Wednesday, 31 December 2008

White After-Christmas


It wasn't that cold in Molyvos that we had a white Christmas. But the flood of rains that poured down on the island after Christmas coloured the villages like Filia, Skalochoro, Anamotia, Argenos, Sykaminia and Agiasos fairy-tale white.

Just like in Turkey the top of the mountains are still white and when you drive up the landscape gets whiter the higher you come until you imagine yourself in the Swiss Alps. A few Greek people predicted a very cold winter, because of the many wasps this summer and the many chestnuts that made the trees so heavy they were bending down. Probally signs for a heavy winter.

Like I mentioned before, according to the Greeks winter here just starts in January and already now in December we have snow and an ice-cold nordeastern blowing. So what can we expect from the real approaching winter...

Thanks to the cold there are not so many people on the streets. And tonight, when the old year will end, many Greeks will be sitting close to the fire at a green clothed table, playing cards. Playing cards is very popular on Lesvos (and in many other parts of Greece) during the winter. Biriba is the most popular game here on Lesvos, a kind of canasta. Trying to pass all those long, cold and dark nights, on some tables big amounts of money will change hands. Playing cards is as well a New Years Eve tradition: playing away the old year and while gambling entering the New Year. This night they will not play for large sums of money, in order that the losers won't have a too bad start of the year.

On New years Eve it is Agios Vasilis that visits many Greek homes to bring presents. This is the Greek variation for Saint Nicolas and Santa Claus, who do not appear in Greece on the 5th and 25th of December. Agios Vasilis comes during New Years Eve and the children wait patiently for him to receive their presents.

In France there is a cake known as a Epiphany cake (galette des rois); a kind of cake where they hide a little sculpture of a king and the one who finds it will be crowned and be a king for one day (6th of January). In Greece this cake is the vasilopita that gets served on the 1st of January. There should be hidden a golden coin and many a Greek will have broken a tooth or two on this gold. I never found a golden coin in my vasilopita, but instead an entire almond or walnut, what brought me luck for the coming year. According to the tradition the father should cut the cake. The first piece goes to Christ (did some monasteries get so rich thanks to the golden coins out of the vasilopita's?), the second part is for the house and then the cake is divided between all the family members.

For another Greek tradition that brings luck for the New Year you need a pomegranate: after midnight, when you exchanged all your New year wishes you go outside with a glass of water that you pour out into three wind directions saying: "Kalimera, Agios Vasilikos." Then you take a stone that you use to smash a pomegranate inside the house, just next to the front door. You leave the smashed pomegranate for some days and the you throw the remains out over a field.

Well, those are enough Greek traditions to bring you luck for the new year. I wish you all a very happy 2009!




Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas thought


In Athens and Thessaloniki the student riots continue. They occupied a TV studio and the cinema in Thessaloniki where the International Film Festival was held in November and where in March 2009 the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival will be held, they hang garbage bags in the large Christmas tree in Athens (the VIT [Very Important Tree] that was just replaced after the previous one was destroyed in the riots), or they hang huge banners with international protest slogans fluttering from the Acropolis in Athens.

Here on Lesvos everything remains calm and we're not much affected by the various strikes. What counts is that the gasoline and oil prices are significantly lower, a relief for a large number of people, because many people have very little money in the winter, also thanks to the officials who in charge of the various benefits (a.o. IKA), who make no efforts to get the money to the people in time.

What also continues is the arrival of refugees. Good or bad weather, they still come. Last week it almost went very wrong. In the night, when a strong south wind was blowing, a rubber boat was detected just outside the harbour at Molyvos, with 26 people on board.

Due to the high waves it took the Coast Guard a few hours in to get the boat bearing the frightened refugees, including women and children, into the harbour. They arrived ashore at half past twelve and then there was no chance to take the group to Mytilini, where the refugee centre is. So they were brought to the Saint Nicolas church (Saint Nicolas is the patron saint of seafarers), where residents of Molyvos, led by Melinda and Theo Kosmetos (also known as the owners of the Captain's Table, a summer restaurant in the harbour) ensured that the nearly-drowned got dry clothes and food to spend the night in Molyvos.

The mayor of Molyvos expressed his outrage that the refugee policy is so poorly regulated here on the island (which he has already done for months, but in Athens the politicians seem to have to deal with more important things). There are still not enough people to man the Coast Guard in order to give the refugees adequate help, and transportation to the capital is insufficient.

Some citizens offered to take the people themselves to Mytilini, but that is strictly forbidden: "you could catch a disease and the risk of an accident is too great" (as if not all Molyvosians travel to the capital at least once a week)! Instead of the government, now residents of Molyvos combined to organize a decent reception for the refugees. Last week there was a group of 40 Somalis who arrived in the late hours in the village and they had to spend the night in the rain on the street.

That night the weather was still fairly mild, but the weather forecasts for the holiday season speak for themselves: the temperature will drop towards freezing, the northeastern wind will arrive and at various places in Greece there might be a chance of a white Christmas. That will be no weather for the refugees to cross the sea.

While we are comfortable sitting close to our heater discussing the menu for the Christmas dinner, this discussion will be a short one for the Greeks, because most of them will have Christmas dinner with pork with celery (selinato) and also a bit of lamb, in case someone doesn't want pork. Served with well-known Greek dishes such as the pea puree Fava, tsatsiki and salad. During the whole day there are biscuits served such as the melomakarona that drip from honey. Christmas dinner in Greece is mostly served on the 25th in the afternoon and there is no official second Christmas Day, but the 26th is used by many to recover from the heavy eating on the day before.

