Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Spring around the Corner...

This past Sunday, March 25, was the day Greece celebrates its revolution in the early nineteenth century against the Turkish occupation, the beginning of freedom after more than three centuries of Ottoman rule. In the primary school on Friday, the desks had been moved out of the classroom so the kids could rehearse their performance, and there were Greek flags and a blue banner with 'Freedom or Death!' and other heroic words.
When I arrived to teach English, the little kids wanted to do the lesson sitting cross-legged on the floor, so we did and it was great – sitting closer to the loveable little terrors, I was finally able to read to them from the wonderful picture book I found called ‘Aaargh, Spider!’ They loved it, and I wish I had more English story books for them that worked for teaching English.
On the subject of books, it's a shame that an ordinary paperback book - not academic, just something like Dan Brown in translation - costs from 16 to 24 euros in Greece... If you think of the average salary (recently qualified teachers are now, after the austerity measures, on something like 600 euros a month), you wonder how anyone can afford to read! Plus it recently occurred to me that we don't have a library on Tilos... The school has one, apparently, but libraries shouldn't feel like going to school. 

I feel honoured that my first winter in Tilos was the coldest and longest in most people’s memory… No, not that cold - the white in the picture above is blossom, not snow!
Still, March has answered my prayers and brought beautiful warmth and sunshine. In the last few days I had my first swims of the year – cold, brief, but energising and wonderful. On Sunday, I walked down to Eristos beach again to my little sheltered spot but didn’t take swimming gear because it was cloudy and a little cool when I left. Of course, when I got down there it warmed up and I so wanted to go in the water. I thought about going in au naturel, since there was no-one about and I was hidden…  Just as well I didn’t, as Eleftheria arrived with her husband and their little boy, as well as Leo, who is not only one of my students in the older English class but gets a lift home with me afterwards to the village. He’d have been put off English for life seeing the Kyria, Miss Jennifer, emerging starkers from the sea.

I also did aerobics with the local group and it was great fun to dance to loud music again, stretch and feel the joys of spring arriving. Thanks to the international language that is aerobics, I actually knew what I was doing – it's perhaps the first time I’ve been in a group of women in Tilos and not felt like an idiot. Hurrah for aerobics.
(Not incidental picture of a pig... Me pre-aerobics)
Warm weather brings out the lizards… Little ones that skitter across the path, feet barely touching the ground, and the bigger one, the savra (or mini-dinosaur) that lounges on the stone wall in the sunshine; when I change down into first gear to drive up the steep rally-drive dirt track to my house, I am just in time to see him trying to disappear into a crack in the stones - though in fact all he does is stick his head into the crack in the stones and leave his big stripey tail hanging out.
I don't want to dwell on sadness, but I cannot let March go by without mention of the sad passing of Tilos' mayor of many years, Tasos Aliferis. He came here as a doctor and gradually helped shape the life of this island through his vision and hard work. (Famously, he permitted the first gay wedding in Greece to happen here a few years ago, although it was later annulled by the government; one of Tilos's many challenges to the Greek government, such as its hunting ban that went against the national constitution!) Aliferis was a true friend of Tilos.
It came too soon after another tragedy, the passing of another great friend of so many, Vangelis Papadopoulos, known to many visitors who return to Tilos year after year as 'Zorba' for the restaurant he used to run. He was one of the first people I got to know when I first visited Tilos, and his love of life and good humour was infectious. He wanted to keep alive the old traditions of the island, and yet he also loved all the foreigners and outsiders who returned to Tilos and made their home here, bringing new life to the island. It's hard to believe he's not still here, but I know his spirit will live on in everyone who remembers him with warmth.

