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Monday, 12 October 2009

The other Greece (Άλλη Ελλάδα)

For the north of the country, the weather was incredibly hot. This was not what they had expected. They had packed two jackets each, sweatpants and long sleeved T-shirts for their trip, heeding everyone's advice about how cold it would be at this time of year. Having never travelled this direction before, they could not work out if they were in the middle of a heatwave, or if these were normal weather conditions for the period.

The heat in the car was unbearable. The air-conditioning was working the whole time. They were now not far from their final destination - by her estimations, it was less than two hours away - but the children had begun rioting in the back seat. One of them had already given the other a bloody nose (the other retaliated by biting the former in the back). It was time to feed and water them; they could also use the fresh air and change of environment to stretch their legs. The road they had been driving on was desolate of any signs of life - vast open fields on both sides, the east stretching out to the sea while the west bordered the mountain, but these valleys were nothing like they had seen before.

For a start, there seemed to be a lack of animation. It was as if the crops were growing on their own, unaided by any human hand. In any case, it was unlikely that they had been sown by a human being: perfect rows, very little space between them, all as tall and as wide as each other. Not all the fields were cultivated: some looked decidedly void of any activity, while others looked as though they had recently been harvested right down to the ground, with no trace left of the life previously growing on it, not even a weed, while right behind the harvested area, the perfect rows of crops continued. Villages were spaced far apart from each other; they were encountering one settled area separated by at least ten minutes of driving time from the next area. Patchwork fields of different shades of green and brown made up the general landscape. Low flat land seemed to carry on for miles, with only the great big huge mountain plonked in the middle of the valley, obscuring the view to the other side - and there was a distinct lack of shade. The fields were either cultivated with low crops, or they were simply lying empty. Something was missing from this part of the Greek countryside and it wasn't just the olive trees.

"Where shall we stop?" he asked, relying on his wife to tell him where in the middle of nowhere he was, and when to expect any sign of life. In all his years of driving, he had never encountered such a vacuum. He wondered what it would be like to drive on this road at night in pitch black darkness, with only the road signs for consolation.

"Let's turn off the main road." She had been looking at the iniviting sea to their right. Even if their home was on an island, the sea never failed to attract, and on this hot humid day, it looked particularly appealing.

He took the first road off the highway - not right towards the sea, but left, inland, on a road indicated by a sign which was illustrated with a pictogram denoting a site of arcaheological importance. Not that he was interested in archaeology, but at this moment, he was tempted by the unknown topography. Even though the bareness of the landscape scared him, he was curious to seek out what could be lying on those great big huge fields. The owners had unlimited space on which to grow anything they wanted; he imagined a field full of tomatoes in the summer and one full of spinach in the winter. As he slowed down the car to sheep's trotting pace, he looked out the window on his wife's side. The soil was black, a sign of fertility, unlike the dry red soil of the south.

"Look out!" his wife cried.

His gazing was abruptly interrupted by a slow moving pick-up truck which was being driven in the middle of the road. He swerved to avoid it, at the same time as the truck swerved to avoid him.

"His fault," he replied swiftly.

"My family," she responded just as quickly.

"Where are we?" he asked.

"The next village is about ten kilometres away... no, nine, there's the sign."

He looked at the name of the village on the sign. "Never heard of it," he said.

"Me, neither."

"Then why are we going there?" asked the children.

A large dense vine came into view: kiwifruit, something he had never seen growing before, although kiwifruit were also grown in the south.

kiwifruit vine
Kiwifruit vines: in Greece, kiwifruit from Macedonia is akin to eating Zespri kiwifruit in NZ.
kiwifruit vine near mt olympus

He slowed down to take a look at the crops. This kind of sightseeing interested him more than the points of interest shown on a map, which he considered too koultouriarika for his liking. He was a man of the land, a hobby farmer in his spare time; he loved walking on it, seeing it produce, sifting it through his hands, smelling it, despite the hard dirty work it entailed.

