Καλα Χριστουγεννα–Merry Christmas

It’s hard to believe that almost six months have passed and I am now writing a Christmas post!  There is no doubt that we are well-adjusted and part of the village at this point.  I have had many people send holiday wishes and ask about Christmas in Greece, so I will sum it up with a brief summary and a photo/video journal.

Christmas is a quiet holiday in Greece.  I believe that over the years it has become more commercialized in Athens and the larger cities, but on the island it takes a back seat to New Years Day and Easter.  Christmas decorations are simple, with an occasional light up star in a window.  In the squares and larger towns some lights are hung above businesses and on lamp posts.  In Karavostamo  there are three lamp posts wrapped with a  green strand of lights and one red star hangs off of a telephone pole on the road leading out of the village.  Elias and I were in Evdilos, the larger town next to our village one evening and  saw a beautiful boat created from white lights, as well as “icicle lights” hanging from the awning of Rififi, a great little cafenio.   Businesses celebrate the season with free alcohol and cookies.  Yes, you read that right.  At 8:30 one morning my father and I went to the bank, and although I knew they put out kourambiedes and finikia cookies, I was shocked to see a bottle of ouzo, Metaxa, and Johnnie Walker sitting next two the two giant plates of cookies!  In most stores you enter you find the same offering, maybe with a substitute of homemade wine for the Johnny Walker.

Free goodies at the stores!

In the homes, trees are modest and small and in some cases they are just a branch cut down from the pevka (pine forest) with a few bulbs decorating the single limb.  Christmas eve day is a day reserved for children to sing Kalanda, or Christmas carols, door to door.  They travel in groups of 3 or 4, with their triangles and money bags all around the village.  It is something of a cross between Christmas caroling and Trick-or-Treating, but it lasts all day.  The boys went out at 8:30 am, and I dragged them back in at 4:30pm.  The kids knock on the doors and are asked to come in.  They sing a song (the same song at every house) and are then offered cookies and given a few euros.  Each of my kids came home with a small fortune.  Really.  A small fortune.  For a country that is in an economic crisis, they are still generous with the children!  The best part about Kalanda is that the village kids get to do it again on New Year’s Eve day!

Christmas day is a quiet day, and although I’m not certain, I would equate it with our Thanksgiving Day.  Gifts aren’t exchanged and families gather for a traditional dinner of pig, goat, or turkey–whichever they chose to slaughter.  A few stores remain open, but most people don’t work.  By evening, the village cafenios are full of people and the kids play in the platia.  Christmas gift are exchanged on January 1st, St. Basil’s Day and that is when St. Basil, aka Santa, leaves gifts for the children.  I am aware of other traditional Greek customs and foods, but none that we’ve seen or taken part in this year.  We kept Christmas small and put the focus on being together, healthy, and fortunate enough to have this amazing opportunity.  The kids made gifts for each other and for others, and they each received one gift from Santa who made a special stop in Ikaria for the Americans visiting!  My mom, sister, and aunts sent a few small gifts for the children to open, which my father brought over when he arrived last week.

Christmas morning.

Christmas morning.

Our Christmas Tree.

Our Christmas Tree.

Despite the small tree and limited number of gifts, the children had a wonderful Christmas morning opening their presents and eating no-so-delicious homemade cinnamon rolls.  They were very proud of the gifts they made, and equally as appreciative when receiving them.  This was another one of those moments when I was so very proud of my kids.

Elias created candy boards for Rea and Zach.

Elias created candy boards for Rea and Zach.

Rea created coupon books for her brothers.

Rea created coupon books for her brothers.

Zach made bookmarks for the two readers in the family!

Zach made bookmarks for the two readers in the family!

Elias painted rocks for gifts this year--this is the one he painted for Chris and me.

Elias painted rocks for gifts this year–this is the one he painted for Chris and me.

How does the saying go?  Kids have more fun with the box than the actual toys?  Same goes for wrapping paper!

How does the saying go? Kids have more fun with the box than the actual toys? Same goes for wrapping paper!

The weather was beautiful in Karavostamo today.  No winds whipping at 40 mph.  No rain.  No clouds.  The kids and I took a walk around the village and had fun singing our own American Christmas carol!  The rest of the day was spent being lazy, watching movies, and playing legos.  We had a wonderful Christmas dinner with my father and Bette of freshly slaughtered pig, a gift from cousin Peter.  The only things missing  from the day were TBS’s 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon and Chris.

