Sunday, 1 March 2015

February 25 - Dans le port de Sigri


(The harbour of Sigri)

Who doesn't like to hang around on the quayside of a lively little harbour? On an island like Lesvos there is a great choice of idyllic little ports where you can enjoy the sight of fishing boats and fishermen coming and going.

In earlier times fishing harbours tended to be outside the villages and in them you'd only come across the fishermen, some of their children and lots of cats. Fishermen were poor and so the harbour was a poor place, full of mud, garbage and the odd bucket to sit on while repairing the nets. In some places there would be a small ouzeria to slake the thirst of the workingmen, but that was all you could get. Daughters of a fishing family were not sought after for marriage; living by the sea meant poverty.

Nowadays it is the opposite. Having a house at the seaside is considered a luxury of the wealthy. The closer your house is to the sea, the more you are envied. Also the harbours have changed. They have now been found to be a source of entertainment; in the popular ones you may find plenty of cafenions and a fisherman is seldom alone mending his nets.

The little harbour of Skala Sykaminia is said to be the most beautiful on Lesvos. Beautiful fishing boats come and go, a gang of lean cats watch closely for the boats' arrivals and the quay of the harbour is cluttered with restaurants and cafes, where the fish metaphorically jump from the sea onto your plate.

The harbour at Molyvos offers even more in the way of terraces and boats, everything from small caiques and fishing cutters to the fast boat of the harbour police and some yachts. However at Molyvos at least, you will not find those huge and luxurious yachts of the rich.
 It is along the extended quays of Mytilini that you will find the more frivolous cafes and also the bigger boats like the ferrys going to Turkey or the ones connecting the island with the rest of Greece.
The second town of the island, Plomari, also has a pretty large harbour, although filled with mainly fishing boats. Along the quays of this southern city, you will find an extended choice of hangouts, similar to Skala Kalloni which also has a small number of restaurants around its fishing harbour.

A harbour possibly even more picturesque than that of Skala Sykaminia is Skala Polichnitos. It is the centre of the shellfish trade and sometimes you will see a big cargo boat, looking bigger than the entire village, moored at its small quay. These kinds of cargo ships also come into the harbour of Petra - a harbour with no drinking place. Here the ships are loaded with sheep, or the salt that is delivered by road from Skala Kalloni. I always wonder why this salt cannot be transported to Skala Polichnitos instead of being driven over the small winding road from Kalloni to Petra. I understand that the Bay of Kalloni at the end is very shallow, but surely they could organize a fleet of small caiques to ferry the salt across the bay to Skala Polichnitos. Those big salt trucks on the road are a real annoyance (and sometimes called Assault trucks).

The harbour of beautiful Gavathas has a quay nearly as big as the village and you would expect that they would use the space for a bunch of cafenions in the summer. But this huge paved place is as empty in high season as it is in the winter. There is only a fashionably old and tiny ouzeria, hidden somewhere above in the middle of the main road (this tiny village must have what? - 5 streets), to provide the fishermen with an ouzo and mèzes (as does the restaurant at the beach).

Sigri, another small village at the most western point of the island, also has a similarly spacious quay. Her harbour has been provided with a huge concrete square where daily you can expect to see a ship as big as the Titanic. There are also rumours that there is a secret submarine base, but if so, then they must be unmanned submarines, because I've never seen a marine. Or maybe the crew and technicians have a secret access tunnel?

 Adorable Sigri feels a bit like the end of the world. Mostly there is a lot of wind; tourists and inhabitants are scarce and the surrounding beaches offer plenty of occasions to spend days without seeing anybody. But suddenly this quietness has become endangered: plans have been announced for a big commercial harbour. But maybe they are, in fact, old plans; maybe that is why the quay is already so big and we know already the water is so deep that big boats already can moor at Sigri? Having a commercial harbour means that you will also need big roads. So two years ago a big fleet of diggers started to redo the road from Sigri to Kalloni, along with some additional building roads.
If I understand correctly, the Egnatia SA company got the contract. The same company was also responsible for the building of the Egnatia Motorway, a highway cutting through the mainland of Greece, following the ancient Via Egnatia, famous since ancient times (and especially in Roman and Byzantine times) as the main connection between the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea. The 670 km long road connects 332 towns and villages by road, high bridges, tunnels and complicated intersections. So you would think that they have good road building expertise; but the unruly west of Lesvos got them on their knees. The works overran by so much that the job was abandoned. Meaning that the bickering over the realisation of Sigri Harbour and its highway to Kalloni has begun all over again. The result is not yet known, especially now that there is a new government with new ministers who have to sign for any continuation of this project.

