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Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Greek New Year's calendar (Καζαμίας)

lettersIt's becoming a bit of a bad habit: I've stopped sending Christmas cards. It wasn't always like this; I used to send out quite a few. When a friend of mine saw me writing so many cards to send overseas, she inquired about the postage that these cards would cost me to send. I was quite disgusted: she was a diaspora Greek like myself, on a working and life-experience holiday in Greece. Since we were the ones that had left others behind, I thought it only right, as a personal duty, to let people know where I was and what I was up to. So once a year, I'd buy some generic cheap made-in-china Christmas cards, write a letter which I'd photocopy so that everyone got the same news, tuck it into the signed card and send it off to my friends and relatives in the little Greek enclave of Wellington that was my former neighbourhood. Back in the less-connected days of contemporary times, when there were no mobile phones or internet, snail mail was the only cheap way to communicate with friends and relatives.

When my mother died and my father left New Zealand, the cellphone and the internet were already firmly entrenched in most people's daily life - to the detriment of snail mail. People now built up their email address lists in Outlook Express instead of that little address book we used to carry in our bags or briefcases. Letter writing and Christmas cards became a thing of the past, effectively ringing the death knell for snail mail.

What made me decide to send out some Christmas snail mail this year was the memory, as a diaspora Greek, of what it felt like to receive Christmas cards from our Greek relatives. I ate Greek food, I watched Greek films, I spoke Greek, I taught Greek to children at the community centre and adults at evening classes; I lived, breathed and felt Greek, even though I never really knew Greece at all, since I had never lived there up to that time. Greece, shrouded by ancient legends and great heroes, known to the world for giving it democracy, was a country which had an almost mythical status in my childhood.

My sole visit to Greece seemed too short. Just when we'd got used to the good weather (1974 spring-summer season), just when we had met and got close to our grandparents (two of whom I never got to see again, while one was already dead before I went), just when we had practically forgotten where we had come from (I could be forgiven for this, since I was only 8), we went back 'home' to New Zealand, and continued to live Greece through the language, the church, the odd phone call, the eventual arrival of the video, and finally the much yearned-for Christmas card, which assured us that we were still remembered over there, despite the great physical distance that divided us.

Living in Greece now for more than two decades, I realise that it's the tiny little things that my Greek friends abroad miss about Greece: those random odds and ends make all the difference, reminding them of the happy, spontaneous and possibly crazy time they spent in Greece. Although virtually costless and ubiquitous in the homeland, these tangible bits of nostalgia are highly sentimental and quintessentially Greek, often based on old customs and traditions that were once integral parts of the Greek identity, the kind of things one would consider adding to a list containing "You know you're Greek when you own..." essentials.

The shop was not busy on the day that I went to buy my friends' coveted bit of Greekness. The owner of the store was strumming his bouzouki (I'm not kidding), momentarily glancing up to smile at me as I entered the store. It was a public holiday in Hania (in honour of the town's cathedral), so even the newsagent should have been closed, especially given his proximity to the church, but some people like to work continuously in these free-market days, hoping to make an extra buck or two, especially this particular store, which consistently sells at a higher profit rate. The page-a-day calendars looked fresh out of the printer's press. There was a nice selection to choose from in terms of sizes and themes. Not only are these page-a-day calendars made in Greece, but they are sold only among Greeks, and can only be imported from Greece, as such items are not actually made in other countries: they are a veritable piece of Greek folklore and art.

Virgin Mary Wall Calendar Holder with 2012 Refill

Page-a-day calendars are old-fashioned but quintessential items in most Greek houses. They are particularly helpful in reminding people about namedays. These calendars are usually stuck to the wall in the kitchen. They are often bought as presents for grandmothers, already mounted on a piece of wood or stiff card, that can be hung up in the same way as any wall calendar. A religious picture usually accompanies the calendar; in modern times, contemporary art is often used.

The Greek page-a-day calendar provides the owner of such an item with a great amount of interesting daily trivia: sunrise time, sunset time, moon quarter, which day of the year we are on (and in reverse), the date, the namedays celebrated on that day, and the day's selection of hymns according to the Greek Orthodox church. The actual date is the one left showing every day on the calendar. As each page is peeled off, the owner is in for a surprise: on the back of the page with yesterday's date is found a little poem (in Greek of course!): an anecdote, a proverb, an old-fashioned saying or a religious caveat, depending on the calendar themes. I was in for a treat this year - the store also sold a 'cooking anecdotes' version: each page contains words of culinary wisdom or a recipe.

The page-a-day calendar is a quintessential icon of Greekness. It acts like a private εκκλησία (church): God help the rural dweller who does not have one of these in the house...
one a day greek calendar
The page-a-day calendar answers all these questions for you:
What day is it today? (the first word gives the day, the big number the date, and the last word the month); I wonder who's celebrating their nameday. (right under the big number); What time should I milk the cows? (sunrise time is given right below the name of the day); When should I feed the chickens? (sunset time is next to sunrise time); Is it time to trim the grapevine? (moon quarter is stated next to sunset time - agricultural tasks are performed according to whether the moon is getting 'bigger' (ie approaching full moon) or getting 'smaller' (approaching new moon); Is it a fasting day? (the bold text below sunset/sunrise/moon quarter: eg καταλυσις εις παντα = 'non-fasting day'); What shall I read? (bible reading for the day given in the two lines above the name of the month); Any ideas for cooking? (it's written on the back of the paper - you will see it once you peel off it off, tomorrow - other versions of this calendar come with poems, sports trivia and religious verses). 

