Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Friesland dreaming

15 August is the Ascension of Maria and in Greece this day is the highlight of the summer. Every Greek tries to be away from the city. He goes to friends or family to celebrate the day with a huge meal. The islands are overflowing with people, just like the ferries and airplanes that do their best to see that this massive migration of the nation goes well.

Each island has its own traditions on this day. On Lesvos it is traditional to make a pilgrimage to a Maria church. The most important Maria church on the island is the Panagia Church in the centre of the mountain village of Agiasos. From all parts of the island inhabitants start walking to this church to honour Maria or to be forgiven their sins. It is quite a walk, because Agiasos lies high in the mountains and when you finally see the village, you still have a long climb to go. The biggest sinners that seek remission do the last few kilometres on their knees.

The climb to the Panagia Glykofiloussa church in Petra cannot quite be described as a pilgrimage. This little 18th century church is the second most important Maria church on the island. The church is on a 30 metre high rock, a 'petra' (which means rock in Greek). It has 114 steps leading to the entrance and around the Ascension of Maria many people make the climb in order to make a personal dedication to Maria. This is also a pretty stiff climb, especially for the old people who take hours once a year to get themselves to the top of the stair.

When 15 August is over, the people of Petra and Molyvos are relieved. The worst of the season is over: the troublesome inhabitants of the big Greek cities are leaving and the biggest crowds are gone.

However this year Petra and Molyvos got only a few days respite. On Monday the 20th of August the next load of demanding visitors came sailing in: The Aegean Regatta, a sailing event that is organized by different islands each year. This year the fleet went to Lesvos, Lemnos and then on to the island of Skopelos.

On Monday morning the fleet set sail from the capital Mytilini to the medieval city of Molyvos. I lay in my hammock, ready for the spectacle. Sometimes you get bored with looking out all year long over a peerless blue sea. They were supposed to arrive about three o'clock and when I didn't see anything I was afraid that they may have taken the route along the south coast. But at three o'clock sharp the first sailing ship came into view at Eftalou. The show was on.

The mild wind made the keels come out of the water and they needed a lot of manoeuvering to make their way to Molyvos. An unexpected guest was a dolphin that came to see what disturbed the usually quiet sea. Around 8.30 a lonely last sailing boat drifted past in the direction of Molyvos.

At first I counted all the boats passing by and how many crew each had. But there were so many that I soon gave up counting. No way was I going to the village that night. Each boat had at least 5 crew members and I thought that I saw at least a 100 boats. That makes at least 500 people in Molyvos harbour, which seems to be a little overcrowded for such a small harbour.

Yesterday night they had a party night in Petra. Today there are races between Molyvos and Petra. Just outside the bays of Petra and Molyvos this morning the sea was crowded. I could not see a single straight line for one boat but the chaos of all those merry white and coloured sails made a beautiful spectacle. From the beach at Hotel Dephinia you saw the sails fanning out towards the horizon. It made me think of the lakes of Friesland in the North of Holland, where in the summer in the flat green meadows you see lots of white sails floating through the landscape. In the blazing Greek heat I really was a little homesick for the flat green pastures of Friesland with their white sails.

Tonight there is another night of festivities in Molvyos and Petra. Tomorrow morning the Aegean Regatta will depart for the island of Lemnos, where again they will be partying. A day later it will set sail for the small island of Skopelos, their final destination.

Greeks do not use the sea much for leisure. Most of the ships you see at sea are ferries, fishing boats, freighters or tourist boats. Of course in the summer a small fleet of motorboats is out on the beaches, but it's as if Greeks don't like to be on the water too much. That's why this spectacle of so many white sails on the blue sea was a unique sight for Greece. It made a Dutch woman homesick for the lakes of Friesland.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 13 August 2007

Quarrels under the sun

The high season is in full swing. Even on the relatively quiet island of Lesvos you will now encounter traffic jams. All the cars have been rented out, no motorcycles are to be found and the thousands of cars of the visiting Greeks from the mainland and the thundering speed of some crazy womanizers make the traffic more dangerous than ever.

You can find the latest traffic jam along the beach at Petra, where two beachbars have made the beach so popular, that in daytime cars are parked on both side of the road and it is full of arriving and departing visitors.

Last year the first beachbar opened. It attracted only young people because of its deafening boom-boom music. This year the music became less loud, but then a second bar appeared and a lot, lot more customers. Once quiet Petra has now become booming business, but I wonder if everybody is happy with that. There are enough disco-islands in Greece where the young people can act as crazy as they like. I really hope that Petra is not a foretaste of such a place for Lesvos.

Except for some complaints from old Petra customers that see their peace and quiet threatened and some car drivers who are in too great a hurry, there are no problems about. On the beach at Hellenikon, near Athens there is trouble. Last Saturday fights broke out between visitors to the beach and workers from the municipality which saw the beach barred by bouncers from the nightclubs that seem to run the beach at night.

At the beginning of the summer season the mayor of Agios Kismas, the municipality where the Hellenikon beach is, started a hunger strike against the apparently illegal nightclubs at the beach, that also controlled the beaches in daytime, by asking lots of money for admittance. Last week, aided by a regional or national politician, who was probably well paid for it, a national court said that the nightclubs could resume their malpractices, while the municipality was against it. The law may not be written, but in Greece all beaches should be accessible to all people and this law is more and more threatened by people wanting to earn money, aided by politicians who only have to hold out their hands.

No, Greek law is still conducted far differently than the European way. Like the fight in Eftalou. Last year two sisters, who spend 2 to 3 months in their summerhouse in Eftalou, complained about the neigbouring restaurant Anatoli. They claimed that the new part of the restaurant, which has been there for years, was illegal and Angelo, the owner, didn't have a license for a restaurant, but only for a cafetaria.

