Sunday, 30 October 2011

Late October on a Tiny Greek Island

Fishing boat in Livadia on Monday

Cat on the steps

Donkey on the walk down to Eristos

Someone is making charcoal

Football on Tuesday

Finally, got the beach to myself again (yesterday, mid-afternoon)

Yep, definitely empty...

Benefits of having a boyfriend who's a fisherman, #162.
Old fishing nets available to cover up the new plants.

Other benefits include eating fish practically every day. What else am I eating? Most days it starts with some combination of muesli, milk, yoghurt, tahini and honey (food of the gods, I assure you); an orange; half a pomegranate; and maybe an onion, a tomato, a zucchini and a green pepper fried or roasted in olive oil with some fresh herbs, and some fresh fish. Oh, plus some dark chocolate. I've been editing a book this week called 50 Things You Can Do Today to Manage Stress. My diet is a textbook example of the anti-stress diet.

It is very exciting to see oranges ripening on the trees! I admit i raised my eyebrows a little when I handed over 17 euros last week for spinach, rocket and oranges. But I couldn't help it: the rocket (well, roka, which is a bit like watercress) was still growing in the garden when he picked it. The oranges were still on the tree. Zero food miles except the mile I walked home. And with mounds of spinach, that's pretty much all I needed all week.

And if that wasn't enough to make me healthy, I've walked to and/or from Livadia (four miles) three times this week. Twice to teach my English classes, once to celebrate Dimitris' Name Day. It was beautiful walking home late at night under the stars (I saw maybe three cars the whole way). But am not sure I'm being a very good teacher; it didn't feel like I handled the little ones very well on Friday.

Feeling full of doubt as to whether it is possible to work four days a week as an editor, revise my book, do blogging for Korea and teach English six hours a week, not to mention all the prep time and the bits of online journalism I do, and look after my garden, I relaxed totally yesterday with a very good book, a walk and a swim, followed by good food and a glass of wine with a tired but smiling man who'd just spent twelve or more hours on a fishing boat.

And guess what? As I sit here in the kitchen writing, my ankles are getting a sun tan. Life is sweet when you live next to the honey factory.

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Austerity Diet in Pictures - and the Department of Silly Walks

Saligaria: a word that fills me with even more foreboding than the thought of teaching this evening. Here in Tilos, thanks to the rain last weekend, we’ve been eating snails, saligaria. Far, far more snails than I thought I’d ever want to eat.

After catching them, you have to leave them for a few days with some food. We left them with herbs from the hillside in the hope it would give them flavour. I went out the next day and found the sack we’d tied around the pan had come off, and they were making their way slowing down the chair, trying to escape, and felt a bit sorry as I dropped them all back in the pot...

You have to leave them a few days in case they’ve been eating anything poisonous before; you have to let the new food go through their system – yes, that’s right, you have to clean off snail poo afterwards. (‘You’ in this instance being Stelios; I suddenly became very busy with an urgent work deadline.) And there’s a clicking of shells in the sink as they wake up and try to escape again. Snails can move surprisingly fast out of a sink when they want to.

And then it gets even better – you boil them to get the slime out. ‘But you’ll like them afterwards!’ said Stelios, who really likes snails, and who is an exceptionally good cook. In case you’re interested in having your own snail-fest back home, you heat up in a big pot: olive oil, bay leaf, roughly chopped onion, salt and pepper, chopped garlic… snails… and a tin of tomatoes and water. Bring to boil then let simmer.
The smell becomes rich and hearty as they cook and the sauce is good, especially with warm, fresh-from-the oven, home-made-by-Stelios bread. Am just not terribly keen on the snails themselves, although in the days when meat was harder to acquire, finding snails on the side of the mountain would be a huge treat.

Thankfully, there are plenty of other things to gather and eat on the island. Lemons, fresh from Pavlos’ chorafaki or little field; not perfect on the outside but when you cut them open the smell and taste is delicious. ‘Why did you buy lemons? Always ask first if we have any!’

