The Kalamata Hilton

Kalamata general hospital

The room service is great but the beds are tiny..

I think I know what it feels like to be a new-born. Right now I find myself in a completely alien environment, I have no idea what anybody is talking about and after 3 days of chronic sleep deprivation I have no concept of time and don’t know if I want to eat, sleep or just hide under a blanket.

Why the disorientation? It’s because I’m staying with T in the maternity ward of the hospital. We are together as a family unit for the very first time. She is absolutely fine, glowing, even, and despite the tiredness, a heavy fog of bliss hangs all around us. Unlike the UK, mothers are required to stay in the hospital for up to a week after delivery. There are no locum mid-wives in this part of the country, the area is too sparsely populated, so they make sure baby and mother are fighting fit before they release you back into the world. But our enforced stay, instead of feeling like a prison term, has manifested multiple unexpected benefits.

For a start, the Kalamata easy going, way of doing things means that visiting hours are pretty much a moot concept. So I’ve been spending 24 hours with mum  and baby. There are two beds in our room. T quickly bonds with the other new mum, and the multitude of relatives that come streaming in. We exchange chocolates, sweets, Greek delicacies and a plethora of well wishes. I’ve never known so many different ways to say congratulations.

Apart from the bonhomie, another fringe benefit of the Kalamata Hilton is the 24/7 expert assistance on call. This small hospital has 17 mid-wives plus doctors of every speciality buzzing around. Our little guy didn’t turn up with a manual, so every  query, about bed, bum, boob or barf  is answered within seconds at the press of a red button. The Greek midwives are highly efficient, the deft dexterity of their baby ninja skills putting our cotton-wool fingers to shame. It’s a great relief to have these guys on board for the first few days.

As for the little guy. He does what babies do. Sleep, eat, look cute and supply us with hugs on demand.  So apart from the size of the bed I’m quite enjoying the hospitality here right now….

 

Words of the day

  • να ζήσει – live long (lit. may it live) – (na – zee-say)
  • να το χαίρεστε – a blessing (lit. may you enjoy your baby) – (na – toe – herr-ess-tay)
  • καλή τύχη – good luck – (kall-ee ti-hee)

In Greece, we kiss

The cutest

My son, Day Zero

Standing outside the delivery room, I hear the muffled, but unmistakeable cry of a newborn. My heart starts to pound. Surely, it must be…. there’s nobody else in there except T and the hospital staff. An eternity passes. The reason for my agonizing wait is because the Greek public health health deems anyone, apart from the mother and hospital staff, unworthy of witnessing the birth. I feel  disenfranchised and it’s tormenting me. I can hear him but I can’t see him. Is he OK? Is she alright?

A quarter of an hour goes by then the doors swing open. Two doctors present a tightly wrapped parcel for my inspection. Shades of pink, blue and olive skin. Matted thick black hair. A face wrinkled and twisted from the traumatic transition from womb to ward. He is beautiful. He is healthy. He is perfect. My whole body feels light. As my gift is ushered back into the sterilized ward, tears overwhelm the moment. I fight the urge  to blub even more and turn to γιαγιά (grandmother). We embrace and let the joy flow through us both.

Minutes later the double doors open again. Petrakos, the hulking obstetrician who has overseen ‘our’ pregnancy, grabs me by the shoulders and places his cheek next to mine. “In Greece, we kiss” he gently murmurs before disappearing down the corridor. A new chapter begins.

Words of the day

  • κλαίω – Ι cry – (clay-o)
  • μωρό – baby – (mor-o)
  • συγκινητικό – emotional – (si-kin-i-ti-ko)
  • γέννηση – birth – (yen-ee-see)
  • λουλούδια  -flowers – (loo-loo-thee-a)

Nothing ever happens..

A cloud lingers over the mountains during sunset

It’s all quiet on the western front. The baby’s due date has arrived and passed. The passage of time has slowed to a crawl as the inevitable seeems to become ever more elusive. It’s a kind of limbo-land that occasionally bubbles over with overwrought emotion and sometimes a few tears. On top of all this, my intermittent back problems have flared up again, reducing my mobility to that of an arthritic tortoise.

I’ve made a prediction that Mr Bump will arrive tomorrow. I’ve got nothing to base this on at all, it’s just a running joke to pass the time. Our biggest concern is that he will start his journey during the night. The prospect of a drive into the city in the wee hours isn’t exactly enthralling.

