Sunday, 9 November 2014

November 6 – Fire signals

(A pyramid near Nifida)

A cold wind and more than a week of leaden grey clouds has made it clear: winter is on its way. The last tourists have all left the island shivering. Some weather prophets predict that the inclement weather forewarns the coldest winter ever in Greece; but that is what they say each year.

 The sun took some effort to blow away all those clouds, but she finally managed. Now the sky and the sea are again competing for the best colour blue and the dominating green colour on the land begins to cede more and more to the yellows and the reds: fancy autumn has arrived and when you look out over the sunny landscape you will notice more than one plume of smoke reaching for heaven. That means that people are cleaning their fields and preparing for the olive harvest.

The Greeks were not the inventor of the telephone an apparatus that nowadays for some people seems to be the extension of an arm but they had in ancient times other smart ways to communicate. For instance the message of the victory over the Persians at the battle at Marathon in 490 BC was brought to Athens by the running courier Philippides who ran so fast that he dropped death after reporting the message. In his honour the marathon runs were created, a sporting events that is nowadays especially popular.

Somewhat less known, was the system that was used many centuries earlier during the Trojan war (12th or 13th century BC), as described by Homer, Aeschylus and Vergil. In a few hours the Greek victory was reported to the city of Mycene, some 600 kilometres away, using fire signals, a system called fryktories. I can imagine that the Lesvorians had plenty to say about what was going on in Troy: the fire signals line began right opposite Lesvos, starting at the top of the mount Ida (the Kaz Dagi in Turkey) and the signals carried along to mountaintops on Lemnos, Athos, Makistos (now Kandilion on Evvia) towards the mainland and to the mythical city of Mycene (that used to be a little down from Corinth). I am not sure if they were then using the ingenious system of the two towers with five torches, which enabled them to write the whole alphabet.

But it is a fact that fire signals have been used for centuries. The fryktories were the precursors of the lighthouses. They were not only used to help ship navigation but also as a warning system against enemies. The Greek islands especially were for centuries threatened by pirates and on the neighbouring island of Chios there remain plenty of old watchtowers. They must also have been on Lesvos and probably you can find some remnants of such towers in various places.

When last week we were driving around a little and at Nifidia beach, we took an unkown path which seemed to go towards the very end of the Gulf of Kalloni. On a mountaintop I thought I saw a pyramid. It was no optical illusion because when the road reached the coast again there was the very same construction: a six sided massive tower. Further on there were even more. When we looked around we also discovered three other pyramid-like buildings on the other side of the water. What were they? Were they some kind of platform on which to light a fire? The flat top however was not spacious enough for any firewood. And I can imagine that, on a windy day making atop a fire, may cause the surroundings to go up in flames.

Were these constructions part of a warning system against for example pirates? This seems to me a bit odd because from the rest of the island you could hardly see them. Or was it a system of beacons for the ships to pass safely through the opening of the Gulf of Kalloni? While most of these towers stood at the seaside, one of them was a bit higher, pressed against a rocky hill, another one stood high on a mountaintop, and one on the other side of the Gulf overlooked the water from high on a ridge. If this was a beacon system for the seafarers it must have been a very clever system for them to safely reach a harbour.

A few local fishermen have confirmed that it was a beacon system. It was very old, so old that the towers are now restored with plenty of cement. Whatever they are, and from whatever period, I am sure that these outstanding pyramids of Lesvos spread out in the rough landscape of red stones were a kind a communication system.

During the summer there was some annoyance about the lasers that were nightly sent into the air by the discotheque OXI. I am wondering what is the point of these lights: are the lasers meant to be a beacon in the night for clubbers? It might be an idea to, instead of using these sky piercing polluters, to build some of these pyramid towers along the roads going to the OXI. That would be less of a nuisance and also a nice tribute to history.

The plumes of smoke you can now see everywhere in the Lesvorian landscape, can be interpreted as the message 'here is work going on', but of course they are not meant as fire signals. Or maybe there are farmers, who by the means of a smoke column, warn their wives back home that they are soon coming home, so the food must be on the table. This could be the case, because a modern mobile phone does not work in all places on the island, so you have to be inventive. Now just consider what amazing things the ancient Greeks did!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Friday, 31 October 2014

October 28 – Coming and going (2)

(Goats at the road)

(By: Pip)

Now that the tourist season has finished, it’s also time for me to take a plane homewards. After I check-in and walk towards the gate, the check-in clerk calls me back and asks me to take my suitcase. Oops, I forgot. You have to move your suitcase yourself to a scanner about ten metres further along. That is the way they do it on Lesbos.

