Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Sunday 30 September 2012

Economic migrant (Οικονομικός μετανάστης)

Emigration - it's such a fluid concept in our times.

Stelios, a good family friend, was desperate to get away from a failed marriage and a mountain of debts. Being a New Zealand citizen by birth, he decided to emigrate to Australia. Two years later, he comes back to Greece on holiday, mainly to see his kids and sort out some paperwork. He looked happier and healthier than when I last saw him in Crete. He also had a lot to tell us.

"I don't tell people where I'm working in Australia. I just say I live in Perth, but I actually work in the desert mines. I don't tell them because I'm making good money, and everyone thinks I can get them a job just because I'm there. But that's not the way things work in Australia. You have to prove your worth. I've been at the mines for only 8 months and I've already had one promotion, which is unusual. You are rewarded for good work, and I'm often told that I put in the work of two people. That's how I got the chance to go on holiday before I had even completed a year at the job. I'm very lucky.

"I don't work underground, I'm always above ground. My job has to do with building foundations and pouring concrete. It's very hot work, I'm always working outdoors, often in 50-55°C temperatures. We work 10-hour days in the heat, 13 days in a row. I get every second Sunday off. Every day, I slap sunscreen on my face and put on my long-sleeved uniform. It's the rule - we are forbidden to wear anything else. I'm what's known as a fly-in-fly-out worker. After 6 weeks, I leave the mines and go back to Perth, where I stay for a week at a friend's house. Then I fly back in for another 6-week stint.

"Although I'm making good money, I also pay an enormous amount on taxes. I'm happy with my pay packet, but I'm often astounded to think that I pay almost the same as I make in taxes. My accomodation and food is included in my pay. Our homes are like container units. I have a room to myself with a bathroom and air-conditioning. There are meals served every day through a buffet - I don't have to cook. After work, all I have time for is to clean myself up, go to the gym on the compound and have a meal. The closest town is about an hour's drive away, but I really don't have time to go anywhere after work. There's no point in it anyway, because we're too tired. I don't even have time to go to the workers' pubs. I'm just too tired.

"I'm glad I don't have any hidden expenses where I live. There's nothing to do with your money in the desert, so you can save it all. I make a good amount of money to allow myself to think about buying a house, maybe somewhere in Perth. I'm also paying off my debts in Greece. I don't know if I really want to come back to live there though; things are a mess there. I miss my kids, but I can't offer them anything here. If they come out to Australia with me, they won't be much use to me or even to themselves - if you aren't educated, you have few hopes of achieving anything. Australia's only worth emigrating for if you can secure yourself a high-paying job as a qualified professional, through the programs being advertised for a skilled workforce. Otherwise, you'll be working like a slave and making bugger all. Greeks think Australia is a rich country and everyone has good jobs making good money. There's no truth in that. If you're unskilled and uneducated, you haven't got a chance to improve your life. You'll simply be stuck in a rut.

"I went to Perth because I had relatives there. Before I began working in the mines, I got a job through one of them at a meat market, just to start earning some money. The money wasn't really good, and my job wasn't really a job. I was more of a dogsbody. I wanted to start sending money home as soon as I could, but I felt like I was a burden where I was living, and I'd help with the expenses. I really wanted to become independent. I eventually got a job as a plumber in a firm, which is what I was trained in when I was living in Hania. That gave me the chance to start living independently, so I found a room in a flat in the city. But the company didn't seem to be doing very well. The pay was not good, there were no chances of improving my lot there and I began to worry when I realised that I couldn't send any money home to my kids. I got really depressed.

"I began scouring the newspapers for job ads. My English skills had improved speech-wise, but my written English is still nowhere near up to par. I'm able to read basic stuff now, but I still can't write. I was able to read the job ads, but I couldn't fill in an applicaiton form on my own. I was helped by a friend I met at my plumbing job. He helped me every step of the way in getting the job at the mines. He knew people who worked in the offices of the mining company and he recommended me to them. That helped my application to rise to the top of the pile instead of being hidden among the many applications that get sent there.

