I love March. It means that spring is here and that can only mean one thing. That summer is just around the corner!
March in Greece starts with the traditional making of the ‘Marti’ bracelets. Here in Rhodes this is a simple affair of red and white embroidery threads being twisted together and tied around the wrists of our children to protect them from the glare of spring sunshine. I’m not sure what the actual SPF is, but the colours reflect rosy cheeks on pale winter faces. The word ‘Marti’ comes from the Greek word for March (Martio). My teenagers are too cool for Marti’s now, but this is my friend’s cutie showing off hers:
We wear the bracelets until Easter Saturday when they get thrown in to the big bonfire outside the church. The bonfire is lit with the eternal flame and this ritual symbolises a casting off of sins and a new beginning. It can also cause cinged eyebrows if you get too close.
The almond tree’s are the first to blossom and signal that spring is waking up. They are joy to behold amoung the silvery green of the olive groves.
I’m off to dig out my flip flop’s. And my suncream.
I live on the beautiful Greek island of Rhodes. We soak up an average of 300 sunny days per year. Today is not one of them.
Normally this wouldn’t bother me: but today we need to harvest our olives. This means 100 trees, spread out over 10 different pieces of land around the village.
You probably have some romantic image in your head. Simple, hardy folk out in their sunny olive groves. The happy chattering and laughter between generations of family. A head scarfed ‘Yia Yia’ (grandmother) happily looking on as her grandchildren chase each other through the trees. An olive laden donkey. Hmmm.
We’ll squash into a smelly pick-up or sit perched in the truck bed, sat on the oily nets and sacks of olives. At each piece of land we’ll pick up the fallen olives, then lay the nets to catch the ones we’ll bash from the trees.
We arrive at the first piece of land and peel ourselves out of the truck; my mother in law trundles off with her bucket. She surveys her kingdom, casting her experienced eye over the trees, deciding which ones are worth harvesting. That would be all of them. My mother in law never leaves so much as an olive pit behind.
The clouds gather above us and the sky darkens. My teenage daughters look daggers at me through bleary, sleep-smudged eyes. ‘We’re staying in the car’ they tell me, huddling into their coats with just one bare hand braving the elements. To hold their phones. Obviously.
‘Shall we start here?’ It’s phrased as a question, but my mother in law isn’t asking. She squats and fishes out olives from between the stones and thistles. I squat down beside her and do the same. Now and then I check what she’s doing to make sure I’m doing it right. This will be the 17th year that I have collected olives. I’ll keep checking until she’s dead.
My husband and brother in law start to unload equipment, unraveling the huge nets and the long poles, (Vitses) which we use to shake the olives from the branches.
We are done under the first tree. My mother in law does a sweep over the area I covered, just in case I missed one. The nets go down and the boys move in, brandishing their long sticks and thwacking the branches. The olives rain down.
My mother in law is sending my husband up the tree with a chain saw. There is a branch we can’t reach with the vitses. No, she won’t ‘leave them for the birds’.
We sit down on the nets and separate the olives from the leaves and twigs. This is my favourite part. I love digging my hands into the piles of olives, turning them to bring up the debris.
The olives look good, firm and oval. I squeeze one and my mother in law nods in approval as the liquid oozes out. The girls have joined us – probably no signal on their phones. We all sit on the ground sorting olives. I breathe in the earthy smell of olives and damp earth. We chat and laugh. Three generations of one family. I look up just as the sun comes out; it warms our backs as it filters through the trees.
And in case you were wondering how olive oil is made have a look below! Today’s olives presses are state of the art, noisy and highly productive. They squeeze every last drop of oil from the fruit. The ratio of olives to oil varies and depends on several factors; the type of olive, the amount of rain. This year 4 kilos of olives produced 1 kilo of olive oil which is about average. Our olive oil is produced for our personal use, others produce it commercially or some families will sell their excess (if the price is right!) Olive oil is mainly used in cooking and for the eternal flame (Candili) that you will always find burning in every Greek household and at the graves of loved ones.
I knew when I decided to sign up for a marathon that it was a huge commitment. Weekends wiped out by long runs. A tee-total social life. Wait, what social life? I just committed my weekends to preparing and running long runs! Maybe also a financial commitment – the Physio on speed dial and new trainers. But the one thing I hadn’t reckoned on was the hours of sorting through training programs, reading helpful (and not so) articles about marathon preparation and trying to plot in my other life – you know, the one with kids, a husband and a business?
Just when I think I’ve got this running thing in the bag, little things pop up in my newsfeed to remind me that I am still very wet behind the ears.
‘Yes you can train for a marathon with ONLY 3 days running a week’.
Wait. Am I supposed to run more than 3 times a week? I cross off ‘housework’ from my weekly planner.
It takes a couple of minutes to register that the scream is a scream and no longer ‘singing’ along to One Direction or general teenage conversation. There’s movement too. Gangly knees poking into the back of my drivers seat as someone writhes about to accompany the screaming.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘There’s an insect!’