Growing next to the kiwifruit vines was a field full of budding white flowers.

cotton plants thessalia
Cotton plants

"Have you ever seen cotton plants?" he asked his wife. She looked away from the map.

"Cotton plants, kids! Let's stop and take a good look at them."

"Is that cotton wool?" they asked about the white fluff peeping out of the buds.

"Yes, indeed," he answered, and walked onto the field.

cotton plant
Cotton plant

"Hope no one's looking," his wife warned him. She was used to his curiosity, but had to remind him every so often that it kills cats.

The village could just be seen from the point where they were driving, but it was still quite far away. The dark mountain seemed to be getting closer to the road which was as flat as a pancake. There was little elevation until the slopes of the hills near the mountain range, which rose abruptly from the ground. The gods' choice of home seemed appropriate, perched on the highest peak of the mountain, which was now shrouded in mist due to the humidity. Here, the gods could go about their business unhindered with a panoramic view over their subjects; no wonder womanising Dias could not escape Hera's watchful eyes.

tobacco drying dion mt olympus
Mt Olympus, shrouded in mist on a hot humid day in September.

Archaeological signs were posted all along the road. It seemed strange to think that amidst the vastness of the landscape, devoid of human activity, there could be located such an insignificant village which held so much historical importance. Only 2000 years ago, the gods had been living just below the mountain near its vicinity.

"What are those plants?" asked the children.

tobacco plants near mt olympus
The mystery plant

He had never seen such a crop before. The field was planted at quite a distance from the road so that it wasn't easy to access it. The plant was topped by creamy beige flowers but there were no crops hanging off it.

"Hey, look at that, Dad, corn!" The children were looking at the neighbouring field to the mystery crop.

corn field near mt olympus
Corn field

"But not for eating," their mother explained. "That corn is only for animal feed. It isn't the same corn we eat." The abundance of the crops they had so far encountered amazed her, in that very little was actually edible.


They were approaching the first houses in the village. There was a sign on the right pointing towards the "centre" of the village, which was very small. The houses were all large low-roofed monokatoikies, with slanting roofs covered with ceramic tiles, much tidier than the flat-roofed cement houses they were used to in their own hometown.

All the houses in the place where they now found themselves had tiled roofs, which to him signalled the sinister weather conditions that probably prevailed in the winter. "Must get a lot of rain here," he reckoned. He had not bothered to build a tiled covering on the roof of his own house because there wasn't any real need to. Rainy periods passed quickly, the water did not collect, hail melted as soon as it touched the ground, and it never snowed in the real sense. The taratsa used to heat up in the summer, but ever since he insulated it with foam tiles secured with gravel, the house remained cool. Hence, the tiled roof seemed an unnecessary, albeit aesthetic expense.

"What are those tents?" The children were now copying his observant nature, and asking questions about the environment that surrounded them.

"Ahhhh... They're drying the leaves." Now he knew what the strange crop of plants was.

tobacco drying dion mt olympus
Drying tobacco leaves, next to a kiwifruit vine, on the foothills of the highest mountain in Greece; the purple weed at the bottom of the photo is not native to Greece - it is called 'German', probably because it began to appear shortly after the second world war when the Nazis brought it with them via horses and their manure. It is treated as a weed, and is widespread in Greece, especially now that border controls are more relaxed with the accession of neighbouring countries into the EU. I haven't seen it in Crete, but have been told by the herbarium centre of MAICh that it has been sighted close to the port area of Souda.

"Leaves? What for?"

"Tobacco."

"Tobacco?"

"That's how they make cigarettes."

"Oh, yeah, my teacher smokes those." The child had often seen his teacher taking out some dry brown aromatic shards from a plastic folder and placing them inside a thin piece of paper which she would roll in her fingers and light up. She was never without this scrag hanging out of her mouth or in between her fingers, except when she was in the classroom. She always smelt heavily of perfume.