The flight is going well. When I look out of the window just before landing, I already know that I will miss Lesbos. If you had to judge a culture of a land and its inhabitants from the sky, I would think the Netherlands and the Dutch are pretty tight and rectilinear. All parcels of land are properly demarcated by fences or ditches. The roads are at right-angles, as are the canals and even the cows seem aligned in the same direction. I am back into a country where everything is organized and regulated. A country where, for ten years now, a discussion has been going on about whether an ambulance should arrive within fifteen or thirty minutes. A country where people receive financial compensation, if for part of the day they are without electricity. A country where people of a district protest against the arrival of another big supermarket. A country where dogs are no longer allowed in parks, lest a playing child steps into a turd. And it even gets more crazy: on my return to the centre of the city there appeared bicycle coaches who have been appointed to ‘advise’ me where I can park my bike.

What a change from Lesbos! Where the landscape is overwhelming: all mountains, a chestnut forest, pine trees and olive groves; it is beyond me how the Lesvorians can have built any roads at all. Driving along the roads, it is swinging through one curve after the other. Sometimes you get stopped by goats roaming freely over the road — or a stoic donkey, crossing snakes, foxes, dogs and cats, or a shepherd with his flock of sheep. On spotting their little piles of dung, you can trace where they crossed the road. The only hospital is in the capital, in the southeast of the island. When being in the North or West and there is an emergency, you’d better drive the person in your car in the direction of the hospital, so that an ambulance can take-over midway. The only Lidl (big chain supermarket) on the island is also in the capital and in the mini-supermarkets elsewhere food stuff – much of it bought at Lidl – are relatively expensive. And you cannot always be sure of warm water, electricity or a good internet connection.

Despite these geographical and logistic inconveniences, life on Lesbos is relaxed and good. I am pretty amazed by how good everything works and how often you do have warm water, electricity and internet. The shops are well provided. Cars and scooters may be parked criss-cross - where they should or not - but its place measured on the centimetre. Large vehicles like vans or buses always manage to just squeeze by. Bus drivers are real steering artists. I seldom saw collisions. You best be prepared for a little patience when travelling by public transport. It can happen, as I once witnessed, that the driver takes a detour through a village in order to pick up a tin of olive oil or to fill-up at a gas station. But in the end you will always arrive where you want to go.

As a big city habitant, who barely knows my neighbours, I love the friendly and helpful people on the island. Because I was not prepared for a cold spring, someone gave me a warm blanket, another person a woollen waistcoat. When I had parked my scooter a little clumsy on a slope and I was unable to get it off its stand, I was helped by a shaky old man, who could barely keep to his feet. When I was unable to start my scooter, there always appeared a boy to do the job for me. When I was stung by a wasp, out of nowhere, there appeared a lady with some ointment. When I decided to walk, cars always stopped to offer a ride. Due to a minimum of physical exercise and the many invitations to join a Greek dinner party on a terrace, my body shows off how good life was for me on Lesbos. People take care of each other; crowdfunding to help people out is pretty normal. And it is admirable to see how many animal lovers take care of the street dogs and cats.

Now back into my hectic ‘normal’ life, I might be a danger of idealizing Lesbos too much. Let’s be honest: life there is not always, nor for everybody that easy, especially in the winter, when a large number of the islanders are without work. And the fact that within an hour, half of them know where you have been, what you did and with whom, can also be annoying. But for me I consider Lesbos as a pearl in the Aegean Sea that has to be cherished.
New developments, like the much discussed and criticized tourist train that runs between Molyvos and Anaxos, will do no harm. When in the Netherlands you sit in a train full of sulky commuters or are stuck in a traffic jam with reared motorists, it is hard to imagine that people could have problems with this slow going train full of merry tourists. Or am I mistaken?


This is my last column about my personal experiences and meanings about life on Lesbos. I enjoyed writing them. Without any scientific substantiation, my wish was to inform, amuse, tickle and provoke a discussion. For some the subjects were recognisable, for others amusing and for some it hurt a little. Thank you for reading and all your reactions. My special thanks are for Julie for having made a place in her blog for me. 
I wish you all a good winter!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Pip

Monday, 20 October 2014

October 18 - Ftinoporo

(A plane tree at Agios Alexandros)

When a damp veil drapes itself over the landscape
Enfolding faraway mountain tops in mysterious light,
As though they were not part of the island of Lesvos
But part of far far-off poetic China.

