Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Greece at it's Easter best

The Easter weekend has gone. Some red painted Easter eggs still roam through the house and the fridge is stuffed with leftovers. Christos Anesti, Christ has risen, are the words said at Easter and we probably said it at least a hundred times. But now normal life is restored.

During the Easter Days there are a lot of traditions to be found. Some are the same everywhere like eating lamb or going to the midnight mass, some are pretty local. On the neighbouring island of Chios they really like it hot. During the Easter night in Vrondados two municipalities shoot fireworks at each other. It is not quite clear where this 300-years old habit comes from, but the main goal is to shoot at each others church towers so that a mighty flow of firecrackers rain down on the village houses and the streets turn into a real war scene. This shooting takes hours and as they are not all good marksmen, it is not unusual that a house gets set on fire.

On Corfu it is also dangerous to spend Easter night. There pottery is thrown out of the windows on to the streets. It is a symbol of throwing the old life away and starting a new one. Well, nice walking those streets...

No tradition but a fancy activity on Cyprus. In the Easter weekend they will start making the longest festoon ever. It will be made out of bras! The campaign is meant to draw attention to breast cancer and the goal is to have tied 100,000 bras by the 30th April, which is 20,000 more than a similar attempt in Singapore.

In Plomari on Lesvos, on Good Friday the churches compete with each other in making the most beautiful holy pieces out of flowers for the procession. So there is indeed a flower parade in the south of Lesvos, it just has a religious background.

In Molyvos this year there was nothing new, except that there were a lot of complaints about too many fireworks. Saturday night around 10, 11 o'clock people went to church and came out of church at 12 to find their way home while trying to escape the fireworks. They took the traditional Easter flame to their homes and ate the majeritsa, a soup of intestines, eggs and lemon. If you want to call it a tradition, in Molyvos on Easter Night they go out. The discos open their doors and people like to get drunk as a skunk and the next morning wearing thick sunglasses they will have the traditional Easter lamb for breakfast. Although this year it was fashionable to eat a goat, stuffed and prepared in the oven.

Like last year we had a lamb on a spit. And many friends (without a hangover) came to join us under the flowering acacia trees. Easter is a family celebration and because many friends have no family here on the island, we come together and drink and eat as much as the Greeks do that day. We tap the red eggs until only one egg remains whole, we eat the lamb and we talk and talk. Only this is done in a kind of mixture of English, German, Greek and Dutch.

It seems our tradition is that the lamb, turned for hours above a smouldering fire (souvla), is ready far too early. And therefore we get up at six in the morning! My last bread was still baking in the oven and the lamb had to be served. Then I didn't even warm up my pancakes filled with vegetables which were to go with the lamb!

Pancakes are not really a tradition in the Greek kitchen. Lately I fiddle a little with the Greek ingredients. As long as you use a lot of olive oil, it will taste a little Greek. This year Greece will promote its olive oil, giving out folders and handing out small bottles of oil to the tourists. But maybe you already have some Greek olive oil in your kitchen. Italy buys a large percentage of the Greek oil and they put it into their own bottles!

It is time that the Greeks do more promotion for their own products. They recently got the name of the sheep cheese feta as an official Greek product name. They want to do the same with tsipouro. Tsipouro is a kind of Greek geneva or eau de vie. They do not drink it often and especially not as much as the Dutch drink their geneva. Home distilled tsipouri can be very tasty, but it can be dangerous as well. After three glasses even a good drinker can turn around on his head. So when leaving the country by plane and you get offered a small bottle of tsipouri instead of olive oil, do not confiscate the ones of your neighbours. In Holland the saying is: a warned person counts as two, and I surely wish somebody warned me the first time I got an enormous bottle...

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Tuesday, 18 April 2006

Know your classics

Two weeks ago I received from a faithful reader* from Australia a book by Betty Roland: 'Lesbos, the pagan island'. In 1961 this Australian writer lived for some months on the island and wrote a book about her adventures, which was published two years later in Australia. After those 45 years, which is nearly half a century since Betty Roland visited Lesvos, the island does not look too much changed, except that there are probably far more people and more houses.