It may look like an unnecessary item in this connected day and age, but this is not the case at all - there are still people who do actually need it, especially those living away from urban centres, people who are not or cannot for some reason be connected to the rest of the world, living in places where the last bakery closed down years ago, and the local church only holds services on a once-a-month basis, apart from the annual saint's day that it commemorates. And the sad thing is that the common wall-type calendar simply doesn't supply the wealth of information that this super-cheap page-a-day calendar offers. Calendars sold by schools and sports clubs to raise funds are often given to yiayia and papou as a 'souvenir' by their grandchildren of their team's achievements, but they never come up to the high standard of the page-a-day: the photos of the class groups and sports teams (and to a greater extent, the sponsors' advertising) are deemed more important than the actual calendar, so that all you get is the date (number, day, month, year), and not the important useful information that a page-a-day calendar provides.

When I presented my purchases at the shop counter, a (Greek) friend of the owner (who was keeping him company on this non-shopping day) was amazed to see me buying so many. "Really kinky!" he laughed. "They're a little retro, aren't they?" I was shocked by this comment: I would be even more surprised if he had never seen such a calendar! In Hania, it's very hard to be entirely urbanised and completely detached from old-fashioned customs, because we are surrounded by them. Maybe he was a born-and-bred townie, entering the rural areas only when in search of a good taverna. Greece is a concept but if you don’t get Greeks to buy the concept, forget about it. The shop owner's friend clearly wasn't buying the concept...

 
A cousin abroad asked me if I could send a one-a-day calendar to his mother. Instead of Christmas cards this year, I sent them off to all my friends and family abroad. This calendar is absolutely essential for keeping track of NAMEDAYS.

This little calendar provides daily entertainment for all the family. Children like to be the ones that peel off each page, mothers usually read it, fathers ask to hear the joke-of-the-day, and everyone uses it to remember namedays. The Greek abroad will view it as a concrete reminder of the homeland: yiayia always had one in her house.


ΚΑΖΑΜΙΑΣ 2012

To the lucky recipients whose homes have been graced by the presence of this quintessential icon of Greekness, I hope you have fun with it. If you don't have direct access to one of these yourself, you can find something similar online at the Kazamias site, a yearly "encyclopaedic almanac" containing "events, astrology, predictions, dream explanations and stories relevant to the New Year" (also available as a paperback). I wonder who interprets the shop owner's friend's dreams - perhaps he uses some kind of mobile phone app to get this information...

HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone - see you again next year.

©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.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Artisanal beer (Μπύρα περιοροσμένης παραγωγής)

100% Ελληνικό (100% Greek)
I'm part of the growing number of Greek consumers who have become increasingly aware of the Greekness of our food. The trend for shopping Greek these days has been spurred on by the economic crisis. At its most basic level, food is the one element that most people can keep Greek because we have to eat every day and Greek food is easy to find all over Greece at reasonable prices (not so for other products, eg clothes and shoes). If you insist on buying Greek wherever possible, look out for the symbol of the blue-and-white Greek flag and a '100% Ελληνικό προϊόν' sign written close to it. A caveat: Greek products are often more expensive than imported products, sometimes by only a little, other times by a lot (eg milk). For example, you can buy a 1kg packet of Greek rice for 2-3 euro from LIDL, but the larger packaging of 2kg with the more enticing price tag (again costing 2-3 euro) will contain non-Greek rice.

Generally speaking, in our household, we have always bought Greek, mainly because Cretans tend to be region-centric in their food choices, so we consume a lot of fresh Cretan produce rather than generic Greek. Still, I always wonder just how 'Greek' our garden vegetables actually are: we buy plantlets from a local nursery - but where do the seeds come from that these plantlets grow from? The modern world is highly interconnected. We are one big - but not necessarily happy - family.

Beer produced in Crete
In the beer market, Heineken and Amstel have been served since I came to Greece and were once considered the beers of choice, more proof of Greeks' former love of anything foreign. But their Greek rivals have now taken great steps in the home market, and more and more Greeks are embracing their own country's products in this sector. Mythos is probably the most well known of Greek beers all over Greece, while Fix has also gained ground, due in part to its revitalisation and history as Greece's first national beer. With aggressive and highly successful marketing campaigns, Greeks beers are doing well in the Greek taverna market, while Vergina and Alfa are often sold on special at the supermarket and are considered to be very good beers.


Chinese cabbage from Peloponisos
At the same time as supporting Greek products, it's also interesting to look out for new Greek foodstuff on the market, items which we might generally have thought of as imported (eg Chinese cabbage, brussel sprouts and other non-Mediterranean vegetables), or as simply not part of the Greek taste spectrum. In this category can be included the market of microbrewery hand-crafted beer. I've bought some very good specialised beers in the past, both Greek- and Cretan-made, but as with all specialised products, they come with their own problems. The Greek one I tried (BIOS 5) was cheap (0.95/330ml)  but the bottle wasn't returnable; the Cretan one (Rethymnian) had returnable bottles, but it was expensive (1.55/330ml not including the bottle return - you pay 1.85 at the counter). Artisanal beers are all sold in small ornamental bottles (330ml) and often carry attractive labels, adding to their appeal, and generally geared towards the young Greek who wants to look trendy.