I suspected that the people who planned the road had done so in collaboration with the megalomaniac windmill parc (see: All roads lead to Sigri), but I was wrong. The rebuilding of the road was because they want to build a huge harbour at the end of the world. For whom or for what do they want that? For the empty West, for goods for Mytilini? I thought the capital already had its own port. Or has Kalloni grown so much that it wants also a port for itself?
At least the Natural History Museum of Sigri will be happy: because of the works done until now, they were able to increase considerably their collection of petrified trees. The people who love the quietness of this sweet village no longer have sleepless nights and the restaurant at the harbour of Sigri will, for the moment, remain a hot spot for food lovers, and for the time-being not spoiled by building activity nor huge boats hiding the seaview.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

February 12: Cabbage is cool


(Cabbages on a field in Eftalou)

For the last few days a Siberian storm from the north has kept most Greeks inside their houses, close to the heating. In Athens it snowed, but here on Lesvos the sodden land finally had time to dry up. At the seaside however the waves sprung over the streets and quays and where there are fences, you get a pretty good idea for how we mistreat our earth: the fences were full of plastic blown out of the sea.

You may well wonder what the fish are eating and how much of that plastic ends up in the fields where our food is grown. Wherever you look, you see plastic, even deep in the Lesvorian woods. Although I have to admit that the island gets cleaner because the regard for nature is increasing by the year.

Thanks to the really cold weather you may only find plastic on the fields these days. Wintertime normally does not offer such a big choice in vegetables, but during the normal Greek generous winters there might at least be salad, spinach and other green leafy vegetables on the fields. With the cold much of that got lost and we have to make do with frost resistant plants like cabbages and beet roots, that is, if you really want to eat products from the open air and not from glass houses.

Cabbages are mostly associated with countries in the North like Russia, Poland or Germany, but the Greeks also eat plenty of cabbage in the winter. The most popular dishes are lachano salata (finely chopped cabbage leaves with olive oil and some vinegar), lachano vrasto (cooked cabbage leaves seasoned with olive oil, mostly a simple but surprisingly good dish because of its nearly sweet taste) and lachanodolmades (cabbage leaves filled with a mixture of ground beef, seasoned with the lemon sauce avgolemono).

There even is a Greek myth explaining how cabbages came into the world. Once Dionysos, god of wine and parties, was wandering through Thrace with his followers, the mainads. King Lycourgos of Thrace felt threatened and had Dionysos and his party arrested. Dionysos became so angry that he made the king go mad. Lycourgos became convinced that his son was a grapevine that had to be cut down. When the king realised his mistake, he started crying and from his tears grew cabbages. And because of this story – which is very old - Greeks believe that you should never plant cabbage near a grapevine, because then there will be no grapes. They also believe that eating cabbage before you start drinking will give you a solid stomach for the alcohol or, when you forgot that, eating cabbage might solve your hangover.

Cabbage was not only the food of the poor, but also of honesty. One day the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope was searching for an honest man. He met a man who was known for his flattery to the rich. Diogenes said to him: “If you would eat cabbages, you would not have to flatter the rich”, and the man very cleverly answered: “When you flatter the rich, you don’t have to eat cabbage”.

Cabbage is health food (it contains vitamin C, iron, calcium and potassium) and the ancient Greeks and Romans believed strongly in its healing power. Like a certain Erasistratous, a Greek doctor who lived three centuries before Christ, who gave his patients cabbage when they had stomach problems and also spewed blood. According to Pliny the Elder, starting the day with eating raw cabbage seasoned with oxymel (a syrup of water, honey and vinegar), coriander, rue, mint and cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) would be good against headaches, poor vision, specks in the eyes, spleen and stomach pains and against insomnia.

The Roman magistrate and military officer Cato used a paste of chopped cabbage leaves to heal wounds. And in the 18th century no ship left the harbour without cabbages. Like the famous Captain Cook: on his first voyage, when he encountered a heavy storm which resulted in many wounded men, he had his ship's doctor treat the wounds with a paste of cabbage, as did Cato many centuries earlier on the battle fields of Rome. It worked and since then ships only sailed with sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) and raw cabbages.

