Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Driving in Corfu: a cautionary tale

We've just picked up a vehicle for my big brother from Kostas and Antonis at the appropriately-named Sunrise Car Hire.
They're nice people, give us good rates and Kostas always comes out with something he has grown in his garden. Yesterday, it was fresh figs.

As with anywhere, you have to drive carefully. But when we moved here in October last year, we thought the Corfiot drivers had turned over a new leaf.

No tailgating, no overtaking on blind bends and everyone driving much slower than in the summer.

Ah, we thought, they're economising, because driving slower uses less petrol.

And then came the summer.

'The drivers are still crazy, y'know,' said our friend, Canadian George, a Corfiot who spent more than twenty years in Vancouver. 'You have to stay close to the side of the road. It can be dangerous. You don't know what's coming round the corner.'

It could be a dog, a tortoise, a hedgehog, a hare or a horse on a long tether. We have seen all these things. But, more likely than not, it will be another car straddling the centre line.

This week, on the day we picked up my brother and his family from the airport, we had just pulled up at traffic lights. A car beside us was stopped and in front was a man in a suit on a moped who, like most scooter and motorbike riders here, was not wearing a crash helmet. The car's middle aged passenger, dressed in just shorts and a baseball cap, got out and started slapping the other man around the head. I didn't like to look too closely in case the assailant saw me and pulled out a baseball bat from the boot.

Incredibly, the moped rider (and we still don't know who was in the wrong or what happened - maybe they were long-lost friends), just shook his head, took the slaps, and smiled before pulling away when the lights turned green.

Taking my brother to our home from the airport later that day, we were tailgated and then overtaken by a driver who promptly gave us the bird. Nice.

A few days later, we saw the remains of a minor accident near a major road junction. At almost the same spot five years ago a lorry absentmindedly hit my vintage VW Beetle in the bottom while were waiting at traffic lights to get the ferry back home.
Luckily, the car saw the funny side.

'I so sorry, I pay for damage,' said the large, pony-tailed driver. 'I am in hurry. I have to get to the port, let me have your address. I am Nakis from Kontokali, everyone knows me.'

Everyone might know him but he never coughed up. If you're reading this and he's sitting next to you, please give him a nudge. In our experience, Corfiots are men and women of their word. Nakis, you disappointed us.

Then yesterday, in the Ropa Valley, we saw a car overturned in a ditch. A group of people were trying to get it back on four wheels. We learned later that the vehicle had suffered a tyre blow-out. Poor driver - but lucky to be alive.

Of course, accidents happen everywhere. Instead of shrines at the side of the road, in the UK we have bouquets to remind us how reckless driving can wipe out lives in an instant.

I'm reminded of an evening some years ago when we were approaching a bend on a drive from Sidari to Kassiopi. We were overtaken by two cars, the drivers playing chicken.

About ten minutes later, on the outskirts of Kassiopi, we met a stationary coach with one of the two cars flattened underneath it. The bus passengers were being helped off, dazed and shaken.

We pulled to a halt, the road was blocked, the police arrived and so too, did the lady doctor, who looked glamorous as she pulled on her rubber gloves.  And then a wail went up as the mother of the young Albanian driver arrived on the scene. He had been killed in an instant.

A year later and we paid our respects at the shrine installed at the spot. 
It still gives me chills now, just thinking about it. And whenever we drive along that stretch of road, the scenes play out in my head.

And when I see crazy drivers - most of them are young men - I just think, there's another one who's far too young to join the ranks of the death notices advertised on telegraph poles.

Most of all, I feel sorry for the innocent people they endanger, and their families.
It's never worth it.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Corfu tails: an unwelcome visitor at the Villa Oleander

There is a shovel waiting on the upstairs balcony, ready to deal with our latest visitor.

It's not for my big brother, although I must admit that, at times when I was younger, I could quite happily have hit him on the head with a garden implement, preferably something pronged.

No, our latest visitor emerged one night not long after a small white cat appeared mewing in the garden, closely followed by a bat. With Doctor Seuss timing, something that rhymes with mat suddenly appeared in the vine overhead.

And it was not a hat.

