Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Coffee, Cake and a Contribution

Last Friday we had another 'do', a coffee morning to raise some cash for the local Doctor's surgery at Gennadi. I had thought that maybe it wouldn't happen this year, until the redoubtable Dimitris Koronios breathed life into it again. For various reasons it hadn't looked likely, but Dimitris asked Julia what was happening and when, because after he'd added a further €2000 to the pot of €735 we'd raised in January 2016, he'd never doubted that he'd want to do something again this year and that we'd be doing the same.

Following our "bring and buy" last year Dimitris held an event in the square next to the school in Gennadi village, involving souvlaki, more table-top stalls and some live music, for which he'd had to do all sorts of paperwork to make sure the legalities were complied with. I'm full of admiration for the man because he singlehandedly got the local Greek community, plus quite a few local Albanians too (who make up a large percentage now of the population of the village) to rally to the cause. Dimitris is a young family man who owns a modest hotel in Gennadi, called the Summer Breeze (recently added to my "Stay" page BTW). If you're looking for a DIY holiday staying within a stone's throw of a quiet beach and easy walking distance to the centre of a quintessentially Greek village far from the hordes I can definitely recommend the Summer Breeze. An hotel it may be, but it retains the feel of a family pension and is indeed run by a young Greek family. The quality of the rooms and public areas (bar, restaurant) is spotless and the area nice and peaceful.

Anyway, our Dimitris had already earmarked a date to stage an event for "Help For Health Gennadi" in the village in 2017 and was expecting us Brits to have done our part as well. For reasons I won't go into here, I had my doubts whether we'd be able to have an event at our friend Julia's place. She, however, rang me up and said that although a fully fledged "bring and buy" may not be feasible, a coffee morning certainly was. Thus she and another friend Viv, who'd come on board last year when I'd organised the event, got the bit between their teeth, we fixed the day for Friday February 24th, and it was once more a going concern for 2017. This Year Julia and Viv did pretty much all the work, with me simply running the Facebook page to get everyone living in the area informed. 

The turnout on the day was very encouraging, even if the weather wasn't. The day dawned murky and the sky threatening the further south you looked and Julia's house (quite near to the village) is three kilometres south of ours. By the time 10.30am came around we'd had a cloudburst and the tables and chairs that Julia had set out for guests to sit around were drenched, as was the terrace around the house, which was not only wet but full of muddy paw marks from her two soppy dogs.

Ever the optimists that we are, we assured each other that the weather would improve and, sure enough, by the time people were entering the gates armed with Tupperware containers and foil-wrapped delights to contribute to the cakes, scones and pastries on offer, the sun had come out. By the time the morning was well along and the place was buzzing with a good selection of ex-pat Brits and not a few local Greeks (more than last year thanks to Dimitri's efforts to drum up support) the weather was balmy, the conversation lively and Viv's throat hoarse from trying to make herself heard as she shouted out the winners of the prizes in the modest little draw that they'd organised. I contributed a brand new copy of my latest novel "Sometimes You Just Can't Tell" as a prize and I've no idea who won it. I only hope they think it worth the modest investment for their ticket!

March 7th will see Dimitri's event take place in the village. I really hope that people will support it as last year we were able to buy so much useful, even essential, stuff for Doctor Nikos and his dedicated team at the health centre to put to use. Among the benefits gained from last year's event, was the fact that the centre was able to offer testing for diabetes and cholesterol to any local resident who cared to drop by and have a little blood taken. Thousands of local people were either reassured or forearmed about both of those things as a result of the cash we raised and spent on behalf of the centre.

The weather this week is gorgeous. Yesterday we spent the day in the garden and it was 22ºC in the shade, hardly any breeze and almost wall-to-wall sunshine...

What excites us is the amount of birdlife we now have in the garden. It's often said that if you create the right environment for wildlife, it will come. Eleven years ago the area around the house was a building site, full of old rubbish and junk left behind from the construction of the house. After a decade and more of graft, we now look around the garden and are amazed ourselves at what we've achieved, but even more so at the wildlife that now enjoys the fruits of our labours.

Yesterday, as I busied myself in the orchard, I cocked an ear to the different calls of the birds around me. Ten years go I'd have heard almost nothing. Now I hear blackbirds, jays, warblers, robins, black redstarts, stonechats, chaffinches, the occasional thrush and blue tit, sparrows, wrens and a few more besides. In summer we have hoopoes and bee eaters too. There are always buzzards circling high above and the occasional golden eagle. There are falcons and hawks too difficult for this rusty twitcher to now ID with any certainty. Plus, we're delighted that we also see goldfinches regularly. Yes, lots of these species are also found in the UK and on days like yesterday, if I close my eyes, I can imagine myself down a British country lane in June - and it's still only February.

As we sipped at our frappés under our hastily re-erected parasol and gazed down the valley, casting an eye around for the fallow deer that now live permanently around the house, we had to remind ourselves that we really need more rain. Water courses that normally run with a current for a couple of months at this time of the year are dry. In fact, we walked along to Glystra Beach yesterday and for part of the time we were following the river bed that in past years we'd not have been able to cross owing to the current having been up to our knees.

