Monday, 17 December 2007

Christmas Shopping Online

Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. However, in very early times, centuries before this holy child was born, it was the birth of the sungod Mithra, that was celebrated, amongst others by the Greeks, on the 25th of December. Originally it was an Iranian god that fought evil. He won the battle with the holy bull and slaughtering the bull, from its blood grew plants and animals.

In the fourth century BC Mithra and Mithraism became very popular, like with Roman soldiers. Hundreds of years later, when Constantine the Great converted to Christianity, this pagan religion passed into the background. But still this religion has believers and there's even a polemic about the similarities beween Mithra and Jesus. Was Mithra the precursor of Jesus?

Mithra was also born on the 25th of December. His mother was a virgin. Mithra had 12 helpers and just like Jesus he performed miracles. He gave his life for peace on earth, he ascended from his death and like Jesus he was called the Good Shepherd. The question if Jesus was a copy of Mithra I leave up to the theologians. If I've made you curious you will find all about it on the internet.

Two years before Constantine the Great was born, in 270, Saint Nicolas was born in Lycia in present day Turkey. As bishop of Myra he not only did good deeds, but he also fought against pagan religions (like Mithraism), that still had believers in that time. It's said that it was Saint Nicolas who gave orders to destroy the famous Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, a building that was seen at the time as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

If it had been in our time that Saint Nicolas destroyed such a beautiful temple, he would have been called a cultural barbarian. But as we all know, Saint Nicolas finally became one of the most popular Saints of Christianity. In the last century and a half he even got a great alter ego: Santa Claus. (see Lesvos News 102: Saints Claus) Although Saint Nicolas was not born that far away from Lesvos, a real Saint Nicolas celebration (like in Holland) is not known on the island. Here Saint Nicolas is the patron saint of seamen, which gives him enough work to do.

Santa Claus' popularity in Greece however is growing more and more by the year. The celebration of Christmas looks more and more like the American way. The shops bulge with enormous inflatable Santa Clauses and reindeers. The shopping streets of Kaloni with their illuminated Christmas bells, Santa Clauses and reindeer sleighs remind you of the bright lighted streets in New York and all the Christmas dolls, Santa Clauses, Christmas trees and Christmas decorations have pushed everything else from the shop windows.

Houses more and more are decorated with lighted ornaments and even Molyvos, where the shops still open can be counted on the fingers of one hand, looks like an illuminated little city, although it's still Petra that's number one with Christmas decorations. As if this Christmas is truly a celebration of light, that will even make Mithra be honoured.

And we need all that light, because the grey and wet weather of the last months doesn't contribute make you feel that you are in Greece. Above all it is dull. I am not complaining, mind you, because I have got enough to do in the house. But life outside is cold and wet. Last week we didn't even notice that officials were on strike. In Athens life came to a stop, in Molyvos everything continued in its slow way. Even though work at the olive press was stopped for a day. The sacks of olives and the gossiping Greeks around them just waited until the next day.

Last week life also came to a stop in the North of Greece, because of heavy snowfall. Lepetimnos just got a light dusting of snow on its top for a few hours. No real snowfall disturbed life on Lesvos. The only upsets were on Saturday night when a mild earthquake rocked some people out of their sleep and on Sunday evening Santa Claus was shaking hands with the children gathered at the Christmas fair. Christmas with all its shiny lights will make for some more liveliness.

Although that will be only in the kitchen and at the dinner table. Turkey tries more and more to replace the traditional Christmas plate of pork with celery, or goat, on the Greek menu. There are no special side dishes. But the women bake mountains of cookies, like the kourambiedes and melomakaronas. Plenty of them are distributed to the children that knock on the doors to sing their Christmas carols. They use a triangle or a little trombone as accompaniment for their fast sung 'kalanda', which bring peace and luck to the homes. After these good wishes the children are rewarded with candy and cookies. I don't think there's much chance that Greek children will knock on your door, but I won't deprive you of a recipe for a mountain of these delicious kourmabiedes.

Ingredients: 2 kilos plain flour
1 kilo unsalted butter
300 grams icing sugar
300 grams ground roasted almonds
1 small glass cognac
1 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat the oven to medium (175°C). Soften the butter by beating by hand for ½ hour. Add the sugar, cognac, almonds and finally the flour, mixed with the baking soda. Continue to beat until all ingredients are well mixed. Mould into the familiar shapes of the kourambiedes and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes until golden. Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle with rosewater, then roll in the icing sugar.

Happy Holidays!

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 10 December 2007

Greek Images

Do you remember the television serial from 1977 'Who pays the ferryman'? It was a popular serial about an Englishman who served in Crete in World War II and returned later to this Greek island and its wayward inhabitants. It's set in the Sixties and looking back at the serial you will see that not that much has changed in Greek life. Especially not on Crete, where for the last few weeks the little village of Zoniana has been in the news, because after a shoot out with the police, in which a police officer was badly wounded, the whole village was turned upside down by a huge police raid. They found out that the village was full of criminals. Shepherds with millions in their bank accounts, discovery of weapons and drugs finally prompted the government to make a full investigation.

The criminals were first protected by the citizens, as is the Cretan tradition. So you could see old ladies trying to hit the police with their handbags. But with the evidence of bank raids and money laundering, even the villagers had to admit that it was time their village was cleaned up.

The large police actions caused a big stir, not only in the whole of Greece but also in the new media hype YouTube, where you can find not only home movies that parody the police force invading the village, but also the village itself, which were promoted with the slogan: "Live your myth in Greece". Well, this myth you can see for yourself on YouTube, where heavily armed police officers search the village or where apes dance the traditional dance 'sirtaki'.

By the way, the famous sirtaki dance, to the music of Mikís Theodorakis, was only created in 1964, during the making of 'Zorba, the Greek'. This film, based on the book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, was made on Crete by Michael Cacoyannis. The star, Anthony Quinn, made the movie as well as the dance a classic all over the world. The story goes that the chasapiko dance was too difficult for Quinn. So they invented an easier one, which became the 'sirtaki' or 'Zorba's Dance', which is nowadays known by, as well as all Greeks, by all tourists that visit Greece. Did you forget how to dance the sirtaki. Learn it with Anthony Quinn on YouTube!: Zorba the Greek!

YouTube is getting to be a fascinating archive of images. Not only can you find there the Muppets doing a Greek dance, all dance lovers can learn all kinds of different Greek dances. For example home movies on YouTube show how the Zeibebikos is danced on Lesvos, or the dance of the horses (Kiorogloe) in Agia Paraskevi, or the local dances (Aptalikos, Karsilamas) of the Sardines Festival at Skala Kaloni.

And if you really feel homesick for Lesvos, you can choose from a lot of more or less obscure movies about the island, where it is up to you to guess where the pictures were taken.

However, my favourite YouTube movies are by the Orthodoxos, a Greek-American husband and wife, who give Greek cooking lessons. Greek cooking mostly starts with peeling onions. And this is where the troubles start with the Orthodoxos: who will peel the onions? Well, don't worry, finally the onion will be chopped and the dishes made: rice with spinach, meatballs, stuffed vine leaves or fajin: The orthodoxos

'Politiki Kouzina' (A touch of spice) is a movie by Tassos Boulmetis (2003) that does not teach you how to cook Greek, but it teaches you all about the spices used by the Greeks. It's the story of a family that flees from Turkey back to Greece. But the grandfather, who has a spice shop in Istanbul, doesn't want to leave and stays in Turkey, while his grandson, who was taught the love of spices by this grandfather, waits for his arrival in Greece. Cooking is central to this movie and I guarantee you that after seeing 'Politiki Kouzina', certainly you will change your cooking.

Not that I cooked that much last week. I was hit so hard with the flu that I only surfed on YouTube, or watched again some serials like 'Who pays the ferryman', or some movies. The island was also exceptionally quiet. Undisturbed by the heavy rains and some really loud thunderstorms. Even the electricity seems to have become used to the bad weather. Only the Christmas market in Molyvos had to be cancelled, due to heavy rains, and was postponed until later this week.

And then I saw this beautiful movie 'Ulysses gaze' (1995) by the Greek-American director Theodoros Angelopoulos. This movie did not make me cheerful, although it's a movie that you have to watch more than once. It made me sad, which is very dangerous during this depressing unGreek weather we're having. That's why it's good that there is YouTube to do a little surfing: you will always find something there that will cheer you up: Never on Sunday

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Flowers of the wind

Even though I regularly eat chorta, consume lots of fresh vegetables and drink plenty of juice from the oranges that have started to fall off the trees, the flu hit me really hard.

And it's not only me that's not well. Outside, where one day the south wind blows our garden chairs towards the sea, the next day it's a northern storm that blows them back again. The weather keeps on jumping from cold to warm and mild weather, from heavy thunderstorms and lots of rain to blue skies where majestic clouds hurry to somewhere else. The only things that are missing are the white capped Olympos and Lepetimnos against a pure blue sky.

All these changing moods make me low and now I'd better hide in my bed. You'd think that nature would hold back as well. Imagine my surprise at finding heads of wild asparagus peeking eagerly above the bushes in order to find the spring. Well, according to the popular Greek calendar, winter only starts in about a month, in January, and lasts until the beginning of March, when the asparagus are growing.

I also found some early daffodils that tried to poke their heads through an olive net. Two years ago I caught these spring messengers flowering too early, at Christmas, but now they are one more month earlier still.

