Sunday, 16 September 2018

September 14 - The small dependance of the Open Air Graffiti Museum of Vatera

(The Smoking and Drinking Octopus at Eftalou)

After the refreshing rain I took a walk along a little road that I hadn't been on for some time. Shimmering in the distance I saw an enormous red octopus. For a few seconds I thought I was hallucinating, because I have often passed the little old deserted military camp and there was nothing to be seen. But now on one of the buildings there was a huge fat red octopus with a cigarette and a glass in two of his hands.

The dilapidated hotel Sarlitza in Thermi, the ruined Hotel Arion at Molyvos, the nightclub at Skala Sykaminia and the never finished hotel in Vatera are icons in the Lesvorian landscape. Not such good ones, because they all are reminders of a tragic story.

I do not know the story of the night club at Skala Sykaminia. In the Sixties the Hotel Arion had been open to clients for one year and then the bank took it because of bills not being paid. Hotel Sarlitza was a Turkish spa hotel and I guess that after all Turks were thrown off the island in 1923, the hotel started to slowly die. Now the beauty of the building is being recognized and there are calls for it to be restored. Each year I read in the papers that the building will be put back to its glorious old state, but each year nothing happens. Then last week I saw a photograph of the garden being restored. But I wonder if we will ever see a time when the lights will be lit again in the Sarlitza.

Lesvos Palace has another tragic story, showing how the island ‘welcomes’ grand hotels. In the Seventies Aris Skafidas bought the land at the end of the long beach of Vatera and started building on this dream location. Sometime in the Eighties the 1000 bed hotel was nearly ready: missing was a proper road, that would cross the river (that is very full in winter) and link the hotel, some two kilometers away, to the main road. Building a road and a bridge is peanuts for someone who was once a friend of Onassis and had built plenty of buildings on the Greek mainland. But first the road needed a permit from the municipality. However, no license ever came and even when Skafides’ company offered to build the road and bridge no papers ever showed up. And again the same situation recently when a Swiss, German and Chinese consortium tried to lay hands on the buildings. Lesvos Palace has never opened. 

The only time the hotel has been used was during a music-graffiti festival, a few years ago in Vatera. Artists from all over the world created a tribute to Theophilos and painted great art on the naked walls of the spacious, empty lower floors. The artists also had a great time putting paint on the walls in the upper floors. I now call this hotel the Open Air Graffiti Museum of Vatera.

According to the organizers the festival was ready to take off another year. However they did not get renewed permission and the second event had to take place in Mytilini: not such a success - because the graffiti was spread all over the city. Now the festival has disappeared, but has left a great amount of beautiful wall paintings, which is better than the numerous modern Greek ruins we see, of which the most ugly is to be found at Gavathas. I do not know the story but I am amazed that somebody got the permission to squeeze a hotel complex between a few houses at the entrance of the beautiful village, buildings that – by accident? - resemble anotherlost building complex on the Petra boulevard, in the direction of Molyvos. 

I am honoured that now we see the legacy of the Vatera Graffiti Museum in Eftalou on a deserted military camp. Along with the smoking and drinking octopus in another little building there is a beautiful white horse lead by two doves, on its back a sleeping girl. On another shed there are two signatures. 

Graffiti has been used to communicate since ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman times. In the Seventies when the punks stood up, graffiti became very popular and was recognized as art. I hope that graffiti artist soon will go to Gavathas to turn that ugly concrete building into lively art. These days there are messages enough to be distributed, even if it is to tell the municipality of Lesvos that they should reconsider their licensing policies around hotels, that could - or not? – bring more allure to the island. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018

Thursday, 6 September 2018

September 6 - Night fever at Eftalou

People cheering, people chanting
on a merry Greek evening
crickets chirping in the trees
the moon hiding in the dark

The song Night fever loudly
gliding over the hills
people celebrating and cheering
dancing the night away

the music echoing in the night
along with the crickets
while a string of lights
glitter far away on the Sultan's land

Dark are the hills and the sea
against a starlit sky
people sitting on the street
chatting the quiet night away

A war ship, his motor joining
the rhythm of the lapping tiny waves
as a black sphinx anchored in the sea
to wait and to watch

it's every day now on duty
running the motor all night long
fuming fuel like toxic clouds
guarding the island or the sea

Out of the endless blackness
settled over the seven hills
suddenly steps a group of people
good evening to you all

as if they stroll each night
along the paths of a Greek island
pushing a wheelchair with a women
wearing a decent scarf around the head

