Thursday, 10 August 2017

August 8 – Greetings from Nissiopi

(A little beach at Nissiopi)

The tectonic plates under the island will never give up dancing. In small steps they shift and brush past each other, a tango in slow motion (2.0), and nobody knows if they will fall back to sleep or will continue with an up-tempo: we still depend on the moods of the gods, or Mother Earth.

Some days ago I was on an excursion to the little island of Nissopi, the newest part of the Petrified Forest Park of the Natural History Museum of Lesvos at Sigri. There my fantasy really got triggered: I tried to imagine what would happen if the earth were to take revenge over our abuse of her wealth, for example by opening wide her volcanoes. We are used to natural disasters: a storm here, floods there or an earthquake elsewhere. But the forces that were released millions of years ago on the island are unimaginable. Huge rocks and lava spitting mountains, that vomitted all their innards with inhumane force, causing oceans of fire, tsunami's and earthquakes. It must have been hell on earth.

Everywhere on Lesvos you will see witness to these events: lonely enormous rocks hurled just about anywhere, volcanic stones pressed or moulded into artistic forms and other impressive rock formations. The island must have been pretty shaken. The best finds however are due to sheer happenstance during the madness: after the firestorms, cloud-bursts with lots of water flooded the ravaged region, causing a large part of the trees to become petrified rather than carbonized. Lesvos hides plenty of them, just like the little island of Nissiopi.

At my feet a little beach full of petrified tree trunks and shards, lying as innocent rocks in the sea, their smooth surfaces glittering in the sun. Brown, red, but also yellow, orange, green, blue, these fossils look like treasures washed ashore from the Cave of Ali Baba. The inner wood often conjured into half precious stones. My fingers itched to pick up some of the smaller pieces, shining between the sand. But the guide was serious: “Do not touch anything!” So I behaved myself, knowing that I already have some small stones, collected from other beaches where the waves casually deposited them in the sand. I looked around this amazing little beach, protected by walls of lava layers, some exposed petrified trees still stuck in there, many tree trunks still standing, their roots safely nestled deep in the earth. It was like standing in a million year old wood.

The sea was not here in those days,” the guide said and I gazed out over the water, stretching itself as blue as heaven towards the indefinite sky and wondered where would the sea have been in those times. I knew that millions of years ago Lesvos was part of the Asia plate - just ordinary main land.

I looked at the various layers of volcanic deposit, stapled under hills which were laid naked and I shivered: imagine if you were out for a day in this forest of mammoth trees (sequoia's), their tops reaching almost a hundred meters into the sky. Just as you spread a cloth under one of those impressive trees and opened your picnic basket, there was a thundering noise. It all could happen very quickly (proved by the excavations in Pompeii, where people were buried alive). The trees may have been chatting to each other and then suddenly it would became dark. Thick, grey clouds of ash would descend from the tree tops and branches, like a black snowstorm, cutting the oxygen supply. That is how these trees and everything what lived below died: by suffocation. Some trees were taken by streams of mud and other volcano junk and came stuck on the ‘not yet’ an island. Maybe this island just consists of those drifting trees, caught between the broken trees of the forest embedded in layers of ash and spitted rocks.

However, the absence of the sea at that small island kept me wondering. Once there must have been a fascinating forest full of trees, that only after they were immortalized in ash, met the sea, that patiently but persisting, started to nibble at the ash, thus freeing the trees.
Now with global warming and the rising of sea levels, you could think that this is no new phenomenal at all. Sea water for millions of years has slowly crept up the land, filling valleys with water, thus creating islands. But most Greek islands were created by heavy earthquakes, tearing and shifting the earth crust, even absorbing whole villages, like ancient Pyrrha in the Gulf of Kalloni.

Imagine if it were to happen to you: living in a vast country, then the earth trembles and hoppa, you find your house standing alone on an island, surrounded by water, mountain slopes disappeared into the sea, only their tops towering above the waves. It is said that the Greek islands are part of the foothills of the Alps. I am still not sure when the Gods decided to create the Greek island empire, only that is was long after these mammoth trees disappeared under the ash.

