Sunday, November 20, 2011

And so the time has come to say goodbye

Had a lovely walk up in the olive groves this morning.  I took the dog and we went on our favourite trail, she snaffling fallen olives (strange dog with very odd tastes!) then running full pelt, head down, narrowly missing me on several occasions; I meandering and enjoying the views, colours and the carpet of wild cyclamen that still spreads across the hillside, their splashes pink and mauve breaking up the greens and browns of the undergrowth.

We took our normal path up to a high peak, where I can look out across woodland of mainly Cypress pine in one direction and Olive in another, with the sea and snow capped peaks of Albania beyond.  There in the deep valley immediately ahead (I've never tried to climb down that side, there is a path of sorts, but too overgrown and slippery to risk) at the bottom of which is a tiny cart-track that winds it's way between the trees, the only indication of human habitation in the immediate vista.  On the furthest hillside there is a small village, the houses barely discernable as anything more than white dots, with the smallest trails of smoke rising from what must be chimneys.  It is a wonderful place, where I feel very close to both God and nature.

It's a place where the only noises are entirely natural. There are no engines, no whirring of chainsaws,  and providing I don't go too early or late in the day, even at this time of year gunshot is hardly ever heard. All that I hear is birdsong, the rustle of a lizard scuttling into long grasses, the dog pounding her way up and down the tracks,and just occasionally the sound of complete silence which is truly amazing.

Today though I felt sad.  It may be the last time I visit this spot, with the dog anyway.  Next month I'm heading back to England with the children - not forgetting Luna and Olly, the dog and cat.  I have come to love this island, and our village in particular, but for economic and to some extent emotional reasons the time has come to start a new adventure!

I will be keeping the house here, and as I said to the children, we're not moving back to England, we live in Corfu but I will be working abroad for a few years.  I fully intend to continue thinking of this small island as my home, and indeed we'll still be here for several weeks each year. However, for a while at least I'm returning to my home town.  Somewhere that I haven't lived in nearly 25 years!

Going back to my walk though - I normally find myself absorbed with all manner of thoughts that I don't have time for when the children are around, or work is beckoning, but today, once I'd cleared my head I spent a little time on really looking at my surroundings.  It occurred to me that you can tell much about life in and around a village from the paths and roads.  The old pathways up in the grove seem to be nearly cobbled in a very rough fashion. Whether they were man made like that, or whether smaller rocks, now smooth and deeply set into the ground, have over the years been washing into the dirt tracks I have no idea, but in either event they have led generations through the groves and hillsides around us.  A definite feeling of walking in the footsteps of the ancestors.

On the tarmac road at the top of the village, a more recent innovation laid no more than 10 years ago, we followed donkey hoof-prints for quite a distance. Was the poor beast laden with olives and made to walk across the road before the tarmac had dried? Perhaps though it was just during a particularly hot day when the tar was warmed and softened.  In any event it had very delicate hooves and a precise way of walking.

Further into the village tarmac gives way to concrete, where a plethora of footprints are found.  Evidence of village cats playing, or fighting; a big, big dog that probably scared half the children and old ladies in the area - I wonder, was it taking itself for a walk?  A single pony hoof mark on a small patch of concrete. Maybe taking a bride's dowry to her new home, as was the tradition until not so many years ago.  And then there are the bird footprints - telling stories of migration, of new spring birth, and not forgetting Sunday lunch!

For the last five years I've steadily learned about the coming and goings of a small, traditional Corfiot hill village. Whilst I have learned a great deal I also realise I haven't even really scratched the surface.  That would take a lifetime. 

Perhaps I'll still blog from time to time.  I have many stories that haven't hit the pages of this portal yet, I'll see if I have the time.  Meanwhile, thank you for joining me on this journey, it's been a blast!

Friday, November 4, 2011

That time of year again

Well, here we are! 

It's been nearly 9 months since I last blogged; rather a lot longer than the two or three times weekly that I achieved at the beginning of this marathon back in 2007 unfortunately, but things have been a bit up and down lately.  I can only ask forgiveness for my lack of words on screen, based on the fact that I've had a few personal changes, have been doing two jobs all summer and by the time I've finished everything there has been no time left for blogging.

Meanwhile, it's not all doom and gloom, just mainly... On the negative side, Greece is in turmoil - although I'm sure you're already aware of that.  Here in the village life doesn't seem that much different on the surface.  Most of the same faces are here, although sadly a few have departed this mortal coil, including several of a similar age to myself in the last couple of weeks, which has been very sad.  Our shops still trade, but the shelves are perhaps not quite as full as they used to be, and prices are certainly higher. The olive groves still get maintained and harvested, but it seems more and more the owners are doing what they can themselves, to save on the costs of wages. 

