Monday, 15 August 2016

August 12 – I ♥ Lesvos

(Beach at Faneromeni)

In my previous column I referred to the failing tourist offices in Greece. Besides beautiful posters the country has offered other attractions. Even in ancient times the Olympic Games hosted masses of people. Today athletes' biggest dream is to win an Olympic medal, only they now have to get it elsewhere. Now more and more people think it better if this traveling circus were to be permanently returned to the cradle of democracy. Many of the countries hosting the Games are left broke, because of the impossibly high cost of security and the expensive demands of the sport buildings. Watch out Brazil.

Greece had no pennies left after the Olympic Games in 2004. Most sport palaces built then at great expense have turned into glorious Greek ruins (just like the country itself, thrown by Europa into the shredder).

Greece used to be so much loved, partly thanks to Who pays the ferryman, a tv-series whose music nobody ever forgets. The movie Zorba the Greek made sure that the now world famous dance sirtaki – especially arranged for the movie - became synonymous with Greece. And who didn't pack their suitcases immediately, looking for sun, sea, love and themselves, after seeing the movie Shirley Valentine ? Marrying in Greece became 'hot' after the happy movie Mamma Mia, which showed Greece as more than a paradise. Never on Sunday already was a legendary movie, but the Muppet Show made the movie immortal with Miss Piggy playing the part, played in the film by Melina Mercouri. This cultural ambassadress of Greece, after a career of a chain smoking actress and singer, perked up Greek politics.

The newest star in the Greek firmament is Yanis Varoufakis. Last year he gained international fame as Minister of Finance because of his different opinions and self-willed behaviour during the negotiations with Europe. He was reviled by friend and enemy alike because the European Bobos thought him crazy. But now the IMF admits they then took wrong decisions and that the plans of Varoufakis were not so bad. His honour is restored and the people who then distanced themselves from him, now regroup around this professor in economy, who has founded DiEM25, to get Europe reformed with open and more righteous rules. It may be possible that this Greek hero will enter the history books as the rescuer of both Europe and Greece. If we give him a chance.

Because yes, it is quiet around Greece. The country having problems feeding both its people and the thousands of refugees stuck in the country thanks to 'successful' European politics. It is waiting for a movie about the Greek people, with a hero à la Zorba the Greek, who shares all he has left with those without house or country.

Lesvos never belonged in the Top 10 of Greek tourist attractions. But last year due to the refugees crisis, it became the most famous island of the country. And while tourists stay away, the list of VIPs visiting the island is still growing. No other Greek island has had the honor of having a visit from the Pope – I still cannot keep my eyes dry recalling this impressive event on Lesvos. Also movie stars like Susan Sarandon, Angelina Jolie, some stars of the popular Game of Thrones and artists like Ai Wei Wei, are some of the celebrities who took in the faith of the island.

I do hope that, along with all those VIPs, perhaps some location scout will have discovered what a super location the island is, with landscapes matching those of the Game of Thrones: the dry, volcanic West, the jungle like woods in the centre, picturesque villages like Vatoussa, the azure blue sea licking lonely little beaches like at Avlona, the rough and mountainous North, or the long beach of Vatera. Maybe the next tourist attractor will be as great a series as Who pays the ferryman, and will be shot on Lesvos, the island where on some Sundays you still think you are in the middle of Never on Sunday.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Thursday, 4 August 2016

July 30 – The hamam runs dry

(The hamam of Molyvos before restoration)

It is incredible to know that the Greek tourist organization has existed for more than a century. Complaints about shabby hotel rooms, an absence of (local) cooperation or any plan for the future are as old as this state institution. The Greeks think that by publishing nice pictures alone, they can entice visitors to come and add money to their economy.

