Monday, 2 November 2015

Sage and Sagacity

Nikolaos is 80 years of age and proud of it. Funny isn't it, how once some people get past a certain age, they feel that the first thing they need to tell you when they meet you for the first time is how old they are. I mean, we don't tend to do it in our middle years, do we? "Hi, I'm Fred and I'm 57 you know." Nah, maybe when we're 7, 8 or 9, yea, but then it waits until we're, I dunno, something like 74 and then it becomes a prerequisite again. So I'm not knocking old Nikolao, he's just following convention.

 Four of us, the better half and I plus two Greek friends, were sitting in the Platanos café/restaurant in the village of Laerma at around midday last Saturday, when the aforementioned elder of his village approached to bid us good day.

Prior to our arrival at the Platanos, my wife and I had done as we often do, threaded our way through the tiniest back alleys and walkways, enjoying the very acceptable temperature at this time of the year. We'd earlier struck up a conversation with a fella who was sealing the flat roof on his single-storey house, in readiness to fend off the coming winter rains. He was a portly, jolly man of somewhere in his sixties I'd guess, since he was evidently not yet quite old enough to feel the need to to declare his age to us. He'd descended the ladder from his rooftop and was rummaging around in his apothiki for an attachment for his electric drill. It was one of those things that resembles a huge mixer, the giant version of that thing you whisk eggs with in the kitchen. He was going to stir his pot of white paint before applying it to the surface above.

 Standing in the avli also was his wife, who was busying herself baking bread. The smell was irresistible and so we entered through their gate to see the woman withdrawing freshly-baked loaves from the oven, which of course was the old traditional type, fuelled by wood and situated out in the yard. You so often still see these ovens in the villages and they usually bear the evidence of frequent use. Not for ladies such as this one the thought of buying a breadmaking machine, or even of preparing the dough and using her modern oven in the kitchen. No, she was using the method employed for millenia in this part of the world and perfectly sensible this was too. No charge for the energy used, since the wood was free. Very green, eh?

As she used the long wooden paddle to draw out the loaves and rolls that were ready, we also noticed that packed into the oven along with the bread were large sprigs of sage. In the 2nd of the two photos below, you can see a loaf that she'd just taken out, still piping hot and sitting on a bed of sage sprigs on the rough old patio table, bottom of picture.

After we'd enjoyed a pleasant conversation, during which, of course they'd found out where we lived, how long we'd lived there, whether we own our own house and whether we had children, what we did for a living, how many fillings we had (OK, just joking on that one) and various other details the like of which a British conversation would never go near until we'd at least known each other for a while and become firm friends. The Greeks think nothing of this, what we British might call prying, it's their culture. They ask very direct questions and one needs to get used to it, otherwise one could take offence and that would be unwise and unnecessary. It's the culture, pure and simple. of course, once they learned that my wife had a Greek mother that was all they needed to know. "You're Greek then!" The woman declared, evidently satisfied that here was someone who was virtually her kith and kin.

After a conversation of probably ten minutes or so, we began to bid them good day and the woman wouldn't let us leave without giving us that first loaf that she'd just taken out of the oven. "No, NO! Don't go yet. You must take some bread with you!" She declared, as she disappeared in through her kitchen door, then re-emerged with a length of kitchen roll, which she wrapped around the loaf, which was still sitting on the sprigs of sage, and handed it to me.

How do you show apreciation for little acts of kindness like that? The answer is you can't, at least not in any way that seems adequate. As we walked back up the hill toward the car the heat from that loaf was transferring itself to my hands and it was all I could do not to scoff the whole thing there and then. Once back at the car I placed it in the boot (trunk. I'm sure you're used to this by now! The web is sooo international, that's the trouble) and off we went to meet our friends at the Platanos.

 The Platanos is run by Manolis and his British partner Denise. They have been running it now for about a year, having previously been the proprietors of the Lazy Days café at Gennadi. After renewing acquaintance with Manoli we sat down and set about the serious business of putting the world to rights with our two friends over a few frappes and an Elliniko. It was then that the spritely octogenarian approached to bid us kalimera and was soon making it evident that he'd appreciate a conversation if we had the time.