"That friend is now like a big brother to me, and I'm very close to him. He's Israeli and he's been in Australia for 30 years. I stay with him and his family in their house when I fly out from the mines. I don't see my relatives much. When I told them I got a job at the mines, they couldn't believe it. When they realised that I was making good money, they seemed to show signs of jealousy. They kept asking me to get them a job there too. But I couldn't do that - I was just a worker there! I think they were wondering how I managed to achieve so much in so little time, when they came out before me and have been living and working there a long time. It's been three months since I last saw them. You can't trust your own family any longer. Blood may be thicker than water but you choose your friends, not your family.

"Living and working in Australia is not what it's cracked up to be. I had a really rough start. After a year, I began panicking and almost packed up to go back to Greece. I had no one to turn to except myself. If I've achieved anything, it's through a lot of my own personal effort. What keeps me going now is the money. I'm able to send some money to my parents to give to my kids, I'm ploughing my way through paying off my debts and I can even think of getting onto the property market. If I do that, I will be able to bring my kids here and they can have a better chance in life. But that's only if they want this for themselves. I won't make them come here. It's a personal choice for them to come here. Life isn't easy anywhere."

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Saturday 29 September 2012

Anafiotika (Αναφιώτικα)

Just recently, I found myself directly across the road from Syntagma Square for work purposes, which gave me a chance to visit a unique location in Athens.

The hotel where the seminar was located was very close to the famous Plaka district of Athens below the Acropolis, a place I visited often when I lived in Athens almost two decades ago. After the seminar, I had some time to kill before my next meeting, so I decided to take a stroll round the area for old times' sake. I headed in the direction of Kidathineon Street, which I knew would take me through some picturesque squares surrounded by neo-classical buildings and cosy little κουτούκια.

This would have been better done on an empty stomach, which would have tempted me to take a seat at one of those eateries, to enjoy the brilliant sunlight and plough my way through a few μεζέδες. Alas, my stomach was full after the all that meeting room catering that seminars usually put on; as I passed the tavernas and cafes, the only hunger I was experiencing at that moment was the deisre to make the most of a beautiful sunny day during my short stay in the capital of Greece. It was still too early to head to the train station which was a short walk from Plaka, so I used the time to take a steep walk up the hill to the holy rock.

The contrasting sites of Athens were thrown at my face as I walked up the slope with a view of the Acropolis: the boarded-up buildings representing old grandeur of former times lay side-by-side with the renovated edifices in inspiring Greek style, all surrounded by the forested greenery surrounding the sacred site. I was close to the rock now - by taking the road to the right, I knew I would end up on another road that would eventually lead me down to the Monastiraki train station.

At one point, I came across some lime-painted steps such as those that are often associated with islands and small villages. I was entering the hidden part of inner-city Athens known as Anafiotika, a name taken from the area's original inhabitants who came from the island of Anafi, neighbouring Santorini. Legend has it that their fame in masonry was so well known that they were invited in the mid-1800s by the newly-appointed German King of Greece to build the palaces and grand mansions that Athens was lacking when she became the capital of the newly established Hellenic Republic. Another legend tells us that the Anafiotes were desperate to leave their island homes after an earthquake that caused great destruction to the area.

Whatever the reasons for the Anafiotes leaving Anafi and coming to Athens for work, they also had to find a place to live; Athens at the time was nothing more than a village centred around the Acropolis. The Anafiotes built their houses on the northern rocky slopes of the Acropolis below the hill, which felt like home to them, as it was similar to the rocky terrain of their island homeland of Anafi. They hastily erected homes overnight, taking advantage of an Ottoman law which stated: "if you could put up a structure between sunset and sunrise, the property was yours." The paradox was that during the day, the Anafiotes built palaces for the rich and powerful, but at night they built simple island dwellings for their poor needy selves. The small houses in the Anafiotika area constitute an architectural example of simple structural sense and a need for saving resources. With flat roofs, joined to one another "like a flock of white ewes", combined with the layout of narrow alleyways and upward hewn steps, the area creates an unexpected 'island' picture at the end of the neoclassical district of Plaka.