I could cope with the edible dormice in the roof. They have an interesting and noble history (they were once eaten on sticks by ancient Romans).
And even ordinary mice I can put up with.





There it was, looking down on the family gathering on the outside terrace with cold, beady eyes. And then, once we'd spotted it, it shot off, like the proverbial rat up a drainpipe, although it found its way up by shinning up a pillar and on to the roof.

And the next day, it was back. Mr Grigg has now devised some elaborate way of dispatching the blighter, and to my eternal disappointment it does not involve getting a kitten.

I have named the rat Scabbers because I believe if I ridicule the rat and sort of de-demonise it, the thought of it out there ready to pounce won't make my skin crawl.
You see, as my last encounter with a rat was very close indeed - the two of us were on speaking terms when I found it nesting in the boiler after we'd left the house empty for five weeks - so I would rather not renew the acquaintance thank you very much.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Thursday, 25 July 2013

A falling out in the village

There were long faces outside the kafenion.

The village panygyri, the long-awaited festival to celebrate St Paraskevi, was off.

With a week's notice, the organisers were told by the owner of the field where the festival has been held for years: 'Oxi.'

Which, in Greek, means no.

It was a blow for the village, for community life. It was a blow for the organisers, who work hard to put on these events for the benefit of all.

And it was a blow to us, too, as my brother and his family had booked their holiday dates around it. They're due in later today and were looking forward to the festival tomorrow night.

When you see this YouTube video, you can see why.
The reasons for the refusal, as conveyed to Mr Grigg and me, seem pretty petty. You couldn't make it up. Village politics, eh? Still, there are always two sides to every story and this blog is not the place for a rant.

But to say we were excited about the event was an understatement. We have walked past this field of olive trees for the past ten months. We've seen the stage and the stacked-up chairs, the light fittings and the ice cream fridge - or was it for beer?
We saw the YouTube clip, we heard the stories. How would it compare with our own weekend of fun back in Lush Places?

We were ready for the St Paraskevi Panygyri and sold it lock, stock and barrel to my brother's family.

Yes, there are other panygyri throughout the summer months. And I know there are some people who've lived here for years who are sick and fed up with them.

But I'm only here for a year and want all the village culture I can get. And this was our panygyri, a chance to see the people we have lived with since October get up and dance, join hands with them, and have a good time on home territory. The saving grace is that there is another panygyri in the village later in August.  But by then, my brother's family will have gone.

So we look at all the banners and posters on the roadside to see what other festivals are on while they are here. It won't be the same but at least we have plenty of choice.
And then today our neighbour and a friend in the plateia, who changed his sweat-soaked T-shirt at least five times when he danced at the last event, tell us they are all off up to the village on the hill tonight for another panygyri.

So don't tell my brother but if he thinks he's having a rest when he gets in on the plane tonight, he's got another thing coming.

We're off to the panygyri.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Corfu: The Garden of the Gods

They call Corfu The Garden Isle.

It is lush and green, even at this time of year when the sun is baking hot and visitors and locals dive into the sea to cool off.

Gerald Durrell described it as The Garden of the Gods. You could imagine them strolling around, plucking an apricot from a tree and cavorting with nymphs through the olive groves, a Hellenistic pastoral romance, where everything in the garden is lovely.

Of course, it's Greece and everything in the garden isn't lovely. Times are hard, politicians are 'dirty' and ordinary people struggle to keep their heads above water. And it's in the cities where they feel it most.

Here on the island, there are people we know who are pleased to have a job even though they're getting way below the minimum wage. In the villages, people cultivate their patches of land and live a life more simple.

The ground is fertile here and fruit and vegetables grow in abundance.

Our own plot of land is yielding aubergines, peppers, tomatoes by the bag full, cucumbers, courgettes, melons, beans, radishes, beetroot, rocket and lettuce.
'The house before, it was a mystery,' we are told by a man in the plateia. 'You have done a good job with the garden.'

And to think, when we started out on this journey, this Big Fat Greek Gap Year, last October our outside space was more like a pastoral nightmare.
There is something to be said for growing your own.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Paperback alert! The blog book is out...