Teenafto? What’s this? Asks Stelios as I am cooking what will turn out to be the tastiest omelette ever as I am ravenous after aerobics: very fresh eggs, a little milk, feta sprinkled all over it and a little sea salt and pepper. Sometimes the simplest things… But he's not talking about the omelette, he's talking about -
'Afto? That? Ah, that you won’t like at all! It’s something that only people who grew up in England can like – and some of them don’t like it either… You won’t like it!’ It is, of course, a jar of Marmite. I usually hide it away somewhere, but there it is beside the toaster, and Stelios looks intent on tasting it…
‘It’s kind of like yeast, that you make bread with, and it has lots of vitamins in it...’ I’m trying to justify my weird taste.
But he tastes a little on a spoon and doesn’t mind it. What's happening to us?!
I’m also boiling the new shoots of the vrouves, basically edible weeds or horta, which Maria gathered for me from around the honey factory yesterday and left on the chair outside. They're a little spicy and go perfectly with eggs. I’d love to have taken a photo of dinner, but alas, the tastiest meals often get eaten before I remember the camera.
Last week when we were in Athens I kept wanting to photograph the great meals but by the time I remembered, it was too late. Still, there was plenty of other stuff to photograph, with four hours in the Cycladic Art Museum, mouth-watering shops and cool street art, oh, and the Acropolis just up the road... The trip was mostly holiday but also a little research for an article for Skyscanner, out today. If you are ever looking for the perfect place to stay in Athens, look no further than O&B, with all this on the doorstep...


  1. I so look forward to reading your posts each month. I lived on Rhodes for a year and I especially enjoyed the solitude during the winter.
    I read your article on skyscanner and although I agree, tourists should come to Greece, I disagree on one point you make about Athens: "There was nothing to suggest that this was a troubled city."
    I've been living in Athens for almost 15 years now and the changes over the past year are so evident, they cannot be ignored. Athens is a changed city, a city in crisis. Over 30% of the shops in the downtown area have shut down, due to the financial crisis. A growing number of homeless people live and sleep around platia Korai & surrounding streets (Stadiou, Panepistimiou). This is unprecedented for Athens. I would also advise tourists not to visit the Nat'l Archaeological Muesum on Patission St. This area is not safe for tourists. This block on Patission is infested by drug addicts who wander around like zombies (not exaggerating, unfortunately) among other things. I don't say this to discourage visitors from coming to Greece, it is just simply a reality.

  2. Hi there,
    Thank you so much for your comment! So nice to hear from you and I'm really glad you enjoy the posts.
    In the article I did say that in the area around Thissio, Psirri and Monastiraki there was nothing to suggest it was a troubled city. There really wasn't anything; economic problems, yes, but unfortunately that is the case in many countries right now. I certainly did see homeless people on Stadiou, which was sad; it's also very sad to see the drug addicts. But I have seen worse in Vancouver and Frankfurt. I have been attacked in Montpellier, France and afraid of drunken violence in small towns in England. Plenty of shops have been shutting down in England too - but it's about economics, not about riots, and Athens centre is still hugely vibrant with shops. I spoke to lots of people who have lived in Athens for years, and they said the beggars were not threatening.
    Sadly, Athens has many more problems than it did 15 years ago - or 20 years ago, when I lived there - but that is perhaps the same the world over... I think the main point of the article was to convey that tourists should not be afraid to visit Greece or Athens because of what they see on the news. It would have been nice to give a more detailed perspective but I had a particular brief and a particular word count!
    All best wishes,

    1. Jennifer, Those of us far removed from Athens get our news only second-hand, but reports have been lurid and sensational, as this from the recent(3/28) Der Spiegel:


      Since I have just been writing about how wonderful Greece was in the Easter season, I wonder how much I ought caution readers that their results might differ.

    2. Hi there,
      Wow, reading that link, it's hard to imagine it's the same country that I live in! Yes, there are definitely social problems in Athens, as there are in so many cities in Europe, and it's exacerbated by the fact that some 90% of illegal immigrants to Europe come via Greece and get stuck in Athens. The Greek government's plans to set up refugee camps for them will get criticised as racist but it may well protect these people, and there are other plans for regeneration of the area around Omonia which is not pleasant - though I have to say it is quite a small area.
      It really is a small area of Athens where there is trouble and although the Greek people are experiencing severe economic difficulties, they are still as wonderfully welcoming as ever. Wandering around the islands, certainly, you wouldn't know there was any trouble in Greece.

