Monday, 27 February 2006

Birds and dolphins

Spring slowly takes the island over. A few heavy rain showers changed the Harbour Street, which is now often closed for all traffic, into an impassable muddy pool. The same wetness ensures that nature grows at incredible speed. The island is green and becomes only more green.

An Afghan refugee maybe got the spring in his head when he decided to swim from Turkey to Lesvos. But the warmth of the sun is something different from the still cold water of the sea. The man survived, although with pneumonia and flu symptoms. You would think that is obvious. But the authorities here thought different. Because the man came from a 'contaminated' country, he was put in quarantine to see if he had avian flu. Until now no cases of this deadly flu has been found on the island. The results are awaited.

Birds and dolphins we found enough of last week, on the beautiful woodcarvings of the artist Giorgos Sykomitellis. He is from Kaloni but has lived for two years in the mountain village of Asomatos next to Agiasos. It is not difficult to understand why Giorgos is very happy there, surrounded by all the woods and the many woods you can find in this area.

One of his masterpieces is an artfully worked out altarpiece for the Agia Ana Church in the square next to the harbour in Skala Kaloni. To make a contribution to the church he made this piece of art for a little money and created an open altarpiece with a wood relief of Saint Giorgos and the dragon. The roof of the nearly 2 metres high piece is from wooden sticks crawling over each other like dolphins jumping around each other. A faithful lady however saw the devil in this creation and the piece had to be removed. Now it is standing like a devoot relic in the workshop of Giorgos in Asomatos.

Unlike the wooden furniture makers in Agiasos, Giorgos only works with wood from the island. Olive wood, chestnut, pine or whatever he fancies. He uses the knots of the wood for his designs and makes them the eyes of birds, dragons, dolphins or naughty pointed nipples of women. He makes boxes what read like a comic, he makes severe looking heads which have a beard like a papas but also have something from a boddhisatva (a buddhist saint). He makes enormous reliefs in wood from birds, dolphins and fishes that seem to swim on the wall. A visit to his workshop is surely worth a small detour when you go to Agiasos.

We did not make a small but a big detour visiting him. Through the mountains to Milies and to Plomari where the light blue sea made it nearly summer. From Melinda we drove to Paleochori where a baker still bakes his bread in a wood oven. The tasty bread and the authentic old shop annex bakery is for sure worth a detour. Then we continued to Megalochori where they served us the perfect paidakias (lamb chops) and a great ladotiri (goat cheese conserved in oil). Before we ended up in Asomatos the high mountains surprised us with this time real crocus (Crocus biflorus) and Turkish snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii), which took your breath with their bright white tingling flower heads.

We drove through an area around Megalochori which was completely destroyed by a big fire that started on the 15th of August in 1994 and made several mountaintops bald and black. 11.5 years later there still were blackened tree trunks standing upright amidst the new growing small trees and other greenery. This overwhelming nature with rough mountaintops and peaceful meadows made you realize that nature will always survive. As does the human being, knowing the bloody history of the island. They say the avian flu is coming, but life goes on. For sure.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Mini Spring

Yes, you can forget the winter. It is spring on the island! The temperatures rose to at least 15°C! Now not only all inhabitants come out of the shadows, also all birds and flowers behave as at their Sundays best.

Now you drink your coffee outside and in a spot out of the wind you take your lunch. Everybody seems busy with cleaning and building. The fields are cleared of the olive nets, the olive presses will be closed in a little time, fields are ploughed and everybody is in a spring mood.

Walking though the fields you see many pink, purple and white anemones, we even found the first red one. The black grapes, dark blue on the underside, bright blue on the top have joined the party. Almond trees start being like a sweet scented pink cloud. Marigolds and marsh marigolds are colouring the grounds under the olive trees.

At some spots you will find wild scented daffodils. I know a place where there are plenty of them but no way will I explain where that is. I have learned my lesson, it is just the same as with the mushrooms or the white lilies. When you find a spot full of them and you think they are still too small or not flowering yet, there's a big chance that when you come back after a few days they will all be gone. Especially about the disappearance of the white lilies I can get very angry. For weeks you pass the plants with the growing buds and you are looking forward to their magical scent and beautiful flowers. On the day you think you can pick the first ones with opened flowers, you will find them all gone, even the ones which are not yet flowering. And now I speak about arms full of flowers and probably about somebody who sells them to the shops. So no way will I tell you my places.

It seems the real flower collectors do the same. The spots where the real special flowers are growing - and there seem to be many a rare flower on this island - are seldom or not communicated. Somebody even told me this week that there are people who are selling these rare flowers for a lot of money. So can you imagine, when there finally is a spring, but there are no more flowers...