When the purple-pink cyclamen with their frail turned-down petals
Massively and shamelessly change green slopes in another colour,
Their existence, a danger to pregnant women
But besides the bed, an encouragement to libido.

When monumental planes lose leaves like falling tears
Who knows for what punishment they have to spend the winter naked,
Leaving village squares unprotected under their titanic branches
That, in whimsical curves, bow to the high heaven.

When the bees buzz loud, partying like Dionysus
in the seductive scented ivy, full of nectar
That winds round trees in some places thick as vines,
Always thinking they are immortal.

When the pink heather coyly opens its buds
So that her sweet fragrance can invade the hills
Doing everything to lure all useful insects
For a contribution to a jar of honey or some royal jelly.

When the pokeweed has her bunches of stunning berries hanging
With such an intense colour but such awful poison,
Tempting daredevils who think it might bring about a cure
If prepared according to the book or when the plant is young.

When the shy grey fig trees crumple their large yellow leaves
Setting them free because their work has been done,
Their nutty fruit patiently dried as a winter sweet
Syrup pots empty, bottles filled, just leaving a delicious scent.

When ceps, milk-caps and other mushrooms awaken
Pushing their way up through the moist earth
Hastening to unfold their parasol heads
under layers of pine needles or the naked blue sky.

When the small red blushing apples of Agiasos
Have fallen from the wild trees and collected in green groves,
Gardeners with curved spines, both selling and praising them
As the mythical golden apples from the garden of Hesperides.

When the pomegranates with a colour tending to pink
Some stubbornly aiming to survive till Christmas
Offer their uncountable blood-red seeds to all lovers
Like Persephone, kept in Hades because she ate too much of them.

When the corpulent quinces have finally ripened
And their velvet golden skin waits to be scratched off
So that their hard yellow flesh can be put in pots and pans
To make a winter stock of cough syrup, jelly and liquor

When the irresistible, cheerful strawberry trees
With long straight boles like enormous cinnamon sticks
Show their fruit, as red as bright Christmas balls
Allowing but only one to eat.

When the prickly husks of the proud chestnut trees
Once brought to Greece by Alexander the Great
Tear open to show their Sardian nuts
Plopping down with soft thuds onto the tapestry of fallen leaves.

When the sunbeams keep on bringing warmth
Their light wandering over all these natural miracles
In the evenings adding more orange to the already colourful land
Looking for their bedstead each day a little earlier

When these warm colours and crackling leaves
Sweet fruit and flowering plants with their perfume overpower the island
When even the sea has to say goodbye to its summery swimmers
And this colourful season is finally here.

Then it is autumn again, or ftinoporo
And there are no more words to fully describe
How the Greek gods of Olympos again and again
Make a party of this crying world.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Monday, 13 October 2014

October 10 – Pottery Land

(A potters wood oven at Agios Stefanos)

The last column by Pip caused a bit of a stir with some islanders: is it possible that low costs airlines will change Lesvos? The only thing I hope is that the Lesvorians don't fancy making their island into a mass tourist destination like Rhodes, Kos or Corfu. They should be proud of their island as it is: the richness of its magnificent nature cannot be found on any other Greek island.

Lesvos is a pretty big island (the third largest in Greece) and, certainly, filling the entire island with tourist resorts and villages - as has been done on the island of Rhodes and on the Spanish island of Mallorca - will require Herculean effort from developers. Imagine: in Mallorca you mostly find a traffic jam when attempting to visit any of its remaining green areas. Do we want that on Lesvos?

The tourism on Lesvos has been mainly concentrated in the north, around the medieval village of Molyvos, the most popular destination for tourists. But Lesvos has so many other special places, some of them still not known by people who have visited the island for years.

In the area south east of Mandamados, the village of Aspropotamos, the hamlets Agios Stefanos (known for its early-Christian basilica) and Palios held lots of archaeological sites, much of which have been lost, and historians only can guess what this region looked like in ancient times.

In the past people did not always recognise what value old ruins could have for their history. The islanders probably did not even dream of strangers coming to Lesvos to admire dilapidated castles and tumbled-down houses. So with no further thought they re-used the stones of strongholds and temples and also helped the rare foreign visitor to find stones with (to them) incomprehensible inscriptions and other archaeological treasures. Although not everybody did so.

