Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Orzo rice pasta with peas (Κριθαράκι με μπιζέλια)

The simplest photo can have the power to cause the most unexpected surprise. Last night, I put up this photo on my blog:

There's nothing special about this meal, except perhaps that the peas were picked and shelled an hour before I cooked them. (There would have been more peas, but they were quite tasty in their fresh state - I ate my share as I was shelling them.) But this photo caused a little bit of a riot. My facebook followers fell in love with it - I imagine they were trying to pick out one of the peas straight from the screen! My kids loved this meal so much, that I think I should immortalise it, despite it's unplanned nature and its sheer simplicity. It's also a good lenten recipe for the Holy Week that we find ourselves in.

You need:
a large cup (or two) of freshly shelled peas
5-6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
an onion, chopped roughly
2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
1-2 teaspoons of tomato paste
250g orzo rice pasta (half a packet - it is usually sold in 500g packs)
salt and pepper

Heat the oil, add the onion and garlic and cook till translucent on medium heat. Add the peas and stir them in to coat in oil. Do the same with the orzo. Now add the tomato paste and pour in 2-3 cups of water. Add some salt and pepper. Keep stirring over medium-high heat until the water is absorbed and the pasta is cooked. This is very important because orzo tends to stick to the bottom of the pan if left unattended. You may need to add more water. At any rate, the water will be absorbed by the pasta.

Once the pasta is cooked (it only needs about 10-15 minutes), let it stand to settle and absorb more of the liquids. It can be served both warm and cold (it goes well with yoghurt), and if you have the time and inclination, you can add other vegetables to it like cubed carrot and/or corn kernels.

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Monday, 14 April 2014

As Easter approaches (Πλησιάζει Πάσχα)

Here are some springtime images of urban and rural Hania, taken during the weekend, for you to savour as you think about your next holiday in Greece, or reminisce about your past ones.

Lazarus Saturday
The presence of family-oriented Northern European tourists on their sunny break was very visible in the town last weekend. We passed a couple with a child, all wearing socks with Birkenstock sandals. We then saw another couple with a child, all looking quite patchy red, especially the man, who was wearing shorts - it's still a little cool here! His shins were the colour of beetroot-coloured water. My daughter made a comment that she could smell suntan lotion in the air, while my husband commented that it had been a long time since he saw such pale faces streaming out of the airport where he was waiting for a fare...

Red roof tiles, stone walls, blue shutters, all under a blue sky surrounded by green trees - this classic Greek image happens to be an old school building in the town centre. These buildings have been reinforced against earthquake damage.

The Venetian harbour, with the lighthouse in the distance. I will never forget my friend's reaction while visiting me in Hania in summer about 20 years ago. I was living with my father in the town centre at the time, so we walked from there through the rather untidy concreted and highly urbanised area of Hania, towards the Venetian harbour. From the hot dusty streets of the town centre, I turned into Halidon St, which is full of tourist shops. You walk down here to get to the Venetian port. The sea is not visible from the top of the street, and you actually have to walk quite a way down before you sight it. My kiwi friend who had been living in London at the time was getting a little agitated (too many people, too hot, not used to sweating profusely, etc) and she was showing a bit too much impatience for such a short walk..Suddenly she saw the lighthouse (you kind of see it before you see the sea), and again very suddenly, she saw the Venetian harbour, and she just about fainted from the beauty of all that imagery coming into view all at once without any warning...

I can imagine the group of friends who had been sitting here enjoying the sunshine, in this narrow lane in the old town...
... right below the minaret, which was probably last in use about a century ago, before the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. 

Greece beckons...


Palm Sunday
The good weather allowed us to clear our orange orchard of tree trimmings. We spent the morning in the field, sapping up the very warm weather.

In the orange orchard, we've also planted a few fruit trees -this one is a nectarine tree. The orchard is surrounded by olive groves, all owned by the extended family.

Since we fenced off the property, there has been less 'traffic' passing through, which has all been beneficial for the naturally occurring flora of the grove. I also found the field full of honeybees. (As long as you don't bother them so that they do not get agitated, they do not cause problems.)

