Sunday, 28 September 2014

Two On a Retirement Adventure

Two On a Retirement Adventure.

We visited Lemnos and Fell in Love with the Island

When my husband and I decided to take up a retirement project and renovate a large old house in Greece we were filled with excitement. He was an owner of a food factory and I was an academic. That was ten years ago, and since then we have been travelling to our old house to Lemnos Island in the Aegean for six months every year. He became skilled at carpentry, painting, electricity, plumbing and I have had to hone my skills of painting, decorating, and gardening in the Mediterranean.

Retired from Food Factory

New Job in the Carpentry Workroom

Old Job as Academic

New Job as Gardener, Painter

While the dream of a house on an Aegean island, with sunshine, warm seas and rural peace, is something many busy, driven, city folk long for, it’s not easily achieved. Land in Greece always belongs to someone. Even if you spot a ruined house on an empty block you’ll very soon find it belongs to absent landlords who are planning to return sometime soon.

We were lucky; Takis’ was part owner of his grandfather’s old house on Lemnos Island. It was Takis’ perseverance over a very long period that enabled us to buy the house from 36 other relatives. We spent two years exploring our options and then six more years (while renovating) before we managed to fully own his great-grandfather’s house.

The Ruin
And then it took even longer to renovate. However all this time the house has continued to be a magnet for us and has made the effort worthwhile. I think what we’ve most enjoyed has been the fact that we have been thrown back onto our own resources. There are only a few shops nearby and it’s hard to get what you want when you want it. This is a challenge Takis enjoys, for not being able to go to a large Australian tradesman’s centres he has to find ways of fixing things himself. As for me, I like working at a slower, more organic, pace. One has time to notice the scent of lemon and nutmeg when baking a homemade cake, and to become more aware of garden scents when making bags of lavender seeds.

The Finished Dream House
It has been project that has taken its toll in various ways, emotionally, physically and financially over the years. We’ve watched the exchange rates, carefully noting when they went up or down. And then, when economic uncertainties hit Greece and the worldwide financial crash hit, we wondered how long we could afford to keep flying to Greece and paying for the renovations. There is no doubt that Ogden Nash got it right when he wrote that ‘It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home. It takes a heap o’ payin’ too.’

He Had the Money Worries

And I Took to Drink! No not really.

There’s a saying in Lemnos that one cries twice when coming to the island. This saying may have originated from the time when the island was a designated place of exile, and folk would cry when they landed on the island, going there reluctantly, but often they would cry again when they left as by then they’d fallen in love with the island and its people. It’s a saying I’ve also adopted for there have many been times when I’ve come to the island grudgingly, and many times when on leaving I’ve walked around my Greek garden very unwilling to depart.

But, after each questioning period, we’ll always decide that we’ll keep coming – at least for a few more years. The time will eventually come when we have to leave permanently and there will be so many things we’ll dearly miss, especially those sounds that are completely lost in a big city: the music of cockerels calling early each morning, the chatter of young children walking home from school, and even those street-sellers who drive us to distraction by blaring out descriptions of their wares as they drive past, or the psalmist in the church who turns up the volume so that we can admire his beautiful voice each Sunday.


The Weary but Satisfied Couple

Monday, 22 September 2014

Autumn Conserves

Autumn Conserves

A few blogs ago I wrote a blog about late summer and the need to continue conserving ones energy. I think the title misled some readers who though it was going to be about preserving food. The problem is late summer is still very hot. There is hardly anything in the garden. But come the first rains, usually in September, plants plump up and you do find a few things you can put away in jars.

Our zuccini survived the summer, and is now flowering and fruiting again.


We’ve had two earthquakes - one was 6.8 the last 5.4. We’ve also had some spectacular storms. This year we had an early autumn storm with lots of rain. Wonderful for the garden! My capsicums that had just been hanging on with daily watering perked up and now we have good sized fruit, similarly the hot peppers are growing big and plump.

BUT this rain was also wonderful for the weeds, we have succulent purslane everywhere (Portulaca oleracea - also known as verdolaga, pigweed, little hogweed) thick and juicy. I have not tried eating it but I believe you can. It is supposed to add a wonderful crunch to salads and even sandwiches. Click around for recipes for purslane-yogurt-cucumber salad, Turkish purslane and lamb stew,purslane pilaf, chickpea and purslane salad.

A good rain makes weeding easier








Beans and Chili? We try Autumn Mexicana.