Pythagoras was a real vegetarian. When he made offerings to the Gods, it was not meat (he did not want to kill animals) or cooked food, but raw vegetables and grains, because he strongly believed that unfired food kept a person with a sharp mind and a healthy body. He also loved cabbage and had different recipes for it. Like Nut Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
12 large cabbage leaves 
1 loaf barley bread or Essene bread made from sprouted whole grains 
2 tablespoons grated onion 
1 cup hazelnuts or pecans 
1/2 cup diced celery 
2 teaspoons mixed herbs 
Salt and pepper to taste 
Crumble the Essene bread into a mixing bowl. (NB: Essene bread is moist and friable and crumbles easily.) Then add the grated onion, the chopped nuts, the diced celery, the mixed herbs and the spices. 
With a sharp knife, cut out the hard stem from each cabbage leaf. Lay the leaf flat on a working surface, and spoon the filling onto the edge of the leaf. Coat the edge evenly, then roll it up tightly. If the cabbage leaves are small in size, take two leaves and arrange them so that one edge overlaps the other; line the leading edge with the filling and roll it up. Serve garnished with sprigs of parsley or mint. 

The original recipe was called Acorn-stuffed Cabbage Rolls. In ancient times acorn was a popular food, but since we no longer eat them, they are replaced by nuts. How healthy it may be and even with nuts, this recipe will not be my favourite, because everything is raw, even the bread (Grind 2 cups sprouted barley and ½ cup of dry figs together and knead. Shape into a loaf, and set aside for 12 hours before serving).

I never was a big fan of cabbage, but on Lesvos I started to appreciate this vegetable more and more. It is perfect to stir-fry and in many other ways can be transformed into a tasty dish. And one cabbage can last you a few days. Last week I saw in the paper a photograph of a man from Agia Paraskevi who harvested a cabbage of 11 kilo’s. Such a big one will last you a whole winter! Although once a cabbage is cut, it will rapidly lose its vitamins.

On the Internet I found a website with tasty looking and more modern recipes with cabbage than the one of Pyhtagoras (the recipe of the raw salad from Pliny the Elder does not seem that bad): Greek cabbage recipes from Yummly. Not all the recipes seem very Greek to me, but they are all made with Greek ingredients. The coming days I will try them out because the end of the winter does seem to be very far away and Pythagoras did forget another property of cabbages: it warms the soul. And a warm soul we are going to need very badly for the coming cold carnival.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

February 2 – The barometer on wild


(The river in Eftalou)

There is a new wind blowing through Greece that gives most of the population hope. The dust that it has provoked and now blows over Europe is like the Saharan sand, that came with the heavy southern storm that scourged most of the country a week later. Athens was filled with a red dusty haze, as was Lesvos; the sun became hidden by a layer of fine desert sand and dust.

About the new government and its leader ‘sexy Alexi’, as we like to call the new premier of Greece: there is plenty of information so I don’t need to write about that, except to say that the Greeks suddenly dare to believe in life again, even though the weather is bad, with grey clouds and lots of rain. Summer seems as far away as Europe being able to deal with Greece’s new demands.

By December we’d already had freezing cold and snow. A month later we were presented with warm weather, although that was seasoned with lots of rain. More recently we were confronted with a southern storm from the Sahara, which killed many a tree, window, etc. As a dessert to end the storm the wind changed to a westerly, what made the damage even higher.

It is not often that Lesvos has to endure such heavy weather. Do you want to know how your holiday island looks in winter? In Skala Kalloni the Gulf looked like a furious ocean, and also Skala Eresou was not safe from the raging waves. In Mytilini on Monday schools kept closed because of the troubling weather, the desert dust crept everywhere and the waves keep overtaking the quays (below the video there are some beautiful pictures). Close to Plomari a tree fell on some electricity cables, causing a blackout of at least 12 hours for the majority of the little city. Here in the north we had some kind of ‘flasher electricity’: it seemed to be going on and off and just as you prepared for total darkness, suddenly it powered-up again. I presume that this was hard-going for all our electrical equipment. No wonder these devices do have not a long life here in Greece.

