Don’t believe the hype

Agios Nikolas

The sun sets over Selenitsa

Almost a year to the day since my last missive, and unless you’ve been skulking behind a rather large rock, you’ll have noticed a certain degree of commotion in the Aegean quarter of the EU.

Fret not, however, this is not a forum for politics, economic theory or flag-waving. I will not be regurgitating the dramatic events and sentiments of the past 6 months….. apart from, to reflect on just one aspect of the ‘troubles’- and to offer a little reassurance to those in any way concerned about the plight of the natives.

Since the election of Syriza at the beginning of the year, Greece has rarely been out of the international news media spotlight. Without spilling into diatribe, let’s just say that some of the stories in the mainstream press have been a little…… fear-mongering, perhaps?

Reading the news from our home in London, the media message is clear; FEAR-panic-devastation-hopelessness. Abandon hope…. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

I can’t deny that any of these things have not happened, or are to come, but the schlock-horror headlines do not represent the sights, sounds and sentiments of my own first person experience in Greece.

Yes, like a new plague, everyone in Greece has suffered, save, perhaps for a handful of elites. But in the birthplace of Stoicism, there seems to be no other option than to get on with the business of life. The sun continues to rise. Children play. Shops and businesses open (and close). And tourists in their thousands spill from the airports to get a few weeks of sun and hospitality.

Which brings me back to the real world. Yes. Back in the Mani for the fourth summer running. What’s changed? Not a great deal on the surface. Although tourism is down slightly, at σπίτι μας (our house) we are greater in numbers.

Visitors from Athens, Corfu breeze in and out of our days – which have settled into a routine of wake, breakfast, beach, taverna, home, lunch, nap, and then whatever we choose to do with the rest of the day.

Το παιδί μου (the little one) at the tender age of <3 already speaks better Greek than his dad, repeating and consolidating every little phrase, like some kind of advanced alien intelligence (albeit one that runs around in his pants). It’s fascinating to witness.

Filling the gaps I see waterfights in the garden between 3 generations of Maniots. Dead snakes littering the road. Coffee burning to ward off κουνούπια (mosquitoes). Tipsy locals waltzing at the village panegyri. Food – too much of it – beef, pork, chicken, lamb, rabbit, fish; and fruit in abundance, falling from the trees and beckoning us from the Tannoyed siren song of the manavis.

What I don’t see is fear or panic in the eyes of the people I meet. Without wanting to sound trite, Greece is in a terrible shape for sure. But the headlines speak only of fear, and this does not portray the whole truth. Don’t believe the hype. Come, visit, see for yourself. 

Let’s do the timewarp

Setting up for this year’s panegyri inThalames

You guessed it. I’m back. It’s been nearly a year away from the Mani – so what’s new? Personally; a couple more grey hairs, slightly expanded midriff, and a much diminished command of the native language spring to mind. But as for this place, what’s evident is how very little has changed. The contrast between my hometown and this part of the world couldn’t be more striking.

In London, from my perch, I observe ‘progress’ in terms of architecture, technology, culture and consumerism. The pace of change – barely acknowledged by time-hampered urbanites – is breathtaking. Monolithic apartment blocks erect themselves in a season, annihilating familiar skylines. Cash is rendered obsolete on buses. 4G mobile broadband reads my thoughts before I’ve thought them. ‘Events’ rain down from billboards and social media, threatening to swamp my schedule (ultimately resulting in paralysis more often than not) Go is the word. Stop is anathema.

Little donkey, little donkey

And breathe….. I am in a different world. Don’t get me wrong, there have been lots of goings on in the village. Our cousins are now making their own feta (delicious). The crazed, chained dog with the David Bowie eyes has disappeared (thank god). Our neighbours have adopted a forlorn, but stoic baby donkey (OMG cute or freaking what?). I could go on, but I hate to humblebrag. My point is, stuff still happens here in the sticks. But news here isn’t about a new branch of Nandos opening, or Foster’s/Roger’s/Piano’s latest phallic edifice, or Prince playing 72 consecutive nights in a secret location . Sure, less happens in Messinia, but does that make life less important?

One thing is for sure, in Mani, units of time are hewn from larger blocks. Whilst city life is all about speed, precision and consumption- move on or be stepped on, upgrade or die – here in our 1000 year old village (population: 129), where even the graffiti qualifies for listed status, the years are measured not by things by the ebb and flow of the natives.

Take our local beach for example. Attached to it’s rocky steps is a super-friendly, super-Greek taverna . The family run business has been serving ouzo and life-giving Mediterranean fare for over 40 years. Mother used to manage, now she stays in the kitchen whilst son, daughter and grandson serve and hold court . The village elders, including our ya-ya have been bathing here for at least 6 decades. But it’s not just about the oldies.