These green fruits, also from Pavlos’ garden are gavafes, guava, which make the kitchen smell heavenly.
Stelios also brought skate wing back from fishing, and delicious anchovies which you just dust with flour and fry in olive oil. And huge red juicy pomegranates. I never understood the point of pomegranates until I tasted these.

The rain stopped and the sun came out again and there is now green grass. The green, green grass of... Tilos? It doesn't seem right!
It's been perfect walking weather. I finished work one afternoon and went off up the mountain behind my house. I hadn't planned on walking quite so far but the top look tantalisingly close and it was such a clear day, I knew the views would be spectacular from the top. I do have a habit of going for long unplanned walks. When it comes to the Department of Silly Walks, John Cleese has nothing on me. For more pictures, see here:

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

In early afternoon, feeling like some exercise, I put on vest t-shirt and shorts, and decided to walk up to the castle. I hadn’t been up there since late spring and neither had many other people, by the looks of the overgrown path. I wondered why a fly kept landing on my arm. I think it was trying to warn me.
A moment later, there were hornets buzzing around my head and in my hair. I felt a sting on my back as I started to run down the path, trying to shield my head somehow without losing my footing. Eventually I left them behind and went back home. I’d had hornets buzzing around my house before and they’d been harmless: I must have kicked a nest by mistake, perhaps. I showered and made myself tea and looked after myself for the afternoon.

Sunday: the wonderful smell of the open countryside after the first rain falls on the herbs. I’ve never experienced it before. The day had started with violent winds and by afternoon there was a torrential downpour. I went for a walk down the track as the rain softened to a gentle pattering, and it was like walking through a church filled with incense. It was so still and clear, I could hear the waves crashing on the shore at Eristos. A cockerel crowed as the rain died away. White wispy clouds were playing over the tops of the mountains. The air was fresh and the rain brought out the colours of things differently – the stones of ruined buildings, the trees, the mountainsides.

It rained some more. And then it rained some more. I found myself thinking ‘it’s good for the garden’. And then I started worrying that the newly planted seeds would all have drowned or been washed away.

On Tuesday, the skies cleared in time for midday football against a team from Rhodes. By the time I met Anna there, the sun was hot. The Tilos lads got off to an unfortunate start and were a couple of goals down by the time they started to take serious issue with the linesman’s decisions. The ref took them to one side, and they shouted at the ref (although to be fair, shouting is the default setting for a normal Greek voice). Then a guy from the crowd approached, yelling abuse. A couple of women started running over to try to calm things down. The ref called the linesmen and they all walked into the changing rooms. Eventually everyone returned, calm, the Tilos team looking bitter but determined to play. I had to leave at half time, as the rain starting falling again, to get back to work. I noticed some fat olives at the roadside.

For a week or so now, the Tilos ATM has not been working. ‘Use another branch nearest you,’ it said. That would be on another island, an hour away by boat; perhaps someone pointed this out. A few days later, on Tuesday evening when I went to Greek dance class, the technician had still not arrived, but the message had been changed: ‘Normal service will be resumed in a few minutes.’
I’ve felt a bit like that myself this week.
It’s been a busy week, but a good one. On Wednesday Stelios had to take his motorbike to the mechanic in Rhodes so I went with him for company and we ended up buying lots of things you can’t buy in Tilos: some plain white bowls, wholewheat flour, wholewheat pasta, brown rice and very dark chocolate. Then we went for food: very non-wholewheat but delicious gyros pita at a neighbourhood place: warm fluffy pita stuffed with slivers of pork cooked to perfection, fresh creamy tsatsiki, tomatoes and red onions; these were huge, a meal in themselves. Three of those plus an excellent Greek salad, bread and a large beer – dinner for three – came to just twelve euros.

