Friday, 29 May 2015

May 26 - Let’s go Lesvos

(Newly arrived refugees in Eftalou)

Last Sunday Molyvos was filled with cyclists instead of with refugees. Big and small, old and young, it seemed like every bicycle owner in the village was participating, under the burning sun. The steep mediaeval streets, the bumpy boulders and sharp bends are an ideal challenge for the village ride which was running for the second year.

For centuries the donkey served as transport in Greece. Until last century when they were (sometimes literally) parked beside the road to make room for the car. Lots of Greeks still see an aftekineto as a motorized donkey, thus creating dangerous traffic situations. It still is very common to stop in the middle of the road in order to greet a friend coming from the other direction. And passing another car on a bend is also very common because on a donkey you did the same, without taking too many risks. And I won’t even talk about all those sidelined donkeys that are parked on the streets in order to eat the green green grass at the side of the roads.

There is a new road user, seen more and more often emerging from a difficult bend or on winding roads: the cyclist. Cycling in Greece is getting hot and drivers now should seriously get used to this group that might come sailing down a slope or bend in the road at full speed. Do you recall ever seeing a cyclist many years ago in Greece? It seems that a first one was seen in 1880, according to a book about bicycles in Greece, from 1880 to 2012 (Το ποδηλατο στην Ελλαδα).

Cycling is not expensive and the bike is a very good way of transport in these times of crisis. Although I can imagine that not all Greeks have the money to buy one. But bike lovers are doing their utmost to promote this vehicle: in the big cities as well as on the islands more and more bike events are being organised, like the Athens Bike Festival, this year taking place on September 18 – 20, and also Mytilini, who, in spring for some years in a row, gets a part of its inhabitants onto two wheels, so that its streets are crowded just with bicycles.

Probably due to the mountain stages in the famous tours, sport cyclists also love to go around on the island. For years now the Lesvos Brevet event is organised for some tens of fanatic cyclists who are more than amateurs. Throughout the year they go to different islands and places on the mainland of Greece to obtain another brevet and the distances grow longer and longer. This year in the Lesvos Brevet there was a choice of two distances. The 400 km race has already taken place in March and the 200 km (with the start and finish in Molyvos) will take place on Sunday June 7 (last year the distance was 300 km). The course clearly is not for foreigners (for years my brother is the only non Greek speaking participant) because all information is only in Greek. Which is a pity, because this tough course leads you in one day all over this beautiful island. Imagine if the Tour de Lesvos becomes as popular as the Tour de France?

The very newest road user however is the refugee. They trudge over the many roads of the island towards the capital of Mytlini, protecting themselves against a burning sun with t-shirts on their heads, with all the belongings they have left carried on their tired backs. For them, there are no checkpoints where water or a bite is distributed to revive their spirit in order to accomplish this two (or three) day tour. And you will see them everywhere: going to Plomari, Sigri, Mandamados, Kalloni or Molyvos. They are not difficult road users, but in the night I can imagine that they are at peril, because they are difficult to see on the dark roads of the island.

Do we have to wait until an accident occurs, like the one in Macedonia, where 14 refugees were run over by a train, while they followed the rails in order to find a safe place? Is it humane that we let women, children, elders and wounded people make this long journey on Lesvos?

I live at the border of Europe. In the south this border is flooded by refugees. But the northern countries don’t care about their own borders. When the refugees safely reach the shore here, they cheer because they think they are in Europe. Well, I don’t think so. They have arrived in Greece and there will be another long journey before they reach Europe. Europe is ruled by its northern countries who loaned so much money to the southern countries, who now can no longer pay their debts and will soon become as poor as most of the refugees. I bet the northern countries would love to install an iron curtain across the middle of geographical Europe between the poor south and the rich north (was the European Union not created just to have this frontier disappear?).

All that those very well paid people in the European capital Brussels have come up with, is to catch the smugglers in Libya (no one talked about smugglers in Turkey) and they even intend to destroy the boats the refugees come on, afraid they will be re-used. Well, here that job is already done by the refugees themselves: all boats reaching the Greek shores are destroyed. How stupid is Europe?! Put international police at its frontiers to take in the refugees, to register them and give them a ticket to a country they can go. Show everybody that it is Europes border, and not only that of Greece, Italy or Spain.