The small car to the right is parked just below the Igkos Taverna (see text further down)
Nikolaos was probably about 5 foot five, but his body bore evidence that in years past he'd been somewhat taller. Although the distance from his blue check flannel shirt collar to his trouser belt was evidently not as great as it had been, he still carried himself with dignity and was well turned out, with smart polished shoes on his feet. He had a square face with nothing like as many lines as some of his age carry, and a very good head of white, swept-back wavy hair.

After the conversation had gone on for a few minutes our friend Kostas bade our visitor sit down and we ordered him an Elliniko too. He was all too pleased to accept the invitation. Every time I converse with some of his generation I can't help reflecting on what he's lived through. He'd have been about 5 or 6 when the Nazis came here and could no doubt remember some pretty awful events from his early years. He told us quite early on in the chat that he'd written a couple of books about the history of the island and his village in particular. They had all been written in rhyme too, a fact which he bore out by answering not a few of our questions with some fairly elongated quotes from his work, all in very well composed rhyming couplets. He could rattle off a couple of minutes worth, and not only was that remarkable, but the pieces he'd recite would also answer our questions about the past of the village and the island.

After probably fifteen minutes or so an ambulance, roof lights flashing, sped up the lane below us and stopped at the Igkos Taverna (which features fairly heavily in this post from May 2011). This alarmed us because we know the owner, Panagiotis, and someone who came in to update everyone seated on the terrace told us that the ambulance was for him. It seems he'd collapsed and they couldn't bring him around. Theories tended to revolve around the possibility of a heart problem, but whatever the cause, it threw a damper on things as everyone who knows Panagiotis likes him. Considering the location of this village, the ambulance had done wonders to arrive within about fifteen minutes of being called. We do hope that Panagiotis will make a full and speedy recovery.

As our time with Nikolao was winding up, one of his contemporaries strode up the slope to the terrace and decided to get in on the act. He seemed particularly to want to tell us about the village school, just opposite and behind the church. I'd asked him about the work situation and the fact that so many of the younger generation are deserting the villages these days. 

"Yes," he said, "That school used to have over 40 pupils."
"How many does it have now?" I asked him, "twenty, maybe?"
His response was to purse his lips and tilt his head back, a Greek "no". 
"What, 15 or less?" I postulated.
"Makari!" he said, "be lucky if there are ten pupils in there now."

Greece it seems is a couple of decades behind the UK in this, but a similar migration is occurring. As more and more working folk leave their villages to find employment in the towns and cities, or the youth go off to pursue a career, something which would be an impossibility in a tiny hillside village like this one, so the properties become empty and decay sets in. Then the better off move in, snap them up and so the community becomes a community of well-off folk who either commute or use the homes for summer retreats, or perhaps let them to tourists. Thus the heart slowly drains from the village communities. It's sad, but something about which not much can be done in the kind of world we now inhabit.

So many of the British villages from the areas we used to live are now packed with expensive Mercedes, BMW's or 4x4's parked on gravel drives, where in decades past there would have been modest family saloons, if not a tractor even. Village schools are now community halls, where the odd flower show takes place and no one really knows eachother or pulls together like the tightly knit local communities of old. Hey ho. Here I go again. Fings aint what they used to be...

On our way home we were tantalised by the aroma of that warm loaf sitting in the back of the car. When we got into the house I placed the loaf on the table near the French windows and photographed it again...

She even gave us the sprig of sage.
Tell you what though, we'd thoroughly enjoyed the sagacity of the old men on Laerma, not to mention the fact that on Oct 31st we were sitting outside in warm sunlight, enjoying good company. 

And the taste of that bread, with the faint aroma of sage permeating it, was something else. It soon got sawn up, anointed (in my case) with some Danish Blue cheese and washed down with a glass of red wine.

Might just attempt another pass by that house some time soon, on the pretext of seeing how he got on with his roof. 

And anyway, we shall be hoping to hear good news about Panagiotis, from the Igkos Taverna.


  1. Have to say John, there are times when I do envy your life!!
    Lyn (Glynis) Duggan

    1. I'm sure we all have our difficulties to deal wth Lyn, although thanks for your comment. I just don't share all the negative stuff on the blog! I do count my blessings though, as indeed we all should, yea?