Sunday, 28 September 2014

Gene Kelly and a Pocketful of Basil

Well at last we've had the first appreciable amount of rain here in Kiotari since last May. Yesterday (Saturday September 27th) it clouded over and by lunchtime the first spots fell. On and off from then on until about midnight it rained, occasionally quite heavily. 

Of course the holidaymakers were devastated and wondered what they're going to do, since the poolside and the beach are out of the question during this kind of weather. Locals, however, well that's a different story. If they could go dancing down the street à la Gene Kelly then they surely would. Certainly the shopkeepers were rubbing their hands together, since rainy weather sends the tourists their way in droves. The ground is parched, the goats are parched, the plant life is desperate for real water instead of that which comes out of a hosepipe or watering can (never quite as good) and the air is torrid. 

Already, as I've just been outside at 1.00am for a walk around the garden, the stars are peeping through everywhere and the weather is set to be sunny again for at least another couple of weeks, so anyone altready here for a vacation or planning to arrive imminently needn't worry unduly.

My wife and I were out working from quite early until around 3.00pm yesterday and it was quite a novelty to be driving home with the wipers on. In fact, as the dearly beloved was driving she owned up to the fact that she couldn't remember how the wipers worked and how to adjust the interval for the intermittent wipe facility. She hadn't driven the car in wet conditons for months. When I hopped out of the car when we reached our front gate the smell of pine in the air was heady and refreshing. I could almost hear the trees and shrubs heaving a huge sigh of relief. And the atmosphere - oh so much clearer and fresher, magic.

My wife's sigh of delight was even more audible than the flora and fauna as - having parked the car under the carport and subsequently thrown some lunch down her oesophagus - she immediately set about burning some rubbish in the orchard, something she hadn't been able to do since Spring, owing to the fact that after the dry season starts it's not only illegal, but it's also very likely to start a forest fire. Frustrated pyromaniac that she is, she longs all summer for the day when she can again head out there with the waste basket from my office and a blowlamp. "Better than landfill" she'll say, and she'd be right. Plus the ashes from the fire pit that I've built for her in the corner of the orchard make a valuable contribution to the compost heap, something which we have to water like we do the garden all summer long to keep it "working" to produce our modest amount of good compost each winter.

The previous evening, Friday 26th, we'd driven down South to visit our old friend Gilma and chew the fat with him on a few old blue-painted folding wooden chairs outside his front door. The conversation came around, as it usually does, to the financial woes he's suffering these days and Maria asked him if he was going to be planting vegetables this winter.

"Ach, Maria mou. it's not worth the effort. These old bones are 75 years old you know. I'm not sure I have the stomach for the work any more, especially as you can go into any local store and come out with several shopping bags full of fresh veg and still have change out of 10 Euros." He replied.

We were reminded of how long we've known him. He was still a couple of years short of 70 the first time we met, so it was almost a shock when he reminded us of how old he is now. Here he was, notwithstanding the fact that his pension is now only 55% of what it was a couple of years ago, telling us that the effort required to plant seeds, cultivate them, water and harvest them was becoming too much for him and despite his straightened circumstances, wasn't viable when you consider how cheap it is to buy fresh vegetables locally.

Something that really worried him was a proposal, apparently now before parliament here in Greece, to replace the now discontinued and much hated property tax with a tax based on how much land someone owned which would, if it became law, ruin him. Hearing his explanation led us to conclude that if this ill-thought-out bill were to become law it would produce a greater and more virulent reaction than anything so far imposed on the working class people of Greece. I mean, consider this: Here in Greece it's been the culture for thousands of years for families to pass land down from one generation to the next. For a rural Greek family the idea of selling off land is still anathema to them. Thus in rural Greece poor people still live in the villages that their ancestors lived in as they till the land and harvest the olives and grapes. They grow their own vegetables in all the villlages around us here.

In the UK nowadays it's a fact that the rural communities have gradually become the home of the better off. How often one hears that young couples starting out can't afford to stay in their home village owing to the inflated property prices caused by the green welly brigade who work in the cities having snapped up all the desirable residences. Many rural villages in the UK are full to the brim with smart barn conversions and posh bungalows with long manicured lawns, old house that have been done up and now sell for huge sums to the urban nouveau riche looking for a nice place to come home to in greenbelt country. Local councils make attempts to think up schemes to make "affordable housing" available to people whose parents, grandparents and so on back for generations have lived in the same village, but which now has reached the stage where only the professional Range Rover driver with a set of golf clubs in the back can afford to buy a home.