You cannot compare petrified trees with those cute 'prehistoric' animals that mooch about the Galapagos islands. I dare to say though that, for scientists, Lesvos and Nissiopi are just as important a Valhalla as the Galápagos Islands. Maybe there are fewer animals for visitors to cuddle, but those beautiful, very old trees invite you to fantasize like crazy about the fascinating, lethal monkey business of Mother Earth.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)


© Smitaki 2017

Sunday, 30 July 2017

July 27 – Strange sardines

(Bowie looking for sardines)

There are some days – and there are plenty of them here on the island – that Lou Reed’s song A Perfect Day keeps popping up in your head. For example when the sea is smooth as oil (as the Greeks say), transparent and of a spellbinding blue colour. On such a perfect day last week I came to the sea and saw she was covered with white speckles. What was floating in the water?

I concentrated on the spots and realized they were thousands of little fish floating in the sea. Bah. What was the matter? I had come to cool off a bit, so I decided to have a quick swim. However after just a few strokes I recognized the fish as sardines, I wondered what could have caused their death and I ran out of the water. Together with some bystanders we gazed at the sea swarming with fat sardines, and we alerted the coast guard.

Some hours later I returned to the beach, curious if I would find a sea full of water or fish. I was bewildered to see some men happily collecting bags full of sardines. Were they cleaning the sea? The men laughed at my concern: “No, no, the sardines are good!” Eat, eat, they gestured. I indeed did remark that the fish hadn’t ended up on the beach. Were they dead or not? Someone told me that probably some fishing nets had broken, which is why the sea had turned into a free market: you could just pick up the tasty fish from the water. I watched the men stuffing bag after bag with the fish and decided that the sea was safe enough to have a swim and went to look for a patch of sea less fish-rich.

While floating in the sea like a fish, I wondered why a sardine – chosen by destiny to be freed from a fisherman’s net – would not swim away, and would instead, just like me, end belly-up rocking gently in the slow wash of the sea. A little further into the sea I noticed small sparkly backs, summersaulting above the water: there clearly was a school of fish passing by. I began think about the sardine run, regularly taking place in July in South Africa. Milliards of sardines participate, even that though they are in danger of being eaten by bloodthirsty sharks, other predatory fish, birds, fishermen and tourists who come in great numbers to see this spectacle. I wondered if somebody might have organized a smaller Greek sardine run, all those floating fish participants, being tired or taking naps. If this was the case, then there might also be swarms of predators around, because this sort of event never remains a secret for long. A little anxious now, I closely scanned the water around me, looking for that well known black triangle. But even the sea gulls still seemed unaware of what was going on. But I was not much reassured and, like a wise sardine, I returned onto the safety of the beach.

Lesvos is reknowned for its sardines. The papalina sardines from the Gulf of Kalloni (and of Yera) are the emperors of their kind. It is said that these fish get fatter and thus tastier than those from the open sea because they live off special phyto plankton that grows in those warm waters.

Maybe the mini-run was on its way to the Gulf of Kalloni and got lost (the mouth of the Bay is not that wide) and tired. Or maybe they just fled from there, afraid of the coming Sardine Festival in Skala Kallonis*, where hundreds of sardines will participate, though on the grill or buried in salt. Whatever it was, the next day not even one lonely sardine showed up, neither floating on its back, swimming or washed ashore. So with no worries, I jumped into the sea: another Perfect Day.


(*Traditionally this festival is taking place the first weekend of August, but somewhere I read this year it will take place on August 10, 11 and 12).

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017






Thursday, 20 July 2017

July 17 – Time of changes

(Greek publicity for Santé cigarettes)

In 1604 king James VI of England said: A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs. Not everybody agreed with him: tobacco was said to be a medical cure for lots of things. The Spanish brought the plant from the South Americas around 1530 saying it was a miracle plant.