Although Palm Sunday is traditionally celebrated with a fish meal, we had to find an easier option as we were away from the kitchen. The fire from the burning wood doubled up as our cooking fuel.

As we left the field, the sky darkened slightly. By the end of the day, it was raining. That's springtime Crete - the weather is variable. But the rain is highly desirable in an agriculturally rich area like Hania which has a dry run for at least three months in summer.

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Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Trapped (Εγκλωβισμένοι)

All photos and links come from Haniotika Nea. More photos are found in each link mentioned.

On the 31st of March, 2014, 345 people of undefined status were picked up in the sea 70km off the small harbour of Paelohora, a summer resort town on the south-western coast of the Mediterranean island of Crete. The rotten rusty leaky boat they were travelling on was towed by an oil tanker that was in the general area of the Libyan Sea, which the boat people boarded.



These people carried similar hopes and dreams of entering Europe as many others who have traveled in a similar way before them. Their quest: to seek a better life, like the many people all over the world who move from one place to another, both within their own countries and beyond their borders. Among them were women and minors whose ages could not be determined on sight. Their arrival coincided with claims by Médecins Sans Frontières that "Migrants face 'living hell' in Greek detention", as reported by the Guardian. Their arrival also coincided with the start of the tourist season in Hania, and the first charter flight to the region.


The boat people arrive in Paleohora

What do you do with 345 people who have nowhere to go in a foreign country? Only the state can get involved at an initial stage. Only the state has the right to be involved. The status of these people has to be determined, their health must be checked, their nationality must be verified, their reasons for finding themselves in this predicament must also be ascertained. At the same time, food and accommodation must be secured for them. It is not the job of the individual residents, nor should any of these actions be viewed as a form of goodwill. The problem of smuggling people into another country is a global one, and there are international laws which govern it.

Despite their undefined status and unexpected arrival, these people need to be accommodated in some way. There was no public space big enough to put them up in Paleohora. The hotels there are nearly all small family-owned businesses; they were empty at the time, but in all fairness, their use does not extend to providing free accommodation out of solidarity, nor should the state be paying such businesses to cater for the needs of unauthorised people in the country. The issue of where such people are accommodated, even temporarily, is a contentious one: no one really wants these people in their back yards, so to speak.

From Paleohora, they were transferred to EMEX, a centre which houses exhibitions in Hania, mainly of an agricultural/culinary nature, as well as the local water board, located in lush countryside with orange orchards and olive groves, about 10 minutes out of the town centre. (EMEX also happens to neighbour the long-standing minimum-security agricultural prison where low-risk prisoners are often seen outside the complex under guarded conditions working on the land; it is also close to the recently opened maximum-security prison.)

Local authorities and volunteer associations were all involved in the organisation of temporary accommodation facilities for the arrivals.

Bedding donated by various associations (a lot is most likely made in one of a number of local SMEs producing mattresses for the town's tourist industry - they are replaced regularly by large hotels, and the old ones are donated to those in need), chemical toilets, heaters and separate women-and-children quarters (for privacy) were set up for them by the local Red Cross and Samaritan groups. INKA supermarket, the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (MAICh), the old people's retirement home (a state institution in Hania), the Orthodox Academy in Kolimbari (a religious-based unit) and the NATO Missile Firing Installation in Akrotiri offered their kitchen services (they each cooked an extra number of meals to make up the portions required), while the local state authorities, including Doctors of the World, began the Herculean task of working out who is who (smuggler, refugee or opportunist), which country they come from, and who needs medical attention.

The issue of how this leaky boat ended up in Cretan waters is also under scrutiny: it had first sent a distress signal from the sea zone of Malta, which begs the question about who 'pushed' it into Greek waters. While the state bodies did their utmost to meet the arrivals' immediate physical needs, Steki Metanaston (one of a number of anti-fascist, anti-racist groups in Hania, which has a very well-organised left-wing political climate in this respect, hence attacks of the Golden Dawn nature are practically non-existent in Hania) expressed the view that the state was 'unprepared' for this incident, since it treats migrants as 'illegals' and 'without rights', and the accommodation provided for these people was inappropriate. (You can find out more about their manifestos in this article, including discussion of the Dublin II treaty.) The various police associations of the island also complained about the diversion of all forces towards the guarding of the accommodation quarters of the migrants, potentially leaving the island unsecured; many officers worked throughout the two days needed to sort the migrants into groups, without adequate rest and nourishment. At the same time that this was going on, in Iraklio (the biggest city in Crete), a people-smuggler's ring was broken.