Made in Greece - 100% Eλληνικό προϊόν
The beer was sold at AB Vasilopoulos, the pasta and rice are from LIDL.

Just recently, I was intrigued to find a 6-pack of microbrewery beers at a top-range supermarket selling at 4.40 euro (2 euro off the normal price). Each 300ml bottle contained a different beer flavour. The company producing these beers (Craft Microbreweries) claims to be the first Greek microbrewery in the country, producing beer on a limited production basis. I decided to try out this smartly packaged product (looks a bit like a suitcase), and put it as it was into the fridge as soon as I came home. We tried the first bottle - the "Smoked Lager" - yesterday at lunch with our pastitsio. It tasted like dark strong beer, leaving a wood-fire aftertaste in your mouth as you swallowed it.

The verdict: Not my cup of tea. Thankfully, there was only one bottle of this type of beer in the suitcase (the others are all different beer flavours, as mentioned above). The taste did not remind me of any familiar taste in Greek cuisine. Maybe I didn't pair it well with the food (I'm not a wine connoisseur either). Little bottles of beer like this one are generally downed without food in countries where this kind of beer is more likely to be consumed, at the most with just a snack (eg crisps). I needed the pastitsio to take away the woody taste after each swill. I hope the next bottle I open will remind me of beer as I know it in Greece, and not something like a smoking log of wood. Some tastes cannot be changed.

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

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Chilling out (Ξεκούραση)

The holidays have been very good to me - I am writing much more. But my writing often ends up sounding like a diary of the day's events. Some days contain a lot of action, others contain a lot of thoughts, some others contain one trivial incident that set off a chain of reactions.

For today's post, the following three photos sum up what I will be up to all day:
 
The spinach in the garden has grown to a good size - time to fill up the freezer with spinach pies...

 
I love my mother's sewing machine very much - but when I take it out to use it, it's not for the purposes of handcrafts... 

 
Now that my proofreading work comes through solely by email, I work as the work comes, whether it's at the office or at home.

At least I won't have to cook lunch - I made enough pastitsio yesterday to last us for two days.
 

 See you on the morrow...

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Bludger (Κοπρίτης)

There are only two things that you cannot ever change about your life: you cannot change the place where you were born, and you cannot change the people who raised you. 

Boxing Day - as I still call it from my days down under - was quite uneventful in our house. There are no post-Christmas sales to go to in Crete - it's still Christmas mode for us - and even if there were any sales, there is very little money to spend on them. After the rich Christmas Day meal in the mountain, the next day's meal seemed quite subdued - stewed chickpeas with rice. Beans have always been considered poor man's food, but I've been cooking up a pot of beans since before I got married, every single week to be precise, so I don't see it as much of a change to be cooking them now during an economic crisis.

 
Chickpea stew with home-made chapati

In the evening, I visited some more relatives, the ones I didn't manage to see on Christmas Day. These are people that have unintentionally ended up alone in life for certain reasons. They are comforted by the sight of younger people, and I know that they wait expectantly for me and my family to turn up some time. We have never made it a custom to see them on a certain day at a certain time within the Christmas period, which makes the visit all the more enjoyable. It removes the dysfunctional aspect of visiting family during festive periods. We never know where we will find them either. They may be at home or at the village cafe, or in a field or on their way to any of the aforementioend. They never let us go without feeding us either. "Just a little mezedaki," they say to us, while we watch the table filling up with different plates piled with a variety of appetising dishes. Just as well we ate beans, I thought to myself, after tucking into tender pork stewed with peppers, a plate of souvlaki hors d'oeuvres, another of thick cut French fries sprinkled with oregano and a basket of freshly baked bread grilled over the charcoal. As I am their only close next of kin living on the island, I will admit to being very much pampered by them.

 
This year, we caught up with my uncle in the village cafe - the plates just kept coming; Uncle does not take 'no' for an answer...
When we came home, the phone was ringing, so I had to make a little dash to pick it up. 

"Παρακαλώ," I answered, puffing a little, in the customary neutral Greek phone greeting.

"Hi Maria!" I heard a not so familiar voice booming across to me. It had a clear NZ accent, but it did not sound like anyone I was expecting to see at this time of year in my hometown. Even though I have spoken to this person only by phone abotu three or four times(including this one) in the last 20 years, I knew who it was, and I knew that Bob (to pick a nice neutral common name) would not have much time to chat to me, because he had more important people to talk to.

Although I like surprises, I knew that this surprise would turn out to be hiding an αγγαρεία. Bob is some kind of NZ film producer who I'd had dealings with while I was still in NZ, when he had first been attracted to Crete's magic after interviewing a NZ veteran about his time here during the Battle of Crete. Since then, he'd fallen in love with the island and had come a few times to record various local people's histories. I had spoken to Bob at various times during my life in Greece, because Bob asked me for translation help here and there (he doesn't speak any Greek); however, he always managed to get the help he wanted through other means, and so, even though he had asked for my help and arranged a time when we would meet up, we never actually did so. To put it bluntly, Bob didn't need me, because he had already bludged off others.