There always have been tourists in the country of the Olympic Gods. In the near ancient times people traveled from far away just to see the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, to swing at music events, for discussions at theatre festivals or to gain a much wanted laurel wreath at the Olympic Games. The Games were so important that during the period that when the athletes were challenging each other, all wars were stopped in order that participants as well as spectators could have a safe journey across all regions. What a pleasure it would be to find only good news in the papers during the Brazilian Games!

Lesvos, only touched by the traveling Olympic Torch in 2004, has had its tourism somewhat delayed. In ancient times some spa guests will have showed up, but the island had no World Wonder nor important national festivals. Although Lesvos' nature already was celebrated then: it was here that Theophrastus invented botanical science and Aristoteles travelled especially to Lesvos to study its plants and zoological world (see: Aristoteles' Lagoon). Later the Romans celebrated Lesvos as the green pleasure ground of the Aegean. There then followed a long gap in the history of Lesvos' tourist history, only filled up by some travellers' diaries.

The Greek Tourist Bond does not seem to have shared the opinion of the ancient Romans. In any case, by the beginning of the 20th century most tourists only wanted to see archeological treasures, and those had long ago fallen apart on Lesvos, except for some castles here and there. Then, in the Sixties, when the first tourists wanted to keep the island a secret because they thought they had found a lost paradise, the first tourist building was opened: Hotel Delfinia in Molyvos (1961). Since then the number of visitors has been on the rise.

This year, however, the numbers have fallen dramatically because tourists are afraid of refugees, who only hang around the camps near Mytilini these days. Already plagued by the crisis, the middle class is desperate and echoes one after the other their cries of distress in the media. But the island remains incredible quiet. Time for some meditation, necessary for Greek tourism, but also for Lesvos (see Tourism in Greece).

The excursions of the big tourist operators keep on going over the same paths, some hotels have their guests sleeping in the same beds for decades and no director has any idea which touristic values are a trend. Yes, I do admit: in recent years there was no money to renovate. The crisis hovers around like a big moustachio'd maffia boss. But when a new cafe or supermarket is a success, the following year plenty of copycats will open their businesses, so there still is some money going around.

Last week the old bath house of Molyvos was reopened after years of renovation. For many people sweet memories of cleaning parties and lots of water fun will have surfaced. The hamam for a long time was the only place to bathe in the village. The luxury of bathing at home only became available at the time that the pool of Hotel Delfinia was threatened with becoming the second bath house of Molyvos.

The bathrooms have been restored to their rich old marble glory, transparent glass covers the floors and lightholes in the typical Turkish cupolas, changing rooms have been painted bright white and the taps gleam like gold. However there is no water streaming anymore, nor are the spaces filled with that mysterious steam that turns bath houses into those pleasing and exciting places: the hamam of Molyvos has been turned into a museum.

The bath house has been transformed into a jewel. But instead of shaking off the dust and taking a break from the hot sun and passing time gossiping with friends in a refreshing cloud of steam, you now can only watch, salivating over pictures of people enjoying their baths, and long for the quietness of the water or some beneficent massage. Which smart ass turned the water off?

The local information office has been retrenched to Mytilini; more than one little museum sighs with doors and windows closed under a layer of dust. The Teriade Museum that possesses, apart from paintings by Lesvos' most reknowned painter, Theophilos, works from international artists like Chagall, Matisse and Picasso, has now for years promised in vain to re-open its doors. Time and weather has been given the opportunity to damage its art works. I bet that in three years' time the Hamam of Molyvos will look the same as it has in past decades: another one of the many buildings in the village now doomed to be closed and to fall to pieces - like the customs office in the harbor of Petra, where not even a refugee boat has ever moored.

This is typical for the tourist politics on the island: self-interested people with big mouths run the world, making us miss the opportunity to enjoy how it really feels in a Turkish hamam. Therefore you have to go to Mesagros, where old bathing buildings from 1898 not only are rebuilt, but also where you can enjoy relaxing in warm water, surrounded by clouds of steam and nice scented soap.