It is believed that the group consisted of mainly Egyptians (approximately 2/3), who will face deportation, while a large number of Syrians (not the complete remaining third) will not, as they are considered possible victims of a warzone, therefore, they may apply for political asylum. 6 smugglers were identified among them.

People who try to enter a country illegally are also organised in their own way, to meet their own demands. Three days after arriving in Hania, the Egyptians in the group decide to go on a hunger strike because they face the threat of deportation, also refusing to sign documents that stated their undefined status. The hunger strike did not last long, but the Egyptians continue to be held at EMEX, while the Syrians were given a document stating that they have 6 months to leave the country if their status remains undetermined.

Some of the more vulnerable Syrians were then removed from EMEX and taken to a hotel in the town, where they were allowed to stay until Monday (ie a week after their arrival); the others were looked after by the Rosa Nera squat (another strongly rooted left-wing organisation in Hania). No provision was made for the food needs of those who were dismissed from EMEX. It's cold and wet at the moment in Hania - where do these people go once they leave the hotel?! But that is not the worst of it: these people can apply for refugee status only in Athens, not Hania... but they are not allowed to travel to Athens as people of undetermined status, because Athens (together with the regions of Kerkira because it close to Albania, Thesprotia because it neighbours Kerkira, and Axaia because of the port area in Patras) is considered a Greek 'departure gate' - therefore, they may not go there because they may attempt to enter another country illegally... and Northern Europe doesn't want any more illegals in their countries... which are often blamed on Greece's incapability of dealing with issue... which is why Greece wants to pull out of the Dublin treaties (which state that illegal arrivals in the EU must be returned to the EU country where they first entered the EU... which is more often than not Spain, Italy and Greece).

And the icing on the cake: if these arrivals apply for refugee status in Greece, they will not be able to go to another EU country until they are given that status, which they may not get from the Greek authorities, and even if they do eventually get it, it will take years - Greece is often slammed for not dealing with this issue very quickly, and for not issuing such a status to most of the applicants. This also applies to other EU countries, as well as non-EU countries - no country hands out refugee status that easily. The paradox in the present situation is that it is highly unlikely that any of the boat people actually want to stay in Greece: they want to go elsewhere (their most likely destination while on that leaky boat was in fact Italy). There is a more pressing need right now: their status in Greece needs to be determined. Right now, they basically have a kind of non-status... leaving them, for all intents and purposes... trapped.

Boat people were rare in Greece before the barbed wire wall was put up between Turkey and Greece, which effectively stopped illegals arriving in Greece on foot. Some drowned in the freezing Evros river, but the wall basically meant that the only entry point to the Promised Land (aka the EU) was by sea. So the recent arrivals in Hania are effectively trapped here, and will be illegal residents in 6 months' time, unless they are offered another solution.

I wondered what would happen to these people after Monday when their hotel stay expires. I am pretty sure that these people will not be sleeping on the streets of Hania during that time, as their food and accommodation needs will be met somehow. In fact, this is what happened: churches, schools and local bodies collected clothing and food, while their hotel stay was extended: another two overnight stays will be paid for by the local authorities. (NB: the state said it could only afford to pay for one night.) In the meantime, the Egyptians seem to have disappeared overnight - no doubt, they were transferred to a holding centre in Iraklio, where they would eventually be boarded on the overnight ferry boat to Athens, from where they will eventually be deported.

