Monday, 7 January 2019

February 6 – Lesvos: a winter sport destination

(Snow on Lepetimnos; photo: Els Maes)

The sun kept up tradition by shining on January 6, the day that the Greeks stream to coasts and rivers to celebrate Epiphany. The priests lead the procession, followed by the notables and thereafter the rest of the village. With a cross and a bunch of basil everything that floats onthe water is blessed, where after the cross is thrown into the water. Even though the sun appeared, it was freezing cold in Molyvos. The Lepetimnos, dressed in a white fur coat, smiled upon the village. I think the boys who dived into the water on this particularly cold day were pretty sturdy.

The winters I’ve spent on the island have not all been mild and rainy, like this season on Lesvos is being described. Nearly every year the highest tops of the mountains got a bright snow cap and on two occasions I was able to build a snowman in Eftalou, which was a wonder according to the locals, who had never (or only once in their lives) seen this happen.

The first two winters, some 15 years ago, were pretty rough, wet and cold and Molyvos got more than once covered with thin layers of snow. I didn't believe the inhabitants who said that they never seen this. I listened with a bright smile to stories about warm winters when you installed the barbecue on the beach and you even slept the nights away on the beach: I didn't believe it. It might be that I lived through one of these magical warm winters - there always are days that the sun is so strong that you can imagine it is summer - but most winters were as cold as in Holland. 

There are lots of scientific reports saying that even Greece cannot escape global warming. In the coming decades temperatures may rise some degrees. Then they mostly talk about warmer and longer summers. I haven’t read much about the winters. Could it be that the summers get warmer and the winters colder?

Once on Lesvos, on a January day, in the year 1850, within one hour the temperature dropped some 13 to 15 degrees to far below zero. The juices in trees and plants, who were just preparing for spring, froze and even enormous trees broke like tiny matchsticks. Also lots of animals died. That winter with most trees and plants dead was then followed by famine, causing an emigration wave.

You do not want to experience such a phenomenon. Until now this winter has not been so harmful, even though it started too early. The inhabitants of the mountain villages on Lesvos had a white Christmas and when they woke on the very first morning of the new year they were again in a Winter Wonder Land. Today, whilst those boys dived into the freezing water, merry sun rays lit the surrounding snowy mountains (even in Turkey the snow on high tops radiated like diamonds) and gave the feeling of a winter sport atmosphere.

Imagine if this this trend were to continue, then we could organize on Lesvos an Eleven-village-tour: from one mountain village to another through the snow, by ski, or sleighs tugged by dogs or just by foot. Even now all Lesvorians are hurrying into the mountains to experience the snow. Just think about it: Lesvos as a winter sport destination. 

It would revive the villages around Lepetimnos and Olympus. A cable car from Agiasos to the top of the Olympus, or one from Vafios to the top of Lepetimnos would be a tourist attraction even without snow. You could also build a spectacular bobsled track, winding down the mountain slopes while offering super views over the cold blue sea. Besides ouzo there could appear on the menus hot chocolate and Lesvorian cheese fondue. The sheep wool could be preserved again in order to knit warm sweaters to sell to the tourists.

It really is a pity that nobody can definitively predict what the climate will do. Yes, warming up. You can see that in the Netherlands. The memories of the Eleven-city-tour, a very popular ice skating tour in the north of Holland that took place nearly every year in the past, now takes on mythological proportions. And the summers get warmer and dryer. I do not feel that summers here on Lesvos get warmer, only that winters get colder.

If they would be sure that winters here will get colder, then we can start designing tourist friendly bobsled tracks and environmentally friendly cable cars. And of course start arguing who would be responsible for the ski slopes and the youngsters can start practising snow boarding. So, are the winters getting colder on Lesvos or not? That is the question.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2019

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

December 18 - A boat, a tree and Christmas

(A Christmas tree in Molyvos)

The Lesvorian landscape is filled with olive trees, but the island also has plenty of pine tree forests, which in the winter give a cozy Christmas atmosphere. However, they are not real Christmas trees; it's usually fir trees that are decorated. What is the difference? The needles of a fir tree grow free from each other, the needles of a pine tree - the ones you find all over Lesvos – grow together in groups. That does not mean that branches of the pine tree, or even little pine trees, will not serve well for Christmas decoration, but Lesvos can never pretend to be the place where the Christmas tree came from.

