Friday, 3 July 2015

July 1 – Europe

(The new road to Sigri)

Europe in fact was born in Lebanon, on the Mediterranean Sea, in the city of Tyre, not far from the border with Israel. As Europe comes from the Middle East, I wonder why the European Union doesn't care about the refugees (lots of them coming from Lebanon's neighbour Syria). Daily large numbers of refugees are still reaching the shores of Lesvos (and elsewhere in Greece) and most help is still given by volunteers, amongst them tourists. The locals cannot agree upon a more human way to help them, like a local shelter at Molyvos, and - it is still illegal to provide transport to Mytilini. So still the refugees - young and old, in elegant sandals, old sport shoes and even barefoot - trudge the roads of Lesvos towards the capital, under a merciless sun.

In any case this is an unusual summer for Europe and it looks like it has forgotten where it came from. Europe was named after the daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre. Zeus fell in love with her, changed himself into a sturdy but attractive white bull, made her caress him and when she climbed on his back, he ran away, into the sea and transported her as far as Crete, where he changed back into human shape and married her. Europe was the first queen of Crete.

Zeus abducted her. But now it looks like Europe is under the spell of another god: Plutus, god of wealth and money. He must have enchanted her because Europe has changed a lot. In Dante's Divine Comedy, Plutus guards the fourth ring of hell, where the avaricious and the prodigal have an eternal fight, doomed to start every time all over again. If Dante were to write his masterpiece in our times, I am sure he would classify the politicians as avaricious and the bankers as prodigal.

Zeus, god and master of the sun, rain, thunder and lightning is clearly not amused by the world, because even the weather in Europe is pretty upset. While in West-Europe sudden high temperatures are heating up people's tempers, in Greece it is pleasant, and even hotheaded protesters get cooled down by a local downpour. Clouds seem to be a steady presence in the summer sky and regularly rain clouds try to attack Lesvos from Turkey, with or without a thundering sermon from Zeus. But tourists do not have to worry: the sea is warm, a refreshing breeze dominates the heat and the island is like always a great summer paradise.

But Zeus is worried and just like the nearly daily meetings of European politicians last week, Zeus now daily meets Aphrodite, goddess of love. As there is not much love left in the world, it is time that Aphrodite seduces the politicians, so that they will no longer listen to the greedy Plutus and use more humanity in their acting. The whisperings between Zeus and Aphrodite can be followed live early each night in the western sky, where they operate under their Roman names: Jupiter and Venus. These two planets are holding an emergency meeting, an event which happens only once in a decade.

I have already seen them glittering in the nocturnal sky, Venus brighter than ever next to another bright point in the air, Jupiter, and that's with the sun not even set. The famous Star of Bethlehem was probably the phenomenon, when these two planets are seen so closely juxtaposed to each other, shining like one.
But in reality these planets will never merge, because they are about 670 millions of kilometers away from each other. That they now seem to be so close together is purely an optical illusion.

With the appearance of Jupiter and Venus still fresh in my mind yesterday I drove to Sigri, where they're still busy changing the road. Thanks to removing the road, and widening it at other places, lots of new petrified trees have been found. The finds first get protected by a layer of plaster and in their white covers look like phalluses. But the road has had other remarkable changes since I last drove over it in spring. On some parts they have started to lay black concrete lanes, painted with bright yellow lines. Those lanes reminded me of Jupiter and Venus: they run parallel to each other but then on occasion in parts diverge. But what's remarkable is that both lanes run along each side of the road, leaving a space between which is as wide as six lanes loaded with sand and debris!

Is there an eight-lane road coming between Sigri and Kalloni or are they going to make fancy middle banks, decorated with, for example, petrified trees? It is a big mystery to me what they want with this road. Are they hoping in the future that the Tour the France will start from Sigri and therefore are already building cycle paths or is this road getting enormous emergency lanes at both sides of the road? The best guess is that the road is prepared for the transport of the blades of the gigantic wind turbines that are planned to come in the west.