I have to admit that I am still a smoker, even though they now put those horrible pictures on the packs of cigarettes. But I am back to the roots of the tobacco: I smoke natural tobacco from the Mohawk indians. I know: that is no excuse for not quitting, but it does let you smoke less. Most harmful substances in a cigarette are added by the manufacturer; by smoking ‘natural’, I do smoke a little 'healthier'.

There were times that half of the world smoked without worries. Looking at movies from the Sixties and Seventies, the smoke vaporizes from the film screen. One of my favorite scenes is the one where Melina Mercouri sits on her bed, a cigarette hanging at her lips, while she plays a record on her little record player in the movie Never on Sunday. Greece still is a smokers country, even though the e-cigarette is marching in. However I cannot imagine a movie where an e-cigarette is elegantly lit.

There were times that people got rich from smoking, as was once the case on Lesvos. When tobacco mania hit the Ottoman Empire, more and more tobacco fields popped up in the landscape. The North-Aegean islands Lesvos, Samos, Chios and Lemnos switched grapevines for tobacco around the end of the 19th century, at the same time a fatal illness of the vines ended viticulture. There was gold to be earned with tobacco, because apart from official trade – the old pirate blood still not quite cold – there was a huge market for smugglers.

Lesvos enjoyed its last Golden Century (around 1900) thanks not only to olive oil and soap: tobacco was also a mighty export product. Newly purchased steam machines and steam boats made transport much quicker. The country changed: clever traders entered the villages, buying, legally or not, the harvests. There came a new class with workers in the production plants, that quickly got organized against exploitation.

Until the last years of the Ottoman Empire smugglers were rarely chased, the police themselves often involved in this illegal business. For everybody it was also seen an act against the Régie Company, that, helped by foreign bankers, had a monopoly for all tobacco in the Ottoman Empire. At the turn of the 19th century it was estimated that half of all people smoked cigarettes from the Régie Company, the other half the much cheaper and often of better quality tobacco from the smugglers. I wonder if smoking then was healthy.

Did people smoke more because of the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and the several wars taking place at the first half of the 20st century? The tobacco industry kept on growing during the destruction of the old world. Refugees were put to work on the fields and the factories, where lots of women worked, kept on turning. After World War II American cigarettes conquered European markets. The American Cigarette Cowboys anointed their fine cut tobacco with plenty of chemicals, thus increasing its ability to addict. We did not know that in those times. This development however was one of the causes for the Greek cigarette industry’s diminishment. In the Sixties the tobacco fields disappeared from the landscapes of Lesvos, together with thousands of people who emigrated to cities and abroad, fleeing poverty and the hard work on the fields. In the north of the island they then started a new industry: tourism.

After viticulture and the tobacco culture, now tourism is increasing on the island. It is said that this is due to the negative publicity around the refugee crisis, that is not or not enough dealt with by the European Union. The absence of long white, sandy beaches and world famous archeological monuments will never make Lesvos into a destination for mass tourism, so much wished for by some people. The international travel companies had realized that long ago, because Lesvos is one of the most expensive islands to fly to; though nobody wants to explain why.

Small, alternative companies however have understand that Lesvos only can prosper by exclusivity. They have their tourists traveling all over the island and it’s rare for them not to get hooked by the authentic villages and the surprising and varying landscape; this magic is bringing a large number of the visitors back to the island.

Times have changed and that requires adaptation. Because of its geographical position refugees, looking for a safe place, will keep on passing through Lesvos. Mass tourism will never reach the island. And smoking will never ever be healthy again.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017




Monday, 10 July 2017

July 6 – Another Greek tradition going down



The tradition of having dinner with the entire family in a restaurant is dying out in Greece. Thanks to the crisis, another piece of culture is becoming something for the history books. Long live the dictatorship of the European Union that not only tries to starve one of his member states but with its pernickety rules in keeping people healthy, only manages to make them very unhappy. Geert Wilders, an ultra rightwing Dutch politician, is right in saying that the Greeks spend all their money on souvlaki and ouzo: they also have to eat and drink, don't they?

