Thursday, 19 December 2013

Happy Holidays to All... from the Octopus in my Ouzo



It was raining yesterday morning. Poor Mr Fisherman was out the door at 5 a.m., but I eventually got back to sleep for a couple of hours, then after Lisa had snuggled up for her morning strokes, I donned many layers of clothes and took her for a short morning walk down towards the Skafi valley, inhaling all the wonderful aromas of drenched herbs and grasses on the hillside. I'm so lucky here - as soon as I reach the end of our little alley, I'm surrounded by countryside.

This season in Tilos is so very different from winter in northern Europe. Autumnal reddish or yellowish brown leaves adorn some of the trees but the fields are carpeted with the brilliant green of new grass, dotted here and there with yellow wildflowers. In the village, roses are in full bloom, pink blossoms are out, bougainvillaea still splashes its magenta against the sky, the trees are bursting with ripe oranges and lemons and the whitewashed alleys shine after the rain.

So there's not so much need for artificial Christmas decorations to brighten things up. But friends in England have been asking if I'm ready for Christmas, so I hunted around for anything that might do. Luckily I'd purchased some cute Christmas tree cookies from Karen after her baking extravaganza for the bazaar to raise money for the school, so we now have a couple of Christmas tree cookies, hung up with red cord that I believe I stripped last year from an old tent. And I put together a few green branches and sprigs of pungent herbs to hang over the fireplace - yes, we now have a real fire. And at least Lisa has her Christmas-red collar.

While many of you have been boozing it up at multiple Christmas parties, I have been doing my twice-yearly detox, courtesy of another attempt at pregnancy, this time with IVF. I'm sure my twice-yearly detox does me the world of good, and it kept me out of trouble the day before yesterday. 

It turns out we have a neighbour to the left of our house, in the house I thought was empty. It's owned by a man from Crete, who makes amazing pottery and has restored an old village house very beautifully, though he only has time to visit for a couple of weeks a year. While I was in the shower, Menelaus - he of the many goats and sheep in the Skafi valley - shouted me to come and join them next door, which is where Stelios had already disappeared. Living in the village, I've learned you have to get used to this shouting business. Usually they're shouting 'Stelio!' to ask if he's got any fish for them, but for once someone was shouting for me. So I got dressed sharpish.

When I arrived, two enormous containers of souma and raki were conspicuous on the table. Stelios fried some tender and tasty kalamaria, and Menelaus cut them up into a salad with onion, lettuce, garlic, oil and balsamic vinegar. A finer meze I have not tasted anywhere, and to make up for not drinking I polished off plate after plate of the stuff. Stelios, in true form, kept insisting to poor Kostas that he was sure he'd never eaten such kalamari in his life before. But actually Kostas said it's true, the kalamari was better than any he can usually buy in Rethymnon. Anyway, I made up some excuse about not being able to drink because I was taking tablets - a plausible excuse, as Greeks are often taking tablets for something or other - and I escaped early from what could have been a messy, though enjoyable night.

The rain has stopped and the sun is coming out again. I've seen eagles - some quite close up - every day since we got back, and a heron. And the light on the mountains makes me stop and sigh.







Before I sign off, I have happy Falling in Honey news. Where to start, in fact? Firstly, the Canadian distributor, Raincoast, sent a galley off to Chatelaine magazine and the books editor named it as her #FridayReads on Twitter last week. It's also been confirmed that the magazine will be featuring the book in their April 2014 issue.

Meanwhile, the US publisher Sourcebooks came up with a snazzy new cover - which I admit has taken me a while to get used to as I loved their previous cover concept so much, but now I'm loving this one just as much... 



Plus, Barnes and Noble are going to be promoting the book on their new arrivals trade paperback table for two weeks in March. And finally, my agent emailed with the news that Bulgarian publisher Sluntse has made an offer for Bulgarian rights - wowsa!!! 

Thanks to everyone who got in touch after the Daily Mail article too (there's a link on the Falling in Honey page); I know enough about DM Femail to know that you *never* read the comments as online readers love to write nasty things, so I didn't even glance at them; for me it was an important topic to write about, and I was moved by the number of kind strangers who contacted me offering support and advice and their own stories. 

