Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Oh dear, between them, the British Foreign Secretary, Mr William Hague, and the Daily Mail, have created a crisis of alarming proportions.
Confused Brits living in Greece are wondering what to pack and where to muster in preparation for evacuation; their prime concerns are of course for their pets and for the watering of their house plants.

But hold on there!
Things may not be what they seem.
A hail of scorn and abuse has descended upon the Mail and Mr Hague alike, and once again bad reporting and scare-mongering tactics have been exposed and condemned. There has been some confusion over what Hague said, what the Mail reported, what the Foreign Office recommends, and what conclusions we, the foreign residents of Greece, are meant to arrive at.

Those of us who have lived in Greece for a long time can remember that the question of evacuation was aired in the early days of the junta, when things were uncertain and could have become dangerous. It never became necessary however, and since then the only reasons for evacuation have been local and the result of forest fires or floods. The somewhat chaotic and volatile state of Greece’s political scene has never been a source of anxiety for its foreign residents.

Evacuation of its subjects, or citizens as we are now known, in times of tribal unrest or natural disaster is something that the British Government has always been quite good at, though more recently they seem to have lost the knack somewhat. Registering with the British Consulate has always been recommended and serves a number of purposes apart from evacuation and repatriation when necessary

In the good old days, before the powers and finances of the British Foreign Service were somewhat curtailed, it was essential to register with the consulate each year if you wished to be invited to the Queen’s Birthday Garden Party, or to be requested to attend a cocktail party each time a Royal Navy vessel visited Corfu.
As you would expect, the Senior Service do these things with amazing efficiency and enthusiasm, erecting awnings and building fountains and gardens on deck, even building a barbecue on deck on one occasion I remember.

Oh the glamour of it all! Not all ships were small enough to be boarded in a ladylike fashion, by stepping across a gangplank with a handrail. Some were quite huge and getting aboard was anything but ladylike. Arriving at the quayside, in tight cocktail dress and high heels, to find that you were expected to clamber up an almost-vertical wood and metal contraption, with slats instead of steps – was an experience similar to climbing up the side of a house. There were always plenty of willing hands, however, to see the ladies aboard safely. I often thought it would be more practical to take one’s purse between one’s teeth, hitch up the skirt, and board by scrambling pirate-fashion up the rigging.
The most often aired ‘joke’ of course, was ‘Are you going to pipe us aboard then?’ and indeed it did all feel rather surreal.
Invitations to the parties were highly sought after and favours were called in to obtain one. Everyone was encouraged to dress up for the occasion, one rather flamboyant Corfiot friend of mine even turning up in top hat and tails, with a long white silk scarf around his neck
The officers and crew were immaculate in their whites, eager to please, and desperate for some female company.

