Wild woman of the Mani . . .

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Readers have made a pilgrimage to a Mani village to see the unique farmer, Foteini

AFTER my three travel memoirs were published from 2013, readers have been in touch to say they visited the locations featured in the books. Many have made it up to the hillside village of Megali Mantineia, in the Mani, where the first book (Things Can Only Get Feta) was set, and mainly in search of the inimitable goat farmer Foteini.

This unassuming rural woman, whom I met at the very beginning of our odyssey on a village road, seems to have struck a chord with many readers, as she has with me. Perhaps it’s her struggle to survive a tough farming life on her own, made harsher still by the Greek economic crisis. It is also, I suspect, her endearing eccentricities, her tendency to wear mismatched layers of clothing and oversized hats, shoes that look like Cornish pasties, and her odd habits, like washing skinned bananas before she eats them.

I recently called one of my favourite friends from the village, the lovely Stavroula (Voula), who lives near Foteini but unlike her, usually answers her village phone. Voula and I hadn’t spoken for a while and at first she thought I must be in Greece. She got excited at the prospect of a visit. When I told her I was in England she shouted vibrantly down the phone: “Well, when are you coming back here? We’ve missed you!”

It’s the quality I most love about rural Greeks, the fact that when they warm to you they are inclusive and caring. Their interest in you is like a big, delicious hug, and is irresistible.

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Marjory riding Foteini’s beloved donkey Riko

I was told that all was well in the village and everyone was surviving the crisis, which was good news. The only recent news I could glean of Foteini, however, was that her beloved old donkey Riko, which I rode on my last odyssey in Greece (from 2014 to 2015), has been pensioned out to pastures sweeter and a new beast has taken his place, as Foteini uses her donkeys for her rural work. Riko was a gentle, stoical creature and he made an appearance in all my travel memoirs.

Foteini, however, continues to attract readers to the village. One American Facebook friend told me she went to the village just to find her and was ecstatic when she did, but was then very put out when Foteini rather stubbornly wouldn’t agree to a photo session beside the donkey.

Some readers have told me they have also gone in pursuit of Foteini, waving a copy of Things Can Only Get Feta, which features Foteini and Riko on the cover illustration, which must have amused her, or maybe terrified her perhaps, I can’t tell which. Some have bravely angled for a coffee in her ramshackle ktima, farm compound, which I wrote about at length, but no-one has pulled it off yet, I think. I am left amazed at so many sightings of Foteini when I had always thought of her as somewhat shy!

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The village of Megali Mantineia beside the Taygetos mountains where we spent the first year of our odyssey

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The church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in the village

One reader called John recently sent me a long email telling me about his summer visit to Megali Mantineia. He was thrilled to drive along the main village road and find Foteini walking along it with Riko loaded up with wood. John told me that he stopped the car and jumped out, waving Feta, and shouting ‘Good morning’ in his best learner’s Greek.

“She came up to me and put her hand on my shoulder and spoke for about 20 seconds…,” he explained, “though I honestly couldn’t recognise one Greek word. Then she placed one of her big bronze-like hands on my hand. What an amazing experience. To most people this would probably not mean much, but to me it meant a lot. I asked Foteini if I could take her picture alongside Riko and she said ‘yes’. I was totally amazed. It was brilliant. My wife, who hadn’t read Feta at that point, said to me, ‘This has made your holiday, hasn’t it?’ And to be honest, it really had.”

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Foteini uses her donkey Riko to transport firewood. Stacking it on a donkey is something of a rural art 

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At Foteini’s farm there is ingenious  plumbing like this hosepipe and a soap holder fashioned from a sawn-off bottle

Recently in East Sussex I was invited to give some talks about my time in Greece at local book groups. I was not surprised to find that it was not Greece in crisis, or the recklessness of Jim and me – and crazy Wallace the dog – going on a mid-life odyssey that piqued their interest so much, but Foteini. They wanted to know all about her: how she lived, what her house was like, and about her outrageous horticultural couture. I passed around photos of her and the village and they were pored over. I imagine the women of peaceful, retiring Sussex have never come across anyone quite like her. Neither had I when we first started our Greek odyssey in 2010 in the remote southern Peloponnese.

Foteini became the most unlikely creative muse for me. From the moment I saw her riding Riko on that village road in 2010, wearing a massive straw hat, her donkey loaded up with ‘half a house’, she stirred my journalistic interest, initially, with her “promise of authenticity, tinged with craziness” as I wrote in Feta. It was Foteini who talked us into renting the small stone house we’d just viewed in the village. We dithered over it for many reasons. She merely said: “But why wouldn’t you take it?” Great journeys can start on such simple promptings as this. It was she who first christened me Margarita, a name that has stuck with me in Greece. But it was also her character that drew me to her, and against the odds, even with my rusty Greek language skills, she and I began the most unusual, and challenging, of friendships, which I described in the books.

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Sweet and lovely Voula from the village, giving Marjory a hug

Foteini was not the only villager, however, who we came to love during our time in the Mani, which stretched to three years. There were other Greeks who became an indelible part of our lives, especially dark-haired, gregarious Voula, whom I have already mentioned, and her lovely mother, Nikoletta. When the pair sat side by side, they were like “two voluptuous bookends”. I wrote about them both in my first two books, where I had called them Eftihia and Pelagia, though sadly, Nikoletta passed away in 2012, which was a great loss to the village. There were also many other characters: Voula’s brother Yiorgos, locals who ran the kafeneio and tavernas, the  farmer with the Paul Newman eyes, the ever gracious Leonidas. Yet still people contact me about Foteini (not her real name, by the way).

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Giving Foteini a copy of Feta

When I first gave her a copy of the book on a visit in 2014, she grabbed it in her big meaty hands, turning it this way and that, with a look of wonder. Having anything published is an incomparable experience, but watching Foteini gripping her copy of Feta, a book she inspired in so many ways, ranks as one of the most satisfying moments of my life.

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Riding Riko

When I had the mad urge to ride Foteini’s donkey Riko along the village road from her ktima, it took a bit of persuasion. Jim also needed a bit of prompting too, as I described in this extract from my third memoir, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree:

“Foteini stared at me hard. ‘You want to ride Riko, on the road? Out there?’

‘Yes, just for 10 minutes. You know I won’t let anything happen to him.’

She scratched at her face, worrying a curly grey hair hanging from her chin.

‘You’d be careful wouldn’t you, koritsara mou? (My girl).’

‘Yes, of course, I will,’ I said, wondering if she felt this nervous when she took him out on the road, or did I just seem like a total rookie.

Jim was watching me with narrowed eyes. ‘What’s going on? I’m having a Greek breakthrough moment. I’m making out words and I’m not well pleased.’

‘I’ve asked Foteini if I can take Riko along the road for a ride.’

‘Oh, no way! You know how people drive in the Mani. A car will hit you both.’

‘Shhh! Stop fussing. Can a woman not have a moment of madness in her life?’ I said, remembering Zorba the Greek’s famous appeal for getting in touch with your inner rebel.

Jim shook his head. ‘Margarita, you have not been a woman bereft of mad moments, I seem to recall.’

‘I won’t be long, I promise.’

‘Okay. Margarita mou,’ Foteini said at last as she led the donkey through the main gate. She handed me the lead rope, which was all I had for reins, and for a crop, she gave me a thin piece of whittled olive wood.

‘Take him,’ she said. ‘You’re always giving me things. This is my gift to you. Enjoy it. And don’t be long.’

I brushed my legs over Riko’s sides to move him quickly down the road. As I went I could hear Foteini and Jim grumbling together, and Wallace whining. It was like a Greek chorus.”

© Marjory McGinn

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January Promo

My second memoir, Amazon best-seller Homer’s Where The Heart Is, which continues the story of our three years in the Mani, is currently on an Amazon Kindle promo for the rest of January at 99p (UK only). To buy, click the link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00WEC7YCY

For more information about this book and the two others in the series, including the latest, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, go to the books page on the website www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com or the books page on Facebook www.facebook.com/ThingsCanOnlyGetFeta

The latest is on all Amazon sites:

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I’m always happy to hear from readers. Please click the comment link on this page. Thanks for calling by.

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Messinia: the secret and the spooky . . .

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Bell-ringer Marjory at the Byzantine church of Ayioi Theodoroi

FOR our second long odyssey in Greece, my partner Jim and I spent 14 months in Koroni, Messinia, which became the basis for my third travel memoir, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree. While the Mani had been our first choice, we ended up in Messinia, the left-hand peninsula in the southern Peloponnese. If you want to know how that happened, you’ll have to read the book. But this remote peninsula didn’t disappoint. It’s a laid-back corner of the country, with a great climate and some fascinating, often hard-to-find, corners, where we encountered some spooky sites and hidden places, most of which were mentioned in the book.

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The strange ‘Hand of God Tree’ at the Homatero monastery, near Koroni

  1. The Hand of God Tree.

This is one of the most curious things I’ve ever seen. It was Wallace, our dear Jack Russell, with his typical questing nature, who really discovered this strange tree, dragging us over to see it in the grounds of the small, deserted monastery of Ayioi Theodoroi, near the village of Homatero, west of Koroni. We had searched out the papas that day, who oversees the monastery, and were given the key to the church and instructions on how to find this fascinating place tucked into the side of a wooded ravine. Dating from the 12th century, much of its outer buildings lie in ruins but the Byzantine church, with its pantiled roof, is in good condition.

It was the tree, however, in the back garden that first captured our imagination with what appeared to be the shape of a huge closed hand on a large section of the trunk. From a distance, it looked man-made, sculpted, and yet on closer inspection we weren’t quite so sure because there was a large amount of bark left over the ‘knuckle’ of the hand.

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Marjory beside the strange shape on the carob tree

Or was it something else entirely? As I wrote in Chapter 16 of the book:

“(The hand) was over a foot high and two feet wide and too smooth for a human carving, but with all the signs of being something natural, fashioned by the wind and the rain perhaps over many decades. We called it the Hand of God Tree, given its surroundings and found it curiously appealing.”