So it remains very excited what will become of this road and if the already laid concrete lanes will ever get connected. In the sky the lanes of Jupiter and Venus will widen again from after tonight (July 1st). I do hope that by then they will have reached an agreement about the future of Europe. And I do hope that Zeus will use the vindictive god Nemesis to get Europe out of the hands of Plutus, because otherwise he may have to abduct Europe again and make her Queen of Greece.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Monday, 22 June 2015

June 18 – Economics for dummies

(an old jetty at Perama)

I am proud of most of the Greeks. Proud, because they are the first Europeans who have chosen change: they voted for Alexis Tsipras, who tries as long as he can not to bend his head to the European dictatorship and to the banks. He also dared to install a flamboyant minister of Economic Affairs: Yanis Varoufakis, who made a show, not only with his unorthodox style of clothing and behaviour, but also with his ideas about economics.

I am not a journalist, nor a scientist, a politician and not at all an economist. Nowadays when reading about banking business you need to have some knowledge of all those complicated processes, otherwise you cannot understand it. It is no wonder that most of the people have no idea how we landed in a crisis and for that reason believe without questioning everybody who seems to know, like the media.

According to Yanis Varoufakis (not only a minister but also a professor in economics) economy is no exact science but a philosophy. He explains that in a little book addressed to his daughter and for nitwits like me: Μιλώντας στην κόρη μου για την οικονομία (The book was recently published in Dutch: De economie zoals uitgelegd aan zijn dochter). After reading it, my thoughts were confirmed: the banks are the biggest criminals of our time and politicians have forgotten that one of the roles of a government is to protect the money of the people.

The text is clear and describes how we ended up in today's predatory economy, where banks and big industrials make bigger and bigger profits at the expenses of the people who become more and more poor. Varoufakis explains the complicated matters with examples from the history of England, like the introduction of sheep rearing which made the farmworkers lose their jobs and thus caused the first huge changes, and later on the industrial revolution. He even speaks about movies like The Matrix, Blade Runner and Star Trek, to make everything more explicit.
The beautiful novel Harvest from the English writer Jim Crace just received the prestigious prize of IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It tells about the extinction of a village of farmworkers, because wool will bring more money.

I am not sure if here on Lesvos many farmworkers lost their jobs when sheep were on the rise in the Lesvorian landscape. It is a fact that the island used to produce far more agrarian products like tobacco, cotton, pulses, wheat and grapes (Lesvos once was famous for its wines). Sheep and goats still dominate the meadows and mountain slopes, but are no longer kept for their wool (that is now disposed of in deserted places), but rather their milk is used to make cheese.

The industrial revolution on Lesvos was marked by the introduction of steam presses that streamlined the production of olive oil and by steamships that speeded and cheapened transportation. And so around 1900 Lesvos was a pretty prosperous island, also having at the Gulf of Yera the biggest tanneries of the region. The now dilapidated buildings (eg. in Perama) still are an impressive sight.

After centuries of Ottoman rule in 1922 Lesvos returned to being Greek, but that destroyed the industry. This had nothing to do with economics, but with politics. Some agrarian activity like tobacco and resin remained, but olive oil and cheese became then the main export products, with ouzo in third place as an export

After the Second World War the western countries of Europe developed quickly. Not Greece however. This country first had to face a civil war and later the colonels took power. Not really a climate for investment. The colonels lost power in 1974 and left Greece as an impoverished country.

For Greece joining Europe meant hope, and when they did, Europe offered so many cheap loans, that for a moment the Greeks felt like living in paradise. We now know what an enormous price the country now has to pay for it, because even not half a century after the Greeks finally gained their freedom, the country again is on the brink of a steep abyss.

And maybe this is also true for the whole of Europe, which now shows more and more signs of failure: daily it becomes more clear that politicians act according to what the big industrials and banks want. For instance permission has just been given to the big dangerous wolf Monsanto to operate in Europe. This industrial giant, famous for its chemical pesticides and Agent Orange, buys patents of vegetables (and tries to take over the wine industry in France).
After Monsanto gets what it wants, in a few years you can forget about your choriatiki (Greek salad) because you will only get Monsato salads. They will have patented all the tomatoes and paprika. On Lesvos most people have a little vegetable garden where they grow their own food and in many restaurants you also get those homegrown vegetables. Most of the tourists love Greek tomatoes, because in the summer months they get so much sunlight. But if Monsanto will rule the markets, we will be left with only manipulated tomatoes who will taste the same in the whole of Europe and who knows, it might even become forbidden to grow other vegetables and even eat other than those of Monsanto.

