Saturday, 17 March 2018

March 15 – Poisoners

(Snow drops on Lesvos)

Those Russians, with pointing fingers flying far beyond their borders, seem to think that they are like the ancient Greek gods. The attack with nerve agent in England on a double spy and his daughter has sharpened international relations. I wonder why they left such a clear fingerprint. There are less complicated ways to poison somebody. Socrates for example, sentenced to death because he neglected the then ruling gods, choose as his cup of poison, an extract of hemlock, a plant easy to find here.

The Greek gods were no darlings either, especially if you offended them. They used nature to realize their nefarious plans and knew where to find everybody everywhere, just like Russia nowadays. You can fill an entire herbarium with people changed into herby plants or waving trees. Hyacinth once was a very pretty young boy, killed by a jealous god and revived as a beautiful scented flower by Apollo. That same Apollo once chased a nymph, who was changed by her father into a laurel tree in order to escape Apollo's love making. Minth was a nymph in love with Hades, who got changed into that lovely herb by Persephone, Hades' jealous wife.

The gods knew their botany. Circe, daughter of the sungod Helios, was even a specialist in herbs. As Goddess of magic she is considered to be the first witch mentioned in literature. She brewed mean drinks and changed, in combination with her wand, people in animals. According to Homers' Odyssey she lived in a huge palace in the midst of woods, where plenty of tamed lions, tigers and other animals roamed. When Odysseus and his men sailed to her island, she welcomed them in a great way and organized a rich banquet in their honour. Odysseus, tired, remained with a small crew on his boat. The men who continued partying, however, changed into boars, except for one, who hadn’t trusted Circe and run back to Odysseus to warn him. When Odyssey set off to save his men, the god Hermes stopped him to tell that there was a herb that resisted the magic of Circe: moly it was called. So Odysseus chewed on some moly's and without fear of Circe's magic he persuaded her to change his men back into humans. When Circe promised not to harm him with her magic, this Trojan hero stayed for one year at Circe's palace, to party and to love.

According to Homer, the plant moly, that originated from the blood of the giant Picolous, has a snow white flower and a black bottom. Curious as always, science tried to find out what herb Homer was writing about. Scientists do not believe in magic and think that Circe gave the men something that made them hallucinate, thereafter behaving like pigs. The galanthus has a substance (galamantina) that annihilates hallucinations, so it is said that moly is a snowdrop.

These little flowers have properties that matter. Theophrastus long ago mentioned their anti-poison faculty and nowadays those snow white flowers also are used in the battle against Alzheimer’s. Their playful clocks jingle in order to call the spring. However they are not the only ones calling out for this season: the island has just had its yearly transformation into a colourful flower park. In all kinds of colours, anemones giggle on grassy lands, tapestries of daisies stretch lazily under the olive trees, dandelions and other yellow flowers colour the grassy verges of the country roads, along the sea purple-pink gillyflowers open amongst spare grass and stones at the beach and orchids appear in special places.

Last week we went to the chestnut woods above Agiasos. I did not expect lots of flowers in the dark, moist wood, but we were immediately welcomed by masses of alpine squill, like the blue sky did descend on earth. So enchanting! It got even better. A little further on, we were greeted by meadows filled with thousands of snow drops. It looked magical! It was only the second time I have seen these little snow clocks on Lesvos.

I wonder if these delicate flowers (or any other plant) can be used as an antidote for nerve agents. Nature has an answer for mostly everything. The Greek gods knew that: they didn't need complicated formulae or laboratories to punish people and did not leave chemical tracks. They just took what was needed from nature.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Monday, 5 March 2018

March 3 – Sigri Harbour

(Sigri Harbour)

A quiet, small village, at the utmost western point of the island, surrounded by rugged impressive mountains, 'at the end of the road', as they say. This is lovely Sigri, a world on its own on Lesvos because it always is cool in the summer due to the wind that seldom lies down.
It is world famous, not for the village but for the Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest. The number of petrified trees found in its surroundings made the village known, but never brought masses of tourists, only busses full of day visitors.