As many unattached females as possible would be invited along with the local dignitaries and crusty old ex-pats, There were no wallflowers at these parties! If you accepted the invitations to ‘show you round the ship’ you were conducted with perfect propriety into every cubicle and cubbyhole, where nothing was out of place and everything gleamed and shone – what you might call ‘shipshape’ I suppose..
Afterwards, if you accepted an invitation to go for a drink ashore with one of the ‘boys’, you would invariably be treated as a lady, but also as a shoulder to weep on.
Once, I received an emergency phone call from the Consulate in Corfu, begging me to round up all my girlfriends and bring them along to a party on a ship that had arrived unexpectedly. (Probably diplomatic-speak  for ‘we lost the fax’) I felt like a Madam, ringing up female friends and urging them to join me in amusing a ship’s company, and needless to say most of my friends who were married to Greeks were not allowed to attend. (My own husband had more faith in me).
The drinks never stopped coming. Pitchers of already-mixed gin and tonic, heavy on the gin and light on tonic, glass jugs full of ice=cold Horse’s Neck cocktail – brandy, ginger ale and a twist of lemon peel, and, in the Sixties, the only place to drink Pimms. The array of canapés was splendid, all quite delicious, and with plenty of caviar. The Navy did nothing by halves in those days.
There were other parties, on NATO ships visiting Corfu – perhaps one of the oddest that I attended was aboard an Italian submarine. My previous experience with Italians had not prepared me for their utter correctness, at least equal to that of the British sailors, harder perhaps to maintain in the confines of a sub!
Parties on board American ships were of course bigger and more spectacular, but not necessarily better – for one thing they were ‘dry’. They mostly took place on vast aircraft carriers, to which we were ferried by tender, and which we entered rather than boarded, by way of a metal stairway manned by very smartly dressed crewmen who addressed the women as M’am and placed white-gloved hands under our elbows to steady us as we climbed up what felt more like the side of the Empire State building than just any old house.
Fantastic American food, a bar that dispensed tea, coffee and milk as well as the inevitable Coke and Pepsi, the ship’s band performing jazz and rock, polite, attentive sailors and airmen who made you feel  ancient, so young were they, and the realization that this was a floating piece of the USA in every way. Much earlier, I had been shown a booklet, issued to all American sailors before they went ashore, listing (in very great detail!) the customs of the country they were visiting, including how they should behave with the local women, how not to give offence to anyone, what to do and not do – an amazing exercise in public relations. We noticed, too, on leaving the ship, that the last thing a sailor going ashore would see before boarding the tender was a notice in very plain English ordering them to take a supply of ‘protection’ with them.
The Americans loved to show off their computers and advanced technology (without compromising security) and one of my friends was treated to such a comprehensive tour of the computers (she was the first ‘geek’ I ever knew) that we didn’t see her again until the following day!

In March 2010, Royal Navy commanders were ordered to scrap the cocktail parties that had been held on board ships visiting foreign ports for over 200 years – Admiral Horatio Nelson met Lady Emma Hamilton at one such party held aboard ship in Naples, and it is said that he instigated the custom of hosting such gatherings on Royal Navy ships. Scrapping the traditional parties was said to be a way to help plug a ‘black hole’ in the MoD’s 36 billion-pound annual budget – a saving of between 50,000 and 70,000 pounds. A trivial amount compared to the amount of goodwill generated.
The outcry was huge and involved accusations of ‘scuppering’ naval tradition. The truth is that the ‘Cockers  P’, or CTPs, served a purpose – it allowed foreigners and British abroad to experience the impeccable good form of British naval hospitality, while making sure that the big guns and missiles were on view as a reminder of the iron fist in the oh-so-soft velvet glove of diplomacy.

Evacuation? Thanks, but no thanks – mine’s a gin-and-tonic, please, Chief Petty Officer!


Thursday, February 16, 2012


Barbarossa? Read on, all will be made clear.
I never intended my blog to become a soapbox for the airing of political grievances or economic solutions. I leave that to others.
I wanted it to be a little voice of gentle humour spiced with some nuggets of interesting information, some alternative perspectives.
But I cannot ignore what is going on in this country that I love so much and that I call home.
I have to get my head out of the sand.

I have lived here for so many years – over half my adult life, and while I know that I can never say ‘I am a Greek’. I am proud to say that I feel like a Greek.
I feel passionate about the country and its history and its people, and I feel the anger and humiliation and helplessness the Greeks are currently experiencing. What am I saying? That WE are experiencing. I live here, and Greece is MY country now.

 I have to confess to a deep sense of disappointment in the way Greece is being treated by the international media. Like a stray dog in a hostile market place, this country is being abused, pelted with stones, chased and harried and thoroughly misrepresented as a worthless, lazy, disobedient tyke.
That is not the Greece I know, and I object most strongly to this attitude. It is obviously in someone’s interests to depict this country so unfairly.
What a fine way to repay all that Greece has given us.

Greece, and most of Europe, is in the midst of an unprecedented wave of cold, ice and snow. Greece itself is poised waiting for the results and effects of decisions that will have a long-term influence on its people and its way of life. Corfu is lashed by thunderstorms, its skies riven by lightning, its very air burdened by thunder and the echoes of thunder. It rains, incessantly and heavily. Hail lashes the olive trees.