Wishing everyone, new friends and old, very Happy Holidays, Chronia Polla... And for anyone who hasn't seen it yet, here's the lovely photo of Lisa dozing in the sun in her Christmas-red collar...


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Alone (almost) at the Acropolis - Atmospheric Athens




'I can't believe there's nobody here.'
My cousin and my mum came to Athens for the first time this week, arriving at the end of November for my birthday. Although - except for the first day, my birthday - the weather was cold and the sky grey, they were amazed how quiet it was. No queues, no crowds.

'It's so cheap here. And I didn't expect people to be so friendly in a big city.'
We've been lucky - at the last minute I found the airbnb website, and a whole apartment to rent for less than 200 euros for the week. I'd worried that it might be too far away from the centre, but it's been an easy half hour walk to the heart of Athens, via the ancient stadium and national gardens and Temple of Zeus.


We practically had the Acropolis to ourselves. The ancient agora - where you could say democracy began - was deserted. I love seeing places afresh through someone else's eyes. My mum said she never expected so much green space around the Acropolis, so much of the ancient city uncluttered by modern buildings.



So it was raining... 'It's a UNESCO world heritage site - you'd think there would be people here all the time,' said my cousin. Much better to come for a city break late in the year than in the heat of summer.












And when it's raining, sometimes you just have to duck into a cafe... We had mezes of winter salad and hummus and marinated anchovies with raki to drink, for 16 euros at the Ivis cafe in Psirri.

I'd never been to Pangrati until I rented this apartment, but it's a great neighbourhood with food shops, bars and cafes. We ate out three nights at To Mavro Provato (The Black Sheep); on our last night we ate a salad, big prawns and fennel in ouzo, prawn linguine, and the superb signature dish of tender lamb wrapped in paper with lots of herbs and cheese and baked in the oven - all for 48 euros including wine for the three of us. But we also ate very good food for a mere 22 euros for three, including wine, at Dionysus, 'The Quick Greek', just around the corner.



And I took mum to my favourite bakery on Sarri St. 'You never think of Greek bakeries being so good, but these are as wonderful as the ones in France.'

I'm not exclusively gallivanting in Athens this week - I'm also visiting the lovely people at EmBIO clinic every couple of days for blood test and scan while I do the pre-IVF meds. Jabbed myself in belly with needles a record five times yesterday. But yesterday was reported to be responding 'very well, excellent' (gold star!), and today: no injections! And tomorrow I get a nice long sleep while they take out some eggs and see how they look...

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Unplanned Adventures in Sitia, Crete - Part Two

The next morning, I chickened out of hiring the last surviving Minoan car, and we headed for the hills, Lisa and I. Fairly soon, I was pleased I'd decided not to drive.



Like the outskirts of most towns, I supposed, it was scrappy with old bits of machinery, run-down or abandoned houses cheek by jowl with expensive new ones in different styles and colours. It was an uninspiring morning weather-wise too. Then I saw an intriguing sign for Tripitos – and turned off to a promontory to wander the ruins of an ancient Hellenistic city.  Unlike at Petras, there are no signs, but clear remains of houses, and green boulders facing out to see towards a far island. I'd probably have missed it if I'd been driving.

 




I’d entertained ideas of getting to a monastery way down the coast, but now I needed to escape the fast traffic and barking guard-dogs at the roadside. So instead we headed uphill into the hinterland where the traffic was thinner and there was birdsong, olive trees, views of cultivated fields below. I had no idea where I was going, but I liked the look of the mountains. And the sun was coming out. It was hot walking miles uphill on tarmac. But a workman confirmed there was a village further up. We made it to Roussa Ekklisia at noon.


The first kafeneion and the restaurant were shut, but I spotted a taverna with an open door and asked for lemonade and water. ‘I don't have water,’ said the friendly lady. ‘Only from the spring!’ she added, pointing outside. Beside us was a beautiful stone fountain with Turkish writing, and spring water gushing from it. Lisa got a bowl of Roussa’s finest. Perked up, we continued.

