Friday, 27 May 2011

Cretan cuisine (Κρητική κουζίνα)

Here's what a book reviewer writes about why she likes Greek food:
"If you love [Greek food], it is surely because you have been lucky enough to eat in a Greek home, where ingredients are fresh that day, where the eggs are from the hens at the end of the garden, where the tomatoes and the courgettes were still warm from the sun when they went into the pan, and the cheese is from the nanny goat chewing thoughtfully under the fig tree."
This writer is talking about Cretan cuisine. In fact, I think she's summarised what I like about my local food and the way I myself like to cook. When I think about the way I prepare our meals and the food I eat at the cheap tavernas we choose to go to, I feel that I am eating similar meals in both places. 

One of the simple thrills in the daily life of a Cretan cook is to be complemented on their cooking. When people tell me how good a meal that I've cooked tastes, I always remind them that the quality of the ingredients are just as important as the cook's skill. Although our food contains many staples that are now prepared industrially (like pasta and bread) or grown en masse (rice and potatoes), many fresh seasonal local products are often incorporated into it, as well as food that we have preserved from the more bountiful months in the year. I think that's why my cooking seems to have a special taste to it that non-Cretans in particular immediately detect. It can't be the special technique I use when I cook - I don't use any, apart from the skills learnt from doing something over and over again (ie experience).

Due to the advantageous aspects of the geographical position of the island, mainly the climate and the richness of the soil, the food of the first people to live on the island was based mainly on fresh, local, seasonal food. Horta (wild greens) have always formed a part of the Cretan cuisine, while the cultivation of olive trees provides the basis of our main cooking fat. The rich taste and scent of the food grown on the island is often ascribed to its freshness and seasonality, combined with the scents and aromas that people associate with Crete, from the many aromatic herbs that grow wild in the countryside, where the majority of the population still reside. The many laborious tasks required to maintain agricultural land also ensure that economic migrants also move to the countryside rather than look for work only in the urban areas of the island, which generally helps to maintain a balance in the declining rural population.

Cretan Cookery: Mum's 200 RecipesThis book contains 200 recipes that are commonly cooked in Cretan homes. On average, each recipe contains just 6.6 ingredients (excluding water, salt and pepper), which I should know, because I counted them all! The most ingredients (12-13) were found in recipes that required baking (eg pies) or the use of a lot of herbs (eg stuffed vegetables). The recipes all use raw ingredients , apart from just a handful that use pasta, filo pastry and breadcrumbs (which were produced from other raw material, mainly flour). No recipes in the book use tinned goods (apart from tomato paste). The meat and vegetables are usually fresh, although they may be substituted with frozen ones. The fresh ingredients are mixed with common household staples such as olive oil, rice, sugar, salt and pepper, among others, to make the finished dishes. Nothing could be more simple...

The island's move away from farming to tourism and other urban jobs was inevitable; primary goods in the food culture of Crete are now being cultivated or raised industrially. Globalisation aside, Cretan cuisine remains relatively true to its origins, while locals are deeply conservative when it comes to food. The evolving nature of any cuisine means that change is inevitable as times move on; in Cretan cuisine, it is mainly based on health concerns, such as the use of fewer fats and lipids, and the creative use of the wider range of fruits and vegetables now available. Due to the plentiful opportunities for self-production and the popularity of daily street markets, Crete also displays a markedly different food retail environment compared to other parts of Greece.

I cook a lot according to the season, according to locally available items, and according to what's present in our garden, which manages to provide us with fresh ingredients year-round. Some seasons are more bountiful than others, but there is always something growing there, even in the dearth of winter (aromatic herbs), and the sparseness of spring (artichokes and vine leaves), just before the earth is about to be tilled and the summer garden planted. This may sound limiting to most cooks, but if you have a good knowledge of the local food products available, then you can easily replace ingredients called for in a recipe with local items. Sometimes it takes a certain amount of experience to do this: like me, you will learn as you go.

A good way to illustrate the simplicity of Cretan cuisine is by the fact that local recipes do not use many ingredients for each meal. In fact, if you remove the water, salt and pepper from a recipe, the ingredients list for any Cretan recipe is bound to be a single-figure digit! The recipes that call for the most ingredients are usually those that use herbs (eg stuffed vegetables) or a more complex cooking process (eg pies), but if you don't have all the herbs available at your disposal as stated in a recipe, you will still be able to make it!

As a token gesture of my appreciation to my readers (who upped my blog hits during the Easter period to more than 20,000 in one month), I would like to offer you the chance to be in the draw to win Cretan Cookery: Mum's 200 Recipes, a book filled with Cretan recipes, inspired by both the creativity and tradition that shapes Cretan cuisine. The recipes are similar to the ones on my own blog, but the new photos and the slightly different approach to the recipe descriptions are bound to inspire you to look at Cretan cuisine in a different light. All the recipes are able to be made outside the island (or even the country as a whole), by substituting ingredients found more commonly in your local markets (or freezers), which will also help to reduce the costs of your food. And you know where to ask if you need any help...

Fresh produce from Crete, especially her wild greens and cheeses, isn't very well known in other parts of the world, but that never stopped my own immigrant mother in New Zealand from cooking for her family in the way that she had been brought up to eat. And if you follow the modern culinary trends, you will realise that one of the more popular cooking fads of the day is based on locavorism, making use of the resources around you, something that Cretan cuisine has always done.

