Tuesday, 25 August 2015

August 22 – Show horses



 Why do you see so many horses on Lesvos? You see them everywhere, pottering about in little fields; but seeing horse riding is far more rare. The time that they are let out of their normal meadow habitat is during the panayeri’s, small local festivals.

In ancient Greece horses were mainly associated with the Gods. The rulers of the heavens (and earth), like Poseidon, used them to pull their chariots but they were also used as a reward for mortals. In ancient times riding horses was only for the Gods, royal children or famous warriors. 

It is said that the Greeks were one of the first peoples who rode horses into war. Not only could horses pull heavy war equipment to the arenas, it was also soon understood that sitting on a horse on the battlefield made you faster than the infantry. Achilles went to the war against Troy with two horses who spoke: Xanthus and Balius. Bucephalus, the legendary horse of Alexander the Great, had a city named after him when he died.

A horse in Greece was a sign of wealth. I understand that very well, because keeping such an animal costs a lot of money. But what is the use of a horse nowadays? The horse owners that I know on this island own more than one horse. They are mostly poor people who have to struggle to earn a living. When you ask them why they keep horses the answer is simple: “ I’m crazy about horses.” And what do they do with them? Well, one or two times a year, they show off the animals at festivals.

These poor show horses will be kept at leisure during the year and then some days before the panayeri will have a crash course in order to build up their condition and then they are beautifully dressed-up and then thrown in the midst of the partycrowds.

Most of the panayeris take place in the summer months and nearly all the villages on Lesvos have one; so mostly any weekend you can find one. The best known is the Party of the Bull in Agia Paraskevi, where a bull is sacrified and where it is said that the horses get served ouzo, in order to come in the right mood to celebrate. Also Molyvos has a fancy decorated bull marching in front of its annual parade, but this one goes safely home at the end of the party. Although in Molyvos at least one animal gets to be killed, because, just like in Agia Paraskev, at night big kettles are put on fires in order to cook meat, wheat and herbs for the so-called Kiskeki, that is served to everyone who participated in the festivities. I once tasted this gunk, but like many other traditional Greek festivity dishes (like the majeritsa, a fresh soup made of offal during Easter night), it is hard to swallow.

Goats provide milk and meat, sheep are also eaten (sheep used to be kept for the wool but not anymore, since cheap wool now comes from even poorer countries), chicken lay eggs and also may end up on a plate. But what use is there for a horse? In Greece no horsemeat (nor donkey meat) is eaten. Do you somehow feel royal when you own a horse that you can barely look after and that is just left to meander around in the fields? There are some people who have given up their horses and set them free. Somewhere high in the hills above Mandamados there is a herd of wild horses, totally free and looking for the Horse Heaven.

Lesvos is rich with organisations that aim to better the lives of poor dogs and cats. They for example save chained dogs, which are kept by the farmers in order to keep away foxes from their sheep. I am wondering why there is still is no organisation that will protect the wellbeing of all those horses that are only used during the panayeri’s. During the rest of the year I regularly see them, stashed-away with legs shackled, all on their own. Is that a dignified horse life?

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015


Saturday, 15 August 2015

August 13: Too many Mary’s in Greece


(Panagia-Krifti-at-the-Sea)

It was not too long ago that Lesvos was a pretty red island: communist, due to the large number of poor people, mostly farmers.Today its population is no longer that poor and elections show that the revolutionary spirit has softened somewhat.

Communism is against religion. Everybody knows what Marx once said: Religion is opium for the people. That is why you might wonder about the Lesvorians who clearly have not taken this message onboard: if you count all churches and little chapels on the island, I am sure that there are more churches and little chapels than there are inhabitants on Lesvos.

They are all deep into the orthodox religion and each year they celebrate the nameday of the saints to whom those churches and chapels are dedicated. So, nearly each day, somewhere, you can find a festivity. The biggest party is thrown on August 15th, the day that Mary flew to heaven. After Easter, it is the biggest religious festivity of Greece.

In tourist areas August 15th is the busiest day of summer. Most people in the cities, with family living on an island or at the seaside have packed their bags for these cooler areas. The quiet villages on the islands now are bursting with lively big families. The houses where in winter normally only granddad and grandmother live, are now filled with a collection of different generations of Greeks, who loudly talk, laugh, scream and celebrate.