I am afraid my country (the Netherlands) is one of the worst. They do not want to take in more refugees from the southern countries and the government will take ages to decide if they agree with what is decided in Brussels. The Dutch government behaves like a class of little children and I bet they first want to go on holiday before taking any serious decision (hoping that this flood of refugees might be over then).

Well, all European politicians: I challenge you to come for a holiday to Lesvos and bring your bicycle with a little cart, in order to be able to distribute water and bread to all those refugees who have to walk for days along Lesvos’ roads, looking for Europe.

PS I am happy to tell that there are some exceptions: Norway has announced to help and will amongst others finance a new refugee centre (on Lesvos). Bravo Norway!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

May 18 – Refugee weather

(The coast guard of Molyvos in action at Eftalou)

The summer finally is there: wild flowers wear their last scented petals, the acacia trees cry white blossoms and the hillsides are starting to change into their dried, yellow, summer colour. The sea again is bright blue, as is the sky above. When also the white caps on the sea lie down, you can see straight through the clear water to the mysterious underwater landscape where fishes swim and seaweed merrily waves.

But when the sea is so alluring, we now say: it is refugee weather. And yes, the next morning they again arrive in rubber boats containing sometimes as many as 50 or more people. When reaching the beach they may yell out with joy because they have made it safe and sound, when they fall into the water a bit out at sea they may scream, but most of them come ashore safely.

This summer the sea will have to be shared with these people who have left home and country. And also bread and water has to be shared. Here in Molyvos there is no Red Cross or any other official institution. Just a couple of port police and some volunteers who, as soon as the boats are in sight (which is every day that there is no hard wind) receive hundreds of refugees with water, bread, diapers and, when needed, dry clothes. When the numbers are too big, or the need too great, they even might ask for assistance from the entire village, as happened a few weeks ago, when the parking lot next to the school was filled with cold wet refugees, and most villagers showed up to help out, which was an impressive sight.

Never have the beaches of the island been so full with rubber boats, innertubes and lifejackets. A bit weird, because, also this year, some beaches got the Blue Flag designation: Tsamakia, Eftalou/Agi Anargri, Kaga, Anaxos, Agios Isidoros, Molyvos, Vatera and Thermis.

Not even a hundred years ago the situation was much worse: during the first week of October 1922, 50.000 refugees arrived on Lesvos, mainly coming from Ayvalik and Izmir, where the Greek Turkish war came to an end (the infamous population exchange decided by the Treaty of Lausanne took place a year later). There was an American nurse in Izmir during the Great Catastrophe and later on in Lesvos, who gives a description of how disastrous this was on the island: Certain Samaritans (see chapter XIX). Lots of those people remained on the island, resulting in many inhabitants now are a descendant from a refugee.

I do not think that there will be 50.000 refugees arriving on the island in one week, but some people estimate that there might be 1000 a day over the entire island, which already is quite a number. And we have not mentioned how many are making a safe landing on other Greek islands like Chios, Samos, Leros, Kos and Rhodes, other favourite places of the smugglers. The islands cannot deal with these high numbers and the government, well, they have their own crisis with Europe to deal with. So it will be pointless to ask for help.

Two days ago, a group of 120 refugees arrived in Eftalou, and the occupants of one boat had to be saved out at sea. A lot of shouting was heard: from the port police in order to keep the people calm in the drifting dinghy, and from the others out of fear of drowning. They were all picked up safely and received in the harbour of Molyvos (the parking lot next to the school is only used when the school is closed), where volunteers saw that they got bread, water and when needed, dry clothes. Amongst them was a man in a wheelchair and even a man who recently had heart surgery, was diabetic and who had lost his much needed medicines in the sea. Because Mytilini also had too many arrivals they would not send a bus to pick them up. So a meadow nearby was quickly mowed, where the group could have a bivouac and they could easily have passed the night there.
Mandamados also filled up with refugees the same day. I doubt that the monastery there gave them shelter and help. From Mandamados, refugees normally walk to the capital. 