Other news, my boxes have finally arrived from the UK. I now have all my gadgets, books and camera equipment to keep me occupied in between bouts of nappy changing, vomit duties and the rest of it. I can’t wait to get out in the country and capture some of the stunning light shows, the landscape puts on at this time of year. Actually I can wait, waiting is all that’s going on right now….

Words of the day

  • πηδάω – I jump – (pee-thou)
  • πρώτος – first – (pro-toss)
  • δικός – mine – (thee-koss)

 

 

 

Cheese – resistance is futile

Cheese in Greek supermarket

Greeks consume more cheese per capita than any other nation on the planet

One of the more unexpected outcomes of recent evolutionary biology is lactose tolerance. Contrary to popular belief, the default condition for most mammals is an aversion to eating dairy products, as opposed to the wide spread acceptance that milk, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream etc have been a staple part of our diet since sabre-toothed tigers were chasing us up trees.

It makes sense if you think about it. We are genetically pre-programmed to become intolerant to lactose after weaning. When our infantile dependency on the breast ends, (some guys never grow out of this stage btw), we stop producing the enzyme lactase, which is necessary in order to digest milk based products. However, at some point in ancient history, humans, in their infinite wisdom decided that they knew better than nature.

In the West we take dairy products for granted, having a long history of cultivating dairy herds. Consequently, only a small number of northern Europeans, around 5%  have lactose intolerance. Contrast this with those of East-Asian descent and the proportion rises to around 90% of the population. You see, in the grand, cosmic scheme of things, we shouldn’t really be messing with the milk products of other animals. Let’s face it, donkey milk should be for donkeys ( although a neighbour here in Mani swears her hearty constitution depends entirely on ass-milk, if you pardon the phrase). Mouldy, fermented, rotten smelling, off-milk, should in reality produce reactions of disgust. Instead, the French consider their ripe, soft cheeses to be as much a part of their rich culture as poetry, fine art and beheading.

OK, so you might detect a slight anti-dairy bias. The truth is, I hail from semi-Asian descent and for a long time I’ve considered myself to have a perfectly valid mild form of lactose intolerance. Although I was brought up in the UK on Kelloggs Cornflakes, free milk at school, rubbery cheese sandwiches and strawberry yoghurts, deep down I’ve always suspected that dairy was not for me.

So imagine my shock when I discovered that Greece, per person, consumes more cheese than any other nation in the world. OMG, I’m in the cheese capital of the world! And it’s true. Cheese in Greece is as ubiquitous as olives, sunshine and moustaches. The ancients even credit one of their Gods, Aristaeus, a son of Apollo, with inventing cheese, and other luminaries such as Homer and Aristotle have been part of the grand cheese PR campaign ever since.

Half of the cheese consumed in Greece is feta. Made from sheep’s milk and served in parallel with the main course, feta comes in a thousand varieties and is eaten at any and every occasion. At meals here in Mani, a huge slab of feta take prides of place at the centre of the table, usually accompanied by another variety (because one type of cheese obviously isn’t enough). But feta can also be a meal in it’s own right; baked in the oven, grilled, or crumbled into any number of meat or veggie dishes. The most popular snack in Greece is known as τυρόπιτα (tiropita), translated quite un-poetically as ‘cheese-pie’. But cheese pie in Greece is a culture on its own right. It comes in so many variations you could probably eat a different recipe every day of the year.

So, how does someone who has a genetic predisposition against dairy products survive in a land where cheese is king. Well, the truth is, I’m actually starting to embrace my new cheesy life. One of the benefits of a dairy rich diet means that you don’t need to consume as much meat protein. I’ve been threatening to go vegetarian for years, and embracing cheese is a decent way to cut back on eating dead animals. Then there’s the cultural side of their culinary obsession. To not indulge in cheese consumption in Greece is a bit like being invited to Buckingham Palace and telling the Queen you don’t like tea. So, as the villainous Borg from Star Trek would say, “Why do you resist? Resistance is futile. Negotiation is irrelevant. You will be assimilated.” Oh, what the heck, “Waiter, one more cheese pie, parakalo, and bring me some cheese on the side”

Words of the day

  •  να είσαι καλά – be well (blessing) – (nassee -kallah)
  • εκκλησία – church -(ek-lee-see-ah)
  • καναπές – sofa – ( kan-a pess)

And now, the weather…

Beach at Stoupa covered in seaweed

Seaweed lies strewn across the beach at Stoupa after strong winds batter the Peloponnese

Being an Englishman through and through, one of my favourite past-times is to discuss at length, the current state of the weather, be it rain, shine, snow, clouds, or as is generally the case in my homeland, various shades of grey.

