Category Archives: Childhood Adventure

IMAGINE A TREE

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Multi-chambered
fortress, tree house, throne
toe holder, ship’s mast
staircase to the heavens
galleon of the woods above
tentacle crawling roots below
battle scarred silver hide
xylem and phloem
carrying fingerprints
of centuries, absorbing
earth and air, detritus
one fleeting moment of many
flickering image—
ghost at the back of an eyelid—
the chestnut mare
scratching her rump
against a beech sapling
green with fast flowing growth
on a June evening
in a cloud of golden gnats
and her tail swishing
from side to side
the memory ingrained
in a low-slung limb
a moss saddled horse.

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HALLOWE’EN

DSCF1527Hallowe’en is the holiday that most reminds me of my Irish upbringing. I well remember trailing costumes, cobbled together from grown-up cast offs, down muddy country lanes, only seeing the puddles through the cardboard slits of our homemade masks when it was too late. And for all our effort we might get a handful of nuts, some windfall apples, or an orange. Mrs. Topping was the last stop, and if we were lucky she might have a few pennies or a chocolate bar for us to savor on the way home. Flickering light from bonfires and the smell of woodsmoke, intensified by the sharp frosty air, added to the mystery of the night. There was a always the possibility that something unearthly might grab you from behind before you made it home.DSCF8638

I’ve spent many an evening trick-or-treating with my kids in our hometown in New York’s Hudson valley—my daughter even has a Hallowe’en birthday. But none come close to capturing the spooky feelings of my childhood. The reason, I think, is simple. The tradition of Oiche Shamhna, or ‘the vigil of Saman,’ the Lord of Death, is so deep-rooted in Ireland that you can sense it palpably.

Throughout Ireland . . . lesser feast days pale in comparison with the culminating festival which marks the end of the dying year on All-Hallows Eve. An astonishing amount of lore still clings to Hallowe’en . . . The crops should now be all gathered in and no fruit should be picked after this date, for the púca, a supernatural being, is busy befouling unpicked fruit . . . we notice superstition acting as a stimulus towards the completion of routine tasks. The return of the livestock from their summer grazings, once accompanied by their herders, made the occasion one of family reunion, and this is a strong element in the present festival. But it was also a reunion with the ancestral spirits of the family: for Hallowe’en was preeminently a commemoration of the dead, a time when ghosts and fairies were unusually active, the whole of the world of the supernatural astir and the dead returned to their earthly homes. On that night the grass-grown homesteads—the fairy raths—were wide open and the fairies were on the move to winter quarters, surely a folk memory of a former transhumance. It used to be thought unlucky not to make preparations for the return of the dead by leaving the door of the house open, putting out tobacco and traditional dishes such as sowans—a kind of porridge—and setting seats around the fire. The games and amusements which alone survive have commonly degenerated into pranks and horseplay, but one can detect in them echoes of magical observances. The many divination customs may well have begun as rites to avert evil or to secure the benefits which they now pretend to forecast. Among the things involved in these games and divination customs are apples nuts, oatcakes, cabbages, a ball of yarn, articles made of straw and rushes, and herbs such as yarrow . . . The breaking of pots is one of the elements in Hallowe’en pranks—one might almost say rites—and again we notice the association with the dead, for All-Hallows is the time when the dead are believed to return to their homes.
                                                   Evans, E. Estyn, Irish Folk Ways, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. © 1957DSCF8684Colcannon is one of the foods traditionally eaten at Hallowe’en. Often a dish of this would be left out for visitors from the other world. This recipe comes from Theodora FitzGibbon’s A Taste of Ireland.DSCF8717

1lb each of kale or cabbage, and potatoes, cooked separately
2 small leeks or green onion tops
1 cup of milk or cream
4 oz. (½ cup) butter
salt, pepper, and a pinch of mace

Have the kale or cabbage cooked, warm and well chopped up while the potatoes are cooking. Chop up the leeks or onion tops, green as well as white, and simmer them in milk or cream to just cover, until they are soft. Drain the potatoes, season and beat them well: then add the cooked leeks and milk.
Finally blend in the kale, beating until it is a pale green fluff. Do this over a low flame and pile it into a deep warmed dish. Make a well in the centre and pour in enough melted butter to fill up the cavity. The vegetables can be served with the melted butter. Any leftovers can be friend in hot bacon fat until crisp and brown on both sides.