When you see how Europe holds a knife to the throat of one of his members, how it tries to discharge the problem of refugees to three of its members and do nothing to reform the banking system, it is clear: Europe has failed. No politician ever learned a lesson from how Iceland dealed with its bankruptcy, no leader of government seems to think that refugees also may contribute to a solution of the European crisis and nobody dares to stop the money makers. In my eyes west-Europeans look more and more like the machines in The Matrix, like Varoufakis mentioned in his book: they obediently agree with all new laws, just squirm a bit, but nobody dares to take action.

That is why it is good that - whatever happens next - Greece opposed Europe and its money wolfs. The New Europe - just like democracy - will be born in Greece. And when you want to learn more about our turbulent world, Yanis Varoufakis ideas are a real must for a first economy lesson.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

June 8 – Who are they?

(silent witnesses)

Whilst in Molyvos, volunteers prepare sandwiches for the two hundred refugees who arrived this morning in the village (who knows how many on the island itself), I am asking myself who these people are. According to the refugee organisation UNHCR 60% comes from Syria, and the others mainly are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea.

What food were they used to eating before they left their homes and kitchens? For centuries now refugees, immigrants and guest workers have changed culinary habits. Who in the Netherlands, England or Germany still eats traditional Dutch, English or German dishes daily? Who doesn't regularly eat pizza, souvlaki, spring rolls, satay, couscous, shawarma or hummus? 

That the Greek and Italian shores are now the recipients of large flows of refugees is no novelty. If you take a look at the history of refugees, you see that there have always been refugees somewhere. The many people who fled their countries or were displaced especially in the 20th century caused enormous human migrations that had its impact on the culture and the culinary uses in nearly all countries involved. I happen to think that most of the traditional Dutch, German and English dishes are pretty boring. But when I check out some recipes coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Eritrea then I immediately want to start cooking and try out those wonderful combinations of ingredients. The food in those countries also has been influenced by lots of other cultures and it offers surprising variations.

I think Greece is at the crosspoint of the North European and Arabic/African kitchen: it still has that temperate character of the Northern kitchen, but at the same time has a rich tradition of seasonable vegetables and fruit and uses a modest range of herbs. The more southwards you go from Greece, the more spices are used in the food.

This article was published some six years ago and is about an American journalist who, together with Anissa Helou, a famous Arabic cook, strolls around in Aleppo and Damascus (Syria). They taste and talk about Syrian food. The colourful markets were full of people and hospitable, as there was no war going on, which now is destroying completely the country. This still was beautiful Syria, where people went out for dinner, where women in their kitchens cooked the most scented dishes, where just like in Greece courgette flowers and cabbage leaves were filled with a spiced mixture of lamb meat or/and rice and where hummus was placed on a plate in a special way. Now these women arrive here at the beaches in wobbly dinghies without even a pan to cook with.

Even though after years of warfare the Afghans are left poor and broken, their dishes still come from a pretty rich kitchen, influenced by Mongolia, China, India, Europe and the Middle East. For example they like to eat a kind of tortellini (mantoo) and they prepare their meatballs (koftas) with more spice than the Greeks use in their keftedes.
Next to my house is an orange tree that grows bitter fruit: nerantzia they are called in Greek. As far as I know the only use they have is to cook them into a slightly bitter marmalade. But looking for some recipes I found an Afghan one: Norinj Palau, or rice with oranges: a dish made with bitter oranges, almonds, pistachio, rice and chicken. And all the ingredients are available in Greece.

The Iraqi kitchen differs very little from that of other Arabic countries. The exception may be that the mighty Euphrates and Tigris run through their country, providing them with lots of sweet water and thus giving them the opportunity to have fresh water fish on their menus. But just like the Greeks they also enjoy filo rolls (börek) filled with goat cheese, meat, vegetables or nuts, they serve tsatsiki as cacik, they call all stuffed vegetables (as well as tomatoes, courgette as vine leaves) dolmas, they eat shawarma calling it kass; and like everywhere in the Arabic world they love the divine, honey-sweet baklava. The beautiful and interesting blog of Nawal Nasrallah, My Iraqi kitchen, proves that the Iraqi kitchen has roots deep into history.