Today a little group made a perfect landing on the pebbles of one of the beaches in Eftalou. Children, parents and grandparents, they all were fine and happy and immediately started to phone to whomever it was, telling they had made it into Europe. People living nearby started cleaning up around them, inner tubes, lifejackets and other garbage and passersby stood still for a minute to watch and then continued walking or driving, as this has become a daily scene. And it indeed has become an event happening each day. When the arrivals are not in need like this particular group they have to make their own way to Molyvos. In Greece it is forbidden to help them with transport or other things; you risk arrest because that is considered as helping the smugglers.

Today is another hot summer day with a sea that is perfect to cross. In Izmir some ten thousand refugees wait to make the journey to Europe, so for sure tomorrow there will be a new group arriving.

But meanwhile also the number of tourists has increased and all restaurants and shops are open in the harbour. A large group of refugees hanging out does not form the best scenery to have at lunch or dinner. So part of the business people complain that they cannot earn money (other owners help the refugees in day time and in the night they run their restaurant). But it's money that they all need here in Greece, because they have to pay lots of taxes and many a business is not too far from bankruptcy.

Not all tourists are happy to be confronted with a reality they only know from the news. And their governments pretend it is only the problem of Greece, Italy and Spain. One leader even dared to say that those countries were just unlucky to be at the borders of Europe. Unity in Europe? No way!

Also travel companies are not happy with so many refugees. One of them ordered a local agent to be informed of everything happening on the island. Why? Are their clients to weak to meet this problem from eye to eye? A big cruise organization threatened not visiting the island anymore if a quay, serving as a rounding up place for refugees (the shelter is already for a long time overcrowded), will not be cleared soon. Imagine that their precious guests will be confronted with the misery of others!

The Greek islands have not been hit by a disastrous earthquake, as has Nepal. Life goes on and the refugees are not always visible. As a tourist you might bump into them or you might not. So you can enjoy your holiday, even though this may sound a bit odd. The Greek islands are just a transit port for refugees. It is in Athens where hell starts again, where they arrive in the streets or create make-shift camps, and from where they plan what next step to take. It is only a few that desire to stay in Greece. And because they cannot just take a plane or book a ferry trip, they depend again on the smugglers. And of those there are nowadays many and they are everywhere.

If the refugees continue to arrive in increasing numbers (which is expected), there will be big problems. Private people cannot provide each day the bread, the clothes and the diapers needed. The municipalities or the government really should provide new shelters and send experienced helpers, otherwise the tide will turn and the Greeks will become irritated.

I wish that the old Syrian city of Palmyra also could flee and arrive safe on the beaches of Eftalou. I really hope that this international heritage site can stay out of the hands of the new barbarians, who are the reason the refugee number has now reached biblical proportions. It is time that the world takes more action against those godless fools who are poisoning the world.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

May 2 – Poppy Balls


In most countries May 1st is celebrated as Labour Day. It’s a holiday in Greece too, but it is primarily as the Day of Flowers that it’s celebrated. Wreaths of flowers are made and presented to friends and neighbours, and many Greeks travel to the countryside to enjoy the flowering landscape, with bunches of flowers stuck under their windscreen wipers. 

Molyvos was flooded with mainly local tourists, even though it is no pastoral field full of flowers. The little town is a beloved destination for people going out for a day-trip. It has lots of green spots within its old stonewalls and so has its own beautiful flower spots. Travelling from the capital to Molyvos will lead you along colourful open fields and lots of orchards where beneath the light green olive leaves lie fields of flowers in all colours. These days the island is at its colourful best and it is the nicest time to take walks or outings by car.

Close to Achladeri you will find famous fields, which are easily as beautiful as the Dutch tulip fields: the red of the poppies is an attraction for many photographers. Even just a few of these bright red flowers in a green field can tempt plenty of people into stopping on the roadside.