However, the flowers I now think are really crazy are the anemones. Since the end of November they have come up in bushes! The anemones have always been the first flowers of spring. The first winter we were here, we saw the first at the end of January. Last year we saw the first one already at the end of December, and this year... Hello, winter is approaching, not spring!

Anemones are also called flowers of the wind: anemos is the Greek word for wind. According to mythology they were created from the tears of Aphrodite. This goddess of love was often in love. But when she met Adonis, a young and beautiful god, she fell deeply in love. The God of the war, Ares, however became jealous and sent a boar to attack Adonis. During the struggle Adonis lost his life, and Aphrodite started shedding many tears. The tears mingled with Adonis blood, the wind blew them away and everywhere you could find blood red anemones.

These red beauties only appear after the anemones of every hue from white to purple fill the fields. In mythology I couldn't find an answer to this phenomenon, but I bet some jealous God will be in the story.

Maybe the anemones just count the windy days before opening. This autumn has already had as many storms as can blow in January. So it really looks like spring is needed. But we still have three months to go before we can welcome this joyous season.

Cyprus, where Aphrodite was born and where, according to Greek mythology, anemones are also born, doesn't have normal days either. The island has problems because all those nasty clouds and showers never reached them. On the island, archbishop Chrysostomos called for all churches to pray for rain. The reservoirs on the island have so little water left that probably by the end of the year the water will be finished.

Here on Lesvos, the weather stays animated (also a word that comes from anemos). Rain is hammering against the windows. Well, asparagus, daffodils and anemones, do whatever you like. The weather is much like winter, my head is more like a thundercloud, my nose equals a rain cloud, I'd better go back to bed. Goodbye.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Olive Blues

I am shattered. Two days of olive picking doesn't make you fit. But I won't complain. There are people who harvest olives for weeks on end in order to earn some money. I just helped some friends picking olives. And then doing the olives with friends is more like a party than like slave labour. Especially when the weather is as good as it was the last few days.

The olive tree is originally from the Mediterranean and it is said that already in 8,000 BC people gathered its fruit from wild olive trees. It's believed that the cultivation of olives started about 4,000 BC on Crete. But it's also said that around 6,000 BC the first oil was pressed from olives in Anatoly (modern day Turkey). And then two islands are fighting for the honour of having the eldest olive tree: Brioni in Istria, Croatia (1,600 years old) and Crete (2,000 years old). Well, let's not argue about years and just agree that for centuries now olives have been cultivated for oil and preserved olives.

In the Odyssey Homer writes about olive oil, calling it liquid gold. The Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankamun was buried with his golden treasures and an olive branch. In ancient times a winner in the Olympic Games was offered an olive branch, because the Greeks believed that the vitality of the sacred tree was transmitted to the recipient through the branch. According to the bible (Genesis) a dove was sent from Noahs Ark to find land. He came back with a branch of an olive tree, which meant that they were close to land. And Thomas Jefferson, third president of America, wrote that the olive tree was the best gift ever from heaven.

According to Greek mythology the olive tree was a gift from the goddess Athena. When Zeus devised a game for the name of the city of Athens, Athena presented an olive tree, which was preferred by the citizens of Athens to the horse Poseidon presented, or a salt water spring (it's not certain what Poseidon exactly brought into this game). This is how the capital of Greece got its name and how the Greeks got their olive tree. And they still enjoy it. Nowhere in the world is the consumption of olive oil higher than in Greece: 23.7 kilos per capita per annum against 13.62 kilos per capita in Italy.

During the olive harvest the men bat the olives out of the tree with long sticks, and the women, and in earlier times also the children, gather the olives under the trees. I wish it were only the olives that fell from the trees during the battering, but also a lot of leaves and little branches fly all over the place, far away from the net which is spread out under the tree to collect the olives. Then the branches have to be sorted out and the olives around the net have to be picked up. Sometimes, seeing such a big heap of leaves with only a few olives underneath it, I just sat down and wondered about how long this work I was doing had been around in the world. Only the nets would be a modern invention, although the Romans put clothes under the trees.

Although there are millions of trees on Lesvos, the harvest here is not that spectacular, because all families on the island have an olive grove somewhere that they harvest themselves. In the bigger groves Albanian, Bulgarian, Romanian or other cheap workers are hired. In countries such as Italy and Spain, who are the biggest exporters of olives, they use enormous machines that skim over the trees and pick, sort and gather the olives. They seem to me to be monsters of machines, that take all the romance out of the harvest. In Italy they use computer driven machines that shake the olives out of the trees and gather them in nets folded out from the machines.

The only machines you encounter here on the island are a stick with a battery that drills the olives out of the tree and a kind of vacuum cleaner that you put on you back so that you can pick up the olives without bending to the ground. But the nicest story is of two English ladies, who have on olive grove near Plomari, who do all the picking by hand from the tree, clean the fruits one by one and press the oil themselves. Then they sell this very exclusive oil to very exclusive people for a very exclusive high price. That's the way to make money!

Well, I have to tell you that picking olives from a tree is not as tiring as picking them up off the ground. But then you have to climb the tree in order to get all the olives. In Spain, where they use machines to race over the trees, they intentionally keep the trees as small as possible. But then you will never have those beautiful shaped trees that make the landscape here in Greece so attractive. A columnist for the English language paper Athens News once wrote about his ideal way of doing the olive harvest: saw off the branches and pick the olives!

No, here on the island the harvest is done like it's been done for centuries: batting the olives out of the trees and picking up the olives from the ground. It's a tiring job, but then you will have lots of oil for the whole family, even for the members who live in the big cities. In Europe it's thought that the Spanish and Italian oil is the best because those are the most exported. In 2005 Spain produced about 6 million tonnes of olive oil. Greece produced about 2.4 million tonnes. That doesn't make the Spanish oil better. The Greeks are just not good enough at marketing and then most of their oil is exported to Italy where it often ends up in bottles with an Italian label. On Lesvos the olives are not all picked by hand, like the two ladies close to Plomari do, but the oil is no bulk product that is produced by racing over trees or shaking all the olives loose. You feel it in all your limbs, oil here is a fair product.

Today at the end of the afternoon, when we looked at the grove, there were another 11 trees to be done tomorrow. However, the good news was that a neighbour was offering to come with some fish, so we organized a barbecue. And that's the good thing about a harvest here on Lesvos: food and working, drinking and picking, laughing and sweating, it all goes together.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Tuesday, 20 November 2007


Whenever my mother put a big salad on the table my father used to say: "Yuk, rabbit food!". My father didn't realise then that this 'rabbit food' was very healthy. It's part of the Mediterranean diet, which is known to be one of the healthiest in the world: a lot of fresh vegetables, fruit, beans, bread and olive oil.

Tourists know the choriatiki as a tomato salad with feta and some cucumber. In the winter you can also get a tomato salad, but the Greeks will not eat it: you eat whatever grows in your garden and now there are no tomatoes growing. So you have to do with green salads like lettuce, cabbage salad and grated carrots. The best is a mixture of these, anamichti, which is usually served with some green herbs and some spring onions.

Spring onion is the wrong name here in Greece for an onion that, as soon as summer is finished, is planted and harvested all winter long. And you don't find only 'winter' onions in the Greek winter fields. There are also leeks, beetroots, beans, cabbages, big onions, potatoes, celery and all kinds of green salads like rocket and radiccio.

Aubegines and courgettes are also a rarity for a Greek winter dish. In the winter they eat a lot of beans here: haricot beans, broad beans and those juicy butter beans. In Holland I would never order beans in a restaurant, but here they are a delicacy. Then you also have fava, a purée made of green peas (green fava) or chickpeas (yellow fava). The green fava can be compared to the Dutch speciality green peas soup and yellow fava is like the Arabian dip humus, fava being without cumin.

In Greece the beetroots you eat (panzaria) don't come in tins, but from the nearest field. They are cooked and served with their leaves, which taste a little like spinach. This dish is served with skordalia, a mashed potato cream with lots of garlic, which goes beautifully with the beetroots.

And then there is the famous chorta, wild vegetables, what my father would have called: "Weeds!". I have to admit that I eat chorta not because it tastes so nice, I eat it more because I know that it's so awfully healthy. Sometimes you will be served a chorta (or you are lucky with a good cook) that's not as bitter as usual and then of course you can enjoy the taste.

When you see so much healthy chorta served, you would think that the Greeks care about the quality of their food. However, a recent survey shows that more and more Greeks are abandoning the Mediterranean diet for fast food, like souvlaki from the local snack bar. Children are becoming too fat and don't eat so many vegetables anymore. So also here in Greece the modern food trends strike.

In the last years more and more 'Biologica' signs have appeared in the olive groves, which means that the Greeks have discovered organic food. They grow organic olives now, but how organic are they? The signs are not there because organic olives are healthier, it's because you get more money for organic olives. In the past they all used pesticides to keep away pests. They even used little planes to spray the whole of the island with toxic clouds. Nowadays they're not allowed to spray wherever there is the sign 'biologica'. Now they have to hang envelopes with the eggs of insects which have to fight those nasty flies. But are all 'biological' fields like this, that's the question. A Greek is fast in saying that something is organic. But for Greeks growing something organic just means that he's not using the strong pesticides (like DDT).