One thing that seemed no different though was the smell of wine being fermented that permeated the whole village throughout September.  We may be broke and worried, but it seems like we'll still be happy too!

Behind closed doors, and in the cafes, kafenions, tavernas and shop counters, people are expressing very deep concern, and anger, at the state of the country.  Many of my friends and neighbours are either now unemployed or remain unpaid. New taxes are being thrust upon us, with threats of dire consequences if we don't pay up, whilst the government seems to be lurching from one dilemma to the next with no real concept of what to do - and definitely no idea of what to do for the best!  Where will it lead us I wonder - one thing's for sure, it will be a long, long time, if ever, before we enjoy the prosperity of recent years again.

Life for me has changed too.  Tony and I decided to go our separate ways earlier in the year, so I'm now experiencing life as a single parent, and the joys of how to go through a Greek divorce. That's another costly exercise filled with unrecognisable taxes and other payments, in essence just to get the right official stamps on the right bits of paper to acknowledge that the law says you are allowed to do what you want to do with your own property and lives!

But hey, I mustn't grumble, I'm working, the children are settled and seem quite happy with the new arrangements.  We have a roof over our heads and food in our bellys.  And in a strange sort of way it's all quite exciting. Whilst I wouldn't wish the current situation here on my worst enemy, seeing as we are in the middle of things it's certainly an eye opener and a salutory lesson in not taking things for granted in this world. Having lived for 50 or so years in a relatively stable, trouble free environment - although aware of wars, poverty and hardship they have never been close company for me - it is grounding to see, in a close up and personal kind of way, that life is most definitely not a bed of roses.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Very English Education

I posted a comment about the following on my facebook page, not realising quite how much response it would evoke, so I thought I'd share it on a wider forum...

Yesterday my youngest had to revise for an English test. She had to review 10 pages from her English text book, which is issued to state school children throughout Greece, produced, as I understand it, by the Greek Education Authority.

I happily said I'd help her to work through it, and we were getting on well until it came to a section called 'My country'. It started with a 'listen, read and find' lesson that used a short script to impart the necessary information:

It starts (and I quote):

S: Well Andrew, tell us about your country. Where is it?
A: It's in Europe, like Greece. Its name is the 'United Kingdom'. Its in the North-West part of Europe. And there are four parts in it: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Moving swiftly on to the next exercise. Here the child is told to look at an appendix containing a map of the UK (and Southern Ireland, although it is not named). The following questions then need to be answered:

1. Which is this country? Required answer: United Kingdom
2. What language do people speak there? Required answer: English.
3. Which is the capital city? Required answer: London.

And later still a set of tasks entitled "Write the nationalities"

5. Julia is from the U.K. She is...required answer: English

Alright, I do appreciate this text book is written to help teach children the English language, not necessarily impart accurate geographic knowledge about the country from where the language originates, but, lets break this down a little...

"Its name is the United Kingdom...'  Oh whoops, my mistake, there was me thinking that the United Kingdom is a union of countries that together make the kingdom.

... And there are four parts in it..." Oh please! Parts! Why not at least refer to the composite parts by their correct title, countries. Surely something like "Its name is England, it is one of four countries that together form the United Kingdom" would be more accurate and not too complex a sentence in comparison to the rest of the text.

... Which is this country?... Yes, the right answer really was the United Kingdom. We're back to my initial comment here. Also, how about the phrasing of this question. One might assume it to be multiple choice but there are no options after the question. As I said above, the book is written to help teach children the English language.  The question would have been better phrased "Which country is this?"

...What language do they speak there?... Depends on which part of the United Kingdom you're in. Quite a few people in Wales speak Welsh, in Scotland some prefer Celtic and in Ireland a form of Gaelic is still found. OK, so most do also speak English, but it's not a given.  Returning to correct use of language, wouldn't this question have been better phrased "Which language do they speak there?"

...Which is the capital city?... This is the capital city of the United Kingdom. Well, alright, it is London (London is the capital of England and the United Kingdom), but shouldn't Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast get a mention somewhere?  Yet again, the phraseology could have been better if the question had been "What is its capital city?" had been used.

