Monday, 12 July 2010

Settling In

We’ve been slightly remiss in updating the blog. So far, it’s been a long list of things we intend to do when in Greece, written from England. Now we’re here, we’ve been so busy turning, as Katie puts it, a hovel into a home, that we haven’t had a chance to write anything. Oh, and we don’t have an internet connection. So expect long screeds, stored up and transferred via memory stick, on our rare forays to an internet café (it’s strange, by the way, how few emails of import we actually get, when we check them- and how little we miss facebook).


Workwise, so far we’ve: stripped lino from all the upstairs floors, discovering worn and sweet-smelling cypress-wood floorboards; waxed them; made habitable, in order, our bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, the upstairs living room, the spare bedroom and the landing; stripped centuries-worth of mildewed and flaking plaster from the downstairs living room/barn, uncovering thick, roughly-hewn sandstone walls; bought and installed a fridge, stove, oven and gas cylinder; bashed swallows’ nests from the upstairs beams with brooms; nailed netting over broken window panes; sanded and painted rustic furniture unaccountably abandoned, along with family portraits and religious lithographs, by the unsentimental previous owners; had running water and electricity installed, along with a boiler; plotted mental maps of which floorboards can be stepped on and which should be avoided; swept thick dunes of accumulated dust into the garden; disassembled useless furniture into firewood and stored it in the outside goat pen; captured and returned a runaway chicken (twice); guiltily killed a scorpion (twice); exultingly killed mosquitoes (countless times); discovered a view of the sea and Othoni, which changes every day; picked 19 lemons from our own tree (those too high for our neighbours to reach, in our absence). We’ve cleared the garden of undergrowth and discovered: a lemon tree, three pomegranates, three figs, an olive sapling, two bitter oranges, one sweet orange, a gigantic oleander with bright magenta flowers, a 40ft laurel tree, a persimmon, two cypresses choked with ivy, a loquat, an elder and (yesterday) a small plum tree, as well as a number of what may or may not be ash trees. We’ve cleared a communal path of our garden’s undergrowth; hacked away at Sleeping Beauty-esque brambles; licking sweet blackberry juice and blood from our fingers; chopped down unfortunately situated kalami reeds; learned that qalami is the Persian word for a reed pen; had our first guest, my close friend and former housemate Richard, for a week; played football on the beach then drank retsina as the sun set over Erikoussa; dived into waves radiating out from an Adriatic squall; attended our first panegiri; discovered (amid tears, hugs and kisses) my grandmother’s cousin two doors down and her best friend in the local taverna’s kitchen; worked out (just about) when the village shopkeeper’s siesta ends and door opens; and answered endless questions on our nationalities, ethnicities, places of birth, work and habitation, average income and future prospects.


More passive than the above litany of actions is the list of remembered, or half-remembered, sounds and scents of childhood, re-experienced with a Proustian rush: the perfume of fig trees in the shade; the smell of cooking yemistes in an alleyway; the sour, briny musk of olives; the unbearable sweetness of a good, chilled karpouzi ; the aroma, and taste, of kaloboki cooked on hot coals; of salt-rubbed lamb on the spit; the sweet scents of chamomile flowers, and herbs crushed under foot on overgrown verges; the churchy scent of cypress cones and needles in a still stand of woodland; the smell of dusty, moonlit paths (only ever experienced in England, with an eerie jolt, on night patrol in the chalk hills above Pirbright, during TA training); the rasp of cicadas, slowing sometimes almost to a stop, en masse, like a heartbeat before starting up again; the staccato rattle of grasshoppers; the dull timbre of church bells slowly tolling their two notes; the husky mantras of gypsies selling melons from their van megaphones and looping lilt of gossiping grandmothers; the chatter of swallows; a gust of basil-infused air through the kitchen window; the smell of shade, if that makes sense: a dark green cool overlaid with rotting fruit. Cinnamon smells hotter here, and rigani spicier, punchier. In the village below, among the clustered roofs of broken yellow tiles, someone’s cooking halva. The scent of cinnamon, semolina and sugar syrup fills the room as I type.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Sample Sale

So... we're off to Corfu on June 22nd. The flight back is a moveable feast; hopefully, as a next-door peasant is claimed to have done in the '70s, we'll dig up some gold coins to melt down into stay-prolonging ready cash (or ovola- "obols"- as we still thrillingly say in our village).

We've saved up enough money, from jobbing journalism and PA'ing, to let us live a frugal peasant lifestyle until the autumn storms drift in. I've been hawking early drafts of our oil around North London delis, with limited success. Hopefully- hopefully- we'll be able to place it in one of the new tourist delis (invariably run by Germans, oddly) in the town... once we work out where the bottling plant is, what they charge, and what our options are. All our competitors in the Corfu lathi business use the same bottles- I assume just what the mysterious bottling plant has to hand. We want to have a distinctive bottle, to showcase our (did I mention?) boutique, organic oil in all its earthy magnificence.