At last, my blog book, A Year in Lush Places: Tales from England's Rural Underbelly, is out in paperback.

It's been available in Kindle format for a little while now and I've been like an ant with a overdose of formic acid as I waited for the 'proper' book to arrive.

And now it has, thanks to the good folks at FeedaReadIt will also be available from leading booksellers.

It's a slim little number - it's a novella, you see. Sneeze and you might miss a vital bit of the plot. But if you enjoy the Dorset part of this blog, I think you'll enjoy the book.

Here's the blurb:

Immersed in a sea of Barbour wearers and waves of Daily Mail readers, Maddie Grigg charts the highs and lows of a Dorset year as she attempts to swim against the tide in the lively and lovely village of Lush Places. From singing groups, book clubs and point-to-point, not to mention election wars, the village has it all. A quiet rebel, Maddie is married to a charmer, a man with whom men want to get drunk and women fall in love. Her diary is a story of love, trust and friendship. Inspired by and taken from the affectionate and amusing Blog of Note, The World From My Window, the novella will make you smile and leave you yearning for a life more simple. But you might never eat another pasty again.

It's an ideal size to put in your beach bag and read in one sitting. And then clamour for the BBC to turn it into a prime Sunday evening feel-good serial, with Ray Winstone as Mr Grigg and Joely Richardson as his long suffering wife. Or at the very least call for it to be book of the week on Radio Four's Woman's Hour.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Friday, 12 July 2013

Things can only get feta - new book on Greece

The world is full of coincidences and my life is full of them.

There are a number of serendipitous moments connected with my Big Fat Greek Gap Year. Coming across the journalist Marjory McGinn is one of them.

We have a number of things in common, not least of which is a love of all things Greek. And both of us have actually taken the plunge and moved here for a year.

In Marjory's case, she and her partner, Jim, planned on staying in the Peloponnese for twelve months, taking their crazy dog, Wallace, along for the ride. They ended up living there for three years.
She's just brought out a book, Things Can Only Get Feta, about the first year living in a rural village in the Mani. It is available now on Kindle and will be out in a paperback version later this month.
In an interview for this blog, she shares the highs and lows of her Greek odyssey.

Q: What makes a couple exchange life in a quiet Scottish village for Greece in crisis?

Madness I guess. And that’s what family and friends thought when we told them we were planning an adventure in Greece in 2010. And madder still, taking a daft Jack Russell dog (Wallace) to a country with zero dog tolerance. But with Britain also in recession and having both been affected by a downturn in the newspaper industry in Scotland, what was there to fear from Greece on the edge? At least there was the hope that we could turn our experiences there into some freelance articles for British publications.

Q: Why did you pick a remote village in the southern Peloponnese?

We were attracted to the Mani region (middle peninsula) because it sounded spectacular and unspoilt. To get a taste of authentic Greece and to improve our language skills, we rented a small stone house in the middle of a hillside village where nothing much had changed in a few centuries and most locals are farmers and harvest olives. We threw ourselves into local life: church services, village fetes, coffee mornings in goat compounds; and tried our hand at olive harvesting the traditional way, wielding sticks at 100 year old olive trees, to whack down the olives. It nearly killed us.
Q: How did the local Greeks take to the pair of you, and Wallace the dog?

The Greek villagers were incredibly friendly and were intrigued by the fact that we wanted to stay a whole year and take part in village life. They were more intrigued though with Wallace since dogs are generally not kept as pets in rural areas and no-one had ever seen a JR terrier before. On the first week in the village a local farmer stopped her donkey to talk to us thinking we were out walking a small sheep, since Wallace is sheepy with a white body and black face. We had quite a few escapades with Wallace, taking him with us on trips around the Peloponnese and on one occasion even smuggling him into a large archaeological site.

Q: It sounds like there was more than enough there to write about.

Yes there was, and apart from writing freelance features while in Greece, I was writing a regular blog for our website. After the first year in Greece, I had the urge to write a book about some of the mad/strange things that happened to us. Also, I felt many of the situations and people we met were quite unique and that we were seeing a way of life that couldn’t last forever. I wanted to capture some of that.