Every summer, sons and daughters, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandchildren arrive to breathe new life into this ancient mountainscape. On Friday was the panegyri, a local festival, which every village has their own version of. Everyone is welcome, strangers and locals, to eat, drink and dance. Summer brings all the families together so kids, way past their bedtime, fling themselves around before the real dancing begins. Incomprehensible lyrics and melodies fill the air, whilst plates of piglet and salad start to fill the tables.

Scanning the bandstand I spot an electronic keyboard. Slightly disappointed by the lack of authenticity in the ensemble, I quickly realise that this gathering has, in very similar form, been going on for hundreds of years. Nothing is novel here. The songs, the surroundings, the food, the folk, can all be traced back generations.

This is not to do with the new, the innovative or the cool. The geography, the language and the history of the Mani act like pickling agents, preserving the local traditions, and sheltering the local economy from the excesses of rampant commercialization. What some might consider a backward society, viewed from the inside, now seems not out-dated, or stuck in the past, but vibrant, life-affirming. The collectivist culture of mountaineous Mani is a reminder that in order to suck the marrow, we sometimes need to put aside the material, and the transient, and rejoice in those around us, before us, and after us. Here’s to the next 1000 years. Yammas.

 

 

 

 

 

The start of a beautiful friendship

Pigi, Mani

No more views like this for a while – we’re outta here…

Last night I witnessed the power of dreams. On the eve of my Greek exit I spent the wee hours in semi-slumber rehearsing possible panic scenarios from the next day of the rest of my life. Because today is the final leg in a year long experiment in living and breathing the life Hellenic.

Tomorrow we will be a family in London for the first time -with all the associated logistical headaches of housing, work schedules, baby etc. But instead of jittering like a stress bunny, my anxiety dreams seem to have worked. A slightly incongruent sense of calm pervades. Philosophical is my state of mind.

According to Henry Miller, “all growth is a leap in the dark”, and this neatly summarises my experience since touching down in Kalamata almost a year ago to the day. Yes it’s still all Greek to me, but now I feel the once impenetrable aspects of the culture – language, politics, religion, family – have yielded a layer or two of their mystery.

At times I’ve cursed this country; the suffocating heat, the medieval bureaucracy, the lack of health and safety and the over-riding contempt for the rule of law. But I’ve learnt to accept these “character traits” in the same way we do with loved ones. Leaving Greece now feels like saying goodbye to a new best friend.

Having spent time in Athens and the Mani, I’ve sampled the briefest glimpses of a country that offers awe, enchantment, shock and delight in equal measure. And as I write my adieu – gentle waves lapping at my feet -it dawns on me that my time here has been spent planting seeds – seeds of curiosity and seeds of faith – in preparation for a return, to further reap the joy of this alluring, extraordinary land.

The day the music died

Musicians play in front of the ERT headquarters, to protest the sudden closure of the national broadcaster (Image via http://english.sina.com/)

SInce landing in Greece last August my radio dial has been steadfastly glued to 93.6 FM. Cosmos offered an eclectic mix which regularly surprised and delighted – more than satisfying my monkey-mind music tastes. Depending on the whim of the presenter you might encounter reggae, tango, English pop, world music, hip-hop, jazz, salsa, electronica or maybe even a Hawaian guitar ballad – basically a whole heap of genres from around the globe.

But earlier this week, the radio fell ominously silent. Out of nowhere, the Greek government decided to pull the plug on the national broadcasting network and Cosmos was one of the victims. The Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, ERT, Greece’s equivalent of the BBC, began broadcasting in 1938. It survived Nazi occupation during World War and the military junta of 1967 to 1974, only to be slain in 2013 by the might of the troika. So on Tuesday night, 5 TV stations, and 29 radio stations vanished mid-broadcast into the ether.

The government decided to sever the institution and over 2500 employees to appease it’s lenders in another round of brutal austerity cuts. Citing chronic corruption and mismanagement as reasons for the closure, government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said the broadcaster would reopen at some stage with a “much smaller staff

But in a nation renowned for its glacial pace of reform, this was no graceful exit stage left. With no apparent regard for democracy, the cull was swift and near instantaneous. Transmitters, fibre links, internet connections and phone lines were shut down in a matter of hours. Riot police were despatched to ERT premises threatening the arrest of any employees who failed to vacate the buildings immediately.

Shock sent waves soon rippled out into the summer night. The opposition party called it an information coup d’etat and accusations of totalitarianism flew left and right.  Labour unions quickly rallied a 24 hour general strike and the following day schools, hospitals and public transport joined the protests in solidarity. In addition up to 10,000 people gathered in the streets in opposition to these latest cuts, amidst rumours of the government falling.