Cretan cuisine is not the same as Greek cooking in general. If it were, then you would be able to equate it with generic taverna foods and foreign-based Greek restaurants. If you've had the pleasure to be served a Cretan meal in someone's home, you will know how far apart home and restaurant cooking styles are. This book will give you a chance to experience this in your own home without having to go in search of a Cretan restaurant.

I chose this book prize (which is published in a range of 'tourist' languages, including English) because of its title: Cretan Cookery: Mum's 200 Recipes. I hope one day that my own children will also find such a book useful, even if they don't want to cook in the same way as their mother on a daily basis. Chances are that they will not, but like every Greek, wherever they may find themselves, every now and then (and especially during cultural or religious festive periods), they will nostalgically recall their family's food and try to recreate a meal that their mother made just for old times' sake.

If you would like to be in the draw to win this book, just leave a comment on this post (or on my facebook page), and let your friends know about it if you think they may be interested. I will keep this post up for the next two weeks (which will give me a bit of rest from blogging), after which I will randomly select a comment using random.org. PS: If you can't comment on the post for some reason, then feel free to send me an email: mverivaki at hotmail dot com.


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Sunday, 22 May 2011

Urban neighbourhood (H γειτονιά στην πόλη)

My first home in Crete was in the middle of town, a small two-bedroomed apartment on Sfakion St where I lived with my father.


Sfakion St begins off a very busy road clogged with traffic most hours of the day in the centre of town; this same busy road leads you straight to the most well-known landmark of the town, the Agora. North of Sfakion St is Tzanakaki St, where the trendy fashion shops are located; on its southern side is Apokoronou St, which has always been home to a category of shops belonging to the more functional class, although it has undergone some gentrification relatively recently, with businesses formerly located in the more expensive rental areas moving here since the economic crisis. The streets are lined with businesses on the gound floor and offices and doctors' surgeries in the apartment blocks above them. Sfakion St stands out as an exception among them. 

DSC03534 DSC03533
There are many good reasons why people would choose to shop from the cheese shop, butcher, bakery, grocery and cookie shop on Sfakion St instead of walking to the Agora which is in essence a hop, skip and a jump away from this area: the shop owners have built a relationship of trust with their regular customers, ensuring that they sell only high quality products. Not only that, but it's easier for most people to carry their groceries back home rather than walk twice the distance from the Agora.

Sfakion St holds a unique position in Hania; it forms an island of mainly residential properties, combined with a few stores that cater especially for the residents of this unique neighbourhood, located in the heart of Hania in one of the most urban areas of the town, and all this, despite being nestled between two of the busiest and most commercial streets in town. Office workers may share apartment blocks with permanent residents, while the ground levels of most of the buildings house stores, or private parking space. The stores all help to lend an air of self-sufficiency to the self-contained residential urban islet.

 DSC03390 DSC03389
These photos were taken at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon; the shops are closed and the street becomes deserted. Cafes located on Sfakion St primarily serve the needs of the office workers in the area.

It may occur to the average reader that when you live so centrally, you won't need to drive much. It's generally the case that most of the residents of Sfakion St don't need to drive around in the town, but they may still be car owners, which they would use mainly at weekends. Once you remove your car from the narrow road (only one side of the street is used as parking), don't expect to find a place to park again so easily! Sfakion St is one of the few places left in the centre of town which isn't plagued (yet) by pay-to-park or resident parking schemes. Cars are lined up bumper-to-bumper during business hours and ply down the one-way road most of the day; there is literally no place to double-park, even if you wanted to try this!

 DSC03543 sfakion style
Towards the top end of Sfakion St, the buildings are used mainly as residential properties.

The first formidable-looking functional apartment blocks in the street came up during the building boom after the late 1970s, replacing the houses originally built on each site: detached single-family dwellings with spacious gardens, serving the needs of an extended family that included aging parents and sprightly grandchildren. A few of these charming houses remain on the street, some on better shape than others. But the area is considered as prime land in a tight property market: houses are often demolished to make way primarily for for modern office blocks.

sfakion old hous sfakion st
A mish-mash of architectural styles characterises the area, without detracting from its primarily urban appearance.

Sfakion St can be noisy, but only during the day. After a week of living there, I eventually got used to the garbage trucks stopping outside my apartment building early in the morning, beepers ringing loudly (imagine summertime when most people keep their windows open and their shutters closed) to warn passing motorists of their temporary stop. But once the shops close, and the commercial centre shuts down for the day, and especially at weekends, Sfakion St quietens down and almost becomes pleasant.

  sfakion st sfakion old house
The old sits side-by-side...

Mid-town apartments are highly sought after because of their central location, especially by young people who like the facilities that urban settings offer them, as well as doctors, lawyers, accountants and architects who need urban office space. But there are also a number of older citizens living in Sfakion St, people who had invested in a city apartment during the building boom after the 1970s, and had moved there from a village. Most of them would be retired office workers, their state salaries and pensions possibly creating the crisis that Greece finds itself in at the moment. These people will tell you that they are Haniotes. They feel at home in their urban setting, even though they may still have ties to a village in the prefecture of Hania.

  sfakion apartment sfakion office block 
... with the new - and not so new.

There are still quite a few houses on the street that have escaped demolition and continue to be used as private residences. Some of them are in what looks like good condition, while others have seen better days. They are often rented out to immigrants; the original owners probably died and left the property to their children who have moved out of the area. I was never a grat fan of living in the middle of the town. It felt unnatural to be surrounded by cement, glass and steel. At the same time, my father and I were luckier than most residents in the area, because our apartment windows weren't located directly across from someone else's windows: our balcony view looked on to the municipal park, popularly known as Kipos (meaning 'garden'). Good thing too: my father suffered from claustrophobia and was always thankful that he never felt so confined in his last home on earth...

