Tuesday, 31 January 2006

Weather permitting

After a little week of heavy frost, ice and snow the sun is out again as if nothing happened on the island. Silent witnesses are however the white capped tops of the mountains and the lower slopes which do everything to hide their snow and ice from the sun. How much nature is damaged from this cold we cannot say this soon. We managed very well, unless the car which got a little frozen and we were a little bit cold. That was all. Friends from Agia Paraskevi who have the Wildlife Hospital of Lesvos had some more problems with the heavy weather. So I present you the report, somewhat shortened, from Joris Peeters who always has black humour to describe the dramas on the island. For the entire report or in case you want to know more about them, you can look at the website: http://www.wildlifeonlesvos.org

Looking for a warm place in the Aegean Sea?

23 January: The roofing material on the room for the sick-bay is rattling like hell in the wind, the same as the metal plates which are on the cages! The corrugated iron on the cage of the falcon tore off in the thundering storm and had to be fastened again in order to prevent worse. It was an ice cold and risky job! According to the weather reports they expect snow in the afternoon on the island... We are prepared and did some shopping this morning. We as well as the animals have a supply for one week! At 15.15 the first (small) snowflakes came blowing down: the wind is that cold that we can barely reach 16°C in the living room, even with the central heater full open. The wind is that strong that the sparrows (while they were eating some seeds on the street) were picked up and smashed against the fence! In the Neighbour House we had to close the last shutter that was still a little open (near the cage of the tiny Scop's Owl). The wind was tearing that hard that it nearly managed to take out the whole window-frame! The gale will be of a force of 9-10 Beaufort!

24 January: Half of the night we did not sleep because of the rattling of a shutter that ran loose. More than one time out of bed to control everything: nothing to be found. At 5.15 in the morning we found out it was the last shut shutter at the Neighbour House. It was completely torn apart. We have to repair that by daylight. After breakfast we started to try to get the living room somewhat more friendlier for us as for the animals. That meant that we had to look for narrow openings and close them. For this we had to remove an entire skirting- board where behind we found a complete 'zoo-like' concentration of mouse-nests. We saw as well the daylight right through the door! It did some pain, because of my back, but the first job on it resulted in a raise of temperature from 14 to 16°C. At 11.15 it started again to snow. During the siesta we received a phone call from Mytilini about a pigeon which had a damaged wing. Considering the weather conditions (The 'Table Mountain' had become invisible thanks to the snow storm and the white stuff does stay!) we delayed the eventual delivery until tomorrow.

25 January: Yesterday night we were 1 hour without electricity (which means no heating!) This morning we woke up in a white world and that was not only outside! The snowstorm managed to crawl everywhere underneath. The central heater was on during the whole night (as well as a prevention against the freezing of the water pipes) but never mind, it still was only 17°C this morning! When we tried to get in the Neighbour House, we were confronted with a big heap of snow piled up from the inside against the door! We really have to try to prevent that happening again today. Anyhow, no entry anymore through this door upstairs! The owner of the pigeon is going to try to bring the pigeon herself...! Well, she managed until the first turning going to our village. There she glided off the road. So we had to ask somebody with a 4 x 4 for help, for getting the bird as well as the car out of the ditch. The roads in the village were in that bad condition that the 4 x 4 did not manage to reach us. So the pigeon was walked to our home. Two hours after we cleaned away the snow in the Neighbour House we could do it again! But now we hammered a plank down against the door. Maybe that will help! The water pipes in the Neighbour House are frozen. After there was some sun in the afternoon around 4 o'clock our street was like the Thialf Hall in Heerenveen (a famous skating rink in Holland). It only had one way: off the slope!

Later on we discovered that it was due to a broken water pipe at the end (upstairs) of the street. We did try to contact the owner, but this good man was said to be critically wounded in the hospital, because some days ago he was in a fight in the village about a piece of land and he got shot, as well as his son who did not survive! Because there are still sheep on his piece of land we tried to organize some help. Which was difficult because all people had other things on their mind in these days.

26 January: The street is still like a skating rink. Only very carefully one can try to descend. Let's hope that neither we nor other people have to go out! Our fight for better conditions in our living room did result in a raise to 19°C! We found the wounded pigeon dead when we wanted to feed him (07.00). At the same time it started snowing again and then the street became even more dangerous! In the Neighbour House the water for the Scop's Owl was that deeply frozen that it could not even be broken by hand! The snow is lying as far as into his cage!

