Monday, 28 May 2007

O Keiros

Greece ought to be a boring country for the Dutch. We like to talk about the weather and in the summer there is not much to talk about here in Greece: blue skies, sun and heat. The only things that can vary are wind and temperatures.

This May was a big exception. For the whole winter we had beautiful weather, that ran into the first weeks of May, where it finished in a heat wave. This meant that everybody had the feeling that the starting season was in the middle of the summer. This was the hottest May for 47 years in Greece.

Another record was beaten after this: rain, wind and clouds. Not for just two days, but now already for more than ten days the weather forecast and the clouds are promising rain. We did not see that much rain and clouds during the whole winter and we are pretty glad of them, because we really needed some water. Now we do not have to water all plants every day, the plants are growing in a super humid climate and the yellow landscape slowly turns green. Even the empty riverbeds are filling up.

The bad weather however caused some problems: on the mainland many houses were flooded, flights had to be diverted on some islands and in Athens, roads washed away and of course in some places the electricity failed. While we picked some drowned strawberries from our field, whole crops of wheat and cotton were destroyed by hail storms in the North of Greece, snow threatened the harvest of peaches and citrus fruit and beets drowned in flooded land.

The saddest accident happened yesterday in Arcadia, where a group of hikers crossing the river Lousios were surprised by a torrent that swept them away. Six were killed, two are missing.

This year it was again stated that many houses were flooded not due to the bad weather but due to the bad water management. Rain is supposed to drain away through riverbeds. Many of them get clogged by illegal dumps.

The mayor of Zephyri declared that he has already waited two years for money to clean his riverbeds. Well, waiting in Greece doesn't bring you anything. The mayor of Elliniko, the 'rivièra' of Athens, knows this very well. Christos Kortzidis has been on hunger strike now for over a week. It is his way to protest against the illegal nightclubs and other bars that took possession of the beaches in Elliniko and ask up to 7 euro for admittance to the beach. It is an (unwritten) law in Greece that all beaches should remain accessible to all people. The government doesn't do anything, so Christos Kortzidis continues his hunger strike. To the horror of locals, fee-paying beaches were recently inaugurated on the island of Mykonos in the Cyclades.

So it might be a hot Summer, even though the weather continues to be sulky. Long range weather reports keep on forecasting various weather.

The natural world was already confused by the summer weather during the winter. It's happy with all the water, but still doesn't know what to do exactly. Spring flowers re-appear, mosquitos act like it's high summer and yellow field turn to green, like in autumn.

And then there are the tourists. Last week many of them arrived in the pouring rain. Welcome to Lesvos. Nobody can help it that the weather has gone crazy these last few days. Although it must be said that most days do have some hours of sunshine and temperatures are at summer levels.

Nice weather or not, Greece keeps on being a magically attractive country, which was proven last week by the 90 year old Englishwoman Kathleen Searles. Her whole life long she dreamed of coming to Isvoria (close to Naoussa, Macedonia). Last week, together with a nurse, she took a cab and drove the 3,000 kilometres to Greece in order to visit the site where Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle. After a half hour stay she got back in the cab and disappeared back to England!

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Sunday, 20 May 2007


You know that most of the time I write hymns of praise for the island. And that most of the time I love its inhabitants. However this week I will write about a nasty character trait that many Greeks have: professional jealousy. Greeks are easygoing people, except when one has too much success. Then they start teasing, complaining and in the worst case they send the authorities to investigate.

In Greece not only the foreigners need a nightmare of papers. The Greeks themselves hardly know what papers they need for a business. Mostly they settle their papers using a friend and whenever possible they try to avoid taxes and neglect laws. This is fine until somebody thinks that somebody else earns too much money. Then he will send the police to find out if this money making person has all the required papers, if he pays his taxes and if there might be illegal workers.

There are supermarkets that complain about people selling vegetables from a truck. Good businesses are boycotted because the owner isn't local, popular bars are said to be a nuisance for their loud music. Greek people don't like seeing their neigbours earning good money.

Last week air traffic controllers went on strike because they were unhappy. Travellers from Holland had to catch the boat in Athens to come to the island and Dutch vacationers leaving the island had to travel through Turkey to catch their plane in Izmir. On Lesvos some state guides were also unhappy. They did not strike, but they threatened to go to the police because they lose revenue thanks to the fact that less and less tourists will come with them. The guides enviously watch jeeps full of tourists being led by a non guide, or groups of walkers accompanied by a non guide through the gardens of Molyvos.

As long as there is tourism in Greece, state guides are trained to tell of the glorious past of this land of the Gods. When for example on Lesvos you go on an excursion to the Petrified Forest, there has to be a state guide. This is also obligatory when visiting a monastery or a village that has historical value like Molyvos, Skala Sykaminia or Agiasos.