I had a lunch meeting today with a newly-ex magazine commissioning editor. After commiserating with each other over London's media famine, I mentioned our oily plans. He said we're very brave- brave being, as ever, the gentle word for mad.

I said that, at heart, I'm not sure English people actually like olive oil. They like the idea of it, or the idea of liking it (like Kundera's "second tear"), but not the actual product. Hence the concept of extra-virgin olive oil- actually a very technical assessment of its acidity- is transmuted into a fetish for the wateriest, most pallid, flavourless liquid. Despite its fabled parthenogenic origin, any Corfiot farmer would rather a blowsy dockside strumpet of an oil than a timid virgin; though it would it be a job to convince, say, Jamie Oliver, that cloudy green Greek oil is better than translucent bottled-in-Tuscany olive water...

He said- I think astutely- that olive oil in the UK now is where wine was in the 1960s. We know it's a good idea, but we still think Blue Nun is the best the world has to offer. As any monotheistic religion will tell you, being a prophet's all well and good, as long as you're the last one. Otherwise you're stuck in a crumbling ruin with a hundred barrels of wasted oil. Bah.


It's 40 C in Corfu this week. The chances of my pallid, Ulster Katie not melting are minimal. Rain's forecast for our arrival. Hopefully it'll be a good, angry Corfu storm from the Adriatic. I always thought, as a myth-obsessed child, that Greek weather justified the Olympic theogeny. The summer sun, hammering down, seemed as worthy of fear as veneration; the autumn storms seemed a genuine expression of divine anger; the ancient olive trees are as venerable as ancestral gods; the sea (in the Adriatic Northwest at least) is as suddenly and violently temperamental as any person.

My grandmother used to tell me a story- when I still dreamed in childish Greek- of a peasant from her village who found a Dryad in his olive grove, in the 1930s. She couldn't speak Greek-"like a Christian"- but he married her, bewitched by her beauty. They had many beautiful daughters- no sons- until one day she drifted back to the olive groves, never to be seen again. This was all presented as fact- one of the daughters owns a shop in Avliotes today- and anywhere else in Europe, or the world, this tale would sound ludicrous. Nothing can sum up Corfu more than the fact it doesn't. In an utterly un-ironic way, I have no more difficulty believing it than my giagia does. Corfu is its own world, and the better you understand its tiniest parishes- in my case, the 3 or 4 square kilometres where my family have spent the last half-millennium- the wider and stranger it seems.

London suddenly seems impossibly small.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

"Everything is Peroulades"

Louis Antoine de Bougainville a lucky man. Imagine having something like this named after you, for eternity.

This was the courtyard of the Archaeological Museum, Corfu Town, last week. The largest lizard I've ever seen was hiding in a flower-planted sarcophagus nearby.

I need to get this book...

"Maria Couroucli, a research fellow at the CNRS (Laboratoire d'Ethnologie), holds a doctoral degree in Social and Historical Anthropology from the École des hautes études en sciences socials, as well as B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Cambridge. Her doctoral research was carried out in Corfu, and was published as Les oliviers du lignage (Paris, 1985), a study which led her to investigate kinship and family, identity and nationalism. Her current research interests include shared religious practices in the post-Ottoman world as well as questions of memory and identity in relation to the Greek civil war (1946-49). She teaches in the post-graduate program of the Departement d'Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative at the University of Paris X-Nanterre, and is a member of the editorial board of Ethnologie Française."

French Anthropology, Bourdieu aside, is often a bit meh, or outdatedly Marxist. But this seems utterly covetable.

The Book Thief

We're back in the UK for a few weeks, tying up (or severing) loose ends in preparation for our longest stay yet in the Corfu house.

After paying a horrifying amount to move all the books in our flat to Corfu (they haven't arrived yet, six weeks on, but that's a moan for another time), I've decided I need to be ruthless with the remainder. Hoarding books is a dangerous addiction, and it needs a quick, brutal cure.

You see, we're currently staying with my mum in Hertfordshire, squirrelling away enough money to see us through our long Corfu summer. And back home, I'm confronted with the musty fruits of a lifetime's book-hoarding: books piled everywhere, zig-zagging up the stairs like an angular snake, piled on every flat surface, stacked two-deep on the bookshelves and in the wine-crates which have invaded every room in the house. Something needs to be done.

It's difficult enough popping out to the shops without bringing back a book, without meaning to- I always marvelled at the randomness of second hand bookshops, where a sort of Jungian Synchronicity ("Ooh, I was just thinking about that") seemed to determine the stock- but the addiction worsened with the discovery that my local Oxfam bookshop threw away hundreds of perfectly good books every day. Peering behind the shop in search of a bin (for a pork pie wrapper, oddly) I found a group of men straight from Mayhew clustered around (and in) a giant plastic container FULL OF BOOKS.

OMFG, as they say.

