Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Overheated insects

It is hot, hot, hot! Outside the temperature has risen to 37°C. Inside the temperature tries to reach the same height. But here at the coast we don't complain. In many parts of the country for days already it has been over 40°C. I know that Athens and all the other Greek cities, and cities in countries like Romania and Albania that are hit by the same heat wave are hell at the moment. Athenians who arrived here last week said it felt cold here in Eftalou, compared with the Greek capital.

Of course new weather records were set: this is going to be the hottest month of June for 90 years (and we still have some days to go), we are probably going to have the hottest summer of this century (well, this one is only seven years old, or do they mean a hundred years?) and the island of Rhodes set a new record with a temperature of 45°C on one of its beaches.

I also set a new personal record: I did not sleep for two nights in a row. It is so difficult to get to sleep in this soaring heat. Sweat is running down you and before you know it you are lying on wet sheets, so that you probably want to jump into the washer yourself along with the sheets. I could try to sleep outside in the hammock, but then I would probably be covered with all kinds of cats, which will not contribute to a cool night.

The best thing is to stay inside for as long as possible, waiting for late afternoon to go to the beach and cool off in the sea. That is just what the ants are thinking, except that they make themselves very busy and do not want to go to the sea, so they squat in the house.

I remember a far cooler heat wave in July two years ago. Then the ants also took over the house. On the internet I found an article by the South African professor Clark Scholtz who confirmed that during heat waves ants go inside houses because outside it becomes too dry for them.

So this is happening to our house. Wherever you look you see ants busy looking for something, but what? Sweet? Water? They climb into your computer, they dive into your cup of tea, they storm into an empty pan which you just cooked your jam in, they steal the food from the cat, they occupy the dustbin, they attack dead insects on your windowsill. Nasty animals they are!

So it is mostly in vain that you try to keep cool in this heat, because these nasty little things keep on calling: 'Sweep me up, sweep me up!". Cleaning the house from top to bottom - a very nice job to do during a heat wave - is not enough because you should also control all flying insects in order to see they do not drop dead, because then the ants throw themselves en masse upon that little dead body. And whenever you cleaned one part of the house, you can start again at another part, because ants seem to like well scrubbed surfaces as much as one drop of spoiled marmalade.

Insects mean trouble in this heat! I thought we closed all tiny openings in the house, but spiders and other creepy-crawlies keep on finding a way to enter the house. Lately we were even stalked by an enormous wasp (Vespa Crabro, the biggest in Europe), one which you are not supposed to kill because it is a protected species. That's not the reason why every day I put it back outside. I preferred to catch it in a glass and give it back its freedom, because otherwise I had to get out all cleaning stuff in order to wash off a nasty spot on the wall. How this huge insect always got in, we never found out.

Keeping a cool head is also difficult when you are attacked by this zoom-zoom noise. To the left, right, up, down, you keep on turning your head, but that bloody little mosquito stays invisible. Whatever function mosquitos have, except annoying people, I have no idea. But it's a fact that they're the cause of many a sleepless night.

The cats are at their last gasp. Too hot to hunt, too hot to play. Today and tomorrow in Greece people may stop work at noon. Not only to spare the working people, but also to spare electricity, because we now have daily power cuts. They say that after a warm winter follows a hot summer. And we still have two summer months to go... Well, I can survive this heat and I decided not to worry about the ants anymore. They say that the heat wave will continue for another two days. But when it cools down, for sure I will kick out all those stupid ants, even if it takes me three days of cleaning!

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 18 June 2007

Fruit mess

Recently we had unusual summer weather - a lot of clouds and some serious rain - but fruit continued to ripen like everything was normal. Some weeks ago the strawberries were ready to be harvested. In Holland we call them Summer Kings, but there were some days when I had to rescue them from the mud. Last year we planted some strawberries on a little patch of land. Strawberries however spread and this piece of land now looks like a proper strawberry field. I am very grateful, but every two days, when I was in the field to pick them, I didn't know where to put my feet, too afraid to trample on them. Because of this it took me hours to pick them and at the same time I did some gymnastics, because you would not believe the ways in which I had to twist my body in order not to squash some fruit. I was lucky not to go flat on my belly amongst them. Then I had to go into the kitchen to make them into jam. You get bored eating yogurt with strawberries every day, then finishing with strawberry bavarois.

This year we hoped to experiment with - for us - a new fruit. I have no idea why we only discovered the muzmullas this year. Muzmulla is the Turkish name used in Greece for loquats. It is a yellow egg shaped fruit in a tree with leathery dark green leaves. The trees remain green the whole year through and they originally came from Japan and China where for thousand of years they grew these trees for the delicious fruit. The taste is fresh and sweet and makes you think of apricots. To make jam from them is a real adventure.