Here in Greece it's quite different. Owing to this culture of families hanging on to their land, families on low or modest incomes can still live in their home village. Granted, the young have been deserting these self-same villages in recent decades owing to the search for a career, but it's still the case that they are not yet the domain of the rich. The vast majority of residents haven't even got the paperwork to prove what land each family owns, since everyone grew up knowing exactly where their family's land ended and the next family's began. Thus our friend Gilma is worried. He has a low income, something which has made his life much tougher in the past few years, yet he owns a lot of land. This land isn't bringing him in any appreciable income, yet if this new tax were to come in, he'd have to find several thousand Euros a year to give to the government for the privilege of remaining on soil that his family has tilled for generations. If the likes of Gilma were forced by circumstances into selling - that's even supposing a buyer could be found - then the demographic of rural Greece would gradually begin to reflect that of the UK, with the rich living in the rural areas and the poor ending up in the suburbs.

In the UK it's quite likely that the more land someone owns then the richer they are. Here that situation does not prevail. Thus such a tax would probably result in a huge public outcry and quite possibly vast numbers of people not paying it, largely because they can't pay it.

Anyway, as we sat and heard our old friend giving vent to his worries, we couldn't help but notice just how much basil he had growing all around his front porch area. Just about every Greek who has room for at least one plant pot has basil growing in it, usually quite near to the front or back/kitchen door. I'm sure there are old traditions and superstitions which account for this, but who cares? It's a wonderful plant and an essential in most Greek cooking. Everywhere we go we see strappingly healthy basil growing in pots, often to such a size as could be described as a bush. It's quite plain from some that we come across that the plant is perennial and has been growing for years. Just brushing your fingers through the foliage causes the plant to emit a wonderful and quite mouthwatering aroma.

There are a number of different types of basil, but all go wonderfully well in just about any dish that also contains tomato. Thus, for many years we have been trying to grow it in a large pot at our house, with limited success. I've lost count of how many basil plants we've potted up after the previous one died on us. There's nothing worse in such circumstances than hearing someone tell you, "Oh, basil's easy to grow," whilst snipping a dozen leaves or so from their huge four-foot-high specimen and there you are getting a mental picture of your own sorry example threatening to die in its pot back home outside your own back door.

Here we were sitting under Gilma's porch, beside his well maintained 10-year-old pickup truck, staring at basil growing up through the gravel in abundance in his turning area. It was everywhere. Even a few yards from anywhere and surrounded by gravel there was a sturdy example sitting proudly at around two feet high and covered in tiny aromatic purple flowers, taunting me with its vibrant health.

I remarked to Gilma about how much basil he had growing everywhere, mainly in the ground and not simply in his pots.

"Oh," he said, "It just comes up. You can never have too much of it. Not only does it taste nice, it makes a garden smell wonderful too." With that he arose from his chair and plucked a couple of fistfuls of the stuff and handed a bunch to both myself and to Maria. After first putting it under my nose to take in the luscious aroma I stuffed mine into my shirt pocket to enable myself to keeps my hands free for my drink and, before I could remonstrate with her, my better half stuffed her bunch in there too, thus almost concealing my face from the outside world with the sheer quantity of the stuff that was now making my shirt pocket bulge almost to bursting.

"You have so much of it." I said from behind a veritable forest of green leaves and purple flowers,  "What's the secret? We don't seem to be able to get a basil plant to last more than a few months at home. There must be something we're not doing right." I told him.

Gilma replied, "Oh, there's no secret to it, basil's easy to grow."


  1. Basil doesn't like to have water on the stems so if you've been watering it from the top that may be why it fails. Try watering from below. In other words, stand the pot (which should obviously have holes in the bottom) in a 'saucer' or something larger for a big pot and only water into that.

    Vicki aka Percy Thrower.
    ( I reckon you are old enough to remember him!)

    1. Whilst I hear what you're saying, I've lost count of the number of times I've watched a Greek watering his or her Basil plant by simply pouring water on to the compost in the top of the pot until it's a lake around the plant's stems. They'll do this a few trimes each week. Incidentally, I don't remember Percy Thrower having had a sex change op.

      You're giving your age away. You ought to have said "AKA Joe Swift" or something!