Thursday, 23 February 2017

February 20 – The forest under the road

(Junk Art at Andissa, from Ioannis Theodosiou)

It was at the end of a dark December afternoon, the sun already gone; we drove over a new piece of road, from Vatoussa to Skalochori. It was pitch black and we could not see anything of the surroundings, but we did look forward to each bend the new road took. Nobody knew where the trip would lead us. Suddenly high in the sky a lit building appeared. It looked like a small acropolis surrounded by spotlights. We looked at each other questioning: where were we? How is it that we did not know this highly visible sanctuary? Which village in the west has kept it hidden? 

It could only be the little church, sleeping high on the top of a mountain next to Skalochori, now changed into a glorious light object. Maybe they installed these party lights to celebrate the new road, which has reduced the journey between Molyvos and Sigri by at least fifteen minutes. Just as the new piece of road leading from the mountains down to Sigri (the first part that was constructed of this mega 'New Road’), brings you five minutes sooner into the village. Everywhere you see sections of new tarmac: a lost bridge between Vatoussa and Andissa, a piece of road nearly embracing the road from Filia to Kalloni and another bridge lying neglected in the sheep meadows just outside Dafia.

Everywhere clearcutting and excavators remind you of the making of this road, but it is still difficult to imagine how and where this road is going to be. As it is also unclear for lots of people why in the most sparsely populated part of the island they planned a highway. The traffic in one hour can be counted on one hand.

If we were to give numbers to the thoroughfares on the island, then Kalloni to Mytilini is the A1, Kalloni to Molyvos the A2, Plomari to Larisos (A1) the A3, Polichnitos to Matses (A1) the A4, Loutra to Mytilini the A5 and Mandamados to Mytilini the A6. I think Sigri to Kalloni might be B10. The A1 and A3 are already improved. Building goes on at the A4. But why is it that the busy A2 has never had a remake (even though there was money for a circular road around Stipsi [C6]), that is a Greek mystery. As is the megalomaniac project of the B10. Similarly the boulevard of Eftalou, in summer for sure C4. It is in such bad condition that shortly buses will no longer be able to pass.

But let's go back to the B10, Sigri to Kalloni. In the small fishing village of Sigri, kept alive by the beautiful Natural History Museum of the Petrified Forest, there is no sign of new buildings. So when somebody says that this village has to become a port city, I immediately think about the question of the chicken and the egg: is a city growing thanks to a good road leading there, or is a new road made when the city is growing too much? I still believe that the secret plan to cover the wild west of Lesvos with giant windmills is still on the table.

The building of this new road was not totally useless, as proved by the amount of petrified trees discovered when digging out the road. The first section, from Sigri to Andissa, goes straight through Petrified-Tree-Land and during the making the archaeological service was always present and has reaped a big harvest. So much so that an interesting exhibition was made of it, shown during the summer of 2015 in the museum in Sigri and it has now crossed the Aegean to Thessaloniki, where The Forest under the Road can be visited until April in the Old Archaeological Museum Geni Tzami.

What the new road has to offer, other than saving time, is unclear. Some people, like the owner of the petrol station just below Vatoussa, will not be happy with this change. Reading the signs in the landscape, the road also will skip Andissa, the village which advertises having the most beautiful village square on the island. Passing above the village, along a hill famous amongst orchid hunters, there is also the junkyard of an artist who makes fabulous sculptures out of scrap metals: from amazing tables to amusing beings waving you a friendly hello as you pass by. All made from screws, bolts, fan blades, drive springs and other various car parts. When the new road actually bypasses Andissa, these laughing robots will be waving useless into the blue sky, because nobody will be stopping anymore to take them. But I guess for the time being we can still enjoy this Junk Art, because the new tarmac extends only a few kilometers a year. Or maybe the ‘real’ goal already has been achieved: that exciting exhibition about what was discovered during the making of a road on Lesvos.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

February 7 – The earth shakes

(The remains of a city gate of Old Andissa)

I'm restless, waiting for the next shock: the trembling of the earth, thundering like a heavily loaded truck passing by, the glasses, lamps and paintings shaking furiously - all causing slight panic. For two days the island has been sieged by earthquakes, the three biggest as strong as 5.2 according to the Richter scale.