In 1852 Thomas Newton was sent to Mytilini as the new British consul. He was interested in archaeology and had connections with the British Museum. Apart from his consular work he travelled across the island looking for museum pieces. Newton visited the basilica in Agios Stefanos. By then this little church had already been without a roof for years, but inside Newton found an interesting stone with an inscription. He asked a local farmer if he could have the stone and the farmer answered that he could take whatever he wanted.  Newton found some oxen to help transport the stone, then the Turkish Aga came by and I presume Newton had to give him some money in order to continue his enterprise. But then a woman, the owner of the land, came and sat down on the stone, forbidding Newton to take the stone. She changed into a fury defending the church, lit some incense to clean the church of the presence of Newton, who had to leave the stone in the church.*

For the English and other foreigners it was quite normal to savearchaeological treasures for their museums in those times. The biggest theft in that period happened in Athens, where the then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, (in those times Greece was still occupied by the Ottomans) took several years (1801 1804) to remove the frieze of the Parthenon. He had it transported to England, where he sold the beautyful art piece to the British Museum. The pieces are now known as the Elgin Marbles. Fortunately not everywhere did people have their history stolen from under their noses (Dutch expression). The stone that Newton wanted to take, may still be in the small basilica in Agios Stefanos (there remains a stone with roman inscriptions). And later on the villagers built a new roof on the church.

If you continue travelling North towards Palios, in the area of Kafkares, at the estuary of a river, lie the remains of an old castle. In this place there must once have been a big settlement, because there you can find plenty of ruined houses, cultivated stones and lots of shards of ancient pottery. It is thought that this might have been a lively little port, from where jars full of olive oil and wine were transported.

A little further on, just beside Palios with its idyllic little harbour, there are graves cut out of the stones of the rough landscape. Palios now a gathering of not more than a handful of houses had also been much more lively: until 1922 pilgrims from Ayvalik arrived here in order to visit the Taxiarchis Monastery, that has a famous icon of the archangel Michael known for its miracles.

In ancient times, transporting goods like wine and oil was done by earthen jars. Those jars were made by potters and especially in this area near Mandamados, many of them used to live. Quite a few ruined houses have pottery kilns beside their dilapidated walls. The pottery from this region (and that from Agiasos) was once famous all over Greece.

In Agios Stefanos a potter lives who still makes pots and plates in the traditional way. The clay is dug out of the ground and is put on the road, where it can be spread by the cars. This part of the process of course is not so traditional: when there were not yet cars, the clay was kneaded by elbows and feet, a very heavy job to get the clay supple. Once the clay comes off the road it is put into water, then it is sieved with some powder added to make the clay more elastic. The making and baking of the pottery does however follow the ancient process: formed by hand, dried under the sun and baked in a traditional woodstove.

When travelling through this pottery land, many little pools surrounded by birds and dragonflies will come to your attention. These were all created by the removal of the clay from the ground. Imagine how many plates and jars come from there! Little beaches boarding the crystal clear sea, birds, insects, wild lavender, hidden orchids and plenty of old ruins make this area a great place, full of surprises. I am not sure if the many cows, also wandering free around there, have a place in the history of the pottery. But I am fairly sure that no tourist resort will be making its appearance there soon because the beaches are too small and the landscape too wild.

 by Lucia Patrizio Gunnin

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

About repeaters and recreationists

(Storm approaching Hotel Panselinos)

By: Pip

For a long time Lesvos has seemed untouched by time, but the type of tourist coming to the island has started to change. The question is what influence this will have on the island, the inhabitants and the solid core of tourists the so-called repeaters who come here year after year.

I do not know any other Greek island where tourists return so often as to Lesvos. Sometimes they come two to three times a year and some for as long as ten to twenty years. Mostly these are vacationers belonging to the category ethnic tourism. For them visiting the traditional villages and being in contact with the locals is the main goal. I am back homethey call out when they arrive and are being hugged by the owner of the apartment they rented. On Lesvos the owners of the accommodations are very good at ensuring that their customers feel that they belong to the family. They spoil their renters in big ways with home made Spanakopita and fresh products like tomatoes and figs from their own garden. When the guests are leaving they wave them goodbye saying: See you next year.