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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Cook the Books: Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard (Μαγειρεύοντας τα Βιβλία)

This post is part of the Cook the Books blog event running until May 27, 2011. Read Elizabeth Bard's Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes and cook something inspired by the book. Post your inspiration on your blog and link to Cook the Books.

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with RecipesIt's rare for me to find a book that actually inspires me to cook from the recipes given. What is more amazing about Elizabeth Bard's book Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes is that there are no pictures - her descriptions of the food create an ambient environment that make you want to head to your kitchen immediately. I had originally started reading this book  just before I went on a summer mini-break holiday in Southern Crete with my family. I had packed the book in my suitcase, and took it out on the first day I spent under a beach umbrella. What a mistake; as I finished a chapter, I wanted to head to my kitchen immediately and see if I could make what I had just read about there and then. But I wasn't even close to my kitchen, so I just put the book way and read another (equally good) one. 


Pots de chocolats

I've already reviewed Elizabeth Bard's Lunch in Paris before, so my readers will already know how much I enjoyed reading and cooking from this book, which you can read all about elsewhere on my blog. At a recent book festival, Elizabeth Bard was billed as the potential daughter of Julia Child, had Julia had one. Elizabeth makes the idea of cooking French sound so easy. There are no pretensions about her recipes: they are clear and simple, they use fresh seasonal ingredients where appropriate, and more importantly for me, they create the kind of meals that the whole family can enjoy, from home-made mayonnaise to home-made profiteroles. The recipes are not geared around adults-only dinner parties and fancy impressive-looking plating, either; not only will children enjoy the nourishing food, but they will also be able to (help) cook some of the simpler meals, like the pots de chocolat and the student charlotte.

Student charlotte

It takes a certain amount of skill by a writer to convey the idea of a recipe in words alone, without using picutres. Elizabeth has managed to do this successfully, as she describes her early life in Paris, and the food she cooked as she tried to make sense of her new surroundings. Although she was well travelled by the time she arrived in Paris, it was the first time she had found unemployed; food was probably where she directed most of her energy, and the results seem to have pleased many of her readers.

profiteroles poached cod, roasted leeks and home-made mayonnaise
 Profiteroles; poached cod with roasted leeks and home-made mayonnaise

Since I have already re-created so many of Elizabeth's recipes already, I will present a showcase of Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes using my photos. I can only hope to inspire you all to read the book and make some of them yourself.

Bon Appetit!



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Thursday, 12 May 2011

Ladopsomo from Kithira (Λαδόψωμο από τα Κύθηρα)

My family spent two days just after Easter on the island of Kithira, a small island located just off the Peloponese, four hours away from Crete by ferry.


Kithira is a nature lover's paradise in spring when it is literally covered with wildflowers. It also holds a special place in my heart because of its extremely close ties with Australia, close to my own down-under origins. Most of the island's population (which peaked in the late 1800s to 14,500) migrated mainly to Australia, where there are now 35,000 Kithirians registered with the different Kithirian organisations, as opposed to the island's present population of around 3,500.

DSC04154
The rotary washing line is an unmistakable sign of down-under presence on the island. This washing line was brought to Kithira by a Greek-Australian (Kitherian in orgin of course), who may have entertained the idea of returning to the homeland (or at least maintaining a summer home there like many Greek-Australians). His/her descendants don't make the trip back 'home' as often as their parents probably wished to, hence the toppled line.

Kithira's cuisine resembles generic Greek cuisine; as with all small isolated regions in Greece (islands are classic examples of such places), it also has some regional culinary specialties of its own, some of which I got the chance to try while I was there. Then there is the bakery at the village of Karavas in the north of the island, which produces a very tasty olive-oil-based bread, called ladopsomo ('oil-bread') and paximadi (dry bread slices, rusks) that is distributed all over Greece via AB Vasilopoulos supermarket.



 
Watch how Kithirian paximadi is made at Karavas bakery, courtesy of Ilias Mamalakis' cooking show. 
The second video (below) also includes a recipe (in Greek) that can be tried at home. 

The Karavas bakery is housed in what was once an olive pressing factory on the island. Many parts of the old machinery have been restored and placed in the bakery store; the business was simply built around them, making the Karavas bakery a living museum. It is also located in a very beautiful area of this small island of Greece, near a river, amidst the greenest part of the region. Local spring water flows freely from the intriguingly named Spring of Amir Ali (a sign of former Ottoman occupation). It is possible to buy your ladopsomo from the bakery, go on an easy walk by the river, and sit by another spring (we walked north to the one known as the Orange-Tree Spring), and dine on your purchase there at a picnic table!

DSC04136 DSC04135
Left: My husband instantly recognised the vessel on the top of the shelves; it is a metallic container which was typically used to transport and store olive oil in Greece's recent past until plastic containers became more widespread due to cost. Right: The mat on top of the press, complete with lever (my husband's knowledge once again comes into play) was used in the pressing of olive mash, which was placed in between such mats, so that the oil could be procured.

