Thursday, 3 May 2012

A Sunday Morning in Laerma

Sunday morning, April 29th dawned clear and blue. Nothing unusual there then. It felt like the hottest day of the year so far, which the thermometer provided proof of later in the day, when it read 28.5ºC at around 4.30pm. After all, it was the end of April!

We drove up to Laerma and strolled around the village.

Just above the parking area where preparations were under way for the May Day celebrations (a fact made evident by the scattered small plywood huts from which would be sold traditional fare and large sections of stage upon which the dancers would perform which were strewn or stacked in the sunshine), we walked part-way down a steep lane, where a few goats decided that their desire to stay out of the sun outweighed their natural desire to flee any close contact with some human strangers, so they remained under the welcome shade of a tree, under which also sat a rather un-fetching rusting old VW van. 

On the other side of the lane was a stand of pine trees which evidently served as a garage for a villager's tractor. At first I thought that the tractor had died and had been laid to rest there, until I noticed how the plough which was attached to the rear, along with the tyres with which it was shod, were obviously still in service.


A garden fence which we passed protected some artichoke plants, which were at eye-height and only a couple of weeks short of being ready to harvest. The artichokes themselves were a kind of pink colour, whilst the foliage resembled that of a kind of poppy which we used to have in our garden in the UK, only much, much larger - as if, in fact, it had been irradiated in some nightmare nuclear sci-fi scenario from a 1950's B-movie. Prior to moving here I'd never eaten artichokes, but quite often when invited to dinner at our friend's Mihalis and Ermina's home in Kalathos, and recently when we ate with an elderly widowed friend in Rhodes town, we'd find on the table among the assorted dishes on offer a huge saucepan or tureen containing a kind of soup, which consisted of artichokes, peas and onions, perhaps lentils and carrots sometimes too, all in a savoury brown-coloured sauce.

Further down in the village itself, parked outside of the large cafe with the huge tree (just down from and opposite the Igkos Taverna, see this post) was a pickup loaded with fresh young vegetable seedlings, all in their little polystyrene or plastic plugs. A find! Only the previous day we'd been into a nursery to stock up on courgettes, summer lettuce and aubergines, but were too late for tomatoes and cucumbers. This pickup seemed well stocked with both and so we hung around, safe in the knowledge that the owner would be sitting in the cafe just a few feet above us and would soon be by our sides if he sensed a sale. He didn't disappoint. Calling out for us to "hold on, he wouldn't be a mo", he soon left a half-finished frappe and a conversation with a small knot of village folk and trotted over to the pickup, discarding a cigarette end in the process.

"Oriste!" (Lit: Here you are/I am) he cried, "how can I help?" With a little research as he busily picked up various plugs to read the scribblings on their sides we selected a few examples of two types of tomato, both beef and cherry, plus a couple of cucumber plants that should in a few weeks be supplying us with succulent stubby cucumbers, the short variety. Slipping him the required few coins in payment, I asked if he had anything in which I could carry the purchases a few hundred metres up the road to where the car was parked, whereupon he quickly produced a black plastic crate, which I promised to return as soon as I'd deposited the delicate plants in the shade of the car's boot.

When I returned a few minutes later, with the better half sheltering from the hot sun under the shadow of the buildings opposite whilst chatting with the lady from the Igkos, I returned the crate and we were once more on our way. Within a few more yards passing an alley between two houses, we spotted an old man, sitting on a cracked and battered white PVC patio chair, with a small rusty table in front of him, bearing his Elleniko coffee. His flat cap had seen better days and his red check shirt was of the woollen variety, with a soft collar which disappeared beneath an old jacket which would be totally non-plussed were you to introduce it to a dry cleaner's. Between the jacket and the shirt he wore an ancient olive-coloured wool sweater, with the odd hole here and there. Well, it was only in the mid-twenties Celsius and still the end of April. That's still viewed as winter here. Best be safe rather than sorry, don't want to catch a chill.

