Friday, 29 August 2014

Shutters - so Mediterranean!

 Shutters – so Mediterranean!

Shutters, so Mediterranean!

I’m writing this blog about something that is unique about a Mediterranean house and that is its shutters. But it is not just the look that is unique about this it is the daily routine of opening and closing shutters (and upkeeping them) that makes living in the Mediterranean distinctive.

They add interest to these plain square boxes of houses

The shutters from the inside, closed to keep out the sun

Lace curtain soften the hard outline of shutters and window

When we first came to the house in 203 the place was dark and shuttered. We cautiously ascended the stairs, and in order to better see what we were doing Takis opened the shutters in a couple of the rooms. Now we had enough light to make out the litter in each room: old furniture, battered pictures and broken ornaments. On the top floor we carefully we walked towards the shuttered double doors that led out onto the balcony above the front door. These doors had an extra seal, so that no one would inadvertently exit onto that precarious ledge. However Takis managed to open one, and immediately, there before us lay an enchanting view. Then in 204 when we really began work on the place,  Lisa, Takis daughter was with us for the first week or two, and the two of us went from room to room opening up a few shutters here and there before we began the work of clearing out the accumulated litter of past holiday makers. And, as we opened up one set of shutters a neighbour outside yelled up a warning at us, as he could see that the shutters were hanging by only one hinge and were in danger of falling down into the street below.
Having bought the house we found ourselves with a big house with many windows and many shutter. I once counted the windows, and as we slowly renewed frames, panes and shutters, and over the years, the number always left to renovate was one of the main items on our yet-to-do list. However, they are all now done, and we have even got to the stage, after ten years, of needing to repaint and re-repair some of them.

From the outside the shutters are one of the most distinguishing features of the house. We are proud of them. The first thing that many of our neighbours know about our arrival is that the shutters are open. They will greet us and say, ‘I saw that you’re here I noticed the opened shutters yesterday’. But that is not what this blog is about it’s about the process of living with shutters, and the fact that the shutters are one of the most important features of living inside the house.

Shutters require attention, to half-open, open fully or close, at least twice a day in summer - the rest of the year not as often. You use them to modify and equalise, the temperature inside all depending on the weather outside the house. To help in this delicate task we have indoor-outdoor temperature gages.

out-in temperature gage

another temperature gage - we have three!

Well, we also have these gages to help modify the arguments Takis and I have about the temperature. He always judges it to be cooler than it is, so 32 becomes 29 degrees in his mind, whereas 32 becomes 35 degrees in mine!

Not discussions about the wine, no, about the temperature today!

What happens is that each morning, sometime between seven and ten, depending on the weather (windy, cool at night, very hot in the morning) I go around and close, or half-close windows and shutters. And at night, sometime between sunset and when we go to bed, again depending on the weather (windy, cooler or hotter in the evening) I go around and open or half-open windows and shutters.

Some windows face north, and we leave these open nearly all the time in summer

There five of the windows on the top floor that gets this treatment and four on the middle or bottom floor.

Shutters half closed

Shutters opened and pinned back
Shutters back and window opened

We do have two air-conditioners in two bedrooms, but in this manner we keep the house as ecologically friendly as we can. And we are helped by the fact that Takis has put double glazed windows throughout the house. Fans come in useful too, and if we are in a room we will switch one on to give us that pleasurable feeling of transpiration convincing ourselves it has become a bit cooler.

Almost sleeping beauty's castle, when the creepers take over!

Post scripts:

1.      When the wind arises in the night the crashes and bangs mean you have to get up, and put cushions and chairs by doors and hold back those windows and shutters that you did not secure.

2.      I’ve just recounted the windows and shutters.

Top floor, nine windows and two sets of glass doors onto the balcony – all shuttered.

Middle floor, ten windows, and one glass door leading onto a balcony – one window unshuttered

Ground floor, six windows, and glass door onto terrace, only two shuttered.

Glass doorway to a balcony, with shutters pinned back

Glass doorway to another balcony, shutters pinned back

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Late Summer: A Time to Conserve

 Late Summer: A Time to Conserve

We're here on the island and have already had twelve guests staying with us, some for months, and we have another three expected in September. Good fun at times, but getting harder to come down in the morning to greet everyone with a smile. Takis and I are exhausted. So this is the time that we have to conserve every bit of energy we have.
Just like the garden, in order to keep going humans have to remember the need to rehydrate, replenish and resist doing too much!
The sweat is dripping down our bodies. It’s hard to work on the computer and I'm sure I'm making more mistakes.