On the Ascension of Mary everyone goes to church. Most of them dressed to the nines, women staggering on towering high heels. Some go to the Mary churches to show penitence or ask Mary for a gift. The custom for this group is to walk long stretches to the church, the last hundred meters or so on their knees. I can imagine that the ladies doing this, remove their high heels.

The Lourdes of Greece is on the island of Tinos, where pilgrims on their knees or even creeping on their bellies enter the holy inner space of the Panagía Evangelístria. This church is built around an icon of Mary, purportedly painted by the apostle Lucas. In 1822 Mary revealed to a fifteen year old nun where this icon was buried and since then thousands of pilgrims visit this small island.

Lesvos also has its share of religious tourists. The Panagia churches in Agiasos and Petra are high on the international list of holy Mary-places of Greece. I always have troubles dealing with Greek names: they all are named Yorgos, Yannis, Yanoula, Despina or something. However, for the thousands of Mary Churches they have a solution. In Petra you have the Mary of the Sweet Kiss (Panagía Glikofiloussa), in Agiasos the Mary with the Holy Child (Panagía Vrefokratoussa) and in Skala Sykaminia the Mermaid Mary (Panagía Gorgonas).

On the south coast, not far from Melinda, there is a little church dedicated to the Hidden Mary: Panagía Krifti. When the Ottomans still ruled over the island a young woman with child was persued by some Turks, right down to the sea. Lost between high rocks, she did not know where to go. She then prayed to God and he was friendly enough to show her a hidden cave that saved her. Later the cave was dedicated to Mary and off course, a little church was build at the spot. In 1922 lots of refugees from Asia Minor arrived at the place and they all took the Hidden Mary as their patron saint.

In the Second World War it was people of the resistance who turned towards the Mary Krifti. But it was not the Hidden-Mary-at-Sea. High in the mountains, in the extended pinewoods above Parakila there is another Panagia Krifti-church hidden in a cave. That place I think was more suitable for resistance heroes, because this place really is difficult to access. The Maria-Krifti-at-Sea is easy to reach by sea, but the Hidden-Mary-in-the-Woods can only be found with a guide.

Hidden or not, civilian or god, after tomorrow all Marys will be celebrated, and in Greece they have a lot of them. That is why on August 15th, all Greeks, even the communists, will have a party.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2012

Sunday, 2 August 2015

July 30 – Heat wave




Now that spirits are somewhat cooled down after the negotiations with Europe, there is something else to keep you from your sleep: a heat wave! By definition: a period of days where temperatures are far above normal. Each country or region has its own precise understanding, for instance, in Holland there must be five consecutive days of temperatures above 25 ˚C with at least three days above 30 ˚C. The definition of a Greek heat wave (kafsonas) is three consecutive days with temperatures above 39 ˚C.

It’s so warm now that even some of the refugees arriving today plunged into the sea to cool off. I am glad that Medecins sans Frontiers have now organized regular busses that pick up the refugees in the north of Lesvos, to take them to Mytilini. It would have been a shame if, just like all those thousands of people who in past weeks had to walk to the capital, they now had to do the same in these inhuman temperatures.

So what is to be done during a heat wave? Well, keep your head cool, of course. The best way to survive the hottest parts of a day is to relax inside a cool and dark home or in deep shade outside. Or, even better, to pack up your things and go to the beach, to the blue, babbling sea.

Lesvos is surrounded by the Aegean Sea, a water of some 214,000 square kilometers, stretching between Turkey and Greece. In the north it is connected with the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea and in the south it merges into the Mediterranean Sea. Three big river deltas supply water to the Aegean Sea: that of the Evros, the Nestor and the Strymonas. If you follow those rivers upstream – and the many others that drain into them – you will arrive in Bulgaria. One part of the Evros forms the frontier between Turkey and Greece and the delta of the Strymonas is partly in the Republic of Macedonia (see: Drainage basin of the Mediterranean Sea).

So when you dive into the Aegean to keep cool during a heat wave, you are throwing yourself into international waters. But also the water of the Mediterranean circulates in the Aegean Sea, so its waters are even richer. The French Rhone (that smuggles water from the Lake of Geneva) and the Italian Po (that comes from the Swiss Alps, and is also fed with water from the Lakes of Lugano and Maggiori) come out into the Mediterranean Sea. Additionally the Isonzo, Krka, Neretva, Drin, Vijose and Vardar find their way from the middle of Europe to the blue sea, feeding themselves with water from all the lakes they encounter. It is a funny idea to swim in a soup of all those famous rivers and lakes, all of which, I am sure, are popular during a heat wave.