Fact is that the rains that have poored down for a month now and were last weekend pretty extreme and were causing floods and two dead people in the Northeast of Greece, came just in time to save the olive harvest. The small crinkled olives in a short time turned into healthy fat olives.

In Molyvos tension rose because the old olive press was dismantled and a new one was installed. Typical Greek the new one was ready just in time. Today the first sacks of olives arrived to get pressed into that green yellow gold. The farmers are laughing again because it's a saying that a very hot summer gives good quality olives.

I don't laugh that hard. On our land there are so many olives that the harvest will take two days instead of one. And also a while ago I promised friends to help them with their harvest, not knowing that the olives would make such an abundant comeback in such a short time...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 12 November 2007

Flee for your life

The Greek weather has been awful these last few days: storms, rain, thunderstorms and some earthquakes (although these aren't caused by the weather). In the 5 years we've lived here we've never seen such a wet and stormy autumn. It's like the January and February days when the sea produces angry white foamed waves. That's why we often say these days: today it's no refugee weather.

Although I do ask myself if there aren't bold people smugglers, who even though the foam is flying around your head, they just put the refugees in the rubber boats, cut the bottom and shout: "Flee for your life, to Greece!".

Because even after a stormy night it's common to see refugees sitting at the bus stop or near the Olive Press in Molyvos. Then you ask yourself what journey they must have been through. The same question that the English film director Michael Winterbottom has been asking himself.

A few years ago Winterbottom was struck by the news that some 58 Chinese were found in a container on a boat. They had suffocated to death by trying to reach England illegally. After an investigation amongst refugees in England, however, Winterbottom chose to film the escape route from Pakistan to England. This film 'In This World' was awarded the Golden Bear at the 2003 film festival in Berlin.

For the main characters Winterbottom found in Pakistan two boys from Afghanistan: Jamal, a refugee and Enayat, a son of Afghan parents. With a small film crew and a light camera they followed the escape route from Pakistan, through Iraq, Turkey, Italy to France, from where the way finally led to England.

The boys were at the mercy of several people traffickers. They travelled in small pick-ups, by bus, they crossed snowy borders on foot, they travelled in a container by ship and Jamal travelled by train and for his last journey he found a hiding place between the wheels of a truck.

The film gives a heart-rending idea of what the refugees that arrive in Lesvos must have been through. And then still Lesvos is not the promised land. First they have to go to Athens and from there the journey takes them further into western Europe. That's if they're not caught. When you see how many of them get caught here on Lesvos, because they entered Greece illegally, how many of them know to slip through the grasp of the police?

In 'In This World' the escape route went from Istanbul straight to Italy. But for a few years now the escape route also goes more and more over the northern mainland of Greece or through the Greek islands. Greece now complains a lot about the increased number of refugees that come from Turkey. They accuse Turkey of not fighting the people traffickers. On the other hand it's Turkey that accuses the Greek coastguard of sending refugees back to Turkey by making their boats unfit to go further. International refugee organizations say that Greece mistreats the refugees and the German magazine Der Spiegel even accused Greek coastguards of torturing refugees.

Well, I'm wondering if all these accusations about Greece are true. It's common knowledge that it's the smugglers who cut the rubber boats in order that the refugees go as quickly as possible to the Greek coast (and some of them drown). And for myself I do believe that the Turkish smugglers are not fought against much. How else can you explain the huge number of refugees that arrive on Lesvos? (Or do I now sound like a real Greek?). Anyhow, I see the refugees nearly every day, marching by on their way to Molyvos, to Athens, to a land of milk and honey. Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis, with just a plastic bag in their hands, trying as much as possible to be invisible on the now completely empty Eftalou Boulevard.

In the summer they were also easy to spot. Although they did their utmost to be looking at their Sunday best, in the heat it was easy to spot them, with their long trousers and the plastic bag in their hand, amongst all the international tourists who were cruising along by the sea.

It's a fact that the asylum centre on Samos, which was hot news a few months ago, was too small. But how can you know that in a few months time the number of refugees will triple? If today on Lesvos a boat with 275 refugees were to arrive, like happened in the Peloponessos last weekend (the Turkish boat was on its way to Italy when it ran into problems due to the bad weather), they certainly won't know how to handle so many people.

Anyhow it's sad that such a migration of nations takes place so close to us. You feel powerless, what can you do? If you watch the film 'In This World' you understand that the refugee business has become very big business, because especially in Greece the numbers of refugees is rocketing. And big business means that the cargo isn't always treated well. But even if you arrested all the people traffickers, the refugees would still keep on coming. They will keep on finding illegal transportation, they will keep on asking for help in order to reach the rich western countries.

In Molyvos they're not often bothered by the police too much, because there are simply not that many police here in the North of the island. The refugees walk, take the bus or a taxi to Mytilini and from there they try to get a ticket for a boat or a plane to Athens. These refugees show how leaky the European frontiers are. How else can you explain that you see more and more of these refugees on planes to Amsterdam?

After the film was made Jamal, one of the main characters in 'In This World', went back to Pakistan. But not for long. Soon he went back on the route he once travelled as a movie star, although this time he did it as a real refugee, to reach England in a few months and there ask for asylum.

The world is adrift and there's nothing we can do to stop the refugees. Big families are raising a lot of money to put the life of one of their members in danger, in order to give them a better future. Lesvos, or any other Greek island will be just a stopover on their long and dangerous journey. That doesn't mean that there are no immigrants on the island. Lesvos, like the rest of Greece, has a large number of legal and illegal Albanians, Rumanians, Russians and Bulgarians. They come in through the North of Greece, which is quite a different journey and quite a different story.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Sunday, 4 November 2007


Water finally fell on the island, it was about time. Nature relaxed in the wet days and the ouzo producers no longer have to worry about enough water for their production. Many of them boast of the quality of their ouzo thanks to the wonderful mineral water on Lesvos. If their plants are to work full time, then of course there needs to be water flowing from the mountains.

And by the way, it's not entirely true that all the ingredients for the ouzo come from Lesvos. The alcohol for the first distillation comes mainly from grape skins. And because in the middle of the last century phylloxera killed all the grapes on the island, for years there were not enough grapes to provide alcohol for ouzo production. So some have to be imported from elsewhere. But it's a fact that the Lesvorian ouzo is the best in Greece. In Plomari most of the ouzo producers use, for the second distillation, nearly 100% alcohol made from the so called ouzo yeast (according to Greek law you must use at least 20%). Last year the European Union declared ouzo to be a protected Greek product.

What else goes into ouzo besides alcohol? The main herbs are aniseed and fennel, but some also add cardamom, mastic, nutmeg, cinnamon or cloves. Yes, ouzo is a herbal drink. Especially one which has a fresh taste of licorice, tastes more like it than other brands. And on Lesvos there are many brands. In the cooperative shop in Molyvos I once counted at least 40 brands. The biggest producers are in Mytilini and Plomari. So you have people who drink Mytilini ouzo and those who drink Plomari ouzo. Small villages like Agia Paraskevi, Skalochori and Petra also make their own ouzo. This ouzo is only known locally.

Drinking ouzo is not only a matter of personal taste or just to have a glass of ouzo. Drinking ouzo is an art and a culinary joy. Because whenever you order ouzo, some little nibbles are served with it (mezèdes), such as little fish which are said to taste best with ouzo. By looking at the mezèdes you can also judge a taverna: when there are no mezèdes served with the ouzo the taverna is not a good one. And you can consider an invitation by a Greek for an ouzo as a dinner invitation.

So when I recently invited some friends over for an ouzo tasting, I spent hours in the kitchen making great food. For the occasion I got some 13 different brands of ouzo, nicely decorating the table: Matis, Ouzo Plomario, Pitsiladi, Smyrnio, Mini, Fimi, Samara, Tikkeli, Kefi, Varvayanni, Psaropoela, Petra en Yannatsi. The alcohol percentage varied between 39% (Matis) and 46% (Varvayanni). As a kind of dessert I found a bottle of Turkish raki (45%) to taste, in order to make a comparison with all those Lesvorian brands. And indeed this Turkish ouzo-like drink ended up being quite good.

Before we started a friend told me that we were probably going to get seriously ill. If not for the alcohol you consume, drinking ouzo can be very healthy, especially when you have stomach problems. However, drinking so many brands one after the other is asking for problems. But we behaved very sensibly. Just as in a wine tasting, we threw the ouzo we disliked into a huge glass. But for days afterwards we couldn't bear to look at a glass of ouzo.

There were many names we had to invent to give our verdict. Ouzo is never fruity or full, but can be perfumed or smelling like petrol. It's a mild one or a strong one, it burns or tastes chemical, it's not so bad or you can't drink it, it's okay or it's yuck!, it is or it isn't, it smells like medicine or licorice, it's fresh or it's like dishwater, it tastes heavenly or awful. I can tell you that tastes that night were varied. While some friends threw away their glass of Petra ouzo, I really liked to finish my glass. On a few brands we all agreed: Mini, Kefi and Pitsiladi became our favorites and ouzo Tikkeli was condemned, because everybody agreed about its bad flavour.