While we sit happy around the fireplace dreaming of a white Christmas, across the sea in Turkey hundreds of people in a camp in harsh conditions are waiting for their chance to go to Europe. They are dependent on the weather and the smugglers that they have to pay a substantial sum to risk their lives in order to make the crossing in a rickety boat.

The refugees will only have one thought: reach shiny Europe, which continues to sink in an economic crisis. Not such a nice thought for Christmas, but still let us give some thought to all those people that left their homes to flee from war and other difficult circumstances.

I WISH YOU A HAPPY CHRISTMAS

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Monday, 15 December 2008

Name-days


As in many countries, on December 6 Greece celebrated St. Nicholas. However this 6th December was marked by a historically low point in modern Greek history, because a 15-year-old teenager was killed by a bullet from the police (which has now been proved, was not aimed at him) where after massive demonstrations against the police and against the government took place, riots broke out and they still continue. The damage caused by the hooligans is enormous.

So last week there was little to celebrate in the big cities of Greece. And Saint Nicholas is here not a celebration for children (see also: Santa Claus), but it is the name-day of all people called Nicos, and there are many of them in Greece. Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of all seamen and many churches along the coast are built in his honour. These small churches, some of which are built on impossible places and far from villages, most of the year look very desolate, but on the day of Saint Nicholas they get plenty of visitors.

If you look through the calendar of saints and Greek name-days, you will find the most beautiful names. But only a small number of them are regularly used. Greece has a rather particular way of giving names. The eldest daughter and son are called after their grandmother or grandfather, so that the same names always continue to circulate in the family and many nieces and cousins have the same name. Few parents dare to break with this tradition.

In the eyes of foreigners, it is funny that most Greeks are called all the same names. Like here on Lesvos names like Dimitris, Yorgos, Nikos, Jannis, Stratos, Panayiottis, Mary, Ismini, Elpiniki, Eleni and Dimitra you will hear quite often. Just call 'Yannis!' in a full taverna and I guarantee that at least ten men will stand up. For me it's still a mystery how the Greeks can separate all these people with the same name. Many are known by their family name or have a nickname. It's also little use to identify a person by his partner; we know at least three couples named Yorgos and Maria.

Some names are derivatives: Tula comes from Efstratoela, Babis is derived from Charalambos, Akis from Argirios, Zina from Zinovios. Tasos comes from Anastasios, which is derived from Anastasi (the resurrected), and this name-day is always at Easter.

Some names are bound to a region. Like here on Lesvos there are not so many people called Pavlos as elsewhere in Greece, but you find many of them in the southwest of Crete, where St. Paul was almost shipwrecked about 2000 years ago. There are also people named after a Greek such as Dionysos, the god of wine and partying. But then he is named after a saint that is named after a Greek god.

Newborn babies come off even worse. These shouldn't be named before they are baptized, and baptism happens one year after the birth, so officialy all Greek children live their first year of life under the name of baby!

There are a few names that are not derived from the name of a saint. Those people can celebrate their name-day on All Saints Day, which is 8 weeks after Easter, a variable date because (Greek Orthodox) Easter is always on a different date.

Birthdays are not much celebrated in Greece. Therefore name-days even more. If you keep an eye on the calendar, you will know exactly where all the parties will be. The day that many Greeks celebrate their name-day will probably be the 15th of August, the Assumption day of Maria, when all Marias and Panyottis celebrate as well.

Since the riots have broken out there have been the name-days of Ambrosius, Anna, Spiros, Stratos (Efstratios) and Lukas. Yesterday was quite a busy day: David, Adam, Debora, Danai, Abraham, Aaron, Arrianos, Eva, Esther, Liki, Isaac, Job, Noa, Rachel, Rebecca, Roemini and Sara. Today, December 15, there are only a few celebrators: Lefteris, Anthi, Sylvia and Suzanna. Chronia Pola! Here are the most important name days:

January 1: Vassilis
January 6: Fotis
January 7: Jannis
January 17: Adonis

February 10: Charalambos
February 17: Theodoros

March 25: Vangelis

April 23: Jorgos (as on this day Easter falls 2 days, the name-opposition)

May 5: Irini
May 9: Christos
May 21: Kostas, Eleni

June 29: Petros, Pavlos, Apostolis

July 8: Theofilos
July 20: Elias

August 15: Mary, Panaiotti
August 30: Alexandros

September 14: Stavros

October 26: Dimitris

November 8: Michalis, Angeliki
November 26: Stelios
November 30: Andreas

December 5: Savvas
December 6: Nikos
December 9: Anna
December 12: Spiros
December 25: Manolis
December 27: Stefanos

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Revolution


The major media in Greece call it a catastrophe. I call it a revolution. While in the rest of the world the bubble of 'grab'-capitalism burst in a natural way, for days now the young people here in Greece have tried to convince the government and the Greek people that also in their country something is completely wrong.

After a demonstration against the lazy government on Saturday, December 6 a 15-year-old boy was shot dead by police and then there was the revolution: mass demonstrations in all the major cities that led to riots and chaos with a lot of destruction.

