Wednesday, 13 July 2016

July 9 – The advantage of a house full of pharaohs

(an ant)

I confess: I am a mass murderer. Each day I kill thousands of little creatures, just because they get in my way. It's their own fault, because they have attacked my house and now they are swarming all over the place: in the bathroom, the bedroom and (their favourite) - in the kitchen.

They are mini ants and when I checked them out on the internet, I found horror-like images. Look at these little monsters on a site about ants in Greece, Antweb Greece! I wonder how you could tell what kind of ant you are dealing with. Who can look such a minuscule ant right in the eyes?

I see those little dots marching through my house. You can't possibly miss them when they creep around in military convoy. These misfits are so small that I need to have my glasses on to see them, but even then: with or without glasses, head or tail cannot be discerned, let alone a frightening face with antenna.

Of the 290 species calling Greece home, the small ones are the minority. It can be a Pharaoh ant (Monomorium pharaonis), a much too beautiful name for these bullies. They are also called Sugar ants, a logical name because they love sweets. There also are the Monomarium minimum, called simply Little black ants. But I much prefer the name pharaoh. Whatever they actually are, I will call them after those legendary Egyptian rulers, one of whom - Akhenaten (1351–1334 BC) – did look so much like an ant that he could have been an ant pharaoh and gave his name to these creatures as 'big' as 2 to 3 mm.

So I have a house full of pharaohs. The whole day – heat wave or not – they are hyper active, towing invisible things, hunting delicacies and even sending scouts to my laptop, hoping to find a hidden cake there. Where do they get all that energy?
Once long ago the Greek island of Aegina was raged by a mortal disease and most of the inhabitants died. The ruling king was devastated and asked Zeus for new people. This lazy god, who had just seen a train of ants climbing into his favourite tree, changed the ants into people: the Myrmidons. They became reknowned for their endless energy and discipline and made first class soldiers. Later it was Achilles who showed them off during the siege of Troy.

In Africa there still are scary ant armies. When I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, I had nightmares about ants eating my house overnight. I am sure that the ant units mentioned in the book did not consist of warlike pharaohs (even though they too originated in Africa) but of a far more bloodthirsty species.

However, the African, warlike pharaohs of Lesvos party on the dishes waiting to be washed, break into hermetically-sealed pots of honey and jam, eat clean and dirty towels and convert each cupboard into a wriggling nightmare. I am sure that I've drunk several of them, drowned in the endless glasses of water that you are supposed to drink during the Greek heat. Those rascals are thirsty and not only rush for sweets, but also for water: so they have turned the bathtub and sink into permanent camp grounds, even though again and again I attempt to drown them with gigantic tsunamis of water

Could housing those thirsty African warlike pharaohs actually have an advantage, I ask myself desperately, each day thinking more and more about giving up. According to Werner Herzog's movie Where the Green Ants Dream, there once was an aboriginal people who believed that green ants created the world and even kept it alive (you'd better say: kept it clean). Also the American Hopi indians have a legend telling how their people once were saved by ants.

So I have legendary, thirsty, African, warlike pharaohs in my house. They can be combatted only with lemon, vinegar, dish soap or some chemical shit. The problem is that I hate to clean; but those masses of ants have forced me to become an exemplary housewife. Every bite of food now has to be followed at least by ten minutes of cleaning. So the only positive point of the invasion of these forcing-me-to-clean, legendary thirsty, African warlike pharaohs is a free home-polish course! My house has never been so shiny and clean.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Monday, 4 July 2016

July 4 - Helicopter-feeling

A helicopter thunders through the sky
its devil noise scaring me
making me look up
where is the danger?
my eyes roaming the sea
where the elegant rippling blue
is the only movement
waves carrying no ship
nor a rubber dinghy.

The beach temporarily not clean
a heap of debris heavily planted in the sand
left by some divers
who instead of proudly waving with a squid
broke through the blue surface
bringing silent leftovers of wreckage
spiky wood, rubber pieces, clothes and all
that a boat once carried
bringing the scent of
scared people, oil and sadness.

My heart still bleeding
hearing the sound of a helicopter
or when my nose picks up
this sad scent that last summer
reigned over Lesvos' coasts.

Then the world rushed over the island
disturbing the quiet rhythm
of just ordinary beating hearts
who – what else could they do -
reached out and helped
from war drowned people
children who did not know
that they had to live their youth
as an adult.