“Now is the Winter of our Discontent’ said Richard III. Sure is Rick.

But in Corfu, even winter discontent is rapidly dispersed by one of those unique Corfu Moments. Driving back from a visit to friends on Sunday, a visit that began with a lifting of the clouds, a suggestion of sunshine, we were driving along the road that skirts the Bay of Garitsa in Corfu Town. A few days earlier, with a southerly wind blowing (the notorious ‘sirocco’) vast quantities of sea water were flung in the air to break over the sea wall and flood the entire road.

On Sunday it was less dramatic – the wind was from a different direction and the bay was sheltered, but the entire area was devoid of any detail, like a very old, very faded sepia photograph. The Old Fortress loomed out of the dimness, but sea and sky merged in a colourless blur.
Oddly enough we didn’t feel depressed or anxious, though the scene before us could have been the epitome of the national mood.
We were a family together, three generations, warm, finding pleasure in the austere beauty of Garitsa in winter.
Corfu worked its magic again.

Corfu has always given us the ability to enjoy simple pleasures. On Sunday we were given the opportunity to taste a Corfiot sweet that most likely was made to a recipe dating back at least to the years of the Venetian Empire, or perhaps was brought by the Maltese workers from their own island in the nineteenth century.

I thought Nikolas was offering me a dish of olives, black, a little shrivelled, but the aroma that emanated from them was that of tsipouro. Intrigued, I tried one, and then another, and then… it became hard to stop.  Nikolas was smiling and mysterious, pleased that I liked his offering, making me guess what the little fruits were.
Eventually he relented and told me not only what they were – figs, which I had managed to guess – but how this delectable sweet was made.
The small purple figs, from his own garden, had been dried in the sun beneath a protective covering of muslin and were then steeped for days in a syrup made from tsipouro to which the following had been added: bay leaves, fennel seeds, cloves, black pepper, vanilla, lemon, cinnamon and mastica – and one more thing, something that Nikolas called ‘barbarroza’ which flummoxed me completely and sent me on a quest! I searched the Internet amd then asked my truly Corfiot friends - I should really have done this the other way round -  and learned that what he called by this oddly piratical name was in fact arbaroriza which is the rose-scented pelargonium, called ‘nutmeg geranium’ in England. It grows wild everywhere in Greece and looks like this:

The leaves are used to flavour quince preserves, loukoumi and ice creams.
But here in Corfu it finds its way into this wonderful fig preserve and also into the famous fig-cakes of Corfu (sykomaitha). These are formed of the above ingredients worked into a paste with chopped figs, ouzo or tsipouro, then shaped into a small cake and wrapped in fig, vine or chestnut leaves.

I’m assuming you all know what tsipouro is – (not to be confused with tsipoura – a type of fish – and now I have confused you haven’t I?) Tsipouro is a very strong alcoholic drink, similar to grappa, about 45% proof. It is made from the residue of the wine press, and was once illegally brewed privately. Now it has become ‘respectable’ and even fashionable. I had the great pleasure, however, of drinking it when it was still illegal and hidden under the bed of my hosts in Arachova. I have no recollection of what happened after the first glassful. It certainly banished winter and all its discontents.

After that boozy digression, I leave you with food for thought.
The town of Villamayor de Santiago, in Spain, has for some time now reverted to the use of the peseta. (Remind you of the old Elstree comedies?) The inhabitants, like so many other Spaniards, have hung on to their pesetas since 2002, ‘just in case’. (Around 1.4 billion pounds sterling worth of pesetas is said to be hoarded and stored in Spain.) In due course, the Chairman of the local merchants’ association will collect the pesetas and take them to the Bank of Spain to change them into euros, which will then be distributed to the shopkeepers and businessmen who have joined the scheme.
Well, why not?
 According to a recent study by Spain’s consumers’ association OCU, the price of essential goods has risen by 43 per cent since the introduction of the euro. The cost of bread is up by 49 per cent while milk has risen 48 per cent and the price of potatoes has  increased by 116 per cent.
No comment.

