Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The world is my banana

Behold the mighty banana.

Breakfast, the most important meal of the day I've always been told. Actually, I'm inclined to think every meal is important, but that's for another day.

So, back to breakfast. Considering it is such an important meal, it is slightly odd how many of us - me included - stick to the same thing most days. For me breakfast is likely to feature a banana, yoghurt and honey. All washed down with strong, black coffee.

It was while eating my breakfast this morning that I had one of those moments of wonder that in the bowl in front of me was the result of many, many people's hard work which should make me savour my breakfast rather than regard it as something to stop me feeling hungry before lunchtime.

That realisation was brought about thanks to a small sticker on the bunch of bananas I bought at our local supermarket. The sticker from the Dole banana company (not a very inspiring name for someone from England) said "Visit my farm". All I had to do was go to a web address then tap in the code number on the sticker.

By doing this I found that my bananas came from the El Nilo Gorita De Ingr Farm in Ecuador. The farm, which covers an area the equivalent of 1,000 football fields, employs 700 people and ships out 4.5 million bananas every week. It almost seems a shame to chop up one of these bananas to have for breakfast, but needs must etc etc.

Hopefully the banana has a fitting end seeing as I eat it with Olympus Greek yoghurt (definitely not skinny low-fat gunk) and wonderful honey produced by those very busy workers, the bees of Skopelos. Καλή όρεξη.

Skopelos honey, seriously tasty.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Words we get from Greek: Meteorology

That's the thing with an occasional series, which "Words we get from Greek" most assuredly is, it just happens occasionally. Anyway, to business, meteorology is, as you undoubtedly know, the study of weather and climate. It's Greek roots are τα μετεόρα (things on high) and λόγος (basically word).

I used to think it was only the British that went on about the weather as in the joke that Britain doesn't have climate it has weather, but here on Skopelos people pay great attention to the weather.

It's not surprising really, a lot of Greek life is spent outdoors, tending olive trees, growing vegetables or even just sitting outside drinking coffee or eating. The weather has a bearing on all these activities. Will it rain? When will it rain? Will it be enough rain? People also go on about whether it's too hot or too cold. I suspect it's only human never to be completely satisfied with something such as the weather over which we have no control.

Definitely the wrong sort of rain. A storm in September, 2012.

Of course, it's not just landlubbers who worry about the weather, seafarers also pay great attention to the forecast. Skopelos is an island and the only way to get here, other than for a few exalted types who have access to a helicopter, is by sea. If it gets stormy then shipping can't get through, certainly not to land cargo and passengers and so we go without.

As I write this, we are awaiting high winds and possible snow (more likely to be rain). Friends who needed to get to Athens for a flight left a day early in order to be certain that they could get off the island. As I said, people pay attention to the weather here. On Sunday, the views were crystal clear and we could see all the way to Mount Olympus, the top of which is covered in snow as are the peaks on the nearby island of Evia.

A light scattering of snow from January this year.

The use of the word τα μετεόρα might just have rung a bell with some of you, particularly if I type it as Meteora. This is the site in the middle of Greece famous for its monasteries which are built on top of rocky outcrops. I don't know for sure, but I presume the name derives from "things on high" as does meteorology. Certainly I imagine the monks in their lofty homes paid great attention to the weather, I know I would.

The Holy Monastery of Rousanou at Meteora.

Friday, 6 December 2013

And then someone asks THAT question

The island is quiet at this time of year.

In my life I have been asked some tricky questions, generally along the lines of "What the hell do you think you're doing?", and usually I've been able to give a good account of myself.

But since living here there is one question that leaves me tongue tied and often trying to find a way to change the subject. The question in question, as it were, tends to be along the lines of "And how do you spend your day?"

To be frank I blame the Protestant work ethic for tripping me up here. I cannot help feeling that in answer to the question "What do you do on Skopelos?" I should reel off a long list of improving tasks that I complete each day. Instead of which I reply with a few ums and ers and then go "Well, I always find something to do." This is a weak and ineffectual answer and I can see the other person thinking "Ah ha! Late riser, boozy lunch, snooze in the afternoon, evening meal, rest of the day spent slumped in front of the telly."

To counter this completely false notion (for instance we don't even have a telly) I now offer my account of a fairly typical day written with a nod to those articles in Sunday newspapers in which the great and the good explain how they pack so much in to 24 hours. Thus:

"It's winter now, so although I usually wake at about 6am I lie in bed waiting for it to get light enough to take the dog out and listening to the bloody cockerel going on and on. As soon as I judge it to be daybreak, I stagger downstairs to be greeted by black Labrador Bonnie, who is keen to get on with things. But before I can do that I have to deal with three raucous cats who have gathered outside the kitchen door and are determined to be fed.

Bonnie considers entering a monastery.

Then it's off, usually to some nearby woods, to let Bonnie have a run. During the course of this walk, I might well collect pine cones which make wonderful firelighters. On the drive back I am likely to encounter at least one herd of goats on the road. Giving the goatman a cheery wave, I steer my way through the herd. I used to wait for them to clear the road, but realised this is not the Greek way. With care and determination you will find a way through that does not involve running over livestock.

