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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Lunch with a view

Somewhere around 5am this morning I woke up when my husband came to bed. He was not very good company yesterday after Greece lost 0-2 to South Korea in the World Cup. I saw bits of the game and it looked like they weren’t playing very well. Worthy of a comment, but not much more, in my opinion, but my poor dear was pretty upset about it and ended up with a headache that got worse and worse. He took some headache medicine containing caffeine, and thus the 5am bedtime.

So while he slept away the morning, I cooked. I made homemade fat-free tzatziki, homemade almost fat-free hummus, and homemade pita bread. It was my first time making pita bread, and it was a success. Since my main goal is to save money, and this made enough food for two people for an entire day, I tallied up the whole thing and it came to just about €1.70 including some carrots, not including water.

Lunch

This is pretty much what my life looks like these days. I spend about 2 hours every day reading recipes online, trying to find things I can make with what I already have on hand, or with things that I can buy very cheaply, another 4 to 6 hours cooking every day, plenty of time cleaning (mainly the kitchen) and doing laundry, and the rest of my time I spend at the beach or walking around the island alone, with my husband, or with friends.

It’s not a particularly modern lifestyle, but it suits me since it’s only for two more weeks. After that, everything changes dramatically and I will be in a city of 6 million people and it will be hot and I will be exhausted and cranky. I’m enjoying this while it lasts.

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I cook a lot here. Not just because I’m trying to use up all the stuff in the cupboard, or because it’s cheaper, or because I am an eager-to-please newlywed, but because I genuinely enjoy it. My mother was a great creator of food – I can’t call her just a cook, since most of her dishes started with a seed catalog. I have always been inspired to cook well because of her, and to start every dish as far back as possible: it’s better to make a pizza at home on purchased dough than to buy a pizza ready-made; it’s better to make the dough from flour than to buy dough; it’s better to have grown the toppings in your garden than to use storebought; it’s better to have milled the wheat yourself than to buy flour; it’s better to have grown the wheat than to have bought it… you can keep this game going for a long time.

I have no hopes of actually growing and milling wheat, but I would like, at least, to make the dough and grow the toppings, at some point in my life. For now, since I don’t have a garden of my own, I have to be satisfied with making the dough.

Just in the past week, I’ve made the following completely from scratch:

– thyme-scented French bread
– chocolate chip cookies
– basil-infused orzo pasta
– basil-infused castellane pasta
– whole wheat fettucine
– whole wheat w/ honey pizza dough
– Mexican rice
– Chinese egg-fried whole grain rice
– feta-sesame saganaki
– black-eyed pea salad
– hummus from dried chickpeas

… and more. It may not sound that impressive, and maybe it isn’t, but I’m impressed with myself for doing it for two reasons:

1) This whole year, since September, I didn’t have a kitchen. I didn’t even have a microwave. I had a sink, a knife, and a cutting board, but no source of heat.

2) The kitchen that I cook in is small. Most people claim to have small kitchens, even people who manifestly do not. But I do, honestly. Today when I made the chocolate chip cookies, I didn’t have enough space to put the cookie sheet down, so I had to do it on the bed. My refrigerator is so small that it doesn’t have a freezer. My oven is so small that its stovetop only has two burners and the oven part is not much larger than an American toaster-oven.

I have a double sink for some reason, whoever designed the kitchen thought it made sense, but it doesn’t, because there’s no counter space as a result. Everything I do in the kitchen (unless I do it in the bed, which is not rare), I do by balancing a cutting board on the divider that separates the two sink sections, and working on the cutting board. The cutting board regularly flips to one side or the other, very often sending my food flying into the sink.

As for cupboard space… I store the water on the living room floor, and most of the dried goods like beans, rice, sugar are in jars lined up here and there.

What about equipment, you ask? Aside from the aforementioned refrigerator-sans-freezer, glorified toaster-oven / hot plate, and cutting board, I have one functional knife, a digital kitchen scale (one of my prized possessions), a Zyliss garlic press (another prized poss.), a colander, a large pot, a 9″ frying pan, and a tea kettle / hotpot.

There is no coffee maker, no food processor or blender, no microwave, no freezer (I just have to bring that up again), no garbage disposal, no toaster, no grill, no dishwasher (ha!).

The entire counter space consists of 3″ of space between the sink and the oven on the right, and 3″ of space between the sink and the wall on the other side. That’s it. So I work by balancing my cutting board on the sink divider, and with this setup, I cook two meals from scratch every day.

I do sometimes need some flat space, so I have a table that I temporarily steal when I need to roll out pasta dough or knead bread dough.