PAIDIA
Photo of two Syrian children: from http://www.haniotika-nea.gr/fotografia-tis-imeras-121/
The number of minors on board that leaky boat was estimated at 107 - a huge number given that there were 345 people in total. Just 5 were from Syria and the other 102 were Egyptian. For the time being, they will not be deported: instead, they will be taken to various holding centres for minors in Athens, Thessaloniki and Crete. The accounts of members of the local authorities that are directly involved in the case are enlightening:
"... you try to find relatives of the first or second degree living legally in Europe, who want to get their children back to have a family reunion. The children from Syria have some relatives living legally in Germany and are likely to go there. The procedures may last for 1-2 months, but eventually the children will go where they want..."
"...Two shocking facts that I will never forget during these eight days in the holding center for the immigrants are: A boy from Egypt, who asked me anxiously if, at the guest house where he will be hosted, he will be able to go to school, because that was his dream. And all five children from Syria, on opening their suitcase, pulled out of it, not games, but the Syrian flag, which they hoisted..."
"... We hope to stop this tragedy... And we become better as individuals and as a state, we cannot close our eyes to them and sweep these problems under the carpet..." http://www.haniotika-nea.gr/telos-stin-peripetia-ton-anilikon-prosfigon/
From these accounts, it is clear that most of the local people want to see these arrivals being helped in some way... but most people cannot provide the help themselves. The above newspaper report shows both feelings of solidarity towards these people's plight, and the typical lackadaisical nature of Greek decision-making. 339 unexpected strangers needing hospitality is a lot to handle in one go. It's not easy to take them into our homes and it's not easy to feed them either. Above all, it is not the job of an individual, whether a person or a private organisation: it's the job of the state, as dictated by international laws.

As an example of what I am trying to say, I will use the provision of meals to illustrate my point. My workplace (MAICh, which was also involved in the provision of meals for the boat people) will be staging a dinner during Holy Week (next week) as an act of solidarity towards vulnerable social groups in Hania. This move is symbolic - many of our students are from the general areas of the countries where the recent arrivals are from. Naturally, the institute would want to keep its doors open to vulnerable groups on all days of the year, not just on festive days, and not as a one-off occasion. This comes at a time when the institute has had its state funding cut, and it faces its own financing dilemmas. But at the same time, it has expressed that it is open to collaborations with other organizations of the city.

This may all sound as though it goes against the principle of Greek hospitality, but it also goes against the international laws often created by countries who make war (in both the literal and figurative sense), leaving refugees in other countries, who are then distributed among yet other countries that are not necessarily well equipped to look after the needs of their own people, let alone strangers. The countries that have the luxury of distance, and therefore do not have to deal in any way with the immediate problems of these unfortunate people, are no better in the way they handle them: the so-called developed nations of the world do not accept so many refugees as may be believed by refugees themselves, nor are those countires in a rush to change their laws so that they can accept more. Take New Zealand for example: it accepts 700 refugees per year - that's a couple of boat loads of the size that arrived overnight in Hania last week. As I write this, an unconfirmed sighting of yet another boat in Greek waters is being checked, this time near the island of Kithira - that's not far from Crete...