And we try to keep smiling

Hot, but colour still happens, blue hybiscus

It’s Hot! And Humid




And Zinnias love the heat












A Time to Conserve in the Garden

In the summer in garden the heat depletes, and the water evaporates, the plants wilt and only a few hang on with some loving care.

A scond bloom of spindly roses


The end of the tomato harvest

Though the eggplants love this heat


And so do the peppers

Composting Waste
Waste disposal is an increasing problem because of a lack of space. Some studies have shown that up to 20% of waste going to urban recycling centres in Australia is vegetable matter. But it has to be done carefully. Unfortunately landfills are not the way to go, and rather than rot down into good compost they can just make piles of slime and give out unpleasant gasses.

But real compost is magical stuff. I have grown up knowing how important composting is for the health of a garden. My grandfather used to set out on his bicycle with a bucket and spade when a horse passed our gate. He would return sometime later jubilant, with a bucket full of horsey excrement for his allotment.

It is the result of a remarkable metamorphosis whereby leaves and stalks are transformed into a black crumbly mixture; a productive silt which when spread in the soil aids new life.
The idea of composting and mulching seemed to be a new idea to gardeners on the island. Anestis was sceptical when I asked him to build me two compost enclosures. But he was impressed to see how weeds and waste broke down by the end of a few months. The two compost bins he constructed for me were partially in the shade of a young olive tree, but this was OK and in the long hot Mediterranean summers I need some shade to assist by keeping the piles damp (I always water them on my way past, when moving the hose from one bed to another.) Then, usually just before we leave in autumn, Anestis digs out these bins and applies the well rotted vegetable matter to our clay soil.

Compost bins at the end of a path

Filled compost bins, ready for autumn emptying


Mulch is something else you have to think about in summer. It is necessary to protect roots from severe heat. Mulch can be hay, newspaper, dried weeds, empty almond shells, etc. It will not only protect the plant but also eventually rot down and compost the plant.

On the island mulch is hard to get hold of. I have to beg for bales of hay, and perhaps a farmer might sell me one bail for 30E Once I saw a passing gypsy with a truck of watermelons plus some bales. Takis was interested in the water melons but I was interested in the hay. We ordered three bails which he delivered the next day for 10E less that the farmer had charged me previous year. I used the hay to protect the roots of tomatoes or put it around the stone fruit trees to keep the soil moist between watering. 
If I could I’d do what I do in Australia and lay down newspaper and then cover it with mulch, to smother the weeds. I don’t see why this shouldn’t work here, though maybe the winter winds will make a mess. On the whole though I think we have enough rain on this island to keep it in place and wet enough not to blow away. This may sound strange to those who expect winter rain but I have an Australian friend, with a garden on another windy Greek island, who covered her flower beds with sea weed before she left. However, she got a phone call from a neighbour complaining about the way the winds had whipped up the dry seaweed and blown it over the neighbours houses and roofs. 

I also collect sea weed for mulch but usually I add it to the compost heaps. I’ll wait until there is a storm that piles it along the shoreline. It’s then easy to find and collect in a few large plastic bags.  I tip this onto my compost and let it all rot down together before applying it on the beds.

Greek Gardening Practices

In Greece, because folks are not attached to green parks or flowering gardens they do not see the need to preserve water or mulch plants.  I’m often horrified to see how much water is used just to clean a veranda, with housewives going out daily to hose them down. One year the island did almost run out of water, but on the whole folk here are not aware of how precious it is.

Unripe, ripe and very ripe figs

Greek sweets, pear compot and fresh figs


I water the plants about once every third day from late June until the beginning of September. By then the days are cooling and I can probably leave it a little longer. I water the pots on the terrace and the herb bed one day, the vegetable garden another day, and the most stressed out areas the next day. We have the well, but by mid July it is usually running low, and I have to intersperse well water with town water every other day. To put in tanks would be hardly worth while, we have to put gutters on the roofs, and with such a long dry spell (with rarely a summer storm to top them up) that water would soon be used. To try to use grey water would be another headache, with plumbing not set up for it, and no ecological washing powders available.
In Australia, behind the trellis, we have a 5,000 litre water tank

In Australia we have had to become very water conscious. Perhaps this is because we have developed a dependency on English-style gardens in a country that mostly has arid climate. Folk love their green parks and flowering gardens and keep looking for ways to keep them going.
In order to accomplish this there has been a big move to plant Mediterranean plants and to conserve water. Most people have tanks attached to their homes to catch rain water, and many reuse grey water, while mulching and composting is a must for any gardener.

