Sunday, October 30, 2022

Greek Traditions - A Piece of Cake!

 Actually, Greek traditions aren't a piece of cake. 

Olive harvest at our house - a treasured tradition

But it was a piece of traditional cake that made me think more deeply about those customs and rituals that have played out in our adopted country for ages; yet they make up our new experiences as expats - sometimes in such rapid succession that we can't keep up with them. The deep-rooted rituals and layers of symbolism at times simply boggle the mind.

Roasting chestnuts at Kastania's Chestnut Festival - a local tradition

Take this week, for example: It began with two full days of the ages-old tradition of olive harvest. They were followed by the Feast Day of Agios Dimitrios (Saint Dimitrios) and the Name Day celebration of all those named for him. By week's end we were among those celebrating Chestnut Festival in the village a few miles away, named Kastania, after the nut.  

Traditions: Celebrating Our Saint

The Stone House on the Hill above Agios Dimitrios

At the base of the hill on which our Stone House on the Hill is built sits the village of Agios Dimitrios. Its church carries the same name. Agios Dimitrios is the Patron Saint of the city of Thessaloniki, and he is celebrated on Oct. 26th because that is the day that city was liberated from Ottoman rule after five centuries of occupation.

Agios Dimitrios

Now Thessaloniki is a large city to our east - an hour's flight from the Kalamata Airport so you may be wondering why we were celebrating it in a small fishing village tucked away among olive groves on the other side of the Peloponnese. Well, it turns out he is also the patron of agriculture, peasants and shephards in the Greek countryside. . .

So, it stands to reason that we would celebrate his day in the church in the village that both carry his name even if located miles from Thessaloniki. Similar celebrations were taking place throughout the country. Those who are named for saints, in this case, the Dimitris, and Dimitras of the world also celebrate as it is their Name Day, a day as special as their birth date.

Pappas Paniotis our village priest

We nodded to friends and neighbors as we stood together outside the already crowded small church and listened to the sermon delivered by our village priest, Pappas Paniotis.  It didn't matter that it was in Greek. Anyone who has ever said The Lord's Prayer regularly knows when it is being offered, no matter the language.  And that part of the service we did understand!

Enormous loaves of bread were served

While listening to the service, we watched several ladies from the village setting up tables in the church yard with plates of sweets and packets of bread (that would be taken home by attendees).  When it seemed there couldn't possibly be more to eat, they brought out the cakes. Not just any cakes, mind you, but the Koliva. Little did we know the significance of this beautiful cake.

Traditions: A Piece of Cake

Koliva, the traditional cake, placed to honor Agios Dimitrios

At the time it was presented, blessed and served I thought this cake was one of the most beautifully, decorated I had ever seen. Such simple ingredients made beautiful decorations. They included pomegranate seeds, almonds, pistachios, and decorations made of sugar.  Several explained as it was being served that it is traditionally made for celebrations honoring the dead but that it is also used to celebrate life occasions like harvest and marriage.

A piece of traditional cake

When I was handed the small cup of sugared nuts and fruits, I was surprised to learn that was what had been beneath that beautifully decorated icing.  It was quite a tasty mix of cooked wheat berries, nuts, raisins, pomegranate seeds with some chopped parsley and coated with a sweet mixture of sugar and spiced breadcrumbs.

The alter in Agios Dimitrios church

It wasn't after the celebration ended that I learned each item in it symbolized some aspect of the life cycle: life, death and rebirth.  The wheat kernels a symbol of hope and resurrection, nuts for fertility, spices of cinnamon, nutmeg and cumin, for a life well lived, the parsley a peaceful rest, pomegranate for an afterlife of brilliance and wealth, the breadcrumbs representing the soil. 

Celebrating Agios Dimitrios in the village that carries his name

The cake is not an easy one to make, requiring two days to cook and dry the wheat berries and prepare the other ingredients.  It was so tasty and now that I know its story, I appreciate its significance and symbolism even more than its taste. We wanted our expat experience to be one of learning about other cultures and traditions, so far, Greece hasn't let us down!

The village from the church - both Agios Dimitrios

That's it for this time, as we are heading out to learn about a few more traditions before the month of October gets away from us.  As always thanks for your time and a big welcome to our new subscribers.  

And a note to all subscribers: my Blogger program and Mailchimp that sends your emails haven't communicated lately.  I'm hoping this one arrives in your inbox.  If it does and you can spare a minute to email me and let me know, I'd greatly appreciate it!  And there should be a link at the bottom of your email to take you to last week's post about our adopted city of Kalamata should you like to read it as well!

