Monthly Archives: October 2013

Greek Island Adventure, Part 3

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Have you ever daydreamed about something, and then that daydream came true? When I was seven years old, that happened to me.

It all started one grey, rainy January day on a family walk in Ireland, the country where I grew up. As my sisters and I splashed through muddy puddles, Mum and Dad said to us, “How would you like to go and live on the Greek island of Corfu?” The first picture that popped into my head was of a deep blue sky, a dusty white road, and an orange tree, heavy with fruit. In my daydream, I reached up on tippy-toe and picked one of those warm, juicy oranges. I couldn’t imagine anything more magical.

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In early April shortly after our arrival on Corfu, as we explored the island in our red VW van, we stopped on a deserted country road. Coming over the brow of a hill, I looked up and there, against the blue sky, were my sun-warmed fruit. The smell and taste of a fresh orange is a memory dart that will always recall that moment.

Spring was a busy time in the village of Kinopiastes. Everyone was cleaning and whitewashing their houses and streets for Orthodox Easter. This was nothing like Easter back home, and my sisters and I were eager to see everything. Instead of stores filled with chocolate eggs, we soon added a new word to our expanding vocabulary, kokkina avga. These were dyed red hen’s eggs. At the time, our Greek didn’t run to the explanation of their symbolism of the blood of Christ and the renewal of life. But we got that they were special. They were even baked into an Easter sweet bread.

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When the day came for the family we lived with to butcher the lamb for the Easter feast, we watched the gory details with fascination. The lamb was strung up and its throat slit, before being skinned and disemboweled. The blood was smeared in the shape of a cross on the fresh whitewash around the front door of the house. When the Easter procession passed through our cobblestone yard, led by Straggly Beard the village priest, we leaned out the bedroom window to watch. And then we ran outside to join our friends following the flower bedecked icon of Christ, carrying special white Easter candles. The narrow streets were lined with people, holding their lit candles and waiting for the procession, which would eventually wind it’s way back to the church.

On Holy Saturday, we were allowed stay up extra late to attend the special ceremony in Kekira, the main town. We could feel the excitement building all around us as we stood waiting in the dark. Finally, the priest held up the eternal flame and announced, Christos Anesti—Christ is Risen. All hell broke loose: bells tolled, guns saluted, and to our delight, fireworks exploded in the sky, illuminating the fort above the town. Soon a sea of well-wishers and flickering candlelight surrounded us.images-2

There is nothing like the smell and taste of lamb, slow grilled on a spit of charcoal. The Easter feast, like so many of the saint’s days and special occasions on Corfu, was a wonderful excuse for everyone to party. And of course that meant great food, and drink, and dancing. Grown ups sipped ouzo and retsina and laughed and joked. We were even allowed to have some watered down wine, though we preferred Gazoza, the local fizzy beverage. The village kids introduced us to a new game they played with the special red eggs. The aim of it was to crack your opponent’s egg without cracking your own.

Spring turned into early summer. The pace of life on Corfu took some getting used to. People rose early and headed out to work the fields before it got too hot. If you had shopping to do, you did it in the morning at the open air markets, or the bakery, haberdashery, and grocery stores. After lunch shutters were closed and shop doors bolted as everyone went for their siesta. vlcsnap-2013-10-14-22h17m04s10For a child, this was both the most frustrating and most wonderful time of day. How could grown-ups possibly sleep when it was hot and prickly under the sheets and the cicadas were making an ungodly racket in the walnut tree? Ah, but you could tiptoe outside and sit on the cool stone steps and watch the tiny lizards that ran up and down. You could go and steal a peach from the tree in the yard and eat it with the juice running all the way down to your elbows. You could explore the old cemetery and pick bunches of wild, magenta roses. And there was always the cooling relief of the village pump. Not everyone slept. Many of the older men—probably because they didn’t work nearly as hard as the women—preferred to sit in the shade and play backgammon or dominoes. I can still remember the sound of the click of the tiles and the tumble of the dice. And then, like the castle in the Grimm brother’s Sleeping Beauty, slowly the village would come back to life as evening came.

