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.)
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.
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.
Predictably, life with a newborn has reduced my schedule to rubble, hence the lack of any recent action here. In the meantime, here are some pretty pictures of the amazing cloud scapes that we’re privileged to witness here in the Mani on a daily basis.
The picture above is the start of the crazy storm I wrote about last month. Enjoy!!
Earlier this year, in New York, whilst on a short stroll in the uber chic Meat Packing district, I witnessed a textbook example of what can go wrong when pets are used as a surrogate for human offspring. Alongside me a middle-aged super-glam Sex In The City type was holding an extremely pampered dog, whose cute little manicured feet had probably never touched a sidewalk. Behind her she was pulling what I could only describe as a designer doggy go-kart. Inside the little mutt-mobile were two more powdered pooches, enjoying every minute of their luxury ride. In effect the dogs seemed to be taking herout for a walk.
I was reminded of this peculiar man/beast relationship whilst out for an afternoon stroll a couple of days ago. I’m back in the Mani, and the peace of the countryside is like a warm welcoming blanket after the hectic, humid, hum of Athens. In the villages, it’s not uncommon for householders to own a few ‘pets’. But these animals, have a very different relationship with their owners and environments than any city dwelling beasts I’ve come across.
For a start, because of the balmy climate, it’s rare for dogs or cats to be kept inside the house. Apart from the crazy ones, most of the village mutts in Mani have no need for leads, fences or other urbane restrictions. They are free to roam the streets and fields, popping in on their neighbours occasionally to sniff a bum or exchange gossip. Their human guardians are not so much ‘caring parents’, rather, ‘landlords’ who happen to provide free food as well as lodging.
Cats in Greece have even more liberties. Unlike much of the Western world, who enjoy posting pics of cute anthropomorphised moggies all over the internet, the feline of the species occupies an arguably more healthy place in the affections of Greeks. Most of the cats here are strays. But unlike your typical image of a sad, scrawny, mange-ridden creature, these strays tend to be proud, feisty, well groomed and often surprisingly fat. Stray dogs are also a common sight. At the hospital in Kalamata, several large mongrels proudly patrol the grounds like they own the place.
So in a country where resources are stretched, to say the least, you would think that there would be little love or tolerance for these four-legged waifs. On they contrary. Many Greeks seem to love cats and dogs, but not in a share-my-bed, slobber-over-my-face kind of way. Most of the strays hang around because humans actively like to feed them. Spend time at virtually any taverna or restaurant and you’ll be courted by armies of cute kittens and their parents. Tourists try to pick them up like they’re house pets, but these creatures have only one thing on their minds, your dinner. Rather than try to exterminate the cute scavengers, the proprietors tolerate them and feed them scraps from the kitchen. Likewise with the hospital dogs. They only hang around because some folk actually take the time to regularly leave food out.
In Mani, we have our own West Side Story-like gang of vagabond cats. After meals we often take our leftovers across the road, where the furry fellows hang out. But they certainly don’t depend on our good will in order to survive. If we didn’t feed them, they’d end up chasing mice, snakes or maybe a bird or two. These semi-wild creatures have a respect for us humans as we’re seen as part of their food supply chain. But that’s where the relationship ends. Maybe I’m falling into the trap of assigning human qualities to these animals again, but just as people of the Mani have a reputation for being tough, the cats and dogs here seem to have a similar steely disposition too.
After several blissful and uneventful days in the Kalamata Hilton, chaos has decided to pay us a visit. At the judgement of our paediatrician, our baby had to be rushed in an ambulance to a paediatric ward in Athens, a 4 hour drive away. Shortly after arriving, the little man was given the all clear, but now we are 300 km from where we planned to be, in an unfamiliar part of the city, with lots of logistical issues to deal with.
The most important thing is that our baby is now in full health, the doctor says he has a very strong heart and a loud cry – I can testify to that. But he must stay in the ward so they can run all their test and procedures. So that means making daily cross-city expeditions for breast-feeding visits and a vital supply of daily hugs.
The trip across town proves to be an eye opening insight into a seedier part of life in Athens. The old general hospital is in the down-at-heel west-side of town near the port of Piraeus. Many immigrants have flocked and settled to this ex-industrial suburb. A small patch of brown-field a couple of blocks from the hospital is home to a handful of Soweto-style shanty buildings, constructed out of scrap wood, metal and anything else vaguely suitable for building a shelter. Not exactly a part of Greece that the tourist board wants on show.
The hospital too, reflects the relative poverty of the area. Quite unlike our modern facility in Kalamata, this place is a huge, decrepit, labyrinthine building. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of corridors, some of which are reminiscent of a Victorian asylum. Although clean and well maintained, tramps have taken up residence in this air conditioned haven, trying to escape the 35 degree heat. Patients sit outside with their drips attached, chain smoking, whilst inside, visitors group together to smoke by the lifts. To add to the ambience, the staff here are (understandably) more brusque and to the point. Needless to say it’s an altogether quite uninspiring place.
The neonatal unit comes as a shock too. This fourth floor ward is cramped and stuffed back to back with incubators. Newborns and tiny premature babies lie in their clear plastic safe houses, various tubes going in and out. Bright lights, gas and fluids are pumped into and around the little ones, sustaining their frail lives. In the non-intensive care section, an orphan infant, no more than 6 months old lies in her cot, writhing around silently.
But after a few days, amidst the sickness and desperation, I start to sense some hope and positivity. Mothers with tiny premature new-borns are able to breast feed for the first time. Grand-parents peer through the glass at babies who wouldn’t have survived in their era. This may not be the most glamorous of locations, but miracles are happening every day here.
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)
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.
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….
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)