Safe travels to you and yours~

Friday, October 21, 2022

Kalamata: Something old ~ Somethings New

Kalamata. The city, that is. It wasn't love at first sight; I can assure you. 

Our first introduction to this sprawling port town, now nearly a decade ago, was driving through it enroute to Athens after a road trip through the Peloponnese that led us to a village an hour to its south. A village that would ultimately become our expat home.

Kalamata capital of the Messinian region of the Peloponnese

Back then I wasn't taken with this sprawling commercial and shipping hub wrapped around the tip of the Messinian Bay.  In fact, when I realized that as expats living just 'down the road', it would be our 'go to' city -- the place we would buy retail goods, groceries, gasoline and other of life's necessities -- it gave me a bit of a shudder. It felt somewhat like a ghost town.

Kalamata a decade ago had a ghost-town feel 

In fairness though, back then all of Greece was still staggering from the sucker punch dealt it by its 2008 economic free-fall. Kalamata with a cityscape of ubiquitous concrete buildings was no exception. And with a close look many of those bland buildings housed empty storefronts and were decorated with graffiti. Really, it wasn't very different from other metropolitan areas in Greece back then. It certainly didn't inspire one to spend much time in it. 

But that was then, and a decade later the economic pulse of both Greece and Kalamata have changed for the better. We've had the pleasure of experiencing this evolution and we don't hesitate to sing their praises. 

Kalamata's waterfront a draw for locals and tourists

Business expansion and renovations in recent years have made this town of some 72,000 residents one of Greece's debutant tourist destinations.  Its vibrancy is so strong you can feel it. Even our most routine shopping trips are more like a delightful getaway than drudgery. The waterfront for a coffee or lunch is a must no matter the reason for the trip to town.

Downtown charmer in Kalamata

Truth be told, I am so caught in the city's charms that I often tell The Scout if I ever returned to the States to live it would be on the condition that I'd make regular trips back here. Yet, I suspect many of you've never really even heard of the city that got its name from. . .

Kalamata - What's in a Name?

Not named for the Kalamata olive

Well, it wasn't from the olive if that's what you thought.  I did, until I did some research a few months ago for a magazine article about the city and was surprised to learn that Kalamata is not named for that famous olive of the same name. And on that point, locals agree.  

What they don't agree on is for what the city is named. One school of thought is that it is named for the kala matia, 'good eyes' on an icon of the city's patron saint. The other is that it was named for the reeds that once grew in the area, kalamia.  

Kalamata - Something Old

Entry to the castle grounds - Kalamata

Like the rest of Greece, Kalamata's history is so deeply rooted that it is difficult to fathom. In the 13th Century Kalamata castle was built on what was earlier the Acropolis of Pharae.  The site now is popular with tourists as it provides a great overview of the town and also with locals as it is often the site of cultural performances.

An icon on the castle wall - Kalamata

The ancient Pharae was mentioned by Homer as Firai. (One of our favorite wines is produced by a Kalamata winery named Fare in honor of those ancient beginnings. And one of our favorite seafront hotels is called the Pharae Palace.)

Metropolitan Church of Ypapanti tou Sotiros in old town Kalamata

The old town is where the towering white and yellow cathedral, built in 1839, the Metropolitan Church of Ypapanti tou Sotiros (Presentation of the Savior) is located. This stunning edifice is home to the icon of the city's protectress, Panagia Ypapanti, Mother of Jesus.

Kalograion Monastery - silk weaving looms stand silent these days

Just a few blocks away we found one of our now-favorite - and least known attractions - the Kalograion Monastery, 'The Monastery of the Nuns' that dates back to 1797 once played a key role in the city's silk industry as the nuns operated a silkworm farm and produced scarves and other items on the large looms that now sit idle in the complex.  

The silk scarf I purchased at the Nun's Monastery Kalamata

There is no charge to visit the complex and walk through the rooms housing the looms. (You can still find silk scarves for sale there, but they aren't made by the nuns who are still in residence.)

Where the 1821 War of Independence began - Kalamata

A few blocks away, the small Church of the Apostles, now surrounded by retail stores, holds the distinction in modern Greek history as being the place where on March 23,1821 the Greeks first issued their declaration of independence from the Ottomans; an act that started the decade-long War of Independence. 

Tributes to history in Kalamata

History is proudly displayed at the city's Archaeological Museum of Messenia, the Historical and Folk Art Museum, The Military Museum of Kalamata and the Victoria Karelias Collection of Greek Traditional Costumes. It is also displayed on memorials and statues throughout the town.

