THINKING BUSINESS
a blog by Chris Barrow

Racing rats

Nikos and Poppy own and manage Rementzo, a quayside restaurant at Frikes, the small North Eastern harbour on the island. We ate there yesterday, after arriving in the jeep and again today, this time arriving in the small motor boat we were delighted to discover for hire in Kioni. George has been running the only significant boat rental business since he was a small boy. His mother runs the supermarket in the village and the impressive girth of his brother can be seen perilously draped over a long-suffering moped as he drifts around the area on missions, the purpose of which we have never figured out after 9 years of observation. Normally we pick up our boat in Vathi from Captain Yiannis Hotel and the ever-smiling Stephanos waves us away each morning on the typically calm waters and then rescues us from the swell at around 17:00, when the afternoon mistral kicks up a nautical jig. Our first trip to Ithaki is very early this year and our hopes of adventures on the water seemed sunken without trace until we mentioned our disappointment to Poppy during Friday’s long lunch and she immediately called George’s mobile and had him bring a vessel out of winter hibernation for us. That’s what it is like here – businesses are almost all family-owned and they collaborate, they do not compete. George was uncharacteristically chatty this morning when we arrived and, like everyone else, wanted to talk about “the economy”, high taxes and unemployment and mounting bureaucracy. Even the recent surprises in Cyprus are a topic as we load the boat with water, jellies and suntan cream and go through the now-familiar safety talk and explanation of “no-go” areas. Just to clarify, these are 20 foot motor boats with 50cc engines so, although we can pick up speed on a flat sea, its no scene from Miami Vice as we pull away. The weather, as with any open water, can change rapidly and we have been involved in the rescue of quite a few hapless one-day captains over the years – so to stray not too far away from safe havens is good advice, occasionally ignored by the inexperienced. After some swimming and snorkelling in the impossibly clear and bracing water, we head over to Frikes and a return to Rementzo, where yesterday we were papped by Erika Bach for her popular IthacaGreece web site (see photo – Nikos is the bearded chap on the left, Poppy has her back to the camera). Another gastronomic delight unfolds as the taramasalata, rocket salad and gorgeous fresh sardines (they arrived an hour before we did) are presented to our delight. I started asking Nikos about their history and listened entranced as he told me that their epiphany came in London, where Poppy worked in IT for a local government office and he was an area manager for Coffee Republic, under increasing stress and pressure as the other “West Coast Coffee” chains proliferated, led by the plague that is Starbucks and his ability to compete on level terms diminished. 80-hour weeks, stupid managers, impossible targets and timescales, increased and ruthless competition – until they decided to call it a day and return to the home of their ancestors. Nikos is animated as he recalls the story – he is always plentiful in decibels and waves his hands wildly around whatever we are discussing – football, travel, weather – he could make the phone book exciting. Poppy is just clever, chatty, nice and always cheerful no matter what. They work 18-hours a day, 7 days a week for 9 months of the year – and then take the kids and travel – all over the world – during the winter months. “I don’t mind the 18-hour shifts because I love what I do and, most of the time, the people I meet. I couldn’t do this without a superb support team here at the restaurant – they look after me and I look after them.” Where have I heard that before? The only stress in their lives now is the daily arrival of a small “pleasure cruiser” from Levkas. A town which apparently draws its cultural inspiration from Benidorm. The boat docks and the tourists swarm over the miniature port, every one of them hungry, thirsty and incapable of understanding the concept of a lazy lunch. Most of the time they are demanding, occasionally rude and Nikos takes no stick from them and will give back as good as he gets. Its a necessary evil of course, as many livings are made in all the waterside shops, bars and restaurants by this repetitive swarm of stomachs and wallets – and perhaps for our hosts there is also a regular confirmation of the quality of their own lives as said boat-full of refuelled consumers departs a couple of hours later back to the fleshpot on the mainland. After lunch today I started a conversation with a nearby diner, for no other reason than he was next to us last night at dinner in Vathi (that happens a lot here). I discover that he is a Swedish retired gentleman who is nearing the end of his 4th year sailing around the Mediterranean. He and his wife live on a medium sized mono-hull yacht that is moored opposite our table and he is entertaining his son + girlfriend for a couple of weeks. He proudly tells me of his progress from Scandinavia on the vessel, down to the Med and relates all the countries he has visited on the north coast as he has made his was clockwise from Gibraltar – and he has visited all of them. Turkey will be the furthest East he sails, before turning for home in August. “What next?” I ask. “My next project is the Caribbean.” he replies, with a smile and a far away look in his eyes. He must be 70 if he is a day and looks well on it, if not a little rotund and a bizarrely like Captain Birdseye. I’m wondering why Poseidon is sending these people to me this week – Lloyd Jerome building a new life in New Zealand, Fotini and her postman at The Perantzada, George in Kioni, Nikos and Poppy in Frikes and now my elderly Swedish explorer. I’m approaching 60 and bumping into people who have stepped out of the rat race and exchanged affluenza for contentment.