Even without the museum this sleepy village should be known by all tourists. Not only for its nice white chalked houses – an exception on Lesvos – but also for its beautiful surroundings, rich with big lonely beaches at the foot of bare mountains. Nowhere on the island can you get a stronger feeling of history and nature being present.

The remains of very old towers show that in ancient times this remote area had been more lively. In the hills excavations prove the existence of ancient settlements and looking at the walls of some houses, you might spot ancient stones, once belonging to glorious buildings. Now there only remains the Turkish castle, built in 1776 by Sultan Mehmet as a defense against pirates and other enemies. When Lesvos still was part of the Ottoman Empire, only Turkish people lived here. Might be a reason why this little village has never been very popular with the Greeks.

On both sides of the village long beaches litter the coast. Like Faneromeni, in the north, with a small tavern for thirsty throats but on its sands quietness reigns. At the south side of the village, along the dirty road to Eressos, more long beaches stretch at the feet of barren mountains. A whimsical coastline with many inlets make those ribbons of sand adventurous places, not easy to reach, but once you have found the way, you may have that whole paradise all to yourself.

Sigri: with its picturesque little roads under bowing reeds, between cool green fields and other fertile grounds, a gem stone hidden behind the fame of the petrified trees. But not for much longer.

The new road from Sigri to Kalloni is no longer frontpage news. Some parts are ready to drive on, or like the last part to Sigri, have already been in use for years. The bridge somewhere between Vatoussa and Andissa finally reached the other side, but for many people it is the question over which mountain tops will the tarmac continue its way. The solution might be drawn somewhere on a map - maybe not. Maybe the many sections of already completed road scattered in the landscape toward Kalloni will never be connected.

Last summer I had a big laugh, when I was told that they would build a new harbour in Sigri in eighteen months. I didn't believe that it was possible in such a short time. They have already worked for years at the road and I am sure that the road will not be finished in that little time. When visiting Sigri last week I had to admit that I could be wrong concerning the harbour. The seaside of the charming village was upside down: the spacious place at the harbour, where ferries used to dock, was filled with cement mills and other machines and a playground with plenty of sandy hills. A bit further out at sea floated a huge platform with a crane whose arm danced from the wall to the sea, in order to place enormous cement blocks in the sea. If they continue at this pace the harbour will certainly be finished in time.

I thought they made the wide new road to build a monstrous wind farm on the tops of the Wild West, but there is suspicious silence around these plans. It is clear now that the harbour is built to take ferries. I took the map and saw that indeed each journey with a ferry, going over Lesvos (except the ferries to Turkey) might be shortened by two hours, if they stop in Sigri, instead of Mytilini. Kalloni, a place where traffic jams can appear, will have to pay with more circulation. Time for a bypass there, but the shopkeepers are too afraid to lose their clients, so it will make the bottlenecks even more disturbing.

Sigri will not become a Pireaus. It might offer a daily event, seeing the docking of a ferry at least as big as the entire village. But Sigri will no longer live under the wings of the Natural History Museum, nor will it any longer be the hidden gem for people who like quietness, although I think the beaches around will not easily be disturbed. It might be that Sigri will be transformed from a quiet fishermen's village to a lively little port town.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Sunday, 18 February 2018

February 15 – Valentine's Lesvos

(photo: internet)

In winter time the inhabitants of Lesvos like to barricade themselves behind their front doors, watching television, seldom leaving their place. Since the crisis there is hardly even a dinner party in a restaurant that can succeed in getting them out. Even Christmas is spent indoors and on New Years Eve it’s just youngsters who gather in the empty streets.