Some said just plain: those are the anarchists. But if you took a closer look at the television images, you'd have to ask yourself where Greece suddenly found so many anarchists. Of course it's not just the anarchists who suddenly became active. For years the anarchists have been engaged in isolated acts of resistance, especially in Athens: they torch banks and like to bait the police. The district Exarchie in Athens is known for it, small riots are no exception there.

The death of the 15-year-old teenager was the trigger that the government should have long foreseen. For a long time activists tried to demonstrate using peaceful methods. For example, in Thessaloniki last year masked youths regularly penetrated supermarkets to grab basic food to distribute on the streets, as a protest against the high prices.

But the government was deaf to these actions, just as to the strikes that regularly paralysed daily life in Greece. So now the young people are angry and turning en masse against the political inaction. Promises of reforms that will never take place, a Government bursting with scandals that they prefer to cover as deep as possible. What future do young people have in a society that is ruled by a government filling their personal pockets and people who time and again vote for these same pocket fillers?

Last night, the third consecutive night of the 'catastrophe', Athens seemed on fire: shops, large Christmas trees, cars, banks, the office of Olympic Airways, a hotel and even an apartment complex were in flames.

The police had been told to hold back. And they did. Protecting themselves from the stones and Molotov cocktails they remained resigned in little groups opposite the hooligans, only making charges when it was really needed.

The government also remained reluctant about this 'catastrophe'. The only thing Prime Minister Karamanlis could say yesterday evening was that the public would be protected. Well, that was shown up on television: no stores were protected! Protect against what? Against money-hungry monasteries that stole 100 million euros from the state or against corrupt politicians and officials who get rich while sleeping? Against the increasingly rising prices? A fourth of the Greek population lives in poverty and Greece has become one of the most expensive countries in Europe.

Last night I watched the images on TV time and time again, from burning shops, dustbins, Christmas trees and cars on fire. The gang of commentators in the various TV studios was screaming in their usual way at each other, but no young people were invited to explain what they wanted. Of course the government and its media try to blame the small group of troublemakers responsible for all the damage. But the images of the masses of young people all over Greece out on the streets without causing any damage, received hardly any attention.

Lesvos usually doesn't join in on strikes and other actions that take place in the capital. But now also young people here in Mytilini and in Kaloni came out on the streets to demonstrate. In Mandamados they even raised a roadblock to express their dissatisfaction. While in Athens a lot of Christmas decorations were destroyed and the centre of the city yesterday evening seemed to be on fire, on Lesvos life went on as usual: picking olives and shaking the nets. In the homes, the televisions showed the most horrible images of the riots and TV personalities were having their screaming discussions that always seem the same.

It'll take long before all the wounds will be healed from this 'catastrophe' as the riots are called. In the government nobody dares to call this a revolution. That would mean that they admit that something is completely wrong in Greece and it is not the intention that the government falls. Or is it?

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Monday, 1 December 2008

Olive Blues


The beautiful warm weather of these last few weeks, with only a few declines of a small cold front and a solid night of rain, mean that many people have started their olive harvest. The olives are ripe early this year, just as the rest of nature is a little confused because of all that heat. A few days ago, we already found the first messenger of spring, in the form of an anemone, although winter has yet to start (in Greece it's said that winter begins in January and ends in February).

The winter of 1850 was also preceded by a warm autumn. In January that year the olive trees were full of fermenting spring juices, just like all other trees and plants were ready for spring. On January 12, however, dark clouds gathered over the island and in the afternoon the temperature quickly fell to below -10°C.

In the book 'Froso's little violet' the priest Prodromos Anagnostou describes this disastrous day. How the animals returned at noon from the fields to the villages and stables, crying for a hiding place, which frightened the residents of the island out of their minds. The sea began to fume, the earth shook and everywhere a frightening noise could be heard.

Because of the sudden drop of temperature, the sap in the trees froze which made the bark split open, which was the awful noise. Most of the olive trees on Lesvos died that day.

Famine followed, plus a wave of emigration. Those who remained behind, however, set themselves to work. The dead trees were converted into charcoal and sold as far away as Russia. It was decided that the whole island would be planted with new olive trees and they used less frost-sensitive species such as the kolovi and the adramytiana. Walls for new terraces were built, earth was brought up the mountains and the trees grew as never before.

Curiously, the year 1850 was the start of the last great economic boom period for the island. Despite the taxes that had to be paid to the Ottoman Empire (the island since 1462 was occupied by the Ottomans), the new trees brought prosperity to the island. The olive presses were driven by steam engines, olive pits were found to be an excellent fuel and the soap industry took off. Modern English machines were imported through Smyrna (modern day Izmir) and investments were made in countries such as Egypt, Russia and Romania. Olive oil and olive soap constituted 70% of the exports of the island, most of which went to France, Russia and England.

Between 1875 and 1895 3800 tons of soap annually was manufactured on Lesvos, which was shipped to the ports of the Ottoman Empire and from there exported to elsewhere in the world.

Like Smyrna and Constantinople (Istanbul), Mytilini was a cosmopolitan city, where international steam boats came and went. Wealthy families built large houses and Western furniture was introduced into the Greek living rooms. Lesvos was prosperous again.

Early in the 20th century business began to slow down, and everything changed dramatically in 1912 when Lesvos freed itself from Turkey and again became part of Greece. The oriental market was still accessed through the Greeks living in the Ottoman Empire, but when in 1922 all Greeks were expelled from the Ottoman Empire, this market dried up for good.