However bus trips are not that popular anymore with tourists. They prefer tearing through the island in jeeps or taking walks. These excursions are very popular and mean that the number of people going to the Petrified Forest or Agiasios decrease, creating less work for the state guides. So they are angry.

They don't ask themselves why the public wants other excursions, they don't find out what excursions they want. They prefer to threaten via the authorities to accuse the guides of being illegal. Well, luckily enough you are allowed to accompany tourists, as long as you don't tell them anything about Greek history.

For example Dolf during his city tour accompanies you through Molyvos. He gives directions, leads you through the centuries old streets, shows you the way to the castle and makes sure that you can find the harbour.

Sigrid takes you along on her two day jeep safari. She drives in front, she indicates when you should change gear, she points out woods and rivers, she leads you up and down mount Olympus, she tells you where you can swim and eat and she makes sure that you have a night to remember at the Hot Springs of Lisvori.

Then there is Jan who accompanies the excursion Lesvos Specialities, usually called: walking with Jan. He points out what grows and what flowers, he tells stories about what is done with the plants, he shows you where you can buy regional products and he takes you to Perikles, where his wife supervises you making your own lunch.

Then there is the newest excursion: snap shot. This is for advanced walkers interested in photography. Jan (from walking with Jan) accompanies you on the Alexander walk up above Lafionas and he will make sure that you take beautiful pictures of the breathtaking views you will pass and how to take close ups of flowers.

It is clear that state guides are not educated to climb up and down small streets, that they will not bite the dust and race over mountains in jeeps and neither will they be educated to tell everything about what grows on the island and neither are they skilled to help with photography. So when these state guides are smart, they will realise what tourists want and improve excursions instead of complaining.

This means that on these new excursions there will be no guide but an accompanist. And whenever this person makes a slip of the tongue about Greek history, never mention this or the new excursions will be banned and the only thing left will be bus trips again.

However, I must underline that it is definitely worth going on an excursion to the Petrified Forest. Because not only will you see something very unique, but the bus trip travels through an impressive part of the island, so you can also see this excursion as an island tour. Dutch travellers may be happy to find besides a state guide the accompanist Dolf, the best bus trip entertainer you will find on the island.

If you do not speak Dutch, it's a pity. Because Dolf, Jan and Sigrid are at their best speaking their mother language. In this case I advise you to do like the Greeks: demand that your tour operator finds you an accompanist who speaks your language and who is able to accompany and entertain you on jeep tours and walking tours.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 14 May 2007

A Dog's Life

A while ago I read a book by the American writer Ted Kerasote: 'Merle's Door'. The subtitle is: lessons of a free thinking dog'. The writer found the dog as a pup during one of his canoe trips in America and took it home. He developed a strong relationship with the dog, that ended in an experiment giving the dog as much freedom as he wanted. For example he made a cat door for the dog, so that Merle could come and go inside the house whenever it suited him. It is a moving book full of wisdom, philosophy and psychology about dog behaviour.

I am no specialist with dogs and I never tried animal psychology. But I can talk about letting dogs live in freedom. Our dogs, Albino, Whisky and Rocky have as much freedom as Ted Kerasote's dog. For example I never chose the dogs, they arrived one day at the house, acting like they were really pathetic dogs and wanting food. And then they thought: "Not a bad house, I'd better stay". Here I must say that as with the cats, nobody is allowed inside the house. But we do not let them freeze. When winter arrives we make dog and cat houses on our terrace, in order to protect all cats and dogs from the cold winds and the rains.

In winter nothing happens here in Eftalou. A few walkers, a jogger and some cars are the few users of the Eftalou Boulevard. So the dogs hang around the house, play with each other and wait until you take a walk, as if they did not stretch their legs the whole day long.

Coming out of the house three weeks ago, a bunch of 20 cats and 3 dogs awaited you. They all wanted attention. Now that the season has started, it is perfectly silent outside. Tourists are a group of people our dogs and cats think are irresistible. People having a holiday have more time for them, and probably also nicer food. So we are soon forgotten, each day the dogs go out and most of the cats have disappeared to where they came from: the hotel.

The first summer Albino came to Eftalou as a pup he spent at the hotel. Just like the past 2 summers, he now goes to the hotel where he socialises with the tourists and the hotel dog, who are hanging around the pool, and even more important, around the cafetaria. In between he sometimes comes home for a quick check to see if we might be up to something interesting. But when he sees us working in the garden or at the computer he soon leaves. You see him thinking with his bright brown eyes: I have better things to do!