Greece is the most seismic country in Europe and sixth on the world list. So Lesvos knows the antics of the Earth's crusts: the North-Anatolia Fault runs close along its northern coast. The tectonic plates grate against each other in order to have a better place to continue slumbering. The fight between the European and Asian plates is now taking place opposite Molyvos in Turkey (not far from the legendary city of Troy that was not only destroyed by warriors, but also by earthquakes). You might even wonder if Erdogan isn't stimulating the quakes in order to cream off a little of Greece.

Due to these recurring natural disasters, nearly every village or town on Lesvos has been rebuilt one or more times. In 231 BC however the little town of Pyrrha was forever swept off the map, under the gently waves of the Gulf of Kalloni. The waters there are shallow and brackish, so fortune hunters cannot see anything underwater: the town is forever lost.

Also the islet on the coast which was once Andissa was erased, going to a watery grave in 167 BC. Parts of the city walls and some houses kept their heads above the water. With a bit of imagination you can see how this very old Levorian town was. But the ruins of walls and houses are so overgrown that it has became an ideal nest for snakes. There is no way that I will re-enter, through the half preserved gate, this city of ruins, now called Ancient Andissa.

In the 19th century the villages Lisvori, Chidera and Agia Paraskevi were destroyed by three different earthquakes. Only 2 of the 70 to 80 houses of Lisvori remained standing; in Agia Paraskevi 500 inhabitants did not survive, likewise in Chidera only 30. Even though there were so many losses, all villages were restored.

Molyvos has its houses sturdily anchored on the rocks but has also had its share of earthquake misery. One quake after another: in 1865 and in 1867. That last seismic event, with 25 quakes during the night of February 23 to 24, shook the entire island. Mytilini was, for a second time in its history, badly stricken: 2248 houses were completely destroyed (previously in 1383 the whole city of Mytilini was totally destroyed, causing the death of the majority of its citizens, amongst them the ruler Francesco Gateluzi, his wife and children). According to an eyewitness the water in the harbour swirled upwards with lots of foam. Afterwards fishes were found in boats, for days afterwards springs gave only salted water and a meters deep fault was found running from the Bay of Kalloni all the way to Agia Paraskevi. That night 550 people lost their lives, Napi was totally erased and Afalonas burnt to the ground after the shakes.

Even though a 5.2 on the Richter's scale is categorized as a bad one, I know that the Lesvorians have learned a lesson from history and have built their houses as earthquake proof as possible. But the villagers of Molyvos still do not trust their buildings. When the day before yesterday, a 5.2 occurred in daytime, swift as arrows everyone was out on the street and children were promptly marched out of their classrooms into the school yard.

Now it is raining cats and dogs and a furious Zeus thunders through heaven with flashing arrows. The warmth is over and the temperature is descending rapidly. Ear deafening thundering make doors and windows rattle in their frames. It is like Zeus is joining Gaia (Goddess of the earth) to create havoc on earth. Heaven and earth are angry, yes I do understand. But please, can the tectonic plates stop fighting. There are already enough camps on the island.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Sunday, 5 February 2017

February 2 – Lepetimnos

(The Lepetimnos)

Like a lazy Ottoman pasha, Mt Lepetimnos stretches in the north musing over the island. His volcanic fire was extinguished long ago and today his coat is still dotted with some specks of snow. With his tops reaching for the clouds, he reflects the last sun rays and smiles you a welcome when you travel to the north of Lesvos. One of its tops, the Vigla, is, at 968 meters, officially the highest peak of the island.
The story goes that Mt Olympus had the highest top, but due to the placement of military buildings and masts, the top was reduced by a few meters. From its highest ridges Lepetimnos offers spectacular views over a great part of the island as well as the faraway hills and mountains deep into Turkey. On clear days you may even see the islands Limnos and Ai Stratis and even Mount Athos on the mainland.