In Eftalou there was only a single tree on the beach thinking it was nice weather to go for a swim; although in the hills (like all over the island) some farms suffered damaged. Only in the last night the fuming sea hurled over half the beach onto the street and the river that has rippled over the street towards the sea, since the rainy days began, has now transformed into a real roaring river, which I don’t dare to cross, even wearing jackboots.

But while the dust storm raged over the country, an article appeared on the internet mentioning 15 of the most beautiful streets in the world shaded by flowers (Bored Panda): number one on the list was the agora of Molyvos with its Japanese wisteria, which changes the street into a purple tunnel when flowering in the spring.

Some years ago there was a little panic when this enormous climber fell ill, but the people of the village took such great care that she became healthy again.  Now even though she looked a little pale with her wet branches in the last storm, I am sure that in a few months she will again show her scented flower-power.

Years ago the ‘boulevard’ of Eftalou was badly damaged by a western storm and it has never been repaired. I don’t mind, because unless they want to drive into the sea, the speed devils can no longer use the road as a racetrack. But this just shows how deep the crisis is in the country and I am wondering how fast the new government can change this.

It is a fact that this first month of the New Year, a storm has raged over the country: first a political landslide followed by a real storm that covered the country under a layer of Africa. There is much damage, some which cannot be repaired, like the historic arched bridge of Plaka in Epirus, that fell apart due to the heavy rainfall and its pieces disappeared into the fast flowing river. But thanks to the political storm most Greeks will sigh a bit and then set to work to clean their windows of the Saharan dust and the crisis. Even a nasty sand storm cannot cover the joy for this historical month of January 2015. When the Japanese wisteria comes to bloom in the agora, there will be no talking of complaints anymore but joyfull conversations and plans for a new Greece.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Sunday, 25 January 2015

January 23 – Saying goodbye


(The cemetery of Molyvos)


Last year the biggest grave ever in Greece got opened in Amphipolis, an ancient town close to Serres in the north of Greece. The grave was guarded by a large statue of a lion and two sphinxes and it has different rooms, most of them sealed off. A team of archaeologists are now slowly opening these rooms, which were closed for centuries. Its a bit like discovering the grave of Tutankhamun. The big question is: who is buried in the grave? Some people hope that it will be Alexander the Great, even though he died long ago (in 323 BC) and far away in Babylonia. Other people think it might be his wife Roxanne buried there.

Last summer the media were full of speculation and news items of Amphipolis. But now that the world has other worries and Greece is under the spell of the latest election, news about the excavation of the grave has lost its place on the front pages. Even though recently 5 skeletons were discovered; that should have excited the world - but did not. Who was the woman over 60, the 35 and 45 years old men, the child and the other man?

They must have been important people, because the beautiful grave with mosaic floors, statues and different rooms, was far too large for the normal grave of those times. In the very ancient times Greeks could bury their dead as they pleased: they went through the towns in big processions trying to gather as big a crowd as possible, hired people to lament loudly and the graves were built as big as money could afford.

But in the 6th century BC the Athenian statesman Solon made laws to reduce the noise of funerals so that public life was no longer disturbed and graves could not surpass a building that could be built within 3 days by ten workers (which seems to me to still be quite a building, but I guess that Amphipolis would have needed more than 3 days of building). Since then graves became more simple, with standing gravestones or pillars (stele) pictured with the deceased.

Around that same time the tradition of funerals arose that was also adopted by the Romans: preparing the body at home (prothesis), the procession to the grave yard (ekphora), the burial and then there was a small party at home (perideipnom) to thank all the people that participated at the funeral.
Nowadays this has not changed that much: the deceased is made ready for the bier, the open coffin is taken to the graveyard in a small procession, the burial takes place and is followed by a small gathering home or in a cafenion for the family and friends.

Ancient Greeks sometimes buried their dead with their slaves, women and/or horses; pets also have been found in some graves. Later it became only things the dead might need for their travel to Hades, the underworld. Besides food, a coin (obol) was placed in the mouth, to pay the ferryman Charon who has to take the dead over the river Styx to Hades. Nowadays it's only flowers that are thrown in the coffin.

