Being on the road, and trying out some new bars over the last few weeks, I've found my mind wandering back to past travels and fortuitous bar discoveries of years gone by. Perhaps I've also been subsconsciously fretting that there are certain subjects I really should have covered on this blog, and will now never get around to, because I'm closing it down next week.
This is what brought Mike's to mind.
Mike's Bar (now, apparently, styling itself Mike's Irish Bar, although I'm pretty certain the 'Irish' is new; and it's the kind of pointless affectation that would be likely to put me off a place), is a large British-style pub in the centre of Athens, and I spent a week or so there over Christmas and New Year, in the middle of the spell that I spent working in Toronto.
Yes, I spent pretty much the whole week in that pub. My hotel accommodation began to seem superfluous, because there were at least a couple of occasions when I stayed in Mike's all night, and only went back to the hotel at dawn for breakfast.
Now, in fact, there was a much smaller, darker, and cosier pub just a few minutes' walk away (whose name I have entirely forgotten, I'm afraid), which would have been my preference for an evening hangout, but Mike's Bar had the advantages of large size and convenient proximity to the hotel, ensuring that it immediately won broad popularity among the group I was part of. It achieved a critical mass which made it impossible to lobby for any alternative rendezvous, it became the essential default boozing option for the duration of the holiday.
The group I was with was large and aggressively sociable and - for the most part - very hard-drinking. I was there for the World Universities' Debating Championship - an event I'd had experience of judging when at Oxford some years before, and had become involved in again while at Bar School. Well, I had been President of my Inn's debating society that year, but had selflessly abstained from picking myself to attend glamorous overseas events as a competitor (a level of ethical restraint rarely displayed by other holders of this office, I discovered); however, I worked my butt off in that job, and by the end of my term of office I thought I had earned a small treat for myself. And since Athens - the next designated host of the 'Worlds' event - was a relatively inexpensive trip, I thought it would be reasonable to volunteer my participation as a judge and thus get myself a little expenses-paid winter holiday.
And so it was that I got to hang out for 8 or 10 days with 1,000 or more boozy students. But at least competition debaters tend to be amongst the brightest and best of the student population. And also, in fact, amongst the most mature: a good number of them, probably the majority in fact, are graduate students, or members of certain professional guilds or vocational training schools or institutes of higher learning that aren't strictly universities (like my own Middle Temple). I'd say the average age was at least 25, and I was still only in my early 30s myself at this time. So, it was a very convivial crowd. And after the first 4 or 5 days, when a mini-league system involving all of the hundreds of teams winnowed down the field to just 16 or 32 teams for the final knockout rounds, most of us were left with nothing to do during the day - except catch up on the sleep we hadn't had the night before. (I initially felt quite bad about not making more of being in Athens, but I had visited the city twice before, done most of the standard sightseeing; and everything was closed over the holidays, anyway.)
Greece is probably my favourite country in the world. I love the sense of openness and generosity towards strangers that you find everywhere, the notion of hospitality that has been at the heart of their culture for thousands of years. (A favourite example from a visit a few years before: I'd been drinking with a friend at a table beside the harbour for a few hours. When we settled up, the bill seemed rather high; I suspected they'd inadvertently added a few drinks that had been ordered on the next table. Anywhere else in the world, the customer might start feeling paranoid about the likelihood of a deliberate scam, and the staff would probably get exaggeratedly defensive, and it might end in a lengthy and awkward wrangle, at the least, perhaps a stand-up fight. In Greece, I knew it was almost certainly an honest mistake, and queried it as such. The waiter immediately acknowledged that he might well have goofed, and asked me how much I'd like to pay. I think I happily paid rather more than my actual tab, because it was such a delightful way of handling a dispute.)
I suspect this national emphasis on the virtue of hospitality explains why the Greeks are almost always so good at running restaurants and bars, even restaurants and bars of an alien kind. Most people make a complete pig's ear of trying to emulate another country's food or its bar culture (the Chinese interpretation of Thai food being my particular bugbear here in Beijing). But the Greeks, bless 'em, somehow they manage to do it right.
The eponymous owner of Mike's Bar is not English or Irish or American, but Greek through and through. And yet he has managed to create one of the best large-scale pubs I've ever been in.
I suspect, though, that dear Mike never sussed out why all these young foreigners were suddenly flooding into his bar every night, or how soon they would depart again. He had a bonanza week or so, was ordering extra kegs and hiring extra staff to keep the beer flowing all night, every night. I hope the adjustment back to his regular level of custom wasn't too painful for him.
I may perhaps have been driven to drink more self-destructively than is usual for me because I was still smarting from a painful breakup six months earlier - and, as Fate would have it (Cruel Fate!), she was there. And having a fling with someone else, I soon learned.
My principal drinking companions on this trip were a daffy pair of Belgian accountants (it remained obscure as to how they were eligible to be taking part in a student competition), who introduced me to the useful term liquid sandwiches - to describe beer consumed in lieu of lunch.
These two Belgians caused some consternation to the hotel staff, when it appeared that they had consumed the entire contents of their heavily - and, of course, expensively - stocked mini-bar in a single night. In fact, they had merely transferred all of the miniature bottles of spirits and so on to a sock drawer, so that they could pack their fridge full of beer.