At 10.50 we received a phone call from Skala Kaloni about a wounded duck. The finder had snow chains, so he would try to drive as close as possible. At 11.40 the Teal was brought in. By feet because even with snow chains you could not reach our house. Even though that it seems to thaw. Thanks to that and to the replacing of 4 meters of skirting- board the temperature reached 20°C in the living. So... coats out. After the siesta we found the water pipes in the Neighbour House broken. Not too much damage was done.

27 January: The street is still the same skating rink. Even the dogs cannot keep their legs straight. The Teal was in a very poor condition and died in our hands. After we cleaned the cages we tried to remove the ice by pickaxe. The outlet pipe of the sick-bay was like a beautiful ice pillar. At 09.00 we got a phone call from Larsos about an Eagle Owl in a bad condition. The man wanted to bring it himself. At 9.30 he was down at our street. Together we climbed back to our house by feet, which took us 8 minutes! It turned out to be a White Barn Owl who was really pretty ill (it did not eat for at least 2 days) We were again 1 hour without electricity (and without heating) as well as the water pressure fell down, but we did manage to replace another skirting-board. At 12.50 the two of us managed to get our street ice free, also we closed down three water-pipes, which was not done by the municipality even though the whole street had begged for it. Then we controlled the White Barn Owl, but he had died. During the siesta we got a phone call from Petra about a wounded predatory bird that was difficult to catch. Because we were pretty damaged by falling and ice hacking we agreed to be contacted the following day. We did not want to go out anymore this day. A little after 16.30 the fisherman Nikos was again at our house with a big box (yesterday he brought the Teal). He brought another duck and this time it was a Shelduck, a duck we never had before. Nikos was pretty disappointed that the Teal did not make it (so were we!).

28 January: Even though it froze last night the street was clean of ice! 13.10 a telephone call from Petra: the bird was spotted. So I did not eat and left immediately. At 13.30 I was at the meeting point. In the middle of a field there was a hawk and it was clear that he had flying problems. But it was still healthy enough to flee to a tree in the midst of bramble bushes. There were metres of bramble bushes around that tree. Go and try to fetch the bird! For a little moment I had to think of Moses, but that did not help. These bushes did not burn! So finally the one who spotted the bird took a road sign to make the bird 'use' his wings. What followed then was a crazy run over fences, underneath fences and straight through the bushes. We finally caught the bird on a shed. I'm getting too old to do this 'field-work'. It took another 5 minutes to reach the road and the car. Driving home there was a tanker lorry upside down at the road and no way of passing this obstacle. So I had to drive backwards over the slippery road, gliding through the snow until I reached a point where I could turn. Then to Stipsi and the other villages where there was still plenty of snow on the roads. A fancy drive it was! I finally reached home at 15.10.

29 January: We managed to feed the Hawk (a pretty quiet bird for his kind!) and got him 30 gram heavier than yesterday. At 08.00 the boiler gave up. Fortunately the heater still works. Later in the morning we met a plumber from the municipality who worked out the problem, charging only 15 euros!

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Tuesday, 24 January 2006

The Big Frost Kais

They say that the Dutch always talk about the weather. But look at the Greeks! While the Siberian winter sneaks into Europe from the East the Dutch News only continues to squabble over the failing politics while the Greek News cannot get enough of all the snowy images of the cold and the big snow that is drifting into the country. Although Greece is not as badly off as countries like Russia, Germany, Romania or Poland, the bitter cold and snowstorms are the talk of the day.

It is already a week that they are preparing us for the cold. A few days ago the website www.wunderground.com, which I think is one of the more reliable weather forecasts on the net, predicted -11°C for Lesvos. Which is pretty scary. I come from a cold land in the North, but for an island that is full of nature that can handle only a few bites of frost, that prediction might be pretty bad.

In the 19th century Lesvos was hit by three big catastrophes: in 1836 the island got hit by the plague and 25.000 people died. In 1867 there was a severe earthquake that badly damaged the life on the island. The third disaster was the Big Frost (Kais) that hit the island on the 12th of January in 1850 and caused a real disaster.

According to the writer Prodromos Anagnostou in his booklet 'Froso's Little Violets' a bitter cold set in on the eve of the 11th of January. The next day the people went as usual working on their fields. Suddenly the sky became pitch black and threatening. The people, although it was too early, went home feeling a disaster coming. As did the animals like goats, sheep and donkeys who were out on the fields. They foresaw the deep drop of the temperature and all went into the villages, stopping in front of the doors, begging to be let in.

Until then it had been a beautiful winter with mild temperatures and a lot of sun. The nature was ready to embrace the spring. The first almond blossoms merrily rocked themselves in the sun, the trees were full of juice for the buds and the new fruit. At midday the sea started smoking, two hours later the temperature fell to - 13-15°C! The ground hurled the new sawn grain and there could be heard a terrible noise: the barks of the trees were tearing open...