The original inhabitants of Anafiotika from the Cyclades were joined by more displaced people from Asia Minor, after the Great Catastrophe in 1922, when they too were seeking a quick cheap way to put a roof over their heads in a desperate attempt to rebuild their lives following the turmoil of the events that drove them out of their homeland. By this time, the area of Anafiotika, which had originally been abandoned in classical times because the Delphic Oracle claimed it as sacred ground, was now being seen for its true value, as prime real estate in the constantly growing and sprawling capital of Greece; despite its original legal status, a number of houses were demolished in 1950 for the purposes of archaeological excavation work

By 1970, the whole area was reclaimed by the state, but many of the descendants of the original occupants of these houses continue to live there to this day, invisibly guarding their homes, since you rarely see human presence in the area, save a smoking chimney from an indoor woodfire, or some washing hanging on a clothesline flapping in the breeze. Some of the houses have been renovated to look very modern, accentuated with the well-known Greek style of wooden shutters, tiled roofs and decorative ceramic statuettes, but they retain their original style, with a hint of their roots showing in the rounded corners and strips of garden, helping them to retain their old-time look. In this way, they link us to the past and provide continuity in the 45 remaining houses which are now protected by preservation orders.

The whitewashed look of the cube-like houses, coupled with the rocky slopes, the narrow lanes separating the houses on either side of the street and the terracotta pots of geraniums give the area an island look - Anafiotika is often described as an island without a sea. It is only when you look down the hill that you remember you are in the heart of Athens, and your imminent departure from Anafiotika will take you back to the concrete jungle. 

The Greek state television archives contain a 1980 video based on the history of Anafiotika (ie pre-EU Greece), containing some historical information on the area. Unfortunately, the speech is not clear, and the language used in the voiceover is Katharevousa Greek, which makes it doubly difficult to understand, so I can't provide a synoptic translation because it really does all sound Greek, even to me...

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Friday 28 September 2012

Cheap 'n' Greek 'n' frugal: Red pepper chickpea stew (Ρεβύθια με κόκκινη πιπεριά)

The summer garden is almost over, but the peppers are continuing to do very well. We've had all colours and sizes, except hot (chili) peppers, which is a shame, as they would have been fun preserving for the winter months ahead. Heat in food is not a desirable element in Greek cooking: individuals may add heat if desired, but not the cook. Even though our peppers are not hot, each different variety has its own special taste. The red and yellow ones came out sweet, the green ones piquant, and the little green banana peppers were spicy. The light green horn-shaped peppers had a lighter taste than the green ones, whle the red horn-shaped peppers were sweeter than the bell-shaped peppers.

During the summer, we ate very few bean dishes, as we had a garden full of fresh food. Now that the summer garden has nearly packed up for the season and the weather is (only slightly) cooler, it's back to bean stews. With the dearth of tomatoes and a plethora of peppers, I decided to make a peppery chickpea stew, using red peppers as the base. It was a hit with the family, who were surprised that the colour of the stew came solely form the peppers - although they thought it was tomato, there wasn't a single tomato in it!

This recipe is probably more suited to people who grow their own vegetables, because the quantity of peppers used in it is more up to the individual. I used as many as I thought were needed to make the stew look like a tomato-based one.

You need:
a 500g packet of chickpeas
1-2 large onions roughly chopped in large chunks
2-3 cloves of garlic finely minced
a good few glugs of olive oil (this dish tastes better oily; use at least half-to-one cup)
some red peppers - the more, the tastier - roughly chopped in large chunks (I used about 10 medium-sized horn-shaped)
a handful of rice
salt and pepper
a teaspoon of smoked paprika
some lemon juice

Soak the chickpeas overnight. The next day, drain the chickpeas and bring them to the boil in a large pot with fresh water. Boil the beans for 5 minutes, then drain the water, rinse the peas and place them in the pot again with fresh water. Cook till quite soft (this will take some time), then drain them and set them aside.

Clean the pot you used to boil the chickpeas. Pour in some olive oil and add the onion and garlic. Saute till transparent. Add the red peppers and coat them well in oil. Add the chickpeas, and coat them well in the oil, too. (That's why you need a good few glugs of oil to make this dish.) Mix everything well together and then add enough water to cover the pot up to 1cm above the beans. Let the pot cook covered for at least half an hour. Turn off the heat and allow the stew to cool down slightly. Then skim off the peppers and onions (they will be floating at the top of the stew) and puree them in a blender, together with some chickpeas. Add this puree together with the smoked paprika to the stew; stir well.

