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Saturday, 3 January 2009

Niko's story (Nίκο)

Most people who read Organically Cooked and One Day in Hania will have got to know my town quite well: a well-known tourist destination, packed with foreigners in the summer, with an abundance of agricultural activities in the winter. Many people call it a small paradise. If I were asked to add my 2c-worth, then I would say that it's a good place to stay attuned to nature and raise a family. People are very clan-oriented, and usually stick close to their work colleagues, relatives or fellow villagers. Apart from some materialistic goods that a consumer fanatic might claim not to be able to live without (eg shopping malls and McDonalds 'restaurants'), Hania lacks very little in the way of amenities. What it does lack (eg a well-stocked public library), it more than makes up for by its spectacular scenery; you can take a walk by the sea and find yourself atop a snowy mountain in less than an hour's drive. Maybe you can't eat at an Indian restaurant (you'll have to suffice with Chinese), but Hania is overflowing with the best extra-virgin olive oil in the world.

skidia fournes hania chania
An amazing winter's day in Hania; the snow-peaked mountain range of Lefka Ori above in Skidia, Fournes village.

But life was not always this good for everyone. In fact, it is only in the last 40 years that the people living in the villages of Hania have been able to live in conditions the western world takes for granted. What most of you reading this think of as basic needs - hot and cold running water, electricity, telephone lines, roads, basic transport - were simply a dream, unheard-of luxuries, for most Cretan villagers up until the mid-1970s.
People don't have to be very old in Hania to tell you about how difficult life was in the past. My mother's youngest brother is only 67 years old; he still finds it hard to believe that the world he grew up in has disappeared completely, its traces eradicated with the electricity poles and the cemented road that lead to the village of Kambi (Kambous in the accusative case), located on the foothills of the Lefka Ori (the White Mountains), where my mother's family were born and raised. It was just after Christmas Day when I caught up with him at the kafeneio of the village where he now lives.

He asked me what I would like to drink. Since we were the only customers in the kafeneio, the heating hadn't been turned on. I decided to order a tsikoudia to warm myself up, as it was very cold that day (well, 5 degrees Celsius is very cold for Hania).

"It's really cold today, isn't it, Thio?"

"Cold? You've got no idea what cold is. Kambous is now covered in snow. Down here, it's only cold for a few days, then it fines up again, and it snows once in a blue moon. In any case, no one walks barefoot these days. We never had shoes when we were young, and we had to walk from home to school and back again in the snow, and when the church bell rang after lunch, we walked back to school because school was held BOTH in the morning AND in the afternoon then, not like now, when it's only in the morning, and the kids are playing in the yard most of the time. As soon as school was over, we'd have to go and help our parents in whatever jobs needed doing at the time, be it finding horta, looking for snails, harvesting wheat, or picking olives. Even if we did have homework from school, we couldn't do it, because we only had a piece of chalk and a grey stone slate to write on, not pencils and notebooks, so we only learnt what was taught in the classroom, we couldn't practice writing at home. And even if we did have paper and pencils, we had no light, except the dim glow from what came out of the lichno (lichnos, lichnari, lichnaraki: oil lamp), which we lit with a spiky flower that looks a little like malotira tea, burning in some olive oil...

"The olives? No, we haven't finished collecting them yet. It's been too wet to be spending time in the fields. But there's no rush any more, they can be collected any time, it's just a matter of waiting until the rain goes away. Not like in the old days, when there were no nets to lay on the ground, and the olives simply dropped onto the earth, so you had to pick them up straight from the soil. The trees were left to grow very tall without any pruning, so that they could produce more crop. The olives simply dropped on the ground, and we rummaged among the weeds and the wet earth looking for them. Every single drupe was considered precious then. It was very tiring work, your back was always bent, and your hands were in the dirt the whole time. You had to search among the weeds to pick up whatever you could find, as olives were picked one by one in those days. If there were too many weeds growing in one area, you had to pull them up, just to make sure there were no olives hidden among them. And the olives were always dirty, full of dust and grit and soil, and that's the way they stayed. We stored them in sacks which we kept in the patitiri (the grape press for wine-making), and they stewed in the rain and the sun, until the olive press started operating. That's why the oil that was produced from them was never very good quality olive oil, it was practically rancid, but that's what we had, so that's what we ate. Not like these days, when all you need to do is pick a fine day, take your motorised beater, gather the nets and press your olives the day you harvest them, from the field to the press...

"Olive fields? Oh, we never had fields full of olives then. Only the rich landowners had those. We used to work on other people's fields to earn our keep. In fact, we only owned a few trees ourselves. We had one olive tree outside our house, and another two in a paddock, a few more here and there, then there was another near the graveyard that was left to us by an uncle who had moved to Athens and became a mattress maker. Put altogether, we had enough olive trees to make just enough olive oil for us to live off, but we were always paid in olive oil when we worked for someone else, picking their olives, producing their oil. We had to wait for the olive press to start working, and when it did, we'd carry the sacks of olives to the press, one by one, on our backs. It was very tiring work...

vathi hania chaniavathi hania chania
A former olive press in Vathi, near Elafonisi, Hania.

