Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Sunday 30 March 2014

The plastic ball (Το τόπι)

Tonight's vote in Parliament on the multi-bill was procedurally postponed by SYRIZA's censure motion, which was rejected.

A long long time ago, when there were not so many cars on the road but there were far more children on it, Mimi was born. By the time Mimi's sister Anna was born a few years later, the cars on the street had increased. So had the children, but they continued to play on the road. The parents did express concern abotu this new situation, and they often warned their chidlren to be careful on the road, fully aware that accidents do happen, but they also knew that they could not always be on the lookout for their children all the time, only some of the time.

clip_image002[25]On Mimi's birthday, his godparents gave him a brightly coloured ball. It was the newest ball in the neighbourhood, so all the chidlren wanted to play with him. Mimi liked his new ball very much, mainly because of the special status it gave him ("it's my ball, and I will choose who I will let play with it," he was often heard saying). Some children didn't like the way he spoke to them, but they continued to play with him because they were in essence polite children, and also because they secretly hoped that their chance would come one day to play with that ball too (even if they had to have Mimi in their παρέα).

Anna didn't like her brother's bossy nature. She thought he was making a big fuss over nothing. "It's just a ball," she'd tell him. When their mother was also within hearing, she'd remind Mimi that he should be fair and let all the children play with the ball without barriers. "But it's new, and no one else has a new ball like mine," Mimi would always answer. "Until it gets old, Mimi," Anna would then say to him. And Mimi would say "It's my ball, and I make the rules. And if his father happened to be within hearing, he'd agree with Mimi. "Good boy, sonnie, you're protecting your ball that way, so it won't get old too quickly."

The children of the neighbourhood often played together in the afternoon, after school, when there was not much happening. They all lived in apartments and the street was their playground. Mimi loved to throw the ball really high in the air. It often fell or rolled into the dangerous traffic. "Mimi, be careful!" his sister would say. She saw him as a little reckless. He saw himself as daring. When the ball rolled into the traffic, he'd tell the children he had chosen to play with him to go and fetch it. Whoever didn't do as he was asked by Mimi would then be thrown out of the game. It was only natural that not many children wanted to play with him when he did that.

clip_image002[8]One day, Mimi threw the ball really high, and it landed in the middle of the road. Since no one would play with him any longer because they were worried about getting hit by a car, Mimi had to fetch his ball by himself. Without looking left, right and left again (such rules were never really taught to Greek children at any period in time... except perhaps since the crisis, when the novelty of obeying rules is now being seen as obligatory), he ran into the road just as three cars were  approaching, one from each side of the T-junction.

The cars all managed to stop in time without hitting Mimi, but the green car crashed into the blue car, while the red car was left unscathed. The drivers of the cars all got out to survey the damage. The driver of the red car checked out his car, and left. The driver of the blue car, while upset about the damage to his car, knew that it wasn't the green car's fault, but he knew that the driver's insurance company would pay for the damage. The driver of the green car had suffered damage, and while he knew that his insurance company would pay for the damage to the blue car, no one would pay for the damage to his own car, because, like most Greeks, he had only third party insurance (thankfully, he had taken out insurance to begin with).

As soon as the tyres began to screech, people got out of their houses and looked out onto the street to see what was happening. Some people saw a number of children, and wondered where their mothers were, to look out for them. Others saw only the drivers, and wondered how badly they were driving to cause such an accident. A few saw the ball and connected it with the children. After checking that the chidlren weren't their own, they left the scene. Some of the neighbourhood's children saw Mimi on the road, and told their mothers: "Mimi was on the road." The driver of the red car noticed the ball on the road, and he looked at Mimi, who was now on the footpath, but he was too busy checking on the other drivers to worry about Mimi, who seemed to be safe and sound where he was. The other drivers were too concerned with the damage to their cars to realise the root cause of the problem.

clip_image002Anna was livid: "I told you to be careful!" she said to Mimi. Their mother was visibly upset. "You are never to play with that ball again!" she said to him and she took the ball away. Mimi's father was out, so he missed the whole episode. As for Mimi, he just put his palms to his ears.

Mimi's grandmother made the sign of the cross. She was glad to hear that her grandson was not hurt. She nodded her head in agreement when Anna scolded Mimi, but no one ever listened to her. She was very glad to hear that the ball had now been disposed of by her daughter-in-law. And she was very glad that her own son was not there to see what had happened because he would have heard the wrath of his wife's tongue.

Yiayia knew that right now, Mimi needed a good spanking, but there was no one to do it. She wondered what the future would bring for a child that hadn't been spanked when the occasion arose, before it was too late, because there does come a moment when you are too old to be spanked. And by then, it really will be too late.

The vote will take place on Tuesday instead: we are in for great ado, about absolutely nothing in particular.

Right now, you won't find much in the English press about this issue (it's all Greek to them):
Τέλος στα «μικρά καρτέλ» αγαθών και υπηρεσιών
You can use these links as a guide:

UPDATE: The multibill went through, despite the spoilt brats' walkout and the dissenters' no's. The coalition government lost some support, but this was inevitable. One thing that this shows is that Greek politicians who are voting in 'nasty' bills are now working for the good of the country, not for personal interests, and not for customer relations with their voters. We're all in it together.

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Saturday 29 March 2014

The week in food

I am too busy to write, so I'll just post photos of last week's delicious food in my home.

