Let it be Lent

I remember March on the island last year as being full or wildflowers, soft warm breezes, and lots of time spent outdoors.  We even went swimming in the sea around the end of March.  This time… not so much.  Today we’re waiting for snow.  I’ve never seen snow in Southern Greece except way up in the mountains, in the 12 years I’ve been in and out of this country.  When I lived in Northern Greece (near Thessaloniki), we had snow a few times, even snow that would stick.  Traveling through the very highest mountains in the Peloponnese, I have seen snow.  Here on the island, it hasn’t even gone below freezing yet this year (although it sure feels like it when the humidity is very high and the cold north wind blows).  However, it is currently snowing in Athens, and we have been hearing that snow is expected here as well.

Yesterday was Clean Monday – the day when Greek Orthodox Christians traditionally start their Lenten fast, which lasts for forty days until Easter, much like in the Catholic church, except the calendar is different.  Clean Monday is traditionally a day for kite-flying, because it usually falls somewhere in mid to late March, when there is usually a lot of wind but also a lot of sun.  Aside from the kite flying, there is the eating:  despite the fact that it’s the first day of fasting, there is still a long list of foods (not particularly light, for that matter) which are usually consumed.  I did my best to recreate this for my husband, who, while not a Greek Orthodox Christian, grew up with these traditions and wants to keep them alive.

The Clean Monday feast is called Koulouma, affectionately, and is primarily based on a type of bread called lagana.  Lagana looks very much like focaccia, in that it is flat, squooshy-looking, and has lots of little holes.  I thought about making lagana but decided to buy it at the local bakery, since it occurred to me that maybe they make it in some special local fashion that would be nice to try.  It tasted exactly like normal bakery bread, while costing twice as much.  Oh well.

We also had taramosalata, which is a dip made of running soaked bread, codfish eggs, and oil through a food processor.  Pink food coloring is added in most commercial versions to make it more appealing to 1950s housewives.

We had fasolada, a very basic Greek bean soup made of navy beans, carrots, wild celery, potatoes, and tomatoes.  This is one of my husband’s favorite foods, for some reason; it tastes fine but kills my stomach (I fell asleep at 6:00am, to give you an idea) and we eat beans at least 6 times per week.  We even changed the cooking water.  Oy.

We had olives, both Kalamata (his favorite) and Thassos (my favorite), and olive paste.

We had tsikoudia (well, he did – I think it tastes like rubbing alcohol) which is a Cretan drink much like raki.

We had halva, a sesame seed dessert popular during Lent because its extreme calorie content keeps you going when you’re fasting, I suppose.

End result:  NOW I want to fast.  NOW I don’t want to eat for forty days.

Oh……  I get it now!


Er… hi.

So, clearly, I didn’t have internet for the past … six months.  I didn’t forget about this blog, I just switched to writing on my computer (diary style) since I couldn’t post.  But a friend gave us a mobile internet stick and I am actually writing this from our house.  So this is what we’ve been up to for the past six months:

We moved back to the same island.  Instead of living in the village where we lived last year, down by the sea, we moved into a small but TWO ROOM apartment (this is exciting – last year it was one room) in the Capital Village (I love saying that) of the island, a huge metropolis of about 100 people.  But it has two grocery stores and a green grocer / butcher!  And restaurants that didn’t close until mid-November!  And a convenience store that only stopped selling newspapers in December!  And my husband can walk to work every day but Thursdays!

I love living in the capital, which is called Chora, which is the same name as the capital village of almost every island in this part of Greece.  Chora means “country,” but in this case it means something like “place where people live” as opposed to “fields.”  I love that I can go shopping every day (which I do) for our daily groceries, and that there are more people around so I don’t feel lonely.

Our apartment is pretty good too.  I will post photos when I have the patience to upload them but the view, in every direction, is breathtaking.  The apartment has a bedroom, a bathroom, and a unified area that serves as a kitchen, dining area, and living room.  The kitchen is better than last year for several reasons.  The refrigerator is the same size (mini) but it *has a freezer* and the freezer does work.  It’s just a shoebox size, but that’s okay.  I’ll take it.  The oven/stove is worse, though.  It’s only got ONE burner.  Think of something really easy to cook.  Spaghetti with tomato sauce.  You need a pot to boil the pasta, and a pan to make the sauce.  What do I do?  I boil the pasta.  When it’s almost ready, I put the pot, without draining, in the sink, and then make the sauce.  Then when the sauce is ready, I strain the pasta and add it to the sauce.  It about doubles the cooking time, of course.  But, that said, it has an oven, which sort of works, which measures about 18″ wide.  It’s okay.

