Monday, 18 December 2006

Saint Nicholas

No, no, Saint Nicholas has not been to Lesvos. But indeed one exists here in Greece, which is more than can be said for Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas came originally from Greece. Why he moved to Spain is not clear. Maybe because the Greeks and Turks were always at war.

But it is definite that Saint Nicholas doesn't have his birthday on the 6th of December! Because that is the date he died around the year 350! He was born in Patara, which was once a Greek village in Lycia and is nowadays a village in the south of Turkey. He was orphaned at an early age, but went on to become a bishop: the Bishop of Myra. He was such a good man that his deeds were renowned internationally. Within a century after his death he was proclaimed a saint. Then his fame just increased and the stories of his wonderful powers grew ever bigger.

Saint Nicholas was good to children and there are many stories about him saving children from starvation. In the West of Europe Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children. The country where he is most revered is Holland, where on the 5th of December his 'birthday' is celebrated with a night full of presents. Children especially, who really do believe that Saint Nicholas comes from Spain to bring them presents, are spoiled that night with toys and candy.

In Greece however Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors. When during his life he had to travel over sea and survived unbelievable storms, the sailors knew it was because of his prayer. So Saint Nicholas comes ashore on his Name Day of the 6th of December, soaking wet and with torn clothes, because he had to save so many ships out at sea. Many a Greek church in a harbour is dedicated to him. During Christmas, on some of the islands they decorate a tiny ship instead of a Christmas tree, in honour of the seamen's patron.

But who is Father Christmas? Father Christmas has more in common with Saint Nicholas than you might realise. They both have the same white beard. One rides a white horse, the other rides a sleigh pulled by reindeers.

But Santa Claus, the more popular name for Father Christmas, is the same person as Saint Nicholas! It was even the Dutch who created him. The first official inhabitants of New York, which was originally named New Amsterdam, were Dutch settlers who brought with them their Saint Nicholas traditions. The Dutch name Sinterklaas soon became Santa Claus. And maybe they needed a childrens attraction during the Christmas season, so Santa Claus now spoils the American children at Christmas.

Greek children do not have a Saint Nicholas or a Santa Claus to bring them presents. They have to wait for the 1st of January in order to open gifts given to them by Agios Vasilis. This Holy Man has things in common with Saint Nicholas. They lived in the same century, in Greece, they were known for their good deeds and they both gave presents. But he was definitely another person, named after the archbishop Ceasara of Cappadocia, who is known as one of the founders of the Greek Orthodox church.

In December in Holland and America, as in many other countries where they know Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus, children gather around the chimney, waiting for their presents to come. Greek children however had better stay away from the chimney during these days. Because on Christmas Eve no parcels fall down the chimney, but Kallikantzaris. These are some kind of nasty fairy tale gnomes who come during the Christmas period, which is 12 days in Greece, from Christmas Eve until the 6th of January. They come to upset you by doing things like putting out the fire, dancing on your back or pissing in Christmas dishes which are not well covered.

It is believed that they live in the middle of the earth where they try to saw the tree that bears the globe. They nearly finish this evil work just before Christmas. But then Jesus is born and the tree start to grow again. So those little bastards come upstairs to play havoc with the people.

You'd better not be born on the 25th of December, because then you will turn into a little monster. The only thing a mother can do to protect her baby is to cover the child in garlic or straw. (That might be why the little Jesus lies in a crib with straw!). Another way is to take off all your nails, because without nails you cannot become a Kallikantzari.

There are different ways to protect your household against the Kallikantzaris. You can hang the lower jaw of a pig in the chimney or on your front door. Or you can throw an old shoe into the fire, so that these little gnomes flee because of the stink. But you can also try to keep the fire going all 12 days, so that they cannot enter through the chimney.

And that is exactly what we are going to do. Until now it has been splendid warm weather. But the weather forecast scares even the thermometer which goes down just from hearing the bad news. It is going to be cold! Kallikantzaris or not, our fire will be burning until next year.

I wish you all a merry Christmas!

This weeks image is taken from Christmas in Greece.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 11 December 2006

Spring in December

You just have to listen to the weather forecast and all they talk about is: this autumn was one of the warmest ever and winter doesn't want to come. Although they say in Greece that real winter only starts in February and ends at the beginning of March, even for the Greeks it is too warm at the moment. The only rain fell at the beginning of November and the sun believes it's still summer.

It is such fantastic weather that even nature gets fooled. We spotted a wild pear tree blossoming pretty early and the anemones are busy popping their coloured heads above ground and chattering as if it was already spring. Acid clover flowers are also early this season. The grass under the olive trees is as green as a young spring tapestry, small goats call their mothers and even new born lambs step on tottery legs into the green green grass.

This makes the foxes very happy, you see them everywhere. This afternoon our dog Albino found the back of a little lamb, complete with two back legs, during a walk. He probably snatched it from a fox. Not a nice sight! I agree a bit with the Greeks: these foxes that murder those sweet tiny lambs should be punished.

Many times people tell us how many chickens or lambs they lost due to the foxes. Officially it is forbidden to hunt foxes because they are protected animals, but who is protecting the chickens and the lambs? Thanks to this protection the population of foxes is rising pretty quickly, as does the irritation of the Greeks about these red coloured animals. I love to see foxes, I don't even mind when they walk with me, but the view of such a tortured lamb is not a pretty sight.

Maybe it is also due to the beautiful weather that you see so many foxes parading around. We could have lunch each day outside in the sun. The small amount of restaurants still open each try to make the best mixed salad. Fine cut marouli (green leaf salad), dill, white cabbage and their own variation of chorta leaves and green spices. In restaurant Panayottis in Avlaki, we got fava served with large green leaves. They tasted pretty spicy and were a wonderful combination with the taste of fava (green pea purée). I thought I recognized the leaves from our field. No way! The leaves here are the same shape, but are more hairy and taste of nothing.

I couldn't even find them in my recently purchased book 'Ta Xopta' (chorta) written by Mirsini Lambraki. First of all the book is in Greek, a language I still can't read that well, and for all I looked at the pictures, it was not there.

However, it mentioned a lot of other strange things I never would have thought were edible: wild leek (never saw them), the leaves and flowers of the malve, the flowers of the yellow asphodelos, leaves of a fern (pteridium aquilinum), the bulbs of the wild blue grapes, the green of chrysants (chrysantheum coronarium), the leaves of the lupin flowers. You wonder why you still go to the supermarket...

The weather is too good to do a lot of cooking in the kitchen. I know that there is still a lot to experiment with in the Greek kitchen, especially regarding all those wild vegetables. But spring has not arrived yet, even though some plants think so.

It is only just December and the Christmas madness has begun. The special lights are in the streets, the big crib has been dusted off and set up and the first Christmas gathering has happened. Last Saturday the whole of international Molyvos came together at the crib: Greeks, Dutch, Belgian, German, Danish, English, French, Bulgarian, Albanian and Russian. (I probably forgot a nationality).

Schoolchildren and adults sang their favourite international Christmas song out loud. The Germans made sure there was roast sausage with sauerkraut and there were tables loaded with lots of lovely cakes, cookies and other sweets, most of them made by the mothers of the schoolchildren. The people were so quick to take them that you thought that for weeks they only ate chorta and mushrooms. Within two hours everything was finished and the party as well.

So here also Christmas time has started. But you'd better not expect a white Christmas here on the island. Although, you never know what surprises the weather can have in store.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 4 December 2006

'I leave'

Today I got an email from a reader with questions I'm often asked. They're about what it's like to come and live here. My first reaction of course is: great! But living on Lesvos is not for everyone.

The most important question you have to ask yourself is: Do I have enough money to make a living on Lesvos? But don't count on getting a job here. There might be some jobs in restaurants or bars, but only for a few months. And then those jobs have pretty lousy pay. Wages are very low in Greece and you really have to be a seasoned Greek to master the art of living with that little money.

If you are planning to start your own business, you must have a lot of patience, because Greece is a country with a vast number of rules and regulations. It is especially hard for foreigners to find their way. Most officials don't speak a second language and many times you will feel you've been conned. Things like organising a telephone line, ADSL, buying a car or building a house are such big adventures that many a foreigner has written a book about it, or suffered heart failure from it.

If you really insist on getting a job in Greece, it goes without saying that you must master the Greek language. Is Greek a difficult language to learn? Nainaiaiaiaiai! Unless you are young or you have a skill for languages, it will cost you blood, sweat and tears to learn Greek. The fastest ways are: marrying a Greek or attending a Greek school in the country itself.

Another important question you should ask yourself is: what am I going to do on Lesvos? You can take walks for the whole day, or car trips through the beautiful landscape, you can count the passing donkeys, you can make coffee for the chorta pickers, you can deliver all the crushed animals you find on the roads to a veterinary surgeon, you can give directions to tourists who are lost, you can have a coffee each day in the harbour, you can hang around for whole days in kafenions, getting high on ouzo, you can try your luck at fishing, you can attempt a conversation in your best Greek with a local farmer, you can help for a day picking olives until your back hurts so much that you have to stay in bed for a whole week, or you can wait for days for the carpenter who will never show up. So you see, there is plenty to do on this island, but is this really what you want?

