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Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Watermelon and feta (Καρπούζι και φέτα)

(This post is based on a short story which was originally written 25 years ago, published in the Evening Post, the former evening newspaper of Wellington, New Zealand, and awarded a prize of 20 dollars.)

When I was eight years old, I went on a family holiday to Greece for the first time in my life. In fact, it turned out to be the only time I came to Greece on holiday, because my next visit turned Greece into my new home, making New Zealand, the country of my birth a holiday destination. I'll never forget the day we left Wellington Airport. It was sodden with rain; autumn had set in for good. We were seen off at the airport by relatives, who asked us not to forget to visit their relatives in Greece. We were given big black umbrellas, the old-fashioned kind that men often carried in Wellington when walking to work in fear of a downpour. We walked across the tarmac to the plane, while the rain beat down like a drum on the umbrella. The tall slim Air New Zealand flight attendants accompanied me and my sister all the way up the staircase of the plane, while my mother dragged my father to it; being claustrophobic, he had last minute jitters about being cooped up in an enclosed space. We were completely oblivious to what was happening; this was the first time we had set foot in a plane. It was the first time we had left the place where we were born.

We both wore white strap-up sandals and an orange pants-and-vest suit which our mother had made for us. She made practically all our clothes, using Simplicity and Patons patterns which she bought from Woolworths and McKenzies. We were also wearing our sheepskin coats, in accordance with the fashion tastes of our mother who believed in complete Sunday best outfits, even though we were wearing sandals: there was no more space in our luggage for a second pair of shoes because there were more sheepskins in the suitcases for our relatives. When we arrived in Australia, we asked her if we could throw them away, because the weather started to get hot, and it would keep getting hotter as we made our way across three continents.

The flights could only be described as frightening by today's standards. The overhead luggage space was made in the same way as in long-distance train carriages or coaches: they were open, and anything could fall out whenever the aeroplane encountered turbulence, which it did frequently - we used a couple of vomit bags each per journey. I last entered a plane like this at the Duxford Air Museum in England; it brought back memories of travel in the days when flights were expensive and regarded as a luxury. There were many stops on the way, with people getting on and off the plane. It really felt like a modern train journey. There was even on-board entertainment: the films shown were interesting from what I remember, but you had to pay for the earphones. We got some building blocks to play with, but the flights were long, and boredom soon set in.

We left New Zealand on Saturday, the 6th of April, 1974, and arrived in Greece on Saturday, the 6th of April, 1974, even though we'd been travelling for nearly 48 hours. We had truly lost no time, all the more to help us catch up with the relatives, and in our case, we had to start right from the time we were born since no one knew us at all, except from the odd photo in a letter that took a fortnight to get to them. We had never talked on the phone to any of our Greek relatives, as they were still using party lines and rarely had phones installed in their own homes. Some uncles were at the airport to meet us. My sister and I had great fun with an amusement centre at the airport - automatic sliding doors and luggage trolleys. No one paid any attention to us; they were busy trying to catch up on nearly a decade of lost relations.

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We spent half of our four month stay in Athens and the other half in Hania. My sister and I became known as 'the tourists'. Every time we entered the local kafeneio in Kirtomado, everyone sitting in it would ask us if the tourists wanted to hear some English music on the juke-box. The baker in Athens always greeted us in his best English accented 'hello'. When the Battle of Crete celebrations in May took place in Galatas, we were sent for to speak with the New Zealand visitors who had come for the commemorations. The kafeneio acted as a general groceries supplier, selling all sorts of canned and dry goods, as well as ice-cream, which came in plastic tubs with the pattern of a football on their exterior.

kalamaki 1974

When we stayed with our grandmother, we went to Kalamaki Beach, a downhill walk from Galatas. After a swim, and maybe some lunch in one of the tavernas, we'd start the uphill walk back home. It was always very hot; when the bus passed, we'd flag it down, just like we did the taxis. The driver would stop in middle of the road, open the door and tell us off angrily for not waiting at the bus stop, but he would still let us on. The bus drivers did that to anyone who waved them down; loud angry-sounding conversations were the norm and had to taken lightly.

The nights were always hot. In Athens, people slept on their balconies; in the villages, they slept on the roof. The next day, everyone would talk about who snored the loudest. One of my uncles was upset to find out he was beaten by another uncle. People don't sleep much outdoors any more. There has been a dramatic 180-degree turn of events in this respect, partly due to the air conditioner, despite the thought of catching one's death of cold (through the dreaded psiksi) by sleeping with a cold-air machine turned on all night. The other reason is the knowledge of the fear of the unknown: what we didn't know about in the past, we fear now.

