High Drama on a Quiet Greek Island

On the outskirts of a sleepy, half empty village on a remote Greek island in the winter, a lone Canadian woman comes to be a house sitter. Just a single, aspiring cat-lady-slash-student looking after some rescue dogs and cats, all alone, except the old man upstairs. You’d think it would be pretty quiet, right? Peaceful. Maybe even a bit dull.

Yeah, that’s what I thought too. I fantasized about long walks down to the beach, and cooking, with just my own music playing on the computer. Maybe some cats and dogs scattered about, sleeping… I even worried that I’d get a bit bored, lonely.

Ha! Joke’s on me.

Now, there have been walks and cooking and music and that’s all been very pleasant, but there is no boredom, and no chance for loneliness. I can’t get a moment alone actually. I can’t even go for a walk without company. Every day, I take the dogs for a walk. Anywhere from one to six cats try to follow. They are fine for the first half kilometer, and then they start getting tired, and feeling alarmed at how far from home we are and crying piteously. To avoid this, I try to sneak away (difficult, with excited dogs alerting everyone within earshot with loud, joyful barking: We’re going for a walk! It’s really happening! Just like yesterday! Oh my god!! A walk!! ), or put the worst cat followers in the house before we go. The one time I left the dogs in the house (barking frantically), cats still followed me. Crying if I walked too fast. So, it was not all that relaxing. It was after the following incident.

Some background info: It’s a bit cold here some days. Depends on which direction the wind is coming from. When it’s from the south, it’s mild: 16 to 21 degrees generally. When it comes from the north, the temperature drops to the single digits, and then it’s time to get the wood stove going! Stamatis doesn’t have a wood stove, and his apartment upstairs is much more open-plan than the one down here, so even with his little space heater on, the heat doesn’t have much effect. On those evenings, he makes his way to my front door, comments on the warmth (zesta) coming out the door, the cold upstairs (clio pano), and I invite him in. He nestles in amongst the cats on the couch, sometimes has a little nap, and then offers advice/criticism about my life (I have very clear instructions about what I should and shouldn’t eat, how much time I shouldn’t spend in front of the computer, and apparently I should marry a Greek man, stay here on Chios and have babies), and he accepts lemon cookies.

Recently, in a bid to divert the flow of advice, I turned to YouTube and its wide selection of musical choices. Stamatis requested Greek ‘Bouzoukia’ folk music and I found a long playlist of it. Look at me, solving problems! Of course, once the music was going, Stamatis wanted to do a spot of Greek dancing, and so I was drafted in to be a dance partner. There we stood, side by side, his left hand on my right shoulder and my right hand on his left shoulder, bopping and stepping, forward, back, swing leg up, Zorba the Greek-like, to the music, congratulating each other, “Bravo!” at the end of the song.

And then just as I was thinking I could settle back into my reading for school, all hell broke loose. Two cats discovered the cucumber peelings in the garbage, and started to rip the bag (who knew cats were so partial to cucumber?) I made a dive for them because my rule is: outside with cats that raid the garbage! The dogs thought that something exciting and dramatic was unfolding and threw themselves into the drama with high-pitched

The living room, from the kitchen, where all the dancing and cucumber thieving and other excitement happens.

The living room, from the kitchen, where all the dancing and cucumber thieving and other excitement happens.

barking abandon and much leaping about. The cats scattered to hidden corners with their cucumber prizes, and the dogs gave frenzied chase, with me trailing all. Stamatis, meanwhile, was still on his feet in the middle of the room and he assisted in the unfolding tomfoolery by standing in the middle of the room shouting at the animals. Thanks, Stamati, that’ll calm everyone down. This is all going on in one small kitchen/living room. I wanted to run outside and escape everyone. It was riDICulous.

Once I fished the cats and cucumber out from behind furniture, I told Stamatis I was leaving him with the dogs and going for a walk. He thought it a bad idea, because it was getting dark, but my frazzled nerves would have it no other way. However, as I mentioned before, I was followed, and it was indeed getting quite dark, so I didn’t get very far, and just sat on a rock up the road trying to enjoy the quiet and patting the two cats who had come with me. I think I will try again this afternoon to sneak away. Just half an hour alone would be so nice…

Yiannis in the foreground. I tried to tell him to go home, but he ignored me, so I carried him when he got tired and here he is on a carrying break.

