Sunday, August 1, 2010

Scents of the Mediterranean

The tomatoes have just sprouted; the sun had bathed the nascent roots, the soil had fondled them, moist, warm and fertile. Uncle beckoning us children to the field: "come, eat, fresh from the vine!" Some water, cut in two, the mouth bursting with the flavours of sweet and slightly sour, full of aroma unreplicated in any bought variety. Cucumbers sliced, the fresh, sweet smell permeting the kitchen. The small leaves off the tomato vine are kept for marinades and sprinkling over feta cheese. Folavril. Basil pots on the window ledge. Olive trees all around, shadowing over the dining table, olives on the table in endless varieties: big and blue-black like a bruise, bitter-salty from the brine; small black and wrinkly and very sweet; almond-shaped Kalamata ones, with glistening skins and fatty-bitter taste; green ones looking almost raw, the pit substituted by a whole blanched almond. We accompany with an aromatic Robola wine. Santa Maira Novela Mavrorachi and Sienne l'Hiver transported to a tiny Greek island across the Holy Monastic Mountain of Athos.
Cicadas singing incessantly throughout noon and the heat is rising, vehicles coming closer with that "liquid" motion we see on the silver screen when they cross the endless American roads of the west. The turmac is almost melting, the big blue calling, only a fea minutes' drive away on the island. Solace inside a cool white church, fanning oneself with a Spanish fan, putting some ice-soaked hankerchief on the forehead and nape of the neck. Walls smelling of old fresco stucco, remnants of frankincense and melted wax from the beeswax candles put in bronze-bordered sand trays for the pious. Silence.... The old priest, tall and dressed in by now faded black takes off his kalimafhi from his head and sits down, wrought with the heat. He offers us almonds and sour cherries in suryp with a smile: the "spoon sweets" which greeted visitors at even the humblest house, chased by a glass of ice-cold water. Braced, we begin our journey to the edge of the island, all the way to Palaiochora searching for the small fragments of the fort that pirate Hayreddin Barbarossa destroyed in 1539. The countryside is chaotically scattered with wild herbs, thyme, oregano, bay, chamomile, sage, labdanum; we roll the car windows down and inhale deeply this humble marvel of nature. L'Eau Trois, Sables.

Nudists at the "baths" of the Neda river in the south Peloponnese. The foliage in the trees is rustling. The scent of moist soil, the fallen dead leaves mush on the ground. The wind is changing, autumn is coming quickly. Someone is playing melancholic greek songs on the baglama. Pin resin, Fille en Aiguilles.
The children are rolling on bicycles in Keffalonia central square, their silhouettes a dark contrast on the fuschia walls. Housewives are baking baklava, the spices of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg in the air. Some kids are dripping with mastic "submarine" (a dollop of mastic and glycose paste into a glass of cold water and licked off). 06310 Lentisque.
Dip in the Aegean sea, salt still remaining on the skin, I can almost lick it off, it's so dense! The laziness of the sun making our limps become putty. The barren rocky terrain scattered with immortelle flowers, dry and dusty. I take a fat piece of watermelon off my bag and a chunck of salty feta cheese kept on a block of ice to cut the sweetness; the sticky red juice is dribling down my chin and on the top of my bikini, mingling with my sweat and my Ambre Solaire, but I don't care. The seaside taverna has already put octopi on the rope, drying them out before they get marinated and smoked for dinner. The salty, inky aroma is wafting thanks to the breeze and the coals are set: the smoky, stinky trail whets my appetite; I'm longing for the anise flavour of ouzo to accompany my fried calamari. I'm longing to have my tanned back caressed by the one awaiting me.

A local is washing the white floor squeeky clean. My eyes dazzle from the reflected white. The sugarcube maze of the town is blindingly white! Greek coffee prepared on the hot sand stove, with lots of kaimak. The table setting simple and chic. The coffee powder remainings crunchy on the tongue before overturning the small demitasse so that the debris drips, its dried out patterns used to tell one's destiny. "You will be successful, you will find love..."

Branches of figs engulf everything with their thick shadow. Their milky sap is still bitter, an edge of coconut smell, the leaves are wide and dusty; they look dusty even if you have just washed them, they feel dusty. We pick the fruit to see whether it's edible, the small sacs haven't really become heavy with those scattered little seeds. Disappointment. The seeds which Minoan inhabitants of Akrotiri, Santorini, used to eat before the great volcano eruption in 1500BC. We contemplate eternity, weary after overlooking another excavation. Philosykos, Premier Figuier, and Un Jardin en Mediterranee. Tall cypresses flanking the cool catacombs in Tripiti on the Milos island, the mineral dryness of Eau de Gentiane Blanche.