After 14 rounds of ouzo/raki we had no more energy to judge the design of the bottles. I started this whole ouzo tastery because of the new label for Mini ouzo. The merry girl from the Sixties has been replaced by a more modern looking young lady. She seems to be dancing like crazy, she's got a more swinging skirt, her shoes have come off and her legs have a healthy brown colour. However she doesn't look as happy as the sixties girl. But at least the contents of the bottle didn't change, unlike Malamatina, our favorite retsina brand, which last summer got a new bottle, but also new retsina in it. The new Malamatina doesn't taste as good as the old one. Last summer we made it our job, whenever we came upon a place that still had old bottles, to help them use up their old stock.

Since antiquity there have existed all kinds of aniseed drinks like tsipouri. Ouzo only appeared in the mid 19th century. In 1860 Efstathios J. Varvayannis arrived on Lesvos and made his home in Plomari. He had already learnt the art of distillation in Odessa (Russia) and he applied this art to the famous grapes of Lesvos, its delicious water and aniseed. The recipe is a family secret and is still used to make the Varvayannis ouzo. In the Varvayannis Museum in Plomari you can see how they used to make ouzo and what has changed in the making of ouzo.

When Greece was liberated from Turkey ouzo really became popular. Ouzo was once thought of as a replacement for the well known absinth, a drink that particular made the French and Vincent van Gogh crazy. Ouzo isn't a dangerous drink, although it's said that people from Plomari, who drink amongst others Varvayannis ouzo, which has the highest alcohol percentage, are crazy. There's even a local saying: never take a woman or a donkey from Plomari.

The only danger in drinking ouzo consists of the quantities you drink. One glass of ouzo leads to more. Two glasses of ouzo lead to far more, three glasses of ouzo lead to another bottle (in most restaurants ouzo is served in a small 200ml bottle), four glasses of ouzo makes for good company and when the fish still isn't finished you risk losing count of your glasses.

Well, Pitsiladi also comes from Plomari and I will never ever say again that all ouzo is good for me, unless it comes from Plomari. I also know some people from Plomari and they really are lovely people. Plomari has the right to call itself the ouzo capital of the island (and of Greece) because they do make really good ouzo. Most of them have a strong perfumed taste, which for a lot of people makes the good quality of the ouzo. The biggest ouzo producer of Mytilini, Mini, has for years been owned by the French company Pernod Ricard. Mini remains a local ouzo, with a foreign taste. The new Mini-girl keeps on dancing, but her face shows tiredness and seems to say: "Help, I'm falling!". Well, maybe it's time to change my favourite brand...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 29 October 2007

In a green, green, green, green, ouzo, ouzoland...

This year the last charter-tourists weren't very lucky. It was raining cats and dogs for many days and the rain filled the streets, the rivers and the fields. While the tourists were mourning their last days, the inhabitants of the island were happy. Finally water! And if you listened very carefully, you could hear nature sighing: the grass was growing as fast as possible. The island is green again.

Dried up riverbeds and wetlands were flooded, as were some dirt roads. The water-birds must have been partying. Yesterday we saw the flamingos not only wandering around the salt pans near Skala Kalloni and Skala Polychnitos, but also they were roaming around in a flooded field at Skala Vasilika (just next to Skamnioudi).

Would these birds know that their living areas are in the news, thanks to some hunters who don't respect wildlife protection? The Lesvorian Forest Department and the Office for Wildlife in Kalloni have for over a year been trying to make the area of the saltpans next to Kalloni and Agia Paraskevi into a protected area, because there are still hunters permitted to shoot there. Which is absurd because these wetlands are known for their rare bird species, and are therefore some of the favourite spots for birdwatchers and are often visited by normal tourists who like to admire the flamingos. Not only hunters threaten this area, but also motocross racers, illegal builders and illegal dumpers. So help these organizations to better preserve wildlife and sign their petition on the website: (Look on the right side for the in English 'ONLINE PETITION').

The European Court probably agrees with these actions. Last week Greece was sentenced by the Court for not having enough Special Protected Areas for migrating birds. According to Europe 25.2% of Greek territory should be divided into 186 protected areas for birds. Until now Greece only has 151 such areas and about 12 birds species in Greece are in danger of extinction. Thanks to some hunters who don't care about wildlife.

Around 22 September it became clear that hunters are not careful about what they shoot. Around Agiasos some hunting patrols found some poachers who had killed 62 Corn Crakes (Crex Crex), birds that are protected worldwide. It was even the Lesvorian Hunting Association which brought this scandal out into the open. They definitely have to have a serious word with their members about what and where they are allowed to hunt.

The same thing applies to Cyprus. This nation was in the news last week because hunters killed 52 Red-footed Falcons, also a protected bird. In a letter an English birdwatcher asked bird lovers not to go to Cyprus anymore, because of this scandalous deed.

I myself do not know that much about birds. I know a tiny little bit about what a quail looks like because a very long time ago I went hunting with a man on Rhodes. He was hiding for an entire morning in the bushes, only to take one shot at one quail. As far as I know it was a wild quail. Here on the island it seems that they breed quails, only to get them shot by hunters. I must admit that my only hunting adventure gave me a feel for the excitement that a hunter must feel while hunting. But here on the island they play foul: I was told that a few days before the quails are set free, to be prey for the hunters, they are fed with corn soaked in ouzo!

Well, if those hunters are also fed with a glass of ouzo, I wouldn't want to get too close to them. Because I was also told that a quail looks nothing like a Corn Crake. And because a few years ago some local hunters, probably bored with small game, set free some wild boars around mount Olympos. Of course these boars multiplied, so that now they are not only fun for the hunters but also a nuisance to farmers. I don't fancy the idea of meeting a boar while walking in the forest. And what are you supposed to do when you meet a boar that has eaten food soaked in ouzo?

The boars have become such a nuisance that they extended the hunting season. However the situation on Lesvos is not as bad as it is on Limnos, the island north of Lesvos. There they have a plague of rabbits and for years even the hunters cannot prevent the rabbits from destroying all the vegetable gardens. Also on Limnos the hunting season has been extended.

And then our neighbour Chios, the island south of Lesvos, hit the news because of some other animal cruelty. Last summer an incident even made the international press. A student first enticed a stray dog with a piece of salami and then poured cooking oil over the poor creature and filmed everything with his camera phone. He sent it to his friends who informed the police about this cruel deed. Recently the government of the island made the national press for distributing free rat poison. Everybody knows that rat poison not only kills rats but also cats and dogs. So there must be a lot of dramas with cats and dogs on Chios.

These campaigns against rats are probably also the cause of death for tens of cats and dogs in Molyvos. I have a rat problem as well. Under our roof lives a family of rats that regularly party and cause damage in the barn by eating their way through wood walls and drawers in order to find food. They're too smart for our 14 cats and I seriously wonder when they will manage to eat their way through the roof in order to sit with us in front of the fire. I know: rat poison can be disastrous, but how do I get rid of the Rat Family? Where is the Pied Piper of Hamelin, so that poison is no longer needed?

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 22 October 2007


In the autumn edition of the Dutch Greece Magazine is a readers Top Ten of the most popular Greek Islands. Lesvos is in fifth place. At number 1 is Crete, 2 Chios, 3 Karpathos, 4 Samos, 6 Kythira, 7 Kefalonia, 8 Ithaki, 9 Rhodes and 10 Naxos. Spread over two pages they briefly describe the winning islands. They write the following about Lesvos:

"North of Samos we find Lesvos, which is as big as the province of Utrecht (in Holland). Plenty of sardines swim in the bays and in the south there are millions of olive trees. The island is also famous because of Sappho, who lived there in the 7th century BC. Sappho of Lesvos was a poetess who wrote about the friendship between women. She founded a school for women where dance, music and singing were taught. That's why Lesvos is the island of celebrations! Mytilini is the capital of the island and from this city, when the weather is clear, you can see the coast of Turkey. Our readers love the island especially because of its beautiful nature, the possibilities for an active holiday and the happy crowds."

It's true that Lesvos is north of Samos. But between Samos and Lesvos is the island of Chios. So Lesvos is north of Chios! It's also true that Lesvos is about as big as the province of Utrecht. Lesvos happens to be the third largest Greek island, after Crete and Evia.

Lesvos has two huge gulfs that cut deep into the land, so that you can speak of three 'legs'. In the Gulfs of Kaloni and Gera a lot of sardines swim, but they also swim in the open sea. Kaloni, which has its harbour in Skala Kaloni, is famous for its sardines, fresh or canned. The canned sardines are salted and a wonderful substitute for the salted anchovy. The less salted sardines (a few hours) are a speciality on the island and are called 'sardines pastès'. In high summer there are plenty of fresh sardines and in August Skala Kaloni has a famous Sardine Festival, where you can eat sardines for free for a whole day.

When you talk about the sardines of Lesvos, you also have to mention ouzo. The Greeks say that ouzo is the best drink when you eat sardines (and other fish). Lesvos is the largest ouzo producer in Greece and it has over 40 different brands that are among the best in Greece.

In the south there are millions of olive trees. I guess the number must be right, because it's estimated that the whole island has over 16 million olive trees. And they're not only in the south, but also in the north, the west and the east. Only in the centre of the island are they in a minority, because it is covered with large pine forests. Far in the west you'll find no trees at all. There you'll find only plenty of petrified trees.

Sappho is indeed the most famous person from the island, because she was born here and lived here. Already in her own lifetime she was famous. She wrote about longing, sadness, love, jealousy and about friendship between women. But also about heroes, gods and about nature. The famous people of that time founded schools, as did Sappho. And because at that time it would not have looked good if she had opened a school for men, her school was for women, where they were taught dancing, singing and music. (See also Boulevard News from Lesvos 3 April 2006).

