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Friday, 6 February 2009

Bootcamp lahanorizo (Λαχανόριζο του στρατού)

Ever had to give up three years of your life to serve your country? No? Don't worry, you're not the only one; neither have I.

It wasn't a difficult choice to make, not at all. Upon finishing high school, I went straight into the army to complete my compulsory military duty. I had no idea what I wanted to do after leaving school. I was quite happy helping out my family on the farm, and had never thought that I had to think about doing something else. After all, both my parents had lived all their lives in the village doing pretty much the same things that they were doing now. The need for change hadn't made its impact during my school years.

I wasn't a very good student at school; not that I wasn't interested in learning anything, but I hated learning it all off by heart like a parrot. Whenever I offered my opinion on a topic, I always received a lower mark than when I simply quoted word for word what was written in the standard-issue Ministry of Education textbook on the same subject. For instance, when we were learning about the history of the union of Crete with the Hellenic state, I knew that the textbook read:

"It was on a Sunday, the 1st of December, 1913 that the Greek flag was raised on top of the fortress of Firka, on the western side of the harbour of Chania, in front of the King of the Hellenes, Constantine, the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, and a tearful, emotional and enthusiastic crowd of proud Cretans. The struggle to reach that moment had been a bloody and very long one. The Turkish Occupation of Crete, 1669-1913, was one of 267 years, 7 months and 7 days of agony."

But on the day of the test for that unit, I couldn't help myself adding:

"Despite the union, the Cretan people as a race had never shared the notion of Romiosini that dominated the rest of Greece. Given its agricultural and economic importance to the rest of the country, had Crete decided not to join the newly-formed Hellenic state, and remain an independent nation, the long-term outcome of Crete's fate might have resulted in the formation of an autonomous orderly independent Republic, operating on similar terms to that of other Mediterranean states such as Malta and Cyprus. The Union of Crete with Greece will be debated once again in the early 21st century when the 100-year tenure of the island expires and her contract with the rest of the country will need to be renewed."

In my thinking, it was a way of showing to the teacher that I wasn't simply learning everything papagalia, but making a genuine attempt to apply my basic knowledge of a historical event to a modern way of thinking. Stella who sat next to me in class and passed off her copied answers as her own 'original' work got a perfect score of 20 by writing just the first paragraph of my answer; I got 15, considered at the time to be a borderline pass.

The only thing I excelled at was English. It was also the only subject that seemed to have any real value in my own world. Tourists flocked by our village every summer on their way to the Samaria Gorge. They'd stop at the cafe in the village square for a refreshment and admire the view. Then they'd ask us questions: what kind of trees are these? are green and black olives grown on different trees? how can you distinguish goat meat from sheep meat? what are vlita called in English? why can't toilet paper be thrown into the WC?

As a youngster, I was drawn to their pale skins and blond hair, their orderly manners and polite voices, their willingness to learn something new at the cost of sounding ignorant. When I was hanging out at the square with the other village children, it was always me that the cafe owners called to speak with the tourists. It took me a while to work out where they were each from - in the beginning, I kept thinking they were all English because they spoke English. I enjoyed answering all their questions, and they always thanked me and praised my linguistic skills.

*** *** ***

When I left the family hearth to enter the army, it was the first time I had been away from home, as was the case for most of the eighteen-year-old boys who were at the camp with me. They came from all over Greece. I was one of twelve cadets from the greater region of Hania, but there were also a few others from other parts of Crete. Admittedly, they were my closest army buddies; homeland ties have a very strong effect on a person when they leave their topo. But the whole group of newly arrived cadets were all alike in so many ways: we were like a bunch of kids waiting to become men. The weather was still warm in September, so that the whole army business sounded like a holiday, an extended summer camp, only that we didn't sleep in tents and didn't build fires to cook our food on, which was unfortunate, because it would have tasted much better than the food we were served up there.

I was sent to the Tripoli air force bootcamp where I was given the basic army training of a cadet. Having been raised in a Cretan mountain village, Tripolis felt very different. It was very much a busy town. Every second person walking on the street wore a soldier's uniform. But the mountainous countryside of the Peloponnese and the surrounding fields reminded me very much of home. It was this sight that made me think I was still close to my own village. The boys who cried at night in the sleeping quarters were the ones that had lived their whole life in Athens. I wondered how they would last the whole three years of military duty in the air force, because that's what it was in 1975. Nothing like today, where as soon as you enter the army, it's time to leave. Those townies were the ones that had a hard time of it, especially in the beginning, until they got used to the stagnant routine, or they found a way, usually through meson, to get transferred to the Tatoy base, closer to Athens, hence closer to home.