Most people know that poppies are not just flowers to colour gardens or fields: opium can be made from them: a drug that can relieve pains, numb your state of mind or bring you to a sweet sleep. It can lead you to addiction and also may kill you. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the English writer Charles Dickens, the movie star Bela Lugosi and even the world famous nurse Florence Nightingale were opium addicts. And many others too, since opium has been known for thousands of years.

In ancient Greece, their Gods for sleep (Hypnos), night (Nyx) and death (Thanatos) were often depicted with a poppy as their symbol, as were the Gods Apollo, Asklepios, Pluton, Demeter, Aphrodite, Kybele and the Egypt Goddess Isis many times seen with a bunch of poppies, sometimes mixed with some ears of corn in their hand.

But it was only in the 8th century BC that poppies were mentioned for the first time in writing. Hesiod mentioned the city of Mekone (Papaver-city, in the region of Corinth), where Prometheus gave portions of poppies at an ox to sweeten the mind of Zeus. Theophrastus later wrote that a combination of the juice of poppies and hemlock (Conium maculatum) gave a painless and easy death. In the Odyssey, written by Homer, the juice of poppies is used to numb people in order to have them forget all sorrows. Aristotle recognized poppy juice as a drug and both Hippocrates and Theophrastus wrote about different kind of poppies and their applications.

Proof that the Greeks in ancient times were already using this flower for healing or enjoyment comes from archaeological finds. On Crete a small statue was discovered of an unknown woman from Minoan times. Her hair was adorned with poppy-capsules. That is why the archaeologists named her as a Goddess of Poppies and healing. But all over Greece poppy-capsules were depicted on many more finds, so a conclusion can be made that opium was a very old drug, known by priests, kings, Gods and other mighty people who knew very well how to use it.

Lesvos is not, of course, full of poppies that can be used to produce opium;
the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), also called the Common Garden Poppy, has a light green stem and its flowers vary in the colour from white to pink, purple and dark red. She may be found on the island, but not in sufficient numbers to provide an opium kit.

The most common poppy on Lesvos is the red Papaver rhoeas, also called corn or field poppy, Flanders poppy, red poppy or coquelicot. You may also find a smaller variation: the Papaver argemone, called the long pricklyhead poppy or pale poppy; and even another pale poppy, called the Long-headed poppy or Blindeyes (Papaver dubium) is to be find on the island. And some of the coasts are brightened by a yellow kind, called a horned poppy (Glaucium phoeniceum).

I think there might be some opium addicts on the island, but for sure this drug is not produced on the island. Even though the common garden poppy was plentiful during ancient times in Greece, nowadays it is hard to find. Maybe that’s the reason that the seeds of these flowers – the delightful poppy seeds – are mostly unknown in Greek food; although you may find some bread decorated with poppy seeds. In earlier times they had babies calmed down or encouraged sleep with some drops of the field poppy (which also contains, but in very very small amounts, some drugs). But nowadays I am not sure if mothers would dare to use this to sooth their children asleep.

Here on the island lots of green leaves picked in nature are very popular as food: the so-called chorta, like dandelion, Milk Thistle or nettles. There are many wild grasses loved by the Greeks, whose leaves are picked when the plants are still young and finish in the kitchens where they are used for super healthy dishes. The leaves of the long pricklyhead poppy also are an edible chorta. These can even be eaten raw, provided that they are picked before the capsule has grown. In a small tavern in Agiasos last week they not only served fresh picked Morchella (another culinary surprise), but also Poppy Balls: not containing opium, of course. But you do not need any opium to get addicted to Greek food, especially when you find such an eatery where they serve so many products, fresh from nature, which they turn into delicate dishes.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Saturday, 25 April 2015

April 22 – Looking for Zorba

(Remnants of the cableway near Pessas)

Life and Times of Zorba the Greek from the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis was published in 1946, but became really famous in 1964, when a movie was made of the book by the Greek director Michaelis Kakoyannis. Believe it or not, the movie not only made Zorba world famous but also introduced a new popular dance in the world: the sirtaki.