I will end this post with a quote from Athens - The Truth" by David Cade:
‘Do you think we are racists?’ I (David Cade) say I’ve no idea, that I’d just like to know what she (a Greek psychologist) thinks. She replies that there are two definitions of racism: one that belongs to countries like the United States, the UK, and France, and one that is more general and appropriate for countries like Greece and Italy. Greece, she reminds me, is not like Britain, France, Spain, and other countries which have gone out all over the globe in recent centuries and conquered and colonised other lands. In her opinion, Greece’s problem is that as a member of the EU it’s being forced to wrestle with a definition that is only appropriate to countries where racism describes the treating of members of an invited resident race as inferior. But this definition can’t be applied in a country where immigrants arrive uninvited and unwanted. Greeks, Chryssoúla says, can’t be described as racist because they really don’t think of immigrants as being inferior. She reminds me that Greece is famed for its traditional philoxenía, its hospitality or, literally, its love of strangers, and she tells me many Greeks have given much help to immigrants, particularly by providing food and clothing when they turn up on the islands. And, indeed, I’ve witnessed several Greek restaurant owners giving food free to immigrants who simply stop and ask for it. So Greeks are well-disposed to visitors but draw the line at those people seeking to populate their country without permission or invitation. ‘To your country,’ she says, meaning the UK, ‘your government invited many people from India, from Uganda, and the Caribbean. To invite them and then to treat them badly, now that is racism! But to not invite immigrants and to not wish that they force themselves upon your country, that cannot be called racism!"
Just a thought. I think my country and her people are doing what ever they can for these people. And now, it's time the countries that created the status of these people also pulled their weight. It is heartening to know that, despite Helena Smith's sensationally headlined article being placed prominently on the Guardian website when it was first published, of the 1269 comments made on the article, the overwhelmingly majority are pro-Greece. As a commentator pointed out:
"It is sensationalist and shameful to be writing such articles, demonising a country, as if all of us, here in the UK and throughout the EU have nothing to do with it! Move the UK where Greece is, geographically, and then tell me how it feels like to be inundated by the world's most desperate people from every border, at the same time as the majority of your people is descending deeper in poverty and misery."
UPDATE 11/4/2014 - This report appeared in today's Haniotika Nea:
"The Syrian immigrants who are still being hosted at a hotel in Nea Hora (a suburb of Hania) are asking for help to leave Greece to go to European countries where they have relatives and the laws are more friendly to refugees. Speaking briefly before the local media, the migrants thanked all the Greeks who stood by them during their stay in Hania but also indicated that they had meant to go to neighboring Italy, and from there to other European cities. Among the Syrians are many children and minors with their parents who traveled to escape the flames of war."

If anyone thinks that Greece should be wasting her resources ascertaining the status of these people who don't want to stay here, they are completely deluded.
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Monday, 7 April 2014

Ntounias (Ντουνιάς)

Ntounias is located in the little mountain village of Drakonas, about 25 kilometres out of Hania. You can only get there slowly because the narrow road leading to the village is full of bends and curves.


Drakona has had a new lease of life due to Stelios Trilirakis' initiative: he has created a seasonal menu of slow-cooked dishes, all based on local produce that he grows/raises himself in the area of the restaurant.

When you slow-cook family meals on a daily basis from scratch, you tend to view the process as second nature. I'd heard much about Ntounias' slow-food taverna, but given that I am a slow-food cook myself, I was a little slow to get there.

I'm not easily impressed by food places because I am a highly creative locavore myself, but I have to admit that at Ntounias, I met my match: it is the first time I have ever eaten at a restaurant where the meals do not follow standard recipes, there are more vegetarian meals being served than meat-based dishes, and the same meal will taste different due to the seasonal variations of the ingredients used.
Broad beans (faba beans) cooked in their pods are a Cretan particular. Stelios was particularly impressed on seeing my children eating this dish - adults often warn their children against eating broad beans out of the fear that it may be harmful to their health (due to the enzyme deficiency associated with broad beans). 
In a similar fashion to what famous novelists say about the books they write - that they are the kind of books they themselves would like to read - Stelios cooks the kind of food that he wants to feed to his family on a daily basis.
Braised broccoli and califlower with xinohondro (wheat-and-milk rusk added to meat and vegetable stews for extra flavour).
When you arrive at Ntounias, you will notice two clay wood-fired 'parasia' cooking away unattended. One usually has a terracotta pot on it, and the other has a frying pan full of chipped potatoes sizzling away.
We've been to Ntounias twice. In mid-February, it was fine and very sunny. On our second visit last Sunday, it was raining. 
It may look like a gimmick, but when you enter the restaurant, you will find that there are no gimmicks. A simple setup of tables and chairs fills the indoor seating area. When the shop is full, outdoor seating is set up, usually by the diners themselves. There is also an outdoor seating area set on a rise, but that is clearly for good weather use - I will get a chance to try it out in warmer weather.
White has many shades - goose egg (a present from Stelios). 
At Ntounias, you won't find the classic plastic-lined paper tablecloth that most tavernas in Greece use. Unironed white tablecloths are set upon shabby-chic pink table coverings, laid with cutlery and crockery that do not match. It feels like home to me - the vinyl table covering was disposed of long ago, and I hate ironing, doing as little of it as I can possibly get away with.
Lahanodolmades - rice parcels served with yoghurt. 
Stelios is the head cook and head waiter, much like the cook in most Greek homes. By reciting the menu to all his customers - there is no menu card of any form, - he gets to personally greet and chat with every single customer, even when the shop is full.
Another Cretan particular - koilidakia, tripe and intestines stew, usually served at Easter. 
If Stelios' descriptions are not enough for you, you can enter the tiny steaming wood-fired cooking area to see the dishes Stelios and his team worked on for the day. You just open the terracotta pots and check the contents.
Left to right: Lahanopita (cabbage pie) - Spanakopita (spinach pie) - Kreatotourta (meat pie).