At this point, the stew can be left until it is time to serve it (I usually make it at night and serve it the next day). It can be served as is, or with some rice added to it. The rice can be cooked separately, and then added to the stew, or (as I prefer to do it) the stew can be heated and the raw rice added to it, so that it cooks in the stew. It will need about 15 minutes to cook - be sure to stir the pot so that the rice doesn't stick to the bottom.

Serve this dish with lemon juice sprinkled over it. It pairs well with cheese and bread.

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Thursday 27 September 2012

Regionalist (Τοπικιστής)

Cretans possess a strong regional identity, as do many other regional Greeks, which distinguishes them from urban Athenians. This distinction is not limited to Cretans - most people around the world are influenced by the place where they live in such a way that the place can be 'seen' by others, in the way they talk or act in certain circumstances. Speech patterns are usually the most easily distinguishable feature of regionalism in a person's identity: Cretans may speak using their regional accent, with dialectal variants sprinkled into their Greek.

The olive tree symbolises much more than olive oil to the average Cretan.

But the greatest hint of regionalism is usually noticed when they talk about their homeland. We may be all Greek, but parts of Greece are very contrastive, so that one area does not resemble the other, not just in landscape, flora and fauna, but also in terms of culinary culture, and even with very different weather patterns. Greek diversity is exhibited in different ways, but there are also very firm aspects within that diversity that unite Greeks around the country.

When a Cretan finds themselves among a group of Athenians, their regionalism is particularly accentuated. In their turn, Athenians also have their own ideas about other parts of Greece; where it concerns Crete, they often think of it as a nice place for a holiday, with good food and a strong identity culture.

I thought this would have been the case for themselves too, as Athenians, that they could name what makes them proud to live there, with a good idea of the places to eat out or chill out. Among the 25 or so people attending a seminar where I was also present (held in the heart of Athens at Syntagma Square), I was surprised at the number of times I realised that the Athenians among us did not exhibit any particular loyalty to the place they call home.

the acropolis athens
The Acropolis - a firm landmark of Athens, and perhaps of Europe, as she seeks the identity of her own origins. 
During the seminar break, when a number of the participants introduced each other, I was surprised to see a dour face as the woman immediately after me said that she was 'from Athens, sadly' (after I had been warmly welcomed when I said I was from Hania). I was taken aback by her stance - I didn't expect such an emotional statement from a such a neutral question! The discussion of regionalism was heightened when one of the Athenian participants mentioned how difficult it was to to decide on what to show some of their Turkish visitors who were here attending an educational program. Athens may be a big city, much bigger than my own hometown of Hania, but I already have a good idea of what I would want to see and do there myself!

The participant mentioned the problem of deciding on a place to take their guests for dinner, the main problem being that they wanted to ensure that they were catering for different tastes in style and atmosphere: was a modern place too acultural, was an island theme too kitsch (!), was a rustic theme too common (!!) ? Eventually, he told us that they settled on a place in the Psyrri area of central Athens which is well known for its nightlife, giving their visitors a chance to combine food and entertainment. Another participant mentioned what a good choice Psyrri was as "the only thing we've got here in Athens is nightlife" (at this point, I felt dumbstruck).

Hania's landmark - the lighthouse at the Venetian harbour.
My contribution to this discussion was how easy it would have been for Cretans all over the island to decide where we would take our guests. In Hania, the Venetian port is an obvious first choice, the local culinary specialties are also well known to the locals and even to our guests, possibly through the global promotion of the origins of the Mediterranean diet, and the whole evening would be capped off with a display of traditional dancing. My idea was seconded by another participant from mainland Fokida, the prefecture of Greece that includes the ancient site of Delphi. This is all facilitated by the smaller size of each region compared to Athens: Crete's insular status marks her boundaries very clearly, while Fokida has a very clear focal point in Delphi. On the other hand, when we are touring capital cities, we don't usually stray beyond the boundaries of the city's historic centre, and there are of course central landmarks that are promoted in guidebooks and the cybersphere.

The discussion continued to flow along the lines of regionalism and regional loyalty, and I suppose it had a positive outcome in the sense that we were all aware of our origins, but you can imagine my horror when the same presenter made the flippant comment: "Well, what do we have in Athens to show off that we can all agree on?" I'm sure a good number of people living outside Greece would have been able to list a number of places that carry the notion of Athens very strongly, not least of all the ACROPOLIS!