Actually the sirtaki is an invention of the choreographer of the movie, because the leading actor Anthony Quinn was too stiff to dance the traditional dance hassapikos which is described in the book. Sirtaki is such a merry dance that you get even the most stubborn donkey up a mountain with it (see this cheerful movie). Just like the sirtaki is an invention, the protagonist in the movie is fictitious, even though Kazantzakis’ friend Yorgos Zorba was the inspiration for the book and the man who conquered the hearts of so many.

The story is about an English/Greek writer, Vassilis, who wants to open a mine on Crete. He meets a miner called Alexis Zorba and asks him to come and work in the mine. Zorba turns out to be a man full of stories and philosophies, a source of information for Vassilis who is trying to write a book about Buddha. Zorba loves women, satirizes the small mindedness of the villagers and that of the pious monks; he is full of ideas, looks at life as a challenge and is not afraid of death.

Was there a predecessor? The book The Colossus of Maroussi by the American writer Henry Miller also is about a friendship between a writer and a Greek. Miller met Yorgos Katsimbalis (1899-1978) when he visited Greece in 1939. This Greek writer and founder of the magazine Ta Nea Grammata lived just like Zorba: having a spirited mind, a love for drinking, long discussions and social outings. Maybe this Greek way of life – taking life as it comes – made even more impression on Miller than all the archaeological sites that they visited together (even though Miller described them as fabulous). Miller did met his Zorba, but was forced to go home when the Second World War became a serious threat.

The Colossus of Maroussi (the title refers to the name Miller gave Katsimbalis) which he wrote upon returning home is a strong ode to Greece and was published in 1941. In the Fifties and Sixties the book made many people decide to visit the country of the Greek Gods and I guess in those times there was no better publicity for Greece than this book.

Neither Henri Miller, Katsimbalis nor Jorgos Zorbás visited Lesvos, as far as I know. Of all famous people produced by the island, maybe it is the painter Theophilos who comes closest to the Zorba character: a man living without conventions, dressing as he wanted and all the while studying the people around him in order to make paintings.
Also Sappho dearly loved life and wrote about it. But this lady was more into the dark blues. She introduced poems based on the stirrings of her soul, mostly causing pain in the heart.
Another free-minded person coming from the island was the famous Barbarossa. Whether this pirate greeted the days as if everything was new, is not known.

But there must have been a Zorba on the island, who just like Alexis, build a cableway. Not for a sawmill, but for the resin, which last century was harvested on the island, especially in the woods around Megali Limni and around the waterfall of Pessas (Polistami). There you can see some of the remains of a cableway going all the way down to the Gulf of Kalloni near Skala Vassilika, from where the resin was shipped. And it seems that (unlike the fictional character) this one did do the job.

Lots of people visiting Lesvos, return yearly: the island might be the spot with the largest number of repeaters of all of Greece. There are even some among them who have come here since the Sixties. When you hear their stories about the past, you might think that they too met their Katsimbalis: they spent hours in the cafenions drinking and talking, making adventurous trips into nature, and mostly accompanied by one or more locals. It seems that in those early times the island was full with Zorbas.

It is sometimes said that time has come to a standstill on Lesvos. It is a fact that the island is not flooded with masses of tourists. In the sleepy villages men sip at their ouzo, men who were sitting there long before Zorba appeared in the cinemas. The mysterious monasteries (some still habited by dusty monks, others regularly busy with visiting pilgrims) make you realize that there is another life besides the one in the over populated western world. Even the few modern windmills, towering high on inhospitable mountaintops already seem part of history.

Timeless or not, there still are Zorbas on the island: men keeping some sheep and some olive trees and having a simple but happy life. You may meet them in the cafenions where they take their daily ouzo and eat their Mèzes. Enjoying life with a small income, it is what lots of Greeks still do, forced by the crisis or just because it is their way of life.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Thursday, 9 April 2015

April 5 – Easter unlimited

(Poppies and orchids)

This year part of the world – that is most countries in the west and south of Europe along with other catholic countries – celebrated Easter on April 6, while other parts of the world, that’s the east of Europe and other orthodox countries, will enjoy this religious celebration on April 13. Why? Because the leaders of churches, just like politicians, can be as stubborn as donkeys.