I don't understand why that makes Lesvos an island for celebrations. The god of wine and parties, Dionysos, never came to the island. The inhabitants don't party any more or less than elsewhere in Greece. And Lesvos is certainly no party island like Rhodes, Ios, Zakynthos or Mykonos. The only musician mentioned in Lesvorian history is Orpheus, whose head came ashore at old Andissa after his violent death. The island is known for its philosophers and writers. The philosopher Theophrastos from Eressos succeeded Aristoteles. Besides Sappho the Nobel Prize winning poet Odusseus Elytis was also born on the island. Famous writers from the island are: Giorgos Valettas, Stratis Myriveles, Elias Venezis and Argyrus Eftaliotis.

Mytilini is the capital of Lesvos, an island that is also called Mytilini. Why the island is still called Lesvos, which was its name during the Turkish occupation, is unclear. When the weather is clear you can see the Turkish coast. Well, I think you need very bad eyes not to see Turkey from Mytilini. Or the weather must be very, very bad, which is not often. From nearly all over the island you can see Turkey. Only from some parts in the west can you not see the Turkish coast. Lesvos lies in a kind of 'Turkish bay', so that you see the neighbouring country from the North, the East and the South. When the wind is coming from the right direction on summer days, in Eftalou you can hear the bass booming from the Turkish discos on the other side.

It's entirely true that Lesvos is loved for its great nature. Besides the petrified forest, some monasteries and picturesque villages it has nothing else to offer except for its pure and beautiful nature. Besides its beauty the landscape has great variety: from green high and steep slopes with little waterfalls to rough and barren mountains, from large areas full of olive trees, from whispering pine woods to enchanting chestnut woods, from beaches with black pebbles (Golden Beach Eftalou), from private little beaches at the end of a bay to the long sandy beaches of Vatera and Kampos. Besides that Lesvos is a paradise for people who love flowers (especially those who are fond of orchids), the island is also a mecca for birdwatchers. In the spring many migrating birds stop on the island to rest or to take refreshment in the wetlands and the saltpans of the gulfs. The bible of the birdwatchers, 'Birding on Lesvos' by Richard Brooks, numbers over 300 species of birds you will find on the island.

The island is loved by walkers during spring and autumn, although still not many organizations have taken up the island in their offerings. I don't agree that the island is praised for its happy crowds. Of course you will find some in the capital or in the places where the tourists go during the summer. Molyvos, Petra, Anaxos, Skala Kaloni and Skala Eressos do offer a lot of cozy restaurants, shops and terraces in the summer. But the island should be praised for its quietness. Even in the midst of high season in August you will find relatively empty beaches and plenty of tavernas where the owner welcomes you still in the Greek traditional way.

Today on the island north of Chios nearly all the tourists have left. Also the sardines have gone elsewhere. Now the fishermen go after other fish, shrimps and shellfish. The olive trees have recovered somewhat thanks to the heavy rains that fell in the last few days. The summer dust is washed away, the rivers and wells thirstily fill with water and the much praised nature also recovers from the long dry spell.

If you publish a magazine about Greece, you would think that the editor has some knowledge about the Greek islands. Especially when this island finishes in fifth place in a readers Top Ten, an island that is the third largest in its country, an island that's known for one of Greece's best poetesses ever, that is known for its sardines and that produces the best Greek ouzo. I'll keep it a secret that the Lesvorian olive oil can easily be compared to the Cretan olive oil...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Sunday, 14 October 2007

"Gods behaving badly"

When at the end of the summer the fires raged through the Peleponessos, the help only went smoothly when the fires reached the holy sites of Olympos, the mountains where the Greek gods used to live. Journalists from all over the world flocked to write about it and the site will be the first one to be cleaned up.

But what will the gods do at Olympos now? The population of Greece is 99% Greek Orthodox and they haven't believed in the Olympian Gods for ages. The temples are only useful to earn money from tourism and the country is full of chapels and churches that are built in honour of one of the many saints who are also woreshipped.

The English writer Marie Phillips made a successful entry to the literary world with her first novel 'Gods behaving badly'*. According to Phillips the twelve Olympian Gods have since 1665 lived in the north of London, in Hampstead, in a big house that's falling apart.

Artemis, goddess of the moon and the hunt, is a professional dog walker. Apollo, god of light, music and oracles, earns some money as a medium in a show on a lousy television station. Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, has a sexline. Her son Eros secretly discovered God and is hiding his wings under his clothes. Ares is the god of war and he looks upon it that in the world conflicts keep on happening so that wars still exist. Hermes, god of commerce and messenger between the different gods, tries to mediate in thier rows. He's also the one that brings the spirits of the dead to the door to the underworld of Hades, which is at an underground station in London. Dionysos, god of joy and wine, runs the nightclub 'Bacchanten' and produces his own strong wine. Athena, goddess of wisdom, is the diplomat of the family but lapses regularly into slyness. Zeus, god of the earth and heaven, is growing old and senile and has become dangerous because he's no longer trustworthy with his lightning. His wife Hera, goddess of the family, keeps him shut up in the attic and tries to look after the rest of the family.

But it's not an easy family. The gods argue over household chores and they bicker a lot. Nobody is really happy with life in London. They've known better times. Apollo is even a very naughty man. The story starts when Apollo asks a woman in the street if she will give him a blow job. She refuses and Apollo makes her into a rare Australian Eucalyptus tree. Artemis, while walking her dogs, discovers the poor woman transformed into a tree and gets so mad that she makes Apollo promise on Styx (the goddess of the underworld river) that he will not kill any humans in the next 10 years.

Aphrodite also has to settle something with Apollo. She makes her son Eros help her with the revenge, threatening Eros to punish him in front of his beloved pastor. Apollo has to fall in love.

The arrow of Eros causes Apollo to fall in love with Alice, a cleaning woman. Alice will not survive this love, because Apollo cannot behave himself, so that a big disaster threatens the whole world. Artemis decides that something has to be done and sends Alice's friend, Neil, to Hades and Persephone in the underworld to claim back Alice. Just as Orpheus once did for his Eurydice. Orpheus nearly made it, but at the last moment he looked back and that's why Eurydice had to stay forever in the underworld.

'Gods behaving badly' is a really entertaining book. An original story and written very light-heartedly. For people who have trouble remembering all the stories about the gods, it'll be a handy exercise in remembering who's who in the world of Greek gods. Because nobody believes in those Olympian gods anymore, their powers are decreasing, but Phillips gave them very funny characters.

It's a nice idea that the gods of Olympos not only left their mountain, but also Greece. And that Zeus became a little senile, is so obvious when you look at the changing climate.

While the streets of Athens have been flooded several times, while everywhere lightning was striking (not injuring anyone), here on Lesvos only the electricity poles gave off sparks above a very dry landscape. For days they were forecasting rain and clouds were gathering around Lepetimnos. For days I turned off the electricity when going out, in fear that the first lightning would blow up my computer. For days the clouds disappeared and Apollo made sure that the sun gave us beautiful autumnal days. It was sultry and warm, the air heavy with water, but not a single drop ever reached the ground.

On Saturday clouds were rumbling the whole day around the mountains. In the evening heavy thunderstorms besieged Turkey. In the north of the island we had a wonderful sight of this sound and light show. Finally after midnight the floodgates of heaven opened above the north of Lesvos and the heavenly rains touched the dry ground.

But I'm afraid the rains were too late for the olives. They're small and wrinkly, most of them have only a stone and no flesh. With the first signs of winter a lot of them fell off the trees. All of this might be thanks to Athena who's too busy with her household in Hampstead. She should have been nicer to her father Zeus, so that we could've had more rains. And Demeter, goddess of agriculture, probably spent all her nights at 'Bacchanten'. Lesvos is going to have a very bad olive harvest this year.

We'd better spring Zeus from his attic room in London. We could house him in Molyvos castle. They're restoring the old place so they can make sure that the castle is adapted to Zeus geriatric needs. And then Zeus can prevent temperature drops like we just had: from 27°C to 11°C. It's suddenly winter here! Or do we have to thank Apollo for this? Maybe he had a rough night with a woman and forgot to put the sunset on time. Anyhow, for Apollo there are enough women here on the island. It's the island of the Greek poetess Sappho, which means that women of all shapes and sizes come to the island.

For Dionysos I know of a very nice nightclub by the sea that's for sale in Skala Sykaminia. And it would be a challenge for him to make a new brand of ouzo. Artemis can take care of the boars that are released around the Lesvian Olympos. And she can set up excursions for bird watchers. Aphrodite can start a sexline here in English, for the tourists. And she could start a school for kamaki's (Greek Don Juans), because they're threatened with extension. And Hermes could make sure there'll be more ferries and that they run on time.

So there's plenty for the gods to do here on Lesvos and I'm sure they'll be so happy here that Athena will get the time to look after the millions of olive trees on the island, along with Demeter.

If we could make the gods come to Lesvos, we could also have plenty of rain. Look at London, where it often rains cats and dogs. And well, whenever Apollo changes a woman into a rare Australian Eucalyptus tree, that wouldn't be so disastrous. It'll just bring more tourists to the island...