So why such an acute reaction to a network with only a 12% market share that was riddled with nepotism, partiality and corruption? Part of the answer lies in the fundamental belief that broadcasting funded by the public purse -unfettered by the sway of private companies or shareholders – is the only way to safeguard the delivery of objective and unbiased news, education and entertainment.


The ERT Symphony Orchestra was another  casuality of the closure

The national broadcaster certainly fell short of these ideals but in a media world dominated by commercial stations with 15 minute ad breaks, endless reruns of Jersey Shore, cheap Turkish soaps and late night soft porn, ERT was considered a last bastion of quality programming. Tune in any night and you’d be likely to encounter poetry, literature, fine art, local culture, world history, ad-free sports coverage or late night philosophical discussions. ERT was the polar opposite of the Murdoch model of mass media.

But for the government and the troika, ERT was a microcosm of a broken, unsustainable Greece that could no longer survive in a post-bailout world.  In the wild west of modern neo-liberal Europe, ERT was a tired and lame horse, ready to be taken out into the fields and shot.

But there’s still a glimmer of hope. Two days after the closure, the European Broadcast Union (EBU) announced that 51 broadcasting directors, including the BBC have signed a petition to reopen ERT, calling the government’s action anti-democratic and unprofessional. The next few days and weeks are crucial, not only for safeguarding thousands of jobs, but also for preserving the right to produce programmes by and for the Greek people. Who knows?  Maybe I might even be able to listen to Cosmos again….

 

 

 

 

The bubble of suburbia

Street art in central Athens

Street art in downtown Athens – a rare glimpse of light in a desperate city

The effects of the crisis are not invisible in our relatively unscathed slice of surburban Athens. But you don’t get an immediate sense of panic or despair whilst strolling around Αργυρούπολη. The evidence of the tragic state of the Greek economy -at least in our neighbourhood – is not written on the faces of the ντόπιους (locals), but in the rows of boarded-up shops, restaurants and businesses that line the high streets.

Whether it’s stoicism, resignation or apathy, the residents of our little patch of surburbia are clinging on to what dignity they can afford, whilst they weather an economic hurricane that threatens to destroy any lingering notions of hope and optimism.

But venture into the capital and the scene shifts dramatically. Step out from any number of central Athens Metro stations and within minutes you’re thrust into a misery and wretchedness that belies any notions of a functioning, civil Western democracy.

Greeks and immigrants alike litter the sidewalks, hands outstretched, faces stained from the scorching sun and the dirt of the city. The hungry, the disfigured, the limbless, the homeless, the junkies, the old and the young – united in a common desparation – compete for our pennies, and beg for scraps of food. The entrepreneurial ones rummage amongst the stench of the waste bins, seeking treasure in the form of an over-ripe banana or some half-rotten vegetables.

Of all the heart-wrenching vistas, I’m most affected by a young toddler, crouching barefoot in a filthy doorway, as his dad rolls a smoke on the concrete steps. Where is his mum? Dead? High? Who really gives a shit anyway? I consider what opportunities this little one will have. School, employment – I doubt it. Crime, poverty, addiction and an early death are a more realistic trajectory. For a split second I consider what it would be like trading my existence with this gaunt, ashen-faced father and son. Then I feel an overwhelming urge to embrace my eight-month old. That’s enough for today. Fuck the city. All I want to do now is get back to the burbs.

Driving in Greece: The ten commandments

 

Parking in Greece

Parking, Greek style

1) Thou shalt not indicate

In Greece, there are many ways to signal an intended change of direction. The usual method is a sudden sharp turn of the wheel, preferably in the middle of high speed, high density traffic. The second most popular way to tell someone you’re about to turn is to use your hazard lights. This way, instead of letting your fellow drivers know where you’re going, you give them the added cognitive workout of guessing whether you’ve broken down, are about to reverse, or have had a heart attack. AT NO POINT SHOULD YOU USE YOUR INDICATORS!

2) Thou shalt not observe the speed limit

In Greece nobody knows what the correct speed for a given stretch of road is. If people knew what the actual legal limits were, they would feel obliged to ignore the law as a matter of national pride. So, like Brownian motion, the mean velocity of traffic is determined by the exact number and temperament of drivers on the road at any one given point in time. This self-regulating effect has its pros and cons. If you’re old and senile, you are entitled to drive along at 5 km/h on a busy street without anyone batting an eyelid. On the other hand, if you’re a braggadocio with a supercar, just find a clear stretch of tarmac, put your foot down  and watch the heads turn.

