Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Λυσιστράτη 2014 (Lysistrata)

My kids love theatre. We go perhaps just once a year, when the travelling theatre groups come to Hania in the summer and perform in each town's open-air theatre, whose layout is of course based on ancient Greek architecture. We prefer to watch the modern renditions of ancient Greek plays, which more often than not make direct references to today's problems plaguing Greek society. It is uncanny the way that the problems of two or three thousand years ago are very similar to our own ones: not enough money, bad statesmen, too much war.

Last night, we went to a performance of Lysistrata (or Lysistrati, as we call it in Greek). The actors were well known names, highly familiar to all Greeks, as they had all starred in TV series that had screened last season. The storyline is based on a strike by Aristophanes, originally performed in classical Athens in 411 BC. It seems that striking is a basic Greek tenet, and ancient Greeks knew the concept quite well, which refutes a hypothesis often postulated by the not-Greeks, who argue that modern Greeks are not derived from ancient Greeks, but are some kind of pot pourri based on their conquerors: such not-Greeks are highly ignorant, but more significantly, they seem to do their best to find a way to 'prove' to the world that the ancient Greek world belongs to the whole world, and constitutes some kind of global heritage, which of course it does, since European civilisation irrefutably started in the Greek world. In other words, it's still all Greek to them.

Getting back to the strike in Aristophanes' 411 BC play, it was staged for similar reasons as strikes are nowadays: to force someone to give you what you want. The women went on a sex strike, staging a sit-in (yeah, that too!) at the Acropolis (the very one ransacked on Elgin's orders), in order to get their menfolk to stop going to war, demanding Peace, which they secure. This is followed by song and dance.

At the end of the show, my children asked to stay on at the theatre in order to see the stars of the show, grab an autograph and get photographed with them. Our Greek actors are such humble people. They have so much sympathy for their fellow compatriots, especially children. After their stunning performance, they stayed as long as it took for everyone who wanted to have their photos taken with them and to sign autographs, smiling throughout the whole period. I snapped photos of the kids with each of the main stars:


Θανάσης Τσαλταμπάσης,


Νάντια Κοντογεώργη,


Αντώνης Λουδάρος,


Καίτη Κωνσταντίνου,

and finally...

Μαρία Καβογιάννη,

When I took the final shot with Μαρία Καβογιάννη - Maria Kavogianni, a thought suddenly occurred to me, that it should have been ME and not just my kids who wanted to be photographed standing next to her. I realised that I should have been the one thanking this woman for the 25 years I have enjoyed watching her on TV comedies. She played the young maid who came from a small village to live in a house of a rich family in the comedy Ντολτσε Βιτα (1995-96). This series was preceded by other comedies in the heyday of private Greek TV, but the actors and the scripts in those early shows (eg Οι Τρεις Χαριτες, Οι Απαράδεκτοι) were too sophisticated for my at-the-time naive knowledge of Greek identity when I first moved here in 1991. I needed a bit more time to adjust to Greek reality before I understood them.

Over the years, Maria Kavogiannis' roles have changed in a similar way to my own life: while I was a young English teacher for young children in a working class neighbourhood of Athens which had suddenly become rich, she was playing the village-girl maid of the rich Athenian business people with very busy sex lives in the comedy series Dolce Vita. Like all of us, she picked up the ways of the rich and modern very quickly, as we were all trying to acclimatise to the 'new Greece' with its seeming shift towards Europeanisation. Just a few years later, she starred in Safe Sex (1999) as the wife of one of the two couples who wanted to spice up their sex life by exchanging partners, but changed her mind at the last minute, as if reminding herself to return to her senses. (Yes, she was in the minority, like most sensible were among the laissez faire Greek world of the past.)

Nowadays, she plays the kind of roles that represent most Greek women: tired mothers trying to hold their family together, as in the crisis-related comedy Πίσω στο Σπίτι which translates to 'Returning home', alluding to the situation many young Greeks find themselves in nowadays: her screen son on that show was Θανάσης Τσαλταμπάσης who was also performing in Lysistrata that night (see the photos above).

I told Maria that she was one of the first actresses whose roles I really liked and could relate to 20-odd years ago when I was still a newish arrival in Greece, and she asked me where I was from. I told her I was born in New Zealand, and she said:
"All the way from New Zealand! And look who brought us together: ancient Greek theatre, uniting the whole world, with the compliments of Lysistrati!" (Lysistrati = lysi-strati = 'army disbander') 

I guess she had the same ideas in her head as I had in my own that night. And we both look so similar: Greek women carrying on doing what we've always been doing, like most other Greek women - working for the family, worrying about our family's future and trying to keep the peace. I may not know much about Maria's family, but I don't think I'm far wrong on this one.

And if you are wondering why the walls behind the actors look so old, it's because they really are old - Hania has the longest continuous and uninterrupted inhabitation of any European city, since 3,500 BC. The walls are over 700 years old, built during the reign of the Venetians.  