Once buried at the graveyard, you are not allowed to stay for too long. To save space the Greek State says that a buried person has to be removed from the grave after 3 years. The bones are washed with wine and given to the family or placed in a local ossuary. Which sometimes can be an honour;  there are some famous ossuaries in the world where they make pure art out of the bones. In the Czech town of Sedlec there is an ossuary where you find beautiful lamps, candlesticks and other decorations all made of bones. In the little Portuguese towns of Alcantarilha, Evora en Pechão the local churches have chapels built with walls of bones. Should the dead person no longer have any family, or is just simply forgotten, the bones are thrown on a big heap or simply destroyed.

There is a superstition that when a corpse is dug up, the bones must be white and clean. When not, it is believed that the person had a life in sin. Or even worse: it could be a vampire! There are graves found in Mytilini in Lesvos that became famous as those of vampires.  People were so afraid that vampires would resurrect that they drove huge pins through bodies in the coffin (see: The island of Dracula!).

You would think that in Greece cremation would be encouraged due to shortage of burial space. In ancient Greece cremation was as normal as was burial in the earth. There even was a time that it was an honour for soldiers to be cremated and many heroes of the Trojan war were this way rendered to ashes. It was in fact the Greeks who introduced cremation into Europe, but since the Orthodox Church rules over Greece cremation is highly forbidden. If you wanted to be cremated, you lost your membership of the church. In 2006 however the government decided that cremation was no longer illegal. But, to date, there is no crematorium in Greece and people who want to return to ashes have to travel to other countries like neighbouring Bulgaria.

It are hard times in Greece and the number of suicides are fast on the rise. Already in the first month of this new year three people took their lives here on the island. Even though the Orthodox Church forbids suicide and per case judges if the deceased person should be allowed to have a proper farewell. I do hope that the Church will consider the crisis sufficient reason to allow that a suicide is still worthy of burial.

On January18th, Giorgos Giannakos died of pneumonia and he is going to be greatly missed in Molyvos. This dear friend loved to go into nature to gather horta or mushrooms. He knew every fish in the Aegean and even in Africa, he was a soulmate of the sea. It did not came as a surprise that he opted to be cremated and so his last journey will be to Bulgaria. When his ashes are returned to Molyvos, they will be scattered over the largest grave of the world: the sea. Goodbye, Giorgos!

Beyond the sea, beyond the sea,
My heart is gone, far, far from me;
And ever on its track will flee
My thoughts, my dreams, beyond the sea.

Beyond the sea, beyond the sea,
The swallow wanders fast and free:
Oh, happy bird! were I like thee,
I, too, would fly beyond the sea.

Beyond the sea, beyond the sea,
Are kindly hearts and social glee:
But here for me they may not be;
My heart is gone beyond the sea.

(Thomas Love Peacock)


(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015


Wednesday, 14 January 2015

January 7 – Happy New year


(Snow in Anemotia; photo: Takis Xatzidiakos)

The New Year presented Lesvos with a thick layer of snow; especially in the higher regions and the mountains where it was plentiful. It got Agiasos renamed Small Switzerland: even without snow this little mountain village is picturesque, but with a layer of snow it is like an Alpine paradise and photographers can’t get enough of it. I also saw pictures of Anemotia in the snow, nearly as beautiful as Agiasos.

The first winter I spent on Lesvos was also pretty cold and had mainly lots of sleet. As soon as the snow whirled down, all the villagers came out to see the spectacle: snow in Molyvos is very rare they said. However the next winter, in 2004, was even worse: you couldn’t count the snow falls anymore and Molyvos coloured white more than once. I then concluded that Greeks must have bad longterm memory, because they pretended the snow was very special, but I had then seen snow two winters running. There was so much snow that even Eftalou and her beaches were white and of course nobody claimed to ever have seen that before.

I must admit that since then winters have become a lot milder. Since then I have not seen snow in Eftalou. Even though the highest peaks of the island, Mt Lepetymnos and Mt Olympus have, now and then, gathered some snow, last winter they remained green. And whilst Agiasos once or twice has turned into a Christmas postcard, it was never for long, nor as beautiful as this year.

It is clear that you cannot trust Greek winters. On any one date temperatures can vary immensely. Take for example New Years Day. In 2010 temperatures reached 23 ºC and in 2007 they went down to minus 7ºC. Last New Years Day the thermometer barely reached 3 ºC and last few days it has descended slowly to below 0, so that in many places - even at the seaside – there were frozen water flacks and many broken water pipes.