Souvlaki (compare it to fish & chips or a hamburger) is at least something Greeks can still afford once in a while. Dinner in a restaurant, where prices are continuously on the rise, has become a rare event, now only to be enjoyed on celebration days, and expensive whisky, once number one drink in Greece, has been replaced by the much cheaper ouzo. Here on Lesvos it's now only tourists that visit some restaurants, the others becoming a sitting room where a mother waits with delicious dishes for husband and children, while the heroes of the village or the favorite singers from yellowed photographs look sad down at the empty room. As soon as the tourists begin to disappear, the restaurants that were able to open during the summer season, will close for the winter.

Europe can dictate what it wants, but it will never – especially on Lesvos – be able to destroy the entire food culture. The few tourists who realize that the island is not entirely filled up with desperate refugees, know what to expect: an island as proud as a peacock, with breath taking nature, its traditional villages and secret beaches, its lovely restaurants spread all over the island offering a culinary adventure, an island where during the summer a large range of festivals are celebrated: from traditional and classic music festivals to folklore and tango events as well as ouzo and sardines festivals.

New this year is the Lesvos Food Festival: from July 14 to July 16, in various locations in the medieval looking village of Molyvos. Different locals and chefs will be presenting open cooking workshops, using the ingredients that Lesvos has to offer, like the dairy products from goats and sheep, the often forgotten pulses, salt from the Gulf of Kalloni, a wide range of herbs, olive products, home made pasta and alcohol. They will even show you how to cook in traditional pots of clay.

For Greek restaurant owners it is normal that you venture into their kitchens to view what will be on the menu that day. This festival however offers you a chance to have a close look at how the cooks magically turn fresh products into tasty regional dishes. A lot of Greek kitchen secrets will be brought into the open. During another part of the festival you will be let loose in making mezèdes (Greek tapas), experimenting with the rich flavours and forms of all those fresh products.

I wonder why sometimes I have the idea that Greek life consists mainly of eating and drinking. Ouzo and fish belong to the sea (ouzo looses its taste the farther you are from the sea). And there is plenty of food on the land. The fields of flowering herbs – an eternal part of the landscape - along with the cooling shadows of the millions of olives, walnut and chestnut trees, and the almond and cherry trees whose blossoms decorate spring, and even the hidden cornfields: they all contribute to the dinners that traditionally are shared by a large number of people. For the food gurus Lesvos is a true culinary paradise, where simplicity and freshness dictate the rules, mixed with sea salt and herbs.

The other aspect of a Greek dinner is the company and the music. With a bit of luck dancing is also part of it and I am sure that this will also be the case during this Food Festival. However seeing a dinner table occupied by three to four generations of Greek people has become a
rare sighting: no entertainment anymore, no spontaneous singing, nor dancing around the table or a bottle of ouzo. This is how slowly the air for life is being squeezed out of the Greeks.

But the Greeks do not give up so easily: this summer Molyvos and Petra will be vibrating with music, singing, dance, food and cheerful people who dare to live, even if they have to survive on souvlaki and tomatoes from their gardens. Kali orexi!


Magical concerts in the castle of Molyvos:

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017





Friday, 30 June 2017

June 28 – Heat wave oracle

(Klidonas Festival in Molyvos; photo: Arie van Willigen)


It’s difficult to believe but in six months we will again be celebrating Christmas. The summer in Greece has hardly begun but bonfires were already ignited to observe midsummer on a date that also marks the name day of John the Baptist. The St. John’s Fires are lit, as the sun reaches it’s highest point in the northern hemisphere. This happens in several countries on the night of June 23 to 24, including here in Greece where the occasion is called Klidonas, a date that has its own interpretation.

In former times this was a night when young, unmarried girls hoped that the stars would whisper the name of their future husband. A girl had to go to a spring, fill an urn and carry this so-called ‘silent water’ home (she was not allowed to speak when carrying the water). She and other virgins would place small, much-loved objects into the urn and seal it with a red cloth. Then they would find it a place to wait for the sunrise of June 24, somewhere as close as possible to the stars. That night, so the tradition goes, the girls would dream of the man who would be their husband, helped by several fires lit in the surrounding streets. The following day, a poet or storyteller would retrieve the objects from the urn, one by one, while relating some riddles that would reveal even more about the man the girls had dreamed of.