Yet still they build new hotels, with bigger and more impressive swimming pools. I'll not go down that road here today though. I'm feeling too positive about the garden, the wildlife and our efforts to help the local Health Centre in Gennadi. 

Incidentally, at the coffee morning at Julia's I met an ex-pat couple who've only been out here from Sussex for a few months. Tony is a very personable guy and his wife is (she'll forgive me not remembering her name yet) too. We spoke at some length and he told me that I was to blame for him being here. Look out Tony, you'll probably have a couple of guests for coffee some morning soon! I'll want to see if my investment pays off.

See folks, for all the uncertainty that surrounds the never-ending chit-chat about the Greek crisis and Brexit, there are still people sensible enough to up sticks and get on with it. Live your own life, and cross bridges when you get to them. Cheer up, much of what you speculate regarding such things will probably never happen anyway. Tony's done the right thing, I'm sure of it. If he ever decides that he hasn't, he'll be after my guts for garters!

A stretch of Kiotari Beach. February 27th 2017.

Friday, 24 February 2017

It's a Crime Not to...

The latest in my occasional series of interviews with Greek-themed authors. I'm proud to present my chat with Anne Zouroudi.

Anne on Symi, her spiritual home and the setting for many of her Greek Detective novels.

Author Anne Zouroudi fell in love not only with Greece, especially the island of Symi, but also with a Greek who lived there, hence her surname. She's famous now for her excellent series of novels all about the exploits of The Greek Detective, also known as the "fat man", Hermes Diaktoros, who always wears plimsolls.

I can lay claim to having read a couple of them so far and I was very impressed. She writes very evocatively and the stories are very believable. If you love Greek fiction and haven't read on or more of Anne's books, where have you been?

As a person who shares Anne's love for Symi, I read her work with relish. I wholeheartedly agree with this review of one of the Greek Detective series by British newspaper the Guardian:

“Diaktoros is a delight… There is also a cracking plot, colourful local characters and descriptions of the hot, dry countryside so strong that you can almost see the heat haze and hear the cicadas – the perfect read to curl up with as the nights draw in.” 

So, how great is this? I have subjected Anne to my 15 questions and she's only gone and answered them for me, hasn't she. Thus, I'm happy to share her words here on the blog. Here goes then...

1. Where do you live?
The past couple of years I’ve spent more time in the UK than anywhere else, mainly because my partner and I are trying our hands at self-sufficiency, and the livestock keep us tied to home. But we have kind relatives who can occasionally be persuaded to house-sit and take on the day-to-day responsibilities while we travel. Obviously we head in only one direction – Greece. Our next trip is already booked – we’re off to Parga.

2. What do you write about?
I’ve written a series (eight books up to this point) called the Mysteries of the Greek Detective. Essentially crime novels, they feature an enigmatic investigator called Hermes Diaktoros who brings his own brand of natural justice to wherever it’s needed. There’s a touch of myth and magic in my novels, and I always include plenty of food – Hermes is a bit of a gourmet, and he gives me an excuse to sing the praises of Greece’s wonderful diversity of dishes.

3.Why Greece?
Many years ago, I gave up a glittering business career that was becoming somewhat tarnished  to marry a Greek fisherman I met on holiday. In short, I was, like many others, a Shirley Valentine. The marriage didn’t last (though my ex and I are still good friends), but my love affair with Greece has more than endured. I feel Greek in my soul, and I find Greece inspires my writing like nowhere else. I should say, though, that I don’t sugar-coat it. My books are full of sunshine, but they have dark underbellies too.

4. How long does it take you to write a book?
A first draft, about six months. To polish it to my own exacting standards, another six months. I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Every word must earn its place. So all in all, about a year.

5. What do you enjoy most about writing?
Sometimes I don’t enjoy it at all! But when the words flow and the ideas are sparking, I love to see where the story’s going without any apparent help from me. When it’s going well, it’s like being led by fairies into the woods.

The island of Alonissos, which became Liteos in The Gifts of Poseidon.
6. What, in your view, is/has been the greatest gift from Greece to the world?
I think Greece’s greatest gift is available to anyone who travels there – she offers the gift of peace with oneself, and quiet reflection. You take a seat at a harbour cafe or in a beachside taverna, and somehow with the first sip of coffee or cold beer, the yoke of the 21st century slips from your shoulders. You enter that timelessness which suffuses Greek life, and it gives you a sense of perspective, an understanding that everything can indeed wait until tomorrow. Avrio is plenty soon enough. [what an ace description of what makes this country so unique! - JM]

7. How do you come up with an idea for a book?
That’s one of life’s great mysteries! I get inspiration from all kinds of places but most often when I’m out walking the dog. For me silence breeds ideas.