...Julia is from the UK. She is English... I'm afraid I was unable to contain myself any longer, and wrote next to the answer "or Welsh, or Scottish, or Irish, all are parts of the UK."

Browsing the 166 pages that go to make up this literary gem of educational excellence I've found so many glaring errors. A few of my favourites are:

 - "OK kids! Today is free day for sports!"
-  "A: Lets play computer games.  S: No, it's boring."
- "Write one of your habits on a slip of paper (eg: I eat ice cream)."
- "Christmas is Britain's most popular holiday... They eat roast turkey or beef with fried potatoes and Brussels sprouts."

Don't let me get me started on the punctuation and grammar, I'll be here all night.

I'm not trying to be pedantic nor am I throwing a hissy fit about the inaccurate information concerning my home country. In fact, I was quite impressed with the way the book gets the children involves in team activities and games to help learn what can be a very dry and complicated language. Shame that the school doesn't seem to have a copy of the CD that should be used with the book to bring the lessons to life!  However, I am just a tinsy bit worried that if I can find these glaring errors in one of the school books, how accurate are others? What hope is there for our children's future if this is the standard of education provided?

Right, moan over, I'm off to find me some fried potatoes and Brussels sprouts!



Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Xronia Polla to all!

Well, what on earth has happened to 2010! The year seems to have sped by and I'm struggling to comprehend that we only have a couple more days before the New Year.

It's been a pleasant Christmas though. A bit of belt tightening has inevitably had to go on as prices continue to rise (we're up to 23% VAT in Greece now), so our celebrations have been a little low key, but that's been good as we've concentrated more on family and less on the size of our gifts.  The sight of Tony and Niamh working together on a 500 piece 'Hannah Montana' jigsaw puzzle is something I won't forget in a hurry! Entertaining that Tony was so engrossed in the project, and heartening to see father and daughter collaborating - something that doesn't often happen.

We did have some very pleasant surprises during the run up to the big day. Jack's school report was excellent, and his teacher told me that his Greek dictation was best in class - high praise indeed for a lad who didn't speak Greek (let alone write in the language) 4 years ago. 

Niamh, having said she wasn't involved in the school Christmas play this year suddenly announced, 24 hours before the event, that she was actually singing in it after all. I admit, in true bar-humbug fashion, I was just a little disappointed as it meant I'd have to go along. School plays in Greece are pleasant enough, but tend to be very, very late in starting, very, very long winded and very, very noisy... for some reason the only time the audience tend to be quiet is when their own offspring are on stage, the remainder of the time they chat away regardless!

Ah well, not to worry. We arrived at 6pm as requested, for the 6.30pm start - that stretched to 7pm.  The performance itself though was surprisingly good. A fun, well rehearsed play and songs and carols that I recognised, albeit that the lyrics were different. I had to smile at 'Santa Claus is... coming, to Town', the first few words of which in Greek were 'O Agios Vasillis einai...' replacing the 4 syllables of English with 9 of Greek - it's a bit of a mouthful!

At the end of the show the Papas (priest) was invited to draw a raffle ticket. I hadn't seen any tickets for sale and so didn't take a great deal of notice of what was going on, until I thought I heard my daughter's name being called. At the same moment Maria, sitting next to me, nudged me and said, "Niamh's won, she must go and get the prize."  Odd, I thought, slightly confused as to how she'd been entered in the draw, and presumed she'd get a box of chocolates or something. 

A Greek speaking English friend leaned over to me... "You don't really understand do you Bill?  Niamh has won a desk".  The look on my face must have been a picture! It transpired that the local Sconto supermarket had donated a computer desk to the school to be given to one lucky pupil whose name would be drawn at random.

Niamh is now the proud owner of a very smart desk that we've just about been able to squeeze into her bedroom. She's announced that she's going to do all her homework at it - and I sincerely hope it will be the catalyst to encourage her to study a little harder!

Meanwhile, one of our cockerels, earmarked for Christmas lunch, had an unexpected reprieve.  He was spied by a local who asked Tony if he would sell him. Tony had a quick think and I admitted that it was about 34 years since I'd drawn a bird (plucking is no problem, but I'm not too sure about the inside bits!!), so he decided to sell the cockerel and use the money to buy a pre-prepared chicken 'roloff' from the butchers.  The roloff made a delicious Christmas day lunch, but the chap who had ordered the cockerel failed to turn up to get him. 

