Rain!

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We finally got some rain.  Two weeks ago, on Labor Day, we were treated to light rain for several hours.  It was enough that even the soil under the tree canopy got wet.  It was the first rain we’d seen since May, breaking what for us seemed like a 3-month drought but is actually the normal summer weather for this part of Greece.  We were ecstatic.
As is usual here the arrival of rain meant a change in the weather, and we were treated to a week of rain.  That first day’s rain completely soaked into the parched, powdered soil but by the third day, water was running off into the drainage channels, carrying enormous quantities of mud and trash into the Gulf.  The fourth day saw very heavy rainfall, with tragic consequences in the southern Peloponnese, where 5 people were killed in flooding.

 

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Water running across the pavement did a great job of carrying off lots of heat, too.  When it was over, summer’s back had clearly been broken and since then we’ve enjoyed highs in the mid 80s, lows in the low 70s, and breezes turning to the north/northwest.

 

Last week was near ideal, with the air scrubbed clear, the mountains finally emerging from behind the haze-skrim that had obscured them all of July and August, occasional whitecaps on the Gulf, and slowly (slowly) diminishing indoor temps.  It was 84 inside the last week of August, and now it’s dropped to 80.

 

This morning, I was awakened by thunder and heavy rain, forecast for later in the day.  Sitting on the balcony, we were treated to a spectacular light show, as lightening spiderwebbed across the clouds and a rainbow appeared in the west, opposite the rising sun. During a break in the action I ran out to grab the top photo, of Mt. Gerania down the Gulf.
We joke that there’s no day quite as fine as a rainy day in Greece, and today was no exception.  After running our AM errands, a brilliant blue sky encouraged us to start a load of laundry, and it was 99% dry by lunch time, when light sprinkles had us run for the clotheslines in the back. In between, the mountains were crystal clear and I stopped again for a photo of Mt. Ellikon.

 

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True to form, more rain’s coming this week, maybe even into the weekend.  But it was beautiful for a sunset volta this evening.  I couldn’t resist snapping the last light of day on the clouds over the Sikelianos house.

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The weather cycle is coming back around to where we joined it last spring, and it’s beginning to feel as if our stay is complete.

Midsummer

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Being here in midsummer always makes me think about Ocean City.  When I was a kid, my friends and I divided ourselves into “beach people” and “mountain people,” eg, people who’d rather spend their summers at the beach v people who’d rather go to the mountains.  I was a mountain person (I haven’t polled her but I suspect Suse would opt for the other team — although not as fervently as before she became BFFs with a dermatologist) but not only did I prefer heading to the hills, I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to go to the beach…unless it was to check out babes in bikinis.  The beach is hot, sticky, sandy, uncomfortable, loud, crowded.  The roads are jammed way beyond their capacity, there’s a line at every restaurant, pizza place, ice cream stand, and fry joint.  There’s no place to park, and there’s always at least one moron driving back and forth with his car radio so loud it’s obnoxious two blocks away — and of course his taste in music is always execrable.  Sand gets tracked back to the car, back to the room, into the shower. It’s in your hair and in your teeth. Sandwiches are gritty with it, towels and blankets are caked with it. Lather up with sunscreen and in seconds you’re wearing a sand veneer. It makes you (me) itchy at the same time you’re sweaty.  And you’re sweaty.  Because being on the beach is like sitting too close to a sunlamp the size of a bus, and someone’s opened the door of the world’s largest oven.  You can see the heat haze rising from the sand — even if it’s just thin strips of sand between the checkerboard of towels and blankets.  You sweat every moment you’re not in A/C or the water. And then you look over at your pals and say, “It just doesn’t get any better than this.”  And yet maybe the most incomprehensible part of it all is that people sit in 50-mile traffic jams week in and week out to get there and back home.