We decided to make a jelly with them. You cook the muzmullas, then you hang them in a cloth in order to collect the juice. Then you cook the juice with sugar into a jelly. Making jams sounds very easy, but it is not. Here on the island we haven't yet found preserving sugar, so we make our jams with normal sugar, which is okay, you only have to know how long you have to cook the fruit. So we still have in stock some smoked apricot jam, with a slightly burned flavour.

We cooked the jelly for too long and nothing was left of the muzmulla jelly. It tasted like sugar and the fresh taste of the fruit couldn't be detected anymore. So we made it into a catch-a-wasp-juice. To put into the wasp catchers that we are soon going to have to make out of plastic water bottles: you cut a bottle in two halves, you put the upper part upside down in the lower half, you put in some sugar syrup or muzmulla syrup - although any sweet drink will do as well - and you hang it in a tree. The wasps will dive in to party, but they will not find their way back out.

To prepare the muzmullas is a hell of a job. You have to take out more than one big stone, so that not much fruit is left. Plums or peaches are much easier to prepare: cut them in half and pick out one stone. By the way, those apricot stones are good to put in the jam as well: about ten pieces for 1 kilo of fruit makes the jam more spicy. You crack them, throw them for one minute into boiling water in order to remove the brown skin from the inner stone, you crush them and you add it to the jam 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time.

After the clouds and the showers came the heat. For days already the temperature has been way above 30°C, but that is normal for this time of year. However, every day impressive thunder clouds hang above Turkey, but they never seem to reach the island. Last week there was a seaquake to the south of Lesvos. There was no harm done. Just a few people were disturbed in their siesta.

The sun really tried to make up for the bad weather and our cherries - which are sour cherries - were first small but very soon grew into big juicy dark red cherries. So now each day we have to pick cherries. Sometimes I hesitate because I love the beautiful sight of the tree full of that bright red fruit. As do the birds. There are big jays which with every cherry they steal fly off laughing aloud that they fooled you.

Then those small finch-like birds did a better job. They just hung into the mulberry tree and ate all the fruit without making a sound. I didn't even realize the mulberries were ripe! Sometimes you really wonder why you have so many cats around. They don't bother because they probably know that birds are much quicker in a tree then they are. That was why little Wittgenstein was highly impressed by a tortoise that came his way and didn't flee. The tortoise moved his head and paws into his shell and when Wittgenstein carefully touched it, it only said tock- tock. Very boring, thought Wittgenstein.

It is also very boring to take all the stones out of the cherries when you want to make cherry jam. But once that task is finished most of the work is done. Unless you don't take care and the cooking mass of cherries rises out of the pan. Then suddenly you're standing in a sticky red sludge that sticks to everything. It is so sticky that you think that the jam is thick enough now. At least it is on your cooker, the walls and the outside of the pan. So you put the hot mass into sterilised jars, only to discover hours later that you made a cherry sauce instead of jam!

Heat wave or not, tomorrow we have to empty a peach tree of its fruit, we have to make a big bag full of plums into jam, liqueur and chutney and we have to save the last of the cherries from the bold birds.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Cultural barbarians

When you look at the history of the Greeks you can hardly call them cultural barbarians. The old Greek culture was full of monumental buildings and great philosophers. They invented democracy and a lot of Greek wise men are recalled nearly every day. In many parts of the world you will find Greek temples. Nearly all archeological museums in the world have a Greek item such as an urn or an old statuette.

Lesvos has a poor inheritance. No big temples or palaces. Just some castles. A few centuries before Christ was the Golden Century of the island. Lesvos was then a mighty state on land and at sea. It built towns across the sea where it is now Turkey. This region used to be called the Coast of Mytilini. The famous poet Sappho was then living on Lesvos, also the singer and poet Arion and the poet Alkeos were born here. In the centuries following Lesvos was a ball played by different hands: the Romans, Italians (Venetians and Catalucians), Catalan pirates, the Franks, Byzantines and finally in 1462 it was conquered by the Ottomans.

Only the Romans left an impressive building: the towering aqueduct of Moria. The Turkish were good at building public drinking water fountains, they constructed the now famous monopatis (walking paths) and the olive groves. They never built huge buildings. Lesvos was just occupied territory.

Neither did modern times provide Lesvos with impressing buildings. Although in some areas, such as Molyvos, they ensure that all new buildings are built in the traditional style. For really modern architecture you have to go southwards. Just near Plomari you will find modern houses on the strangest sites, like on top of a mountain. The suburb Agias Varvaras seems to be a modern residential area in the middle of olive trees, full of modern houses with a lot of non Greek- looking glass walls, corners and bay-windows.

Everywhere around the island you will find small museums like the local museums of Vatoussa or Napi. In Mytilini you will find the historical museum and the modern museum where they have prints made by famous painters such as Picasso, Chagall, Courbusier and Miro. In the capital, throughout the year, they have different exhibitions as well as one in the summer in Molyvos.