You realize where they came from
they slipped silently over the water
passing that noisy fuming sphinx
so big she clearly saw nothing

Escaping war and bombs
now quietly walking through a black night
along a dark seaside
as on a sunny afternoon

No people for them waiting
when they stranded alone and unseen
all ending dry and safe
the wheelchair still rolling

walking through the night
towards the night fever song
towards the lucky people
not born amongst the bombs

I wonder if they know
about the next hell to come
a camp totally forgotten
with far more people than it should

too tight is the space for living
for enemies and friends alike
too small for decent people
to deal with what they have lived

A beautiful night in Eftalou
a safe heaven for tourists and alike
night fever all over the place
a Greek night in peace

They call it also Europe
but Europe is not here
Europe still chooses to ignore
what fever takes the Greek night

Well, it does not make a noise
the people silently walking
towards their destiny
the wheelchair rolling on

They come by sea daily
they are thrown into the camp
an island prison in Europe
with no night fever in sight

I wonder how you dare
a woman amongst men
how terrible life must have been
to take your wheelchair and run

Welcome, Lady on the Wheels
and all your travelers that night
Europe will not be found
but I wish you well and sound

I did not see you well
but I will remember you, mylady
rolling into safety
in the night fever night

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

August 19 – Writers' paradise

(Photo: internet. Marc Chagall - L'echo; lithograph for Daphnis and Chloe)

With majestic grand pianos, whining violins, some brass instrumentsand otherinstruments that make up an orchestra, some international musicians have for four days tried to reach out to the stars. The 4th Molyvos International Music Festival, whose main program was played out in the medieval castle above Molyvos, has again moved hundreds of people. 

There has always been music on Lesvos, but mainly folk. Or it is the wind, descending from the mountains, rushing over the treetops, looking for other murmuring instruments. Lesvos does not have a tradition of classical music. The island has produced more writers than musical stars.

Terpandros lived in the seventh century BC. He was born in Andissa, not far from the place where the head of Orpheus along with his lyre washed ashore. That might have been what inspired Terpandros to go into music. Other sources say that he was summoned to write music by the Oracle of Delphi. He added some strings to the lyre, changed some things in the traditional rhythm of the songs and thus he became famous for drinking and party songs. 

Around the same time there was Arion. Born and brought up in Molyvos, he became a successful and beloved singer and zhiter player at the court of Corinth. One day, sailing back to the court after a round of performances, the sailors stole all the money he earned and wanted to throw him in the sea. He begged to sing one last song, which was a song in praise of Apollo. The Gods listened and when he was thrown into the waves a dolphin saved him and brought him to land. Coming back to the court, the king did not believe Arion, but when the sailors returned, telling the king that they 'lost' Arion, the king realized Arion had told the truth and he richly compensated him for his misfortune.

Tambouri Ali Efendi was born in 1836 and raised in Mytilini, in those times still part of the Ottoman Empire. When he became 18 he went to Istanbul, to expand his musical gift as a tamboura player and became one of the best of Turkey. The tamboura is a Turkish string instrument, the resonance box as big as a water mellon, with a long neck and two strings. A famous pupil of Ali Efendi was Tambouri Cemil Bey, who became the greatest composer of Ottoman classic music.

Lesvos did not progress any further in the history of classical music, until now with the Molyvos International Music Festival. The island instead has a rich history in literature, starting with Sappho, whose poems are translated and known all over the world

The island is the cradle of a Novel Prize winner: Odysseas Elytis, who received this prize in 1979. Although born in 1911 in Crete, both his parents came from wealthy families on Lesvos. The airport at Mytilini is named after him.Elytis' poetry might be a challenge for novel readers. They might enjoy better the books of Stratis Myrivilis, who was born in 1890 in Sykaminia(he died in Athens in 1969). Myrivilis fought in the Balkan war (1912-1913), that inspired him to write his most famous book: Life in a tomb. Later he wrote two socially inspired novels, both situated on Lesvos: The Mermaid Madonna, about refugees from Turkey in Skykaminia and a foundling who grows up into a more than beautiful girl. The other novel, The School Mistress with the Golden Eyesis about a teacher in Molyvos, the harsh traditions and village gossip. Even though those entertaining books were written about half a century ago, their topics are still relevant: refugees and gossip. 