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The bakers were probably the most trustworthy shopkeepers around. We always bought fresh bread every day; all neighbourhoods in Athens and nearly all villages - as is still the case - had at least one bakery. Sometimes, we would find the shop empty. We would take a loaf of bread, open the till, place the money in it and take the appropriate change. The bakers knew what money they had left in the till, they knew how many loaves of bread they had left on the shelf, and they knew who kept bad debts. Some people didn't have ovens in their house, just one element on which to cook all their meals. Sunday roasts were cooked in the baker's oven, early on Sunday morning, in time for the baker and his family to attend the Sunday church service and have lunch at noon. The baker often accepted part of the meal as payment.

I had never seen a whole watermelon before I came to Greece in 1974. In the Tory Street fruit market of Wellington, I had seen only slices of watermelon, sealed in Galdwrap. Here they were sold in the street, literally off the back of a truck. The vendors would chant: "Watermelons with the knife!" which of course didn't mean you got a free knife with each watermelon; peddlers were mistrusted then as much as they still are, and in order to get a good watermelon, the buyer needs to see its red colour and smell its sweetness. I don't hear the knife chant any longer in Hania; I wonder why. Maybe because everyone now uses their car to lug home the 15-kilo monster, and who wants to clear away watermelon juice from the car's lining?

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When you're eight years old, and you've lived in a fenced section of land which you never leave unaccompanied, in a house with hot and cold running water, flush toilets and sliced bread, in a country that doesn't see the sun every day, springtime Greece in the mid-70s seemed like an open-air museum. There was not one moment that I didn't enjoy of the four months that we spent in Greece. We weren't just visiting relatives - we were tourists, with foreign cash in our pockets, cameras dangling off our chests, knowledgeable affluent Westerners, with an acquired sense of innocence developed since leaving the mother country, racing to visit the Acropolis which our relatives had not even been to before we asked them to come with us. Those were the days when the Parthenon was open to everyone to walk through and pick up a piece of rock or a fragment of marble to take home as a souvenir; there was no fencing around the Temple of Athena, as there was when I saw it again nearly two decades later.

Not even the invasion of Northern Cyprus dampened my memories; in fact, the event helped us to stay longer in Greece. As children, we didn't understand the danger that the country was facing. All we knew was that our return flight to New Zealand was cancelled.

(end of part one - part two will be posted on 21 July 2008 in one day in hania)

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When buying a watermelon, the last thing you want to do after lugging it all the way home is to find that you bought an XL cucumber instead. Choosing a watermelon requires a little knowledge about what kind of sound you hear when you rap your fingers against its side. The other way to check its contents is to ask the vendor to make a cut in the watermelon you select to let you see if its contents meet with your approval. The cut of the knife in the peel makes a loud water-filled cracking sound, reminiscent of a bubble gum popping. If you don't hear that sound or see the colour you desire, you certainly don't have to feel obliged to buy what looks like a cucumber when what you want is a watermelon. The onus should be on the shop-keeper.

There is no better fruit with which to enjoy a Cretan summer than a juicy red watermelon, not a yellow or seedless or square one. Gourmet watermelon varieties are not grown here. In Hania, our preference is for watermelon grown in the region of Akrotiri, which just happens to be the place where one of the most strategically based American naval bases in all of Europe is located. Recently, a British nuclear-powered submarine was towed here, after being severely damaged in the Red Sea, to undergo repair work. The nuclear reactor of the 32-year-old vessel was unaffected. No one asked for a referendum on whether it should have been allowed here; in any case, we weren't infromed about its expected arrival until it turned up. A Cretan doesn't say turn away its visitors; I hope the occupants got to eat lots of Akrotiri watermelon.

The trend in modern international cuisine is to make a salad consisting of watermelon and feta cheese, a perfectly good Greek combination. Blue vein cheese can replace the feta, as it is also salty, especially when a red-white-and-blue theme is desired. I personally wouldn't turn this mixture into a salad, as many other food bloggers have done. It may be more aesthetically pleasing, the red fruit gleaming in amongst the crumbs of cheese shaped in little cotton balls, but it takes on a whole different meaning when a dressing is used. Once a watermelon salad is oiled, vinegared, peppered or salted (hardly necessary when using feta or blue-vein cheese), more ingredients are added to it, like arugula and onion, and it loses its palate-cleansing qualities. As Jude states, some ingredients "are perfectly fine on their own. I’m a firm believer in leaving well enough alone." Why pour a dressing over luscious red fruit (such as strawberries, to take another example), when they are full of their own juices? Sometimes it's better just to keep things simple, as Marisa and Nicole did with their watermelon and feta salad.

watermelon feta

On most summer nights, our evening meal consists of watermelon, feta cheese and paximadi rusks, presented as a buffet in their simplest form, enjoyed in the cool evening breeze on the balcony. The watermelon always runs out too quickly.

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