In the spring of 2010, my partner and I threw in our jobs as journalists in Scotland, where we had been living for several years, and decided to have a long adventure in Greece. It seemed like a great plan for two Philhellenes in their mid-fifties, and a chance to kick back a bit and soak up the sun after a long Arctic winter. It was also a chance to escape a harsh restructuring of the newspaper industry in Scotland and a UK recession. Perfect, except for one thing. Greece was sliding into economic disaster and about to experience the biggest social upheaval since the Second World War.
Friends and family told us we were crazy to go to Greece at this time, and crazier still to take our adorable but manic Jack Russell dog Wallace along with us to a country that has a different attitude to domestic pets.
As one friend put it: “You’re not taking Wallace to Greece? Hasn’t the country got enough problems already?”
Indeed it had, and some of them are recounted in my book Things Can Only Get Feta, along with our adventures in Greece, both funny and sad, during our time living in a remote hillside location in the Mani, the middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese. We rented an old stone house in the village of Megali Mantineia in the shadow of the Taygetos Mountains. As well as trying to fit into a small traditional community, we had to deal with raw rural customs, a scorpion invasion, Greek bureaucracy and, of course, the growing uncertainty over the economic crisis.
We were pretty undaunted, however. My own love of Greece goes back a long way to my childhood in Australia. I emigrated from Scotland to Sydney with my family as a nine-year-old. Living in Kogarah Bay, Sydney, my first friend was a wonderful Aussie/Greek girl called Anna, who inducted me into the way of parea, inviting me over on Sundays for the long Greek lunch, where everyone spoke Greek.
It was all madly exotic to my young Scottish ear and some of that magic remained, even if I never picked up much Greek at the time. In my twenties I went overseas and headed straight for Greece, where I spent a year in Athens teaching English. My love affair with Greece had begun. That’s when I started learning the language, which came in useful later, in the Mani.
Early on we had decided to integrate into village life and even with rusty Greek we quickly made friends with goat farmers and olive harvesters. These were wonderful people who invited us to their homes and into their lives. Despite suffering the first of the austerity measures imposed on the Greeks in order to secure the massive EU bailouts, these people were very stoic. One woman said to me: “Look, we’ve had wars, German occupation, a junta, earthquakes. We can survive the crisis, too.”
It also gave us plenty of material for the freelance articles we had planned to write for British and Australian publications. I first trained as a journalist on Sydney papers after I returned from Europe in my twenties, and worked on The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald. One of the surprising aspects of our time in the southern Peloponnese was the number of Greek Australians we discovered living there, mostly people who were seeking to re-establish roots with their homeland. They had been in Greece for years, had reared their families there and started businesses, but were now considering a move back to Australia because of the crisis and the worry over rising unemployment.
We met a wonderful Greek Australian priest from Melbourne, in his forties, who worked in one of the bigger churches in the main southern city of Kalamata. He was incredibly popular because of his outgoing Aussie personality and although he was deeply committed to the church, he was torn between staying in Greece or moving back to Australia, where he had grown up, to offer his family a more secure future.
Many Greek Australians also live in the Laconia region of the southern Peloponnese, and particularly the island of Kythira, off the tip of the peninsula, where they run some of the businesses or keep holiday homes there. Some people have dubbed this island ‘Little Australia’.
One of the more memorable characters we met in the Mani, and one of the main characters in the book, was a lovable goat farmer called Foteini. She was a feisty pensioner who rode a donkey every day from the village to her farm compound. In the autumn we helped her to harvest some of her 200 olive trees. It was our first experience of harvesting the traditional way with a katsoni stick, whacking down olives all day on to a ground sheet. It was the hardest manual job we’d ever done.
Although we planned a one-year adventure in Greece, we ended up staying three years and saw first-hand how the economic crisis affected rural Greeks. Many of the farmers were already struggling with the lowest price for olive oil in years and on top of that, by mid-2011, the situation had grown much worse, with meagre pensions cut, and a new, unpopular property tax (the haratsi), introduced, that many struggling farmers simply couldn’t pay.
By the end of our three years we could no longer afford to stay in Greece and when we told Greek friends we were heart-broken about leaving, despite the worsening crisis, it was their turn to think we were mad.
Things Can Only Get Feta: Two journalists and their crazy dog living through the Greek crisis (Bene Factum Publishing, London), is available from selected bookstores in Australia, or on (with free international postage) and Amazon. For more information about the book and about the couple’s time in the southern Peloponnese visit their website