Ladopsomo from Kithira needs very little to accompany it. The bread is made with a large quantity of olive oil, which you can see and feel as you eat the bread: the paper bag it was packaged in was covered in oil stains, and our slippery fingers glistened just as we touched the bread! The top of each loaf is sprinkled libearlly with salt, giving it a moreish taste. You don't even need a knife to cut the bread: before it was baked, it was decorated with knife carvings, so that when the time came to cut it and share it out, the slashes alone allowed it to yield even thick slices. And if you're a connoisseur, you'll realise that the slices looked very similar to the paximadi produced at the bakery!

ladopsomo from karavas kithira ladopsomo from karavas kithira
Can you see the oil spots on the brown paper bag? We call them 'λαδιές' (lathies) in Greek. The bread readily yielded in slices - we ate it accompanied by some spring water by the river during a stopover on our walk. Thanks to Stella Yeung for taking a photo of my family.
karavas springs in kithira

Kithirian paximadi is white, unlike Cretan paximadi, which always contains wholemeal flour. Karavas bakery packs it in the former olive mill and distributes it all over Greece. They have also exported it in the past to Australia, where most Kithirians are now living, in this way helping to spread knowledge around the globe about Greek cuisine.

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Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (Το Χαστούκι - Χρήστος Τσιόλκας)

The Slap: A NovelThe events of  The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas take place during and after a down-under barbecue in a multi-racial (half-Greek) household:
"It was a feast. Charred lamb chops and juicy fillet steak. There was a stew of eggplant and tomato, drizzled with lumps of creamy melted feta. There was black bean dahl and oven-baked spinach pilaf. There was coleslaw and a bowl of Greek salad with plump cherry tomatoes and thick slices of feta; a potato and coriander salad and a bowl of juicy king prawns. Hector had been completely unaware of the industry in the kitchen. His mother had brought pasticcio, Aisha had made a lamb in a thick cardamon-infused curry, and together they had prepared two roast chickens and lemon-scented potatoes. There was tzatziki and onion chutney; there was a pink fragrant taramosalata and a platter of grilled red capsicum, the skins delicately removed, swimming in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. the guests lined up for plates and cutlery and the children ate seated around the coffee table. There was hardly any conversation: everyone was too busy eating and drinking, occasionally stopping to praise his wife and his mother for the food." 
I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. It was my first Kindle e-book purchase, setting me back a mere 1.15 euro (the day after I made my purchase, the Kindle e-book tripled in price). Half the Amazon reviewers (via both .com and .co.uk) gave it just one or two stars. As I started reading it, I realised why most people didn't like it: they were probably reading it from a mono-cultural/Anglo point of view, and weren't taking into account the immigrant Greek perspective it was written from. Just because we all speak the same English language*, we don't all necessarily understand each other. It also occurred to me that most of those Amazon reviewers were probably reading The Slap because it had won a major literary award (the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, 2009), so they were expecting a certain genre of quality fiction, a bit like myself when I read The Gathering after it won the Man Booker Prize. Thumbs down from me for the latter, I'm afraid; the Irish syndrome of feeling depressed without any explanation for one's misery was completely lost on me.

kiwi lamb bbq 
Barbecue at my house refers only to the form of cooking, not the revelry that takes place surrounding the event. I can only imagine the scene at Hector's Melbourne barbecue: freshly mowed lawn, lounge chairs, baggy low-slung capri unisex pants, men wearing BBQ aprons cooking the meat, women uncovering the glad wrap from the salad bowls before taking a seat in the lounge chairs, toddlers running up to mommies wailing 'wanna go pottie', mommies replying 'you've got a daddy too, you know.' 
bbq picnic fournes hania chania

What the readers got instead was the trail of racist slurs often felt among a melting-pot society, but never voiced. Tsiolkas opened his bag fat mouth: he hurt people's feelings, he upset the myth of societal balance in present-day multicultural Australia, and worst of all, he used all the negative Australian stereotypes (red-faced, pot-bellied, beer-swilling, straight from the stubbie) often ascribed to the typical Ozzie bloke to build the character of the father (Gary) whose unlikeable child (the stereotype of the Instant-Gratification Generation) was slapped - an illegal act that falls under the category of criminal law in Australia - by another (Greek) father:
"Gary was going to get drunk. Gary always got drunk. It had become a running joke in the family, one Aisha disapproved of because of her loyalty to [Rosie]. Gary and Rosie have been attending their family Christmases on and off for years, and every time, once they had walked out the door, Rosie usually trying to support her staggering husband, Hector's mother would turn to the other Greeks, raise her eyebrows and exclaim, Australezi, what do you expect? It's in their blood! "
Gary (the convict-stock Australian) is the complete opposite of the angelic character of the mavraki (the blackie, as Hector's mother calls his Aborigine friend) Bilal (formerly Terry in his pre-Islam days), the person that Australian society would expect to get drunk and disorderly (anywhere). But Bilal gave up alcohol after a major religious experience:
"[Bilal] no longer lost himself in destructive rages, no longer hurt himself or dared death."
I often use the term 'New World' in my own writing to denote the Western lifestyle, and was glad to come across it in The Slap. It sounds somewhat perjorative, as if the writer is rejecting the legally binding sacrosanct norms of the society that he is living in: the term 'New World' denotes that there must also be an 'Old World', where things are done differently (or maybe he meant 'better'). In The Slap, we see the New World clashing with the Old World just where we would expect logic to prevail, like when Hector was sent by his wife to do the shopping:
"As usual, Aisha was thorough and meticulous, listing the exact quantities of the ingredients she wanted. Twenty-five grams of green cardamon seeds (she never bought spices in bulk because she believed they became stale too quickly). Nine hundred grams of squid (Hector would ask for a kilo; he always rounded up, never down). Four eggplants (then in brackets and underlined, she had indicated European not Asian eggplants). Hector smiled as he read down the list. His wife's orderly habits sometimes made him frustrated, but he admired her efficiency and he respected her calm manner. If left to him, the barbecue would have been chaotic and resulting in panic."
Hector's mother sounds as though she is straight out of the Old World. In fact, she reminds me of my own mother in some ways, whose greatest fear was inter-racial marriage:
"Aisha was a marvel at organisation... Aisha's steadiness and intelligence had a benign effect on him... Even his mother - who had initially bitterly resented his relationship with an Indian girl - admitted as much."
Mine needn't have worried: all her children ended up marrying Cretans, hence none of her grandchildren (had she lived to meet them) would be the half-and-halfs she kept reminding us she would refuse to acknowledge. Most people reading this would think that my mother sounded like a racist Greek, making this point worthy of analysis. She wouldn't have worried so much about Hector being disloyal to his wife, or taking drugs; she would have been more concerned about the religious upbringing of her half-Indian half-Greek inglezakia grandchildren. My mother didn't have the chance to go through what Hector's mother experienced: the upheaval in the defining - both legal and conceptual - of identity in the New World was developing at the time of her death, after the down-under influx of Asian immigrants.


