Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Who killed cock robin?

For my mum and me, one of the particular thrills of visiting "The House", especially in the spring or autumn, is seeing what is growing. Over the years my mum has patiently worked away at our little bit of hillside, terracing, composting, and planting, so that we now have something which might actually be called a garden.* Admittedly, as with so much else, this is something of a three-steps-forward; two-steps-back undertaking, since anything planted in the spring is lucky to survive the heat of summer, and about 80% of what survives the summer gets trampled by builders over the winter.**

However, in spite of this, mum's efforts are finally beginning to bear fruit, in many cases literally. Alongside oleander and rosemary we now have quite well-established orange, lemon, apricot, peach, and plum trees. The plum in particular can be quite prolific. One year it was so heavily laden with fruit the branches were in danger of breaking, and my mum and sister spent virtually the whole of their visit making plum jam and a variety of plum-based dishes in a vain attempt not to let it go to waste. Unfortunately the all-plum diet gave everyone a raging case of the squirts the very day that the man came to knock down and rebuild the wall of the bathroom. Never has a builder been invited - nay implored - to take so many tea-breaks.

Anyway, since in the summer everything is so arid, it's lovely to have the chance to spot some of the bulbs and other plants that you would otherwise never know were there, and also to hear birdsong rather than the incessant scraping of cicadas. This year when we went everywhere was carpeted with cyclamen, autumn crocus, and arums. There were ferns sprouting out of hitherto barren corners, the rosemary in the garden seemed to be attracting an enormous number of butterflies and the trees were full of small birds, especially robins.

Unfortunately, however, autumn is also the time of the year when pretty much every able-bodied male on the island dons camouflage, grabs a gun, and heads for the hills to murder any unsuspecting wee birdie rash enough to call in for a bit of a sit down on its long journey south. So, every morning at sunrise the valley echoed to the sound of gunfire and we were repeatedly warned by friends and neighbours that, if we must persist in this peculiar habit of walking places for fun, we should be sure to wear bright clothing and talk loudly so as to avoid being mistaken for something which could be made into soup.

It came as little surprise then, when one day, walking along the road after having had lunch by the sea, my dad came across the sorry little corpse of one of the robins. It didn't appear to have been shot, but had quite possibly been startled by gunfire and died of fright. For reasons best known to himself he picked it up, wrapped it in a hanky, and gave it to my mum to put in her handbag.***

The same day we went to visit the local olive press. This is a long, low, concrete building by the side of the road. It has been there as long as I can remember and never seems to have changed in 30-odd years, but because I'd never been there at the right time of year I'd never seen it in action. This time there were sacks of olives piled up at the front and the place was a hive of activity as numerous men stood around chatting, sipping wine, and "supervising", and one small boy (someone's nephew apparently) ferried endless bags of olives up the ramp and tipped them into a hopper at one end of a long and complicated piece of machinery.

Having been shown around the machine itself we were invited to taste some of the freshly processed oil. A rather raffish-looking man with a huge handlebar mustache seized the top part of P's pram - only just giving me chance to detach it from the wheels - and lifted it up into the press, and we were all ushered inside to a table by the end of the machine on which was a bowl of bright green oil, and a loaf of brown bread. Having handed both mum and me a huge hunk of bread absolutely dripping with oil, mustache-man then turned back to the table and, with a flourish like a conjurer doing a magic trick, whisked aside a napkin to reveal a dead fish.

Quite what sort of fish it had once been was hard to tell - mackerel possibly. It was certainly oily and had apparently been salted and smoked whole, entrails and all. Mercifully, as he handed me
a slice the innards fell out onto the floor saving me from having to decide what to do with them. Although I am generally quite a fan of both salty things and oily fish, I have no hesitation in pronouncing it to be one of the most revolting things I've ever eaten. Fortunately my mum happened to have bag containing leftovers from lunch that we were taking home for the cat, so the fish surreptitiously disappeared into that.

However, at that point P - disconcerted by the noise of the machinery and the large number of strange shouty people - began to look a bit tearful. This gave me a bit of a dilemma as I had olive oil and fish oil running down both arms as far as the elbow and my hankies, muslins, etc. were all in the pram outside. Mum started rifling in her handbag in search of her handkerchief, but suddenly realized -thankfully before she produced it in public - that it contained a dead robin. This realization reduced both of us to fits of giggles, but at least that had the effect of distracting P from his woes. I was just beginning to think I would have to wipe my hands on the baby when someone kindly produced some napkins from somewhere and we were able to restore ourselves to some degree of cleanliness and make our excuses.

The robin was taken home and given a decent burial.

