Tag Archives: corfu

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!

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TOP TEN THINGS I’VE LEARED ABOUT BLOGGING

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Blogging is not for sissies. It takes time, focus, and hard work if you want to put out blogs that won’t make you cringe down the road. But the rewards are big. As the Write Eejit comes to the end of its first year, I thought it a good time to look back at what it’s taught me so far.

  1. Nobody just pops out a post worth its salt. Even the folks that seem to effortlessly come up with witty and informative things to say on a daily basis have more than likely been mulling them over for a while.   WHITE DEER
  2. It’s an excellent way to get a load off my chest. Feeling aggravated or ecstatic about something? Why not post a mini rant. So what if I’ll forever be known as that miserable woman who hates her cat. I HATE MY CAT
  3. Blogging has a way of bringing things into focus. Coming up with topics not only allows me to live in the moment, but also reflect on past events in a new light. GOLDEN MOMENTS
  4. I get to experiment without having to commit to a specific idea or format. PAGAN MOON
  5. I’ve rediscovered things about my past that had dropped off my radar. HIPPIE ADVENTURE
  6. On good days when I post without a hitch, blogging makes me feel like 21st century Warrior Woman. On bad days when I can’t figure out why my password has reset itself, I’m an FTD (frustrated tech dummy). OLD WRITERS NEW MEDIA
  7. Blogging forces me to set goals and shoot for a deadline, and is a constant reminder to adhere to good writing habits—check spelling and punctuation before hitting “Post”. COTTER PIN
  8. Blogging helps me take that breath and reevaluate where I am, both in life, and as a writer. MUD SEASON
  9. There are many talented and inspiring fellow bloggers out there. HIGH JINKS IN THE HAREM
  10. And when those “Likes” and comments pop up, boy is it instant gratification for someone who spends a lot of time tapping away in no-woman’s land. BLIND SQUIRREL PARENTING

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

 

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.

trip map 1

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.