3) Thou shalt always tailgate (whenst upon the highway)

Potholes, dents and cracks. The municipal byways of Athens are as lumpy as an acne-ridden teenager’s arse. But the story changes once you venture out of the city. Greece’s privately run highways are superfast and efficient, their mirror-like surfaces gifting a silky smooth luxurious ride. However, this Greek autobahn-like experience has it’s own set of rules. Contrary to traditional notions of safety and preservation-of-life, the technique is to try to drive as physically close to the car in front as possible. The rules are simple; the faster the car in front of you, the closer you must approach. So next time you’re doing 120km/h and the driver behind is so close his breath is steaming up your rear-view mirror, don’t fret, tailgating is actually a form of friendship in Greece.

4) Thou shalt always honk at traffic lights

Although the tempers of southern Europeans tend to have a low boiling point , the agreeable climate has the net effect of ‘chilling out’ it’s citizens. The Brits, by comparison seem to internalise their stress and anger. That is, until it’s Friday night, when they indulge in binge drinking, vomit contests and, if you’ve had a really tough week, a fight just before the bar shuts. However the Greeks do exhibit one particular stress response. A type of red-mist which causes drivers to incessantly honk their horns at traffic lights. But this is no ordinary “get out my way” protestation. Greek drivers, it seems have telepathic qualities that enable them to predict the changing of the lights. So when you’re quietly waiting at a junction and wondering why drivers are beeping like mad at a stop light, don’t fret, it’s not your fault, it’s just your psychic powers that are lacking.

5) Honour thine elbow (motorcyclists only)

As Orwell once said, “Two wheels good, four wheels bad“. Greece shares a similar appreciation for the motorbike too. It’s common to see whole families perched on a single contraption, youngsters clinging on for dear life. On first impressions you might equate the lack of helmet wearing with a total disregard for personal safety. But you’d be mistaken. Motorcyclists here are very wary of injuring themselves. However in Greece the body part that’s most precious is the elbow. This anatomical preference results in legions of bikers cruising the streets with crash helmets perched not upon the head , but worn on the elbow. In fact the practice has been immortalised in the proverb, which roughly translates to “a helmet on the elbow is worth two on the head”. Go figure.

6) Thou shalt not worship thy bumpers

Many car owners miss the point. Bumpers are not a design feature – the true raison d’etre is in their name. In Greece they have a healthy respect for the proper function of these flouncy addendums. So whenever there’s an opportunity for a bump, they’ll usually find one. There are numerous benefits to this approach. It makes parking a breeze. No need for those pesky beeping sensor thingy-ma-jigs. They do it by touch. In addition, the national bumping obsession provides for a healthy number of always-busy car body repairers. If I were to open a business in Greece, this would be my first choice.

7) Thou shalt not covet your neighbour’s parking space

In my native Britain, we are acutely aware of being an island nation. With 60 million inhabitants and no option to expand the borders, every square inch of land is spoken for. So parking spaces are pre-allocated at birth, to save the unpleasant notion of having to actually raise a dispute with your neighbour. In Greece, there are no such hangups. Although the capital is crowded, there’s never a problem with parking. The reason is, the whole of Greece seems to be one big car park. So, road junctions, pavements, pedestrian crossings and airport runways are all fair game when you have a parking emergency – such as…..going to the hairdresser, hanging out at the cafe, popping out for souvlaki, etc etc.

8) Thou shalt not worship false images (or road signs)

One of the most celebrated features of Greece is the landscape. If you’re not staring at mountains, you’ll most probably have a view of the sea, considering that Greece has the 11th longest coastline in the world. Because of these constant visual cues, it’s immediately apparently if you’re heading in the wrong direction. Thus road signs have become more or less obsolete. In addition, there are certain idiomatic uses of the language which often result in confusion. For instance, “STOP” as written on a Greek road sign, actually means, “WHY STOP WHEN YOU CAN GO?”  A subtle, but important distinction.

9) Thou shalt not overtake (when you can undertake)

Undertaking is usually frowned upon, seen as a dangerous practise that spooks unsuspecting drivers. But if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Why only use one lane to overtake, when you can use all the lanes. If in doubt, the safest practise to adopt is to firmly plant your self in the middle lane, regardless of whether it’s a filter lane or a turning. Then if you feel like getting ahead of the car in front, switch on your hazard lights (see Commandment 1) and choose the least busy lane to overtake. Simple, logical, what’s your problem?

10) Thou shalt always travel in both directions

One way streets are a useful traffic management concept, reducing rat-runs, easing congestion and making residential roads safer. Well, that’s the theory. But if you happen to live on a one-way street, you’re obliged to travel the wrong direction as often as you see fit. Not only will you get to your destination earlier, you will also save fuel, and possibly get a chance to practice your reversing skills as you meet on-coming traffic.