In the summer there is plenty to do. The terraces are full of people, the beaches are nice for cooling off, the open air cinema plays some interesting movies. But in the winter half of the people working here go home, half of the inhabitants go for months to visit their families in Athens or Thessaloniki, a tourist will be a curiosity, most shops close, as do most restaurants and so you will nearly be on your own.

Can you afford to live here financially, does the Greek language suit you and are you improving at saying hello, goodbye, how are you, thank you, good night, happy birthday and have a nice journey, are you sure that you will not be bored to death after two months? If yes, then you've taken your first step.

The next step however is a dexterity test in the (Dutch) 'man-do-not- get-annoyed'-game. When you do not get annoyed by sheep and goats in your garden, when you know how to deal with roaming donkeys, when you don't mind all the rubbish in the countryside, when you don't lose your temper waiting for a Greek who has stopped his car in the middle of the road because he has something to say to a friend, when you don't get upset at all the reckless driving, when you think it is very romantic when there is a power cut for the umpteenth time, when you know how to stop yourself from taking in too many poor little cats, when you don't mind shutting the windows because they've set fire to the dump, causing dangerous fumes, when you don't laugh too loudly seeing the plumber installing your new boiler in the 'Greek' way, when you don't care about all the chinks in your house through which the icy cold wind blows, when you don't get angry when the banks are on strike for weeks, when you're not worried about a poor health system (you must remember: this is an island), then you will probably fit into Lesvian life.

So when you know you can handle all of this without problems and you are sure that you want to swap your well settled life for a Greek adventure, then you can pack your suitcases and I will welcome you to the paradise-like island of Lesvos.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 27 November 2006

Some of those days...

Do you sometimes have some of those days that seem shorter than you need? I have them all the time in Greece. It's like life is sneakily eating hours from the day. Not only in winter. Also in summer hours pass without you noticing them.

In the winter this feeling is stronger. But then the days are also much shorter. When you get up at seven it starts to get light and from 4 o'clock in the afternoon the light starts fading. At five it is pitch dark. The Greeks, having their siesta in the afternoon, go to sleep in daylight and wake up in the dark. Then they have a coffee, as if it is morning and at about 10 PM they sit down to a light dinner.

I love to have a siesta on a summer afternoon, but in the winter I think it is a waste of the daylight hours. And even though there are 10 hours of daylight on a winters day in Greece, I still have the feeling that they are much shorter than in Holland.

Take last Saturday. At 7 we woke up because the dogs were barking frenziedly. We thought: donkeys in the garden, so I turned over to continue my sweet dreams. Jan got out of bed and half an hour later I heard him having a conversation. Still sleepy, I wondered if he had started having conversations with dogs and donkeys. I got up and found him all agitated. He had caught two refugees on our land, roaming the houses, looking for something to eat.

Jan showed them where the road to the village was, but they did not want to go there. They did some circuits of our land and then disappeared into the undergrowth behind us. I thought it better to call a neighbour, who called the police. One of the refugees came back, but still didn't want to take the road to Molyvos. He said he had a sick friend up there, pointing to the bushes behind our house. So what should we do? The neighbour was there in 10 minutes. The refugees disappeared into thin air. They didn't even show up when Jan went looking for them, carrying a pack of toast, so that at least they would have something to eat.

It was a beautiful warm and sunny morning. No wind. On the sea some fishing boats floated that close to the coast that it seemed they were sailing the fields. Perfect rest, but there was still this unsettling feeling about those refugees. After about an hour and a half the police finally dropped in. They had to come from Kalloni, because during the night there are no police in Molyvos and the police station only opens at half past 8. So when there is a real emergency, you'd better call your neighbours.

The two policemen listened patiently to our story. They looked at the mountains rising behind our house, shrugged as if to say: 'what can we do?', thanked us politely and left.

So we decided to to a little walk in order to see if the refugees were still somewhere at the back of our house. We could not find them. Coming back there was a man who just got off his motorbike and ran into the undergrowth. He didn't answer when we shouted to ask who he was, he was in too much of a hurry. He didn't even look when one of the refugees re-appeared, carrying some shopping probably bought in the village. I told the refugee boy to sit down and wait, until the man we supposed to be a policeman, came back.

The poor boy was very frightened, asking if it was a bad cop and if he would go to prison now. We assured him that it was a good cop and that he would probably go to a refugee centre. But he did not trust the policeman running after his two friends, who successfully managed to hide themselves. When the policeman returned empty handed, he looked at the boy, ordered him to go and get his friends and to be at the bus station at 1 o'clock. The man jumped on his bike and left, leaving us perplexed.

At 1 o'clock we drove to Molyvos to see if the boys followed these orders. They were not there and coming home we found all three of them on the road in front of our house. We offered them a ride to the bus stop and wished them good luck. What else could we do?

By then it was 2 o'clock in the afternoon, too late to drive to the Hot Springs of Lisvori, which is what we intended to do. We had a light lunch and went collecting wood. And suddenly it was dark, evening, with the fire to be lit and in a few hours we were in bed again.

The next morning our landlady came to tell us that we were to collect the olives that morning. There are not that many olive trees on our land, but we always get a good quality oil which we can never finish in a whole year. So on Sunday morning we collected olives (Greek mornings mostly end at 2 PM). We finished with a marvelous lunch in the sun and after that we took a short walk in order to give the ouzo a chance to go down. We had to hurry back before it got dark!

Sunday night I got news that my Monday morning would be no exception. Something had happened to our house in Amsterdam, so that the whole next morning I was on the phone and writing and sending emails. Then it was time for our lunch appointment at Tsonia: a beautiful ride, a walk over the warm beach and a super lunch. It was dark when we got home.

People often ask us what our daily life is like here in Greece. Well, this is about what we do... And wonder where all of those 24 hours a day should normally have have gone to.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Mushroom fever

Just like cats and dogs, many donkeys are left on their own in the winter. They are free to roam wild and find their own food. The stubborn four-legged animals which you take rides on in the summer, spend the winter in the mountains, where they find plenty of food. Sometimes this gives rise to Wild West scenes because many a night or early morning we have to get out of bed in order to chase the donkeys, like cowboys driving their cattle out of our garden. Of course these donkeys don't know about lassos, but they hate the sound of saucepan lids being banged together. The refugees, still coming in in droves, must be wondering what the hell all the noise is...

The countryside is now not only full of donkey food, but also wild vegetables and mushrooms for humans. The tourist industry has announced that staying in Greece and Spain next year will be much more expensive, while in Turkey it will be cheaper. That also means that prices will rise for us, even though life here is already pretty expensive. I sometimes wonder how the Greeks manage, because most of them have a pretty poor income. Maybe that's why these days you see more and more chorta groups (people looking for wild vegetables) and more and more people looking for mushrooms.

In the chestnut woods around Agiasos a few weeks ago we found some huge bolets comestibles and many others that we could not identify. One of them we think is the Ceasar's mushroom, one of the most delicious mushrooms. It is a red amanite from a mushroom family known for inedible varieties. So we left this Ceasar's mushroom in peace; you never know with these local mushrooms.

At the beginning of the month many people visited the Chestnut Festival in Agiasos. On every street corner huge amounts of chestnuts were roasted. There was music, dancing and alcohol everywhere and the streets were full of people.

A lot of people not only visited the festival, but also went to look for peperites, a kind of big white chantharelles (20 cm) with a kind of peppery taste (it might also be a Lactarius pergamenus). At this time of year the island is full of them. They mostly grow under fir trees and are easy to recognize. To prepare them is very simple: you roll them in breadcrumbs and then fry them.

Thanks to the good autumn weather, every weekend the woods around Klapados are full of people looking for mushrooms and the road from Achladeri to way above Agiasos (and other wood parts of the island) is full of parked cars, whose occupants disappear into the pine woods which cover the centre of the island. It is not often that you see Greeks going for a walk. But Greeks are hearing more and more from their doctors that they should walk more. Even with a 4-wheel drive you cannot tear through the woods. There is no other way than to take strolls between the trees in order to find peperites.

Unpopular with the Greeks are the Parasols (macrolepiota procera), because like the bolets, they do not know them. They are wrong. These mushrooms whose caps resemble pancakes can get as big as 40 centimetres. It is like finding a treasure, because you bake a parasol in butter, sprinkle it with salt and pepper and it tastes like a first class steak. They are far more delicious than the peperites.

And then there are the various Field Mushrooms that grow on the bare parts of the fields. When we picked some yesterday to make 'Champignons à la Grecque' we even found the first anemone! It was like spring was already in the air, although winter has not even started.