The choice for bath houses lessens by the year on this hot spring-rich island. The hot springs of Eftalou were for years, summer and winter, a popular place to gather and bathe, it has now become more and more a no go area because of a bad service and the growing number of days when it is closed. The baths of Lisvori for years now have been abandoned after a catastrophic attempt at restoration. No Councillor lies awake because of this.

In the hundred years that the Greek tourist organization has existed, there has been no minister who has tied local tourism to a workable national plan for the future - leaving the tourism to some local potentates. It seems that we have to wait until that awful sultan from the other side comes over to make the baths ready again for a bigger public.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

July 9 – The advantage of a house full of pharaohs

(an ant)

I confess: I am a mass murderer. Each day I kill thousands of little creatures, just because they get in my way. It's their own fault, because they have attacked my house and now they are swarming all over the place: in the bathroom, the bedroom and (their favourite) - in the kitchen.

They are mini ants and when I checked them out on the internet, I found horror-like images. Look at these little monsters on a site about ants in Greece, Antweb Greece! I wonder how you could tell what kind of ant you are dealing with. Who can look such a minuscule ant right in the eyes?

I see those little dots marching through my house. You can't possibly miss them when they creep around in military convoy. These misfits are so small that I need to have my glasses on to see them, but even then: with or without glasses, head or tail cannot be discerned, let alone a frightening face with antenna.

Of the 290 species calling Greece home, the small ones are the minority. It can be a Pharaoh ant (Monomorium pharaonis), a much too beautiful name for these bullies. They are also called Sugar ants, a logical name because they love sweets. There also are the Monomarium minimum, called simply Little black ants. But I much prefer the name pharaoh. Whatever they actually are, I will call them after those legendary Egyptian rulers, one of whom - Akhenaten (1351–1334 BC) – did look so much like an ant that he could have been an ant pharaoh and gave his name to these creatures as 'big' as 2 to 3 mm.

So I have a house full of pharaohs. The whole day – heat wave or not – they are hyper active, towing invisible things, hunting delicacies and even sending scouts to my laptop, hoping to find a hidden cake there. Where do they get all that energy?
Once long ago the Greek island of Aegina was raged by a mortal disease and most of the inhabitants died. The ruling king was devastated and asked Zeus for new people. This lazy god, who had just seen a train of ants climbing into his favourite tree, changed the ants into people: the Myrmidons. They became reknowned for their endless energy and discipline and made first class soldiers. Later it was Achilles who showed them off during the siege of Troy.

In Africa there still are scary ant armies. When I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, I had nightmares about ants eating my house overnight. I am sure that the ant units mentioned in the book did not consist of warlike pharaohs (even though they too originated in Africa) but of a far more bloodthirsty species.

However, the African, warlike pharaohs of Lesvos party on the dishes waiting to be washed, break into hermetically-sealed pots of honey and jam, eat clean and dirty towels and convert each cupboard into a wriggling nightmare. I am sure that I've drunk several of them, drowned in the endless glasses of water that you are supposed to drink during the Greek heat. Those rascals are thirsty and not only rush for sweets, but also for water: so they have turned the bathtub and sink into permanent camp grounds, even though again and again I attempt to drown them with gigantic tsunamis of water

Could housing those thirsty African warlike pharaohs actually have an advantage, I ask myself desperately, each day thinking more and more about giving up. According to Werner Herzog's movie Where the Green Ants Dream, there once was an aboriginal people who believed that green ants created the world and even kept it alive (you'd better say: kept it clean). Also the American Hopi indians have a legend telling how their people once were saved by ants.

So I have legendary, thirsty, African, warlike pharaohs in my house. They can be combatted only with lemon, vinegar, dish soap or some chemical shit. The problem is that I hate to clean; but those masses of ants have forced me to become an exemplary housewife. Every bite of food now has to be followed at least by ten minutes of cleaning. So the only positive point of the invasion of these forcing-me-to-clean, legendary thirsty, African warlike pharaohs is a free home-polish course! My house has never been so shiny and clean.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Monday, 4 July 2016

July 4 - Helicopter-feeling

A helicopter thunders through the sky
its devil noise scaring me
making me look up
where is the danger?
my eyes roaming the sea
where the elegant rippling blue
is the only movement
waves carrying no ship
nor a rubber dinghy.