On the flanks of Lepetimnos you can find an assembly of sleepy villages: Vafios, Argenos, Lepetimnos, Sykaminia, Kapi, Pelopi, Ypsilometopo and Stypsi, all dependent on the moods of the mountain. The village of Chalikos was banished when, around 1970, earthquakes and landslides made the houses uninhabitable. I wonder if the villagers called the new village, built on lower slopes, Lepetimnos in order to propitiate the angry mountain.

The old volcanic giant was named after the groom of Mythimna (one of the daughters of King Makara); she gave her name to the little town now also known as Molyvos. We do not know much about their marriage, but Mythimna and Lepetimnos never lost sight of each other. It is Mt Lepetimnos, rich with sources, some even with hot water, that provides the little town with water. The Romans, always busy constructing bridges and aqueducts, even led warm water to Molyvos.

Theophrastus wrote that on the top of Lepetimnos there was an observatory where the astrologer Matriketas of Mythimna observed the stars. The only thing we know of this scientist is that he worked at a height of 986m. Some say that he was just an ordinary weatherman. I can see the donkeys running up and down the mountain in order to give the latest news about the weather. Or was there a clever system with flags or fire signals, like they also used during the war of Troy?

Mythimna always remained dependent on Lepetimnos. As a caring husband he provided her, not only with water and weather reports, but also with shiny metals and marble; some gold mines are still to be found on the mountain. He took care of green meadows and fertile ground where once masses of grapes grew, making the wine of Mythimna world famous.

On the other side of the mountain the village of Mandamados attracts lots of tourists and pilgrims with its Taxiarchis Monastery. The old icon of archangel Michael (Taxiarchis) has been attributed with many miracles. In ancient times it was to the oracle here that people went in order to ask for healing, a victory or other wishes. Because Lepetimnos was a hero from the war of Troy, there was also a sanctuary in his name on the mountain, where it was the crows who had the power to predict.

Around Kapi and Pelopi many archeological finds prove that even in ancient times this was a popular region, with many castles and temples. It is a pity that no archeologist has been doing thorough research on that site of the island. Any proof of a lively society will disappear slowly with the recycling of stones to build walls, stables, houses and roads. The region now is living mainly on cattle breeding and only a very few tourists know these charming villages which group around that site of Lepetimnos.

The folds of the mountain (that can be explored by feet and even by car) hide many different and surprising landscapes: meters' thick plane trees along gurgling streamlets, sweet scented chestnut woods, tender green meadows, quiet and secret little lakes and on top a whimsical landscape with rough rocks where in spring blood red tulips flower. Century old foot paths slowly gaining height invite fantasies about what people could have passed there: was it the astrologer with his assistant, refugees looking for places to hide or couples making love in secret? If trees could talk, what a colourful parade of stories we would hear.

For thousands of years this tamed volcano has lain on guard. He has seen the passing of the heroes of Troy, he has seen how a daughter of a king, in love with the hero Achilles, betrayed her besieged town Mythimna, by giving the key of the entrance to Achilles. He has seen Pelasgians, Aegeans, Aeolians, Lydians, Romans, Italians and Ottomans grab the power on the island.

Recently the husband of Myhtimna again saw thousands of refugees stranded on its shores. Silently he is watching how desperately the islanders battle the enduring crisis. No longer does anyone climb its slopes, looking for a sanctuary where the gods can be asked for help. Water and grassy meadows are not enough anymore to keep the spoiled inhabitants of Mythimna happy. But this old, rich icon who each day again tries to catch the last sun rays, knows that for sure new times will come and that no crisis or war will separate him from his beloved Mythimna.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Dear Emilaki

Eftalou, January 25 2017

As a real amazon
you rode the Aegean waves
to battle
the poison in your body.
Even without hairs
and with so nice hats
you embraced life
like you could live forever.
India or whatever country
nothing was better than yours
especially Eftalou was calling
for your soul to rest.
Food and drinks
laughter and helping
they made your life
like you were invincible,
you smiling and talking
eating & drinking
like the world was always yours
until the gods decided different.
But you got the snow
I promised you
and now you are free
to travel wherever you want to.

Miss you, but good luck
my dear Emilaki!