Forced by economic reasons or not, the Greeks are going into the countryside more and more to look for food, just like they did when there was a famine on the island (last time was in the sixties). There are many different wild vegetables. I only know wild spinach, the horse flower and wild chicory. I now know even more mushrooms. But it won't take long before I will get so bored of these mushrooms. Every day preparing mushroom soup, mushroom ragout, mushroom appetizers and parasol steaks might be overdoing it.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Tales of cats and dogs

We have 15 cats and 3 dogs. Don't pity me. They only need my full care in winter. In the summer the dogs go for breakfast at the nearby hotel where they spend the rest of the day by the pool, entertaining the guests. It is the same with the cats. Most of the cats wander off to the many houses and their summer occupants, who can give them a real treat.

But when the hotels close and all the summer visitors go home, everybody returns to our place. So I cook pans full of pasta, I open huge tins of dog food (they are cheaper than cat food), I drag home heavy bags of dry cat food. We make sure that the female cats get sterilized and I cry my eyes out when cats disappear. Cats and dogs don't live long on this island.

When I feed them in the morning, a hungry pack of cats and dogs are ready and waiting when I come out of the house. A new cat, Ptolemeus, even jumps with all four paws onto my legs, digging his claws into my skin to get more grip, in order to reach the food first. It is a hell of a job to teach him better manners (especially with a big bowl of food in your hands).

I also try to discourage a dog who is obsessed with Homerus Wiggle. This is a young cat, a new member of the family that decided to survive after he got in an accident. He walks on the back of one of his feet, has a hip fracture and a badly healed foot fracture. His tail moves all the time like a divining-rod: tik-tik-tik. The Wildlife Hospital in Agia Paraskevi took him in for 2 weeks observation, but decided that this small survivor had to live with what he got.

They say that cats have 9 lives. Homerus Wiggle has, as far as I know, already used up two. In the morning it works like this at our house: Vrini, the neighbours dog, which also hibernates here, gets so excited when food arrives (or his owner), that he runs up and down like crazy, chasing the cats. The older cats are used to his wild running around and ignore it. Even the new small cat Wittgenstein is not bothered by all this commotion. But poor Homerus Wiggle, who is not that fast a runner, is scared as hell by this outpouring of joy and runs as fast as he can. Which makes all the dogs chase him, so excited to have a quarry.

So a few days ago I came out and saw Vrini barking happily next to Albino who had poor Homerus between his teeth, shaking him violently. I really got angry and took a stick and attacked Albino, who dropped Homerus immediately. Homerus fled as quickly as he could. Albino shot off with his tail between his legs. I got Vrini on the leash.

I would have done this with Albino as well, but Albino really hates to be on the leash. When we put him on a rope once, he stayed stretched at the limit of the rope for a full day. Somebody told me that I should get him used to the idea of a leash. Leash him and then let go of the leash. When I tried this experiment, letting go of the leash, Albino was so afraid that he run away as fast as a greyhound (he is no greyhound, but a kind of Schnautzer) and did not show up for 2 days.

The morning that he had Homerus between his teeth and I thought Homerus had used up all of his nine lives, I had a serious problem. What to do with a dog that is not happy amongst so many cats and regularly gets into fights with them? I seriously thought of sending him to the next world, because where would I find a new home for this dog on an island where it is common sense to leave cats and dogs to make their own life?

The third dog, Rockie, sleeps, eats, dreams, plays and even mounts the cats, as if there is no difference between a cat and a dog. His only problem is that he finishes his dinner as fast as a vacuum cleaner, gives a big burp and wants to continue his dinner at the cats plate. Cats do not eat at such a high speed. So I try to teach Rockie not to finish the cats dinners as well. But I have to stay close, in order to save the cats food.

However, Albino was saved by Homerus Wiggle. The morning after the incident, he came back, carefully and in one piece, wiggling his tail furiously. So I postponed my decision about Albino, but I sternly told him that from now on he is on probation. For now he seems to understand.

I really got upset by what happened. It was a day you were cursing all the animals and asking yourself why you took them in. On Sunday morning, peace seemed to be restored. I gave the cats their food and counted the colours, my way of seeing if everybody is present: 2 big grey ones and 2 small ones, 3 ginger ones and one small ginger, 2 white-grey ones, 1 white with black, 1 black with white, 1 all colours and the 2 cats that live indoors (and get fed indoors). Everybody was there, until I counted 3 grey-whites. Something was wrong. Then I saw a white-ginger cat, a variety of colours we do not have. And then suddenly a large column of unknown cats marched into our field. HELP!

It was the cats from the neighbouring hotel, who are abandoned, since the hotel is closed. I was happy to see that the food was finished, so they did not see that they missed a good dinner. When they didn't get any attention from me (I really tried to ignore them, which was very very hard) they went back to where they came from.

This summer the hotel had 26 cats! And when I asked the manager what he was going to do with them during the winter, he answered: "They will have to look after themselves. The strong ones will survive." Gggggrrrfffffff. Because I know where the cats can survive, but no way will I open a hotel-cat-asylum. Last year I already took their remaining 3 cats. 3 is a reasonable number. But 26?!

It is awful here at this time of year. Everywhere you see cats and dogs looking for food and a new home. I try not to look and not to think. Yesterday I even saw a fox sitting next to 2 cats. The Greeks still have to learn a lot about getting along with domestic animals. And I have to harden up and learn to deal with them. If a dog trainer has some advice for me concerning Albino, I'd be very glad. I have no idea how to deal with dogs, I am more of a cat woman. I'd better not tell you the story of how I ended up with 3 dogs.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Tuesday, 7 November 2006


You turn your back on the island for 10 days and you find it back in a totally different season. When we left Lesvos it was marvellous warm autumn weather, when we came back it looked like winter. It could have been worse, if we'd come back a day earlier and lived on the neighbouring island of Limnos. There they had the first layer of snow, while Mytilini only saw a few snowflakes.

So we missed the two days of heavy rain and storms and the early cold spell, because after a nights sleep the temperature was rising and after two nights, the island became like we left it, except that a lot of plants had finished their season, because of a frosty night.

It really feels good to be back on the island, after all the bustle of Holland. That low country is not only full of people, those people are also so incredibly busy. And even though the country seems very well organized, they cannot solve their traffic problems, nor their fully booked agendas.

We fled that busy life, although we are not refugees. Those are coming more and more to the island. Before we left the island, Angelos (the owner of the still open Anatoli restaurant) and his wife Petra, were woken in the middle of the night by some men who were thoroughly soaked by the sea and came to ask for help. One of the refugees, from Pakistan or Afghanistan, nearly didn't make the trip over the stormy sea that night.

Angelos tried to revive the man by rubbing his whole body with alcohol (ouzo). He made tea and something to eat for all of them and got them into dry clothes. He only called the police and a doctor after he'd sorted them out. The refugees told Angelos that they each had to pay €2,000 for the dangerous trip over the sea from Turkey to Lesvos. At the Greek maritime border they were put in a rubber dingy, with the bottom slashed open, so they had to try and reach the Greek coast as quickly as possible.

Now that the tourists have gone, these groups of people attract a lot of attention on the roads. Nearly every day you see groups of refugees walking towards Molyvos and Mandamados. Some are 'helped' - this in inverted commas, because people make a good business out of refugees - with boat tickets or plane tickets. Some of them may pay their way by smuggling drugs, or they are just plain drug smugglers. Last year a group of refugees was arrested because they were wearing shoes with suspiciously large soles. There was heroin hidden in them. It is also rumoured that some refugees might be terrorists. So it is maybe not only asylum seekers these days.

The security checks at the airports are very strict these days. Especially regarding luggage. But you cannot say the same for passport control. In October, when the passengers (amongst them Jan) for a flight from Athens to Amsterdam were waiting to board, a group of men tried to force entry onto to the plane after they were found to have false passports. Armed police had to get them off the ramp. Last Sunday, when we saw the plane from Athens arriving at Amsterdam Airport, there was also a police team waiting for the plane, in order to arrest a group of passengers that were travelling with false passports.

It makes you wonder how these people get so far into the airport or planes and also wonder how many people get through without being stopped. I'm not saying that all these people intend to do harm, but times have changed, as has the composition of the groups of refugees.

On Lesvos no boats arrive with hundreds of refugees like on the Spanish island of Tenerife. Here they come by dozens in little leaky dinghys. Some refugees get a lift to a nearby town where they are picked up by the police and taken to a refugee centre. Taxi drivers are not allowed to drive them anywhere, but in Molyvos they just get the bus to Mytilini. And then there are the dramatic stories of those who do not make it to the island. These stories do not always appear in the papers.

Last week a storm cleaned the beaches. All the rubber dinghys that are the silent witnesses of the arrivals of the refugees are gone (although, following this, the beaches are filled up again with new ones). In the winter, not too many refugees will dare to cross the sea, although the most desperate do not care how cold or stormy the sea will be.

