Leaving the city: A brief history…

Our property, slightly larger than an acre, is not far from the sea, but has no sea view. It came with fifty olive trees and about twenty aged and neglected almond trees. We are in a little valley, which is cool in the summer and somewhat-protected from the winter winds. But ‘protected’ is a relative word when it refers to the fickle winds of the Aegean.

The noisy storms seem to roll down the hills, and we can hardly distinguish between the dry, cold northern gusts, or the humid southern winds as they surround us from all directions. Winters are very loud, compared to the absolute stillness of the hot July afternoons. Fortunately, even the worst winter storms have caused only minor damage to our garden. But we live with constant fear of drought, a threat that this year seems even more ominous than those of years past.

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“How lucky you are, to be able to leave the hectic life behind and spend your days by the sea,” friends often tell us. It doesn’t occur to them that, especially during the summer, Costas and I are constantly juggling gardening, work around the house, and writing. We rarely have time for a quick swim. Things were much simpler in Athens. No planting, weeding, irrigating, or pruning, and somewhat limited cooking in my tiny kitchen. I had plenty of time to surf the web, exchange e-mails, and polish my columns.

In contrast, life in the country is very demanding. The day is not long enough for all that needs to be done. But then nothing beats standing between almond trees in bloom on a crisp winter morning, inhaling their sweet aroma as the bees begin to buzz, gathering bitter and sweet wild greens from under the olive trees, or picking fragrant lemons from our aesthetically lacking but prolific lemon trees…

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We are only one hour by ferry from the port of Lavrion, 40 miles south of Athens, but the sea can get quite rough in the winter, so at times we are cut off from the mainland for multiple days. Before planning any trip to the city we have to consult two or three weather reports –one is never enough—and make our plans accordingly; it is not only the outbound voyage but also the return trip that needs to be considered. Fortunately, the 3-day weather reports are sufficiently accurate, and this has made our decision to live permanently on the island easier.

We can be confident that if need be we can reach the city in 2-3 hours. Not that we leave our home often. Thanks to the Internet, digital pictures, and quite reliable phone connections, I maintain my position as food editor at Kyriakatiki Eleftherotypia, an Athens Sunday newspaper, write my columns for Greek magazines, shoot or choose the pictures to illustrate my pieces, and also do freelance articles for US and European publications without leaving Kea. Having a laptop helps me stay mobile, and to avoid complete dependence on the island’s electric power supply, the most volatile of our public utilities. It is not uncommon to be in the dark for a few hours in the winter, but so far things have not been too bad, and our small gasoline-powered generator rarely makes it out of the closet…

The Island

Kea (pronounced Kèh-ah) is the northernmost island of the Cyclades, just thirteen miles south-east of the tip of Attica —the region around Athens. It is a medium-sized, mountainous island, about fifty square miles in area. Despite its proximity to the capital, Kea has remained essentially unchanged for many years. It has great beaches, a rare oak forest on the slopes of the tall central mountains, and a mysterious, smiling lion carved around 600 B.C. into a gray rock the size of a whale. There are remnants of classical temples as well as Neolithic settlements.

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Ellinika, a village at the central-eastern part of the island

The extensive and well-kept network of scenic stone-paved paths —the old mule roads—are now the perfect trails for people who want to explore the island on foot. The chaotic tourist development of the seventies, which radically effected many Greek islands, fortunately left Kea behind. In recent years, however, the island has become a favorite weekend destination for wealthy Athenians, who have built houses overlooking the sea. Construction is booming, and older Kéans are shocked by the strange reversal of fortune. The few fertile and sheltered pieces of property, around Mylopótamos, for example, which were considered most valuable when the island was largely self-sufficient, are not worth much anymore. Meanwhile the rocky, arid lands on steep hills with sea views are now expensive commodities.