Lesvos also is visited by many eco tourists. Just like the ethnic tourists they return regularly to the island, because there are many remote areas to be explored. On Lesvos you can walk until you are blue. This summer a couple had to be rescued by the police, after long hours of searching, because they had become lost. They were on a mountaintop high above the Mill Valley, without water. But at least they kept a signal on their telephone.
Birdwatchers also see the island as a real paradise. People who want to see other birds than Flamingos and Black Storks will need more than one telephoto lens and one notebook to write down the discovered birds. Or do they have a digital system nowadays for marking the spotted birds? I have no idea about that.
The Lesvorian flora also is very important. The many Oleanders, the Yellow Rhododendron and the many kinds of Orchids are another attraction. A few months ago, in the mountainous area around Agiasos, a new orchid has been discovered that for sure has to be spotted on a next holiday.

There are also tourists who like to explore the cultural and historical background of Lesvos. There is pottery, monasteries, archaeological digs and museums to explore. There even is a Petrified Forest. But lets be honest. When you visited those sights for a second time and you are not interested in other things, you probably will not return for a third time.

In the typology of different forms of tourism there is another kind of tourist: the recreationalist. This group comes for the sun, sea, beach and sex. This year, with the arrival of a low budget airline company, this type of tourist seems to have increased on Lesvos. The hotel and beach cafe owners are very happy with these holidaymakers. They spend the whole day on a sun bed on the beach or at the pool and consume, which means money. The weekly barbeque has risen in popularity. They seldom go to explore the island and when they go they prefer the bazaar in Turkey to the Petrified Forest. Even though they come back  disappointed, because the markets in Ayvalik and Dikili are not the same as in Bodrum.

That they are not totally satisfied is proven by the many complaints they come up with. I mean, imagine: stepping out of the plane, they suddenly are on an authentic Greek island. Driving to the hotel the transfer may take as long as one and a half hour and the driver only speaks Greek. The studio they booked just has one room. The wifi only works at the reception area, there is not constant hot water, the showerhead is not affixed to the wall and there is no curtain in the shower. There is no towel to dry the dishes and you have to buy the washing up liquid yourself. The mattress is too soft or too hard and the sheets are too short. There are five ants marching over the floor and over the ceiling crawls a spider. The sheep in the neighbouring meadow bellow and their tinkling bells keep you from your sleep. There are sea urchins in the sea and on the beach there are pebbles. Also there are heaps of seaweed on the beach! Cant they take that away? And then there is only one Lidl, faraway in Mytilini and there is no McDonalds on the entire island. I do not know if those people also have complaints about sex. I presume not, because you can have sex everywhere, even on Lesvos.

I guess that the major part of this group will not become repeaters. Even though the recreationalists will keep on coming. It is the largest group of tourism. Even if part of this group comes for one time only, they will come in big numbers. The low budget airline company will increase its number of flights to Mytilini next year, so their group will be even bigger. Then the question will not be 'if' but 'how' the (foreign) entrepreneurs will react and how long it will be before they start building bigger hotels. I am afraid that then a lot of repeaters will not come back. Which will be a pity because it is thanks to them that Lesvos could remain what it was and still is: an authentic Greek island with exceptionally friendly local people and a beautiful nature.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Pip 2014

Sunday, 28 September 2014

September 22 – Ayvalik


Finally, after a lot of wrangling, the international customs post in the harbour of Petra has been opened. The only remaining question is: for whom? Is it for sailing boats from Turkey? The post has been created for an excursion boat, which however has not yet shown up and probably will not arrive this year. So now we have a custom post with officials who have nothing to do and it is still impossible to go to Turkey from Petra.

If you want to visit our neighbouring land from the north or south of the island, you still have to travel very early in the morning to Mytilini to take a ferry to Dikili or Ayvalik. Although it still is worth going, especially to Ayvalik which is a nice place with historical interest to visit.

Once Ayvalik, also called Kydonies, was even pretty famous in Greece. In 1773 this little Ottoman city, with a majority of Greek citizens, had so many privileges that it could operate like a free city. This came about because a Greek priest saved the life of a Grand Vizier. Hospitals and all kind of schools were built. Education was taken so seriously that Ayvalik soon became the Greek literature centre of the whole of Asia Minor. The Greek Language School was reknowned for its number of well known Greeks teachers, like Benjamin of Lesvos.

In those times there was also plenty of commerce between Lesvos and the Anatolian coast. On both sides people lived from trade in oliveoil, soap, leather, fruit and fish and many boats sailed between both sides of the Aegean. There were no customs barriers and the only obstacle was the possibility that you had to pay a small harbour fee.