The capsicum and hot chile peppers are another plant doing well now we've had rain

Today we had Chili Con Carne. Not very Greek but we enjoyed it. We used the white beans, previously dried, and then soaked and cooked in one of my home bottled tomato sauces. I added a chili from the garden to some chopped fried onions – also from the garden. Mince meat went into this mix, and then after cooking for a while I added the bean and tomato mix to the meat. Into this went chopped olives and a little cumin and curry powder, and the whole was cooked very gently together for an hour. Another bottle of my tomato sauce was doctored with some fried and chopped mushrooms and green capsicums, reduced down, and made into a red sauce. The final touch was a homemade tortilla, then topped with the chili con carne and tomato sauce, grated cheese and chopped lettuce. Yummy Mexicana!

Greek Tomato Glyko? Not for me.

I have a couple of problems when it comes to Greek preserves. One is that I’m now a diabetic and can’t tolerate sugar. The other is that I don’t particularly like some Greek preserves.

So though I have just collected the last tomatoes I’m not tempted to make a Greek Glyko with them. This is the Greek equivalent of jam. You will find that many autumn fruits are kept this way; in a heavy syrup, plus a number of other things, anything from baby aubergines, to watermelon rind or baby tomatoes. Nor will I make more sauce with these tomatoes as we already have more bottles than we can use. I think I might be giving some bottles away before we leave Greece for the year. I’ll just keep these last ones in the fridge for salads.

Carrots Sweet or Savory? I’ll try both.

End of year carrots, discovered when weeding

The only other thing recently harvested from the vegetable garden has been a lot of small carrots. We have dug up one now and then during the year, but when weeding I found that a lot were missed. I did water them these plants now and then but they seem to have actually keep better left in the ground, mostly dry so they did not rot. What can I do with a lot of small carrots? I might make a sugarless carrot cake, but most I’ll probably just grate into a salad. Though Takis has his eye on them to make a Greek carrot, potato and artichokes dish (Aginares a la Polita). This also includes lemon juice, spring onions, fennel and olive oil.

Harvest Variability

Almost too many tomatoes this year


But not enough grapes to dry

A big crop of apricots this spring

Because weather patterns have been different this year our crops have also varied. We have had a poor grape and almond harvest and almost no olives, maybe because it was a much milder winter than usual. In fact Lemnos has been green nearly all year with a late rain in June and an early rain in September. I’ll miss the almonds, as we usually have buckets full. And everyone has had a bad grape harvest so we are not getting our usual bags of grapes from neighbours who have allotment vines. But we did have a huge apricot harvest earlier in the year, and lots and lots of tomatoes over summer. Plus, I still have olives from the really good crop two years ago!

 Snails? Definitely no!


We are getting a lot of snails, and (don’t tell my granddaughters or Takis daughter Lisa) but I’m going around stamping on huge numbers every day. As I yank up the purslane I find they are hiding under their green cover, just waiting to eat anything planted in the vegetable patch.

However I’m reliably told that snails cooked with onions in tomato sauce and served with rice or flomaria is a good Lemnian dish and is called ‘Saligaria Stiffatho’. In fact my neighbour came late for coffee the other day as she had been preparing just this dish. But, looking at the recipe, below, I can see that to try and cook them is very complicated so I think I’ll give that a miss!

Saligaria Stiffatho

Plenty of snails, but not my idea of a meal

However this is the recipe from Recipes from Limnos. By Ourania G. Vayakou

 To make this dish you first place a bunch of thyme plant in a basket and scatter in the freshly picked snails. Seal the basket with a cloth for 2-3 days. Fill a bowl with water; add 4-5 tablespoons of salt and the snails. Stir snails vigorously and rise. Repeat process in changes of water until snails are clear of any saliva. Now fill a bowl with fresh water, immerse snails and allow them to stand for 30 minutes. This will coax them to poke their heads out. Fill a deep saucepan with water, bring to the boil and add snails. Cook for 5 minutes. Strain snails and remove top cone with a sharp knife. Rinse snails in changes of water until clear of shell bits. Fill deep saucepan with water once more, add snails and cook for 4-5 minutes. Remove and discard froth. Strain snails and set aside.
Sauté onions add tomato and bay leaves, warm water, salt and spices. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add snails and simmer until cooked. Serve hot or cold with rice or flomaria!!
* Flomaria is a Lemnian pasta.

And Questions This Autumn for Next Year?

To think about. Our Albizias are not doing well. Chop them back and plant something else?