As they continued along the road, the presence of the tobacco-drying tents dominated the view: field after field of tobacco leaves strung up in rows, lying under tents to dry. All the houses seemed to have a couple of them standing in what looked like a garden or patio space which was taken up by the tents. Surrounding them were bits and pieces of small and large items of agricultural equipment. The drying tobacco leaves dominated the semi-urban landscape.

They found themselves on what looked like the main road of the village, and began scouring it for any sign of a decent looking cafe or taverna. He was looking for a taverna whhere they could get some home-cooked food instead of the usual road far of souvlaki, which he had gotten quite tired of, even though this is what the children clamoured for. "I'm not going on this holiday to tell everyone I tried the full range of Greek souvlaki," their father cautioned them. But right now, he would have felt consoled if he could find even one souvlatzidiko open. There were only a few places located on the main road, and the very few people sitting on the verandahs looked like bored locals waiting for nothing to happen apart from the time passing before they went home to sleep through the hottest part of the day.

"Doesn't look like there's much more than this." It was the middle of the day. Either everyone was at home keeping cool indoors away from the searing heat, or they were about to go home.

"There must be something going on here," his wife said. "Look, there's a museum sign."

They followed the road to the archaeological site, which turned out to be quite large. A row of pine trees was concealing the full view from the road. A few people were wandering around the area. Ancient statues and parts of columns adorned the entrance. Hundreds of old wooden crates made of platanos were housed under a tiled awning close to the site. Some new buildings lined the roads, with signs bearing 'cultural centre', 'museum' and 'mosaic centre'. They parked the car under a large plane tree that offered ample shade, close to a kafeneion.

dion mt olympus mediterranean mosaic centre dion mt olympus
antiquities dion mt olympus
Wooden crates (telara) made of platanos (plane tree), housing ancient artifacts discovered in the area of Mt Olympus, home of the 12 ancient gods of Greece. These crates are no longer made; plastic crates are used instead.

Some foreign visitors - were they French? - could be heard near the archaeological sites which were separated in the middle by a long tastefully done-up paved road, lined with tavernas, cafes and mini markets selling postcards and souvenirs. They were all open - and they were all empty. The children made a dash for one of the tables at the first one they walked past. Their father managed to stop them just before they grabbed the first chair.

"Let's walk down the street and see what else is available and then we'll stop at one of them, OK?" Everything looked open, but deserted, despite the presence of the tourists who were visiting the antiquities. Don't those people eat? he wondered. Koultouriarides, he reminded himself.

The walk up and down the street was a quick one. There was very little to see, apart from empty eateries, so there was very little to choose between them. As they passed each one, the owner would stop and look at them hopefully, by which time they had moved on to the next one.

"Come in, come in!" A taverna owner was beckoning to them after watching their gaze as they moved up the street peering into each diner. They were close to the end of the road; eventually they would have to sit down somewhere, so it may as well be at his place; this looked like the only business that he was going to have for a while.

"Where would you like to sit?" he asked them. They had the whole place to themselves; they could have sat anywhere. It was shady and quiet under the porch. The owner bought them a menu card, then he called out to his elder son, and immediately the well known tired strains of Zorba's sirtaki began to churn out of the CD player.

The couple looked at each other, wondering what to do with the menu cards. It was well past the traditional lunch hour for the Greeks, and too hot for walking or strolling around. If anyone was going to eat, it would be now or never. And since there were hardly any people around, it was most likely that they would be the only customers for a while, at least until the late afternoon; the archaeological site closed half an hour before sunset.

The menu listed mainly food that they were already familiar with. Despite the vast differences that the Greek mainland had unveiled to them in terms of the landscape and the dialects spoken by the locals of each region, the food they had eaten so far on their trip revealed an element of unity: makaronada, gigandes, pastitsio, keftedakia, tzatziki, horta, fried calamari and spanakopita were found everywhere, and differed little in the way they were cooked from one place to another. A spice mixture may be changed here, or an additional ingredient may appear there, but generally speaking, the main difference among taverna staples was found in the freshness and quality of the ingredients. It was pointless, for example, to expect high quality fried calamari in an inland taverna near the foothills of the highest mountain in the country, but the tzatziki would probably taste good because of the high quality yoghurt that was likely to be made here.