You may be wondering if Aisha's Indian parents should be thinking in the same kind of racist way as the Greek mother; since we don't hear them expressing their opinion so blatantly as the 'racist' Greek, maybe that shows how much more civilised they were in comparison to the Greeks? In fact, there was less worry from that direction - Aisha's mother was English, only her father was Indian, which means that Aisha had been raised 'Australian'. There are a number of times when Aisha loses patience with her husband and asks why he can't simply shake off his Greekness and think like an Australian: "He's so fucking Greek at times," she tells her childhood Jewish friend Anouk.

beach bbq
The best ever barbecue that I've attended is this one: God bless you, George.
bbq kalamaki hania chania bbq kalamaki hania chania

Hector's Greek parents are stereotypically food-centric:
"'Why did you bring all this?' His father was holding a tray of chops and steaks. 'I bought all the meat we need at the market this morning. 'It's alright, Ectorra,' his mother answered in Greek, kissing him on both cheeks, two large bowls of salad in her hands. 'We're not barbarians or English to bring nothing to a barbecue. What we don't eat today, you and the children [notice that Hector's mother doesn't include his Indian wife] can have tomorrow.' Have tomorrow? They would be eating the leftovers till the following weekend. "
Even though Aisha has been married to a Greek for a long time (their children are at primary school), she still can't get used to his parents' imminent fear of hunger:
"'There's more?' Aisha's voice was warm and cordial but Hector noticed the tightness around her mouth... 'There's going to be too much food,' Aisha whispered. Just leave it, he wanted to say, they have always been this way. They will always be this way. Why are you still surprised by it? 'It's alright,' he whispered back to her. 'What we don't eat today we can have for lunch through the week.'"
While the novel is set in a Greek household and written by a Greek author, it is by no means tied to Greekdom. The Greek diaspora will be endeared to it in the same way that they could relate to most aspects of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (as opposed to the unsuccessful and degrading slapstick humour of  My Life in Ruins/Driving Aphrodite), but Tsiolkas explores more aspects of immigrant life as a whole in Australia. The characters in the story are many and varied, representing a cross-section of racial, religious, age and sexual groups.

In this way, the Australian identity is the focus of this novel, which breaks the taboos of what can and cannot be said in public about what people are thinking. It is easier to do this as a writer, where you have more leeway in artisitic licence. But since The Slap is a successful novel that goes against all the rules of the New World's norms concerning race relations, then it provides proof that honesty is the best policy in coming to terms with our differences. Above all, it shows how important a sense of belonging is in a world where everything (except your paid-up, no-mortgage property) is purportedly open to belonging to everyone and a separate identity cannot be claimed in a multi-racial world. This was well illustrated by Anouk's contemplations of Shamira, the white Australian woman who had found Islam (and now wears a veil), her husband Bilal (the Aborigine who also turned to Islam to find his sense of belonging), and Rosie, the suburban Australian housewife who tries to play the victim and never admit to cruelty or malice within herself:
"... they [Anouk and Aisha] were both pitying and ridiculing the experiences of the three true authentic Australians. Aish and herself, they had real pasts, real histories. Jewish, Indian, migrant; it all meant something, they had no need to make things up, to assume disguises."
I've whetted your appetite enough from the descriptions of the food presented in the book. Now go and find out what happens after the child ate wood from Hector's cousin's plate by reading the novel. I don't know what happens at the end, because I'm still only a third of the way through reading it myself. But it's the first time I couldn't wait to share a book I hadn't finished with other readers. NB: adultery, drug-taking and (not just Greek) racist slurs galore; you have been warned.

ΤΟ ΧΑΣΤΟΥΚΙ - ΧΡΗΣΤΟΣ ΤΣΙΟΛΚΑΣUPDATE: Even though The Slap cost me just over 1 euro for my Kindle, I still ending up buying  To Χαστούκι in paper copy for my husband who doesn't read in English - 22 effing euro and 50 friggin cents, from the bloody supermarket: now you know why Greeks don't read many good-quality fiction: they can't afford to.


* I learnt a new English word after reading this novel: bogan. It only made it into the down-under dictionaries after I left NZ in 1991, which is why I missed out on its regular usage.

