Sunday, January 06, 2013

warmth from within

I hadn't realized how shuttered our rooms were until I woke up in the middle of the night to total darkness. How does one know when it's morning without the hint of sunlight? I throw back the shutters. A gray day, dripping with a passing rain.

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Well now, Chios, you're going to have a tough time showing off your hidden charms if you give us cold rain. (Chios retorts: you travel in January. That is our winter. We need the winter rains.)

First thing's first. Breakfast.

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Our hosts are really trying hard today. The breakfast is proudly presented to us: eggs from their chickens, juice from their orange trees, olives from their olive grove, pomegranate from their garden. As we eat in their company, they tell us about coming here from Montreal fifteen years ago. (They are one of three couples we encounter today where the Greek man goes to North America, finds the woman there that he intends to marry and travels back with her to Chios.) He has family here -- lots of it. And so they build a life in Chios, cultivating oranges and olives (we shake the trees with sticks! -- she tells us... Ed and I want to recommend a French powered shaker used in Turkey, but something holds us back) and now also running this b&b. But wait, that's not all: they have a plantation of mastic trees. Maybe you don't know these? They produce a resin that is used in creams, sweets, who knows what else. These two spend the winter months rubbing dirt off of bits of mastic resin. Like this:

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Is it tedious, boring, repetitive? Surely all of the above. And yet, there they are, all winter long shaking trees, rattling beads of resin and occasionally, for a break, changing sheets for their b&b guests.

I ask them about the political upheaval in Greece and whether she is one of those who thinks the country should leave the EU. She shakes her head. We've gone through the worst. Eventually, things will improve.

And now we have some decisions to make about this day. If we had hoped to make our way by bus around the island, it surely becomes evident that this would be foolish. There isn't much movement by bus here at this time of the year. Connections would be difficult. If we want to explore, we have to rent a car. But the deals are there to be had! Our hosts call a friend, who is also a car rental agent and he comes over to the b&b with a small car for us. We can have it until we leave early on Monday morning. Just leave it in the port, he tells us. 
Keys? I ask.  
Leave them in the ignition.
There are no car thefts on the island, he grins. Yet.

We drive the car down the narrow lanes and then out into the country roads. There are just a few roads that cross the island and surprisingly, there is almost no traffic. No movement. (Well, not counting this guy.)

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Our goal is to visit the two medieval villages on the other side of the island. They call them mastic villages because here and only here, on this island in the far corners of the Mediterranean, you'll find the resin producing mastic trees.

The first village is Pirgi. Here's the thing about Pirgi: the walls of the buildings are decorated in geometric designs.

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This is unique and fascinating, at the same time that you have to wonder -- do the people who live here notice this about their village? Do they love the triangular designs? Do they miss them when they go to another village or town?

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In other words -- it's fantastic visiting medieval villages. Is it also fantastic living in one?

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The life of the village in this off off season is not hard to describe. Young men (unemployed young men?) mess around on their scooters.

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A priest walks from one house to the next, bestowing blessings.

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A very pleased with himself (and he should be) gent brings in some mushrooms from the forest. The ladies come to admire them. They want some. He'll only spare a few.

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An older woman (and another, and another), dressed in black, comes out, crosses herself many times, goes back in.

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Not complicated. People say hello to us when we pass by. They know the word, they use it.

There is yet another village worthy of a more detailed exploration, but here we run afoul of our differing attitudes about driving. I am who I am and who I am is a pretty insecure passenger, especially on curvy hilly roads and especially when the driver is Ed. After one wince too many, he does what he always does under the circumstances: he gets out and says -- you drive.

And I do, but it is unfortunate, because I really love to leave the driving to someone else. Whom I trust to take all reasonable precautions and then some additional ones as well.

Still, I drive toward the second village, Mesta, and at the last minute, I pass it by and drive on toward the little port by the sea. I need the calm waters of this day to make me feel calm again.

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This little fishing port is so inconsequential in the scheme of things, so sleepy and forgiving...

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...that my sulkiness at having to drive recedes. We watch a fisherman's wife mend nets...

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...and a local threesome eat fish at the water's edge. Wouldn't you like to do that? Ed asks. It's not suppertime, but maybe one can forget about suppertime just this once...

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I suggest we explore Mesta first and then come back for some food after.

And it is a fine idea, except that the medieval stones of the village really make their impression early on and after a quick stroll, we both want to step out of these dark tunnels of a bygone era...

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... and breathe some fresh air again, where sage and oregano grow amidst hills with olive trees.

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Up we go into the hills above Mesta. It's great there, among the brush and flora of the rock strewn slopes, where getting a good grip of the terrain isn't easy, but once you do and you get up high enough, the view can be very rewarding.

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We note (how can you not?) that the sun is coming through along the water's edge. And, too, that the Mesta village roofs all appear to have solar collectors. (I ask my innkeepers later -- did you get paid to install these? No, she tells me, but they were inexpensive -- one thousand Euro a panel, and in the summer time, they are fantastic!)

So we're done exploring. Back we go to the small fisherman's bay, with the table by the water's edge.

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Can we eat dinner -- I ask. Of course! Here, pick your fish and we'll cook it for you: fried or grilled? And where are you from? America? Where? Oh, our family (she introduces her sister, brother, father, aunt), we have cousins in West Virginia!

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We eat by the light of the fading sun. I can't say it's warm. In the forties maybe. But my inner soul is heated by the loveliness of this most perfect meal by the sea.

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a fisherman rows out to sea

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with cousins in West Virginia

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The local cats hover at our feet and it is tricky to throw bits at them evenly, fairly, democratically.

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Or, would you have rewarded the cat with the limp? Or the one who has courage to leap after the prize while the more timid stayed behind? Or would you have ignored the cats, seeing them as moochers, living off of the bounty of others?

We just fed them democratically. So that brownie and blackie and limpy and scrawny and the young frisky one all got their share.

The drive home is always faster and friendlier than the ride out. Ed, as the one who doesn't especially like wine, does the driving now and I settle in to the role of the good passenger. One who doesn't notice that the roads are narrow and the turns a bit tight.

We have an errand to do in town -- pick up the tickets for our early ferry out on Monday. At the ferry office we ask again after a good bakery and we're given several names and locations, but it really doesn't matter because we find plenty in the commercial blocks that line the seafront. In one we buy chocolates and baklava (a bigger version of what we found in Turkey) and in another we ask for two smaller slivers (of baklava) and as I reach into my purse for the couple of Euros, the sales person smiles and waves me away.  No pay, no pay, she tells us. No no, Greek people, this is not how it's done! Eek out all the Euros you can out of those who pass through! Do not be so generous! Generosity is never the trait that gets you out of financial crises! Even as it is the trait that will earn you a spot in heaven someday (or at least in my blogpost).


Our afternoon meal is plenty big for the day, but we stop by a Carrefour (ubiquitous European grocery store) to buy some munchies for the evening.  Cheese and bread - that's a favorite Ed snack (and mine as well). What cheese is good -- I ask the young woman at the counter. Ed shakes his head in amazement -- only a woman would ask such a thing, he mumbles. For cooking or with bread? she asks in perfect English. With bread. This one. We have with us the most perfect Greek goat cheese.

Late at night, we munch on the cheese, with tomato and bread and I eat a chocolate covered fig and Ed eats a chunk of baklava and we think life is treating us very very well.