Living abroad, three years on...

Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun. It doesn’t seem three year since we ‘upped sticks’ and made a new life for ourselves here on the Greek island of Kefalonia. What a three years it has been. I don’t know about early retirement – we have never been busier. We have experienced an exploding chimney, an horrendous forest fire in July 2007 which came within only a matter of around 300 metres of the house, earth tremors and 6.2 earthquake, drought, water shortages electricity blackouts and have also renovated our house and garden but what an experience it has been.

Living abroad, three years on
After our goodbyes we arrived with our little dog Libby on the island on a Thompson flight from Birmingham on 28 September 2006. Several days were spent in a small holiday apartment until we could move into our new home at the beginning of October.

Our first task was to take delivery of our furniture which all arrived intact after an overland journey. Taking delivery was the easy part, but how would we get our bedroom furniture upstairs, bearing in mind that at the time we had a metal spiral staircase which was literally hanging off the wall. I think it was only held on with one bracket. Not to be deterred Russell and I struggled up the stairs with bedding etc,but decided the furniture would have to come over the upstairs terrace and in through the double doors either on the landing or in through our bedroom and placed in the appropriate rooms. Up went the ladders at the end of the house, I hung over the terrace wall whilst Russell tethered a rope around wardrobes, beds and sets of drawers. I took the strain whilst he guided and pushed everything up the ladders. I don’t know how we managed it but we did. After all that my prized antique wardrobe fell to bits a couple of months later and it was tossed out of the window. We settled in best we could as we had such a lot of work to do on the house and garden. New fridge/freezer, cooker and TV were bought, which incidently were all delivered the same day tied on the back of a rusty old pick up truck. But they made the 35 kilometre journey without a scratch.

The previous occupants had kept chickens and at the top of the garden was a chicken hut. Probably the best way to describe it was a stinking structure made of tin and pallets. I don’t think it had been cleaned out for years. This was our first task and as the weather was still quite warm and you can imagine the smell. Donned with face masks, sledge hammer and saws we set to work one weekend. What a sight we looked. Rats, mice and lizards were running everywhere and we stank but we did it. Local people here on Kefalonia are quite nosey and the number of ‘drive bys’ we had that weekend was quite unusual. Bearing in mind we live up a dust track going nowhere except to our house and a couple of others. Three years later still the husbands bring their wives and mothers for a ‘drive by’ to have a look at the flower garden.

You have got to remember this is Greece and everyone has a laid back attitude. We managed to get a quotation for a new kitchen and a new set of stairs. We were told that the kitchen would be in for Christmas and the stairs sometime in the New Year. Fine we thought there was just the two of us and we could make do. We had plenty of work to do in the meantime and set about refitting a new shower room upstairs, the downstairs bathroom would have to wait, or so we were told, until the stairs had been fitted, due to the fact that the walls would have to be drilled and they didn’t want to go through to the new bathroom tiles. The walls are around 6” thick but who were we to comment on it.

Living abroad, three years onThe beginning of November the weather turned windy and cold. It was November 5. A fire was lit. ‘Throw some more kindling on the fire’, I said to Russell, as he was having difficulty getting a decent fire going. Low and behold within a matter of minutes we had a roaring fire. When I say roaring, I mean roaring. Flames were leaping up the chimney from which there was a terrible noise. Running outside we could see flames at the top of the chimney – the chimney was on fire. Seconds later the whole thing exploded, soot, burnt tar and deris were everywhere. The chimney was made out of asbetstos. Rather apt for November 5 we thought.

The kitchen was ordered at the beginning of November and the staircase at the end . Great I thought things are on the move. We should have the house finished by the time our first family visitors arrive at the beginning of May. Our kitchen now consisted of a cooker, fridge/freezer in the dining area and a washing up bowl on a garden table in the lounge area. I was still

Living abroad, three years onlooking on the positive side for everything being done for Christmas. Was I in for a surprise. At least we had a sink plumbed in and some work tops for Christmas, however, we only had one electrical socket working. I did, however, manage to serve a three course Christmas dinner. I don’t know how I did it but I was determined to have turkey, all the accompaniements and a bottle of champagne to celebrate our first Christmas. The kitchen was finally finished at the end of January.

In between all this we had been developing a flower and vegetable garden. We had even planted and harvested crops. Boxing day was spent laying concrete and slate for a new patio area. Luckily the weather was very kind to us the first winter.

Still no news on the stairs as they had had to be specially made in Germany and we wanted to get on. Blow it we thought, lets get on and do the downstairs bathroom, which we did. At least now we had got rid of the horrendous stained half sized bath and cracked toilet which was screaming ‘remove me, remove me’ and this room was now useable.

During February seeds went in for the summer crops, potatoes and onions planted, a barbeque was made and work continued on the flower garden. Never a dull moment. Time was now getting short and I was worried we would still be in a mess when our first visitors arrived as the whole interior of the house had to be painted. We couldn’t do this because of the installation of the new stairs and part of the landing had to be cut away to make way for them.