From the Acropolis hill looking down onto the sprawling city of Athens, it might be easy to think: "Athens: big deal"...
The organiser of the seminar also made a slightly revealing statement about Cretans' loyalty to their homeland when she mentioned that Cretans seem to carry a very strong notion of τοπικισμό, they appear to be self-sufficient in many ways, and - make sure you are sitting down for this one - they can even make a claim for an independent state! The latter discussion stems from the notion that some people may have proposed in past times that Crete's status as part of the Greek state is due for review in 2013.

The whole discussion confirmed my belief that many of my Athenian compatriots suffer from an identity crisis and a lack of confidence about who they are and what they stand for. The economic crisis has made many of them lament at the closed/closing shops they are surrounded by, as if this is where Athens derives her personality. Perhaps my more regionalist thinking makes me less susceptible to the effects of the crisis. I've often stated throughout my blog that if you know your past, you can use it in the present time to help you move forward to the future. 

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Wednesday 26 September 2012

Strike (Απεργία)

National strike action has been planned for today - but as usual, it's up to the individual to choose whether s/he strikes or not.

Last Monday, some trade unionists paid a visit to my workplace, disseminating their propaganda as they popped into each office, including mine.

ΠΑ.Μ.Ε - the acronym of this trade union is always a source of derision - you often hear people replying 'Έλα' at its mention.

Kalimera, the bright-eyed smiling young girl of no more than 25 years of age addressed me, we'd like to bring to your attention the forthcoming workers' strike on Wednesday, she explained in that very polite comradey voiceover that Greek αντιεξουσιαστές use when addressing strangers, placing a leaflet on my desk.

"Kalimera," I replied, relishing the thought that I would be giving them an unexpected earful, as I would deliberately disobey all the niceties of polite discussions concerning Greek politics. I had already gathered that they had been indoctrinated to the 'cause' and were completely brainwashed to the point that they cannot see any more of the forest further than the trees before their eyes. 

We hope you will rise to the challenge with us, the (equally young) man said, to beat the system that proposes εξαθλίωση, he continued, stressing the last word in a well-rehearsed manner.

"I don't think I will bother with striking, if that's what you mean," I replied, which I knew was a cue I was giving them to start off their communistic spiel.

But if we accept all these severely constrictive measures that the government is proposing, you do realise that it's like putting a noose round our neck, the girl pleaded.

"If you think I will live better with more money in my pocket, you are wrong," I answered. And before they gave me an answer, I continued: "Throughout my life, I have lived as though I have been in crisis mode; this economic crisis is nothing new to me, and I'm quite satisfied that I can live with less money."

The girl's eyes widened: But what can a young person do with €592 a month as a basic salary? They can't even pay the χαράτσια levied on them!

"If you make €592 a month, it is highly unlikely that you will have any property in your name to pay tax on, unless you inherited something you can't afford to maintain, right?" I smart-alecked back, trying not to make them run away too quickly because I really didn't want my guests to leave my office feeling unwanted and I really did want the conversation to continue a little while longer as I was enjoying it.

But we can't even talk about surviving on €592 a month! she exclaimed. If you take out rent, electricity, food and telephone bills, you won't even be able to afford petrol for your car!

"If you're making €592 a month, you shouldn't even be driving!" I spat back. "What's wrong with walking?" I asked her. "Or riding a bike?" I added, just in case she thought I was talking too exclusively.

Well, I never thought of Greece turning into something like China, the man replied, but this time, he did not have that dopey smile on his face which he had carried with him when he first entered my office.

"What's wrong with China, then?" I challenged him, "The Chinese are doing quite well for themselves, even if they all started off their own lives riding bicycles."

Well, even if you use bikes instead of cars, the girl butted in, if you have a family, €592 a month won't even be able to buy the basic necessities, like shoes and clothes. You need to show the economic terrorists that you will not tolerate impoverishment for much longer. At this point, she was sounding like a guidance counsellor, without realising how misguided she soudned herself.

I got up off my chair, and pointed to the jeans I was wearing (bought in December 2003 from Farmers, during the last time I went to New Zealand). "I can wear old clothes", I told them, "and I'm not embarassed at all to tell you I've had them mended, and you would't even have noticed, right?" I knew this would leave them a bit dumbfounded. "I really don't feel impoverished since I've always learnt to live frugally," I explained, "and this crisis isn't going to kill me, because I won't let it."