I pull over and between myself and 4 hysterical teenagers we get the insect to disembark so that it can no longer endanger their lives by, erm, buzzing.
We are Poppy and Maria (my daughters) and Mary and Tina (twins) who are Poppy’s BFF’s. And myself of course. Self styled, well cool mum who the girls just love to hang out with.
‘Lets go and light a candle first’ I say to the car as I am locking it since the girls are already off up the road.
We have come to the ‘Paniyiri’ in Kremasti. This is the religious festival which celebrates the ‘assumption of the virgin mary’. As far as I can tell, there are two assumptions here. The first is that the virgin Mary died on this day and the second is that she was ‘assumed’ into heaven, as opposed to physically decaying on earth. The date celebrated is 15th August and one of the most important in the Greek orthodox calendar. You can read about what the saints day celebrations entail here. This particular celebration goes on for well over a week and is centred around the big church in the square which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. As with all good greek festivals there is plenty of food around. Souvlaki (pork on a skewer) sizzling on hot coals, corn on the cob, candy floss. And then there are Loukoumades. Freshly fried balls of soft dough, smothered in honey and liberally sprinkled with cinnamon. I’m drooling as I type.
I catch up with the girls outside the church, although I nearly miss Mary as she is hidden behind a giant ball of candy floss.
‘We had to buy it to get some change for the church candles.’ They smile. Fair enough. Mary gets her change back, but it’s still too big for the collection box so we decide to break it down some more by ordering souvlakis.
Feeling a bit sick, we wander along the gaudily lit stalls of tat and after being momentarily distracted by the fairground (think health and safety nightmare) we end up at the church. We light our candles outside and go inside. The church is big and imposing and exquisitely decorated. The smell of incense is heavy in the air and people are quiet and thoughtful as they cross themselves and kiss the icons.
We spill out into the warm evening air. Its past 11pm, but people are still arriving. We spend our last euros on loukoumades and ‘komboskinia’ and walk back to the car. As Tina is about to get in the car she suddenly leaps back with a shriek.
‘There’s a spider!’
Its going to be long drive home…
(‘Komboskinia’ are prayer bracelets made of 33 knots. You are supposed to pass the bracelet though your fingers, saying a prayer at each knot. There is a bead or cross in the middle so you know where to start and finish. The number 33 represents the age of Jesus. People often buy them as gifts to bring good luck to their friends and keep the devil away!)
On the night of the blue moon I was busy counting my blessings. We were down on the beach just below my house, (that one was counted). We weren’t the only ones; there were lots of people there to enjoy the spectacle. Families with small children, groups of friends from all age groups. Mostly Greek. Everyone had settled in a spot and there was a gentle babble of conversations punctuated with exclamations and laughter, emphasized with energetic gesticulations. People dipped in and out of the sea and it was peaceful. Not in a silent or quiet way, but in a ‘feeling’ way. I drank ice cold shandy’s with my friends, I swam backwards and forwards through the moons long reflection in the water. I did handstands in the sea with Angeliki, aged 6 and was very grateful when her face scrumpled up in giggles and told me ‘your booby’s out!’ And it was just so beautiful. That moon, the sea, the atmosphere. My ‘booby’ safely back inside my bikini.
I was talking to someone a couple of days after, whose (Greek) cousin enjoys a successful business in the UK. She appears to have a settled life. Nice house, family, good standard of living. But the lure of her Greek DNA is calling and she wants to move back to Rhodes. ‘I told her don’t come!’ he says ‘you have everything there – here you will be poor, your children will have no opportunities and you will live in this chaos!’
Am I seeing all this through my rose tinted sunglasses? Should I have traded our beautiful, but apparently hopeless life here in Greece for one of more opportunity in the UK? Would my children have been better educated, been better people, would we have a new car?
As I swam in the moonlit sea my teenage daughter and her friends were a bit further up the beach, singing. Their voluptuous, bikini clad bodies not quite in sync with their gaucheness and folk songs. Its 10.30pm and the only light is coming from that huge, radiant moon. It’s mesmerizing. But I am happy to be mesmerized and I have made my choice. Too many blessings to count.
What’s in a name? Well quite a lot actually if you are Greek. First names get passed down through the generations. They tell people which folk you come from, who your parents and grandparents are. Remember in ‘My big fat Greek wedding’ where all the men in the family are called Nikos?
In Rhodes a firstborn girl will take the name of her maternal grandmother, a firstborn boy the name of his paternal grandfather. The naming of a child is a given, not a choice. It’s a done deal before the baby is born. To keep all the grandparents happy you must produce four grandchildren, two of each. Then they all get to hear their name screeched across the square when its time to come in for tea.
When I was pregnant with my first child I knew I was having a girl. My mum is called Jill. Its not that I don’t like the name, but the Greeks have a problem with the pronunciation of J’s. Rather than inflict a life of ‘Tsil’ upon my daughter, I decided I would choose another name. Who was I kidding?