I do not believe that there were a lot of urns on the rooftops of Molyvos hoping that the stars would reveal their secrets this midsummer, because it is only the most sensational part of this tradition, jumping over the fires, that is still practiced. According to tradition, you must put your life at risk by jumping over the flames three times. if you do this, luck will be part of your future life.

The practice of jumping the fires may continue, crossing yourself as you pass one of the many churches on the island, or cherishing the amulets against the evil eye may still be practiced, but nowadays nobody takes a lot of interest in predicting the future. That said, now that the Gods of Olympus have lost their credibility, the Greeks continue to worship a very long list of saints, even if it is only occasionally to mark their name day. Churches are scattered all over the island and they are never neglected. Whatever church you visit - tucked away in caves, perched atop mountains or hidden away in the forests - they are always tended with love and devotion.

In ancient times, however, it was the oracles that kept order in Greek society and the priests that interpreted those oracles were the most important people in that society. No war or battle would be started, no important decision would be taken without seeking the opinion of an oracle. And, like the words for those unmarried girls, this could be an opinion interpreted in many different ways – perhaps in the form of riddles, or even a poem.

Apollo was the god who mainly used oracles to reveal the future, and Delphi was the most important temple from which the secrets of the future were revealed. It was sometimes even referred to as the ‘navel of the world’. But Delphi was only for the rich and the famous. Normal people had to consult more obscure oracles and fortunetellers, who picked the future out of the air by interpreting the flights of the birds, or the whispering of leaves in the trees.

It is said that once upon a time there was an oracle on the slopes of the Lepetimnos, where priests defined what roads life would take by watching the flight of the crows. The most famous Lesvorian oracle, however, was Orpheus, the musician who went mad after loosing his wife, driving beautiful nymphs to such distraction that they cut of his head to stop his wailing. But even this did not stop him. His still anguished head washed ashore somewhere near Ancient Andissa, where it was taken to a cave. Orpheus’s distress continued, according to the legend. People from far and wide came to hear his opinion about their lives, and after hearing about this popular oracle, it was Apollo who finally silenced Orpheus. Even today, when I wander on the beaches of Ancient Andissa, I am sure that the wind still sings the words of Orpheus.

I would love to climb up to Orpheus’s cave and discover for myself if he secretly continues to whisper wise words about the future. Now that the island (and the rest of Greece) has been hit by a serious heat wave, you have to turn to the wisdom, not of an oracle but that of a meteorologist to predict the weather for the coming days. And while with the benefit of modern science, the weather oracles can speak with confidence about what is in store for us, they too, are not always right. In ancient times when the oracle’s prediction was not to your liking, it was best to blame the interpretation, never the gods. Maybe it would be better if our modern day ‘weather priests’ also spoke in riddles. Then we could believe whatever we wanted.

The coming time
the days will be suffering
from the stirring heat of heavenly fires
Streets in the city
will burn the soles of the feet
and the sea has to cool
all flaming hearts
until men will realize
it is only the gods that know about the future








Monday, 26 June 2017

June 26: Goodbye, Michaelis


Yamas, Michaelis
I am sure they have ouzo
in heaven
although I am not sure
if there are donkeys or any horses
grazing above the clouds

You embraced life as a free man
loving donkeys, horses and women
You were always full of crazy stories
to celebrate life and friendship
while your Greek heart
could not beat without music
and dancing
as long as something was in the glass
and the table surrounded by company

You kept on smiling
whenever crisis or human disaster struck
you would fill a glass
raise it to heaven and challenge the gods
in order to drink to a happy life
you thought that lasted forever
and then you danced the night away

Your donkeys known by the entire village
in the winter finding their food in mountains and emptying my garden
in the summer carrying the weight of tourists
while you taught them how to live as a Greek,
enjoy sun, water, food and Ambrosia

I am sure you took everything
life offered you
and now it is time
to give back that free life you lived
to rest in heaven
where you probably will raise your glass once more:
Yamas, Michaelis!











