That’s Life (In Greece)
Ups and downs, naturally. Two weeks of Easter vacation for all Greek students are great for the kids, but not for the moms who are expected to do a considerable amount of holiday prep work on top of the extra childcare—unless grandmothers are available for that--whether or not they have paying jobs. Driving up to the supermarket to stock up on tissues and paper towels while they’re 40% cheaper than usual, I came up behind a pickup truck full of sheep that was following two other pickup trucks full of sheep—perhaps part of the same flock that blocked the road into our neighborhood as they were herded through the streets one evening. Heading back down the hill to build tissue and paper towel towers in my bedroom, I trailed a small, slow motorbike whose two passengers seemed to be engaged in an animated discussion or argument, judging by the expansive gestures that could be confused with frequent left and right turn signals and the way the helmeted driver kept turning his head back to look at his un-helmeted passenger. That’s driving in Greece for you.
On the “down” side: a light fixture hasn’t been working in one room; our new-ish dishwasher was broken for about two weeks, even after being “repaired” twice; a cat sprayed one balcony shutter and French door one day; ants invaded the kitchen floor another day; a cat climbed way up to a high kitchen window to spray right through that screen; a new army of ants attacked some juice spilled on the kitchen counter. “That’s life,” commented a Greek friend. Maybe too much “life” all at once. And then a week later our telephone land line stopped working, along with all the land lines on the whole Akrotiri Peninsula, if rumors can be believed. Although the early-morning problem wasn’t resolved until mid-afternoon, no one I asked knew what had caused it or when it might be fixed. That’s typical: generally, I can find no one in the neighborhood, and only a select few at the relevant offices, who know what's going on during water, electricity, internet, or phone outages, since almost no one else bothers to try to look into the problem or report it! D usually just feels too annoyed and busy to call about it, figuring it’ll be discovered and fixed eventually in any case, but he sometimes calls at my urging. If I'm desperate to make plans about when I’ll actually have electricity or internet again to prepare a meal or finish some work, I try calling myself, but I don't usually understand most of the response, which always comes in swiftly-spoken advanced Greek.
On the “up” side: new flowers and fruits increase the rewards of foraging in the neighborhood. Since some fruit seemed to be dropping from my neighbor’s tree and spoiling, I asked if I might pick a few of her loquats, which are called DESpoless here and known elsewhere in Greece as MOOZmoola—a word I enjoy almost as much as karPOOzee, or watermelon. The yellowish or light orange loquats range from cherry to plum size, pear to plum shape, with a taste that combines apricot, peach, plum, and grape—a taste I’d never experienced before moving here. Kyria K responded to my request by inviting me into her yard, getting out her ladder, and encouraging me to pick all the fruit on the tree and give her just a little of it. So instead of a few minutes and a few loquats, I ended up with an hour’s activity and two large bags of fruit, one for us and one for her! I’ve also harvested even sweeter, larger loquats from a very productive tree in an unoccupied lot which doesn’t seem to interest anyone else. This is a fruit that is both expensive and much better when eaten fresh off the tree; then it can hold the sweet taste of the Cretan spring--and of Greek generosity.
Showers of Blossoms, Meadows of Thorns, Winds of Change
Multitudes of tiny olive blossoms fall on me in little showers of white if I bump a branch, landing on the ground like a light snowfall. It’s no longer so easy to search the field next to an olive grove for the wildflowers to which I'm addicted, since it’s more a matter of wading through tall, dry seeded grasses and cautiously picking my way between sharp and thorny plants than walking blithely through the shorter, greener grasses of our winter and early spring in search of a bouquet. Anyhow, there aren’t too many flowers left there aside from the treacherous purple thistle, now that a farmer has mown the grass, weeds, and flowers--even my favorite bright pink field gladiolas--that would otherwise draw nutrients away from the olive trees or prove a fire hazard in the dry summer. But while the ubiquitous color of abundant early spring is already being replaced by hardier, less friendly plants now that the sun has become stronger, some fragrant, brilliantly orange and yellow nasturtiums escaped from gardens, and the large lantana (or shrub verbena) bushes full of tiny pink, yellow, orange and white blossom clusters are flourishing now, along with the geraniums that bloom here year-round, adding color to the drama of partly cloudy skies on windy days. I still occasionally discover new species of wildflowers, as well, including strange flowers such as a dragon arum and another arum plant I can’t identify, which looks like an elongated candle flame protected by a large white, pointed hood edged with dark purple and shaded by huge leaves.