*Marie Phillips - Gods behaving badly, ed. Jonathan Cape, London.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 8 October 2007

A fistful of money

I sometimes ask myself how it must have been when the Greeks had to change their Drachmas into Euros (the Greeks call them Evros). One Drachma is about 0.193 eurocents. To make it easier: 500 Drachmas is about 1.46 Euros. You're already having problems calculating this?

The word Drachma comes from the ancient Greek 'dratto', which means 'to take'. Around 1,100 BC a Drachma meant a fistful of money, which was at that time 6 metal sticks. People who do remember the modern Drachma know that at that time a coffee would cost 150 Drachma or a meal about 1500 Drachma. Anyway, everything was a big number of Drachmas.

When the Euro came the Greeks had to go back to very small numbers. Seldom will you see something that costs 1 Euro. Maybe the price of a bottle of water will be less than 1 Euro (but it depends on where you buy it). Amounts in eurocents are only found in the supermarkets, where they have checkouts to do the calculation.

Well, in Holland, about 2 Guilders (2.20 to be exact) were the same as 1 Euro. That's about half and it wasn't that difficult to calculate Guilders into Euros. Where you paid 1 Guilder, nowadays you pay 1 Euro. That's very sad, but pretty convenient. In Greece however they got lost in the numbers. They'd prefer to ask 150 Euros for a coffee, but even they can see that 150 Euros is too much. 1.50 is a very small amount, so they'll charge you 3.50...

Whenever you buy on the street, or in restaurants, the amounts are in whole Euros. All prices rounded up, of course. So you buy a kilo of beans for 5 Euros and a kilo of apples for 2 Euros. No, the Greeks haven't changed: everything goes by a fistful. Whereas it used to be cheap to buy in the street, nowadays you will find better prices in the supermarkets.

A cab driver in Athens was probably thinking of fistfuls of money. For a journey of 5 kilometres he charged his German customers 978.88 Euros! So beware of Athenian cab drivers. The above mentioned cab driver was arrested.

Here on the island of Lesvos people also keep dreaming of the big numbers of Drachmas. When you ask an old Greek how much a piece of land will cost, he'll answer you with a dizzying amount of millions. But that will be Drachmas. The old people still have problems with recalculating. The young Greeks make a profit from it. In Molyvos I know more than one plot of land that costs over a million. But that's in Euros.

Real estate's a funny business here on the island. In the north there are only a few real estate agents, but everything is for sale. In Molyvos a lot of restaurants are for sale. But next year they'll all be open again. They ask such huge amounts of money that only a fool would pay it.

There are also many houses for sale here in Molyvos. Most of them cost more than a house in Amsterdam. And we're talking about old houses in a bad shape. Last week a friend of ours heard that the apartment that she rents is up for sale: 200,000 Euros for a sitting room, a bedroom, a kitchen, a lousy bathroom and two tiny balconies. For that money you could build yourself a huge mansion here on the island!

Some time ago we went looking at a house on the Gulf of Kalloni. We were received in the usual hospitable Greek way by the owner. We'd heard that the house was 200,000 Euros, a price that locals thought far too high. When we asked about the price, the owner confirmed that the house was 200,000 Euros and that the garden would be 50,000 Euros! Well, I thought, he dares. "But.." he added a bit later, " I don't really want to sell it, it's my children that do...".

And that's the way it goes here on the island. In fact they don't want to sell, only if there's an idiot that wants to give them the kind of money they'd win in the lotto, then certainly they'll take the money.

This craziness mostly concerns Molyvos and its surroundings. There they see the big money flying in along with the tourists. Elsewhere on the island, especially in the less well-known villages, you can still find houses for some ten of thousands of Euros.

I was surprised to see on the internet that the hotel Arion was also for sale. Well, everybody knows it's for sale, but everybody also well knows that whoever buys it will have to completely rebuild the place. On the internet there were pictures of the hotel from the eighties, when the pool was filled with water and the buildings still new and prospering. The poor buyer that fancies this hotel with restaurant, bars, a pool, everything in a prime location in Molyvos, will be disappointed. The hotel is now in ruins.

Without much fuss (well, there were some stormy days with grey Dutch skies, but no rain) we went from the summer into the 'small summer' and the island is still very dry. A lot of restaurants and shops are closing their doors to the handful of tourists still roaming through Molyvos.

Next year more pieces of land will be sold, where they will build houses. The Hotel Arion will be more in ruins and the restaurants for sale will probably reopen their doors. The same owners of restaurants, pensions and hotels will welcome you again, even if you heard through the grapevine that their businesses were for sale.

Angelo from restaurant Anatolie in Eftalou will also be there again. Although he has now closed his restaurant in order to demolish the illegal part of his building. This was forced upon him by his neighbours. One day Angelo says next year he is going to sell sandwiches, lately he is saying that he is going to bake cakes. But whatever Anatolie will look like next year, for sure you will always get an ouzo there for a few Euros.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 1 October 2007

Monumental planes

Whenever a tree is not for bearing fruit here in Greece, it stands there to give shade. The most popular shade trees are the planes that you see everywhere, especially in the village centres. Not an unusual tree, but more than one can be rather special: their shape can be strange and the older trees are often hollow. They can reach an age far greater than 200 years.

The most famous plane tree in Greece is on the island of Kos: the plane of Hippocrates, the plane under which the founder of medicine taught his pupils. Hippocrates lived from 460-370 BC. This means that the plane would be some 2400 years old. Which is nearly impossible. It's said this tree, with a crown about 12 metres wide, is some five hundred years old. Which is still an impressive age. According to the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, it is the oldest tree in Europe.

It's said that in the little village of Aegio, in the north of the Peloponnese, there must be an older plane tree. The Greek travelling geographer, Pausanias, who lived in the second century AD, already mentioned this tree. That's why this tree is called the plane of Pausanias. The archeologist Heinrich Schliemann in his book about Troy and the Peloponnese (1868) thought the plane to be about 1450 years old. The plane tree watches over centuries old fountains in Aegio. But its age nowadays has been brought back to some 600 years. Still, what an age!

Another famous plane tree is only known from the story that Herodotes wrote about the Persian king Xerxes. When Xerxes conquered Greece he found a plane tree so beautiful that he hung its branches full of gold. He left a soldier to watch over the tree.

If on Lesvos you walk up through the ruined village of Chalikas, you will find the path that goes all the way to the top of Mount Lepetimnos. On this path just after the village you will also encounter some huge plane trees. It's the most enchanting part of this path, when you walk under these magnificent arboreal giants that hover over a ravine. They don't need gold to be beautiful. The curved branches that reach for metres into the air, the thick knots like elbows, the hollow spaces that play with the light, they form such a statue that no sculptor could ever better. With their enormous branch like roots the trees cling to the sides of the ravine.

You will find a similar ravine just behind the village of Sykaminia. There more than one plane has toppled because the walls of the ravine slowly collapse when in winter gushing streams search for a way down. The fallen trees are still very impressive. However the planes above Chalikas will still endure. I should think they're centuries old and I wonder what you could see if these trees had had a hidden camera. Do we then see lovers, or families having a picnic, do we see wicked people that hang someone in the tree, do we see murders in the wood, persecutions? Or will you see only shepherds and their sheep enjoying the cool shade of the planes and the crackling sound of the fallen leaves? The path is not a busy highway and that's probably the reason why no conservationist organization ever found the trees.

There are quite a few plane trees in Greece that are considered protected monuments. Besides the above mentioned planes of Pausanias and Hippocrates, you will find protected planes in Scholari, Geroplátanos, Vavdos, Kambotades, Arta, Heraklion, Veria, Nafplion, Dimitsana, Valtos, Fthiotida, Lamia, Ilia, Azogirón, Messinia, Thessaloniki and Kalavryton. Then there are also some protected olive trees, a century old grape vine, a pine tree, an oak, a palm tree, a beech forest and last but not least the petrified forest of Lesvos.

Although I'm not sure if petrified trees are still to be considered as trees. But one thing is certain, they will be far older than any of those trees mentioned on the list of protected trees in Greece. Most of them are sequoias and pines and they are millions of years old.

Lesvos also has a famous plane tree, although not mentioned on the list of protected monuments. It's the plane of Theophilos in Karini. The Lesvian painter Theophilos lived from 1873 to 1934 and for some of this time he lived in the plane tree. When you are standing in the plane tree you can imagine that indeed it was possible to live there. A small bed, a table and a chair and still enough space to move around. To survive Theophilos also made wall paintings in tavernas, as he did in Karini. His work, that consists of naive paintings, depicts life on the island of Lesvos.

In Molyvos there also lives a kind of Theophilos. Stelios is his name and he works at the castle, where before the rebuilding (the rebuilding is not so quick, the castle is still closed for public), he had a small room full of his paintings. The merry scenes are all about life around Molyvos. Stelios might not be such a colourful man as Theophilos, who liked to be dressed in a kilt or in old soldiers clothing. Stelios is a special man and certainly one of the more colourful characters of the village.

Last week we met him when he was wrestling with two big bags. Being curious, I asked politely what was in the bags. I thought it might be feta and when he offered me something I couldn't resist the offer. Fresh feta is far better than the feta you buy in a shop. Instead, when I got a bag from the shop where we met, he took an enormous freshly slaughtered leg of lamb from one of his bags and put it in my plastic bag. When he saw my startled expression, he took another big piece of meat and put it in my bag...