Low temperatures do not have to be a problem. What’s really unbearable is the windchill. At the beginning of this year a wind from the north turned into a nasty storm and made being outside nearly impossible. And this Voreas keeps on blowing his icecold Siberian breath over the island: what a chill!

Personally the new cold year surprised me with a nasty flu and so I did not enjoy all the beautiful sights with the snow nor did I go for a walk in the snow. Buried deep into a warm bed yesterday my thoughts were in the harbour of Molyvos (and all over Greece), where Epiphany was celebrated. The priests, while most of the villagers were present, blessed the sea. During these kind of celebrations everyone dresses up and from deep under my pile of blankets I could feel them shivering in the almighty cold. The low temperatures, feeling even lower due to the wind, did not prevent a group of boys from standing ready in bathing suits to dive into the water, looking for the cross which the priest throws into the sea. Not even a mighty Ice Queen can halt this tradition.

Armed with a hot water bottle at the feet and hundreds of Kleenex around my head I have lots of time to muse about this New Year. Just like the weather reports that cannot get rid of the cold, the political barometer also tends to storm. The news of the attack at Charlie Hebdo (the French satirical magazine that I used to read when living in France, but for years now lost sight of) hit my bed like a heavy earthquake. I was wondering if this magazine would have already prepared for next month a special issue about Grexit, a Greece without the euro or Europe without Greece. So I slumbered away into a world where the drachma would re-appear.

I dreamt about a procession of strangely dressed people, straight out of a Jeroen Bosch painting, who swarmed through the narrow and snowy streets of Agiasos. In each street more people gathered. They merrily waved with big piles of drachmas and started to make a fool of the Greek Gods. Their behaviour became more and more obscene and their screaming louder until the village and the snow disappeared because of the huge congregation of people and everything became a pretty straggly gruel.

In a few weeks the Carnival will start and for the Greeks this means the opportunity to satirize everything they do not like in life: the Greek carnival are The days of Satire, because on those days nothing will be spared, even the Holy Church. Beautiful Agiasos is especially known for its incisive political satire. And I am sure there will be lots of laughter this year during carnival, because the worse life is in a country, the better the satire. And no Kalashnikov nor any other violence will prevent the Greeks from this great carnavalesque criticism.

The best wishes for 2015

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

December 15 – Greek Christmas carols


Greek Santa Claus (A & L: http://www.aandlhome.com/servlet/-strse-3680/Greece-Santa-Glass-Chrstmas/Detail)

After a period of impetuous weather, suddenly the sun appeared for a few days causing bright clear views, where mountain and hilltops strongly contrasted against a cobalt blue sky. These are the beautiful winter days where dew dresses the trees in glistening coats and when amidst the pine trees there is the pure scent of Christmas trees.

There are quite extended pinewoods on Lesvos and you may be thinking that those pine trees would end up in Greek homes as a Christmas tree. But let’s face it: pine trees are not fir trees, which, with their close knit branches, are excellent trees for Christmas. Fir trees are rare on the island and the tradition of having a decorated Christmas tree is not widely known in Greece and has competition from another traditional Christmas decoration: the Christmas Boat (karavaki).

The Christmas Tree in Greece was introduced by the from Bavaria native Greek King Otto, who had his palace in 1833 decorated with fir trees. Greeks never have been too enthusiastic about their kings (The last King had officially to throw down his sceptre in 1973) and that may be a reason why there are not too many songs about the Christmas tree in Greece. The sole song that I found about this so praised tree of the Christmas Season is a heavy but also funny hardrock version of O, Tannenbaum (O, Christmas Tree) from Plokami tou Karcharia: O peuko.

The Christmas Boat has a much longer history in Greece. It is said that it is the boat that brought Dionysus in December, the month where in ancient times this God of parties and wine was much celebrated. Also Saint Nicholas has his much celebrated name day in December (December 5). This bishop, originally coming from Antalya (Turkey), is now the patron saint of seafarers and his ship is a popular symbol. Decorating the Christmas Boat may also derive from a very simple tradition: when the sailors (and there are many in Greece) returned home for Christmas their wife and children decorated a little boat to welcome him.

For hundreds of years on Chrismas Eve children go around the Greek villages to sing Christmas carols, kálanda, for the more prosperous people, for which they are rewarded with dried fruit, sweets and – nowadays – with money. Along with instruments like a triangle or drum, they carry a little wooden ship. There might have been a candle in the boat to light the way, or it was used as storage for the sweet they got.

