Tuesday, 23 August 2005


Did you know that there are well over 600 kinds of figs? Well, I did not know and I have to disappoint you because I do not know one of them. I only know that there are green and blue figs, but I have no idea what kind they are. I just know where to find the fig trees in my neighbourhood.

Anyhow, that is far more than a lot of people know who visit the island of Lesvos (and probably people visiting Greece in general). Because there is a big group of tourists who only knows dried figs from a package and have not the slightest idea that visiting the island at the end of August means that they probably pass trees with ripe figs more than ten times a day.

Even though a fig tree is easy to recognise. Its green leaves are like a big spread hand with fat round fingers. And everybody will remember a picture of a shy looking Adam covering his under parts with a fig leaf. And yes, that famous covering fig leaf also comes from the fig tree.

Late in August, early in September, you will find the ripe fruit in these trees. In the beginning they look perfectly round and green. Then they will change into the shape of a small pear, some colouring into a deep purple. At their bottom there is a tiny spot that will open once the fruit is ripe. Or you can touch it in order to know if they are ripe. When the figs are soft they are ready to be eaten.

This delicacy is one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world. Some 3,000 years old fossils bear traces of figs and on many old frescoes there are fig eating people to be seen. It is not entirely clear from where the fig comes although it is probable that they were first cultivated in Arabia and Egypt. From there, around 1600 BC they were brought to Crete and then on to the rest of Greece. The fruit was sacred to the Greeks and it was prohibited to export it without authorisation. As well as Homer, Plato, Aristotle and Theophratus wrote about figs. Then the Romans came and introduced the fig to their empire where the fruit enriched their bacchanals. For them the fig became the symbol of the God of food and beverage (Bacchus).

Charlemagne had figs in his garden and with all the historical conquests and smart traders the fig was soon known in the whole of Europe. In the 16th century the Spanish conquistadors took the fig tree over the sea to South America. And then it was not long before there were also fig trees in what is now North America. Especially California did well in growing fig trees. They now are even that famous for it that Greek cultivators have been importing an American variety to cultivate here in Greece.

In Greece the fig was called 'the bread of the poor'. And even animals were fed with it, like pigs and geese. And what came out of these geese? Goose-liver! That delicious product nowadays so much cherished by the French. Which was original a Greek product. But where is the goose-liver now in Greece? There are enough geese hidden on the island but I never saw goose-liver on a menu.

Yesterday we were originally on a search for blackberries. We drove into the mountains towards the deserted village of Lepetimnos. In this once so fierce village there are still plenty of fruit trees and in between the ruins the blackberries have plenty of space. They were juicy big specimens, thanks to the rains of a few weeks ago. As well as branches full of thick fat figs smiling at us. They asked to be picked, otherwise they would end as dinner for the pigs. A smart farmer has made a pig stall from one of the ruined houses, under a large fig tree, beside an enormous walnut tree. Can you imagine how good these pigs will taste once their life is over?

We had more surprises that afternoon. We discovered the 'grape trees'. In the wild gardens the grapes were free to grow wherever they wanted. And they do like to climb trees. So it is quite crazy if when you are picking a fig, you encounter a big bunch of sweet blue grapes. Enormously big bunches slowly floated through the air on a little breeze, high and unreachable in the tops of walnut trees and hidden behind the big green leaves of the fig trees.

This abundance of fruit did hurt a little bit. When we left this Garden of Eden along a small old path partly covered with rolling stones, we came upon a lane which was full of chestnut trees. The chestnuts had to wait another month before falling off the tree, the grapes which lived in those trees were ripe. We came home that night with plenty of bags filled with fruit. Which meant: work.

To clean the blackberries, make shakes of blackberries and yoghurt, make liquor with blackberries and cognac. Dry figs, bake bread with figs, prepare meat with figs, cut the figs open and fill them with chocolate, over a month brewing fig syrup. Wash the grapes, bring some to the neighbours, make grape jelly, cook fish with grapes. And this is only the beginning of the autumn. Collect almonds, picking apples, conserving pears, looking for pine nuts, making pesto with the rest of the basil. Hammering, hacking, peeling, cooking, baking, preserving, drying. And if it could be just a little bit cooler for all this work...

Copyright © Smitaki 2005

Tuesday, 16 August 2005

Heavenly busy

The Assumption Day of Maria on the 15th of August is in all ways the peak of the Greek Summer. Around that day a real migration takes place in Greece. Islands are boiling over with tourists, cities are left empty. On television they showed a nearly deserted street in Athens, one which is normally pretty busy. Only two old grandmas were sitting on a bench drinking coffee from a thermos. You really felt sorry for them, being left behind by all those citizens. To complete this desolate picture a cat crossed the pretty large and empty street as if he was taking a stroll in the park.

Cats here on Lesvos should wait another month before they can behave like that. These days crossing the Boulevard of Eftalou is very dangerous thanks to the cabs hurrying up and down, the lounging Greeks in their cars, the racing motorcyclists who did not learn anything from the motor accident two weeks earlier between Molyvos and Petra where two young boys died.