Later on, when we met up with Papa Theodoros at his village house and showed him our photos of the tree, he smiled at the title we’d given it and I asked him what the story was behind it. He told me the tree was very old, a carob tree, but if you what to know what his explanation was, and what he thought about many other fascinating subjects you can read about them in A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree. You can also read about the history of this monastery in past centuries, which was brutal at times, and probably accounts for the slightly chilly and forlorn atmosphere we encountered there.

If you’ve read Scorpion, let me know your opinion of the strange Hand of God Tree.

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Old pantiles on the roof of the Byzantine church

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Two of the frescos inside the church

The rest of the monastery did not disappoint and inside the old church was a fascinating collection of frescos dating back to the 16th century, including some typically bizarre frescos depicting the fate of non-believers. If you look carefully at the example above you’ll see a bizarre half owl/fish creature on the mast of the boat.

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The front of the atmospheric taverna, the Ayia Playia in Falanthi

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Icon of Saint Pelagia, taken on her feast day in May

  1. Brigadoon meets rural Messinia

There are many villages on the outskirts of Koroni that are charming, but one of its secret places is the sweet village of Falanthi on a road that leads west to the Homatero monastery and some other smaller villages. Falanthi was once a thriving settlement, with a successful mining operation, but now supports a small rural population, an olive press and several lovely churches, including the small white chapel dedicated to Saint Pelagia which, curiously, has a spring rising up from under its altar and its outlet is in the courtyard of the taverna next door, called the Ayia Playia ( or Agia Plagia). If you happen to find yourself there on the feast day of Saint Pelagia in early May, when the church is open, you might be lucky to see the spring flowing under the altar, as we did.

This was one of our favourite tavernas outside Koroni (which also has many fine establishments some of which I mentioned in my book). Set by the main road and beside a small stream with a stone bridge over it, it has a retro/timewarp magic about it, with a nod to Brigadoon, the mythical Scottish village that was supposed to appear for one day, every 100 years. Except that this fine establishment is open all year, apart from October. What makes this place such a find is not just the quality of the food but the convivial owner Yiorgos (George) Bossinakis, who is a popular local character, and the place attracts a great number of people from Koroni. For more information www.agia-plagia.gr and bookings: tel 27250 41565.

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The church of the Eleistria, looking down on Zaga beach, Koroni 

  1. The church of visions and miracles

The Eleistria church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, nestles just below the southern flank of Koroni castle, with a stunning view of Zaga beach. This church was built in the late 19th century after a local woman, Maria Stathakis, saw several visions of the Virgin Mary, claiming there were sacred icons buried in the area where the church now sits. When Stathakis enlisted the help of locals to start excavating the site, sure enough three small icons were found in the fissure of rocks and a church was built. The icons have been incorporated into one large icon, which is on display in this church and is at the centre of an important feast day in Koroni every spring. The church has documented many healings that are claimed to be associated with the icon.

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The icon which incorporates the three small icons found after the visions of a local woman 

It’s a very atmospheric church, quite apart from its airy setting. The grotto where the icons were discovered has been preserved and forms part of a small chapel underneath the church and is worth a visit.

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Tsapi beach

  1. A beach at the end of the road

Tsapi beach is a place we discovered by accident. It isn’t well sign-posted on the road from Finicounda to Koroni and a couple of small signs say ‘Tsapi camping’ and ‘Maria’s taverna’. The road is good but winds down a hillside for 15 minutes to a secluded beach facing the Ionian Sea. On a stretch of coast with plenty of nice beaches, what’s great about this one? Despite the low-key camping site, two small tavernas, and a tiny white chapel overlooking the beach, there’s nothing here and it feels like the kind of place you discover on islands. It is enclosed on either side and has a long sandy beach, and the water quality here is dazzling. It’s a great place to swim safely, quite shallow, and great for snorkelling. It was one of the nicest places we ever found to swim and the tavernas are a real bonus. Laid-back and unfussy, they serve mostly fish dishes and you can sit all day over lunch and not feel any pressure to leave. There are several nearby beaches, which are totally deserted and you can only walk to them or visit by boat, like tiny Marathi.

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Imposing battlements of Koroni Castle 

  1. What lies within – Koroni Castle

There is little left of Koroni castle now because it has been targeted down the centuries by a great slew of invaders to this southerly outpost, including the Turks, Franks and Venetians. And the Germans occupied much of it during the Second World War. Its walls remain and a scramble of ruined buildings but it has serious spooky cred and atmosphere and is worth rambling over, as it has set the scene for so much of Koroni’s history.

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One of the tiny doorways at the monastery 

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Ayia Sophia beside the remains of an ancient temple 

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View up the Messinian Gulf to Kalamata, from the monastery 

The castle itself is hardly a secret, dominating the whole town, but what is sometimes overlooked is the gorgeous monastery within it, of Timios Prodromos, which hasn’t changed much since the 19th century when it was built near the site of the ancient Temple of Apollo. It is set within some of the castle walls with walkways, turrets, tiny chapels and an orchard full of fruit trees. At harvest time the friendly nuns here will invite you to help yourself to fruit and offer you slices of loukoumi sweets and cool water. This monastery also played its part in protecting the citizens of Koroni during the German occupation, as I described in the book. The nearby ruined Temple of Apollo sits beside a Byzantine church. The temple was plundered in past centuries but the surrounding walls have been decorated with some of its remaining carved marbles slabs. See if you can spot them.

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Palaiokastro near Pylos

Stunning Voidokoilia beach

Stunning Voidokoilia beach with Wallace in the left foreground

  1. Snake Castle

Palaiokastro is an imposing castle on a high bluff overlooking Navarino Bay, on the west coast of the Peloponnese near the town of Pylos. It also overlooks the much- photographed, horseshoe-shaped Voidokoilia beach. Despite its sturdy walls, the 13th century castle, built by the Franks and later added to by the Venetians, is mostly in ruins and has a slightly creepy appeal to it, not to mention a degree of danger. Signs on the outer walls warn the structure inside is unstable but a friend in Kalamata warned us it has become a breeding ground inside for snakes, which will add to the appeal perhaps for some visitors … but we wouldn’t recommend walking inside.

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Wallace at Palaiokastro

The castle was thought to be impregnable and had a strategic position on this part of the coast but was bombarded by cannon fire by interlopers, including the Turks and Venetians, which explains why it is now a ruin. The best part of visiting this castle is the walk up to its main entrance of sorts, along a narrow track from a small lower car park (beyond the bird-watching sanctuaries) near a sandy beach.

The path winds up over the sea cliffs of the Sykia Pass, and is a wild and exhilarating part of this coastline looking out towards the Ionian Sea. And when you reach the outer walls of the castle finally, they look rather appealing in this remote setting.

Another great find in this area is the nearby village of Gialova, on the edge of Navarino Bay, with a row of beachside tavernas and a nice laid-back vibe. Or if you want to push the boat out, there’s the nearby chic Costa Navarino golfing and spa resort.

Wherever you go in Messinia, there’s a sense that this region is not well-trodden and there are still many other hidden corners waiting for you to discover.

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Our recent odyssey in Messinian, which was the inspiration for my third memoir A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, was featured in a recent article in the Australian Neos Kosmos newspaper. To read click here

For a recent review of the book, see the popular WindyCity Greek site in Chicago.

For more information about this book and the two previous books in the series, charting our adventures in southern Greece during the crisis, go to the books page on the website www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com or the books page on Facebook www.facebook.com/ThingsCanOnlyGetFeta

The new book is on all Amazon sites:

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amazon.com

To buy either of my first two books please click on the Amazon links below:

Things Can Only Get Feta

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

Thanks for calling by. x

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New travel memoir set in Greece

Hello, blog readers. I am happy to announce that my third travel memoir, set in southern Greece, is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

Called A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree: Mad adventures on a Greek peninsula, the book charts my second long odyssey in the southern Peloponnese with my partner Jim and our crazy Jack Russell dog, Wallace.

While the first two books were set in the Mani, the central peninsula, this one takes place in and around Koroni at the tip of the Messinian Peninsula, where we stayed for 14 months from early 2014.

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Marjory, Jim and Wallace in Koroni. 

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At the window of Palio Spiti (the old house), described in the new book. 

Why we ended up in Koroni, when we had our heart set on living once more in the Mani, forms the basis of the book and reveals how you can plan your life down to the last detail but it will be derailed in the end, especially in the wonderfully spontaneous, and sometimes chaotic, place that Greece is. There are more perilous and funny adventures along the way as we try to find long-term rental accommodation and finally come to terms with living in a house that we didn’t expect we’d end up in. If you read the book, you’ll find out why.

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A lemon tree at Villa Anemos overlooking the Gulf of Messinia.

You might be wondering about the title, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree. There are specific reasons why I chose this title and apart from being unlucky enough to have these pesky critters calling on us quite a bit, the title is a kind of metaphor as well, and you can make your own mind up about what the scorpion represents in the context of the narrative. And in case you’ve missed it, there is a scorpion in the lemon tree on the cover illustration. Can you spot it? Wallace the dog should give you a clue.

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View of Koroni from its old Venetian castle. 

The artwork was produced by the talented London artist Anthony Hannaford, www.anthonyhannaford.co.uk, who created the fabulous covers for my first two books. Once again, he has managed to capture all the colour and vibrancy of Greece. And cheeky Wallace got a front-row seat this time. I also have to thank Jim Bruce for his great editing and formatting of this edition www.ebooklover.co.uk

In this memoir we will make friends with a new cast of heart-warming characters, while connecting again with old friends in the Mani, including our dear friend, goat farmer Foteini, with whom we have several humorous encounters, as always.

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Long sandy beaches along the gulf side of Koroni. 

While we may have started our latest odyssey disappointed at not being able to live once more in the Mani, we fell in love with Koroni in the end. What’s not to love? It is in a remote part of the (left-hand) Messinian peninsula and I was surprised that there had been so little written about it in the past, so I am thrilled to be able to highlight this region and I hope I will entice more of you to visit. It is a haven of peace and quiet where you won’t see the outward signs of economic crisis, or the effects of recent migration to Greece.