Obviously, I’m the oddball here.  Zillions of people like that stuff — you can’t find a room anywhere near the beach this time of year.  People not only do this it, they actually spend a lot of the year planning to do it.  It’s a reward for working all year. (Work that apparently involves rolling a boulder uphill.)  So overwhelming is the evidence that I’m forced to conclude maybe even most people are on the beach side of the fence.  But so long as I didn’t have to be there, I’ve never cared why everyone does.  Until I’m brought right up against it, face to face.

Which brings me to Sykia. In midsummer.

When we bought here, we bought in a pretty little village stretched out along a gorgeous body of water.  Population: 231. A park, a church, a few tavernas, and that’s all.  As absurd as it sounds sitting here now, it never occurred to me that this place would be Ocean City for hoards of Athenians, that its population would swell ten-fold (at least), that parking would be impossible, that the idiot with the loud car radio and bad taste would follow me here, that the tavernas would be full to — and beyond — capacity every night, that sentient human beings would sling themselves out under umbrellas on the beach all day every day, that crossing the beach road could ever approximate running across the Capital Beltway, that the park would be full of people from other villages every night until very late at night, and that people would navigate heavy traffic for 90 minutes to get here.  And yet it’s happened again this year, just as it has in each of our previous years.

I haven’t been back to OC in summer since high school but now I’m face to face with this beach thing every year anyway. I still can’t figure it out.  Why do people like doing this?  There are some who apparently take pride in getting the darkest possible tan.  There’s one guy who just likes to fish every daylight hour.  There are young parents letting their kids romp in the shallows.  There are people who come down to cool off, floating around in the water for 30-40 minutes before heading back up the stairs.  But for each of those, there’s one reading a book, drinking an iced coffee, snoozing, jawing with the neighbors, in other words: doing things that would be much more comfortable pretty much anywhere else.  So why do they do it?

I can’t go along with the mystical idea that we love the sea because the progenitors of our species crawled out of the sea millions of years ago.  After all, every mammal species did the same thing, and I don’t see cats or beagles lining up to get in the water.  I’m forced to conclude the drivers of this strange behavior are habit, tradition, and, yes, conformity.  “What should we do for vacation this year? Why don’t we just go back to the beach?”  “I’ve gone to the beach every summer since I was a kid.”  “Everyone’s going to the beach.”  The possibility that anyone might actually enjoy being roasted alive while simultaneously being flayed by the pitiless sun in the close company of hundreds of other roastees is simply unimaginable.

So here I am, an accidental beach person.  A bear who wandered down from the mountains.  My inability to understand goes way beyond language.

My coping method is to focus on the things I love about this place — the clear blue water that’s now at the ideal temperature, the gorgeous mountains across the Gulf, and the amazing light penetrating the landscape to the cellular level.  And the absence of sand!  No sand.  The pebbles can be tough on the feet but I never have to walk on a sandy floor or — shudder — sleep in a sandy bed.  And the wine, a spectrum of spectacular summer whites so nuanced and delicious that they more than make up for car interiors so hot you have to stand back when you first open a door.  Yes, the wine really helps with the coping.

Each year about this time I think back to a two-week beach vacation almost 30 years ago  that straddled the start of school.  The difference between week one and week two could not have been more stark: week one, high stress; week two, no stress.  I thought then about the few permanent residents of little coastal towns like Duck, NC — how they must feel about being invaded and displaced by the mob each summer, and how they must long for the end of summer.  I’ve thought about them again each of the past 10 summers.  I never imagined my empathy would be so complete.

Come on, autumn!

Kalo Kalokairi!

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Now fully immersed in packing and preparing to leave, we’re casting our thoughts back over the last 3 months and trying to soak in enough of all the things we’ll miss to last us until we return.  It’s been an unusual season in Greece for us: our earliest-ever arrival and our earliest-ever departure.  And, while our neighbors and relatives assure us it was an unusually long and wet winter, it’s not a schedule we’re likely to repeat.