The village square was a nightly focal point for young and old. On weeknights, people brought chairs and gathered to watch episodes of the wildly popular General Hospital. Passeo started after dinner when the villagers came out to walk and talk. Arm and arm with our friends, we’d wander the streets sucking on ice pops and taking in the sights. Older folks would sit, gossiping, while groups of teenager girls and boys giggled and flirted under the watchful eyes of the grannies. We were amazed to discover that many of our playmates would be married by the time they turned sixteen. On weekends and special occasions, speakers were set up around the square and there was traditional Greek dancing. Eleni delighted in showing us the steps, and, arms laced around each other’s shoulders, we joined in the fun.vlcsnap-2013-10-14-21h24m12s14

We soon learned that children were considered the lifeblood of the village. New babies were carried around for everyone to admire. And chubby toddlers were considered fair game for squeezes and tickles from grandfathers to school kids alike. We couldn’t walk the streets without being hugged and pinched. In a small village everyone shares the daily joys and sorrows. During our time in Kinopiastes we were lucky enough to see a wedding, thrilled at the sight of grown-ups smashing plates on the ground, and a baptism where the naked baby was dunked under the water and came up dripping and squealing. Sadly, we also witnessed the communal grief when a young man was killed in a motorcycle accident. Over night his young wife joined the ranks of the black-garbed widows, clothes she would wear for the next seven years. But in that close-knit village we knew that she and her toddler son would never be alone with her grief.

When we had first visited, my sisters and I had been horrified by the hordes of curious people who had turned out to see the unusual sight of an Irish family invading their village. However, I will always be grateful to my parents for making the decision to live there, and to the community itself for embracing us and sharing their lives with us. It was a truly formative experience for a young child.                                                                 To be continued.

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Greek Island Adventure, Part 2

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Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is the reason my parents loaded their three young daughters and camera equipment into the back of a red VW camper van and drove across Europe to go and live on the Greek island of Corfu. The book is an uproariously funny account of the years Durrell spent as a young boy living on Corfu. He wove such a magical picture of the island and its inhabitants and his eccentric family that my parents chose it as the perfect spot for their honeymoon. They too had a wonderful adventure and vowed to return. So there we were, a decade later, rolling of the car ferry in the main town of Kekira on a chilly March morning.

Our first weeks were spent searching for a place to set up house. Spiro, a friend who worked for the island’s tourist board, showed us around his home village. Kinopiastes, a traditional village, far off the tourist track, sat in the hills looking out over fields and cypress groves to the sea and Greek mainland. My sisters and I were horrified by the ever-increasing crowd of school children that followed us, giggling and shoving to get a good look at the three Irish kids. Even though the simple three-room villa set in a family compound on the edge of the village was a good fit, we thought we’d die if we had to be exposed to that kind of scrutiny on a daily basis. Luckily, my parents didn’t heed our moans.

We’d left damp, chilly Ireland in early spring, dreaming of azure skies and sun-drenched days. In late March when we moved into the villa, with its terrazzo floors and drafty green shutters, Mum dressed us in every layer of clothing we’d brought with us. We looked like strange mummified bodies, but then most of the kids in the village did too. Young children were kept swaddled in woolly layers, like plump, cocooned moths, long after the April sun had made us shed out sweaters.

We were rather spooked by the outhouse that consisted of a wooden box perched over a hole in the ground, and especially the thought of the scorpions that lurked there, just waiting to pinch our bottoms. But we soon got used to the little pink geckoes that clung to the ceiling, illuminated by our flashlights.

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It didn’t take long for us to find our niche in the village. The Gardigotti family who owned the villa and land around it had moved into a cottage on the far side of the cobbled courtyard with their three daughters. Angeliki (16), Eleni (12), and Yianoulla (4) became our constant companions and our guide to village life. Eleni and I made luscious mud pies under the giant walnut tree in the center of the yard. We chased the chickens and gathered their eggs. She showed us where the best Naspoli trees were, and how to harvest the delicious yellow fruit (throw a stick up at a clump).