If all that butter and cream weren’t fun enough—
A plain gold ring, a sixpence, a thimble, or a button are often put into the mixture. The ring means you will be married within a year; the sixpence denotes wealth, the thimble a spinster and the button a bachelor, to whoever gets them. DSCF1610

CHILDHOOD WALK

melissa with flowersEarly sunlight seeping around the curtains.
Blackbird singing. Day beckoning.
Slip out of sleeping house.
Shimmering jewels of dew on the grass.
Wet ankles.
Air fragrant with spring.
Pass the Hawthorn tree dropping damp blossoms on the lawn.
Discover pale yellow primroses on the bank by the river.
Inhale sweet, honey scent.
Inspect the hollow in the willow—cushions of moss for fairies to dance on.
Watch small brown trout in the shallows.IMG_8292
Climb up through the woods.
Soft pine needles underfoot.
Breeze sowing in the tops of the trees.
Tip-toe into the wild garden.
Peonies buried in a tangle of long grass.
Irises blooming through clumps of stinging nettles.
Startle a heron at the overgrown pond.
Poke amongst the duckweed for fat, black tadpoles.
Jump and jump to snatch a branch off the cherry tree,
Laden with heavy pink flowers.
Add it to the posy of violets and primroses.
Home in time for breakfast.IMG_7955

DANDELION

DSCF4650A little girl handed me a limp, browning dandelion the other day. “You need to put it in water,” she said, smiling hopefully. I knew the sentiment all too well. How often had I fallen victim to the lure of a lawn strewn with fuzzy golden flowers and picked handfuls to stuff in jam-jars, only to discover how short-lived their splendor was once picked.

For the past week, on sunny days, I’ve taken a bowl out to the garden and plucked the heads off the freshly opened dandelions. No, it’s not some manic, pesticide free attempt to remove them from my lawn. I’m storing them in bags in my freezer until I’ve accumulated enough to give to a friend to make dandelion wine. I can’t wait to taste the results.

The name, from the French dent-de-leon, or lion’s tooth, refers to the jagged shape of the dandelion leaves. When I was a kid, I spent hours picking these greens to feed my pet rabbit and tortoise.  I learned early on that the white sap that oozes out of the stem is not only sticky, but permanently stains clothing brown! But I still can’t pass a lush bunch without having the urge to pick them. Packed with vitamins and minerals, these leaves make a delicious dish. I first tasted horta—spring dandelion leaves cooked with tons of garlic and lemon juice and olive oil—when living in Greece as a child.

The dandelion has been used medicinally for centuries, and all parts of it are edible. One of its many names is pee-the-bed, for the diuretic effects of ingesting the dried root. It’s far from being merely a humble weed, and yet, this is the plant that herbicide makers love to target in their advertising. Of the numerous names for the dandelion, found in most languages, my favorite is from the Persian, qasedak, meaning small postman because it brings good news.

The First Dandelion.

Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close
emerging,
As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics,
had ever been,
Forth from its sunny nook of shelter’d grass—
innocent, golden, calm as the dawn,
The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful
face.
–WALT WHITMAN.

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COMFORT FOOD: BREAD

DSCF4060We all have our comfort foods—mine is bread. White bread was a staple of my Irish childhood—the sliced pan, as it was known. It made excellent toast images-1fingers for dipping in soft boiled eggs, or for spreading with honey, or munching with a heap of baked beans.

When I was a little kid my mother and her friends went through a hippie phase—transcendental meditation, yoga, lentils, you know the kind of thing. The upside was delicious homemade yogurt and yeast bread. That distinct sour yeasty smell when you took a big sniff of crusty baguette hot out of the oven still lingers. Later, brown-soda-bread-234x260she made wonderful, dense brown soda bread with a dollop of sticky treacle added for sweetness.