*Previously we had what was no doubt a wild flower meadow in the spring, but in the summer was a forest of hideous spikes. Three sorts always seemed to predominate: the tall ones with the 2-inch spikes that slashed at your legs as you passed; the ones with the little balls of spikes that get inside your clothing and can't be got out, so that even after you think you've extracted them some of the thorns are still left; and the round flat ones, with spikes all the way along the edge, especially adapted for getting into sandals.
**Of the eight stock plants my aunt gave us last spring, only one was still alive when we got there this autumn, the others having made the mistake of trying to grow in a flowerbed occupying a handy position for dumping bags of sand.
*** This habit of collecting dead animals seems to be a peculiarity of the men in our family. I fondly recall being stopped at customs on one occasion so that the official could investigate a suspicious-looking box, which on inspection proved to contain the discarded skins of a snake and a cicada, three sea-shells, an interesting pebble, and a flattened, desiccated frog that one of my brothers had scraped up off a road somewhere.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

A place in the sun.

A couple of months ago C announced that he was going to have to work away from home for a week at the end of October, so rather than staying at home on our own P and I decided to go and stay with my parents. However, as luck would have it, they were spending the week in question at our "place" in Greece, rather than in Manchester, so our week away turned out to be a bit more adventurous than originally envisaged.

"The House" as it is universally (and somewhat ironically) known amongst our family is essentially a shed with ideas above its station. It started life as a field that my parents bought when they were first married. In the early days, when I was very small, we used just to spend our summers camping there on the side of the hill, surrounded by thistles, drawing our drinking water from the well at the top of the hill, and washing our clothes in the river at the bottom. Then, some time in the early 80s, my dad decided to construct some permanent form of sunshade, and so began his 25+ year love-affair with cement.

Over the years walls and roofs have come and gone and "The House" has gradually evolved into something resembling a dwelling. But until recently all the work was done by us, and since no one in the family is a qualified builder, plumber, joiner, etc. this meant progress was slow to say the least. For one thing we only ever got to work on it in the summer holidays, and for another bits sometimes fell down again or got eaten by things in the intervening period. Most of my summer holidays as a child and young adult involved camping in a building site and taking part in entertaining holiday activities such as building walls, climbing on the roof in search of cracked tiles, or having competitions with my sister as to who could carry the most cement-blocks. On one notable occasion, the truck delivering the two tonnes of sand my dad had ordered failed to make it up the steep unmade road, and so, in the absence of a donkey, my mum and I spent the whole holiday taking it in turns to be harnessed to a wheelbarrow until we had finally hauled the whole lot up the hill.

Until relatively recently we had no electricity and no running water and even once the latter was acquired the only way to heat it was by boiling a kettle on the gas stove. Returning from swimming and trailing up the 1 in 3 hill in 35 degree heat to be rewarded by an ice-cold shower in freezing water which had spent the night in a concrete tank became something of a holiday ritual, and the locals must have known when we were in residence by the screams echoing across the valley.

So, previously the idea of taking a small baby there in late October would have worried me.* But mercifully, in recent years, with retirement beckoning, my dad has finally come round to the idea that he should get someone who knows what they're doing to help him and so, largely thanks to M., a German builder living in Greece, "The House" has suddenly become a great deal more habitable and is now beginning finally to live up to its name. M. is remarkable for his painstaking attention to detail (which drives my dad - who is of the ply-wood and gaffer tape school of DIY** - round the bend, but does mean that what he builds stays up) and also for the fact that, although he speaks both English and Greek well enough to run a business, whatever language he is speaking he remains steadfastly faithful to his mother tongue when it comes to conjunctions.***

Assisting M. has been a progression of incredibly hard working (mostly Albanian) odd-job men, the latest of whom (another M.) is a mild-mannered, barrel-chested chap, capable of strolling up the forty or so steps from the gate carrying a 50kg bag of cement on his shoulder as if it were just a large, rather dusty pillow. Progress has also been massively expedited by the invention of the mobile phone which allows us to ring up and order stuff without having to trek down to the local shop to borrow their telephone or pass messages with random people who happen to be passing the builders' merchant. It also allows people to ring us, which is both useful, and has the added bonus of providing us with entertainment as several times a day we are treated to the sight of my dad scampering about the place accompanied by a tinny rendition of "The Flight of the Bumblebee", frantically trying to find his mobile.

Anyway, the upshot is that we now have a roof which contains neither holes nor termites (no longer do we lie in bed at night listening to the faint but ominous sound of munching, neither do we have to leap out of bed at the first patter of raindrops to gather all our possessions together on a table in middle of the floor and then sit huddled together in the one dry patch surrounded by buckets). The bathroom finally has a wall and a door (for several years it had one or the other, but not both), and the fireplace and wood-burning stove send the heat into the house and the smoke out of it, and not the other way around. Add to this a proper solar water heater (installed in the nick of time the morning we arrived) to replace the ad hoc one built by my brother last year and it has finally become possible to be relatively comfortable there at other times of the year than the height of summer (provided there are at least a couple of hours of sunshine during the day). Ok, it still lacks a few of the finer luxuries, like floor tiles and furniture, but P and the rest of us were able to spend a thoroughly comfortable week (relatively speaking) enjoying a bit of late autumn sunshine.

to be continued (hopefully)...

* Although my parents would be quick to point out that it never did any of us any harm.
As witnessed by the fact that nearly 30 years after we started the project we're still concerned with minor details like flooring and plumbing.
*** For instance, "These are good rawl-plugs you bring from England, aber unfortunately it is a Greek wall".