Sunday, 28 September 2014

September 22 – Ayvalik


(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

Monday, 1 September 2014

August 28 – Nothing new under the sun


(The castle of Mytilene)

For years nothing has really happened on the island and suddenly there is a sparkling summer full of new events: at Sigri lots of new petrified trees have been found, Anaxos got connected with Molyvos by train, the opening of the OXY has put the island on the map for partying youngsters, many new charter flights have made the number of tourists grow. A few days ago the island got a new ferry between Mytilene and Izmir in Turkey, and the Spanish company Iberdrola started working on the creation of a so-called energy landscape: the windmill park in the west of the island. This part of the island will be turned into a new tourist attraction: listening to the buzzing rotation blades and looking up at the 67 meter high windmills, that will (just like the sequoias many millions of years ago) reach high into the sky. And all this is happening in a UNESCO geopark!

Lesvos (and Chios and Limnos) must be a Valhalla for Iberdrola where they can pick the money out of the air. It is not a facility but a commercial business: the electricity generated by the 153 windmills on Lesvos will be sold to the highest bidder party and this certainly will not be the island. In a Dutch tv-series (Ik vertrek; (http://www.npo.nl/ik-vertrek/16-08-2014/AT_2016060) about emigrating Dutch people they showed a family that went to Spain and had to wait more than one year to get connected to the electricity net of Iberdrola, who owns most of the electricity facilities in Spain. Or maybe the family is still waiting to be connected. So I guess this island must be dealing with a bunch of smart and trustworthy men.

Another novelty on the island is the custom office in the harbour of Petra. Gates and buildings are all ready to receive tourists who want to make an excursion to Turkey. But the capital Mytilene is not ready at all: they, of course, prefer to keep this boat connection in their own harbour, afraid that otherwise no tourist will ever visit Mytilene. As of now, there are no custom officers available for Petra.

In ancient times Lesvos consisted of a small number of city-states, although it was Methimna (the original name of Molyvos) and Mytilene who dominated the island power structure.  When you read the history of the island you will see that lots of different people held power, like the mythical king Macaras, Amazons, Persians, Athenians, Egyptians, pirates, Romans, the Italian family of Gateluzzi and the Ottomans. Changing powers on the island was never peaceful, and sometimes Mytilene and Methimna supported opposing sides.

Mytilene used to be an island connected to Lesvos by a small strait that connected the harbour in the south with the one in the north. For pedestrians they say there were beautiful marble bridges. Some archaeologists think Mytilene used to be the Venice of the East. However the strait silted up and it was decided to fill it up, this way improving the defences of the castle. Nowadays the main shopping street Ermou runs where the strait used to be.

To be honest I have no idea where Methimna got its power and wealth. Like Mytilene, the city had its own coins, a large and strong castle, but no commercial harbour. But the two cities regularly fought for the power over the island.

In the year 428 BC Mytilene, a new member of the Delian League (a league composed of different Greek states), planned a revolt against Athens, which as the head of the Delian League, had misused its members. They first tried to get all city-states of Lesvos together but Methimna, a good ally to Athens, did not want to support the revolt. Mytilene secretly reinforced its fleet and bought extra grain in readiness for war with the Athenians. But even in those times there were spies and before Mytilene was ready, word reached Athens, and Mytilene was soon surrounded by Athenians.  The Athenian Assembly or ecclesia had to decide about the fate of Mytilene. Well, to be honest, it was a much more complicated situation, but the fact is that Athens decided that all men from Mytilene should be put to death and the women and children be sold as slaves. They started with slaughtering some thousand prisoners, but then the Athenians started wondering how they had become such barbarians. They asked for another session of the ecclesia and there a certain Cleon said that the punishment should be carried out, but another speaker Diodotus pleaded that it would be better for Athens if the Mytilenians were kept alive so that they could remain a future ally for Athens. The citizens of Athens agreed with Diodotus and that is how the Mytilenians were spared.
I bet that in those times a citizen of Methimna was not welcome shopping in Mytilene. But in any case, this second debate of the ecclesia has gone down in history as the Mytilenian Debate.

If today you were to organize an ecclesia here on the island, it probably would still be a matter of decisions being taken by the party who has the best speaker. For instance there were lobbyists from Iberdrola who spoke to the citizens of West-Lesvos, promising them that the windmill project would provide them with lots of jobs and money. I guess the speaker of the other side, amongst them environmental defenders, had probably nothing to offer but a warning of a natural disaster. The inhabitants of the west said yes to the large project, maybe not fully realizing that their habitat will be changed drastically by the building of 100 of kilometres of new roads, six metres wide, that are needed only for the installation of the windmills - windmills that will soon terrorize Nature with their flapping sounds.

