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