Thursday, 5 December 2013

A Kitchen Story

A Kitchen Story

Dreams Awakened

Takis wanted his girls to experience the tastes of his childhood

For Takis, who as a boy already loved food, the idea of the island as a place of bounty was confirmed each year as the almonds and figs arrived in their Alexandrian kitchen from the garden of the house in Lemnos. So while he hadn’t visited Greece or the island at that time, and Alexandria was his actual home, Lemnos was probably his fantasy home. He often related to me the story of a later, and first, visit to the island.
‘So everybody was still going there in those days.’
'Some were in the kitchen, some playing cards on the terrace, and I could hear others calling from upstairs as they got ready for a swim. There were wonderful aromas from the kitchen where my aunts were preparing meals and sweets, supervised by my mother who was the matriarch at the time. Ah, I remember it so well, the meals, the swims, the discussions on the terrace every evening while we sipped coffee, Greek coffee of course!’
 ‘Perhaps it’s the lifestyle and food that I want to enjoy again – though I have to admit, there’s a larger range of food in Australia than one gets in Greece.’
‘I know,’ I laughed. ‘It’s the aromas coming from the kitchen mingled with the sea breezes that make you long to return to the island.’
‘It’s the whole lifestyle,’ he nodded. ‘When it was time to leave the beach, everyone walked up the track and reached the house ready for the daily siesta. The afternoon heat, after a good meal, ensured we all slept well. Then, after waking, we’d all have a light evening meal, perhaps some cakes that someone had bought from the nearest zaharoplastio. It was the perfect end to a perfect day’.

Reality hits Home

On a later visit to the island he returned with some less glorious stories.
‘I’ve told you the house is in a shocking state, but I didn’t know how bad it was till I saw it. Zoe and Costa only live in two rooms on the ground floor – a bedroom and the kitchen. You can’t use the top floor at all now, because the roof leaks. Something should be done.’
‘When you say the house is in a bad state, just how bad is it?’
‘Well, there’s a hole in the roof, and even parts of the middle floor get wet when it rains. One sister was sleeping up there and was OK, but my cousin was in another room and she had to move out into a hotel because there was a summer storm and the water came pouring onto her bed from the floor above.’
‘Oh, dire indeed!’

Kitchen before

So, when we began buying the house, and renovating it we needed a good plan of action. In 2004 we went there with great resolve, aiming to get two bedrooms and the kitchen cleaned so that we could live there. The only bathroom was practically unuseable so we’d use the outside toilet. And the kitchen had a ceiling that was grubby with years of splatters from cooking. It also had numerous small tables, whose legs were standing in metal containers filled with water. We assumed this was Costa’s work, to keep ants at bay.


It’s difficult to convey how packed with action the first weeks were, and it was amazing how much we accomplished in four months. Among other things we’d decided we needed to lower the floor in the kitchen so that there was a little more head-room. As a tall former basketball player, Takis found he kept bumping his head on the low doorway that led into the small kitchen, but lowering the floor was not enough for him.

One day he said, ‘Let’s take the dividing wall and door down as well.’
What a great idea: we could then have a larger kitchen. I emailed my very tall architect son Andrew to ask his advice.
Dear Andrew, We need some help. We are thinking of taking down a wall at the back of the house that separates the kitchen and back hall. Even if we lower the floor it will still be a very low room. I’m sure you’d hit your head on the doorway. What is the usual height of a ceiling and door these days? 
Love, Mum. Kisses to Elke. 
And back came his reply:
Hi Mum, Thanks for your update on Lemnos. Sounds like you’re having an interesting time. Hope you and Takis aren't overdoing it, remember to relax and enjoy yourselves. Have attached a couple of photos of Elke. I think we've got a little performer on our hands. 
In answer to your question, I am 195cm tall. Standard ceiling heights are 240-270cm Minimum door openings should be 210cm. Must get back to work but good to hear from you. 
Lots of Love, Andrew, Debbie & Elke 

Of Mice and Women     


We also wanted to get a new sink and while doing that we thought we’d reposition it. I’d decided the old sink had to go after I’d come into the kitchen in time to see a mouse running down the outlet. (It was after that I'd always made sure to position a stone over the outlet!)