Koroni is set beside a lovely old harbour, with a castle on a high acropolis above and narrow winding streets ascending to it. It is atmospheric and unspoilt, with the Messinian gulf on one side and the Ionian Sea on the other. On either side of the promontory are wide sandy beaches, old churches, and thriving villages within easy reach.

Over the coming months on the blog, I will focus on other aspects of Messinia, as mentioned in the book including some of the hidden corners of this area, and a few curious and unexplained phenomena, like The Hand of God Tree. Watch this space!

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I hope you enjoy this memoir, the third in my Peloponnese series. Like the other two books, the narrative is such that you can read it on its own and understand what our travels in Greece have been all about, but you will get a better understanding of how we connected with this region, and its people, if you read the other books as well, starting with Things Can Only Get Feta. The first two chart our adventures from 2010, when we first left our Scottish village to relocate to a remote hillside village for a year, despite the economic crisis. But the year became four in the end. Four of the most fascinating years of our lives.

Enjoy the new book, which is currently available as an ebook and a paperback on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other outlets. I thank you all for your ongoing support of my work. I always appreciated comments on the blog and if you have liked the books, a small review on Amazon will also be most welcome. It is the lifeblood of authors.

Marjory’s new book is on all Amazon sites:

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On the website  www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com you will also find a ‘books’ page with other information about the books. Or visit the Facebook page www.facebook.com/ThingsCanOnlyGetFeta

To buy either of my first two books please click on the Amazon links below:

Things Can Only Get Feta

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

Thanks for calling by. x

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Will the crisis kill off unique Greek monasteries?


Dimiova women’s monastery high up in the Taygetos mountains in the southern Peloponnese

IT was sad to hear of the death of one of the last two nuns at the unique Dimiova monastery, east of Kalamata, in the southern Peloponnese. Sister Christina, in her seventies, died last December after a long illness. I had met her and the Abbess of Dimiova, Sister Kiriaki, during a retreat at the monastery in 2012 and wrote a blog piece about my memorable experiences there.

With only the Abbess remaining now at this remote place high in the Taygetos Mountains, the future of this outstanding monastery, which houses one of the most revered, and mysterious, icons in this part of the Peloponnese, will now be in doubt. There are only a handful of working monasteries left in this region, particularly for women.

During lunch that day at the monastery, it was Sister Kiriaki who remarked that the economic crisis had impacted drastically on the monastery, on its much-needed repair and renovations and its ability to support more nuns. The two remaining nuns had been leading very humble, restricted lives even before the crisis began, but now the situation was much bleaker, as it has been for most priests as well in the Orthodox Church, and the churches themselves.

In a few short years, the lack of funds throughout Greece will mean that many old  monasteries will have to close their doors, apart from the highly visible and protected monasteries of Mount Athos. Already in the southern Peloponnese many have closed, due to lack of staff or because they are becoming derelict.

In a modern world where religion has less significance for many people, a common complaint (even from younger Greeks as well) is: “Why do we need monasteries?”

The Orthodox religion is an integral part of the vibrant Greek culture, but the issue goes beyond religion, I think. These Greek monasteries, and many churches, are unique historic buildings and contain a wealth of outstanding Byzantine frescos that are surely as important to European art tradition as any Italian Renaissance masterpiece. Painted on the interiors of churches, often open to the elements, the frescos are fading and in  need of regular upkeep, now mostly impossible in the crisis. If you are lucky, you might see inside one of these establishments once or twice a year on certain saints’ days.

The monasteries are also an enduring part of the communities that surround them and have, during difficult periods of Greek history, protected communities, hidden Greek freedom fighters and promoted the Greek language and its culture. If these great institutions close, and finally crumble into ruins, it will become near impossible to revive them in future decades.

One day in the future, Greeks will surely climb out of the economic crisis, but without these splendid historic and religious monuments the country they inherit will not be the one we know today. And that would be a tragedy.

To give an idea of how special Dimiova is, I am posting here a slightly shortened version of the blog I wrote in 2012. If you feel strongly about the subject, do please leave a comment on the post.

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WHEN my friend Gillian Bouras and I hit on the idea of going on a short retreat to the monastery of Dimiova, in the Taygetos mountains (southern Peloponnese), the plan had great appeal. Friends said we were crazy, but undeterred we went ahead with our strategy for a trip in early August in the lead-up to one of the holiest dates in the Orthodox calendar, the 15th of that month, which is the feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

Gillian is an Australian-born writer who has lived in the southern Peloponnese for over 30 years and has written extensively about it. We both had slightly different expectations for this jaunt but what we did have in common as writers was being able to gain access to this traditional and rarified way of life, still shrouded in centuries of Orthodox mystery, before it disappears altogether in Greece. At Dimiova, in the remote northern western slopes of the Taygetos, sadly there are now only two elderly nuns left.

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Sister Christina, who died last December, was one of only two remaining nuns at Dimiova monastery 

The church of the Dormition inside the monastery walls

The preparation for this short trip was more protracted than I would have guessed. I had to enlist the help of a Greek friend who had contacts within the Greek Orthodox Church. Because monasteries are highly respected and guarded here, we needed authorisation from the head of the church for the Messinian region, Bishop Chrisostomos. And after many weeks of waiting, we were gratefully given the go-ahead.

Two weeks before the visit we were also required to meet Papa Sotiris in the hill village of Elaiohori. He was co-ordinating our trip and also takes the Sunday services at Dimiova and oversees its ecclesiastical well-being.

Papa Sotiris is a genial young priest with a modern outlook. Having worked previously as a businessman in Kalamata city, he gave up his career to join the priesthood, despite the fiscal sacrifice that entailed, and has not had one moment of regret. He was delighted (and a little intrigued) by the request to visit Dimiova, but there were certain conditions.

We had to be at the monastery 7am sharp. The clothing rules were strict: sensible dark/black clothing – long skirts, no bare arms or legs, sensible shoes, no bling of any kind. We were told the nuns led a simple and somewhat severe life, that they would be adhering to a semi-fast on the lead-up to August 15.  The most vexatious rule was saved for last. There would be no talking at the monastery. No talking?

Although talking is not strictly forbidden, Papa Sotiris told us the nuns don’t like to talk unless they have to, especially at this devout time of the year. But since we wanted to write about monastery life, the no-talking rule was awkward.

“How will we be able to glean anything about the nuns’ lives if we can’t talk to them?” asked Gillian.

We were simply to find that out for ourselves, Papa Sotiris seemed to indicate rather mysteriously.

Sister Kiriaki (left), Papa Sotiris and Sister Christina

IT’S Friday morning at 6am when set off on our pilgrimage and it promises to be another scorching August (38C) day. The drive up the winding road with hairpin bends, occasionally with a scattering of rocks, from a recent unseasonable downpour, sets the right kind of reflective tone and we are both secretly wondering if we aren’t crazy after all with this monastery expedition.

The last few hill villages are left behind as we drive further into the Taygetos, having passed no other vehicle along the road, or seen another soul. But Dimiova, when it comes into view, tucked into a mountain slope, surrounded by fir and pine trees, is bigger than expected. The outer walls and monastery buildings are white and the tiled, domed roof of the church is poking up from the inner courtyard like a jaunty hat. I am now anxious to get there as I bump the small Fiat car painfully up the last steep, boulder-strewn metres of dirt road to the front gates.

A morning service has just started in the monastery church, dedicated to the Dormition of the Panayia (Virgin Mary). A bell tolls and the sound of the liturgy is sonorous and spine-tingling in this lonely mountain location. At the door of the church we are met by Sister Kiriaki, who is also the Abbess of the monastery, whom we are relieved to find does talk (though not volubly).

But she has rather charmingly forgotten why we are here or what they are to do with us. She looks a little weary but at least the modest bags of cold drinks and fruit we offer as gifts for our stay are met with a smile. The large watermelon is given an especially warm appraisal.

She ushers us into the church beside the other remaining nun, Sister Christina, who is wearing a similar long black robe, her head wrapped in thick long black scarf. Kiriaki returns with offerings of her own, prayer ropes called komboskini, comprised of thick knotted wool interspersed with small beads (rather like a Catholic rosary). We are to hold these during the service, taken by Papa Sotiris.

The church is a lovely example of early 17th century design, with frescos painted in 1663 by the monk Damaskinos. The main focus of this church however is the old and much revered icon of the Virgin Mary (Panayia Dimiovitissa), and Child, which is claimed to have miraculous powers, as are many icons dedicated to the Panayia, though this particular icon attracts many pilgrims from all over Greece at this time of year.

The icon of the Panayia Dimiovitissa shows the blood stain down one cheek. Above, Papa Sotiris lights the votive lamp that hangs above the icon

The icon is best known for the curious mark on the Panayia’s right cheek, which is said to be a blood stain, and there are many theories as to how it came to be there.

Papa Sotiris at the end of the service explains a little of the history of the icon and tells us it is the general belief that the icon was damaged by a sharp blow with a knife or axe during the struggles of the Iconoclastic period of Greek history (8th to 9th centuries AD), when many icons in Greece were defaced or even burnt.

The icon, he says, had been brought here for safe keeping some time in the 8th century, when the first monastery building was erected, and during a violent skirmish between the defenders of the icon and interlopers, the image of the Panayia was struck and blood sprang from her face. The signs of it remain today, hence its miraculous powers.

The monastery of Dimiova has always been one of the most important of the Messinian region and has a gripping history. During the 15th century it was set on fire by the Turks during a local skirmish and rebuilt a century later, only to be attacked again by the Turks in 1770.

However, it survived and became a meeting place for some of the great revolutionary leaders in the Greek War of Independence against the Turks in 1821. It is said that some of these leaders, like the heroic Theodoros Kolokotronis, plotted the opening shots of the war, started in Kalamata on March 23, from within these hallowed walls.

The monastery is best known in Messinia for its annual procession (started in 1843), and the carrying of the icon from the monastery down to a church of Giannitsanika on the edge of Kalamata, a journey of over 13km, which takes around five hours.