The Eritrean kitchen  has also known plenty of influences: Ottoman, Italian and Ethiopian. And did you know that (according to Wikipedia) 62.9% of the Eritreans are Christians, of which most are orthodox? And that they also, from time to time, like to have an ouzo? Well, that aniseed beverage in Eritrea is called areki. Both in Eritrea and in Somalia lots of pancake like bread is served with the meals, like injera which is made with teff flour, that comes from a grass with the beautiful name: Williams Lovegrass (Eragrostis abyssinica). Both these cuisines have a lot in common. The Somali kitchen knows the same influences of that of Eritrea and just like in so many African countries one of the best known spice mixes is berbere, a spicy blend that gives your food an excellent Eastern scent and taste.

Can you imagine how it hurts to leave your own herb collection and pantry, your herb and vegetable garden and your apricot and almond trees, which for years have helped you feed your family and friends! How bad can it be that for days, weeks, months and even years you will not be able to cook your favourite dishes, or even enjoy a proper meal? Most people arriving here have lived through such hell they are actually happy when being served a sandwich.

If I was able to, I would start a road restaurant between Kalloni and Mytilini, where many of these refugees pass walking and where I then will cook and distribute those universal dishes like tsatsiki, stuffed tomatoes, lentil stew, hummus or souvlaki, which I will spice with their national blends, so that on their way to a new life in an uncertain future, they might smell the scent of home and renew themselves. For most people Lesvos is just an inbetween station on a very long long journey towards a new home and kitchen.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Friday, 29 May 2015

May 26 - Let’s go Lesvos

(Newly arrived refugees in Eftalou)

Last Sunday Molyvos was filled with cyclists instead of with refugees. Big and small, old and young, it seemed like every bicycle owner in the village was participating, under the burning sun. The steep mediaeval streets, the bumpy boulders and sharp bends are an ideal challenge for the village ride which was running for the second year.

For centuries the donkey served as transport in Greece. Until last century when they were (sometimes literally) parked beside the road to make room for the car. Lots of Greeks still see an aftekineto as a motorized donkey, thus creating dangerous traffic situations. It still is very common to stop in the middle of the road in order to greet a friend coming from the other direction. And passing another car on a bend is also very common because on a donkey you did the same, without taking too many risks. And I won’t even talk about all those sidelined donkeys that are parked on the streets in order to eat the green green grass at the side of the roads.

There is a new road user, seen more and more often emerging from a difficult bend or on winding roads: the cyclist. Cycling in Greece is getting hot and drivers now should seriously get used to this group that might come sailing down a slope or bend in the road at full speed. Do you recall ever seeing a cyclist many years ago in Greece? It seems that a first one was seen in 1880, according to a book about bicycles in Greece, from 1880 to 2012 (Το ποδηλατο στην Ελλαδα).

Cycling is not expensive and the bike is a very good way of transport in these times of crisis. Although I can imagine that not all Greeks have the money to buy one. But bike lovers are doing their utmost to promote this vehicle: in the big cities as well as on the islands more and more bike events are being organised, like the Athens Bike Festival, this year taking place on September 18 – 20, and also Mytilini, who, in spring for some years in a row, gets a part of its inhabitants onto two wheels, so that its streets are crowded just with bicycles.

Probably due to the mountain stages in the famous tours, sport cyclists also love to go around on the island. For years now the Lesvos Brevet event is organised for some tens of fanatic cyclists who are more than amateurs. Throughout the year they go to different islands and places on the mainland of Greece to obtain another brevet and the distances grow longer and longer. This year in the Lesvos Brevet there was a choice of two distances. The 400 km race has already taken place in March and the 200 km (with the start and finish in Molyvos) will take place on Sunday June 7 (last year the distance was 300 km). The course clearly is not for foreigners (for years my brother is the only non Greek speaking participant) because all information is only in Greek. Which is a pity, because this tough course leads you in one day all over this beautiful island. Imagine if the Tour de Lesvos becomes as popular as the Tour de France?

The very newest road user however is the refugee. They trudge over the many roads of the island towards the capital of Mytlini, protecting themselves against a burning sun with t-shirts on their heads, with all the belongings they have left carried on their tired backs. For them, there are no checkpoints where water or a bite is distributed to revive their spirit in order to accomplish this two (or three) day tour. And you will see them everywhere: going to Plomari, Sigri, Mandamados, Kalloni or Molyvos. They are not difficult road users, but in the night I can imagine that they are at peril, because they are difficult to see on the dark roads of the island.