I had already had some idea of army life from my older brother who had come back home two years before I left to do my duty, so I knew what to expect. He had been sent to Avlona as part of the ground crew, but the rigour of army life was much the same. Early morning rise, run around the camp, in our underwear, rain or shine. Breakfast, morning tasks, more drills, lunch, more assigned tasks, more drills, dinner, clean-up, lights out. What astounded me was how structured everything was in the army; while the rest of Greece carried on in its random chaotic rhythms, we lived in such law and order that it lent a whole new meaning to what my uncle in the village believed about laws: they are only followed by the ignorant.

bootcamp in Katerini early 50s
My dad - always the centre of attention - doing his army stint

The food in the Tripolis camp was utter crap. I think they made it like that on purpose. I was never a fussy eater; I ate everything my mother cooked, including food I didn't particularly want to eat, like hilopites and trahana soup. But hilopites and trahana soup are edible and nourishing, which I can't say about lahanorizo. Twice a week for crying out loud, we were fed this gas-inducing respiratory nightmare. Even if we didn't like the frigging stuff, even if we knew we would simply bin the whole tray, we were obliged to go to the dining room, pass by the serving area, and take the blimmin tray. We could do what the hell we liked with it after that, but we had to pick it up in the first place. If you didn't want to eat it, you'd go without food the rest of the day until the evening meal - which was more of the same. I'd eat the feta and bread that was served with the lahanorizo, and chuck out the rest. To this day, I cannot stand the smell of cooked cabbage and the sight of plain boiled rice. The only time our mother cooked plain boiled rice for us to eat was when we were ill. The Chinese must be suffering perpetually from illnesses, given the amounts of plain boiled rice that they consume; now I know why they are thin. Boiled rice, coupled with bike-riding.

lahanorizo lahanorizo
Λαχανόρυζο - Lahanorizο; cooked with TLC, I must admit I found lahanorizo to be a comforting kind of winter meal, but then I didn't have to eat it twice a week - here's a good reason why women should also be enlisted. I used the recipe as it appears in the link given. If I were to make it again, I'd add a few spices like saffron and cumin, and some currants.

The fasolada at the camp was quite tasty. The boys on kitchen duty were only too happy to give me a second serving when I asked for it. I stopped eating it only after I found out towards the end of my stay in the army that sometimes they'd stick someone's old boots in the vat while the bean soup was cooking and stir it all around. Meat was served on Sundays, usually a lamb or chicken meal. It always had a leathery taste; I don't know what that could be attributed to: the cooking method or the expiry date of the frozen carcass. The beef was good, probably because it was given adequate cooking time. I once had to help out in cutting it up. When it came out of the freezer, it was nearly impossible to tell where the head used to be attached. The creature lay like a frozen clump of brown earth on the kitchen floor with all its limbs severed. I sat on what seemed to me like the tail end, while another boy sat on the other end. Two boys stood in the middle, each one hammering away with a butcher's knife. It took us all morning to cut it in two pieces. If it had been left to defrost, it probably would have stunk. Higher ranking officers passed us without batting an eyelid; we were being kept occupied.

Of the few times I was rostered for kitchen duty, it was omelette day. The omelettes were cooked up in huge casseroles, turning out more like scrambled eggs rather than a pancake flip. As I cracked the eggs and poured the contents into the pots, I sometimes noticed chicks coming out of them instead of yolks. I asked the head chef what I should do if I found one of them. "Not to worry," he replied half-jokingly. "Extra protein."

Despite the bad vibrations going around the camp concerning the food, no one ever got sick. No one was sent to hospital for stomach cramps, gastro-enteritis, food poisoning and other related ailments. That all happened to the intake a few years before mine, and such a fuss was made about it, that officials made it their responsibility never to allow it to happen again.

Every time I received leave to go back to the island and see my parents, my mother constantly fretted about the weight I'd lost. It's true that I did lose weight while I was in the camp, but that wasn't just due to the self-inflicted diet I had forced on myself. We were kept busy throughout every waking hour of the day. Time went by so fast. My brother and father knew all this, but how can you explain it to a woman? Despite her own busy life as a farmer's wife, she could work at her own pace and she had no one to fear as she executed her daily chores. She also had better access to good food than I did. Every time I returned home on leave, she'd ply me with food, which I would not refuse. Every bite I took was like ambrosia. I could distinguish every ingredient, taste every herb, feel the texture of the meal as it melted in my mouth. When I was ready to return to the camp (having gained all the weight I lost while I was back home), she'd fill up my bags with cheesy kalitsounia, weedy marathopites and smoky singlina for the long journey back to Tripoli, which consisted of an overnight boat trip to Athens, and a long tiring bus trip to the camp, which took at least four hours because it was a free service for soldiers, stopping at every single neighbourhood and village along the route to give everyone the chance to ride free of charge, with the opportunity for the cadets to slowly acclimatize themselves to the routine they were returning to.