Monday, 19 June 2017

June 17 - Requiem for Vrissa

(The Gattelusi Tower near Vrissa)

I have to admit that I’ve never wandered around in the village of Vrissa, meaning that I’ve only passed through the village a hundreds of times whilst going to and from Vatera. Each time its traditional silhouette beckoned to come and discover its quiet, colourful streets, I always decided: later. Now that the earth has moved and the stones of the houses have shaken loose, it is too late. Vrissa will never again be that innocent, beautiful traditional little village.

In the Seventies the same thing happened to the village of Chalikas, at the feet of Lepetimnos. There the earthquakes triggered landslides which made the village uninhabitable. The residents were evacuated and never returned. I hope that Vrissa will not become such a ghost town and that it can be rebuilt, although I wonder if the villagers want that.

Vrissa is kind of a nomad village, having moved from one place to another place throughout its history. Once its houses stood at Cape Fokas, later the people flourished at the banks of the Almyra river, from where it moved to its actual place. The cause of the village relocating from one place to another can be easily guessed. The temple of Dionysos that once attracted people to Cape Fokas, and now left with just one pillar gesturing to the sky, was completely destroyed by natural disasters, or was it war?

Vrissa was surrounded by stone factories, where they transformed mined ignimbrite into bricks. Most houses of Vrissa were built with these stones. On Lesvos you will see various local styles, like that of Pterounda where special nice crafted bricks can be seen in some of the walls of the houses and it was explained to me that they were fabricated locally. Lesvos with its volcanic history has plenty of building materials, although I wonder how steady they are. According to Wikipedia: “Ignimbrites are made of a very poorly sorted mixture of volcanic ash (or tuff when lithified) and pumicelapilli, commonly with scattered lithic fragments.”

Even before the earthquakes the walls and roofs of these factories were in a poor state, so I guess it was a long time ago that their chimneys blew smoke into the air. I wonder if these Vrissian icons are still standing, or have they met the same fate as the village, falling into pieces, and finally finding a place in dusty history books.

Not far from the village is the Paleopirgos, a watchtower built by the Gattelusi family that reigned the island for about a century from 1355 on. From pirate roots, the Gattelusi became kings and they fortified the castles of Molyvos and Mytilini and built several watchtowers in order to defend themselves against other pirates. Who knows how far into the land Vrissa was then, because in those times nobody without fortification walls and castles dared to live close to the coast risking being slaughtered by those sea bullies. Will you still see this impressive tower from the road passing from Vrissa to Vatera?

The most known attraction of the village was situated in the old school: the Natural History Museum. There is not much left of this eccentric and interesting museum. It housed the bones of prehistoric animals found in the area and that of Gavathas. They have already survived so many earthquakes that I do not fear for their well being; but I do for that of the plant fossils and animal skeletons and other things in the display cabinets and, of course, the building itself, now scattered into millions of pieces. The bones can be dug up again.

Also all street dogs have mysteriously disappeared from the village. Apart from two. Street dog Liza used to hang around the museum and will not move from its shattered remains. Instead of by visitors, she now is patted by the rescue people and those that have started cleaning the village. The only caretaker of the museum keeps on feeding her. The other dog that did not want to leave the shattered village was the dog of the one person that was killed by the earthquake (a mother of 43). He dug into the debris looking for her and once she was found he did not want to move and could only cry. They had to remove him to an animal shelter.

Lesvos has many traditional villages like Vrissa, each one with its own history, all marked by time and every one is an important historical monument. Now there is one pearl less on the island. It is a pity that it was the eldest houses, those telling most of the stories, that were the first victims of the earthquakes. Lots of houses, churches and other buildings in Plomari, Polichnitos, Lisvori, Akrasi and other villages have been severely damaged. And so time is devouring another piece of history.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017