Do we have to wait until an accident occurs, like the one in Macedonia, where 14 refugees were run over by a train, while they followed the rails in order to find a safe place? Is it humane that we let women, children, elders and wounded people make this long journey on Lesvos?

I live at the border of Europe. In the south this border is flooded by refugees. But the northern countries don’t care about their own borders. When the refugees safely reach the shore here, they cheer because they think they are in Europe. Well, I don’t think so. They have arrived in Greece and there will be another long journey before they reach Europe. Europe is ruled by its northern countries who loaned so much money to the southern countries, who now can no longer pay their debts and will soon become as poor as most of the refugees. I bet the northern countries would love to install an iron curtain across the middle of geographical Europe between the poor south and the rich north (was the European Union not created just to have this frontier disappear?).

All that those very well paid people in the European capital Brussels have come up with, is to catch the smugglers in Libya (no one talked about smugglers in Turkey) and they even intend to destroy the boats the refugees come on, afraid they will be re-used. Well, here that job is already done by the refugees themselves: all boats reaching the Greek shores are destroyed. How stupid is Europe?! Put international police at its frontiers to take in the refugees, to register them and give them a ticket to a country they can go. Show everybody that it is Europes border, and not only that of Greece, Italy or Spain.

I am afraid my country (the Netherlands) is one of the worst. They do not want to take in more refugees from the southern countries and the government will take ages to decide if they agree with what is decided in Brussels. The Dutch government behaves like a class of little children and I bet they first want to go on holiday before taking any serious decision (hoping that this flood of refugees might be over then).

Well, all European politicians: I challenge you to come for a holiday to Lesvos and bring your bicycle with a little cart, in order to be able to distribute water and bread to all those refugees who have to walk for days along Lesvos’ roads, looking for Europe.

PS I am happy to tell that there are some exceptions: Norway has announced to help and will amongst others finance a new refugee centre (on Lesvos). Bravo Norway!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

May 18 – Refugee weather

(The coast guard of Molyvos in action at Eftalou)

The summer finally is there: wild flowers wear their last scented petals, the acacia trees cry white blossoms and the hillsides are starting to change into their dried, yellow, summer colour. The sea again is bright blue, as is the sky above. When also the white caps on the sea lie down, you can see straight through the clear water to the mysterious underwater landscape where fishes swim and seaweed merrily waves.

But when the sea is so alluring, we now say: it is refugee weather. And yes, the next morning they again arrive in rubber boats containing sometimes as many as 50 or more people. When reaching the beach they may yell out with joy because they have made it safe and sound, when they fall into the water a bit out at sea they may scream, but most of them come ashore safely.

This summer the sea will have to be shared with these people who have left home and country. And also bread and water has to be shared. Here in Molyvos there is no Red Cross or any other official institution. Just a couple of port police and some volunteers who, as soon as the boats are in sight (which is every day that there is no hard wind) receive hundreds of refugees with water, bread, diapers and, when needed, dry clothes. When the numbers are too big, or the need too great, they even might ask for assistance from the entire village, as happened a few weeks ago, when the parking lot next to the school was filled with cold wet refugees, and most villagers showed up to help out, which was an impressive sight.

Never have the beaches of the island been so full with rubber boats, innertubes and lifejackets. A bit weird, because, also this year, some beaches got the Blue Flag designation: Tsamakia, Eftalou/Agi Anargri, Kaga, Anaxos, Agios Isidoros, Molyvos, Vatera and Thermis.

Not even a hundred years ago the situation was much worse: during the first week of October 1922, 50.000 refugees arrived on Lesvos, mainly coming from Ayvalik and Izmir, where the Greek Turkish war came to an end (the infamous population exchange decided by the Treaty of Lausanne took place a year later). There was an American nurse in Izmir during the Great Catastrophe and later on in Lesvos, who gives a description of how disastrous this was on the island: Certain Samaritans (see chapter XIX). Lots of those people remained on the island, resulting in many inhabitants now are a descendant from a refugee.

