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

Monday, 21 July 2014

July 19 – Roadkills Lesvos


(A hedgehog)

It may be due to the very late spring that hundreds of snails were wandering in my garden. Even now, after an unusual summer outburst of rain on the island, you can see them swarming slowly in all directions. When you pick something up from a dark corner in the garden, an entire family, trying to survive the dry spell, may be glued to it. 

In one way or another the garden survived the plague and now it is time to enjoy the sight of another animal that, in far smaller numbers than snails, roams around the house: the hedgehog. These creatures are the opposite of a disaster for your garden: they eat worms, spiders, sometimes snakes and snails; unfortunately, only the small ones, not the big ones that I suspect can eat an entire rosebush in one day.

Probably not many people will associate Greece with hedgehogs. In Greek mythology its name barely appears. Although Aristotle did remark that this animal mated standing up. Pliny the Elder also unjustly noted a fact: hedgehogs were fruit thieves! According to this Roman philosopher they climbed apple trees and vines, shook the branches and then rolled with their spines in the fallen fruit in order to transport the fruit on their back to their winter domiciles.

Centuries later the reputation of the hedgehog was still not really good: they were suspected of being milk and egg thieves: it was believed that they drank milk straight from the udder of a cow and stole the eggs from the chickens. Even Shakespeare never appreciated how clever and helpful hedgehogs could be: he thought that these spiny creatures were messengers of bad news. Over the centuries in England hedgehogs were seen as harmful animals and there was a period when there was a bounty for each killed hedgehog.

But there were also countries in ancient times that saw hedgehogs as useful. In ancient China, hedgehogs were even sacred and in ancient Sumeria hedgehogs were a symbol of the goddess Ishtar (who had the Greek name Astarte), in her guise of Mother Earth (this goddess had many magic appearances). In Egypt hedgehogs were a symbol of reincarnation, probably due to their winter hibernation.

The poor hedgehog has to lug around some eight thousand spines; the clever Romans saw commercial use in them and used them to teasel wool. They even used the skin to make clothing brushes.

Nowadays the reputation of a hedgehog has been cleared: it is a helpmate in the garden and you can even use him indoors to chase mice and cockroaches (that is, if you are a sound sleeper, because hedgehogs in the garden constantly grub about in the earth between swishing dead leaves but inside are also pretty rowdy).

These shambling hedgehogs with their pointed snouts and little black eyes look so sweet and they have few natural enemies: most animals have no idea how to tackle those eight thousand spines. The biggest enemy of a hedgehog is a human being. Not that we know how to crack their spiny shield, but our cars and reapers in the fields know how. In earlier times hedgehogs were collected (and I am not referring here to the hedgehog-witch-hunts in England), in order to cook them. The best known recipe for hedgehog is to put it in a ball of clay, roast the ball slowly on hot coals and when the ball is opened, the spines will remain stuck in the clay; the result being a delicate and tasty piece of meat.

(Warning: this part is not suited for sensitive animal lovers without a sense of humour!)

Additionally, in the United States, England and Australia animals that get killed on the road may get eaten. There even are so-called Roadkill restaurants where you may be served kangaroo, deer, possum, emu and all kinds of other wild animals. I guess nobody would dare to open such a Roadkill restaurant on Lesvos. Then the menu could be similar to this satirical menu of a virtual Roadkill café that I found on the internet.

Hedgehog roasted in a clay ball seems to involve a pretty long wait, so that is not convenient. Neither could I find mention of Hedgehog spaghetti carbonara. Although there were plenty of other dishes that would be suitable for the menu of a Roadkill restaurant on Lesvos, that could include tortoise, frog, snake, squirrel, fox, dog and cat, the animals that commonly get killed here on the roads. Missing were locusts – but I guess they are unlikely to be squished with a car – and smashed snails don't seem appetising to me because their gunk will be full of tar.

Yesterday the field in front of my house was mowed and in the evening it was remarkably quiet around the house: no grunting or rustling amongst the leaves on the ground. I didn't go into the field to look for the humming hedgehog or the hedgehog with the white belly. I could never eat a torn apart nor an entire hedgehog, for that matter! I do hope that the hedgehogs simply got such a fright from the roaring mowing machine that it will just take some days before they reappear again and come to beg for the remains of the dinner for my spoiled cats. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© 2014 Smitaki

Sunday, 13 July 2014

July 9 - Swinging Lesvos


(Beach Street Festival, Mytilini)

According to the Guardian the oldest erotic grafitti was recently discovered on the Greek island of Astypalaia: some phalluses, carved into rocks, with inscriptions telling who did it with whom. The surprising fact is that it is about men loving men.

Was there a secret cult or was the place an army camp in ancient times? This is not known. What is fact is that this Aegean island, lying next to the Cycladic islands, but belonging to the Dodecanese group, was a fairly unknown island, that became news when they discovered mass graves with newborn babies.

Lesvos is known as the island of Sappho. Her many poems about women made lesbian women think that Sappho might have been the first lesbian. This is how the name lesbian came to the world. As far as I know there has been no ancient grafitti found on the island, depicting anything about lesbian love. The grafitti that has made news on the island is not ancient at all and has a more social and political meaning (although some of them do contain some erotic details). Last year during the Beach Street Festival the big unfinished hotel at the end of the longest beach of Lesvos in Vatera finally became a destination because grafitti artists with their astonishing wall paintings turned the big concrete spaces into a kind of an open air museum. And all this to honour the famous painter of Lesvos: Theophilos Chatzimichaïl (1870-1934), who, in his time, decorated lots of walls with his art.

The art of Theophilos was anything but erotic. The naïve style was characteristic of his work; another aspect was that he loved to depict clothes and old costumes. The people he depicted were far from erotic, wearing lots of clothes.