Yiannis in the foreground. I tried to tell him to go home, but he ignored me, so I carried him when he got tired and here he is on a break from being carried.

Couple of uninvited cats here on an evening stroll.

Couple of uninvited cats here on an evening stroll.

out for a nice walk alone

out for a nice walk alone

Nope! Being tracked!

Nope! Being tracked!

I'm such a sucker. We sat on a neighbours patio and visited.

I’m such a sucker. We sat on a neighbour’s patio and visited.

Small grey stalker at the bast of the stair.

Small grey stalker at the bottom left corner of the door.

Love to travel, love to stay home

P1000965And this house-sit is perfect for that split in my personality. It’s been just over three weeks now that I’ve been back in this tiny house just outside the village of Volissos (see village in banner), on Chios, and most days I don’t venture further than a couple of kilometers, while walking the dogs. This time it’s just me on my own. I worried I would be lonely, craving human contact, craving someone English speaking, but so far, I am entirely, enTIREly content. There has, of course, been contact with friends and family, because this is the age of Skype and Facebook and WhatsApp and other such technological marvels, so there is that. But the only company I have here in person (so to speak) is that of 3 dogs, 11 cats, and 1 Greek-speaking old man.

I have had school to focus on, but I’m not very good at focusing on the things I should be. I have spent a lot of time on the internet following rabbits down holes. Did you know, for example, that scientists have been experimenting with treating Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis with intestinal worms? It turns out that the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ – the idea that our immune systems have been thrown off balance by too much cleanliness – has been updated to the ‘old friends hypothesis.’ The story with this being that we’ve removed a bunch of our parasites/microbes that we had in fact had useful working relationships with – hence, of course, the proliferation of pro-biotic products on the grocery store shelves. I learned about this worm-eating business, and many more non-school related tidbits in the past three weeks while avoiding doing what I should have been doing.

I also decided to not drink while I was here. I have sort of stuck to it. I only bought one little half litre bottle of wine once, and drank it over two nights. But Stamatis and I were sitting outside in the sun one day after lunch, and he was saying (in Greek, with gestures – we’ve gotten pretty good at communicating across the language barrier) wouldn’t some wine be nice right now? “Nei”, i agreed, “but we don’t have any. Supermarket?” (which is a grand name for a tiny little shop in the village, but anyway)

Stamatis: “Ohi! (No) and then a lot of Greek, which I think was something to the effect of: “I wouldn’t drink that garbage – I never eat anything that’s not organic and health conscious! That’s why I give you such a hard time whenever you buy any tomatoes or potatoes or oatmeal or whatever from the regular store, rather than the health food store. That’s why I drink soy milk and not regular milk, and eat fish and try to make you eat fish! My body is a temple!” (except when it comes to store-bought cookies or cake or sugary apple-fritter type pastries, and cheap white-flour melba toasts…those are exempt apparently)

Okay, so no wine I guess.

Not so! I was sent off to get a couple of glasses. Turns out, he has a stash of homemade wine, that he made, from the grapes that he grows right here! We had a very pleasant afternoon getting drunk in the sun on this cloudy, pinkish, “organique!”, wine surrounded by cats and dogs, with my computer out, talking about life and death and everything in between (thank you, Google translate). There was even a little concert – Stamatis playing guitar and singing; seven or eight cats, three dogs and one human in the audience. I was tucking myself into bed by 7:30 that evening. The next night, Stamatis brought me to the neighbours’ house for dinner. We brought a litre of his wine and the four of us shared it there. So that’s two nights in a row I fell off the wagon. But it was worth it. Sometimes having a glass of wine or many is just the right thing to do.

The wine - in it's transporting bottle to go to Sofia and Yianni's.

The wine – in its transporting bottle to go to Sofia and Yianni’s.

The maestro, just before I was sent to get the guitar.

The maestro, just before I was sent to get the guitar.

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Animals everywhere. You have to watch your step around here.

Animals everywhere. You have to watch your step around here. There are 9 animals in this photo

Evening from the patio

Evening from the patio

Walking the dogs down to the beach is one of the highlights of the day

Walking the dogs down to the beach is one of the highlights of the day

Things we see on our walks: orange and olive trees in fields of yellow flowers.

Things we see on our walks: orange and olive trees in fields of yellow flowers.

A rainy day

A rainy day

Rain coming!

Rain coming!