The cold destroyed all olive trees, all fruit trees and many other crops. A lot of animals died. After this there was famine on the island and no more work on the fields. A lot of people left the island searching for a new life. They left for Egypt, Smyrna (Izmir) and Constantinople (nowadays Istanbul). They built whole new villages in Anatolia.

It is difficult to imagine how Lesvos looked after this Big Cold. Barren trees, no flowers, no blossoms, no green... Nowadays we have the internet to prepare us for such big colds.

And they seem to enjoy doing that. The terrible cold from Russia that was ready to capture Europe got huge dimensions, as well as for Greece. The day after they predicted a -11°C, they somewhat raised the temperatures: it would be more days in a row -8°C, which is also pretty bad for the island. Finally they postponed the cold and raiseded some more the temperatures. Lucky us, because we really do not want to flee from this island after such a Big Frost...

Today the Siberian cold reached the island. A North eastern gale makes the temperature feel far below zero. The real temperature now, Tuesday morning the 24st of January, will be around zero. But you never know. Two years ago we also had a crazy drop in temperatures: in one hour the temperature of 10°C dropped to 10°C below zero, causing the death of several trees and other crops. The majestic eucalyptus trees are still recovering. Now the mountains slowly become white and the first showers of snow, caused by a mercilessness snowstorm, race over the fields. Is Lesvos going to survive this Russian Cold?

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 16 January 2006

On our way to Africa!

O, island of Sappho, how cold it was last week! A stormy north- eastern wind seven days long battered our house and when at night you glided between the bitter cold drapes into your bed the wind kept on thundering around the house. Too cold to read at night in bed, but I slept as best I could in that crazy wind.

Also it was boring weather. No sensational rainfall, there didn't even fall one drop, the wind was not strong enough to cause severe damage, the sun did not put on magical sunsets because it mostly was hidden behind thick formations of clouds and the temperatures played around the 1 and 3 °C. The anemones kept closed their flowers and the almond trees forbade their blossoms to open.

And the Greeks? Well, you did not see them nor hear them. Most of them thought it to be too cold to pick olives, although the amount of sacks at the Olive Press kept on being even, so there must have been people harvesting. Maybe they needed the money or they wanted to finish if off. There are so many olives this year that the end of the harvest is still a long way to go.

We did not even feel the earthquake on Sunday afternoon the 8th of January that woke up the whole of Greece out of their hibernal sleep. It was good that we did not get afraid, because quite a few people did run from their lunch table in order to flee outside in safety. But it was mainly on the small island of Kithera, some 200 km from Athens, that there was some severe damage. They say that we really got lucky because this earthquake, which was 6.9 on the Richter scale, was that deep under the sea that there was only minor damage.

The week that followed people were afraid that there might be other quakes. But the earth kept still, although I heard somebody saying that in one step we got 10 cm closer to Africa. (Somebody else heard somebody else even say that this was 5 metres!) If I may believe the papers, the continental plate where Greece and Turkey reside, and whose front is in the Aegean Sea at the southwest of Greece, moves each year 1 cm closer to that of Africa, which of course will sometimes cause some friction. Well, at least I think it is a nice thought that we are moving towards a tropical continent instead of towards the North Pole.

Because it was a quake in the sea, the papers were also full of speculation about tsunamis. If you asked a Greek last summer if there could be tsunamis in Greece, he probably would have said: no. But now I read in the paper that in 1963 a huge wave six metres high came up from the Gulf of Corinth 400 metres inland and 2 people were killed and many injured. The scientists more and more agree that the once so rich Minoan culture, whose Palace of Knossos on Crete is one of its best known remains, got swept away by a tsunami which was caused by the eruption of a volcano on the neighbouring island of Santorini.

Although all danger of earthquakes was soon forgotten when the avian flu in Turkey got serious. The Greek government is getting ready for this flying disease and different from the last time now all Greeks realize that this flu can reach Greece as well. In the past days all poultry were ordered inside. Not that everybody is shutting up their birds. Today we kept on crossing chickens, turkeys and geese. Not everybody maybe was reached by the common crier, here in Eftalou I did not hear anything. Fortunately Eftalou does not participate in the electronic common crier system. Sometimes when you are in Molyvos you get scared to death by a metallic voice which suddenly asks which stupid person has parked his car in the wrong way or announces the hours for the holy masses. We will stay free of this old communication system and for some time we will not hear anymore kukeleku or the sound of the always quarrelling turkeys. It already is pretty quiet, but now this island will be even more quiet and in quietness it will continue to slowly slowly glide towards Africa.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 9 January 2006

Dinner is ready!