I have a lot more space.  I have counters!  I have a whole counter dedicated just to spices and herbs!  I have a coffee corner!  I have cupboards!  I have a long garlic braid hanging on the wall!  I have a double sink!  And best of all, thanks to my amazing mother in law, I have a pressure cooker, which has completely changed my life and has saved us huge amounts of money in water and electricity, not to mention time.

We don’t have a washing machine or a dryer, so I do the laundry by hand most mornings.  It’s okay … it’s worth it for the other perks.

Aside from the house, we have been doing community theater (my husband thought of it, organized it, and is the director; I’m an actress in it), Spanish lessons, and a political science course in which we learn about Greek and European Union politics (the whole ‘how a bill becomes a law’ thing, which we all learn in school about our own country, but you never learn how they do it in other countries).  I also teach English to a friend.  My husband runs two choruses, one for kids and one for adults.  So our evenings are pretty full.  During the day, after the chores (shopping, laundry, cooking, cleaning), I work on my dissertation (which, I must be honest, was easier when I had internet access).

I do miss the academic community in Athens but I love living here.  My husband and I spend a lot of time together, we eat really well (everything is still homemade, I’ve just gotten better at it), and we are still on the same really strict budget we’ve been on since last June.  It’s all going pretty well.

We traveled a bit:  we went to Syros, a big island out here, and Corfu, a big island far away, for a few days around New Year’s.  We’re planning to hold a wedding and reception (didn’t do that when we actually got married…) in Corfu, so we had to scout out a venue and all that.  We still aren”t sure how to fit it into our budget of almost nothing, but we’ve been saving for it in any case.

There’s a lot more to say and I’ll come back to say it soon, now that I seem to have internet access finally!

And the wait is over!

We have just been notified (finally) that:

1) we are going back to the same island (so, so, so overjoyed about this!)

2) we have to be there tomorrow, which is physically impossible, thanks to ferry schedules, etc.

But at least we know which island we’ll be living on.  Not which house or anything like that, but we know SO much more than we did a few hours ago.

Waiting is the hardest part

Just like in the Tom Petty song.

It’s August 31.  My husband is a schoolteacher in Greece, which means that on September 1, he is required to show up, in person, at the school where he will be teaching for the duration of the 2010-2011 school year.

Last school year, 2009-2010, he was teaching on our little island, a 9 hour ferry ride + 6 hour train ride + 4 hour car ride from his parents’ house in the far NE corner of Greece by the Turkish border.

Our little island is so overrun with tourists in the summer (July and August) that the little house where we were living changes from €240/month to €120/night.  We obviously can’t afford that so we had to pack up all of our belongings into our little Euro car and board the ferry, then the train, and then drive out to his parents’ house, where we dumped all our stuff and the car, before flying down to Athens for my summer job.

When my summer job ended two weeks ago, we flew back to the in laws’ and started staying with them, the idea being that we would use that time to pack up our stuff, stock up on stuff we can’t get on the island (a lot of things), and then start the process of moving back in reverse.

The only problem was that there was no guarantee that we would be going back to the same island.  The Greek system officially considers schoolteachers “soldiers” (peacetime soldiers perhaps, but still soldiers nonetheless) who are expected to carry out orders with no notice and are not considered to have families or personal lives.

So here it is, 9:20pm on August 31, and we are supposed to be on the island by tomorrow.

The only problem is, they still haven’t told us which island to go to.

Because my husband is a teacher, he is paid on the expectation that he shows up at work every day starting September 1.  If we’re not on the island tomorrow, he doesn’t get paid, or more accurately, it gets counted as vacation time (which, obviously, since teachers have the summer off, they don’t get a lot of “extra” during-the-school-year days off).