Photo by Dave-D

Speak and Spell

 

 

A road sign in Greek and English.

A few years ago I spent some months in Spain, maybe as a subconcious precursor to my exodus from Northern Europe. I enrolled in a language school, in an attempt to get a full immersion in la vida Espanol. We were encouraged to speak Spanish at all times, so I just assumed that Nico, my mentor and unofficial cultural ambassador, was a local.

But soon after arriving, to my surprise, I found that Nico was not in fact the descendant of a matador from Toledo, he was an engineering student from Bavaria. I quizzed the German on how he managed to pass himself off so successfully. “Language is culture” he replied in a similarly convincing English accent. “You can’t just study the language, you have to live it. ”

A cliche maybe, but one spoken with conviction and authority. So often we approach language learning with a formulaic, rote learning approach. I hated French at school, maybe it was our French intern (I kid you not, he really did have armpit hygiene issues), maybe it was latent Anglo-Franco resentment, but all I have are dread memories of lists of verbs on the blackboard, no different to the times-tables that were drilled into our young heads in maths lessons.

As an older foreign language student, I now realise that languages are not equations, or logical theorems. Attempting to codify a language 100% is more often than not a futile endeavour, as there are always plenty of willing participants to thwart, twist and break the rules for their own convenience or nefarious purposes.

Take my home town London for example. A fair proportion of the the wide eyed foreigners who come to visit, or even work in the  Big Smoke will have spent time and money on English lessons. But nobody warns these visitors that their efforts may be in vain if they have any intention of communicating with the young people of the city.

I’m talking about the typical brand of discourse you might come across on the upper deck of a London bus: “.…yes blud…you get me…the mandems from road… nuff tings gwan….some sick shit, innit?” This is an example of Multicultural London English, as it’s known these days in academic circles. It’s a fusion of Cockney and Caribbean dialects that has infiltrated every strata of youth, from the ghetto to the public school. It turns posh boys into Ali G and causes establishment figures to foam at the mouth.

Modern Greek has it’s own challenges too. The more I delve the more I realise there are many areas where the rules are far from hard and fast. Dual spellings, flexible pronunciations, interchangeable consonants – these are all features of 21st century spoken and written Greek. Take for example the numbers seven, ( επτά or εφτά), eight, (οκτώ or οχτώ) and nine, (εννεά or εννιά), the word for brother (αδελφός or αδερφός) and the word for open (ανοιχτό or ανοικτό). The textbooks do not always agree on such elements.

Some of these linguistic pecadilloes are due to a phenomenon known as diaglossia, when two distinct forms of a language co-exist at the same time. Often this turns out to be a ‘high,’ prestigious variety and a ‘low’ colloquial form. Diaglossia happens all round the world, from Germany to Jamaica, and Greece is no exception.

The language wars

Up until the late 20th century, the official written language of the Greek state bore little resemblance to the spoken language of it’s citizens. According to the Oxford scholar, Peter Mackridge, before 1830 the language was in a state of complete chaos, or freedom – depending on how you perceive the situation. There were the ‘archaists’ who wrote in the Ancient Greek dialects, and there were the ‘vernacularists’ who used a form resembling the spoken language at the time. To further complicate matters, there were multiple regional dialects in use at the same time.

An overview of the many forms of Greek, From: Standard languages: spoken and written. W. Haas. Manchester University Press, 1982

The spoken vernacular , these days referred to as Demotic Greek, or demotiki (δημοτική),  evolved over millenia, absorbing  influences along the way from many occupying powers including Romans, Turkish and Venetians. But early in the 19th century, the new independent Greek state faced a dilemma. It had to choose a language in which to draft a new constitution and leglislation.

Faced with a choice between the classical ancient Greek of Plato, and the ‘language of the people’ Demotiki, the establishment chose to adopt a midway solution,  a ‘purified’ form of ancient Greek known as katharevousa (καθαρεύουσα). This purification process involved:

” (a) rejecting the hundreds of everyday words that the Greeks had borrowed over the centuries from the Romans, the Turks and various western European peoples, and replacing them with words that were either ancient Greek or at least based on ancient Greek roots, (b) inventing new words to express modern concepts that had hitherto been unknown to the Greeks (again these words were to be formed out of ancient Greek roots), and (c) restoring the ancient Greek declensions and conjugations of nouns and verbs.”Source

But rather than act as a unifying force, katharevousa drove a wedge between the population. Over time it became increasingly arcane, a seemingly arbitrary mix of the ancient and new. Strong political and ideological beliefs sprang up on both sides of the language debate. The ‘purists’  branded their opponents plebs and vulgarians, whilst the ‘demotics’ accused their enemies of being elitists and “ancient-maniacs“. This war of words eventually claimed lives, when in 1901, the translation of the New Testament into Demotiki led to riots in Athens and the deaths of eight people.