I know what dramas are hidden by the waves, but I'm still glad to be back to my view of the blue Aegean. You may think that Lesvos is a small forgotten island, but a new history of the world is being written here as well. Refugees or not, I can stare out over the sea where for centuries Gods, Greek heroes, pirates and refugees travelled and found the way to a new life.

Copyright © Julie Smit 2006

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

The new Mayor

It is WARM again on Lesvos! The cold north wind has given way to a gentle breeze. Although there are always clouds clinging to the mountain tops, it is blue skies everywhere else. Even the evenings are that warm that they tempt you to sit outside. The autumn dampness and the rising temperatures make huge mushrooms leap from the earth. Autumn really has started this time.

Last Sunday we had a picnic to celebrate a friends purchase of a new piece of land. The site has a fantastic view. To one side you overlook Lepetimnos. First the village of Vafios, then some lower mountains and finally the tops where the clouds try to roll over. On the other side you can see the small town of Molyvos and its bay, where on that day no wind disturbed the blue surface of the water. When the sun set over the sea and we re-lit the barbeque because of the dampness, no one wanted to go home. You slowly saw all the lights of Molyvos appearing, then the spotlights around the castle, and finally we had a perfect sky above us full of twinkling stars.

Around eight o'clock we were startled by some shooting in the village. Well, when there is a new pope white smoke comes from the chimney. Here in Greece shooting means that there is a celebration and on this Sunday it was because a new Mayor had been elected. A few people immediately took to their telephones and the news was brief: Stelios Karadonis is the new Mayor of Molyvos. Maybe he was not our first choice, but we drank another retsina to his victory. After that our mood was fine, we searched for wood with a torch to light the fire and it was some hours before we decided it was time to go to bed.

Yesterday we were discussing the island and some tourists complained about all the rubbish you find everywhere, especially on Lesvos. Just as in others countries, in Greece every region has a saying about other regions. They say about the people of Lesvos that they are farmers, they spend all their money as soon as they get it and they have no idea what a tidy countryside should look like. Even Cretans come here and complain about the dumps everywhere. The people of Lesvos are also known as the men with pickaxes. This is because they had to clear away all the rocks when they built the airport. They all had to be removed by hand!

I don't know if Stelios Karadonis knows how to educate his people not to throw away their old household wares in the beautiful valleys, hills and mountains. Or if he knows how to stop people throwing rubbish out of their cars while driving. Fortunately there is a municipal council that has a say as well.

Building a new central rubbish dump was no false promise just for the elections. They have started building this near Agia Paraskevi. But they still haven't decided on a site for a new power station. So the main power station in Mytilini has to be enlarged, which is bad news for the people living nearby (near the MINI plant). More households will not be able to hang their washing outside. It is so bad that white washing immediately gets dirty again.

It will take a few more years on Lesvos before they realise how they can have a clean environment. And when they do they'll probably have to deal with other problems: town planning. At the moment all nice spots like fields and hill tops are sold to people who want to build houses. Never mind if they spoil the view for the area or obscure other views. I understand that a lot of people want to come and live here, and are hunting for the best places with the nicest views. But I am sure that when you come back here in ten years time you will not recognise the small town of Molyvos: a clean city full of suburbs with a view of... houses!

NB: There will be no Lesvos News next week, because I am on holiday.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Tuesday, 17 October 2006


It is COLD here on Lesvos! It is not a nice autumn here; all too suddenly the summer finished, giving way to wintry weather. You may think that's pretty normal for October. Not here. In October on Lesvos there should be plenty of warm autumn sunshine so that the countryside will be brightly coloured. In the daytime you should have the time to say goodbye to the hot sun while picking up chestnuts and enjoying lunch outside. In the evenings you should sit outside enjoying a soft night by a fire. Now slate grey skies cloak the island and a cold and sharp northern wind howls over the mountains and through the valleys. I must admit that we were waiting for black clouds. But the idea was that they should bring rain and not just fly over the island. Why else would we want dark clouds?

The island is still very dry, unlike the rest of the country, where floods and other watery disasters are daily news. The few drops which have fallen on Lesvos were just enough to grow some meagre grass and for the autumn crocuses to sprout, but the environment here needs a lot more water.

Yesterday we were surprised by a sunny day with nearly no wind. We took the opportunity to go for a ride, because the weather forecast was not good for the next few days. We went to Palios, where even in summer small pools are filled with water where frogs and turtles have a merry life and where the unique Ruddy Shelducks have their home. They were not there this time, because the pools were nearly empty. Some of them still had just a little bit of water while others were like an African landscape with the dried earth full of cracks. Very sad.

The strawberry trees though didn't look too bothered by the drought. The round strawberry balls they carry as fruit were already cherry red and tasted lovely. The sea was soft and warm from the sun. Today I cannot imagine that yesterday I swam in the blue waters of the Bay of Palios, looking out to the mysterious White Islands (Nissi Aspro), shining brightly against the background of the Turkish mainland. At the end of the afternoon the beautiful weather suddenly stopped, as if the good weather was a mistake. The wind got up, speeding up during the night. Today it is a stormy grey day and it is that cold that you steal looks at the mountains, wondering if some snow may already have fallen...

The municipal elections also didn't bring any sunshine. In Molyvos, just like 4 years ago, they were won by the parties of the present Mayor Lefteris Vogiatzis and that of Stelios Karadonis. This Sunday the elections will not be so exciting; I think the most interesting parties are already out of it.

In Petra it was more exciting. First here is the report of Karin Haake about the first night, when the Speakers Corner was set up in the main square in Petra: "A huge movie screen was set up and was attached with ropes to the wooden electricity masts at the other side of the street. A first check was done, the microphones and cameras etc. were checked. While the promoters, the official representatives from the church and the army and the public were watching and waiting on the nearby terraces the unexpected happened: A tourist bus came from the direction of Anaxos not expecting any problems. The driver, who did not see what was happening (there were no warnings at all), continued as usual. So all the spectators watched while the bus, which was pretty high, drove through and took all the ropes with it. You saw in slow motion, like a house of cards collapsing, the fall of the movie screen, the spotlights which crashed and the cameras which fell to the ground. Then, as though on purpose, a few minutes of silence... And then the big drama unfolded: men waving their arms in the air, shaking their heads, some nearly lying on the floor in despair, shouting and screaming. The bus was already gone, the driver probably pretending not to have noticed. One policeman joined the chaos, but there was nothing left to be done. Harsh Greek discussions started and within half an hour they started rebuilding, so that the speeches could start just on time."

This was only the start of the election hassles of Petra. Now they say that people in Skoutaros perpetrated fraud on the first Sunday of the elections, so they'll probably have to do it all over again.

Nothing new either with the secondary school teachers, who demanded a 45% rise in their salary and to get it went on strike just one week after school started in September. They're now on the 5th week of their strike and everybody is complaining. Not only mothers, who do not know what to do with their children, but also people who get annoyed by the children hanging around on the streets and being so bored that they harass passersby. While in Athens tough confrontations take place between the police and the striking teachers, supported by the parents, in Molyvos all complaints are about the teachers who fail the children so easily and for so long.

So nothing is new under the sun, which doesn't even shine here on the island. Everybody gets bad tempered and that is maybe why they forecast a cold winter. It is like the olives feel the same. They started colouring too soon and are already falling from the trees. This has nothing to do with the weather, but with insects which infect the olives. Because nearly everybody on the island now grows organic olives, they're no longer sprayed with pesticides. So the flies have the time of their lives attacking the olives and the olive presses will have to open a month earlier.

Or do the olives have a premonition about the weather and should we expect a hard winter? I will get out my winter clothes. Kalo Chimonas!

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 9 October 2006

Election Fever

Just like everywhere in Greece the village of Molyvos is full of election fever. Every night there are gatherings where people try to raise votes for a new Mayor. Next Sunday will be the first round. Then all the Greeks have to vote. And they all have to be sober. Officially, selling alcohol after midnight on Saturday is forbidden. So that will be a really cozy Saturday Night.

You have to vote where you are born or registered, which means this coming weekend a large migration will take place in Greece. A lot of people have to travel back or forth from Athens and so on, wherever they come from. Let's hope the weather will be better than last weekend. Lesvos was lucky with all the rain, having just a few showers. But in the North of Greece and around Thessaloniki there was a state of emergency because of all the flooded houses and floods destroying roads.

On Sunday 15 October you can vote for 2 members of one 'mayors list' for the municipal council (you vote for the people, not for a political party). The two parties with the most votes then compete the next Sunday for who will become the new Mayor.

In Molyvos there are five candidates: Nicos Molvalis, Dionisis Karatsalis, Kralli Raloe (short: Raloe) Konstantellis, Stelios Karadonis and the actual Mayor Lefteris Vogiatzis. If you asked a candidate from a Mayors party a week ago what the programme was of the candidate Mayor, they would not know. So finally last week all the manifestos came out, and I assure you, they are all pretty promising. Molyvos is going to be paradise on earth, if you really believe all the future Mayors.