Mother-we-love-you makaronada:

Organic acorn tomatoes, from the street market (together with plum cherry tomato, regular tomato, and a local variety of beef tomato):

Cretan particular (Tamus creticus, aka avronies, with tomato and eggs):

Another Cretan particular: grape hyacinth (vrovioi)

The first strawberries of the season:

Spring is definitely here.

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Saturday 22 March 2014

Busy life

As I am so terribly busy these days, doing work that I have created myself, I'll keep this post as short as a blip - check out my photo blog, where I post titbits of local life without any regard to punctuation style.

My latest blip can be found here (with this photo) -previous blips can be accessed by clicking on the left side of the photo on the blip.

Back soon with, hopefully, a food post. I'm still cooking amazingly good Cretan food...

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Monday 17 March 2014

Neo-immigrant (Νεο-μετανάστης)

The UK recently announced a rise of more than 30% in migration to the UK in the last year, up to September 2013: Not sustainable, not absorbable (my opinion). I guess David Cameron probably didn't manage to curb Greek migration to the UK, as he had declared he would do in UK Parliament sometime in the summer of 2012.

For those Greeks who had been procrastinating up until now as to whether they should leave their problematic country and try their luck abroad, 2014 seems to be a decisive year for them. They are finally taking the plunge. What a shame it is the wrong time to do so, insofar as it concerns moving to a western country to live the dream of a "better life". Immigration issues these days tend to work against new migrants - the traditional employment market is saturated, and there is an increasing trend towards racism in highly industrialised countries, not to mention the problems that climate change seems to have created which simply slipped people's notice until it was too late: Australia and California are suffering drought; south England and Christchurch (New Zealand's second biggest city) are facing floods; and the US east is getting colder every year.

Feeling of hopelessness are making Greeks more resolute, with the idea of a new start far away from their shores looking ever more enticing. In the eyes of the na(t)ive Greek, the lights look brighter, the grass looks greener, and more importantly, the pocket looks fuller, up north. The doors are (still) open for Greeks in European Union countries in a way that they aren't in the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, but their choices remain limited: the choice seems to be mainly limited to the UK or Germany, with a biased preference for London or Berlin, respectively, although Greeks are now also branching out and trying for other parts of each country because of the troubles they have faced in finding work and accommodation in these two highly competitive capital cities.

If 2014 is proving to be a decisive year for the reticent migrant, it is also a year of revelations: the Greeks who migrated at around the time that the crisis began to be felt (some time in 2010) rather than officially 'broke out' (which is some time around November 2009: I wrote 'broke out' in quotation marks because the Greek financial crisis had been developing long before this 'official' start date) are now coming forth to tell their experiences through blogs, forums, help groups and various media articles, all appearing with greater regularity in the online mass media (as regularly as are stories coming out from Greece, of new ways of thinking). The stories evoke mixed reactions to immigration to the north: although work opportunities exist, and the majority of Greek movers express a degree of contentment concerning their move, many also describe a sense of delusion and disillusion which often leads them to re-think their move. Ultimately, cultural difficulties related to their move to highly multi-cultural destinations come into play when deciding whether to stick it out or not; not all Greeks who moved during Greece's difficult times have remained abroad (in other words, they both emigrated and repatriated since the crisis broke out). The basic reason for this is simple to understand: migration is not all it's cracked up to be. You often find yourself running away from one set of problems and ending up with another set.

It's a complex interplay to work out what went wrong for these people, whose numbers are impossible to gauge at this moment. It seems logical to believe that at this stage they are a minority, compared to those who have not returned... yet, the drama is still being played out. Why did these neo-immigrants (as they are generally known, to differentiate them in the Greek diaspora from settled migrants) return to problematic Greece? What did they expect to find where they went? Was it as elusive as they make it out to be, which drove them back home? Some clarifications need to be made before such a question can be answered. We need to understand what is going right in Greece, in a sense. Is the Greek economy improving? Well, only on paper... Is there more work here? No, not really... Maybe they missed the frappe in good weather? Yes, but not to the extent that it makes them all want to return home - Greeks are not as shallow as they are made out to be. It's something else, something not quite so tangible, a kind of feeling, attributed to Greece herself; Greece is that thing, after all.

One thing that should be remembered when analysing Greek neo-immigrants is that they did not leave their country on a working holiday. The concept of a working holiday is not understood by the grand majority of Greeks, even though that is in effect what they are actually doing. They just don't realise it, which is what leads them to their misconceptions about the world beyond thier borders (and especially up north). Had they realised what they were doing, they would have returned home feeling less deluded and/or disillusioned.

For starters, a bit of background information...

In 2010, people in Greece (I like to write that instead of 'Greeks' because not everyone in Greece is Greek) began losing their jobs in high numbers. Even though there was relatively high (for European standards) unemployment since before the crisis, the figures were not as high as they are now: Greece is reported as having the highest unemployment figures in the EU. Since the crisis broke out, unemployment has been steadily increasing, breaking its previous record, and not showing signs of decreasing. This has created an unprecedented need for people to seek opportunities for employment beyond the Greek borders.