After the service, Papa Sotiris offers us Greek coffee with several other parishioners in one of the lovely old dining rooms in the monastery. Despite the no-talking rule, Kiriaki, at least, is in good conversational form, perhaps enjoying a respite from their solitary life. Kiriaki is in her mid-sixties yet looks much younger with a fresh, unlined face.

Kiriaki’s story is not an unusual one in Kalamata. After the Second World War, along with many other war orphans, she was left, aged two, under a certain plane tree near Kalamata Cathedral. The convention was that youngsters were left here to be taken in by kind Kalamatans, but in Kiriaki’s case she was taken to Dimiova.

She has known no other life but this. It’s a fairly regimented existence, with a 5.30am start for prayers, a simple breakfast (they only eat twice a day) and then work in the fields and gardens, tending the monastery’s flocks of sheep and goats, cooking, and then retiring at eight or nine o’clock, depending on the season.

The winters here, says Papa Sotiris, are long, cold and dark, with very simple accommodation and heating. They have no TV, no computers and only one radio tuned into an Orthodox religious station.

“The nuns are allowed to speak if they want to,” explains Papa Sotiris, “But most of the time they choose not to. They find it peaceful not to talk.”

“They are like two canaries in a cage,” he explains with an ingenuous flourish, “It’s a lovely cage though, a lovely environment and they don’t want to fly out into the outside world.”

To us it seems a bit lonely and yet once it would have been otherwise. When Kiriaki was a child there were a few dozen nuns in residence, and earlier in its history, as a monastery for monks only, it was capable of housing up to 100 people. Over the years, though, as the older nuns have died, the numbers have not been replaced.

Many people come to Dimiova primarily to see the miraculous icon and it is kept under lock and key for most of the time. In this region there are many stories also about its miraculous powers.

Papa Sotiris says: “There have been many, many stories in the nearby villages of people experiencing miracles. Everyone has their own special story.”

The miracle that needs to befall the monastery at the moment, sadly, is funding. The monastery buildings and the church, which were partially damaged in the earthquake of 1986, are in constant need of maintenance and restoration. The monastery is always grateful for public donations, however small, to help this cause as one of the few working/occupied monasteries, for women in particular, in the Messinian region.

Over a simple but tasty lunch that day of black lentils with onion and sturdy village bread, Kiriaki tells us the monastery is suffering in general from lack of funds, like other church institutions here, because of the economic cutbacks in Greece.

With restoration work on some Byzantine churches, particularly in rural areas, already being scaled back, the future of monasteries like Dimiova and the gentle souls who inhabit them is more in doubt than ever.

Sister Kiriaki hitting the traditional wooden talado, which is used to call the faithful to prayers or for meals

When we finally take our leave much later after the lovely esperinos,  the evening service, for the long nerve-pinching drive back down the mountain, we are told to come back soon and are given more gifts of filakta, small embroidered pouches smelling of lavender, which, whispers Kiriaki in my ear, are to be worn near the heart “for protection”.

The inside of the church with its ornate iconostasis and some of the frescos on the interior columns

All the way down the mountain road in the fading light I feel sleepy with the heat but I have to keep my eye out for more scree over the road, but luckily it’s all clear. Neither of us feel inclined to talk, lost in our own thoughts.

Apart from the heavenly mountain setting and the history of the place that you feel in every well-worn corner of Dimiova, for me it is the two lovely nuns who are the spirit of the place. And unexpectedly inspiring.

At a time when Greece is rocked by harsh austerity measures, job losses, rising suicide rates, and loss of confidence, here are two people uncomplaining about a life pared down to the bone. Their simple life and their serenity has a way of cutting through all our modern worries like that church bell tolling down a deserted mountainside at seven in the morning.

* Information about Dimiova through the Metropolis of Messenia www.mmess.gr

A longer version of this blog post formed the basis for the Chapter, Touching Heaven, in my second travel memoir Homer’s Where the Heart Is. For more information about this book and the first memoir Things Can Only Get Feta, about my three years living in the southern Peloponnese, go to the books page on the website www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com or order through www.amazon.co.uk or www.amazon.com

Thanks for calling by.

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Moussaka under the mistletoe . . .

Wallace with santa caption

Wallace in a Greek festive mood

“YOU can’t have moussaka for Christmas,” said one of our English expat friends in the Mani just before our second Christmas in the region, as we discussed festive menus.

“Why not? It seems perfectly reasonable for a Greek odyssey.”

“Okay,” he said with a shrug. “But you can get moussaka any time. Christmas calls for turkey, or at least a chicken. It’s tradition.”

Yes it was, but not necessarily here. Of course he thought we were mad opting for moussaka, but madder still was the whole British faff of trying to replicate Christmas in Greece, with turkeys and even Brussels sprouts. One genial expat who lived full-time in the Mani had bemoaned the fact he had not been able to grow a sprout yet in his garden. If there was one thing I didn’t miss about a British Christmas it was the metallic after-taste of a sprout.

It seemed bizarre to even think of a normal Christmas when some years you can swim until the end of the year  ̶  in the southern Peloponnese at least. And if had been any hotter that particular December we may have plumped for a day at the beach, like some of my teenage Bondi Beach Christmases, when I was growing up in Sydney.

That was because the traditional Christmas in Australia is bizarre as well. I had plenty of those in my childhood from my Scottish family keen to stick to the rules of the ‘homeland’, with turkey or a fat chook (chicken) in 100-degree heat, watching the tree ignite from overheated festive lights, and all the oldies squabbling and then passing out in front of British Christmas reruns on the TV.

candles in church caption

Christmas in Greece is a quiet time and revolves around family and the church

Christmas in Greece is refreshingly and sensibly low-key, no hysterics, no burn-out. It’s more about family, a time of reflection and religious observation. Greeks do buy presents but they are exchanged mainly on New Year’s Day, which is the feast day of Ayios Vassilis, the Greek version of Santa Claus, without the red suit and reindeer mates.

boat at koroni church caption

Villages still opt for the old tradition of a decorated boat like this one in the square at Koroni, Messinia 

Some younger Greeks, particularly in towns, have slowly adopted elements of the western Christmas, and having a decorated tree is something of a status symbol now, despite the economic crisis. However, the old ways remain, especially in villages. You still see illuminated boats in a village plateia because this symbol is associated with Ayios Nikolaos, whose feast day is earlier in December, and he’s the patron saint of sailors. You will also hear kids shuffling about the streets on Christmas Eve singing the kalanda song, a kind of Greek carol which might earn them a coin or a sweet.

boots caption

Christmas decorations with a rural Greek flavour 

Our first Christmas in the Mani had been in 2010, the year we moved into the hillside village of Megali Mantineia. On Christmas Day there was a morning service, which was hard to ignore as the sound of the chanting rolled out over the entire village. After this, there were quiet preparations for the long family lunch.

In the morning some village friends had brought us gifts of olive oil and kourabiedes (shortbread) with a thick dusting of powdered sugar. We had visited our farming friend Foteini in the morning and took her a small gift. She was having her Christmas lunch with a neighbour Eftihia and her family but, as with most rural Greeks it would be a modest meal, probably roast goat, since everyone here kept goats.

Foteini insisted we come with her to Christmas lunch and it was tempting but we had already accepted lunch with an expat friend further down the Mani. She had recently retired to Greece and perhaps it was an attempt to summon up the familiar, but it was a proper British meal with all the trimmings and plenty of wine. It, too, seemed bizarre and slightly out of place, but at least we could work off the lipid overload by pacing round the nearby olive groves after lunch.

During the second Christmas we were living down the hill from Megali Mantineia in the seaside village of Paleohora. We were renting a house from a genial Greek couple, Andreas and Marina. On Christmas Day, while they stayed at their home in Kalamata for a family gathering, we planned to have a quiet lunch this time, and make the moussaka, for which we had bought all the ingredients. But it was such a gloriously sunny day, despite being cool, that even after all the fuss we had made about the moussaka, we changed our minds.

We drove instead up to Megali Mantineia to have lunch in one of our favourite tavernas, the Iliovasilema (Sunset taverna). The place was open though the whole family was gathered at one long table to eat their lunch of succulent oven-roasted goat and lemony potatoes. There were several other people dining, a few expats and Greek couple from Athens with a house in the village, but somehow we were all annexed to the family proceedings and it turned out to be one of our loveliest Christmases: traditional, with plenty of parea (company) and no fuss.

caption hwere

Our lovely Greek landlords in Paleohora, making Christmas wreaths

During our second Christmas in Paleohora, however, we did discover one surprising thing about our landlord Marina. She had a secret obsession for some of the rituals of Christmas and it all started way ahead of the festive season. It became one of the chapters in my sequel Homer’s Where The Heart Is, which, to end my Christmas blog, I would like to share in a small excerpt:

“One Saturday there was a knock at the front door. It was Marina and Andreas. Marina was loaded up with things in baskets and myriad plastic bags hooked over her wrist. I was very afraid though when I saw the big pointed red hat of what appeared to be a papier maché Santa Claus.

“Good morning, I’ve brought some Christmas things. I will just sort them out, yes?” she said.

With her usual proprietorial charm that we had fully accepted now, she barged passed us. I assumed she was taking them to the apothiki (store room) to leave until Christmas. Andreas stayed on the doorstep because his feet were muddy and handed us a bag of sweet oranges from his trees. We stood outside, talking and leaning on the wrought-iron railing on the top steps.  

While we chatted outside we forgot all about Marina. Suddenly I became aware of furious scurrying and hammering going on behind us.

“What’s happening inside, Andreas?”

He rolled his eyes. “Marina has just decorated your place for Christmas.”

“What?”

We turned around and the living room, which had looked atmospheric and Greek, now resembled Santa’s Grotto at a John Lewis store. The big red Santa was on the dining table and tinsel was strung up over the fireplace, with Christmas lights, candle stands and a dozen statues of Santa Claus striking various festive poses.

“Here,” said Marina, pushing two festive woollen socks towards me. “For Christmas Day.”

“But Marina, it’s only November. Too early for Christmas, surely?” I pleaded.

Andreas shook his head. “I agree, Margarita, but Marina loves Christmas, you have no idea.”

Oh yes I did! The living room − lit up and pulsating, lacking only a sound system for Christmas carols − told me so.