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Greek cuisine, Greek identity and the economic crisis: a crisis of taste

A dietitian friend of mine in Germany recently asked me about the relationship between Greek food and the economic crisis. Here is a seminar I presented last year about this very topic. Presenting it again this year has given me a chance to give it a reality check - yes, it still holds true. 

GREEK CUISINE, GREEK IDENTITY and the ECONOMIC CRISIS
Maria Verivaki
English teacher, Food blogger
Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania

ABSTRACT 
Greek cuisine is often associated with concepts such as hospitality, homeliness and tradition, all of which require certain sacrifices, in terms of time and money. It is also seen as an important and defining element of Greek identity. But the economic crisis has affected standard Greek values and the Greek identity is being reshaped as developments change the structure of Greek society. The traditional cuisine associated with Greece cannot remain untouched by this. What changes has Greek cuisine, as related to Greek identity, undergone due to the crisis?
The economic crisis brought this 'new' form of heating - and 'old' form of cooking - into my home.

This paper does not attempt to answer the question directly. Rather, introspective insights will yield partial answers to this issue, using personal experience and knowledge gleaned from various sources, mainly from the Greek national and international press coupled with personal experiences, with particular emphasis on the area of Western Crete, where the author lives and works. The question will remain open, as a recommendation for further research into the topic of Greek identity and how it relates to Greek cuisine.

INTRODUCTION
Greek cuisine is mired in the myths created about it by the nostalgic diaspora, history enthusiasts and sun-seeking tourists. Numerous books have been written about it, acquainting the whole world with the concept of Greek cuisine, while at the same time standardising Greek food in the minds of both those of Hellenic and non-Hellenic heritage. While there are many standard dishes instantly recognisable as Greek food, the basic ingredients and meals that are often ascribed as Greek and known to the non-Greek world represent only a limited range of the full gamut of Greek cuisine. What's more, what is prepared in the Greek home is rarely representative of what is cooked in the tavernas and restaurants for the tourist.

Greek food is glorified in pictures. Sometimes the setting is more important than the food. 

GREEK CUISINE 
The country of Greece is as varied as its cuisine. The north is known for its redolent pita, the south for its great variety of horta, and the islands for their regional specialties originating in their limited supply of ingredients. But what is often presented in restaurants in a country with a booming tourist industry associated with it is a variation of mainly summer specialty dishes such as yemista and horiatiki salata. In Crete, some regional specialties will be added, perhaps boureki and kalitsounia. In the north, these regional specialties will be replaced by the locality's specialties, maybe tirokafteri and some kind of pita. But all Greek eateries will unfailingly mention (for example) tzatziki and moussaka, and these dishes will be presented in such a way that one expects them to be commonly prepared in the average Greek home by the average Greek home cook.
Haniotiko boureki: a very regional dish from Hania

The truth is that Greek cuisine is made up of a regional range of different cuisines, in the same way that a number of regions make up the country. Many of the locally well-known dishes will not necessarily be well-known to Greeks outside the region concerned, nor will they even appear on a tourist restaurant menu. But these specialties are now appearing in high-end Greek restaurants, often in variable forms from those originally found in the home and non-tourist kitchens where they are still commonly prepared. One of the reasons for this is the economic crisis: as Greeks are rediscovering and reshaping their identity, they are digging up and uncovering more basic elements of their culinary history in an attempt to reach beyond the surface of the traditional identity that they have - often mistakenly - become synonymous with.
Bougatsa Iordanis: a local specialty of Hania, different to other forms of bougatsa in Greece.

The Greek diaspora has always played a major role in the global dissemination of Greek cuisine. The diaspora is made up of people of Hellenic origin who congregate in different places around the globe outside Greece. Their regional differences are not accentuated as they relate with each other abroad for the simple reason that they find themselves outside the country - there, they become Greeks, and so does their food. In the diaspora, they are no longer a Cretan, Athenian, Samioti, etc; they are Greek. Their shared Greek experiences are expressed in their shared Greek food.
Sometimes the only Greek element of Greek yoghurt sold abroad under this label is the design of the packaging.

The economic crisis has created a new Hellenic disapora wave - this in turn will have some influence in the dissemination of Greek cuisine and how it is being redefined in global terms, as expressed in the homes of those new immigrants and the food businesses that are operated by them. In the same way that the 1922 crisis in Smyrna reshaped Greek cuisine within the Greek borders, so too are the new Greek migrants likely to redefine Greek cuisine outside the country, in the food that they prepare in their home, the products they import, and the Greek restaurants they operate.

Before looking into Greek cuisine abroad, we need to understand what it is all about in the domestic environment: what Greek cuisine means in the urban/rural context, lifestyle choice, the concept of a Greek product and its promotion, shopping trends, the difference between eating at home and eating out, the influence of unemployment and soup kitchens, the resurgence of gardens, chicken coops and foraging and Greek television food programs.