Lesvos received thousands of refugees from the other side causing a shortage of food, housing and capital to invest. Thanks to new land divisions the rich people fled the island. Lesvos again became an island of small farmers.

Today Lesvos has approximately 11 million olive trees. That is 126 olive trees for every resident. For the rest of Greece that number is 9.5, 3.0 in Italy and in Spain 5.4. Lesvorian olive oil is about a quarter of the total Greek production.

The total world production this year has increased by 9.1% to 2,870,000 tonnes (Spain produces 1,110,000, Italy 560,000 and Greece 370,000). Which is not good news for the olive farmers on Lesvos, because with the increase in production prices will fall. And the prices will go down anyway, thanks to the economic crisis, because olive oil consumption is declining.

The co-operatives on the island, where the oil is pressed and stored, can do nothing other than wait and see how prices develop. Currently prices on Lesvos are still fairly stable. Perhaps that's why everyone's hurrying to finish the olive harvest. Who knows what harsh winter we are facing...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Monday, 24 November 2008

Angry!


Last week there was one day when I was very angry. A few days later, there were people mad at me.

The previous column, in which I talked about wild boars that were released by a bunch of hunters and in which I went on to say that I was disappointed because the butcher here is not permitted to sell boar meat in his shop, made a number of people angry. They thought that with this story I promoted hunting on Lesvos.

A correction is inappropriate, because I write what I want and I will not change my already published words, even if that is a possibility on the Internet. And I'm not suddenly going to deny that I love eating game, because it's true that I used to be very happy going to the Ardennes in order to eat a deer steak or a boar fillet.

It made me very sad that people perceived my column as a plea for the hunt on Lesvos, because that was not what I intended. I am against senseless hunting. So I do not understand anything about the hunting of birds, which is rather popular here on the island. But so saying, I still can enjoy a dinner of game, which I used to eat in a country where they hunt in order to protect that same game from overpopulation. This is called game conservation and I'll agree with anybody who says that Greeks don't have much notion of game or forest conservation (although the chestnut forest near Agiasos is neatly maintained, and here I mean the trees and not the wild boar), let alone that there is more than one Greek who doesn't have any respect at all for animals.

Because here comes the second issue of this column: it really is a sad coincidence, but one night last week a hunting dog arrived at our house, very frightened and hungry. She wanted to join our pack of dogs (only 2) and was looking for a place to eat, drink, sleep and live.

Now I don't want any more misunderstandings: I HAVE NO ANIMAL SHELTER! Even though for the winter I took in ten cats from the neighbouring hotel, so that the cat population around our house counts now more than twenty cats, and even if we decided to take in the new friend of our winter dog Albino, the black Labrador Black Jack (also known by tourists as Vodka, but what a name! You want to promote alcoholism?!), I HAVE NO ANIMAL SHELTER!

An animal shelter is very easy to start here on the island. In October or November you just take a stroll around the village and your shelter will be filled with abandoned dogs and cats. You will find sad mewling fluffy creatures that are seeing their first winter and have no idea how to survive and you will find heaps of sad looking dogs, already hardened by a first winter, who try to survive and will wait impatiently for the tourists to reappear.

In the winter animal lovers can only go around with a heart of stone. Because you cannot rescue every animal you come across. Unless you actually want to start an animal shelter.

So last week I was very angry. With the Greeks who so easily neglect animals, with the tourists who are not here all year round to feed and pamper the animals, so that in the winter I get stuck with a bunch of spoiled cats that all climb on your lap, all want a place inside my house and all prefer the most expensive cat food.

And now I'm stuck with the third dog that found our house this autumn. The first one was taken to Holland by friends who found a home there for her. It was very hard on me, but the second I refused to feed for three days and then he got the message and took off to I know not where. The third was this hunting dog, who was so skinny and scared that I didn't have the heart to chase her. So I gave her some food, and gave her food...

Now I have a real problem, because in addition to the care of 20 or more cats and 2 dogs I also have a husband, and we fully agreed that no more animals were to be taken in. He's right: we didn't come to Greece to start an animal shelter. So I'm looking for an animal lover who wants to take this dog, because when this thin creature has regained some strength, she can no longer stay in the Smitaki home. And maybe you think I am a cruel person, but I value my marriage above this beastly mess, which is the current situation around our house.

Greece, where animals easily die from bullets or poison, is a very cruel country for animal lovers. But while I learn to harden my heart, the Greeks learn more and more to respect animals. And let there be no more misunderstanding, because I now have to try and place a hunting dog!

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Monday, 17 November 2008

Christmas Shopping Online


17 November - Christmas Shopping Online from

Last week a man was seriously injured in Agiasos during the hunt. It appeared that he was hit by a large calibre bullet that came from his own rifle or the rifle of a fellow hunter. It's the first hunting incident involving large calibre, as here on Lesvos they usually only hunt small game such as birds.

A few years ago, however, wild boars appeared in the woods around Agiasos (probably released by hunters who wanted larger game) and since then the mountains around Agiasos have become popular for hunters who like to shoot wild boar. The hunt is only during the hunting season in the winter, and allowed only on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. The injured man was caught red handed by getting hurt on Thursday!