A lot of swimming goes on in the Aegean Sea. When you put on a snorkel and nose about looking for what is going on underwater, you will still come across plenty of fish (although fewer than there used to be because of over-fishing). I will not mention what fish are common, that would be too long a list (but many of them will be served to you in the Greek taverns); and they all share the sea with octopus, squids, dolphins and other sea animals. Even seals are part of this population, although nobody knows exactly how many remain. In wintertime I sometimes spot a seal who, with his round head dives in and out the water, showing his beautiful moustache for a few seconds and then disappearing under the water without a trace.

There are also people who believe that there are even more creatures roaming the seas: mermaids. According to some myths, the fist mermaid was spotted in Syria. About 3,000 years ago one of the most important goddesses of Syria was Atargatis. In her charge was the fertility of the earth and of the seas. Just like a dove, a fish for her was sacred. One day she madly fell in love with a shepherd, by whom she became pregnant. The shepherd however did not survive the divine lovemaking. Atargatis became inconsolable and after she gave birth to a baby girl, in desperation, she threw herself into a lake. However she could not die, and half of her body was changed into that of a fish. Her daughter Semiramis became Queen of Syria and in memory of her mother she forbade the eating of fish. Except for at the coast, fish eating is still not popular in Syria.

Lesvos has a mermaid-village that was built in 1922, when refugees sought shelter on Lesvos: Skala Sykaminia. The little church of the Gorgóna (mermaid) Madonna still glitters on a white rock at its picturesque harbour. The story is that once there lived a captain, who one day disappeared, leaving behind a mural of Maria with a fish tail. The next day the refugees arrived. The village and its gorgóna became famous thanks to the novel of Stratis Myrivilis: The mermaid Madonna. It is the story of an extremely beautiful girl, who according to some old villagers, was born to a mermaid.
Some of the dinghies that are bringing the refugees to Lesvos nowadays, reach the coast not far from Skala Sykaminia where I hope the Mermaid Madonna will bless all those people who have lost their homes and countries.

There are endless such myths about the Aegean. Heroes like Odysseus got lost there for years, the flying Icarus lost his life in the sea, people threw themselves into its waters because they had broken hearts (Alcyone and Sappho), and the Aegean waves once transported the head of Orpheus and its lyre to a Lesvorian beach.

The sea is full of stories and when you listen carefully, those stories will take you across the frontiers of Greece, deep into Europe, but also to the other side, for example to Syria (not a good place at the moment to get nice stories). Syria also borders on the Mediterranean, but I am afraid that its waters do not provide cooling against the war, rather only an escape route to safer places.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Sunday, 19 July 2015

July 16 - “Greetings from Greece”


(Stars above Lesvos; photo: Eleonora Pouwels)

Sometimes there are nights when you cannot sleep. Last night was such a night. I lay in my bed, I heard the crickets partying in the silent, warm night and realized that I could only catch some sleep if I knew whether next morning I would wake up in Greece, or in a new nation.

I went outside and took a seat under the enormous dome of stars and stared towards the other side, where strings of lights twinkled in Turkey. The only sounds disturbing the quiet night came from never sleeping insects and the gossiping waves on the beach. A beautiful night, though hiding so many things. I took my iPad and opened a newspaper: Greece just had accepted the horse yoke of Europe. I was disappointed. I had hoped that there would arise a new country from the mess Europe has created.

I looked at the stars, which are according to the scientists millions of years old, and I wondered how they would see the earth. Would they care about what happens for example on an island like Lesvos? Or do they just shrug their shiny shoulders, knowing that the Greeks have survived so many things, that they will also survive this crisis.

A star shot through the sky and surprised me - I mean, normally August is the month of the shooting stars - so I forgot to make a wish. I stared over the black sea and heard a motor roaring over the water. Were there refugees out there looking for Europe? The sound became so loud that I knew it must be the port police, who now patrol day and night because those fragile dinghies now launch at all hours of the day and the night.

