View from Vitalia: of puns, stings and stuns

Even on a heavenly Greek island, life (and associated technologies) can be at times unpredictable - for humans and animals alike

I’d like to take an issue with William Shakespeare, or, to be more specific, with his famous pronouncement to the effect that the world is but a stage, and we all are merely players in that theatre of life.

The problem with this metaphor, to my mind, is that ‘players’, or actors in a more modern speak, normally play, act or sing according to a pre-approved script, libretto, or a music sheet, from which they cannot deviate, even if they wanted to, whereas life as such defies scripts and, more often than not,  is rather unpredictable. In this respect, it is more like literature, or fiction, to be more exact, for every novelist, including yours truly, will tell you that at some point in the narrative the characters start behaving on their own accord, with little, at times zero, input from the authors themselves. Maxim Gorky, a famous Russian writer of the late 19th-early 20th century, while penning his epic novel ‘The Life of Klim Samghin’, was known to weep and to laugh uncontrollably at the largely unforeseen escapades of his eponymous protagonist. 

And here’s my own recent experience.

Who could have foreseen that on the very last day of my week-long holidays on the Ionian island of Kefalonia, during my very last swim in the azure Ionian Sea, I would be stung by a lonely (or simply bored?) jellyfish – and not just some ordinary slime-like one, which we can at times observe in the opaque waters of the English Channel, but by an extremely rare, exotic and endemic Chrysaora hysoscella species – as I was assured by an amicable local pharmacist, who looked at the messy purple rash on my hands with badly-concealed affection: “I haven’t seen such ... erm... characteristic sting in over ten years!” I knew he wanted to say “beautiful”, but thought better of it at the last moment…

Was he expecting me to feel privileged for being randomly chosen by the rare creature from the dull Bermudas-clad crowd of British bathers, or what?

As I was almost literally licking my fresh wound in a taverna on the cliff above the beach, I could see all those carefree British holidaymakers (men – in Bermudas and tattoos, women – in plain underwear supposed to pass for bikinis) splashing merrily at  the very spot where I was treacherously attacked and no-less treacherously stung by that blasted jellyfish, with a nice-sounding female name, only half an hour earlier. The fact that jellyfish attacks are rather rare in Kefalonia’s waters did not make my wound look less horrible (it still does) or less painful (ditto). 

What does literature, or rather fiction, have to do with the above episode, you may ask?

Everything! Just a week before flying to Kefalonia, I launched my latest novel ‘Out of the Blu’, where, in the very first chapter, a protagonist gets stung by a jellyfish!  In Majorca, not in Kefalonia, mind you, but the fact remains (as well as the sting).

A strong believer in Konstantin Paustovsky’s pronouncement that whatever an author writes about, he (or she) should always write about himself (herself), I now begin to see a strange kind of logic in the above encounter. Remembering that – in the penultimate chapter - the same jellyfish-stung protagonist of my novel also gets attacked by a shark, I decided not to test my writer’s predicament (and my own strong conviction that the life of a writer is but a literary device) any further and promptly boarded a plane back to Stansted.

On the whole, however, it was a great holiday – the best ever. Kefalonia is a fascinating island, and not only due to the best-selling book ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ and the eponymous movie starring Penelope Cruz.

What I liked about Kefalonia most was its extremely chequered history – from the times of Homer and Odysseus to the present. At different moments in the past, the island was ruled by the Romans, the Venetians, the Turks, the Turks together with the Russians (!), the French, the British, the Italians and the Germans. Yes, and very briefly and occasionally – by the Greeks too (as it is now).

To me, the most amazing feature of the island was its distinctive Venetian architecture (no wonder: Kefalonia had been ruled by the Venetian Republic for over 400 years) - all those graceful and posh palazzi, with distinctive (Venetian, no doubt) shutters, some of which even survived the massive 1953 earthquake, when 90 per cent of the island’s buildings were destroyed. At times, I was tempted to ask my wife to pinch me to remind that I was de facto in Greece and not in Venice.

With the latter sinking even deeper into the lagoon with each coming year, getting more and more crowded and – according to experts – slowly but surely dying, I would advise to those who still love La Serenissima to give it a break and come to Kefalonia instead.

...As features editor of a technology magazine, on my holidays, I always try to explore local technologies (if any). Not too many of those in Kefalonia  – the island has just two functioning traffic lights and a handful of roundabouts.