THE URBAN/RURAL DIVIDE
One of the reasons for the varied range of cuisine that one will come across at any one moment all over Greece is the different landscape that Greeks live in. Mountains and coastlines yield different food in different quantities. This is in antithesis with the urban landscape, particularly that of a densely populated capital city like Athens, which is concreted and does not give people the opportunity to be self-sufficient to any degree. The local seasonal abundance which rural life depends on for its culinary creativity is to be found in the street markets (laiki) of urban Greece where producers and/or their products congregate from all over the country. Hence, urban Greeks conceivably have a greater range of products available to them at any one time compared to the rural Greek.
My home cooked summer meals often depend on what is in the garden. I obviously had access to cucumbers and vine leaves and herbs to make this meal. 

But in an economic crisis, where money is scarce, food choices become limited by what you can afford, which is especially true in a city. The rural Greek household, on the other hand, despite having always been much more limited in terms of the range of products found in the average rural kitchen, will not be greatly affected by an economic crisis. Rural Greek kitchens are supplemented not by a weekly laiki, but by the gardening season. In a crisis, this is hardly likely to change, as people continue to grow a good deal of their own produce, maybe even more than they used to before the crisis as a way of safeguarding their future.
The colours of my local laiki last weekend.
A Greek laiki shopping experience is not complete without one of those clunky wire baskets with wheels. Personally, I prefer the shopper.

Unlike the more technologically advanced nations, Greece has a relatively more balanced urban/rural population, at 60/40. This means that for every 1 person living in the city, there are approximately 2 people working in the countryside, which often involves work that has to do with food production. Compare this figure to the UK's urban/rural population, which stands at 80/20 - each person living in the countryside equates with 4 living in urban areas. In Greece there are more people working with food, compared to other European countries. This factor accentuates the relationship of the Greek people with their culinary heritage. Food is seen not just as a means of survival, but a form of expression, and a regional one at that, as each Greek region produces a variety of distinct products. 

My husband is a keen gardener. 

The different food available in the rural and urban context will naturally give rise to a different kind of cuisine. An urban cook looks for inspiration from the range of products in a store, while the rural cook will look into her garden and base meals around it. An urban cook will also be able to use prepared ingredients while the rural cook may be spending more time processing a product before preparing it for a meal. A possible influence of the economic crisis may be that the finished meal cooked in either kitchen - the rural or the urban - will not necessarily reflect what is traditionally labelled as Greek cuisine: the urban cook will prepare a meal according to her pocket, which may mean cutting corners (eg my pastitsio which contained leftover makaronada mince and much more pasta), whereas the rural cook may prepare a frugal meal using a wide variety of whatever is available in the garden with a less conventional mixture (eg my spanakopites which contain a variety of horta rather than mainly spinach, or adding orange in a salad, like it was added during the war as related to me by my mother-in-law).

LIFESTYLE CHOICE
The modern world has given people the choice to live however they like wherever they like. Whether you live in the city or the countryside, you can eat the same food. Supermarkets, refrigeration and the free market have given Greek people the opportunity to eat all kinds of food that even their parents may not have dreamed of eating in their youth. These days, most Greek people, wherever they live, are within reach of pre-cooked packaged beetroot available at fresh produce stalls, ready-to-cook refrigerated pizzas and a store (usually a supermarket) that sells Chinese noodles as a standard product. Soya bean meat substitutes are readily available for vegetarians, which is quite a different concept to fasting according to Greek tradition, as is gluten-free food, an unknown concept in Greece until only relatively recently.
My Greek guests like to be surprised by my international cooking. These Chinese dumplings were made using local ingredients, flavoured with Asian sauces.

The freedom to choose what we eat allows us to diverge from tradition and eat in a way that does not reflect our cultural background. Indeed, with the rise in travel, a more conscious attitude towards healthy food (meaning less meat, less fat and less fried food), and the wider availability of products among the range generally regarded as global cuisine has paved the way towards a move away from Greek cuisine. Freedom of choice has also helped working people immensely; when there is no one to do the cooking for you, you can choose between a packet of ready-to-cook spanakorizo or a pizza in the freezer section of the supermarket; pre-cut salads with less conventional leafy greens (eg red lettuce varieties or baby spinach) are now common (and many supermarkets sell imported salads of this sort); and if you don't have the time to make a spanakopita yourself, you can buy ready ones at a range of prices to suit your pocket. The same applies to a dinner party - these days not everyone cooks a traditional Greek meal for their guests (this is mainly done in villages), while having your party catered for, or cooking something less conventional is becoming all the more common.

The economic crisis influences our choices in our freedom to choose what to prepare, cook and eat, whether we are cooking for ourselves or for others. At my own dinner parties, I often prepare Asian specialties like spring rolls using Greek ingredients. At a recent dinner party I attended in Hania, given by a newly-wed couple, we were served ready-to-cook spanakotiropitakia as an hors d'oeuvre, a baked macaroni-bacon-cheese dish for mains, served with a 'fancy' green salad (lettuce with pomegranate and balsamic vinegar). Such meals are cheap/easy to produce, but not essentially 'Greek' in nature. This style of cooking points in the direction that Greeks are tending towards: global cuisine that does not cost too much time or money.