Strong island winds (22-34 mph, or more, at times) have kept us allergy sufferers inside a lot lately as olive branches wave wildly, and dust and pollens scatter. At least recent days have featured more westerly winds rather than the southerly gusts that bring African sand and an eerie semi-cloudiness that limits visibility and coats everything in light films of dirt. On one windy walk around the Old Port of Chania, we were treated to impressive shows of sea spray as waves crashed against rocks to the west of the port. With such strong winds, the weather can change suddenly. Just a little rain blew in to replace the earlier sun today (unlike
the serious spring showers of another week) before the clouds blew away to reveal the sun again—and then returned to hide it. During Holy Week, we had two or three days in the 80s, but as soon as I washed the winter coats my kids had barely worn since January, intending to retire them for the season, they were needed for a chilly Good Friday evening service.
Easter is by far the biggest holiday of the year in this predominantly Greek Orthodox country, considerably more important than Christmas, with at least as long a school vacation (2 weeks, just finished). A minority of Greeks fast during the entire 40 days of Lent (not eating animal products, including fish and dairy, with limits on oil and wine); most do not fast, or do so for shorter periods, such as one or two days before communion during Holy Week. Highlights of the holidays include Good Friday’s candle-lit processions around neighborhoods following a flower-covered bier that holds an icon depicting the preparation of Christ for burial and represents the tomb of Christ (epitaphios); the midnight celebration of the resurrection with its singing of “Christos anesti” (Christ is risen) and spreading of the symbolic eternal flame from candle to candle through the darkness, followed by dangerous fireworks and gunshots into the air outside some churches, and the burning of an effigy of Judas (clothes filled with dried grasses) near others. On Easter, it’s the custom to hit a red boiled egg against another’s egg, to see whose cracks last; lamb (or sometimes goat) is roasted on a spit as part of the Easter feast with friends and family. Greeks don’t just say “Happy Easter” or even “Hronia Polla,” their universal holiday wish for many years (of good health, presumably); on and after Easter, they first greet each other not by saying Kalimera (good morning, good day), but with “Christos anesti,” Christ is risen, and they respond to that with “Alithos anesti,” He is truly risen. It’s not all about chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs here; they’re part of the celebration, but less important than the fancily decorated candle (the lampada) that children receive from godparents and light during or after the celebration of the resurrection, and of course far less important than the resurrection itself.
After an Easter feast at the home of good friends, we left with another dozen or so fresh eggs from their hens to top off our collection of colorful boiled eggs. Last year, fed up with eating the questionable ingredients in commercial egg dyes that always stained egg whites, I vowed to try vegetable dyes this year. So I spent a whole afternoon experimenting with beets and purple cabbage (the biggest success, for a reddish color, and blue), red wine with balsamic vinegar (an interesting deep mottled rust color after a night dying in the fridge), spinach with green tea, and cumin (a waste of time). Although most Greeks still dye all their eggs (which are often brown, to begin with) the traditional bright red (reminiscent of the cloak of Christ when he was crucified, or a miraculous color transformation of some of Mary Magdalene’s eggs to convince a doubter that Christ had risen from the dead), some now use a variety of colors, as I always have. I think I’ll use the beets, purple cabbage, and something orange next year, since I couldn’t seem to make brown eggs turn green, let alone yellow. No green eggs OR ham here—red eggs and goat or lamb instead.