This reminds me how lucky gardeners are in Australia, with most houses having water tanks, plus some houses fitted with grey water, tanks and mulch in a variety of mediums available at each local village and town.



Friday, 22 August 2014

Cultivated Gardens

Cultivated Gardens

A Garden: a transient monument

A garden is a transient monument to ones gardening desires, created while waging a war against weeds that threaten to take it back. 
Our plot when we arrived, before taming!

Our now tamed plot in spring.

Our term for paradise derives from the Persian for ‘park’ implying a protected area while the words ‘garden’ in English, ‘jardin’ in French and ‘horta’ in Greek also appear to denote an enclosed space. One of the first must have been the one known today as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, though it may have been built at Nineveh. It would have been stocked with exotic plants and animals gathered from far distant places. Today it is a sad empty space between warring nations.

Is Lemnos the way it is because of its market gardens? Are the people on Lemnos more connected to the earth because their circumstances require them to tend vegetable plots and raise laying hens, and as they climb the hills to gather wild herbs? Ancient Greek gardens were not ostentatious. They had their origins in sacred groves, where there might be a spring, or an old oak tree where religious rites were performed. Trees and plants in Greece were associated with particular deities; the oak was associated with Zeus, the laurel with Apollo, the myrtle with Aphrodite. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was a special protector of gardens, and her son Eros was sometimes represented as a gardener.

Green grass is restful and adds a beauty, but also requires a lot of maintenance.

Today there are some parks in Myrina. The one in our neighbourhood is next to the local school. During the war there were market gardens here. Now it is where old people sit in the shade of the mulberry and pine trees. Or young children start to learn to ride bicycles. Another park is along the sea front. This one has just had a makeover. A new watering system has been laid and new trees planted. From one end to the other it has been covered with a grass turf. Not a good time to do this perhaps, but fortunately the island is not short of water this year. 

A Public Park in Lemnos









Green Grass! I'm not sure of the wisdom of all this watering in a Med. Garden!

Conforming to Culture

However a garden will respond to the current gardener. It will change to accommodate that set of wishes, and then transform into something else when the whims of a new gardener are put into practice.

A Melbourne park in spring


Melbourne Botanic Gardens in spring
One TV gardener, Peter Valder, pointed out ‘Ornamental horticulture is an indication of the prosperity and level of sophistication that a civilization has achieved.’ He also points out the growth of civilizations has been based on the domestication of plants to provide enough food for the local population.

The Melbourne yearly Fower Show, late spring

In Lemnos our garden is slightly unusual as we have a large plot around the house. We benefit from have space to plant our vegetables and fruit trees around the house, whereas most have a small land holding further afield. The town houses in Myrina are lucky to have a small courtyard, however, when this house was built, it was not in Myrina, but outside a small satellite town, and so was ‘in the country’. Today Myrina has grown out to meet the house.

A Place where Someone Made their Mark

A place in Lemnos to sit, and for the children to play

Some are fanatic about planting ‘natives’ or what is ‘local’. In Australia there is very strong ‘only-Australian’ plant movement, but these people ignore the fact that there have been previous changes on that site, and that many former native plants have been replaced by new growth in response to land and climate changes over the centuries. However each gardener likes to make their mark, even if it is a ‘return to the natural’.

Once can imagine that the men hunted and it was the women who took up the agricultural pursuits of saving and sharing seeds and cuttings, in the same manner as it happens today. Women would have been the first gardeners. In the Middle Ages the peasant had a garden plot where she grew cabbages, onions, beans and garlic.

The size and taste of certain plants has been selected by various gardeners for instance as Michael Pollan wrote in The Botany of Desire the size and taste of certain plants has been selected by various gardeners and he suggests the potatoes we eat today, for instance, have been shaped, by ‘Incas, Irishmen and McDonald’s customers.’ So for various reasons a particular plant may be changed so that by their care and attention it will grow larger or more fruitful than normal in a particular situation.

I too wanted to make my mark on the plot that was ours

But Always an Tamed Plot
Melbourne has been called a garden city. Its parks exist where once there were swamps. In Lemnos there are public spaces with grass and seats and a children's playground where one can got to get the sea breezes and look at the sea. Councils have made and upkeep these plots, but they too have to have the detirmination and funds for upkeep. For a garden is always a place that has been tamed. It exists while the gardener works on it, but as soon as the gardener takes no care the garden becomes a wilderness. And even when the gardener is present it has a will of its own.