8. How do you go about writing, that is to say, are you organised, do your research, disciplined, are are you a messy sort who gets it done one way or another?
I’m certainly not organised and I’m not particularly disciplined either, except that I do start very early in the morning, around 5am. If the words really refuse to flow I don’t waste my time, I come back to it the next day. I try not to be rigid in my plans because I think it stifles creativity. If I’m stuck I might do a little drawing or write something different for a while, and usually I find inspiration will strike. I’m not a believer in writer’s block. I have far more ideas than I could ever write down. [Great! That means a lot more books to come then! - JM]

9. Which other authors do you read?
I read very widely, all kinds of very varied books, both fiction and non-fiction. My favourite fiction authors are Neil Gaiman and David Mitchell, and I read a fair bit of contemporary crime too. My guilty pleasure is Marianne Keyes. At the moment I’m taking a big interest in the world situation and I’m reading about the Greek crisis and how the UK got itself into such a parlous mess. I’ve been very interested in Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein, a whole new way of looking at the role of money in the world – it’s a great read for anyone who’s interested in tackling inequality at its roots. 

10. What's your preferred kind of music? 
That’s not a good question for me – musically I’m stuck in the past. No further comment. [Bit like me then! - JM]

11. Do you like Greek music and if so, which kind?
I love Greek music, especially the music of the islands – it’s so soulful it breaks my heart. [See * below]

12. Favourite Greek dish?
Tough one. Hermes’s favourite is bougatsa but I’d choose kolokithokeftedes – courgette fritters with feta and plenty of dill. Served with a sprinkle of salt, a squeeze of lemon and a glass of retsina – fantastic! [I think Anne may be my long-lost sister! - JM]

13. Favourite place in Greece and the reason(s)?
My first love will always be the Dodecanese island of Symi. I know it best and it’s been good to me. It’s still as beautiful as it always was. 
The Police Station on Symi waterfront. serves as the model for the police station in Thiminos in Anne's first book The Messenger of Athens where Hermes Diaktoros makes his first fictional appearance.

14. What links would you like the readers to explore in connection with your work, including, of course, sites where your work may be purchased?

15. And finally, reading device or real book?

I find my Kindle useful for downloading samples and a better option for travelling. But there’s nothing quite like curling up with a proper book, is there?

The Gifts of Poseidon front cover. The latest in the series. 

Hope you found Anne's comments enjoyable and enlightening. There's already another interview in the pipeline, this time, wait for it, with a male author!!

* Regarding Anne's mention of island music. 
I can't recommend highly enough 2 CDs by Giannis Parios (sometimes spelt Yiannis or Yannis in the Roman alphabet). In 1981 he brought out an album called "Τα Νησιωτικα" which is superb collection of traditional island songs. Ten years later he released "Τα Νησιώτικα 2" which was every bit as good. You may have trouble tracking them down in English, although if you're coming to Greece this year you'll be able to find them in any good CD store. Here are the sleeves:

To listen to both albums in their entirety, click HERE.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Brooding over Food, Plus a Bumper Bundle of Photos - Plus Postscript

We've recently been nattering with some neighbours about the cost of eating out on the cheap. I'm probably way out of touch with prices in the UK now, but I do well remember going with my Dad to his local fish and chip shop some years ago (and bear in mind that my dad died in January of 2009) and being so shocked by the price of a portion of cod and chips that I was only just resuscitated in time before the ambulance paramedics almost gave up on me. Fish and chips for two (frankly, my better half and I would never usually eat the stuff, so lacking is it in any worthwhile nutrition and so chock full of saturated fats) costs at least a tenner these days and in the fish shop in question, fish and chips for four came to well over £20. eating-in prices are ridiculous. Starting at around £9 a head and upwards. Plus you still usually have to queue up at a serving counter to get your meal.

What prompted this little discussion was the observation that someone made about the newest souvlaki grill to open up in the main street of the village of Arhangelos. The place has a very attractive set of check-tableclothed tables and, though we haven't tried it yet, looks well worth a visit. We have, however, sampled the vegetarian pittas at the one in Lardos square plus at our favourite, Psitopolis, on Mihalis Petridis Street in Rhodes Town. 

If you eat in at Rick Stein's Fish and Chip Emporium at Padstow, Cornwall, cod and chips will set you back £8.20 per person (it's great this intery net type thingie, eh?). So, if two people order cod and chips plus a drink each, the bill is going to be somewhere around £20. Plus you can start by queuing well out into the great outdoors for half an hour for the privilege on a busy summer evening. Now, let's compare that with what you can get over here.

First and foremost, if you pop into Psitopolis in Rhodes Town you sit at your table and get served by a cheerful waiter, exactly as you would in a regular taverna. The atmosphere in there is exactly the same in fact as it is in a taverna. My wife and I have been in several times lately and the last time we were there we ordered two vegetarian pittas with Halumi cheese. These come stuffed with tzatziki, red onions, tomato, Halumi and a few chips. Nutritionally when compared to fish and chips there's no contest. We also ordered a couple of drinks. I had a 330ml can of Fix Beer and my wife a tonic water. The bill came to just a few cents over €6, not each, that's total. And when you've eaten those pittas you're well stuffed. Two people, a filling meal and a drink for about a fiver in English money. Can you fault it?

We often too drop into Savvas Grill in Lardos and take home a couple of their veggie pittas, plus one portion of their delicious oven potatoes. That usually sets us back €5 and when we get home, as we did this past Saturday evening, we unwrap the pittas and let them flatten themselves out on a couple of dinner plates, share out the oven potatoes (which are supplied in one of those foil trays with a cardboard lid like a Chinese takeaway in the UK) and look at two very decent-sized meals, all for just €5. 