Guess what's on the menu in our house for New Years Eve...  ELENI!!! HELP!!!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas post

Traditionally it seems that Greek people are not great senders of cards to mark special occasions.  Yes, it's possible to find greetings cards with Greek texts celebrating births, marriages and birthdays, but, on Corfu at least, there are no 'Clinton's Cards' and other shops dedicated to the mass sales of funny, poignant and heartfelt greetings.

Previously I had, once in a while, wondered why the sending of cards is not big business here, but on Monday I found out...

I called into our local post office (roughly akin to a sub post office in the UK)  to pay my electricity bill and purchase stamps for a total of 24 letters/cards and one small packet.  After waiting patiently for around 10 minutes in the queue whilst others paid their bills I made it to the one counter and presented my bill for payment.  I also placed the cards on the counter, in two piles, and tried to explain in my broken Greek that I needed stamps for them, but I was sending one pile on behalf of a friend, so needed just to know the total cost of postage for those letters.

The cashier gave me his best mega scowl, put my half processed bill to one side and motioned for the gentleman behind me to step forward. The cashier then proceeded to issue him with his car tax for next year.

Meanwhile the cashier's wife came and took a look at my letters, tutted loudly and frowned.  I again tried to explain that I just needed to know how my the total postage cost of each pile would be, although I was happy to pay for it all together.

More tutting and out came the scales.  My pal's pile was dealt with first, each card weighed and priced. The tiny ones were marked at .72c, the slightly larger ones - A5 sized - were priced at 1.55€ for those being sent to England, and 1.60€ for those being sent to Australia... and Scotland!

She then moved on to the small package, put it on the scales and looked at me.  I wasn't at all prepared for what happened next.  She scowled and started to shout (or at least speak very loudly) at me... "why for do you bring these in to me. You are wasting 3, 4 hours of my day having to weigh these letters. Why don't you bring all the same size and weight in?"

"Ummm," I said, taken aback (remember these envelopes only contain Christmas cards, all fairly standard sized, nothing larger than A5, and at this point she had spent all of 90 seconds weighing and pricing on my behalf)... Eventually I recovered myself and retorted "Perhaps you should have a word with the card manufacturers and get them to make a standard size to suit you, I'm sorry, but such matters are beyond my own control."

Whether or not the lady understood me fully I have no idea, but she certainly got the impression that I wasn't entirely happy with her diatribe. She glared at me again "You must take these to K**** (name removed to protect the innocent) I should not be expected to process these". K being some 10km away but home to the nearest main post office.

I'm afraid I then got a bit angry too, although I did manage to hold back on the language! "I'm sorry," says I, "I foolishly thought this was a post office, and that one of the basic functions of a post office was to supply stamps. Obviously I'm mistaken".

It was at this point that I noticed she was now weighing my cards. In an attempt to be clever I had three A5 envelopes that each contained two cards destined for the same address, one went on the scales, and 1.60€ was written on the envelope. Hang on a minute I thought, each of the cards in that envelope is small and wouldn't cost more than .72c to post separately. I'm not mathematician, but I do know that 72+72=144, which is a .16c saving, x3, that's nearly enough for a small loaf!

"Stop" I said, "don't bother weighing any more of my cards.  Just give me 16 .72c stamps and my cards back. "No, no" came the reply, "I must do this". She looked suddenly contrite.  "No, you don't have to. Just give me back my cards and sell me 16 stamps" I assured her.

The conversation continued in that vein for several more seconds before I eventually got my cards and stamps.  This was followed by much thumping of keys on a hard done by calculator before "Twenty five euros" was snapped at me.  I paid - along with the cost of the electricity bill. Outside I opened up the larger envelopes, stuck stamps on my cards and popped them in the letter box.  Hopefully they will arrive safely

I do appreciate that the Greek rules regarding the weight and size of postage may be quite strict, but to berate me so loudly and publicly for having the audacity to go into a post office and ask to send some letters seems completely over the top!  If a PO isn't there for buying stamps from what does it do?  Yes, you can pay your bills there, but even that isn't a free service in Greece - there is a handling charge of around .60c per bill!  What I found even more irritating was that when I too punched my calculator I realised that the postage hadn't been a round 25€ at all, I'd been overcharged by .27c. Not a fortune I grant you, but irritating nonetheless.

Later in the day I regaled the story to a Greek colleague of mine. She roared with laughter and said, "do you know, since I was a girl I have always wanted to work in a post office. You work from 7-10, take a 2 hour coffee break, then close at 1pm. When you are actually working you get to sit down behind a desk and shout at people all day..."  How right she is!