Painters don't live in planes anymore. Stelios, who is also an archeologist, paints nearly as well as Theophilos. In the future he will be known as 'The Painter of Molyvos'. But he probably won't have a plane tree named after him. Maybe it'll be the castle: 'The Castle of Stelios'. And certainly the castle is already on the list of protected monuments.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 24 September 2007

Secret Sigri

It's cold! Instead of 28°C it's now only 18°C and the storm blows the waves into fuming white horses. That's a beautiful sight, but it really makes you think it's winter, like summer is definitely over.

In a few days the normal good Greek weather will return. Life will take its normal course. The elections are done, the children are at school, autumn can start.

This used to be different. Years ago the summer would last until the 15th October. From the 15th June until the middle of October whole villages moved to the seaside. The Australian writer Betty Roland described in her book 'Lesbos, the pagan island' how in the sixties Eressos and all its inhabitants, shops and kiosks moved by car and donkey to Skala Eressos, to live there for the summer.

I'd already asked myself why it is that on the Greek islands there are so few old villages at the seaside. The answer is simple. The people used to live as high as possible in the mountains, or as far away from the coast, so that they were difficult for the pirates that regularly looted the islands to find. Lesvos was even a pirate nest in the 15th century. Then the famous pirate brothers Barbarossa, born in the village of Papados on the Gulf of Yera, ruled all of the Mediterranean. (see: Boulevard News 20).

Skala means stairs, and so Skala were the stairs to the sea: Eressos and Skala Eressos, Kaloni and Skala Kaloni, Sykaminia and Skala Sykaminia, Kydonis and Skala Kydonis, Loutra and Skala Loutra, Polichnitos and Skala Polichnitos. Skoutaros doesn't have a Skala but has its summer houses at Anaxos, Andissa goes to Gavathas and Old Andissa and Clio goes to Tsonia.

Now most summer villages have been changed into tourist villages. Especially Anaxos, once a beautiful beach surrounded by fields and summer houses, is now stuffed with apartments and hotels. The villages that used to be deserted in the summer are no longer empty and I bet that many an old Greek now suffocating in the summer heat will long for the good old time when the whole village moved to the seaside.

The few villages that are at the seaside, had, just like the capital Mytilini, a castle to protect them. The most famous seaside village with a castle on the island is Molyvos. Petra is also by the sea but has no castle. It's probably the Maria church on the rock of Petra that protects this village. A seaside village which also has a castle is the village of Sigri. Sigri doesn't know mass tourism and is situated alone at the far western point of the island.

Many tourists will probably have had a quick view of the village, visiting the Petrified Forest and after that going to the museum of the Petrified Forest at Sigri. That's a pity, because Sigri has a lot more to offer to tourists. Especially to people that don't like mass tourism and like quiet beaches.

Sigri is the only white village of Lesvos. The merry white houses look out onto the port where even ferries sometimes go. In the summer the village has a few restaurants and most of them serve lobster as a local speciality. In the winter only the taverna in the port is open.

The large bay before the village is protected by the long island of Nissiopi where you can see some petrified trees. The port itself used to be protected by the Turkish castle that was built by sultan Mehmet in 1746. Especially the huge entrance doors are still very impressive. The big church Agia Triada is also a remnant from the Turkish occupation. The building used to be the mosque of the village. At the left side of the castle is a picturesque bay with a sandy beach that lies hidden from the winds that always seem to blow in Sigri.

That wind blows full on the beaches of Faneromeni, north of Sigri, where often you will find huge waves, a yet undiscovered paradise for surfers. At the beginning of this beach you will find rocks that seem to meander in funny shapes and where you can clearly see how very long ago lava embraced marble. The colourful lines make beautiful designs on the rocks. At the other side of the beach you will find the small Church of Zoedochos, built around a small cave. Behind this beach, along the river of Tapsas you will find surprising green fields with grapes, figs and almond trees. The small lanes are bordered by huge reeds that bow over the road, forming shadowy and cool tunnels.

If you would see the nicest view on the island, you also have to go to Sigri. Then you take the road to Eressos, which goes over rough and bare mountains. When you come over the top of the last mountain, the valley of Eressos opens up to you: sharp mountain tops, brown yellow slopes, white houses like white flocks in the scenery, files of green trees that snake through the landscape, wherever there is water in the ground. It is a breathtaking view.

I don't quite understand why Sigri hasn't yet been discovered by mass tourism. It's a lovely little village, with beautiful beaches and good restaurants. But maybe it's best like it is: a village that's not spoiled by Greeks who stuffed it full of apartment buildings, restaurants and shops. It's still a pure seaside village where the salt wind not only keeps the houses cool, but also the heads of the inhabitants, not yearning for the big money.

Unlike the municipality of Zacharoa, where in August during the latest wildfires on the Peloponnesos there were the most victims. Last week it was announced that the municipality together with the Ministry of Finance signed contracts with building developers in order to rebuild the burnt seaside. Hundreds of illegal buildings will be legalised and they'll add more buildings. They say that it'll be good for the local economy. So the arsonists got what they wanted! The region however is an area protected by the ecology department of Europe. After the elections the Greek government saw what a mistake was made and another Minister cancelled all the contracts.

Not knowing all the dirty games that were played in his municipality, last weekend the mayor of Zacharo died of his wounds sustained when he personally fought the flames...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Den xero

Three and a half years ago in Greece you could hear animated discussions everywhere. The socialist PASOK party had served its time. After being in power for decades, the Greeks thought they might see how somebody else would do.

This somebody else was Kostas Karamanlis and his party Nea Demokratia. He thought he was doing so well that he called an early election for the 16th September.

But on this day you will not hear animated discussions like in the past. The people are tired after the hot summer, they are tired of the wretched television images of the wild fires, they are tired of all the discussions seen on television, they don't believe any more in the leaders of the two biggest political parties who keep on accusing each other. Last week when Karamanlis visited Lesvos for the elections, there were no crowds to receive him. Maybe the few that were there cheered him for being the premier, but not for being the future premier. More than one Greek will have thought that he is a man with many promises which never happened. The Greeks lost their faith in politics.

In Myitilini there were some posters that praised one or other political party. In Molyvos there was no sign that national elections were going on. Mothers were angry because of their children being out of school for a few days, because the school is used for the elections. They could not be too angry because last year was worse. When the schools started then, the children were home for 6 weeks because the teachers were on strike.

Last October the situation was quite different. For the election of a new mayor everybody in Molyvos was busy in order to gather votes for their favourite party. Even our telephone didn't stop ringing with all the invitations we got to attend election meetings. In the whole village there was no talk other than about a new mayor and wherever you looked you would find the eyes of a prospective mayor staring at you from the posters.

Here in the municipality of Molyvos there are no complaints about our new mayor. Even the tourists remark that there is a man cleaning the streets. We do have to push the municipality sometimes to make sure that they remove the boats of the refugees from the beach, but that problem is like a flowing river you cannot stop.

Maybe if there hadn't been those big wild fires in the Peloponissos and Evia, the Greeks would have been discussing a new parliament. Now the people have had it. They no longer believe the fine words of Karamanlis, nor those of Georgios Papandreou, the leader of PASOK. The third biggest party in the country, the KKE (communist party) and the smaller parties: Syreza, a party that is a mixture of commnunist and ecological groups and the right wing LAOS, a party that is anti immigrants and Jews, take their chances: they hope for more seats in the parliament thanks to the mistrust of PASOK and ND.

The Greeks themselves do not believe in small parties. The KKE is too strict and Syreza and LAOS are too small to change things. If you give your vote to a small party, a big party can take this as an advantage. Conclusion: most of the Greeks do not know what to vote. Den xero! There are even people who say: let Europe rule us.

The inhabitants of the small island of Lipsi (south of Samos and Leros) have another reason for not voting today. They feel abandoned by the state, because three years ago the ferry from Athens to their island was stopped. It resumed half a year ago, but that was not enough for the inhabitants, since another ferry to Rhodes was also stopped. So why should they vote for a state that doesn't care that their island is difficult to reach?

In the history of Greek elections there is another such incident. There was another small island with the same problems. The inhabitants went to vote, but then refused to send their votes to Athens. The government could come and get the votes themselves, with the promise of a ferry line.

Then there's another group of people who don't want to vote today. The victims of he wild fires have other things to think of instead of wondering which party is to blame for this disaster. They are sure that whoever wins, they will be forgotten in a few weeks.

And so today it is a Sunday as usual. A fierce wind makes sure that the temperature doesn't rise too high, tourists are walking along the beaches, the Greeks are gathered in their village of birth where they have to vote. They enjoy big Sunday lunches and stay unsure if they'll go and vote. Some have got the money, or part of the money for their fares to their home villages from a political party. But nobody controls if in fact they give this party their vote.

At the lunch and coffee tables in Molyvos and Petra the discussions aren't about the elections but about the bankruptcy of Olympia, a Dutch travel company. To which hotels or apartments do they still owe money? Who is likely to go bankrupt because they're still owed tens of thousands of euros from Olympia? The conclusion is that the tourist business is getting more and more risky. Each year now travel companies go bankrupt and take owners of small apartment complexes with them.

And so life goes on in a country where you have to pay not only the doctor's fees but also thank him with an envelop, where the salaries are too low, where the pension funds are paying too late or not at all. A country that has to return millions of euros to Europe because they where incapable of getting all of their land registered.