OK, so If you go food shopping over here in the supermarkets it's definitely more expensive than in the UK for a whole host of packaged and canned foods. We're partial to a dish of porridge now and then, plus the other half makes delicious oat-based flapjacks. A translucent half-kilo sealed plastic bag of oats costs around €1.80. In the UK most major supermarkets will sell you a kilo bag for around 75p. A can of baked beans in the UK can be picked up for as little as 24p. Even the top brand name Heinz is only around 75p. Here you have to search to find an obscure brand for 60 or 70 cents. Top brands like Heinz sell for anything up to €2 and over. Gourmet prices.

That's why we don't buy a lot of packaged foods, which is better for our health and for the environment anyway. But the fact that it's better for our balance sheet is a major factor too. Swings and roundabouts of course, but there truly is a huge gulf between what you can get a pretty good eat-in or take-home meal for over here and what you'd pay for something quite a bit less healthy in the UK. Plus you get table service.

There you are, I've sounded off. feel much better now so here are some recent photos for you...

On a recent beach walk here in Kiotari. As you can see, the weather's awful again.

same walk as above.


Vlicha Beach from the main road with the sea "up" a little.

A hill just minutes from our house. That's the missus in the middle. Yes, she is there somewhere, trust me.

Simba, making sure he's still at home in our garden 'cos he'll soon be spending his hols with us for three weeks, as he does annually.

Yesterday we walked past this new arrival.

The winter weather is pretty typical at the moment; mainly blue skies with temperatures nudging 20 for several hours during the day. In fact yesterday was so lovely that we walked to Gennadi and back along the coast road, which was where we came across the baby goat. 

Tell you one thing, he/she has nothing to fear from us, we won't be eating him, or maybe her.

PS - added 2.15am Thursday Feb. 23rd
Last night's visit to Psitopoli, two Halumi-veggie pittas, a green salad, one Fix and a bottle of water, delicious brown horiatiki bread, total for two people €10.10. Wic-ked! - 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Village Chat

Sara at work, with just a few of her published titles on the desk.

Anyone who likes reading Greek fiction will know the name Sara Alexi. She's probably the leading bestselling author on-line of Greek fiction nowadays. Her "Greek Village" series of books is now acquiring legendary status and, to the delight of her many loyal readers, her prolific output shows little sign of drying up.

OK, so she has published a couple of books more recently which aren't - shock horror - based in Greece, notably her very latest "The Piano Raft" (already a hot seller) and also "Saving Septic Cyril" from last year. I haven't read either of these yet, but with a title like "Saving Septic Cyril" I think the wicked title alone makes that one merit a go. 

Sara's Greek Village series has now run to 19 titles, all interwoven around a single village and the characters that live there, or have relatives living there. I can claim to have read quite a few of them, including a couple of short novelettes which were very good indeed. One of my personal favourites is The English Lesson, which had a truly wicked twist toward the end that I though quite brilliant.

Anyway, I'm extremely proud to say that Sara recently agreed to be subjected to my 15 questions and thus, she's number five in my growing list of interviews with Greek-themed authors here on the blog.

So, let's get down to business. Here are Sara Alexi's thoughts on my 15 questions. Her answers are truly expansive and so I believe that not only her existing fans, but anyone else with an interest in Greek fiction will enjoy reading them...

1. Where do you live?
I live in a small rural village outside the town of Nafplion in the Peloponnese, in Greece. It is an agricultural area and I very seldom see tourists in the village.

2. What do you write about?
I am fascinated by people, how they interact, what makes us do what we do, and how our exchanges with other people shape not only our lives but who we become. 
Mostly I am impressed by peoples’ resilience and how, in the face of great adversity, they find ways to not only survive but to thrive. So the books I write are first and foremost character driven. 

But they say write what you know so I set these characters in a small village in Greece, not dissimilar to the village where I live, and this allows me to draw on what I see around me on a day to day basis. I have been told this makes the books seem very real and, indeed, I receive emails from readers who believe the characters are my friends and the village I write about is one they can visit if they holiday in Greece, which I find very flattering.

3. Why Greece?
It’s difficult to define what makes Greece special. I have visited other warm countries, so it cannot only be the heat, and I have visited other places where the people are friendly, so it cannot only be the people. I have visited places that prize themselves in their culinary expertise, so it cannot only be the food. 

All I know is that the first time I set foot on Greek soil I felt I had ‘arrived home’, and other people have said the same. There is something about the combination of all the factors that make up Greece that is unique and speaks to a very deep part of me. 
If I understood it I would bottle it and sell it as is it the most wonderful feeling ever.

4. How long does it take you to write a book?
The plotting is the tricky part, that and choosing the very first word. I often procrastinate over both. 

But once I have the first line I love the process of the actual writing and I will sit hours a day pondering and moving the story along, or, often, watching my hands and brain as they seem to co-ordinate without me to write stories I did not know I had in me. 
If all goes well, once plotted I will do the actually writing in about thirty days. Then, of course, the manuscript needs reading through and giving its first edit. It then goes to a professional editor for round two, then it is proof read and goes out to my wonderful Beta readers. I have only been writing four and half, nearly five years now, so what I do know is that, on average, I have produced a book every ten weeks - which astounds me. It seems I have a lot to say!

