Tag Archives: VW bus

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.

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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.