"Let's just ask him what's ready," the woman whispered to her husband. She instantly felt sorry for the taverna owner. Perhaps they had been his only customers for the day. There were two children playing with toys in the indoor seating area. The boy who had put on the CD was sitting close to them reading a comic.

Her husband had more faith in the menu card. "I'm going to order lamb chops and chips. Hey kids, how about a makaronada?"

They had been eating the same taverna meals over and over again, something that did not bode well with his wife. They had gone on this trip to experience a different world from the one they lived. To be eating the same food implied that life was the same in the mountainous north as it was in the Mediterranean insular south; it gave her the feeling that she was not experiencing the full taste of alli Ellada*. Worst of all, she began to feel the familiar signs of breaking their usual food routine: a bloated heavy stomach, constipation, nausea. She just wanted a salad, some cheese and some bread, although she knew she'd help herself to all of the other stodgy fried foods that the rest of the family was also going to order. There really was no getting away from it...

"Are you ready to order?" The owner of the taverna had returned holding a little pad with a notebook.

"Yes, thanks, her husband took the initiative. "For starters, could you bring us a plate of tzatziki and some courgette fritters..." The children groaned. Their father invariably chose the same meals wherever they went, usually food that they did not always want to eat themselves. They had been eating boureki on a weekly basis right throughout the summer that they had become sick and tired of zucchini and wished the garden would dry up and they wouldn't have to eat any more.

"And how do you serve the lamb chops?" he continued.

"Oh, we didn't light up the grill today..., the owner replied apologetically. "We've got pan-fried sausages, but no charcoal meat dishes today, sorry about that..." The truth was that the customers that day - as in the past week, and most of that month - were too few to warrant lighting up the barbecue. Most of the tourists coming to the archaeological site were foreigners: French, German, Austrian and Swiss, archaeo-ellinofiloi as he liked to refer to them. They had a rose-tinted view of Greece, often confusing the ancient with the modern, and their knowledge of Greek food went as far as the standard taverna fare. They were usually content with a Greek salad and some tzatziki. Most of them were vegetarian, and looked as though they ate grass with no oil for dressing. But he commended them for their knowledge of even those few words of Greek that they tested out on him when ordering their meals. They laughed as they pronounced them, and often asked him for the Greek menu to read out the words in the Greek alphabet, just to practice their language skills. He himself only had a rudimentary knowledge of English, just enough to run the business and handle the foreigners. He often wished he lived where they lived.

The weekends were usually better. Some locals from the surrounding regions would come to the village as an outing, mainly to have a meal out rather than to visit the archaeological site, but that would soon halt once the weather conditions declined and the area was snowed in. It hadn't always been like this. Up until a few years ago, people would go out more regularly. The first year he set up the taverna - in the former home of his parents once they had both passed away - he had a steady flow of customers year round. The turnover slowly declined when people started to save their pennies with the persistent arrival of harder times, which was forever increasing rather than decreasing. There would be a few visits by Greek schoolchildren and university students during the academic year, but it was never guaranteed that they would be eating at his taverna - the meals were usually organised by tender, and the lowest one usually won the contract.

"Oh, I see," the customer looked disappointed. "Well, I'll have the sausages, then, and some fried potatoes to go with that. Do you, by any chance, have makaronada today?" It was dawning on the customer that not everything stated on the menu would be available. Makaronada was one of those easy taverna meals that could be cooked one day and served the next, with a marked improvement on its taste as it aged. The pasta only needed a few minutes to cook, and if there was any leftover sauce after two successive days of the same pot of makaronada being served, it could be turned into pastitsio, which meant that it was cooked for a second time, and again could be served over the next two days.

"OK, we'll have a serving of makaronada then. Honey, have you chosen anything?" These customers were not typical of the usual Greek customers who usually ordered more than they could eat and left half of it on the table.