5. What do you enjoy most about writing?
I love the creation of a scene, a world, dreaming up the setting and watching the characters inside that setting. But the things I write about are all very personal. Usually it is something I have seen, experienced or heard of that I see as unjust or unresolved and in the process of writing I make these things just and find resolution, so, if I was honest, every book is cathartic and every book is my own therapy.

6. What, in your view, is/has been the greatest gift from Greece to the world?
Feta and spinach pies! Oh... did you want a serious answer? Hm... Let me think... No, it’s definitely the pies. [I'm with you there Sara, 100%, JM]

7. How do you come up with an idea for a book?
Book ideas tend to come to me without my searching. I watch my emotions and if I come across something that I feel passionate about or find a character trait in myself or others that causes me to reflect then I know there is a possibility of a story there. I have to feel passionate about what I am writing about. 

Often I start with a character and then I want to explore that character in all its facets until I really understand it. Starting a book is a lot like taking on a client for psychotherapy; you see all the faults and the flaws because those are what are presented, but you search for the beauty, the unflawed inner person, the part you can love and needs to be shown to the world. That is what I aim to do with the books – to show that everyone is lovable if you look deeply enough. Corny perhaps, but I believe it to be true.

8. How do you go about writing, that is to say, are you organised, do your research, disciplined, are are you a messy sort who gets it done one way or another?
I am very organised and disciplined. I always know how the story starts and who my character is, and I always know the end. Sometimes the part in the middle can get a little messy because I am exploring and learning, but it is only messy in my head. 

The research is done as I go to keep it fresh in my mind, but despite what might come along, what impasses I come across, what moods my journey puts me in I am very strict about how much I write each day. 

I am very aware that it is a luxury to be a writer full time and that is solely due to my readers, and I feel I owe it to them to keep the pace going and to bring out a new book often enough to keep them entertained.

9. Which other authors do you read?
Being dyslexic, reading is not always a joy, or easy, so there are times when I read lots and other times when I only read a little. 

I have a number of favourite authors who I read again and again as they inspire me to write better, to observe more accurately, and to be more gracious with my wording. 
Old favourites are Anthony Trollope, Charlotte Bronte, and Kazuo Ishiguro. Khaled Hosseini is a recent fave. [wholeheartedly agree on that last one, JM]

If I compare myself to authors such as these I prefer to call myself a storyteller, and not a proper writer!

10. What's your preferred kind of music?
I am very eclectic in my musical taste. I love Greek Music, the traditional rebektika and some modern Greek music, and I also love Opera and classic rock such as Led Zeppelin and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Paul Simon and the Beatles are both in my collection. I’ve been listening to Skrillex too, recently.

11. Do you like Greek music and if so, which kind?
I love it! Especially the old rebetika. Some of the words are hilarious! I love the gravelly sound of Sotiria Bellou and the dreamy lyrics and sound of Eleftheria Arvanitaki. 
There is so much good Greek music out there! Have a listen to Haris Alexiou, and Imam Baildi are interesting too – producing a new take on the old classics.

12. Favourite Greek dish?
I love all the Greek vegetable dishes and there are so many of them! Meat was more scarce in the past, and I think this is why there is such a wide choice of vegetarian food. 
One of my favourites is beetroot with garlic sauce - just thinking about it is making my mouth water! I also love the horta, which refers to any of a number of greens that are picked in the wild, then boiled and served with olive oil and lemon.

13. Favourite place in Greece and the reason(s)?
I have two favourite places in Greece; one is along the coastal path toward Kamini on the island of Hydra where the view across the sea towards Dokos is the best in all of Greece. There is a taverna there and I could sit many a long hour just to watch the view - the layers of blue on blue as the islands fade into the distance. 

My second favourite place is, of course, my home. I bought it as a very run down old farm house and I have rebuilt the roof and found reclaimed old tiles for the floor, and a lovely antique marble sink for the kitchen. 

I know every single inch of the place and have either painted or repaired or plastered just about every part of it. It is not finished yet, and may well never be as when a job needs doing the sun has a habit of luring me into the garden or onto the terrace for a frappe!

14. What links would you like the readers to explore in connection with your work, including, of course, sites where your work may be purchased?

15. And finally, reading device or real book?

A real book every time unless I am travelling. E-Books are amazing, but I still prefer paperback.

A huge thank you to Sara for sharing her thoughts here on the blog. I do hope you've enjoyed getting inside her mind as much as I have! There's another great interview coming along quite soon, so if you've enjoyed this one, don't stay away too long.

Plus, for all the interviews in the series, check in the left hand column under the heading "The Interviews" for direct links to each one of them.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Weather Whingers

Anemones on the roadside near Lardos

I suppose it's a British thing. By and large us Brits are conditioned by our culture (what's left of it) and our climate, nay browbeaten by both to be condemned to perpetually whinge about the weather.