The attractions of the island are the same as in the year 1961: the medieval looking Molyvos, the mountain village of Agiasios that celebrates the Ascension of Maria on the 15th of August, the Taxiarchis Monastery at Mandamados, Agia Paraskevi celebrating horse festivities and the ritual slaughtering of a bull and Sigri with its petrified trees.

The writer did not experience good lodging in Molyvos. After moving out of an apartment because there was no privacy, she could not find any other house to be let. Although so many houses seemed to be empty. Finally she had to retreat back to Mytilini where she had no problems at all in finding a lovely apartment where she lived the rest of her stay.

It is an interesting book to read, especially because there is so much to recognize. The roads seem unchanged and as bad as always, although many roads nowadays have been asphalted. Besides a small amount of Greeks in Molyvos there lived only two foreigners speaking English: Mr Kester and the German Helmut. They only had one taverna at that time. But in the summer as it does now a generous flood of foreigners visited the village, even though the first hotel had not opened yet.

But of course there have been some changes. Betty Roland describes Eftalou as a place where some 10 to 12 houses are built at the seaside, amongst walnut trees. So where are those trees nowadays? And where are the crocus she describes entering Molyvos in spring. I thought they were only growing in the mountains? So maybe she mixed up some flowers...

The book had more surprises. Roland's way to Agiasos was along the Gulf of Yera. There, she was told, Odysseus moored his ships when he came back from Troy. He went into the hills and wanted to see the Cyclops. He got locked up into the Cave of the Cyclops Poliphemus, the man eater and giant with one eye, who milked his goats at the cave and then took some men out of Odysseus company for dinner. Odysseus and his men found a trick to flee, they also escaped from the rock which was thrown after them by Poliphemus when they fled with their ships. This Rock of the Cyclops now must be somewhere around the Gulf of Yera. I had no idea.

When I surfed the internet in order to find out more, I could not find any conforming story. However I did find an interesting story about old wines. Odysseus served the Cyclops Poliphemus wine in order to stupefy him and to make it quiet easy to blind him afterwards with a long stick heated in the fire. In that time most famous wines were those of the islands Tasos, Lesvos, Chios and Naxos. So who knows, got Poliphemus stupefied and vanquished by Lesvian wine...

Troy is not that far from Lesvos, so it does not sound odd that after Troy was conquered and destroyed heroes and other army people came to Lesvos. Homer himself writes in the Odysseus that Menelaos joined the Mycene army close to Lesvos, where they discussed how to go home. Odysseus first had his adventure on the Island of the Lotus eaters, before he met the Cyclops. But let's see it like this: Homer is from the neighbouring island of Chios, so most probably he used the wonderful landscape of Lesvos for the adventures of Odysseus.

Homer could not know that centuries later the Gulf of Yera would be the safe harbour of mighty pirates. Amongst them were the brothers Barbarossa. Maybe they were the same pirates who once destroyed the monastery at Mandamados. The Taxiarchis Monastery at Mandamados is now known for its icon of archangel St. Michael, which is said to be painted by a monk who was the only survivor of an attack of the pirates at his monastery at Mandamados. Betty Roland has another story of this icon. The village of Mandamados lies well secured behind hills and hidden from pirates. One day working on his land outside of Mandamados a farmer got attacked by pirates and they forced him to say where his village was. The village as well as all of it's inhabitants got destroyed and then the farmer was set free to see what disaster was done. Seeing the massacre and the ruins of the village the man painted a face on the rocks with eyes which seemed to cry forever. Later a new village was built and the inhabitants put rocks around the face on the rock and later built a church around it. But the face kept haunting the dreams of the villagers. So they took it off the rock and made an icon out of it. That is when miracles started happening. Lame people could walk, blind people could see. And still now sick people are brought to the Taxiarchis Monastery hoping to get cured.

The island, like I presume all the other islands, is full of stories which are told, put into books and retold again.

The only thing I was wondering is why Betty Roland has as subtitle of her book 'The pagan island'. On the island she was received by many clergymen, she even spent a night high on the mountain at the Ypsilou Monastery. Lesvos is all but pagan. The landscapes are full of bright white little churches and even nowadays on the most unexpected spots new churches are built. Next weekend, when orthodox Easter will be celebrated, you will have a difficult time in finding a single Greek who will not visit the church.

