Friday, 28 December 2012

Christmas in Agios Magikades


On Christmas morning in Agios Magikades, the church bells clang at just after seven thirty and then again at nine.

A little old man with a wizened face and a young man with an enormous moustache ring the bells outside. The younger man is joined by his son, who takes hold of the rope and goes up with it, several times.

We follow two smartly dressed people from the platia in through the north door. The service has already been going for at least an hour.

The church is full, men at the front, singing responses to the litany as the white-and-gold-robed priest stands the other side of the iconostasis in front of the holy table. He has his back to us but we see and hear him through the central door, known in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as the beautiful gates.

Two small children run up and down the aisle, a boy with gelled hair and a girl with a new Barbie doll. A woman puts a euro in the box, pulls out a candle and lights it.

The air conditioning units blast out hot air as faces with which we are familiar from card games in the kafenion say their prayers. There is the man who looks like an older and smaller version of Mr Grigg’s brother, in a smart black coat, neatly pressed, light grey trousers and black, highly polished loafers. There is the teacher of ancient Greek, normally so vociferous when he is losing at cards but in here he's as meek as a lamb.

The ceilings and walls are adorned with wonderfully over-the-top paintings of saints sitting on clouds, a big and bearded, terrifying God pontificating, Adam and Eve expelled from Eden and a delicious devil on judgment day. In the corner of one picture I see God taking a rest from creating the world by sitting down next to a unicorn.

The service is in a language we don't understand. Mumbo jumbo but not as we know it. And all the better for it. It adds to the mystery.

A mobile phone rings just as the three male voices at the front achieve harmony.

The collection is taken, the congregation collectively crosses itself and then there is a power cut. The lights go out, including the overhead ‘candles’, which are electric fakes, and the wooden seats suddenly become very cold. The church’s garish interior is lit only by the candles in memory of loved ones, shafts of light piercing through two small stained glass windows and a laser beam of sunshine shooting through the south door.

The electricity comes back on, signalled by a melodic ping-ping-ping from the air conditioning units, and the priest distributes the holy bread.
Outside, the women chatter as the men go into the kafenion for coffee and a game of cards. There is a shout from the corner as Spiros the turkey man says in Greek that our two coffees have been taken care of. 

The delightful Dee-Dee, who, like a modern-day Athena, dispenses wisdom along with drinks from behind the counter, gives me a pomegranate for New Year's Day to break on the ground for luck.

Meanwhile down on the beach, the hardy take a Christmas Day swim.

That’s about it.

Love Maddie  x

Monday, 24 December 2012

Turkeys don't get much smaller than this

After a hairy few minutes wrestling with the world's smallest turkey, the creature has been stuffed, trussed up and put in the oven.
If there is such a thing as the runt of the flock, then we've got it. It was the turkey at the back, the one that came last when the birds scurried across the village road to avoid a passing scooter rider with a grown-out Mohican haircut. It was the cougher, the wheezer, pigeon rather than barrel chested and if it could speak it would have had a high-pitched voice like the comedian Joe Pasquale.

Still, with Delia's chestnut and apple stuffing and an assortment of vegetables around it, Lefteris the turkey might just make the grade.

It cost an arm and a leg, so it had better be good. No wonder villagers call Spiros the turkey man the Roman Abramovich of Kerkyra.

We are having our Christmas meal this evening, a break with tradition but we wanted to get on up to the village square tomorrow where, for our favourite taverna and kafenion, it will be business as usual after an early-morning service in the Greek Orthodox church.

So from Agios Magikades, here's wishing you a very merry Christmas where ever you are. Καλά Χριστούγεννα.
That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Please Mr Postman, is there a letter for me?

In the village platia, the postman arrives in his white van. He takes a large parcel and a briefcase full of mail to the kafenion.
A dog I would like to adopt but Mr Grigg forbids it (collective boo and hiss, please) pads up to us, as we sit outside the kafenion, and poses for a photo.
But he blows his chances of a foster home by scratching for fleas on his hindquarters.
Bug-eyed cat stares as we drink our coffee. 
The old man at the next table is devoid of teeth but his walking stick looks capable of giving a nasty bite. He lashes out at the dog, which takes a shine to anyone who slides a glance his way. The animal is too young to distinguish between friend and foe and gives everyone a chance. The old man's stick fails to make contact, as he knew it wouldn't, and the dog jogs on.

We have a ringside seat as the postman ambles out of the kafenion towards the mailboxes in the wall of the building opposite. 
He posts the envelopes in the various slots and then goes to fetch the letters from the village's outgoing box: Christmas cards for nephews and nieces and grandchildren destined for mantelpieces all over the world.