Another lovely book situated on Lesvos, but with no actual topics, is considered as the first pastorale novel in literary history: Daphnis and Chloe, a touching Greek Romeo and Julia, played out in the times that Mythimna (Molyvos) and Mytilini were at war with each other. Marc Chagall made colourful lithographs for this lovestory.

Molyvos is said to be a paradise for writers. Lots of them are inspired by the medieval little city, like William Golding, who stayed for a bit on the island and seeing children play, got his idea for his famous novel Lord of the flies. Fingers are still dancing over the keyboards to write stories, inspired by village life or the magic spell. You may even find courses given by prominent writers such as the South African Rahla Xenopoulos, also from South AfricanMarita van derVyver and the Canadian writer and excellent teacher of creative writing David Layton. (see: The Talking Table.)

Now that the music has died down in the castle, it is time to start writing again. Since Myrivilis' sad story about the teacher, in the narrow streets the tongues have not stopped gossiping. And the island has been caught in the refugee crisis, where not only terrifying stories are heard, but also strong moving ones about people reaching out to help. The island remains a bubbling source of inspiring stories.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018 

Friday, 10 August 2018

A small, devilish plant

(Tribulus terrestris)

My garden is beset with problems. They grow in the midst of the summer and the disaster spreads pretty fast. It is like a herd of constantly growing pushpins. The only defence is to wear proper shoes. Worn-out flipflops just don’t do and even in your house you are no longer safe.

The summer has many advantages, but the Devils thorn is a returning plague, — worse than mosquitos or wasps. I am talking about a stupid little plant, with teeny-tiny yellow flowers and strong thorny fruit that you will only notice when it sticks into your foot or flipflop.

Tribulus terrestris is the latin name of Devil’s thorn. The Greek name, τρίβολος, has something to do with water chestnuts, according to Theophrastus. But maybe he mixed up two plants: that is for the scientists studying the Old Greek language to figure out. The translation of its Latin name is more to the point: ‘problem on the ground’ and that is what I have. 

The little branches with long leaves at both sides are rampant within the grass and other surviving weeds, as well as on and along the sandy paths. The alarm bell tolls when the little yellow flowers appear. Within a week the fruit with 2 to 5 razor sharp thorns is ready to fall. They vaguely look like a bull or goat’s head — reason for more names: Bullhead or Goat's head. A field with Goat’s head is the same as a bed of nails: you do not want to venture into it. 

Its now the time that you hungrily reach for the figs that hang, ripe and sweet, in the trees. Also this year the grapes are early and their juicy ripeness seduces you to pick them. They are the-end-of-the-summer fruit that comforts you because this warm season has had its best days. But here in the garden they look more like forbidden fruit: to reach the fig tree you have to pass a Devil’s thorn field, so as soon as you reach out for a fig it is: Ouch, a needle in your foot!

No need to pick the fruit of the Bullhead. They roll or propell themselves toward you. They stick onto shoes and feet and this way they also invade your house. Riding a bike or walking bare foot is not done anymore; it's best to avoid a punctured tyre or holes in you feet, but especially the merciless pain. They even can cause a real plague. In a town in Oregon, America, you can earn a dollar when you deliver a garbage bag stuffed with Tribulus terrestris. I can send them a shipload. 

However there are also people who gather this prickly fruit for the herbal industry. Surely they use machines? With a big aspirator to collect those devilishly thorny things? I’d like such a machine sent over to the field here. Because this herb is worth its weight in gold: those stinging seed-boxes can be ground into a blessing aphrodisiac, proven by more than one scientist. They should plant plenty of these herbs in China and Vietnam: there people are so desperate that they pay fortunes for elephants’ tusks and rhinoceros’ horns that may improve their libido. This way those animals would not have to become extinct and people would pay far less money for their pleasure. 

In the grapevines it also is said that the herb increases testosteronelevels. Athletes and other people pimp their bodies to deliver better performances. For this reason this nasty prickly herb is now popular amongst sports people. Obviously, as a powder or a drink; I dont think those agitated people would like to have a bed of nails in their garden.

The thorny fruit has more positive medical uses. In the ayurveda for example it is called the ‘Cow’s hoof’ and is used for the wellbeing of kidneys, bladder and urinary tract. In Kashmir they believe that Cows hoofmay slow down fevers.