Last week in a butcher shop I saw a beautiful woodcarving of a wild boar. I pointed at it, asking if the butcher ever sold wild boar. He immediately put his two wrists crossed in front of him: "I then go to jail." So the sale of wild boar meat is officially banned here on the island and you'll need to have contacts if you want a tasty boar steak on your plate.

I was a little disappointed, because one of the things I miss here in the Lesvorian kitchen is a nice piece of game. When I lived in the Netherlands, every autumn we went to the Ardennes in Belgium to eat game, but here on the island you have to do with sheep or goat meat, if you want slightly wilder meat.

It doesn't seem such a good idea to receive a steak or a saddle of venison by mail. Just as I would not recommend to have you sent a nice piece of lamb or goat from the island. The local meat is of excellent quality, but whether it would still be so nice after its journey by post, I wonder.

If you want to have a little Lesvos-feeling during Christmas, there are other products from the island that you can order online. First there is our highly praised olive oil, which gets increasing recognition internationally, but is not available on a grand scale in other countries. You can surprise not only Lesvos-lovers, but also culinary enthusiasts with a bottle of local olive oil. In order to convince yourself of the quality of Lesvorian olive oil, you can read here the success story of a German family, who has fallen for the yellow gold of Lesvorian olive oil. Furthermore, a German website where Cretan olive oil and Lesvorian olive oil can be ordered online: Liquid of Greece.

Although opinions differ as to whether ouzo tastes the same outside of Greece, a bottle of Lesvos ouzo will always be a nice gift for fans of Greece. More than one website offers ouzo, just as some well stocked liquor shops sell ouzo from Lesvos. Not all ouzos come from Lesvos, so please make sure that you choose an ouzo from Plomari or Mytilini!

Lesvos has much more to offer than just ouzo and olive oil. In 1983 the first women's co-operative of the island opened in Petra. This project tried to get women, especially wives of farmers, out of their social and economic isolation. Since then the women's co-operatives have shot out of the ground like mushrooms and nowadays you will find one in each village that has more than three tavernas (and many villages do have more than three tavernas).

In Petra the women of the co-operative started renting rooms and they served delicious breakfasts. Meanwhile their restaurant in the central square of Petra has become a hot spot for dinner. The other women's co-operatives however have concentrated their efforts to pickle fruits and vegetables that the island provides so richly, just like drying various herbs that grow everywhere.

While the men sip their coffees for hours and observe the village life, the women, while gossiping and talking, turn the harvested fruits and vegetables into various preserves: jam, pickled fruits in sugar, olive pastes, tomato and other sauces, biscuits with almonds and / or walnuts, Greek marzipan, hand-made pastas and so on. Especially pastries and cakes are very popular with the Greeks. But the co-operatives also offer a nice range of items that can be purchased over the Internet.

It was a bit of a search on the internet to find all these culinary products online, and the websites that I have found are not always set up very well, but with a little patience, I am sure that you can order wonderful things online through the following two sites: Aegean Shop ( (Mind you on this website you have to translate each page to English by pushing the translate button if you don't read Greek) and E- Lesvos.shop (On this website only some products can be ordered online)

Finally, here's a site where you can't order food, but other pure products from Lesvos: sculptures and jewellery made of olive wood, carved by the English artist Eric Kempson, and various types of lace from the Molyvos shop: 'Eleni's Workshop' , selected by Erics wife Philippa. The couple has lived on the island since 1999 and there is almost no restaurant in the village that was not tempted to purchase one of Eric sculptures.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Monday, 10 November 2008

Autumn colours


I think most tourists leave Lesvos far too early. Especially for hiking enthusiasts, October and November are wonderful months here on the island. I don't know whether it's because of the drought, but this autumn the trees and bushes are showing unprecedented bright autumn colours, so that the island this year can easily compete with the famous autumn colours familiar in the woods of somewhat wetter countries.

The walk from Anemotia, among the famous yellow rhododendrons (for obscure reasons these azaleas are called rhododendrons on the island) takes you amongst trees that are so bright orange, cherry red or sparkling yellow that it hurts your eyes. In the quiet forest, where you only hear the rustle of leaves and the wind gusts that announce themselves from kilometres away from the mountain peaks before they sweep down through the tree tops, even the rhododendrons that creep like garlands down the mountain slopes in the dark pine forest, aren't lit up with their flowers, but with their yellow leaves.

On the margin, where the pine trees stop and the cultivated fields of olive trees begin, there is another party. There you find dark green strawberry trees that sparkle like Christmas trees with their red, bulbous fruit. Yes, you read it right: a tree with strawberries. Arbutus unedo, the scientific name of the strawberry tree (in Latin unedo means: 'Eat only one'), is to be found in many Mediterranean countries. The fruit, which looks like round strawberries, colour from yellow, orange to bright red. They have a slight strawberry flavor with a slightly bitter aftertaste. You get a bit of a dry mouth from eating them raw, but you can make an excellent jam with them and in many countries they also make liqueur with this fruit.

The beauty that the Mediterranean climate brings is that many trees remain green in winter: the pines which cover the heart of the island, the millions of olive trees, cypress trees, laurel trees, strawberry trees and nameless other trees that keep the island green during winter. But nevertheless, you occasionally can get homesick, missing the falling leaves that crackle so nicely under your feet and the smell of rotting leaves, mushrooms and wet earth. When you really get homesick for falling leaves, then you should go to Agia Anagyri, a scenic spot in a valley next to Asomatos, with a church and a taverna with extensive terraces (only open on summer holidays), all under sky-high plane trees where in the autumn you can be sure to find a centimetres thick blanket of yellow gold leaves where you can run through and have fun with as much as you like.