While work opportunities seem to be the first consideration for Greek neo-immigrants, there is also the general feeling of the malaise affecting Greek society, influenced by the feeling of hopelessness about the economic and political situation. Greece does not have a good track history of stability in these areas at any point in its history, despite the prosperity of the time period. While there have been stable political and economic periods in Greece, they are far and few from the unstable ones. Before the crisis, Greeks were still 'relocating', but not to such a great extent. The idea of leaving one's country to work abroad for a short period has never been widely associated with Greece. But the idea of being educated abroad was a common one, and it continues to be. So Greeks are familiar with going abroad to study... but not necessarily to work. A good many people who studied abroad stayed abroad due to a good job opportunity, but a good many (I'd say most) also returned to Greece, believing in the qualifications they had gained abroad: a Master's and/or PhD. But the country was not able to absorb such qualifications due to the social/political climate - Greece is predominantly a highly renowned tourist destination and an upcoming leader (especially since the crisis) of 'real food', not an internationally renowned centre of advanced/vocational research or business activity. So what do you do with a PhD in a country where good marketable profitable food ventures involve getting your hands dirty while digging up the earth, or maintaining tourists' needs like what they eat, where they sleep and how they pass their time? Sure, we need educated people to devise good programs for all of these things, but we also need hands that are willing to get dirty and workers that are not based in an office - and we need far more of the latter than the former.

This is partly the reason why Greece is facing an employment crisis. Graduates are waiting for the dream job to come up in a country that can't offer it to them. It can offer them work, but not the kind that they believe they deserve. They think that their degree automatically places them in an employment and/or income category that is higher up the ladder than the work and income that is presently being offered to them. But anyone who has worked in a western country will know how so untrue this is. It does not even need to be explained to us (us = people who have been raised and/or have worked in a western country). Greeks are slowly coming to grips with this reality about the western world when they try to seek their fortune abroad. Most are surprised to learn that they may even have to consider volunteer work before they are offered paid employment in their chosen field, and it most certainly won't be well paid, either. Well-paid jobs do exist of course, but usually for those lucky few who have been head-hunted, often highly experienced and/or highly qualified people. Most of us do not fit into that category.

Language is the main factor in the UK choice. Most Greeks will speak some English, which is why they flock there. While Germany is also a choice for emigration, it is not quite as popular as the UK. Concerning the German language, fewer Greeks speak it. Greeks are more likely to know French than German, but Paris is not a popular choice for neo-immigrants. Paris is in crisis in a way that places like London and Berlin are not. Their crises are not visible to the neo-immigrant (a saturated job market, over-capacity, inadequate housing, etc)  So the choices for Greek neo-immigrants are obvious: go somewhere that allows you to enter freely and whose language you speak.

Greek migration sounds like a dire act of desperation to the ears of non-Greeks: there is an economic crisis in Greece, people are unemployed, they leave to find jobs. When the Greek crisis broke out, great ado was made of the 'fleeing' Greeks. To describe them as fleeing is an exaggeration; even if they were, what were they fleeing from? The scenario sounds like one of escaping poverty - but Greek neo-immigrants were never poor in the literal sense. The Greek sense of poverty is quite a different kind of poverty than, say, the British (and perhaps also the German) sense of poverty. Few Greeks who leave Greece in search of work up north are actually poor in that literal sense of not having much money or many belongings. None of those leaving are homeless or hungry. Most were living in the family home or in their own house. From my reading, most were even employed before they left Greece but were dissatisfied with their work and/or income. Few received any benefits, apart from unemployment benefit, which in Greece is only given to somebody who became unemployed, and only for a limited period of time - to get unemployment benefit, you need to have worked. When you read about Greeks wanting to emigrate but only if they can bring their pets and/or cars with them, you wonder how desperate they are.

The kind of work that Greeks end up doing in the UK and Germany is also very revealing. Leaving aside the chosen few who were head-hunted and highly sought-after, it is highly unlikely that neo-immigrants will find work very quickly in their new location, or that they will find work before they leave Greece. Nor will their first job be in their chosen work field. It is not uncommon for neo-immigrants to land entry-level low-paid jobs in positions such as store salespeople, hotel staff, food-industry workers (eg restaurants) and nursing jobs. They are often the same kinds of jobs that they could be doing in Greece, under different conditions (and under a different title). Although the salary levels seem higher, the expenses suddenly feel overwhelming. Renting a room in London (which costs twice the rent of a whole Athenian apartment) and living with strangers are two new experiences. Everything costs money, and it costs a lot more money than it would have cost in Greece. Even olive oil, which may have been a staple in their Greek home, looks out of reach. Talking of money, very little remains of their salary, just like in Greece. It is not at all uncommon for Greeks to register for benefits in the UK or Germany; benefits are the substitute for mama's and baba's money. Where parents' money helped them in Greece, benefits tide them through in the UK. It's all perfectly legal,but possibly just as unsustainable as mum and dad's money.

The answer to the question of why some Greeks are repatriating as fast as they are emigrating lies in some simple truths: it's getting more and more difficult to find satisfactory work abroad, at the same time that it is also getting easier to repatriate. Young Greeks hide a certain degree of naivety when making the choice to leave Greece to find work abroad. Even when they lived away from home while they were studying, it was done on parents' money. They weren't living independently in the true sense. Abroad, they find themselves unable to make ends meet, in the way that ends met while they were living in their student flat, or in the family home. Home suddenly reminds them of what they had, and how much less it cost them to have it, which leads them to reconsider their lives in the foreign country, in the same way that they reconsidered their lives in their homeland before emigrating.