“This old place looks better now, don’t you think?” said Marina, hands on hips like the presenter of a TV home makeover show.

One of the things we liked about being in Greece at Christmas was the lack of commercialism and houses lit up like Blackpool seafront. It was a quiet, reflective time instead. But now we had the whole Christmas fizz inside the house. We laughed over it all later and slowly began to dismantle the effects, leaving some of Marina’s festive tat in place and hiding the rest in the apothiki, hoping she wouldn’t notice….”

xmas wally caption

Wallace the lovable Jack Russell sends love and licks for Christmas

Well that’s it for the year. To all readers, I would like to thank you for your continuing interest and support of the blog and my Greek books. I wish you a very happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year. If you happen to find yourself in Greece at Christmas, go for the roast goat every time, or have an Aussie beach Christmas instead.

(Text: © Marjory McGinn)

See you all next year.

Χρονια Πολλα. X

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

TO read more about living in Greece during the crisis in the southern Peloponnese, read my second travel memoir Homer’s Where The Heart Is.

This book is the sequel to the first, Things Can Only Get Feta (published in 2013) about the start of our long odyssey in the rural Mani.

HOMER'S COVER FOR WEB

To those who have already read the latest book, thanks for your kind comments and Amazon reviews, which are always appreciated.

Both books are available on all Amazon’s international sites and also on the Book Depository www.bookdepository.com (with free overseas postage).

On the website  www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com you will also find a ‘books’ page with other information about the books.

To buy either of my books please click on the Amazon links below:

Things Can Only Get Feta

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

You can also find me on Twitter @fatgreekodyssey

And Facebook www.facebook.com/ThingsCanOnlyGetFeta

www.facebook.com/HomersWhereTheHeartIs

Thanks for calling by.

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© All rights reserved. All text and photographs copyright of the authors 2015. No content/text or photographs may be copied from the blog without the prior written permission of the authors. This applies to all posts on the blog

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From the Big Apple to a Big Greek Village

Caption for linda and hubby with NY skyline

A recent photo of Linda and Nick in front of the New York skyline

This week I am interviewing Linda Fagioli-Katsiotas, a New York teacher and writer who married a Greek in the 1980s and bravely went to live with her new family in a remote and raw village in Epirus, in Greece. Her fascinating story is the subject of her memoir The Nifi.

Q: Welcome to my blog, Linda. Tell us a bit about yourself.

A: First let me thank you for inviting me to this interview. I was born and raised on Long Island, outside of New York City. My father’s parents were Italian immigrants and my mother was from the little town of Malone, in the Adirondack Mountains; her parents were French Canadian. I’ve been a teacher for 21 years, working with immigrant children at my local school.

Q:  In your 20s you married a Greek. Tell us a little about that.

A: I met my husband in 1980 at a restaurant on Long Island, where we worked together. Nick had been in the US since 1978 and didn’t speak a lot of English but it was enough. Later we eloped after knowing each other for about a year. It was a marriage with all the trimmings for failure: different culture, religion, language, ethnic background, but somehow we made it.

margariti village caption

The traditional village of Margariti in Epirus

nick and linda cooking goat 1983

A young Linda and Nick in 1983 getting to grips with village life, and roasting a goat for lunch

Q: Later you went to live for a while in your husband’s native village of Margariti, in Epirus, north-west Greece. What was your Big Fat Greek Immersion like?

A: At that age, I had no idea what I was doing. I was madly in love and, probably like every young person then, I wanted a life that was different from the mainstream. Nick was quite a tough person and I realised when I got to his village why he was like that. Most of the people in Margariti are tough. It’s a matter of survival. The journey to his village was my first trip out of the US.  Epirus is a beautiful mountainous area with some of the most exquisite beaches as well like Karovostasi. But lovely surroundings quickly lose their appeal when you’re living in quite primitive conditions, without the ability to communicate with anyone.

Q:  In your book you have a funny description of your first day, looking for a workable toilet in your mother-in-law’s house. What was it really like there for a young American?

A: The difference between living on Long Island and living in Epirus was extreme. There was no running water and we had to collect it from a nearby natural spring, no fly screens on windows or doors, very few cars, no television signals, maybe one or two telephones in the whole village, but not at my in-laws’ house. And yes, that toilet! Many toilets in those days were just holes in the ground. Nick’s was a porcelain toilet but it only had a pipe leading to a ditch outside the house. There was often family waiting outside the rickety door held shut by a piece of string.

making pita with chevi in 2003

Linda helping her mother-in-law Chevi to make pita bread in 2003

Q: Apart from toilets, your worst problem, I imagine, was trying to get to know the in-laws, but speaking no Greek.

A: Yes, that’s true, and to make things worse my mother-in-law Chevi spoke a northern dialect, Albenetika, which I didn’t know either. We couldn’t disagree on anything though because between us there weren’t enough words in any language for us to argue. But she was kind and always used simple body language and, in later years, simple Greek words, and somehow we understood each other.

linda and nick 2015

Linda and Nick in the village this year and on Karovostasi beach (below) 

linda on karovostasi beach

 

Q: You live in the US, but still spend most summers in Margariti and, judging by your blog posts, it looks idyllic. What is the village like now?

A: I have enjoyed writing about my Greek life on my blog www.truestorythenifi.blogspot.com. These days, Margariti is perfect. It has the old-style charm that it originally had. It’s near to many different beaches and seaside villages but it’s also away from the tourist crowd. Most important, however, are the changes that brought the amenities I had in the US: Internet connections, indoor plumbing, satellite TV and a car. Anyone who is yearning to live the old way without these modern conveniences is someone who’s never done it before.

Q: When did you decide to put your experiences into your first book The Nifi? How was it received?

A: The word νύφη (nifi) means bride in Greek but is also used to refer to a woman who marries into a family. My mother-in-law, Chevi, had an arranged marriage with a member of the Katsiotas family. He was a stranger from another village. I wanted to write down the stories that she’d been telling us over the years, which were so incredible, with so much drama and heartache. I wanted my two children to understand their background. In the book, I have also juxtaposed my experience as a non-Greek nifi  in alternating chapters with my mother-in-law’s life. The Nifi has sold well, but best of all, in the UK. So I want to thank all my British readers.

Q: What did your mother-in-law think about your first book, inspired by her. 

A: My mother-in-law passed away just as I was finishing The Nifi. She died two weeks after a stroke but remained in her home the entire time. I cannot put into words the effect that those two weeks had on me. Chevi knew I was writing the story but I don’t think she realised it was going to be a book. I wish there had been time to show her some translated excerpts. I am sure she would have loved it though!

Q: What else have you written?

A: My first work of fiction is called Your Own Kind. It was published last spring. In the book, Sara is a young girl who comes in contact with several young men from different cultures. Love, jealousy, desire and racism play against each other in a plot that takes the reader from Turkey to Greece to Long Island.

I’m currently working on a new novel. I tried not to have a Greek theme, but we write what we know, right? So, the characters are not Greek, but they’re southern Italian, which is basically Greek!

Q: Okay, if you say so! Still on the subject of Greece, however, what do you think about the economic crisis there. Has it impacted greatly on Epirus and your Greek family?

A: It has unfortunately impacted on everyone I know. My generation, those who started families 30 years ago, did so in the upward climb of those wonderful improvements I mentioned before, whereas the generation before that was mostly living in poverty. Life has been good for a few decades now and young people only know that life. I think the effects of the crisis and the austerity will be hardest for them.

I know people of my age, however, who have saved relentlessly and worked like dogs all their lives, expecting that hard work and savings would be enough, and now they’re poor again. Life is difficult in Epirus now but the region was always Greece’s poorest child, so these are very tough people. Most live off the land or know how to if they must.

Q:  Would you and your husband ever consider retiring to Greece one day?

A: I have two adult children, Nikki and Thomas, who are just settling into their own lives in the US. I really do not think I want to be separated from them more than a month or two but, again, you never know.

519d3ZUdo5L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]

Q: How can we find out more about you and your books?

A: Both The Nifi and Your Own Kind are available at Amazon.com. I always love getting feedback from readers.

The Nifi

UK Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B014B5TRYE

US Amazon http://amzn.com/0989219410

Your Own Kind

http://amzn.com/B014FHVK52

Blog: www.truestorythenifi.blogspot.com

Email:  authorfagiolikatsiotas@gmail.com

Twitter:  @katsiotas_linda

Promotion

Linda’s book The Nifi will be available at 99 cents US and 99 pence UK as a Kindle Countdown Deal on Amazon for a week, from December 7.

 

Meanwhile, another book about Greece, Homer’s Where The Heart Is

TO read more about living in Greece during the crisis in the southern Peloponnese, read my second travel memoir Homer’s Where The Heart Is.

This book is the sequel to the first, Things Can Only Get Feta (published in 2013) about the start of our long odyssey in the rural Mani.

HOMER'S COVER FOR WEB

Both books are available on all Amazon’s international sites and also on the Book Depository www.bookdepository.com (with free overseas postage).

On the website  www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com you will also find a ‘books’ page with other information about the books.

To buy either of my books please click on the Amazon links below:

Things Can Only Get Feta

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

You can also find me on Twitter @fatgreekodyssey

And Facebook www.facebook.com/ThingsCanOnlyGetFeta

www.facebook.com/HomersWhereTheHeartIs

I always welcome comments on the blog. Thanks for calling by.

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© All rights reserved. All text and photographs copyright of the authors 2015. No content/text or photographs may be copied from the blog without the prior written permission of the authors. This applies to all posts on the blog

 

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Is a dream life in the sun the high road to happiness?

Caption here for Marjie and Jimmy and Wally

Marjory, Jim and Wallace the Jack Russell terrier in front of Koroni castle, Messinia

BEFORE Jim and I set off on our mid-life adventure to Greece in 2010, a friend commented on our plan with a yearning look in his eyes. “I can only wonder what it must be like to divest yourself of everything and take off into the wild blue yonder.”

As a successful professional with a lovely house and two young children, his comment was motivated mainly by a wish to be free of nine-to-five pressure for a while, nothing more complicated than that.