 

I didn't mean to continue walking so far, but the paths through the woods past Roussa were beautiful. 



Two hours later we were at a little church, maybe called Stavros. There was something very special about that little white church I'd seen high on a hillside in the middle of nowhere. Tired and hungry but exhilarated, I took off my shoes, lay down and listened to the only sounds: rushing spring water and the odd froggy squawk of birds of prey up above. Inside the church were the most amazingly beautiful paintings.


I didn’t have a good enough map to know exactly where we were, or how far away the next village was. I wanted to keep going, but we didn’t have food. I wanted to stay up in these hills. I was so pleased I'd come here.



 



  






... More of the Cretan adventure soon!



Sunday, 24 November 2013

Late September in Sitia, Crete - Part One

In late September I had to travel to eastern Crete for work, taking the ferry from Rhodes to Sitia. Hours before I was due to leave, Lisa developed a problem with her ear and needed to see the vet in Rhodes. So I took her along.

Since none of the taxis at the port in Rhodes would take a dog (or maybe they didn't like the look of me...), I walked with my backpack – plus Lisa’s dog food, as if she was going to eat any of that stuff – across the old town and all the way to the vet’s.

It was just as well: he found a length of sharp dry grass deep piercing her ear drum. He put her to sleep while he buried his arm in her ear to pluck it out. His office managed to book us a cab that would take me and a very groggy dog back to the port. She was still sleepy when the ferry arrived, and I had to carry her on board and up all the steps to the top deck dogs’ accommodation. The vet had just weighed her: twenty kilos.

The Preveli reminded me how lucky we are to have the good ship Diagoras. No cosy couches here; and the dogs’ pens were cold and noisy and far away from human contact. There were just two dogs, shaky and shivery… It was hard to leave Lisa there for the night. I wished I could put her back to sleep.

But it was warm and sunny when we arrived, early morning, in Sitia.



My work in Crete involved taking the bus straight to Ierapetra on the south coast. But according to the bus company, there was no way that was going to happen unless I bought a cage for Lisa and put her in the hold with the luggage. There are indeed days when Lisa deserves to be locked up in a cage…. But not when she was on antibiotics and painkillers for a healing ear drum, had just endured a cold night on the Preveli and been welcomed to Sitia by some hard-looking canines.

The Preveli was going back to Rhodes that afternoon. I had a few hours to decide whether to try staying in Sitia for three days, or go straight back, another twelve hours on the ship and all for nothing. Finally a car rental office called Minoan (I wondered if they were authentic Minoan cars?) came to our rescue. 

When I walked into his office, weary from hefting my backpack to the bus station and all around town after a fairly sleepless night, Michalis smiled at Lisa and she jumped up and put her two front paws on his desk. Out of kindness (and not just to get us out of his office, I’m sure) he rang around and managed to find a hotel that would take us. It turned out to be a great hotel, right in the middle of the beachfront of town, called the Itanos. So I decided we’d stay. The nice young chap at reception fed Lisa an almond.

Is Lisa a spoiled dog, staying in one of the best hotels in town? 


I think we’re all spoiled in Tilos. I found myself looking at the lovely long beach on the edge of Sitia and thinking, ‘Well, it would have been nice if they hadn’t built a road next to it.’ Not just any road, but one full of speeding lorries. But we braved it that afternoon to have a look at Petras, a kilometre east.


Sitia might not be blessed with tranquil beaches, but it is rather spoiled when it comes to ancient sites. So much so that you don’t even have to pay to get in to Petras, a place that was occupied continuously from 2500 to 1400 BC. It had earlier been used for production of purple dye from shells in the early Minoan period. In later times wine and pottery were made here. The remains reveal an ancient two-storey warehouse which once had massive pillars covered in red plaster, and storage rooms for rows of huge jars.


It was here they found the best preserved hieroglyphic archive of Minoan Crete – the inventory tablets and official seals of the palace. Also, one of those mundane details that really bring ancient sites to life, they found cups and bowls that the personnel used for taking snacks to work. Their lunchboxes.