The beach temporarily not clean
a heap of debris heavily planted in the sand
left by some divers
who instead of proudly waving with a squid
broke through the blue surface
bringing silent leftovers of wreckage
spiky wood, rubber pieces, clothes and all
that a boat once carried
bringing the scent of
scared people, oil and sadness.

My heart still bleeding
hearing the sound of a helicopter
or when my nose picks up
this sad scent that last summer
reigned over Lesvos' coasts.

Then the world rushed over the island
disturbing the quiet rhythm
of just ordinary beating hearts
who – what else could they do -
reached out and helped
from war drowned people
children who did not know
that they had to live their youth
as an adult.

And now that this tearful world
has gone elsewhere
leaving the beaches empty and cleaned
villagers full of traumas
smothered in dreams
hands full of emptiness
because also the people
once recognizing the island
as an oasis of quietness and sunshine
have moved elsewhere.

I walk along the beach
as empty as the bordering blue water
above me unrest in the sky
of a wild flapping bird
what are they doing there
now that the world has left the villagers
and suddenly I am not sure anymore
what pains me more
the quiet beach
or the suffering elsewhere.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki

Friday, 24 June 2016

June 21 – Ouzo is ín, sangria is out


This wicked heatwave makes the skin weap thick tears and a swim in the cooling sea is the best option to get through the day. Water is the drink to survive, but besides water, a glass of ice cold ouzo can also be a solution to beat the tiring heat.

Ouzo is the national drink of Greece, although late into the night a bottle of whisky may well appear. Lesvos is the ouzo capital of the country because it produces the most (and the best). It is a relatively new drink, just as the famous Greek tomatoes were only lately introduced to the Greek kitchen. Only around 1900 the real ouziotary broke out, a welcome replacement for the unhealthy, but popular (especially in France) drink absinth.

In 1860 Varvayannis brought his art of distilling from Odessa to the island. Additionally, during the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923 many Ottoman Greeks brought distillation secrets with them. You may wonder about the fact that in the Ottoman Empire alcohol was consumed. It indeed was a muslim empire, but there were so many other gods worshipped that alcohol was easy to find. Moreover the foreigners had to pay a pretty high tax for their alcohol (Müskirat resmi): no sultan wouldn't miss that.

And Sultan Selim II (1524-1574) did love a glass of very good wine; he was even called The Drunkard. Not only did his lordship reign drunkenly over his huge nation, but the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, could also be seen more than once a day with a glass of raki in hand. His daily consumption of the precursor to ouzo is estimated at a liter a day and he finally died in 1938 due to liver cirrhosis.

Even though the coming sultan Erdogan makes life difficult for drinkers, the national drink of Turkey remains raki, distilled from the grape skins left over from the wine pressing. Those banished Ottoman Greeks that fled to Lesvos used century old procedures, but the alcohol on the island was enriched by plenty of local herbs. When driving southwards, around Lisvori you may see the ‘ouzo-fields’: anise, dill, cumin and grains, which are only a few of the many ingredients each ouzo producing family uses, each scrupulously guarding its own secrets.

Even if you visit the ouzo plant of Varvayannis in Plomari, you will not find the secret —just learn a bit more about their production and history. Also the E.V.A. that runs a little ouzo museum in Mytilini, will not reveal any recipe. The little booklet they produced – Lesvos insider – only gives away the secrets of the ouzo-island life and tells you how to make mastic-cocktails.