Neo-immigrants are more transitory than they realise. Once the idea of working abroad as an experience catches in in Greece, Greeks will realise that they do not have to be neo-immigrants, or even immigrants. They are still in the learning process of the experience of working abroad. I expect that it will help them in the long run to better understand themselves and their country. The grass certainly does look greener on the other side, but you can only find out how damp it is when you get there

Electric Theseus, by Pavlos Sidiropoulos
... They sentenced you to waste your time living a life without prospects.
You lose yourself like a gull in Omonoia, and when you search for a solution to escape.
You pay your dues on tolls and shatter to pieces on the highway.
Electric Theseus is in a well, while Ariadne has gone mute.
Who is the prisoner doing life in the dark, and panics without payment?
Who bows their head to the boss, and who cries at night like a child?
Who dreams that somebody is coming out and taking thier first step?
Electric Theseus is in a well, while Ariadne has gone mute ...

References (* = in Greek): (immigration study leads to surprising findings)
* (a Greek - Cretan - woman describes her life in London)
* (a London performance based on working with Alzheimer's patients, staged by two Greek women, including the Cretan lady in the above link)
* (a Greek woman living in London explains why she does not want to go back to Greece)
* (a Greek man describes the feeling of always being asked how long they intend to stay in Berlin)
* (an analysis of three years of living in the UK - the 200+ comments, most of which are also written in Greek, are just as revealing as the article!) (translation into English of the above link, but not the comments)
* (a Greek woman living and working in Berlin) (a Greek woman describes her experiences in the UK)
* (a help group for Greeks moving to London/UK)
* (same as above)
* (a help group for Greeks moving to Berlin/Germany)

For more blogs and news about Greek neo-immigrants, you can also google νεομετανάστης, νεομετανάστες, and other related words (Greek nouns follow rules of declension).

The following links do not have to do with Greek emigration, but they add to the discussion:

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Friday 14 March 2014

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides (Μίντλσεξ - Τζέφρι Ευγενίδης)

Middlesex had been lying on my bookshelf for a while before I plucked up the courage to pick it up and read it. I'd bought it at a second-hand bookshop, attracted of course by the author's Greek surname, and the short blurb on the back of the book about the story: "Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit..."

I googled the book for more information, but the reviews I read did not emphasise any part of the immigrant storyline that it is based on. They mainly concentrated on the sexual orientation of the main character:
"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smog-less Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. . . My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver's license...records my first name simply as Cal."
So begins the breath-taking story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of 1967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.
Take note that the above description (the standard one found on most websites that feature the book) was taken from a gayNZ website. (It's also inlcuded in a Greek gay website.) But the story is not about a homosexual. Gender issues (aka sex) are a money-spinner, in a way that Greek social history is not. Sex has always been a very marketable commodity, and people's lust for the sexually unusual is insatiable. So it is such a shame that this brilliant story, based on the lives of an extended Greek diaspora family in America over the course of more than five decades, does not get the attention it deserves in terms of the value it possesses in the discussion about Greek heritage and Greek identity. Greekness is not as sensational as being intersexual.

Amazon reviewers make this point quite clear: "Too long," one recent reviewer wrote, "the last part was good, but it took forever to get there. I would not recommend this book." Similar to another one: "While reading Middlesex I enjoyed it immensely but until last 130 pages, if I were I put it down I wouldn't pick it up again for weeks at a time. Finally yesterday I got 3/4 of a way through and couldn't put it down - loved the last 130 pages. Loved it." The last 130 pages of this very long book (over 500 pages) contain the most explicit sexual descriptions.

Although the story has a reasonably happy ending, Middlesex is in essence a sad story. Some of the names of the characters, such as Desdemona (the main character's Greek grandmother who was born in a village with a Greek name which is now part of modern-day Turkey), attest to their ill-fated destiny. The doom and gloom of the story is firmly set on the very first page, with all the eerie moments of the main character's life described quite succinctly.

Eugenides' story-telling techniques make compelling reading, so you will not be bored as you plod through the book - unless you find the historical aspects of Greek identity boring, and there is a lot of that! Greek-American Eugenides claims that he had to learn about the history of his Greekness* because only his grandfather was Greek, and his Greekness essentially died with the passing of his grandparents. But he has done such a good job in this way, that by reading Middlesex, other Greeks, especially estranged ones, will learn about their Greek identity in a way that will help them to understand themselves better.

Middlesex is a good example of literature related to melting-pot/migration issues. Of course, the gender issue is far more central and crucial to the story than are the Greek identity and disapora heritage parts, but Eugenides focuses equally on the two themes and he marries them well in the story he tells. The author himself insists that he didn't want to write a story about Greek-Americans; he wanted to write about hermaphrodites. But he needed some kind of base, and his story does end up sounding very much like a Greek-American saga with a twist.