The Greek hibernation only gets interrupted when Dionysus rattles the door to wake up the people for the Lent. After a boring winter, frustrations have built up, and it is time to get them ventilated: and for that purpose there are three weeks of Carnival (Apokries). The first week is the week of the annunciation. The second week is dedicated to meat, and is highlighted by Tsikno pempti, the Thursday when they have huge barbeques outside: the smell of grilled meat seems to really get people out of their houses. It is customary to eat as much meat as you can, so that you won't long for meat in the coming 40 days of Lent.

At the end of the third week, the cheese week, the parties finally start. Colourful costumes are dug out from cabinets and bottles stand ready to grease the throat. Since the crisis hardly any procession with carnival floats is to be seen in the streets of the island. Most of the carnival is celebrated in public rooms where too loud music brings people to the floor.

The Olympic Gods didn't have carnival, except for Dionysus, God of wine and dance, who annually at the beginning of spring, celebrated the rebirth of nature. On those days, not called carnival then, the followers disguised themselves as satyrs, others put masks in front of their face while running through the streets, yelling obscene things and going mad. There were also lots of satiric performances in the theatres. When the Church got all the Olympic Gods out of the air, they also wanted to get rid of all those pagan rituals. But nowadays the carnival has grown again into a celebration of Dionysical proportions. In the Greek village of Tyrvanis the whole carnival event is about huge phalluses, just like on Naxos, the birthplace of Dionysos, where secretly they celebrate his birth with symbols of phalluses.

In the Lesvorian mountain village Agiasos they also celebrate big. But here they have more theatre. In the weekend of carnival the streets rustle with people in disguise and little stages, from where they fulminate against all and everything. You could say that the carnival of Agiasos is one big standup comedy festival, where people say whatever bothers them, everything from fights with neighbours to the big conflicts in the world.

As a last spasm of festivity on Clean Monday (Kathari Devtera) the children are sent to the meadows to go kite flying. In nice weather the parents will follow with picnic baskets, but most will end up in the overflowing restaurants, where as meat is forbidden, there is traditionally a run on shellfish and vegetables.

Unexpectedly last week on February 14 another festivity sneaked into the carnival days: Valentines Day. Maybe more modest than a Dionysus party, but on the program was a contest to write the best erotic letter, song or poem. Not many people know that Lesvos is the island of the Holy Valentine. The catholic church on Ermou (main street of Mytilini) harbors an important relic of this now popular saint. “Surprise your friends with a present”, is the slogan of this commercial day. The Greeks have picked this up, although not yet as badly as in other countries where around February 14 you stumble upon hearts and other romantic rubbish.

The capital this year decided to celebrate big because the church restoration has just finished and the relic, that stayed in Athens for a while, is back home. Besides a concert and some poem readings, the holy remains of Valentine were brought into the fresh air in a real procession full of catholic priests – coming from Greece, Europe and including a special representative from the Pope. That must have been a show because it is not often that you see a procession with priests who are not orthodox, in other words those having maybe a tiny beard but not buried in their overgrown beards.

The Tourist Union of Lesvos should publicize this pilgrim location. Besides Christmas and Carnival Valentines Day is the most commercial day of the winter in Europe and America. A romantic trip to Lesvos would be a great Valentine gift, especially when you can encounter part of his remains. To stumble by accident upon a carnival festivity with Dionysic features, can be a high light for a romantic holiday on the island. Let us have Valentine join in the carnival festivities and highlight that Lesvos is the island where Dionysos – hand in hand with Valentine – honours love, friendship and spring.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Sunday, 4 February 2018

February 2 – Who the hell is Chimonas?

(An anemone in the snow)

On many winter days, this cold, wet season in Greece (chimonas) is difficult to recognize: temperatures try regularly to reach summer values and when the first rains inundate the earth, lots of plants hurry to start growing and some to flower even before winter officially begins.