Angeliki had finished school and her job was to help out with the household chores and keep an eye on things while Katerina and Tatsi, her mother and father, were off working the fields. I loved to watch her scrubbing the family’s clothes into a sudsy lather on the wooden washboard over a tub in the yard, all the while making sure her little sister wasn’t getting into too much trouble. Yaya, in her black widow’s weeds, was never far away and was always ready to wag a disapproving finger, or show her wonderful toothless smile at a good piece of gossip.

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After school let out for the day, Eleni and a small crowd of village children in their sky blue uniforms would lead us through the winding backstreets of the village, stopping to introduce us to shopkeepers, family, and friends. We soon learned to find our own way around, picking up useful Greek phrases along the way.

One of my favorite jobs was to fetch the bread from the bakery with my sisters. Before breakfast we’d gallop down the whitewashed side streets. The baker and his wife would be taking the fresh bread out of the oven on long wooden paddles. The whole place was shrouded in a fine layer of white flour. If you got up extra early, before the roosters started crowing, you could walk through the silent streets in time to catch the baker before he put the loaves in the oven. Then he would give us a lump of pale, yeasty dough to take home and fry in olive oil and sprinkle with lemon and sugar—the best doughnuts in the world. But on a regular morning, we’d fight over who got to carry the hot loaf. It never made it home intact. We’d gouge out fistfuls to gnaw on our return trip, while running the gauntlet of the grandmothers sitting on their steps wanting to pinch our cheeks and stuff lemons in our pockets.vlcsnap-2013-10-14-22h02m50s148

Mum and Dad wasted no time in getting down to the serious business of touring the island in the van to record the signs of spring that were everywhere. In the olive groves women picked the remaining olives from the new grass under the trees. Meadows were full of spring flowers and peach and almond blossom. Families worked together planting potatoes and tilling the soil around the vines. The last of the oranges and lemons lay in the ditches, free for the picking. At the end of the day, a procession of heavily laden donkeys, attended by their owners, would return to the village burdened down with sacks of olives and mountains of fodder or fresh-cut horta (dandelion greens).

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We set up camp beside a pond where the percussive croaks of the tree frogs kept us awake all night. With nets and collecting jars, we waded through the shallows, exclaiming over each new find. We scooped up newts and turtles and water beetles to examine at home.

Outside the villa was a long stone table set beneath a knotty trellis of grapevines, still bare of leaves. Here, our morning lessons took place with Mum, which largely consisted of recording in our diaries all that we had seen. Dad set up an aquarium so he could film and we could study the pond life before returning it to the wild. We examined each creature, reading about them in guidebooks, and then drew pictures of them. The village children were cautious at first. But when they saw us handling the toads and newts, they soon lost their fear. They would tell us the Greek names and we would tell them the English.

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Much of the fauna we encountered was new to us. Our squeals of joy were earsplitting when we found our first tortoise. Soon we had a temporary pen full of them under the mulberry tree, whose fruit they adored. We would watch the females being literally turned turtle by sex-crazed males, eager to mate.

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We tagged along with Angeliki when she went to tether the sheep and goats on a fresh patch of spring grass, charmed by the their newborn lambs and kids. And we were eager to help feed the plump baby rabbits. Little did we know we were helping fatten up the Easter feast!

All images from Yassu, Corfu by David & Sally Shaw-Smith

                                    To be continued.

VW Bus, Our Hippie Adventure, Part 1

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I know I must be hitting middle age because tsunami’s of nostalgia keep washing over me. The latest was prompted by the news that Brazil, the last remaining country to produce the Volkswagen camper van, also known as the hippie bus, is to end production after 57 years.

My seven-year-old excitement knew no bounds when Dad roared up the avenue in the second-hand, red VW bus. Our family was preparing to leave soggy Ireland to go and live on the Greek island of Corfu for six months. The bus was to be our home during the drive across Europe. Once there, it would become a mobile production unit while Mum and Dad made a series of documentaries on the people, history, and wildlife of the island. This was 1972 and I didn’t even know what a hippie was, but Mum and Dad with their three little girls packed into a VW bus must have fit the mold.