I do not think that there will be 50.000 refugees arriving on the island in one week, but some people estimate that there might be 1000 a day over the entire island, which already is quite a number. And we have not mentioned how many are making a safe landing on other Greek islands like Chios, Samos, Leros, Kos and Rhodes, other favourite places of the smugglers. The islands cannot deal with these high numbers and the government, well, they have their own crisis with Europe to deal with. So it will be pointless to ask for help.

Two days ago, a group of 120 refugees arrived in Eftalou, and the occupants of one boat had to be saved out at sea. A lot of shouting was heard: from the port police in order to keep the people calm in the drifting dinghy, and from the others out of fear of drowning. They were all picked up safely and received in the harbour of Molyvos (the parking lot next to the school is only used when the school is closed), where volunteers saw that they got bread, water and when needed, dry clothes. Amongst them was a man in a wheelchair and even a man who recently had heart surgery, was diabetic and who had lost his much needed medicines in the sea. Because Mytilini also had too many arrivals they would not send a bus to pick them up. So a meadow nearby was quickly mowed, where the group could have a bivouac and they could easily have passed the night there.
Mandamados also filled up with refugees the same day. I doubt that the monastery there gave them shelter and help. From Mandamados, refugees normally walk to the capital. 

Today a little group made a perfect landing on the pebbles of one of the beaches in Eftalou. Children, parents and grandparents, they all were fine and happy and immediately started to phone to whomever it was, telling they had made it into Europe. People living nearby started cleaning up around them, inner tubes, lifejackets and other garbage and passersby stood still for a minute to watch and then continued walking or driving, as this has become a daily scene. And it indeed has become an event happening each day. When the arrivals are not in need like this particular group they have to make their own way to Molyvos. In Greece it is forbidden to help them with transport or other things; you risk arrest because that is considered as helping the smugglers.

Today is another hot summer day with a sea that is perfect to cross. In Izmir some ten thousand refugees wait to make the journey to Europe, so for sure tomorrow there will be a new group arriving.

But meanwhile also the number of tourists has increased and all restaurants and shops are open in the harbour. A large group of refugees hanging out does not form the best scenery to have at lunch or dinner. So part of the business people complain that they cannot earn money (other owners help the refugees in day time and in the night they run their restaurant). But it's money that they all need here in Greece, because they have to pay lots of taxes and many a business is not too far from bankruptcy.

Not all tourists are happy to be confronted with a reality they only know from the news. And their governments pretend it is only the problem of Greece, Italy and Spain. One leader even dared to say that those countries were just unlucky to be at the borders of Europe. Unity in Europe? No way!

Also travel companies are not happy with so many refugees. One of them ordered a local agent to be informed of everything happening on the island. Why? Are their clients to weak to meet this problem from eye to eye? A big cruise organization threatened not visiting the island anymore if a quay, serving as a rounding up place for refugees (the shelter is already for a long time overcrowded), will not be cleared soon. Imagine that their precious guests will be confronted with the misery of others!

The Greek islands have not been hit by a disastrous earthquake, as has Nepal. Life goes on and the refugees are not always visible. As a tourist you might bump into them or you might not. So you can enjoy your holiday, even though this may sound a bit odd. The Greek islands are just a transit port for refugees. It is in Athens where hell starts again, where they arrive in the streets or create make-shift camps, and from where they plan what next step to take. It is only a few that desire to stay in Greece. And because they cannot just take a plane or book a ferry trip, they depend again on the smugglers. And of those there are nowadays many and they are everywhere.

If the refugees continue to arrive in increasing numbers (which is expected), there will be big problems. Private people cannot provide each day the bread, the clothes and the diapers needed. The municipalities or the government really should provide new shelters and send experienced helpers, otherwise the tide will turn and the Greeks will become irritated.

I wish that the old Syrian city of Palmyra also could flee and arrive safe on the beaches of Eftalou. I really hope that this international heritage site can stay out of the hands of the new barbarians, who are the reason the refugee number has now reached biblical proportions. It is time that the world takes more action against those godless fools who are poisoning the world.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

May 2 – Poppy Balls


In most countries May 1st is celebrated as Labour Day. It’s a holiday in Greece too, but it is primarily as the Day of Flowers that it’s celebrated. Wreaths of flowers are made and presented to friends and neighbours, and many Greeks travel to the countryside to enjoy the flowering landscape, with bunches of flowers stuck under their windscreen wipers. 