I can just about remember, about 100 years when I was running around in short trousers, how the years passed by, following a quaint and antiquated concept called ‘the seasons’. The idea was, the year was split into 4 parts, cold = winter, hot = summer, with some colourful bits in between. It was great fun. At Christmas time you could build snowmen, and school was often cancelled because somebody forgot to service the gas boiler. Likewise, in summer, I used to cycle to the beach every day, fish in rock pools and try to pluck up the courage to jump off the high rocks with the big boys.

I’m not sure what happened between then and now, but these days UK weather patterns seem to be a bit more like pressing ‘Shuffle’ on your iTunes. Let’s have a heatwave in October, or maybe a snow drift in the middle of March. So imagine my surprise when I find myself in a part of the world that still follows the old fashioned idea of a gradual change in seasons. That is exactly what’s going on in the bay of Messina right now.

I’d quite happily carry on with my daily beach dip year round, but in the last week I’ve had to twice cancel my Mediterranean bathing appointment due to an unfamiliar phenomena round here known as ‘clouds’. The temperature has dropped a degree or two as well, but although I keep hearing the mantra “krio, krio,” (cold) from the family, it’s clearly still shorts, T-shirt and flip-flop territory for a northern European like me.

Apart from the seasons however, there’s one striking qualitative difference about the weather in  Mani compared to what I’m used to. It’s called ‘drama’. And I’m not talking some gentle rom-com. This is real seat of the pants, hi-octane Hollywood action movie stuff.

The last couple of days have witnessed strong winds, whipping up the usual mirror-like seas into fields of froth. Yesterday at Kardamyli, we sat for lunch, yards from the sea. But instead of a gentle lapping against the shore, 6-foot breakers were crashing against the rocks. Later three surfers, excited by the waves, jumped on their boards and paddled out, egged on from cheers from the diners.

But the real showstopper came today.  Earlier in the afternoon, on our daily stroll, we stopped at 100 metre intervals (9-month pregant ladies aren’t the fastest movers) to gaze out to sea. In the distance thick, black clouds carpeted the sky whilst every 30 seconds, spikes of lightning prodded that ocean. But that was just the opening act. As I write, the aftermath of a storm in the Ionian Sea is literally shaking the house.  The night sky is lit up like a US bombing mission, shades of pink and blue as Zeus flexes his might. The electricity flickers on and off and I can feel the tempest heading towards us as. Please, T, don’t have a baby tonight…..

Words of the day

  • σύννεφα – clouds – (sin-eff-ah)
  • ρούχα – clothes – (roo-ha)
  • μαλλιά – hair – (pal-ee-ah)
  • περίπου- approximately/ more or less – (peh-rip-oo)
  • ενδιαφέρων – interesting – (edi-a-feh-ron)
  • αριθμός – number – (ah-rith-moss)
  • μήνας – month – (mee-nass)
  • λεπτό – minute – (lep-toe)
  • και άλλος – another – (keh-ah-loss)
  • βροχή – rain – (vro-hee)
  • ξεχνάω – I forget – (kse-h-now)
  • επόμενο – next – (e-pom-eh-no)

 

 

When you’re not on the dancefloor….

When you're not on the dancefloor, you can sing many songs

 

Έξω απ’ το χορό λες πολλά τραγούδια. –

When you’re not on the dancefloor, you can sing many songs

ie: referring to those who do a lot of talking but not much doing. It’s easier said than done.

Vocab

  • Έξω – outside – (ex-0)
  • χορό – the dance – (ho-ro)
  • πολλά – many – (pol-ah)
  • τραγούδια – songs – (tra-poo-thee-ah)

A hungry bear doesn’t dance

A hungry bear doesn't dance

Today I’m proud to introduce a new section to the site. Inspired by the occasional bizarre slices of wisdom that T has sent my way in the past, I’m sharing with you some of the strangest, non-sensical proverbs, idioms and Greek sayings that just don’t really translate into English at first glance. Enjoy, be befuddled, and hopefully learn some new words too!