GREEK PRODUCTS
This leads us to a pressing issue in our times: what exactly do we mean when we talk about a Greek food product? Is it a product produced on Greek soil? Can it include a finished product made in Greece with imported ingredients? What about a product with a mixture of origins and/or ingredients? There are many ways to illustrate this concept. I will use three examples: Greek meat, Greek milk and Greek yoghurt.

MEAT: Greek meat is often regarded as meaning the meat from an animal born/raised/killed in Greece. But few people will read the fine-print on the label concerning the origin of the animal. Beef sold in Cretan supermarkets, for instance, is often born in France, where it was raised up to 5 months old, then it is brought into Greece where it continues to be raised, until it is finally slaughtered in Greece. The meat from such animals is sold as Greek meat. The recent horsemeat scandal has heightened awareness against imported meat - but Greek meat is rarely purely Greek anyway and it is more expensive than imported beef.

MILK: Milk has been a contentious economic sore point for many years, since well before the crisis, when a litre of milk was being sold at about the same price as a litre of petrol. After a long campaign (well before the crisis), the average price of a litre of milk decreased. But truly cheap milk in Greece is never of Greek origin; Greek milk consistently continues to be more expensive than imported milk, selling approximately at 1.5 times a higher price. During the crisis, people tend to buy cheaper products. The cheapest milk on the Greek supermarket shelves is consistently not produced in Greece.
Somewhere in the US...

YOGHURT: Greek yoghurt is a high point of discussion all over the world. What is Greek yoghurt? Is it yoghurt made in Greece? Is it yohgurt made with Greek milk? Is it a particular kind of yoghurt? And when can a yoghurt be labelled 'Greek'? We understand that the phrase 'Greek yoghurt' basically means 'strained yoghurt'. In Greece, the most popular brand of strained yoghurt is made with a mixture of milk imported from France and Germany. Labels bearing the phrase 'Greek yoghurt' appear all over the world - they rarely write 'strained yoghurt'; the closest they come to describing what they mean by Greek yoghurt is when they write 'Greek-style yoghurt'.

THE 'GREEK FOOD' CRAZE
The subject of Greek yoghurt leads to the issue of the Greek food craze abroad. Despite the bad reputation of the Greek economy in global terms, we find that Greek cuisine enjoys a record high degree of popularity. Greek food is being recognised in Western countries in ways that it was not considered in the past. This is possibly due to the perceived health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, its high reliance on cooking with olive oil and fresh vegetables, and the taste quality of export-value Greek food products. The economic crisis has partly fuelled this foreign interest because the main export products in Greece are to do with food.
Greeks often sell Greek products packed/prepared in a way that will appeal mainly to foreign buyers, not locals. 

In the scramble for market share, suddenly Greek food is is being exported in all sorts of forms for all sorts of prices. Farmed snails, olive oil in decorative bottle designs, truffles found in Greece, mastich crystals and mastich-flavoured drinks, among others, including some of the more well known products such as wine, honey, feta and olives, coupled with the 'organic' label, are being sold at the high end of the market. Some of these products are not being targetted towards the local market, eg farmed snails and olive oil in decorative bottles; they would be considered by most Greeks as over-priced as well as easily replaced by cheaper and more readily-available products. In terms of the economic crisis, what is the degree to which these enterprises benefited from it? Did they originate in the economic crisis, or were they a natural progression of the Greek food export market? Has food marketing in Greece changed to accommodate a new kind of post-crisis food market or is this Greek food craze a purely foreign export issue? These food-based questions all provide some kind of insight into the Greek identity.

EATING IN vs DINING OUT
Going out for a meal had always been the norm for many Greeks: taverna food was considered quite cheap in the pre-crisis days. But it is now widely reported in the media that Greeks don't eat out much, and a quick glance in the local tavernas will probably confirm that. Beyond the taverna though, we see the cafes full to the brim on most warm days. It's cheaper to go out to a cafe than a taverna, which explains why people choose the latter. So going out is still important in the crisis period in Greece, but the setting has changed. And so has the expenditure. Due to the change in the setting, no doubt the food has changed too.
Souvlaki is the most popular meal out these days - young people are seen crowding round the often very limited outdoor seating areas.

One of the most popular meals out these days is the souvlaki. Souvlaki stores have opened up at very quick rates in the last year or so. Since the economic crisis gripped the country, the price of souvlaki in all forms has gone down, which shows how far the crisis has penetrated: souvlaki is the most popular Greek fast food, and it was generally viewed as the cheapest. Souvlaki is more than just a meal. It makes you feel good, the equivalent of a family 'happy meal', eaten by all age groups, making an outing to a souvlatzidiko the perfect family mid-week jaunt. Going for out a souvlaki is a psychologically uplifting experience, and it is a very democratic meal - there are various choices available, all being sold for roughly the same price.