The problem with my relationship with Bob is that he was a well known figure to the dysfunctional members of my close relatives. They thought the world of Bob. Bob came to talk to them, he asked them questions, he made them feel quite, well, you know, important, which made them think of Bob as some kind of important person himself. Every time Bob came, I would hear about it from them: "Bob came to visit us yesterday! Have you seen him?" Until my parents died, I felt a family-bound duty to remain on talking terms with them because, as most people with dysfunctional family members know very well, they can be a pain in the butt when you don't go with their flow. At the same time, I was often treated as the filling in the sandwich by them, because the Greek side didn't get on with the NZ side of the family. I would often be used as the go-between by both sides when they weren't on talking terms. I was, in effect, being used as a spy. There couldn't have been a more perfect one, simultaneously an insider and outsider, and constantly in awe of them, always seeking their approval, never wanting them to suffer in their self-created misery.

So I'd smile and look pleased, and tell them how lucky they were to see Bob who loved them so much and never forgot them, and they'd tell me all about the things they told him (how they survived the war, what heroic acts they performed, how lucky they were to survive it, and so on, ad nauseum), and the people they took him to see in the village (which made those people important too). Then they'd tell me about the feast they had put on for him ("we slaughtered our fattest hen and made pilafi"), and what a shame I didn't know about it to come along ("but he said you knew he was here, Maria"). This went on for many years, until my relatives got quite old and very sick, and they could no longer entertain Bob themselves. So Bob did what any other bludger would do: he looked around for others to take their place. Finally, he found some use for me after all, as I discovered about eighteen months ago in the height of summer, when, again, he had called me completely out of the blue to ask for help in the translation of more local people's war memories (foreign researchers tend to have a fixation on "the war", spurring on the Greek historians to keep writing about it as if nothing significant ever happened since then, and indirectly blaming the war for everything bad that's happening to Greece now).

P5010041
 Probably the most well-known image of the Battle of Crete.

I could see that Bob really did need my help now that his cronies were not in a position to help him any longer. But just seconds before I was about to answer to his request, he decided to tell me, in the form of a prudent afterthought, that he had not yet been "paid" for the "research" he was doing, and was living off his credit card until the sponsors' funds came through. Although I already thought Bob was a bludger, he immediately went down a notch in my mind by thinking that I would actually asked to be paid if I accompanied him to a cafe to talk to a little old lady (a relative of my relatives who I've never had anything to do with). Greeks don't charge people for talking to them about their life, as anyone who has spoken to old Greek people would know. They just want to be heard. It had been a long long time ago that I was last asked how much I charge an hour as a researcher's assistant. But Bob was probably talking to me as one New Zealander to another. He clearly did not want to pay me for my time (a totally Western concept), but thought it wise to explain himself (with the credit-card story). At the same time, I had not even put it in my mind to charge for my time doing what came naturally to me, showing just how Greek I'd become (I would have charged at least 50 dollars an hour to do this in NZ); were I to insist on translation charges of this nature in Greece, I would be called an αεριτζή (= "air-blower"). In fact, I would have used it as a learning experience, and might have even blogged about it. Coincidentally, I did tell Bob that I have blog: "Oh, do you? That's nice." Nice. Everything is nice where he comes from, and even if it isn't, you still say it's nice so as not to offend, even if you feel offended yourself by whatever it is that you pretended was nice.

During that phone call eighteen months ago, I explained to Bob that I was on leave from work for the next week and would be able to meet up with him then. He said he'd call me when he was back in Hania so that we could arrange a suitable time to meet up.

"Aren't you in Hania now?" I asked in a surprised tone.

"Yes," he answered, "but I'm off to Paleohora for a couple of days just to squeeze a bit of a holiday into my work schedule."

grammeno greenhouses paleohora hania chania
Summertime in Paleohora

"Good on you, mate," I cheered him on, not mentioning the credit card problem. "Enjoy the Cretan sunshine!" And why not? He would never be able to get so much of it back in NZ as he was getting now. As it turned out, he must have been enjoying himself a great deal, because those 'couple of days' turned into a 'couple of weeks'. When Bob phoned me again, he was speaking a mile a minute because he didn't have enough units on his mobile phone. But I was back at work and I couldn't help him out. (And I will admit, at that point, I did not want to.) He did sound a little surprised that I was not as forthcoming to please him as I was the last time he had spoken to me, as if we had shaken hands and closed a deal with a gentleman's agreement, but we did not have time to discuss much because the phone line was disconnected. He had used up his last pre-paid cell phone unit; I knew I wouldn't hear from him again.

Getting back to Boxing Day, when I heard Bob's voice on the phone, I knew what to expect. "It's Christmas and you're not on holiday, Maria?" Bob was clearly mixing up Greek Christmas (middle of winter) with antipodean New Zealand Christmas (middle of summer). He obviously didn't know that Christmas in Greece is a family-centred holiday, and he also seemed to  be ignoring a significant fact: the country is in recession. He then continued with a bit of a spiel about the weather: "It's rather damp and miserable, isn't it?" he whined. "Feels a bit like being in Wellington."

Wintertime in Hania - note the outdoor heaters.

"Yes, it does," I meowed back. "It's winter, but that's what's it's like here in winter." Bob laughed. He possibly realised that he had shat a brick. Tourists don't have any idea it could be like this in Crete. They think of the island as a Mediterranean summer resort. If they had come to Crete at this particular Christmas time, they wouldn't even see any decorative lights on the electricity posts like other years (something to do with austerity measures, combined with feuds about who was to be paid to do the job - great savings were made over this one).

