Sunday, 28 February 2016

A Long Walk to the Castle, and an Entertaining Evening at Kali Kardia

There were bees buzzing and, in the blue sky and warm sun, a feel of summer around the corner as we set off on the half-hour walk up the path to Skafi. We reached the sand and I had a sudden longing to lie down and fall asleep.

Work has been excitingly busy at my home office, feeling strangely like a real office, especially when I got invited out for lunch by an editor in New York, and had to explain that it might be tricky. Not that it’s been all work this week, far from it – with a Greek television crew on the island interviewing us on Tuesday, and the Gaitanaki celebrations on Wednesday… But it’s been a full week. I’d finally found the time to clean the house from top to bottom in the morning: filling up a bag with dust and dog-hair. By 1pm, I felt it was time to give myself a long afternoon off. Lisa, funny creature of habit, tried to pull us back home because it wasn’t time to do our walk of the day yet, but I was having none of it.

All ideas of dozing on the sand were pushed aside by the sight of the crystal-clear sea glinting invitingly over the colourful pebbles. It had to be done. I braced myself for the cold water, tried not to think about that first minute as I dove under to see the magical blue, then swam quickly until the sea felt good – the best moment – across the bay and back. As usual I started to feel the chill again on the way back, making me speed up my strokes and it was good to get out, although a breeze was moving little clouds across and blocking my sun. One of the best things about winter swimming is how invigorating it is, though: I was now full of energy and although I’d brought a book to read, I felt like a walk. I’d actually brought water and fruit, and a water bowl for Lisa.

We set off up the side of the hill to the north – gentle and dune-like at first, soon getting steeper and rockier – towards the lone tree that you see from the far end of the beach. For years I’ve looked up there as I swim, and now I was looking down, hearing the waves below on the beach, the old fields of the valley clear from this perspective. Now that I was up here, I wanted to cross the ridge to see the view from the other side. It wasn’t far as the promontory seemed to trail off into a very fine sharp point, and it looked unlike any part of Tilos I’d seen. I love the way the island is still full of surprises for me, and the sun made it spectacular. We were now on the side of the promontory that you see from Ayios Antonis. I decided we’d walk the ridge home.
Lisa gets just as thrilled as I do by exploring a new walk, and she leaped over the thorniest thorn bushes with grace. I feel like John Noakes talking to Shep the dog on days like this (showing my age). In some places, we were able to walk along the old stone terraces; other times we pulled ourselves up and down rocks. Everywhere there were flowers – daisies, the purple blooms on the sage bushes, and endless tiny blue and yellow and purple and white-and-pink flowers. Lisa pulled towards a cliff where we had the caught the most amazing moment of silver rippling sea with clouds above Profitis Ilias. There was a threshing circle on a flattish col, then a tough scramble up a steep slope to the rocky summit again. For the first time, I got up close to a stone-built structure that from afar had looked like an empty windmill; it wasn’t circular at all, I saw, but a semi-circular tower with tiny windows on the sea in all directions, and steps up to the top.

It’s exactly this kind of walk, I realised, that gives me a real break – when I’m focused on finding the path, and on holding safely to Lisa’s lead while we negotiate sharp rocky outcrops, my brain lets go of all thoughts of work or anything else. A challenging walk, with a minor element of risk… After a couple of hours or so of scrambling up and down slopes, both my and Lisa’s legs were like jelly. Tired, I had to focus not to fall – even though we were so close to home, there were plenty of tricky parts ahead. We were a little fractious. Lisa had no patience with my stopping now to take photos of flowers, and I had no patience with her taking detours to scare partridges, or follow a goat-track to some un-navigable spot. She started pulling on the lead when we happened upon a new-born baby goat and a bloody trail around it from the absent mother. My legs were covered in scratches.

I knew if we made it to the castle, we’d have a clear path down. It was getting closer – again, I was seeing it from a fresh angle. We took one last detour to a chapel which was filled with goat-dung and snail-shells, then down the hill until we were under the steep rock walls; I decided it would be easiest to get within the castle walls and find the path from there, so I helped Lisa leap over an old fence, and feeling very James Bond we helped one another over the castle wall – and were safe. We now were right above Megalo Horio, and just had to be careful not to slip on the loose rocks. We’d been out and about for over five hours. My legs barely worked. A simple dinner of potatoes and cabbage and broccoli with eggs and tinned fish had never tasted so good, washed down with restorative beer.
I was planning to write about Apokries – since today ends the first week of this three-week period before Lent, and I’ve been unearthing some interesting stuff about pagan ceremonies to drive out the evil spirits of winter – but I’m running out of space, and with the sun shining in a blue sky and that walk yesterday, any evil spirits feel well and truly subdued. So instead I will tell you quickly about Thursday, when I arrived at Kali Kardia to much enthused shouting and argument.