At Granny’s house, the bread came from Eileen’s, the tiny corner shop. You bought an uncut loaf, big as a doorstep, and so fresh it could get up and dance a jig. It was the perfect bed for a slab of bright yellow salty butter from the farm down the road. You had to watch out for the collie dog though, he was a nipper. And of course you had to top it off with Granny’s raspberry or gooseberry jam.

My other grandmother allowed me the treat of butter and peanut butter on my bread. But my abiding memory is of my grandfather’s breakfast ritual. When we came downstairs he was already seated at the table in a low-slung armchair, hair neatly combed, his thin body all jutting angles of knees and elbows. Arranged in front of him were his plate of toast, his gold-colored teapot and mug, and a book perched on a stand he’d made specifically for reading at mealtimes. His chin hovered no more than an inch or two above all this. But the beauty of the arrangement was that it allowed him—ever a fastidious man—to eat and read without taking his eyes off his book, and with no fear of crumbs cascading down his cardigan.

When I was seven we went to live on the Greek island of Corfu. The strange new foods were a shock to my bland Irish palette. Luckily, the coarse bread (an artisanal country loaf in today’s vlcsnap-2013-10-14-22h02m50s148parlance) made by the village baker was delicious. My sisters and I would get up early and gallop through the narrow, whitewashed streets to arrive in time to watch the loaves being pulled from the oven on long wooden paddles. The bread never made it home in one piece. On days when we went filming with my parents for the documentaries they made on the island, we would take along a picnic lunch. In a shady olive grove we’d listen to the cicadas zithering, eating chunks of bread doused in green olive oil and topped with sweet tomato slices and slabs of salty feta.

My first year in college, I’d come home late at night, starving, awash with experiences from my new adult world, yet still craving childhood comforts, and make myself a round of hot-buttered toast and marmalade.

Bread is still one of the great joys of my life. One of my favorite things to do is share a weekend imagesbrunch with my family: a crusty loaf of sourdough from the farmer’s market with a homemade soup to dunk it in, jars of hummus and basil pesto from the garden, slices of pungent local cheese, and plates brimming with cucumber and tomato slices and a handful of briny Kalamata olives. Heaven on a plate!

Greek Island Adventure, 5

Angeliki putting on her national costume with  Katerina & Yaya's help

Angeliki putting on her national costume with Katerina & Yaya’s help

In 1973 as a seven-year-old child living the idyllic life on the island of Corfu, I was oblivious to the fact that Greece was in turmoil, writhing under the yoke of the Army Junta (1968-74). My father later informed me that our special invitation to visit the Old Citadel for a feast day celebration, and several other rather bizarre invitations, was so that the secret police could keep tabs on us. I can only imagine that in their eyes, a couple of Irish documentary filmmakers with three small children in tow seemed highly subversive.

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On the whole, though, the Corfiots welcomed us with open arms.  vlcsnap-2013-10-14-21h07m43s100

 

 

 

 

This is how a typical meeting with a stranger would go: Mum and Dad would stop the VW bus on a remote hillside to film a snake Dad had just caught. Out of nowhere, a goat herder or a group of small children would appear. Soon we’d be surrounded by curious faces. And then came the inevitable question. Poú eísai? Where are you from? When we said, Irlandía, initially thrown off by the blonde hair they would say, Ollandía? Ochi, we’d say, No. Irlandía. Their faces would light up in recognition. Their index fingers would go up and invariably they’d go, Boom, boom, boom, imitating the sound of a gun. At the time it was the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, with the IRA vehemently resisting the British Government’s occupation, and many in Greece understood that oppression. Immediately, we would become allies. Soon, we learned when asked that question to respond, Irlandía, Boom, boom, boom.

In our village, Junta, or no Junta, people got on with the job of living. And every day there was something new for my sisters and I to marvel at. Traveling trades people often made their way through the narrow streets of Kinopiastes, calling out their services. One of my favorites was the Spoon Man.

vlcsnap-2013-10-14-21h48m34s76At his familiar cry, doors would open and voices would hail him. He’d stop, open up his bag of tricks on the side of the street and a crowd of housewives would gather, bringing their household cutlery wrapped in their aprons. To a small child, the Spoon Man was better than a magician. Carefully holding a tarnished spoon with a pair of tongs, he’d dip it in a blackened, bubbling pot of sludgy, dull silver-hued liquid. A second later the spoon would emerge, gleaming and winking in the sunlight, it’s silver surface restored to glory.