Dionisis Karatsalis is the candidate for the communist party, short: KKE (spoken: koukou-aa). As a real red rascal he is against the capitalist state of America, Europe and NATO. According to the KKE the money from Europe only goes to the big industries, the wages are too low in Greece, the taxes too high and there is too much unemployment. In local matters they think the 5 euro entrance for the Hot Springs is too much, the 2% tax each restaurant and shop has to pay in Molyvos is too high and the power of the tourist operators needs to be smaller. Dionisis wants a museum, a better library and a better exploitation of the Hot Springs.

But to be honest, everybody wants the same. And Dionisis did not read the manifesto of the actual Mayor Lefteris, because in there he explains what he did in the last 4 years. Besides the improvement of sewage, drainage and roads, he got money from Europe to improve walking paths and their signs (44,000 euros) and he got a 1,625,000 euro European subsidy to renew the main street of Molyvos going to the harbour. I understand now why everybody in Molyvos was so annoyed the whole winter long by this big project. You do not spend that amount of money in just one month. Another creation of Lefteris is the Molyvos kafenion (there was no kafenion anymore in Molyvos). I call that one the Living Room of the Mayor because each night you can find him there. Lefteris' impressive program has full colour pictures of other things that Mayors should usually do. But I have no idea what his plans for the future are. They cannot be much different from what the others want. Everybody wants the best for this municipality.

The list of plans from Nikos Molvalis is extremely long and I think that even if he were Mayor for a hundreds years, he would never be able to realise all those projects. Every idea you ever heard seem to be on his list. Most remarkable projects are: bringing hot spring water to the hotels, a foot path from the harbour to the beach of Molyvos, the organization of the Tourist Office (I thought there already was one), taking part in tourist exhibitions (I am wondering what he means by this...), opening a school for tourism, getting a movie theatre, the re- opening of one of the two old tunnels going from the castle to the beach (at the disco Congas). Wow, that sounds exciting!

However, Nikos Molvalis wants the best. He wants more excitement for the local people, more culture and more education. He wants to protect nature, he wants more money from Europe for agriculture, he wants more sports for the locals. And he wants a day care centre for the children, a thing Molyvos really needs because in the summer the mothers work their socks off while the tourists and their children are enjoying themselves.

The only female candidate wants about the same as Nikos, but she knows better how to bring it, also she is the only candidate who has vision. She is a lady who used to be a member of the KKE light (light version of the communistic party), but has now joined PASOK. She first wants to have a good look at the future for the municipality, before planning projects. Just like the others she wants more culture in all the villages, to protect the environment, a better exploitation of the Hot Springs and other tourist attractions in the municipality. She wants a review of the planning laws for building, she thinks about what tourism could be best in the North of the island (she is against all inclusive hotels), she want young people to take an interest in agriculture and she want to create more educational and cultural events for the local youth.

The biggest point on all lists however is the rubbish dump. They say that finally there will be a central place for waste treatment near Agia Paraskevi. Stelios Karadonis is the man for the middle class and he is full of personal promises for his direct voters. He had the brilliant idea to relocate the actual refuse dump 3 kilometres further in a deserted valley (where a river runs...) where nobody would be disturbed by it. In Holland we say: from the sight, out of the heart. I am wondering how many right thinking people will vote for this great idea...

So you see, it is happy hours in Molyvos. It bristles with new ideas and especially all the old ones which are to be aired once again. The electors are summoned to participate in gatherings maybe not every night but certainly every other night and the candidates on the lists travel through all the villages in order to get votes. Petra does it better than the municipality of Molyvos: in the central market place they created a kind of speakers corner where every night everybody can say what he wants.

It is going to be a tight race, because there are clearly two opponents: the more traditional Greeks who consider the problems the way their ancestors did and like to work with favouritism (Stelios and Lefteris) and the group who is open to new ideas, like those of the European foreigners living here (Raloe and Nikos). Maybe the choice seems to be easy in a tourist city like Molyvos, but one should not forget that the villages of Vafios, Argenos, Lepetimnos, Sykaminia and Skala Sykaminia, where most people work in the agricultural sector, also belong to this municipality and they would probably not be happy with a woman as Mayor or foreigners in their municipal council.

The elections are alive and well in the villages, for young and old, for local or foreigner. Even without the villages plastered everywhere with election bills where you can admire the future Mayor (it is said that, in the Greek way, this will happen at the last moment) election fever is high in the streets. Even though most tourists are gone, Molyvos is still very much alive. And if everyone keeps their word, it will be the best place on earth with only happy and bright people...

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 2 October 2006


The Weather Gods amused themselves for a few days on the island. Plenty of rain was falling and thunder deafened the ears. So I became troubled. All those showers drove me crazy, besieging the island in the afternoons or during the nights. I was constantly busy plugging and unplugging all the electricity cables and the telephone. And each time I thought: did I forget one? So the time I did forget one I was immediately punished. Last Thursday I forgot to unplug the telephone cable and BOOM! Lightning struck. I didn't even notice it, because I was listening to Haris Alexiou (Oops, I forgot to unplug that one as well) and she just continued singing, so I assumed that because the electricity did not go off, nothing else was wrong.

Only later in the afternoon I discovered that the telephone didn't work anymore, neither did the internet. Because none of my neighbours had the same problem I did not think it was a lightning strike that had killed the line. At a neighbours I phoned a Greek friend who has connections at the OTE office (Greek Telephone Company). I've started learning how to live in Greece: you have to do everything with the help of some friends, to be sure that something gets done. For example I heard a story about a foreigner living here who had to go to the hospital in Mytilini for a small operation on her tongue. She went all by herself and got treated by a junior who made such a mess of the operation that the patient left the hospital screaming, before everything was finished. So even when going to the hospital you'd better make sure you take your best relations in order to get treated by a serious doctor.

This time my friend could not say for sure if OTE would repair the problem as quickly as I wanted. They would see if the problem was in their equipment, otherwise they had to fix it at my house. When, they were unsure, because the repairman was too busy on Friday and if he didn't work on Saturday, he would come on Monday. My mobile phone was also out of order, so there I was without any modern communication. Greece is a country where you need some patience, and know how to use the right people. Early the next morning a car arrived from OTE. I would have thrown myself into the arms of the man getting out of the car, but I withheld my enthusiasm, better not to kiss a strange man. The problem was found within 2 minutes: lightning had struck the cable and the telephone.

Now the showers are gone and the sky is as blue as it can be. The island, which last week was still yellow because of the dryness, had that much rain that the grass grew like lightning and coloured the island green again.

I never imagined Greece this green. When thinking of Greece I only saw bare rocks and a blue sea. When I was young I even thought negatively about Greece. I read the book 'A Man' by the Italian writer/journalist Oriana Fallaci. This was about her relationship with a Greek member of the resistance Alexandros Panagoulis who was tortured during the reign of the colonels (1967-1974). This book impressed me so much that I decided never to go to Greece, a country that behaved so badly against its people...

Pretty soon after this I discovered that the Greeks put their bad times very far behind them and are a very friendly people. Oriana Fallaci continued her career and interviewed the Important People of the World like Henry Kissinger, Ayatollah Khomeini, Omar Khadafi, Deng Xiaoping, Yasir Arafat, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Nguyen Van Thieu and Haile Selassie. On September 15th she died of breast cancer.

When I read this sad news and some comments on her latest work (she was criticized for her harsh opinions about Islam), I thought again of this book 'A Man', which not only depicted the time of the colonels regime, but was also a great tribute of love for this man who had to endure such atrocities. It is one of the most impressive books I have ever read.

Now I have already live for some years in the country where once Alexandros Panagoulis fought for freedom. Since 1974 Greece has again become a democracy where life is good and people can vote. In about 2 weeks there will be elections for the municipality as well as for the mayor. In a village like Molyvos everybody knows all the candidates and now that the season is nearly finished, it seems that everybody keeps busy with politics. They even try to win foreign votes. As a registered resident all foreigners may vote.

Now the telephone doesn't stop ringing, bringing invitations to political meetings. Sometimes I think it would have been better not to have bought a new telephone. Then I would not have to explain each time why I will not vote. I really do love this island but I am afraid that I am still not Greek enough to vote. Politics are not my favorite subject and especially not Greek politics. But I think I am making progress, I certainly know now how to deal with favouritism.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 25 September 2006

Huisje, boompje, beestje (In the usual way)

Finally! On Saturday night for the first time since summer heavy rain fell on the island. And Lesvos clearly freshened up. The showers which mainly fell early on Sunday morning, accompanied by heavy thunderstorms, did not cause too many problems, thanks to the early hour. A lot of people wouldn't have even noticed that from 5.00 to 7.00 there was a power cut.