TV COOKERY PROGRAMS
Greek television is not without its food shows and they remain very popular. We see home cooks showing us how to cook cheaply, gourmet cooks making fancy foreign desserts, modern cooks using labelled ingredients (the infamous philadelphia cheese that goes into anything and everything, from pennes with sausage to stuffed chicken), and homely cooks doing something exciting in the kitchen on the morning shows of the private free-access channels.

If a host of different cooking shows were all playing at the same time on different channels, and you had only one television and no recording facilities, which one would you watch if you felt like watching a TV food show?

* A program that shows you how to cook a well-known traditional Greek dish
* A program that shows how to cook something unusual, not common or creative, eg melitzanopita
* A program that shows how to cook within the spectrum of international cuisine, eg globally well known sweets made by a famous Greek dessert chef
* A program showcasing frugal food, eg a supermarket-sponsored food show featuring easy-to-make meals that don't cost much
* Something showing traditional Greek regional dishes, eg the kind that home cooks in rural regions make, which don't often make it into the cookbooks

Melitzanopita (eggplant pie), made by myself. 

We can watch all these shows on Greek TV. So, how 'Greek' is the food they are cooking? Is it part of the Greek cuisine spectre, or is Greek cuisine veering towards global cuisine trends, where the traditional tried and tested is being replaced by modern global food? Do people cook like this at home, or are they sticking to traditional Greek cookery? Is it cheap to cook like this, or has the crisis affected us in terms of the nationality of the food we prepare at home? Is this an urban trend, or has it also infiltrated the Greek rural kitchen? Is it a special-use cuisine, or do people aspire to cook like this on a regular basis? using a particular brand-name food product, eg mass-produced cheese spread in a pizza?

All the above options are available to Greek TV viewers, and they are popular all over the country, regardless of the landscape.

COST
Price is the most important factor for most people, as exemplified by the Greek Potato Movement, a move to cut the middleman out of the food-buying chain and get products straight from the producer. Surveys have also shown the following trends in Greek consumers:

82% seek specials
80% compare prices
77% prefer Greek products over imports
74% use a shopping list
71% buy only what they need
70% buy the cheaper alternatives
93% have limited their 'eating out'
63% buy less meat
60% buy less fish
51% buy fewer sweets
48% buy less alcohol

UNEMPLOYMENT and SOUP KITCHENS
The consequences of unemployment have led to rapid detrimental effects in the home environment. People find themselves with not enough money to buy quality food. The fact that they are unemployed does not give them the luxury of preparing the slow-cooked traditional Greek meals that they may have been raised on. People are constantly on the move in such a way that they do not necessarily spend so much time at home, even if they are not employed. Suddenly, they find themselves in a new situation, one that has often been referred to as reverting to past habits.
This meal was served in a soup kitchen in Hania. 

There is the preponderance of the home garden, which has always been an effective way to save money. Convenience food is also being sought in discount supermarkets, as a way to keep the food budget of a household down. People are always on the lookout for cheap food sources.

Foraging has always been a popular activity in Greece, but it has taken on new proportions during the crisis: there is a certain amount of 'foraging' going on which is not always legal (people may be trespassing onto fields that are not theirs to harvest procuts). For those who live in urban environments, food parcels and various handouts by non-profit organisations are commonly organised. And we have probably all been witness to the sight of people searching in rubbish bins. These people are often looking for something useful in them, which usually means something to eat. Soup kitchens are now found even in places where food insecurity was never an issue in the past, together with community grocery stores and community gardens. Solidarity against hunger is being shown in various forms all over the country.

CONCLUSION
As Greeks, we all share a common concept of what constitutes Greek food, but we are Western Europeans at heart and our food and lifestyle choices reflect this. The economic crisis has westernised us even more. Despite having less money, we all still eat - we are not starving.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Explanations (Εξηγήσεις)

Here's a lovely make-you-feel-good story about the continuous mysteriousness of Greece, which foreigners often find that they cannot discover until they talk with a real Greek. 

They didn't care which cafe they went to. It was obvious by the way they looked around them, checking which seats were not taken. They cared more for the position of the chair they would be sitting in. It was only 11.30 in the morning, and most of the good seats had already been taken. In fact, most of the cafes were doing well already, some more than others. They picked the first table they found that bordered the footpath, which in turn bordered the coastline.

They settled their shopping bags on the empty chairs next to them. These chairs would remain empty as long as all the tables had been taken. Each παρέα takes up one table, and one παρέα does not sit with another. Communal seating - it's for other places, not the cafes of Greece. Every now and then, they became the spectators of a wave splashing onto the breakwater, sprinkling its spray over their heads. The women both revelled in delight whenever that happened. They showed no inhibitions, expressing their joy loudly, vividly, as if it were the first time, every time.

Freddo with frothy milk (left), and frappe with no milk (right).
For the kafeneio clutch bag, check out The Greek Collection

The waitress came and took their orders. In the meantime, they chatted animatedly. They seemed to have a lot to say to each other. They spoke Greek. Then they spoke English. Then Greek again. Their colonial English accents were that of a native speaker's. But their dark hair and olive skin attested to their Greek heritage. They were gliding effortlessly in and out of their two worlds.