Mum set to work sewing bright orange curtains for the windows. Soon, with the film equipment stashed under the seats, we were off to catch the ferry to England. London in the early 1970’s was a psychedelic experience. I remember sleeping on the floor of a musician friend of my parents. It was all Indian prints and sitars and smelly incense, and it blew my provincial Irish mind. I lay on a makeshift bed on the floor gazing, transfixed at the first lava lamp I’d ever seen. But that was nothing compared to the thrill of driving up the ramp into the hovercraft that would take us across the English Channel from England to France, and feeling the airbags inflate beneath me, before skimming across the sand flats and splashing into the sea.

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We were on a very limited budget, so, even though it was March and freezing, all five of us spent our first night in Paris squished into the back of the van. To pee, we had to get out and squat in the gutter, much to the horror of the early dog walkers—their dogs got to poop on the sidewalks! Not surprisingly, after that we graduated to cheap hotels, at least one of which doubled as an up market brothel as my older sister later informed me.

In France my sisters and I discovered bidets, fizzy water, and Nutella. Who knew you could eat bread and chocolate? Surely an invention of the gods. Bolsters, on the other hand, were a form of torture, only good for annihilating your sisters in a pillow fight.

The van chugged valiantly across France and into Switzerland, where the heater conked out. By now it had truly become our mobile playground, filled with books and sketchpads and colored pencils. Entertainment was never hard to find. When my sisters and I got tired of squabbling, we could sit for hours gazing out the window at the passing scenery, marveling as we climbed up into the Alps at the snow-filled valleys. Until then I had never seen more than a dusting of the white stuff. Once we had driven through the Great Saint Bernard Tunnel and crossed into Italy, we begged to stop so we could sink, up to our uxters, in the snowdrifts at the side of the road.

On the outskirts of Turin, the driver’s window of the van got stuck, allowing in icy blasts of air. While it was being repaired, we spent a night at a wonderfully old and creaky hotel, undoubtedly haunted. Much to our delight, several black cats slept in a basket on the wooden counter that served as a front desk.

Riding the vaparetto through the canals of Venice, I felt like I’d stepped into a Richard Scarry book. They had water taxis, water ambulances, water police, and of course, gondolas. In St. Mark’s Square, on a chilly March day, the pigeons were more numerous than the tourists. We giggled as hordes of them descended on our outstretched hands to nibble the corn kernels we offered them. I still have the miniature glass goose I watched the glassmaker swirl out of yellow and black glass.

On the outskirts of Rome, my parents looked up an acquaintance. Unfamiliar with the eating habits of small children, he took us to a fancy Italian restaurant and plied us with Parma ham and slivers of dolphin meat. My devious seven-year-old brain went into action. At one point my mother turned and praised me for trying the unusual food. Little did she know there was a pile of discreetly rolled Parma ham deposited under the chair of the corpulent Italian gentleman at the next table.

My sisters and I fell in love with the Botticelli’s in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. From the windows of the museum we looked out over the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio and marveled at the golden carp swimming below us. Whenever I see a Botticelli, I think of those golden fish.

Arriving in Rome late at night, we huddled in the backseat while Mum and Dad fought bitterly over the frustrating one-way system. When we finally found a hotel room, it was well past midnight and all the restaurants were closed. The owner, a cranky old English fart, said, ‘I hope your children don’t wet the beds,’ much to our indignation. We sat in bed eating handfuls of raisins and sipping watered-down whiskey. (I suspect that my parents merely wanted a bit of peace and quiet, but it’s possible that that is where I first acquired a taste for the smoky, burnt caramel flavor.) The next morning we began our Roman adventure with breakfast on the roof terrace of the hotel, overlooking Roman ruins, filled with cats dining on spaghetti provided by little old ladies.

The van roared past Naples and Mount Vesuvius in a hell-for-leather attempt to catch the ferry at Brindisi for the island of Corfu—our new home for the next six months.

It’s funny how of all the amazing ruins and sights we must have seen, these are the ones that stick in the crevices.                           Untitled1                     To be continued.