On a lighter note, and to bring today’s blog to its conclusion:
Over a million UK drivers are aged 80 or over. Of those, 65,000 are aged 90 or more, while there are 122 drivers aged 100 or more, with the oldest being a woman of 106.

Back seat driver of indeterminate age!

Cheering thought for the oldies amongst us, though not perhaps if you are a pedestrian living in the same area as these ancient and probably stubborn motorists!

Thanks to Frosso for allowing me to use some of her photos. Others are by me and my sister.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Ice and snow can be so pretty, but not everyone enjoys winter weather, as you can see.

Some people certainly do, however..

Daily Mail photo of Primrose Hill London

Grandma's photo of family on Pantocrator Corfu

But after a snowball fight, or a mass toboggan slide, what does everyone go home for?

Why, a spot of comfort food of course.
Comfort food can be savoury or sweet, is preferably hot, has steam rising from it, looks and smells divine. It can be good for you but, more importantly, it should cheer you up.
Depending upon your homeland, actual or spiritual, you probably think about food you grew up with, lovingly made for you by your mother.

No, not me but you get the picture

According to one website, one of the favourite comfort foods in Finland is sautéed reindeer. This conjures up a picture of a very muscular woman frying a whole reindeer carcass in a very, very large skillet, but I feel something must have been lost in translation. I remember with fondness my own Mum's shepherd's pie and steak and kidney pie.
For every woman married to a Greek, comfort food means fasolada and, no, you can never hope to equal his mother’s.

But you can have a good try, and with some subtle additions and variations, you may even one day hear the grudging words:
‘As good as my mother’s.’
‘Better than my mother’s’ is an unlikely accolade, but it is possible to achieve that glory, so persevere.

A good fasolada is not only comforting, it is nourishing, satisfying, and you can make enough of it to last for two or even three days without the family (i.e. your man) demanding something fresh every day. In fact, fasolada matures so that by the third day it is at its best – gutsy and chunky.

 Where did he come from? Honestly, Grandma, any excuse.. I said chunky not hunky!

I was taught by my own mother that it was essential to keep a well-stocked cupboard of basic foodstuffs, a habit that I have always maintained. I was quite shocked to find, on coming to live with my Greek mother-in-law, a paragon of housewifely virtues, that she shopped every day for the makings of that day’s main meal. Off she would trot, bright and early, to the grocer and the baker. Meat was a once-a-week affair anyway. Fish and vegetables and fruit could be bought from wizened and weather-beaten little men leading ramshackle carts drawn by wizened little donkeys.

Yes, that was me - and my little boy

That was 1970, in a part of Piraeus inhabited by people who had had to struggle to make ends meet ever since their families arrived in Greece as refugees from Asia Minor. I started married life living with my mother-in-law, without a fridge or a washing machine or a TV. We had ice-boxes, and spent a whole day boiling up water and washing clothes using almost Biblical methods, and the nearest TV was in the cafeneion down the road. But that is a story for another time.

Picture posed by models, as they say in the posh periodicals.

I digress – it is all too easy. When you get to my age you either live in a dream or you relive your life constantly.
What I am saying is that, in spite of life becoming so much easier in some ways, it still doesn’t hurt to keep a well-stocked cupboard, and that stock, when you intend to cook Greek dishes, should include dry goods like beans, lentils, pasta, flour and rice, tomato paste and of course olive oil, with a regularly replenished supply of vegetables in the fridge.
Thus, on a miserable, cold, wet day like today, you wouldn’t have to go out shopping for the makings of a meal.

As with so many Greek recipes, there is a certain mystique about fasolada.

You need the right kind of beans, not too small and not big – most recipes state haricot beans, but cannellini beans are the right ones (navy beans in the US), or the ones called handres in Greek. You need water that will actually soften the beans –tap water is generally considered ineffectual, bottled water is preferable, but real aficionados keep a supply of water collected by their own fair hands from some spring or other source with a good reputation.
You must, of course, use good oil, preferably from your own trees or failing that, from a neighbour, relative or good friend’s trees. Be generous with it, it makes all the difference.
Dried beans, plenty of sliced or chopped onion, celery, parsley, sliced carrots, oil and tomato paste, salt and pepper – basically that’s it.
Some people like their vegetables finely diced and grated, others prefer them more coarsely sliced and chopped. The results will be different according to how you treat the vegetables.