And, should we prune our olive tree back hard? We like the shade but they do better with a hard prune now and then

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Romance of the Med. Part 2

The Romance of the Med. Part 2

I have just finished writing a book about our experiences renovating the house and I’m about to self-publish. So far I have approached a number of agents and one publisher. However, though a number have wanted to see more, in the end they all say that too many similar books are being (or have just been) published dealing with living overseas. They are right. I have a shelf full, and still see more coming out in the bookstores.

These are some more I have not read yet, but have seen advertised recently and two of the writers originally set out from Australia!
1.  Claire Lloyd. My Greek Island Home. This book has a lot of pictures. It is about a house on the island of Lesbos. Claire runs a letting agency and this house is one of the places she lets.
2. Christian Brechneff. The Greek House: The Story of a Painter’s Love Affair with the Island of Sifnos, available on-line at Amazon and on, and in book shops in Athens and Thessaloniki.
3. Lana Penrose. To Hellas and Back: my modern-day Greek Tragedy. Find through Viking Penguin and


A Special Greek Island

But, ours is a one-off story, not about Lesbos, nor Sifnos, no this island story is not even any Aegean island, it is aboout Lemnos
The Island of Lemnos
Flying into Lemnos

A View Over the Island

In my last blog I talked about the Romance of the Mediterranean, and the number of people that have been captivated by life here; many different kinds of people, writing many different kinds of stories. Thus each is quite similar in many ways, but also each is different.
For instance here are just four of the books that I have read that inspired me to write, and these stories have some fascinating similarities to ours, but there are also differences.

1. Lady Fortescue Perfume from Provence. This book was written in the early 1930s about moving to live in a village in France with her husband. She gives lots of descriptions of her house and garden. I’ve read two of her other books about her life in France. Like me Lady Forescue has some old fashioned ideas, and these resonate with me.

2. Jeffrey Greene French Spirits. Jeffrey Greene is an American poet. I liked his charming and sympathetic account of the village in Burgundy and the house, an old French presbytery that he and his wife renovated. I think it is his ‘poetic’ view of life that drew me to this book.

3. Sofka Zinovieff Eurydice Street, a place in Athens. This British writer married expat Greek and the two moved to live in Athens with their children. She writes knowingly about the rites and rituals that Greek families have to observe, and quite lot about what it means to live in Athens. Well, she too was married a Greek that wanted to ‘go home’, and like me it seemed that she often struggled to ‘live the life’ within a different culture.

4. Eleni Gage North of Ithaka. Eleni is the daughter of Nocholas Gage, who wrote a book called Eleni, which was made into a film. It told of his mother’s imprisonment and execution during the Greek Civil War. Eleni goes back to her grandmother’s village and rebuilds the family house. I have wondered if she stuck with it after writing the book, as we have for ten years. However her start on the house matches our beginnings.

A Special Greek Village

Yes, Myrina is filled with Greeks like all Greek towns and villages, but here the people are  uniquely Lemnian

Looking out Over Myrina


Our neighbours standing outside their mother's old house
Myrina Sea-front in the Evening


A Greek Experience

Though aspects gave been shared by others ours was a one-off experience: that of two Australian retirees, returning to a particular family home.
My story is by a British-Australian retiree who followed her Greek-Australian husband back to his homeland, and tells how she helped him with his dream, the renovation of his grandfather’s old house on an island in the Aegean.
Looking down at the roof of our hoouse

Our nearby beach at sunset

Our adventure does follow many of the same patterns of experiences of those who have previously written about renovating an old house overseas; it is similar to those stories that tell us what it is like stay a long time in a small village and get to know the different culture; and it chimes with those that mention the torn aspect of living between two cultures.

But, while my book is similar it is the entire mix that makes the difference. Like the fact that most cakes have flour sugar and butter but each one has something else that makes it special. The spice in my story comes from time and place; being set in that period of Greek history between the Olympics and beginning of the end of the economic downturn, and set on the island of Lemnos.

The Magic Island of Lemnos

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Romance of the Med'

The Romance of the Med. Part 1

Here are a few of my favourite photos, capturing some great moments over the time we have been coming to stay in Lemnos. These pictures convey something of the beauty of the island, and the enjoyment we and our family and friends have experienced here.

Writers try to capture what it is that intrigues them about the Mediterranean. They do it with pictures, words, recipes, histories, and travelogues. I expect we all have some of their books on our shelves. Below are a few books and novels from my library. You may have read or seen some of these, and there are many more.