And now that this tearful world
has gone elsewhere
leaving the beaches empty and cleaned
villagers full of traumas
smothered in dreams
hands full of emptiness
because also the people
once recognizing the island
as an oasis of quietness and sunshine
have moved elsewhere.

I walk along the beach
as empty as the bordering blue water
above me unrest in the sky
of a wild flapping bird
what are they doing there
now that the world has left the villagers
and suddenly I am not sure anymore
what pains me more
the quiet beach
or the suffering elsewhere.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki

Friday, 24 June 2016

June 21 – Ouzo is ín, sangria is out


This wicked heatwave makes the skin weap thick tears and a swim in the cooling sea is the best option to get through the day. Water is the drink to survive, but besides water, a glass of ice cold ouzo can also be a solution to beat the tiring heat.

Ouzo is the national drink of Greece, although late into the night a bottle of whisky may well appear. Lesvos is the ouzo capital of the country because it produces the most (and the best). It is a relatively new drink, just as the famous Greek tomatoes were only lately introduced to the Greek kitchen. Only around 1900 the real ouziotary broke out, a welcome replacement for the unhealthy, but popular (especially in France) drink absinth.

In 1860 Varvayannis brought his art of distilling from Odessa to the island. Additionally, during the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923 many Ottoman Greeks brought distillation secrets with them. You may wonder about the fact that in the Ottoman Empire alcohol was consumed. It indeed was a muslim empire, but there were so many other gods worshipped that alcohol was easy to find. Moreover the foreigners had to pay a pretty high tax for their alcohol (Müskirat resmi): no sultan wouldn't miss that.

And Sultan Selim II (1524-1574) did love a glass of very good wine; he was even called The Drunkard. Not only did his lordship reign drunkenly over his huge nation, but the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, could also be seen more than once a day with a glass of raki in hand. His daily consumption of the precursor to ouzo is estimated at a liter a day and he finally died in 1938 due to liver cirrhosis.

Even though the coming sultan Erdogan makes life difficult for drinkers, the national drink of Turkey remains raki, distilled from the grape skins left over from the wine pressing. Those banished Ottoman Greeks that fled to Lesvos used century old procedures, but the alcohol on the island was enriched by plenty of local herbs. When driving southwards, around Lisvori you may see the ‘ouzo-fields’: anise, dill, cumin and grains, which are only a few of the many ingredients each ouzo producing family uses, each scrupulously guarding its own secrets.

Even if you visit the ouzo plant of Varvayannis in Plomari, you will not find the secret —just learn a bit more about their production and history. Also the E.V.A. that runs a little ouzo museum in Mytilini, will not reveal any recipe. The little booklet they produced – Lesvos insider – only gives away the secrets of the ouzo-island life and tells you how to make mastic-cocktails.

Lesvos is ín, Ibiza is out, was recently written in a Dutch magazine (Wow, the New World). You can see it coming: the organization of the Symbiosis Lesvos Arts Festival is in full swing, the high-profile disco oXy between Molyvos and Petra has reopened. Skala Eresou with its many cocktail bars and fancy visitors, and Vatera with its huge beach and hip beach bars, are ready for a hot summer. Also many youngsters are going to the more unconventional beaches like Drota, Makara and Crousos. 

So ouzo is ín, sangria (or all those other colourfull cocktails) are out. Poor some water into the ouzo, fill the glass up with plenty of ice cubes, and together with some mezèdes and friends it will be the best remedy to the heatwave and the best way to enjoy the island that offers plenty of paradise-like holiday experiences.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)
Smitaki 2016

Saturday, 4 June 2016

May 26 - The new Greek Herring arrived!

(Jelly fish are taking over the oceans)

Last week in Plomari a Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) of seven-and-a-half meters was brought into the harbour. The poor animal, a huge plankton sipper who could never harm a human except possibly with a fair blow of his tail, got entangled in nets just outside Vatera. He did not survive.

Yesterday I had a swim in the sea at Drotta (bordering Vatera). To be sure, I did not got far away from the beach and I kept an eye around me in case I saw a small black triangle rushing after me. I mean, the only thing I know of sharks is that they swim in the seas and I have no idea how to differentiate between a good or a bad shark. And although swimmers here never bump into sharks (just the odd fishermen far out at sea) – you never know, you just might run into the wrong guy.

