Saturday, 14 October 2017

October 10 – Away with the summer holidays!

(A little church near Agiasos)

Once a young street dog arrived at a school. His dark loyal dog-eyes lit up at hearing childrens’ voices. The pupils liked him, called him Bubu and gave him food and shelter: Bubu had found a home. Until one day the earth started shaking, walls tumbled down and even at the school stones were flying around. Bubu had never been so afraid in his life: he fled to the fields where no stone could hurt him.

On June 12 (2017) an earthquake destroyed most of the village of Vrisa on Lesvos, including the school. As nobody ever saw Bubu again, they assumed he was buried under the debris of the school. Last week the rebuilding of the school was complete and the school opened with lots of festivity. For the first time since the catastrophe the school bell sounded through the village, and all the children and their parents were gathered. Suddenly there came Bubu, rushing out of the fields, happy that everybody was back, knowing that he would be loved again.

Probably the dog was conditioned and when he heard the bell, he understood that is was safe again in the village. Now that sunlight sets nature on fire, tree leaves changing from green to red to yellow, I wonder if tourists also are conditioned: you just lure them with the sun and some warmth, and they come flying like Winnie the Pooh for sweet honey. But once they are in Greece, they complain about the crowds, snappy waiters and the heat.

Not that Lesvos recently has had masses of tourists. Although last summer there were some complaints about the crowds in the harbour of Molyvos during August. The summer also had some heat waves – a well known phenomenal in a Greek summer – and again the tourists could not sleep, burned alive on the beaches and started to complain. I am wondering why those people come back again and again, as if there is no other time to visit Lesvos.

It's also a bit strange that Demeter, goddess of agriculture, celebrates in the summer the half year that her daughter Persephone is allowed out of Hades. It's only when Persephone goes back and Demeter shed her tears, that the real party can begin: autumn is there and nature comes back to life.

Fthinoporo (φθινόπωρο) is the Greek name of this colourful season, meaning that the fruit will fall (from the trees). This means plenty of labour: figs have to be dried, walnuts gathered from the trees, grapes trampled, apples collected. High in the mountains, surrounded by lovely colouring woods, Agiasos prepares for the chestnut festival and people get ready for mushroom hunts. Quinces and pomegranates are still clinging to the trees; they will be the last fruits of the autumn, before the big olive harvest begins and before oranges and lemons decorate the winter trees like colourful christmas decoration.

Last week it rained chair legs on the island. That is what the Greeks say when it rains cats and dogs (another funny expression we do not have in Dutch): “Βρέχει καρεκλοπόδαρα!”. The earth gave a sigh of relief: finally something to drink. All dust washed away, the horizon swept straight again, and the sun gloriously back in the sky. The autumn definitively had arrived, but most tourists were gone. A bit dazed, the island now shows her new fresh beauty: a glittering satisfied sea inviting you for joyful swims, trees changing colours like magic balls, a low light that will make photographers salivate and some deserted terraces where one can sit with an ouzo, enjoying the warm sunlight.

Yesterday when I took a walk in the sunlit, glittering woods and the first chestnuts thudded down right beside my feet, I wondered if the tourists were wrongly conditioned. The summer wears none of this beauty, nor enjoys the delicious temperatures that only cause a bit of healthy sweat. In Agiasos thousands of local souvenirs, next to boxes full of chestnuts, apples, quinces and beans, await the lonely tourist who dares to visit the village. Agios Dimitrios, that little hamlet full of sources, nearly forgotten on the old road to Agiasos, is like a dream location for a movie. Along with the sweet perfume of the damp earth, the colourful little traditional taverns and the intensity of the sunrays upon the trees, it appears like a master work of a painter.