A resolution was only reached late in the 20th century, when in 1976, two years after the military dictatorship had ended, a codified version of demotiki was finally recognised as the official language of government and education.

You can still witness the legacy of the Greek diaglossia today. Some shop signs and some official documents still use the old ‘purist version’. For example, the modern Greek word for bakery is φούρνος (fournos) but the sign outside often says ΑΡΤΟΠΩΛΕΙΟΝ, bread-seller in the old katharevousa.

The concept of a Modern Greek language is a bit misleading. The current vernacular seems to be merely a point on a continuum that stretches back to the oral traditions of Homer. There may be some inconsistencies in the way the language is expressed by everyday people, but in practise nobody seems bothered about this. Arguably it helps to define national identity by preserving some of the rich history.

So whilst I’m not ready to throw away the textbooks yet, I’ve realised that the only way to truly learn the language is to forget my pedantry and just wallow in the thick of it. Observing how people speak and interact, noticing the subtleties, the contradictions and absorbing every part of the fascinating culture. I think I’m hooked…..

Wild greens and octogenarians

Wild greens - Greek Style

A fistful of horta – could these wild greens help you live to the age of 100?

If you’re a fan of 1970s science fiction you may have noticed a striking similarity between the recent horsemeat fiasco and the movie Soylent Green. To spare you a visit to Wikipedia; the plot is set in a near dystopian future, where the the population of New York is stretched to the limit, natural resources are scarce and food shortages cause frequent riots. Luckily, the Soylent Corporation comes to the rescue, with it’s nutritious plankton-based protein snacks. Unsurprisingly it all turns out to be a big corporate lie; theres no plankton left in the sea, instead they’ve been feeding the population human remains. A breach of the Trade Descriptions Act if ever I heard one.

Admittedly, this make a horse lasagne sound positively irrestible by comparison. But it’s still a bit rich. After all, “a horse is a horse of course of course” so why call it cow? However my issue is not about being tricked into eating one of Shergar‘s decendants. It’s realising the extent to which we’ve become so detatched from the point of origin of our food. I’m not just talking about food miles, that’s only part of the equation. Food provenance is more important. Knowing exactly what’s on your plate, and where it came from.

Which bring me onto the subject of today’s post. Horta, or edible wild greens are found throughout all Greece, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever find them on any supermarket shelves. Which is a shame, because they are a superfood to be reckoned with.

To the uninitiated,  horta looks like a bunch of weeds you might find growing by the side of the motorway. Which is not surprising because they literally grow everywhere. Traditionally, horta was the food of the rural poor – a bountiful and welcome addition to the Greek staples of bread, cheese, oil and olives. These days you can also find horta in the laiki, but at heart it’s a wild food.

Nobody knows how many species of wild greens exist, but it’s likely to be in the hundreds. They vary greatly in taste, some sweet, some bitter, and come in all shapes and sizes. Pretty much the only thing they have in common is that they’re edible and green. Oh, and don’t go looking for any textbooks on the subject. The skill of horta gathering is very much an oral tradition, passed down through generations. But maybe the real secret of horta is how it may contribute to the health of some of the oldest people in the world.

Ikaria, a small island near the coast of Turkey was recently called the island where people forget to die. The reason is because it has an uncannily high proportion of healthy, active citizens in their 80’s and 90’s. Scientists who have studied Irakia think that the key to their longevity is a combination of a tranquil but active lifestyle, and a specific diet of traditional foods such as olive oil, goat’s milk, cheese, vegetables, herbal teas and you guessed it, wild greens – of which Irakia boasts over 150 different species.

But you don’t have to travel out to the islands to find wild greens. As a matter of fact, our very own Aunty RoRo (her name has been concealed as a matter of national security), is a fanatical horta gatherer, so naturally, when I heard she was planning a trip, I invited myself along.

It was a relief to be heading out of the city. Whilst the UK was clogged up with snow, March was begin to hot up in Athens. Heading southwest, we turned off Vouliagmenis towards the airport and soon we were hugging the coast road, the glorious Aegean providing a welcome breeze and a gleaming vista. Ten minutes later we’d arrived at our spot.

Part of the skill in horta gathering is knowing the best places to forage. But I’d be telling a lie if I said I didn’t feel a little let down by our chosen location. I had imagined rolling hills, a la “Sound of Music” – all pristeen and carpeted with wild flowers. Instead we parked outside a residential building site on a busy-ish B road. Neither countryside nor surburbia, just a flat, uninspiring valley slowly being eaten up by urban sprawl.