I looked at the lights in Turkey twinkling like bright stars and wondered how many people there hid in the dark waiting to board the boats and to risk the crossing. The sea looked like the smooth black surface of a skating ring and would not be so difficult to cross, provided that the smugglers put enough petrol in the motor of the boats. Maybe there were dinghies already underway over the dark sea with the Turkish stars shining at their backs and in front the few lights of the northern coast of Lesvos as a landmark where they can find Europe. I wondered if they had also seen the shooting star and found time to make a wish.

The sound of the motor died away on the water and the chirping of the insects took over the silent night. I thought about Athens, under the same stars and wondered if the rioters had already gone home. I thought about Greetings from Greece, a book by the Belgian journalist Bruno Tersago (Groeten uit Griekenland, only available in Dutch), who explains the Greek crisis in clear words, interlacing this story with sad stories about the hard life in the Greek cities. Bruno used to be a blogger from Piraeus who described with great entertainment Greek life, talking about all kinds of things. But he started to write more and more about the politics and when the crisis really hit, his writings became alarmingly sad, highlighting more and more abuses of power. Eventually there was no more laughing about his blogs, his humour drowned in all the sadness; but he did become an expert of the current Greek tragedy.

I wish that for his next book Bruno will go looking for the new society which will be born out if this crisis. How the young people will introduce new kinds of money, expand the use of guerrilla gardening and create alternative trading markets. Years ago this movement started, like in Volos where the TEM is, for a large group of people, now their new money. There also is an increase in interest for the
Bitcoin in Greece, but there are only a few places in Greece where you can pay with this internet money. I try to imagine my going to the local bakery in Molyvos and trying to pay with Bitcoins!

Here on Lesvos, at first sight, you might not see not much of the crisis. And there always is the hope for a good summer season, so that the money can keep on rolling on the island. Although the season started very well, it suddenly fell in like a plum pudding. The Greeks themselves have many reasons to be afraid, but it is the many tourists who have through cowardice annulled their bookings or even not booked at all, because they have listened to journalists who wrote things they made up.

I can assure you that money still comes from the atms, a bit more for the tourists than for the Greeks; I can assure you that the shelves in the supermarkets are full, especially because the Greeks do not have that much money to go on a shopping spree. And anyone who says that the island has become a dangerous place because of the refugees is just scare-mongering: what nonsense!

I look upwards to the Milky Way and the white glow suddenly reminds me of Pope Francis, who in a speech scolded the world leaders because they follow “The dung of the devil”. If the Pope says what so many people have been writing, I know that I am not the only one that is disgusted by Europe. This so-called Union has now shown its real face and I am sad that Greece saw no other solution than to remain in the power of this monster. Aldous Huxley already warned in 1932 for such a phenomenon in Brave New World, which now can be called Europe: a literary nightmare that has become truth.

I look above me, to that incredible old state of stars. How do they manage to remain that long and silent above the world? Then I see another shooting star and this time I respond quickly and make a wish. I am not going to tell you what I wished for, otherwise the wish will not be fulfilled. But I do hope that the refugees will see many more good luck tokens and that they keep on believing in a new future and I also hope that the Greeks, in or out of Europe, will soon find new ways that will bring them to a better future. It is time to clean up the mess Europe created and to deal with the dung of the devil.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

Friday, 3 July 2015

July 1 – Europe


(The new road to Sigri)

Europe in fact was born in Lebanon, on the Mediterranean Sea, in the city of Tyre, not far from the border with Israel. As Europe comes from the Middle East, I wonder why the European Union doesn't care about the refugees (lots of them coming from Lebanon's neighbour Syria). Daily large numbers of refugees are still reaching the shores of Lesvos (and elsewhere in Greece) and most help is still given by volunteers, amongst them tourists. The locals cannot agree upon a more human way to help them, like a local shelter at Molyvos, and - it is still illegal to provide transport to Mytilini. So still the refugees - young and old, in elegant sandals, old sport shoes and even barefoot - trudge the roads of Lesvos towards the capital, under a merciless sun.

In any case this is an unusual summer for Europe and it looks like it has forgotten where it came from. Europe was named after the daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre. Zeus fell in love with her, changed himself into a sturdy but attractive white bull, made her caress him and when she climbed on his back, he ran away, into the sea and transported her as far as Crete, where he changed back into human shape and married her. Europe was the first queen of Crete.