If ever the media picks this up, I am sure that tourists can be newly conditioned to forget the overheated summer holidays, to let the first autumn rains be like the schoolbell for Bubu, and go to Lesvos for an unforgettable autumn vacation.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Thursday, 5 October 2017

October 1 – Samos


Island hopping. That’s what you did when it was the drachma that rolled around in the Greek economy. From Athens by boat to Mykonos, Ikaria, Samos, Leros, Kos. Imaginary lines from dot to dot crossing the blue Aegean sea. From the beach on Telendos, back to Kalymnos, Patmos, Naxos, Amorgos: one idyllic island after the other. So much choice in this sunny island republic. On the ships there were islanders burdened with parcels and island hopping backpackers, and – when the wind took over – puking people. Nothing unusual, in those times, when you travelled from one paradise to another.

Recently when I sailed to Samos plenty of memories of island hopping came back. Waving people welcoming you at the harbours, screaming for your attention: they had the best pensions at sunny little beaches, to which they transported you in the back of their pick-ups and where plates full of tomatoes, cucumber and feta did not stop appearing on the table. Picturesque villages full of hospitable people, bellowing donkeys, cheap wine and strong headed ouzo.

Now there are other boats: with good toilets, comfortable chairs everywhere, apart from the local traveller only a few foreign tourists stand at the railing, even though you are still able to go for only a few euros from one island to another one. Tourists nowadays do not have time to travel, but land immediately on their destination where they settle on a bed in the sun.

Samos rose like green jade straight from the blue Aegean. The harbour of Vathy meanwhile placed to the other side of the bay. Forests everywhere. A beach-hopping-island, thanks to its numerous lovely little beaches, light blue sea, white sand or soft pebbles. The Samiotes understood that these white pearls attract tourists. Most beaches are fully supplied with showers, changing cabins, good road signs and – the most important – sun beds. Sun loving people obviously like company: on most beaches a view of sand was blocked by all those sun mattresses.

Kokkari, once an idyllic fishing village, now buried by restaurants, little hotels and pensions. The tiny fishermen’s houses at the beach – where once there were always women shelling peas, net repairing fishermen and screaming cats – forever lost to the crowds. Now it is only beach, sun and sea pleasing the tourists.

Samos does not like its history: everywhere new houses adorn hills and mountains, barely leaving space for old restored buildings. In contrast to Lesvos, time here has moved on and old times rolled over to create a modern island. Lesvos is proud of its many old, beautiful villages. On Samos they all seem to be shiny new.

Only Karlovassi looks pretty undisturbed, the place where history did not fade: enormous, old, empty tanneries and tobacco warehouses, even dilapidated or restored, rememberance to the old times when this little town was flourishing. Now she proudly shows her old, industrial culture.

It is the tourist business that brings in the money these days. And the wine. I was expecting to see grapevines everywhere, but there was more wine on the table than grapes in vineyards. Besides the world famous sweet Samos wine they make plenty of white wines and I even tasted some local ouzo (none of which was anything compared to those of Lesvos). The white wines (the red I did not drink) however are excellent and can easily be compared to those of Lesvos' neighboring island Limnos.

Viti culture and sheep do not like each other; no four-legged woolies were to be seen, so the cheese mostly came from Lesvos. Although you do find a few beautiful, sturdy goats around with huge curved horns. The island looks clean, not much garbage and I wonder if that may be due to the jackals, still living on Samos, who sneak out of the dark woods at night to clean up the garbage.

Another product of the island is honey. The Cave of Pythagoras can be found along a little dirt road that winds deep into the mountains, ending at a small, cute wooden cafe that offers refreshing drinks and pots of honey. You probably need at least 3 tablespoons of the honey and 3 liters of water to climb up the 380 stairs leading to the Cave of Pythagoras. I did not venture up those steps. Not only was the temperature attempting to reach 40 C, just looking up to the cave high up in the rocks caused my fear of heights to roar through my body. So instead I bought a pot of honey and afterwards I regretted that I did not buy half the shop because I’ve rarely tasted such good honey.

Coming back to Lesvos I immediately realized why I have lost lost my heart to it. Lesvos is not only much bigger than Samos, but the volcanoes kneaded it into a unique varied island, with fertile, green woods and little romantic beaches under steep walls of rocks, as well as wide landscapes with bare desolate mountains. One of the highest tops of the Aegean - the grey, bold Kerkis in the south of Samos - did impress me a lot, but only because I’d forgotten that the granite Olympus towering over the centre of Lesvos, has the same beauty.