Lesvos is ín, Ibiza is out, was recently written in a Dutch magazine (Wow, the New World). You can see it coming: the organization of the Symbiosis Lesvos Arts Festival is in full swing, the high-profile disco oXy between Molyvos and Petra has reopened. Skala Eresou with its many cocktail bars and fancy visitors, and Vatera with its huge beach and hip beach bars, are ready for a hot summer. Also many youngsters are going to the more unconventional beaches like Drota, Makara and Crousos. 

So ouzo is ín, sangria (or all those other colourfull cocktails) are out. Poor some water into the ouzo, fill the glass up with plenty of ice cubes, and together with some mezèdes and friends it will be the best remedy to the heatwave and the best way to enjoy the island that offers plenty of paradise-like holiday experiences.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)
Smitaki 2016

Saturday, 4 June 2016

May 26 - The new Greek Herring arrived!

(Jelly fish are taking over the oceans)

Last week in Plomari a Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) of seven-and-a-half meters was brought into the harbour. The poor animal, a huge plankton sipper who could never harm a human except possibly with a fair blow of his tail, got entangled in nets just outside Vatera. He did not survive.

Yesterday I had a swim in the sea at Drotta (bordering Vatera). To be sure, I did not got far away from the beach and I kept an eye around me in case I saw a small black triangle rushing after me. I mean, the only thing I know of sharks is that they swim in the seas and I have no idea how to differentiate between a good or a bad shark. And although swimmers here never bump into sharks (just the odd fishermen far out at sea) – you never know, you just might run into the wrong guy.

I prefer swimming amid sardines that are far smaller and really have no bad intentions. But imagine if you were to find yourself in the midst of a school of sardines whose fate is to die and to wash ashore tonnes at a time, as happened last month in Chili? That sounds like a real horror scenario. That country already had a sardine prohibition because of overfishing, so bad luck there are now even less. Here at the other side of the globe there are still plenty of those little silver fish and with no hard feelings we allow them to end up on our plates.

There is not a lot that I miss from Holland, but one thing is salted herring. So I am crazy for the Greek variation of salted herring - sardèlles pastès – which are mainly eaten in the summer. In Holland it is a big event when the first salted herring of the season is brought ashore. Here in Greece this happens without any fuss; and as early as late spring, when the waiter mentions sardèlles pastès, this dish will be sold out by the time I leave the restaurant.

Another sea creature I am not keen in meeting during a swim is an octopus. It is not that I am afraid that an 8-legged monster will suddenly pop up and grab my legs (enormous squids as big as 3 meters have been spotted in the seas around Japan); but whilst I love to have one freshly caught on my plate, underwater its desire to embrace you with all his tentacles seems a bit creepy.

I read an article saying that cephalopods are multiplying more quickly than usually. Just a few years ago a study concluded that jelly fish populations were trying to take over the oceans, and now the squids and octopus have joined them.

Octopus can be very intelligent. They can predict the outcome of football matches, they know how to free themselves from where they are kept and who knows at what other smart things they excel. Up until now I never bumped into a shark while swimming, nor a sardine nor a squid, and only once accidentally into the invisible tentacles of a jelly fish. If you want to believe scientists, things will change quickly, because from the dark depths of the sea invisible dangers are lurking, just like those described in the eco-thriller The Swarm of Frank Schätzing.

Maybe its our eating habits that will provide a little remedy to the abundance that lies ahead. Believe it or not, jelly fish are as common as sardines on the menus in Asia. The Lesvorian coasts are not rich in these quivering creatures, but I am sure that in the high seas there are plenty. Jelly fish with mushrooms and cucumber? First manage to get such a gelatinous animal whole onto the beach.

You will find cephalopods aplenty on the Greek menu: fried or stuffed kalamari, octopus in red wine sauce or marinated in vinegar or grilled octopus legs. All restaurants may have one or more of these dishes on their menu.

The shark at Plomari was cut into pieces, colouring the harbour blood red. Probably it all ended up on a grill. Occasionally here on the island you might find shark on the menu, although it is one you do not have to run from a: a School shark or in Greek galeos (Galeorhinus galeus). And it is really tasty.