It is said that these Greek Christmas carols were already being sung in Homeric times (then they were called Eiresioni) to celebrate Dionysus’ arrival by boat. Nowadays the kálanda are about Christmas, New Year or Epiphany (January 6). Here is a kálanda from Mytilini, not performed by children but a choir of adults, accompanied by beautiful instrumental music: Κάλαντα Μυτιλήνης – Καππαδοκίας. The next singer may have been in a hurry, waiting for a glass of ouzo, giving it an extra dimension (including a beautiful picture of children singing a kálanda): Κάλαντα Χριστουγέννων από τη Λέσβο. These songs do not always have to be sung so quickly, listen to the gentlemen from Kalloni who are not in a rush singing Καλαντα πρωτοχρονιας ‘Καλλονησ Λεσβου’.

During the last century foreign Christmas songs also sneaked into Greece. Helena Paparizo as well as Anna Vissi sing the originally Austrian religious song Silent Night: Agia Nixta and Agia Nuxta. Since the Fifties, American Christmas songs became very popular and in Greece they are mainly sung by children, especially when there are things like a snowman involved: Frosty the snowman. Rudolph, the reindeer with the red nose has been taken a bit more seriously: Ρουντολφ το ελαφακι has been honoured with a song by both Kaiti Garbi and Thanos Kalliris (although I personally prefer the Swedish version of Rudolph songs like: Rudolf med den røde tudd). Kaiti Garbi even published a CD full of translated Christmas Songs (Χριστούγεννα με την Καίτη) amongst others Ο χειμώνας ο βαρύς (Winter Wonderland) and Χριστός Γεννάται (Sleigh ride). Thanos Kalliris has his own Christmas song Ta Xristougenna Me Sena..., but also sings the American classic O Ai Basilis Pali Tha 'rthei (Santa Claus is coming to town).

Realizing that in the sunny Greek Islands you can enjoy a warm sun outside until deep into wintertime, it may be difficult to imagine that there are also Greeks (and me) who are dreaming of a White Christmas (Χριστούγεννα λευκά), just like Dakis and Jorgos Stafanakis.

Present singers however not only sing Christmas covers but have their own Christmas songs. For example Stergios Kottas who uses his attractive smoky voice for a real Greek Christmas Tearjerker: Αυτα τα χριστουγεννα. Fifos Delivorias sings his Christmas song like all his other ones: when you do not understand the text you may even not be aware it is a Christmas song: Χριστούγεννα. Like in all other countries, also in Greece, you have these totally trashy songs like the one from Effi Sarri who sings Xristoygenna protoxronia: not only the song but also the video is huge Christmas-trash. Last but not least, a real swinging Greek hiphop song: Imiskoubia with Τα Χριστούγεννα σημαίνουν...

I love Christmas music, I probably got that from my brother who is a serious  collector of Christmas songs. Each year he gives me a new Christmas-CD with his newest finds, containing beautiful, crazy or humorous covers and new songs. Listening to Christmas songs not only makes you sentimental, but can be hugely entertaining. When you are done with all those famous songs, do something different! Here are some Greek versions that may make you laugh: a radio broadcast of the Christmas hit All I want for Christmas is you.
Obviously Last Christmas by Wham is also was pretty popular in Greece. The first parody is a real Greek Christmas Shepherd Blues about a shepherd who could no longer pay his taxes and the government took his sheep away, so he was all alone for Christmas: Pindo’s nightingale. Also HipHopcrecy made a very merry and swishing song out of Wham’s Christmas hit: LaST ChriStMaS, a modern fairy tale with an entertaining video.

Have fun listening!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Saturday, 6 December 2014

December 4 – About black little bullies and pirates


(Barbarossa of Lesvos; Photo: internet)

In Holland, December 5, the name day of Saint Nicholas, is a big celebration day especially for children. On this day they receive lots of presents and candy, distributed by Saint Nicholas (who somewhat resembles Santa Claus) and his black valets: the Black Petes. Because of the Dutch past as slave traders, since last year there have been big discussions in Holland about the skin colour of Black Pete. Because he is the valet, people no longer want him to be black.