Long long ago there was no winter in Greece. When this world was run by the Olympic gods, there was a bunch of goddaughters, the Horae, who were responsible for the seasons, the hours of the day and the gate to Olympus. According to Pausanias, three of these Horae took care of the seasons: Thallo, Karpo and Auxo. According to others there was also another trio: Eunomia, Dike and Irene. Not to complicate matters I will tell about the three from Pausanias. As I imagine it, these young ladies played in juicy green meadows when Thallo had the plants grow (anixi = spring), jumped into the waves when Karpo warmed up the sea (kalo kairi = summer) and ate their bellies full when Auxo came up with abundant harvests (ftinoporo = autumn). Chione, daughter of the cold north wind Boreas, befriended them and sometimes sprinkled some snow. Then Boreas – under the name of Kheimon – claimed a season for his snow queen: and since then Greece has had four seasons. That Kheimon's claim was wrong, is proven by many a Greek winter in which autumn and spring embraces each other seamlessly. That’s maybe why the Greeks say that winter only starts in February and makes way for spring in March, leaving not too much time for Kheimon to bully the island with icy roads and wind.

It is fascinating to discover how many mini climates exists on Lesvos. In the mountains it’s always colder, Kalloni and its central plains record in summer the highest and in winter the lowest temperatures. Especially in spring, autumn and winter Plomari enjoys a certain southern warmth; the mountain village of Agiasos at least once a year gets covered by a blanket of snow, in the west Sigri has a moderate climate and is seldom without wind, in the north Eftalou (not far from Molyvos) is summer and winter cool and Mytilini goes with the flow.

They say most rain is dumped around the Gulf of Yera. However, some years’ ago after heavy rainfall, disastrous mud streams flowed through the streets of Agiasos and villages like Akrasi, Ambeliko and Stavros also had roads completely destroyed. Kalloni regularly gets flooded through not cleaning its rivers and this year it was Eresos and Andissa (and surroundings) that had to report lots of damage due to too much water.

These past months it has been particularly wet, making many rivers – in the summer only recognizable by their dry beds – stream merrily and block paths and roads (most of them you can wade through). Boreas only last week came to visit with icy wind, leaving his daughter home. When he was fed up with blowing, the almond trees, so happy with all that water, carefully started to unfold their pink blossom. Shame upon the ones who may now irritate Boreas: then we can forget about the almonds, just like last year, when Chione – who knows - celebrated a special birthday with lots of snow, killing the almond blossoms.

At some moment the Horae and Kheimon were brought down by Demeter, who had a better plan for the seasons. She lost her daughter Persephone to Hades, king of the underworld and Persephone had permission to visit her only once a year. That was the summer. When Demeter started looking forwards to her daughter’s visit, she made everything grow (spring) and from the moment Persephone left, she wept oceans of tears and all the plants died (autumn). In the winter she sat uselessly next to the stove, even though outside there was lots to do: harvesting olives, mushrooms, citrus fruit and loads of wild vegetables. So her story about seasons is not quite right: not everything died. Moreover, January traditionally also has some summer days: during the Alcyonides days (one to two weeks) you can easily do without winter clothes, while the kingfishers make love and build their nests. I bet Demeter then skypes with Persephone, a little revival for her sad heart. But she does not act consistently: last January we waited in vain for this lovely weather phenomenon.

If I were to run the world, I’d have Demeter laid-off in order to bring back the three Horae and I have Boreas with his Kheimon pseudonym banned to Hades. Three seasons give much less confusion to the island and it will be the best publicity for winter tourism: where the winter has been thrown out. Listening to the birds and looking at all the flowers now, they all agree: it is early spring, not winter.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Thursday, 18 January 2018

January 16 – The Sparrow Bush

(A sparrow bush, lycium europaeum)

When the ice-cold wind blasts from the north and threatens with polar bears on the road, the lee of a sparrow bush is a perfect place to adjust your breathing and estimate if the damns of heaven will or will not open soon. It is a fine place to blow your nose or drag the zipper of your jacket up to under your chin, because in the winter it’s always is colder at the seaside than you think.