That place is somewhere in the North of Europe, in the Baltic states or Germany, countries covered with fir trees. During the dark days around the 16thcentury, the idea came to decorate a tree for Christmas, maybe inspired by the medieval mystery plays, where often on December 24 the Tree of Paradise featured: the Tree of Life with apples. So it might be that the Christmas tree comes from the north. For decorating a tree we have to go back in time and to the south: to the Greeks and their Olympic gods. In ancient times the Greeks held up branch’s of the olive or laurel tree and decorated them with red and white threads of wool and walnuts, chestnuts, figs, apples and whatever fruit was left. This merry branch was called Eiresioniand was to thank the gods for the harvest, or – when the harvest was not good at all – to ask for a better one for the coming year. Homer mentioned this Eiresioni in one of his works: in autumn children went around the houses, carrying a decorated branch and sang songs with wishes for a good harvest. 

Thesekalanda, the name for these good-harvest-and-good-luck-songs, are still performed by children going around the houses, but now at Christmastime. The children however no longer carry a branch, but a triangle to give the rhythm for the songs. When and why in history the Christmas branch was lost, I do not know. Before the triangle, the children carrieda little decorated boat in their handsand in Byzantine times it even may have been a little Byzantine church. 

The ancient Greeks also decorated little ships during the very old festivities in honour of Dionysus. He was the only god who took a boat to visit the islands and this way a little ship became symbolicforthe arrival of Dionysos: let the party begin! But that is not the only boat that was decorated in ancient times. You also have Saint Nicolas, the patron saint of all seamen, whose Name Day is on December 6th. He saved more than one sailor from a rough sea. A decorated boat may also be a symbol for this white bearded saint. And then there are historians who think that such a beautiful little ship may also have been decorated just out of joy because a loved one returned safe and sound from the sea for the holidays. 

Even though the Greeks may have provided the inspiration to decorate a fir tree, the decorated Christmas tree was first seen in the country in 1833. Otto, the second son of King Ludwig of Bayern, was seventeen years old when he was put on the throne of Greece in 1832. Not only did he bring an army of German servants, he also brought lots of traditions. Like a real Christmas tree, that every year was installed in his palace. And so, after endless wanderings the decorated olive branch returned to Greece as a decorated Christmas tree.

King Otto did not succeed in winning the love of the Greeks. In 1862 he was thrown out of the country, but the Christmas tree remained. The number of Greeks that copied the tree, was countless. Along with the Christmas tree he also introduced beer brewing to Greece, another German passion that remained. Even though that beer never became a Christmas drink.

I am happy that the Greeks have not been inclined to have a nasty national debate about what is more Greek: a boat or a tree as Christmas decoration. Most municipalities are even not making that choice and place both a boat and a tree in public places. An answer to the question what is more Greek probably does not exist: both the decorated trees and the decorated boats have their origin with the Greeks and their desire to enjoy life.

Kαλά Χριστούγεννα!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Moria: city of the future

(Za'atari camp, Jordan. Photo: internet)

When King Croesus, once the richest man of the world, went to the oracle at Delphi, it told him that a big empire would come to an end. Croesus made his empire Lydia big and wealthy and the oracle’s answer mislead him into attempting to conquer the Persian empire. However, he lost the battles, lost Lydia and his life.

You could consider history as an oracle. Were Europe to consult the oracle, the answer might be that a mighty empire will perish. Big empires always decline; that is the law of the Medes and the Persians. The only question is when.

The arrogance of the big states is that they think themselves invincible, not seeing that time is nibbling at them. For instance Europe: I see her as a tired, old lady, swinging her handbag against the big money makers, even though she knows they have already bought her house. Her body is too stiff to follow the always faster moving history.

