Thursday, 18 January 2018

January 16 – The Sparrow Bush

(A sparrow bush, lycium europaeum)

When the ice-cold wind blasts from the north and threatens with polar bears on the road, the lee of a sparrow bush is a perfect place to adjust your breathing and estimate if the damns of heaven will or will not open soon. It is a fine place to blow your nose or drag the zipper of your jacket up to under your chin, because in the winter it’s always is colder at the seaside than you think.

The sparrow bush is an unsightly, thorny, winter green bush, that grows along the beach, towering at least two meters over the road, offering shelter. It’s so ugly that each time the municipal men come in spring to take away the useless branches of the shadow-offering tamarisks, I am afraid that they will think the sparrow tree is a worthless one too and cut it down. Last year indeed they pruned the bush a bit too enthusiastically and I was afraid that the bare sparrow bush would not survive.

But it has proved to be a tough bush, that resists sea water, snow, some ice and especially that freaky cold north wind, as well as an extravagant pruning session. This winter it came back in all its glory and along with it - the return of its inhabitants. This is not an empty bush: in the cold season it houses a gang of lively sparrows.

I am not a birdwatcher, so forgive me if they are in fact buntings or some other sparrow look-alikes. How can anyone ever distinguish all those birds? I take it that they are not house-sparrows, because they live in that bush. Therefore they might be tree sparrows. Those little creatures do move all the time; they waggle, twitter and tweet all day long in the sparrow bush. When you want to photograph them, they disappear between the leaves deep into the tree and the only thing that remains is an angry rustling. They then keep very quiet, even if you wait a bit, in the hope that suddenly one will peep out from between the leaves to properly introduce himself: “Hello, I am Pete the Tree Sparrow”.

I was more lucky in determining what the bush is. It probably is a Lycium europaeum, also known as a box-thorn, wolfberry or tea tree. Tea? Yes. The leaves are good for infusions that may help poor eye-sight and other eye diseases and even help to prevent cancer. It is a healing sparrow bush. According to Wikipedia, there also should appear berries, in China named goji berries: much hyped as weight reducers. They’re not only good for slimming; the Chinese also think they might help you to live longer.

But I cannot remember ever having seen those little weight-loss berries between the leaves. I have noticed tiny, dirty white flowers, that, according to Wikipedia, flower in the summer. Although the ones in my sparrow bush appear in autumn and winter.

There may well exist a winter-flowering box-thorn without goji. I mean, this family has about 70 to 80 varieties. Pliny the Elder (23-79), a Roman botanist, who wrote one of the oldest surviving encyclopedia (Naturalis Historia) named the sparrow bush after Lycia, a region in what is now Turkey. But much earlier the Greek Theophrastus (371-287 BC) had already noted this goji bush in his books, mentioning that they produced excellent wood fire.

Sparrows have an extra bone in their mouth to eat (berries with) seed. Because they hang out day and night in those box-thorn bushes, I’m wondering if it’s because the sparrows are so mad for those goji berries, that before I have a chance to see one, they’ve already been consumed. In China the goji also helps to fight impotence in men: I figure that those little rascals might also use them for this purpose because the sparrow population diminishes with the hour. Our houses nowadays are built so solid and so compact, not leaving any space for the house sparrows to nest and this – I imagine – might be so frustrating that some of them become impotent. Tree sparrows find their numbers declining because they seek food in the chemically treated fields. This can also cause impotence and there’s certainly not enough goji berry-eating ever to combat that problem.

Those small discrete sparrows are protected by the goddess of love: Aphrodite. They are known because for their busy sex life. The, to a human, impenetrable goji bush offers a unique opportunity. When you shelter from the icy north wind in the lee of such a bush, you may hear excited rustling and movement from deep within the bush. It could be that you are sheltering beside a popular sex-club.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

January 7 - Where has the Great Greek Mercantile Spirit gone?