From the road from Agia Anagyri to Asomatos, on foot or by car you can take a path to the sanatorium above Agiasos. The road goes high through the mountains and the steep slopes on the other side of the valley are like bright green masses coloured with the yellow speckles of the chestnut and other deciduous trees. They make an incredibly nice picture. Even the orange-yellow glow that is found this time of year in the golden chestnut forest (the chestnut forest is on the road from Agiasos to the sanatorium, a little after the sanatorium), pales against these breathtaking views.

The huge chestnut trees had already shaken off tons of chestnuts and the leaves were partly cleaned away. Probably for the Chestnut festival that took place last weekend in Agiasos. An annual event visited by people from all over the island who come to taste the chestnuts and enjoy food and music. A few weeks ago there was still a question if the festival could take place. The municipality could not pay the 3000 euros that the festivities cost. Two weeks ago fortunately they found the money, so as in previous years people strolled through the narrow streets of this mountain town, greeting their many friends and enjoying a good meal in the local tavernas.

In the capital of the island, Mytilini, they celebrated quite another party, but I wonder if that was as exuberant as in Agiasos. The liberation of the capital was celebrated (November 8, 1912) with military parades and schoolchildren marching. This year even the president of Greece, Karolos Papoelias, visited the celebration and he was promptly made an honoured citizen of Mytilini.

He was not the only exalted visitor that weekend. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dora Bakoyannis, was also visiting Lesvos among others for a conference on the flow of refugees that still reach the island in abundance (like elsewhere in the country). While the Minister and notables debated on how they can improve the reception of the refugees, the coastguard again had to sail out in order to save a group of 40 men, women and children from a shaky boat that nearly perished.

Some of the refugees are lucky if they get placed in the sanatorium at Agiasos, which now serves as an asylum centre. There they can rest in the middle of chestnut woods and golden-coloured mountain slopes, a twenty minute walk from the picturesque town of Agiasos. But I wonder whether they equally enjoy this beautiful nature as we do. I saw them strolling on the road, clearly feeling much better than when they shuffled over the Eftalou boulevard when they'd just arrived wet and exhausted. But I do believe that if you are fleeing from gunshots and exploding bombs, the forests around Agiasos, where only the thuds of falling chestnuts can be heard, will be the first relief on a long road to a better life...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Vote!


We could spend a whole evening talking about climate change: finally we had a reasonably cool summer and September was the coldest ever. There are friends who claim that in years gone by you could sleep outside on the beach in December and in the spring, March and April, you mainly lived outside. Well, I just remember our first winters a few years back, when snow and rain poured down on the island. Is the climate here in Greece getting colder?

Last week proves the contrary: temperatures climbing nearly to 30°C and a sea temperature that still attracted some swimmers. But no rain and many Greeks get sad looking at their olive trees, that this winter don't bear much fruit and the olives that hang on the trees are small and crave for water to get just that magic touch to be able to produce that healthy, yellow gold oil.

World history proves that climates are not stable. Here on Lesvos this is proven by the Petrified Forest where trees and fossil plants from millions of year ago have been found. Some of the plants and trees, like the sequoia tree, can now only be found in the tropical and subtropical climates in South-East Asia and North America. This is a reason for scientists to conclude that Greece, in any case Lesvos, once used to have a tropical climate.

If you want to see volcanoes in Europe, you go to Sicily to climb the rumbling Etna or you descend into a spectacular crater in Madeira to visit the village of Curral das Freias. No volcano lover chooses Lesvos, although Lesvos has all its fertile land and its biggest attraction thanks to volcanoes. The island is full of wonders for geologists, and the park of 15,000 acres with its petrified trees and plants will be a paradise for them. Although you will no longer find active volcanoes here.

When a guide accompanies you when you get to this wonderful, geological park in the west of the island, approaching the villages of Anemotia and Agra, you will hear that you are travelling through the crater of a volcano. But you will need a lot of imagination to think you are moving through the cone of a crater, because the rugged mountain slopes and rough mountain peaks form an intriguing landscape, but do not look at all as a cone shaped mountain with a crater on its summit from which smoke escapes.

Everywhere on the island you will find bright coloured rocks and old crushed lava fields, evidence of the presence of these extinct volcanoes. As is of course the Petrified Forest, where wonderful trees are on display. Thanks to the volcanic eruptions and the following rains huge trees with roots and all were petrified and now you will find large tree chunks that have been changed into semi-precious stone.

When during the summer heat you shuffle one by one through the park, the crowd and heat may not allow you to imagine that once the island was covered with huge trees. But when you go in the low seasons like spring or autumn, when the sun is not burning yet and you can walk around at your own pace, those million years old trees will for sure move you to tears.

The Petrified Forest of Lesvos is the largest park in the world with petrified trees. Some smaller parks in the world are the Petrified Forest National Monument in Chubut Province in Argentina, the Geosite Goudberg by Hoegaarden in Belgium, the Geopark or Paleorrota in Brazil and the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, but also in other countries, including Egypt, India, the Czech Republic and Australia, you will find small sites with petrified trees.