Upon our calling  a greeting down to him, he responded with a smile and beckoned us come closer. "Kathiste!" [sit down] he said and pointed at a couple more discoloured patio chairs which were positioned a few feet to his right, indicating that we were more than welcome to draw them up to him and spend a while conversing.

His name was Manolis and he proudly announced that his fiftieth wedding anniversary would be observed next year, since he and his wife were married in 1963, when I was still running around in short trousers. He was quite evidently a man of the land, as were most of his generation. Yes he was born here in Laerma, but had spent a few years in Germany during the 1960's, where some of their five children had been born. All five were sons and four of them survived, one, however, having died in tragic circumstances about seven years ago following a feud right here in the village, which resulted in both the son and his wife being killed. Manolis' eyes watered over as he recounted this sad fact. Feuds used to be very vigorously pursued in rural Greek villages and still are in parts of Crete, where it's still not unusual to see road signs peppered with gunshot, used as they are for target practice by groups of villagers of one family which may well be at loggerheads with a family in the neighbouring village. They still shoot guns at wedding receptions when the dancing gets going and after they've had an ouzo or five, which can be quite alarming for a foreign guests from the oh-so-genteel British Isles!

His wife appeared from behind the mosquito screen which protected her open kitchen door and asked us would we like a drink? After having agreed to accept an Elleniko each, we watched as she disappeared inside again to prepare them for us. Looking around we could see that Manolis still worked hard growing vegetables. Just behind us was a substantial sized vegetable patch, which seemed to have in it more weeds than vegetables, but, seeing us eyeing it, he began to enthuse about the benefits of growing your own, especially in these difficult times. We told him that in our modest little way we were attempting to follow his example, whereupon he arose and bade us follow him into the patch and, bending over, ripped some leaves from a plant that we couldn't even discern among the huge weeds which surrounded it. Immediately he shoved the green leaves which he'd pulled from the plant into his mouth and crunched on them. Still got a few decent teeth then, evidently. We asked what it was he'd pulled and he told us, whilst pulling a few more leaves for us to chomp as he did so, that it was called "Andeeri" in Greek. The leaves resembled rocket, Kos lettuce and dandelion all rolled into one.

"Very good for you!" he enthused, "Chopped up, add a little lemon juice and olive oil, all you need for a nourishing lunch!" We'd have been quite rude not to have shoved the leaves he'd proffered us into our mouths as he had done, so we did so. They were actually quite tasty, with a hint of the bitterness of rocket in there somewhere.

As were returned to the rusty old table, Manolis' wife emerged with a tray, on which she'd placed two Greek coffees, two glasses of chilled water, a dish of lovely wrinkled home-preserved black olives and two slices of village bread. On bidding us help ourselves, she went back in for a couple of paper serviettes. She soon became immersed in conversation with Yvonne-Maria whilst I continued on talking with Manolis. I understood most of what he said, but I also had to guess at some of it, owing to his broad accent. But I just made sure to smile and nod at appropriate moments and he was happy to talk on about his past. One of his sons was evidently the apple of his eye as he was still in Germany and apparently quite a senior officer in the police force of the town where he lived. His other surviving children were either here in the village or living in Rhodes town, all married and most producing grandchildren for him and his wife to dote over.

Whilst I asked him what he'd done for a living before retiring, I was conscious of the fact that his wife had shed a few tears whilst talking to mine. Later Yvonne-Maria told me that she too had explained about their son who'd been killed and it was this that had made her cry. That kind of emotional wound never really heals.