Each event that passes, each month or milestone, I try to reflect on what we’ve learned or what we can take away from the experience.  Today, I spent a bit of time on Facebook, reading my friends statuses, looking at their holiday photos.  I saw big, beautiful houses, all decked out in holiday style.  Trees covered in lights and decorations and surrounded by piles of gifts.  Children with bright eyes and ear-to-ear smiles.  In America, Christmas has become a time for parents to spoil their children and do their best to make all of their dreams come true.  There’s a wonderful feeling a parent receives when they see their child touched by the “Christmas Magic” that they’ve helped to create.   What I’ve learned is that without spending a lot of money or receiving a lot of presents, that same “magic” can be created.  I just wonder if we will be able to recapture this feeling of contentment when we return to America–receiving little but still being full of joy.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Olive Oil (again)

This summer I posted a blog titled Olive Oil and told about the importance of olive oil to the village.  I mentioned that in the 1940’s there were absolutely no olive trees in the village, and after the war the villagers planted them everywhere and anywhere they could.   The people never wanted to be without oil again.  During WWII many villagers died of starvation because they had no olive oil.  The longer that I live here, the better I become at identifying my surroundings.  Now, everywhere I look I see olive trees, or eliés (e-lee-ES).  They are very distinct, growing low to the ground, with the underside of their leaves shimmering silver as the strong winds blow across the mountainside.   They aren’t very tall, and their branches sprawl from the trunk with just the right spacing to entice a child to climb.

Everyone in the village has olive trees.  I think everyone on the island has olive trees!  And not just one tree, but a lot of trees.  In November, people start returning to the island from Athens, or even from America, to pick their trees clean of olives.  People work at collecting olives for 8 hours a day, every rain free day they can for weeks and weeks on end.  It’s not difficult work, just monotonous.  I know because a few relatives gave me the opportunity to help.  Early in the season I spent two days with Marina, Yianni, and Petros at one of their plots of trees.  We drove 10 minutes outside of Karavostamo, up the mountain, and when the road turned to rock, I parked my father’s car and climbed into the truck with Yianni and Marina to reach our destination.  A few “bottom” hits later, we reached a few dozen eliés.  I am guessing this land was brought into our family 100 years ago.  My great-grandfather, Papa Petros (a priest) bought this land when he had 9 children and planted fava beans.  Yianni told me that when he was 15, he helped his father, George (the youngest of my grandmother Demetra’s siblings) clear the land and plant these olive trees.  For five to ten years Yianni and his father tended the trees and carried water up the mountainside during the dry summer months so the trees would grow.  Olive trees don’t produce olives until they are about 10 years old.  Their peek of production is between 30 and 70 years, but they can live and produce olives for well over 100 years.

When we arrived I saw Petro’s head reaching above the branches of a tree, as he stood inside and raked away at the highest branches, releasing the olives onto a large tarp below.  We carried our buckets, tarps, and hand rakes down into the middle of the trees to where we’d be working.  After spreading out two large tarps under the expansive tree, I was given a hand rack and told to go for it.  I grabbed on to a branch overhead, thankful the trees don’t grow too high, and began combing the branch, just like you’d comb a tangled mess of hair–gently.  I heard the “tap-tap-tap-tap-tap” of the olives falling to the ground followed by a “Bravo Zackie, bravo.”  We continued raking and shaking olives out of the tree for a few hours.  When I ran out of branches I could reach from the ground, I decided to try my hand at climbing in the branches and releasing olives from above.  Olive tree branches aren’t large in diameter, but they are made from a very strong wood.  I could climb out fairly far, feeling the branch bough underneath my weight.  I’d hold on somewhere, keeping my center of gravity close to the anchor point and reach out as far as I could.  I did a fairly good job, as long as I didn’t reach look down and think about falling.

A few weeks later, Chris arrived, and the two of us went with another cousin, Sideris, to “do olives.”  I figure Chris may not be Greek, but he’s a hard worker and comes from a farming family.  He’d be a great help!  These trees where on a plot of land overlooking the water (doesn’t everything here overlook the sea?) that belongs to his sister, Sophia and her family.  They live in Athens and were not returning to collect the olives this year, so Sid was caring for them.  He collects olive a bit differently.  He begins by laying out the tarps underneath and then prunes the branches.  Chris and I would pick up the large cut piece and with a stick, repeatedly hit the branch until it was left with only leaves (which would later be used to feed Sid’s goats).  Branch after branch we knocked and hit.  Then, we’d lift the edges of the tarp until all of the olives were centered and scoop them into buckets.  The buckets would then be dumped into large plastic feed bags.  Olives are remarkably heavy.   One bag full of three buckets weighed enough to knock Chris off-balance when tried to heave it over his shoulder.  We spent another day with Sid, and his wife and son, Stephano, joined us as well.  With five people working we accomplished  a lot.