The stars are shinning brightly on a pitch black sky, so clear and transparent, you think you can reach out your hand and seize them. The air around is full with the concentrated, heady scent of jasmine vines, A la Nuit. First kisses in the cobblestone alleys, under the rampant bougainvillas, the intoxication of budding love filling the mind. Lovers embracing fondly, tenderly, promising the stars under the bright moon, as deep yellow golden and shiny in August like a konstantinato. Sex on the beach late at night before the break of sun, like the first people on earth. Like the only people on earth...The eternal romance of the Mediterranean and of Greece.

Clip from the Greek film "Epiheirisis Apollon", 1968 or "Apollo Goes on Holiday" 1968 directed by George Skalenakis with Elena Nathanael, Thomas Fritsch, Athinodoros Prousalis etc.

Clip from the Greek film Gorgones kai Mages (Mermaids and Tough Guys) 1968, directed by Yiannis Dalianidis starring Mary Hronopoulou and Lakis Komnenos.

This co-blogging project was organised by Ines at
All I am a Redhead. Please visit the other participants as well:

All I Am - A Redhead, A Rose Beyond the Thames, Bonkers About Perfume, Eiderdown Press, I Smell Therefore I Am,Illuminated Perfume,Katie Puckrik Smells, Notes From the Ledge, Olfactafama, Perfume in Progress, Scent Hive, Smellyblog, Hortus Conclusus, The Non Blonde, Under the Cupola, Waft by Carol

All photos used under Creative Commons via Flick by strudelmonkey, mnadi, la Part des anges, br0wser, artolog, elizabeth V


  1. This is really beautiful E, written with lots of love.

    My mouth is watering at the thought of watermelon and feta!

    I really must visit Greece and the islands.

  2. I never thought I might consider eating watermelon and feta together (I just think of it as an unusual pair) but you make it sound delicious.
    A wonderful post - you really have a penchant for writing sumptuous stories. :)

  3. Spellbinding...breathtaking...you at your very best, Helg, writing this love letter to your beautiful country!

  4. This is an arrestingly beautiful sensory tour of your homeland, and every sight, sensation, smell and taste strikes a chord with me. (Even the kissing business, most memorably under the stars amongst windmills on Astypalea and by day on the beaches of Tilos. One very important point you mention which I had quite forgotten is the DUST. Dusty fig leaves, dusty everything indeed.

    As a result of your piece, I am sure there will be a spike in tourist figures during the back end of 2010. I hope I am one of them!

  5. Beautiful imagery, Elena! It's from the heart and puts the reader right there. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Beautiful. I visited Santorini in 2000 (was it really 10 years ago already??) and have wonderful, beautiful memories of that time.

  7. Mimi Gardenia16:42

    Oh My Word ! ... and I am stuck here !
    Santorini is one of my most favorite tunes by Yanni .
    Thank you Elena for this post. :)

  8. That was such a gift...you took me there.

    Among other things, I love the tentacular line dry photo; I also appreciate how you brought it to my nose with your words.

    You also took Fille en Aiguilles right out of my woods and dropped it on Pelopennese. Which was fun.

    Thank you for all of it. Including the mermaid and the tough guy. (You know, I just might give that Monica Vitti-esque hairstyle a go...)

  9. Diptyque L'Eau Trois ((sobs)) is so beautiful.

    I enjoyed reading your love note to your home country. Just gorgeous.

    I have always imagined the whiteness to be blinding!

    Do you have a spare room for me, I'm about to hop on a plane :-)

  10. How gorgeous this is! Thank you, thank you!

  11. Anonymous23:09

    I'm still reading through all of the postings on the different blogs and dreaming of going back to Greece and other beautiful places... The one fragrance I have not read about or been able to find mention of is that of the sweet oleanders in Greece. I remember them everywhere from crowded about ruins of statues in the agora in Athens to lining the roadway up to Thessaloniki. They are deep pink double blossoms and have a delightful sweet, slightly waxy, somewhat marshmallowy smell. We have hundreds of oleanders in Texas where I live now and they are thickly planted on the roadways along the Gulf of Mexico, but--No smell! So disappointing!! That oleander smell is so blissful and evocative to me. Has any perfume used or captured it?


  12. Elena, your technicolor sensory assault of a post reinforces exactly why this part of the world was the cradle of perfume history. Thank you for unspooling these luscious images out of your brain and onto the screen.

    And I thoroughly enjoyed the movie clips! I stumbled onto the wonders of 60s Greek musicals while trawling for the clip I included with my Med post. I had no idea Greece had embraced "mod musicals" with such gusto! I'm especially entranced with the choreographic combo of ballet and go-go dancing with the traditional Greek steps.