During the early days of my pregnancy the rest of the family were olive picking. I stayed home alone with four channels of Greek TV.
A plane had gone down somewhere in a forest in northern Greece, prompting ceaseless coverage as they searched for survivors. I was riveted, my pregnancy hormones desperate for a miracle. The reporter on the ground was called Poppy. Pretty name, I thought. Consistent in either language. I tuned in to Poppy every day. The days turned into a week and the coverage got less airtime. Tragically there were no survivors, but Poppy’s hope in the face of hopelessness stayed with me. And so did her name.
I thought my dilemma was solved. Instead of ‘Tsil’ I would call my firstborn daughter Poppy! Mum wouldn’t mind, she hates her name.
‘No.’ said the husband. ‘No?’ ‘We will call her Maria, after my mother’.
So that’s how my daughter came to share her name with half the Greek female population. And my mother in law.
My second child is also a daughter. She was born on the eve of the saint’s day ‘Kalliopi’. Kalliopi gets shortened to Poppy. Guess what I called my second daughter. For entirely religious purposes of course.
There’s red everywhere. Through the back door I see a pool of it in the kitchen sink, blotches over the worktops. And a couple of confused footprints striking out in different directions.
Something boils furiously on the hob, rattling and spitting water everywhere. I don’t have to look to know that a dozen eggs will be dashed to the sides of the pan.
‘Its ok Mum, we’ ll clean it up’.
I close my eyes. And breathe. After the supermarket ordeal I’ve just had the only red I want to see is in a glass with a long stem.
Easter preparations have begun. My daughters have taken it upon themselves to dye the eggs. The same eggs I had put aside for making ‘Tsoureki’ (Easter Bread). Never mind, I can always go back to the supermarket (slugs wine). We dye eggs red on ‘Megali Pempti’ (Maundy Thursday) so that we can have an egg bash on Easter Sunday – sort of like a conker fight, but with boiled eggs instead. The winner is the one with the unbroken egg at the end of it. The red represents the blood of Jesus and the egg the sealed tomb he was buried in.
I start a new pan of eggs. I put a couple of sheets of kitchen roll in the bottom to cushion the eggs (tip from Google) and a splash of vinegar (tip from Mother In Law). I gently boil them (no cracks on my watch) and prepare the dye. Despite the wild variety of colours and gaudy stickers now available, I have decided that we will do simple, traditional, red this year.
We mix up the dye with the water and spoon our eggs in. As we carefully take them out 5 minutes later, blood red, a wave of emotion catches me by surprise. My children are growing up. In four short years they will both have left home (or so they promise). And as if reading my thoughts Poppy says ‘we’ll always come back for Easter’. With that, she digs out the stickers from the packet. ‘Mum, can we put the stickers on too?’ I guess we are going with gaudy then.
The shiny red eggs are drying nicely. The girls have cleared up the kitchen in their own teenage way so I will finish that off later. I grab my keys to head off to the supermarket for more eggs. Outside the door I almost step on a box filled with eggs, a cauliflower and two enormous cabbages. ‘Kalo Paska’ (happy Easter) shouts my neighbour as he zooms off on his battered old Vespa.
Filled with love and peace to all mankind I go back into the house to start on the Tsoureki.
If you are wondering why I am writing about Easter now, then let me remind you that Greek Orthodox Easter only falls on the same date as Catholic/Protestant/Church of England every 4 years. We are a week later this year. This has to do with different calendars and is quite complicated, but if you are interested in reading about why, then this is a good link that explains. The Gregorian calendar
Whilst out olive picking I surreptitiously fill a bag with olives to take home. I want to try pickling my own olives this year. My good intention is to give all my friends and family a homemade hamper for Christmas. Homemade chutneys, flavoured olive oil and cured olives. I might even marinade them.
Of course my mother in law has been curing olives for centuries years. But I don’t ask her how to do it. I ask Google. And Facebook. I don’t ask her because I’m scared she will only give me half the story. Miss out the secret ingredient that makes hers so delicious. Like she did when I asked for her Pastitsio recipe. Or the Dolmades recipe. So when I make them they turn out a mere shadow of her version.
‘What are you going to do with those olives?’ she asks me the next day.
‘Hmm? Oh yes! The olives. I meant to ask you, how do you cure them?’
‘Give them to me, I’ll do them for you.’ No family recipes will be imparted today. But she catches my reticence, ‘Just put them in water. And add some salt.’
Basically, there are two ways you can pickle them according to my googled results, but I must watch out for botulism. (That wouldn’t be a very nice Christmas gift, would it?) You can put them straight into brine after slitting them. Or you can put them into fresh water, changing it every day for a week, and then put them in brine. I try both. I obsessively watch for slime (botulism) So far so good.
Lunch at my mother in laws today. Pastitsio, greek salad and a plate of olives.
‘How are yours coming along?’ she asks me. She can’t keep the smile from her face.