I had to get out of bed in the middle of the night to unplug my computer and the telephone. And then I couldn't get back to sleep because of the loud thunder and blinding lightning. So I got a book to read and later on I had to get some candles in order to be able to carry on reading. Thunderstorms are not my favourite weather.

The island however welcomed the rain. Last week on Samos there were still more hectares of woodland destroyed by fire. Lesvos did reasonably well this summer. Except for a large area south of Mytilini there was not too much damage done by fires. The worst fire this summer was a few weeks ago in Halkidiki at Cassandra where two people lost their life, thousands of hectares of beautiful wood were consumed by fire, houses and businesses were destroyed, tourists had to be evacuated and a lot of farm land was lost. As well as many olive trees, the Greek honey industry was badly affected.

However most fires occur around Athens. This is for a reason. It's not because they are particularly careless with fire, but because there are unscrupulous people who are always looking for building land. The easiest way to get some land cleared of vegetation is to set fire to it. After that you only have to bribe somebody in the municipality and you can proclaim yourself the proud owner of a new piece of land.

The papers are always writing about these wicked deals. A wood that is not a wood anymore, because of a fire, should become a wood again according to development plans. But members of the municipality and of the government quickly forget that burned places were once a wood. Only a small piece is reforested, the rest is bargained away to property speculators.

In Cassandra it seems they do things differently. A few weeks after the fires, hundreds of people went to replant and fortify the land, so that the winter rains would not wash away the soil containing seeds for new vegetation. In Asia they use elephants to do the hard work in the woods. In Cassandra they were aided by some 300 donkeys which are trained to transport wood and put tree trunks in the right places.

Lesvos still has plenty of land to build on. Here they do not need arsonists. But they build everywhere. So many people want a summerhouse here on the island that small builders merchants are as numerous as new houses. These are plots of land full of wood, stones, cement and other building materials. It is only because the plot of land is fenced, that you can see that it is not an illegal tip. But it is a blot on the landscape.

Just as we finally got rid of all the old wrecked cars littering the island, we now have these small businesses creating an eyesore.

Number one of these eyesores is the business that should probably be the appetizer for the village of Argenos, which is on the way to Sykaminia. Befoer this village there is a plot of land full of all kinds of building materials and you really have to look closely in order to realise that it is not a rubbish tip. It is unbelievable that this village is promoting itself in this way.

Greeks do not really understand what pollution is, especially landscape pollution, a term that if explained they will probably have a good laugh about. They already have enough problems getting rid of their rubbish. If the government does not show a strong hand in building plants to process waste, there never will be a solution to this problem. At least they never thought of renting a ship in order to transport rubbish to Africa. Good. Greeks do not like to export their waste, like some other members of the European Union.

So I have to accept that some enterprising Greeks rent plots of natural land to use as a storage depot. I will have to prepare myself for the southern wind they forecast for later in the week, which will bring the stink of burning rubbish. Because they expect more rain they have set fire to the dump. I should make a big sign with a huge skull and crossbones warning of the stink and toxic fumes. Maybe that will reduce land prices around here. They're getting pretty upsetting too.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

As rich as Croesus

Anousheh Ansari paid nearly 16 million euros for a 9 day trip into space. This American/Iranian woman is the first woman space tourist. Will it also be the most expensive holiday ever, with an average of nearly 2 million a day? To compare: the Greeks collected 15 million euros for the victims of the Asian tsunami, although now it seems that only one third of the amount has been sent to the countries that needed it, because the Minister of Foreign Affairs was afraid that the money would end up in the hands of the wrong people. A very noble thought for a Minister of the country that ranks number one on the list of the most corrupt countries in Europe. Life in Greece is said to be even more corrupt than in countries like Egypt and Chile.

When you are as rich as Croesus, which Anousheh Ansari must be because she can afford such a holiday, she could easily pay the Greek government to be the first woman passenger on the legendary ship the Argos, which took the Argonauts through half of Europe when they went looking for the famous Golden Fleece.

With no gold to your name you can recapture the heroes of that time who would have accompanied her, like Jason, Orpheus, Heracles, Castor and Pollux. But for a large amount of money you can hire enough handsome and smart actors who can relive the old myths. The ship the Argo is there. It has been rebuilt according to the old ship building techniques and made of the same materials they used in ancient times. The ship was launched last Sunday at Karnagia, in the North East of Greece, and for the next year they want the ship to follow the route of the Argonauts.

This trip took only a little longer than 9 days. The Argonauts went to the Black Sea. Helped by ruses and Medea, the daughter of the King of Colchis, they found the Golden Fleece in Colchis (in present day Georgia). On their way back home these Greek heroes got lost. Scientists say they even sailed the Danube and the Rhone. They rounded Italy, went to the south of France, and then to Libya and Crete, before they found their homeland again.

To me that seems a pretty complicated journey for a millionaire, because of the tough security regulations for tourists nowadays. Maybe it would be better if the Argo only travels among some of the Greek islands. Although the closest the Argonauts came to Lesvos was Limnos, the island to the north, the Argo should also travel to Lesvos. It is on this island at Old Antissa that the head of one of the Argonauts, Orpheus, washed ashore. This place is an ideal spot for the Argo to dock. The unspoiled beach and the ruins of Old Antissa will immediately take you back in time. There would be story tellers who would tell the old myths, there would be musicians playing the old music of Orpheus and then Anousheh Ansari would not think she is a time traveller but one of the Argonauts.

On Lesvos they should rebuild old carriages and with these carriages drawn by beautifully dressed horses Anousheh Ansari and her company of would be Argonauts could visit the Monastery of Ypsilo, which has such great views over the desolate landscape of West Lesvos. The top of the mountain on which this monastery sits, is so high that you feel you are nearly in space, very close to the Gods. Then Anousheh definitely has to visit the Petrified Forest where she can touch the sequoias that once made Lesvos such a mythical place.

Maybe they should resurrect an ancient volcano so that The Argonauts can beat the Dragons of the Volcano and so rescue Lesvos from the path of the hot lava streams. Instead of floating needlessly through space Anousheh can have some real action here.

Such a journey back in time, with story tellers, actors and musicians would not have to cost that much money, certainly not 16 million euros. Anousheh Ansari could even go to a one week workshop with Sappho in Eresos who will teach her the art of poetry and the way the old Aeolians lived.

Anousheh's visit to Lesvos should end with a great open air concert in Molyvos castle. Maybe they should not play old music but invite the best modern Greek artists. Anousheh is a space traveller who should keep an open mind about the future. And while her veins fill with the Greek music and she looks up at the starry sky she will not only look at and long for her previous holiday destination, but she will also see the house of the Gods that once made Greece such a rich country. And maybe, maybe, then she will regret that instead of travelling through space, she did not come sooner to this divine island.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 4 September 2006

Fig fever

From the middle of July until the middle of August is quite a dull time. The island is as dry as a bone. Nothing flowers, it is too hot to do anything and the only place where you can enjoy yourself is in the sea. At the end of August however the first fruit will ripen: grapes and figs, the prelude to a rich autumn. Many grapes on this island are diseased. If you do not spray any insecticide, you can forget your grapes. But grapes love to play hide and seek. You will find them in all kinds of unexpected places where they secretly grow fantastic fruit.

Our bunches of grapes were wrinkled and dry. Until we looked on the roof of our outside terrace where the grape winds its branches. We were surprised to find many bunches blinking and healthy there, getting fat in the sun. We also found many grapes in the deserted village of Chalikas, where the grapes did not leave (the inhabitants did after a big landslide) and where they settled high in the walnut trees where they grow spectacular big bunches. They are only to look at, they are too high to pick.

Figs are not so playful. The mostly low trees are easy to empty. In the middle of August figs start to ripen and then it is time to feast on them.

A friend told us that figs are good for high blood pressure and good for cholesterol (figs do not contain any cholesterol) and that is why, although I did not check these healthy characteristics, each day I eat some figs. It will not hurt to eat figs and for sure it is no punishment to eat figs for your health. Figs do not have that many calories and they are full of vitamins A, B, and C and lots of minerals like calcium and magnesium. Figs amongst other things clean your blood and make it thin, they are good against coughs and colds. So for sure we needed the figs when last week the temperature suddenly dropped far below 30°C. It felt like winter was coming soon and I nearly lit the open fire in order to get warm.

Each year I really look forward to the fresh figs, but before you know it they are hanging in the trees like limp bags. You can stuff yourself with fresh figs for one month, but you risk getting annoyed. That is why people learned to preserve them. So that you can enjoy the taste of fresh fruit in the middle of the winter.

There are not that many recipes for preserving grapes. You can squeeze them and then you get... Yes, wine. Each year friends surprise us with home made wine and I must admit, I am never that happy with the home made wine and it is difficult to keep. You can also dry the grapes in order to get raisins. But as far as I could see on internet, making raisins is a complicated business. I'll leave making wine and raisins to the experts.