Later, we walked across the town and out towards the headland to the west, a scrappy area with oddly expensive-looking houses and unfriendly faces. Coming back to town, I saw people swimming off the rocks near the entrance to the harbour; just below the road, it wasn’t beautiful but might be a good place to let Lisa go in the sea, since she wasn’t allowed on the town beach.

Apogoreveteh!!’ shouted nasty women at the water’s edge, waving their arms. They could at least have been nicer about it, since I clearly didn’t know. Upset, I wondered if I'd made a mistake staying. What I couldn’t understand is that the place seemed full of dogs! Wherever we went, stray dogs followed us or yappy dogs barked from balconies. Maybe that was why they had to be banned from the sea.

I walked down the seafront past busy cafes, wondering where we’d be welcome. Eventually I sat down in the corner of a rakadiko, like an ouzeri but for raki, called Oinodeion, and drank some good local wine, and felt better. I ordered makarounes, soft local pasta, with anthotyro, comforting and delicious.


Small islands like Tilos are relaxing, I think, because of the simplicity: you’re not faced with lots of choices of where to go – and you can go everywhere if you like, on foot, with nature all around you. In Sitia I find myself staring endlessly at the map with all its different roads, and thinking about what do when I rent my genuine Minoan car, and how much traffic there will be. Then I wonder about putting it off for a day.

Passing a souvlaki place, I get waylaid by Drunken Yiannis, who insists on buying me a beer. I’ve barely escaped when I’m stopped in the street by an old Greek who lives in Sweden and insists on telling me he’s still good friends with his children’s mother. It’s beginning to feel a bit like speed dating, Sitia-style.


I then get lost, but by way of bonus find myself at a fantastic little traditional cheese shop called Kouvarakis that sells yoghurt, staka and a typical Sitian cheese called xygalo. Xygalo, according to their leaflet, is 'a cheese dating back to Minoan times' (hmm, that's a seriously old cheese). Made of goats' or sheep's milk, it's light and sourish-tasting - the name comes from the word for acidic - it was mentioned in Pliny's Natural History

The shop owner tells me the Sitia food festival starts on Friday evening. Things are definitely looking up.

... Tune in for more of my Cretan adventure tomorrow!

Minoan: minoan_cars@yahoo.gr

Cheese shop: www.kouvarakis.gr





Saturday, 9 November 2013

Rhodes in November

For some time now, I've been fascinated by cafe culture in Rhodes. It seems to be an essential, vibrant part of the local scene, especially for the under-forties. And yesterday I found further proof.
Turning a corner into a usually empty pedestrian street just up the hill from the New Market, just north of the Old Town, I was stunned to find not one brand new cafe, but four. It was about 2.30 p.m., the break in the middle of the working day, summer was back after a brief hiatus, and each cafe was busy.
   

I asked a waiter if it was true, that these were all new, and he grinned and confirmed they'd all opened in the last few months, with a little shrug as if to say, 'You know, that's how it is here...' Pop-up cafes. And I wouldn't be surprised if they're all owned by the same guy. 
Usually trendy Casa La Femme was closed for refurbishment, and the Yacht Club Cafe was practically deserted. The four cafes that fill a stretch of Dimitriou Theodoraki Street are the place to be - for now. 

And the place not to be is the Old Town, which is wonderful. 
The Street of the Knights is bare, doorways open to reveal lush gardens.
This time of year is when I love Rhodes. It's warm and sunny, but quiet. Most of the tourist shops and restaurants are closed. You can see the walls. Only once did a waiter hurry up from his chair in a cafe and say 'Yes please!' But my backpack was empty, gradually filling up as the day progressed with shopping.


Down by the now-peaceful harbour, across a calm, deep blue sea, the mountains of Turkey were clear in every small detail, layers and layers of mountains stretching off into the distant haze. A man cycled by slowly wearing cut-offs and flip-flops; a snorkeller dived down into the sea, his flippers forming a V. Cats wandered among the rocks, soaking up the sun. 
Back in the Old Town, in backstreets, occasional groups of men sat outside drinking and listening to Greek songs played loud, some sitting on old crates that bowed under their weight. It was a holiday, and people were celebrating, and shouted hello. I had a smile on my face all day.