Just take a look at the list of the biggest refugee camps— most of them in Africa. Compare them to the smaller camps on the Greek islands. Then you wonder who are the third-world-countries. Africa has many problems of its own but seems at least to know how to deal in a humaen way with refugees, in contrast to how Europe deals with refugees in – for example – camp Moria on Lesvos.

Our history consists of only wars and therefore it is strange that today’s crisis of refugees is considered as temporary. Refugees are no temporary problem! Since the Second World War produced over 60 millions of refugees, and like wars, refugees kept on coming and going.

Similarly there have always have been immigrants. In Rotterdam (Holland) they want to open a museum for the millions of emigrants that left from Rotterdam to America around one hundred and fifty years ago. I think that abit cynical, because these mostly very poor people were just economic refugees, a group of people that nowadays has a problem finding a new country; even in Rotterdam they are not welcome.

In the past people crossed the oceans because that huge Americaseemed to be the promised land. Now in Europe there is not much land to offer, but lots of villages are emptying, causing schools and shops to close leading to the whole village becoming uninhabited. And North European countries have to deal with an increasing number of labour shortages. I remember the same problem in the Sixties. Northern European countries then sought immigrants from the south of Europe and from Africa. Now emigrants and refugees knock on the door of Europe, but do not even get a chance to explain who they are or what they can do.

The visionair Kilian Kleinschmidtleft the UNHCR to realize his own ideas, one being the camp Za'atari in Jordan, where he created safety and more humane conditions: We need to look at refugee camps as urban spacesFor him it is important that the people – while waiting for whatever – have a safe space to live, to be able to earn some money or go to school, in order to keep their dignity. 

Small NGO's, the new world of hope, have also understood. They form the rare little high points of hope in the worst managed camps like Moria; what the European (and Greek) governments don't do, on purpose or not — they do. Like collecting relief goods and medical equipment for the local hospital that struggles with the general Greek crisis, and, even important: they organize projects for the 8000 refugees stuck in and around the camp and for the local people. They provide medical assistance, schooling, musical projects, creative lessons, sports activities, theatre performances, dinners at restaurants and coffee sessions. But they cannot do anything about the mud, the make-shift tents, the eternal waiting times for food and papers, dangers and other inhumane things. Would mister Kilian Kleinschmidt be so good as to come and reorganize Moria? 

I am fascinated by the big camps in Africa and in Jordan: they grow into new cities, complete with shopping streets and entertainment areas. Moria does not look at all like Za'atari city, where everybody has more space, physical and psychological. Perhaps the camp should become far bigger. The Chinese – looking for building projects all over the world – could do just the job, being so good in building new cities in no time. And there are plenty of ideas for refugees houses.

The devoted members of the long list of NGO's keep on coming and going to the capital Mytilini, where it has become hard to find a room. The city fizzes with new life during summer and winter. Refugees keep on coming, as long as the wars in the Middle East do not finish. Change Moria into a city of the future. Lesvos can use a new city and even that way pimp up its damaged image.

Probably these words will fall on deaf ears. Europe is fixed on its economical dictatorship where there is no longer room for humane thinking. But the people are starting to react and climb the barricades. Europe, are you listening?!

(With thanks to Mary Staples)
©Smitaki 2018

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

November 11 – Soccerboletus

(Soccer boletus)

There once was a time when it was believed that mushrooms traveled with lightning. This explained how they could appear so suddenly. We still believe that mushrooms shoot out of the ground after a good rain shower.

However I no longer believe that. With the exception of a bit of rain during a bad week at the end of September; day after day the sky has remained super blue. The clouds have continued to avoid the island, as has the rain that from time to time could be observed above Turkey, but it has never dared to cross the Aegean and relieve the dehydrated land over here.