I prefer swimming amid sardines that are far smaller and really have no bad intentions. But imagine if you were to find yourself in the midst of a school of sardines whose fate is to die and to wash ashore tonnes at a time, as happened last month in Chili? That sounds like a real horror scenario. That country already had a sardine prohibition because of overfishing, so bad luck there are now even less. Here at the other side of the globe there are still plenty of those little silver fish and with no hard feelings we allow them to end up on our plates.

There is not a lot that I miss from Holland, but one thing is salted herring. So I am crazy for the Greek variation of salted herring - sardèlles pastès – which are mainly eaten in the summer. In Holland it is a big event when the first salted herring of the season is brought ashore. Here in Greece this happens without any fuss; and as early as late spring, when the waiter mentions sardèlles pastès, this dish will be sold out by the time I leave the restaurant.

Another sea creature I am not keen in meeting during a swim is an octopus. It is not that I am afraid that an 8-legged monster will suddenly pop up and grab my legs (enormous squids as big as 3 meters have been spotted in the seas around Japan); but whilst I love to have one freshly caught on my plate, underwater its desire to embrace you with all his tentacles seems a bit creepy.

I read an article saying that cephalopods are multiplying more quickly than usually. Just a few years ago a study concluded that jelly fish populations were trying to take over the oceans, and now the squids and octopus have joined them.

Octopus can be very intelligent. They can predict the outcome of football matches, they know how to free themselves from where they are kept and who knows at what other smart things they excel. Up until now I never bumped into a shark while swimming, nor a sardine nor a squid, and only once accidentally into the invisible tentacles of a jelly fish. If you want to believe scientists, things will change quickly, because from the dark depths of the sea invisible dangers are lurking, just like those described in the eco-thriller The Swarm of Frank Schätzing.

Maybe its our eating habits that will provide a little remedy to the abundance that lies ahead. Believe it or not, jelly fish are as common as sardines on the menus in Asia. The Lesvorian coasts are not rich in these quivering creatures, but I am sure that in the high seas there are plenty. Jelly fish with mushrooms and cucumber? First manage to get such a gelatinous animal whole onto the beach.

You will find cephalopods aplenty on the Greek menu: fried or stuffed kalamari, octopus in red wine sauce or marinated in vinegar or grilled octopus legs. All restaurants may have one or more of these dishes on their menu.

The shark at Plomari was cut into pieces, colouring the harbour blood red. Probably it all ended up on a grill. Occasionally here on the island you might find shark on the menu, although it is one you do not have to run from a: a School shark or in Greek galeos (Galeorhinus galeus). And it is really tasty.

I will not imagine sharks ever joining squids, octopus and jelly fish in conquering the seas. But when the sardines do, I will hope that we may fish them with no limits and that I may feast - without shame – upon those delicious Greek salted herrings!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Sunday, 22 May 2016

May 16 – Who is afraid of Lesvos?

(Voodoo Lily)

For years I have tried to get my readers to be as enthusiastic about the island as I am: I have written about its hidden treasures, about its overwhelming natural beauty, its food and its inhabitants and I have published Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream, a book with columns and photographs. What is the result of all that writing? The island remains empty this summer. Who is afraid of Lesvos?

Lesvos can be a bit scary, I admit. There are volcanoes which have been sleeping for over a million years, possibly waiting to wake up, the only traces of their last eruption being the petrified trees. In the sea there are floating stones, sea urchins, barracudas and sharks (which you may also find on your dinner plate). On that same plate there might appear weeds: chorta-la-dee-dee or wild vegetables.

Close to the capital, the graves of vampires have been found and who knows, they still may be around. In the shrubbery of the chestnut forest near Agiasos, there lurk thousands of dragons, or drakondia, the Greek name for aroids (flowers). A bigger species is the Dracunculus vulgaris, also called Dragon Arum, Voodoo Lily or Snake Lily. This little giant can grow as tall as one meter and has a huge pink to blood red spathe that curls around an enormous spadix. An excellent flower for a horror movie. It is the smaller version of the biggest flower in the world, the Titan Arum or Amorphophallus titanum, whose latin name refers to the huge phallus-like spadix that can reach a height of three meters. Just like his little sister this flower smells like hell, so you better not run into it. The Titan Arum can only be found on Sumatra, the Voodoo Lily however can be encountered everywhere on Lesvos.

Many woods of Lesvos are a bit creepy. You may bump into the poisonous yellow rhodondendron that can kill entire armies, you may run into hidden little chapels, where you can pray to be found if you are lost. You risk falling into waterfalls and there are caves you only can reach at risk to your life. The roads are amongst the most dangerous of the world because the other roadusers are roaming donkeys, flocks of sheep, sweet hedgehogs, or gossiping Greeks and birdwatchers staring through camera’s as big as stargazers; and the romantic ponds along the roads are full of turtles that beg for bread.