You can't really say much more to a person who replies in the way I did, so I realised that this was the cue to say our goodbyes. I could also sense their inexperience - they were probably still wondering which planet I came from. So I gave them a little help to buzz off quietly. "Come to think of it," I said, "if this is a national strike, I suppose it includes school teachers, doesn't it?" I asked them in my politest tone.

Yes, it does, although... their voices trailed off.

"Oh, I know what you mean," I picked up from where they left off. "Only if the teachers want to strike, right?" I maintained control over my voice, because I really did want to farewell these poor naive souls out of the office on friendly terms.

"Tell you what, if my kids' teachers are striking tomorrow, I will probably go on strike too," I lied. "But you probably won't see me carrying placards at the πλατεία," I added, "because I think I'll use the day to catch up on housework, if that's OK with you."

And then we all laughed together. I'm sure I had my fun, I hope they had theirs too. And we all lived happily ever after.

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Tuesday 25 September 2012

Seminar food

Just recently, I found myself directly across the road from Syntagma Square for work purposes.

Detached from culture, globalised in nature, the buffet service of a seminar/workshop held in the middle of a capital city rarely reminds us of our present location. It is often devoid of any signs of place.

Tea and coffee served in tall thermos flasks, slices of cold chocolate cake, flaky croissants, shortbread biscuits in assorted shapes and colours: some dipped in chocolate, others rolled in coconut, some with a cherry pressed into their middle - whatever their variation, they all taste the same...

Clear jugs of cherry and orange cordial, ice-cold bottles of water sweating away in an air-conditioned room, stem glasses topped with the hotel's logo and jars full of boiled sweets...

Steaming trays of spaghetti, jugs of bolognaise and carbonara sauce, a platter of something resembling Greek salad with chunks of unripe cucumber and overly firm tomatoes, a bowl of mushy dense potato salad, a tray of meat patties, another of slices of roast pork, and another of roast chicken pieces, with not a meat bone in sight, some pallid roast potatoes on the side, accompanied by an assortment of bread types: white and wholemeal sesame seed buns, again all tasting the same, only their appearance differentiating them, and plenty of fizzy drinks ot wash everything down with...

More tea, more coffee, more water, all sitting next to the prettiest petit four collection: creamy choux balls, fruity tarts and chocolate eclairs, and you'd never guess by their bright colours and different shapes that they too would all taste the same.

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Monday 24 September 2012

Syntagma Square (Σύνταγμα)

Just recently, I found myself directly across the road from Syntagma Square for work purposes.

Like all adult Greeks, I have an image in my mind of Syntagma Square. Even though I may have been there only a few times in my life and I now live far away from it, the image of Syntagma Square that I carry in my mind is that of something which is a living part of me. This image is an untarnished one, reminding me of the way I expect to see it, the way I last saw it when I took my children there.

Syntagma Square, 9.30am, 21 September 2012.
The reality of Syntagma Square may not be so clear as my own unclouded, timeless image, shrouded in formality; the meaning of Sytagma Square is more powerful than just an image conjured up in our minds. For Hellenes, Syntagma Square in the present time has become a potent symbol, reminding us of the anger, rage and fury of the common people.

But in the post-rush hour of an early Athenian morning, there is nothing to tell us of the vibrations of indignance felt at Syntagma Square, save the scrambling sounds of the pigeons crowding the birdfeed sellers. The day breaks in gently, giving no clue as to when the dormant turbulence will break out.

The koulouri sellers are still there in the same spot: business as usual. Thanks to Alf Hodges for the photo - my bag was heavy and it was too hot for me to worry about snapping this same shot.

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Thursday 20 September 2012

Pasta a la norma (Μακαρόνια με μελιτζάνες)

Every day, the Greek government takes measures making it harder and harder on people to get by with the reduced incomes they have been getting used to for the last two years. I've forked out thousands of euro levied on my family and I often think about those people who aren't in my position, which is to have very cheap high quality food easily available to us on a daily basis. In Greece, rent gets paid once a month, landlines once every two months, and you can get away with paying your electricity bills once every four months. But food is a daily cost - you have to eat every day, and you really do need to eat at least three times a day.

