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)

 

Coffee geek tries coffee, Greek-style

Greek Iced Coffee
Espresso Fredo – it may look harmless, but be warned..

I’ve been putting it off for a while, but today was the time to bridge what is possibly the greatest cultural divide between my homeland and my adopted Greece. Yes, it was time to try Greek iced coffee. (dum-de-dum-dum-dummm!)

Now, you might think I’m making a big thing of this, but in the past I have been known to be quite the coffee fascist. I have a particular way I like it in the UK, a kind of a cross between a double macchiato and a dry cappuccino. Woe betide any barrista who crosses my path and can’t rise to the challenge. So, you can imagine my shock, sadness, outrage ( OK I’m overdoing it a bit now) when I first encountered the phenomenon of Greeks and their obsession with iced coffee.

It might just be a personal thing, but I’m a firm believer that both tea and coffee should be drank hot. Iced tea, sorry, I just don’t get it. Iced coffee, hmmm, …. the work of the devil as far as I’m concerned. So why do they love it so much. As much as the Brits love a cuppa, the Italians an expresso, iced coffee is the shizzle in Greece.

My cultural ambassador informs me there are 3 sinister blends to consider. Espresso fredo (above), cappuccino fredo and frappe.  Having nothing to lose, I took the plunge and ordered the espresso version. So what’s the verdict? Well, pretty much what you’d expect. Tasted like a triple espresso topped up with water and loads of ice cubes. On the positive, it was nice and strong. That was about it. No other redeeming factors.

My intelligence informs me the frappe is particularly obnoxious, containing a seizure-inducing amount of Nescafe instant coffee, served in a pint glass with loads of ice. As irresistible as it sounded I had to give it a miss.

So why do the Greeks love this stuff so much? I’ve no idea but I have my theories. The iced coffee here is so strong it’s like sipping a Red Bull. You can’t gulp it down or your head would start spinning around like the girl in the exorcist. People sit for literally hours in the cafes here with a single frappe. It’s the perfect tipple in a crisis ridden economy. One drink lasts for a whole day, or three sips in my case.

 

Words of the day:

  • πράγμα – thing/object – (prag-ma)
  • νόμος – law – (no-mos)
  • ήλιος – sun – (eel-i-os)
  • δύσκολο – difficult -(this-kolo)
  • εύκολο – easy – (ev-kolo)
  • παρόμοιο – similar -( pa-rome-ee-o)
  • πάρα πολύ -too/too much – (pa-ra pol-ee)

 

 

 

Wind of change

Fig jam
Mamalita makes fig jam – I call it ice cream jam because that’s what it tastes like…mmmm

I didn’t leave the house today. Or more accurately, I stayed in my office whilst the folks went to the beach. Being a ‘knowledge worker’ ( I hate that term) it doesn’t really matter where I ply my trade, be it on the beach, in an underground bunker or my fav, a coffee shop with comfy armchairs. As long as I have a wifi connection I can carry on the work of Mammon.

But today, I had to forfeit sea and sand in exchange for Skype and spreadsheets. I figured the sound of crashing waves and screaming kids wouldn’t give the right impression over a conference call. The upshot of a day deprived of diving into the Med is that my brain has started to regress back into a “London-go-go-go-stress-hormone” mode. I’m wary of taking on even more projects while I’m away but while there are no work prospects over here for the foreseeable few decades, I have to embrace every opportunity that comes my way.

So as the play/work dynamic starts its inevitable transformation, the seasons seems to be following suit too. Today I felt a new sensation. Accompanying the usual relentless battering from the Mediterranean sun, an occasional brisk wind from the mountains in the north-west signalled that summer would soon be drawing to a close. Quite apt seeing as we only have two weeks left before Mr Bump is due to make his world premiere. I’m so excited….

On to today’s words:

  • κοιμάμαι – I sleep – (kee-mah-may)
  • μαχαίρι – knife – (ma-hyeri)
  • βουνό – mountain – (voo-no)
  • μωρό – baby – (mor-oh)
  • παράθυρο – window – (pa-rath-iro)

 

 

 

In the waiting line

Kalamata hospital
The public hospital in Kalamata

Want to know a secret? OK, it’s time to spill the beans. WE’RE HAVING A BABY!!! OK, it’s out in the open now. Yes, the whole reason for me being here in Greece is that T can be with her friends and family as we two becom three.