"The olive press? Nothing like what it is now where everything is computerised. The olive press was simply a stone building, and olives were crushed between two large upright stone wheels. They each weighed a ton. The wheels were made somewhere in Hania and were transported up to the last village to have a road cut through it. After that, they were brought to Kambous on fallen oak trees, two tree trunks held up by six men in front and another six at the back. Can you imagine 12 people walking for hours up a hill to get those grinding stones up to the village? The olives were crushed between the wheels, which were rotated by donkeys and horses, walking round in circles, until the olives were turned into an oily pulp. The pulp was then tied up in huge pillowcases, hung up above a collecting vessel, and the oil slowly seeped out of it. The pillowcase was squeezed towards the end to get as much olive oil out of it. We stored it in ceramic urns in our house...

"Food? Oh, there was always food in the village. Snails were plentiful, so were horta most of the year round. Everything grew in the village, both in the summer and in the winter. Tomatoes grew without irrigation. We'd just water them once when we planted them, and we grew enough tomatoes to last us through the winter. We'd just hang them on the rafters of the roof, and they never went bad. You can't do that with the tomatoes you grow nowadays; for a start, they're irrigated, and the climatic conditions have changed, so that the air is different. We planted potatoes and lentils, although beans were considered more luxurious, and they kept us fed right throughout the winter. The animals gave us eggs and milk, and we made our own cheese. We also made food that kept well without needing refrigeration, like dried figs and xinohondro. We ate what we had produced ourselves, but we also bought supplies from Hania. Your grandparents would load up the donkey with goods that we traded, maybe some eggs and horta, walk to Hania, sleeping over on the road in the middle of the night, arrive at the Agora in the early hours of the morning, buy some rice, sugar, coffee, maybe some salt cod, load up the donkey, and they'd arrive back up in Kambous in the evening. I can't remember when I first tasted chocolate. I think I was about 15 years old, or was it 20? I really can't remember...

"The baker's? We didn't need to to buy bread, since we grew our own grain, wheat and barley, and harvested it by having the animals tread on it to shell it. It was then ground in between stones, and we let it sift on a breezy day so that the husks flew away and we'd be left with the grain. We made bread once or twice a month. We'd bake about eight huge loaves of bread, because that's how much fitted in our wood-fired stone-built oven, and we ate it over the next two weeks, sometimes three weeks. It was a little stale towards the end, but that's what we had, so that's what we ate. We'd keep it in a cupboard; it never went mouldy. The whole grain was used to make it, and when it was baking, the air was filled with the most wonderful smell. Bread doesn't smell like that now, nor does it taste as good as it did then, because the grains and the cooking methods used are completely different. Flour is ground differently, and ovens are heated electrically. But that's the way it should be - we can't spend all our time preparing food to eat. We'd have no time to do anything else...

"Transport? We had no means of transport except for a donkey. Not like now, where we take the car just down the road to the supermarket and fill it up so we don't have to go again for another week. Not that a car would have been any use anyway, because there was no road up to the village. The worst road in the world is much better than what we had at the time to get up to the village. The road was paved up until Kontopoula, but after that, it was just a goat path, if you know what I mean. There was simply a narrow road that had been carved out by the donkeys and horses that people used to travel on in those days. Our father used the donkey most of the time, so we were left with our legs to take us wherever we needed to go. Everything was transported up to Kontopoula, maybe even up to Katohori once the road reached that village too, but not Tsakistra, where we lived. Even when we moved down here, my father still rode the donkey up to the village in the first few years, because we kept a few animals up there and he'd move them around the pasture land for grazing. He could have taken a bus up to the village, but how would he get around in the mountains? There were no roads built until long after I left the village, and no electricity until about 1970. By that time, most of the people who lived in the village had left the area, so it seemed like a waste of time spending so much money on making the village a better place to live when hardly anyone lives there now. But the people had to leave, they couldn't stay there forever, there was no future in the village, even if it did eventually get electrified. We've made such progress in so little time, but everything's different now, it's all changed, but it's for the better. Times were really hard then, really hard..."

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There were 150 children enrolled at the village school in Kambous in my uncle's youth; now there are about 150 people living in the whole village, while the village school closed down many years ago. Kambous is visited by its original residents on an irregular basis, usually to attend a wedding, funeral or memorial service. Quite a few have restored old homes to be used as summer holiday cottages. Kambous is also a nature lover's retreat: in 1958, a mountain hut (Volikas) was built just above the village (an 8-kilometre, 3-hour uphill walk) to cater for the growing number of tourists who wanted to overnight in the area; imagine what a view you'd get from the Lefka Ori at a height of 1400 metres...

Photos of most of what was talked about in this post can be seen in the clickable links throughout the post. Maybe one day I'll get up to the village and see it for myself.

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