First of all, I wonder why Easter should always be on a different date: exactly which Sunday (thankfully it ‘is’ a Sunday each year) it will be calculated each year by an extremely complicated schedule, which involves the vernal equinox, the full moon and the calendar. Differences already start with this calendar: the Catholic Church uses the Gregorian calendar, while the Orthodox Church still maintains the Julian calendar. But Passover and Nisan are also part of the calculation. By the Catholic Church calculations Easter can happen before Passover, while for the Orthodox Church this is an impossibility, because Easter can never fall before the date Christ was crucified and resurrected.

And so it is that only once in every four years that both Easters can be celebrated on one and the same day. The World Organization for Churches has tried to have the two churches agree to make the celebration on a same date, but since a congress in 1997 nothing has been decided. They also tried to arrange to have Easter each year on a fixed day, like the second Sunday of April, but also this proposition never met the approval of the two different churches.

Easter is the biggest religious celebration in Greece and after such a long and cold winter everybody longs for it, because then this dark season gets left behind and the warm months will not be far away. On the islands and other tourist regions, this festivity also means the start of the summer season. The Greeks swarm out all over Greece to celebrate Easter together with their family and friends and so the islands will receive the first guests of the year.

On Lesvos it’s not only Greeks visiting their families, the month of April is also popular with birdwatchers who come in great numbers to take photographs of rare flying species and the orchid lovers also seem to be visiting the island more and more in order to see these exotic flowers.

But I still cannot imagine there will ever be a summer. Even though the sun now regularly shines and the sky is more and more painted blue, nights remain treacherously cold and the wearing of thick jackets, scarves and even bonnets is no luxury.

Birdwatchers are saying that this year fewer migrant birds have been using the island for a break because of the prolonged winter weather. The first brave tourists must have had it pretty cold and I hope they understand that preparing hotels and guesthouses for the season has been heavily delayed, because it was impossible to work in the gardens thanks to all the rain and cold, and that lick of paint that is needed has had to wait too because of the dampness.

But the swallows, the traditional Greek heralds of spring, are back on the island and skim through the sky while twittering as if they never left the island. It seems that they gave the impetus for the spring, because suddenly nature has wakened up and there has been an explosion of flowers. In my garden, the wild grasses and flowers do as they please and are towering towards the tops of those trees that survived the winter. Yes, sadly there is not much left of the garden. Lots of plants died during the (for Lesvos) unusually cold winter. The garden shops for sure will do good business this year.

Not only the birds and plants had problems. Last year Sifis, a crocodile, became a new tourist attraction on Crete. He was found in a reservoir and proved impossible to catch. This month they found his lifeless body and they presume that the severe winter was the cause of his death.

In orchid country it’s a bit different. For months these frivolous flowers remained underground in order not to catch a cold and now they too have also decided that it is time to flower. They are doing that in big numbers, despite the fact that some species normally should be waiting a bit to unfold their flowers. Who knows, they might - just like the churches’ calculating the date for Easter – be using an elaborated system for when they are allowed to bloom, because there is no system to be found that determines why one species is too early or the other too late this year.

For flower lovers and for orchid hunters it would be nice if all species flowered each year at a same date. But nature has his own life and schedule and does what it deems right. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches also just do what they want, but unlike nature, they could make deals. Would it not be nice if they could put aside their stubbornness, so that we get fixed Easter Days and that all people wanting to celebrate Easter can do that on the same day?


(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

March 26 – Turkish delight

(A Turkish boat in front of Lesvos, with Turkey at the background)

In Greece on March 25 Independence Day is celebrated: the day that the war for freedom started, a fight to get rid of the Ottomans. Lesvos however had to wait many more years before she was liberated, in 1912.