The Greeks are finished with their political leaders. The Greeks are tired of all their unfulfilled promises, they are tired of their country that is still between a third world country and a modern state. The Greeks are not proud anymore: the images and the criticism of the fights against the wild fires were too devastating.

So who is going to win today? No Greek seems to be interested. Because PASOK is bad news, as well as Nea Demokratia. There is no more choice today. Neither was there in the past, nor will there be in the future. I never saw the Greeks so sad.

17th September. Nea Demokratia has won a majority with 43% of the votes, which means that Karamanlis can continue ruling Greece. As predicted the big parties lost a lot of votes to the small parties like KKE, Syreza and LAOS. It's even the first time since the ending of military dictatorship in 1974 that an extreme right party won seats in the parliament: LAOS won ten seats.

And Lesvos? It was a close race between PASOK and Nea Demokratia. But maybe Karamanlis' visit made a difference: he won with a small majority. Lesvos is no green island anymore... (green is the colour of PASOK). But it keeps on being an exception for Greece. The island used to be communist and the KKE is still strong here. This election the KKE got 14% of the votes, which is more than the double the amount they got in most other voting districts.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Climate Neutral Flying

Weather can be cruel. From a comfortable 36°C, temperatures early in the morning and at night dropped suddenly to 15°C. In the daytime it was a poor 10°C higher. They're such cold nights that we have to creep back under the covers. Even some showers visited us, but they brought only a meagre amount of water. That's how the island slowly slips into autumn, the time for trips to the woods.

Lesvos is a pretty forested island. The centre of the island is covered with extensive forests of pine trees. Around the highest mountains you will find some more mixed woods, like with royal chestnut trees and sculpture-like old planes. September and October are the months that you go to the forest, not only because the cool temperature invites you to walk, but also for the chestnuts, the mushrooms and the pink cyclamen that will soon appear.

Lesvos has always been covered with woods. The Petrified Forest, with the sensational sequioas that were petrified by a combination of volcanic eruptions, rain and fire, are the oldest example. Then came the oak trees that they used for building ships and later they used the acorns for the leather tanneries. Nowadays there is no longer any wood industry. There are some wood cavers in Agiasos but for their furniture they use wood from abroad. There is a small industry of utensils carved out of olive wood because these days much of the island is covered with olive trees. The pine trees are protected. To cut a pine tree on your own land you must have a pretty good reason to obtain permission.

The most wonderful forests are found around Anemotia, Parakila, Chalika, Olympos and Agiasos. In Uganda you can walk in climate woods, which are planted to compensate for CO₂ emissions. What's the connection between a climate forest in Uganda and a forest on Lesvos? Well, if you like the environment and you want to visit a forest in Lesvos, you can help a forest in Uganda by flying climate neutral. To fly to the island you buy yourself a ‘Green Seat’ in the aeroplane.

The Foundation Face (which in 2006 became the foundation ClimateNeutral Group, which works with this GreenSeat-project, carried out some environmental forest projects like planting 9.000 hectares of trees in Uganda. Why there? Because it was the cheapest place to do it. Typical Dutch. Spend as little money as possible and don't look around for other problems. It's easy to see what happened in Uganda: some small farmers were thrown off their land, compensated not at all or just a little, and some businessmen could stuff their Swiss bank accounts.

The businessmen got rich and the farmers try to recover their lands in the forest. They cut the trees in order to make charcoal and then the land is free again to grow vegetables. In this way a big part of the climate forest has already disappeared: ‘farmers in Uganda cut a big part out of a Dutch CO₂-forest’ (headline in the Dutch paper The Volkskrant on 6-11-2007). It's probably not enough that we dump our poisonous waste in Africa but Africa will probably also become our CO₂ dumping place.

But that's not really the thing that disturbs me. I keep on being disturbed by the term climate neutral flying. You can't fly climate neutral. An aeroplane discharges an enormous amount of CO₂ that helps create the greenhouse effect. So if you take a flight, you polute the planet and you stimulate air traffic. It's easy to buy that off with a little money. I would say: try to take as few flights as possible. Nowadays there are plenty of Dutch people who take flying holidays two or three times a year. Is that eco-conscious?

And I have an idea as well for the Foundation Face/ClimateNeutral Group: I know an area of thousands of hectares that needs new forests and maybe you'll get even some money when you plant trees there. The advantage of the place is that it's in the middle of a tourist country where there are a lot of flights. The CO₂ discharge can be gulped down immediately by the trees. And when the tourists really have to fly climate neutral, the aeroplane can make a small detour so that each climate neutral passenger can control their own CO₂ tree. You'll find that soon you'll be able to sell climate neutral travel to people who want to visit this climate forest. Also because the region is known as the cradle of our civilisation. There's even already a famous museum that can be situated right at the edge of the climate forest. The only enemies you will meet are some property developers and the nature. The property developers are easy to bribe with projects of building hotels for the climate neutral tourists. And the danger of fire is easy to stop with good management of the forest.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 3 September 2007

Invisible grief

We've just had the fourth heat wave of the year and again Lesvos came out of it without any fires. In some places in the country they're still fighting the flames. Although the weather forecast predicted that we should have some showers, none of them came to the island, they just stayed in the north of the country, in Evia and some of them in the Peloponnese, where the burnt and barren landscape was already threatened with another disaster: floods.

It is harvest time now: the almonds fall off the trees, the figs have already been ripe for some weeks and the grapes hang in clusters ready to be picked. Soon the walnuts will be ripe and the quinces will follow. Then, if the weather gods love us, there will be some rain and the snails will creep out into the open and mushrooms will peep above the ground. Then it will be time for the olive harvest. In October the nets have to be laid out under the trees.

Lesvos is a farmers land. They have a small export of sardines, ouzo and olive oil and most people have many olive trees, some fruit trees, pieces of land where they grow vegetables and have sheep and goats from whom they get milk to make cheese. Around Agia Paraskevi there are many cows. So the island can be seen as self-supporting.

The people of the island live a lot off their own produce. Most of them are not rich and life in Greece can be very expensive. Vegetables and fruit from the garden, almonds and walnuts to make sweets, grapes to make wine, all these products help to make life easier. In the autumn many people go picking chestnuts around Agiasos (there are also some chestnut trees in Argenos), in autumn and winter masses of people are gathering mushrooms and in the winter and in spring they look on the fields for wild greens (chorta and wild asparagus). In most villages there are womens co-operatives that produce jams, sweet fruit (spoon sweets or koutalia gliko), tomato sauce, cookies and marzipan cakes.

And then there are the olives that are to be preserved and to be pressed for oil. Greeks use about 35 litres per person per year. Olives are not only used for consumption. On Lesvos the soap industry has livened up a little thanks to all the tourists. Most people on Lesvos have their own oil that they distribute amongst their family, even if they live in Athens. And when they need money they can sell some oil through the co-operatives.

It was not easy to learn how to make jam or how to preserve the olives. We got to know that quinces make a good basis for liqueur. I have endlessly cracked almonds and pine nuts for marzipan, pesto, cakes or roasted almonds to be served with a drink. For weeks I had dirty brown hands because I forgot to put on gloves when peeling walnuts. I have skinned hundreds of tomatoes. I have picked kilos of strawberries, taken stones out of thousands of cherries, cooked I do not know how many apricots. I have pricked myself so many times during the picking of blackberries because I love blackberry liqueur. I have baked dozens of apple pies. I have learnt to look for wild asparagus and to know which mushrooms to pick. I'm starting to learning what wild greens you can eat and I learned to make syrup in a big kettle with figs (pettimessi).

I still don't know how to make cheese, because we have no goats or sheep. I am good at finding snails, but I've never prepared them for dinner. I love to eat them, especially when they are cooked according to a local recipe with quinces, but I still have problems preparing the snails to be cooked.

Especially if as a city dweller you come to live on such a green island, you go crazy about all the fruit and vegetables that grow in abundance. For centuries the Greeks knew how to preserve fruit and vegetables for the winter, although nowadays more and more people living in the city and modern mothers forget how to preserve.

Greeks who do not live in the big cities and are not farmers love to go to their gardens or plots of land after their regular jobs, in order to take care of their animals and their crops. When the tourists disappear at the end of the season, on Lesvos they all hurry to their olive trees in order to start the preparations for the olive harvest.

The victims of the huge fires on the Peloponnese and on Evia are going to have a very hard time. Most of them not only lost members of their family, friends or their house, they also lost a lot of gardens, where they worked so hard for so many years in order to get oil, fruit, vegetables, milk and meat. 3% of the national olive harvest is lost, 60,000 goats and sheep burnt alive. These numbers can hardly tell how the lives of these Greeks are disrupted. Their houses can be rebuilt or repaired, but they can no longer go to their land to prune the trees, to pick the fruit, to lay out the nets under the olive trees. They can no longer take care of their cattle or make feta. And even if they got new animals, what would they eat? It takes 8 to 10 years before an olive tree bears fruit. The 80 to 100 years old trees give the best and the most fruit. It will take years before the charred landscapes will produce grass and chorta again.

National as well as international millions were collected for the victims. These coming month they will still be the talk of the country. But when the Greeks go to their orchards to harvest the Greek gold, a lot of people will be forgotten. Those who stay seated at their kitchen tables because there is no harvest, those who ask themselves what in heaven they should do with their blackened plot of land...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007