Driving along the precarious mountain roads, I was initially rather intrigued by the melodious sound of bells from some invisible source until I nearly ran over a small group of beautiful (despite, or maybe because of their goatee – in the true sense – beards) and happily jaywalking Kefalonian goats. They all had large swinging bells on their necks, similar to those worn in the Alps by the blue-eyed Swiss cows.

This gentle jingling of the goats’ and sheep’s bells accompanied us everywhere in Kefalonia (at night, it was replaced by methodical, almost digital, beeps of a lonely scops owl) which made me wonder if that ancient method was still the only way for the local farmers to keep track of their peripatetic herds.

In search of an answer, I visited the Stamoulis meat and dairy farm at Falari Mountain, not far from the coastal village of Agia Effimia where we stayed. One of the farmers, Kostas Samoulis, told me that, alongside the bells, which their goats and sheep were still wearing just in case, they had much more modern ways of  telling where this or that particular animal was at any given moment, like drones, say. He showed us a special app on his smartphone which allowed him to keep track of the sheep and explained that not all of the animals but only the ‘leaders’ had to have chips embedded in them: the rest would normally follow. Just like with us people.

I couldn’t help further associations with humans as we were watching the extremely moving – or rather ‘moo-ing’! – reunion of the farm’s neat and compact cows with their calves for an evening feed. So ‘moo-ch’ joy and affection on both sides!

I’ve noticed of late that since my open-heart surgery last year, when I ended up with a bovine (i.e. taken from an agreeable cow) artificial aortal valve to replace my malfunctioning  human one, I had become very sensitive and affectionate towards cows. Not to the extent of completely excluding beef from ration (that would have been too much), but to the point when I feel like mooing periodically for no particular reason (as you may have noticed already). I therefore hope that on this occasion you will forgive my somewhat excessive puns and ‘moo-taphors’. Thank you very moo-ch!

But I’ve digressed. My visit to the impressive Stamoulis farm was crowned with a quick tour of the farm’s own state-of-the-art abattoir, excuse my French, or a slaughterhouse in plain English.

The well-designed modern building, painted red and black (not unlike a funeral parlour) stood next to the very field where we had just watched the motherly Kefalonian cows feeding their kids and in full view of the former (were they aware of the building’s gruesome purpose, I was wondering?).

Another farmer, Gregory Stamoulis, then  took us on a brief tour of the spotlessly clean slaughtering facility, where some of the  latest equipment, including a gleaming high-tech stunning gun (with ‘stunning’ meaning ‘immobilising’, not ‘amazing’, in this particular case) used for... you know what, was manufactured by the German firm Freund (‘friend’) – a name that, having in mind the purpose of the machines in question, sounded a little bit tactless, if not to say inappropriate.

Yet, on reflection and following Gregory’s detailed explanations, I came to the conclusion that, despite being a bit of a cow – or perhaps a bull? – myself (thanks to my artificial heart valve), as an avid consumer of beef, pork and even mutton, I had no moral right to criticise the quick, humane and electronically controlled ways of slaughtering (or shall I say ‘putting down’?) the doomed cattle, for the farmers had done everything they could to give their animals plentiful and happy (even if short-ish) lives. So just as the infamous 1789 invention of Dr Jozeph-Ignace Guillotin was both faster, less painful and hence a tad more humane than its predecessors, the new cutting-edge (oops, apologies for the not-quite-unintended guillotine-related pun) stunning gun could indeed be referred to as a ‘friend’ of sorts...

I could only wish it was not the kind-hearted cow (for it indeed could be the one who had generously donated her bovine heart valve to me!), but the nasty, if nicely named, Chrysaora hysoscella that was at the receiving end of that German-made machine’s operational cycle.

This brings me neatly to the end of this blog post, the theme of which was not so much cows, jellyfish and animals in general as the fact that, contrary to what Shakespeare said, our unpredictable life is not a theatre but rather a piece of literary fiction.

And here’s another proof: my visit to the Stamoulis Farm in particular and to Kefalonia in general impressed me so much that I more or less decided to make animals in general and farm animals in particular main characters of my next fantasy novel! Will keep you posted on how it progresses...

PS. As you may remember, in my previous ‘View from Vitalia’ I promised to take you to the former USSR in my next (i.e. this very) blog... So sorry, but reality, camouflaged as jellyfish, intervened, and I had to postpone the promised excursion until the next instalment (unless reality intervenes again). This shows how precarious it is to make promises whilst trying to describe life in all its beautiful unpredictability... Besides, believe me: you should never trust a writer!

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