But what I learned most from this trip is that travelling on a ship is so relaxing and surprising. Roaming from deck to deck, floating over the blue water, silhouettes of a sturdy Turkey and mysterious islands passing by, spotting playing dolphins, and of course being lead to beautiful destinations. Why have we forgotten how to travel comfortably?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Monday, 25 September 2017

September 24 - Farewell Perikles, dancing myth of Molyvos

As a naughty Karagiozis
he danced around customers
his wrinkled face
always in a fat grin

A meatball here, a tasty fish there
juggling with full plates
sometimes a bow, sometimes a greet
never a complaint crossing his lips

Languorous evenings full with traditional sounds
colorful puppets endless gossiping
about the Greek world
with a laugh and a tear

Then his laughing eyes
would light up with pleasure
just like when fingers bowed
the smooth strings of a bouzouki

And when the summer evening progressed
empty bottles starting to make music
feet floated off the floor
father, daughter, father, son

Dearly celebrating Greek life
nights full of swirling people
and he, in the middle of the dance floor
of his restaurant full of flowers

Sometimes waving with his rifle
towards tables full of clients
a sudden shot in the blue air
and gone were the fish-eating wasps

His rich life going towards twilight
in his little old white car
embracing the sunset
to fish in Eftalou

To the gardens or the sea
Georgina always at his side
driving and enjoying
the empty winter evenings

O, Perikles, dancing myth of Molyvos
sleep took your voice
music, dance and life
far beyond the evening red

In heaven you can angle
as long as you want
while we here
will miss you so much

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Saturday, 9 September 2017

September 4 – Where is the Summer?

Month of August blessed with Summer
highlight of Greek holidays
this year pestered by foul cold streams
making naked shoulders long for coats

Even as Maria floated to heaven
in the midst of the high season
normal sweating pilgrims
were greeted with cold

The sea as cold as a polar bear’s love
lost to Mediterranean warmth
as if we’ve started all over again
from that jubilant spring

Unusual cool August
more like the end of September
when you are on the doorstep of Autumn
pulling the blankets up the beds

Where is that desirable hot summer
warming hearts and then so quickly
like time here on the island
passing as fast as a rocket

Fat figs in the trees
first signs of Autumn
Summer causing the fall of the leaves
beside the rotting but sweet scented fruit

This Summer disguised as a belated guest
who comfortably seats herself
only to stand up as quickly to pace around
in haste and impatient, as if elsewhere would be better

Boom, the door will slam shut
behind the Summer sneaking off
leaving us to the colourful Autumn
come to prepare us for the Winter

No bad words about the Winter and its soft whispering stoves
but it's like I have not yet stored up enough heat
and haven’t dallied sufficient hours in the blue sea
and still have long languorous evenings to go under the stars

Grapes already disappeared
wasps fattened with their juice
Sardines still in the sea and on the plates
until the last rays of Summer.

Burning hot healing Summer
melting momentarily all sorrows
fraternizing at beaches and in the sea
why such a hurry to deliver us to Autumn?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

August 21 - So long, Ioanna

You came to the island
to find a new home
a new life
or a new beginning

you followed the colourful threads
of your ambition
yarns and other woolly materials
transferred into pieces of art

You seemed to be so happy
in your working space full of treasures
learning from old traditions
and pass them through

the yarn giving you enough energy
to help out who ever suffered
human or animal
your spinning wheel kept on helping

There must have been disturbances
that cut your yarn
maybe trust, maybe illness
made you to an object in need

Giving up the loom
and that beautiful space you created
out of your big heart
and the joy of living

I hope you have been happy
on this island full of invisible threads
that kept you busy
learning your skills to other people

giving them a way of creativity
so needed in life
because you believed in beauty
and giving it to others

forgive me I was not there
when you needed love in return
may there have been others
to have kept your faith in humanity

because that was what you were:
a beautiful woman
coming to the island
to spread goodness, beauty and assistance.

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