Last week, visiting a Greek friend, I thought I saw a puppet picturing a Black Pete hanging on the chimney. When I looked at it closely it indeed had a black face but looked more like a troll. I completely forgot that, similar to the Black Petes in Holland, in December in Greece there are also creatures entering houses through the chimney: the kallikantzaros.

These are little monsters which live underground where they try to cut down the world tree. At Christmas, when they are nearly done with their job, they are allowed to come above ground and they love that so much that they forget all about the world tree. However they have to be careful with water, fire, light and a cross. At Epiphany on January 6, soon as the priests bless the sea, rivers and other waters the kallikantzaros return underground, where they discover that the world tree has become renewed and they have to start sawing the tree all over.

Kallikantzaros are a kind of black gnome, but they may also have goat legs, a donkeys tail or other animal aspects. What they enjoy most is to spoil food or drinks, haunt houses and frighten people by moving furniture and so on.
There are different ways in which to keep those little bullies outside the house: lighting a fire in the fireplace and keep it lit throughout the night (in some regions they even lay a special log in the fireplace that keeps burning for days). You can put a black cross on your front door or hang a sieve or a bundle of flax at the front door (Kallikantzaros love to count, but only up to two; this way you keep them busy outside).
 A child born on Christmas Day means real trouble, because a Christmas child can change into a Kallikantzaros. The way to protect it is to cover the poor baby with garlic.

As far as I know there are no people in Greece who care about how a kallikantzaros looks. There are regional variations, but they are mostly black. Greece however has no past with black slaves. Most slaves in ancient Greece were white and even also Greek. Since the ancient times there were slaves in Greece, because where there was war, there was looting and along with expensive goods, taking the losing people as slaves was common practice. It was like that in those times all over the world and so ancient Greek writers and philosophers did not see harm in it. During the Roman Empire slavery was booming and in each town you could find a slave market. After Rome, the biggest market was in Ephesus (now in Turkey, near the shores opposite Samos) and the Greek island of Delos was also known for its slave market.

The first Gattilusio who took power over Lesvos originally was a pirate. One century later the last Gattilusio of the Italian family reigning over Lesvos murdered his brother to become ruler, but that did not bring him luck: a little later, in 1462, the Ottoman Empire conquered the island and he and his family were taken to Constantinople as slaves.

Pirates were already known in Roman times, but from the 16th century piracy became a serious plague around the Mediterranean, because of political chaos in North Africa; small Berber communities no longer listened to the sultans and started seafaring, attacking ships and looting the coasts. The biggest booty was the people taken back to North Africa as slaves. The historian Robert C. Davies has calculated that from the 16th until the 19th century, in the area around Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis only, there must have been 1 to 1.25 million slaves (in contrast to about half a million African people captured as slaves and transported to America)

The pirates around the Mediterranean were known as the Barbary corsairs. After many sea battles and attacks on the pirate settlements (the biggest and last one being Algiers) sea powers like England, Spain, France, Holland and the just founded United States (see: Barbary Wars) managed around 1830 to get the coasts and the sea safe.

Corsairs not only came from the Ottoman Empire or from Africa. Youd better not have bumped into the Englishman Jack Ward, or the Dutchmen Simon de Danser (Zymen Danseker) or Ivan Dirkie de Veenboer (Sulayman Reis). However, the most notorious pirates came from Lesvos: Oruç and Hizir Hayreddin, better known as the brothers Barbarossa. This did not mean that the inhabitants of Lesvos did not have to fear the corsairs. Also in Mytilini there used to be a slave market, and as on all Greek islands nobody was crazy enough to live at the seaside in an unprotected village. Possibly the people in Petra thought they were safe because of their Maria-Glikofiloussa church. In 1675 the French corsair Hugo de Crevellier visited this little village and not only left it in ruins but also took 500 villagers and sold them on as slaves. The Taxiarchis Monastery of Mandamados also was once attacked by pirates, but the story goes that the monks were murdered and the sole survivor created an icon with mud and the blood of his brothers, an icon now still is said to provide miracles.

Pirates have of course nothing to do with Christmas, nor with kallikantzaros. Although, when you look at an etching of Barbarossa, he could have been a big kallikantzaros, or even a Black Pete. The difference between the slavery around the Mediterranean and in America was that in America most were black slaves, but in Europe it were mostly white Christians who became the slaves of the darker muslims. May that be a reason why the kallikantzaroi are little black men?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014