I will not imagine sharks ever joining squids, octopus and jelly fish in conquering the seas. But when the sardines do, I will hope that we may fish them with no limits and that I may feast - without shame – upon those delicious Greek salted herrings!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Sunday, 22 May 2016

May 16 – Who is afraid of Lesvos?

(Voodoo Lily)

For years I have tried to get my readers to be as enthusiastic about the island as I am: I have written about its hidden treasures, about its overwhelming natural beauty, its food and its inhabitants and I have published Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream, a book with columns and photographs. What is the result of all that writing? The island remains empty this summer. Who is afraid of Lesvos?

Lesvos can be a bit scary, I admit. There are volcanoes which have been sleeping for over a million years, possibly waiting to wake up, the only traces of their last eruption being the petrified trees. In the sea there are floating stones, sea urchins, barracudas and sharks (which you may also find on your dinner plate). On that same plate there might appear weeds: chorta-la-dee-dee or wild vegetables.

Close to the capital, the graves of vampires have been found and who knows, they still may be around. In the shrubbery of the chestnut forest near Agiasos, there lurk thousands of dragons, or drakondia, the Greek name for aroids (flowers). A bigger species is the Dracunculus vulgaris, also called Dragon Arum, Voodoo Lily or Snake Lily. This little giant can grow as tall as one meter and has a huge pink to blood red spathe that curls around an enormous spadix. An excellent flower for a horror movie. It is the smaller version of the biggest flower in the world, the Titan Arum or Amorphophallus titanum, whose latin name refers to the huge phallus-like spadix that can reach a height of three meters. Just like his little sister this flower smells like hell, so you better not run into it. The Titan Arum can only be found on Sumatra, the Voodoo Lily however can be encountered everywhere on Lesvos.

Many woods of Lesvos are a bit creepy. You may bump into the poisonous yellow rhodondendron that can kill entire armies, you may run into hidden little chapels, where you can pray to be found if you are lost. You risk falling into waterfalls and there are caves you only can reach at risk to your life. The roads are amongst the most dangerous of the world because the other roadusers are roaming donkeys, flocks of sheep, sweet hedgehogs, or gossiping Greeks and birdwatchers staring through camera’s as big as stargazers; and the romantic ponds along the roads are full of turtles that beg for bread.

There are rude foxes who steal telephones, crickets whose screaming can damage your hearing and complete armies of ants that can occupy your bed. Daily there will be sunshine that can damage your skin, colouring it red or petrify it.

Most hotels on the island do not offer ‘all inclusive’, so you have to find food for yourself. Most restaurants only have Greek food and fish is served whole, and if they are small enough you are supposed to eat them with head and tails. There are no fortune cookies here, but while eating, its entirely possible that birds with forked tails will fly straight over your head: Greeks see swallows as good luck birds. Gigantic wasps may be fed with meat, in order to keep them from your table, or the owner of the restaurant may take out his old rifle in order to chase them with an ear deafening boom.

This is the Greek island that you have to avoid, because last year it was 'unsafe' because of refugees. Be aware: last weekend the roads again were unsafe, this time because of masses of pilgrims who, just like the refugees last year, were walking the roads, only now in the opposite direction, towards Mandamados where the Taxiarchis Monastery had its yearly party.

I nearly got out of the car and joined the walkers, because the island urgently needs help. Archangel Michael, whose name day was the cause for the pilgrimage, is also the patron saint of the island. He is a fighter and more than once he has intervened on earth. Last year he sent armies of brave angels to the island. Now that nearly no refugees arrive and the island has been cleaned, suddenly there are no longer any vacationers — doubling the crisis on the island. Would Michael please send some tourists?

Anyway, after writing 500 columns, I will continue reporting from this forbidden paradise, the hidden pearl of the Aegean. Because apparently people still are afraid of Lesvos!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016