Last week I wrote that I would like to see something different on the Greek table, especially during the holidays. But there are also dishes to which I'm really looking forwards. With Easter there will be the stuffed lamb. And with some luck you will find shellfish in the restaurants around the Bay of Kaloni or in the shops in Mytilini.

A sea creature that I did not eat yet is the giant mussel from the Bay of Kaloni. I still haven't traced it's real name, but I saw a huge specimen of nearly half a metre in restaurant Ellis in Anaxos. When you take a walk along the beach in Skala Kaloni, along the high water-mark line you will find many pieces of this giant mussel. There is also a smaller one, the giant pen mussel, which has a nearly transparent but wrinkly shell. Those animals living inside are already big, the one living in the giant mussel must be enough for a main course.

There is no fish shop near Eftalou, so it is always difficult to make the project of a fish meal. Officially there is a mobile fish shop (a car with fish) that will be each morning at 8.30 at the school. But each time we went there still full of sleep, there was no trace of a fishmonger.

Our latest strategy is to go at night to the brasserie in Molyvos. From there you have a good view over the harbour as well as over the little fish auction which will only open when the bigger fishing boats come ashore. And then still you cannot be sure if it opens. During storms and celebration days they remain closed and Greece has many of those festivity days. On the second day of Christmas, which is not a holiday here in Greece, big boats came into the harbour but the auction did not open it's doors. On the 6th of January it was Epiphany Christos, the day that the papas bless the sea and throw a cross into the water and can be dived up by some boys. That day I did not even try the fish auction, it is a national holiday, especially for the fishermen.

When you plan to prepare meat for a meal it will be no problem, although lamb meat is also not always available. Like in the coming time all lambs will be saved for the Easter meal. The closer Easter will come, lesser chance you will have to get lamb meat. An alternative will be a good pork leg. In December when we couldn't get a nice leg of lamb, because the lambs were still too small, we bought a leg of pig.

It took me one sleepless hour where I was thinking of how I would prepare that leg because our oven is pretty small. Then I remembered the outside oven we have on our land. You regularly see them in gardens, a small stone building close to the house with an oven or grill in it. Never in my life did I cook such good meat in such an easy way.

In the afternoon for some hours you heat up the oven with a bunch of branches. Then you wipe all wood and ash out of the oven. In the mean time you prepare the leg. You put it in a large dish, you make some cuts at the upper part, you pinch in some garlic cloves and you range big pieces of potatoes besides. You spread the meat with a mix of lemon juice, mustard and olive oil, you add some branches of thyme, oregano and rosemary, you pour some water in the dish and cover all with tinfoil and hoopla, the leg is ready to enter the oven. The door is then securely closed and the waiting starts. A whole day long. The next day you check if everything is alright and then at dinner time you take the ready meat out of the oven and for sure it will be good...

In Greece sometimes you have the problem of pieces of meat, or fishes, which are too big to enter one of your pans. I sometimes get chickens the size of a big fat turkey. Or somebody brings you a fish of half a metre. Then it is time to use the outside oven, which is very handy because you just need to do some preparations. Because of the increasing temperature inside the oven the meat will be perfectly cooked.

I wrote that the Greeks are no culinary adventurers, but for the curious eater there will be plenty of culinary adventures in Greece. Last Saturday night we went to a desolate Anaxos. The whole winter through I did not see that many people. Even though it was freezing cold the restaurant was full thanks to an evening of the local football club who brought whole families. A Greek band was playing and the atmosphere was really Greek: chaotic. Under the bright white lights and amidst running children, parents hasting to the toilet, dancing people, friends who walked around, a secretary playing the host and getting around for some money, running people who served out, smoking cooks, we got some magnificent lamb chops and excellent baked liver.

It is the first winter that Ellis has been open. Only for the weekends, but always with live music. If they can continue to serve their superb grilled meat from such a little grill place I'm sure that on Saturday nights in wintertime they will be the most crowded village of the whole island. And at least we found a new place to go.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 2 January 2006


Hereby I offer my excuses to my hosts at whose table I had marvellous dinners around the Christmas days. They awfully spoiled me and my friends. So I do not want to seem ungrateful, but sometimes I do miss some things.