The sauce can be prepared the day before eating: I don't need to provide a newer recipe than Laurie's original recipe, suffice it to say thatI prefer fried over roasted eggplant. To fry eggplant with as much oil as you would have used to roast it (which uses a lot of electricity), allow the eggplant to fry on one side in only a little oil. When the oil disappears, let the eggplant continue to dry-fry. When it eventually darkens, turn it over and fry the other side in the same way.

If I had to buy all my food needs, my coffee at breakfast would not be accompanied by a ladokoulouro and my pasta a la norma for lunch would probably have no eggplant.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it is generally only skin deep: our pomegranate tree produces albino pomegranates.

My leafy green salad would contain no pomegranate, and my evening meal of fruit and cheese would probably contain one or the other ingredient (not both).

Once derided (in our recent past for that matter), living in the countryside is now coveted.

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Saturday 15 September 2012

Αλφαβητάριο (The Greek alphabet primer)

I had intended to update this post with more photos, but time is not on my side at the moment. I'm taking a blogging break until things settle down a little in the new school year.

clip_image001One of the most popular schoolbooks throughout contemporary Greek times is the alphabet primer, Αλφαβητάριο (al-fa-vi-TA-ri-o) by Ι. Κ. Γιαννέλη and Γ. Σακκά, distributed by the now defunct state body ΟΕΔΒ - Οργανισμός Εκδόσεων Διδακτικών Βιβλίων - Institute for Educational Books. It was first used in Greek schools in 1956 and stopped being used around 1978. By that time, the images portrayed in the book had become obsolete in many ways - but the book continued to be popular even after it was discontinued, and today it enjoys success as an iconic classic of Greek imagery. It has never stopped being printed; it's available in hardback form at most Greek bookshops. This book is one of the most often requested presents by diaspora Greeks who remember learning the Greek language from it and wish to help their children learn Greek through this book. Diaspora Greeks have been influenced in their Greek imagery by the first immigrant generation, which don't necessarily tie in with the present day and provide the main motivation for their alternative perspective of their ancestors' homeland: Greece is a land which stand still in time.

I was also one of those diaspora Greeks who first came across the written Greek language in this Alfavitario. I didn't actually use the book in Greek school classes because I skipped the first grade and began Greek school in second grade; my mother had already taught me to read Greek at the age of 4, before I even started primary school in New Zealand at the age of 5, hence I was considered ahead of the other children. Interestingly, my mother only attended the first three grades of primary school in Greece, but she was still able to teach me to read. I also recall my grandmother's letters - I could read everything she wrote, even though she wrote without following the standardised rules for spelling; she even wrote in the Cretan dialect. (The Greek sound-to-letter system is much more transparent than the English system - you may not understand what you are reading, but you will be able to read anything you come across in Greek once you learn the alphabet rules.)

I've kept my old, albeit very tattered copy of the Alfavitario for sentimental reasons, even though it's totally meaningless in modern times; the way we learn in the internet age, not to mention the pace of learning, is completely different. Although Anna and Mimi (the two main characters in the book) no longer exist in Greek children's minds, they are still remembered as friends among the people who were taught to read Greek using these books.

The book contains many timeless images of rural Greece, and suburban Greek neighbourhoods. The pictures use elements taken directly from everyday life and nature. Many of these images have changed radically over time in urban Greece, especially by the time the book became discontinued, but they have remained entrenched in rural Greece, and it is these images that both Greeks and non-Greeks keep in their mind when they recall the positive moments of a time when they lived in or visited Greece. These images form the basis of the continuing popularity of the book. Even though many of these images have lost their meaning in the modern world, they still hold an important place in Greek society today, both in locals' and tourist' minds.
Anna and Mimi from the Alfavitario made an appearance in last year's issue of postage stamps, which were all based on old Greek schoolbooks. A range of other items (paperweights, letter openers, etc) are also available.