Molyvos was flooded with mainly local tourists, even though it is no pastoral field full of flowers. The little town is a beloved destination for people going out for a day-trip. It has lots of green spots within its old stonewalls and so has its own beautiful flower spots. Travelling from the capital to Molyvos will lead you along colourful open fields and lots of orchards where beneath the light green olive leaves lie fields of flowers in all colours. These days the island is at its colourful best and it is the nicest time to take walks or outings by car.

Close to Achladeri you will find famous fields, which are easily as beautiful as the Dutch tulip fields: the red of the poppies is an attraction for many photographers. Even just a few of these bright red flowers in a green field can tempt plenty of people into stopping on the roadside.

Most people know that poppies are not just flowers to colour gardens or fields: opium can be made from them: a drug that can relieve pains, numb your state of mind or bring you to a sweet sleep. It can lead you to addiction and also may kill you. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the English writer Charles Dickens, the movie star Bela Lugosi and even the world famous nurse Florence Nightingale were opium addicts. And many others too, since opium has been known for thousands of years.

In ancient Greece, their Gods for sleep (Hypnos), night (Nyx) and death (Thanatos) were often depicted with a poppy as their symbol, as were the Gods Apollo, Asklepios, Pluton, Demeter, Aphrodite, Kybele and the Egypt Goddess Isis many times seen with a bunch of poppies, sometimes mixed with some ears of corn in their hand.

But it was only in the 8th century BC that poppies were mentioned for the first time in writing. Hesiod mentioned the city of Mekone (Papaver-city, in the region of Corinth), where Prometheus gave portions of poppies at an ox to sweeten the mind of Zeus. Theophrastus later wrote that a combination of the juice of poppies and hemlock (Conium maculatum) gave a painless and easy death. In the Odyssey, written by Homer, the juice of poppies is used to numb people in order to have them forget all sorrows. Aristotle recognized poppy juice as a drug and both Hippocrates and Theophrastus wrote about different kind of poppies and their applications.

Proof that the Greeks in ancient times were already using this flower for healing or enjoyment comes from archaeological finds. On Crete a small statue was discovered of an unknown woman from Minoan times. Her hair was adorned with poppy-capsules. That is why the archaeologists named her as a Goddess of Poppies and healing. But all over Greece poppy-capsules were depicted on many more finds, so a conclusion can be made that opium was a very old drug, known by priests, kings, Gods and other mighty people who knew very well how to use it.

Lesvos is not, of course, full of poppies that can be used to produce opium;
the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), also called the Common Garden Poppy, has a light green stem and its flowers vary in the colour from white to pink, purple and dark red. She may be found on the island, but not in sufficient numbers to provide an opium kit.

The most common poppy on Lesvos is the red Papaver rhoeas, also called corn or field poppy, Flanders poppy, red poppy or coquelicot. You may also find a smaller variation: the Papaver argemone, called the long pricklyhead poppy or pale poppy; and even another pale poppy, called the Long-headed poppy or Blindeyes (Papaver dubium) is to be find on the island. And some of the coasts are brightened by a yellow kind, called a horned poppy (Glaucium phoeniceum).

I think there might be some opium addicts on the island, but for sure this drug is not produced on the island. Even though the common garden poppy was plentiful during ancient times in Greece, nowadays it is hard to find. Maybe that’s the reason that the seeds of these flowers – the delightful poppy seeds – are mostly unknown in Greek food; although you may find some bread decorated with poppy seeds. In earlier times they had babies calmed down or encouraged sleep with some drops of the field poppy (which also contains, but in very very small amounts, some drugs). But nowadays I am not sure if mothers would dare to use this to sooth their children asleep.

Here on the island lots of green leaves picked in nature are very popular as food: the so-called chorta, like dandelion, Milk Thistle or nettles. There are many wild grasses loved by the Greeks, whose leaves are picked when the plants are still young and finish in the kitchens where they are used for super healthy dishes. The leaves of the long pricklyhead poppy also are an edible chorta. These can even be eaten raw, provided that they are picked before the capsule has grown. In a small tavern in Agiasos last week they not only served fresh picked Morchella (another culinary surprise), but also Poppy Balls: not containing opium, of course. But you do not need any opium to get addicted to Greek food, especially when you find such an eatery where they serve so many products, fresh from nature, which they turn into delicate dishes.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Saturday, 25 April 2015

April 22 – Looking for Zorba

(Remnants of the cableway near Pessas)

Life and Times of Zorba the Greek from the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis was published in 1946, but became really famous in 1964, when a movie was made of the book by the Greek director Michaelis Kakoyannis. Believe it or not, the movie not only made Zorba world famous but also introduced a new popular dance in the world: the sirtaki.