Manolis proudly waved his hand behind him, to bid us take in the vista of the valley below, which for the purposes of his explanation had to represent the entire South of the island. "I used to manage the forestry and roads for all this area," he told us. "…from Profilias and Istrios over to Appollakia, and down to Katavia. A lot of the pines in this area I planted with my own hands. Didn't have all this fancy machinery in those days." This prompted us to refer to the huge fires that had ravaged this area back in 2008, when Laerma was almost evacuated as the fires approached to within a few yards of the houses, destroying thousands of trees (many of which we now knew he'd planted years before) and eating up acres of valuable vegetables which should have kept the villagers fed for months. He was effusive in his description of how bad it had been, whilst also demonstrating a philosophical outlook by saying, "So life goes. You have to take the rough with the smooth. Doxa to Theo [praise God]."

Something which we wanted to ask him, since he was a man who'd spent his entire life following the rhythm of the earth, planting, harvesting and eating its produce, was why our courgette plants were a failure last year. The plants were healthy enough and the flowers huge and yellow. Yet the courgettes had only reached thumb-size before turning brown, going soft and dropping off.

"Disease," he said, solemnly. "You ought to have fed them with this…" He now rose and turned to the old rusty refrigerator just behind him, on top of which was a selection of plastic bottles and reached one of them down to show us. "It's common and it's not just over-watering that's the problem. It's important to dose them with this before the fruit grows too big." And so our lesson continued. We told him how we so loved the taste of the vegetables which we either grew ourselves, or purchased in the local stores. "Back in the UK," my wife said, "so much of the fruit and vegetables has hardly any taste. It's all wrapped in cling film on polystyrene trays. Even the stuff that is loose can have been flown thousands of miles by plane before arriving on the shelves." Why was it, she asked, that the tomatoes, the cucumbers, the oranges and the beans all tasted so much better here?

With no hesitation at all, Manolis replied in two words, "The sun!!" He declared. "Without the sunlight which we get here, much of the food grown in other climes is 'forced' with artificial methods. There's no substitute for the SUN!!" he emphasised. Well, whether he was right or not, he was convinced that this was the main reason. We were too.

It was drawing near time for us to leave, as we were conscious of not overstaying our welcome. Turning his attention back to his nearby vegetable patch, he arose once again, went over and pulled some more leaves for us to eat with our olives and bread. 

"Now, what really makes it wonderful," he added, with a sparkle in his eye, "is to add your own freshly dried mint." His wife took this as a cue and went back inside, to emerge a moment later with a large clear plastic bag and a glass jar, which was full to the brim with dried mint. Emptying some of it out on to her husband's palm, he then sprinkled some of the dried mint into our hands, rubbing it into smaller shreds as he did so and bade us sprinkle it over the leaves. "Now," he said, "pop that into your mouth along with an olive and some bread. Can there be anything more good for you to to eat than that?"

As we arose to take our leave, Manolis poured some of his home-produced dried mint into the plastic bag and knotted it before handing it to my wife. His wife also, noticing that we'd left a slice of village bread on the plate, picked that up, wrapped it in a paper napkin and gave it to me. Time and space doesn't allow me here to go into all the other subjects we'd touched on. There were so many herbs which he had growing in pots all around us about which he'd expounded the virtues and offered us ideas as to how to use them to the best effect.

Tearing ourselves away and repeatedly thanking this humble, hospitable couple for their time, story and advice, we walked back up the short alley to the village's main street. Waving at them one more time before they disappeared behind a wall, we heard them reminding us to come again.

"And you'll have to come to our 50th anniversary next year!!" Was the last thing we heard Manolis call.

We'd bought six seedlings from the pick-up man earlier and paid him four Euros. He'd asked for €3.60, but I'd given him four. As we strolled back up through the village to the car I saw something shiny on the hot asphalt in front of us. bending to see what it was I saw that it was a one Euro coin. Finders keepers? Well, it wasn't very likely that anyone was going to come looking for it, so it ended up in my pocket.

"Well," I said to my wife, "Those cucumber and tomato seedlings were really cheap now, weren't they?"

1 comment:

  1. A very enjoyable read, and "goings on" that i can identify with on several occasions.
    Do i feel another book coming on ?????


    "Porridge Oats"