Life in Exochori

I drove back to Exochori to see its museum on Wednesday morning.  It is located in the former elementary school built by local villagers.  There I met Giannis Koumendeas, the museum curator, who was born in 1958 and grew up in Exochori. He spent two hours telling me of life in his mother’s time, as well as when he was a boy.  His story was so moving that I had difficulty sleeping that night. I will recount it to the best of my ability.

When his mother grew up, she had to get drinking water from Verga gorge (a mile walk from town).  In all of the arid southern Greece, till very recently every house had a basement (or back yard) cistern that would hold a year’s supply of rainwater.  Apparently in Exochori people would only use it for non potable purposes. During or after WWII, some Italian troops who felt friendly toward the Greek people helped the village set up pipes to bring drinking water from the mountain to the town. I’m wondering if these were the same troops that were massacred by the Germans (monument in Kefalonia) after Italy changed sides in the war.  In order to support his father’s livelihood as a carpenter, his mother would walk six hours to Kalamata with newly-made wooden barrels to sell.

The museum exhibit is divided into three parts: photos of villagers from the 1920s to 60s and a Greek stamp and coin collection; metal and wooden tools; and household items including a giant loom that was his mothers. One room still has the remnants of a stage play.  His primary school teacher was a great believer in education of all kinds, practical as well as lofty.  In addition to teaching Ancient Greek and mathematics, he showed students how to tend olives, keep a garden, and repair a house. Giannis says he still remembers his teachings to this day.

There was no electricity at the time of his childhood, so they would read by olive oil lamps.  He remembers having only bread, feta cheese, and olive oil to eat as a child, and often being hungry.  After WW II the students were given a piece of Gouda cheese and soy milk (produced locally) during the school day. The Greek government encouraged the planting of olive trees to help the people survive the bleak and hungry years after the war.

All of Mani grew wheat, barley, and corn for bread, and every house had its own bread oven.  His mother would make a large round loaf once a week, as well as feta cheese from their goats and olive oil from their trees.  They would have meat once a week, taking a pig to the butcher and getting a portion for their family’s meal.  Because of the lack of refrigeration, they could only eat part of the animal. The rest of it would be sold by the butcher to other families. They were self-sufficient in that they supplied all their own food, despite the meagerness of the supply.  His mother would lock away special treats (dried fruit, marmalade, honey) in her dowry chest for special occasions.  Apparently the kids were often hungry, and would have eaten all the treats had it not been for the lock.  They would come home from school, eat their bread, cheese, and olive oil, and then go to the school church yard to play till dark.

He only played with children from his part of the village, and kids from a few meters away in the other 3 sections of the village would be seen as strangers.  He showed me a wonderful toy that he made as a kid out of whittled wood.  It had a point which you would use to pick up the other stick and then use it as a bat like baseball. He grinned as he demonstrated it to me.  His family would eat around a small round table less than a foot off the ground.  It was his maternal grandfather’s table, and his father repaired the top.  His father was an excellent technician and repaired all manner of things in the village.  There was a cedar stein used for water that to this day has a wonderful cedar smell.  His father specialized in roofs and re-roofed the school, which he had to make outside the school and bring it in piece by piece.  I was so impressed by the immensity and beauty of the building, which the villagers built in 1905 (as they did the church).

In summer months the village would move up to the forest of Mt. Taygetos where it was cooler and the men could harvest the cedar, pine, and fir to make barrels, steins, and all manner of containers from wood.  The children would spend June to August playing among the rocks and trees, while the mothers would set up house (they would haul their necessaries on mule). Giannis’ family would not go to the mountain for long, as his father was needed in the village to do repairs. Theater was a popular diversion, and there were a number of photos depicting plays set in a forest amphitheater.  Music was another popular past time, and many people made their own instruments.  An aside: every year during the celebration of the Prophet Elias on the 20th of July, pilgrims and trailblazers who enjoy trekking climb to the peak of Mt. Taygetos where there is a ruined chapel and to admire the shadow of the pyramid during the sunrise.  A bell strikes at 2 am and the divine liturgy lasts until sunrise.  People light two fires in the church during the night with candles and incense: the one in the east lit by the people of Lakonia  and in the west, by the people of Messinia.

Giannis remembers a wonderful violinist who lost his bow arm throwing a landmine that was left after the year-long German  occupation in WW II. Many Greeks would take the tops of the mines and throw them into the sea (illegal fishing). So many mines have been thrown that the seas around Mani (and eleswhere in s Greece) are depleted.  A fish dinner costs 60 Euros a kg, because of their rarity.

The people of Exochori valued education for their children above all else (this is prevalent throughout Greece to this day).  They wanted their children to have a better life which they believe was possible through educational opportunities.  It is known as the village of lawyers and doctors.  Perhaps that’s why students worked so hard to get an education.  As there was no high school in town, students had to walk the arduous cobblestone path (35 minutes down and 50 minutes back, often barefoot) to Kardamyli or continue on to Kalamata by boat. Others would walk 6 hours one way to Kalamata. People in Kalamata remember children arriving soaking wet from the waves hitting the boat. Giannis’ family had a small house in Kalamata, so he stayed in town for his high school years.

Giannis still comes to Exochori from Kalamata once a week to man the museum. Between noon and 6pm he tends to his family olive trees and repairs the house in the village.  His parents have since died but he keeps the tradition alive.  He said that it wasn’t a problem to walk to school and have little food.  He just remembers good memories and being close to his family, having fun playing and enjoying school.  He smiled and said that it was a wonderful experience and that he hopes his children learn and retain the tradition.  I hope the young people of Greece find value in remembering and archiving their parents’ way of life.  Because of the economic crisis, and crowded conditions in Athens, I have since met several who have chosen to return home to help their parents or grandparents on their farm or orchard.  Perhaps circumstances will force their hand.

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