Zeus abducted her. But now it looks like Europe is under the spell of another god: Plutus, god of wealth and money. He must have enchanted her because Europe has changed a lot. In Dante's Divine Comedy, Plutus guards the fourth ring of hell, where the avaricious and the prodigal have an eternal fight, doomed to start every time all over again. If Dante were to write his masterpiece in our times, I am sure he would classify the politicians as avaricious and the bankers as prodigal.

Zeus, god and master of the sun, rain, thunder and lightning is clearly not amused by the world, because even the weather in Europe is pretty upset. While in West-Europe sudden high temperatures are heating up people's tempers, in Greece it is pleasant, and even hotheaded protesters get cooled down by a local downpour. Clouds seem to be a steady presence in the summer sky and regularly rain clouds try to attack Lesvos from Turkey, with or without a thundering sermon from Zeus. But tourists do not have to worry: the sea is warm, a refreshing breeze dominates the heat and the island is like always a great summer paradise.

But Zeus is worried and just like the nearly daily meetings of European politicians last week, Zeus now daily meets Aphrodite, goddess of love. As there is not much love left in the world, it is time that Aphrodite seduces the politicians, so that they will no longer listen to the greedy Plutus and use more humanity in their acting. The whisperings between Zeus and Aphrodite can be followed live early each night in the western sky, where they operate under their Roman names: Jupiter and Venus. These two planets are holding an emergency meeting, an event which happens only once in a decade.

I have already seen them glittering in the nocturnal sky, Venus brighter than ever next to another bright point in the air, Jupiter, and that's with the sun not even set. The famous Star of Bethlehem was probably the phenomenon, when these two planets are seen so closely juxtaposed to each other, shining like one.
But in reality these planets will never merge, because they are about 670 millions of kilometers away from each other. That they now seem to be so close together is purely an optical illusion.

With the appearance of Jupiter and Venus still fresh in my mind yesterday I drove to Sigri, where they're still busy changing the road. Thanks to removing the road, and widening it at other places, lots of new petrified trees have been found. The finds first get protected by a layer of plaster and in their white covers look like phalluses. But the road has had other remarkable changes since I last drove over it in spring. On some parts they have started to lay black concrete lanes, painted with bright yellow lines. Those lanes reminded me of Jupiter and Venus: they run parallel to each other but then on occasion in parts diverge. But what's remarkable is that both lanes run along each side of the road, leaving a space between which is as wide as six lanes loaded with sand and debris!

Is there an eight-lane road coming between Sigri and Kalloni or are they going to make fancy middle banks, decorated with, for example, petrified trees? It is a big mystery to me what they want with this road. Are they hoping in the future that the Tour the France will start from Sigri and therefore are already building cycle paths or is this road getting enormous emergency lanes at both sides of the road? The best guess is that the road is prepared for the transport of the blades of the gigantic wind turbines that are planned to come in the west.

So it remains very excited what will become of this road and if the already laid concrete lanes will ever get connected. In the sky the lanes of Jupiter and Venus will widen again from after tonight (July 1st). I do hope that by then they will have reached an agreement about the future of Europe. And I do hope that Zeus will use the vindictive god Nemesis to get Europe out of the hands of Plutus, because otherwise he may have to abduct Europe again and make her Queen of Greece.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Monday, 22 June 2015

June 18 – Economics for dummies


(an old jetty at Perama)

I am proud of most of the Greeks. Proud, because they are the first Europeans who have chosen change: they voted for Alexis Tsipras, who tries as long as he can not to bend his head to the European dictatorship and to the banks. He also dared to install a flamboyant minister of Economic Affairs: Yanis Varoufakis, who made a show, not only with his unorthodox style of clothing and behaviour, but also with his ideas about economics.

I am not a journalist, nor a scientist, a politician and not at all an economist. Nowadays when reading about banking business you need to have some knowledge of all those complicated processes, otherwise you cannot understand it. It is no wonder that most of the people have no idea how we landed in a crisis and for that reason believe without questioning everybody who seems to know, like the media.

According to Yanis Varoufakis (not only a minister but also a professor in economics) economy is no exact science but a philosophy. He explains that in a little book addressed to his daughter and for nitwits like me: Μιλώντας στην κόρη μου για την οικονομία (The book was recently published in Dutch: De economie zoals uitgelegd aan zijn dochter). After reading it, my thoughts were confirmed: the banks are the biggest criminals of our time and politicians have forgotten that one of the roles of a government is to protect the money of the people.