The weather returned to sunny and warm. I walked down to Eristos for a long swim, and ran into Dimitris from Tropicana, carrying his towel.
‘Number eighty-six!’ Eighty-six swims this year. When he reaches a hundred swims, he’ll stop.
Passing by the other farm where I buy vegetables, I saw Georgos planting cabbages and cauliflowers. He gave me a bag of seedlings and wouldn’t take any money for them, but instructed me to plant them that day, 60 cm apart. I got home and started preparing the ground for them, while Stelios ‘made bread and chaos’ (as Anna put it) in the kitchen.
‘Jennifer!’ I run inside.
‘Can you add some flour?’
‘Jennifer!’ I drop the trowel again and go inside.
‘Can you plug in my mobile?’
‘Jennifer!’ I dig a little more and then go inside. The oven door is open, the bread under a towel.
‘OK, we leave it now to get big. Have you finished in the garden yet?’
Er, no, not yet. But the half-drowned seeds we planted are also beginning to grow little green shoots. I now eye flocks of birds warily. I must find some nets. The lettuce and basil is looking healthy and a couple of new melons have even nonchalantly appeared near the fading courgette patch.
The brown bread is delicious warm with a salad.


‘Miss! Hello miss!’ I’d better get used to hearing this when I walk across the square, or anywhere I might run into a child or two. Because I think I’ve agreed to teach English to twenty of them.
It all started when Irini wanted to speak to me. A group of parents were looking around for someone to teach after-school English to their children. I used to teach in a language school or Frontistirion in Athens years ago, and I’d asked my friend Dimitris, the school headmaster, to let me know if anyone was looking for lessons. Although I already have a full time job, most of my days are spent working at a desk with people abroad, so I thought it would be good to get involved a little more with the community. It turned out to be a little more involved than I’d expected.
On Monday, I met with the parents, mostly mothers and one father. I arrived at the primary school and they all settled into the little desks, and there I was at the front of the class. Thankfully their main questions were whether I was staying here permanently and how much the lessons would cost. In the last few months, salaries in the public sector in Greece have been slashed by over a quarter, while basic food prices increase regularly and a new property tax will be imposed via electricity bills (meaning if you don’t pay, your power gets cut off). At least in Tilos you can grow some food. Many thousands of Greeks have already emigrated to Australia and other countries to find work. Now more than ever, children need to learn English.
After doing some quick sums to see how we could organise this, and taking names and notes, I left with my head spinning, and a date to meet the kids: first the advanced level and then the beginners. In the space of an hour I’d got to know half a dozen parents who cared a lot about their children’s education. There was no longer any question of whether I’d go ahead and give this my best shot. Parents in Greece still make their children’s education a big priority, and I’m in a position to help somehow. I emailed a writer friend in Athens, Becky (see links to her blog on my Facebook page 'Great Travel Reading'), and she kindly sent me long messages filled with information about books and exams.
So last night I had my first meeting with the children. The teenagers were kind and polite and surprised me with their excellent English. I think I’m going to enjoy getting to know them, and if we can keep up their progress it will be a good thing. 'What animals are there in Tilos?' I asked as one of my questions to test their level. 'Cats! Goats! Sheep! Eagles! Elephants!' Well, the elephants did die out about 4,000 years ago but we do technically still have them in the museum.
I admit I brought bribery biscuits to my meeting with the younger children. It’s funny how smaller children produce much more sound, even before you feed them sugar. They started well, and my Greek was good enough to reassure the shyer ones, but it was easy to spot the ‘problem areas’. The main problem will be my propensity to laugh at their jokes, which will only encourage them. But it’s hard not to, as even the little terrors are adorable. ‘Any questions?’ I asked in Greek at the end. One hand flew up – one of the more advanced children. ‘Yes miss. When can we eat the biscuits?’

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Beware Greeks, Even Those Bearing Gifts