What does get me down though, and I'll probably make a few (more) enemies with this post, is how no small number of Brits who've moved out here seem to be perpetually whinging about the weather on Rhodes. I don't get it, I really don't. It's winter here from December through February. Fact. Thus, it's not going to be wall to wall sunshine and sweltering temperatures during those months. What little autumn we get here is usually confined to November and spring to March, well, February thru April now and then.

Having lived here now for well over eleven years I feel fairly qualified to talk about a Rhodean winter. I usually say it's like a British summer and most of the time I'm right. OK, so occasionally we get a cold spell, sometimes (as was the case this winter) it lasts for a week or two, but even then during the daytime when the sun's out you can sit in a sheltered spot in a t-shirt and eat your lunch al fresco. The norm though is for it to be from 8-11ºC overnight and the upper teens, even the lower twenties, during the middle of the day. Not wishing to pull rank, but I suppose it's what I'm about to do, but speaking Greek means you can watch the weather forecasts on Greek TV and understand what they're on about. Sakkis (may his name be blessed) on the government channels often shows us why we're getting a cold snap by showing the air masses all across Europe and Asia Minor. He'll also tell us when things are liable to change. These cold air masses account for the below average times when we get a blue splodge coming down from Russia, across Turkey and into the eastern Aegean. We've had one this past couple of days, but as from tomorrow it's a warm air mass coming over us again and the night time temperatures will be back to normal.

It seems to me too that a lot of people don't seem to understand what averages are. There is seldom a day when the temperature is exactly on the average. Averages are made up from regular maximums and regular minimums, that's how it works, right? Thus, when it's below average it's not because everything's gone AWOL and the weather's down the tubes. Yet sure as anything there'll be the soothsayers on Facebook going on about how bitter cold it is. Yet when the temperature is above average (which it is just as often) you don't hear anything like as much comment.

The facts are these: We get over 300 days of sunshine a year on Rhodes, and lots of these occur during the winter months. January and February often bring cloudless days for a week or two on end. Yesterday it was 18ºC and we ate a very nice lunch in our t-shirts out on our terrace. Accompanied by a medicinal drop of the old Retsina of course, chilled. OK, so overnight it dropped to somewhere near zero. That's unusually low, but this is winter. It still warms up as soon as the sun is up whereas from memory, in the UK it wouldn't warm up (if it was going to at all) before midday and it would be cooling down rapidly by about 2.30pm. Here, at 9.30am it's already 15 and climbing. It doesn't begin to cool until the sun's ready to set.

Yes, it rains now and again and by rights that ought to be a couple of times a week. Although, even though this winter it's rained more than the last one, it's still not raining as often as it ought to. We get the occasional cloudy day, plus the days when it's sunshine and cloud. Like I said, a British summer, with temperatures not a whole world away during the daylight hours either.

So, what is there to complain about? I don't get it. If someone wants the temperature to never drop below 25ºC at any time of the year then they should have moved to the Caribbean. That's if they don't mind experiencing a hurricane season once a year for a couple of months and they don't mind it getting dark around 6.00pm all year round.

Frankly, you have to take the rough with the smooth here on Rhodes, but the rough isn't anything to complain about.

This past week it's been almost wall to wall sunshine and the flowers in the garden are letting us know...

That's one magnificent Rosemary plant. We're just beginning to learn about all its amazing health benefits too. Rosemary tea soon...

Gazanias. These are so blousy. They also seed themselves everywhere so we just pull out the ones we don't want, and transplant some to areas where we'd like some more colour. They're very drought-resistant too.

Gazanias come in a bewildering variety of foliage and colours. They also know when to open and close with the sunlight.

More Gazanias beside one of our Lantana bushes. The Lantanas are just now starting to burst forth with flowers. Lantana is another plant that comes in a huge variety of colours.

I just fitted the new gate I made for the fence between the orchard and the house. The old one dry rotted after ten years in situ. So handy having so many available wooden pallets around the area! Look at that sky, awful isn't it.
So, it's a Rhodean winter and I for one love it. I can do the gardening usually in a t-shirt and we can go for long walks in the countryside. Can't do either once the full heat of the summer comes upon us. You won't catch me whinging. 

As my dear old Dad used to say with regularity, "count your blessings, son."

Saturday, 11 February 2017

High Tea

Doesn't look much does it? This is τσαι βουνου [Chai vounou], or Greek Mountain Tea and it's pretty special stuff. This bowlful is specially special (!?) because it was handpicked by some friends of ours. It has to be picked in high summer, when the flowers are on the plant and it has to be picked about 3,000 feet and more above sea level, because it's from that altitude upwards that the plant usually grows.

I used to think that chai vounou (literally, tea of the mountain. To give it its proper name it would be chai tou vounou, but most people leave out the 'tou' these days) was dried sage and in fact you can make a pretty good tea from sage, but the real chai vounou is a plant called Sideritis. This is how it looks when growing in the wild and flowering (usually July/August)...

Photo courtesy of http://www.west-crete.com/flowers/sideritis_syriaca.htm
Amusingly, every part of Greece and most of Albania (and elsewhere besides) claim this tea as their own. As an example, if you clicked on the link under that photo you'll have seen that it calls it "Cretan Mountain Tea" on that web site. It's a bit like Greek Coffee isn't it. If you're in Turkey it's Turkish, if you're in Italy it's espresso...etc. The fact is it's mountain tea and very, very good for you.