A citizen assembly is also needed for the question of the tourist boat going from Petra to Turkey. It will be the Mytilenian shopkeepers opposed to those in the north and the travel agents. I say first they should all read about the Mytilenian debate, so that reason will win. Most tourists who stay in the north and west do not come to the island for Mytilene and just get irritated at having to travel so far in order to take the boat to Turkey. Mytilene should not complain because they have just got a brand new connection with Izmir, along with different planes from Istanbul.

Even though Lesvos is nowadays one municipality, it looks like the mayor favours his capital. He should realize that it will be better for the whole island when tourists spend more time in the villages and less time on the road and in buses. It seems to be the old song: Mytilene against Methymna. I wonder if Athens will have to intervene

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Friday, 22 August 2014

August 19 – About volcano’s and swimming stones


(White phalusses at Sigri)

Have you ever noticed the great number of stones on a Greek island? Just like the Lesvorian landscape, that proudly shines with its stones and rock formations. It was millions of years ago that volcanic forces ravaged and reshaped the island, so that now we can admire whimsical rock formations - like the mountainsides built-up of columns (columnar lava), horizontal stone plates that seem to be on the brink of falling down, or enormous rocks which were catapulted by the force of the eruptions and now lie scattered around, just waiting to be made into a Lesvorian Stonehenge Centre.

The monastery of Ypsilo, which has, without doubt, the best view over the stone desert of the West, has been built on the Ordymnos, a so-called lava dome (see it as lava that gets pushed upwards and forms mountains). Also the tops of Lesvos' biggest mountain range, the Lepetymnos, are lava domes, as are most of the mountaintops surrounding Eresos. The famous mermaid church at Skala Sykaminias has been built on lava rocks. Filia, Avlaki and Alifanta present 'so-called' dikes, plates of horizontal stone (solidified magma) sticking out in the landscape like enormous ridges.  The Panagia Glikofiloussa Church in Petra has been built on a 'so-called' volcanic neck (the solidified end of a canal transporting lava when the volcano was active, with the sides now eroded).

The volcanos also petrified thousands of trees, so that we now can enjoy the beautiful Natural History Museum in Sigri, where you not only find trees, millions of years old, but where you can discover all sorts of other fascinating geologic aspects of the island. If you don't fancy popping into a museum during the hot weather, or you don't want to go for a stroll in the Park of the Petrified Wood during the soaring heat, you might venture out by car from Andissa towards Sigri, where just after the junction to Eresos, there are construction works going on to widen the road. Digging into the ground they have found a whole museum-full of new petrified trees. Upon discovery they are first covered in plaster to protect them, thus creating a landscape of white phalluses. When you take a closer look at where the earth is removed you might see other trees, branches or roots that were covered by lava and rain millions of years ago, thus getting petrified and transformed into colourful fossils, and now seeing daylight after so much time.

During the last few weeks the Greeks have been under the spell of another road construction discovery. Close to Serres in the northern province of Macedonia: a grave was found, where two sphinxes and a huge statue of a lion (resembling the Amphipolis lion) stand guard over the entrance. The enormous grave dates from the time of Alexander the Great (356 323 BC) and because the last resting place of this great warlord has never been found, lots of people hope he will be hidden in this grave. Other, more sober, persons think it might be the grave of Alexander's wife Roxane.

Alexander the Great and his wife Roxane are known worldwide and the discovery of their grave would bring lots of publicity. So too, I could imagine, would the discovery of the grave of Sappho during the road construction at Sigri. However, the very important archaeological finds made this summer on Lesvos seem only to have attracted the local media. For a few years the archaeological service of the University of Crete has been digging around Lisvori and what they have found has not been a statue of a lion, but lots of stones that served 150,000 to 500,000 years ago as tools for the inhabitants of Lesvos. That means that the site is the oldest archaeological place in Greece and the East of Europe.

Can you imagine that where we now drive around in rented jeeps and cars, people used to roam in search of food with spears and axes hewn out of stones? In those times there was no agriculture. People survived by hunting animals and finding plants. Apparently the hunting fields of Lesvos were plentiful, especially around the Lake of Kalloni. The lake was only much later connected with the sea after a severe earthquake. Prehistoric animals as big as elephants, camels, rhinoceros, deer and huge tortoises were all living on the island (some bones of those animals found near Gavathas can be seen in the Natural History Museum of Vatera in Vrissa). People in paleolithic times did not depend on planes or boats: it is thought that the island was then still connected to the Asiatic plateau, so that it could be reached by walking.

It is known that the Romans used to come to have a holiday on the paradise-like island of Lesvos. I guess that people in the Stone Age were not familiar with the concept of vacations. When they wanted something different, they just moved elsewhere to another place and I bet in those years Lesvos already was pretty popular, due to all the tools that now have been recovered.