Lesvos is of course very proud of this unique park, but in terms of tourism it has a lot of competition in its own country, like the Palace of Knossos on Crete, the ancient medieval city of Rhodes, or the Acropolis in Athens, which was in the race for the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The Acropolis just missed the finish and was not announced as a new wonder of the world by the New7Wonders Foundation, which is committed to saving world heritage. In addition to the New Seven World Wonders, which are buildings made by men, the organization next year wants also to proclaim the Seven World Wonders of Nature. The preliminary rounds, where everyone can vote (also through the Internet), are already in full swing, and ultimately each country may enter the next round with only one site.

And that's not good news for Lesvos, because the Petrified Forest now has to compete with the Meteora rocks, the island of Santorini and the highest mountain in Greece, Olympos. Olympos is now ranked 107, Santorini 137, Meteora 111 and the Petrified Forest only 322!

Curiously enough the Petrified Forest is amongst the nominated forests, while I would consider it amongst the 'Rocks' or 'Parks'. Not that it matters, but I would still like to see the Petrified Forest finishing at least amongst the 100 World Wonders of Nature. The fascinating Petrified Forest on this beautiful Greek island is certainly worth your vote. So don't let your voice get lost and vote for the Petrified Forest of Lesvos:

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

No Day


Today, October 28, the Greeks celebrate when at the beginning of the Second World War in 1940 their leader and dictator Ioannis Metaxas said 'No' to Mussolini, who wanted to invade Greece. Greece was presented with an ultimatum: they could let in the enemy troops so that they could occupy strategic posisions, or they could have war.

Metaxas said a short and concise 'Ochi' to this ultimatum, and Greece was at war. Contrary to everyone's expectations, the Greeks threw out the Italians, who appeared much stronger in manpower and materials, back to Albania from where they attacked the Greek state, even before the time of the ultimatum had expired.

This day is now known as Ochi Day and is celebrated each year by the proud Greeks, who although later they were occupied by the Germans, are still proud of the fact that they were the first to dare to say 'no' to the advancing Germans and their allies.

The day is celebrated with military parades, but also the schoolchildren are drilled to parade around. Usually, the best pupil in the classroom leads and holds the flag. A few years ago, there was a scandal which was covered by all the national media, because at one school the best pupil was an Albanian boy who was, because of his nationality, not allowed to be first and hold the Greek flag.

The emotions of that time have cooled down and today along with the soldiers there will be the schoolchildren parading in the streets for 'Ochi Day'. And I'm sure that no child is allowed to say 'Ochi' to this event.

The Greeks may celebrate their sturdiness from decades ago, today they are not so very tough anymore. In addition to the many strikes, so common in Greece, there are few Greeks who think it really is time that their entire political system got kicked out. While years ago the then ruling Socialist PASOK party was accused of having corrupt politicians, it is now the turn of the ruling party Nea Democratia, which apparently has just as many corrupt politicians at the top as its predecessor. Strangely enough, only a few Greeks dare to say 'Ochi' to the two largest parties in the country.

The church also regularly plays a leading role in deep scandals, such as the current Vatopedi scandal that already caused three ministers to resign. But as far as I know no monk has been expelled from his monastery. And no Greek dares to say 'Ochi' to the power of the church.

If I were a Greek, I would often cry 'Ochi'. Against disinterested state officials who make a mess of medical centres and hospitals, against doctors who don't work unless bribed, against the hopelessly outdated administration system controlled by lazy officials, who send you everywhere except to the right place, against Greeks who treat animals like rubbish, or use their entire environment including public roads as a rubbish dump. And so on.

Instead of having soldiers and children parading through the streets, this day the Greek population should unite against their government, just as they did on 28 October 1942 when during the German occupation they cried a loud 'OCHI'.

Lesvos is far from the capital and its political intrigues. We don't suffer much from the strikes, except when schools are closed or banks and shops, as was the case last week. It's difficult to keep track of who is striking and when. Last week tourists were also hit by a strike. Going home they had to travel through Turkey. But at least they made it home.

However fun the name 'Ochi Day' is, the day itself didn't impress me. Especially when you think about all those things that really matter, against which you should say: 'Ochi'.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 19 October 2008

There at the mill


The Netherlands is known for its windmills. Spain is known for its windmills which Don Quixote thought were giants. Greece is not known for its mills, but thousands are scattered across the country. The pictures of windmills standing next to a port are alluring advertising images for various capitals of Greek islands such as Chios, Mykonos and Rhodes.

Lesvos has lots of watermills, but they are so well hidden or camouflaged as a ruin, that they are difficult to find. In former times, and that's less than a century ago, each region had a watermill for grinding grain or pressing olives. Just go to the Mill Valley in Ligona, above Petra, where a walk takes you among walls and collapsed buildings that were once a bustling place with donkeys, farmers, millers and large bags of grain and flour. Now nature has reclaimed this region, a phenomenon that you will see everywhere on the island.

To my knowledge there is only one mill still active on Lesvos, which is that at Mylelia (on the road from Polychnitos to Mytilini, after the branch to Lambou Mili, before the road reaches the Gulf of Gera). There they still grind the grain in the traditional way, between large millstones and in a museum like shop they sell a wide range of flour products such as hand- made pastas and a variety of other island products, such as olive spreads, fruit jams and tomato sauces.