In 1821 the Greeks started their revolt against the Ottoman occupation. Many pockets of resistance sprung into life, amongst them one in Ayvalik with about 600 members. However the Greek fleet did not succeed in liberating the eastern islands and the coast of Asia Minor, where many Greeks lived. Only part of central Greece managed to shake off the Turks. After some attempts Ayvalik was besieged by the Sultan’s army and put on fire. Most of the inhabitants fled the city (it was estimated to have a population of 40,000) to find security on the nearby islands (one of which, I guess, was Lesvos). However in 1832 the Sultan allowed the citizens of Ayvalik to return to their city and they started to rebuild the town and their fields.

Soon Ayvalik flourished again thanks to its commercial and cultural life. But at the beginning of the 20th century Turkish nationalism arose, which caused Ayvalik to begin to lose its privileges. When the Ottoman Empire choose the side of Germany in the First World War, lots of Greek Ayvaliotes were conscripted into the army and priests and wealthy civilians were accused of being spies and executed. According to Wikipedia there were so many men taken that the production of oliveoil came to a stop. Because the Greek oil from Ayvalik and Edremit was so famous, some 4500 Greek families were ‘imported’ to ensure the continuation of the production of this quality oil.

Turkish Nationalism grew even more after the loss of the war, partly because of the humiliating Treaty of Sevres. The Greek – Turkish war of 1919-1922 (in which both parties were guilty of massacres) ended with a large population exchange (exodos) between Greece and the new state of Turkey. More than a million Greeks, whose families had lived for centuries in Asia Minor, were forced to move to Greece. The majority left for the Greek mainland, but some sixty thousand of them ended up in the North Aegean islands (amongst them Lesvos). In Mytilini there is a commemorative statue of a refugee mother and children and in Skala Loutron there is a small museum displaying all kind of artefacts brought by the refugees.
Some 40% of the Greeks now claim that their ancestors came from Asia Minor. The Greek inhabitants of Ayvalik were sent to different parts of Greece, while the Turks from Lesvos (and from Crete and Macedonia) settled in Ayvalik.

From most parts of the island (excepting the south-west) one has a view over Turkey. It is strange to realise that the far side of that country is now overrun with hundreds of thousands of refugees. For years now smaller numbers of refugees enter Greece (including Lesvos). But what’s happening now at the Turkish-Syrian border resembles a biblical catastrophe and reminds me of the masses of refugees during and after the Greek-Turkish war, when warmongering produced such fear that large groups of people fled their homes and lands.

Now, not even a century later, the old world is again on the move and conflicts flare up everywhere. Even though for some people the conflict seems to be far away, it has reached the Turkish borders. And soon enough the whole of Europe will be involved,  just like in the times of the first World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

I have just been reading a novel that takes place in that time when the nationalists led by Kemal Atatürk were fighting the Treaty of Sevres and did not listen to any of the Allies who occupied Istanbul: L’autre Rive du Bosphore (as far as I know not yet translated in English) from the French writer Theresa Révay. Historically, it is reasonably well researched and gives a good opportunity to learn about that frightening time. A book, praised by everybody, that describes the international politics of that time even better is from the American journalist Giles Milton: Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922. It’s a bloodcurdling report about the heartbreaking fall of a beautiful city, not a century ago. If we may believe the report of an Ottoman doctor in Tracing the memoir of dr. Şerafeddin Magmumi for the urban memory of Ayvalik, then Ayvalik once was a little Smyrna (now Izmir): with colourful inhabitants, a lively nightlife and a big cultural life. The above mentioned document shows that there remains plenty of the old Ayvalik, so it is still worthwhile travelling to Mytilini and boarding a boat to a part of Turkey that for such a long time was so Greek.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Friday, 12 September 2014

September 10 – Cloud theater

(Cloudy sunset at the Gulf of Kalloni)

When I awoke this morning and went outside, it took me a while to see what was missing. Many times I have looked out over the sea and mountains, but today there were no clouds in the sky. Would this day be one of the very few cloudless days of this summer?