A middle-aged man in work boots opens mailbox number 6503, tears open his one white envelope and then rips the letter up in an instant, putting the tiny pieces in the rubbish bin. 

Another final demand. 

The cost of electricity in Greece is going up by more than thirty per cent.

Up gets the old man with the stick. He has been walking along this street for the last week. Once again, his mailbox is empty. 

The card he is expecting from the son in Australia he will never see again has still not arrived. 

He has waited in vain.

Coffee finished, we walk back along the village road, barked at by dogs in gardens while the mongrel I shall call Hector, because I want to be his protector, stays sensibly a few feet away from Mr Grigg's left foot. 

Then I remember I have forgotten my beret on the table outside the kafenion.

So I turn around and there is the old man in the platia, waving my hat and smiling with a toothless mouth.

‘Mera,’ he says.

I nod an acknowledgement and, just for a moment, his eyes light up.

‘Happy Christmas,’ he says in English.

That’s about it.

Love Maddie x

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Of dormice and Greek men called Spiros


When the young Gerald Durrell and his family moved to Corfu in 1935, it didn’t take him long to get to grips with the local wildlife.

It absorbed him so much, the boy grew up to make a career of it. Not only did he write My Family and Other Animals, he also founded Jersey Zoo and became a champion of the underdog.
Two months into our Big Fat Greek Gap Year, and I have also become very close to the local wildlife of this beautiful island.

I’ve been stabbed by a palm spike, bleeding like a stuck-pig and stung by a jellyfish.

To top it all, a noisy family of edible dormice has moved into the attic. Bless them, they’re nocturnal so think nothing of starting a game of acorn billiards just as Mr Grigg and I are about to nod off.
We’ve witnessed the conception of a litter of puppies while trying to eat a stifado outside one of the village tavernas, been woken by the sound of dogs, geese and turkeys every morning and been adopted by a ginger cat who thanks us for a chair and cushion on the terrace by doing his dirty business in the driveway.

My friends back in cold UK are saying it’s karma for deserting them for twelve months in the warm Greek sunshine. Well, let me tell you this, it’s cold here in sunny Corfu. There is snow on top of the mountains across the Corfu Channel, there is steam coming from my mouth and I have to wear fingerless gloves, a hat with ear-flaps and a bodywarmer - and that’s just indoors.

How pleased I am we took heed of Maria and Jim Potts when they told us we needed to make sure any house we rented had a log fire and central heating.

Although this week the central heating packed up in our bedroom and bathroom. Until, that is, neighbour Spiros came to the rescue.

Everyone needs a Spiros.

This big bear of a man not only fixed the heating, in the past few weeks he's turned up with chainsaw, winning smile, pony tail, orange tee-shirt and matching bandana when we needed to cut back the oleander, went out and bought us a digi-box and programmed  the television, sorted out the electricity supply when we were inadvertently cut off and then invited us to his name-day party on Wednesday with eighteen members of his family.

We didn't understand a word and neither, apart from a few of them, did they. But every now and then, Mr Grigg would get up, raise his glass full of home made wine and say yamas and then, a few minutes later, one of Spiros' family would do the same.

It was like a Greek version of the classic Goodbye scene in Laurel and Hardy's A Perfect Day.
Two months we’ve been here, and already we feel a part of this Greek family, this Corfu village of Agios Magikades, which nestles so cosily beneath Nausicaa’s Ridge and looks out across the olive groves towards the Mountains of Alcinous.
Indeed, we are blessed.

So, to thank the gods for small mercies, we’re having a Christmas ‘at home’ next weekend. We might not be able to persuade Spiros to do the Macarena or Cha-Cha Slide, as our Dorset neighbour Champagne Charlie would have done, given enough priming with gin and tonic. Because our new neighbour is teetotal, you see, and his favourite tipple is Ribena.

However, those creatures in the attic could come in handy, in among the canapés, mince pies and Mr Grigg’s famous sausage rolls.
Dormouse souvlaki anyone?

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Celebrating St Spyridon's Day in Corfu

Outside the Church of St Spyridon, it is standing room only. The devoted and curious push their way in to see and hear and smell the splendour of the service in the golden, candelit interior.
Nearly all the shops and businesses are closed as islanders mark St Spyridon's Day, when Corfu's patron saint is celebrated and Spiros and Spirodoulas across Greece enjoy name-day parties and buy drinks for all their friends.
It is a special day too for the small gift shops next to the church where the saint's relics are kept in a highly decorated casket.

They are busy selling candles and icons and worry beads. Stalls nearby, manned by minor holy men, receive a steady trickle of customers while the doughnuts stands do a roaring trade.