No sooner had we greeted each other than Bob came straight to the point: could I help him interview the same little old lady he had wanted to interview 18 months earlier? Boy, did I feel bad! Had I helped him interview her so many months ago, he would have got his job done and possibly not be bothering me now.

"Sorry, Bob," I lied, because I did not feel sorry at all, "but as you know, my relatives in the village have died, and I really don't have anything to do with that village at all now." This was very true: the last time I visited the village was for the memorial services of my relatives - my aunt and uncle died within six weeks of each other, so the services were held together.

The last time I saw this village was over a year ago - I like to keep this image of it in my mind, rather than other ones that remind me of my dysfunctional family.

But there was another reason why I didn't want to go back to the village: I've had my share of dysfunctional family. Now that my parents are no longer alive and I am not bound to family honour, I do not feel the need to maintain one-sided friendships. The well known adage that you choose your friends and not your family remains valid to this day, but in Greece, there is a certain truth in the statement that you may not be able to choose your family, but you can choose which family to keep company with. And in Greece, you can still find family that will treat you like you are their best friends. When these people see you, they will not think about the property feuds that divide them with other family members, or the different economic positions that you are in: in your face, they will recall their most beloved family members, as if you are a living reminder of them. They will not make any demands from you and even though you may see them on random occasions, with no prior arrangement, they will welcome you with open arms and give you the greatest gift in life: their love. And when they don't see you for a long time, they will not be thinking: "Oh, she's forgotten us now"; instead, they will make an attempt to track you down to see if you are all right.

Bob fully grasped the message that this arrangement between us was quite 'over'. His tone softened and he asked me if we could get together for a coffee one day while he's here, somewhere in the town, at a cafe perhaps, since we never actually got to meet up in the past twenty years that he has been calling me.

"Sure," I said, "but not a cafe, because I can't afford the petrol any more." I felt I had to return Bob back to the real world; he was still living in 'Creta Paradise'. "When you come back from Paleohora, why don't you come on over to my house and meet the family - my husband has plenty of stories to tell you of the kind that will fill in the gaps in your research," I assured him. Bob was surprised that I invited him to my private home; from what I remember of my time in the land of the Long White Cloud, Kiwis don't provide hospitality to strangers in their homes at the first instance - for a start, who pays for the food and drinks there? A cafe would be more convenient - we could each pay our own way, couldn't we?

I am now waiting for Bob to call me back for that drink, which I implicitly offered to host. I wonder if there will be a story to tell after that episode - if it ever takes place.

If you liked this post, you might like to read about other people's dysfunctional family members, whose idiosyncrasies become even more pronounced during a traditional Christmas lunch.

PS: Bob won't be reading this. And if he does, I don't really care, because he isn't family.

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

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

That's what Christmas was like (Έτσι ήταν τα Χριστούγεννα)

Christmas is very much a family-oriented feast in Crete. This year, I spent it with the family of my godson. This is pretty much how it went for me.

Christmas time is a difficult time to be frugal, because the day calls for more luxury. Apart from bringing out my Christmas tablecloths, I usually buy a packet of Christmas-decorated paper napkins for the family lunch, and that's about all; I don't indulge in throwaway spending. We were going to have a simple cheap pork roast at home, but we found ourselves being invited at the last minute (on the evening of Christmas Eve) to a friend's house. He has a very strong bond with his parents' old village home in a remote village, close to the mountains, where only about 30 people now reside permanently throughout the year.

Although N lives in the town, he keeps chickens, rabbits and sheep in the fields around the village house, which is a bit like a rabbit warren. The rooms were built one by one, as they were needed, originally by the grandfather of his grandfather. N's family were the last to reside there, as now, he and all his siblings have moved away to lower ground. The house has not been maintained as a villa; rather, it continues to remain a village house, with only the bare basics in creature comforts. Although you will not find a working television, or telephone, or internet in the house (and cellphones only work near the outhouse toilet-cum-shower), there's a table and some chairs, a few beds and a small kitchen. All N's siblings have some claim to the house - it was recently sectioned off into compartments that each one can use when they want to get away from the noisy city for a day or more, with the kitchen and bathroom being used communally.

As the invitation was rather last minute, I got up early on Christmas Day and made some more chestnut truffles, after having made them for our friends who we had visited on Christmas Eve. This year, I had also bought another packet of those Christmassy paper napkins just to line some recycled cake-shop boxes which I filled with the truffles and took to our friends. That, along with a supermarket carrier bag with a couple of brocoli from our garden, formed our presents (along with a 50 euro note for my godson to buy whatever he wanted). We drove up the long narrow windy mountain road in wet weather. The scene looked very bleak. Although the village is not very far away from the town, it somehow seems more natural to stay on lower ground and leave the mountains to themselves. People never move to such high ground for happy reasons - it's usually for the purposes of escaping the enemy.