The text is clear and describes how we ended up in today's predatory economy, where banks and big industrials make bigger and bigger profits at the expenses of the people who become more and more poor. Varoufakis explains the complicated matters with examples from the history of England, like the introduction of sheep rearing which made the farmworkers lose their jobs and thus caused the first huge changes, and later on the industrial revolution. He even speaks about movies like The Matrix, Blade Runner and Star Trek, to make everything more explicit.
The beautiful novel Harvest from the English writer Jim Crace just received the prestigious prize of IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It tells about the extinction of a village of farmworkers, because wool will bring more money.

I am not sure if here on Lesvos many farmworkers lost their jobs when sheep were on the rise in the Lesvorian landscape. It is a fact that the island used to produce far more agrarian products like tobacco, cotton, pulses, wheat and grapes (Lesvos once was famous for its wines). Sheep and goats still dominate the meadows and mountain slopes, but are no longer kept for their wool (that is now disposed of in deserted places), but rather their milk is used to make cheese.

The industrial revolution on Lesvos was marked by the introduction of steam presses that streamlined the production of olive oil and by steamships that speeded and cheapened transportation. And so around 1900 Lesvos was a pretty prosperous island, also having at the Gulf of Yera the biggest tanneries of the region. The now dilapidated buildings (eg. in Perama) still are an impressive sight.

After centuries of Ottoman rule in 1922 Lesvos returned to being Greek, but that destroyed the industry. This had nothing to do with economics, but with politics. Some agrarian activity like tobacco and resin remained, but olive oil and cheese became then the main export products, with ouzo in third place as an export

After the Second World War the western countries of Europe developed quickly. Not Greece however. This country first had to face a civil war and later the colonels took power. Not really a climate for investment. The colonels lost power in 1974 and left Greece as an impoverished country.

For Greece joining Europe meant hope, and when they did, Europe offered so many cheap loans, that for a moment the Greeks felt like living in paradise. We now know what an enormous price the country now has to pay for it, because even not half a century after the Greeks finally gained their freedom, the country again is on the brink of a steep abyss.

And maybe this is also true for the whole of Europe, which now shows more and more signs of failure: daily it becomes more clear that politicians act according to what the big industrials and banks want. For instance permission has just been given to the big dangerous wolf Monsanto to operate in Europe. This industrial giant, famous for its chemical pesticides and Agent Orange, buys patents of vegetables (and tries to take over the wine industry in France).
After Monsanto gets what it wants, in a few years you can forget about your choriatiki (Greek salad) because you will only get Monsato salads. They will have patented all the tomatoes and paprika. On Lesvos most people have a little vegetable garden where they grow their own food and in many restaurants you also get those homegrown vegetables. Most of the tourists love Greek tomatoes, because in the summer months they get so much sunlight. But if Monsanto will rule the markets, we will be left with only manipulated tomatoes who will taste the same in the whole of Europe and who knows, it might even become forbidden to grow other vegetables and even eat other than those of Monsanto.

When you see how Europe holds a knife to the throat of one of his members, how it tries to discharge the problem of refugees to three of its members and do nothing to reform the banking system, it is clear: Europe has failed. No politician ever learned a lesson from how Iceland dealed with its bankruptcy, no leader of government seems to think that refugees also may contribute to a solution of the European crisis and nobody dares to stop the money makers. In my eyes west-Europeans look more and more like the machines in The Matrix, like Varoufakis mentioned in his book: they obediently agree with all new laws, just squirm a bit, but nobody dares to take action.

That is why it is good that - whatever happens next - Greece opposed Europe and its money wolfs. The New Europe - just like democracy - will be born in Greece. And when you want to learn more about our turbulent world, Yanis Varoufakis ideas are a real must for a first economy lesson.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

June 8 – Who are they?


(silent witnesses)

Whilst in Molyvos, volunteers prepare sandwiches for the two hundred refugees who arrived this morning in the village (who knows how many on the island itself), I am asking myself who these people are. According to the refugee organisation UNHCR 60% comes from Syria, and the others mainly are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea.

What food were they used to eating before they left their homes and kitchens? For centuries now refugees, immigrants and guest workers have changed culinary habits. Who in the Netherlands, England or Germany still eats traditional Dutch, English or German dishes daily? Who doesn't regularly eat pizza, souvlaki, spring rolls, satay, couscous, shawarma or hummus? 