My mother has complained for decades about her kitchen: too small, bad appliances, not enough light, not enough air, old countertops, etc. But the truth is that you don’t need space or equipment to cook from scratch. In fact, I think that’s the real secret: the REAL “from scratch” stuff doesn’t call for equipment at all. If your great-grandmother made it, think about what she would have used. And the results are astounding. Everything I cook makes my husband very, very happy. I started a notebook to write down recipes that he loves, and I’ve been writing them at a rate of two per day for a while now.

It’s not all rosy, though. Almost my most common expression is “I want a kitchen!” Because the oven is balanced on top of the mini-fridge and the air vent is positioned directly above the oven, there’s so little space between the stove top and the air vent thingy that I can barely fit my pot on the stove. Stirring with a wooden spoon is tough, and forget about pouring anything into the pot. If I have beans ready to go into the pot, for example, instead of pouring them in with the pot on the stove, I remove the pot from the stove, balance it precariously on the sink divider, pour the beans in, and transfer it back to the stove.

My mother would say that I’m lucky because a small kitchen is easier to keep clean. I think this is true, but I really wouldn’t mind cleaning a massive kitchen – that would be a trade-off I’d be willing to make.

One of our closest friend-couples on the island own a gorgeous little house in the capital village (heh) of the island, which they renovated themselves. Their kitchen is gorgeous. We went there for dinner tonight (I brought the chocolate chip cookies) and when I came in, I just stood in the kitchen and watched her cook. She asked me what I was doing, and I said “I’m enjoying my jealousy.”

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The coldest spot on the island in winter, with a constant howling wind.

This little rock that we live on has an official population of 600, but there are only 31 students in the schools (one elementary school with doubled grades:  1st & 2nd, 3rd & 4th) and a combined middle/high school), and there are usually only about 300-350 people actually living here year round.  In January, that number goes down to about 100.  In August, the number is probably closer to 600 or more, but if you add the tourists, it reaches the inconceivably greater number of 15,000 people.

What is it like to live on an island with 100 people, in the coldest, windiest, rainiest month of the year?   The island doesn’t get snow or ice, and the temperature never drops below 45 F, but it gets battered by unrelenting winds and a suffocating humidity that makes mold grow on your shoes and destroys half of what’s in your pantry.  There’s not much sunlight, since the days are short in winter.  But the weather is only a sort of backdrop to everyday life.

With only 100 people, 31 of whom are schoolkids and 18 of whom are teachers (the balance is made up of the kids parents and grandparents, plus a few necessary services, like the island doctor, the island police officer, the island pharmacist, the island electricity company rep, and the island port authority man), the community pulls tightly around itself and everywhere you go, you’re greeted warmly.  Restaurants are mostly closed, but if you want to eat out, you can call them up and request what you’d like them to cook for you and your friends.

Pot-luck became a way of life for us.  It seemed like every night we were cooking for each other and eating together, enjoying the warm intellectual community that comes from having fully 1/5 of the population made up of educators.

There’s only one ATM (and no bank) on the island, and when it ran out of money or malfunctioned, we bought our groceries on credit.  We watched weather reports with real interest, because if the winds were high, the twice-weekly ferries could easily be cancelled, with no replacement, meaning that we were even more cut off than usual.  This happened frequently.

We went for long, long walks on beautiful hiking (donkey) trails to remote beaches, although it was too cold to swim.
The island is at its greenest in the winter, because in the summer the lack of rain and the unrelenting sunlight turns all this beautiful green to straw-yellow and brown.  All those thousands and thousands of tourists who come here in the summer see the island at its least beautiful, which makes it feel like a secret paradise for those of us who know it year-round.

I will admit, there is a fair amount of TV watching and internet surfing here as well.  Sometimes it’s just too windy and wet to do much of anything outdoors.  Doing laundry is a nightmare:  we have a washing machine but, like most Greek families, no clothes dryer.  We rely on good weather to dry our clothes.  In the summer, clothes drying on a line in Greece will be done in 10 minutes, but in the winter on the island, it can take days and days.

With almost nothing open, there is nowhere to spend money.  The only non-food/toiletry/pharmacy purchases we made on the island over the entire period from November to April were a set of three nesting bowls, two mugs, and … no, that’s it.

Although we started swimming in March (well, my husband did – I started in May), and now in June everything is open, my favorite time on the island is December, January, and February, because of the natural beauty, the quiet and solitude, and the sense of community.  I don’t even want to see the island in July and August, when the tourists come.

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