Without flipping through the book again after I'd read it (although I would like to read it once more at least in my life), the parts I like to keep in mind are three:
  1. when Desdemona calls out 'sonofabichie' to get the streetcar to stop when it passes by her destination point, and she smiles as she gets out of the car while the other passengers look at her somewhat perplexed. Immigrant stories are full of tragi-comic cross-cultural blunders. I recall a Greek man in New Zealand telling us what he did when he went to a butcher for the first time in his life, where he wanted to buy chicken. Either he didn't know the English word for it, or he couldn't pronounce it well (maybe he was calling it 'kitchen'), so he flapped his hands by his side, and the butcher eventually understood.
  2. when Desdemona describes how she felt when she got a job, where she worked with black people: "then they make me go to work for those mavros, oh my God!" Racism is a touchy subject, and I think that Eugenides was right not to tell us much too much about how the Greek family approached the issue of black America, even though they were living in the thick of it, in 1960's Detroit and the race riots. But we get a good idea of what was going on in this sphere at two points in the story: when little Callie was told by her father Milton (Desdemona's son, baptised Miltiades, which is Americanised to Milton) not to approach strangers (she made friends with a black man on the street), and when Milton asks a rhetorical question to the same black man who was dodging sniper fire while Milton had barricaded himself in his restaurant trying to protect it during the riots: "What's the matter with you people?" (Read the book to find out the haunting answer that the black man gave.)
  3. when Milton decides that "We have to do whatever's in our national interest," after his Greek-heritage friend (as most people the family associates with are) declared that Americans betrayed the Greeks, to which Milton replied "To hell with the Greeks then." This signals a defining moment of a sudden change of identity, similar to the transformation of the teenage girl Callie to the teenage boy Cal. It also shows an acceptance of who one really is: Greek or American, which again pairs well with the gender-change theme, girl or boy. You can't always choose to be both.
Readers of the same novel will not all get the same thing out of reading it. For me, Middlesex was a very well-written well-narrated story that explores many issues related to cultural identity. For this reason, I recommend that all people of Greek heritage should read this book, because it will tell them a lot about themselves. Although Middlesex deals with very heavy topics, Eugenides liberally sprinkles a lot of humour throughout his story. To quote him from a 2003 interview:
"Well, Greek-Americans are always thinking back to their so-called glorious past, and it’s… it’s a good place for comedy – the distance between Sappho and Souvlaki, basically – and I try to use that in this book."
Bonus information.
The following links:
are written by John Mullan, a Professor of English at University College London, who specialises in 18th century fiction, and writes a weekly column on contemporary fiction for The Guardian. There is very little mention of cultural identity issues in this series of reviews. Mullan also interviews Greek-Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas who wrote the shockingly provocative The Slap, an excellent example of melting pot immigrant literature:
Again, he does not mention the immigrant aspect of the story, even though a good number of the people in the audience (the link leads you to a podcast) were of Greek heritage and the Greek diaspora communities are discussed in their questions. (To hurry the interview along at the end, Mullan wraps it up by telling the audience that he wants enough time to have a drink with Tsiolkas at a pub.)

I don't know if I am correct to say this, and maybe I am being slightly (or perhaps overly) provocative to mention this, but it seems to me that the academic world does not understand the Greek mind at all, it does not understand the Greek diaspora (a Greek word often attributed to the Jews), and it does not pay enough attention to the concept of Greek identity...

... which is the reason why the global attention to the Greek financial crisis is so misdirected, and why the world cannot help the Greeks of Greece in the right way. The solution to the Greek crisis - which was an identity crisis in the disguise of an economic crisis - will come from the Greeks themselves, not the IMF or the ECB, perhaps with the help of the EU, which is an inseparable part of Greece, as Greece is an inseperable part of Europe.

* In this link, you will also find another link to some 'Greek' recipes that the Oprah Winfrey bookclub suggests, like Lemon and Lavender Mousse with Blueberry Soup. Greek food was not so 'in' in 2007 when these links went up. Only 7 years have passed, but the globally connected world that we live in is better acquainted with Greek food to detect mislabeling.    

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Wednesday 12 March 2014

Spanakopita pancake-omelette

I felt a tinge of horror as I read the T-shirt logo: SAVEFOOD, with links to the websites of Boroume (= we can) of Kalyteri Zoi (= better life). Cutting down food waste has been a rule of life for me for a long time.

Ventures like these are of course an outcome of the crisis, although I would argue that the effects of the crisis would not have been felt so strongly if we had always believed in a better life, with an emphasis on cutting down waste of any sort.

The Kalyteri Zoi site leads to a pdf e-book entitled: ΔΕΝ ΠΕΤΑΜΕ ΤΙΠΟΤΑ! (= we don't throw anything out), containing 25 recipes submitted by home cooks on how to use leftovers in a new meal, again something I'm well versed in; I've had a leftovers label on my blog since its inception. (And again, I can't help thinking that no one was listening when they should have been.)

The recipes include fritters made from leftover boiled potato, savoury loaf filled with whatever's on hand and carbonara made with leftover bifteki (meat pattie), to cite a few recipes. What's more, some of the recipes include English names, eg αμπελοφάσουλα reloaded, never the same pie and harlem cake. There is a clear emphasis on making something new with something old, based on the desire to keep life interesting despite its sameness.

You can make Greek pies the lazy way by rolling out just two pastry sheets and using one layer of filling as listed here. In this way, you will get more than one pie (one for eating and the others for the freezer), as each pie turns out thinner.

Cooking with leftovers has never frightened me. I find it a very challenging way of being creative int he kitchen, together with finding free food sources. Last Sunday, after making spanakopita (spinach pies) both for eating and freezing, I had some leftover mixture which I couldn't use because I had run out of pastry. (Pie-making is one of those things where you may end up with leftover pastry or leftover filling.) I turned it into a dinner for two that evening, adding some kitchen staples.

You need:
2 cups of uncooked spanakopita filling (spinach, herbs, seasonings, onion and soft white cheese - I rarely add egg to the mixture, but it may contain some)
1 egg
3-4 tablespoons of flour
3-4 tablespoons of water
2-3 tablespoons of olive oil

Mix the leftover spanakopita filling witht he egg, flour and water. Mix in just enough water and flour to make the mixture sticky but not doughy. but don't worry if you add too much flour or water; the end result will either be a pancake (if you add too much flour) or a filling omelette (if you add less flour). I think mine came out to something in-between.

