The Abundance of Crete in Spring, Summer, and Holidays
I scrambled up a rocky hillside at the end of May, following a goat path between sharp little shrubs. A sleek lizard streaked across the dried mud in front of me. I didn’t dare pluck any of the lavender-colored thyme flowers for fear the bees intent on the blossoms would punish me for my intrusion. That hardy wild thyme was thriving then, with beautifully rounded bushes full of their tiny blossoms.
April had been remarkable for the amount of produce and homemade food and drink we received as gifts from neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. I visited my favorite loquat tree at the edge of a generally untouched olive grove in an uninhabited lot for some of the sweetest fruits I’ve ever eaten, picking them before the insects and birds could finish them off and noticing that some were nearly as sweet as the syrupy Greek desserts I can’t eat (although others enjoy them).
Neighbors’ trees overflowed with lemons that our strong island winds blew to the ground or into the street, so bags of the bright yellow fruit appeared at our door before we’d exhausted our supply. Fortunately, I’ve adopted the Greek habit of squeezing fresh lemon juice on such foods as fish, chicken, meat, and cabbage/carrot salad, as well as in water and a chamomile/baking soda gargle. Some of the very ripe lemons are so sweet that it’s easy to eat the pulp.
And there were fresh, sweet Cretan oranges through spring and even into summer. An American friend of a Dutch neighbor welcomed me and my kids to her orange grove one sunny, windy day. It was a glorious time to wander among trees and pluck the cheerful orange fruit from their branches, and to climb a tall tree to enjoy a view of surrounding hills full of olive groves. I couldn’t tear my kids away from those trees, where they gleefully climbed after the hard-to-reach fruits, before we ended up with a large file box full of them, plus two huge bags to wedge into our fridge—so we had plenty to share with the neighbors who’d given us lemons, loquats, kaltsounia, Easter cookies, olive oil, and wine!
Such treats also played a part in the magnificent Easter feast friends shared with us on Orthodox Easter, when I contributed American desserts (carrot cake with cream cheese icing and chocolate chip cookies), since those are the only foods I can make better than anyone else I know around here. (At least I used Cretan olive oil in the cake, for a slight variation on my mother’s recipe.)
On Easter Monday, we were invited to lunch in a village square, where tables of lamb, salad, bread, kokoretsi (which includes lamb or goat intestines), and kaltsounia (little Cretan cheese and herb pies) were set up under towering plane trees, next to one of the village churches and a small, shaded stream, in the midst of the olive groves of the Kolymvari region. Greeks may crowd together, but they always find seats for everyone at the table. No one eats with a plate on their lap in Greece. And Greek dancing may well begin after a feast ends, as it did that day in the village square.
On the way back from our Easter Monday lunch, we made two detours to show the kids the monumental olive tree of Ano Vouves, which locals believe to be the oldest olive tree in the world, and to see the German World War II cemetery at Maleme. Strong winds whipped up the silver green sides of olive leaves, and branches moved in a frenzied dance in the olive groves that filled hills, valleys, and roadsides. The winds gathered and scattered a mixture of clouds that ranged from dark grey and threatening to puffy and white in patches of light blue sky.
Now a hot, rather humid summer is following a too-dry, too-warm winter and spring in Crete, with the sweet scent of green and purple figs growing in the intense sun and the even sweeter perfume of white jasmine and plumeria flowers, the sound of cicadas overtaking dogs’ barking, birds’ chirping, and doves’ cooing. Some American friends arrived in June, in time to see brilliant walls of fuschia bougainvillea and pink and white oleander in full bloom near tiny grapes and little olives. Family came from the USA and Canada in July, as the unwatered oleander passed its prime, and the olives, grapes, and figs grew. We visited beaches, olive mills, Ancient Aptera, Sunset Restaurant in Horafakia, the Old Port of Chania, the Botanical Park of Crete—some of our favorite places.
Life in Greece Is Still No Vacation
Although many are enjoying their holidays, there is too much bad news for others to enjoy anything. Very few of the refugees that European countries were supposed to take in have left Greece, Italy, or migrant camps. Greece continues to struggle with more than 57,000 refugees and migrants within its borders, searching for adequate, humane housing, food, healthcare, and registration and asylum procedures. We hear of Syrian refugees so exhausted and hopeless that they pay smugglers to return them to Turkey so they can resettle in a homeland still torn by a dangerous civil war. Even before a short-lived coup attempt led to a government crackdown on perceived enemies, Turkey threatened to pull out of its agreement to try to prevent or take back migrants and refugees arriving in Greece by sea from Turkey. Terrorists have struck too many times, places, and human beings to keep track of—for those of us not directly related to those people and places.
Taxes are going up more in Greece, pensions are going down again, nearly a quarter of Greeks remain unemployed, many storefronts stand empty, families have less disposable income, and still Greece’s creditors are not satisfied by the insane amount of “austerity” the Greek people have been enduring for six years now. A dilapidated Neoclassical mansion in Chania with its doors and windows gone and roof caving in is just one sad symbol of much sadder human stories about lives in disarray so European banks could be repaid—not so the Greek economy could rebound and the country could rebuild, as continued excessive austerity makes that extremely difficult.