A few days later, when the clouds were dumping buckets of rain and it wasn’t a good olive picking day, we went with Sid to the town of Ploumari, 20 minutes east of Karavostamo, where they turn to olives into olive oil.  Not all olives are pressed into oil; some are kept, rinsed, soaked, salted, and stored in bottles to eat whole.  There are a variety of olive trees that grow on the island, some native and some from other islands.  The type of olive determines whether or not it’s good for eating or turning into olive oil or both.

Apparently when you can’t pick olives, you go to press them.  We arrived at 10 in the morning and Sid’s name was 15 people down on the list! The small space was cramped with men in their coveralls and work boots waiting their turn.  Chris and I stuck out like a sore thumb.  For the first 5 minutes we just stood there, looking around, pointing, and whispering to each other about how we thought it all worked.  It didn’t take long before a man came over and grabbed my arm and took us over to a machine.  First he pointed to the conveyor belt that takes the olives up to a machine that rinses and cleans the olives, blowing off any small leaves that made their way into the collection bags.  He then took us to another machine,  opened a door and pointed in.  There was large mechanism inside that reminded me of a giant drill bit that was turning and churning the olives, mashing them into a paste.  He pointed to a tube that was attached to the bottom which lead to another machine that pressed that paste into oil.  From the press came three things–oil, water, and waste.  The oil traveled through another tube into a large vat and machine and was eventually sent out of a spigot where it was collected by the olive’s “owner” into whatever containers he brought along.  The waste from the press was sent through a tube outside and dumped into a large truck.  That waste (the skins of the olives) is taken somewhere to be pressed into pellets and is used as fuel for the machines and the furnace the following year.

During our time many of the men talked with us and told us bits and pieces of how it all worked.  One of the most interesting conversations came after I had just taken a photo of the outside door–in  welded iron was what we took to be the name of the operation and the date it opened.  We were speaking to the owner and he asked me who we were and where we were lived, curious as to why we were there.  I told him who my father was, and he chuckled a bit.  Apparently he’s a Calaboyias as well–a second cousin I believe.  I went back outside and actually read what was on the door…and there it was, my last name.  Chris has always told me that I’m not too observant!

Chris and I stayed  for about four hours and learned as much as we could.  We were given bits of bread to put into the flow of fresh olive oil that poured from the machines.  We added a bit of salt and tasted the fruits of our labor.  Delicious.  Amazing.  I wanted more.  I watched as everyone enjoyed the fresh oil–one of the workers ate piece after piece and others toasted pieces of bread before dipping theirs into the oil.  The air was think with oil, and the smell seeped into our pores, and Sid’s name was still 5 down on the list.  The entire process, which begins when you dump your olives into a large box and they climb up the conveyor belt and ends when you weigh your oil, takes about an hour.  They are able to start a new load every 15 minutes.  Some people bring a few bags and others bring a truck full. We saw one man dump 34 bags of olives!  I watched as people left with 40 and 50 kilos of olive oil.  I was amazed at how many olives I saw in one day and thought about how many trees must be on the island and how many hours of labor must have been put in to collecting olives in the past few weeks.  The olive press we visited presses 3000 kilos of oil in just one day, and there are other presses in other parts of the island.

Chris and I caught a ride back to the village with someone so we could return home before the kids returned from school.   I was exhausted.  It’s hard work standing around, waiting to see your olives pressed!  We didn’t actually get to see the olives we picked go through the machines, but we were given a few bottles of oil from both Sid and Yianni.  A few days later I asked Sid how long he was at the press.  He said he returned after 6pm and promptly fell asleep on the couch!  I never would have thought it was more exhausting to watch olive oil being made than it was to collect the olives.

Thanksgiving in Greece

Yes, I know it’s December 1st.  And, I know by now, all of my friends in America have long forgotten Thanksgiving, which was well over a week ago.  Thoughts are probably on Christmas trees, baking cookies, taking the perfect Christmas card photo, decorating, searching for the Elf on the Shelf, shopping, wrapping and figuring out what to wear to the annual Christmas party.  We, however, as of this morning, were still thinking of Thanksgiving.

