May Postcards from Symi

Most of those package holiday companies have either dropped Symi from their listings as too expensive and awkward to get to (the shrinking ferry schedule is a self-fulfilling prophecy) or the companies themselves have disappeared, gobbled up in the eternal quest for ever cheaper ‘value for money’ deals that eventually became unsustainable. 

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May is a fragrant month on Symi.   Apart from the ubiquitous jasmine and the somewhat cloying Persian lilacs, many older gardens also have honeysuckle scrambling over fences and pergolas.  On Symi this usually flowers twice a year – in May and then again in September.
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Pomegranate flowers.  Pomegranate trees are quite small, more like big shrubs than proper trees.  As you can see, the flowers are quite solid with thick waxy petals.  The fruit is ready to pick in late September through October.
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The courgette glut is well underway.  New blossoms appear early every morning, shrivelling away in the heat of the day.  The fruits grow so fast they have to be picked daily, even if one does not intend to use them that day.  Today’s sweet tender courgette becomes tomorrow’s tough vegetable marrow if left a day too long.  Courgette fritters in all their incarnations are a taverna staple at this time of the year.  They can also be used instead of aubergines in the making of moussaka, sliced thinly lengthwise and grilled to eat with garlic sauce as a mezze, hollowed out or halved lengthwise and stuffed with rice or meat – in May and June every housewife on the island is working her way through kilos and kilos of fresh courgettes. 
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There are more yachts about now.  I caught this early morning departure from Pedi one clear morning last week. That scar on the hillside on the right is the foot path to St Nicholas beach, one of Symi’s most popular family beaches.
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A novel way to discourage cats from sauntering into a Chorio courtyard.  If you spot this place, take a quick peak over the wall. There are the remnants of an old and elaborate colonnade, a fragment of which you can just see on the left of the aperture.
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A last lingering poppy in Chorio.  As the earth behind the dry stone walls dries out, the plants shrivel away.  Symi’s secret stone gardens turn back into barren dry stone walls until the drought breaks in late October.
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This was the view from the terrace of Agios Thannasis church in Chorio one afternoon last week.   This was most probably a flotilla of charter yachts being delivered to their cruising base such as Kos or even a Turkish port such as Bodrum.

A band of thunder showers passed over Greece last week.  Symi got off lightly with a few muddy sprinkles and a general clearing of the air.  Rhodes and many parts of the Greek mainland as well as neighbouring Turkey had heavy downpours, enough, in some cases, to cause local flooding.  We are unlikely to see any significant rain now until late October or even November.  The Southern Aegean has one of the longest summer droughts in the Mediterranean.  The last time Symi had rain strong enough to set the gutters flowing to fill cisterns was the end of February.  It looks as though 2018 is going to be a very long hot dry summer.

The first Olympic Holiday people arrived on Symi last week, marking the beginning of the official tourist season.  25 years ago there were many package holiday companies servicing Symi, notable among them being Laskarina, Manos, Kosmar, Small World, Travel a la Carte and Hidden Greece.  Accommodation was a mixture of restored traditional local houses, privately owned small studio and apartment developments designed to look just like Symi’s traditional houses and small pensions.  The emphasis was on authentic island life, simple self-catering and lots of convivial dining in local tavernas.  Symi’s tourist businesses timed their openings to coincide with these arrivals, knowing that there would be enough visitors staying on the island to provide them with customers in bars, cafes, tavernas, excursions and the like.

Now that certainty has gone.  Most of those package holiday companies have either dropped Symi from their listings as too expensive and awkward to get to (the shrinking ferry schedule is a self-fulfilling prophecy) or the companies themselves have disappeared, gobbled up in the eternal quest for ever cheaper ‘value for money’ deals that eventually became unsustainable.

All inclusive packages to resort hotels in Rhodes are good for consumers who want to know exactly how much their holiday is going to cost and don’t really care if it is Greece, Spain, Egypt or Turkey as long as the sun shines, the pool is full and the food and drink bountiful and free.  Unfortunately these packages are death to local economies as holiday guests seldom venture forth into the community, prices are pared down to the last cent so wages in these complexes are often below the legal minimum and limited local resources are stretched to breaking point.

Last summer Rhodes found itself in the previously unheard of situation of running out of water.  So much water was being diverted to hotel complexes with their swimming pools, manicured lawns and unlimited showers that there was no water available for the locals.  Villages and towns found themselves without water for days on end. A situation with which Symiots are only too familiar – this is why we all have cisterns – but for which Rhodes is poorly equipped.

Ironically, high value property owners who had invested significant sums in purchasing holiday homes and villas on the island found themselves seriously inconvenienced for the benefit of low value all inclusive holidaymakers whose tourist spend largely stayed in the pockets of the international holiday companies hosting their holidays.  A state of affairs hardly likely to encourage further foreign investment.

That’s probably enough of the serious food for thought for today.  If you are still reading, have a good week!  Remember, you can always join in the discussion by commenting, or by emailing me here.

Regards,

Adriana

 

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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.

Rainy Days and Cyclamens

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The Greek Island cliche of the tourist brochures is blue skies, calm seas, endless sunshine and idyllic beaches. That is only part of the picture.  Greece, like all the other countries in the Europe, also has winter.  While it seldom involves metre deep snow drifts – unless you live in northern Greece – but it does usually involve a lot of wet stuff and that, in turn, translates into a lot of green stuff.  The Mediterranean climate has two defining characteristics – long hot dry summers and relatively mild wet winters with high rainfall.  Spring and Autumn are such short seasons, only 2-3 weeks between Summer and Winter that they hardly register at all in Southern Greece.  We would not survive those summer droughts without the winter rains and on naturally arid islands like Symi which have no springs or rivers, harvesting the winter rains in cisterns has been a way of life for thousands of years.

If you have only ever been to Greece in the popular summer months of July, August and September you may find it hard to imagine a landscape of wild cyclamens and silvery asphodels, bright green annual grasses and waist high corona daisies.  The first rains usually fall sometime in October, around the same time that the squills start punching through the sunbaked earth to remind us that Persephone is on her way back to Hades. Within a day or so a delicate green bloom tinges the rocky landscape as dry scrubby herb bushes regreen and grass seeds germinate.  The wild cyclamens poke small heart shaped leaves out of stony terrace walls and rocky hillsides.  The delicately scented pale pink flowers follow later, in February and March.  By April the country is a riot of flowers as nature pushes to complete complex life cycles before the first heatwaves of May and June bake the earth.

It is quite possible to see no rain at all between mid March and early November but most years the drought on Symi lasts from April to late October.  A long time without water.

The next time you look at a photograph of gleaming white Cycladic houses against a brilliantly blue sky and sea, remember the other Greece. The wintry green one of rain and cyclamens.