Kalamata - Something New

This building looked like many found in the city's core - (Photo credits

A stroll through the downtown is like a treasure hunt when it comes to architectural gems.  While much of the downtown was destroyed by the 1986 earthquake that also killed 20 and injured another 330, a number of neo-classical gems are still standing.  Many have been restored and more restorations are underway. One of the most recent projects is pictured above and below. 

The building above 2022 look (Photo credits

Another major renovation turned the aging and empty 1929 building -- the long-ago home of the Hotel American on the waterfront -- into a posh, 5-star accommodation, The Grand Hotel of Kalamata. The building had been unoccupied for years. However, the new hotel with just a few rooms and suites, opened its doors this spring with a Michelin chef at the helm of the restaurant. With a soon-to-be-open spa and a rooftop bar we suspect this place will be popular. And we can hardly wait to try it out.  

5-star Hotel Grand just opened on Kalamata's waterfront

The waterfront area where the new hotel is located has also undergone a recently completed major facelift. Renovations have transformed a several-block area into a pedestrian- and bike-friendly place. Narrow sidewalks have been replaced by wide patios on which sit tables and chairs from cafes and bars fronting them. The two-lane road was narrowed to a single direction traffic lane making the area far more pleasant.
Downtown Kalamata - bike path to the left, storefronts to the right

Meanwhile in the downtown core area, retail stores representing high end brands from countries throughout Europe have been opening their doors, one of the most recent being London's Marks and Spencer. It joins Zara, H&M and other clothing, shoe and handbag retailers from Italy, Spain and England.

Getting here:

The tiny Kalamata International Airport might be the easiest International Airport to transit in Europe. It opened in 1959. Charter flights began arriving in 1986 and the terminal was rebuilt in 1991.  I laugh every time we stand in baggage claim and the belt begins snaking the luggage past a sign that reads, "Baggage Claim 1' . . .as if there were a line of a dozen such luggage belts operating. . .there aren't.  

The most aircraft we've ever seen there at one time were four jets.  That does mean we might have a line at passport control simply because there isn't room for us all inside.

You'll cross the Corinth Canal driving from Athens to Kalamata

A four-lane divided freeway links Kalamata and Athens and the trip will take under three hours depending on weather and traffic conditions.  Taking KTEL buses between the two cities is a popular option used by many of us who live here as well as tourists.

That's it for this week.  As always, we thank you for the time you spend with us at TravelnWrite. Welcome to our new subscribers!  We had a glitch with our last post not being delivered to subscribers until nearly a week after it should have been. It appears my Wonder Woman tech guru back in the Pacific Northwest has worked some magic and perhaps this will get sent for your weekend reading.  If you get a chance to let me know you've received this, I'd appreciate it!

Safe travels to you and yours ~

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Stuffed Calamari ~ Food for thought

 'How did we eat calamari in the States?'  

It was the question du jour among three American expats sipping coffee on a recent Saturday morning at the local beach cafe. 

Pantazi Beach Cafe

Our recollections were similar: calamari were breaded, deep-fried 'O-shaped' rings and miniature octopus-like pieces served on a plate with a hearty, but probably not healthy, side of dipping sauce.

Village fish taverna closing for the season

The three of us had each just returned within a few weeks of each other from trips back to the United States.  We were sharing tales of sticker- and culture-shock moments from our visits back as well as the joys of returning to this rural area of the Greek Peloponnese where we've chosen to make our homes. 

One of the joys was dining on Greek food again and that sparked my comment about calamari. I'd recently posted on FB a series of photos taken on our last visit of the year to one of our local fish tavernas. It will reopen in the spring as many such eateries do in our area. My post included a photo of our entre, beautiful stuffed calamari. 

Grilled stuffed calamari/squid

Now for you seafood aficionados, this isn't a discussion of whether this is stuffed squid or stuff calamari; restaurants often use those words interchangeably here and it doesn't matter. When cooked correctly, as this was - stuffed with large shrimp, cheeses, veggies and herbs and so tender you could cut it with a fork it is simply ambrosia on a plate, by whatever name you choose.

Our mouths water when looking at the photo but that apparently wasn't the case with a few friends back in the States whose FB comments included: 'Ugh😂', 'Nope', 'Oh my. . .you have to be very brave'.  

Another wrote, 'I wish I could get past the presentation' which made me think of the grilled calamari we had served to us on the island of Kalymnos this summer. The presentation on that one, pictured below, I will admit, gave me pause:

Grilled calamari - Kalymnos Island

But another U.S. friend's comment is what provoked some real food for thought: 'Amazing cuisine. Yay to you Jackie!" So, I'm always so grateful you give us a window on how others live. Perspective is a very good thing!'

Grilled calamari - Kos Island

Now that made me realize that my posts about life in Greece aren't so much about how others live any more, but how we live in this new adopted world of ours. Since becoming expats our perspectives have changed about many things, including food.