Heat the oil in a medium shallow frying pan till it's very hot. Spoon the mixture over the hot oil, spreading it to cover the whole pan. Let it cook on high heat on one side, then turn it over to cook on the other side. Becauce the pancake-omelette will be too thick to flip, turn it out onto a plate, then turn the plate over back into the pan. Don't worry if it breaks up - it will reshape and stick back together in the pan.

All you need to go with the pancake-omelette is some bread and wine. And even if you don't have that handy, this leftovers meal will still taste like one of the best meals you have ever had. And if the spinach came from your garden, and the eggs came from a local farmer, such a meal will also be one of the most localised, seaosnal and frugal meals you have ever eaten.

©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.

Friday 7 March 2014

Nostalgia (Νοσταλγία)

On Clean Monday, my husband bought the lagana bread for the meal I had prepared which we were going to eat with our friends. He bought 4 laganes at a total cost of 12 euro, 2 each from 2 different bakeries, which had opened up especially to sell the traditional bread for the first day of Lent.

I knew we wouldn't get through the lagana bread in one day. I also knew that we would still be eating lagana at the end of the week. You can tell that my husband isn't as frugal as I am. But bread is an absolutely essential part of his meal and he knows bakery bread well. He tends to over-buy... but we don't throw it away, and I sometimes hide it in the fridge to slow down staleness. My husband has been eating bakery bread in Hania for nearly 6 decades, so he is entitled to be a bakery bread snob. Over time, he has changed his preferences for his favorite bakeries; he knows when recipes change or the baker doesn't produce good bread consistently, and he is keen to try a new bakery (which don't pop up like cafes, souvlatzidika and tavernas, because you don't make good bread just like that). Being a bread snob, I know we are in good hands.

But it's different with lagana. Lagana is unleavened bread, so it goes stale much more quickly. It actually hardens to such a great extent that it is virtually inedible. It never lasts longer than 2 days... or so I thought.

It's Friday today, and there is still lagana in the bread box, the same lagana that was bought on Monday. We're still eating it, but this year, I don't have to perform magic tricks to make the lagana soft (eg by popping it in the microwave for 5 seconds). This is the second year I notice this happening. Before that, lagana was too dry to eat by Wednesday after Clean Monday. What has changed?

I remember hearing about lagana for the first time in my first year in Greece, when I lived in Athens. It was the 9th of March, 1992, and I had just returned from Crete, after getting my Greek identity card sorted out here (in the good old days, you had to deal with all your official paper work in the place where your birth was registered, whether it was a big city, a small town, or a minuscule village).

I had bought with me some lettuce and spring onions from my grandmother's garden (they were simply uprooted, with the soil still clinging to the roots: "they keep fresh that way," my uncle told me), a canister of olive oil ("you're only taking a koka-kola bottle's worth? That'll last you less than a week, Maria... ξιάσου (= suit yourself)...") and some fresh eggs, packed in such a way that they would not turn into raw omelette during the overnight ferry trip.

I recalled the foods of the day that my mother would prepare on Kathara Deftera in our Wellington home. Although it wasn't a holiday in New Zealand, there were a few years when we did not open the fish and chip shop on Mondays, which was perfect for celebrating Kathara Deftera (that didn't last long though: when the Chinese opposition sold his shop and it was bought by another Greek, both shops opened every day). I bought some olives, pickles and beans from the supermarket across the road, and I also popped into the bakery to buy some of that bread. I was surprised to see the lagana as I had never even heard of it before, and felt quite grateful to be experiencing Clean Monday in a quintessentially and veritably Greek fashion that year, unlike my parents, who were in New Zealand and would never come back together to Greece since my permanent move to Greece.

The lagana was crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. I liked it very much. It went well with my oily salad and supermarket buys. I think I had some of my uncles' wine too (in a koka-kola bottle, of course). I didn't eat all the lagana in one day. I thought I'd keep some for the next day too, because I had heard that this bread is only sold on Kathara Deftera.

The next day, I prepared another salad (I remember eating salad all that week), which I would eat with the lagana. Alas, the lagana had hardened, and it was not easy to chew, even more so the next day. I asked my landlord about this, and she told me that this was normal. Lagana does not contain any raising agents, therefore it goes stale. There is a special reason for this, as a friend recently explained:
"On Clean Monday people look far more relaxed, probably in the absence of meat... 'lagana', the special bread for the day, shares the same root as the word 'lagnos' which means relaxed and not suppressed. For this reason, I suppose on this day children share a kite-flying experience. I remember a few priceless attempts to construct our own rocket-like kite that would reach the deep space or the neighbors' mystery backyard! Still I praise this holiday for its simple, cheap, healthy menu variety and activities that even those with difficulties can follow up." 
When there is so much to enjoy, you don't wait for the bread to rise. In the afternoon of my first Kathara Deftera in Greece, I recall walking to Filopapou Hill with friends, for the traditional kite-flying event, another custom of the day. (I must dig up my photos - I am sure I will find one of that sunny spring day in Athens.)