Now I understand why greetings cards aren't popular in Greece!

Xronia Polla to all, have a wonderful Christmas and please excuse me if I send you e-cards rather than paper ones :0)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Some flew over the chicken coop

... or the strange case of the shape shifting poultry...

Two evenings ago Tony came in shaking his head and looking bemused. 

"Wassup?" I asked.

"It's the chickens", he replied.  "Or more accurately one of the cockerels".  "You remember the brown cockerel I bred from the hen that Nikos gave me?" "Yes", I nodded, lying slightly as they all look the same to me.

"Well, it's gone.  But now there's a young, scrawny little cockerel in there that I haven't seen before.  I've got the right number of birds, I counted them carefully, but Big Brown has definitely disappeared."

Now, this is a bit strange as we have a 2 metre high fence around the entire chicken run, and the gate has a large padlock on it.  There was no sign of a forced entry and the larger chickens are not capable of sufficient flight to get over the fence unaided.

After much debate and discussion we've come up with two theories about what happened.  Either Big Brown was abducted by aliens, experimented on, and returned a shadow or his former self; or, just possibly, someone has come along and coaxed some of the chickens to the fence (which, being chain link is large enough to get a man's hand through).  Coaxing the chooks isn't difficult because they're a nosey bunch and will always come to see if there's any extra grub on offer.  Get a bird close enough to the fence and you could stick your hand through, grab it (probably by the neck) and then move it up the fence link by link until you could heave it over the top. 

If this rather implausible theory is correct we must also presume that the 'thief' thought that by putting a replacement bird in the run he/she had either done the decent thing (fair exchange being no robbery), or that they would fool the Englishman who might know how many birds he has, but surely wouldn't notice the difference...  

But then last night Jack went to take the dog back to the garden after their evening walk and noticed a pile of something just outside the chicken run.  It was getting dark, but closer inspection revealed clutch of chickens that were, according to Jack, shivering and looking very sorry for themselves (how a chicken can express such emotion I have no idea but anyway!).

Jack's version of events is that there were 3 brown hens and one white bird that might have been a cockerel, sitting at the side of the fence.  He picked the three hens up one at a time and put them back over the fence, but the white bird did take a bit of catching.  He indicated the height of the birds that suggested these were full sized, not the nanies (bantams) that also live in the run.

Now, this was a bit odd for a number of reasons.  The full sized birds, as I mentioned previously, can't get over the fence. The nanies are capable of gaining sufficient height to effect and escape, and occasionally one will do, but four....?  Not so far.

It was also strange because the previous night one white nani cockerel had got out, and despite Jack and Tony's best efforts for nearly an hour they'd been unable to recapture it as it had hidden out in thick brambles on the far side of the run. Yet here's Jack saying he caught all 4 with very little trouble.

Tony got a torch and went down to investigate. Again there were two possible theories.  Either the fence had been cut and the birds got out that way, or Jack was playing a trick on Tony.  Half an hour and one rather angry father later the second option seemed more likely, although Jack was looking quite hurt at being accused of winding his dad up, and swearing blind that the chickens really had been out.

In the cold light of day we have come up with option 3.  Perhaps, as with all the best fishermen, Jack's idea of "they were this big" was rather exaggerated, and in fact the birds were nanies.  And perhaps, rather than there being 4 birds there were two, but Jack, in the dark, didn't manage to lob them over the fence properly first time, and thought he was capturing more when in fact he was recapturing the same one. Of course the number of birds could also have been a slight exaggeration on his part.

As for the truth?  I suspect we'll never find out, but I'm keeping an eye out for flying saucers hovering low over the village in the night sky for a while... 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A bit damp...

News today is that after another storm last night Corfu is in the grips of flooding.  Properties in Corfu Town have been damaged, landslides reported, one dead and many people needing to be rescued. 

I'm sure this is correct. I understand from colleagues who live further south that the storm was horrendous there, and areas to the south west of the island are without power etc today.

Up here in the north we did have quite a downpour overnight, it was certainly remnicent of some of our more inclement autumn nights, but this morning we have sunshine and blue skies, and everything seems fine.

We've always said that weather on the island can be very localised, with rain in one village and brilliant sunshine on the next. I am slightly bemused though that such mayhem was going on just a few miles down the road from us whilst I, if not quite slept through the whole thing, didn't find the need to actually have to get out of bed last night!

I sincerely hope all those caught up in last night's difficulties are safe, sound and haven't suffered any damage to property.