There is not much documentation about the period during which the Lesvorians had to obey the Ottoman pashas who ruled the island. After the first battle for freedom was lost on Lesvos, the Ottomans confiscated a big lake near Agiasos (Megali Limni) and forced the people from Agiasos to drain it and turn it into agricultural land where they then had to work. The people from Lesvos also were put to work after 1850, when most of the trees died on the island after a very severe winter. Life was not so pretty under the Ottomans, but there were some advantages.

At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century the island (and the Turkish coast opposite Lesvos 12 miles away, around the coastal towns of Ayvalik, Edremit and Dikili, where many Greeks lived) began to prosper, thanks to the increase in olives and the growth in international commerce. Mytilini became an important transit port for goods to Marseille, Alexandria, Smyrna, Istanbul, Triest, Odessa and Rostov: a late Golden Age for the island, making Mytilini a swinging international commercial town. The welfare ended when Lesvos was freed by the Greek army in 1912 and the Ottoman empire started its fall, to be ended after the Greek – Turkish war of 1919 – 1922. When the war finished there was a huge population exchange; Lesvos got 30,000 new inhabitants from Asia Minor (about 10,000 Muslims where deported from the island) and prosperity soon dwindled. The island again became dependent on agriculture and the islanders could just barely survive. The centuries’ long connection with the Turkish mainland was broken and the island became isolated and dependent on faraway Athens.

The frontier was not totally closed, because plenty of smugglers operated: camel manure was brought to the island for the olive trees and (secretly) olive oil and soap was sold to Turkey. Fish and fishnets were exchanged for sheep and dynamite (used for fishing purposes). There were also secret expeditions from some of the island inhabitants who had been forced to flee so quickly their homes in Turkey, they had to return to dig up gold coins, icons and other treasures that they had hidden. In this way they met up with old friends and neighbours and after the first illegal trips, others followed. When the Germans occupied the island during World War II there was food shortage and many an islander’s hunger was stilled by food smuggled from Ayvalik.

It was only in September 1955, when in Istanbul there were pogroms against the remaining Greek minority (and Armenians and Jews) that mistrust against the Turks increased (and even more when the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974). By then all the borders were hermetically closed by the Greek Junta. Although according to a custom official even in those times, 30 to 40 cows were weekly smuggled to the island. The borders opened a bit for commercial purposes in 1975, when sardines, tuna, sheep, goats and cows could be negotiated.

A long enduring mistrust between neighbours is a shame. In 1980 the mayor of Dikili invited the mayor of Mytilini to attend a cultural festival. So the exchange started up again between Lesvos and Turkey: first with the dignitaries on both sides who attended all kind of events and then slowly the citizens followed, even the children were sent to holiday camps at the other side of the border.

In 2005 lots of Greeks lost their mistrust of the Turkish people. This happened thanks to a Turkish tv-series! Ta Synora tis Agapis (Borders of love; Turkish titel Yabanci Damat: Foreign Groom). It was about a Turkish girl, Nasli, who fell in love with a Greek boy, Nikos. Both extended families tried to interfere in the couple’s proposed marriage. Turks as well as Greeks spent many evenings in front of the television enjoying this drama, and many discussions followed. Lots of Greeks had to admit that there was much to recognize in the Turkish family: there is not so much difference between a Greek and a Turkish family.

Nowadays the circulation between the island and the Turkish coast is much the same as before the war; daily there are boats going to and from Turkey. Because prices in Turkey are low, the Lesvorians go to buy lots of stuff on the other side. But Turks also come to the island, to enjoy its beauty and quiet nature. It is not easy for all Turks to get a visa, otherwise Lesvos would be overrun with Turkish tourists.

The borders are open, but there still is smuggling. Even though the Lesvorians have made up with their Turkish neighbours, elsewhere in the world new enemies are made and disputes keep happening and Turkey is now flooded with refugees from Asia and Africa. And they cannot use the ferry between Ayvalik and Lesvos. For ridiculously high prices, they have to risk crossing over in rickety little boats. Here on Lesvos it is not yet Lampedusa, where refugees arrive by thousands, but lately the refugee numbers have increased alarmingly and the spare clothes, given by the islanders to the many wet arrivals are about to run out. New ways have to be found to provide humanitarian help.