Basic tools in hand – plastic gloves, carrier bags and a kitchen knife – I set off following RoRo, her hawkeyes skimming the ground for signs of edible life. I could sense the disappointment at the apparent end of season slim pickings, all I could hear was mutterings of “τίποτα” (TIpotah), the Greek for ‘nothing’. Then, as a great testament to the invigorating properties of horta, she disappeared down a rocky slope as nimble as a mountain goat.

I came, I saw, I gathered. Delicious wild greens, just add lemon and olive oil.

Following gingerly, I find RoRo on her hands and knees, beaming up at me and pointing to our first find, “aγκιναράκι, aγκιναράκι” (agee-ner-AK-ee). This species of green translates to ‘little artichoke’ named after the shape of the bud in the centre of the plant.

Buoyed by success, my hunter-gatherer instincts kicked in so I prepared myself for my first solo foraging attempt. I soon realised I was out of my depth. Confronted by the confusing carpet of green, I was reminded of the scene in the Matrix when Neo is staring at screens of computer code, looking for patterns, but just sees streams of gibberish. This field was the same, nothing made any sense. Then just as my utter incompetence threatened to send me home empty handed, shapes started to emerge.

A little flash of red, a round patch here and there, I was starting to see through the green mist. Definitely on a roll now. More species followed: ραδίκι, (rad-EE-kee), γαλαξίδα (gal-ax-EE-tha), δενδρουλι (then-THROOL-ee) and σκόλι (sk-OL-ee).

An hour later we had two carrier bags stuffed with greens plus some wild asparagus for good measure. Stopping on the way back for souvlaki and beer, I felt a strange sense of satisfaction. I may not have brought back a wild beast, but the act of going out into the wild and harvesting food for the table is an amazing feeling. It beats a horse burger any day.

 

Words of the day

aunt – θεία – thAY-ya

green – πράσινος – prASS-i-nos

food – φαγητό – fag-i-TOE

table- τραπέζι -trap-AY-zee

 

Home is where the heart is

Aegean Airlines Flight 3607 – so excited to be back

Taxiing at Gatwick we pause for an indeterminate time just before the take-off strip. Half-hearted snowdrops disintegrate on touching the wings. Patchy white tarmac and not quite sub-zero temperatures display a battle of wills between drizzle and blizzard.

The pitch of the engines increases and we lift gently into the sky. Seconds later we’re above the clouds and the grey, sludgy, London landscape transitions into sunlight so blistering I have to draw the blind to shield my mole-like eyes.

A magazine, bad pasta, good salad, coffee, great wine and two hours later we’re in Greek airspace. Seat 18F affords me great views and I let off a smug grin as I glimpse the snow capped mountains.

My smugness comes from the anticipation of warmer/sunnier climes. For the past month I’ve been on a work trip to the UK, which started and ended with cold white stuff falling from the sky. The climate I’m used to. I can deal with it. But getting up very early in the pitch dark, and returning home after the sun has set leaves lingering questions about the nature of life/work and the best ways to those precious waking hours every day.

One thing is for sure. I miss my family like crazy. It’s the first time I’ve spent such an extended period away and no amount of financial remuneration, social distraction or London buzz can remove the yearning for home. Yes, I can admit it now. Greece feels like home. Although I’ve only been here for 5 months, I feel I’ve become rooted, like a juvenile but stubborn olive tree.

Who knows what the future holds? Uncertainty seems to be the default mode of this country at present. As a family our destination is also unclear, but right now, the journey is splendid and I intend to savour every moment.

Words of the day

snow -χιόνι – (h-yonn-ee)

family – οικογένεια – iko-yen-ee-a

home – σπίτι – (spit-ee)

(Warning: indulge in weather based Schadenfreude at your peril. As I’m writing this, thunder and torrential rain, rather than Mediterranean sunshine, have been the backdrop in my Athens office.)

Shopping around


laiki agora

The people’s market is a national institution, found in almost every town in Greece

A few years ago, on a random health purge, I decided to try a radical new way of eating based on a diet of raw foods. Popularised by blissed out Californians, the premise is, you only eat food that’s uncooked, unprocessed and close to it’s natural state as possible. It’s a tough and time consuming regimen, but the health benefits are numerous. Your energy levels go through the roof, it’s virtually impossible to put on weight, I challenge anyone to give it a try for a month or two.

Having never previously gone veggie, let alone a raw vegan, I was forced to come up with creative ways to make uncooked vegetables, nuts and seeds into palatable dishes. Ultimately however, going 100% raw wasn’t for me, and after six months I reverted back to a more typical omnivorous lifestyle. But far from being in vain, my veganic odyssey prompted a renewed fascination about eating habits, nutrition and food culture in general.