Chris was working in America on Thanksgiving, and here, in Greece, it was just a regular day.  The kids went to school and I did what I do everyday.  We tried not to miss everyone at home, yet we wanted to celebrate in some way.  I made the kids cookies and had A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving set up on the computer to watch for an after school treat.  It was during Charlie Brown that Elias came up with a way for us to celebrate.  Since we weren’t going to have turkey for dinner,  we had a “Charlie Brown” Thanksgiving–popcorn, pretzels, jelly beans, and toast!  We did the best we could, with only one substitute…

A Charlie Brown Thanksgivng Dinner

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Dinner

We had a turkey in the freezer, and most of the fixin’s for a good old-fashioned “American Turkey-Day,” courtesy of my cousin Fotini who had mailed us a package of holiday goodies back in October.  But it didn’t seem right to celebrate without Chris or a house full of people, so we decided to wait until today to celebrate.  And we did it just like we would have in America.

We had the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, canned cranberries and a few Greek sides–olives, feta, Greek salad, homemade wine, and “squash pancakes.”  We even had pumpkin pie with whipped cream!  And better than all of that, we had a house full of people .  My uncle Yianni, who lives in Pittsburgh and is on the island for six weeks to pick olives, came over from the other side with one of his friends, also from back home and here for the same reason.  We love Theo Yianni–he’s always laughing.  Having him here was a link to home; I’ve spent most of my Thanksgivings with him at the same dining room table.  And I was thankful he joined us.

We were also joined by other cousins–ones I couldn’t have imagined having a Thanksgiving dinner without.  Both have welcomed us into their lives and taught us so much in the short time we’ve been here.  Stella is my second-cousin, and I really just met her last summer when we were here visiting.  She’s originally from Ohio and moved here 15 years ago.  Her brother is my koumbaro (a Greek term which stands for “Best Man” at the wedding but means so much more) and also Rea’s Godfather.  So although we hadn’t spent time together before, I felt we had a connection.  Stella guided me and helped me tremendously before I even set foot in Ikaria this past July.  I sent her email after email with questions and concerns, and she had an answer for everything.  Here, she has been like a sister or a very dear friend.  We’ll pick things up for each other at the grocery store, share what we have, stop into each others house uninvited just to visit, and help each other in whatever way we can.   She loves my kids like her own, and she provides for them the “American” family they are without.  She hasn’t had a Thanksgiving dinner since she left America, and I was glad she and her son sat at our table today.

The other family that was here was Yianni and Marina and their girls, Avgi and Lemonia–the twins that have been in a number of  these blogs.  Yianni’s entire family–sisters, brother, nephews, nieces, and mother–have adopted my family as their own.  Yianni’s mother, Avgetta, is the last surviving “sibling” of my paternal grandmother, Demetra.  Her husband was my grandmother’s youngest brother.  She has shared many stories with me–ones I hope to share in the blog at some point.  It was hard not to invite all of Yianni’s famly, but with only an 11 pound turkey, I couldn’t feed them all.  (I was thankful I was lucky enough to have found a turkey at the store.  Finding a bigger one wasn’t even a thought that crossed my mind.)  Their entire extended-family has taught me something or showed us things we might not have had the opportunity to experience otherwise.

The twins have become great friends to Rea and the boys as well.  Their mother has become a friend to me.  I have enjoyed getting to know Marina and feel very comfortable when I am with her.  She is very patient with me when I try to speak Greek and butcher what I am trying to say.  She also knows a lot of English, even though she won’t admit it!  Although she’s Greek, and has spent her summers in Ikaria, she hasn’t lived here year round before now.  Their family “moved” into the house they have this summer, and she, like me, left her friends behind.  Her girls are enrolled in the school here for the first time, and they, too, get homesick for what they left behind in Athens.  Marina and I share a lot of common ground, and I am thankful for our friendship.  Tonight I served them their first Thanksgiving dinner.  It wasn’t their first turkey, but they had never had gravy before!  After dinner they told me that it was so good that I’d have to come back every year to make it for them.

So with dinner and dessert served, we sat and talked around the table and enjoyed each other’s company.  The conversation flowed between Greek and English, and Stella and Yianni interpreted when we needed.  I understood more than Chris did, but he said he enjoyed it all the same.  I think the homemade Greek wine helped him along a bit.  And just like in America, after the company left and the dishes were put away, we sat on the couch and let the tryptophan kick in.  It was time to switch gears, after all it is December 1st.  We curled up together, thankful for all that we have, and watched Polar Express!

Zach, Avgi, Lemonia, Rea, and Elias celebrating Thanksgiving.

Zach, Avgi, Lemonia, Rea, and Elias celebrating Thanksgiving.


Our Thanksgiving table–the adult table.


Thankful for my friends. Stella on the left, Marina on the right.