There are rude foxes who steal telephones, crickets whose screaming can damage your hearing and complete armies of ants that can occupy your bed. Daily there will be sunshine that can damage your skin, colouring it red or petrify it.

Most hotels on the island do not offer ‘all inclusive’, so you have to find food for yourself. Most restaurants only have Greek food and fish is served whole, and if they are small enough you are supposed to eat them with head and tails. There are no fortune cookies here, but while eating, its entirely possible that birds with forked tails will fly straight over your head: Greeks see swallows as good luck birds. Gigantic wasps may be fed with meat, in order to keep them from your table, or the owner of the restaurant may take out his old rifle in order to chase them with an ear deafening boom.

This is the Greek island that you have to avoid, because last year it was 'unsafe' because of refugees. Be aware: last weekend the roads again were unsafe, this time because of masses of pilgrims who, just like the refugees last year, were walking the roads, only now in the opposite direction, towards Mandamados where the Taxiarchis Monastery had its yearly party.

I nearly got out of the car and joined the walkers, because the island urgently needs help. Archangel Michael, whose name day was the cause for the pilgrimage, is also the patron saint of the island. He is a fighter and more than once he has intervened on earth. Last year he sent armies of brave angels to the island. Now that nearly no refugees arrive and the island has been cleaned, suddenly there are no longer any vacationers — doubling the crisis on the island. Would Michael please send some tourists?

Anyway, after writing 500 columns, I will continue reporting from this forbidden paradise, the hidden pearl of the Aegean. Because apparently people still are afraid of Lesvos!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Monday, 2 May 2016

April 24 – Clapping thunder flowers

(Thunder flowers)

“When thunder clouds appear, quickly burn your thunder flowers"* I won't follow this old saying, because I want those thunder clouds to give rain. I study the cloudy sky and search for any cauliflower forms. Dark masses of tiny water parts hang around the mountain tops, but will they release that much wanted water from heaven? The sun still knows where to find the cracks and keeps on shining.

The island is pretty dry. The oceans of flowers have started to wither, making orchid hunters desperate: where to find those orchids which people have flown to Lesvos especially in order to see? They will now have to do with the thunder flowers, who shamelessly and dazzlingly have gathered in masses and shine as red as any tulip field in Holland. Thunder flowers do not care about water or good soil: they flourish in poor and churned soil. This way they survived the battlefields of the First World War.

It was the Goddess of the Earth, Demeter, who created this sleeping flower*. She preferred to sleep throughout the six months of the year that her daughter Persephone had to spend with Hades in the Underworld. The God of Sleep Hypnos and his son Morpheus also used this flower to close their eyes and to dream. The sleeping flower has remained along with its derivatives, like opium, a symbol for sleep, and to help people have sweet dreams or lead them to damnation. When, like Alice in Wonderland, you pass through a field full of sleeping flowers, you'd better not lay down in that bright red world: you might risk an eternal sleep.

Sorcerers loved these witch flowers*, because they had so many properties to make healing concoctions. Their medical applications are many: used not only to have a good sleep, but also to fight a sore throat or cramps. And their tiny moon blue seeds, known from the tasty German or Swiss rolls, contain rare minerals and vitamins.

Had the soldiers in the First World War known this, they would have all become addicted to the witch flower. There were so many. Especially in Flanders, the poppies spurted out of the bomb and grenade-churned battlefields and thus became symbol for the lugubrious battle that took place there. Thanks to a poem about those blood red papavers (John McCrae: In Flanders Fields), many a veteran now wears a red poppy. Be aware: no real ones. As soon as you pick a poppy, its fragile petals become as free as a bird and whirl in all directions.

If you still intent on gathering poppies, take note: in England they believed that when you picked them, you could cause a thunderburst. While in Belgium, they believed that when you burned thunder flowers, you could shoo away those nasty thunderstorms. In fact, the real flower closes its petals when the rumbling begins and the Heavens threaten to weep.

While I watch intently to see if the poppies are going to close their flowers or not, I pick some petals. I read somewhere that children used to lay a folded poppy petal on their hand and when they slapped it, it gave a loud clapping sound. The only sound I heard was that of skin to skin. I probably need more exercise. It is said that the Dutch name for a Poppy, klaproos (literally translated as clap rose), comes from this children's game. Other say the name klaproos comes from the Poppies' rattling seed pods.