Even the Kenderi, the fast boat that races twice a week along the island, is slowing down. Nowadays it is even a few hours late because it has to minimize it speed. There were not only big complaints from Lesvos, but also from Chaldiki, Chios and Turkey.

It was good that this boat was as late as half past six last Sunday. At the usual hour it should pass (2 o'clock in the afternoon) the normally quiet beaches of Eftalou were overflowing with sun umbrellas, Greek and foreign tourists, masses of children playing in the sea, yelling mothers at the water line. If the Kenderi had found this crowd there might have been victims.

There were enough victims already that weekend due to the biggest crash in Greek aviation history when a Cypriot plane went down 40 kilometres north of Athens. So this year on television there were not so many images of the Maria pilgrims and the celebrations. And believe me, there are many of them, pilgrims as well as churches.

Around Assumption Day it is custom to make a pilgrimmage to a church which is dedicated to Maria. This year it will not have been easy because the thermometer in daytime still stays between 35 and 40°C. The distance of the walk varies between some metres, when you are lucky and live next to such a church, or a lot of kilometres when you want to go to the most popular Maria Churches which are on Lesvos, the Panagía Church in Petra which has an especially difficult finish consisting of the many steps you finally have to climb up the Rock of Petra, and the Panagía Church in the mountain village of Ayiasos, which attracts pilgrims who mainly start walking the previous night. Some people say that these pilgrimages have to be done on knees but that is bullshit. Only the most fanatical believers or the worst sinners do the last few metres on their knees. It is the use of the car that is becoming more and more popular.

Most Greek people love crowds and therefore they gather in the popular coastal villages like around Mytilini and all the Skala's. In Petra, which each year turns into an Assumption Amusement Park, you could not see the beach anymore so many people were there. In the Harbour Street in Molyvos it was that busy that it was hard to turn around, especially by car. And even on the tiny beach of Kalo Limano there was no place left for your beach towel. Only the large beach of Kampos seemed to be impossible to change into Brighton beach on a hot summer Sunday. It was as empty as if the Holy Virgin never took off to heaven.

I always give a large sigh on the Assumption Day of Maria. I am sad because this day means the beginning of the end of the summer. Also because I am glad that those masses of people will leave the island. Until the 3rd of September you cannot find a ticket to leave the island, not by plane or by boat. It needs such a long period to get rid of all those Assumption people. And then finally the island will be itself again, the paradise it is for the rest of the year.

Copyright © Smitaki 2005

Monday, 8 August 2005

New supply for the 'How to say it in Greek'

Although the temperatures last week were sometimes a little too high, we have nothing to complain about this summer. Ine zesto (it is hot), we say in Greece when it is hot, as in the past few weeks. Poli vrochi (a lot of rain), we say when it is raining cats and dogs like last Saturday when heavy rain finally put an end to the 3 weeks of heat wave. When you were frightened to death by a big thunderclap that made you sit right up in your bed like people in Molyvos did on Sunday morning at 6 o'clock local time you say: poli boom boom (a lot of boom boom), which is not entirely Greek because the Greek verb for thundering is boomboonizo, but that is a little similar to boom boom, so all the Greeks will understand you.

When your name is Ella you are not supposed to look around when a Greek is calling ella. That word means 'come here' or 'listen' and it is one of the words most used in the Greek language.

On ti kanis (how are you) you should answer kala e si (good, and how are you?), even if your room is not cleaned, your hotel overbooked so that you are banished to the other end of the island, even if you by accident have a room next to the local disco or even when your bathroom runs full of water every time you flush your toilet.

Asto diablo (go to the devil) you shout when Greeks from the big city in a full restaurant are loudly making problems in order to have the exclusive attention of the waitress. They make her run ten times for new water, they send a tomato back because it is wrongly cut, they will not accept the aubergine when there is cheese on top, they do not want a Greek salad with onions in it or they demand the bread poli grigora (very fast) because they think they are the only ones who are hungry.

Etsi ine y zoï (that's life) you say when you want to take the ferry from Athens to Lesvos, but the boat is having problems and does not sail so that you have to wait 24 hours on the quays of Pireaus for a ticket for another overbooked boat and you are getting sunstroke.

Ti na kanoume (what can we do) is your complaint when it is that busy that in the whole of Molyvos all cars and motorcycles are rented out so that there is nothing for it but to spend your holiday at the pool of your hotel or in danger of being roasted daring to take a walk to the village.

Yalia mou ine sti thalassa (my glasses are in the sea) you say when you forgot all about the fast ferry Kenderis that races past the island on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons and which causes a small tsunami half an hour later that makes many towels, mobiles or sunglasses disappear into the sea. Make sure you do pronounce this correctly because when you say "Yaya mou ine sti thalassa" the coastguard will rush out to look for your grandmother who vanished into the waves.