(Olive harvest on Lesvos)

In the mud, between olive trees, there are shabby summer tents. The trees don’t look much better: those that are not nearly cut to the ground, most of their branches have been sacrificed to the nearly freezing people who have only tiny fires to warm up. Welcome to Lesvos, the island of millions of olive trees, now better known as The Shame of Europe: Camp Moria.

This refugee camp has been built amidst some of the endless olive trees that since immemorial times have helped the island. Even in 1850, when due to a frost, all trees literally burst open and cattle also died, the Lesvorians immediately set about with empty stomachs to replant new trees. Within years these brought new prosperity to the island and food to their plates.

Mytilini again has become an international town: many NGO's have settled to help the thousands of refugees who arrive or are stuck in the camps. They live in hotels, dine in restaurants, empty the stores and now and then take a stroll over the island. Similar to 1900, when Mytilini was a bubbling centre of international allure, only then it was the trading companies and the merchants, living in huge villa's, who brought the city economic prosperity: a period that even tourism never could compete with.

While Mytilini and Moria have become their own new worlds, elsewhere on the island life continues as usual. Winter means olive harvest, mostly done by hand but sometimes aided by small electric devices. The millions of trees are spread all over the island, even growing in inhospitable mountains, supported by small terraces on incredibly steep slopes or in remote corners; even there — most of them still get harvested. There are not many huge plantations: most of the fields are owned by different families who have looked after them for generations. Some people get the olives done in a few days, some take all winter to beat the fruit out of the trees.

In the glory days, when Lesvos was still part of the Ottoman Empire, though the Greeks had a pretty free hand in managing their soap and oil businesses, 98 steam driven plants pressed the liquid gold from the olives and three factories were transforming the kernels into fuel. The island had the largest number of big factories in all of Greece. Oil and soap were exported as far away as Marseille and the countries around the Black Sea.

In Agia Paraskevi and in Papados the old factories have been transformed into museums, while each community still has its own presses, most of them have modernized. The many – big and small – olive producers are united in a cooperative, that helps with transport, pressing and storage. But Lesvos lost its rich commerce. No more foreign consulates left in Mytilini, the big merchants moved to the mainland and since the mighty Ottoman Empire became part of history, Lesvos lost most of its export markets.

There now is just a bit of the oil going abroad. Most of the precious olive oil strands in local kitchens or is send to family in Athens. Only a handful of small producers pour the golden oil into bottles with their own label and try to sell to other countries.

Especially in the north olive trees are not taken seriously anymore. There they think that the new gold can be pressed out of tourism. In the summers they labour in kitchens and offices to please the tourists. But there is no clear vision about how tourism on the island should be developed. Some people thinking they hold the power believe that all-inclusive hotels will bring in the money, while some smaller offices just try to promote alternative holidays and eco tourism, which in my opinion suits the island with its millions of trees far more. Those offices do not go for the money, but realize what a rough diamond this, so often neglected by Athens, island can be in the overheated tourist industry.

The tourist business is an unstable market. Proven by the last two years when tourists stayed away from the island due to the refugee crisis. The olive market is more stable: if you take care of the olive fields, there is money to be earned. In the winter months everywhere on the island you hear the long sticks beating against the branches or the humming of little machines ticking the olives in the nets. The liquid gold drips everywhere from the trees, but what is missing on the island are some smart merchants. Lesvos is infested by people who cannot or will not cooperate. Everybody mistrusts everybody and cannot be happy when some one else is successful. So everybody continues operating on their own, never succeeding in something big. The Great Greek Mercantile Spirit, once making Izmir and Mytilini so prosperous, seems to have gone up with the smoke of history.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

December 20 - A Blues of Christmas Songs

snow covering all ugly things.

Like it was after Last Christmas,
& during all of the winter months

forgetting I was not alone.

In the Silent Night & all those other cold days,
in the refugee camps they were freezing

the Jingle Bells ringing
because some met their death.

again I wonder

& how many Little Drummer Boys
are still stuck in the camps

to give them a peaceful living.

nothing compared with what most refugees endured

they for sure saw worse.