It seems there was some problem with the reading of the electricity meters, and Lefteris was standing his ground saying it wasn’t his fault, while Nikos the ex-Taxijis turned as red as his jaunty shirt in anger, and Grigoris of the many orange trees stated his case. Nikitas sat quietly slouching in his tweedy jacket and thin scarf, peering over his glasses to roll his cigarette. ‘Why are you shouting?’ he asked Grigori. ‘Are you scared?’ roared Grigoris back. ‘No, why are you shouting?’ persisted Nikitas calmly. ‘Because I want to shout!’ laughed Grigoris. When Gunter left, Nikitas hurried after him, worried he’d been driven off by the argument. ‘Ohi, efige omorfa,’ said someone, he left in a nice way.

Of course everything calmed down very soon and gradually people started to say goodnight and went their way home, and by then we were all in good moods and laughing, so when old Pantelis the goat farmer arrived and seemed in a dour frame of mind, Lula told him she liked his new waterproof jacket.

Pantelis speaks several languages from having worked on the ships years ago, but has a slight speech impediment which makes whatever he’s saying come out in a nasal, gruff way. Perhaps to make up for this, he has a way of elaborating on what he’s saying with large gestures, throwing his arms out and spreading his cartoonishly huge fingers wide.

‘This?’ he said. ‘I’ve had this jacket for a decade.’ He got up from his seat and quietly stood centre stage in the middle of the room, and seemed to be taking it off – but without removing his hands from the sleeves, so gradually as he shrugged his jacket off and it fell towards the floor, it turned inside out. Then he pulled out his hands and with a typically dramatic flourish, like a magician he produced – a new fleece jacket!

Having demonstrated its ingenious reversibility which had fooled Lula into thinking he had a new jacket, he slowly put it on, everyone laughed and cheered, and Pantelis was taking a bow and about to sit down when Nikos shouted out, ‘What about the trousers?!’ Pantelis didn’t skip a beat and his fingers flew immediately to the top button of his flies, making Lula and the rest of us shriek with laughter. Then he stopped and turned around and said, ‘Sorry, my frien’ – joking, joking…’    

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Raki and Fish

Image result for stratis vogiatzis raki and fish
Raki and fish... Sounds almost as good as octopus and ouzo, doesn't it? 

'All my life, in whatever city I visit, I've always found myself in search of fish markets,' writes Tan Morgul in the Beirut chapter of this luscious book. Tan, a journalist from Istanbul, is the writer and Stratis Vogiatzis, from the Greek island of Chios in the Aegean, is the photographer. Together, over several months in the winter of 2013, they travelled to 11 cities around the Mediterranean sampling variations on the simple and exquisite combination of raki and fish, and they put together this book that is a feast for the eyes. It resonates with 'the sound of the waves and the smell of the sea'. 

It's not just a cookbook, and not just a travel book, but an opinionated and lively exploration of the Mediterranean passion for seafood, capturing a snapshot of the geography, the mythology, the poetry, the stories of each place. It opens in Istanbul, where 'fish is caught not with net or rod, but with raki' according to Ara Guler - and last night I travelled with them through Beirut and Alexandria... 

We learn the Turkish saying: 'If my own father came out of the sea, I'd eat him!' We learn about the fish themselves along the way, from monkish to sardines, as well as how they are eaten locally. We learn about serving roasted grouper with tahini sauce, and about marinating bonito (small tuna, called palamitha here on Tilos) in garlic, olive oil, onion, lemon juice and soy sauce. 

We learn about salads with slices of cured fish roe, dressed in thyme, onion, lemon, salt and olive oil - all things we can source locally here - and I'd love to try making a dish with dandelion greens sauteed with calamari in lemon and olive oil - perfect for winter on Tilos when all those things are fresh and in season. We learn about fish felafel, tabbouleh with tuna, hummus with fish confit - Beirut is big on pairing fish with grains and legumes. 

I was also fascinated to read that the word raki has its origins in the word 'araq', which means 'sweat' - the drops that collect as it emerges from the still. Arabs originated the tradition of distilling drinks in Lebanon.