We keep a few herbal teas in the house, including camomile, peppermint and a few others. We also keep a supply of various green teas and, of course, the ever essential Earl Grey for those moments when you need a digestive biscuit, which are many and frequent. Frankly, some herb teas I just don't like. They may be exceedingly good for me, perhaps they'll prevent me going bald, getting Alzheimer's and all kinds of other stuff, but I'm prepared to take the risk. When it comes to mountain tea though, just shove in the smallest teaspoonful of honey and I absolutely love it, which is just as well because, as the photo above shows (the top one of course), we have quite a bit of the stuff.

A while back the very same friends who gave us this batch had given us a previous supply. We've also bought it from the brill fruit and veg man in Arhangelos, he it is who has the tzaki behind his counter (open hearth with logs burning, making his shop one you want to linger in on the colder winter mornings), see the photo in this post from December 5th. We dropped in to our friends' house last week and, as we were leaving, we happened to mention that we were off to Arhangelos to do some shopping and among the things on our list was a bag of mountain tea. We didn't mention it intentionally to try and cadge another free supply, but that was nevertheless the outcome.

"What do you want to buy it for? we have loads!" Said Ilias, the hubby, at the same time gesturing to Rena his wife to go and get us some that very instant. 

When you get it from people who've picked it themselves (or their relatives may have) it comes exactly as when picked, except it's been hung up to dry. So it comes in stalk form, about 30 to 40 cm in length. Rena thrust a carrier bag into our hands, the required double cheek kisses were exchanged and one item was deleted from our shopping list as we drove north to Arhangelos. Thus, when we got home I dug out the stout sewing scissors and set about cutting it down to shorter lengths in order for it to fit into the storage jar which can be seen at the back and to the right in the photograph.

We hadn't been here long back in 2005 when Greek friends started educating us about mountain tea. If you sit in a Greek house and they offer you either a coffee or a tea and you reply that you'd rather like a cup of tea then you in all probability won't be served a nice cup of PG Tips with a dash of milk, you'll more likely have a cup of chai vounou set in front of you. Try not to look too surprised. You certainly won't need milk in it. That doesn't work. I know, I tried it before I knew what I was doing. I'll never forget the bemused looks on the faces of my hosts. Cheeks reddening even now at the thought.

Most Greeks boil it up in a saucepan, chucking the entire plant into the water. We're dead civilised and we use our stainless steel teapot (brought all the way from the UK), still nevertheless chucking everything in, even the odd piece of grass that's tangled up in the dried plants.

The benefits of mountain tea are myriad. Just as a sampler, here are some of the things it's reputed to be good for:

gastrointestinal problems
sore throats
common cold and cough symptoms
respiratory problems
the immune system
mild anxiety

"Ironwort is known scientifically to be anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant. Active elements include diterpenoid and flavonoids. Significant research has been done on ironwort (it's English name) confirming its popular use to prevent colds, flu, and allergies. Most of this research has taken place in universities in the Netherlands and in Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Albania, where the plant is indigenous."
The above quote is from the Wikipedia page for Sideritis.

There's more besides. If you want to know what's in it and lots of other stuff, have a glance at these sites:

It's also been called Shepherd's Tea, because Greek shepherds would use it when tending their flocks high on the mountainsides during the summer months.

I actually thought at first that the name of the plant "Sideritis" had something to do with the fact that it contains iron, but I was wrong. The Greek word for iron is "si'dero" so you can see where I got the idea from. Apparently, though, there is an iron connection in that it was believed by the ancients that ironwort was good for a soldier who'd sustained an injury from an iron weapon. Loads more info can be found on those two links I place above.

There are lots of versions of the plant too, all of which can be used to make the tea, but they vary quite a lot in appearance. 

All this typing has brought a thirst on. I'd better get and finish stuffing our new supply of chai vounou into that jar, well, apart from the handful that's going straight into the teapot...

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Getting All Fruity

My sister-in-law was in Athens when I met my wife. Not when I met my wife as in, "I met her for lunch" or something. Rather, as in "when I met her for the first time", so she wouldn't then have actually been my wife just yet. That bit came later. You get the general idea.

Of course, I had no idea at the time, but when I met my wife Greece was under the rule of the Military Junta, which ran from 1967 until 1974. Things here were a bit edgy. Of course, I was a young impressionable hippie-in-the-making and had no idea about such things. All I knew was that there was this mysterious older sister whom I may one day meet, but when that day would come and what it might hold - I had no inkling. Apart, that is, from the dread that were the big sister to come home then my place in the life of my new girlfriend might face a serious threat, since the two girls, despite there being a five year age gap between them, had been quite the girls about town together before big sis had left for Greece.

Christine is my Kounia'da, meaning my wife's sister, as opposed to my brother's wife, who'd be my ni'fi. See now, you get the idea in cases like this just how tricky Greek can be. In English my wife's sister and my brother's wife are both my sisters-in-law. In Greek there's a distinction. It's further complicated by the fact that the word "nifi" also means "bride". But, ah ha, oh no, wait a minute, a man's daughter-in-law can also be his "nifi", which in English would make him sound like a bigamist. And by the way, while I'm on the subject, I don't have a brother.