The woman spoke affirmatively. "Yes, I'd like the bouyiourdi."

bouyiourdi dion mt olympus
Bouyiourdi: baked feta cheese with tomatoes and peppers, a dash of chili spice and olive oil, a specialty of Northern Greece, eaten as an appetiser. Certain Greek regional specialties have now become popular away all over the country, even though they used to be known only in their local origins; bouyiourdi is now found on most taverna menus in Greece (it may simply be called "baked feta cheese"), as is dakos (which is often simply called "Cretan salad").
sausages and chips dion mt olympus
Bouyiourdi, tzatziki, sausages, fried potatoes, courgette fritters and makaronada, 2 fizzy drinks and a bottle of water, 29.50 euro shared among 4 people.

"The what?" Her husband was paradosiakos, not a foodie.

"Would you like it with kafteri?" the owner asked.

"Yes, please." Her husband was frowing. He always under-ordered.

"But... you don't mind if it's very hot?" the owner asked again, looking at the children. When he first opened the taverna, he treated his customers all in the same way, until he saw the reaction of the first non-local to the hot red pepper flakes he had sprinkled over the bouyiourdi she had ordered. The customer had practically threatened to sue him for not being warned about the ingredients in the dish. "What about the children?"

"They can have the tzatziki then."

"Er, are you sure, dear, we've ordered courgettes, sausages, makaronada..." Her husband was always worried that she'd drop these little bombs over the table. She was always shocking him by ordering strange menu items. Not that she ever fell short of the family's taste range; he preferred to stick to the old tried and true favorites. They were a consolation to him when he found himself away from home, in unknown places.

"Let's try something different for a change," she turned and looked at the owner. "I hear this is a local specialty."

"Bouyiourdi? Well, we have it often up here, but it's pretty widespread in the general area. Where are you from?" The taverna owner asked them.

"We're from Crete. Have you ever been down there?"

Been to Crete? What a question. Most of the people in the village had visited Crete at some time in their lives. The residents had never been wealthy enough to support themselves solely through work in the area alone. By the middle of the 1980s, the population had dwindled down to just over 1000 souls, subsisting off income from tobacco, cotton and animal feed, before the winter frost set in. Then, everyone would sit round the fireplace until the snow melted and the earth could be planted again.

It was at this time that people migrated to the more prosperous parts of the country. Crete was high on the list. Although many people went further north to nearby Thessaloniki or south to Athens to find work, the most satisfied villagers were the ones who had gone to Crete. Their stories were always filled with anecdotes about the people, their lawlessness, their hospitality, and the fresh filling meals they were always provided by their employers. There was work all round the year there. The tourist season coincided with the orange picking season, while there was always work available in seasonal vegetables. As soon as the tourist season ended, the olive picking season would start, at the same time as the greenhouse season. Construction was at an all-time boon: hotels were springing up everywhere, and people were building new homes with their tourist-derived incomes and savings. The weather was amazing: nearly every day was sunny, and cold spells never lasted long. It was like living in paradise.

The taverna owner's family had also moved to Crete during this period, in search of a better life, with the hope of making some money to build a family home to replace the patriko of his forefathers. They found work in the villages of western Crete, picking olives and working in the greenhouses. At one point, he also found himself working for a baker who produced paximadi, packaging and selling it with a horse and cart in the nearby villages of the area. It was difficult to make much money from such work. They were all living hand to mouth and when they had eventually tired of this life, the only thing he took back with them was the memories of the baker's wife who cooked fresh food on a daily basis, enough to feed all the workers in the bakery every single day. It was simple food, usually vegetarian meals served with cheese, but everything was slathered in olive oil, and it smacked of taste. She often cooked these meals in the wood-fired oven side by side with the paximadia. She'd serve these meals in ample portions, and when they had all cleared their plate, she'd pile more food on it, saying "Faye, paidi mou, ma ehei fayito yia olous!"