Oxfam isn't popular in the secondhand book world, due to their aggressive cornering of the market and hogging of prime retail space. But few of their critics realise, I think, just how many books they obtain, and discard, each day. Considering the rather weak selection in my local branch, the riches in the bin were astounding: an 1860s book on heraldry, in a print run of only 50; the lifetime's collections of, judging by each different day's crop, archaeologists, Latin teachers, retired Army officers... even a few dozen early '60s Pelicans with Melvyn Bragg's name and Oxford college scrawled spiderishly on the flyleaves... I think they just discarded books they felt were too arcane, or obscure, for quick sale, instead of offloading them to hospitals or other charities.

For months then, I'd trot along to the bin each evening, make smalltalk with the small coterie of tramps and tweedy eccentrics that knew of the secret book mine, and plunge deep within the bin for literary gold, before hauling my finds back home, buckling under their weight. It just seemed wrong for them to be thrown away.

One find that summed it up for me is Class 1902 by Ernst Glaeser, a German antiwar novel deemed "a damned good book" by Ernest Hemingway and now quite rare after being turfed onto Nazi bonfires (Wiki: "In Berlin, some 40,000 people gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: “No to decadence and moral corruption!” Goebbels enjoined the crowd. “Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.”.) This edition- printed in English, in Berlin- survived the Brownshirts but fell foul of Pam and Margaret in Oxfam. The surprising violence of the old dears' philistinism began to be expressed when they realised their discards were being sifted through: then they would methodically rip each book in two, unless the leather bindings were too much for them. It began to feel more and more like a rescue mission and consequently I discriminated less and less over what I saved.

Then, moving to London after getting my first post-uni job, I abandoned the bin. I'd acquire spanking new, shrinkwrapped, print-scented books, gratis, from publishers (one of the secret perks of TV production) and left my mum to cope with the literally thousands of bin finds and vastly diminished living space alone. Until yesterday.

I've embarked on a massive clearout, and it's a weirdly liberating feeling throwing away hundreds of books- something I always felt utter horror about. It's like smashing up a sandcastle you spent hours building or- possibly- feigning a lonely canoe death. I've realised that there are dozens of authors whose works I will never read- Iris Murdoch, Laurens Van Der Post, most of David Lodge- and that I'm quite happy that's the case.

So there's now a massive stack of books in my mum's dining room, precariously piled, and looking like an oddly sentient, menacingly amorphous blob. I've just rung a charity shop to send a van to pick them up: the Oxfam bookshop. Karma, innit. Who knows, perhaps some books might get a 4th chance.

Justify Full

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Logo Mk II

A baroque doorway in Peroulades, about 100m from our house, which- given a few days, half a pack of cigarettes and a few brikis of coffee- will soon become the basis of the new logo. Imagine the outline, in gold, with a stylised olive tree on a heraldic shield where the feral tree now grows. Tasteful? I think so.

We've started trying to sell oil to buyers- small delis in London- to tide us over for the Autumn until we can start bottling our utterly untraditional blend. It's terrifying. The older I get, the more I think that anyone in any position of responsibility- whether starting a business or a family- has absolutely no idea what they're doing, and grows into the role. Hopefully.

More to come on the mind-boggling variety of bottles Italian and Chinese manufacturers produce. It's odd seeing distinctive bottles I recognise from artisanal Greek winemakers sold by the 10s of 1000 by Chinese megafactories.

Odd in that, while I didn't expect our bottles to be hand-blown by happy peasants in a whitewashed hut, globalisation always seems the preserve of someone else- Nike or Starbucks or Coca-Cola- until you actually start a business. Yet it seems impossible to sell anything, even a product as Slow Food and determinedly dopia* as our oil without somehow bringing in Far East labour in a city of which I've never heard but which is probably larger than London and younger than me. I imagine earnest young sweet manufacturers were agonising over slavery similarly 200 years ago, though I should add the moral quandary is of a different order of magnitude. In my case, it's simply that I want as much as possible to be made in Corfu... yet the labels of (newly-grown) Corfiot rival brands are hideous, quite possibly made up in the print shop by the law courts in Town, and are driving me to- of all places- a Birmingham printer for our own (ahem, impeccably stylish) versions.

I suppose it always thus. In the 19th century, the primary market for Corfiot olive oil was German factories, where it was used as an industrial lubricant; In the 18th century, it was as fuel for Venetian lamps- imagine how many masqued balls were lit by Corfiot serf labour; In a smaller world, such international connections must have seemed equally strange and jarring to Corfiot eyes. I suppose, thinking about it, part of the appeal of returning to Corfu is retreating from modernity; returning to a self-enclosed ancestral neverworld. But the Chinese role in our determinedly paysan business proves the fallacy of this, a lesson I had to return to Corfu to learn. As the Qu'ran says, "Seek ye knowledge, even unto China." It's a mark of modernity that China's reach now stretches to Peroulades.

* Local