We knew there were mice in the house, as the smell of mice permeated the woodwork everywhere. Indeed, it was hard to deny their presence when you could hear them scampering up behind the plasterwork and between the joists in the ceilings. We were doing what we could to rid the house of them but I hated the local mousetraps, which were just strips of plastic coated with glue, onto which the now screaming mice stuck fast. And as they unfortunately didn’t die instantly, someone (Anestis!) had to take them outside to be walloped. In the meantime, until I could find some old-fashioned mousetraps, I placed a stone over the sink outlet, and I bought a packet of rat and mouse bait, which provided a much quieter form of destruction.

Cupboards and Customs

January the next year in Melbourne, at auction houses, we bid for garden seats, oak tables, chiming clocks, oil paintings, oval mirrors, bookcases, desks, beds, candlesticks, chests of drawers, lounge chairs and bedroom chairs, more tables, lamps, carpets and copper pots. All these things were to be packed up and placed in the container, along with an IKEA kitchen and that icon of Australia, a rotary laundry hoist that we’d bought at a local hardware store.

But later that year, on the island, with the European summer nearly gone, we were getting anxious about the whereabouts of our container. Why had it not arrived? We’d lowered the kitchen floor and were now ready for our IKEA kitchen cupboards. Takis talked to the custom officials and found that the container was sitting in the port of Salonika, where it had evidently been for a while. Eventually Takis now had to concede and agree to a ‘bonus’ payment to get things moving. Though it went against his principles he could see he would have to pay the extra money to get the customs officers on the mainland to release it and send it to the island.

When the container eventually arrived we could at last put in the kitchen cabinets. This wasn’t the first kitchen Takis had put together but it was the first IKEA one. It took him a little time to get to grips with the instructions but soon cabinets were erected on a newly tiled floor. We were thrilled, especially when the stovetop and oven were also installed. The finished results were magnificent, and Takis was keen to begin cooking immediately. I believe that this was the first year he made marmalade in Lemnos, using bitter oranges from an old tree in the garden.

Ozo Tiles

The dining room next to the kitchen (same tiles)

There were those times when we weren’t sure whether to scream or laugh. Take the case of the kitchen and dining room floor tiles. We’d left Marcos and Anestis to finish a job while we attended to other business in Myrina and, as it was late when we arrived home, they’d already left.
Takis went into the house to inspect and came back out roaring. ‘Just come and look at this, they can’t even lay tiles in a straight line if I’m not here.’
I surveyed the offending tiles. ‘They’re not quite aligned, are they?’
‘And can you smell that? I can smell ouzo!’ He went to the shelf where we kept a few bottles of wine and a couple of bottles of ouzo. One ouzo bottle was empty. ‘They were drunk. Wait until I see them tomorrow. They’re going to take up every one of those tiles!’
I had to agree with the writer who wrote, ‘It’s hard to know if renovation is comedy or tragedy.

Stepping Down (how many steps)

Being a devoted worrier, one morning I was sitting at the kitchen table in the early hours trying to work out how many steps we needed from the kitchen to the terrace outside. I’m sure this phenomenon of a small problem blowing up out of all proportion in the early hours of the morning is something many renovators will have experienced. When Takis awoke and joined me at the table I explained my dilemma to him. I also added that I was very worried about finishing the project if he died and I had to carry on without him!
‘One thing at a time,’ he replied. ‘First we’ll get the steps done and then we’ll talk about my death.’ Then he went off to get me a glass of water and a Panadol, and I went back upstairs to my bed. As it was Sunday, and no workers were coming, I slept until ten.

The back door is a project that we have continued this year. Now we have taken out the metal door and replaced the old metal one with one made by Takis which gives more light and a wonderful view of the garden.

This year’s kitchen door project

Dreams Fulfilled

Each year new aspects of the old Mavrellis story have unfolded, as new parts of the old house have been reawakened. In the kitchen, where once servants carried out duties and the nine children rushed past, played their games in and out of the rooms, now we meet with guests and workers for our elevenses. And now, as cooking scents begin to permeate the house, though there is still work to be done on other rooms in the house, with the arrival of guests, and of our grandchildren, again laughter can be heard from room to room as the house becomes re-enlivened.

Guests and Workers on a VERY HOT DAY having elevenses in the kitchen

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