Right. That all sorted? Good. So, I first met my wife in October 1971, when she was sweet sixteen and may have been kissed once or twice. I didn't want to ask. We'd been "going out" for a while before she told me that she had a sister. I'd met the two younger brothers, but it came as a bit of a shock when the news came out that there was this mysterious sister who lived in Athens and whom I had yet to meet. Since she was five years older than my new girlfriend, that made her also about four years older than me. Once she entered the scene I was soon appraised of the fact that, despite the relative youth of my significant other, she'd been on the nightclub scene with her sister for a while owing to the fact that she stood five eight, which meant she could get away with looking older. These days, of course, she gets away with looking a lot younger. In fact, it won't be long before people start thinking I'm out and about with my daughter, either that or I'm a cradle-snatcher.

We'd been an item for probably eighteen months when she broke the news to me that big sis was coming home. Her plans to stay in Greece had been shattered by the fact that the bloke she'd been engaged to marry, a certain Stefanos, had been two-timing her and it had broken her heart. Cheating bastard.

I'm going a long way around the mulberry bush, nay the houses too, to get to the fact that just yesterday my wife said, as we were gazing at a fruit bowl which was groaning under the sheer weight of a hundred oranges,

"Christine always used to say that when it comes to fruit the Greeks never do things by halves." Each season has its fruit and, during that season, there's that much of it that you start feeling like it's coming out of your ears. Other orifices too no doubt. Let't not go there.

Mandarins too, of course. In the UK there all these fancy names like Satsumas, Tangerines and the like. Here they're all mandarin'ia 

Some years ago we used to get our oranges free from our diminutive Bulgarian friend, Dopi. She'd supply us with plastic bags full to bursting with wonderfully juicy oranges all through the winter months. This was due to the fact that she was a live-in carer, looking after an old ya ya for a Greek family who had a business in Lindos and thus didn't have time to care for their old mum, who was slowly losing her marbles. The small cottage in which the two women lived was surrounded by a dozen orange trees, the fruit from which the woman's family would never bother to harvest. Thus, each time Dopi got into our car she'd emerge from the garden gate, vigorously "shhhhing” me and furtively dashing up and down the path with three or four bags of oranges, which she'd bid me stow in the boot pretty sharpish. It was all a bit clandestine because the woman's children, all grown up and running their business, although they never bothered wth the oranges themselves, used to threaten her if they thought she was picking the fruit. 

It would sorely distress Dopi, well, us too, to see all these wonderful oranges being left to rot. So Dopi would go out and rattle the branches until the fruit dropped, then she'd gather up the fallers (seconds after they'd done so) and bag them up for us. She'd get into the car saying, 

“Whenever they ask me, 'Have you been picking those oranges?' I can truthfully reply, 'no, I only gather up the fallers', tee hee.”

Sadly, a few years ago our tiny, bow-legged, sixty-something Bulgarian friend with the shock of frizzy white hair returned to her native Bulgaria and we found our primary source of ripe oranges cut off. What on earth were we to do? To actually pay for our supply of winter oranges would be a painful experience. Well, would you believe it but we became acquainted with a new family of Greeks from a village just up the road, and they have about fifty orange trees just outside the village of Massari. For the past six weeks or so, every time we see them, which is at least once a week, they're carrying plastic bags full-to-bursting with delicious navel oranges and those bags are destined for our car's boot.

So, here we are once again eating our morning muesli topped with chopped chunks of juicy, sweet oranges straight from the tree. Our fridge is stacked with small plastic water bottles whose use has now been turned over to holding freshly-squeezed orange juice and we're frequently hanging bags of oranges on our neighbours' and friends' fences and gates to share the bounty with them too. There's an identical ongoing situation with lemons as well.

It's the same in June with apricots, in the high summer months with water melons. In May you can't move for cherries and in September watch out for those peaches, because it's easy to eat so many that you might just be well advised to carry some loo roll with you if you attempt a country walk.

In the UK you can waltz along the supermarket aisle and load up your trolley with whatever fruit you want, you pay no mind to what season the fruit's supposed to be grown in. It's shipped half-way around the planet to make sure that the supermarket shopper can have his or her choice of whatever fruit or veg he or she wants - any time of the year. Here one gets into the habit of buying local. It's not only a great deal cheaper, but it's far better for the environment and the fruit and veg tastes infinitely better for having been grown just along the road.

The only slight drawback is, by the time you get to March/April, you feel like you never want to see an orange or a lemon again. You feel like you've almost turned into one or the other. It's OK though, because come November, you'll be eager to taste the first ripe oranges of the new season all over again. In our case too, it'll once more bring to my wife's mind her sister's words, 

"It's all or nothing. One minute you can't find an orange anywhere. The next you're buried in them."

Of course, my Kounia'da came home, but didn't, as I had feared, displace me in the affections of my girlfriend, much to my relief. But then, you'd already worked that out hadn't you.