Last week, when I went with friends to the pine forest above Anemotia, we immediately saw that a herd of mushroom pickers had passed through the wood. Wherever we looked there were the remains of rejected mushrooms. So, even though during the past months there had been only one teeny-tiny shower, the forest seemed, surprisingly, to have been full of mushrooms.

We were frustrated by the broad track the destroying mushroom raiders had made the day before, so we became very focussed in finding what was left. The resulting finds were some forgotten aspros (Russula delica) and pèperites (Lactarius piperatus), dried out boletus, perished milk caps, grey mushrooms and other mysterious kinds. I also discovered a dark brown ball, already taken out of the earth. It looked like a porcini, the king of boletus, rolled up, anxiously, like a hedgehog. Nearby we discovered two similar balls, only this time as big as footballs: burst because of their explosive size and unnatural form. They did look like porcini disguised as giant puffballs. 

We left those strange balls in the wood, only took the small one to research it back at home. We also took the mysterious triplet with suede caps, just like the orange-yellow Caesar's mushroom (Amanita Caesarea); those mushroom freaks had forgotten the most delicious one there is to eat. 

The ancient Greeks ate mushrooms, but I guess they were not fond of them. They mistrusted them and thought it strange that they sprang so quickly out of the earth and had no seed. Maybe the story was true that they traveled with lightning: that is why they were also called sons of Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning.

In ancient times people died from eating poisonous mushrooms. Nowadays the Greeks are still careful about eating them. I only know a few Greeks who eat more than two kinds of mushrooms. I must admit I am a bit the same. I love searching for mushrooms and identifying them, but eating all of them: no way! Most of them are not tasty at all.

When we arrived at our secret spot, it seems we came too late. Not because of mushroom hunters, but because of the time: most boletus had already perished. But we did find an enormous colourful dotted stem bolete (Boletus erythropus), diverse mysterious clusters of yellow-white mushrooms, small shiny pearl grey mushrooms and more milk caps — a mushroom Walhalla! There was even a green amanita with white dots, the brother of the fairy-tale-red-dotted-fly-amanita. 

It is believed that during the Eleusinian Mystery Parties, where club members were confronted with violent visions, and during the heady celebrations of Dionysus, where the Maenads were brought to demented deeds, there must have been mushrooms circulating. Similarly with the priestesses of the Oracle of Delphi, who transmitted the words of the gods whilst in trances. That could have been due to gasses they inhaled, but some scientists thought that they were just tripping women, that chewed on a white dotted fly amanita, pretending to be the messengers from heaven.

The Romans liked mushrooms more than the Greeks and became huge consumers, meaning: only the upper class. There were times that as a poor citizen you were not allowed to even touch a mushroom! The Romans also became skilled in killing each other and it was not rare for a murder case to involve mushrooms.

I agree with the ancient Greeks that mushrooms are strange beings. It is a miracle that only with humid air they can grow into such big creations — in such fascinating forms. Maybe those giant porcini puffballs were a new kind: Soccer boletus. Too big for squirrels to play with (in Dutch those porcini are called Squirrel bread), but big enough for the boars who have come back to Agiasos and, who knows, possibly now also returned to the woods above Anemotia.

The suede triplet appeared to be a rare Velvet roll-rim (Tapinella atrotomentosa)edible but without taste.The small ball cut in halves was indeed a porcini: easy to dry and delicious to cook with. Now I regret that I left those other two Soccer boletus in the wood. It would have been kilo's of first class porcini. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Saturday, 3 November 2018

November 2 - Chestnuts-la-la-la

(The chestnut wood above Agiasos)

What is a Zeus acorn, a Sardic nut, a Pontic nut or a Sinope nut? These are all names, found in old documents, for the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). When looking through the history of this autumn nut, lots of different names were found, but I’m not entirely sure if they all concern the sweet chestnut. Everybody who knows the thorny husk where the chestnuts hide, would never call that a woolly fruit, like Mota, meaning 'woolly'. Or Lopima, another name for the chestnut, meaning 'easy to peel'. Well, if there is one fruit that can drive you crazy while peeling, it is the chestnut. I love chestnut puree, but then you need lots of patience and a whole day to peel a bowl of chestnuts. 