But many other people said very similar things as we moved closer to our departure date. One professional guy, stuck in a difficult job and with children to support, asked me rather sadly: “Where is our mid-life odyssey? When can we do what you’re doing?”

I felt for his predicament. “You can do it one day if you really want it badly enough” was all I could offer him. But it did become our kind of stock answer to these unexpected comments, because that statement had been true for us.

We had put in a huge amount of planning and time into the proposed odyssey, putting our personal possessions in storage, renting out our house in Scotland, as well as all the nagging issues involved in leaving the UK for a while. Our to-do list before we left was four A4 pages long. But not once did we doubt we were doing the right thing, even though Greece was moving into the first stages of its economic crisis.

Caption here for castle in Ochils

Castle Campbell in the spectacular Ochil hills above our former village in Scotland

We wanted it badly enough, but we didn’t seek out the odyssey because we hated our lives, or where we were living, which was in fact a very picturesque village outside Stirling. We just wanted to live for a while under a “wandering star”. And who doesn’t?

Sadly, the subtext to a lot of the comments we heard over and over again were that many other Brits were desperate for an overseas odyssey, or in some cases a permanent move abroad, because they were innately unhappy and they believed life would be happier if only they were some place else.

But is this true? Can your life be happier just because you change location, particularly to a warm sunny country like Greece, for example? I don’t think so. It will be different, for sure, but not necessarily happier, or better.

Caption for Koroni harbour here

The lovely harbour of Koroni where we spent the last year of our Greek odyssey 

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A taverna by the water at Limeni Bay, the Mani. The casual Greek lifestyle has a massive pull for foreigners

Our years in Greece brought us in contact with a lot of British, American and other expatriates, who told us they came to live in Greece to ‘escape’ their old, humdrum lives. Many of them obviously thrived in the gorgeous climate with a better lifestyle than they had back home, particularly the Brits, as if they were permanently on holiday, and no-one should blame them for wanting easier lives and sun and sea.

Many confessed to being happier in their new location, and said it was the best move they had ever made. However, those who sought Greece for a particular reason rather than the expectation of being happier, were probably the most successful resettlers, especially those who managed to assimilate well.

The American artist and writer Pamela Jane Rogers, who has written a fascinating memoir Greekscapes: Journeys With An Artist, left America after the break-up of her marriage and ended up settling on Poros island. She has been living there for 26 years. Mostly, she came to Greece for its beauty and as an inspiration for her painting. She has built up a great reputation for her work worldwide and is thriving in Greece. www.pamelajanerogers.com

The Scottish crime writer Paul Johnson has lived in Greece for some years, which has been the inspiration for many of his novels. Many other writers and artists also find that Greece provides a sunny muse and have no intention of leaving, despite the crisis.

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Tsapi cove, Messinia. Who can resist the lure of enless sun and sea?

But a move to Greece is not always the answer to everything. Some British expats told us that although their lifestyle was easier, they weren’t as happy as they thought they’d be. The same problems that plagued them back home, plague them in Greece, as well as the fact that in Greece there is no financial safety net, a poorer health system, and their extended families are not around for support.

Many of those who escaped to Greece have ultimately returned home.  One British expat I interviewed in 2010 for a freelance story about Greece had gone there with her husband where they built their ‘dream’ home near Kalamata, only it turned out to be anything but. It was planned as a retirement home, but after a heartbreaking series of bungles with builders, bureaucracy and other disasters, they sold up and moved back the UK, and have no further plans to pursue a dream life abroad.

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Wallace our Jack Russell enjoying life as a Greek beach bum

Perhaps it shows that you can’t ramp up happiness just by changing location. It’s something deeper, more intrinsic. There’s a line in a poem by famous Greek poet Konstantinos Kavafis which sums it up. It loosely translates as: “You can change your skies but not your soul.”

To a great extent that’s true. The old life will follow you about wherever you go. A broken heart will be a broken heart wherever you are. A failure to relate with others, or to feel fulfilled on many levels, won’t change just because you go to Greece, or another sunny location.

The Greek/American travel writer Matt Barrett, who has an informative and popular Greek travel website www.greecetravel.com also had similar thoughts recently on his blog, written while on the island of Lesvos. In many ways he inspired me to write this piece.

Having lived for many years in Greece, he made this astute comment about those who want to leave their old life and move there: “The truth is that you only think you want to throw it all away and move to Greece because you are not taking the time to appreciate the things you have that you would absolutely miss if you did … If you are happy, with yourself then it does not matter if you are in Greece or Nebraska.”

The search for happiness is only part of it, of course. People are seeking different things when they go to Greece, and sometimes it’s not all that straightforward. It was one of the themes of my second travel memoir, Homer’s Where the Heart Is, after a Greek businessman had posed a question to me at a village celebration in the Mani. Apart from sun and sea, he asked, “what is it you (foreigners) seek to find in our country that you cannot find in your own?”

It’s not an easy question to answer and it is one of the things I thought about a great deal while in Greece, the illusive thing we are seeking there, and I am not sure I’ve really found it yet. Or that it can be found.

We went to the southern Peloponnese for a year and ended up staying for four. Although we never went seeking greater happiness and contentment I think we were unintentionally happier overall, despite the fact that not all our experiences were positive. We didn’t always get things right. We had tough times in the crisis, like everyone. We found it hard adjusting to another culture, and in our case a very traditional rural culture in the hillside village of Megali Mantineia. We found it tough renting abroad, without all the comforts and security we take for granted in Britain.

But in the end, we went without any illusions or expectations and we were constantly surprised and delighted by everything we found, helped in no small part by the wonderful Greeks we met (and occasionally expats, too), who shared their lives and their stories. Because we never sought happiness in a different location, I believe we found it and that may be the only thing I learnt after four years in Greece.

The place really isn’t the thing. It doesn’t set the agenda I believe.

The expat I mentioned earlier who built her dream home near Kalamata later told me that when she returned to the UK she realised perhaps for the first time what positive things the country had to offer her. So her story really did have a happy ending but not in the way she expected.

Of course, I’m not saying, don’t go abroad to search for the dream life, or have a long adventure – especially in warm and welcoming Greece, and even though it is still in crisis. But don’t go expecting it will change your life forever. As Kavafis indicated, it may only change your ‘sky’ and nothing more – unless that’s really all you want.

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

TO read more about living in Greece during the crisis in the southern Peloponnese, read my second travel memoir Homer’s Where The Heart Is.

This book is the sequel to the first, Things Can Only Get Feta (published in 2013) about the start of our long odyssey in the rural Mani.

HOMER'S COVER FOR WEB

To those who have already read the latest book, thanks for your kind comments and Amazon reviews, which are always appreciated.

Both books are available on all Amazon’s international sites and also on the Book Depository www.bookdepository.com (with free overseas postage).

On the website  www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com you will also find a ‘books’ page with other information about the books.

To buy either of my books please click on the Amazon links below:

Things Can Only Get Feta

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

You can also find me on Twitter @fatgreekodyssey

And Facebook www.facebook.com/ThingsCanOnlyGetFeta

www.facebook.com/HomersWhereTheHeartIs

Thanks for calling by.

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© All rights reserved. All text and photographs copyright of the authors 2015. No content/text or photographs may be copied from the blog without the prior written permission of the authors. This applies to all posts on the blog

 

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An Odyssey in Homer’s stomping ground . . .

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Small cove in Paleohora with the Taygetos behind and Kalamata at the head of the Messinian gulf.

THERE was a reason I put Homer into the title of my latest Greek travel memoir, Homer’s Where The Heart Is. And it has nothing to do with Homer and Marge Simpson, let’s clear that up right away, much as I love their goofball antics and Marge’s towering blue hairdo.

Homer, the slightly more venerable, and ancient Greek poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey (who lived in the 8th century BC), had a significant influence on the north Mani region of the southern Peloponnese, where we spent three years from 2010.

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I’m not sure that Homer physically spent any time in the Mani – the middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese. There’s no evidence of that, or Homer Simpson for that matter, despite the fact that the third episode of the first TV series in 1990 was called Homer’s Odyssey, when he became a citizens’ safety crusader. But as far as I know he hasn’t trudged the sylvan hills of the Mani.

As for Homer the venerable Greek, he named the area around the present day village of Paleohora, Iri (Ιρή), which is situated on the coastal strip just south of Kalamata and it is mentioned in the Iliad as one of the seven cities (including Kardamili further south) that Agamemnon offered to the angry Achilles to appease him. In its time, Iri had serious historic cachet.

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One of the coves at Paleohora with the Portella and a view towards the Messinian peninsula opposite.

Paleohora is certainly historic, settled from the Mycenean age, and in the Homeric years it had the important temple dedicated to Asclepios (the ancient god of healing) built on the high clifftop overlooking the gulf. Ancient relics have been found from this time and it was said that people came from all over southern Greece to be healed at this temple.

On the escarpment over a small pebbled cove is what was known as the Portella, a natural opening in the rock, where the sick could be lowered down to the sea below for treatment, and which later in the 17th and 18th centuries became an escape hatch for those fleeing from Turkish interlopers.

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A local papas about to throw the cross in the cold waters at Paleohora in January.

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One of the three tiny coves at Paleohora that locals call Koukino with the church of Ayios Yiorgos behind. 

A castle was built here in the 15th century by the Venetians, though only the north wall remains. The Orthodox Church of the Dormition was built here in 1775 and it is from here that the Epiphany (Epifania) service in January is conducted down on the beach below where young boys race to retrieve the cross thrown into the freezing waters. Whoever brings it back to shore will have good luck for the whole year.

The title of my travel memoir is of course a pun, and for those not familiar with the English expression, it’s a play on the saying, “home is where the heart is”. It seemed a fitting title for me because this spectacular Homeric land, including the hill village of Megali Mantineia – where I, my partner Jim and our mad Jack Russell Wallace – spent our first year, is a place that stole our hearts for the time we lived there, and still does. It’s a place of great natural beauty beneath the towering Taygetos mountains, but is also quite remote and not high yet on the tourist’s bucket list. Not as high as it should be.