So stones can be mighty interesting. Without knowing you may have in you hands an antique item: a prehistoric axe or spearhead. Stones on Lesvos can also provide more surprises: they can sometimes hide amethyst or quartz. Even gold and silver used to be mined on the island.

Other less flamboyant stones can also surprise you. During volcanic eruptions, pumice can be made, as was the case during the eruptions on Santorini: lava cooled so fast that gas got trapped inside the clot. This porous stone has the attractive attribute that it can float. I read about it by accident and when the next day I took a stroll along the beach I could not believe my eyes: there was a piece of stone floating on the water! I thought that I might not have seen them before, because I had not known their story. A few days later I saved another piece from the sea, but since then I have never again seen stones swimming in the sea!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

August 13 – Ineke














While the August sky provides a shower of stars
And has even dropped a star from the Movies
Your star is rising towards that same sky
In the middle of the zodiac

If the Olympic Gods still reigned
This crying world
I'm sure they would create a sign
For your star in the sky

Taking care of and saving animals
Over so many years
With intense love and endless patience
Was more than impressive

And even as your breath began to fail
Your ears and heart kept open to the tales
Of the animals and their problems
As well as about friends and other people

Your heart was so big
Too big for yourself
Too big for Agia Paraskevi
And maybe even too big for the island


Goodbye Ineke, we will miss you...

(Ineke Peeters-Lenglet, director of the Lesbian Wildlife Hospital, died on August 12 2014 due to a lung disease)

Thursday, 7 August 2014

August 5 – Lucky bird


(Lucky birds)

Although I do like birds, I will never become a birdwatcher: I haven't enough patience for that. And I can imagine that in order to pry on birds you need to study a bit. How else would you recognize a bird? Lesvos is a birdwatch-paradise and I often see odd birds and then think: what can that possibly be? The flamingo is the easiest bird on Lesvos to identify. For that I do not need a book. Same for the Black Storks. They of course are easy to recognize, but are not easy be find.

The real trouble starts when seeing a heron or a (white) stork. Sometimes, when driving with friends along the saltpans of Polichnitos, I say: Look, there's a stork, when, according to my friends, I am actually pointing out a heron. I have no idea what the small stilt-walkers are that roam the same waters. I have never studied the bird world and I rarely write about it. I did once write about those strange flamingos. And I was so surprised at finding a huge information board about the colourful red shellduck in the middle of nowhere in Palios, that I had to mention that phenomenon. As far as I know it is the only information board about a bird on the island. They should install more of those boards, especially along the saltpans on the island.

I do see often seagulls and it seems that here on the north coast you can even spot different species like the Audouins gull, the Yellow-legged gull and the Yelkouan shearwater (this bird looks like a gull, but is not a gull). My intention now is to learn more about birds and so I have bought a book (only in Dutch: Vogels kijken op Lesbos [Watching birds on Lesbos] by Luc Hoogenstein), and hope that this will make me a bit wiser about the birding world. The book describes all the important birdwatch-places of Lesvos and also provides a list of what birds you can expect at those places. Very handy. But I think this is a book for the more advanced. I mean, I can learn to say all those names by heart, but how does such a bird look? It would have been better if each name was accompanied by a small picture. Now I have to go through the whole book hoping that there will be a photograph of the bird I have just seen. How do I find, for example, the little bird I saw with white spots on its sides? Even on the internet that will be a Herculean feat.

Another bird that I see nearly daily is a crow. Well, that's wrong. The black birds here that sit on the electricity cables and scrabble around in the fields and the beach are not crows. It has taken me some time to decide whether that are crows, ravens or jackdaws. But I think they are jackdaws (corvus monedula), because they are partly grey and they are recognizable by their beautiful eyes with a yellow circle around the dark iris. Even though jackdaws are big birds, it seems crows are even bigger and ravens are as big as an enormous bird of prey. It is good that their family members Eurasian jays and magpies are so much coloured that they at least are easy to recognize.

The big birding season is, of course, in the spring. But even during the past months I have seen lots of birds, sometimes very bold in stealing my fruit. Even though the crickets now sing louder than anyone else, you can still sometimes hear the song of a bird in the background.

And when I go out for dinner, I am often confronted with birds flying over the tables. Tourists can be confronted by this phenomenon on the balcony of their hotel: a swallows' nest that, when birds are in residence, is at the end of a busy landing strip.

(Old) Greeks think that dogs in the sea may dirty the water and as far as I know dogs still are officially not allowed to swim in the sea. But Greeks have no problem with birds pooping around their homes or in restaurants. You see, swallows bring luck and even prosperity when they choose your home, terrace or balcony to raise their off spring. The Greeks will watch over the nests, even though that most flying hours, made by the parents to feed their babys, go straight over the heads of the guests.