Actually the sirtaki is an invention of the choreographer of the movie, because the leading actor Anthony Quinn was too stiff to dance the traditional dance hassapikos which is described in the book. Sirtaki is such a merry dance that you get even the most stubborn donkey up a mountain with it (see this cheerful movie). Just like the sirtaki is an invention, the protagonist in the movie is fictitious, even though Kazantzakis’ friend Yorgos Zorba was the inspiration for the book and the man who conquered the hearts of so many.

The story is about an English/Greek writer, Vassilis, who wants to open a mine on Crete. He meets a miner called Alexis Zorba and asks him to come and work in the mine. Zorba turns out to be a man full of stories and philosophies, a source of information for Vassilis who is trying to write a book about Buddha. Zorba loves women, satirizes the small mindedness of the villagers and that of the pious monks; he is full of ideas, looks at life as a challenge and is not afraid of death.

Was there a predecessor? The book The Colossus of Maroussi by the American writer Henry Miller also is about a friendship between a writer and a Greek. Miller met Yorgos Katsimbalis (1899-1978) when he visited Greece in 1939. This Greek writer and founder of the magazine Ta Nea Grammata lived just like Zorba: having a spirited mind, a love for drinking, long discussions and social outings. Maybe this Greek way of life – taking life as it comes – made even more impression on Miller than all the archaeological sites that they visited together (even though Miller described them as fabulous). Miller did met his Zorba, but was forced to go home when the Second World War became a serious threat.

The Colossus of Maroussi (the title refers to the name Miller gave Katsimbalis) which he wrote upon returning home is a strong ode to Greece and was published in 1941. In the Fifties and Sixties the book made many people decide to visit the country of the Greek Gods and I guess in those times there was no better publicity for Greece than this book.

Neither Henri Miller, Katsimbalis nor Jorgos Zorbás visited Lesvos, as far as I know. Of all famous people produced by the island, maybe it is the painter Theophilos who comes closest to the Zorba character: a man living without conventions, dressing as he wanted and all the while studying the people around him in order to make paintings.
Also Sappho dearly loved life and wrote about it. But this lady was more into the dark blues. She introduced poems based on the stirrings of her soul, mostly causing pain in the heart.
Another free-minded person coming from the island was the famous Barbarossa. Whether this pirate greeted the days as if everything was new, is not known.

But there must have been a Zorba on the island, who just like Alexis, build a cableway. Not for a sawmill, but for the resin, which last century was harvested on the island, especially in the woods around Megali Limni and around the waterfall of Pessas (Polistami). There you can see some of the remains of a cableway going all the way down to the Gulf of Kalloni near Skala Vassilika, from where the resin was shipped. And it seems that (unlike the fictional character) this one did do the job.

Lots of people visiting Lesvos, return yearly: the island might be the spot with the largest number of repeaters of all of Greece. There are even some among them who have come here since the Sixties. When you hear their stories about the past, you might think that they too met their Katsimbalis: they spent hours in the cafenions drinking and talking, making adventurous trips into nature, and mostly accompanied by one or more locals. It seems that in those early times the island was full with Zorbas.

It is sometimes said that time has come to a standstill on Lesvos. It is a fact that the island is not flooded with masses of tourists. In the sleepy villages men sip at their ouzo, men who were sitting there long before Zorba appeared in the cinemas. The mysterious monasteries (some still habited by dusty monks, others regularly busy with visiting pilgrims) make you realize that there is another life besides the one in the over populated western world. Even the few modern windmills, towering high on inhospitable mountaintops already seem part of history.

Timeless or not, there still are Zorbas on the island: men keeping some sheep and some olive trees and having a simple but happy life. You may meet them in the cafenions where they take their daily ouzo and eat their Mèzes. Enjoying life with a small income, it is what lots of Greeks still do, forced by the crisis or just because it is their way of life.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015