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Posts Tagged ‘Life in Greece’

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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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).

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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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Today is Saturday, I spent the morning making homemade focaccia while my husband did the laundry and the floors.  We had the amazingly delicious focaccia with garlic-olive oil dipping sauce, and a Greek salad for lunch, after which I did the dishes and put the clothes on the line.  Sounds pretty normal so far, right? And then my husband went absolutely freaking nuts.  He is having something resembling epileptic fits.  It’s because Greece is playing their first game in the World Cup 2010 in South Africa, against South Korea.

I knew he would watch the game – he even watched the Mexico/South Africa and Uruguay/Somebody Else games last night – but I didn’t realize he would take it all so seriously!  This only happens every four years, and four years ago, Greece wasn’t in the World Cup, so this is the first time I’m seeing this reaction.

I’m going to post the focaccia recipe, because we thought it was really delicious.  This is not a food blog, and I’m not going to start taking photos of everything I cook, but it’s something to do instead of pretending to follow the game.

Caramelized Onion and Olive Focaccia

I got the original idea from here and also here, but after reading this article, I decided to use this recipe here and alter it as seemed appropriate.

Ingredients

240 gr (2 cups) white all-purpose flour
1 cup warm water, divided
1 packet (7-8 gr) active dry yeast
1 tsp white sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp and 1 tsp olive oil, divided
5 whole Kalamata olives
2 tbsp dried rosemary
1 tbsp dried thyme
2 medium red onions

Instructions

1. Heat the water very briefly in a tea kettle (or, if not using bottled water, just use warm tap water) and pour 1/2 cup water into a mixing bowl.

2. Sprinkle the yeast over the top of the water, followed by the sugar. Let sit for 10 minutes. The yeast should foam up. If it doesn’t, throw it away and buy fresh yeast.

3. Add the flour to the water and mix well; start adding the water bit by bit as you mix it until it reaches a moist but not overly sticky consistency.

4. Flour your kneading surface. Put the dough onto the surface and start kneading it. It doesn’t need to be kneaded very long. I usually knead bread dough for 10 minutes, and the recipe called for 1 minute; I did it for more like 5 minutes and it came out great. I ended up having to add a bit more flour as it was too wet; the original recipe never specifies how much water the recipe is supposed to use, so I overestimated.

5. Shape into a ball. Wash and dry your mixing bowl well. Put 1 tsp of olive oil into the bowl and coat the sides well. Put the dough ball into the bowl, rolling it around so it is coated lightly in oil on all sides. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and then drape a kitchen towel over the top. Leave the bowl in a warm spot. Note the time, because in 45 minutes, we will come back to the dough. Preheat your oven to 245 degrees Celsius.

6. Turn on your burner to medium heat with a largish saucepan on it. Clean and slice two medium red onions. The slices should be about 1/8″ thick (normal onion slices) and all about the same thickness. At this point, add 1 tbsp olive oil to the saucepan. Separate the rings. Once the oil is hot enough to make a piece of onion sizzle, add all the onions to the saucepan.

7. Stir the onions well so that they are all coated in olive oil. Stir slowly but more or less continuously for a few minutes. Then you can stir every 30 seconds or so (but for 10-20 seconds each time) until the onions turn golden.

8. Lower the heat a little to one tick below medium, and continue stirring the onions. It took mine about 25 minutes to caramelize so don’t rush them – it’s worth the wait. Withdraw them from the heat when they are brown but not burned. Put them on a plate, so they don’t continue to cook in the pot.

6. 45 minutes after the dough started rising, check on it: it should have doubled. Mine more than doubled, but it had a much wetter consistency than bread dough; it turned out great so I guess that’s how it’s supposed to be.

7. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Put the doubled dough ball onto the cookie sheet. Gently press out the air while also pushing the dough so that it spreads over the cookie sheet. Mine ended up pretty thin (about 1/4″). All the recipes say to brush with olive oil at this point – I didn’t, and it was great, and it saved some calories, but I suspect it would be worth doing, and next time I probably will. Cover with plastic wrap and wait 15 minutes.

8. Slice the Kalamata olives, removing the pit, into small pieces (about 8 pieces per olive).

9. After 15 minutes, uncover the cookie sheet and, using your fingertip, press “dimples” into the dough every inch or so over its surface.

10. Sprinkle the rosemary and thyme over the dough. Then spread the onions and sprinkle the olive pieces over the dough.

11. Put the cookie sheet on a low rack in the oven and bake for 15 minutes.

12. To serve, cut into long, slender pieces. I made a garlic olive oil dipping sauce which went perfectly with it.

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