by Eleni Christoforatou
I have spent more than thirty years of my life on the beautiful Greek island of Corfu which I guess is the only place I can call home, although neither me nor my family were born here. I originally come from the island of Kephalonia which always has a permanent place in my heart. The two islands are deeply connected to each other, although quite different from many aspects.
I don’t come from a lineage of traditional healers, as far as I know. The herbs used in my house when I was a child were mostly, what we call in Greek “Mountain Tea” (Sideritis sp.), linden and chamomile. Basically, the Mountain Tea is what the word “Chai” used to describe once in Greece and I am not sure if that was because people in my family didn’t know how to use any other herbs or because Mountain Tea is a truly “heal all” herb.
I was born in 1970 and fortunately, I have memories of spending the first ten years of my life in a small, poor but self-sustainable house that my grandmother (an amazingly strong woman) took care of. Food was cooked in the hearth and bringing pine cones to start the fire was one of my greatest pleasures as a child. All water had to be pulled up from the well, even for watering the garden. I have no memories of my grandmother resting. She worked from early morning till dusk and even when she was resting, her hands were always weaving something for one of her grandchildren or for the house.
Apart from taking care of a family of six children and many grandchildren later on, she always worked in the fields cultivating the family’s food. She earned money by harvesting licorice and selling the roots to a factory in the big city of Patra where they were turned into a type of sugar.
Sometimes, I have a feeling that myself and all people coming from this place are made of licorice. Clay and licorice, in fact. I can feel the clay and the licorice being an integral part of every cell in my body.
Licorice is a weed in the place I was brought up. I have never heard of anyone using licorice as a herb but maybe I will find more on that in the future. I only remember my grandmother pulling the licorice plants that were abundant all around, to cover and protect the young tomato plants from the harsh summer sun.
Life in Corfu was quite different at the same time. Tourism suddenly transformed everything and most people abandoned for good the old way of living, which is just a generation apart nowadays. I have found that it only takes a spark for people to stop and remember that time when life was poor, extremely poor and harsh in many cases but with plenty of laugh, dance and wisdom.
It seems that all families knew how to take care of common everyday ailments using the plants growing around them. There were also people acknowledged as healers from the different communities, especially the ones that knew how to treat broken bones. Usually, being a healer wasn’t a job. It was a talent and an inclination that people practiced together with their job or the house keeping. Healers didn’t ask for money, as far as I know but people always felt the urge to give something back. Things like eggs, poultry, wine. Whatever there was available!
I have experienced that myself, since I tend to find bags with vegetables, eggs, fruits or wine outside my door or on the car boot. Fortunately, I know pretty well everyone in our community and it is easy for me to understand who left it, although there is no note or card. So far, I have never been mistaken when I call back to say thank you.
Healers were both men and women. Moreover, women living close by used to visit each other in the evening and while their hands were working on a shared project, they talked about their troubles and worries seeking advice from each other. That was the time they shared the knowledge about healing plants and mushrooms growing around them and the way to use them therapeutically.
These are the memories women that were young girls at that time share now with me and this is what I wish to share with everyone in my series of posts.
I must especially acknowledge my friend Maria Faita who has spent long hours with me in her cozy little bookshop in the center of the village where we both live, trying to remember all the details of the conversations in these women gatherings, all the details of the healing practices her mother and grandmother used to keep the family healthy and all the stories young kids were told on the way to the fields or while tending the sheep, chewing on plants that were good for them and learning how to stay away from dangerous toxic plants.
Along with stories, my future posts will include translating Greek traditional recipes using ingredients foraged from the wild, since finding food in nature is something people still practice in the countryside, and it is what sustained people during periods of wars and other disasters that haven’t been uncommon, even in the recent past.
Eleni lives in Corfu, an island in the northwest border of Greece, very close to Albania and Italy. Her life and herbal practice is formed by the land she was born and lived all her life in and the sea that embraces it. She is a member of Herbalists Without Borders and the coordinator for the Chapter in Corfu and is working to create the first Herbal First-aid Station and a Free Clinic on the Island.1