The path from Menelaos’ farm to my house is a rough, slippery track of rocks and sand. Look at these crazy people on a motorbike scrambling down the hill with a bag of potatoes on the handlebars and a sack of manure balanced precariously on the seat in front. The woman looks terrified as they slalom down, the man shouting at her in Greek to do – what? She has no idea, because that woman would be me, and I only just heard the word for sack the first time today so how would I know Stelios wants me to grab hold of it to stop it sliding off?
I am beginning to rue the day I introduced Stelios to gardening. He is even more obsessed than me, and we are actually fighting over who gets to dig the earth.
‘It’s my garden!’ I protested. Why do I feel the need for blisters on my hands? It’s partly because I like experimenting with my very first garden. But of course I am grateful for the help and for Stelios’ ability to know exactly where to procure some goat manure for fertiliser. Menelaos has two thousand goats, he told me, so I’m sure he can spare a little.
Partly I want to dig my garden for the exercise. But if I try digging my garden in front of Stelios and Pavlos, they will laugh at my girly feebleness. Which is why I must sneak in some gardening when no-one’s around.
‘What’s that,’ said Pavlos, pointing at my new plant, ‘dendrolivano?’ Yes, I admit, it’s rosemary, knowing exactly what he’s going to say next.
‘Why did you buy that? Where, in Rhodes? We have lots of it here in Tilos! How much did you pay?’
Thing is, I’ve heard exactly the same from Stelios. I find myself lying again about the price, just to defend myself: I say two euros, when it was actually three.
‘Oh. That’s OK.’
It reminds me a bit of the laughter that ensued when I brought my lovely wooden dining table from England for the terrace. ‘We have tables here!’ Well yes, but I love the way the sun has bleached the pine and the way I can photograph fruit on this table and it looks beautiful. It used to be my dad’s and it gives me a lot more pleasure than a rickety white plastic one, however much more practical and, well, Greek that might be.
And I did manage to grow a good crop of tomatoes this year, and am still harvesting a couple of courgettes a day and some rocket, and even got a couple of ripe melons - one of which was shared with an earlier riser...

‘Where’s your father?’ asks Pantelis, grandfather of my Tilos family, when I go into the village. ‘He’s gone already? Just two days in Tilos?’
‘Unfortunately yes – he’s always working!’ I say. I was delighted my dad made it here for a couple of days. ‘But I’m sure he’ll be back – he loved it!’ He fed peanuts to the ants on the terrace of the kafeneion; I wasn’t sure Sofia would be keen to have him back so soon, but she seems to have taken it that eccentricity runs in the family.
‘And your mother, when is she coming back?’
I love this. Once you’ve visited Tilos once, not coming back at least for regular visits seems like some sort of betrayal.

I go to the supermarket and young Georgos the nurse is in there too. He looks up and down one aisle while I look up and down the other, then we swap and do the same as if it’s a sit-com.
‘What are you looking for?’
Chlorini, bleach.’
‘Me too! Where is it?’
We swap aisles again and look in vain. When we give up, Rena comes and points it out, hidden behind something else.
‘Here we are,’ says Georgos, handing me a bottle, grinning. ‘Good for the hair.’
This week I got a message from Dimitris to talk to Irini about something. The next day, Stelios said ‘Oh, something I had to tell you’ and it was that Irini wanted to speak to me about something. Then I got a message from Evgenia saying her mum, Maria, wanted to see me. I wondered what it was about as I walked up to the house, but of course – it was that Irini wanted to talk to me. (Ve haf vays of making you talk.) It was good to go and see Maria anyway, and as a side benefit I got fed fried aubergines and delicious locally made cheese marinated in red wine, and given a care package to take home with more food for tomorrow.
Meanwhile, I still have half of this fish to eat. Kinigos, hunter, it's called in Greece. Stelios arrived with it in a plastic bag.
'Wow! When did you catch it?'

As you can see, it was pretty big, as in the full length of the oven baking tray. I cleaned it and, thankfully, my fish-gutting skills were not called into question. We ended up cooking it in pieces with oil and wine, onions and peppers and tomatoes. The thick white meat fell off the bones beautifully.
Best news of all this week: my book about falling in love with Greece in general and Tilos in particular will be published next summer by Summersdale. Called maybe 'Greek Honey'. Thanks to my exceptionally perceptive colleagues for seeing potential in it.
'I hope you don't think this is insulting, but it reminded me of Mamma Mia,' said Claire in the office. Insulting? Far from it - bring it on! I want that scrawled over the cover, along with author Ben Hatch's comment on my last blog post about fishing:
'I am so jealous of your life. I just went to Tesco's, for goodness sake.'