Another walk photo

Another walk photo

The house from the garden

The house from the garden

Is it a kind of mental illness? Perhaps…

I have crazy cat lady tendencies. It goes back to my childhood, as these kinds of afflictions so often do, when we had a lot of cats, and I fell in love with them all. Those little bewhiskered faces, and those tidy little paws, with their retractable claws. Those Continue reading

On making impractical life choices – a personal specialty

This is something I seem to excel at on a grand scale. On a small scale I tend to be quite practical: buy the cheap car, use a hot water bottle to keep toasty rather than heat a whole room, go to bed at a reasonable hour, stop eating when full and so on. On the large scale of life choices, I have no common sense at all. I won’t go into my imprudent choices of romantic partners, or my silly, mistaken ideas about what was a good course of action in terms of career and post-secondary education (with the exception of now; I think I have finally made a good choice education-wise), but trust me when I tell you, my track record in these two arenas is deeply flawed. I could write a what-not-to-do book based on sound (im)practical experiences. 

My most recent foolishness on a grand scale is to book a trip to Greece to house-sit. The reason this is not sensible is financial.  I am a student, at the beginning of my student-hood, with 19 months ahead of me, and negligible income. But I tell myself it’ll all work out somehow. When this woman who I house sat for before on Chios asked me if I’d be willing to come back this January, I hemmed and hawed for week or two. The thought of cozying up in that little house, 5 minutes from the Aegean, olive trees outside the windows, wood-stove burning away, cup of tea in hand… How could I resist? Also, I can be mind-numbingly sentimental and prone to falling head-over-heels for most 4-legged, fur-adorned creatures, and with 7 cats and 3 dogs, well, I will be in a kind of swooning heaven. 

So, with fond memories, not yet 5 months old, of drinking my morning coffee in the garden under an olive tree, with cats and dogs gradually congregating around me and a loud, bossy, but sweet, grandfatherly Greek man wandering about tending his plants, appearing periodically with gifts of fruits to be eaten and ordering me around in Greek, I went online and bought my ticket back to Chios. 

The Aegean and the west side of the island

Big fancy Greek Orthodox church in the next village along. You can actually see it from Volissos, perched way up on a mountain… The island is littered in churches, but unlike this one, most are very small affairs, the size of a single car garage, but much prettier.

our temporary farm animals. The cats used to tear around in the field, getting underhoof, chasing each other, chasing bugs, but the horses and the goat took it all in stride

Castle ruins at the top of Volissos village

The dogs, tucked in for the night. It turned out we were famous (and I suspect in a ridiculous rather than admired way) on the island – word had even reached Chios town – for this business of putting the dogs to bed at night.

Mom, in one of the many fields of daisies blanketing hillsides in the spring.

Sofia and Yiannis. Doesn’t this sight just make you want to put on the kettle for a cup of tea and cozy up with a book?

Life Imitates Art. Also, All Things In Moderation

Fig. 1- Garden tomatoes – best I have ever tasted.

Victoria’s been doing a pretty good impersonation of a Disney movie lately. Woodland animals everywhere, 2 months now of relentlessly sunshiny days, leading to delicious fruit: peaches, plums, apples, berries, tomatoes (see Fig 1), hummingbirds darting around, all flashy red and green and tiny and ferocious (to each other anyway). When I walk up the stairs in the morning to go for my daily swim there are almost always racoon footprints marked in the dew on the steps, and spiderwebs glittering in the sun, picked out by the dew as well (I may be scared of spiders, but I am in awe of their web-building). Anyway, you get the idea; it’s pretty idyllic. 

This is real. Just someone’s front yard in the neighbourhood

But, in every story, there must come the conflict.

It arrived last night, in the form of those rat-bastard deer that I usually so admire.  The thieves broke into the vegetable patch and ate the little growing squashes, pea plants, kale and the chard. Those were meant to be a winter harvest for the people, not an early fall snack for the deer. Elizabeth was heartbroken, as would anyone be after expending the time, love and labour that she has on the garden. Dad and I worked on an enclosure today and that shouldn’t happen again (God willing, they don’t just push it over. Deer are big and well-muscled.) But unfortunately, those plants aren’t going to recover in time for this winter. So it was a sad morning. Deer are pretty, but they are in the doghouse now, even in my eyes. 