Surely this was alchemy—or at least its little sister. vlcsnap-2013-10-14-21h48m21s165

The traveling peddler, was another of my favorites. Dimitris led his heavily laden donkey, panniers piled high with every imaginable household tool, to our back gate. He’d stop, spread out the choicest selection of combs and headscarves and plastic bowls on a cloth, and wait for customers. Then, sales or no sales, he’d load everything back onto the patient donkey, tie it down securely, and clatter off into the distance, plastic buckets swaying from side to side.vlcsnap-2013-10-14-21h53m33s233

I often wonder how the villagers perceived this Irish family who landed in their midst that spring and summer. They put up with our perpetual curiosity and even seemed to welcome our interest in every aspect of their lives. If my sisters and I ran down to Pappoú’s corner shop to buy a gazoza or some bubble gum, not only would we return with our money still in our pockets, but countless grandmothers sitting on their stoops, or grandfathers flicking worry beads through their fingers would have greeted us. Our friends sought us out, and arm in arm, we paraded around the village until we found some mischief to get into. One day Leni borrowed her mother’s wedding dress and we held an epic Greek wedding in the yard. Another day, Leni and her older sister Angeliki dressed up in their national costumes to give us a show.

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The nuns who lived up the hill at the back of the village seemed delighted by our visits. Giggling and chattering away like jackdaws, the young nuns immediately pulled out extra chairs and a big bottle of ouzo and the ubiquitous, sticky kumquat liqueur. Thankfully, this was off limits to kids. But my mother would dutifully take tiny sips of the sickly sweet liqueur. They’d crack walnuts from their trees for us, and offer chunks of nougat.

Occasionally, we did run into a cultural misunderstanding. Since a small boy, my father has hand-raised stray or injured animals, particularly birds. The best pet we ever had was a Jackdaw named Percival that Dad helped us hand-rear after it fell out of it’s nest. We hadn’t been living in Greece long before he acquired a young Little Owl. The plan was to keep it long enough to film it, then release it. During the day it slept in the villa, perched on my father’s tripod. At night, it woke up to eat the live mice we’d caught for it and flutter around the house. One day, we came back from a day of filming and the owl was gone. Later, we found its burnt remains in the alleyway at the back of the house. We learnt that in Greece, old superstitions run deep, and a few people still consider them kakó, or evil. Perhaps this dates back to the ancient Roman belief that owls were harbingers of death, or witches could turn themselves into owls. For most in Greece, though, the owl is seen as a bird of wisdom. In Greek mythology, the owl was the favorite bird of Athene, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom, and appears on early Greek coins.

Sadly our sojourn on Corfu finally came to an end. Gathered around the stone table under the grapevines, we had one last party with the Gardigotti family who had made us feel like we truly belonged. With the record player set in the window, everyone danced around the yard. And one last time we chased fireflies with our new friends. Then it was time to start our long drive home, this time through Macedonia and Yugoslavia, bringing tortoises and olive oil and memories to last a lifetime.

Ygeía sas!

Ygeía sas!

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 Post script: We did return when I was sixteen, this time, sharing our adventures with my four-year-old brother. Although things had changed, I’m glad to say much of the Greek island magic was still there.

Corfu Adventure, Part 4

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When my family and I arrived on Corfu in 1973, we were part of a long line of blow-ins. For a small island, it has a blockbuster of a history, and not surprisingly, features in Greek mythology. Homer’s hero, Odysseus, washed up on it’s shores after being shipwrecked. It’s strategic location between the Adriatic and the Ionian seas made it a great location for trade and an excellent naval base, and it’s turbulent history reflects that. The Corinthians founded the ancient city of Kerkyra around 734 B.C.E., while many others over the millennia, sought to exploit the island including the Romans, Goths, Venetians, French, and British. Interested to read more- http://www.greecetravel.com/corfu/history.html

My sisters and I were lucky enough to see, first hand, evidence of Corfu’s earliest settlers. With Dr. Augustus Sordinas, an expert on Corfu’s early human inhabitants, we explored the cave where he excavated the bones of wild cattle, deer, and hyenas, and flint tools dating from the Paleolithic period, about 25,000 years ago.

