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