Peas, torn asunder and bitten down

There were little squashes here… eaten, gone…

Kale and chard – nothing but stems left

So that’s the woodland creatures’ dark side, but at least there’s still all that lovely sunshine, right?

No. The sunshine isn’t all sunshine and light it turns out. The front page of the paper this morning had this alarming news (article here): the salmon can’t run if they don’t have rivers to run in and many of the rivers have been reduced to a trickle. Some of the salmon that have started pooling in the ocean near their respective origin river mouths are being caught and trucked up to spawning grounds, but that’s not a viable solution for all. It’s time for the rain to come now.  I will start thinking rainy thoughts.

My first day of on-campus school is on Tuesday, so I think rain would be quite appropriate anyway. I like the idea of sitting in a class with the rain drumming down outside, and a hot chocolate in my hands. Now that I think about it, I kind of miss the smell of wet cement and rain-washed air. 

This was here, in late June. It’s time to revert to our rainforest ways…

 

Washroom Attendants – A Consideration of Two Different Kinds

Do you sometimes find yourself heading off to the bathroom, reluctant to leave the society of your friends and family, but called insistently by nature? What you need is a bathroom attendant! I don’t mean the traditional kind– Continue reading

3rd visit to the camel farm

Camel Farm visit – #3 at Salem’s farm

This time, Mom and I didn’t call ahead because Salem said, last time, “no need to call, just come. You are welcome any time. My farm for you.” He was pretty adamant, I swear. We arrived this time just as he was driving off in his Land Cruiser somewhere (Land Cruisers are de rigueur for any self-respecting Emirati Bedouin).  He drove over to us as we were standing there sorting out if we were in the right spot. Big smiles and greetings and welcomes, and then, “Why you no call to tell me you come now?”

I was indignant, because “you told us NOT to call last time! You insisted!”

He laughed at me, and then explained how I had missed the subtext and been over-literal: “But this because I want you understand: no problem, come any time, is like your home. But you should call to tell me, because if I am not here, then I will come, and sit with you. Anyway, no problem. Very happy you are here. I must go now for a little – I have two camels over there, and I must help to make,” pause, “married between two camels. Understand?” followed by hearty laughter.

So he sent us to wander around, take photos, visit the camels and generally entertain ourselves, until the camel wedding was done. We spent the next 20 or 30 minutes wandering accordingly, amazed at all the little flowers and grass that had sprouted up from the thunderstorms that have swept over the country the last couple of weeks.

Greenery is quick to sprout up after a good bit of rain

The three tents that were there last time – two white sleeping tents and a black wool visiting tent – were nowhere to be seen. When Salem, and his friend and helper in the above operation, Abu Ali, who turns out to be an uncle of some sort (I think – family relations can get complicated and intertwined here), returned and we were all settled down around the fire, the missing tents came up. And, yes indeed, just like our rooftop tent that was completely demolished by a storm last year, Salem’s tents were flattened by the storms we had this last month.

Last year, when he heard about our much laboured over roof-top tent’s demise, he was highly amused, teased that it was because a Bedouin hadn’t slept in it, and generally expressed no sympathy. So, you can imagine, I wasn’t exactly crying into my tea for his misfortune. In fact, the word Schadenfreude comes to mind… He was a lot less emotional about his tent disaster than I had been about mine, and actually was laughing as well. He told us there was an old Arabic saying, that if you enjoy another’s misfortune, the same, even stronger, will come to you, and then he pointed at himself, with a ‘well-I-had-it-coming, didn’t I?’ smile.

Rasheed, the young man who was there the first time we came, to make tea, coffee, etc, ran away as soon as he got his first paycheque. Off to make his fortune I guess. This seems to amuse Salem as well. Unusually, Rasheed had possession of his own passport, because Salem says he doesn’t believe in keeping his employees’ passports. So Salem was the host, and the chef and the tea and coffee maker as well.

We had tea and coffee – which is called qawa, and has cloves and cardamom in it, but not much actual coffee as far as I can tell – and then he said, “Come with me. Bring your camera. You have a flash on your camera? I have a surprise for you.” We followed him some 300 or 400 meters into the dark – no moon, only starlight, and then we saw: a small dark shape in the sand, and a much bigger one standing over it. He told us it was a two-day old baby camel with its mother, and she was out here to eat the greenery and just be alone with her baby. The baby struggled to its feet and then walked awkwardly but directly over to us. It was all very heart melting, of course. Silky soft like a new puppy or kitten, and friendly, or possibly just confused, but it kept coming to us and bumping us with its head and then just standing there while we pet it. It may have been looking for milk. The mother, Sharifa, stuck close, but she didn’t seem aggressive, though Salem was clearly concerned. He kept saying, “careful…” and calming things to her like “Hup! Hup! Ehhh, Sharifa…” and then a sort of blowing through his lips, like horses do.