The fight between lawyers and prosecutors took months. Untill deep in wintertime Anatoli risked closure from one day to the next. In the new year the fight seemed to have died down. Until the sisters returned this summer and refueled the fight. Now the mayor can do no more and the sad fact is that Anatoli has to close at the end of August.

In Greece you will find illegal buildings everywhere, but as long as nobody complains, no action is taken. The rule that if an illegal building has already stood for years, becomes legal, is no help in this case.

So Angelo is wrong with his illegal building. But nobody thinks of the importance of restaurant Anatoli in the municipality of Molyovs. Anatoli is the only restaurant that stays open in the winter (restaurant Eftalou closes for some months in the winter) and is a beloved place for daytrippers that come in their numbers on nice weekends to Molyvos. Anatoli is a unique place by the sea and where will the daytrippers go when everything is closed in Eftalou? And I don't even mention the high quality of the food served in Anatoli.

So who gets bothered by restaurant Anatoli, except two soured spinsters who only come to Eftalou for two months in summer in order to lock themselves up in their house, only coming out for their morning bathe in the sea? I'm bothered by their desert-like garden where two years ago they cut all the trees and that now has no flowers colouring the garden, I'm bothered by their spotless house where all the shutters are always closed and only one gets opened when the sisters are there.

And now that we are talking about cutting down trees, in the agora of Molyvos a part of the wysteria is threatened of being cut. This perhaps 200 year old wysteria, which covers the agora at the beginning of the summer with its colourful and beautifully scented flowers, is apparently damaging a house. The owner has no other solution than to cut this magnificent antique plant. For years already the various mayors have prevented this. But now it seems that the house owner found a way and managed to make a first cut to one of its enormous main branches. Are you against this destruction? Send me an email and I will see to it that it reaches the action committee.

It's a pity that nobody could talk sense into the two sisters and it's a pity that nobody found a better solution for the problem with the wysteria. One thing is sure: in Greece you either need to have a lot of money or you need friends in high places. Then you can have everything your way.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 6 August 2007

Fire and water

For weeks Greece was plagued by wild fires. Some days there were hundreds of fires all over the country. Kozani, Ioannina, Peloponesus, Kastoria, Athens, Crete, Kefalonia, Chios and Samos are just some of the familiar names from the long list of places where fires left catastrophic damage.

Indeed it was pretty hot with two heat waves in one month. The weather had never been better for arsonists. Not only nature came under fire, but also the Greek government. The two biggest parties, PASOK and Nea Demokratika, never stopped blaming each other: they weren't organised enough to control the fires and the government never did enough to stop real estate developers building on burnt areas. The majority of Greeks don't believe the burned down forests will be replanted, as premier Karamanlis has pledged.

While in some places there are still fires, in many places people have to get used to the destruction made by the fires and the government hopes that it didn't lose too much goodwill. But the next disaster is already here: drought. Especially on the Cycladic Islands, there is a water shortage, which will only get worse, because not only is the number of foreign tourists increasing, the Greeks also now come in large numbers to the islands, in order to cool off a little and for the celebration of the Ascension of Maria on the 15th of August.

Due to the very dry winter the shortage was predicted by everybody. And of course the two heat waves only made matters worse. Some islands even have money to build water reservoirs and desalination installations. But Greek bureaucracy is so slow that most of the plans still have to reach the design stage.

Lesvos did pretty well in the fiery month of July. We just had some small fires and Lesvos was barely mentioned in the long lists published in the papers daily of the places ravaged by fire. Lesvos is not a part of the thirsty Cycladic Islands, it is part of the North Aegean islands. That doesn't mean we can be careless with the water. Plomari in the south has for weeks had twice daily water cuts and the inhabitants are not allowed to water their plants anymore.

Of course the scientists keep saying: the climate's warming up! The Greeks accuse their government of not taking enough action for a better climate. The ancient Greeks used to blame the Gods on Mount Olympus for such disasters and tried to sweeten them into doing something by making sacrifices.

Nowadays the Greeks can endlessly debate politics and pray to the saints in the thousands of little churches that are built everywhere. The temples of the gods have disappeared, or are in ruins and only serve as moneymakers, thanks to the tourists. No soul looks up to heaven any more, to beg Zeus for a fresh summer rain.

Zeus is mainly responsible for the weather. The god of fire is his son Hephaestos. When Zeus' wife Hera delivered Hephaestus he was so ugly that Hera immediately threw him off Mount Olympus. Hephaestus fell into the sea and came ashore on the island of Limnos. There he built his forge and became best known for making beautiful weaponry.

Then it was Prometheus who stole the fire to bring it to the people on earth. Prometheus was punished for this by being attached to a rock on a mountain, where a vulture came to eat his liver each day, then each night the liver grew again. But the people now had fire. They could warm themselves and they could also use it for destruction.

That's how the fire came to earth. There were no gods on Mount Olympus responsible for extinguishing the fires, it was Zeus who had to decide upon the rains. So would it be smart to ask Zeus again to improve the climate? Governments promise a lot, but seldom do what they promise. We could start with rebuilding some of the temples dedicated to Zeus. On Lesvos you won't find temples anymore. But we could start by piecing together the remains of the Ionian temple at Klopedi near Agia Paraskevi, which was dedicated to Zeus, Hera and Dionysus.

We should also build a temple for Hephaestus. He might be responsible for the fact that his neighbouring island (Lesvos is below Limnos) was spared the summer flames. Look, it isn't thanks to the government that the North of Greece has had rain showers these past few days. Maybe Zeus took pity on the few fire fighters that still have to bring fires under control. And by sending rain to the North of Greece he could've been making clear that he still runs the show.

As usual Lesvos is only getting a few spots of rain. But seeing the dark clouds gathering above Lepetimnos, is a refreshing change from the constant blue heaven.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007