Whisky, the dog that walked alone from Plomari to our house, has other interesting things to do. She thinks she is a tourleader. So she picks up everybody moving on two legs on the Eftalou Boulevard. She walks them to the Hot Springs, returns with other people to the village of Molyvos or makes a tour around different hotels. Whisky is no pool dog, but prefers walking all day long. In the afternoon she comes home for a little siesta. Waking up she waits for her dinner, which is mostly not what she thought she would get. Then she turns her back on me and jumps into her basket, where she can dream about her favorite pastime which next to escorting tourists is hunting foxes, birds and squirrels.

Then we also have Rocky, or, we used to have Rocky. Rocky's playmate Vrini recently moved further into Eftalou. Vrini first used to come back and sleep here, but now that Vrini no longer comes around often, it seems that Rocky has moved in at Vrini's new place.

So you see: not all dogs walking alone on the streets are pitiful animals. Sometimes I really get nervous when I see them standing in the middle of the road, wagging their tails cheerfully. When the tourists appear, the speed on the road increases. In the summer you get these stupid eager beavers thinking that they look good by speeding.

When I see these speed idiots, I think about getting them tied up. I mean getting the dogs on a chain, although I would prefer to tie up these race monsters. However, it is out of the question tying up Albino, because he is badly traumatized by anything that looks like a chain or a rope. As soon as you try to tie him up, he is so scared of losing his freedom that he has already run for miles. He might have been an escaped chain-dog!

And then we have Whisky, who in Plomari used to walk on the lead so easily. With her solo tour Plomari to Eftalou I think she proved sufficiently how well she needs her freedom. You cannot tie her up then, can you? And then there is Rocky. He is the most stubborn dog of all. Even when you tell him seriously that he has to stay home for a day because I have to cut his curls that cling together, he nowadays has disappeared before you can even serve him his breakfast.

We used to have a poodle Stratos who went each morning at six o'clock to a neighbour to do yoga. The woman only had to lay out her mat and Stratos sat on it, looking straight forward, as if he was already deep in a trance.

Last year they used to deposit small pups at the school in Molyvos. Parents do no like to say no to their children or to a small lovely doggie. In this way many a pup found a home, instead of being killed. I only ask myself how many of the children and parents have kept on with the growing pups and how many of the dogs are back on the streets.

Every year the cat and dog populations shrink because of an idiot who scatters poison. Last week it happened again with a few dogs. One victim was even sitting in a garden behind a fence on a chain! Malakkas!

Stray dogs that find a master or a home are really lucky. A luck they know how to keep. Because who doesn't want a life of every day getting served drinks and food and having the whole summer a long holiday by the pool? That is a real dog's life!

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 7 May 2007

Water ballet

Don't get the idea that by mentioning a water ballet I mean that it rained cats and dogs. I think that in the coming months all showers will skip this island, even though the weather forecast is very optimistically predicting rain showers within a few days, with a 70 % chance that it really is coming. When the rain days approach, just like the showers, the bad forecasts melt like ice in the sun. Take today. The temperature really tried to create such a heavy atmosphere that the only way out seemed to be a really good thunderstorm. Well, I counted some spots of water and that was all. The one and a half days of heat wave was gone without a whimper.

The water ballet was inside the house. The boiler slowly burnt out. It was only two years ago that we bought a new boiler. So it was rather new, but leaking nasty brown water from its pipes. It is not that we have a water crisis yet, but I must bear in mind that this crisis will come soon in the high summer months. And anyhow, I always take care about my use of water and energy. So we had to organise a complete new water system these last weeks. The leaking water was collected in plastic water basins so that we could use it for watering the plants and for the toilet.

The toilet is another story. For years we had a leaking cistern. So we always closed the water tap, which was irritating when you forgot to open the tap before going to the toilet and then had to wait 5 minutes afterwards, in order for the cistern to fill. So we installed a new cistern last year, one that looked very good quality. It was only a few days before it started leaking again, just like the old one.

It went through my mind to buy an expensive boiler. Here in Greece these things are not that expensive, but most of them are of such a poor quality that instruments and installation materials do not last long. The Greeks do not know what quality is. Well, that might be understandable knowing that only 25-30 years ago the country was still very poor.

It takes some time to learn the lesson with the boiler and the toilet. It is a fact that here in Molyvos and in Eftalou the water pressure is too high. This means that all materials having to deal with running water don't last long. The water running from the mountains is probably hard to handle and makes leaking toilets and boilers very common and makes the pipes sing, a deafening concert like you have ship's sirens inside your house. A boiler here has a life expectancy in the region of about two years. Plumbers here have plenty of work. Every two years they have to replace the boiler in each house. They also come for a leaking toilet, but there is not so much you can do there. You may even think that this high pressure business is a conspiracy by the plumbers. But when they have to replace the umpteenth boiler, they swear as much as their clients. And let me get one thing straight. The bill for a plumber here, including a new boiler, is no more than just the call out charge for a plumber in Holland.

