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Greece still has heroes, if not euros

New book by Marjory McGinn recounts three-year adventure living in a Mani village

In her new book, Things Can Only Get Feta, journalist Marjory McGinn recounts why she left Scotland to spend three years in the rural Mani with her partner and their dog, during the crisis. Despite lighthearted adventures in their hillside village, she also shared many of the tough times with the wonderful local characters she befriended

Marjory McGinn Marjory McGinn When my partner and I decided to give up our jobs in journalism and move from a Scottish village to Greece for a long adventure, the timing couldn't have been worse. It was spring of 2010 and Greece was sliding into economic crisis 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, but as confirmed philhellenes eager for a change of scene, we didn't listen. After an Arctic winter in Scotland, British recession and a harsh restructuring of the newspaper industry that had hammered our future prospects, what did we have to fear from Greece on the edge?

The fact that we also planned to take our adorable, but manic Jack Russell dog Wallace along with us, seemed like madness as well. As one friend put it: "You're not taking Wallace to Greece? Hasn't the country got enough problems already?"

The cover of 'Things Can Only Get Feta' The cover of 'Things Can Only Get Feta' Indeed it had, and some of them are recounted in my recently published nonfiction book, Things Can Only Get Feta, as well as some of our adventures, both funny and sad, during three years of living in the rural Mani, the middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese.

The book covers the first year of our adventure, living in the hillside village of Megali Mantineia in the shadow of the lofty Taygetos mountains, where little had changed in centuries. While my partner Jim and I had intended to freelance while in Greece for British publications, the idea of writing a book about our experiences hadn't occurred to me initially while we set about finding a house to rent, which wasn't easy with an energetic dog in tow, and settling into this new community.

We picked this region because it was quite remote and certainly authentic with fewer tourists. In Megali Mantineia, most Greeks were goat farmers or olive harvesters and few spoke English which meant I could work on my rusty language skills, learnt years earlier during a youthful work/holiday year in Athens, while my partner Jim grappled with beginner's Greek.

The choice of village in the end proved to be an inspiration and after six months there, I realised the place was quite unique with a way of life that was traditional with many fantastic local characters. I felt the village couldn't stay this way forever and I wanted to capture some of its magic before it eventually changed.

The choice of village in the end proved to be an inspiration and after six months there, I realised the place was quite unique with a way of life that was traditional with many fantastic local characters

Rural life in Greece, however, after a sleepy Scottish village was raw for a couple of newcomers like ourselves, in their mid-50s. There were long heatwaves, water cuts, festering rural rubbish bins and critters. We struggled to deal with black scorpions invading the house and giant hornets like F-111s plundering the mulberry trees near the front door. As well as that, we had a health drama with our dog Wallace that threatened at one point to take us back to Scotland.

From the beginning we aimed to integrate into Greek village life - no small feat in a close-knit and historically tough region like the Mani, but we were helped after meeting one of the village's most eccentric, lovable characters, a goat farmer called Fotini. She was a feisty pensioner who rode a donkey every day from the village to her farm compound, loaded up with incongruous bits of cargo. She took us under her wing and initiated us into all manner of rural customs.

We regularly had coffee at her ramshackle farm and during our first autumn, helped her to harvest some of her 200 olive trees. It was our first experience of harvesting the traditional, back-breaking way with a katsoni stick in an area where most farmers now use mechanical combs for harvesting. While Fotini climbed into the olive trees on a lethal ladder and cut down branches with the biggest clusters of olives, we bashed them off with the wooden sticks. It was the hardest manual job we'd ever done.

But throughout the three years we were there, what impressed and touched us so much was the generosity of Greeks despite hardships, and their incredible stoicism

In our bid to engage with Greek life, we went to village events, church services, even one funeral, but no weddings. We made many Greek friends and saw first-hand how the economic crisis affected rural Greeks from parish priests to goat farmers. 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 property tax, the infamous haratsi, introduced that many struggling farmers simply couldn't pay.

Author and journalist Marjory McGinn and Wallace, her 'manic' Jack Russell dog Author and journalist Marjory McGinn and Wallace, her 'manic' Jack Russell dog And in nearby Kalamata, which had been a lively, thriving city in 2010, a year later there were regular closures of shops and businesses. Some Kalamatans who had lost jobs in the crisis had no choice but to return to ancestral lands and work their olive orchards. One Australian Greek priest had lived in Kalamata for nearly 20 years faced the heartbreaking prospect of uprooting his family to go back to Australia for their sake even though he was deeply committed to his Greek parish.

But throughout the three years we were there, what impressed and touched us so much was the generosity of Greeks despite hardships, and their incredible stoicism.

As one Greek woman told me: "Look, we've had wars, German occupation, a junta, earthquakes. We can survive the crisis, too."

Our time in the Mani wasn't all about surviving difficulties, we managed to tour the three peninsulas of this southern Peloponnese region and had a few amusing escapades along the way, sparked often by having Wallace with us. During the first winter we went for a trip to a large archaeological site near Kalamata. Despite there being few visitors that day, the stern attendant told us we couldn't take Wallace in, even on his lead. Rather than giving up, we went back to the car and put him inside a backpack with the lure of chicken sandwiches, and smuggled him into the site without anyone noticing. It was hilarious, even though it didn't all go to plan.

By the end of our three years we could no longer afford to stay in Greece and when we told Greek friends we were heartbroken about leaving, despite the worsening crisis, it was their turn to think we were mad. But as the writer Nikos Kazantzakis (Zorba the Greek) once said: "A man needs a little madness in his life."

* Things Can Only Get Feta: Two journalists and their crazy dog living through the Greek crisis (Bene Factum Publishing, London), is available on Amazon and selected bookshops throughout Greece. For more information about the book and our stay in the Mani, visit bigfatgreekodyssey.com

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