That the Greek and Italian shores are now the recipients of large flows of refugees is no novelty. If you take a look at the history of refugees, you see that there have always been refugees somewhere. The many people who fled their countries or were displaced especially in the 20th century caused enormous human migrations that had its impact on the culture and the culinary uses in nearly all countries involved. I happen to think that most of the traditional Dutch, German and English dishes are pretty boring. But when I check out some recipes coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Eritrea then I immediately want to start cooking and try out those wonderful combinations of ingredients. The food in those countries also has been influenced by lots of other cultures and it offers surprising variations.

I think Greece is at the crosspoint of the North European and Arabic/African kitchen: it still has that temperate character of the Northern kitchen, but at the same time has a rich tradition of seasonable vegetables and fruit and uses a modest range of herbs. The more southwards you go from Greece, the more spices are used in the food.

This article was published some six years ago and is about an American journalist who, together with Anissa Helou, a famous Arabic cook, strolls around in Aleppo and Damascus (Syria). They taste and talk about Syrian food. The colourful markets were full of people and hospitable, as there was no war going on, which now is destroying completely the country. This still was beautiful Syria, where people went out for dinner, where women in their kitchens cooked the most scented dishes, where just like in Greece courgette flowers and cabbage leaves were filled with a spiced mixture of lamb meat or/and rice and where hummus was placed on a plate in a special way. Now these women arrive here at the beaches in wobbly dinghies without even a pan to cook with.

Even though after years of warfare the Afghans are left poor and broken, their dishes still come from a pretty rich kitchen, influenced by Mongolia, China, India, Europe and the Middle East. For example they like to eat a kind of tortellini (mantoo) and they prepare their meatballs (koftas) with more spice than the Greeks use in their keftedes.
Next to my house is an orange tree that grows bitter fruit: nerantzia they are called in Greek. As far as I know the only use they have is to cook them into a slightly bitter marmalade. But looking for some recipes I found an Afghan one: Norinj Palau, or rice with oranges: a dish made with bitter oranges, almonds, pistachio, rice and chicken. And all the ingredients are available in Greece.

The Iraqi kitchen differs very little from that of other Arabic countries. The exception may be that the mighty Euphrates and Tigris run through their country, providing them with lots of sweet water and thus giving them the opportunity to have fresh water fish on their menus. But just like the Greeks they also enjoy filo rolls (börek) filled with goat cheese, meat, vegetables or nuts, they serve tsatsiki as cacik, they call all stuffed vegetables (as well as tomatoes, courgette as vine leaves) dolmas, they eat shawarma calling it kass; and like everywhere in the Arabic world they love the divine, honey-sweet baklava. The beautiful and interesting blog of Nawal Nasrallah, My Iraqi kitchen, proves that the Iraqi kitchen has roots deep into history.

The Eritrean kitchen  has also known plenty of influences: Ottoman, Italian and Ethiopian. And did you know that (according to Wikipedia) 62.9% of the Eritreans are Christians, of which most are orthodox? And that they also, from time to time, like to have an ouzo? Well, that aniseed beverage in Eritrea is called areki. Both in Eritrea and in Somalia lots of pancake like bread is served with the meals, like injera which is made with teff flour, that comes from a grass with the beautiful name: Williams Lovegrass (Eragrostis abyssinica). Both these cuisines have a lot in common. The Somali kitchen knows the same influences of that of Eritrea and just like in so many African countries one of the best known spice mixes is berbere, a spicy blend that gives your food an excellent Eastern scent and taste.

Can you imagine how it hurts to leave your own herb collection and pantry, your herb and vegetable garden and your apricot and almond trees, which for years have helped you feed your family and friends! How bad can it be that for days, weeks, months and even years you will not be able to cook your favourite dishes, or even enjoy a proper meal? Most people arriving here have lived through such hell they are actually happy when being served a sandwich.

If I was able to, I would start a road restaurant between Kalloni and Mytilini, where many of these refugees pass walking and where I then will cook and distribute those universal dishes like tsatsiki, stuffed tomatoes, lentil stew, hummus or souvlaki, which I will spice with their national blends, so that on their way to a new life in an uncertain future, they might smell the scent of home and renew themselves. For most people Lesvos is just an inbetween station on a very long long journey towards a new home and kitchen.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015