In the army cadets don't have a moment to spare. They do all the hardest dirtiest work. It is said (and I believe it) that a boy can't become a man unless he's completed his time in the army. First there was the job that you're assigned to. At some random unpredictable moment, an officer would come into our rooms or work place and do a spot check. Everything had to be in order, otherwise we would be reassigned tasks, usually the less desirable ones, like a rendezvous with Calliope. Orders were strictly obeyed, and the disobedient were swiftly punished with an extension to their tour of duty. I managed to be a good boy, a very hard thing to do for three consecutive years. The thought of spending a day longer than I needed to here was more than enough to keep me squeaky clean throughout my stay.

*** *** ***

After three years of rigorous, structured tasks, I finally came back home, back to the farmer's slow-paced no-hurry routine I had been used to before I left my family. It felt good to be able to wake up any time I liked, help out my parents and brother on the farm, wash in a clean bathroom without the wimpy city boys' clothes lying around the shower box (as if they expected a maid to come and pick up after them), eat my mother's sumptuous meals and sleep in my own warm bed with clean white sheets, my days of smelly grey bedspreads being well and truly over. It felt good, all right, but it did not pay. After spending three years becoming an andra, I had also lost three years of my working life. As a high school graduate with no specific skills, I was unemployed and unemployable. A year after returning home, I decided to further my knowledge by studying tourism management - in London.

The photos are of my dad's time in the army (in Katerini, early 1950s), while the food memories are all Mr OC's. Now you know why I'm obliged to cook the way I do; I didn't have to eat the way he did. As for the ending, it's just a story...

This is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Dee from The Daily Tiffin.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.


  1. My dad was in the British Army around the same time with stints in Switzerland, Germany and Malaysia. This was a grerat account Maria:D Can you imagine a vegetarian in the army as my dad is:D

  2. How can you explain it to a woman? Hahaha!
    Thanks for reminding me of laxanorizo - it's been way too long since we've had it, and I just happen to have a head of cabbage that needs to be used.

  3. Great post and insight into army life. I'd like to try laxanorizo (keeping in mind the suggestion to add more spices such as saffron and cumin) but I can fully understand the aversion to it - even the most delicious food can become nauseating if you're required to eat it that often!

    I'm fascinated, however, by the use of food as something of an indoctrinal tool - to break down the sense of individuality in order to form a single 'corps'.

  4. Oh my gosh, when I first started reading this, I thought it was about you!!! I loved the bit about school. It was so sad to read about the boys crying, too. Great insight into a way of life so different from today.

  5. Great story that brought back a lot of memories. I wasn't an army conscript, I did my service under a different wing, but the food stories are all the same in the Greek armed forces of yore. The reason for this brutal army approach to food was both economic (lots of mouths to feed, little money to do it with) and ideological (break 'em now that they are raw - remind them life's tough).

    I hated EVERY MINUTE of boot camp because of the food and I stopped eating it in the 3rd or 4th day. I subsisted on bread and the breakfast "marmalade" taken from cans with year stamps that made even the toughest wince. I lost over 15 kilos in under 30 days -- this was concentration camp rates and my system did not take it kindly.

    Later, when I was assigned to my regular unit, things improved because we had a civilian cook who made the meanest bean soup (fasolada) on this side of the Med Sea and was always happy to offer seconds. He even made pastitsio on special days -- and I still remember it with a salivating mouth.

    Nowadays the soft-bottomed youth are treated to private catering (!!!) and still groan about the army.

    This is great post. It should be recommended reading to all those of young age today who think they've shortchanged in life.

  6. My mom's take on Laxanorizo is with some smoked parpika from the horio, tomato and a squeeze of lemon juice. It makes for a hearty lenten dish too. Thanks for reminding me of this dish and to avoid any bootcamps in Tripoli! ;)

  7. I enjoyed reading this post very much. Military service always changes you forever. I spent 6 weeks in the Hellenic Army going through parachutist training at Aspropirgos and Megara. I was the only American there and I must say I thought the Greek chow they served up was not only good, it reminded me of the food I grew up with, although I have to admit my mother could have given them a few pointers.

  8. I love the insight here. Ever since, the army deserves a salute for their heroic act and for their bravery.

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