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Threshing floor near Kato Meria

Visiting Kea for the first time

Leaving Athenian city life for Kea was a bit like returning to my roots, although I never planned it that way. My paternal grandfather comes from the island, but he left for Athens when he was 12 to seek a better life. In her youth, my mother and her extended family spent summers on the island, so I grew up hearing Kea stories: colorful accounts of summer feasts, bizarre adventures of local characters, descriptions of tiny vegetable gardens, of the cheeses and the foods villagers brought to my grandmother’s kitchen. I knew the names of most villages, but I saw the island for the first time in my late twenties. We visited several islands with my family during the summer holidays, but we never came to Kea. My father detested the island for many reasons, but basically because he disliked –to put it mildly— members of my mother’s family.

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My grandfather Nikitas Patiniotis (back row, right), my grandmother in black (center), and my mother Frossoula (front row left) in Kea, circa 1925.

A brilliant early summer day, in the late seventies, I took the ferry and set foot at the port for the first time. I was doing a story on Alekos Fassianos, a well-known Greek painter, and one of the first non-Keans who ‘discovered’ the island around that time, buying pieces of land and some derelict houses in Hora for mere peanuts. The island’s capital is called Hora, like the main village on most islands; like all the Horas of the Cyclades, it is built high on a steep hill, away from the sea, and somewhat hidden for protection against the bygone attacks of marauding pirates.

Our capital’s architecture is different from the other island’s. There are a few two-storied neoclassical houses, and unlike the rest of the Cyclades, most buildings have red tiled roofs. This first visit to the island was just a busy daytrip—I only had time to see Fassiano’s tiny old home, at the edge of Hora –he now has a more impressive house on a vast piece of land that includes a vineyard. My first impression of the island was very different from the Kea I had imagined, nothing like the island described to me in countless stories. But I hadn’t seen anything but the non-descript new port, and the winding road towards Hora, which to me looked more like a village in the Peloponnesus than a Cycladic island.

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Hora, the island’s capital

Years later, Leonidas, my older cousin, decided to buy a piece of land, built a small house, and moved to Kea for his retirement. He is the son of my mother’s late elder sister, who was briefly married to a prominent Kean, and divorced before I was born. Neither Leonidas, my mother, nor any of her siblings inherited any property on the island. Leonidas found our current property for sale, next to his own, and suggested we purchase it. After my father’s death, my mother toiled with the idea of returning to Kea, especially after spending some time at my cousin’s place.

Buying land

I had only seen pictures of the piece of land when, together with my sister, we signed the papers to buy it, in order to build our summer houses. I was at a difficult point in my personal life, as my twenty-year relationship was ending, and I wasn’t in the mood for long term summer plans. To be honest, I really didn’t expect much from this island property. My sister and I couldn’t be more different. She is always surrounded by friends, goes out a lot, and has clear and definite ideas about almost everything. I am full of doubts, and over the years I find that I have become something of a loner—I prefer to stay home most of the time. As I was anticipating spending the next years alone, I remember thinking that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to be surrounded by my sister’s crowd, and to see more of my niece and nephew, since I have no children of my own. I didn’t know then that I would soon marry, and my life would change once more.

More than a decade has passed since the first summer Costas and I spent on the island, in our semi-finished house, surrounded by concrete rubble and dust. The following year was marked by the tragic illness and death of Costas’s mother, so I didn’t have time to oversee the details of the house. But after the second summer in Kea, Costas suggested we stay on through the fall and early winter. Just to see… We didn’t plan to move, though, so we kept both the Athens flat and the island home fully functional. Besides two sets of every cooking utensil, I even bought second volumes of the Larousse Gastronimique, the Oxford Companion to Food, and other reference books I often consult for my columns, as well as some of my favorite cookbooks.

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Popie (left) and Melech, in the garden.

In the first years we did occasionally return to Athens for a few days or a week in the winter, but these long visits have become increasingly rare. For the past eight years we have made this our permanent home and we can’t imagine going back to the city. We spend only a night in Athens every two or three months, to go to the dentist, to take the dogs to the vet, or if I have to fly out early in the morning

This year, ever in need of more space for our year-round living concerns and our expanding cooking classes, we acquired my sister’s house and share of the land. We now have two separate kitchens in the adjacent houses, which is ideal for our work in the cooking school. We also now have a nice winter living room –originally we just had a tiny corner—and the second kitchen with its good-sized table, plus the outdoor kitchen we are now building, will comfortably accommodate our guests and students.