*** *** ***
David and Susan had been in Crete for three months. Their initials thoughts were to pass through the island during their round-the-world trip while David was on sabbatical. They had 'done' Asia, spending a little longer in Thailand than they had planned, due to the relaxed lifestyle that they had experienced there, but the language problems made them decide to move on. When they had first arrived in Hania at Easter, they thought they would be passing through this town, as they had passed through so many picturesque places along their journey. In other words, they would whiff in the atmosphere before moving on for another atmospheric experience. But something in Hania made them decide to stay on. And this time, there was no language barrier - everyone seemed to understand and speak English, even in rudimentary form.

At first, the Venetian harbour seemed so alluring, with its promenade and strollers, and the beautiful sunset with the lighthouse as a backdrop. But an exploration of the area over time led them to the much quieter Koum Kapi, with its fewer tourists and vast number of locals. Koum Kapi exuded the authentic taste of the area. Here, they were not confronted by gaudy tourists sipping cocktails with sparklies and eating damp-looking pizza by the waterfront. Here, they could watch the locals eating and drinking things that looked so very appetising, things that they would like to have tasted themselves, but whose names they did not know, which is what stopped them from ordering them.

David and Susan had each ordered a beer, which came to the table together with two other tall glasses filled with drinks in different shades of chocolate. As the waitress lowered their orders onto their table, their eyes remained transfixed on the other glasses on her tray, the ones with the unknown liquids. The waiter then turned around and placed those glasses on the table next to them, where they two women were sitting.

*** *** ***
"Wonder what they are," Susan whispered, although it wasn't quite necessary to whisper. Despite the close proximity of the tables and the general noise levels of people chattering, street sellers hawking, and seagulls crying, everyone seemed to be able to communicate among their own little group with some level of privacy. The glasses on the two women's table looked icy cold, perfectly pairing with the warmth of the sun. Every now and then, Susan found it necessary to move her chair to avoid the heat.

"They speak English," David said, dropping a hint to Susan. He was hoping that she would do the asking, as he felt that he was intruding in the women's privacy, although this feeling also seemed somewhat incorrect to him - the women's linguistic abilities attested to their knowledge of his own culture.

"Ask them," said Susan, which seemed perfectly logically to her, as David was sitting closer to the women.

David felt obliged to oblige. "Excuse me,..." he said quietly, not wishing to disrupt their peace. The women both turned their faces towards his, and looked at him seriously.

"I was wondering what the name of your drinks are."

The women's faces immediately melted into smiles of surprise, and they began talking together.

"Oh, this is a frappe,... a frappe coffee," said the paler-faced woman with the curly hair.

"And mine is a freddo, it's made with hot espresso that's cooled down with ice cubes," said the woman who was wearing glasses.

"The frappe is the Greek classic summer coffee, most people drink it, everyone knows it well."

David and Susan smiled apologetically. They had indeed seen this coffee appearing almost everywhere in the Greeker part of the town. Since they started coming to Koum Kapi for their monring coffee, they had noticed the difference in what was being served, compared to the Venetian harbour on the western side of the seafront.

"Thank you..., so it's frapay, you said?" David felt confused - both women had used words starting with the same letter. The women then went on to explain the different kinds of iced coffees to them (frappe, freddo, freddoccino), pronouncing each name clearly for them to hear it and to comprehend it well. They told them about how to ask for the correct amount of sugar, and if milk is to be added. The many different iced coffee choices in Greece gave all those iced glasses floating around them a different chocolate-coloured hue. Without these explanations offered by the women, they could not have worked out the difference.

But it was more than just the coffee that mesmerised Susan and David. These women were clearly Greek. Yet, their accents were clearly not Greek. As they wondered about the origins of these women and how they came to be sitting next to them, the woman wearing the glasses offered another explanation, as if she could detect their confusion.

"We're from New Zealand, our parents emigrated there, and we eventually returned to Greece. That's why we have a Kiwi accent. I suppose you're here on holiday." David explained the situation with his sabbatical, and how they had been in Hania for three months.

"And you didn't know what frappe was?" asked the woman with the curly hair looking slightly bemused. "I didn't realise frappe in Greece could still be such a secret!" David felt that tinge of embarrassment when a person shows their ignorance of a basic fact.

"I'm glad you asked us about it," said the other woman. "You'd have never found out if you hadn't asked us! Imagine being here for so long and not indulging in one of these!"

And that's what everyone visiting another country should do if they want the full authentic experience: just ask. Greeks don't charge for explanations, and they are some of the most forgiving people in the world. 

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Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Greek Collection: The baoulo (Το μπαούλο)

The project is well underway: come and join me at The Greek Collection.
UPDATE Wednesday, July 9, 2014: Scroll down to the end of the post.

Every now and then, I like to go through my cupboards to get rid of things I no longer use or don't want to keep. Now that the children have grown up a little, and they don't grow out of their clothes so quickly, I don't do this too often. Even so, when I do do it, I also tend to avoid certain cupboards, with the excuse that even though I never use the things in those cupboards - which coincidentally the original owner of those things never did either - I simply can't throw them away for sentimental reasons.

