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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.