When we arrived, N was chopping wood to get the BBQ going, while his wife was boiling some mutton for stock. N was in charge of cooking in the outdoor kitchen, while his wife was in charge of the indoor kitchen. The wood fire oven - where the roast would cook - was warming the hallway very well. The kitchen was also warm because it was very small and there was a pot boiling furiously on the element, causing condensation. The dining room was very cold. But N did not apologise for the low temperatures: "It's winter. So it's cold. And it's Christmas. Jesus was born in a manger. It wasn't heated."


The children rushed off to play with N's children. The typical separation of the sexes also took place: the men went to the cellar where they got the BBQ going while N's wife and I stayed indoors. I helped to prepare the salad (plain cabbage - another of N's friends had bought along some radishes which needed cleaning, while his brother-in-law had bought some sausages for the BBQ).



N doesn't grow fruit or vegetables like we do: his specialty is meat. He had slaughtered a sheep which yielded 30 kilograms of meat. This was turned into a roast with potatoes and some of it was boiled to make a pilafi (Cretan pearly rice specialty). N could have taken the meat to his town home, packaged it into the freezer and kept his family fed throughout the winter. But that isn't the way N likes to enjoy his home-grown produce:"If I don't cook this meal here in my parents' home, where I was born and raised, I can't enjoy my meat. I'm just carrying on the same customs that my parents carried out when they were living here. I've spent nearly all my Christmasses here and I don't want that to change."

Afroditi is the oldest resident in the village. She walks through the village every day after lunch, and Christmas Day was no exception. We all offered her a plate, but she waved it away saying that she did not have teeth for meat, and had cooked herself some rice today. When I asked her who she spent her Christmas with, she replied that she spent it alone. Although her nieces and nephews had come the evening before to take her down to the town, she refused to go

There is also one more vital element to enjoying home-raised meat: "Although I like bringing my wife and children to the village, I know that they also like to be around the company of friends. In the summer, things are quite convivial because people who have moved away from the village come here to spend their holidays. The days are long and hot, and a lot of people pass through the area. But in the winter, things can be rather bleak. It's cold and damp, there are no neighbours (they have all died or moved away), not even the one or two cafes that normally operate in the summer are open. That's why I always invite my friends to come up here too. There's no point celebrating Christmas up here if I'm going to be up here on my own. it's not right to celebrate Christmas on our own. I'm really glad you all came, you're doing me a favour. I wouldn't be able to enjoy my meal if I had gone to all this trouble to slaughter a sheep and light the wood fire, if I was just with my family. We all want company. We're live in a society, we're not hermits. I like to see the whole house fill up. This is how we celebrated Christmas when my parents were alive. The villagers would all greet each other, even if it was at the main square. We were never alone."

<<Φάτε τώρα παιδάκια, γιατί αύριο θα 'ερθει η φάβα.>>
"Εat now, children, because tomorrow, the yellow split-peas are coming."
(A friendly reminder that today is a feast day, and tomorrow it's back to the grind.)

N's sense of hospitality reminds me very much of my parents' generosity, the way my mother prepared food (mainly cakes and biscuits) and shared them among friends and relatives, the way my father liked to go out for a meal and never let the other guests pay. When all the dishes were ready, the children helped to lay the table. Eleven places were set. The platters were brought in one by one. As the table filled up, room had to be made so that the remaining platters could find their rightful place on the table. "I'm not a rich man, but I don't think rich people can eat as well as I can. Not even Queen Elisabeth can find food this local, fresh and seasonal."


Eventually, all the platters and bowls had arrived at the table, and we all took our seats. We did not feel the cold. In fact, the room took on a warmth that could only have come from the joy found within its walls. Everyone immediately got stuck into the food. The feast could not wait: its aroma was clogging our noses. N poured his home-brewed wine into our plastic cups (those who did not prefer wine drank water), and we all clinked glasses in the customary Greek way, wishing each other Σ'υγεία! (from the Greek phrase Στην υγειά σας = To your health). Were a stranger to be passing by the house at that moment, he would have heard our gleeful banter. As he peered through the small window, he would have seen the happiest people in the world. The image that might have come immediately to his mind as he watched the clinch of the glasses would have been of Bob Cratchit's house, and the words of Tiny Tim: "God bless us, every one."

©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.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Another world ('Αλλος κόσμος)

I thought I wouldn't blog during the interim period between Christmas and New Year's, but something caught my attention on Christmas Eve, when we spent our time with a well-to-do family who have never travelled abroad. Their teenage children have only visited the parts of Greece where their parents have family. 

I woke up early on Christmas Eve. Despite it being a Saturday, I did not have the luxury of sleeping in. I had been waking up at 7pm for 2 weeks in a row, weekends included, to work at the external English examinations and take the kids to their pre-Christmas sports events. The Christmas carol singers could be coming at any time, and they usually start early. I prefer that they do not still find me in my pyjamas. I gave in to the children's demands - they got their Christmas presents a day early. I could not put up any longer with their whingeing and whining.

For a simple vegetarian pre-Christmas meal, I decided to pick a cauliflower head from the garden. I nearly died when I saw only one cauliflower in the whole garden, which was filled with brocoli heads, something I hadn't noticed before. This winter has been colder and damper than other winters, so we hardly went into it. The man at the garden centre had obviously made a mistake. Half the private gardens of Hania must be overloaded with brocoli this winter. Nevertheless, we are not complaining. They grew of their own accord, with practically no help from us. They will make beautiful and very welcome presents for our friends, they can go into the deep freeze and I will find ways to use them all.