In an earlier column from 2011 (Sardian nuts) I wrote that Alexander the Great introduced the sweet chestnuts to Greece. But since reading and understanding the paper Cultivation of Castenea Sativa in Europe*,I have found thatlong before Alexander the Great even was born, sweet chestnut trees were blooming in Greece. The writers of this scientific paper have researched ancient Greek books where chestnuts were named, even if they found a whole lot of different local names. Happily enough Theophrastus named the fruit by its known name, so there is no confusion. Because another problem is that in ancient times all fruit with a hard skin was named a nut, making it difficult to find out where, when and for what chestnuts were used: the text could just as well be about a hazel, walnut or an acorn tree. Before Theophrastus, Herodotes and Hippocatres had already named the chestnut; after them many more followed. 

By then we are in a historical period that is much easier to research. Then you had for example Magna Graecia (Great Greece) that started in the eighth to sixth centuries BC, when Greek states blew their hot breath over the coasts of the south of Italy and Sicily, until the Romans ended that colonization. Syracuse and Neapolis (later Naples) were the most important colonist cities. I now do understand why, in those ancient times, lots of Greeks traveled to Italy: it is known that Sappho for example lived for a few years in Syracuse as a refugee or an exile. And the great philosopher Pythagoras fled Samos from the dictator Polycrates around 530 BC and settled in the South-Italian city of Croton.

These are only two of the many Greeks who settled on the Italian coasts, thus building large Greek colonies. These Greeks brought the chestnuts to Italy. Maybe there were already some sweet chestnut trees in Italy, but there was no real chestnut culture. The Romans learned from the Greeks the huge value of the wood of the chestnut trees and what to do with chestnuts in the kitchen. And thus later the Roman armies brought the chestnuts to more northern countries.

Maybe one day it will be known when the chestnut trees appeared above Agiasos, but who brought the first chestnut treeto Lesvos will be difficult to find out. The mountain village Agiasos is number one in celebrations on Lesvos. At the end of the winter it is a champion in organizing a sizzling carnival with colourful and humorous events. Around August 15ththe thousands of pilgrims offering wishes (or a thankyou’s) to the Holy Virgin at their famous Maria-church are welcomed with lots of music, food and drinks.Finallyduring the first weekend of November this little town will celebrate the popular chestnut festival, which, for weeks already, they have been collecting chestnuts in the woods. In the coming days the perfume of roasted chestnuts will whirl through the small picturesque streets, the squares will fill with lots of visitors and the booze will stream abundantly. 

Nowadays most vegetables and fruit that are at the base of the Greek food have been spread all over the world: olives, figs, walnuts, grapes: you will find them as far as in California, an American state that imported nearly everything from the old world. Greece nowadays has its umpteenth emigration crisis, if only this one does not go to Italy. The last emigration wave was in the 60's-70's, when most emigrants departed with everything they owned in one suitcase. Nowadays it’s young people who have finished their studies and export their knowledge. This will be a big loss for Greece, who will need decennia to repair the damage Europe has caused.

There is also knowledge flowing into the country; its coming in with the refugees, who, however, do not want to settle into a poor country. And so Greece, once a proud country, with lots of booming commercial cities as far away as in Italy, now again sees its country impoverished. They no longer have anything to give other than great holiday experiences, like the entertaining Chestnut Festival in Agiasos. But that takes place just when most of the tourists have gone.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018

*The cultivation of Castanea sativa (Mill.) in Europe, from its origin to its diffusion on a continental scale, door: M. Conedera, P. Krebs, W. Tinner, M. Pradella en D. Torriani

Monday, 15 October 2018

October 14 – The downfall of the donkeys

(A Lesvorian donkey)

Donkeys have never scored highly in the scientific world. Even though they have existed for thousands of years they have always been in the shadow of horses and only a few have become famous. Lots of people will not know his name, but the best known donkey is Nestor. He was the one who carried Maria to the stable of Bethlehem, where he and an ox patiently waited atthe manger. The most well known donkey in literature might be Eeyore, a friend of Winnie the Pooh (A.A. Milne).