Like many, I’ve gone through phases of disappointment that each new Greek government and each new “bailout” plan have failed to solve the country’s problems, disgust that Greece’s creditors don’t seem to make logical demands, astonishment at the failed political games of both Greeks and other European leaders, anger and rage about the human suffering as increasing numbers of people here lose access to adequate health care and nutritious food, and the suicide rate rises—engulfing a family I know well--and despair when it just doesn’t look like anyone will offer reasonable solutions to pressing problems.
I have jumped into intense discussions, mostly in Greek but partly in English as I run out of Greek but my rage continues, about how little many Greek grade school teachers appear to care about students or their parents. I have found no one who disagrees with me—not even the kindergarten teacher I spoke with. The latest proof to set me off was our elementary school teachers’ decision, for the second year in a row, to schedule the end of the year celebration that used to occur on a lovely late spring evening in the late morning, when working parents need to be at work—since morning is the teachers’ work time, and a couple dozen teachers have more rights than several hundred parents.
No matter if that was the same time our older children were taking some of the useless two-hour exams that occupy occasional hours of their last month of school, in place of lessons. This leads to my more serious educational complaint: apparently some secondary school teachers prefer to take a four-month summer vacation, instead of a mere three months, subjecting children as young as 12 to exams based on intense memorization of facts they will forget soon after each exam, for which they are expected to prepare at home, alone, not in review sessions at school.
There will be no educational benefit, since the exams will not be returned to the students or discussed after they are taken. So 12 through 18 year olds, not their teachers, are held responsible for their last month of learning each academic year. Of course, I should not imply that this is the fault of each individual teacher. But surely a general teachers’ revolt could change this terribly faulty system, which also pushes senior high school students to give up their childhood and work harder than anyone else in the country to gain a place at a free university where they will be too burned out to attend the classes that should prepare them for careers.
Reviving Hope: If It Doesn’t Exist, Create It
Sometimes I lose hope for Greece. But it was revived one Friday in early June. First, at the state health insurance office, I was dismayed to see a notice indicating that the person who could give me the papers I needed did not work with the public on Fridays. However, since she was helping someone else, I waited and found that she was willing to help me as well. She discovered a problem with my registration in the system: some of my information was in Greek letters, and some in Latin letters. It had to be consistent. So she took my ID and health book and fixed it, then went to another office, and came back with stamped papers. Unfortunately, I saw that she’d misspelled my mother’s name (in a way that made perfect sense in Greek). When I pointed this out, she calmly redid all the papers. Patient, efficient, willing to help: such civil servants still exist in Greece!
Stopping to copy my papers at the local toy and book store, Trenaki (which means “little train”), I was astonished to find it a totally different place than the previous week! I thought it had undergone major renovation to make it roomier, brighter, and better organized, with appealing, shoulder-high train ends on the bookshelves to match the store name. When I wished the owner good health—as Greeks do for all new clothes, new purchases, and new beginnings—Sophia surprised me by saying that her store contained all the same furniture and goods as before.
Amazing. Sophia and her assistants had reconsidered the organization with great care and figured out how to overcome the crowding and darkness that plagued the useful, popular little store; they’d come up with a great solution. Now if they can do that, and the state health system has elements that work better than advertised, there does seem to be hope here in Greece. One step at a time, one person at a time.
When I missed my far-off family and friends and got tired of explaining why life in Greece is no vacation (although a vacation in Greece is splendid!), I started this blog. When I lamented the lack of variety in kids’ summer programs in Chania, I attempted to convince some mothers and professors to help develop a summer science camp at the Technical University of Crete (TUC). My first spring efforts seemed to come to nothing, but they may have put the idea into circulation, because the following year a summer program seemed to materialize at TUC out of thin air.
When I saw that the refugees stranded in Chania for months and then years were receiving too little attention and assistance, I asked families at my children’s school to donate food and clothing and received an impressively generous response—several times. I never approached the accomplishments of many grassroots volunteer groups and heroic individuals, I did not set up a soup kitchen or help thousands of refugees as many have, but at least I got something done.
I have lived in Crete for almost 14 years. During that time, I have born two children, given up trying to keep up with their Greek, and tried to reconcile my dissatisfaction with the Greek educational system with my realization that some excellent teachers here are giving my children a solid grounding of knowledge. I have learned from Greeks, migrants, and refugees from various parts of the world about the problems in their countries, including the Syrian war and the Greek economic crisis.
I have learned to not only ignore, but fail to see, junked cars,
unfinished buildings, and scattered garbage along the roads. I have given in to the need to help feed some of the wandering cats around us and the necessity of a pillow over my head to sleep through the night-time barking of dozens of stray and under-attended neighborhood dogs. I have learned to distinguish the perfume of jasmine flowers from the scent of fallen, crushed figs. And in the past year and a half, I have been captivated by the beauty of Greek olive trees and become an advocate for the unique flavor and incredible health benefits of Greek extra virgin olive oil, which deserves a more prominent position on the worlds’ specialty store, grocery store, and kitchen shelves.
|See greekliquidgold.com for photos, recipes, news, and info about olive oil.|