Some time last February, I once again opened up one of those cupboards and stared at its contents. A sense of grief came over me, as I thought about my mother who had toiled many hours in the mountain village where her home was located, making these hand-woven things: sheets, tablecloths, table runners (that is what they looked like to me - they were in fact body towels), pillow cases, aprons, tea towels, blankets, rugs, fabric for making other household items, and many other fabrics, all of which she had made herself on a traditional Cretan wooden loom, called 'argalio' (αργαλειό).
Αργαλειός νομός Ηράκλειου
A typical weaving loom in Crete. There is great interest in the argalio nowadays as part of popular history and culture, and it is still used in traditional fabric art, as a tourist attraction and in making souvenirs. From my reading, I ascertain that my mother's generation was the last to use the argalio for making their household linen needs, as they are the ones that did not actually use them int he way they were intended. But the truth is that to a large extent, most women of my mother's generation used the argalio for the purposes of preparing their dowry box, as Evdoxia Epitropaki explains: «I made all my dowry requirements with the weaving loom that my grandmother and mother used and I have kept them stored in my baoulo. The only thing I didn't make was curtains. I made everything else... Do not forget that at that time there was nothing ready-made.»

All these items, once made, were folded away and placed in a large storage trunk, called a 'baoulo' (μπαούλο - a dowry box in essence), in readiness for the day when my mother would set up her own home and she would need these things. Her two younger sisters did the same; each one had their own baoulo. At the age of 30, my mother left Greece, leaving these items behind in the baoulo, in the company of mothballs. Her first home in New Zealand was a dormitory in a rural town called Fielding, where she worked at the Fielding Agricultural High School. She arrived 'with half a suitcase', a common saying among early Greek immigrants, describing their arrival in a country of the New World with a handful of belongings; it often makes reference to the pride they feel about how, despite their very poor background and humble beginnings, they settled into a new country and became wealthy, now owning so many things that they would need more than one suitcase to pack them all into (something like a shipping container would be more appropriate).

I have kept my mother's baoulo - it now stores our Christmas tree and decorations.
The baoulo was lined with this design. It was clearly intended for use as a dowry box. 
It was painted brown, with a blue design on the top.
(On the state of the basement - it's a man's world: my husband stores his garden tools in it.

Nearly two years after her arrival to Fielding, my mother left for Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, seeking the company of other Greeks. The Greek community of Wellington was by then well established as the largest Greek community in 1960s New Zealand. Through the community, my mother met the people (who eventually became my godparents) who eventually introduced her to her future husband, my father. As she prepared for marriage, her mother wrote to her, asking my mother what she would like to be sent to her from her baoulo. I remember my mother telling me about this, something along the following lines:
"Nothing. I don't need any of that stuff. We have no need for such things here. You can buy everything you need from the shops. And it's all better than that stuff." The last time my mother sighted her 'stuff' was during her last visit to Greece. The fabrics had lived in the baoulo for over three decades.

My mother died shortly after her last visit to Crete. A little while later, her brothers asked me if I would like to take the baoulo to my house, as a way to free up space in their home. The truth was that these items were regarded as inheritance. Since my mother never took them away herself, they were now being passed on to her children. I remember my uncle bringing the whole baoulo to my first home in Hania using his pick-up truck. He helped me to place the baoulo in the spare room. I thanked him for his help, and after he left, I went through the magical experience of opening up the baoulo. I felt like a pirate going through his loot. Although I did not find any treasure in the baoulo, I found myself unlocking the secrets of my mother's past.

(To be continued.)

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UPDATE Wednesday, July 9, 2014, morning:
   After choosing a web platform to support my new website, and spending many uncounted hours working on it all by myself, using all the free blog-building material available, I had the pleasure of introducing it last week to facebook friends, in order to get some feedback on it, and to see how I might improve it before I am ready to launch it officially.
   Not even a week passed, and the platform suffered some kind of DDoS attack, with the result that when somebody tries to load my site, they will first get a message on their browser saying something to the likes of "This webpage is not available". The website is in fact available if you simply reload the site. 
But that isn't a way to do business in 2014, is it? So in reality, I actually don't have a website that is operational - I realised this by the massive drop in hits on my statistics counter. The problem is ongoing, and has not been resolved, despite assurances by the web platform (others are also having problems).    I guess these glitches do get ironed out in the end, but I feel utterly demoralised with the thought that I am actually going to have to start building another website as a back-up all over again, on something that is perhaps more 'sure' but less 'dynamic' (the blogger platform), and I will have to maintain so many sites on my own. 
   I know I am a very hard worker, juggling rather a lot on my own with little help from others, and I can face up to these issues, but eventually I will get tired - I already am! I feel as though I have discovered how big fish eat little fish and get them out of the way. Or does everything iron out once you begin the 'oiling' process, which in Greece is known as 'fakelaki', whereas in web platforms, it's called 'upgrade your site', 'subscription', etc. I guess I am feeling frustrated as well as as tired... 