    3. I remember sometime in the '80s I was, I think, near Lavrio when I met a young man who told me that he and his family were refugees from the ancient Greek communities in Turkey who had been expelled in the '20s, after the Greek invasion failed, and had been interned since then on the nearby island of Makronissi. I take that to mean that the Greeks have done this in the past and can point to it in non-racial justification of the practice.

      BTW, my wife discovered that there is an Orthodox church not far from us and we went to the service this morning. It was half in Greek and half in English. Nancy followed the service but I let myself be lost in the experience. It was wonderful, the sort of thing a church service should be. After church there was a bake sale and we loaded up on home-made Greek pastries.

    4. Thanks, DEK, for the post. Yes, history is never quite that simple... I would love to learn more - am on the lookout for good history books that aren't too dense (on the subject of which, have you read Mary Beard's The Parthenon? Fascinating!).
      Love the sound of the church service you went to. Where was this?

    5. Jennifer, Since post-Independence Greece has a fairly short history -- about two centuries -- I would think that on-line sources, beginning with wikipedia, could give you the outline and identify incidents and periods that seem of interest for deeper online reading.

      My favorite book on the ancient Greek world is M. I. Finlay, The World of Odysseus. Available as a Penguin Classic paperback

      My favorite work on Greek folk culture is John Cuthbert Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Magic. And as for "modern", it came out in 1910. I think it is available in a more recent paperback.

      I think both of these are quite accessible. I have no tolerance for "difficult" books.

      I know of Mary Beard and have read some of her casual pieces, but none of her books. I believe she has a blog.

      The Greek Orthodox church I went to was in Burlington, Vermont. Wherever you go in the world, there seem to be Greeks.

  3. Nice post and I remember those wonderful flowers in Greece in March.

    But someone who isn't English who likes marmite? That is truly almost unbelievable!

  4. Came to your blog through the SKyscanner article, I passed it on to someone I know called Sue who might contact you about it actually, let me know if she ever does! :)

  5. Thanks, Jenny! Great to hear. I'm not sure if Stelios actually liked the Marmite: he used the word 'Antecho', which means something like I can tolerate it... I think my jar is safe! Our new favourite thing on toast is chocolate tahini, like Nutella...

  6. I'm enjoying your blog very much! My wife and I are heading to Tilos in mid-May. From Bellingham, Washington by way of Copenhagen. Islands, food, and hiking are our passions and we are extremely excited to experience all three on Tilos.

    was wondering, however, is there someone on the island that we might take a cooking class from, in the form of helping them prepare a big dinner? This is just something I've been thinking about and am trying to make happen when we are there. Great writing and thanks again for painting such a vibrant picture of Tilos!

    1. It was such a joy to get your comment - thank you for your kind words. Sounds like you are going to love Tilos! It's fantastic for hiking here (and one of the joys of hiking is having a lovely meal after...). Can I ask how you came across the blog?

      I have been thinking it would be great if someone offered cooking classes. There's no-one doing it formally yet, but we could ask some of the really good cooks in the restaurants if they would do something like this. Do you speak any Greek and would you want someone who spoke English? I'm sure something could be arranged.

  7. Well, cheers and thanks. I've been searching the web for Tilos since deciding to go there. We don't speak any Greek, but we would just like to help cook a meal and hang out with some nice folks, really. If it works out that would be great, but we will be there such a short time that we may just enjoy the hiking and the restaurants. But if you think of something, e-mail me at: mikkelhong@gmail.com Thanks.

  8. HI do u happen to have a picture of Vangelis Papadopoulos the last time I was in Rhodes was in 1979 I knew someone by that name who lived in Rhodes Greece.

    1. Actually I don't have one, sorry. But it's quite possible that he was living in Rhodes at that time.