The sparrow bush is an unsightly, thorny, winter green bush, that grows along the beach, towering at least two meters over the road, offering shelter. It’s so ugly that each time the municipal men come in spring to take away the useless branches of the shadow-offering tamarisks, I am afraid that they will think the sparrow tree is a worthless one too and cut it down. Last year indeed they pruned the bush a bit too enthusiastically and I was afraid that the bare sparrow bush would not survive.

But it has proved to be a tough bush, that resists sea water, snow, some ice and especially that freaky cold north wind, as well as an extravagant pruning session. This winter it came back in all its glory and along with it - the return of its inhabitants. This is not an empty bush: in the cold season it houses a gang of lively sparrows.

I am not a birdwatcher, so forgive me if they are in fact buntings or some other sparrow look-alikes. How can anyone ever distinguish all those birds? I take it that they are not house-sparrows, because they live in that bush. Therefore they might be tree sparrows. Those little creatures do move all the time; they waggle, twitter and tweet all day long in the sparrow bush. When you want to photograph them, they disappear between the leaves deep into the tree and the only thing that remains is an angry rustling. They then keep very quiet, even if you wait a bit, in the hope that suddenly one will peep out from between the leaves to properly introduce himself: “Hello, I am Pete the Tree Sparrow”.

I was more lucky in determining what the bush is. It probably is a Lycium europaeum, also known as a box-thorn, wolfberry or tea tree. Tea? Yes. The leaves are good for infusions that may help poor eye-sight and other eye diseases and even help to prevent cancer. It is a healing sparrow bush. According to Wikipedia, there also should appear berries, in China named goji berries: much hyped as weight reducers. They’re not only good for slimming; the Chinese also think they might help you to live longer.

But I cannot remember ever having seen those little weight-loss berries between the leaves. I have noticed tiny, dirty white flowers, that, according to Wikipedia, flower in the summer. Although the ones in my sparrow bush appear in autumn and winter.

There may well exist a winter-flowering box-thorn without goji. I mean, this family has about 70 to 80 varieties. Pliny the Elder (23-79), a Roman botanist, who wrote one of the oldest surviving encyclopedia (Naturalis Historia) named the sparrow bush after Lycia, a region in what is now Turkey. But much earlier the Greek Theophrastus (371-287 BC) had already noted this goji bush in his books, mentioning that they produced excellent wood fire.

Sparrows have an extra bone in their mouth to eat (berries with) seed. Because they hang out day and night in those box-thorn bushes, I’m wondering if it’s because the sparrows are so mad for those goji berries, that before I have a chance to see one, they’ve already been consumed. In China the goji also helps to fight impotence in men: I figure that those little rascals might also use them for this purpose because the sparrow population diminishes with the hour. Our houses nowadays are built so solid and so compact, not leaving any space for the house sparrows to nest and this – I imagine – might be so frustrating that some of them become impotent. Tree sparrows find their numbers declining because they seek food in the chemically treated fields. This can also cause impotence and there’s certainly not enough goji berry-eating ever to combat that problem.

Those small discrete sparrows are protected by the goddess of love: Aphrodite. They are known because for their busy sex life. The, to a human, impenetrable goji bush offers a unique opportunity. When you shelter from the icy north wind in the lee of such a bush, you may hear excited rustling and movement from deep within the bush. It could be that you are sheltering beside a popular sex-club.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

January 7 - Where has the Great Greek Mercantile Spirit gone?

(Olive harvest on Lesvos)

In the mud, between olive trees, there are shabby summer tents. The trees don’t look much better: those that are not nearly cut to the ground, most of their branches have been sacrificed to the nearly freezing people who have only tiny fires to warm up. Welcome to Lesvos, the island of millions of olive trees, now better known as The Shame of Europe: Camp Moria.

This refugee camp has been built amidst some of the endless olive trees that since immemorial times have helped the island. Even in 1850, when due to a frost, all trees literally burst open and cattle also died, the Lesvorians immediately set about with empty stomachs to replant new trees. Within years these brought new prosperity to the island and food to their plates.