But there are times when you could cry out loud because of all this bad quality stuff. I don't even complain about the absence of building material shops that grow as fast as trees in Holland. Here, to get all you need, you have to go all over the island.

So under the boiler first there was a little tray. Then there came a bucket and then a huge plastic basin that was filled within an hour. There was plenty enough of water to flush the toilet. It was a real relief when the plumber came with a new boiler. For the next year we'll get water from the tap. After a year we'll probably start again with a little tray and then...

I understand now why these things are so cheap. And why you need these cheap things like a boiler, because you have to replace them so often. Whole books are filled with stories about building a house in Greece. I understand why that could be a nightmare. You not only have to work yourself through an administrative hell of papers, but then there come the workmen that you should supervise. Before you know it they put your house the other way round, make the kitchen in the space where you planned your living room or turn a bedroom into a garage. They put down tiles you never ordered, make the kitchen unit too low or paint your house red instead of creamy yellow.

In Greece you just have to be happy having a roof that is watertight, having a functioning stove to warm you, electricity from powerpoints and water from the taps. Even if that water arrives very enthusiastically and loud. And how long does a handyman last? Well, with all that stress I wouldn't give him that many years...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Day of the Albanians

The first of May is a public holiday in Greece just as in other countries. For most countries the first of May is Labour Day. In Greece it is the Day of Flowers. You would agree with this because on this day most of Greece, including Lesvos, is covered with flowers. The natural world is at its most beautiful. Beautiful green with thousands of flowers make some spots so incredibly beautiful that they surpass the famous flower fields in Holland.

Women make garlands of flowers and exchange small first of May bracelets that bring luck for the whole year.

While in France thousands of people go onto the streets to attend the various First of May demonstrations, here on the island most people take a ride around the island. They go to Molyvos or other special places, they take a walk by the sea and they go out for lunch. They may not even know that the first of May is also Labour Day.

Last century Greece was a country of emigration. Between 1944 and 1974 about a million Greeks left the country to look for a better life elsewhere. They mostly went to America and Australia. In the sixties a lot of them went to Western Europe, especially to Germany. Even though on many occasions there were also opposite streams of immigration, emigration was always greater than immigration.

Immigrants were mostly Greeks returning to their country. They had to flee the country they lived in, they'd earned enough money or because life had improved in Greece. On Lesvos for example you will find a lot of Greeks who lived for some time in Australia or Venezuela.

However in the last 10 years Greece got to know a quite different phenomenon: a stream of 'foreign' immigrants started flowing in. A growing economy made better schools possible and the Greeks could embrace modern prosperity. This meant that there developed a shortage of labour, especially for low paid workers like in the building industry and agriculture.

The biggest group of immigrants in Greece are from Albania, the poorest country of Europe and also a neighbour of Greece. Then there are also a lot of Romanians and Bulgarians. Legal or illegal, they form the new working class that keeps the wheel turning of the Greek economy. For example, without these foreign workers Greece would never have succeeded in staging the Olympic Games. About 60% of the people working on the new buildings for the Olympic Games were foreigners. And now they work on the land, pick the olives and build the new houses the Greeks finally have the money for.

Also on Lesvos there is a shortage of low grade workers and the demand is mostly filled by Albanians. Not only for work in the agricultural sector, or in the developing building sector, but also in the restaurants and hotels. Greek chambermaids, gardeners, waiters or dish washers are becoming a curiosity, because the better educated Greeks do not want those jobs anymore.

If Greece had its Labour Day, it would have to be the Day of the Albanians. They work day and night for far less money than the Greeks. On this Day of the Flowers they clean the rooms of the tourists, they take care that the garden is done, they work on the land for your salad, they wash your dishes in the crowded restaurants and they take care that all hotels are ready to welcome their clients.

Because the season has now really started. Even though a wall of the kitchen of hotel Alcaeos collapsed so the guests had to take their dinner in the neighbouring hotel Sunrise, even though in some hotels all apartments are not well equipped so that the guest have to do with only one fork and a plate in the kitchenette, even though some of the tour leaders arrived on the same plane as their customers, not having been very well prepared and even though in Hotel Panselinos they found a leak in the water pipes, so that the first day at the pool was not that great.

Just for the record: it is not only the Greeks anymore who make you have a wonderful stay in Greece. I wish you a very nice holiday and a great course in Albanian.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007