Winter here is nothing either of us can complain about but we saw enough to understand what the locals dislike about it.  Cool, wet, and windy conditions when you’re longing to be outside is annoying.  Leaving the ridiculous weather Washington had this February, we were overjoyed to find the precipitation was liquid rather than frozen.  The temperature in the unheated apartment when we arrived was 62.  With overnight temps dropping only to the low 40s, we were more than willing to put on jackets to down our morning pot of tea on the balcony. But 4 of the 6 weeks before Easter were wet.  We had to postpone our trip to Mani until the third week just because we wanted to explore it without raincoats.  And dining al fresco was problematic because anything hot cooled before even we could wolf it down.

The six weeks since Easter have been almost idyllic, though.  Perfect springtime temps with highs in the 70s, puffy clouds, and mostly gentle breezes.  We’ve had few short showers, a few days of strong winds, and the normal occurrences of Saharan dust blown north by high-altitude winds.  But since Easter we’ve turned off the heat, opened the windows, and most days we ate three meals outside.  Appreciated a few bottles of wine out there, too

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In my first post this year, when I said nothing had changed in Sykia, I forgot to make note of the significant tree cutting and replanting work that had been done on the Sykia side of the Pefkias (Pine Forest) that is the pride of the neighborhood.  A lot of activity there has helped diversify the forest, reduce fire danger, and improve the health of the established trees.  I also neglected to mention work on the Sykia portion of the new highway.  The bridge over the stream that runs near our apartment has been finished, and the over/underpass where the new highway crosses the railroad has also been completed, although the approaches to it have yet to be started.  We are full of hope for what we might find when we return next year.

It’s been a difficult season for the economy, which has slipped back into recession, and has suffered four months of uncertainty about the future.  We’ve swung between optimism and despair with the winds of the rumor mill but we are currently hopeful that a long-term agreement will be reached this summer, and that that agreement will put the country on the road to a lasting recovery.

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This year we noticed for the first time that orange trees flower while still  holding ripe fruit.  While great citrus is crazy-abundant here, we also enjoyed excellent strawberries for virtually the entire three months…and they’re not fading yet.  We noted the progress of the tomato crop almost from day-to-day, and are savoring near-perfect flavor and aroma right now from a local crop. Korinthia is famous in Greece for its table grapes and raisins and, while we missed the grape harvest, we took full advantage of the raisins; consequently, we are unlikely to ever open another box of Dole’s.

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We could put up a catalog of small discoveries and big memories from this year’s trip.  I particularly remember visiting the astonishing church of a long-gone monastery on the mountain high above Mariolota, and realizing that we could see our breath inside.  Outside, the temps were probably in the 60s but the thick stone walls held winter’s freeze tight, and I got a new appreciation for the monks who once rose before dawn to chant and pray in that beautiful ice-box.  We were also shown the lovely Flisvos Marina near Athens, and then amazed by the maritime museum it contains – imagine a full-scale trireme, with oars extended!

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After years of noting the loss of one shop after another, this year we took particular pleasure in seeing a host of businesses that, rather than shut down, chose to up their game.  New paint, new decor, new tables and chairs, new menus, new spirit, new attitude go a long way to reassuring everyone here that it is possible to make a go of it, even now.  The tourists like the fresh look, and the locals like it even more.

So we leave feeling good about the prospects for our village, and for Greece.  We wish our family and friends here a good summer, Kalo Kalokairi, and look forward to seeing them, and the mountains across the water, when we return again to this magical land.

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Sika!

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Sika means figs in English, and I’m posting this photo of some sika growing nearby because our village, Sykia (or Sikia or Sikya) means fig tree.  In the age of sail, seaside villages often took their names from some distinguishing feature of interest to mariners.  Fresh water was always a concern, so there are villages called good water, lots of water, dry, etc.  Navigation was an equal concern, and being able to locate one’s place on the map required landmarks, so other villages are named for whatever was most visible from the sea — the next village is called Xylokastro for its wooden castle or single castle. I doubt anyone out in the Gulf could spot a fig tree on the shore, so I assume our name promised that, at a minimum, figs could be had here.  The village just east of us, Mellissi, would advertise the availability of honey. During the Ottoman occupation, the local Ottoman chieftan (bey) built a large house on the highest point of our village shore.  The house included a tower, possibly a minaret, and so the village was renamed Pyrgos (tower).  The tower was toppled when independence was won, and the name reverted to Sykia.