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Thursday, 5 May 2011

Athens, May 5, 2010 (Αθήνα, Μάη 5, 2010)

If the significance of the date doesn't say much to you, look up the search string: "athens may 5 2010"

Last year on this day, the fifth of May, in the last hour of a bank's daily working hours, three bank employees in central Athens were looking forward to leaving their office to go home. They knew that, at the time, the streets were thronging with protesters demonstrating against new state measures (and that there would be hooded vandalists on the street), they knew that going home would be an ordeal that day (because the public transport system was either on strike or had been thrown into chaos by the planned street demonstrations), and they also knew that they could have been striking themselves on that particular day (since a general strike had been called for that day by that old-fashioned institution called a union, which still exists in Greece). It is believed that they chose (and were not forced) to go to work.

the breakfast table
When we leave the house in the morning after breakfast, we expect to come back home in the afternoon for lunch.

What they did not know was that a fire would break out in their workplace (by molotov cocktails thrown into it through iron gates, by protestors taking part in a street demonstration), they were locked in (so that the protestors wouldn't be able to enter and destroy the building), and their only escape from death was if they could make it to the balcony of the building (if they weren't overcome by the fumes).

On the fifth of May last year, while these people were dying, I was at home cooking the midday meal, completely oblivious to what was happening in my country. I had a good excuse: all the Greek television news reporters were also striking (they belong to a very strong influential union - Greek citizens were left with a tv/radio/internet news blackout for four consecutive days only recently), so I didn't bother to turn the TV on that day. Not that the TV news is the only significant program on TV these days, but it's more interesting than most of the trashy (much of it reality) programs dished out on most Greek channels. I knew that on that day that only re-runs of mediocre Greek serials were going to be shown at that time, and although my computer was on and I could have looked up the foreign websites for my news sources, I was busy in the kitchen (one of the few times when I cannot access a computer is when I cook). While those three victims were dying, my family was all getting ready to have lunch - someone was cooking, someone was getting home, someone was laying the table.

on the 5th of May
A midday meal is usually waiting for us at home; something will be cooking or ready to heat and eat, someone will be thinking about getting home, and everyone will be hungry.

After lunch, I returned to my home computer and looked up the news for the day on the BBC, where I discovered what had happened in my own country. Out of curiosity, I turned on the TV, and discovered that all the main TV channels had 'kindly' interrupted their scheduled unworthy strike-day trash to bring us this news, news which foreign web-based media had already broadcast to the Whole Wide World a whole hour before the average Greek could hear it from a Greek speaker.

The three victims of that day will eventually be forgotten with the passage of time, as will what happened on that day, unless the day is deemed significant enough to turn it into a public holiday, which, of course, it won't. The fact that the day is imprinted in my own mind simply reveals my sensitivity towards the sacred hour that it took place. By 2:30pm, most home cooks will have prepared the midday meal, they would know who's on their way home and they would be expecting to see their loved ones soon.

Some people will have learnt painful lessons about responsibility, even if this is not admitted explicitly. My experience of living in the messy political, social and economic climate that Greece finds itself in tells me that people's attitudes towards constant strikes, vandalism, hooliganism, law-breaking, and all other kinds of anti-social behaviour has changed from the previously permissible level of tolerance. It is no longer a case of laissez-faire. Most people living in Greece have learnt to work their way round strikes. Some of the people involved in the professions that often strike (eg teachers, petrol-tank drivers) don't even go on strike, a fact that is hardly ever reported by the press, which usually makes out that all strikes are of a generic nature and everyone participates. The idea behind this is often stated as an attempt to destablise the government: as if the government needs strikes to destabilise it from its present tottering global position! People are generally sick of strikes because they now realise that striking does not have the results that it once did and it simply reduces thier income, which has already been reduced heavily to date. 
I'm constantly reminded about how dissatisfied Greek people living in Greece are. Although Greeks complain about being unhappy here, the suicide rate in Greece is much lower than in countries which are filled with 'happy' people.

To date, no one has been charged with the deaths of the three victims (one of them was pregnant). But some people among us are living with the gnawing grating horror of knowing what our actions led to, which will most likely lead to our psychological ruin.

©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.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

May Day 2011 (Πρωτομαγιά)

I was once a very good letter writer. Now I'm a terrible one. I blame the internet - it lets me 'send' postcards for free.


Καλή Πρωτομαγιά
Happy First of May
(an annual albeit unofficial public holiday in Greece;
when it falls on Sunday, it is not moved to a more convenient date)

Blame it on the frappe (Για όλα φταίει ο φραπές)

All the lyrics links in this post (except the first) lead to youtube music videos.

I went to the UK when I was 18, as a student majoring in physics. I'd been learning English throughout my school years in Greece, and when I arrived, I felt totally at home in the language. Not even the different culture shocked me; when you're young, you don't feel the differences in the same way that you do as you get older. I could have stayed in Greece to study, but I didn't want to. I had always yearned for a foreign education, and I was lucky that my parents were able to give it to me. I really loved my student life. It didn't feel foreign to me at all. I felt as though I was living the Greek dream: to get a good education in a foreign country. All my life, I'd been told that a good education will set me right for my future, and my parents provided me with the best that they could for me to do that.

Φεγγαράκι μου λαμπρό, Φέγγε μου να περπατώ, Να  πηγαίνω στο σχολειό
Να μαθαίνω γράμματα, Γράμματα σπουδάματα, Του Θεού τα πράματα.
My little shining moon, Light my way so I can walk, To go to school,
To learn my lessons, Reading and writing, godly things.