There are plenty of recipes on line and in the many Greek recipe books, and if you are wise, you have written down mother-in-law’s version somewhere.

Variations: Add some dried chili flakes and seeds (called ‘boukovo’ in Greece), and/or a few drops Tabasco (can be added after serving). My daughter adds small pieces of fresh sweet red pepper.
I used to add some bacon, or sliced sausage, or even cubes of left over pork chops – this soup cries out to be complemented by the flavour of pork.
Tips: You must throw away the first lot of water, used for the initial stage of boiling the beans on their own. Use fresh water to continue the recipe.
Do not add salt until the end – it can harden the beans.

Serve with: olives, slices of feta drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with rigani (oregano), red pepper or black pepper, crusty bread and a glass or two of sturdy red wine. My husband always accompanied his fasolada with slices of red onion and renga (smoked herring).

Kali orexi!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


It’s snowing in the centre of Athens, it’s snowing in Corfu, temperatures are in the minus range, and like excited children, many of us here in Corfu are planning a trip this afternoon to show our kids the white stuff as it really is! In Britain, at the first flurry, the authorities warn people to stay home, stay warm and get their heads down. In Greece, we leap into our cars and head for the nearest high ground to play snowballs!
Mind you, today it is snowing down at sea level, let alone on the hills.

photo by star tv greece

 Village of Petalia Corfu

I have never lost my childhood passion for snow. As a very little girl I lived in a part of Surrey known as Little Switzerland, for its pine-clad hills and valleys filled with beech trees. The bright colours of heather and gorse, ferns and bracken, would all give way, in winter, to paler monotones as snow blanketed those hills and enveloped those valleys.
I have photos of myself, smiling with happiness, feet firmly planted in the snow and wearing a marvellously practical, hooded, all-in-one garment called a ‘siren-suit’. Nothing to do with the sirens that used to lure travellers such as Odysseus with their fatal attractions – this outfit was popularized by Winston Churchill, who designed it himself and had it made up by gentleman’s outfitters Austin Reed. With plenty of pockets and made up in a warm fabric, it was ideal for the Great Man’s trips around war-ravaged Britain and was quickly adopted for wear by both sexes and all ages.
His suit looked like this,

And mine looked just like this

It must have snowed more regularly back then, in England. I remember looking out of the windows of our suburban Essex home on Christmas Eve, to see the Salvation Army band performing carols under the light of a street lamp, with snow falling on them and their instruments.

My love of snow took me to live for a winter at an Austrian ski-school – that and my love of a certain ski-instructor…. I stayed in a marvellous wooden chalet where the beds were tucked inside cupboards and made up with billowing feather duvets. Being snowed up in such a setting was just an excuse for the continuous consumption of schnapps and comfort food as only the Austrians know how.

In London, I was marooned by excessive amounts of snow one January, unable to return to my home in Corfu. Along with two other Greek colleagues, also marooned, and the company’s accountant who could not even get back to her home in Kent, we were invited by the owner of the company we worked for to stay in his London flat. That was no hardship – good address, all mod cons, the
Kings Road
within walking distance - as long as you had snowshoes on - the men wasted no time in appointing me resident cook and demanded Greek food and coffee non-stop, while they spent the wintry weekend glued to sport on TV. It felt just like being a Greek wife again.

Those who do not know Greece as it can be in winter can probably not imagine it under snow.
But here we are today, the first of Feb, phoning and Facebooking each other with hews of the snow.
Here in my cozy computer corner, it is beginning to feel really chilly and I am wearing the wonderful mittens my daughter-in-law made for me.

As soon as my grandson gets out of school, we shall go, en famille, to play with magic.
Some people never grow up.