A search for different donkey breeds worldwide came up with only 185. The problem is that there are only few people that keep the donkey species pure: they are working animals and the mostly poor owners have never given a shit with whom a donkey was bred. Germany and France do have a considerable list of fancy donkey breeds; Greece officially only has the Arcadian, the Ellinikon and the Cyprus ass. But most Greek donkeys are of mixed breeds.

Donkeys originate from Africa and slowly found their way up north. For centuries they were indispensable as a working animal, until in the modern world their functions were taken over by machines and cars. Only in very poor countries they remain a trusty ally to work with.

When in the Sixties the mass tourism to the South European countries started, donkeys with a flowery straw hat and big sunglasses on postcards became a big hit. Now donkeys as well as postcards have become a rare sight: their numbers decrease rapidly. In 1955 there were still 508,000 donkeys in Greece, in 2007 there were only about 15,000 (I do not know the numbers for postcards).

Ten years ago you could find most Greek donkeys on the Peloponnese, about 5000, the Aegean islands had about 1700. I have no idea how much donkeys now still roam Lesvos. You see them less and less on the roads and since Michaelis, the Donkey King of Molyvos died last year, you will no longer run into a donkey safari. Some donkeysare still used for the olive harvest in the mountains, or by an old farmer, who has no car or driving license, to go to his plot of land. Even the garbage in Molyvos nowadays is picked up by a horse, since the last garbage man collecting the garbage with his donkey died. 

However, there might be future hope for donkeys: donkey milk! In Ancient times this product was praised by Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder, being healthy, especially for people with a milk allergy. Also the beautiful Cleopatra loved donkeys: she bathed in donkey milk, just like Pauline Bonaparte (yes: the sister of Napoleon) to get rid of her wrinkles. Nowadays donkey milk has become popular in the cosmetic industry proving that Cleopatra and Pauline were not so mad: donkey milk seems to smooth wrinkles.

You would say that we should exchange all cows for donkeys, but a donkey can only give 0.5 to 1.3 liters of milk a day, and only for 6 to 7 months a year. So I am wondering if a donkey farm could be profitable.

Slowly slowly the world begins to take interest in the donkey: in 2000 Europe made a new law that all donkeys should be registered and given a passport. Countries with most of the pure breeddonkeys obeyed, but I wonder how many Greek donkeys have a passport. Just imagine an old farmer from Skoutaros going on his donkey all the way to the capital in order to validate the papers for his old donkey.

Also Greece is finally taking interest in the fate of donkeys: not long ago they passed a new law that forbids donkeys to transport more than 100 kilo's a ride. On Santorini donkeys are still used as working animals: daily they drag thousands of tourists some 400 meters up to the village. Now the not so thin tourists have to drag themselves up. Also on Hydra, where donkeys are the only mode of transport, scales are required.

Taking a scale with you during the olive harvest is no option, so the life of a donkey here on Lesvos will not change. Lesvorian donkeys will slowly become extinct and soon Lesvos might be an island without donkeys.

Maybe all those donkeys without a passport must feel happy that they are not allowed to travel: in China the product ejiaois in great demand: a jelly made from the skin of donkeys, used in the still very popular Traditional Chinese Medicine. For ejiao about 4 million donkeys a year are slaughtered. We all know that these Oriental medicine practices lead to the endangeringof many a wild animal like elephants, tigers and rhinoceros. Nowadays donkeys are also very much wanted in China. Let's hope that Chinese people will not start poaching donkeys here, to smuggle them to China through the ports along with other things they buy in Greece. That way the Greek donkeys will stand no chance at all. So never sell your donkey to a Chinese!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Saturday, 29 September 2018

September 27 – Where have the olives gone?

(Olive trees)

September 27 – Where have the olives gone?