At the main entrance to the church, a beautiful beggar woman and her two children are handed bread torn off from rolls given to the congregation.
The children gorge on plastic cups filled with pine nuts, sultanas, walnuts, sesame seeds and pomegranate.
The street is strewn with bay leaves. A woman in sunglasses and fur jacket walks arm in arm with a man in a dark overcoat, talking to the family on his mobile phone.

A man in a Santa hat and an old lady with a headscarf loiter around the door to the saint's shrine, hoping to get in as the VIPs come out.

The priest's song inside the church is amplified to the people outside who are buying candles for the dead and lottery tickets for themselves.

Bells clang as the service comes to an end and those lucky enough to have squeezed inside spill out of the main entrance.

The beggar woman is given a disdainful look by a policeman who is smoking a long cigarette, but he tolerates her until his senior officer, a handsome man in dashing uniform, tells him to move her and the children on.

A swish of black robe, a long black-grey beard. A priest walks by and hands the children some sweets.
For the pigeons, it's just another day.
That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Wherever I lay my hat...

Back in the UK from Corfu for a week and it’s like we’ve never been away.

Mrs Bancroft mans the stocking filler stall at the Christmas bazaar in Lush Places village hall and the Parson’s Daughter, in Santa hat and baubles, reaches across and gives me a hug.

‘It’s so nice to see you,’ says Night Nurse, as the Loveliest Lady in the Village comes along and gives me a playful prod in the back.

Mrs Champagne-Charlie is the most wonderful hostess while her husband is on a big game hunt in the Black Forest (despite the jolly music, you honestly should never take a walk there). He is cross he has completely missed our grand homecoming. But there are cuddles galore from Pelly and Anakin Sheepwash, Mr Loggins and his wife, Darling, Nobby Odd-Job and then a fleeting visit from Mr Putter and the fragrant Mrs Putter, who still manages to smell fragrant even after a long-haul flight from Florida. I just want to bury my face in her neck and hair.

There is a card through the letter box from Camilla and Mr F Word, Mr St John has gone into long trousers, Mamma Mia is busy ironing in her conservatory and Celebrity Farmer roars by on a tractor, with the months ticking away before his betrothal.

Mr and Mrs Pope man the cake stall, the pub is full of diners and the shop in the village square is still closed.

And with Mr Grigg using the car to take his son to watch his football team, Bristol City, I decide to get a bus to My Kind of Town for (I am embarrassed to say) the first time ever. As we wait for it to arrive, I and two ladies have a nose as customers from the bazaar go past, loaded with cakes, raffle prizes they didn’t really want and bags full of home-made pasties for the freezer.



Along the way, I gaze from the windows on the beautiful countryside of West Dorset, my home for the past thirty years. It is a perfect, cold winter's day. The sky is blue and the light is magical.

When the bus finally rattles into town, I almost kiss the pavement as I alight outside the NatWest. I am happy to be home. I have to buy a woolly hat, though, to cover my freezing ears.

The next day when I go to get my hair cut in Beaminster, so troubled since the closure of the tunnel, a rainbow lurks over the town square. A symbol of hope, perhaps, for good times on the far horizon?

And then I see my children, the grandchildren, the siblings, the olds and the cats and Mr Grigg says to me: ‘You don’t want to go back to Corfu, do you?’ And it’s true, I don’t.

We touch down at Corfu in the rain and the place looks distant and dark as I press my face against the taxi window and see nothing but unfamiliar shadows and rain. And then we get to our kafenion, our little place in the village square.



The old men sit outside while the young men with the Agios Magikades haircut (a grown-out Mohican I call the Magi-kut) are engrossed in a card game with Spiros II, the waiter from our local taverna. On television, Panathinaikos and Tottenham Hotspur battle it out in the Europa League while the youngsters slap the cards down loudly on the marble topped-tables and yell ‘malakas’ at each other.

In ambles the double of Lush Places' own General Custer, an ageing rocker who wears double-denim and a hairstyle from the 1970s.

The ever-cheerful Dee-Dee, who runs this bar and the shop that goes with it, comes out from behind the counter, and hugs us. She has a radiant face which is infectious. We can't help but smile.

She hands us a box of cakes bought to mark the owner Nikos's name day and asks us to take our pick.

‘You are back. It is lovely to see you. And you look more beautiful than before. The trip has done you good.’

Spiros II (more of Spiros I in another blog) looks up over his red plastic spectacles and smiles. 

‘Welcome, welcome.’ He nods and grins as he gets back to his playing cards. Kiki puts two filo pies into a bag 'on the house' for our breakfast.

I lay my woolly hat down on the table. Oh, it’s good to be home

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

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