Νηστικό αρκούδι δεν χορεύει. – A hungry bear doesn’t dance

 ie – if you don’t eat (get paid), you can’t function.
Vocab:

Νηστικό – hungry – (nis-tee-ko)

αρκούδι – bear – (ar-kou-thee)

χορεύei – it/he/she dances – (ho-rev-ee)

 

 


Water, water everywhere

Water truck

A truck full of water. I’ll never curse the rain again.

My country life is proving to be a continuous education. On Sunday I got up and turned on the tap to splash some water on my groggy face. Instead of a refreshing wake-me-up I was greeted by a shallow metallic groan, the sound of empty copper pipes straining for attention. Later at breakfast I discovered the reason why the pipes were calling out their own autumnal ballad. Essentially there was no more water.

Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t an Ice Cold In Alex moment, where I had to find a cold beer to quench my thirst. We still had plenty of water to drink and upstairs there was enough to flush the toilets. But that was about it. The well, or rather the cistern, had run dry.

I felt like such a city boy. How can you run out of water? Surely it just comes out of a hole in the ground somewhere, or a river, or maybe from God?  It turns out that water politics in Mani run deep, if you forgive the pun. Our particular village has an issue with water supply. Although we live in the shadow of several mountains, all the freshwater runs off to the east side, which by all accounts has a bountiful supply. However, on the west side it’s a different story. No aquifers or fresh water springs to tap into here. Instead, when you run out, you call a man who arrives with a large truck and an even larger hose.

Even then, it’s not that simple. Sometimes the supply gets contaminated with sea water, so the sweet (fresh) water doesn’t taste all that sweet, meaning you have to get a separate supply for drinking, and watering the plants, and feeding the animals etc etc etc. Needless to say, it’s a precious commodity here, so you adapt your behaviour accordingly. Back in Blighty, I used to love taking luxurious baths, sometimes even forgetting I had run one  and letting it go cold. Here, it’s very different. Everything involving H20 is done in a measured way, from doing the dishes, to showering  and cooking. Water is scarce here and costs bucks. So you better make sure you use it wisely.

 

Words of the day

  • σαν – like (comparison) – (san)
  • προτιμώ – I prefer – (pro-ti-mo) 
  • βαρετό – boring – (va-re-toe)
  • χαλασμένο – broken – (hal-as-men-o)
  • χαζό -stupid- (ha-zo)
  • συνήθως – usually -(sin-ee-thos)
  • πληροφοριές – information -(plee-rof-0-ree-ez) 

 

DEFCON 4

Theodora 9 months pregnant

My beautiful T, 9 months pregnant, on the way to the beach

In the Cold War Hollywood propaganda pic, War Games, starring Matthew Broderick, the world is put on a heightened security alert,  because of some pesky kids meddling with computers, way before the internet was invented. I was reminded of this tale a couple of days ago at the beach, when, just as we were about to take our usual hour long bathe into the crystal waters of the Med, we had our own mini-Defcon moment.

“I think it’s started.”, murmured T nonchalantly. “What do you mean, it’s started?” I responded. “A pain, different than before, I think it might be the contractions starting” I was informed.

Hmmm…..OK…. Right…. pause for a second……Think…..clearly….DON’T PANIC….. “Have I got time for a 5 minute dip in the sea” was the only thing that came out of my mouth. OK, maybe that’s not the best idea. “Shall I call your mum? Should I get the car? Where are the pains” etc etc. Clearly, a mild panic was inevitably at hand, adrenalin beginning to race through my veins, sabotaging any logic and reason that went before.

To cut a long story short, it was a false alarm. But it shook us both out of our slightly complacent, Kalamata-dreaming, pseudo-utopian existence, a very timely reminder that life was about to change in ways we would never be able to imagine. Later on, back at the ranch, things stepped up a gear. Hospital bags were packed, breathing exercises became a hot topic once again, and there was talk of booking a hotel near to the hospital to avoid the hour-long mountain drive when the real events kicked in.