Clouds arise when humidity is sufficiently high that water vapour high in the sky condenses into raindrops and ice crystals. Clouds seem to do whatever they like and often make unexpected moves. Yesterday, I had a telephone conversation with a friend and I told her that at any moment there could be rain on the island, because huge thundering cauliflowerclouds above Turkey where attacking the Lesvorian coast. When the call was finished and I went outside, the threatening culprit had totally vanished and the clouds had retreated far into the Turkish countryside. Now you probably think the telephone conversation was hours long, but the disappearing act took only fifteen minutes.

This cloud theatre above Turkey is not new. Over the summer, more than once, you could enjoy a performance that consisted of attacking and retreating rumbling thunderclouds, while the island didn't get hit by even one drop of rain. But equally it also happens that this voluptuous mass continues its surprise attack so quickly, that before you can run for cover, you will be soaking wet. And they are smart, those clouds, because after discharging their water, they disappear as quickly as they dropped the rain and suddenly you will be looking into a cloudless sky.

This summer the cloud theatre was pretty active in Greece. Many a tourist did not appreciate their performances at the beginning of the summer, because the rain continued repeatedly until the middle of June. But also in July and in August clouds were hanging out in the sky, a bit bored but ready for some action. They were just like naughty kids: as soon as they saw an opportunity, they caused some uproar. They made it rain on several occasions in July as well as in August, which is very rare for a Greek summer.

Some weeks ago they even presented a very special night performance, so unusual for Lesvos. One night, I had dinner with some friends in Vafios and when we were driving back down to Molyvos we saw low clouds besieging the village with long stretched fingers. Our first reaction was that there must be a big fire somewhere, but upon approaching the village, there was so much condensed humidity that it could only be clouds that seem to have fallen from heaven. It did not roll out of the sea, like sea mist, but came in a mysterious way from the land. First the castle was swallowed and then the entire village and when we arrived in the village you could not see a hand before your eyes (a Dutch expression saying that the view is very poor). The people that we could see roamed around in a kind of chaotic way, because nobody knew what was happening. For a while Molyvos seemed to be the village out of the famous movie The Fog (1980), where a coastal village gets engulfed in a thick fog, bringing with it the ghosts of mariners who had died in a shipwreck.

It could have been a nice finale for the summer theatre season, but obviously the clouds were not yet ready to give up showing their tricks. As soon as September started, they ganged together, multiplying themselves and took the colours of frightening grey and black. This time they were ready for some heavy 'pop-up' performances. So when I wanted to show the beautiful place of Agia Anayeri to friends, we were surprised with a thunderstorm play that was so heavy that for a few seconds I was afraid that the Mt Olympus (on Lesvos) had joined the play with a volcano eruption and for days after my eardrums were still roaring. The show did not move from the mountains and had us captured for ninety minutes in the local taverna, where we happily found shelter, and drank lots of coffee.  After we finally were able to be on the road again, in half an hour we reached the coast and you probably will guess it: all clouds had disappeared from the sky.

This cloud company stayed for many days above the island and enjoyed itself with many such performances all over the island. They even frightened tourists who had fled the island in May or June due to the bad weather and who had returned to the island hoping for a second chance holiday and a cloudless vacation. The rains also woke up the snails much too early (they usually finish their big summer sleep after the first rains at the end of September or in October) and drunk from the rain they were chased onto the roads where they were picked up by greedy Greek hands to be thrown into the stew pots. Snails are said to taste the best just after their summer siesta.

The advantage of a summer full of clouds is that on most evenings you will be presented with a sparkling sunset. To be honest: a cloudless sunset is boring and these water masses are the ones who can add spectacular colours at the sky as daylight is fading. Even the last Supermoon, who performed this summer three times, was less sensational than the cloud theatre. Last night he shined big, bright and yellow over the Lesvorian landscapes, but the orange ball going down into the Aegean Sea was just as impressive due to some clouds.

I am wondering if sardines like clouds. This summer most of the sardine nets in the Gulf of Kalloni, remained empty. It seems that there are some years that sardines do not come to the island in their usual big numbers and so my favourite dish of salted sardines (sardelles pastès) was hard to find this summer. Was it the clouds that stopped them from coming because they could not show off their silver coats in the sunshine or was it a bunch of dolphins guarding the entrance to the Gulf, feasting upon all the sardines trying to get in? This year for sure one speciality of Lesvos will be rare: tinned salted sardines from Kalloni.

Meanwhile some minuscule clouds have appeared over the horizon. But they look friendly and innocent - in Holland we call them sheep clouds. I hope they predict a beautiful end to the summer, free from a cloud theatre: kalo ftinopero!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014