A 3-euro Greek breakfast 'toast'

While I can't recall with certainty, I probably wasn't thrilled with the first couple of stuffed calamari I was served here.It wasn't what I was used to but my perceptions have changed as I've adapted to a new lifestyle. I laugh at the number of times during those early day breakfasts out in Greece when an order for 'toast and coffee' would result in a toasted ham and cheese sandwich without condiments - often with a mound of potato chips at the side -- being served in place of the plain bread, butter and jam we'd been expecting.  

I'd be so disappointed. But I tell you, over the years, we've grown so found of Greek style 'toast' that we missed it while back in the States. It was one of the first things we ordered upon our return.

Truth be told, we expats admitted that despite having a good time back in the States, we missed many things about Greece while there.


Travel between two worlds

A number of folks have asked us about sticker- and culture-shock while back in our homeland. I might add a number of friends and family in the States had tried to prepare us for the costs we were going to encounter, but nothing really had prepared us for the reality of the increased prices there. 

As we sipped our cappuccinos, we told of our experiences: One expat couple had shared a bagel and lox with two cups of coffee for a price of $50US in New York City.  On our first day back, we visited what had once been our neighborhood Starbucks in a Seattle suburb.  I purchased a pound of ground coffee, two double tall lattes, and a medium lemonade for $29. Another expat took two granddaughters to a favorite pancake breakfast hangout and ending up with a $70US bill. 

Glass/bottle prices in US dollars at this winery

The small central Washington State community in the heart of its wine country where The Scout and I have planted our US roots is a seasonal tourist destination. With some 19 wineries drawing visitors from far and wide, we expect prices there to be higher than what we pay for wine in Greece. But that still didn't ease the sticker shock of prices; an example of which is shown in the photo above.

Miso kilo/half liter of rose 3-euros

Our first night back home in Greece we headed to our neighborhood taverna. This miso kilo, or half liter, of rose wine pictured above was 3-euros; the cost of our meal with the wine about same as the price of a bottle of Merlot at the winery shown above. (And the rose was very good.)

Now in fairness, sticker shock can also work in reverse and one of the best sticker shocks we had was the price of gasoline.  While Americans are continuing to lament their gasoline prices, we rejoiced at paying between $4 and $5 a gallon. In Greece having hit just over $10 a gallon this summer, the price finally had dropped to $8 by the time we left for the States.

The topic of gasoline in the States, however, leads to one of my most illustrative examples of 'culture shock'. Not so much shock as perhaps, culture re-entry.  It happened when I pulled into a service station to fill up the car. I realized I had forgotten how to pump gasoline. I used to do it routinely. But motorists don't pump gas in Greece. Stations are staffed and service provided.  We pull up to a pump, tell the attendant, 'Yamato. . .95,' which means fill it up with 95 grade gasoline.

Our Toyota in the US 

I was doubled over laughing at myself by the time I pulled away from the pump. Now the 'big box' service station was bumper-to-bumper that morning and others at the pumps seemed to be entertaining themselves by watching my bumbling attempts.  My first misstep was in hitting the wrong button at the side of the driver's seat. Instead of the small gasoline door opening at the side of the car, the entire front hood over the engine popped open.  I had to raise the hood a bit, gaze at the engine and the close it so it might appear that I had opened it on purpose instead of out of stupidity. 

I felt as if I had landed from Mars when I moved to the gasoline pump. Nothing was familiar! So many choices of types of gas and figuring out how to choose one of them seemed a sizeable task.  To make matters worse, I had to tap my credit card on the appropriate screen on the pump before I could pump the gas and no amount of tapping would make it work. Finally, the one roving attendant took note of my plight and showed me how to select the grade as well as pointed out that tapping my card on the card reader worked better than tapping it on the instruction sign that said, 'then tap your card'. 

It's a big world just waiting to be explored

The reality is that the American prices may be up, but America's culture and ways of doing things haven't changed. It is those of us returning back to it for short bits of time who have changed.  We do live differently from that which was once our rote way of living. And we see things from a completely different perspective than we once did.

We left Greece when summer nights were warm enough to warrant use of fans and/or air conditioning. We've returned to the cool nights of autumn that lend themselves to open bedroom windows and falling asleep to the sounds of the crickets and night critters. 

This week the Hunter's Moon, the first full moon of autumn, is lighting the night sky.  Autumn at The Stone House on the Hill means olive harvest and time to start traveling on this side of 'the pond'. We'll tell you about plans for both in future weeks!  Until then safe travels to you and yours ~ and thanks for your time today!




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