Megali Mantineia was the focus of my first memoir Things Can Only Feta and I wrote a lot about it subsequently in media articles and on the blog, but I haven’t written much so far about the coastal area where Paleohora is situated and where we spent our next two years in the Mani.

Modern Paleohora is a small village with a few churches and a cluster of tavernas and kafeneia close to three small pebbly coves, which are unspoilt, with the remnants of the Portella still visible above one of them.

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Jim and Wallace at Koukino with the cove and village of Archontiko in the distance. 

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Another quiet cove in Paleohora with an old house on the beach. 

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A tiny lane leads to the hidden beach of Koukino – a secret Greek retreat. 

The coves here, like those of nearby Archontiko, Mikra Mantineia and Akroyiali, are close to the main road but some are so splendidly hidden from view that it is mostly Greeks who frequent them in summer. Mikra (Small) Mantineia was once a thriving village but its residents fled during the pirate raids of earlier centuries and moved up to the sister village of (Big) Megali Mantineia in the shadow of the Taygetos mountains.  After Greece won the War of Independence against the Turks in the early 19th century, many of the hillside villagers moved back to the coast. Sometimes the migration was quite dramatic.

A narrow road from Mikra Mantineia will take you past a small olive press to Palia (Old) Mikra Mantineia, where a village on the saddle of a hill once sat and which was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1940s, after which most villagers fled to the coast. Most of the lovely old houses here, with courtyards and intricate balconies and doorways, lie in ruins. We found one house up there in 2011 that still had old family photos on the wall in a crumbling sitting room, and a kitchen with old utensils as if the place had been abandoned in an instant and had never been returned to, sadly. While there was a plan for a developer to totally renovate the village a few years back, it seems this has now been shelved due to Greece’s economic crisis.

Paleohora, however, is the place that seems to have the most history on this coastal strip, and many of the archaeological finds are now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Kalamata.

Scenes and characters that inspired Homer’s Where The Heart Is

 

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The family we spent much of our time with at the Paleohora property. 

We owe a great deal to the lovely family from whom we rented our house at Paleohora, with its olive groves and fruit trees and spectacular views of the gulf and the mountains. The couple I wrote about in Homer’s Where the Heart Is, Andreas and Marina, lived in Kalamata but spent a great deal of their spare time fixing up an old spitaki (little house)  in the corner of the property which was the original house here and owned by Marina’s grandfather. We spent a great deal of time with this generous family.

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The old vine-covered spitaki with its big wooden table in the yard below was the focal point of life on the property. 

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Andreas in the soap-making episode described in my second travel memoir. 

It was in the yard of the house at the big wooden table, in front of the spitaki, that we shared many celebrations with the family, including Easter Sunday lunch, which became a chapter in the book. It was also where we watched the family making olive oil soap one year in an ancient kazani (cauldron), to an old village recipe, and where Marina would fire up the ancient fournos (oven) and cook various festive biscuits, like kourabiedes.

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Jim with a fire extinguisher ready to deal with one of Marina’s famous fournos fires.  

Most of the time Marina used dried olive branches and several times she slightly overdid things and created a fireball, with black smoke belching out of the front of the fournos.

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Wallace and his new friend, the ‘she-wolf’ Zina, who lived at the Paleohora house and was mentioned in the book. 

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Andreas and a friend trimming the olive trees. 

In the winter the family harvested their 80 olive trees with the help of local harvesters from outlying villages.

Despite the fact that while we lived in Paleohora as the crisis intensified to a heartbreaking level, particularly during 2011 and 2012, our stay was nothing short of inspiring and we owe much to this wonderful area and its people for giving us some of the best years of our lives.

Lastly, I couldn’t end a story without mentioning the inimitable goat farmer and friend Foteini, from the village of Megali Mantineia. While she was one of the star’s of the first book Things Can Only Get Feta, she makes several appearances in the second book, when I go to visit her at her ktima (farm compound), most memorably when I watch her crazy outdoor washing routine one hot summer.

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Foteini and her beautiful outdoor laundrette. 

 

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

TO read more about living in Greece during the crisis in the southern Peloponnese, read my second travel memoir Homer’s Where The Heart Is.

To help you along, Homer will be available to buy this week on a Kindle Countdown Deal from November 5 to 7 at 99p in the UK and 99c in the US. See links below.

This book is the sequel to the first, Things Can Only Get Feta (published in 2013) about the start of our long odyssey in the rural Mani.

HOMER'S COVER FOR WEB

To those who have already read the latest book, thanks for your kind comments and Amazon reviews, which are always appreciated.

Both books are available on all Amazon’s international sites and also on the Book Depository www.bookdepository.com (with free overseas postage).

On the website  www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com you will also find a ‘books’ page with other information about the books.

To buy either of my books please click on the Amazon links below:

Things Can Only Get Feta

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

You can also find me on Twitter @fatgreekodyssey

And Facebook www.facebook.com/ThingsCanOnlyGetFeta

www.facebook.com/HomersWhereTheHeartIs

Last word: This blog has kindly been shared by American writer Amelia Dellos on the Women Who Write blog site. Thanks https://womenwhowriteblog.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/an-odyssey-in-homers-stomping-ground/

Thanks for calling by.

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© All rights reserved. All text and photographs copyright of the authors 2015. No content/text or photographs may be copied from the blog without the prior written permission of the authors. This applies to all posts on the blog.

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Why we must keep the spirit of old Greece afloat . . .

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Marjory being rowed about Elounda harbour by a kindly local during a long sabbatical in Crete, 1989

AS someone who has been going to Greece all my life, since the 1970s, the political events of the past few months have saddened me. I am wondering, along with everyone else, how Greece’s economic situation and its politics ever got so convoluted.

In recent months the scenario has included punishing negotiations for a new bailout; a referendum called by PM Alexis Tsipras, who then ignored the results, as well as the 65 per cent of Greeks opposing austerity; a new and terrifying agreement signed with the Troika; a mutiny by some Syriza MPs; Tsipras’s resignation; a September election tipped; a new breakaway leftist party. There have been frenetic political twists and turns, like a manic rollercoaster with brake failure. Most Greeks claim to be confused now.

As one of my Twitter followers, a Greek teacher, recently said: “I don’t know which way is up or down any more? Worse, I don’t know which way is right or left.”

Many others are devastated. A female friend in Athens, with a young son, wrote to me recently, saying: “We feel that we are on a boat that’s sinking. We don’t know what comes next and we are trying to live from day to day.”

She also believes, as someone who works as an economist in the city, that the country will change drastically in the coming years after the next bout of austerity and the fire sale of assets.

I too have had a feeling of dread for months that we are witnessing the last carefree days of the Greece that we all used to know and love. I hope my Athens friend is wrong, but in my heart I fear she is right. Change is coming!

No head for heights: The statue at the Ancient Agora in Athens

A headless statue in the Agora, Athens seems to say more about the troubled present day city that it does about the past

I have been in love with Greece all my life, from the early 1970s on my first trip, not long after high school in Australia, when I arrived in Athens for a short break and ended up staying for a year’s working holiday. Despite the fact Greece was then ruled by a military dictatorship, and it was yet another tragic time in its history, in other ways it was, culturally and socially at least, a time of simplicity, even innocence, compared to now.

All the elements of Greek life and culture that philhellenes still love were there in abundance. I wrote about this time in Athens as a parallel narrative in my book Homer’s Where The Heart Is. When I first arrived in the city and stepped off the overland bus from London it was love at first sight: “It was nothing I could easily define, but more a fusion of disparate things, all maddeningly exotic to my young mind: the incomprehensible street signs, the old people dressed in black, the coffee shops, the bakeries wafting aromas of freshly baked bread and tiropites, and all the other smells even the bad ones – fetid drains and a city still staggering after a long summer heatwave. It all blended into a heady Levantine cocktail.”

I have had many trips to Greece since, some for just a few weeks’ vacation, but many were quite long, from a few months to my recent four-year odyssey in southern Greece.

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Jim and Marjory with their friend Artemios on a trip to Santorini in 2002

When I remember the earlier trips, I feel so much nostalgia for that old Greece, whether it was in Athens or places of unique beauty like Santorini, or small unspoilt islands like Serifos, Sifnos, Paxos, Patmos and for a way of life that was simple and charming, where donkeys were more common than cars and you could only buy your yoghurt in ceramic bowls, where there was only one kind of coffee, Nescafe, and where the drachma still reigned. Joining the Eurozone was a futuristic folly. Despite not having much money, most people seemed happier, and were fantastically hospitable.

In 1989, I took a sabbatical from my newspaper job in Sydney and went to Crete for two months. It was totally unplanned, no itinerary, no rooms booked in advance. I took a boat from Piraeus to Irakleion and travelled to the Venetian town of Hania. I hadn’t planned getting sick either, but a stomach bug left me stranded in a harbourside hotel for days, where a doctor had to be summoned.

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The harbour at Elounda in Crete, some years after Marjory’s first trip. Picture courtesy of www.dilos.com

Later on, a chance recommendation from a fellow Aussie made me seek out a convalescence of sorts in Elounda, a small undeveloped fishing village then on the north-eastern coast of the island. Too weak to bother with buses, I got in a taxi and asked the driver to take me to Elounda. It didn’t seem strange to the driver that when we got there, I hadn’t anything booked. Don’t worry, he said kindly, we’ll find you something. It was October after all and not bursting with tourists, not back then anyway.

Near the harbour he stopped the car, but before he started scouting for rooms, a small rotund woman rushed out of her house, towards the taxi. Did I want a room, she asked me.

The taxi driver waited patiently while I followed her inside to see the small apartment (a bedroom, bathroom and tiny kitchen) on the ground floor. It was simple and clean. I took it on the spot, the taxi driver was dispatched, happy with his healthy fare and tip. That was the start of a wonderful stay in Elounda, and a friendship with the couple upstairs, Poppy and George, with whom I practically lived for the rest of my stay, watching their TV,  sharing meals, helping Poppy to prepare some of them. I would often sit on her upstairs balcony with a few neighbouring women, chattering and cleaning mountains of horta (greens) just collected from the hills.