Maybe I should seriously consider turning this misery into something positive and start to collect this nasty herb. When I walk over an area rich in Bulls heads - after just few steps there are already hundreds of Goats head stuck to my thick-soles shoes. Who wants to buy them?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Sunday, 29 July 2018

July 28 – Tourism

(Sunset Eftalou, photo: Savvas Samaridis)

Tourism has become a plague. I am wondering what’s pleasant about standing like a huge flock of seagulls to stare at the sunset on a rock in the sea, or being surrounded by masses of people visiting an old temple while the sun mercilessly burns legs, necks and noses. Most people nowadays just want to take a picture, even though the internet is already filled with the same photographs. 

Whilst one part of the world’s population is, by foot or by wonky boat, trying to escape wars and other life-threatening events, the other part flies unconcerned to those regions not yet touched by misery. It is a strange world, with people who do not mind waiting for hours to catch a glimpse of Holland’s most famous painting De Nachtwacht, who parade in swarms over the canals of Venice and who wait patiently for hours to enter the Notre Dame at Paris.

Packed camping sites, overcrowded beaches, miles of traffic jams, entry tickets that have to be booked years in advance: what makes people want to waste their free time amongst so many other people? Some cities and other hip places now are fed up with the masses. Not only Amsterdam, Venice or Paris, but also the Greek island of Santorini has called out for change: millions of people last year visited that small once ‘fairy tale’ island. Now it must be hell because of long queues, slowly shuffling through tiny streets and places packed with people trying to take ‘romantic’ pictures of a sunset. All in the blistering Greek heat. 

It is not only Europe that has problems with too many visitors. In Thailand Maya Bay has been closed temporarily, because 3000 to 4000 people flocked daily to this beach (known from the movie The Beach). In the Philippines the entire tourist island Boracay has been closed for some time for reorganizing and the old Inca village Machu Picchu in Peru has become only accessible to a restricted number of people. This is only the beginning of a long list.

So you might say that the not-even-a-century-old phenomenon of mass tourism is derailing. In past times traveling for pleasure was for the rich. It was at the middle of the 20th century that the working classes finally were able to go on adventures in the world. Not having the money to go far, they were happy to spend a day at the beach or elsewhere in nature. The Sixties brought cheap flights and so began tourism by plane: now at risk of going too far.

Nowadays, for the average European it is normal to travel many times a year by plane. Thanks to Airbnb and far too cheap air fares, city breaks have become a normal time-passing for weekends. This brings extra problems to the heavy polluting aviation industry and sees air space slowly silting up. Airports like Schiphol (Amsterdam) just keep on growing, no matter that security comes with greater risk.

Greece always has been a holiday country. The islands Rhodes, Crete and Corfu were, along with mainland Athens and Delphi, the main attractions and for centuries were part of a tourist travel route, thanks to their archaeological treasures.

Mostmodern tourists no longer like to stare at old stones. They prefer to settle down in an all-inclusive resort, where they can enjoy themselves the whole day around the pool, getting served free food and drinks. They do not care where the resort is: at the Turkish Riviera or on any kind of island. As long as the sun shines and where there are drinks a plenty.

It is only for some decades that Lesvos has been on the tourist map. It’s an island that does not offer famous ancient sites. In the eyes of the Lesvorians the crazy numbers of people visiting Santorini (and other islands such as Crete) would be a dream. Thanks to the refugee crisis the island of Sappho has been somewhat left alone; even though the sunsets can be as spectacular here as on that extinguished volcano with white villages.

But times will change: once tourists become allergic to the other vacationers and the uniformity surroundings many holiday locations. Soon there will come a time when it will be ‘hot’ to travel to quiet places, to worlds that turn around their inhabitants and their life-style and not around tourists. Then Lesvos will be the most authentic Greek island.

However, I fear for the time when this mass of visitors, now terrorizing other tourist locations, discovers Lesvos. The quietness found here on Lesvos, disturbed only by chatting crickets, is an experience many people have lost. However it may only last until the tourist tsunami also reaches Lesvos.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Summer 2004 - Help, tomatoes!