Take food cravings for instance. The ancient, reptilian part of our brain is typically biased towards food sources that were historically scarce in the environment, such as salt, sugar and fat. These days that translates to high calories, especially junk foods. A raw foodist doesn’t do meat, dairy, cakes, chips, chocolate or anything  that could vaguely be regarded as a treat, so you start to become slightly obsessed with seeking out the most flavoursome fresh fruit and vegetables in order to sate these desires. (Raw celery btw is an excellent example of something healthy that cures salty cravings.)

But getting hold of good quality, nutritious food isn’t as straightforward as it seems. One of the biggest lessons of my raw experience is that when it come to fresh produce, supermarkets suck. Instead of focussing on taste, seasonality and freshness, these giants seem to have an unhealthy fixation with homogeneity and cosmetic appearance.

Like a dysfunctional mass media pumping out airbrushed images of youthful perfection, supermarkets have Photoshopped our fruit and veg. Unless an apple is pert, shiny, waxed and blemish free, there’s no chance of ever basking in the bright lights of Tesco or Sainsburys. But good looks come at a cost, and in this particular Faustian pact we have embraced superficial beauty at the expense of the flavour of our food.

Why supermarket food is tasteless

Of the senses, taste and smell are often the most indelible in the memory. I can still vividly recollect that cheese and tomato sandwich in my school lunchbox. So why then, do supermarket tomatoes taste as bland as an X-factor runner up doing a cover version of a James Blunt song.

Earlier this year, I had my answer. Scientists recently discovered that efforts to make tomatoes more attractive accidentally rendered them completely devoid of flavour. It turns out that decades of selective breeding has inadvertently caused a genetic mutation which depletes vital sugars in the plant. But the discovery came too late. Supermarkets loved these pretty little things and packed their shelves full of them.

This phenomena has happened on a global scale, but whilst it’s still possible to get hold of beautiful but bland tomatoes in Greece, food shopping hasn’t (yet) been totally monopolised by the scurge of the supermarket. Take for example our neighbourhood, Argyroupoli, a typical suburb of  Athens. Less than five minutes away we have a small local supermarket, but more importantly we also have two bakeries, a fishmonger, a butcher, a deli, two greengrocers and even a shop that will grind fresh coffee to order.

But food shopping really excels here every Saturday, when the laiki agora (people’s market) comes to town. Founded in the early 20th century by revolutionary statesman Eleutherios Venizelos, laikes agores were set up to help agricultural producers sell their produce to nearby towns without dealing with a middleman. The market in Argyopouli, one of dozens in Athens, brings countless local suppliers together offering fresh and locally sourced fruit, vegetables, eggs, fish, honey, olives, herbs, dried goods etc. The selection is vast, the market spanning a good kilometer and a half  stretch of the local residential streets.

Granny trolleys at the ready

Whereas in the UK, farmer’s markets are prohibitively expensive for everyday shopping, in Greece, the opposite is true. Food at the laiki is cheaper, fresher and there’s infinitely more choice than in the supermarkets.  As well as farm produce, traders can import certain goods and sell them at the laiki, from Cretan bananas, to sweets, housewares and rugs. So every Saturday , the locals mobilise en masse, each sporting a granny trolley to transport their wares.

But apart from being a hub of pure commerce, the people’s market is arguably one of finest examples of a living, breathing ‘community’ in action. The linear layout of the stalls means you’ll undoubtably encounter a familiar face or two on your weekly shop, a chance to catch up on gossip or just exchange  niceties. Strong relationships are  built between shoppers and traders too, some lasting for decades. Let’s face it when you’ve got 50 stalls selling oranges, how do you choose where to spend your money? You do it because you have a history with the farmer, an allegiance, a trust, maybe even a friendship.

As a food lover, I’m thankful that fate has brought me to Greece. Although I miss lots of things about my country, when it comes to the UK’s eating habits, we have destroyed any food culture we may once have had. The relentless pursuit of profit has annihilated small, independent traders and supermarkets reign supreme. Ironically, by providing more ‘choice’ under one roof, they have destroyed the notion of buying fresh, local food for the vast majority of the population.

Every country needs their own laiki agora. Small independent producers selling their goods to the local inhabitants, with no concern for shareholder interests or the latest fashion in cuisine. It’s a simple concept, tasty seasonal food at affordable prices from a vendor you can trust, you never know it might just catch on.

Words of the day

  • μηλό -apple -(mee-loh)
  • πορτοκάλι – orange – (por-to-kah-lee)
  • ψαρί -fish – (p-sar-ee)
  • αυγά -eggs -(aff-gah)