The clock is ticking very quickly, we’re in week 38 now, Mr Bump has grown to the size of a basketball and nerves are starting to rattle ever so slightly.

Today we went for a weekly check-up in the (not so) local hospital in Kalamata. Getting used to the health system here has been, let’s say, enlightening. The labyrinthine system of health insurance means that, as a Greek citizen, depending on your previous employment history, contributions etc, you have the potential to choose a public hospital or a private clinic.

After visiting a couple of private doctors with varied results, we ended up at the public hospital in Kalamata. Everything really is so different here, too much to go into detail now, but my initial apprehensions and prejudices  have been put aside, and now it’s time to just get on with the show.

The truth is, I’m very happy with the care we’ve had so far. In the UK, you deal with mid-wives through-out your pregnancy. Over here, you get to see a doctor at every appointment. The staff are friendly, jovial and professional despite being very busy. Maybe it’s the laid back Kalamata vibe, but the whole place seems calm and quite stress free, exactly the kind of environment you want your child to be born in.

As you’re probably aware, public services are being stripped away by the austerity measures, the latest development being the discussion of a 6-day working week, however, life, just carries on here, business as usual. And I’m heartily grateful to all the doctors, nurses and staff that have brought us this far.

Today’s words in Greek:

  • επικίνδυνο – dangerous – (epee-kin-thee-no)
  • μετά – next – (meh-ta)
  • έχει πολύ κόσμο – it’s busy (lit. there are many people ) – (ehee pollee -koz-mo)
  • είναι ήσυχα – it’s quiet – (ee-nay ee-see-ha)
  • κρεβάτι -bed -(kre-vah-tee)
  • ντους – shower – (doos)
  • δεν είμαι σίγουρος – I’m not sure – (then ee-nay sig-oo-ross)
  • βοήθεια -help – (vo-ith-ee-ah)

A Paradox Of Abundance

Fig tasting
Another fig tasting session- I’m becoming quite the expert

20 years ago, my beloved London, was home to Cardboard City, a mini metropolis in the pedestrian subway by Waterloo Station . The cardboard in question constituted the ‘homes’ of the homeless, who gathered here for shelter, solidarity and proximity to the soup kitchens. Now a giant IMAX cinema has taken its place, the homeless have disappeared, or maybe dispersed to less visible parts of the city.

Homelessness, once an alien concept in this part of the world, has risen alarmingly in Greece since the economy started to nose dive. Bums, junkies and hobos have multiplied. And in Athens, middle class families have been selling their possessions on the streets, not so they can pay the rent, but to buy food to feed their families.

But here in Mani, a paradox resides. As poverty and austerity grips the nation even tighter, here, everywhere you look, the seemingly barren landscape offers up an abundance of sustenance for free. Served up by nature and nurtured by the climate, in the fields, by the roadside, at the sea, there’s food lying around, just for the taking.

Fig trees everywhere spill their ripe fruit all over the roadside. Pomegranates lie strewn on the path, neglected by all except the wasps. Olive trees, ubiquitous, cover every part of the land, farmed or neglected. Wild greens, (horta) the kind you’d pay handsomely for at the Whole Food Store, grow like weeds. Today, at the beach a young guy clambered over the rock pools with a kitchen knife and a carrier bag full of sea-urchins, ripe for picking after the blue moon two days ago.

Yes, it’s my romantic, Northern European view of a simple Mediterranean rural idyll, but you know what, this is how it is. We’ve got figs here to feed an army, prickly pears -forget it – nobody can even be bothered to harvest them. I love my food, and it’s in abundance here. Fresh, local, organic, taste-mongous, and absolutely free if you just open your eyes.

Here’s my words I learnt today:

  • δοκίμαζω –  I try – (tho-kim- azo)
  • μπερδεμένο – complicated – (bear-the-meno)
  • μοιάζει με… – looks like – (mee- azee-may)
  • λίγο ακόμη/ και άλλο – more (ligo-akomi/ keh-allo)
  • γιατί όχι; – why not? – (yatty – ohee)
  • θυμάμαι – I remember – (thi-ma-may)
  • βάζω – I put –(va-zo)
  • αν – if – (an)
  • προς – towards – (pross)