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