It could be argued that these images will soon be obliterated by the changes being forced on Greece in the current social/political/economic climate. I'd argue that their eradication is impossible. These images are still with us today, and they don't look to be going anywhere. Only the clothes and hairstyles have changed, together with the addition of technology. The nature and traditions depicted have simply moulded into a more modern setting - or maybe the modern setting has simply established itself amidst the timeless Greek images.  

page 2-3: Classic stonework and iron fencing - Greek homes are still heavily adorned with them; old houses adroned with both are often preserved.

page 6-7: The Greek family - where a yiayia or papou still exists (and with advances in medicine, this is all the more likely), they are never left out of the picture. Yiayia may wear more modern clothing nowadays, but she is still a part of the picture.

page 10-11: National holiday commemorations celebrated at schools - they are still celebrated in the way that is depicted in the photo. Little flags are hung up under the ceiling, as shown below.

page 39: A spring water source - they're everywhere is rural Greece. We also fill plastic bottles from a local spring to use as drinking water.


page 50-51: The sailboat - although they are now highly taxable items to include in your income tax return, they are still vital elements on all islands.

page 54-55: Herbs - what Greek meal doesn't contain at least one fresh species? And fresh seafood - even though it's not always cheap, θαλασσινά (tha-la-si-NA - seafood) is still a quintessential taverna item, and a represeantative symbol of Greek summertime taverna food.

page 96-97: The plateia- it may be deserted these days, but it's still there. The church - Greeks aren't as religious as in the past, but the Greek Orthodox church still plays a spiritual role in every community, in an altered form often associated a caretaker in a broken society.

page 108-109: A pot of basil - a quintessential element of a Greek balcony.

page 114: The wooden μπατσούρι (ba-TZOU-ri, window shutter) - although they are more often made of aluminium these days, they are still an important element of any Greek home. 

page 120-121: The orchard - rural Greece is filled with fruit trees and olive groves. Sometimes, it's difficult to tend our fields, but for the time being, they will be there for us when we do find time. The fields always give you what you give to them.

These images have been around for a very long time in Hellenic territories, spanning half a dozen millenia. They have changed form over the years, adapting mainly to technological advances, but they are still around. In today's critical economic climate, they are even making a comeback in their old form.

page 102-103: The fireplace (or the σόμπα, SOM-ba, wood-fired heater) - it is now replacing oil-based heating, which is a relatively recent innovation in Greek history, 'fueled' by the ease with which modern comforts were once procurable. Yiayia is a quintessential Greek image, although she is more likely to be dressed in more modern clothing - black is not necessarily essential any longer.

That doesn't mean that Greeks are taking a step backwards instead of pressing on ahead. Quite the contrary: it shows that Greek history allows Greeks to cling to their past in order to help them survive the difficult present, so that they can continue to see towards the future.

A word of warning: the Greek punctuation system used in the book is different from the (simplified) one that is now used - Only the stress mark (΄) remains in use above letters. A previous edition of the Alfavitario used in 1950 also contains similar timeless images of Greece - a slideshow of some of its page contents can be found here. Thanks to Stamatia Eliakis for supplying me with her PDF copy of the book, which helped me tin uploading the photos.

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Friday 14 September 2012

Seafood pasta (Μακαρόνια θαλασσινών)

Fresh seafood is never really the most frugal fish option in Crete, unless you are a fisherman. Frozen seafood is the best choice for something cheap. I recently came across a mixed bag of seafood chunks including mussels and calamari for less than €3, which I used to recreate a pasta dish that I tried at an expensive fish restaurant. The pasta sauce had a pesto base, which is usually made of basil, but if you're out of fresh basil, a good pesto can also be made with other green herbs.

You need:
a small bunch of parsley (I only had a little parsley available, so I also added purslane leaves and finely minced fresh green peppers)
a few cloves of garlic
olive oil - I use quite a lot, and I get a very oily dish; the amount depends on the tastes of the cook and his/her guests!
salt and pepper
a 300g pack of frozen mixed seafood chunks (cheap frozen seafood is usually not Greek)
350g linguine (or spaghettini)

Boil the pasta till al dente. I usually pour a tablespoon of olive oil into the pasta pot to stop it sticking while I'm preparing the sauce. In the meantime, finely chop all the herbs and garlic and place in a small saucepan; add the salt, pepper and olive oil to the greens. Heat the mixture and place the rinsed seafood (don't defrost it). Let the seafood cook for a few minutes on very low heat, till everything has just heated through.

When the pasta is ready, drain it, place it back in the pot and add the seafood sauce.

Serve with a fresh salad and white or rose wine.

Total cost of meal if you have access to your own supplies of olive oil, salad ingredients and herbs: €4-5 -about €1.25 per person (serves 4).

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