For the moment there are still enough flowers, they are difficult not be seen. Although... When you walk and fix the ground - which can be difficult when there are superb views or on the unpaved roads you better keep an eye on the ground if you do not want to finish with your nose in the earth - you can discover the mini-flowers. These look like very small versions of a dandelion, a marigold, a daisy, or a red campion. It is not that they are ugly but they are pretty mini. And it is not that they are bonsai-versions of the above named flowers, they all have their own names and botanic families. The most beautiful is the mini-crocus (Romulea Linaresii) that you can find in some places. A very small version of the common crocus which looks pretty forwardly into the world. They are really too small to pick and make a bunch of them, but whenever you are used to those looks on the ground, you will discover a marvellous mini-world.

So hurrah for the spring. But the winter with its cold also had advantages: no insects. You did not have to look for an earwig in the bread, the nights were mosquito-free and taking a bite into an apple did not make you bump into an angry wasp.

With the rise of temperatures and the happy choruses of the birds you will hear the first zoomm sounds of the bees, there are already some colourfull butterflies in the air and you see sleepy spiders coming out of their holes. The mosquitos are back again to make your life difficult and I even had my first collision with a wasp. It is like winter never happened.

When nature starts awakening, you will remember why you had to tie the knot so hard in the bag with the bread, why you had to close so well the jar with sugar, why you do not open your window without it being protected by a screen, why you hammered on your shoe before putting it on. So help, the insects are coming again! The winter quietness is over.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Tuesday, 14 February 2006

The Molyvos Way

As soon as the tourists turn their backs on Molyvos at the end of the season, the roads are dug up. New wires have to be put in, the drain pipes renewed and God knows what else, maybe they will straighten out the street.

If there had been a secret camera, you could have enjoyed the soap. This winter it was the turn of the Harbour Street. In the morning at some points they open up the street with rusty bulldozers, stones and sand carefully laid out on the street and wires and pipes could see the blue sky. First they started with the telephone cables. The electronic world is evolving and also Molyvos has to get ADSL. At the end of the day the gullies are closed again because the harbour must stay open and lorries with fish have to be able to go and come to and from Mytilini. The next day they will reopen the gullies to close them again at night. Etcetera.

When the pavement has regained its old shabby look, you think, so, that is done. But no, after they did the telephone cables, the drain pipes need to be looked at. So the gullies are re-opened, deep holes are dug out to be closed at night and this ritual will endlessly repeat itself. Then we are nearly through the winter when the sewing is done and you think everything is over. But no, we also have an electricity company which needs to put in some new lines as well. And so during the whole winter the street is like a way for an obstacle race and a major subject for sour looking people.

You know the Greeks. They do everything to push through with their bikes or cars. Well, this winter even in Molyvos they did not manage to get through. Especially the narrow part of the street where is the Internet café and the Brasserie where the street takes a steep turn to the harbour, this part was no way for all motorized traffic. Mostly there was a deep hole where wires and pipes laughed at you. It is a real wonder that nobody got hurt falling from the high step of the Internet café into that dangerous hole.

Also a pedestrian had to work out some Olympic moves in order to reach the harbour. When you wanted to buy an airplane ticket at Com.Travel, at the least you had to creep through the sewer. And this was not the only concern for this company. People doing the sewer only respected their pipes and seeing a wire, what the heck, oops, small accident, sorry, the line is broken. This left computers cut off for days from the world and their owners left desperate. You understand that after a week it was the turn of the telephone company to reopen the gullies in order to repair their lines.

I do not know who is doing what at the moment, but it seems that an enormous amount of pipes and wires are getting repaired. The cold winter - January was the coldest for 100 years - did not do much good either. But if finally the new season is in view everybody is heated up: will the street definitely be finished before the first charter plane hits the island? Pessimists say that it will not be before August, the time that the Greek tourists arrive.

These meticulous side-by-side planned works are notorious for Molyvos. But there is hope. I just heard from a planner what I do hope will be worked out in time. You'd better dive underneath a bulldozer and climb over a pipe instead of going all the way up through Molyvos in order to reach the harbour. Also you do not want to go through Argenos, Sykaminia, Clio, Kapi, Pelopi, Ypsilometopo, Stipsi in order to reach Petra.

A lot of walkers last summer were irritated by the works on the idyllic sandy road that starts halfway up the Vafios - Molyvos road and ends in Petra. They started to make the road larger and ready for asphalt and many people got angry about this silly asphalt hype. Now it seems that the Molyvos - Petra road is falling down together with the mountain, just above Petra harbour where last year big rocks rolled down and blocked the road. You cannot stop a mountain from falling, so there is nothing to do. They give the road along the coast another 10 years and then there has to be an alternative that buses and lorries can rumble over. That will be that nice walking road from Molyvos to Petra.

So before you call names again at the innocent workers or at the mayor, you must know that they do what they can on the island. But it is the system or the laws that make that everything is not worked out that easily. It's the same system that does not enable the government of the island to require in which municipality the new power station has to be built, or the new central installation for the refuse dump. This discussion between the government and the municipalities has gone on for years already and will probably go on for another few years, even though power cuts are again daily business, as well as once in a while we are being smoked out and poisoned by the smoke and stink of the local garbage dump. Well, nothing is perfect in paradise...