    Abigail, if you're sobbing because you think Eau Trois is no longer available, you can dry your tears now. I saw it 2 weeks ago at the San Francisco Diptyque store. The SA there did saw it was being phased out, though...

  13. KJanicki,

    it's a beautiful place indeed, no hyperbole. Thanks for stopping by!

  14. K,

    it shows that it was written with love, eh?
    Yup, you should come! After all, we're famous for being welcoming.

  15. I,

    thanks honey for bringing the idea to the table in the first place. It gave me the right nudge to put some memories in black & white finally.

    Watermelon and feta is really good tasting (the saltiness cuts out the sweetness), plus it's also good for the blood sugar! It's in the tradition of melon and prosciutto di Parma, or figs and yoghurt. Namely something protein-rich and non-sweet paired with a juicy fruit. Do try it!

  16. Suzanne,

    thank you for being so kind, I appreciate your commenting here.
    I enjoyed your own take as well, a more eclectic gathering, nonetheless enjoyable for being so.

  17. F,

    ahhhh! Yes! You do know! (And you have now transported me to Astypalea and Tilos, counting down the days)
    The dust element is rather crucial I find, it's even featured in a popular song I like. It's that dry feeling of everything being scorched by the sun and almost crumbling inside thumb and finger coupled with the passage of millenia over them...you know?

    Thanks for the very kind words and hope you do come! As you know from experience Greece has good weather year round, v.sunny.

  18. Laurie,

    thanks for saying so, if I transported some of you, it's all for the best. Then again, I think you'd fit right in!

  19. P,

    how time flies eh? Santorini is a magical place, there is just no other way to describe it. Several times there and I'm always in awe.

  20. M,

    so what are you waiting for? Hop on a plane and come here! :-) There are hundreds of beautiful little "pockets" to explore, it's impossible to do them all justice in one post.

  21. S,

    thanks darling, I thought you brought many most interesting points yourself (in fact I didn't expect anything less!)

    Those octopi are really fun, aren't they? They seem strange to foreign people but they taste yummy.

    LOL on the hairstyle; you should most definitely accompany it with this (very chic & timeless IMO) styling:
    (in general Greek films of the 50s-60s had amazing styling)

  22. A,

    don't sit there, go get yourself a ticket! And you can see the blinding whiteness yourself.
    (It's not a poetic licence exagerration; I know that one time at Oia that we sat for a coffee and dessert lasting about 1 hour or so at Oia, Santorini, without sunscreen on we got quite the tan! The sun rays are reflected off the white houses..sunglasses de rigeur at all times, it helps that they also give a cosmopolitan air, doesn't it? LOL)

    L'Eau Trois can be still found so stock up! It's a shame that the frags we love are the ones discontinued, isn't it? Virgilio was also so good.

  23. LBV,

    thanks darling, much appreciated :-)

  24. Calypso (what a beautiful, Homeric name!),

    very true what you say about oleanders (they're everywhere!) and an omission no doubt. You might enjoy the ones I included in my spring walks photo session though.
    What a shame about the odourless Texas oleanders!! Why is that?? I agree they smell like pollen dust, sweet and hazy. Marshmallows isn't too far off either. Great smell!

  25. Katie,

    thanks for stopping by and saying so. If I did even a little bit of justice, then I'm satisfied. It would be impossible to capture all the beauties.

    And such fun that you found about the musicals! My jaw dropped and eyes popped (just like a cartoon) when I saw your post and the video with Zoe Kouroukli right there.
    So right about the choreography and the "mod" thing. Check out these two classics:
    One (in a court room no less) and another one (this one about exactly the cultural antithesis of "mods" and more "heavy" traditionalists in the full-length film)

  26. Elena, i LOVE this essay. LOVE Greece/the Mediterranean, LOVE the smells you describe, LOVE the feelings you evoke. Your letter is doing magic... Thank you!


  27. Olfacta13:39

    Beautiful! When I was in Greece all those years ago, I picked up an empty Nivea tin and filled it with sand from the beach. I swore I'd go back and take the sand home. Haven't done that (yet). Now I'm thinking I really should some day.

  28. Gorgeous! Your photos make me wish to visit Greece, it looks so beautiful.

    I bought a bottle of A La Nuit to remind myself of the jasmine of Seville.

  29. Rappleyea01:22

    E. - I think this beautifully evocative piece is my very favorite of all of your posts that I've read.

  30. Elena,
    Your life is almost too beautiful to be true... But I know it's real.
    Savour one green fig for me. I won't be having those this summer.


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