The cauliflower was cooked with xinohondros, a good start to using up that two kilos worth of traditional Cretan sour milk pasta I bought for my mother-in-law, which she didn't like. In all fairness, she did like the last lot I bought in - after I had bought it twice before, in different packaging, at 8-10 euro a kilo. If she couldn't see the maker's fingerprints kneaded into the dough, she thought it wasn't genuine. I remember that last lot - it's the same stuff I bought her last year, and she said that she didn't like it. I'm just waiting for her to tell me the same thing now, soon, one of these days. Xinohondros is not something my kids will remember lovingly. I doubt they will actively seek it out when their turn comes to prepare meals.

Dimitri picked up the wood fire heater today. He left it on the truck until he found a friend to help carry it into the house. He is now breaking a hole in the wall to pass the funnels through. Today of all days, the living room is filled with concrete dust. I shouldn't be worried - I haven't done any dusting anyway. If I stopped him from doing it today, he would have got up on Christmas Day and done it then. He insisted on drilling through the wall with the electricity mains still on, because only that way (he claimed) would he know if there was a danger of passing through any kind of cables. "If I get electrocuted, make sure you can quickly switch off the mains so I don't sizzle," he said to me. If that's the way he wants to play it, I told him that I was leaving the room and while he's drilling, he should make sure he's smiling (για να τον δούνε όλοι χαμογελαστό). I don't know how he actually managed not to get himself electrocuted - the hole showed up 5 cables passing through that part of the wall. He'd chewed through their plastic coverings with the electric drill.

Despite it being a non-working day for all of us, we all ate lunch at different times of the day. Everyone was in and out of the house all day. The kids were playing with their games and popping in and out of their grandmother's house. Dimitri was pottering around in the garden while I was doing the same in the house. The table was set and cleared for each eater before the next one came along. But we were not disconnected - each one's actions depended on the other and we would all bump into each other on a regular basis, trying not to get into each other's way too much. There weren't many carollers this year after all (only 3 sets of 2). At least there's plenty of change left over for the New Year's round.

After lunch, I made some chestnut truffles to take to S and Y. I kept a dozen for us. They turned out very well. S is still not able to walk after his operation and has been off work for nearly three months. Y is working day and night like a dog. He blames the government for everything, while Y's just seen her salary drop to just over half the amount she used to receive and is simply trying to get early retirement as a state employee. Their house was freezing - they're not using the heating. I wonder how they keep it so clean - it looks totally unnatural, something like out of Home and Garden. The curtains are really flouncy and perfectly set. For such bulky curtains, they seem unruffled. She used to bring in a cleaning lady once a week, but I can't believe she's still doing that with their massive drop in salary. She cooked up some kalitsounia for us. Apparently she made them herself instead of buying them this year. She's even making her own bread. But she still managed to buy her goddaughter a Zara outfit (must have cost at least 100 euro).

Y wanted to hear about out last holiday abroad (2 years ago), and was stunned to hear that we were planning another one next year. (I don't shop at Zara.) But she's totally Greek on this one. For a start, she can't understand why I'm not worried if the kids will miss out on school for a week. It's hard to explain to someone that children will learn more in one day at a London museum than if they were at school for the whole week at Greek school, if they have never actually been to Lodnon or have anyone living and working there to tell them about this. Then, she couldn't understand why we were booking the trip 8 months early. "How do you know you are actually going to be able to go on holiday then?" How do you go about explaining this one to people who have never been beyond the borders of their own country?

I started off by telling her that tickets are very cheap then, so even if I don't end up going on my holiday, it will not seem like a big loss. Athens-London costs about 50-55 euro a person if we book a ticket in July for April. But if I booked the same flight now, it would cost 125 euro at least. It took her a while to realise that we felt contented by the thought of losing what seems like a low amount of money if we couldn't take the pre-booked holiday after all, instead of spending three times more by booking closer to the day. "And even then, you might not be able to go," I reminded here, "so you'd be losing that large amount due to a last-minute cancellation at the eleventh hour." She sounded hopeful of taking a holiday to Paris or London sometime soon, and asked me to help her book a it when she had decided on the dates. She doesn't have an updated Greek identity card, let alone a passport. I know she won't be going anytime in the near future.

S then asked us how we got around in Paris and London. He found the whole idea of rushing around on trains and buses tiring. "Of course it's tiring," I tried to explain to him, "that's why the holiday is so much fun!" He thought it would be easier to rent a car and drive instead of walk. It's not their fault that they don't understand why you don't hire a car in Paris or London. They never will until they decide to go there one day themselves. And I doubt that they will ever go. S has never been on holiday abroad (which is why I know that Y will never go on holiday either) because, as he claims, he can see everything that we saw on Google Earth.

Y inquired about the cost of accommodation. I recalled that we had paid 100 euro a night in Paris. It sounded quite reasonable to her - but she was taken aback when I told her that we slept in bunk beds, one on top of another, in a hostel and not a hotel, where you had to make your own bed (sheets provided) and you only got a towel if you paid 1 euro for it. "That's not a holiday!" she exclaimed, horrified, "that's just plain torture!" Most Greeks see holidays in this way: find a nice hotel, get up late every morning, have a leisurely frappe before going out to the car which will take you straight to the door of the attraction that you are visiting. My family has never been on that kind of holiday. Well before 10am, we will have had breakfast and vacated our room. It won't see it us again until well after 8pm. She said she wanted more luxury than that while on holiday. I reminded her that she can have any luxury she wants as long as she is willing to pay for it.