Every summer, when I'd go back home to Crete, the lack of sun, the many days and nights spent indoors, the lack of variety in my student life, the routine of getting up early, attending lectures, studying, writing, and the confinement of student dorms and bedsits, this would all suddenly hit me in the face as soon as I landed on Greek soil. The sun would be streaming in through the windows of the plane, and I couldn't wait to be home. My student life was so full that I would often forget where I had come from! In the first week of my return, I'd be thinking "What have I been missing out on all year?" I was back home with my parents, I'd meet up with my friends who had stayed in Greece to study, I spent many hours outdoors - and it never rained in summer.

Tall mountains shaped like eagles, lines of vines on the flanks of the volcanoes, the houses whiter in the azure of the neighbourhood...
†Odiseas Elytis (Nobel prizewinner)/MikiTheodorakis/Grigoris Bothikotsis

It didn't always feel good to be back home, though. I went home every year for Christmas, but not necessarily Easter because the dates didn't always coincide. Christmas felt a little strange back home, even though it was really the only kind of Christmas I had known all my life. It was too quiet in Crete, after the hustle and bustle of the Greek summer. It felt quiet for another reason too: Christmas in Crete lacks the commercialism of the British Christmas season. I looked forward to the end of the Christmas season because I couldn't wait to get back to my own private space: a tiny student flat where I could muse all day and just think to myself about myself.

Frappe coffee - an iconic symbol of Greece. 
A friend recently told me that he felt dissatisfied with his public-sector university job in Greece (he had been doing post-Ph.D. work in Spain). He said it wasn't the low salary (which he admitted that he could still live off), but the lack of organisation and the Greek way of getting things done. So I asked him why he decided to return to Greece, granted that most Greeks have a good idea of how things work (or don't work) in their country. 'Μού 'λειψε ο φραπές*' he replied, laughing. 

At the end of each of my student summers, I recall a strange sense of relief at the thought that I would be going back to the UK. Something felt wrong about Crete. It had somehow got into me that my carefree summer-holiday lifestyle in my own home environment was unnatural, somehow even wrong: all day sea, sun, sand, and frappe. I'd never even seen frappe in Leeds, and here I was drinking it two or three times a day at home! Slowly, I'd get my belongings together and make my way back to Leeds, to my busy student life, with its lectures and deadlines. I'd never notice the dull skies shrouded in mist as I landed in the UK, because I was too busy organising my student life and re-engaging with my many global friends, both Greeks and other people from right around the world, all studying in the UK like myself.

In faraway Australia, and over in America, in Canada, Brazil, how many children are suffering there too? Evil immigration, evil foreign lands, you took away from us, the best of our children.
Kostas Virvos/Stelios Kazantzidis

My English accent was so flawless that I sounded very English. Greeks who met me in the UK would ask me if one of my parents were English, while my tutors and lecturers would take me for a Brit, until they saw my name on test papers. Being a bit on the blonde side, no one would initially take me for a Greek; when I told them where I was from, they' were always surprised. It was for this reason that I never felt like a stranger in the UK. I was in the lucky position to have access to the insider's world, even though I was in fact an outsider.

Oh, Greece, I love you, and I'm deeply grateful to you, because you taught me, and I know,
how to breathe wherever I find myself, how to die where I tread, and Ι don't have to suffer you...
Manolis Rasoulis/Nikos Papazoglou

Throughout the decade of the years Ι spent as a student, my feelings for where I was would oscillate in this way, like a pendulum. I felt that I had one foot here and one foot there. No one was forcing me to make a choice about where I would eventually end up. But the choice was obvious: after so many years of being a good student, getting top grades and specialising in a subject which offered few job opportunities in Greece, I decided that it would be a good idea to stay on in the UK and enter a job in my line of work. It wasn't the fear of being unemployed in Greece that kept me in the UK; it was the stigma of being over-qualified in a town where such qualifications were not required, or even well understood. Where would I find a job there as a marine biologist?
"Crete ranks 2nd in Greece in terms of guest nights, after the southern Aegean Islands. In 2008, in Crete alone, 15,729,316 nights were spent at a hotel or similar establishment and camping, ie 24% of the total guest nights spent in Greece during the year. This number grew by 2.64% since 2007" (NSSG, Tourism Statistics Section, 2009). 
"Greece ranks fifth in the world regarding international tourism receipts, which totalled EUR 11 billion in 2005. Tourist flows are mainly from European countries (92.73% of the total number of foreign visitors), while the British and Germans are the two most important inbound tourist groups" (OECD data, 2008).
Before I finished my Ph.D. in Environmental Studies, I had also been working part-time on various projects in the academic environment that I was studying in, so it didn't feel very different to be working full-time in the same field. I felt very comfortable with my life as it had turned out for me. The money was never really very good, but it gave me the freedom I wanted in my life: I could go out for a meal at a restaurant or a drink at a pub, pay my rent and utilities, take a mini-break here and there, go on a shopping spree on the high street; life was good. In a sense, it wasn't so different making the transition from studying to working, because I continued to live in the same city, working in the same environment and with the same people.
Through long journeys, like Odysseus, Greece, I'm searching to find you... 
Thanasis Gaiffilias

There was only one difference now that I was studying. My summer holidays were suddenly cut short. In the last three years of my stay in the UK, I didn't go back home for Christmas or Easter, and my summer holidays were now reduced to three weeks at the most. I can tell you that that felt stranger than living away from home ever did. It seemed like I was disappearing from Crete just when everyone was thronging the beaches, sipping a long cool frappe loaded with ice-cubes as they lay on a deck chair, protecting themselves from the sun under the shade of an umbrella.