If we find out tomorrow, and it does turn out to be the same island as last year, which is what we expect, we will not be able to leave tomorrow.  That’s because leaving tomorrow (Wednesday)  means getting to the ferry port on Thursday, but there is no ferry on Thursday.  There is a ferry tomorrow, but the next one is Friday.  So we will not be on the island until Friday.  That’s another day of “vacation” counted against us.

All of course in the context of us being ready to go for the past 12 days at least.

Instead, we’re sleeping on the in laws’ living room couch (not a pull-out couch, just a couch), while their small apartment is full of the two parents, one brother, us, the 86 year old grandmother, and a large dog.  Because we are in the living room in an open-floor-plan apartment, it also is the same room as the kitchen and the dining room and access to the balcony, as well as the place where the exterior door opens into.

This means we are always the last people to be able to go to bed (last night my father in law wanted to watch a basketball game until 2am – and the TV can only be watched by sitting on the couch where we sleep), and we wake up when the first person gets up (which is my brother in law, who comes into the living room/kitchen every morning at 6am to make a cold coffee using a blender.  In between 2am and 6am, the dog is on the balcony barking.  So to say that we get 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night would be … generous.  It’s more like 4 hours of interrupted, poor quality, sweat-covered sleeplike substance.

I am so exhausted and I just want to sleep, find out where we’re moving yesterday, get through the two-day journey, find an affordable and decent place to live, unpack our stuff, and start living our lives again.

Summer in Athens

I’m not quite back from my blog hiatus yet, but I just want to put in a short update.

This whole summer I’ve been working in Athens.  That means no peaceful island life, very little home cooking (at least, very little interesting home cooking), and not much of interest to discuss.

Some good news:  there was some question about where we would be living in the fall (as of September 1) because of transfers with my husband’s work.  Well as it turns out, we will definitely be living in the same archipelago.  We don’t know yet, and won’t know until about September 1, on which island, but it will definitely be one of these islands.

After a summer traveling around Crete, Santorini, the Peloponnese, Delphi, and Northern Greece, as well as Athens of course, for my very, very demanding job, I’m very much looking forward to wrapping things up here in Athens in the next few days and then spending a few weeks relaxing at my in laws’ house (actually packing up our stuff for the move back to the islands) and then we should find out where we’ll be living.

Of course our fingers and toes are crossed that we can come back to the same little island, but wherever it is, we’re excited about it.

The economy here continues to be a nightmare.  In a different island group (not ours), unemployment last year was 7.4%.  This year, it’s over 52%.  Yes, more than half of the people who need to be employed are unemployed.  A “Depression” is 25% unemployment.  I don’t even think there is a word for 50+% unemployment.  I’m not sure what the statistics are for our island group, but I will be unemployed by the time we move there, and I will actively be looking for a job.  I am very worried about it but we’re trying to make sure we can survive on my husband’s income alone (we can, barely, assuming they don’t cut it even more – which they might).

Off the grid

I’m 29.  The island got electricity during my lifetime.  It likes to remind us of this periodically.  We went without internet, phone, and fax for three days.  Luckily (in the middle of a fierce heat wave) we got to keep our electricity (i.e., air conditioning).  So I spent the last three days with no connection to the outside world at all.  That means something entirely different when you live on a small island that is already very cut off from the rest of the world.

Yesterday I spent the whole day (9:30am until 5:00pm) teaching my friend Anna how to make bread.  We made bread out of cornmeal, whole wheat flour & seeds, and white flour.  Then our husbands showed up to eat most of it.  It was a very nice way to spend a day.  I love baking bread, and I’m surprisingly good at it, considering that I did it for the very first time about 18 months ago.

The day before that, we watched the World Cup game in which Greece won over Nigeria.  It was a very exciting game, and I really got into it (yesterday, when the USA was robbed of our victory against Algeria, I kept falling asleep, and in fact slept from the point that it was 0-1 Algeria until I was awakened by the screeching commentators complaining about the final score of 2-2 (when it should have been 3-2 USA).   But I really got excited about the Greece game, because Greece actually cares about soccer/football, whereas the USA does not.  (Example:  I have 500 Facebook friends, the vast majority of whom are Americans, and only 2 of them posted anything related to the World Cup game in which the USA very legitimately should have been pissed off.  If the same thing had happened to the Greek team, they’d STILL be screaming about it.)