When the family had returned to their own village, a new museum had opened its doors and the village began coming to life again with the influx of foreign tourists and schoolgroup outings. More absent residents returned to the village, and the population increased slightly. They were lured back by the prospect of tourist cash pouring into the area. Whoever had land or property in the vicinity of the archaeological site converted it into tavernas, cafes, mini-markets and souvenir shops. The village began to take on a new lease of life, with agricultural fairs being staged in the empty fields, in the midst of the countryside, on the slopes of the mountain, where the air was always crisp and a roar of thunder could be heard regularly, even in the summer. It was as if the gods had returned to their favorite haunt.

The taverna owner's family decided to go all for it. He turned his parents' house into a taverna while his sister next door built a cafe in what used to be the garden area. During this period, he got married and his own family grew: he now had three children with another on the way, while his sister had two. There were a lot of mouths to feed, all waiting on the profit of two small businesses. But business was never very good. Too many people had got in on the act; now there were too many similar businesses all vying for trade in the same confined area, waiting for budget travellers to leave them their coppers. It was not what he had been expecting. He supplemented the meagre taverna income by continuing to plant tobacco, harvesting and drying it in the garden of his parents'-in law.

"I worked there for a little while many years ago." The customers looked very proud to hear that their island was popular with the rest of the country. "I've always wanted to go back there for a holiday, but it's difficult now with the family growing and the business to run...," he replied wistfully.

"Yes, it is," the woman showed some understanding of his situation. "It took us nearly ten years to plan this trip so far away from our home, and to actually execute it!"

He laughed. "OK," he was looking at the order on his notepad. "So you've got two mains, the pasta and the sausages, will you be ordering anything else?" He was hoping that everyone would at least order a main dish, and he could come out clean for the day, even with this one customer.

"No, no, I think that's enough," the man said.

"What about something to drink?" the children piped up.

"Oh, OK, how about some lemonade for everyone?" The children smiled, as though they were in for a treat. This family was probably very reserved in his spending habits; the children looked excited at the prospect of having a lemonade. If only life was that simple, he thought.

"We just want a light snack before continuing our way to Thessaloniki," the woman explained. She had sensed the apprehension of the taverna owner. He would not be making much money out of their order.

"Does it get cold here much?" She tried to sway the conversation to another direction.

"Oh, yes, very cold, very very cold, we're at the foot of the mountain, so we sometimes get snowed in here.

"Do you grow olive trees here?" the man asked.

"No, olive trees don't do well here at all,' he replied, "too much frost."

"So what do you do here in the winter?"

The man thought for a moment. "We go skiing," he replied, and they all burst out laughing. He went off to prepare the meal.

The children watched the taverna owner's children playing and asked their parents if they could go and join them until the meal was ready. As they watched them play, the man turned to his wife and said: "There can't be much to do in the winter round here."

She was more hopeful. "Well, there's always the archaeological sites, they probably still get visitors here." She thought for a moment. "And they probably all do winter sports."

"And have children," her husband added.

This village is found at the foot of Mount Olympus, where Zeus was honoured, the holy city of the Macedonians, where Alexander assembled his armies before beginning his westward wars of conquest, the official religious centre of the Macedonians from the 5th century BC, where Philip II,
along with Alexander the Great, celebrated his victories with splendid sacrifices at the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus**, with gilded statues of the kings of Macedonia and a wealth of royal offerings, where King Cassander stood in the form of a marble statue, an invaluable source of the history of the Macedonian kingdom, attesting to the premise that Macedonia is Greek...

*Alli Ellada: a phrase often used by Cretans; its literal meaning is 'the other Greece', referring to mainland Greece.
**In Greek, Zeus is also called Dias, which is where the name of the village is derived

As usual, comments are welcome, but I would appreciate it if the name of the village was left out; I do not want google searches to link here - the information I have presented is a fictionalised version of an event during my recent holidays in Northern Greece, and probably not what the searcher would be looking for...


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