Saturday, 7 January 2017

January 6 – Holy Men!

(Eftalou 2004; now again covered by snow)

Today is the day in Greece that the water is being blessed: priests go in procession to the sea, a river or a lake, where they commence the ritual of blessing. The water from heaven must have decided to hang around for a bit, because the island has finally had a day of rain. Blessed rain!

The various harbours on the island will have been black with umbrella's and pappas. One part of the Epiphany ritual is the so called 'cross diving': the pappas throws a cross in the water and young men, happy to take a wintery bath, plunge into the water to find the cross and return it to the pappas. The winner and his family will be sure of extra blessings. Women however are excluded from this holy bathing. In earlier times they dipped cottons in the blessed water in order to clean icons; a ritual performed to renovate the holy powers of the icon.

The orthodox Epiphany is based on the baptism of Christ. In the West however on January 6 they do not swing a brush over the water, but celebrate the three kings bringing presents to the newly born Jesus in Bethlehem. Originally it was a group of wise men who saw a special star and went looking for the King of Jews: their number is related to the number of presents they brought: gold, incense and myrrh. Eventually, through the oral storytelling, the wise men became kings.

During Epiphany in the West people throw themselves into something quite different: special cakes are baked, with a small hard object, like a coin, is hidden inside. The lucky one who finds this (and does not break his teeth on it) will be king for a day and get as many blessings and luck as the finder of the cross. In Greece there is no Epiphany Cake: the Greek epiphany cake is a vasilopita and will already have been consumed on the first of January.

You would think that the name vasilopita is the Greek translation of king cake: vasilias means king in Greek. The cake however is named after Ayos Vasilis (saint Basil). Or would that name be Holy King? Santa Claus is no holy man, although Saint Basil is his personification in Greece. He however has more in common with that other holy man, Saint Nicolas, in Greek Agios Nikolaos, whose Names Day is celebrated a month earlier, on December 6th (and in Holland a big celebration). Saint Basil was a man who took care of the sick and the poor, especially children. And he came from the same region as Saint Nicolas (Turkey). In Holland Saint Nicolas brings presents on December 5th, Agios Vasilis however brings them as late as New Year's morning. To make the confusion even bigger: it is said that Santa Claus, who appeared first in America, is the same as Saint Nicolas. His celebration came with the immigrants from Europe, but in America they probably did not want another festivity day and so Saint Nicolas had to wait until Christmas to make his appearance as Santa Claus.

The Three Kings have been honoured, the waters blessed, a new year's dive performed; but about one thing all parts of the torn religion are united: after January 6th all christmas decoration but be cleared.
Agios Vassilis, Agias Nicolaos and Santa Claus have all had their parties: now we are left in the realm of the Winter King.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Happy New Year

If the Martians come
will the people stop
their savage fighting and firing
so that black, white, brown and red
whatever their religion
come together to direct their evil arrows
at a communal enemy?

If the Martians come
will we then realize
how precious our earth is
with its woods and meadows
rivers and oceans
animals and flowers
which we have to defend?

If the Martians come
will we then finally understand
that we are all equal:
2 arms, 2 legs, 1 mouth
2 ears, 10 toes, 1 nose
and a big heart
to respect each other?

If the Martians come
to this world in turmoil
will all battles cease
for peace on earth
I sometimes think:
do we really need the Martians
to save the world?

Monday, 19 December 2016

December 15 – Sitting next to the fire

(Cooking fig syrup)

Thinking of Greece, you may see sun, heat and a blue sea. You’d never guess that the Greeks were the inventors of central heating; but they built systems where heat from a central fire was transferred via tubes to different spaces, like in the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Later the Romans used this principle to make floor heating in their houses and other buildings.

In Greece it can be pretty cold, and snow not only falls in the north or on mountain tops: many touristic islands can also be surprised by a cover of fluffy snow. This autumn consisted of endless days of summery weather, inviting one to mosey along terraces all day and to take kilometers long walks. But as soon as the sun sets on these beautiful days, even on Lesvos, it is time to crawl inside and settle next to a stove.