Q: How did the economic crisis impact on your adventure?

Not a lot at first but it was sad to see how much it impacted on Greeks including friends in the village. Greeks are normally the most chilled-out people but we began to see them become more stressed and frightened for the future. I think that was the worst aspect of the crisis for us. We stayed nearly three years in the Mani and by the time we left we did see some serious problems emerge. Nevertheless, what I will always remember from our time in Greece is how stoical Greeks are. As Greek people constantly told me: 'Look, we’ve had the Turks, German occupation, a junta, earthquakes. This is just another crisis for us.'

  • Things Can Only Get Feta (Bene Factum Publishing, London)  is currently available in bookshops and on Amazon and the Book Depository, and on Kindle. For more details, visit Marjory’s website.

I'm planning to write a book about my own Greek odyssey. It's going to be called Kalimera Kerkyra and will be out next year.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Sunday, 7 July 2013

We could have danced all night

Up at the plateia, the mandolins did a sound check to Zorba's Dance.

Children tore around the square's twin trees and toddlers bobbed up and down on bended knees while devoted mothers and grannies looked on.

Old men sat outside the kafenion, clacking their worry beads, gazing out at the scene unfolding before them.

The butcher arrived in his van with two crates of souvlakia as the barbecue began to smoke. The wine and beer and Coca Cola was flowing and plates and plates of souvlakia, oily roast potatoes with aubergines, chicken and peppers kept arriving on our table.
'You want wine? I bring you wine,' said an important villager, who wandered down the road to his house to bring back a fancy decanter of his home made brew, his own feta and green olives.
'Why do they keep giving us all this?' said our children, who are staying with us for the week. 'Shouldn't we be paying for it?'

Mr Grigg was happy. What with the children buying two rounds of drinks, he didn't spend a penny all night. So when he found out the festival was in aid of the village football team and the big panygiri later in the year, he coughed up a hefty donation and was promptly given a receipt.

The women danced in lines and were joined by the men. The men danced in circles like cockerels admiring and sizing each other up. A slim, middle-aged holidaymaker stunned everyone with her energetic Turkish-style shimmy, dirty dancing with the most athletic Greek dancer of the night . A chair overturned and a man fell out of it, hitting his head on the paving slabs. There were momentary looks of concern and then laughter when it was clear all was well.

A line of male dancers made their way in and out through the kafenion, a conga-style line but with a Greek flavour.

And still the food kept coming.

'You think this is busy, you wait until our panygiri in a few weeks' time,' the villager said.

It is festival season all over Greece where villages and towns across the country celebrate their local saints. Despite dire times, the Greeks really know how to party. They are the most joyful and most hospitable race I know.

And the dancing went on into the night.
That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Ionian islands: a hymn to Homer

There is something very special about sailing around the Ionian islands.

I'm a reluctant sailor. I scare easily and would rather be attached to the earth by an invisible umbilical cord than be immersed in the wine dark sea.

But there is much to be said for bobbing gently around at anchor in a secluded bay, with only cicadas for company during the daytime and a family of five large owls at night.
Sleeping by the light of a supermoon on midsummer's eve...
...and waking up to a Homeric dawn...
This sun and moon, this sea, these mountains, these islands, they all connect us to the magical and lyrical but brutal times of years gone by. You just have to close your eyes to re-emerge in the age of myths. It is there in your head, in your heart. You just have to believe.

The ancient, mythical past is all around us, in place names like Ithaca, in ancient ruins of temples to the gods, in our offerings of broken pottery on the mantelpiece, a gift to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth.

Aboard the good yacht Nestor, named after the king of sandy Pylos, one of the oldest and wisest heroes of the Trojan War, there is something very mythical about this voyage, and about this whole gap year.
It is as if Calypso had cast her spell and kept me captive. Like Odysseus, I will strive to reach home. The days are ticking by and the twelve months are just a hair's breadth away.
But the assorted wonders on this incredible journey will be with me forever.
That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Batten down those hatches, it's recycling day

It's blowing a hooley out there.  The wind is lashing against the windows and the dogs are play fighting in front of the Aga before...