February came and went and we moved into March. Luckily the weather was warm so we decided to paint the outside of the house. It took us days and days. 58 litres of paint and 3 coats later it was finished. Finally, the stairs arrived during the second week of April. Once again everything was covered with dust sheets, whilst a pneumatic drill cut out part of the landing. The houses here are built of reinforced concrete and once again there was dust everywhere. For several days we had to use a ladder to get upstairs, but at last we were rid of the horrendous stairs. Finally by the third week of April the house was completely finished. A week to spare before our visitors arrived.

Spring drifted into summer, family arrived for their annual summer holidays and started to relive the experiences they had had when we had all visited Kefalonia on our summer family holidays. Days were extremely hot well into the mid 40’s but Wednesday 25 July is a day that I will probably remember for the rest of my life. We had just said goodbye to family the day before. The day started like any other day, I got up and wondered into the back bedroom to look out over the back garden and mountains – what a lovely scene – mist over the mountains. Hang on a minute I thought the sky should not be red in that area.

True to form I roused Russell, who must have thought what is she going on about now, it’s only 6 o’clcok in the morning. Suddenly we realized there was a fire on the other side of the mountain. We carried on as normal as fires are not uncommon at this time of year, but something told us this was a ‘big one’. Around 10 o’clock in the morning the fire started to make its way over the top and along the ridge of the mountain. Fire planes and helicopters from the mainland were doing their best by dowsing it with sea water. The fire was gradually spreading. All we could do was watch.

Night arrived and it was getting too close for comfort. The planes cannot run with water at night so it was left to the Kefalonian fire brigade and local fire fighters. We gradually got worried when we could see the coaches taking out the holiday makers. Being Mr and Mrs Organisation, Russell had the hose pipes and water buckets at the ready. I loaded the car with essential papers, a few clothes, water and photographs in case we had to make a quick getaway, settled the dog down and we waited and fire watched as sleep was impossible.

Overnight we watched the whole mountain go up. Skala was told to evacuate. The three houses up here seem to have been forgotten about. However, our two neighbours kept reassuring us in their way. (They cannot speak English and we cannot speak Greek), but we knew to follow their lead if anything happened. To cut a long story short, the fire surrounded us in the fields adjoining our lane - I don’t think I have ever been so scared in my life. I felt sick. It was just the wind direction that saved us. We were surrounded back and sides. Skala was saved by a miracle. But to one side of the village the fire went all the way down to the beach and the village had been engulfed in black chocking smoke. Property was lost in the villages the other side of the mountain. The whole area was devastated and a burnt smouldering wasteland.

By dawn everything was under control thanks to the Kefalonian Fire Brigade and the local volunteer firefighters. There was no water or electricity and the army had arrived to fire watch and help repair cables etc. By 5 pm on Thursday we had electricity and water. What a 24 hours. We finally went to bed. The local volunteer fire fighters did a tremendous job and the council put on a special concert in the square on the Sunday night in thanks for saving the village.

Autumn arrived and so did the family for one more ‘Kefalonia fix’ before the winter. Days were warm and we were still busy on the garden.

Living abroad, three years onNovember, saw us pick our first olives. We only have four trees, but we thought why not. It will be a shame to waste them – why buy olive oil when you can have your own. It took us three days and 120 kgs of olives later we made our way down to the press. Needless to say we caused quite a bit of interest, as I don’t think many English people pick their own olives. Word went round ‘Anglika Anglika’ (English English). However, we were made to feel very welcome and shown the workings of the press and told to return in the early evening to collect. Our crop had made 40 litres of oil and it had only cost us three days picking, plenty of exercise and €12. But boy did we ache.

Winter arrived and the island seemed to go into hibernation. I personally love the winter. Walking, reading, cooking for the freezer occupied most of our days. As our garden was still evolving there was still plenty of landscaping to do and, of course, there were winter veggies to look after. It is essential that if you stay on the island that you have a hobby or else you would go stir crazy.

Although it was raining our second Christmas was a more comfortable affair. Shopping for the turkey etc was done on Christmas Eve in the capital Argostoli. Something I would never do in the UK. Even at 8 in the morning, children of all ages were out visiting the local shops and market, triangles in hand, singing Christmas songs, and receiving a few sweets as a reward. It was magical. No stress, hustle and bustle. Everyone happy and wishing anyone they met a ‘Happy Christmas’. Neighbours bought us gifts of eggs, fresh pork and whiskey. I in turn sent round mince pies made with homemade mincemeat. If you can’t get an ingredient here, you either improvise or make it yourself. The pork we had was from the pig we had seen being jointed and hanging under their veranda the week before. But that is life here. They even milk their own goats which in turn are placed on the spit for the Easter Celebrations.

Days in January and February were showery, interspersed with cold winds. March arrived and so did the milder temperatures. Clean Monday the annual festival was held in the village square. Children were flying kites on the beach, families eating their picnics in the square whilst joining in the dancing and singing.