But for really modern art you have to go to Athens. Last week there was the Art Athina exhibition, organized by the Ministry of Culture, where about 70 artists participated. It didn't last long. A few days after the opening the police came in to seize a video installation by the Greek artist Stefani. The owner of the gallery was arrested and the gallery was closed.

The installation by Stefani consisted of a peephole through which you could see images from old porno movies from the sixties and seventies. One of the musical pieces you could hear was the national anthem of Greece. Which was too much for one visitor. He went to the police to complain and so there was another big row in the Greek art world.

Another cultural incident took place around the end of May in this same capital. During an exhibition to commemorate the death 30 years ago of Maria Callas, a dress of hers was stolen. A few days later the silk dress was returned by post...

Although Molyvos used to be known for its residential artists, modern art is not much to be found here. Shops all sell the same brick-a-brack, souvenirs, the same books, the same postcards. The one exception is in Petra, where you can find the little shop of the Canadian artist Paul who, besides his paintings, sells plaster fishes and other arty paraphernalia. There is no need to wake up a censor about this.

Athens remains the undisputed Greek cultural capital, with a censorship commission. The birthplace of so many famous philosophers, the city that is known as the cradle of the western civilization, this city should be ashamed of censoring their artists. This is not the first time that an artists work has been banned. In an exhibition for the opening of the Olympic Games an art work was taken out because the Orthodox Church was offended. A little later a comic strip about the life of Jesus was banned in Greece for the same reasons. And not only the works of art are removed, but also the artist is persecuted, and in this latest case the owner of the gallery as well. Lesvos was once a state of sea barbarians (pirates), in Athens nowadays you will find cultural barbarians!

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 4 June 2007


Not all tourists realise that Lesvos is geographically surrounded by Turkey. From the south, the east and the north, the island faces Turkey: the regions of Izmir, Balikesir and Canakkale. The small town of Ayvalik is opposite the North eastern part of Lesvos. This town, which used to be inhabited mainly by Greeks, until the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922, can be visited on a day trip from Lesvos. When you are in the north of the island and look to the left, it seems that Turkey ends there. But just around that corner lies the famous old city of Troy. The city of Izmir, also known as Smyrna, is further to the south, nearly at the same latitude as the neighbouring island of Chios.

According to a recent public opinion poll, 60% of Greeks think that parts of Turkey should belong to Greece: Anatolia, Izmir and Constantinople (Greece has never recognised the new name of Istanbul). If you did this poll on Lesvos, the outcome would probably be even higher, because many inhabitants of the island are from Turkey, or have parents or grandparents who come from the other side.

Centuries before Christ, Smyrna used to be an Aeolian city. Then it became an Ionian city. In 545 BC it was destroyed by the Persians, in 300 BC it was rebuilt by Alexander the Great. So much for its Greek history.

The Turkish conquered the city for the first time in 1076. In 1122 it was retaken by the Byzantines. Then the Ottomans and Genoese fought over it. In 1425 the city finally became definitely Ottoman. The Ottoman Empire ruled over many different peoples. In the 17th century there were Greeks, Turks, Jews and Armenians living in Smyrna, alongside powerful merchants from Holland, England, Italy and France. Izmir became an international trading city.

In Greece you learn that the Greeks especially were the greatest merchants in Smyrna. In many a book you will see pictures of proud Greeks in the once prosperous city. This idyllic international life came to an end with the Greek-Turkish war in 1922. When the Greeks lost, not only was the Greek army expelled from the Ottoman Empire, but also most of its Greek inhabitants. Izmir is known for the bloody slaughter when Greek people tried to flee from the harbour to the Greek islands. The city was burned to the ground and when a year later Kemal Atatürk founded the state of Turkey, not much was left of the once prosperous trading city.

There are 7 cities that claim that Homer was born within their borders: Salamis, Argos, Athens, Rhodes, Colophon, Chios and Izmir. As most people think that Homer was born in Ionia, this means that Homers birthplace must be Chios or Izmir. The most famous refugee to escaped from Izmir in 1922 was the wealthy shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Also the parents of Haris Alexiou were refugees from Izmir. This very popular Greek singer visited the country of her grandparents for the fist time after the earthquakes of 1999. While in Greece she had been popular for nearly 40 years, she then conquered Turkey as well.

It is obvious that Turkey is part of many a Greek family history and therefore it is not surprising that some Greeks think that a part of Turkey should be Greek.

About two months ago the government of Lesvos surprised its inhabitants by saying it wished to buy the Turkish island of Garip, which is located in the Aegean not far from Izmir (see: www.garipisland.com). The island is best known for a battle in 406 BC, between Spartans and Athenians.

Now it is a private island of a Turkish family who wish to sell it for some 11 million euro. A little after it became known that the government of Lesvos was interested in the island, the Turkish state said that the island could not be sold to Greeks.

Well, it was too good to be true. Instead of making war, buying your property back. Although I always doubted that if Lesvos had managed to buy the island, the Greek flag would have been allowed to fly on Garip...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007