Katze is said when the Greeks want you to sit down. Many times this means an invitation for a drink or something to eat. "Katze" says a bus driver who only speaks Greek to a tourist rep on his bus full of tourists who does not understand any Greek. She keeps on walking through the bus without knowing that the driver prefers driving when everybody is seated. "Katze!" says the driver again when it happens that the rep thinks she understood a word of German and starts looking for a cat in the bus causing more walking. "Ella, Katze!!" the driver will then shout and the rep will take the intercom in order to ask all passengers for help to look for the cat in the bus. Which makes it even busier in the aisles. They will never find 'Der Katze' but for sure katze is the first Greek word this rep ever learned.

Yamas (cheers) you say when you finally reach your balcony to drink an ouzo, after you have managed to make your complaints to an overcooked rep and after you finally explained to your car renter that you just had to avoid a cat when you bumped into a wall with his car. Yaamaas you say when you drink your second glass of ouzo to celebrate that you discovered your wallet on the pedestal cupboard, after you had been looking the whole night for the police station because you thought you lost your wallet in the tsunami wave. Yaamaar you say at your third glass of ouzo because you had to walk all the way back to your hotel after waiting for an hour at the cab-stand without seeing one taxi appearing. Yammie you say drinking your fourth glass of ouzo because you feel so well sitting on your balcony deep in the night in the cool breeze. Yaya you say over your fifth glass of ouzo because you think you saw a falling star. You whisper ya at your sixth glass because there is nothing else to say. You should say Kali nichta (good night) pouring out your seventh glass but then I think you already nearly fell off your balcony.

Copyright © Smitaki 2005

Monday, 1 August 2005

Cowboys in the sun

In the same weekend that the Dutch Ankie van Grunsven got gold for breaking in with her horse Salinero, the Molyvos Cowboys (and one cowgirl) also attempted to break in their horses. It was the annual festival of Agia Theoktisti, a little church next to the Alonia restaurant. It is celebrated by the Pegasus horse club in Molyvos and starts on Friday night to collect money for the party by having a procession through the village. Quite Greek because the band that was supposed to participate in the cortege of the four legged animals was late by one hour, which gave the horsemen plenty of time to bring their horses close to a nervous breakdown.

The procession with the hot-blooded horses went in the direction of the harbour with a big cow in front. The main thing was to impress the unsuspecting passersby. The riders were dressed like stout cowboys and most horses were hung with colourful halters, neck-chains and other decorations, even the frail foals had necklaces. The cow in front was bearing a garland, at the back it had a thick pack of mud. Many a horse showed off dangerously so that the tourists had to back off. It was a restless procession that ended at the starting point at the restaurant of Alonia where there was plenty of ouzo to continue the night.

Saturday was the Holy Day. A mass was celebrated at the little church of Theoktisti and then the traditional dish of 'kiskek' was prepared in big kettles. The food was to be distributed to everyone who seems to be hungry. Nobody knows why this little Molyvos church has three days of celebration with the horses. Molyvos is known for its tourists and not for its horses. One could suggest something about another procession on the same weekend: of tourists. In the high season the Harbour Street is already a big parade every night. But maybe with some garlands, some traditional clothing - so that we know what foreigners they are - and some free glasses of ouzo it will be an even better parade.

The Horse Days ended Sunday night at the horse track. The horse track is above the Garden Village of Molyvos. It consists of a gate and a track for the horses. Some policemen were trying to keep the public on the right tracks, but a Greek is a Greek and does not listen to a police officer. They parked where they thought it would be a good place and they walked wherever they wanted, even straight over the horse track. Which was all well because each race was run by only two horses who reared more than they ran. So the people just stepped away when it was necessary.

For the outsiders it was hard to make a distinction between all categories, but finally many prizes were awarded. Maybe one tried to copy Anke van Grunsven, only the horse could not control his legs, maybe another horse should have run as fast as he could but was not in the mood because of the still high temperature. It was the usual Greek Chaos.

At the end some horses ran overenthusiastically down the road back home. Two ladies just escaped from being run over and jumped in the bushes beside the road. They were thorny bushes and they had to be saved by the people from the ambulance who were already there for emergencies.

The quietness returned, also for the horses in the meadow in front of our house. They were not allowed to participate in the festival and were therefore pretty cross. Officially they have no names but I call them Toto, Tristan, Tarzan and Troy. Troy is a sweet grey horse with big eyes and he liked to take some walks on the Eftalou Boulevard. He stepped over the wreckage that is supposed to be a fence and made a parade on his own along the fence. Toto, Tristan and Tarzan encouraged him from the meadow like a bunch of naughty children. Then Troy thought about going on to the beach and that was a sign for the bystanders to try to get the horse back into the meadow. You do not want a car to run over the horse!

Troy is as pigheaded as the farmer who did not repair the fence. So that was done by a couple of tourists on Saturday. Thank you, folks! So you see that even when it is too hot to move, there are still plenty of things going on.

Thanks to the endless heatwave the water is becoming scarce, also the electricity company is having problems. Sunday night for one hour it was pitch dark on the entire island. I seated myself in the middle of our road and admired the stars. Amongst all the falling stars there was one with a big flickering tail. I was so surprised that I completely forgot to make a wish. Otherwise I might have wished that next year Ankie van Grunsven would come here to teach a lesson to the Lesvian Cowboys. Some of them really do need some discipline.

Copyright © Smitaki 2005