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