"Do you have breakfast at the hotel?" Y asked curiously. I explained how breakfast varied between Paris and London, but it was essentially the same kind of thing: something filling and highly recognisable in global terms, which warmed you up and gave you enough energy to tackle a very packed morning, walking, standing and admiring the new sights. As I spoke to her, my mind was already wandering, thinking about the magical places we had visited on our previous holidays. The images I was conjuring up in my mind could not be explained in a few hundred words spoken in a couple of minutes. I would need a memory stick holding all our photos, a laptop, a television with cables linking it to the laptop, and a whole afternoon stretching into the evening to show them what we saw, what we learnt and how we felt during those precious moments of outside our own borders.

Y showed some interest in the food costs, which she regarded as the only other expense while on holiday, after travel and accommodation have been arranged. I've gained valuable insight into the cost of feeding a family cheaply while on holiday through the internet and by asking other travellers, or locals if I know any. My sources have led me to the cheap eateries in the town, as well as some basic knowledge of the cheap local street food. But as I explained to Y, we always carried a well-sealed bottle of our own olive oil in at least one suitcase, some rusks and a bag of our orchard's oranges. Before I could tell Y that these items staved off hunger during a peckish moment, until the next time we ate a sit-down meal, she thought we were mad. "That's not a holiday!" she repeated, "that's plain drudgery!"

Despite what they were thinking, it didn't take long for S and Y to put two and two together: they realised that our holidays were affordable and fun, and they were now even starting to understand the way we planned things out. "So I could budget for 3,000 euro for the four of us for an 8-day trip to London?" Y asked me. She wasn't far out; over the years, this is how much our EU holidays generally cost us for 8-10 days for the whole family. There is not much inflation involved, and we've been travelling for 5 years in this way. In times of crisis, there are always bargains available as the travel world is affected in the same way as people's own pockets. As long as you budget carefully, you can still afford to maintain the lifestyle you were used to living. 

S and Y have a much higher combined income than our own,and they are not in debt. But their holiday mentality is that of a typical case of a middle-class Greek family. Greek people generally do not travel cheaply. Walking around with a backpack and children in tow is not everyone's cup of tea. Greeks like to take holidays within their own borders, venturing further afield nearly always only in groups on package tours. Holidays are usually associated with the peak summer period which involves a lot of chilling out and little movement in a coastal region or island, or during peak festive periods like Christmas or Easter, when Greeks are more likely to visit family or take seasonally-associated vacations, eg a ski resort in the winter or well-known tourist resorts in the spring. None of these kinds of holidays are, in my mind, particularly educational. Nor are they cheap; such a holiday can cost the same amount of money as what we spend when we go abroad. Although Greeks are now embracing the internet in many ways, making their own travel arrangements is still not on the top of the list, possibly due to the language barrier, which I notice is constantly being broken down, now that most of the global sites that Greek people use are being translated into Greek (although I always stick to the English-language pages).

The kids had a great time at our friends' house (apart form the sniffly noses and wheezing coughs they developed while they were there). Their own children have their own rooms, each with their own TV, their own computer, bedroom furniture and all sorts of other knick-knacks and gadgets, so it was a hi-tech experience for my children, who lack these western-style creature comforts. They are still quite young, but already, they have developed the travel bug, and a desire to see something new. But I can't help thinking that my children's minds are more open to new ideas, and that less things will shock them because they have already seen a much bigger world than their own. 

©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. 

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Merry Christmas! (Καλά Χριστούγεννα!)

To all my blog's readers:

 Καλά Χριστούγεννα! 
Merry Christmas!
Some interesting Greek Christmas trivia: 

* Christmas in Greece is never celebrated with the same fanfare as it is in the Western world; Easter is considered a more important feast than Christmas. 

 
This tree has been made with firewood pieces. 

* The traditional Christmas decoration in Greece is not the tree - it is the boat. The tree has also been adopted for Christmas due to its widespread global use. 

christmas boat hania chania
Every year, the city council of Hania erects this boat in the main square of the town. 

* The Christmas period in Greece is not a one-day event: it lasts from the first time the Christmas carols are sung (24th December) to the third time the carols are sung (Epiphany - the second time the carols are sung is New Year's Eve). At each different carol-singing period, a different carol is sung.

* Although kourambiedes are most often made at Christmas time in Greece, these sugar cookies are also popular as wedding biscuits, and are made year-round in other parts of Greece as the traditional biscuit of choice.
* Another traditional Greek Christmas biscuit in Greece is malomakarona, orange butter cookies that are soaked in syrup and topped with nuts. And in Crete, they are often called 'finikia': the term comes from the Asia Minor refugees who introduced it to the locals.

*Christmas is seen as more of a children's celebration. New Year's is a more significant day of celebration than Christmas: this is the traditional day for giving children their presents.

Store window in Skalidi St, Hania

Greece can't stay stuck to her past if she wants to forge ahead into the future. Sometimes it's hard to marry the traditional old with the modern new - but it has to be done.

The central market of Hania (Agora), decorated for Christmas.

See you again on New Year's Eve.

©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.