Thursday, March 14, 2013


And so is everything else!

 Goodness me, is that the sun out there? And spring flowers?Better blog it quickly before it disappears again.

Ten days into March and still we wake up almost every day to a gloomy Corfu, dreary with drizzling rain, dark and depressing.
Why do so many words for negative descriptions begin with a D?
What is it about the letter D?
Dismal, disgusting, doom, dim, dark, dank, dire, dreadful, desperate … and so it goes on.

I know there are Spring flowers out there in the dripping olive groves and on the sodden banks but their beauty is obscured and almost invisible,  their colour leached and stolen away. Here and there, however, one glorious example of beauty in miniature raises its exquisite head, as in this photo by my friend Sue, of a Milky Orchid, one of so many to be found in Corfu.

It seems that nothing can prevent Nature from obeying its own laws of inevitability and whenever the rain stops for a brief moment, a bird, bursting with the need to build a nest and mate, darts through the barely budding branches of trees that have yet, in many cases, to put out new foliage.
Eagles were riding the thermals above the crags of Mount Pantocrator yesterday; Scops Owls held a reunion outside my bedroom window last night, and the cat now prefers to stalk the garden bushes rather than stake out the sofa. I haven’t heard a cuckoo yet but I have heard the first strimmer! Nature is on the mov

But inevitability guides the course of the Greek calendar year too, and even though the great Eastern Orthodox Easter celebrations will come at a different time most years from those of the Western Church, and particularly late this year (6 May) they will come, with all their tradition and ceremony, both majestic, magical and even a little mischievous.

We are almost at the end of the Carnival period that precedes Lent. In Greece, the Church tends to diplomatically ignore the pagan spirit of these celebrations – far older than Christianity - and fit in where it can. Bawdiness and vulgarity are displayed in the choice of costumes in a way that would have been very familiar to the Ancient Greeks. I guess that is something that has never changed. Human nature!

In Corfu and the other Ionian islands, however, much of the Carnival atmosphere dates back to the days when the islands were ruled by the Venetian Republic.

Every part of Greece has its own particular customs for this period, and while Patras is held to be the biggest, brashest and best Carnival in Greece, I have always loved the Corfu Carnival.
My introduction to Carnival here was in simpler times, when I answered a knock of my front door to find two masked and giggling ‘ballerinas’ with suspiciously large biceps lurking on my doorstep. They pushed past me, filled the house with confetti and blew loud party noises at me before departing. I never did find out who they were!

Last Thursday was what we call ‘Tsiknopempti’ – on the evening of which people gather in homes and tavernas to eat as much meat, usually grilled, as possible before Lent begins. The air is filled with ‘tsikno’ which is the smoke that arises from the meat as it cooks.
 Needless to say, this eating spree is accompanied by plenty of wine and beer and Greek music.

Nest Thursday evening will see the ‘Petegoletsa’ which is a completely original, Venetian kind of street theatre, with women (usually from local theatre groups) standing at the windows of the old houses in the town centre, hurling insults, abuse and scandalous gossip at each other across the alleyways. Petegoletsa means gossip and is a good example of how unfathomable the Corfiot dialect can be to outsiders. You really do need to be a Corfiot to appreciate the innuendoes of the dialogue

The people of Corfu have always celebrated Carnival with great wit and ingenuity, which is reflected in the costumes invented each year. My family always seem to raid my cupboards at the last minute each year which has led to come interesting outfits!

In fact, the Afro wigs come out year after year -after year...

Some of the most traditional costumes belong to the Venetian period – the long black ‘domino’ gown of the doctor or notary of the times, Punchinello, the ballerina and so on. Today, political figures local and international are widely satirized.

The last weekend of Carnival, with the burning of King Carnival himself, is followed immediately by Clean Monday – Kathari Deftera – an unofficial public holiday, celebrated by taking a picnic out to the seaside (never far away in Corfu) or into the countryside, and praying for a good breeze to fly the kites that are so much a tradition of this day.

They can be bought readymade but my husband used to make ours, huge and meticulously constructed from balsa wood, coloured papers and foil and miles of string. He learned the craft from a famous kite-maker of Piraeus – does that sound like the title of a book?
By the time the kites were aloft at the end of a surprisingly weighty length of string, the kids were tired and Yanni was left to fly the kite alone. A favourite spot for us on Clean Monday was always the headland at Kassiopi on which the fortress then stood alone, unfenced, bare of trees, with no villa neighbours. Most of our kites found their way across the Channel to Albania in the end where they probably served for target practice.

Clean Monday picnics are supposed to be composed of foods that have not involved the shedding of blood and are not obtained from red-blooded animals. We have feasted off fresh spring lettuce, dill and onions, taramasalata, baked yigantes (large butter beans), pickled vegetables, every kind of shellfish, octopus, squid, cuttlefish and shrimps, and of course the wonderful flat bread baked only for this day and called lagana. The meal is always finished off with halva, either the commercial kind made from sesame or the home-cooked variety made from semolina.

There is an unsophisticated, old-fashioned joy in the whole event; strangers chat to each other, children in their best clothes romp on hillsides and cover their white tights and new chinos with grass stains and it is all part of the day. Only the haughty teenagers are there yet not there, plugged in to their electronic devices. Food is grazed on all day long , and frequently supplemented by oranges gathered straight from the trees, or clams dredged up by a keen snorkeler, or a handful of wild asparagus gathered on the steep slopes above Nissaki.
Clean Monday allows us the unique and very virtuous pleasure of eating food that has travelled the least possible distance from its source to your lips. In Corfu it is a unique and wonderful experience. The breeze seems to blow away the last vestiges of winter and leaves you refreshed and revived for whatever the summer may bring.

Corfu has come through a difficult winter and maintained the spirit of Carnival yet again. Long may that spirit live.

Signing off with another word for the weather that begins with D – double-cross. Two days of Spring promise then a night of  crashing, thrashing thunder, incandescent lightning and hissing rain.
Is this Spring in disguise?

 Thanks to Sue, Frosso, Julie, and Jo for the use of their photos.