Lagana and white wine - it's still 'fresh', even today (the photo was taken last night).
But lately, for at least two years now, maybe even three, I notice that lagana stays soft. I can't tell you why, nor can I tell you if it's a good thing or not. (I suppose they are baking it with yeast nowadays.) All I can tell you is that things have changed. I'm glad lagana doesn't go so stale so quickly any more, but I can't help feeling a nostalgic sadness over this change of affairs. I suppose it is in our interests, but I still feel cheated. Life has changed, and it really is getting better (the wine is definitely better than that of the past), but those old days were good too, at least in their time.

The past is a different country; they do things differently there.

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Monday 3 March 2014

Cooking for love - Clean Monday 2014 (Σαρακοστιανά)

In Greece, the start of Great Lent - known as Kathara Deftera (Clean Monday) - is one of those times when feasting is all about being a shellfish-eating vegan. It's a great time for me to cook because I don't cook meat on a day like this, and I've never really enjoyed cooking meat. I especially like to cook using frugal as well as colourful ingredients, which inevitably means using vegetables. Today gave me a chance to cook in my favorite way, with the added bonus that I was cooking for others, as we were hosting the Kathara Deftera meal (it's a public holiday today in Greece).

Shellfish is generally considered an expensive commodity, but there are always specials going at this time of year, just before Great Lent starts, and I found I was able to pick up quite a bit of seafood at very good prices. Food that you can cook with (ie not highly processed) is still cheap and has in fact gone down in price, at least in the last 2-3 years, a crisis-related consequence:
Greece in comparison with the United Kingdom, France and Spain, ... is the cheapest among the four countries in terms of the prices of commonly purchased supermarket goods. The contents of the average shopping basket in Greece add up to €38.93 with value-added tax included and €33.54 without. In Spain the same basket costs 0.26% more with VAT and 5.84% more without. In France it is 24.95% and 32.36% more expensive, while in the UK the same two figures are 30.45% and 40.37% higher respectively.
I've often shown through my blog and facebook page that prices have in fact dropped during the crisis - finally the media is admitting this. The same article mentions that 'households are still struggling', but I think that's just a way to keep the whingers and whiners happy, by saying something anti-establishmentarian. It's not the good life in Greece, but it never was anyway: it has always been a struggle to keep your head above water financially, since even before the crisis, and it remains so in our times. That won't change in the future. What's more, prices of milk, bread, books and over-the-counter medication are set to go down following deregulation. The "closed shops" of the past will no longer be.

My Clean Monday 2014 menu was planned in such as way as to include Greek lenten traditional favorites, as well as to excite my guests' tastes. They have never left Greece, they have not travelled abroad, and their connection with non-Greeks is very limited. You could say I was educating them in global food trends by the menu I created:
  • fasolada - some kind of legumes are usually served on this day, often in dry form (eg lupins, broad beans), as some people abstain from olive oil on this day. I chose Greek bean soup because my fasolada is one of the most popular fasolada recipes on the internet - it's been in the google top 10 for the search string 'fasolada' since I posted it. (I think everyone needs to try my fasolada. Even better with my home-made tomato sauce). 
  • calamari stir fry in green curry sauce - calamari is a Greek summer favorite, served crisply fried. To avoid the mess and the extra calories, I decided to introduce my Greek guests to an exotic Thai flavour which they would never find in any local eaterie in our town. 
  • octopus stifado - spicy stew in red sauce is a Greek favorite for cooking rabbit, hare, chicken and beef, which of course are not permitted during Lent. Octopus is a meaty kind of seafood which con be cooked in similar ways to the above-mentioned meats.
  • mussel pilaf - this is a traditional Greek island dish and a favorite at fish tavernas. It's partr of the traditional Lent menu. 
  • shrimp sushi - I've never seen sushi in Hania. My guests do not even know of its existence. They are that untravelled...
  • leafy garden greens salad - no meal is complete in our house without a salad.
  • taramosalata - this very Greek and very well-known fish roe dip is a firm staple for any Clean Monday feast.
  • lagana (flat bread) - just like taramosalata, lagana bread is a staple part of the Clean Monday menu. My friend Constantinos Iliakis gives a nice explanation for the meaning of the word: "On Clean Monday people look far more relaxed probably in the absence of meat. Dr. Babiniotis said that 'lagana', the special bread for the day, shares the same root as the word 'lagnos' which means relaxed and not suppressed. For this reason, I suppose on this day children share a kite-flying experience. I remember a few priceless attempts to construct our own rocket-like kite that would reach the deep space or the neighbors' mystery backyard! Still I praise this holiday for its simple, cheap, healthy menu variety and activities that even those with difficulties can follow up."
  • shrimp cooked in lemon juice - shrimp was not initially on my menu plan, but my husband insisted: this is one of his unbroken traditions every Clean Monday. Shrimp is not cheap, not usually Greek, and definitely not frugal. I am living in a rapidly changing Greece where people are still fighting the urge to let go of traditions... hence, the bank had to break a little, and we added shrimp to the menu.
  • wine - I dislike the mystification and scientification of wine, which is why I like to buy wine from the supermarket. It's convenient and democratic, there is a lot of choice, I have the feeling of freedom knowing that I can buy whatever suits my taste and pocket withoutbeing judged, or stressing about my lack of connoisseur's knowledge on a subject that is often treated as elitist. My local supermarket was offering a 30% discount on all wines, so I was able to pick up very good wine made by small producers at very low prices. I also picked up an expensive bottle of locally produced export-quality wine from another supermarket which was not discounting its wines - I had been invited to a wine tasting session where I had had some of this wine, and I wanted to treat my husband to the same taste. It was my way of sharing the experience with my family - I may have tried it for free, but they should also be given the chance to share the experience in some way. Our guests don't buy bottled wine themselves - again, I see myself as educating them...
My menu will look impressive to many of you, and you will wonder how I managed to pull it off on my own. Firstly, there was no frying or oven-cooking. Secondly, most of the dishes could be prepared and/or cooked the day before. Finally, nothing goes well unless you have a plan. And last but not least: if you cook for its loving value, you will probably cook well.