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Tuesday, 7 February 2006


After a few days of beautiful spring weather again there are some bitter cold days with snow nearly up to Molyvos and the famous gale blowing from the North East. Even though the whole of Greece is upside down because of the eavesdropping scandal through mobile telephones, the Greek news still has plenty of time for the new heavy snowfall in the north and the middle of the country. They will not forget to show as well pictures of their neighbouring country Turkey which mostly gets even worse weather. This time they showed Istanbul where heavy snowfall made daily life kind of risky.

Whoever read the book 'Istanbul' by Orhan Pamuk, and especially took a good look in the book, knows that snow in Istanbul is not hot news. Besides the story of Pamuks beloved home and living town, there are plenty of black and white pictures in the book and many of them show that snow in Istanbul is a regular plague.

In 'Istanbul' Orhan Pamuk describes his young years, but the story is more an ode to a city that according to him is generating. Once it was a powerful capital of the Ottoman Empire with a lot of luxurious villas and other great buildings. When Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish state in 1923 a lot of foreigners, amongst them mostly Greek and Armenian people, were murdered and chased out of the country. The Turks had to start without these big trades people. They got a new alphabet and they tried to be as western a state as possible.

Orhan Pamuk was born in 1952 and was raised in a city where the once so gorgeous villas were left for western apartment blocks and the big country houses and palaces along the Bosporus got burned in fires that regularly broke out. The authentic wooden houses in many parts of the city also burned down or just collapsed. Then there started a furious growth of building, which meant that Istanbul grew at a very fast pace, along, between, at cost of and next to great old fortifications and whatever there was left of the mighty past. Reading 'Istanbul' from Orhan Pamuk you get homesick for this beautiful Istanbul without even having been there.

You will never have this kind of feeling about Lesvos, although this island has its own story of generating buildings. No hüzün, as Pamuk calls this longing for the past, although the buildings are collapsing in front of your nose. The old Hot Springs Hotel with the great Turkish arches at Thermi near Mytilini does not remind you exactly of a great time in the past. Nor the Hotel Arion that is slowly collapsing along the road to Molyvos gets you the feeling of hüzün for the good old eighties. It more makes you angry at a municipality that cannot deal with its buildings or building ground.

You do not get hüzün from reading the books from the well known Lesvian writer Stratis Myrivilis. Books like 'The Mermaid Madonna' and 'The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes' which are set on this island. The first book is about Skala Sykaminia where around 1920 big groups of Greek people who were chased out of Turkey had to be housed and integrated into the Lesvian life. The second book is set in the same time and is about a soldier who has to tell the widow of his mate that he was killed. These were hard times for the island, whose inhabitants only got back their Greek passports in 1912.

There is no Hüzün in the impressive book 'Birds Without Wings' by Louis de Bernières, who describes the chasing of all Greek inhabitants from a small village in Anatolia, Turkey. Though thanks to this thrilling story you somewhat get a view about what the earlier life in the Ottoman Empire looked like. Greek, Armenian and Muslim people were all living together without big problems. The expressive 'La masseria delle allodole' (the house with the larks) from Antonia Arslan is about the same drama, although this is written from an Armenian view. The enchanting 'Middlesex' of the American writer Jeffrey Euginides starts at the genocides and tells the story of a Greek brother and sister who escaped the slaughter at Smyrna (nowadays Izmir) and emigrated as man and wife to Detroit in America. You can find a little bit of hüzün in the nearly magic realistic book 'The Maze' by the Greek writer Panis Karnezis, although this might be more homesickness. After the war a Greek army gets lost in the hills of Anatolia and finally arrives at a remote village where the war never seems to have happened.

You do not get hüzün from a war. But you get a warm feeling reading the story of 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' by Louis de Bernières. Although there is the Second World War as the background, a love story that makes you nearly cry takes the better part of the book. We find that same war as the background of the book 'In the shape of a Boar' from Lawrence Norfolk. Here it is a terrific plot of old and new Greek myths that makes the book so thrilling. Another unforgettable book where no war is but where poverty rules all life is the family story of 'Kai me ton fos ton likon epanerxontai' (On the hour of the Wolf they return) from Zyranna Zateli. This story gives a view of the earlier life in Greece, a time that especially in the country and on the islands is not very far away.

There are too many books about Alexander the Great or Greek mythology. Especially entertaining is the book 'The Songs for the Kings' from the English writer Barry Unsworth who gives new life to the myths around the war of Troy. He writes memorable scenes like the one about the big and small Ajax who try to raise a kind of Olympic Games when their army is stranded because the Gods of the Wind do not want to help them get to Troy.

So you see, we do a lot of reading in times when we have power cuts and are chased to the open fire or when the sun shines that abundantly that we have to go and sit in the sun with a book. Winter on Lesvos is never dull and I do hope that with all those names of books which touch the Greek life I managed to give you a little bit of hüzün.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006