It will not be easy to find a solution for the problem of the refugees. But the suggestion of a Dutch politician that Europe should close all its borders to refugees is ridiculous. Clearly this man has never lived at a frontier: borders are there to be crossed, like they have been doing that for centuries on Lesvos.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Sunday, 15 March 2015

March 10 – The struggle of a writer

(Still no spring on Lesvos)

Cold, rain, grey weather and only sometimes a sunny view on a colour field full of flowers: where is the radiant Greek Spring? It is clear, this year spring is stalling at coming out.

This odd weather is not particularly healthy. For the second time this year I have caught a flu-like something: sore throat and a light fever. Well okay, obviously not that light. After I had slept a lot throughout the day and then at night when I closed my eyes again, it seemed like I’d descended into Dante’s Hell. I was musing about a subject for a new column and was thinking about the paucity of flowers seen this winter-like spring and then colourful visions of spring flowers as big as monsters entered my head and these transitional thoughts were so powerful that they nearly choked me.

I suppose I could write about the aggressive great tit who has become a constant on one of my window sills, thinking to see a concurrent in its reflection and now for weeks has tried to break the glass with his little beak, along with quick tempered flying up-and-down when he has not succeeded. This heady little bird changed into a big black crow and then more crows came, so many that my windows looked black and the softly ticking sound of the great tit changed into a fearsome drum-like composition with a whipping rhythm. Suddenly the black mass opened up and a really scary flying dragon with open mouth showed up, throwing lasers of fire against my window. Well, it is good to know that my windows don’t let rain or wind through, nor the nightmare.

I was also thinking about the ants that assaulted the kitchen last week. I thought that these little nitwits only entered houses in times of heat waves, but this month for sure cannot be presented as a heat wave. It might well be weather to walk without coat, but soon enough an icecold wind will pick up, or it could be raining cats and dogs. In my dream the ants besieged the countertop in large rows, changing into the disciplined armies like those of Danearys, wearing armour and shields. They were stopped by a bowl of water where in the middle I had placed the honey for safety. Then the army changed into a mob of horses escaped from the Wildlings – skeletons with pieces of meat clinging. But these animals could not see a way to overcome the water and the assault on the honey was lost.

Even though some of the images were really frightening I was not scared. The only thing I cared for was preserving the images and so I ordered myself to ‘download’ the images or make mental ‘screenshots’ so that I would remember everything because this could be an idea for a column.

When I woke up I looked around, a bit besotted: where could I have sent all those fabulous pictures I took in the night? Not on the computer, because it wasn’t even on, nor on my telephone because it was nowhere to be found. Even though I did not have a very peaceful sleep, I had to laugh about myself: because of the fear of not finding a subject to write about and the fact that the electronic media had entered my dreams. And – people watching this tv series will probably have recognized – it is not such a good idea to watch Game of Thrones when you have a fever. This beautifully made, but violent fantasy series about a world in war, is excellent material for nightmares.

The pain and fever are down a bit, the armies of ants have disappeared like snow in the sun, the great tit still molests the window in order to eliminate his concurrent and I had plenty of time to search the electronic highway for the latest news of the island. But nothing has inspired me to write.

Even though the island has woken up from its hibernation and everywhere gardens are trimmed and hotels and restaurants are cleaned to the bone for the coming season; even though the sound of the chainsaws is dominating the few singing birds and the well-known gossips and whilst this kind of throat-flu, which can hardly be evaded, still hangs about: with the exception of the weather, there is nothing new here. Restaurants are for sale, but when not sold for their ridiculously high asking price, they just will open again, and the biggest question - just like last year - is when will there be a boat to Turkey from the harbour of Petra.
Now that the spring has not sent any warm warnings and has us still fighting with this exceptional Greek weather, I can barely imagine that there is a real summer to follow. You could almost believe that we have landed in the magic of Game of Thrones, where the world is threatened with a year’s long winter.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015