 

I’ve learned that our village also has some ancient history, which isn’t too surprising in this part of Greece but all I know is that villagers digging in their gardens have found ancient artifacts. One of the most surprising things I’ve learned recently is that, into the Ottoman era, the sea extended right through the middle of the present village, almost back to Geliniatika, the village  adjoining Sykia to the south.  This revelation suddenly made sense of some landforms in the village that seemed odd but had not inspired any critical thought.  It appears that sediments washing down from the hills above gradually silted in the anchorage, which would have included the site our apartment, and that the Old National Road, running along the beach, serves as a dike to keep the sea from reclaiming the land.

 

I’ve just learned most of this detail about our part-time home from Sykia’s delightful and surprising website, Sykia.gr. Well designed, interesting, and useful, the site includes an excellent, full English translation and some very nice photography.

 

The website notes that, by legend, the fig tree for which the village was named stood on the hill by the bey’s house. There’s now a taverna at the foot of that hill called The Courtyard of the Bey, and I find myself walking the village trying to imagine the outline of the harbor, boats moored out in its center, travelers sitting at tables under the trees, and sailors carrying casks and crates down to a pier. It’s a new dimension of Sykia for me, and it comes thanks to the efforts of some of my approximately 600 neighbors to tell the story of this place.  We’re beginning to feel as if we’re a part of this sweet village.

Stormy weather

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After a day of rain and declining temperatures, the clouds parted just enough at sunset to produce this dramatic view of Mt. Helicon, directly across the Gulf.  The sun was setting behind me, completely cloud covered, and the break in the ceiling on the other side of the Gulf was just enough illuminate the south side of the mountain and the clouds roiling above it.

Full Moon in Sikya

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We went out just now to see the first full moon of our time here. We’re used to seeing the moon rise over Mt. Gerania, to the east, so this winter moon rising directly across the Gulf was a sweet surprise.  This is just about where the sun rises in mid-summer.

Not quite visible are the clouds gathering on the horizon.  They are heralding an end to the run of gorgeous weather we’ve enjoyed the last 4 days, and are forecast to bring us cooler, wetter weather through the weekend. Good thing we’re caught up on the laundry.

Καλώς ήρθατε!

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That’s Greek for “Welcome!” and its literal translation is almost exactly that: “Well (good) to come.”  Our friends and relations have been greeting us that way since we arrived Friday, and last night the first full moon of our stay popped out from behind Mt. Gerania as if to add its own Καλώς ήρθατε!  We didn’t get the lunar eclipse that you lucky folks in North America got to see but the moon here certainly had all the color of a blood moon, and we were thrilled — as always — to see it.

 

The moonrise capped a sunset walk on the beach, which is now fringed with the wildflowers we love:

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Mt. Elikonas, the mountain we see from our balcony, capped with clouds  and underlined by an Aleppo pine, whose horizontal growth is a testament to the strong west wind:P1000497

 

Mt. Parnassos, home of the nine muses.  You can just see that it’s still snowy at the top.  There’s a ski resort on the other (northern) side.

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Mt. Gerania, from which the moon would soon emerge:

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The Panagia, freshly painted over the winter, against a backdrop of Melissi village on the left, and our own lovely Sikia on the right:

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Looking east along the beach at Sikia:

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And the rest of the moon dance:

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Being welcomed back each year is one of the things we love about Greece but another of Greece’s charms is its customary leaving-taking, “Sto kalo,” which means “Go to the good.”   It’s a simple wish/command that operates on several levels and is emblematic of the love and respect that underlie this culture. Sto kalo.