This Lesvorian early grafitti artist will be celebrated again at the Beach Street Festival which presents music and grafitti on August 1, 2 and 3. This time the festival will take place in Mytilini, just below the castle at the seaside. Some hundred artists will kind of pave a road towards Theophilos and to the man who introduced Theophilos to the international art world: Tériade.

Stratis Eleftheriades, better known as Tériade, was born in 1897 in Mytilini, went to Paris to study law but obviously fell in love with the arts. He became a known art critic, helped artists with their career and finally started to publish art books. He also brought the art of his fellow islander to attention of the French art world and this is why today we can find works of Theophilos in the Louvre.

In 1979 the Tériade museum in Lesvos was opened, just south of Mytilini in the village of Varia, alongside the museum of Theophilos which was opened in 1965. In the Tériade museum it is mainly his books that are exhibited, with original works from, amongst others Picasso, Matisse, Miro and of course there are the famous drawings made by Marc Chagall for the Lesvorian fairy tale Daphnis and Chloe.

During the Beach Street Festival the route from the castle in Mytilini to the museums in Varia will be marked by lots of artists who will decorate empty walls and other buildings with their art. That promises to become a nice party! Also because there are workshops given in grafitti art: put your mark to the city!

Another reason to visit the festival in Mytilini are the 50 music acts which will be presented on different stages: the capital is going to swing! And for sure swinging lots of times after that: if the new grafitti will be as impressive as the ones in Vatera, we may enjoy the art long after the festival will be closed.

There is a lot of dancing going on also in the north of the island. Last week the fancy modern open air club oXy (pronounced not as the Greek ochi, but as oxi, of oxygene) opened its doors. The club is settled high on a mountain between Molyvos and Petra, on a kind of boat-like construction (previously the Gatoluzzi club). The enormous platform houses a pool, seats, restaurant and a VIP-lounge where after midnight you’ll be sure to find a swinging crowd. For people who prefer more calm nights, in daytime it is a chic and relaxed lounge club with a superb view over the Aegean and with a pool to cool off.

The oXy club has revived the most well known empty building in the north of Lesvos. The Beach Street Festival not only makes an interesting connection between an older culture (Theophilos) and new grafitti, but also gives empty buildings a new function. Some old olive presses already have been transformed into hotels (Olive Press in Molyvos, Hotel Zaira in Skala Loutron) and museums (olive museums in Aya Paraskevi and in Papados), but still many of them, spread all over the island, remain vacant, just like other interesting buildings like the Arion Hotel in Molyvos, the old spa hotel Sarlitza in Thermi, the old night club in Skala Sykaminia, a school with a magnificent view in Ypsilometopo and plenty of old factories in Plomari and Perama. I do hope that there will come more creative people who think out new functions for these monumental buildings, so that Lesvos’ Old Glory can become the face of the new sparkling and swinging island that has everything for the modern tourist.

(The Tériade museum might open in 2 weeks, after a year of rebuilding (tel. 22510-23372); The museum of Theophilos is open from Monday to Friday, from 09.00 to 14.00. None of the museums will have special opening hours/days during the festival.)

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Sunday, 6 July 2014

July 5 - Integration starts with a nap in the afternoon


(Yamas!)

By: Pip

After a few months on Lesvos, I have pretty much started to integrate: I increase my number of naps in the afternoon and in the evening I begin to go out later for dinner. Even though my stomach starts to grumble around seven, I no longer go to a restaurant before nine thirty.

This schedule pleases me, because since started dining so late, I no longer have to eat alone. And thus no longer have to endure the prying looks of the holidaying couples that start with their moussaka or stifado at 7 o’clock, a time that the Greeks just wake up from their siesta. I am amazed that a person eating alone attracts so much attention. Normally I do not care and I openly stare back at such couples sitting there without any conversation. And then I wonder to myself why is it that they have nothing to say to each other. In the past I sometimes invited such couples to join me, but the answer was never yes. Although my intention was never more than to pass time together, have a nice evening with good conversation: it was the female member of the couple that would refuse the invitation. Why? I have no idea!

There is something to learn from the Greeks in social behaviour. In Greece having dinner is a social event. A Greek never eats early in the evening and almost never alone.  When most tourist couples on a Saturday night are on the way back to their hotel room or apartment, the restaurants will fill up for a second time, this time with Greeks. Everybody knows each other, everybody is welcome, chairs are shuffled around. So it can happen that when arriving in the harbour at 22.00 o’clock I might share some sardines with Nikos, then later Stavros will take a seat at our table to have a ladotiri saganaki, that Manolis will join us for an ouzo, followed by Maria who may come just to greet me and then a fisherman might want to show off the squid he had caught some minutes before. And at the end of the evening the owner of the restaurant and the cook might appear at the table to celebrate their evening’s work.

The later it gets, the more animated the evening and the more I hear about what is going on in the village: about the four fish that danced in the full moon yesterday; About that arrogant tourist with his catamaran moored in the harbour and is a malaka (asshole) because nobody is allowed to pass his gangway to reach the quay; about the daughter of Heleni who has a boyfriend and about the stubborn donkey of Michaelis who has escaped. I hear that Yannis has shaved off his beard and that the Captains Table – the restaurant that blew up at the start of the season - is trying to make a new start up.

When everybody knows what is going on and the empty ouzo bottles on the table are too many to count and after some dirty jokes, around 2 o’clock it is time to go home. Even though it is Sunday, in a tourist village work still needs to be done – every day, every morning and at the beginning of every evening. The end of the afternoon is for the siesta, otherwise you will not survive the night. The end of the evening is for maintaining social contacts. This is how it works here. Since I have started dining late I have begun to understand Greek life much better as well as to hear much more about what is going on in the island. So if you want to integrate – you had better start with having a nap in the afternoon.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Pip 2014