Shopping for Essentials

While Greece is a fairly conservative country and sexism is rife, when it comes to food there are no gender divisions.  You are as likely to see men as women picking over the produce, examining the quality and buying fruit and vegetables by the kilo.

Although we live off the grid and try to be as self-sufficient as possible, there are some things one just has to buy.  Loo roll is one of them.  This morning I realised we were down the last one and as tomorrow is a local holiday, the Feast of St Michael, over at Panormitis monastery, I had better make a foray this morning or hang on until Thursday.

We are very lucky in that although we live on a small holding effectively in the middle of no where we are actually only a 5 minute walk from the shops of central Chorio, the old upper village.  Perfect for a non-driver such as myself.

There is a bit of a square at Kampos, the central bus stop for Chorio.  More a widening of the road really than a square in the formal sense, but there is a kiosk and a bit of parking space where hawkers doing the rounds of the islands park for a few hours to sell their wares.  This morning the greengrocer from Kalymnos had taken up the slot.  Usually he favours the space at the back of the town square down in Yialos, Symi’s main harbour, and it is quite unusual to see him up here.

Kalymnos is a famous sponge diving island in the northern Dodecanese with a population of about 30 000 inhabitants – and a wide fertile well-watered valley called Vathi where Kalymniots grow fruit and vegetables which they sell to less fortunate islands such as Symi.  There is no way we could ever grow cabbages that size with our limited water resources, stony ground and temperature extremes.  Did you know that cabbages take anything up to 30 weeks to get from seedling to marketable size?  A lot can go wrong in that time.  A sudden rise in temperatures and they bolt.  Low humidity and insufficient water and they shrivel and go leathery.  A hungry caterpillar or two and there’s not much left except rabbit food.  So we leave the farmers of Kalymnos to keep us in cabbages.  We grow rocket, coriander, parsley and other faster and more resilient stuff that gives us a better return for our resources.

In the world of cold chains and global imports it is easy to forget that citrus fruits are actually a Mediterranean winter crop.  Given enough water throughout the year, citrus trees can bear fruit and flowers simultaneously all year round but their main fruiting time is the winter.  As you can see from the photograph, the first oranges are starting to appear.  Not quite the radiant orange of the fully ripe but they are getting there.

Something else worth noticing in this photograph is that the shoppers are men.  While Greece is a fairly conservative country and sexism is rife, when it comes to food there are no gender divisions.  You are as likely to see men as women picking over the produce, examining the quality and buying fruit and vegetables by the kilo.  The diet here is largely seasonal and people shop every day, deciding on what to cook based on what is available.  Although the range of frozen vegetables and savoury dishes has improved somewhat in recent years, they are still too expensive for the average household to have on a regular basis.  Meat, poultry and fish are treats rather than a daily event and in the winter months when most people are out of work in the islands, pulses and pasta rule the day, augmented by whatever fresh vegetables are available.

The man to the left in the photograph is a local Greek Orthodox priest.  He came to the priesthood quite late in life, after the death of his wife.  I don’t know the exact numbers but just counting off the priests I know, there are at least 30 on the island, serving a community of about 3000.  That is pretty good considering that in countries like the United Kingdom, the clergy have declined to the point where it is the norm for one priest to be serving several different towns and villages.  The priests here do move from church to church too.  Symi has about 400 churches and chapels, many of which are privately owned and only used on their name days and for various dedications. They are all, however, lovingly maintained.  That however, is another story for a different blog post.

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Greetings from a Small Greek Island

A brief introduction to life off the grid.

When Nicholas and I bought our first boat, a 23 foot wooden ketch called Frolic, back in February 1981, little did we realise that this would eventually lead to a lifestyle that is far from conventional and a long way from our starting point as white middle class South African graduates.

Home is now the small Greek island of Symi in the Dodecanese, about 25 nautical miles north of Rhodes and within spitting distance of the Turkish coast. We have lived off the grid for decades now, experimenting with a permaculture-inspired lifestyle that aims to be as self-sufficient as possible.  We try to grow as much of our own food as we can, despite having settled on an island that is famously dry and has more perpendicular surfaces than horizontal ones.  Every year brings its challenges, particularly as Symi is seeing the effects of climate change as the summer drought grows ever longer.

I have been blogging Symi since 2001 as part of my work for Symi Visitor Accommodation but I am often asked to write about aspects of living here on a more personal level. This is for those of you who are more interested in how one can live all year round without mains electricity than what life is like for tourists visiting the island.