However, like a pendulum gradually coming to rest, 24 hours later, life seemed to have returned to it’s usual, more measured pace. The Greeks don’t use the word for tomorrow (αύριο), like the Spanish use mañana, but they might as well do. Although voices might be raised, hot words exchanged, and tempers may momentarily flare whilst discussing the best way to cultivate wild greens, stress does not seem to be a native concept in this part of the world.

And from one perspective there’s every reason to worry. The nation starts yet another round of general strikes this week. We’re not even sure that we’ll get to see a doctor on Wednesday. The Greek media tries to purvey a sense of fear and apocalypse, reporting every little fart in the negotiations as a major news topic. But the relentless barrage of doom and gloom politics surely must have an exponentially weakening impact. We’re all more than aware that the country is facing it’s biggest crisis in living memory, we don’t need to be reminded of it every half an hour. Give us some more feel-good ‘cat rescued from tree’ news stories for a change.

Amidst the turmoil, I’m reminded that life must go on, αύριο is another day. And most importantly, don’t panic…..

 

Words of the day:

  • βρώμικο -dirty – (vrom-ee-ko)
  • άδειο – empty – (a-thee-o)
  • μαύρο – black – (mao- ro)
  • άσπρο – white – (as-pro)
  • παράθυρο – window – (pa-rath-ee-ro)
  • πάμε για μπάνιο – let’s go for a swim – (pa-may yah -ban-yo)

 

 

Keep your eyes on the road

Driving on mountain roads in Greece

Negotiating the mountain roads of Μάνη,

I’ve never been much of a car fanatic. As a teenager I was more into motor- bikes . I passed my test long before I could drive a car. When I was 17 my main ambition was to become a despatch rider and I used to subscribe to the maxim that George Orwell once said on Top Gear, “Four wheels bad, two wheels good.” I did once own a car about 20 years ago, a battered old Hillman Avenger, handed down from my kindly Uncle Kenny.

But car ownership is not an option around these parts. There’s no tube, bus network, overground, rail, river taxi, Zipcar, Boris bikes or any of the convenient modus transporti I’ve gotten used to in the last 20 years. There is however a local bus service. But this only runs three times a day, not really that convenient if you want to nip out for a packet of Pringles. So the only option you have is to drive. You do see a few scooters pootling around but pretty much everyone has a car. But far from being mundane, getting behind the wheel in Mani becomes a life affirming experience for two main reasons.

First you have the terrain to deal with. Until the 1960’s the region was more or less inaccessible, unless you were a donkey, or owned a tank. The road between Kalamata and the mid-Peloponnese now slices into mountain after mountain, a single carriage-way snaking awkwardly but efficiently through the region. Hairpin bends, 100 metre precipices and steep gradients are the norm on this highway. Cruise control is definitely not the order of the day. Gear changing becomes elevated to an art form and overtaking, (more of a necessity than an option when you have tractors, trucks and tourist buses causing frequent queues)  can easily turn into one of those life-flashing-before-your-eyes moments as you see realise you may not have enough acceleration to avoid a head on collision with that car that’s suddenly appeared in your lane heading directly towards you.

The second reason that driving in Mani makes you feel alive are the views. They are simply stunning. Sometimes the roads cuts away from the coast, winding through deep valleys, with glimpses of ancient bridges and 1000 year old churches. Occasionally you’ll pass through a sleepy town like the tourist destination of Kardimyli, cited by Homer in the Iliad. But your jaw only starts to drop when the road sweeps out towards the sea. High up, hundreds of metres above sea-level, you find yourself constantly changing direction to follow the contours of the mountain. This provides an infinite number of vantage points of the Mediterranean in it’s full glory. Looking down over beaches, sheer cliff faces, olive groves, abandoned terraced farms and scattered villages, the scene is forever changing except for the constant of the sea. To top it off, at this time of year the sun is lower in the sky and each night spoils you with a painterly sunset.

The combination of climate, inaccessibility and conservation also means the land is relative undeveloped, or unspoilt, depending on how you want to look at it. No high-rise blocks, no Starbucks  and no industrial blots on the landscape. Just for my selfish purposes, I hope it stays this way.

Words of the day

  • κεφάλι – head – (ke-fally)
  • γρήγορος – fast – (gree-gor-oss)
  • αργός – slow – (ar-goss)
  • αγαπημένο – favourite – (a-gapee-meno)
  • σπουδαίο – important – (spoo-thee-o)