Once back home I feed Bonnie and usually let out Kevin the endangered cockerel to have the run of the land on his own. He used to be with all the other chickens, but they were attacking him and so he now lives in isolation. The other chickens will come out when Kevin, who is not the crowing cockerel, is safely back in his own quarters. Recent experiences have led me to have a rather jaundiced view of chickens, they are not my favourite creatures.

Then it's a leisurely breakfast for me, during which I read. My other half is not a morning person so breakfast is a solitary occasion, hence the reading.We probably both prefer it that way. Often just before breakfast I'll spend a little time using my Greek language CDs. I am confident that if I live to be 100 I should be quite fluent.

Usually by this time herself has arisen and come downstairs for her first cup of coffee, cigarette and initial inspection of the garden. There is a clear division of labour here. She gardens, I bask in its glory.

We then move on to one of the trickiest jobs of the day - deciding what we shall have for our evening meal. In the summer it is easy enough to eat out, but during the winter there is only a handful of tavernas open and going out means leaving the warmth of a log fire so we plot a tasty dish for the evening and then go out to buy supplies.

It is then that one of the most important lessons of island life is reinforced. If the weather is bad and boats can't get through then some food stocks are going to run low and our "best laid plans gang aft agley". This requires a rethink on the food front, all of which takes time. I should add here that we have never gone hungry and we do eat well, but you have to like what you get, rather than expect to get what you like.

While out we might stop off for coffee, which in Greece is not a hurried thing, or bump in to friends and exchange news. This, too, cannot be done quickly. Topics to be addressed will be the weather, what vegetables they have growing in their garden, places they have eaten and what said meals were like, pet welfare and will the boat get in? Depending on the time of year, other topics might include family visitors heading for Skopelos and the scandalous prices charged by airlines for flights to and from the UK.

By now it will be early afternoon, so time for a light lunch. Not too light, though, food is important here. This is likely to be followed by more reading and maybe, just maybe, a short siesta, although these are better left for the hot afternoons of summer.

Currently, we are trying to learn French if for no other reason than we think it's a good thing to do and I am acutely aware that I didn't make the most of the opportunity I had to learn the language when I was at school.

A rare moment of peace from the cats as they stuff themselves.

As the afternoon goes on, it's time to take Bonnie out again while fending off ravenous cats. There is also the question of lighting the fire. Having a log fire is a great thing, arguably better than the telly on most nights, but if you have an open fire you have to learn its ways and prove your commitment otherwise it will smoke sulkily and then go out. You've guessed it, all this takes time.

The evening is spent eating, listening to The Archers online and surfing the net looking for pictures of dogs with funny faces or cats sleeping in odd locations. There is also more reading to be done and tackling the fearsome Times Jumbo Cryptic Crossword. By now you should be getting some idea of just how packed the day is. I roll in to bed around 11.30pm when I read some more and then turn off the light, pausing only to count my blessings, which I know are many."

So there you have it, my "Day In The Life" and I haven't even mentioned chopping wood, rescuing cats from trees, or chasing chickens off the flower garden before they eat all the seedlings. Not to mention staring out of the window at the house over the road and wondering when it will be finished (not any time soon, the most work that has been done on it since we've been here followed a direct hit by lightning).

Anyway, in answer to the question "How do you fill your day?" rest assured I always find something to do.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

It's always lighting-up time

Cigarettes are relatively cheap here.
Greece is a bit of a smokers' paradise really. Tobacco products are quite cheap, particularly for people used to paying UK prices, and there is no smoking ban as such.

Actually, that last bit is a lie. Greece has quite Draconian no-smoking rules which carry heavy financial penalties if they are broken. But no one gives a toss.

Seriously, the rules concerning where you can and cannot smoke in Greece are every bit as rigid as those in force in the UK, but, as I have already said, no one gives a toss.

At the weekend I was in a taverna with my other half and three friends. I was the only non-smoker and strictly speaking smoking in an enclosed place such as a taverna is illegal, but they all lit up as did other people in the room. You get the idea, no one gives a toss.

Yesterday, I was in the town post office which displays a sign saying "no smoking", but the man behind the counter was puffing away on his Karelia or some such Greek ciggy in between serving customers. To be fair nobody on the public side of the counter had a cigarette on the go so I suppose the sign was partially successful.

I've been with our lawyer in a notary's office, again with the obligatory "no smoking" sign, and to give our lawyer his due, he did at least flick his cigarette ash out of the open window, but that was as far as it went.

I have never actually seen anyone try to enforce no-smoking legislation although I have been told that occasionally the police will go in to a café and suggest it is a bit smoky inside.

I am every smoker's biggest hate figure, an ex-smoker, but I am conflicted because I don't like to see the full force of government used to tell people what pleasures they can enjoy. Having said that, since living here I have come perilously close to taking up smoking again. Everyone does it, why shouldn't I?

Well, put simply smoking is disgusting and dangerous. After my night at the taverna I coughed my way round my early morning walk with the dog. I suppose I shouldn't complain, I got a smoker's cough for nothing.

More seriously, Greece has one of the highest rates of death from lung cancer in Europe. The highest rate is in Hungary - Yay! Go Hungary! And yes, I know, as every smoker says, usually as they're puffing away, "You've got to die of something." Maybe so, but if possible I'd give lung cancer a miss.

This sign tells you not to smoke, but it doesn't matter,
you can ignore it - everyone else does.