Each August it is the same story over and over again: I cannot see anymore tomatoes. Maybe you will ask: how come you have had enough of the wonderful tasty tomatoes they have in Greece? Well, in August I am fed up with these little red rascals.
In winter and in spring you eat a savoury green salad called marouli: a spicy mix which is perfect with a tomato, mind you, only one! In summer all dinners include the famous choriatiki- tomatoes, cucumber, feta, onion and green paprika. Greeks serve them in the afternoon and again in the evening. Of course, you needn’t eat it - there’s always plenty of other food on the table. The strange thing is every time you intend not to eat tomatoes, your fork automatically wanders to the choriatiki to take a piece of tomato, and I have to admit they always have a refreshing taste.
All summer long tomatoes grow in the field next to me, so I have heaps of them in the refrigerator, in the vegetable basket beside the kitchen dresser; or because there’s nowhere else to put them, even on top of the fridge. When I see how many there are I can’t decide what to cook with them.
It would be a terrible waste to let them lie so long that they rot, so I try to include at least one from the tomato mountain in every dish I prepare: with breakfast a tomato under the egg sunny side up; for lunch, bread with cheese and tomato, a club sandwich with tomatoes, baked eggplant and octopus with tomato. Later with a drink, tomatoes with a lick of pesto or a slice of salami rolled around a piece. For dinner tomatoes go with chicken, with shrimps, in the rice, the paella, the couscous or pasta (with lots of tomatoes). And before you go to bed a glass of vodka with …
I am glad Greeks don’t like mixing up ingredients. There will never be any tomatoes in your tzatziki, no fried tomatoes amongst your fried patates, or tomato balls (although I have found out later that indeed they do exist); they don’t put tomato slices on the souvlaki skewer nor is feta served with tomatoes.
The only way I can seriously reduce the huge red deluge is to make tomato sauce. I am even happy to have found a recipe which involves removing the peel and all the seeds, a lot of work, but it needs so many tomatoes it’s a good way to be rid of them. Its taste is very concentrated and in just a few hours the bottom of my vegetable basket will be visible again.
I am aware that my tomato aversion is temporary, and that as soon as they disappear from the field - they will keep coming until November - I will once again long for the taste of a lovely fresh red tomato.
So, I am trying to make as much sauce as possible, which means we can eat pasta all year round. I try different versions: the concentrated sauce without too many chilli peppers, (Greeks do not always like spicy food); a spiced up variation for foreigners who like it hot; tomato ketchup, tomato-paprika sauce, tomato salsa, preserved cherry tomatoes, tomato chutney, tomato marmalade, everything you could possibly make with tomatoes.
There is one Greek who likes to follow my culinary experimentations, but when I mentioned jam made from tomatoes he thought I was crazy. He could not believe such a sweet concoction could be edible, and yet Greeks preserve both fruit and vegetables in sugar, so any fruit including tomatoes done that way should be very tasty, so why not as marmalade?
Another summer binge has also started: karpouzia. Watermelons are everywhere and although I am not too keen to eat them after every meal, I know it’s healthy to eat fruit and I do rather like a slice or two after a nice dinner. However, afterwards when I lie down for a siesta I might dream of large chocolate balls filled with white cream, or an enormous lake of chocolate mousse, or maybe a huge cream cake with chocolate and fresh strawberries, or just a simple mocha pie.
To forget such sweet dreams I make myself a luxury frappé: cold coffee with big blobs of vanilla or chocolate (if I can find it) ice cream. Mind you, even though I really don’t want to complain about the food here, sometimes I should be allowed to scream: I AM FED UP WITH TOMATOES! Please can I have a green marouli with corn, pickles, mushrooms, blue cheese and croutons?

Monday, 16 July 2018

Mother Molyvos

Ai, mother Molyvos
please stop complaining
because you seriously
chase your last clients away

Your bumpy little streets, centuries old
Your ancient houses well anchored
on the proud rocky mountain
that once gave you life

They saw a lot of history
but never let you down
agitation, war, doors closed
you survived with you head held high

A new wave of troublous times
no need to let the head hang
it is not the world that rules you
but your back that lets you down

You always rode the storms
your back like a solid mast in choppy times
now full of rheumatism
not knowing how to move

It is not Achilles who stands before your gates
but the sad illnes Me, Me, Me
of people that do not understand
that the world keeps on turning

the managers far away
no vision nor plans
they will tear down your walls
filling their pockets just for themselves

You, magnificent lady of Molyvos
where did you leave your pride
you let yourself under the command
of stupid and loud screaming

You know that your blood not only comes from the island
but also from the other side of the sea
you always helped in difficult times
but now you seem stiff frozen

A cold and pitiless heart
does not suit you at all
that is no way to save the world
nor your own beloved town

O, Mother Molyvos
dust is piling up
do not be seduced by too big dreams
but clean your own street first

As sparkling and beautiful you dress up in August
when shiny pianos and violins
do revive happy times
under the stars at the castle

You didn't forget
how to touch the hearts of the people
so do the same during the other months
with your head held high.