Rebirth from the Ashes, Escape from Care: The Botanical Park & Gardens of CreteThis is my favorite place to go to escape worries about the financial crisis, decreasing health insurance benefits, the health of my aging mother in law, the dumping of the remains of chemical weapons in the sea where we swim (which is strongly opposed on posters and in rallies), and my children’s education (given questionable policies, teaching methods, strikes, and occupations). I have not seen or heard of any evidence around here to support the government’s claim that the economy is improving. But at the Botanical Park, I can escape thoughts about the 27% of the population that’s still unemployed, the people without health insurance or any regular income, the immigrants facing increasing ethnocentrism and poverty, and even worse problems and deeper pain in such places as Syria, Korea, Washington state, and perhaps now parts of Ukraine. I keep reminding myself how fortunate I am to have the means, location, and ability to escape such worries, instead of being overcome and imprisoned by the grim reality that defines so many people’s lives.
About a half hour from Chania, driving toward Mt. Omalos through unremarkable villages until we reach expansive orange groves and approach the foothills of the mountains, we find the Botanical Park and Gardens of Crete. The park was conceived about a decade ago, after a wildfire destroyed all the olive groves and orange orchards in the area. Since then, acres of fire-ravaged hillside have been wonderfully transformed by a hard-working, knowledgeable, dedicated team of four brothers who decided to create an organic paradise of various microclimates below a hilltop restaurant that features windows and patios overlooking the foothills and gardens. As I’ve watched the fruit trees, orange groves, and grapevines grow during repeated visits over the years, I’ve found that the restaurant has also produced increasingly sophisticated and tasty dishes using organic produce from the gardens and orchards. Two dishes I’ve eaten there--one plate of pork tenderloin with figs and Metaxa brandy sauce and another of chicken with citrus sauce--were so strikingly ornamented (one with tzatziki and tropical fruits, another with rose petals and orange slices) that I couldn’t begin eating until I had photographed them.
But I really love to go there for the walk: starting with a view of hills and valleys dotted with neatly spaced olive trees, down the terraced hillsides with tropical fruit trees and exotic flowers, into the cool shade of chestnut and cherry trees, up again through fragrant herb gardens, around and down past the tadpole pond, the Japanese maples and calla lilies, the giant papyrus, the dogwood, and the only bamboo I’ve seen in Greece (flourishing, like almost everything else in those gardens!), down into the valley’s lush green of nut and plane trees, through the orange and tangerine groves to the large pond, around the pond and past the roaming peacocks to visit the Cretan goats (kri kri), the deer, and the donkey, then up the terraces on the far side of the hill, through nectarine and apricot orchards and a vineyard, walking on paths edged with colorful geraniums and magnificent rose bushes, meeting more surprises on the way.
Alongside common Greek herbs and flowers, we encounter exotic trees and unusual, showy blossoms, such as the striking bird of paradise and others I’d never seen anywhere. Every year, I notice that the four brothers have made improvements: added more informative signs (with one in Russian this year!), distributed more picturesque vessels, sculptures, tools, tables, rustic wooden seating, or antique farm equipment alongside the path, and this year expanded the parking lot, provided a canvas sun cover for the small amphitheater, and planted a terraced vegetable garden just below the restaurant. It’s still early in the season, so the restaurant wasn’t too busy when we ate there, but it gets very full some Sundays at midday, both in winter and summer. The adult admission price of 6 euros for the walk is worth paying, and so well used. Someone there—maybe Kostas, who studied organic agriculture, but says he’s still learning from experience—thinks of everything from the informative and philosophical (on signs scattered alongside the trail) to the amusing (a tree hung with gardening implements in an orchard). We often linger for two hours on a walk that could take half the time (with great discipline and far less curiosity and interest in flowers and photography). While our children may need reminders that we can feed the ducks and geese we often see near the pond, or rewards and incentives of dried fruits and chocolates on the long climb back up the hill, there is so much to observe that I don’t even notice that I’m walking until I reach the uphill switchback return through orchards and a vineyard spotted with daisies, geraniums, artichokes, and other flowers. I emerge from the path tired but rejuvenated: that’s an invigorating place to spend a spring (or fall) day.