I am not complaining: I think this birding thing is an entertaining performance and it makes you feel immediately at ease in the restaurant. I never realized that swallows are trekking birds and have a special place in Greek culture: not only do they bring fortune, they also are the announcers of the spring and they all should be back from Africa on March first. At least, that is the day in Greece that their arrival is celebrated and when children go around the houses with swallows made out of paper and sing songs about the spring and about swallows (Chelidonismata).

I am always looking for new forms of income for the Greeks and that is why I was interested to learn which swallow nests are eaten in Asia. The artfully crafted nests here are made of mud, small branches, straw and whatever else keeps the construction together. Somehow, I could not imagine that these nests could be a new export product. And I was right, they cannot. In Asia there lives a kind of special swallow that build its nests only with saliva! I am not sure if I prefer to taste swallows saliva or a bit of mud.

Also swallows are divided in different kind of birds. I did some study but am still confused. What the heck: if it has a forked tail it just is a swallow! I now will look for a book about birds on Lesvos that has a clear overview in photographs that makes it easy to find what bird you just saw. It must be a bird guide for beginners, with clear explanations about differences within species. Now that the heat has arrived and the sparrows fall off the roof (a Dutch expression meaning that it is very hot), it seems to me that it would be helpful to quickly identify which kind of sparrow you might have to resuscitate.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Thursday, 31 July 2014

July 28 - Greek bloopers


(By: Pip)

From experience I know what fun it gives and how much more easy it is if you speak and understand the local language. So I intended to learn Greek as fast as I could.

When I had just arrived on Lesvos, a Greek man came up to me. He seemed to be in a panic; he showered me with a stream of words and I didn't understand a word of what he said. Even though he repeated himself at least three times I had not the slightest idea what he wanted, although it became clear to me that he needed some help. What was the matter? He did not speak English and so he tried to speak with his hands. He pointed to the scooter saying Bloop. Bloop? Nai, bloop!I wondered what he meant with bloop? The man got irritated that I did not understood him and he took me by the arm to a nearby well and repeated his bloop, bloop, in the same time pointing to his scooter. He pointed down the well and motioned as if he was fishing in the well. And then I finally got it: he had dropped the key of his scooter down the well and wondered if I had a rope and a magnet. No, I did not have those items.

After this, I intended to quickly learn Greek and I started with the alphabet. That did not help much, because then I could decipher a written word, but had not a clue of what it meant. And I am very lazy when it comes to looking things up. To keep the story short: after a few months I had not learned much more Greek than the common phrases that all Greeks exchange each day. When somebody starts speaking Greek to me, I still do not understand much of it. It's so bad that when a Greek says 'nai' to me, I keep on thinking it is a negative answer because it seems so much like all other European no-words: no, non, nein, nee. I still have problems realizing that 'nai'  in Greek means yes. Greeks have experience with this misunderstanding, they can see the humour of it and mostly laugh it away. They are not mad at me for not speaking their language. Most of the Lesvorian people (in the tourist areas) speak English and so we work out together what we mean. If that fails, there always is sign language.

Greeks have championed the art in using their head, hands and other body parts. They often use so many movements to support their words that it may look as if they are engaged in a serious row. It took some time for me to realize that this was their usual way of having a discussion. Just like I have only just now learned that when they move their head down it means a yes and when they throw it backwards it means no. The gesture for come here(ella), can be interpreted as go away (only the fingers are moved towards the body) and when a finger is held in front of the mouth it is not to say that I have to be silent, but means that they have to tell me something. It is a pity such movements are not universal because it causes many misunderstandings.

Gestures are cultural and set. And so they are very stubborn. The movements a police officer has to know in order to regulate the traffic might be easy to learn, but gestures that support a conversation or express feelings or thoughts come from the genes. Foreign ones are not easy to master and your own ones certainly not easy to ignore. You use them as automatically as you walk. For instance, I keep on sticking my thump up when I agree with something or I find something cool. This is a gesture you had better do not do in Greece, because it can be understood as 'fuck you'. And you do not want to offend a Greek, do you? Even though I know this, my thump keeps on going up. Youd better control also your forefinger in pointing things out; it is the same story and it can become a very offending finger for a Greek.

Even though I keep on using crude gestures, the Lesvorians keep on being polite and nice. The gesture I like most is a subtle movement of the head that Lesvorian men use to say hello when they pass in a car or on a scooter. I think it a very sensual gesture and each time it melts my heart. But automatically I carry on answering with the wrong gesture in saying hello back: waving my hand with stretched fingers: this is stupid and so totally wrong! This gesture in Greek means moutza!', best translated as asshole!

If I continue with these gesture bloopersand I don't learn the language very quickly, I am afraid that one of these days the Lesvorians will teach me a less than nice little lesson.

© Pip 2014