There is no denying that the Med’ is a drawer card for explorers, tourists, cooks, tavern keepers, academics, journalists, historians, house hunters, escapists. But, there is one common denominator, they are romantics all!
Explorers, Cooks, Tavern keepers, Academics, Journalists, Historians, House hunters, Escapists, but Romantics All!
Bouras Gillian.  A Foreign Wife (Penguin Books Australia Ltd.,1990). This well-known Australian writer tells of her difficulties accepted as a new wife in a Greek family and  in a small village community. She has also written A Stranger Here (Penguin Books Australia, 1996). This book is a novel that looks at the lives of three women and studies their feelings of displacement living in Australia and Greece.
Clift Charmain, Mermaid Singing (Indianapolis, 1956), tells of living with her husband, another Australian writer, and her children on the island of Kalimnos in Greece, with a sponge diving community.
David Elizabeth. A Book of Mediterranean Food This is an old Penguin Handbook and one of the first of hers I read, and I almost devoured all of her books I could find. Her recipe books are a delight to read. With these books she introduced the English to Mediterranean food just after the war.

De Vries Susanna. Blue Ribbons and Bitter Bread: The Life of Joice Nankivell Loch (Pandanus Press, 2000). The book tells the life of an Australian woman who, after an adventurous upbringing in Australia, spent her life helping refugees in Europe. She eventually settled in Greece on the Halkitheki Peninsula near Mount Athos. Here she helped villagers find work by reviving their old carpet-making skills. She was decorated by the Greek Government for her work with refugees.

Doody Margaret. Aristotle Dectective: The Secrets of Life (Arrow Books, 2004). This is the third of the Aristotle Detective series, the first two are Aristotle Detective, and Aristotle and Poetic Justice. The authors knowledge of ancient Greece is amazingly detailed and visual. Though the cast of ‘thousands’, all with Greek names is daunting, especially for a non-Greek.
Drinkwater, Carol. The Olive Route: A Personal Journey to the Heart of the Mediterranean (Orion  Publishing Co., 2007) With many interesting stories of people she visited along the way Drinkwater tells of her travels around the Mediterranean to find out more about the history of olive growing.

Durrell Gerald. My Family and Other Animals (Penguin Books 2004),  and Laurence Durrell, Bitter Lemons (Axios Press, 2009). These books are filled with the joy and pleasures of expats living in vibrant Greek communities, the first is about Corfu, the second about living in Cyprus.
Fortescue Lady., Perfume from Provence (Black Swan 1920) was written in the early 1930s. In it she talks about moving to live in a village in France with her husband. She describes her house and garden with great affection, mixed with a few local anecdotes.
Gage Eleni. North of Ithaka (Bantam Press, 2004). Eleni is the daughter of Nicholas Gage who wrote a book called Eleni about his mother. This book was later made into a film and it told of her imprisonment and execution during the Greek Civil War. Eleni, the grandaughter, goes back to rebuild the family house. This is the book that most echoes our building adventures while also drawing on references to the family’s past.

Greene Jeffery.  French Spirits:A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy (Harper Perennial, 2003) Greene tells in lyrical prose the story of turning and old presbytery into a home. He is an American poet and I find his account charmingly sympathetic to the neighbourhood and house.
Hislop Victoria., The Thread (Headline Publishing Group, 2011). This novel tells the story of a family living in Thessolinki. It is based largely on Mark Mazower’s book, however the novel involves a family with multi-racial connections telling their story, and that of Saloniki, from 1917 to 2007.
Humphrey John and Christopher. Blue Skies and Black Olives (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2010). A tale of house building in Greece, written by a father who is an ex BBC journalist, and who does up a cottage in a part of Greece where his son is already living and bringing up a family.

Kazantzakis Nikos., Zorba the Greek, translated by Carl Wildman (Faber and Faber Ltd.,1961). In some ways this book shocked me, but it did prepare me for what it might be like to live in a small very tightly organised Greek community.
Klimi Julia, At Home in Greece (Thames and Hudson,) Julia Klimi gained access to thirty-five private homes and has captured the very Greek essence of each, though each is very different.

Miller Henry. The Colossus of Maroussi, (first published in 1941, republished in Penguin Books 1950). This book is an impressionistic account of Miller’s travels through Greece as a very young and poor writer. He arrived at the invitation of Lawrence Durrell and left as World War Two loomed.

Mole John., Its All Greek to Me! (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2004). This book is about an English banker who came to Greece and lived there 30 years. This is very much a story of house building in Greece.

Perry Clay, Boleman-Herring and Fermor Patrick Leigh. Vanishing Greece (Conran Octopus, 1991). This is a photographic essay on Greece introduced by Patrick Leigh Fermor who, like Clay Perry, had conducted a passionate love affair with Greece over many years. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, another philhellene, has written the text. All three are aware that by the end of the twentieth century the landscape and the traditional way of life may have changed irrevocably. 