The photographs are not only of food but of kitchens, of fishing boats under stormy skies in inky waves, of steam and ripe tomatoes and spices, of the wet paving stones of old markets, of expressions captured on faces.

Tan laments the damage inflicted on our seas by pollution, and the damage inflicted on the Mediterranean shores by bland development. Some of the places were experiencing economic crisis, political and social upheaval, even revolution, but as Tan writes, 'in these tense times... we went in search of a warm conversation'. This book is a wonderful celebration of Mediterranean culture and I can't wait to continue the journey through Tunis, Tangier, Lisbon, Barcelona, Marseille, Genoa, Dubrovnik, Athens.

The book can be ordered from but if you have problems please feel free to get in touch. You can find a small selection of Stratis' beautiful photographs along with an introduction to the book by Tan here:

Thanks to the guys for sending me a copy.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Sharing the love

In April, when this book is launched, it will be five years since I came to live on the tiny Greek island of Tilos, a place I'd fallen in love with. I came here for a different kind of life: to spend more time outdoors and in the sea, to learn about the ways of a traditional Greek island and see if I could work from home and live the dream. AN OCTOPUS IN MY OUZO is a celebration of life in Greece.

A few weeks ago, I nervously sent messages to some authors, asking if they might read the proofs. This is a lovely tradition in books, where other authors can offer words of endorsement. I've been lucky in the past so I crossed my fingers that a few would agree to read it, and one or two might like it. Well, lo and behold...

If you love Greece, then you're probably familiar with The Mysteries of the Greek Detective series by Anne Zouroudi - brilliant stories, beautifully written and full of fascinating, authentic details of Greek island life (don't just take my word for it - Alexander McCall Smith is a fan). So how thrilled was I when Anne wrote the following endorsement? 

'Poetic, touching, enlightening: Jennifer's very personal journey into Greece's deep heartland will give even the most couch-bound armchair traveller itchy feet.'

Edward Enfield wrote another book Grecophiles might know, Greece on my Wheels. When I worked at Summersdale, I became friends with him, working with him on subsequent books, and we still exchange letters. Through him I connected with his daughter, Lizzie Enfield, whose novels about relationships make absorbing, thought-provoking and entertaining reading and who also writes about Greece for newspapers. The next wonderful endorsement came from Lizzie: 

'A seductive evocation of Greek island life and an honest exploration of what it means to try to live differently. An Octopus in my Ouzo is about diving into the unknown and staying afloat, even when the enticing blue waters of the Aegean become choppy.'

You may know Emma Woolf from TV or radio; she and I first met in Stanfords travel bookshop and since then we've been firm friends. She wrote great things about Falling in Honey and I was hopeful that she would read this one as her own new book, Positively Primal, is about finding health and happiness in a hectic world - which is something I was aiming for when I moved to Tilos. She's a great advocate of women's health and happiness and has also published a novel called Ways of Escape, a love story set against a backdrop of travel. Anyway... she said yes! She wrote: 

'Romantic, sun-drenched and mouth-watering: a true feast for the senses.'

AN OCTOPUS IN MY OUZO, which heads to the printer this coming week, couldn't be off to a better start. It's available for pre-order on Amazon here, by the way. Thanks to these fabulous ladies for sharing the love!

Saturday, 6 February 2016

A Walk to Livadia

I'm just going to think about Tuesday.

Yesterday, Friday, it rained all day. I walked to Ayios Andonis in the afternoon and got soaked to the skin. Lisa and I don't mind a bit of rain, but even she baulked at the big, driving hailstones and we had to take shelter. Today it's sunny but there's a sharp, strong wind blowing that almost brought me to a standstill on the way back from Eristos. We're settled in front of the heater for the night. But Tuesday... Tuesday was beautiful. And since I had to visit the ATM anyway, I took the afternoon off and walked in shorts and t-shirt to Livadia. I saw almond blossoms, wild cyclamen, an eagle... And of course, I went for a swim.

Sofia decided to give up running the kafeneion in Megalo Horio this winter, and it's been taken over by the Hatzifountas brothers from En Plo, who have changed things a little and put in a wood-burner for winter. They're also offering food now. I've been there twice with friends this week, feeling very lucky that we have another great place to go out for a drink and meze in the evening - a little plate of octopus with your ouzo, if you like. 

Finally, some photos of Ayios Andonis in a mixture of clouds and sunshine early this week, with the fishermen pulling in nets.