Yiannis Kotsiras

Having felt a stranger in my own country and a local in my adopted one, I was now coming full circle. I felt as though I did not belong there any more: σά'να μού 'λειψε ο φραπές*...

Αγρίμια κι αγριμάκια μου, 'λάφια μου 'μερωμένα, πέστε μου πού'ναι οι τόποι σας, πού'ναι τα χειμαδιά σας;
— Γκρεμνά ν΄εμάς οι τόποι μας, λέσχες τα χειμαδιά μας, στα σπηλιαράκια του βουνού είναι η κατοικιά μας.
  - Wild goats with your kids, liked tamed deer, tell me where you come from, where are your pastures?
- The cliffs are our home, the crevices our pastures, in the little caves of the mountain, that's where our abode is.
(Traditional Cretan poem in the Rizitiko style, sung by Nikos Xilouris)

After three years of post-doc research work, I decided that it was time to come back home. I had had enough of the cold dark mornings, enough of working in offices and laboratories where daylight did not exist, when I had to be reminded that it was time to go home. I had had enough of waking up in the dark and returning home in the darkness. At first, my parents were very hesitant about my returning home. "You know you won't find work in your field here," they kept me telling me. "You know you might have to move away from the island," they'd remind me, as if trying to frighten me into staying in the comfortable position that I had built for myself far away from home. When I told my colleagues, they congratulated me on my decision. "Good for you", they told me, "who wouldn't want to live under the sun if they could?"

Love the mountains and the oceans, the known and unknown places,
the birds, the flowers, the clouds, and most of all, the people.
Pantelis Thalassinos

Yes, I knew very well that I wouldn't find a job in my field. But I also knew that I would find some sort of work. Never in my life have I been a lazy person. I knew what jobs my home town had to offer a person with my skills; either you work in the tourist trade or you work in private education: I chose the latter. I now work as an English teacher in a frontistirio (private language school) and I also give private lessons to school children in heir homes. The money is very good, and the hours suit me because I like to sleep in and work later in the day. It feels good to wake up to a frappe in the morning.
"The majority of tourists book their vacation with a tour operator. As a consequence, they stay in Crete for 1-2 weeks with the 'all-inclusive' catering system, which sometimes results in their not testing local products" (Proust Rémi, Angelakis George and Drakos Periklis (2009) "A study of tourist’ attitudes and preferences for local products in Crete and changes induced by the current economic crisis." 113th EAAE Seminar, A resilient European food industry and food chain in a challenging world, Chania, Crete, Greece. September 03 – 06, 2009).
Panama has the largest ship register in the world with 52% of the world’s fleet; the largest ship-owning country is Greece - Japan, Germany, China, USA and Norway follow (CIA 2008).
I still go back to the UK to see my friends, to catch a show in London, to visit my old haunts. But I'm always glad to leave. I've been back home for three years now, and I have never regretted making the move. This is where I belong, this is where I want to be. It just wasn't feasible any longer to live away from where my heart was. I know how it is to live in two different worlds and I've paid my dues. You can't play ping pong all your life; we all know the phrase 'a rolling stone gathers no moss'. At some point, you make your choice, and you live with it. I knew what I was leaving, and what I was coming to. I feel comforted by the thought that things have turned out well for me.

*** *** *** 
This person's story (an amalgamated one heard from many of my Ph.D.-holding friends on the island) is not an unusual one. Although unemployment is ravishing Greece at the moment, the island of Crete is blessed by its popularity among European tourists, a fact which provides summer work for the locals, and its high agricultural output, which provides winter work. In this way, unemployment is minimised and people are more likely to have some extra cash to invest in their children's future, maybe just enough money to educate their children as far as their pockets will allow them. The grand majority of Greek children attend preparatory schools for learning a foreign language and getting help with their school lessons. Most children who finish high school go on to some form of higher education, despite the globally well-known negative associations between degree qualifications and job opportunities in many countries. Those who can afford to send their children overseas do so, in order to give them a better chance in life. 
"Crete is the biggest island in Greece and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean Sea. It lies at the Southern Aegean Sea and at the crossroads of three continents Europe, Asia and Africa. Crete covers an area of 8.336sq.kms. The length of the island is 260km, but the shore-length is 1.046km. The biggest width is 60km while the smallest is 12km. Today, from the total number of tourists who visit Greece, 20% of them prefer Crete. The island is divided into four prefectures: Heraklion, Chania, Rethymnon and Lasithi. The prefecture of Chania covers the western part of the island" (Tsiakali Konstantina, 2004, Measuring Customer Satisfaction: the case of the Chania tourism sector. Master thesis, Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania, MAICh).
Number of beds in hotel properties in Crete (2008): 148,089, as opposed to 63,945 in hotel properties in the Attiki region, which includes Athens; the Dodecanese islands (which include Rhodes) have 122,985, while the Cyclades (which include Mykonos and Santorini) have 47,407 (Invest in Greece).

Education is not the be-all and end-all in finding a job, but I like to remind my children that, even if they become a taxi driver like their father, they will be a better and more knowledgeable one with a degree up their sleeve than if they never went on to do tertiary studies. They will still be able to make an honest living in the way their parents do, even if they might be viewed by the outside world as some kind of lesser citizen. That's the outside world for you: they can't see what you've got, only what you haven't

*Moύ 'λειψε ο φραπές = I missed the frappe coffee (ie I missed Greece).

©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.