Family arrived for a week during April which tied in with the Greek Easter. The weather was glorious, we had barbeques, enjoyed deserted beaches and generally had a really good time.

Vegetable production in the garden was well underway by the end of May and into June. Every day was spent harvesting, freezing and apricot jam making. The freezers were bursting at the seams. Once again the family arrived for their annual pilgrimage. The house was once again lively and noisey with grandchildren.

September arrived and so, once again did the family. We were in the middle of a water shortage, the water being cut off for hours on end. Luckily we have a meter and hose at the top of the garden which supplies the vegetables. This is on a different line to the house water. A makeshift shower with a redundant shower head was rigged up on the concrete at the top of the garden. Not only did the family arrive but so did the liquidation. Thousands of passengers were stranded on the island, including our family. However, no-one need have panicked everyone arrived home safely perhaps a day late, but that didn’t matter they had an extra days holiday.

Living abroad, three years on
I returned to the UK at the end of September for a week to see my mum whom I hadn’t seen for 2 years. I don’t think we ever stopped talking the whole of the week.

Our little dog Libby was getting older and gradually slowing down. She had reached the grand old age of 16 and in November she had her first heart attack. She bounced back, but by the end of November a trip to the vets was made. She was started on tablets, to stop her lungs getting congested with fluid and low and behold, although she slept quite a bit during the day, she still enjoyed her two small walks a day. Although the longer beach walks she enjoyed in previous years were a ‘no no’.

Christmas arrived and it was a lovely day. The morning was spent talking to family via SKYPE . Boxing day was dull and cold and then the rain and wind started. Interspersed with cold winds the heavy winter rain arrived. There were beautiful clear sunny days and when you looked out towards the mainland you could see the snow on the mountains. But I would say it was raining more than sunny.

I had had to have a liver ultra sound several months previously and although my liver was fine it was discovered I had gallstones. I had wondered why I had been getting really bad pains in my side. Low and behold on my birthday I received the hospitality of the Greek health system. The operation to have my gall bladder removed was the day after. I shared a room with two other Greek ladies who were in for the same op. Husbands were busy showing everyone their wife’s gallstones and boasting who had the biggest. I cannot get over how well I was looked after and how complete strangers,the family members of the other two ladies, helped us out. The language proved to be no barrier. Although basic care is done by relatives – who, by the way, are allowed to stay by your bedside from 8 in the morning until well into the evening - the consultant comes to see how you are progressing three times a day, beds are changed daily and all in all you are very well looked after. During the rest of March I convalesced. No gardening for me.

Sadly we had to have Libby put to sleep at the end of the month. We had lost our ‘little girl’ and there was a void in our lives and we were broken hearted. We do have two cats but they are outdoor cats. Although very well looked after they are kept mainly to keep the garden free from snakes and field mice.

On a happier note our third grandson Oliver was born on 29 March. Immediately a flight was booked back to the UK on April 7. What should have proved to be a break for us and a catch up with friends and relatives turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. All our time was spent traveling from Ashby de la Zouch to Northamptonshire to see my son who had been admitted to hospital as an emergency with diabetes. He had been misdiagnosed by his local GP. On a lighter note we did manage to see family, and of course, quite a bit of our grandchildren.

We arrived home ten days later to the Greek Easter celebrations. Unfortunately, we had had an overnight wait for the adjoining flight for Kefalonia at Athens airport and were much too tired to join in the village celebrations which don’t normally start until 11pm.

Living abroad, three years onSeveral weeks later Oliver was admitted to hospital with meningitis. This was a very worrying time, but luckily, he recovered with no ill effects.

At the time of writing we are into August and our family visitors have left. For the last 6 weeks or so temperatures have been in the high 30’s and mid 40’s. The whole island is on high fire alert and vegetation is tinder dry. We have seen several fires on our neighbouring island of Zakynthos and there has been several small ones in our area. At the moment a day of rain would be most welcome, we have had no rain so to speak of since April. This morning the guy who passes us each day as he goes to tend his livestock drew up in his van and bought us the most enormous watermelon. Goodness knows how the two of us are going to eat it all.

We have, at the moment, a new addition to our family – another dog. I am not sure how it is going to work out as she is very nervous and submissive. I am hoping that with time and patience we can bring her round but I think it will be a long process and we are keeping our fingers crossed that it will work out as she has a lovely temperament.

We have changed our life drastically over the last three years and I have only skimmed the surface and have enjoyed every minute of it. Our life is so much richer. People here take you as they find you. Possessions are immaterial. And no we are not involved in the small expat scene over here that is not our thing. We do miss our family, but that makes summer visits all the more special and we speak regularly via a video link on the computer. I think this says it all:

0n our return journey in April we sat in Athens airport during the early hours of the morning, both looked at one another and said ‘I shall be glad to be home’.

Marléne Bowley