Mytilini again has become an international town: many NGO's have settled to help the thousands of refugees who arrive or are stuck in the camps. They live in hotels, dine in restaurants, empty the stores and now and then take a stroll over the island. Similar to 1900, when Mytilini was a bubbling centre of international allure, only then it was the trading companies and the merchants, living in huge villa's, who brought the city economic prosperity: a period that even tourism never could compete with.

While Mytilini and Moria have become their own new worlds, elsewhere on the island life continues as usual. Winter means olive harvest, mostly done by hand but sometimes aided by small electric devices. The millions of trees are spread all over the island, even growing in inhospitable mountains, supported by small terraces on incredibly steep slopes or in remote corners; even there — most of them still get harvested. There are not many huge plantations: most of the fields are owned by different families who have looked after them for generations. Some people get the olives done in a few days, some take all winter to beat the fruit out of the trees.

In the glory days, when Lesvos was still part of the Ottoman Empire, though the Greeks had a pretty free hand in managing their soap and oil businesses, 98 steam driven plants pressed the liquid gold from the olives and three factories were transforming the kernels into fuel. The island had the largest number of big factories in all of Greece. Oil and soap were exported as far away as Marseille and the countries around the Black Sea.

In Agia Paraskevi and in Papados the old factories have been transformed into museums, while each community still has its own presses, most of them have modernized. The many – big and small – olive producers are united in a cooperative, that helps with transport, pressing and storage. But Lesvos lost its rich commerce. No more foreign consulates left in Mytilini, the big merchants moved to the mainland and since the mighty Ottoman Empire became part of history, Lesvos lost most of its export markets.

There now is just a bit of the oil going abroad. Most of the precious olive oil strands in local kitchens or is send to family in Athens. Only a handful of small producers pour the golden oil into bottles with their own label and try to sell to other countries.

Especially in the north olive trees are not taken seriously anymore. There they think that the new gold can be pressed out of tourism. In the summers they labour in kitchens and offices to please the tourists. But there is no clear vision about how tourism on the island should be developed. Some people thinking they hold the power believe that all-inclusive hotels will bring in the money, while some smaller offices just try to promote alternative holidays and eco tourism, which in my opinion suits the island with its millions of trees far more. Those offices do not go for the money, but realize what a rough diamond this, so often neglected by Athens, island can be in the overheated tourist industry.

The tourist business is an unstable market. Proven by the last two years when tourists stayed away from the island due to the refugee crisis. The olive market is more stable: if you take care of the olive fields, there is money to be earned. In the winter months everywhere on the island you hear the long sticks beating against the branches or the humming of little machines ticking the olives in the nets. The liquid gold drips everywhere from the trees, but what is missing on the island are some smart merchants. Lesvos is infested by people who cannot or will not cooperate. Everybody mistrusts everybody and cannot be happy when some one else is successful. So everybody continues operating on their own, never succeeding in something big. The Great Greek Mercantile Spirit, once making Izmir and Mytilini so prosperous, seems to have gone up with the smoke of history.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

December 20 - A Blues of Christmas Songs

snow covering all ugly things.

Like it was after Last Christmas,
& during all of the winter months

forgetting I was not alone.

In the Silent Night & all those other cold days,
in the refugee camps they were freezing

the Jingle Bells ringing
because some met their death.

again I wonder

& how many Little Drummer Boys
are still stuck in the camps

to give them a peaceful living.

nothing compared with what most refugees endured

they for sure saw worse.

Mary's Boy Child was born in a shed
because she had to flee persecution.

Now again: many families torn apart,

his white season ready to come

but this year I beg you: no cold nor snow

of all those muddy desperate camps.

do not forget all those people

stuck in summer tents, without a home,

also for the many angels who are still there to help

to distribute all over the world

to those who have nothing