Roland, Betty. Lesbos; The Pagan Island (F. W. Cheshire Pty Ltd.,1963). In 1961 Roland spent a year on the island of Lesbos. This Australian author spent an interesting time on this island, one of the closest islands to Lemnos. Lesbos houses the municipality of the Northern Aegean, and so is more politically important than Lemnos however there are close ties between these two island, and many Lemians marry folk from Lesbos.
Slesin, Suzanne, Stafford Cliff and Daniel Rozensztroch Daniel. photography by Gilles de Chabaneix, Greek Style (Thames and Hudson, 1988). This book is one of a series dealing with the unique decorating style of particular countries. In this book they show the range of styles found in Greece, from that of the northern mainland with its mountain and oriental influence, to that found in the Cyclades, Ionian and Dodecanese islands, with their white-washed fishing villages.
Stoeltie, Barbara and Rene. Living in Greece (Taschen Germany, 2002) The two photographers have photographed twenty two different houses, illustrating the way in which detail supplies atmosphere.  
Stone Tom, The Summer of my Greek Taverna (Simon and Shuster, 2003). This is the story of an American who moved to Greece, and lived there for 22 years. He describes some of the Greek characters he got to know and includes a lot about his cooking experiences, plus recipes. He has also written Greek dictionaries and phrase books.

Zable, Arnold. Sea of Many Returns (Text Publishing, Melbourne Australia, 2010) In this book the author discusses the seagoing life of many who live on Ithaka. He draws on his own experiences of returning to Ithaca with his Greek wife over the years. Although this island is far from Lemnos, and set in another sea, this story reveals how many Greeks journeyed past Lemnos on their way to trade around the shores of the Black Sea.
Zinovieff Sofka., Eurydice Street, a place in Athens (Granta Publications, 2004). The writer marries a Greek. This book details the first year of her life after the couple with their two daughters move back to live in Athens.   She writes knowingly about the rites and rituals that Greek families all observe, and quite lot about what it means to live in Athens.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

September: Peace and Coolness

September: Peace and Coolness

A Sudden Change

Mid-summer madness in the kitchen!

Busy, busy, busy on the streets

Takis and I can hardly believe the change that has come within a week. The crowds of beach lovers have gone. The taverna’s are no longer beating out loud music over loud speakers at the beach in the evenings, and it is possible to again park in the town. The first week we were still exhausted from the summer, but now we are recovering and getting back some of our energy.

Moreover we are having lovely sunny days with warm winds. For us September and May are when the island is at its most beautiful; peaceful and cool enough to enjoy it.

Now cool enough to fire up the furno again

Return to Normal?

This week the local schools have gone back after the summer holidays. The beaches are empty, and the roads clear. It’s still sunny, about 25, and not cold by any means. It is still swimming weather. The Agora still has a few tourist shoppers but the locals are predominating.

 A Repeat of May Activities

In May our American guests made bread for us

Just like our May guests, our latest guests are going to the beach nearly every day, and they are also interested to fire up the furno and use it again to make bread and pizzas.

September cook up, cookies, bread, and pizzas













Oat cookies









The Joys of Autumn

The quinces ripen

Some European tits have returned to the garden (Great Tits?).There are dry leaves on the paths, and the creepers are beginning to turn red. Under the fig tree are squashed over ripe figs, and on the quince tree the fruit is ripening. I must gather them before we leave to make some quince and apple compote.

The Sadness of Autumn

Creepers colour

Leaves fall
Autumn is a time when the garden packs up for winter. Some plants are drying up and dropping seeds that will grow (self-sown) next year. And soon Anestis will be planting his winter vegetables. We too will soon be packing up to return to Australia and so it’s a partly sad time for us. But, seasons and times change and the next one is something to look forward to.
We took our guests to Agios Yannis taverna - empty but still lovely!

The only ones at a taverna
Empty Beaches

The heat has gone
And autumn’s here.
Tavernas are empty
And beaches clear
A line of ‘brellas

Along the shore,
With lonesome lounges
And tourists no more.
Two heads bob waves

Out in the sea -
Too cold to swim
For people like me.
The sun is pale
And a mist hangs low,

The sea is grey
And the surf’s like snow.
The year’s not spent
But summer’s gone,
The few that swim

Will leave before long.

Soon Tavernas and ‘brellas
Will be packed away
‘Till summer next
When tourists stay.

Julia Catton.