All the meals are slow-cooked and kept warm in their terracotta pots, which means that grilled or microwaved meals do not exist at Ntounias. Filo pastry is rolled out in rudimentary form, bread is baked in oblong shapes, wine comes straight out of the barrel.
Stelios makes his own wine...
Food that is cooked very slowly should be eaten very slowly; each dish that you order is bought out one by one, so that you can savour its magic individually, giving equal time to each meal. If you find it difficult to choose which meals you wish to savour, you can have half-servings instead.
... and his own bread.
Well-cooked decent food should not be a privilege reserved for just a few. It should be available to anyone who wants it, as long as they are willing to spend the time needed to produce/prepare it.
We joked with Stelios that we would be willing to fry potatoes for him all day long as long as we can have as many as we want to eat. He told us that he wouldn't have a problem with that if we were willing to dig them out of the earth first.
Ntounias is very well-priced, and you get more than just a meal; the drive from Hania to Drakonas follows a scenic route, you will meet many animals on the way (you really need to drive slowly), it is one of the main wine-producing regions of Hania (you will pass many grapevines), and there are two different roads to get you to the same destination (either via Mournies-Panayia-Gerolakkos or Fournes-Meskla-Zourva), allowing you to cover a large area during a single trip.
Ntounias is open every day except Tuesday. Booking (by phone) is not essential, but if you don't get there early, you may not find a seat unless you set up your own table yourself. For more photos, check out my facebook album

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Saturday, 5 April 2014

Friends

Last weekend, I decided to look through my facebok page to see if I should delete some names, as a sort of tidying up. My facebook friends' list has 465 names. It's quite a lot of people to 'know', so a clearance is sometimes necessary in order to be sure that have given the \right' people access to your updates. I was surprised - and very pleased - to discover that, in fact, I do have some kind of meaningful relationship with all these people. Apart from the people I physically know, my friends list is based mainly on my real-world work and my virtual-world blog environments. So in the end, I only needed to delete three names:
- someone who had two identities (with the same photo and a similar list of common friends between us)
- someone who I remember I friended completely by accident (by clicking the 'request friendship' button), and
- someone who I had no one and nothing in common with (so I don't really know how and why I friended them in the first place). 

I suppose the list reflects the way I make friends in real life: I don't have many friends, and I don't interact with all my friends all the time, but as a teacher of graduate students, I maintain contact with a lot of people. Since I have also made my hobbies and interests public, I also meet people involved in similar activities. 

It's really important to know who your friends and contacts are these days because of the way privacy works in the modern web-connected world. In reality, we have little privacy, and what we do have must be created by ourselves. it's something we have to work on to maintain. At the same time, it's really important to have close to you only the people that you know/believe will not work against you in this highly fast-paced world. I am a teacher, I am a blogger, therefore I lead a quite public life. No matter how open you make yourself to others, you still need to keep a check on any negative elements in your life, and work out a way to weed them out; if you don't, they will only serve to blackmail you, turn others against you, and try to bring about your downfall. That's how governments fall too - look no further than the developments this past week in Greece. I'm not about to be fooled by those negative forces. People find conspiracy theories and propaganda so much easier to handle; they really don't learn from the past.

Facebook has developed and matured in many ways, even though the way it works may sometimes annoy us. I'm really glad that my tidy-up didn't require me to hit the delete button many times. I've obviously been working very hard to keep things as tidy as possible. 

I haven't been blogging much lately, but I hope to do so once I'm ready to launch the project. The inspiration for it required the least effort; now it's all perspiration - summer is just round the corner. 

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