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At Sidari in the north of the island we were not the first to camp by a small river leading down to the sea. In the sandy cliff face we studied the layers of fossilized shells left over from Stone Age clambakes, and shards of flint, chipped into workable tools. I still treasure the finely worked flint spear tip I found poking out of the mud. We visited a man who lived in a remote coastal area. His home was built from marsh reeds, and inside, his bed was a raised pallet of earth. We watched in awe as he caught his dinner of sardines using a net weighted down with rocks that he cast into the shallow bay. He then offered Mum and Dad wine made from his own foot-crushed grapes. His lifestyle had probably changed little from that of his ancestors, hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.

Some of the strongest memories of living on Corfu revolve around food. At first, my seven-year-old palate craved cornflakes and peanut butter, a throwback to home. I soon saw the light, and a pan full of fresh-caught sardines, fried to a crisp in olive oil was a treat—eyeballs and all. I even came to like the chewy texture of octopus.

Our favorite place to eat was on an unprepossessing backstreet in Corfu’s main town, Kerkyra. The tiny neighborhood restaurant had two tables outside and the same number inside. Grilled lamb kebabs, Greek salad fragrant with oregano and olive oil, and slivered potato fries—that’s all they made, but that’s all they needed to make. Afterwards we wended our way through the labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone streets of the old town, little changed since the Venetians laid them out five hundred years earlier.

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At Spianada square, overlooked by the ancient Citadel and moat (also courtesy of the Venetians), we joined in the passeo of Corfiots strolling along the esplanade flanked by its arched colonnade filled with cafes and restaurants. Sometimes we’d sit and enjoy a bottle of the local ginger beer, or lick ice cream and listen to the brass band playing in the bandstand. On Sunday afternoons, we watched the strange sight of cricket being played, a reminder that Corfu was a British colony in the 19th century. On our way home, we had to stop at a tiny dairy shop for a dessert treat. They served the most delicious, cinnamon-topped rice pudding. As soon as Easter was over and the restrictions of Lent, they switched to serving equally wonderful rich, creamy goats milk yogurt.

Another one of our greatest pleasures on Corfu was swimming. In addition to the small tourist beaches, surrounded by hotels, there were plenty of remote swathes of sand with only seabird footprints. Mum and Dad kitted us out with snorkels and flippers and we entertained ourselves for hours while Dad fiddled with his leaky underwater camera. Tourists would sit up and gawk as three small, blonde children swam in, often from half a mile or more offshore, and trouped out of the water like ducklings.

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Some of the best beaches for snorkeling were the rocky coves reached by a steep cliff path. The water was crystal clear and teeming with life. After a morning of swimming, we’d picnic in the olive groves: hunks of fresh bread doused in musky, green olive oil and topped with slabs of salty feta and slices of sweet tomato, and a handful of pungent little olives. Desert might be a juicy peach, or a square of sweet halvah made from crushed sesame seeds and honey. Heaven!

When it came time for my 8th birthday in the middle of July, I knew exactly what I wanted—a watermelon. I had fantasized about that watermelon for months, keeping my eye out for it every time we went to the market. The Irish climate precluded growing anything more exciting than cabbage, potatoes, and the rare zucchini in the early 70s, so this would be a first. On the morning of my birthday, my excitement knew no bounds at the sight of that huge, dark green globe. I carried it around the neighborhood showing it off to all my friends. Just as I staggered home with it, my arms gave out. Splat! It landed on the cobblestones in a pink, mushy mess. I was heartbroken—until Mum took me down the village to the watermelon man and I picked out another from his huge pyramid of ripe fruit.

To this day, nothing says summer and Greece and birthday quite like a slice of sweet, crisp watermelon.

Fifth & final installment coming soon