*Many thanks to Edwina Green.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 10 April 2006

Flower power

Have you ever been to the Keukenhof In Holland, the famous flower parK? I must admit that I never went there, although I was living very close. The flower fields I know, I used to bike a lot through the area. And when I was a child every year the whole family went to see the flower parade in Hillegom.

Here there is no Keukenhof. That does not matter, because the entire island looks like one big Keukenhof which from week to week seems to wander from one place to another. Here you have fields full of yellow flowers, changed to fields of red or purple flowers. In the region of Agiasos the flowers are overdoing it.

It is already weeks ago that around Molyvos the purple, violet, blue and pink anemones made way for the red anemones which are nearly finished flowering as well. When last week we went to Agiasos we were welcomed by fields of many coloured anemones, daisies and yellow- green euforbias. The higher you go, the later the anemones flower.

We saw fields full of pink, rose and purple anemones close to Plomari some weeks ago. Funny thing was that there they seem to grow in groups of colour, each group had their own. Here as well as in Agiasos, all colours are mixed. But it seemed that Agiasios had opened some pots of paint. I know they used to paint flowers in France. Bright pink and bright purple. Well, those were also the colours of the anemones near Agiasos. I never saw such colours that bright and hard and they nearly hurt your eyes, that bright they were glowing. We just could not believe our eyes...

These past weeks we saw a lot of coloured flower fields on the island, but the fields around Agiasos were the best. Thanks to their crazy colours and their stylish mix with the white daisies and the soft coloured euforbia's. For the moment they get the First Prize.

When so many flowers try to grab your attention, you should also look for the small ones. I already wrote about mini-mini flowers. At the moment it is also the season for the orchids. The island counts over 70 species.

Speaking about orchids I always think at those beautiful scaped flowers which are often used as a corsage at weddings or during a romantic rendezvous. Here on the island they are mostly somewhat smaller and when you do not pay any attention you easily miss them. Only when you're nose to nose with them you see their beauty, or better, their waywardness. The names are wonderful as well. Last week we found a 'naked-men-orchid'. In the field it looks like a ball of flowers, but if you look more closely you see that each flower has a naked man on its 'lip'! And believe me, you do not need too much imagination to see that.

We found a 'mirror-orchid', but here I do not quite understand why they give it that name. Sunday we ran into a 'bumblebee orchid' and those who love orchids do not jump up thinking that we found a new species (actually there exists a bee orchid), I gave it the name because this 'spider orchid' really looks like some bumblebees hanging on to a stalk. By this masquerade they seduce a bee to bring some pollen. And I must admit, this works very well, because we found several huge colonies of them.

Looking for all the orchids on the island is like an Odysee. Try to find them between all those magnificent flower fields. So, no, we do not need a Keukenhof here. We've got the Lesvian Flower Fields, made by nature itself. And when you want to visit them you do not risk landing in a traffic jam, nor do you have to pay any entry. It is probably due to bad PR that the Japanese have not yet discovered Lesvos and invaded the island with hundreds of planes.

Well, it is true that we have no tulip fields here on the island, but somewhere there must be some tulips hiding. I do love tulips and therefore we planted some Tulips from Amsterdam under the olive trees. Their fancy flowers just peek out of the tall growing grass and the field looks like a colourful Easter egg.

It is a little too early, we celebrate the orthodox Easter a week later than you do. Then probably the tulips will have lost their flowers. Though thanks to all those bright spring flowers we are already in the Easter mood. We wish you a very Happy Easter.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 3 April 2006

Songs from Lesvos

When you wander in spring over the island, when you admire the lovely slopes around Lisvori, or the colourful meadows under the olive trees at Tsonia, when you love the bright green colours of the mountains above Plomari, the heaven blue lupins, the lilly white daisies, the bright yellow mustard flowers, the blood red anemones, then you think you are in paradise. And being in this timeless landscape it is easy to imagine that some 26 centuries ago there once lived a poetess who will be remembered forever.