For more information on the photographs, click on the individual photos in this link

If no recipe has been given in the link for each individual photograph, I'll try to write it up soon. We have plenty of time to Easter...

My guests were astounded by the range of tastes. Their palate was tantalised.  I also noticed how willing they - and their children - were to try new tastes, and even more importantly, to savour them. Before the crisis, I don't think that they would have felt this way. This is the real outcome of the crisis: Greeks are rethinking their identity, and perhaps finding a way to embed a foreign (to them) way of thinking into their own, without actively seeking to aspire to it, because: "... that is what truly messed us up: seeking a culture which, because it was not ours, we will never be able to assimilate nor perform adequately within it." This comment appeared in Stefanos Livos' blogpost (which went viral in the Greek cybersphere) about the first three years of his life as a "neo-immigrant", meaning someone who left Greece during the financial crisis, in the UK.
If I could add my own bit to the discussion which ensued, I'd say that instead of trying to escape the crisis in your country by migrating to another one where you believe you are treated better, and cursing your homeland for not giving you what you believe you deserve, try instead to understand why (to quote another commentator in Stefanos' post) "Greece doesn't love her children". Maybe it's because her children didn't love her in the first place. 

Kali Sarakosti to all. 

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Sunday 2 March 2014

Chicken soup with broccoli (Κοτόσουπα με μπρόκολο)

Yes, broccoli again. I've uprooted all our broccoli plants, but I still have a freezer-shelf full of the stuff. It has occurred to me that we have been eating a lot of broccoli this winter, but this is for economy more than anything else. Instead of buying winter vegetables, I use our bumper crop of broccoli wherever I can. We have so much broccoli from the garden, that I par-boil a large pot of broccoli twice a week (yes, really), which gives me a chance to use it in different ways when I come home from work, eg stir-fries, soups, fritters, etc. I'm so glad I'm a really good cook, because I can cook broccoli this often and make sure that my while family still manages to enjoy their meal. We have had it in so many different forms, that they never complain. I'm that creative. Even the dog eats broccoli mixed in with her food. And if you know a thing or two about broccoli, it is regarded as a superfood.

The broccoli season is over - my neighbour's broccoli plants (the ones with the yellow flowers) are going  the way mine did and they need uprooting.

I knew that from a long time ago, when one of our Algerian students at the Institute researched the "Genetic and epigentic control of glucosinolates pathways synthesis in broccoli", whatever that means (I proofread a lot of stuff which I don't always understand), a thesis which contained a lot of research on the benefits of broccoli in the diet. Since then, broccoli is described in the internet press as a nutritional show stopper, an anti-cancer agent, a tumour reducer, an age suppresor, a vitamin-packed agent with more Vitamin C than an orange, among others. Well, I'm glad to hear all that, because we really do eat a lot of broccoli, and it just might help us all to keep up our good health, now that Greece has no public health system (just yet, apart from hospitals). We don't lead the kind of life that gives us the privilege of making proclamations like "I'm President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli!" like George Bush did. But lucky for us, broccoli keeps us healthy.

This broccoli soup was made on the go, with little time to spare for 'real' cooking; I was harvesting and processing celery for the freezer, at the same time as picking spinach from among the tall and rather overgrown nettles that have now surrounded all the spinach plants. But don't take my soft whinge seriously: the winter garden is really easy to maintain. The plants seem to grow by themselves, they rarely need much care, and all I do is harvest. It's really not as difficult as it may sound. I just wish I could be doing something else instead, like work on the project, which is underway - slowly, slowly...

I made this amazing soup last Friday, despite my aching bones, after a very tiring week, as I thought about the three-day weekend that we are now in the middle of (it's Kathara Deftera tomorrow). Perhaps everyone loved it so much because it was a cold night, but I have a feeling that they liked it because it was really delicious. it has a pungent taste because fo teh way I used the garlic. Normally I cook it in some way, eg sauteeing in oil before being added to a meal. In this recipe, the garlic is not cooked at all, so it has a strong but fresh flavour.

You need:
4 chicken backs, with necks
4-5 medium potatoes
about 3 cups of broccoli cut into bite sized individual heads
2 large cloves of garlic
salt, pepper and oregano

Boil the chicken backs, broccoli and peeled potatoes in a large pot of water, till the potatoes are soft. Remove the chicken, broccoli and potatoes from the pot. Puree 3 potatoes with the garlic and some of the stock water (strained to remove impurities from the chicken) in a blender. Pour the puree into another pot. Strain all the remaining liquid into the pot with the puree. Add the chicken meat (which you shredded from the chicken backs and necks), and all the seasonings. Chop the remaining potatoes and all the broccoli into small pieces. Mix well to form a blended soup. Heat through.

Serve the soup piping hot, with crusty bread. It will not make you feel poor as you think that you are cooking again with broccoli which you grew yourself; it will make you feel somewhat superior, having so much superfood at your disposal.

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