I sometimes do miss a five courses dinner which takes a whole evening. To start with a festive salad draped with nuts, paté or fish or caviar or mushrooms. This starter will be followed by a creamy soup or a hot apple soup, cooled off with a spoom (fruity ice with champagne). As a main dish I would love game with mashed potatoes, green peas and cranberries. For dessert a chocolate mousse, followed by some French cheese. And at last a tangerine. This all accompanied by white or red wine, some champagne for the dessert and a glass of ruby red port going with the cheeses. Well, those good old Christmas dinners... The Greeks can cook pretty well, although they are everything except culinary adventurers.

Lesvos is pretty different during Christmas from the Netherlands. Outside they get the more and more lighted Rudolphs, Father Christmases and snowmen and Christmas balls, on the inside, besides a few fake Christmas trees (the real nice smelling fir tree does not exist on the island) it is quiet another Christmas. They do not know the excellent Christmas chocolate candy, the chocolate balls for on the tree, or a 'büche de Noël'. Of course they do bake cookies and cakes for the event, and although they are very tasty, they do not differ from any other festivity cookie.

In the Orthodox Church the midnight mass is for Easter and is not celebrated with Christmas. Yes, there starts a mass at 5 o'clock in the morning, a time that all Christmas lovers will surely be sleeping already. Baby Jesus is probably not born here in Greece, so they do not know the afternoon mass for rocking the baby Jesus and especially they do not know the nightly Christmas breakfast.

On Christmas Eve you will find pretty strange Christmas shows on television with a lot of music, frivolous hostesses and a plate throwing public. I am sure that during that holy night most people on the island do not move one inch from their telly screens.

Instead of Christmas breakfast with sausage-rolls and Christmas bread with almond paste, the Greek after 12 AM all go straight to the Christmas dinner, which will be lunch. Fasting will be soon, so they all eat mountains of meat. No 3, 4 or 5 courses, they will just serve their ordinary dinners with a lot of meat as the only exception.

The typical Christmas dish is pork with celery. A fair and healthy dish which is not spoiled by any cream or alcohol. In most families they serve this together with turkey and beef. The meat is accompanied by the usual side dishes like tarama salad, marouli salad, hot cheese, pasta or potatoes and so on.

The Greeks never are good with desserts, no exception for Christmas. You will seldom see a good pudding, a chocolate mousse, a fruit crème or ice as an after dish. Here they serve cookies, cake or fruit. That is to say, without cream, of course.

So for a real Christmas dinner do not come to Greece, even if the cook is giving everything to serve all food as best as he can. And although you do not hear me complaining about Greek food, the thing that is missing in the Greek kitchen is some variation. Even with weddings and other big festivities, the food will always remain very traditional.

The New Year traditions are also pretty boring on this island. They do not know oil-dumplings and apple turnovers like in Holland, no oysters like in France, nor a smashing firework at midnight. The only tradition is the famous Twelfthnight cake (vasilopita) with the piece of money in it for the lucky finder, which they eat after the meal.

When we had dinner some weeks ago with some friends who were ready to leave for Berlin, I got a little homesick. I could see the busy and bright lighted Berlin streets, I remembered the fantastic shop windows in New York where I spent some Christmases, I could smell the Christmas trees which are sold on every street corner of Paris until late on Christmas Eve, I imagined masses of people crossing the canals of Amsterdam rushing to the shops in order to get everything in time for their Christmas dinner. To be honest, I really got a Christmas dip.

I again became homesick when most of Europe got covered by a nice blanket of snow. I already was so happy with the few white spots on the Lepetimnos (highest mountain of Lesvos). Layers of snow on the canals of Amsterdam are however much more special. With pain in the heart I watched the fairy tale like images on the television. People cleaning their doorsteps with lots of snow, children sledding, traditional snowmen, they all made me nearly weep. Around Christmas on Lesvos it was icy cold and as grey as a mouse.

In Holland we say: the one who has the last laugh has the best. Everything was forgotten thanks to the beautiful day on the 1st of January. A very blue sky and a warm sun announced the spring on Lesvos. Almond blossoms opened their rose-white petals, the anemones, who had try outs far before the New Year, opened as well their flowers to wish the world a happy New year. So, in whatever nice snow jacket Europe may be enveloped, where on New Years Day can you have breakfast in the sun, smell the magic scent of the daffodils and see the lambs jumping in the sunrays? It will quickly make you forget your missed fireworks and your being homesick as well.

My Christmas dip, which only took just a very short time thanks to a friend from Holland who spoiled us not only by being there but also with a huge amount of Christmas candy, disappeared as snow in the sun. As long as we have those beautiful days I do not need to go back to a snowy Holland with all it's 5-course Christmas dinners. For me the New Year started excellent and next Christmas I will do my own cooking.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006