Mary's Boy Child was born in a shed
because she had to flee persecution.

Now again: many families torn apart,

his white season ready to come

but this year I beg you: no cold nor snow

of all those muddy desperate camps.

do not forget all those people

stuck in summer tents, without a home,

also for the many angels who are still there to help

to distribute all over the world

to those who have nothing

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Saint Nicholas & Saint Cargo


In the Netherlands the birthday of Saint Nicholas, December 5th, is a big celebration, especially for children. Each year he arrives with his steam ship from Spain. But why Spain? He is a copy-cat of the bishop of Myra, whose remains – according to many people – are buried in the Saint Nicholas Basilica in Bari, Italy. In his home town Demre, in modern day Turkey, a crypt with his remains has never been found. It is said that, around 1087, some 700 years after his death, Italian merchants took his bones to their homeland.

That is the story. A story that never ends: just look at Saint Nicholas' knight, the black Piet, who so irritates many coloured immigrants in the Netherlands with his dark skin that he will soon change colour.
Last month under the church in Demre a grave was discovered and now archaeologists think, because it looks undisturbed, the bones of Nicholas of Myra must be in that crypt. Did the Italian merchants fool everybody?

We cannot be sure yet, because they have only detected the grave with electronics. To really touch it an antique mosaic floor must first be lifted, which will take some time. Of course this might just be a publicity stunt to attract some tourists to Turkey. Although I do not know anybody who has ever visited Saint Nicholas in Bari, nor in Spain where his address is unknown.

We all know that Santa Claus lives somewhere in Lapland, close to the Arctic. Here is is address in case you didn't know:
Santa Claus
Santa Claus Main Post Office
FI-96930 Arctic Circle

Why so far in the cold? Santa Claus should live in Turkey, not far from the grave of Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra, or even better, in the United States, this way he has to travel less. Because Santa Claus is just the American version of the Dutch SinterKlaas , who only had time for the American children at the end of December. Santa Claus is a copy-cat of a copy-cat.

In Greece neither Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus have anything to say, even that Mr. Christmas is trying hard to gain some influence. In Greece it is the bishop of Myra who gets honoured on his namesday on December 6th: Agios Nikolaos. However, no Greek will ever dare to dress like this saint and visit parties. In most cultures the bishop of Myra is known to be a protector of children. The Greeks chose another story from his miraculous life: one day he rescued a bunch of sailors from a heavy storm and that is why he became the patron saint of the seafarers.

He is needed very badly these days. The small boats keep on coming from Turkey and the winter with its nasty weather has just arrived. Refugees even have more than one patron saint, like Saint Alban and Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, although they are a bit obscure. Saint Cargo is the latest patron saint for refugees. Even though he is created by the German art duo Various & Gould and he has not yet visited the Pope to get canonized, but with his present deeds he might gain popularity with a greater public.

I do not know if Lampedusa claims Saint Cargo's grave. If not, we should do that on Lesvos. Saint Nicholas could help to remove his remains in his steam ship, that may refresh Saint Nicholas' dusty CV. The crypt will be placed in Camp Moria, because Camp Moria urgently needs a saint!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)
© Smitaki 2017

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

November 14 - For somebody

In memoriam for the 3 unknown (refugee) people,
at least 2 of them children estimated 9-13 yrs old,
washed ashore on Lesvos in the second week of November 2017

For somebody

Somebody must have seen you
when you were born.
Your mother that is
and perhaps your father
or was he away
fighting, or just defending the family?

Somebody must have fed you
because you have lasted some years.
Were there toys around you
where you spent the first years of your life
learning this cruel world
while playing between ruined houses?

Somebody must have thrown a bomb
or triggered a nasty gun
tearing apart people and homes
instilling an endless fear.
Did your mother die
or was it somebody else from the family?

Somebody must have taken the decision to flee,
you were too young to make that choice
and had to follow mother, or father
or, maybe it was an uncle
who tried to bring you to safety
together with maybe a brother and a sister.