To preserve figs is much easier. You just lay them in the sun if you want dried figs. When they are nearly dried out you spice them by dipping them in spiced water, you fill them with a walnut or an almond and then finish the drying in the oven. You keep them between bay leaves, which will keep pests out.

Another form of preserving is boiling the figs into a syrup: vrasma or pettimessi. For this you cook many many figs on a wood fire outside and after a day of cooking you will get a delicious syrup which goes well with pancakes, but the Greeks mostly make delicious cakes with it.

However I think the easiest way to preserve fruit is just putting it in some juice and by juice I mean some alcohol. You put them in a pot with sugar and alcohol and you not only get some wonderful tasting fruit in the winter, but also an irresistible liqueur. Although with figs it is not that easy. You can hardly find recipes on the internet for fig liqueur. But we tried it. A large bowl filled with figs marinates in a good splash of alcohol in our cupboard, before we seal it all with sugar in a closed pot.

The nicest discovery of this fig season was the Eastern Fig Compote. You cut 1.5 kg figs in two or three pieces, you cook the figs with 5 cups of sugar, juice from 1 lemon and you add 1 tablespoon of pine nuts and 2 tablespoons of chopped walnuts, 1/2 a teaspoon of mastic and some chopped fennel seeds. You will be delighted to eat this, especially when you serve it with a piece of goat cheese and/or a slice of smoked ham and a glass of port. We are already hooked on it and we really have to take care not to eat all of our winter store.

Therefore I give you a tip for a quick fig snack: cut the fresh fig open, press some soft cheese into it and eat it. Delicious!

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 28 August 2006

Falling stars

Greece is a country of sun, sea and many islands which are the playgrounds of the wind. That is why we have to wonder why Germany, a country not really known for its sunny days, produces far more solar energy than Greece. And that such a small country as Denmark produces a lot more wind energy than all those thousands of Greek islands and the mainland, which is a pretty big surface.

The Greek electricity system is a little outdated and each time a peak is expected, like high Summer Season or like two years ago for the Olympic Games, many a Greek is afraid the whole system will collapse when there are so many foreigners visiting their country.

On Lesvos this high season passed without too many problems. We only had a blackout a few times, although the water supply got a nasty shock from it. Even though Lesvos has some flapping windmills between Antissa and Eresos, these cannot provide enough electricity for the whole island.

I am used to it. Candles are always ready, just as a torch has its place right next to the front door. The high season is over. As well as the high temperatures in the heat wave: they went a little bit lower and today the temperature even dipped below 30°C. But still something went wrong with the electricity and the island was pitch black again last night.

Probably more than once the Turks on the other side of the sea will have a good laugh about the island. Their lights continue to twinkle and in all the years I have lived here on Lesvos I've never caught them with a 'blackout', an English word that the Greeks now frequently use.

Yesterday night I missed the open fire that spreads such warm light when the electricity blacks out in winter time. The blackout yesterday evening gave me a good opportunity to look at the stars. The month of August is well known for its falling stars and in the two hours I stared at the twinkling lights in the heavens I saw seven falling. And I made the same wish seven times, so I'm pretty sure my wish will come true.

I know that a falling star is a meteor falling through our atmosphere before it disappears. In ancient times such natural phenomena were explained by myths. Asteria, which means star in Greek, is also the Goddess of falling stars, of oracles and of visionary dreams. When Zeus once bothered her, she escaped him by jumping from heaven into the sea on earth. There she transformed herself into an island, the island that is now known as Delos (next to Mykonos). After this Asteria's sister Letos put her son Apollo on this island.

Another story about falling stars is that at such a moment the Gods are curious to see what is going on beneath them on earth. They open a bit of the firmament to peep through it and sometimes a star escapes that will fall down. This is the right moment to make a wish, because you know then that the Gods are close and looking at you.

The ancient Greeks believed that these falling meteors were human souls travelling to and from the stars. The ancient Jews and Christians thought they were falling angels or demons.

I sometimes think: if it is right that the wish you make comes true if you see a falling star... How many wishes could you make? Yesterday night I saw seven falling stars in two hours. Calculate for yourself how many stars will fall in one month! If all those wishes came true, I am sure that the world would be a happier place.

It is not that I complain about Lesvos. Well, they could make some improvements in managing their environment, or have more respect for animals... But those blackouts at least make sure that something is happening on the island. As you can see, this week I have nothing special to report.

There is even no news about the Anatoli restaurant. Except that a lot of people from all over the world sent very supportive mails. This week they are handing over a petition to the mayor. Let's hope that Angelos (the owner of Anatoli) sometimes has the time to watch the merry stars. And that he believes that the Gods can do something, so that he will not forget to make his wish, seeing a falling star...

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Sunday, 20 August 2006

Cooling coffee

Friends of mine started asking if the Greek alphabet is really short, because the Kitchen-ABC of Lesvos has not been continued. Well, no, dear readers, at the moment it is so incredibly hot that even thinking about the Greek alphabet will cause me to overheat. First I have to think about which dishes, then I have to find out the right spelling and then encoding all the Greek letters for the internet causes another effort of searching and thinking. Do not worry, the follow up is coming.

This week my sister brought a digital thermometer which shows the inside and outside temperatures. So you'll understand why this week you get a lot of numbers. At this moment the outside temperature in the shade is 38.2°C and inside 30.4°C. We could have used an air conditioner in order to get cool, but I prefer not to have such big temperature changes going in and out. A few times already I was in an air conditioned ice cold car and when you open the car door you get an incredible wave of hot air that makes you gasp for air. I think these changing temperatures are not good for your health, so air conditioners, we do not use.

You're better to cool off at the seaside, although the seawater is sometimes that hot that it not always cools you. Instead of writing about Greek dishes, I'd better write about a cooling drink.

Coffee is one of the important things in Greek life. Passing a kafenion you always see somebody sipping at his coffee. Greeks do not make themselves crazy with all those fancy new machines for making all kinds of coffee, they do not like filter coffee or espresso, but stick with their traditional cup of Turkish coffee called 'Greek coffee' (kafé hellenikos). The only new style that has conquered the Greek market since 1957 is frappé, iced coffee. This is made with the famous instant coffee Nescafé. Do not make the mistake, when you want to order this iced coffee to order a Nescafé (in short: nes). Because then they will serve you a hot cup of coffee: a splash of hot water with Nescafé.

While I think and write this, the temperature outside has gone down to 38.0°C (the sun moves, so you have a deeper shadow). Inside, the temperature has risen to 30.9°C. My sister says that smoking a cigarette will also cause an increase in the temperature in a room. So I will try to smoke less, although it is difficult to write without a cigarette between your fingers.

It is not that simple to order a coffee here in Greece. First (being a foreigner) they ask you if you want a hellenikos or a Nescafé. When you want an iced coffee you order a frappé. Then the question follows how you want your coffee. There are three possibilities: 'skèto', which means with no sugar. 'Metrio' means that you get as many spoons of coffee as sugar and with a 'gliko' you get more spoons of sugar than coffee. These terms are for all 3 kinds of coffee (hellenikos, nes and frappé) Ordering a frappé or a nes you can also ask for some milk: mè gala (with milk).

The traditional coffee is made with a warm hearth. They use a small pan with a long handle called a briki. Water is poured into the briki, then the coffee and finally the sugar. The briki is heated above a gas stove (traditionally above hot ashes) and when the coffee boils foam rises out of the briki. That is the sign to take the briki from the heat source, let the foam settle and repeat this another two times. The coffee is served in very tiny cups. In Turkey and some Arabian countries they also add some cardamom.

The coffee is always served with a big glass of fresh water. This not only helps you to digest the coffee, but it rinses your mouth, so with the next sip you can better taste the coffee. The Greeks use a very fine ground coffee which also ends up in the cup. You slurp your coffee and use your lips as a filter. The sediment that stays behind in the cup is perfect for fortune telling, but that is another story.

Frappé is usually made in a shaker: put 1 to 2 spoons of Nescafé in the shaker, the amount of sugar you like and a little bit of water. Shake it for a few minutes, but take care that the lid is firmly closed, otherwise you will need an hour or so to clean your kitchen. You pour the foam into a long drinking glass, add ice cubes and fill it up with ice cold water.

You would think that writing about such a cooling delicacy would decrease the temperature. But no; the inside temperature has risen again and is now 31°C. If I were to wring out my dress I could not only fill a cup for hellenikos coffee, but even fill a cup for nes.

Nowadays they sell a very handy little mixer for frappé. In under a minute this little machine makes a delicious foam (ideal for these temperatures: just thinking about shaking the shaker will make you hotter). This machine is not only perfect for making frappé, but also for turning a hot nes into a nice cappuccino. The risk of filling your kitchen with coffee is also less, you must be really clumsy to manage to do this with the small mixer.