The couple also took me out on their small boat, the Peristeri, for local excursions. Once they took me fishing at 5am to the nearby island of Spinalonga, before Victoria Hislop had been inspired to set her book The Island there, about the former leper colony. When I went it was just a rather ruined and forlorn outpost.

The rest of the time in Elounda, I rambled the hills behind the village, often with Poppy, often alone, and everywhere I went people invited me in for drinks, coffee, meals, parea, company. When I finally left, Poppy and George hugged me and told me I must stay in touch as if I were a long-lost relative.

Greeks were like that then. And they still are in many parts of the country, especially in the islands and rural places like the southern Peloponnese, where we spent four years from 2010, living the first year in a remote hillside village in the Mani and later in Koroni, at the tip of the Messinian peninsula. In these areas we were shown the same warmth and familiarity by locals, as Poppy and George.

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Some of the regulars in one of Koroni’s surviving old kafeneia in the main square

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An old traditional shop in Koroni, a pantopoleio, on Karapavlou St, selling everything from wine to organic food and owned by the charming Tasos Sipsas

But Greece as a country has been slowly changing, of course. How could it not? It’s not a folk museum, after all. It has become more modern, European, apart from the plumbing, which remains antique! And inevitably, many of the old cultural elements are changing or disappearing. Fewer rural Greeks wear traditional clothing now. There are fewer kafeneia and ouzeries in villages than there used to be; there are fewer working villages. In the Mani we found that many wonderful hillside villages that were once full of life, shops and schools, were now inhabited by only a dozen or so locals. In many it was hard to find even one kafeneio or local store.

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A folky and humorous sign for the local barbers, the Golden Scissors, in Koroni

With the drastic economic changes and cuts that are coming, will too much of Greece’s traditional life and customs change irrevocably, to squeeze Greece into a rule-bound northern Europe template? Trouncing all the features that, ironically, tourists go to Greece to experience?

I think that’s something that everyone with any ounce of love for Greece should fight against. We must save the spirit of old Greece, its personality, its old customs and crafts, and its ideals of friendship and hospitality because, as so many other countries have found, once you dismantle a country’s soul and the uniqueness of its past, you can never really get it back again. No-one who has travelled to Greece from the 1960s onwards could come to terms with that loss. Not least the inimitable Greeks themselves.

HOMER'S COVER FOR WEB

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

TO read more about living in Greece during the crisis in the southern Peloponnese, read my new travel memoir Homer’s Where The Heart Is. This is the sequel to the first, Things Can Only Get Feta (first published in 2013) about the start of our long odyssey in the rural Mani.

To those who have already read the latest book, thanks for your kind comments and Amazon reviews, which are always appreciated.

Both books are available on all Amazon’s international sites and also on the Book Depository www.bookdepository.com (with free overseas postage). If you are in Greece you can inquire about having the book ordered at your branch of the Public store www.public.gr

If any readers have queries about availability for both books, please contact me via the contact page on our website www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com where you will also find a ‘books’ page with other information about the books.

To buy either of my books please click on the Amazon links below:

Things Can Only Get Feta

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

You can also find me on Twitter @fatgreekodyssey

And Facebook www.facebook.com/ThingsCanOnlyGetFeta

www.facebook.com/HomersWhereTheHeartIs

Thanks for calling by.

 Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection

© All rights reserved. All text and photographs copyright of the authors 2015. No content/text or photographs may be copied from the blog without the prior written permission of the authors. This applies to all posts on the blog.

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Why the EU must embrace the Zorba philosophy

Anthony Quinn as Zorba, with Alan Bates, dancing the sirtaki in the 1964 movie

Anthony Quinn as Zorba, with Alan Bates, dancing the sirtaki in the 1964 movie

THE events of the last few weeks, as Greece has fought for a new bailout deal, have left us all in shock. They have shown us how oppressive and vindictive the EU can be and, in contrast, how spirited and stoical the Greeks are when under attack and fighting for their lives.

I don’t want to add any more to the voluminous public discussions. Greater minds than mine have debated all the political/economic issues of the crisis. As someone who loves Greece, I can only pray there will be a good outcome for the country, despite more austerity piling up against it.

What I have gathered from watching recent events unfold – the June referendum and then EU leaders, particularly Germany, acting like schoolyard bullies – is this: most Europeans don’t really understand Greeks, or their culture. It’s as if few of them have ever been to Greece.

What EU leaders have tried to do is shoehorn the Greek character into a northern European template. It won’t go; it never will go. It’s ham-fisted and almost laughable. Greeks have a different story, a different history and cultural influences. Greece is still the least European country in Europe, still leaning gently towards its old Levantine influences, which makes it the exotic, appealing, often chaotic and, sometimes, maddeningly different place that it is. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.

our friend artemis

A favourite old friend, Artemios, from Santorini typifies the Greek character: generous, maverick and an expert at skinning prickly pears

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Wonderful, vibrant villagers from Megali Mantineia, where we lived in the Mani from 2010

Greeks will never be cool-headed, flinty, northern European clock-watchers, which is why generations of foreigners have flocked to Greece for respite. Apart from its physical beauty, Greece still has the human touch, which is something that has been lost in many parts of Europe, and the UK as well, to a degree.

Greeks have not been blameless in the way they have handled their economy, but I believe that it’s basically because they are different from their northern partners, their character has come in for a battering. They have been labelled as lazy, work-shy and corrupt, and these clichés have been echoed unfairly throughout much of the international media.

There is corruption, of course, as there is in every country, and there are complex reasons for it, but I believe that due to a weaker and not very independent media, the corruption and excesses of past governments have not been exposed as they might have been in western countries. Only now are we seeing more transparency in Greece, and the internet and social media has helped to expose wrongdoing where some of the press has not.

We forget that Greece has only recently emerged from a devastating series of occupations and political upheavals: 400 years of Turkish occupation; the punitive  German occupation of the Second World War and the Greek civil war it spawned, and a disastrous military takeover in 1967 with a regime that lasted until 1974.

Four decades of relative calm since the 1970s is but a drop in the ocean for a country to re-invent itself. Until recent weeks, at least, the economic crisis was just another upheaval that Greeks have had to cope with.

During my time in Greece, I have found Greeks are among the hardest working people in Europe. In the last five years I met countless people, especially in the restaurant trade, who work more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week from May to October and in many areas like the Peloponnese will then do a long olive harvest in the winter.

fgoteini on donkey

Greeks are bred tough like Foteini, a ‘traditional woman’ from the Mani

Foteini, one of my farming friends in the Mani, who features prominently in both my books, is an unforgettable character and the toughest woman (a pensioner!) I’ve ever met anywhere. She harvests olives from her 200 trees, alone, every year, without fail, and rears a few goats to supplement her paltry farmer’s pension of 300 euros a month, which has been cut back since 2011. No pensioner in the UK would live like Foteini.

Not only have the Eurocrats tried to reinvent the Greek personality but they have also asked for the impossible, for a country to change its system overnight.

Andreas, one of our Greek friends in the Mani, who I wrote about in my second memoir Homer’s Where The Heart Is, put it this way during a discussion about the crisis in 2012, and I quote from the book (chapter 20): “The Troika moans at us… they say we don’t make changes fast enough in the government, and with taxes… but they want us to change centuries of customs and business in a few months. We cannot do it! Impossible!”

The recent events have proved him right. Impossible, and heartbreaking!

After a lifetime of visiting Greece and after four years living in the southern Peloponnese, most recently Koroni, in Messinia, I do not recognise many of the criticisms and cliches levelled at the Greeks. And nor do I feel they deserve the excruciating contempt and hatred that has been slung at them during the crisis.

Perhaps the main fault of ordinary Greeks (and not the dynastic elites or the shipping magnates) is not just making a mess of their fiscal spreadsheets, but in not putting money first in the way that other societies in the west do. In my opinion, this is a country that has put life to the fore, and people, with a belief in leventia (generosity of heart), parea (company), kefi (high spirits) filotimo (sense of honour).

I have found Greeks to be the kindest people I have ever met. When we lived in Koroni for a year, we befriended a couple who had a small holding (with a few goats and chickens) near to where we lived. Tasos and Eleni are warm-hearted and interesting people, whom we saw regularly and became fond of, along with their lovely family.

caption here

Gifts to strangers and hospitality, filoxenia, is alive and well in Greece

One day, after their long olive harvest, they arrived at our house with a big basket full of gifts from their farm: olive oil, olives, capers, goat cheese, herbs, and a bottle of their homemade wine (above). They simply wanted to show us hospitality, filoxenia, and make our stay more pleasant. We were overwhelmed by this gesture of friendship. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this in Greece. Whether Greeks are in crisis or not, they never lose this generosity, or their indomitable spirit. The Zorba factor.

I believe it’s not Greeks who need to change radically, it’s the ‘other’ Europeans. They need to thaw and become more like the Greeks; get in touch with their inner Zorba. Perhaps then they’ll understand Greeks a bit better, offer a more reasonable fiscal blueprint for the future. And create a more compassionate EU.

As Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, wrote: “A man needs a little madness in his life!”

The Eurocrats need to kick off their shoes, find a beach and dance on it. Opa!

 

HOMER'S COVER FOR WEB

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

TO read more about living in Greece during the crisis in the southern Peloponnese, read my new travel memoir Homer’s Where The Heart Is. This is the sequel to my first memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta (first published in 2013) about the start of our three-year adventure living in the rural Mani.

To those who have already read the latest book, thanks for your kind comments and Amazon reviews, which are always appreciated.

Both books are available on all Amazon’s international sites and also on the Book Depository www.bookdepository.com (with free overseas postage). If you are in Greece you can inquire about having the book ordered at your branch of the Public store www.public.gr

If any readers have queries about availability for both books, please contact me via the contact page on our website www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com where you will also find a ‘books’ page with other information about the books.

To buy either of my books please click on the Amazon links below:

Things Can Only Get Feta

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

You can also find me on Twitter @fatgreekodyssey

And Facebook www.facebook.com/ThingsCanOnlyGetFeta

www.facebook.com/HomersWhereTheHeartIs

Thanks for calling by.

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