Somebody must have protected you
on the road in the cold.
Maybe having to sleep under a naked sky
putting a warm blanket around you
whispering in your soft ear
that not everywhere are there bad people.

Somebody must have told you
about safe countries without a war.
Giving you sweet dreams
about a new and shiny life
where you can trust people
who do not kill.

Somebody must have told your protector
where to take a boat to this new life.
Or were you already on your own
having lost your family
just taking care of your siblings
trying to get them to a promised land?

Did somebody see you when you touched the water
or were you asleep and given a shock.
Or were you pushed
or was the boat not resisting the waves?
Did you cry out for your mother
or were you only concerned for your brother and sister?

All the somebodies who were in your life
do not know that you are now gone.
Into a sea that took your breath
into a heaven, of that I am sure.
Or were the somebodies you have known
long gone before you touched the water?

So many godless somebodies
who never learned to love.
Making war and killing not only you
but so many other innocent souls.
Turning them into nobodies
forgotten even before the war is over.

I am somebody reading your story
taking you into my heart.
Crying for you and telling the sea
how cruel it has behaved.
But it was not the sea (but somebody)
who decided your life was over.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)
© Smitaki 2017

Friday, 10 November 2017

November 5 – Honey meadows

(The moor at Lesvos)

You might not expect it on a Greek island, but well hidden amidst the light green pinetrees, heather fields colour their environment deep purple during these magnificent autumnal days. You may see some of these plants along the main roads, but the best heather experience you will have is at Alogeli, a little north of Megali Limni.

Finding your way through the pine forest, a melody plays high through the waving treetops, that might well be coming from the god and musician Orpheus, whose head and lyre came ashore at Old Andissa. It’s said that since then his music can always be heard. When arriving at the moors, another concert also plays: millions of heather flowers attract thousands of bees who – without a director – buzz madly along. The soft buzzing is another music to listen to and wonder about.

I imagine that bees buzz out of happiness, seeing those sweet scenting flower fields. The scientific explanation for their music however is less romantic: what you hear is the crackling of their skeleton. While a bee flies, their bones crack up and down a 190 times per second, a soft sound we interpret as buzzing.

Making honey will probably produce another specific sound, although I have never ventured close enough to the many beehives parked all over the island to be able to research this. As a child I learned from Winnie the Pooh that you could steal honey unpunished, but now I know better: many a tourist on Lesvos, curious about the beehives, has had to run, fleeing from a swarm of bees. Honey on Lesvos gets very well defended!

And on Crete: There Zeus was brought up with honey in a well hidden cave, prior to starting his career as leader of the Olympic gods. It is said that since then the bees stayed behind in the cave and attack anybody who dares to enter the cave. Four thieves thought to be clever and dressed all in bronze, but as soon as they had tasted Zeus' honey, their bronze and other clothing fell from their bodies and huge bees started an attack. Zeus wanted also to punish them by sending deadly lightning, but Themis, goddess of fate, didn’t like the idea of people being killed in the sacred cave and changed the thieves into birds.

The discovery of honey was made by Dionysus, the bon vivant of the Greek gods. The less famous god Aristaeus learned how to keep bees. This very first bee keeper could not resist the beauty of the nymph Eurydice, but she was the promised bride of Orpheus, so she ran, not wanting to record another #MeToo. As she panicked she did not watch out and was bitten by a deadly snake and died. Orpheus was inconsolable and dropped all music, making the gods untuned. As punishment all the bees of Aristaeus died, which made him inconsolable. Orpheus could bring his bride back from Hades, provided that he did not look back, which he did by accident, thus condemning Eurydice to stay forever in the underworld. The gods also pitied Aristaeus and he was commanded to make an offering of 4 cows and 4 bulls whilst letting their bodies remain untouched. He succeeded in doing so and in the cadavers were born new bee peoples Aristaeus could place back in his hives.