UPDATE afternoon:
I dislike complaining too much, but I am glad I did. The server gave me individual attention, and fixed the issue from their side. Patience is a virtue I know, but I am also glad that I now have an operational site. YAY!

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Sunday, 29 June 2014

California dreamin'

I was in Iraklio yesterday, close to the area of the Olympic stadium, built for the use of the Olympic Games held in Athens in 2004. Although the area doesn't show the same signs of disuse and neglect that the OAKA facilities show, it reinforces aspects of Greek identity in similar ways. The stadiums have a bigness to them that never boded well with small Greece, and the modernisation that took place in both of the surrounding areas was never really appropriate for the Greeks: no matter how much they seem to embrace modern trends, there will be some aspects of modernism that they will not be entralled with. This is the reason why these facilities look so neglected these days: they never really suited the Greek lifestyle.

My son was involved in a fencing tournament yesterday, which was held, not at the Pan-Cretan (Olympic) Satdium of Iraklio (shown below)...

... but right next door, at the LIDO, a small cosy gymansium built in just the right size for local use. The stadium was also in use ont he same day, and although fencing tournaments do take place in the Athens Olympic facilities (OAKA), the site today was seen as more appropriate: as the coach explained, if you live in a rented property of 80 square metres, and you are suddenly gifted a 2000 square metre space, at first you will be excited, but later you will realise that you prefer to live in the rented property rather than maintain such a big amount of space...

In the area of the Pan-Cretan Stadium, the roads have been done up to look like ... something like 'boulevards' and 'avenues', things I've seen in photos of places like 'California' and 'Miami', places that have names to the likes of 'Sunset Boulevard'.

Yes, it looks sleek and chic in many ways... but the rate of upkeep, and the fact that much of the land around this area is still in private hands, hasn't helped the general area maintain this sleek chic apperance.

Greeks don't prefer lifeless soulless places for their leisure activities. They will congregate in the dingiest looking places where there are many other like-minded people.

So places like parks and bicycle tracks and outdoor seating and wildlife and coastal roads will not attract people ... unless people are already installed there.
I was in the area in the morning, so this place was empty - by the end of the day, before my trip to Iraklio was over, the place was buzzing with life. 
Where there is a modern-style stadium, there is a modern-style shopping centre. In Athens it's called the Mall; in Iraklio it's called Talos. In the morning, the place looked quite empty because Greeks don't hang around at the mall all day long: the mall is for certain times. This quiet moment gave me and my daughter a chance to savour a little peace before we joined her brother at the fencing tournament.

Talos does not contain any traditional-style stores or eateries - they are all brand label type places. I let my daughter choose where to sit. Flocafe and Starbucks were side-by-side - she chose Flocafe. AS it was a special day, I let her choose what she wanted to have: I chose an iced chocolate (full of fat and sugar), and she chose a waffle with ice-cream (full of fat and sugar). If you eat like that most of the time, well, we all know what happens to you (obesity is oft discussed on the news these days in Western mass media - not so much at all int eh Greek media, though).

We did some shopping at Peacocks  and OVS, two brands we don't have in Hania, and then walked back to the stadium (oh yes, we walk everywhere in Iraklio, much to the surprise of my friends - my whole family knows why we walk everywhere) where we were just in time for my son's games. He is a very good fencer... and we knew he'd win first prize among the dozen kids participating in his age group... but his goals were not to win gold (he knew he could do that easily), nor was it to play well (he has been doing this already). His goal was to play the best that he has ever played. In a sense, he did this, because he didn't lose any of the rounds he played in. But his opponents still managed to score hits against him, something that made him realise that there is great room for improvement. (He told me about this at the end of the tournament. I liked that. It's called maturity.)

For a treat, I took him back to Talos to buy him some new clothes, and then I let him choose the place we would have our celebration lunch. (He hadn't eaten since breakfast, and we got to the shopping centre after 6.30pm.) Talos was slowly filling up. The cafe tables which were empty in the morning were now buzzing with human activity. Again, people weren't 'hanging around' at the mall - they were hanging around with each other. Greeks are very very social. If their friends were hanging around elsewhere, they'd flock there, not at the mall.

My son chose a place called Yankees. Its name gives us an idea about what kind of food it may be serving. If the name and decor isn't enough, the menu makes it obvious.

Modern food for modern people...
Chicago, Ribs, Antiburger - total cost: €32 with 3 soft drinks and a bottle of water. 
... but only in the right company, which is still dictated by tradition, and tradition says 'people above places'. But even if we were to place some importance on the actual site, the view of Mount Juktas with its face of sleeping Zeus made perfect sense to us, as we found ourselves not too far away from the birthplace and final resting place of Zeus.

Mt. Juktas, as seen from the city of Iraklio, yesterday. Legend says it is the face of Zeus.

The Greek world always led with a radiance of its own, quite unmatched and never able to copied anywhere else by anyone. This will be the key to survival in a competitive world.

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