Lesvos should rattle its clouds more often so that the plants, especially the olive trees, get enough to drink. Otherwise the island will get, besides the economic problem that has been enlarged by the absence of a large percentage of the tourists, a new problem. The poppies can shine as brightly as they want, but if the island doesn't get serious showers or as many tourists as there are poppies in the fields, I am afraid that many an islander is going to need sleeping flowers in order to rest at night.

*(In Holland there are different synonyms for a Poppy (klaproos), like donderbloem (thunder flower), slaapbol (sleeping flower) and kollenbloem (witch flower).

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

April 7 – They are coming: the Cool and the Green Pope!

(The Cool and the Green Pope)

The only man in whose hands I would trust the world is Pope Francis. I said that recently in a discussion about failing world leaders. To me he is the only charismatic person with a bit of influence who cares honestly for our world. Although the influence of the church has shrunken a lot in our godless society and even when he holds the mace, I am afraid that big money nowadays has more power than God.

These days the islanders have lots to chat about: the deportation of refugees that is contrary to human rights, the hunger prevailing in the refugee camp at Moria, and possibly the worst tourist season ever that is approaching. The arrival of movie stars, artists or musicians provide a welcome diversion in the generally sad discussions and now the island is happily murmuring over the latest news: the Pope is coming to Lesvos.

I have never been a fan of the Pope. Earlier Popes were no more than plaster saints. I was shocked watching the television series Borgia, which related the story of the family of Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI. He did everything God ever forbade and he would have joined ISIS if that would have given him another kingdom. After him the popes became more pious, maybe even too pious.

I have lost faith: in a God who accepts so much sorrow in this world and in those old crooked men wearing clothes adorned with gold and jewellery in the Vatican. That has changed a bit with the arrival of Pope Francis. For the last three years he has blown a fresh wind through the corridors of the Vatican: not only refusing to wear too much bling-bling, this Vatican enfant terrible loves the simple life and has a wise tongue which he uses to tell the rich and powerful which responsibilities they are neglecting. A really saintly man who has to take it up against the complacent and old-fashioned bishops in order to humanize his religion.

As only the second Pope to visit Greece since the Big Schism in 1054 (when the christian church split into the Roman Catholic and Easter Orthodox churches) Francis seeks rapprochement between the two religions. But until now they have not even managed to make Easter for the East and West coincide every year, instead of only once every four years. The Orthodox Church still calculates the day of Easter according to the Julian calendar and the Catholics according to the Gregorian calendar. This means that this year in the West all the Easter eggs have already been eaten, while in the East they are in the midst of Lent and only on May 1st will the lambs be put on the spit.

The Pope does not come alone. Visiting the refugee camp at Moria, he will be accompanied by a man who, just like him, wishes for rapprochement with other religions: the head of the Orthodox Church, the ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeus I, who has his seat in Istanbul (a town still stubbornly called Constantinopel by the Greeks). So for all Greeks once more the song: Istanbul (not Constantinopel).

Bartholomeus I earned his nickname Green Patriarch or Green Pope because of his manoeuvring for a better environment. I imagine that these two gentlemen like each other: the Green and the Cool Pope. Who knows if their visit together may bring more than just solidarity with the refugees. They should join each other to fight evil and put themselves forward as examples to their believers. Certainly the Orthodox Church also needs some fresh air: to teach their pontiffs some mercy and less bling-bling. In the garden of Bartholomeus I you will find priests who, like disobedient thorn bushes or overconfident ramblers, look more like bankers and are not prepared to help Greece out of its ocean-deep recession. If the Greek Church paid taxes for all its land and monasteries Greece would flower again.

According to the media the Popes will not have time for a touristic excursion. But I think they really should visit the grave of Papa Stratis from Kalloni, a priest who is the example of a Good Samaritan. For years he helped the poor and refugees. Last summer, as ill as he was, he kept on taking care of all those thousands of refugees who passed through his home town. He died last September and for me is a Saint.

It will be the first time in history that a roman catholic Pope visits Lesvos. This poor and crisis-ridden Island (and Greece) will be happy to receive this Holy man. I hope with all my heart that Francis will not only cast blessings with the flutter of his hands, but will also use his mouth to voice judgement on inhuman Europe. Long live the Cool and the Green Pope!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016