Even more adorable in real life!

Mom and I were floating with the delight of it all, and went back to the fire with big, dumb smiles stuck to our faces. Salem took a phone call, and then said “Ah, my father is coming. It will be good for you to meet him!” Ten minutes later another Land Cruiser rolled up into the sand near us and two more men in kandouras (long white kind of shirt/dress) joined us round the fire. One was Salem’s father and one a business friend of his, an old man from Yemen. We all sat for a while and Salem told his father I was taking Arabic lessons and he should try talking to me, so he asked me about my father, my brothers and sisters. When he heard there were only three children in my family, he laughed and told me he had 18 children, though 3 had died. He gave me a breakdown, this many girls, that many boys and 3 dead. I said oh, hazeen, meaning sad. And he turned to Salem and asked why I was saying sad? I thought, shit, I must have said it wrong – this is always happening with my rare attempts at speaking Arabic. Salem explained that I meant that it was sad that three had died. And the father turned to me, laughing again and said, “Hamdillilah,” as in, thanks to God, we mustn’t get worked up one way or the other, He makes these decisions and we have to just go along. Then Abu Ali, told me that of his 18 children, 9 had died, which I thought pretty bad luck, but now decided I wasn’t supposed to express such unhappiness for, so I just sort of said, oh, and how many boys and how many girls?

There was lots of chatter and lots of joking, most of which went over mom’s and my head, but Salem translated some of the stories his father told into English for us, like how they used to sit out by the fire with a gun, keeping an eye and an ear out for wolves and tigers, because they would kill the baby camels. I know, you’re probably thinking, tigers, in the Arabian desert? What tigers? I don’t know, I’m just reporting; that’s what he said.

As this story closed, Ghasim, the man who takes care of the camels, was around the passenger side of the car looking for something and then he closed the door.  The thing is, none of us knew he was there, and when the door shut, everyone looked with surprise at the car. Salem’s father called out, and when there was no answer, he called out again in a more, you-better-answer kind of tone. Then Ghasim appeared and Salem’s father relaxed again. So I said, (in no doubt, very bad and broken Arabic) “maybe you thought it was a wolf or a tiger?!”  Well, this hit the man’s funny bone (not difficult, as we was a very jolly guy), and he laughed and told the other guys what I’d said, and they all had  a good laugh too, and then he told Ghasim about it, but said, I think you are a fox, and I would be the wolf! I couldn’t remember for sure if I understood the word for fox correctly and so it took me a minute to get this sorted out via Salem …

There are three loaves of bread in there – our dinner!

After some more time, Salem and Abu Ali made bread. They made it from scratch, with water and flour and salt. The process was actually started much earlier when Abu Ali started mixing it, then it was allowed to sit for a while, and then Salem rolled up his sleeves and took over kneading the dough. He separated it into three pieces, which he made into round loaves, and they were placed into the coals in the fire. After half an hour or so, a little oven was dug into the sand under the fire and the bread was baked in there.

We ate it with a kind of a bean stew and fresh camel’s milk and it was all delicious. I ate till I was stuffed. After the meal Salem took the leftover bread and put it into a bowl for the new camel mother. I said, “I’ll take it to her!” and his father told him to go with me, so I wouldn’t get lost. Her baby was resting when we got to her and she came over and ate all the bread with gusto, almost taking one of my fingers in as well once. When it was gone, and we turned back, she followed us for a bit, hoping for more, till Salem went back to her and showed her the bowl and tapped her on the neck with it to go back.

When we returned to the fire, I learned that Salem’s father had handed his phone to my mother and asked her to call Canada. She tried my brother and sister, but there was no answer. Ah well, so he called a friend of his to chat with. He is a very social, cheerful character. We left shortly thereafter, with a container of camel’s milk, two bottles of water, and a container of chewing gum from Salem’s father. It seemed he just didn’t want to see us head off with nothing from him, and that’s all he had handy…