All too readily the weed reclaim a property

Throughout his life Charles Darwin surrounded himself with flowers. When he was 10, he wrote down each time a peony bloomed in his father’s garden. When he bought a house to raise his own family, he turned the grounds into a botanical field station where he experimented on flowers until his death. But despite his intimate familiarity with flowers, Darwin once wrote that their evolution was “an abominable mystery.”

 I wonder what he meant by that? Some think that he meant that evolution was an abomination, but I think it may be that one cannot become a ‘god’ in the garden or wave a wand. You have to work together with the garden, ‘go along with it’. What turns out in the end is never just your composition, but one that nature itself devises with you.

Gravity, rain,heat, weeds take over quickly

Where Plant Terrorists Hang-out

A Deserted Garden

Plants transferred into a garden may take advantage of a new situation, and spread outside that garden if not controlled. And if the gardener leaves old plants, weeds, once removed will come back, and though the garden may disappear these plants may linger on.

In ‘Australia’s Quarter Acre’ Peter Timms writes ‘Weeding is the perfect way to reconcile your destructive urges with a desire for order. If I’m feeling lazy or unmotivated or just need to think then a bit of casual weeding will keep me occupied without exertion, leaving my mind free to wander. And there is no better way of keeping us in touch with the condition of the soil that kneeling down and rooting about in it.’

Some grass weeds waiting for me to get on my knees!

I don’t mind weeding, even grass that most persistent of weeds. Especially after a good rain it is great to go around yanking these invaders of my dream out of my garden. How it has cultivated us humans who like to have it neatly mown in the form of lawns. Anestis tells me when we arrive that he has had to pull out wheelbarrows full from the beds and paths. He tends to put it in black plastic bags and dump it in the rubbish bins at the end of the street. I’d mulch it if I was there, but not being there, and not knowing how many other unpleasant weeds such as bindweed are mixed up in this pile, I let him continue with his program.

Friday, 15 August 2014

August Celebrations

August Celebrations

Panagia, August 15th

August 15th is the most important religious holiday in Greece after Easter and Christmas. This is why all the islands are filled with families returning to their home villages. It is almost impossible to get a seat on a plane or place on a ferry in the week before. Or to get one to leave the island in the week after!


One place the 'many' gather at our house

Takis, our resident philosopher, gives advice to his daughter

So, the entire country is virtually shut down, and everyone takes advantage of the long weekend to celebrate with family members. There are seven of us in our house at the moment, but other large holiday houses nearby are filled to overflowing. (unfortunately so are the septic pits, and the sewage trucks are very busy.) Sorry about adding that note, but it is part of the flavour of the island at present.

What is it all about, well the celebration is for Panagia (Virgin Mary) who is supposed to have ascended to the heavens on this day. Those that have this as a name day have related names, Maria, Mary, Marios, and Panagiotis, or Panayotis, etc.

Celebrations at Our House

The man at the BBQ, and supervisor!
The meal prepared and photographed!

We have celebrated Takis (Panayotis) name day. We had ten visitors calling in to wish him well, and many phone calls from other members of the family. We’d had a lunch the day before for ten, and on the day there were the seven of us.

This pie was made by our resident sweets chef!





Galaktobouriko, made for Takis name day

Another get-together this month has featured an Egyptian meal
This is a Greek Family who grew up in Alexandria, and love Egyptian food

August Greek Name Days,

Greek Orthodox Saints Days

  • August 6 - Sotiris, Sotiria
  • August 7 - Asterios
  • August 15 - Assumption Day - Maria, Marios, Despina, Panagiotis, Panayotis, Koimisi tis Theotokos, Thespina
  • August 24 - Kosmas
  • August 25 - Titos
  • August 26 - Andrianos, Natalias, Nathalia, Natalia
  • August 27 - Fanourios
  • August 30 - Alexandros, Alexandra
In this picture Alexandra Tsamba lights a candle at the remote monastery of Panagia Rodia which is nestled in the Vigla mountain and overlooks the fertile Rodia lagoon. She describes how she as a young girl walked with her family for hours through a rough footpath at the slopes of Vigla mountain in order to offer a candle to Panagia. She recalls how they walked almost all day from Aneza during August 14, and then stayed overnight at the monastery before they took the return trip for their village.

Even the most elaborate holidays acquire a simple meaning in remote places, with a humble candle and a prayer and this day is celebrated in almost every town and village in Greece especially those with a church dedicated to the Panagia (Virgin Mary).

Meanwhile, everyday life goes on. Can they mend this old washing machine?