These days the Greeks mainly talk about the medicane, a rare hurricane on the mediterranean sea. Just a few days ago a big storm prevented the ferries from functioning and, in a few hours, blew the summer completely away, while temperatures dropped considerably. Combined with a warm sea this makes ideal circumstances for the birth of a storm -like a hurricane. 

Crete and the southern mainland (including Athens) got code red weather alarm, but also here in the north of Lesvos the wind keeps on blowing, contrary to the weather forecast. They also predicted rain that has not fallen. The island is longing for some water from the heavens, but except for a little local shower, all serious black clouds sailed across the island in search of the land of the sultan (where, for the last month, there was a lot going on in the sky). 

At least the storm blew all the almonds out of the tree, save me the trouble of batting the poor tree in order to get the nuts. Now I just have to collect them from the ground. However the rain for the olives will be too late, because most olive trees have already lost all their fruit. There are only a happy few that wave in the wind with branches filled with light green olives. Lesvos awaits another crisis: an olive crisis.

For centuries olives and olive oil provided the main income for Lesvos. Until the Ottoman Empire fell, there was lively international commerce in olive products, but since then the island is only an empire with small farmers, who manage thanks to the olives to survive the Greek crisis. Now they do not have one olive!

Most owners of olive fields I spoke say the source of the empty trees was the mediocre summer without a real heatwave and with some serious rainfall in July. Ideal weather for the dakos, a fruit fly that prefers to lay its eggs in the olives, this way killing the fruit. These insects had the time of their lives last summer, without being killed by high temperatures or without dying from thirst.

At least the island is not besieged by the olive pest Xylella fastidiosi, a bacteria causing great havoc in the olive grows of Italy and Spain. This bacteria comes with a spitting bug and prevents food and water from reaching the branches. Entire groves have been dug up because of this lethal illness. This pest-epidemic has not yet reached Greece. Which is lucky because the island has even more olive trees (12 million) than Greece has inhabitants (nearly 11 million). Imagine how the island would look without the green silvery trees. 

Although there will be not much to harvest this year, some people still have olive oil — last year having had such a good harvest — the price however was so low that lots of people did not sell their oil and kept them in their containers. Anyhow, the mayor of the island has already asked the government for compensation for the farmers who will see their income decline this winter due to the lack of olives. Likewise, there will be a minimal number of people hired to harvest those rare olives, a number that already decreased because of the crisis.

In Europe you can find several very old olive trees, some said to be thousands of years old, like The Olive Tree of Plato, in a field a bit out of Athens. According to the story this was one ofthe twelve direct ascendants of the first olive tree that the goddess Athena gave the capital. Plato settled his academy under this huge tree where he taught his pupils. Last century the tree was a kind of tourist attraction, until 1976 when a bus ran over it. Part of the large trunk was acquired by the agricultural academy of Athens. The lower trunk remained in the soil and even grew new roots. In 2000 when the price of heating oil was so high due to the crisis, many people took wood illegally, including the trunk of this famous trees, now disappeared into thin air.

Lesvos does not have such a famous tree, but some parts of the island have trees that certainly are hundreds of years, maybe even thousands of years, old and will have much to tell, if they could only talk. Lesvos without olive trees is unthinkable. It must have been a horrible sight when in 1850 most of the trees died during the Great Frost (when, in just a few hours, the temperature dropped below zero). The island overcame this disaster quickly by importing and planting many new trees.

However we can live with a Lesvos without olives for a year. The owners of the trees will have time to clean their olive fields: repairi walls and fences and dig over the surrounding land. A friend has even said that it is good for the trees to not have fruit for a year: this way they have a rest, which can only lead to a better harvest next year. But then they certainly don’t need the medicane raging over them. The hurricane (now called Xenophon*) seems to be heading towards Lesvosin the direction of Turkey, but hurricanes are impetuous and difficult to predict. So now we can just wait for this rare Mediterranean phenomenon.

*The hurricane now has become a cyclone called Zorbas)

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018