Not many such stories are told about heather, even though it must have been a very satisfied god who created the heather fields as a reward for the bees: their nectar brought up more than one son of the gods and on many old Greek coins a bee is depicted. Was it Pontia, who during the Minoan culture was called Mother of the bees? Or was it Apollo, who got the gift of prophesy from three bees? Or from Demeter of Ephese who had a bee as one of her holy symbols? It is clear that the mythology here lacks some history.

Greece is the second country on the list of numbers of beekeepers per square meter (Hungary is first). So honey still is richly flowing. But the gods seem to care less these days: Greek bees also suffer from Colony collapse disorder. However, wandering along the Lesvorian moorlands, there seem to be still enough bees to provide the entire island and all the gods with this divine honey.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

October 21 – Fishes

(Fishermen on Lesvos)

Now that most tourists have left the island, a saturated silence has descended upon the greening hills and mountains. The quietness is only disturbed by twittering birds or a gust of wind playing through the trees. With no Zeus reining his horses across the white foam-capped sea, the waters are also resting. There’s a little fishing boat approaching, the sound of its purr-purring motor good for meditation. That may be why so many men on Lesvos love going fishing: either swaying in a little boat on sea or from the beach while smoking and gazing out to sea. If a fish decides to bite, so much the better.

However last week the coast of the north was vibrating due to roaring motors far away. In the Turkish waters there were at least twenty enormous fishing trawlers emptying the sea. Because of their super bright lights, it was like being across from Istanbul. I can’t bear to think about the tonnes of fish lifted from the sea that night.

Like elsewhere in the world, the number of fish on Lesvos is decreasing dramatically. Not due to the Lesvorians: they have only a few big trawlers (Greece has approximately 300). The fishing fleet of Lesvos consists mostly of small, traditional fishing boats, some still wooden. There will be one man looking out for a school of fish, while another man steers the boat over the waves. The island has many picturesque harbours where the colourful little boats wait to embrace the sea.

Two years ago the fishermen really had a bad year. They nearly only fished refugees out of the sea. Not only did they not bring home fish, many of them became traumatized. Now war ships and those of Frontex guard the seas and pick up the 2 to 4 boats of refugees arriving each night, leaving the fishermen with plenty of time to do their fishing things.

Small fishermen deliver mostly to local restaurants. Super fresh is the fish that will appear on your plate. Fish however also have seasons: now it’s the time of palamida (bonito) and lakerda (as many Lesvorians call this small kind of tuna; originally lakerda is a way to pickle fish). The world famous sardines from Kalloni are only served in the summer, while in winter you can enjoy shell fish. On stormy days or nights when the full moon makes the nets visible even to the fish, no fisherman shows up on the water, meaning days without fish.

In Eftalou (not far from Molyvos) there once lived the famous fisherman Adonis. He lived on the beach with many cats, dogs and a seagull. His father was also famous. The book Ψαρόγιαννος (fisherman Yannis) by Takis Chatzianagnostou is based on this family and was even made into a movie shot on Lesvos, with great music from Yannis Markopoulou. Watching a trailer of the movie, I experienced déjà vu: the images show unashamedly the Lesvorian version of the famous Zorba-the-Greek dance, once so beautifully performed by Anthony Quinn. I checked it: Zorba was released in 1963 and the other mentioned movie in 1966.

Andonis can be seen in an interesting documentary about the fishermen of Molyvos: Ψαραδες και ψαρεματα (Fishermen and their ways of fishing). This movie shows that in earlier times the battle between fishermen and fish was much more honest. With dancing feet and stones the fish were lured to the nets or spotted through bottomless buckets.

There is no longer communal fishing, apart from those huge fishing monsters, hiding along the Turkish coasts, emptying the seas around Lesvos. And there are not many young people following in the steps of their father, taking a little boat to the sea: the catches are less and less worth the trouble. If this continues fishermen will also be threatened with extinction, just like the donkeys which, after the death of donkey man Michaelis, are rarely seen in the north of Lesvos. What a shame if the purr-purring sound of little boats gets lost and I am wondering who will be the first starved out: the fishermen or the fish.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017