Most people know Sappho of Lesvos. A lot of her work did not survive history. Wars and warlords destroyed many cultural treasures and the words of Sappho, who in antiquity was praised by so many writers as a great poetess.

Only 4 entire poems of Sappho are now preserved and many fragments. They all show incredible beauty. Still in our time the work of this Lesvian lady is a popular source for researchers and there are still translators who try to get her words, written in the Aeolian script, into a modern language.

So Sappho's poems keep on being accessible for present day readers and keep researchers busy who are trying to find out how Sappho lived. Again and again pieces of texts from Sappho are being found on archeological sites, like recently on a piece of papyrus in Egypt.

There are many things from Sappho's life upon which researchers do not agree. Like was she married, did she have a daughter (Kleïs), was she Lesbian or did she jump from a rock because her love for a man was not answered? These questions will always remain a mystery. Nearly everybody agrees that Sappho was running a kind of school or institute for girls where they were not only taught poetry but also to sing and to dance.

Last week we visited the Hot Springs of Lisvori. While I enjoyed lying in the warm water, I thought of Sappho. The misty sunrays touching the water made the 500-year old bath house look like something timeless. Did Sappho also spend time in the baths, did she also hear the singing of the birds outside and did she also enjoy such a peace?

Outside some youngsters got their instruments and started to play them. There was no Sappho to give words to the music, although for some time the Hot Springs of Lisvori felt like a concert hall. In the time of Sappho, the island of Lesvos was a centre of art and culture. Just like the capital Sardes of the empire of Lydia. Sappho at least once travelled to this city. The excavations of Sardes, not that far from the old city of Smyrna (Izmir), show an enormous bathhouse with elegant sculptured columns and beautiful mosaic floors.

Nowadays the simple bath houses of Lesvos are not that richly decorated. Just like there seems no bathing tradition anymore. But feeling the peace and benefaction go through your body, it does give you a feeling of eternity.

Quietness was far away last week when I panicked a little when we were driving to Tsonia. I felt strange, kept on putting my sunglasses on and off, but outside it kept on being a little dark. Around 13.30 some transparent clouds shifted in front of the sun but that could not be the cause of the darkness. I was thinking, is this how you feel going blind... Then suddenly I remembered that they predicted an eclipse of the sun, which was best to be seen in the south of Turkey. We completely forgot this eclipse! On the other side of the sea Turkey lay in complete darkness and the light on the island was best described as spooky. If you did not know that there was an eclipse going on, thoughts about the end of the world would have been justified.

Five years after Sappho's death, in 585 BC, when King Alyattes II of Lydia was already for years at war with the Medes, there was the battle of Halys (nowadays Kizilirmak in Turkey), which came to an abrupt end when an eclipse darkened the area. They believed it was a sign by the Gods to stop the fighting. Peace was signed and the river Halys became the frontier between the empires of Medes and Lydia.

Sappho must have heard about this war, although she was not alive anymore when the eclipse was there. In her poems she just mentions brave soldiers who came and went. There is nothing new under the sun. Even in her time wars were fought and soldiers were sent to far away countries. As opposed to the writers and poets from those times, who were mostly men writing about the Gods and their heroic exploits, honouring battles and praising wars, Sappho did not mix her work into politics but was one of the first to write about the stirrings of the heart. Longing, sadness, love, jealousy, those were her subjects.

'Songs of Lesvos' (Liederen van Lesvos, published by Meulenhoff/Manteau) is the name of the book by Paul Claes with the latest Dutch translation of poems of Sappho. He based his translations on the work of David A. Campbell. They are no songs over the island, but the lines have such a magical effect, like the nature here can enchant you. They call for Aphrodite, the goddess of love, they honour brides and grooms, they long for beloved pupils or beautiful men. And even though her poems are not complete, Sappho's words are made for eternity.

"A beautiful child is mine,
Formed like a golden flower,
Cleis the loved one.
And above her I value
Not all the Lydian land,
Nor lovely Hellas."

From: Sappho: one hundred lyrics, by Bliss Carman (internet)

Copyright © Smitaki 2006