The day before the Greece game, we went for a night swim in the sea.  We’re in the midst of the first annual heat wave, and the sea is still hot at night.  The water was so warm, in fact, that even I just ran right in and swam, whereas I normally spend half an hour inching my way into the water.

But our big news, aside from being cut off from the world, winning a Big Game, baking lots of bread (and chocolate chip cookies), and swimming in the sea, is that we are on the strictest budget I have ever seen.  Starting on June 16, when we were hit by yet another round of salary cuts (at this point it’s gotten so entirely ridiculous, we are resigned to the fact that my husband’s salary will keep decreasing over time, despite his increasing experience, service, and so on), and facing the reality of moving (expensive) and a number of other upcoming expenses, I sat down with the facts and figures and wrote up a budget.

It started as a yearly budget:  this is what we make, this is what we most likely will spend over the course of a year.

Then it turned into a monthly budget:  this is what we know we make this month, these are the expenses we expect to have this month.

Now it’s a weekly budget:  this is what we have in the bank right this minute, this is how many bottles of non-poisonous water and how many cucumbers we think we can scrape by on this week.

To put things into perspective, it’s now Day Four of The Budget, and so far, for all things (everything from food to gas to medicine to whatever else people spend their money on), we have spent €18.18, of which €12 was for bottled water, and the rest was for tomatoes, three packets of yeast, and lemons.  And we’re hoping we don’t have to spend anything else this week.  Fingers crossed that we can make it through an entire week on less than €20 for everything, because we have a bill next week for €200.

As long as “nothing happens,” and we eat lightly cooked beans (the bottled water won’t last long enough to cook them more than lightly) and the bread Anna gave us from our baking spree yesterday, we should be able to finish out the week without buying anything else except 1 L of milk.  Fingers crossed, because the one thing we absolutely refuse to do is to borrow money (credit card, bank, parents, etc.).  We are going to get by on €20/week living in one of the most expensive places in the entire world.  Because that’s what a small island that uses the Euro in a country with serious economic problems and high inflation and no subsidies for small islands is.

I love Mexican and Tex-Mex food. I grew up in the US, where it’s one of the most popular cuisines. But in Greece, Mexican food (which is almost always Tex-Mex actually) is viewed with suspicion. There are a few “gourmet Mexican” restaurants in Athens and its suburbs, like this one, but most Mexican places cater to tourists from western Europe, not to Mexicans.   In the larger supermarkets in Athens and the other cities, you can find El Paso taco sauce, tortillas, and canned jalapenos, and I’ve even found really good specialty salsa in Athens.

Here on the island… nothing.  Not only is there no Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant, but there are no Mexican ingredients in the markets here.  I just wanted a burrito, for goodness sake.

Luckily, I had brought a jar of jalapenos from Athens.  I used wheat flour, baking powder, salt, olive oil, canned red beans (dried are not sold on the island), white rice, tomatoes, onions, parsley (cilantro is not sold here either), half of a fresh peach, powdered lime juice (limes are available but extremely overpriced), garlic, cumin, nonfat plain Greek yogurt, and milk to make lunch today:

– wheat flour tortillas (they came out shaped like amoebas, but they tasted terrific)
– red beans
– dry Mexican rice
– peach pico de gallo
– plain yogurt

Ta da!!  (you have to imagine the yogurt, I couldn’t fit it in the frame.)

Mexican lunch!

If I lived in the US, this meal would have taken about 5 minutes, instead of 3 hours, and I could have had refried beans, some kind of cheese (feta didn’t really seem to go…), and real sour cream. All things I probably don’t really need to be eating, now that I think of it.

It was so much better than it would have been if I had used purchased stuff in the US. Even – dare I say it – than if I had gone to a Tex-Mex restaurant in the part of the US where I grew up (nowhere near Mexico!).

I’m starting to learn that most “international” foods are created out of pretty simple ingredients. I’ll never be able to make some things here, but with patience and ingenuity (remember my nonexistent cooking equipment?) many things I had pretty much given up on can be made right at home on this little speck.