ill luck and he became gradually more reclusive. His dogs attacked and killed a number of his neighbour Stathi’s sheep. It cost him a lot in compensation and strained his relations not just with Stathi himself but with other shepherds in the district. Herbert responded by building a high wire fence around his property, with big sliding gates, which he keeps locked
Herbert is a collector of stuff, anything really. Until recently he used to drive an open backed truck and if he spotted something in the big rubbish bins in Kalamata which he thought might be of use, he would throw it up on the truck: broken furniture, domestic appliances, scrap metal and particularly anything made of wood, which he would cut up to burn in his stove in the winter. He says that now there is less. He thinks people are more careful about what they discard. Since 2008 times have been getting harder.
He has kept an assortment of vehicles too, under his olive trees: trucks, a catamaran, cars, motorbikes and, for some years, a diminutive antique tractor. His Austrian friends bring him second hand cars, invariably big Mercedes saloon cars. His land also functions as a kind of parking lot for friends who only spend part of the year in Greece and need somewhere secure to leave their vehicles.
A few years ago he came back from the city, his truck loaded with bidets. It seems he had spotted a single, apparently new and unused, bidet standing next to a rubbish bin and since he wasn’t sure that such a valuable object would have been put out with the rubbish, he went into the nearby plumbers’ merchants to ask. The owner took him into the basement of his shop where forty new, unused, and unsold, bidets were collecting dust. He gave Herbert all of them. They had been in stock for some years, the Kalamatianoi never having taken to the idea of bidets. We planned to make a fountain with the bidets, but somehow it never happened. They are still standing in a kind of pyramid in the long grass.
When we first arrived Herbert was very sociable. Every Sunday through the Summer months he invited people for fruschoppen, a kind of extended alfresco breakfast/lunch which often went on into a hazy alcoholic afternoon. At this time there was a very large cat population and it was necessary to fend them off as you ate. On one occasion a particularly desperate moggy shot across the bars of the barbecue, paws hissing audibly, to snatch a chicken leg.
Mostly, the guests were Austrian and German friends and acquaintances, and large quantities of cold beer were consumed. Linda and I would put in a token appearance before sloping off for a siesta. Late on hot August afternoons, when all Greeks and other sensible people were asleep, you could hear through the olive trees the faint sound of teutonic revelry.
During this period Herbert fed his dogs and cats pigs’ heads, which he bought very cheaply from a butchers’ in Kalamata market, so that his place developed a slightly ghoulish aspect due to the pigs’ skulls littering the ground. He also made a traditional Tyrolean dish from these heads: sultze, which is a kind of brawn. He made something called beuschel, a soup, not unlike Greek Kokoretsi made from pigs intestines, which he got free with the pigs’ heads. I could eat both of these delicacies, Linda not. I can also eat kokoretsi too, though I try not to.
Herbert has always been extremely generous toward us. In the beginning, he gave us firewood, lent us tools and equipment and was generally very supportive. He still is, though older now, seventy five, and he has arthritis in his legs. He is growing more reclusive. There is something in his nature that people respond to, some generosity of spirit, some directness, a glimpse of vulnerability. He is not a person you are likely to forget.