The recipe with the mixer is the same: put coffee, sugar and/or milk in the glass. Pour three fingers of water in the glass and mix until everything has become a steady foam. Fill up with ice cubes and water. This coffee is especially good on hot days.

But you can make an even better frappé: real iced coffee, This recipe comes from my own kitchen, so do not order a frappé with cappuccino ice sitting in a kafenion, or whatever flavour you fancy, but experiment at home. When you pour the foam in a glass, add vanilla ice cream on top. Then you fill up with ice cubes and water. You serve it with a straw and a long spoon.

For some unknown reason this year I have not been able to get vanilla ice cream in the local supermarket. It is either sold out, or people have gone crazy for all those fancy new brands with exciting flavours and nobody asks anymore for normal ice creams. So I was forced to do some experimenting with chocolate ice, ice with caramel and nuts, butter scotch, tiramisu with real pieces of chocolate and so on. The result was smashing but not good for the budget because the best ice has the highest price. But the coffee hour has become a real treat.

Do carefully read first what flavours are in the ice. Strawberry ice cream gives your coffee a pretty strange taste. I did not check out the lemon ice yet, but I can imagine it that will not be a big success. For the people who do not drink coffee: the Nescafé can be replaced by decaffeinated or cocoa. Who knows maybe strawberry ice cream will go very well with a cocoa frappé!

I am now writing at such a speed about such a cooling and fine tasting glass of coffee that the temperature inside has reached 31.5°C. Outside the temperature continues to increase: 37.1°C! It really is time for a nice cool glass of coffee!

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 14 August 2006

High season

Other years around the Ascension of Maria, on the 15th of August, the island has often been cooled by a shower. This year it looks as if the Weather gods will let Maria go to heaven in rather higher temperatures. Although last week there seemed to have been a disagreement on this typical weather: parts of the island were very happy to get a cooling shower. Other parts like Eftalou did not get one drop, while the far part of Eftalou, near the Eftalou restaurant, the one of Manolis, enjoyed ten minutes of heavy rain!

The island really needs all this water. Last week the northern part of the island, Molyvos, Petra and Anaxos, had serious water problems. This resulted in tourists fleeing their hotels and some even left the island. Only after some hotel managers complained to the island's government, the army was send out to transport water from springs to hotels and a day later there was running water again in the bathrooms of Molyvos. Only Anaxos, whose water problems were different, is still said to have some problems.

Well, these days there are enough angry tourists. They complain about all kind of things. They get bored, there are not enough glasses in their room, their toilet is not well enough cleaned, they think the salad is not properly washed. Tourists seem to not realize that they have travelled to a Greek island, where it is Greek High Season and everybody is worn out, because it is so busy and so terribly hot.

Let me give you one good piece of advice: Do not come to the island around the 15th of August. Unless you like to force your way in the midst of thousands of screaming Greeks shambling slowly towards the harbour. Unless you want to enjoy a noisy Greek family which seats itself just next to your towel on the beach. Unless you like to philosophise on the waitress who takes one hour to bring you your beer. Unless you are happy to have to end your romantic dinner because a whole Greek family takes possession of the dinning hall where you are eating. Unless you like to rediscover the old bread because the fresh is now always sold out. Unless you embrace some stress being on the road because so many Greeks seem to have never learned their highway code.

And when you want to make complaints about all of this, do not go to your tour leader! They arealready up to their eyeballs in the problems their bosses cause: overbooking, flight delays, bankruptcy. Realize that the hotels do everything to make your stay as comfortable as they can, but sometimes they have such little money that they are also facing a mountain of problems.

For example. Did you know that a lot of hotels who last year had guests from the Dutch tour operator Belair never got paid, because that company went bankrupt? And for sure you know that most of the hotels on Lesvos are family affairs. So that whe such a travel company does not pay it brings them huge financial problems. Last week the same happened to a Scandinavian tour operator. It went bankrupt but still had some guests on the island who were scheduled to go home with the last flight. Well, people on Lesvos learnt their lesson from Belair. The Greek travel agent told the hotels to hold onto the passports of their Scandinavian customers until all hotels and tour leaders were paid. And it worked. Everybody got paid and the guests could go home without any delay. It is said that on Crete they were not that smart and they will probably face other debts.

Tonight and tomorrow the Greeks on Lesvos will all visit a Church of Maria. Especially the churches in Mandamados, Agiassos and Petra. Some will make it a pilgrimage: crawling on hands and knees, some on foot and others by car. On the sea delayed ferries will race to their destinations and in the blue sky planes hurry to transport other Greeks to their holiday islands.

Tomorrow it is Ascension Day of Maria. At noon the Greeks will celebrate the day with an extended lunch, after which they will lie down for their well deserved siesta. Then their vacation will be over, they will pack their belongings and leave. But such a mass cannot leave the island on one day. So slowly, slowly the island will become itself again, being friendly to the guests and the people working at the restaurants will even remember how to smile. But do not be amazed, if on a deserted beach, you see a big Greek family approaching and of all the places to sit down, they will put their umbrella right next to your towel. I have yet to have anybody explain to me this Greek sociable behaviour, which also means that Greek people like to make busy restaurants even busier and will never sit down in an empty restaurant. Somewhere there must be an island that is so quiet that no Greek will ever put a foot on its soil. I am wondering where that can be...

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 7 August 2006


Lesvos is an island full of water. Thanks to the snowy mountaintops and slopes where you find plenty of woodland, especially in the winter lots of water is flowing down the rivers. Even when it does not rain during the summer months, the island has plenty of wells and natural springs and you can always find a small stream of water gurgling through the mountains.

The Romans liked building because during their history they left lots of buildings all over the world. When they conquered Lesvos around 88 BC, they started building here as well. They made huge aqueducts so that cities like Mytilini and Molyvos (formerly Mythimna) could have running water. The water came from the springs on Olympos and Lepetimnos. It is even said that in this way they even got hot water from the hot springs. Imagine, Molyvos might have had city heating at that time!

Remains of this glorious time rich with waterworks can be found everywhere on the island! First of all there is the huge aqueduct near Moria. It has its 12 pillars firmly on the ground and amazing arches, consisting of huge stones which were placed there in the second century AD, curling themselves in between. The aqueduct was 170 meters long, it originally had 17 arches, of which 7 are still left and the structure was 23 metres high. The waterway was maybe 22 kilometres long.

A second aqueduct, which was part of the same waterway, is hidden close to Lambou Mili. This neglected Roman structure is now in a breathtaking landscape and can only to be visited on foot or by jeep. Only a few walking guides give directions how to get there. But when you find it, the view from this amazing aqueduct, that barely can hold its stones above the tree tops, will pay back all your trouble to reach it.

Molyvos also got water from these sources. Only one pillar which once bore the waterway remains: a lonely tower on one of the hills at the back of the city, the so called loutra.

That this system became dilapidated and disappeared, is a shame. Now you have to get in your car to go to the spring. Which is badly needed these days. Since the high season started a few days ago, masses of Greek tourists have come to the island. The hotels and apartments are full and all holiday homes are bursting with large Greek families. The beaches are crowded, and all these people have to shower. The temperature does not want to go below 30°C, so all air conditioners work overtime. Telephones have to be recharged, water boilers work all day, electric cookers are used the whole day through and who knows how many children still hang around the television. The electricity company is having hard times. So we were not surprised when last Friday night the island became pitch dark. Well, there remained some light from the moon and the twinkling stars.

Saturday morning again there was no electricity and this time no water was coming out of the taps. The pumps distributing the water got crazy from the electricity cuts. So now forlarge parts of the day we are without water. Not funny, because it is at the times that people come back from the beach, want a shower and want to cook.

But how can you clean your just caught fish or wash your salad? You have to wait for hours before some drips of water are available. And when your salty skin starts feeling scratchy, there is no other way than to wash with water from a bottle.

We are in the luxurious position that our fields get water from a well. Yesterday after I waited for hours to get a shower I finally ran into the fields in a bathing suit under the water sprinklers. Great fun because it was like being a child again, jumping in the jets of water and getting a cooling shower this way.

In the Valley of Ligonas, behind Petra, around 1940 the 18th century mills which used to work all year around were closed. In the past you took your corn by donkey or horse to the mills in order to get flour. Now the mills are ruins in a beautiful landscape and can only be admired by walkers. Everywhere on the island you will find ruins of old watermills. There is plenty of water on the island. It is only that the modern system cannot assure that the water is reaching you. Or is it the increase in the number of tourists that causes these watercuts...

I am wondering if in the times of the Romans they had the same problems, because in that time Lesvos was also a pretty popular holiday destinations. Or that the mills in Petra stopped working in the 20th century because too many tourists visited Petra...

Fact is that thanks to the high season I now water my plants daily around 1 o'clock at night. Then I still have to wash the dishes, after which I have to wash some clothes and fill up spare bottles with water. When it is finally time to wash the sardines, I sigh. Maybe this time the cats can have a great meal. I'd rather like to go to bed.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006