Adam and Eva did not come into a world with heaters. It was Prometheus who stole the fire from Olympus in order to give it to man to cook and to heat. The oldest ovens (about 20,000 years old) have been discovered in Central Europe. They were simple fire pits in the ground, but apparently working well enough that entire mammoths could be prepared on them. And the bones of those huge animals also served as fuel.

The ancient Greeks loved bread and were always keen to improve their baking. They produced clay ovens; around 7000 BC flat breads came out of them and, sprinkled with herbs, onions and garlic, they might have been the first pizzas. On the Cycladic islands a portable clay oven from the 17th century BC has been found.
It was the Romans who started to build stone ovens. In the volcanic ash covered city of Pompeij they found at least 30 stone ovens. They were the precursers of the outdoor oven, still seen in many Greek houses and used during festivity days to prepare large traditional dishes with meat and vegetables.

Greeks still like to play with fire. Making home beverages like tsipouro, cooking figs or grapes into a syrup, it’s still happening on an open fire, even though these domestic crafts are slowly dying out. As is preparing a meal in the outside oven. Now you only find cooking plates fired by gas or electricity in the kitchens. But the fire keeps on burning, though not always to prepare food. Many houses still have an open fireplace (tzaki), although more to satisfy a romantic soul than to produce heat. Households with central heating are still a minority. Not many people can afford the high price of oil fuel since this long lasting crisis. Commerce in wood stoves (zomba) has been stoked up enormously, causing in the big cities like Athens smog alerts. Many poor families are using old windows or furniture as fuel.

It seems that Lesvorians, just like tourists, think they live in a country of only sun, heat and blue sea. Window frames are only made to keep up the glass, doors to keep people inside or out; wind and rain are on the guest list and can always pass through. The houses seem to be made for an island of year-round summer. Which is not the case.

In autumn a certain chill will creep into the stone houses, especially after the first rains and when temperatures drop to under 20 oC. When the winter approaches (they say that in Greece the real winter only starts in January) you cannot sit quietly for more than a few moments without getting chilled to the bone. To make yourself comfortable there are stinking oil fuel stoves, small electric big-spenders or wood stoves. Open fire places might also chase the first colds, but when the real winter enters, an entire forest of trees will not warm your house; the efficiency of an open fire is very low.

The best solution is a wood stove, that can heat an entire house (especially when the stove pipe wanders through half the rooms). I started out with an open fire place, in two of the coldest Lesvorian winters of this century: snow, ice, rain and storms kept on attacking the island for months. I practically lived ín the open fireplace because my house was a first class air vent, even though the window sills were covered with towels in order to save the house from flooding.
Now next to me is the satisfying sound of a purring wood stove, behind new windows and doors that are made for what they are meant. The nice thing about my wood stove is that it has an oven: excellent to make pizzas, bread and other oven dishes. On top of the oven there is always hot water for a tea or a coffee. I am wondering why there are so many wood stoves without an oven. Such a lost of energy! Wood stoves were originally made for cooking, just like fire was given to the people to cook.

A wood stove does not have a button you can press and ‘oppah’ the flames spring up. The ash drawer has to be emptied, the glass window must be cleaned (with ash), kindling has to be gathered and a woodpile has to be built. Then you may set the fire. And then you have to maintain the fire, a rhythm you will soon make your own. And of course you have to chop wood and transport the wood to your house. I bet keeping a wood stove requires as many sporty moves as a fitness lesson: chopping, toting, getting down, getting up, cleaning, you do it all and for free.

I used to dream of having an AGA cooker. That dream has been fulfilled, even though it is with a Bulgarian Prity that – for just a small fraction of the price of an AGA – produces as many delicious dishes and also warms the house. For the open fireplace there also is a solution of installing a closed oven in it, sometimes with tubes attached that can bring the warmth elsewhere in the house. And so the wheel again has been invented (Dutch expression).

With the crackling flames fighting the moisture and cold in the house and with spring still faraway, and with the scent of a leg of a lamb covered in honey and herbs filling the house, in silence I thank Prometheus for the divine gift of fire.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

Smitaki 2016