The mill at Eressos is just as impressive as that at Mylelia. Although almost completely restored, the mill doesn't grind grain, but it's the place where the mill is built, which makes the biggest impression. See: In the footsteps of Sappho.

When you drive from Plomari along the river Sedoendas up in the mountains, you come across a very large watermill, that is so far in decay that the Plomarians should be ashamed that they do not preserve a part of their history, if only to show their children how their grandparents produced flour to bake bread...

Diving deeper into the countryside, you keep on finding surprises. Last week I visited the mill at Klapados. Klapados was a small village in the north of the island, tucked away high in the mountains between Petra and Kalloni. Most residents were Ottoman Muslims and this was perhaps the reason why in December 1912 the last Ottoman soldiers regrouped around Klapados when they were chased by the Greeks who came to liberate the island. The battle began on 8 November 1912 when the Greeks, with the warship Averof, liberated Mytilini, after which the enemy was chased to the north of the island. On 8 December 1912 the Greek army achieved victory over the Ottomans in the Battle of Klapados. Subsequently, all Muslims were chased from the island. Although not everybody agrees, several sources say that the people of Klapados were not put on the boat to the Ottoman Empire, but were massacred.

Although the liberation of the Lesvorians started in Klapados, you will not find a glorious monument there to the general that led the Greeks to victory, but only a sign surrounded by crumbling ruins that mentions the Battle of Klapados. Despite the beautiful water fountain, the massive plane tree, the old bathhouse and a few walls still standing, the remnants of this once lively village give an eerie feeling. It's also said that they just let the corpses lie there, which explains why so few Greeks dare to visit this mountaintop and why there is so little left of the village. When you look up the mountain slope from the road, between the shrubs, grasses and trees, you can see the sad remains of many more houses.

The watermill at Klapados is also now only a ruin with large crumbling walls. But it is easy to imagine how the water once moved the large wooden paddles of the mill. The mill is at the bottom of a broad, steep grey cliff of about 50 to 60 metres, from where the water bounces off.

You have to know the place to find this watermill. A very narrow path takes you down into a valley that starts at the bottom of this impressive cliff where you find a little pond that marks the beginning of a merry rippling stream strewn with rocks. Like anywhere on the island this water attracts a jungle-like vegetation of ancient, big whimsical plane trees, overgrown by moss, lianes and other parasitic plants, and you imagine yourself immediately right in the country of Tarzan.

When I was there no water fell from the cliff, only a waterfall of thick tree roots, which imitate the undulating water and creep like an impressive live sculpture down along the wall. I can imagine that if enough rain has fallen to set the waterfall into motion, this place can be as magical as the waterfall at the Krineloe Mill at Eressos and the one at Achladeri.

I was a bit shocked by the reaction of the friends with whom I visited the waterfall. While I enjoyed the sight of the plane trees and their net of roots that competed with stones and moss for a spot next to the river, while I admired trees from all sides for their thick branches that reached like the curved wings of a mill into the blue sky, my friends wondered about the total absence of any waste. Am I already so integrated that I no longer see the waste scattered everywhere? It is clear that not many people know where the mill of Klapados is and that this is one of the Lesvorian mills that will silently disappear from the pages of history.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Monday, 13 October 2008

Sad Records


This September several records were broken on the island. That's why I again have to mention refugees, the fires and the weather.

A record number of refugees arrived on Lesvos in September. Some days hundreds of people arrived, despite the many alarming cries in the media. The government of the island is desperate because of the bulging refugee centres and too few police to handle them and at the places where the refugees plan to go after Lesvos: Athens and Patras, the problems continue to escalate.

Most refugees arrive by boat, somewhere on the coast between Molyvos and Mandamados. Then they want to go as quickly as possible to Mytilini, from where they hope to continue their journey via Athens to the rest of Europe. When early in the morning you drive from Molyvos to Petra, you will see them walking in small groups to Petra, or on the other side, towards Mandamados.

Mandamados is a small and quiet village, which faces more and more refugees trekking through it. Besides the many young men, there are women and small children still shivering from the cold seawater who make such a pitiful sight, that the villagers, seized by these images, provide them with food and warm clothing.

The residents of Mandamados don't only give, but also take. More and more refugees come by motorboat and upon arrival, the boat and the engine have to be destroyed, otherwise they risk being sent back to the shore where they came from. The boat is slashed and generally they sink the engine. Many islanders believe that's really a pity because they see a new trade. For example, last week a number of people were arrested because they took the engines and tried to sell them. The engines and boats officially should be taken to the police, but it's easy to understand the traders, with that many boats lying around on the beaches. If the boats were not slashed, every islander would have a boat by now and who knows, next year with an outboard motor!

However, the danger is that the residents will wait for the refugees, in order to seize their boats (which already seems to happen). So this can lead to tensions because the refugees want to destroy their water transport, while the islanders want to keep them intact.

The destroyed rubber boats you see become more and more part of the Lesvorian landscape. In addition to the discarded iron bedsteads, the brightly colored rubber boats have become popular material for sheepfolds and other barns. The hundreds of plastic oars that are lying around everywhere, are for example used as fence posts. So you must admit: the Greek farmer is very inventive with rubbish.

This September a weather record was also broken. It was the coldest September ever in Greece. Nobody would have thought that after the first rain in mid September, the summer weather would not come back. Grey skies and a few storms made everyone cry: "chimonas!"(winter).

Because of the rain and the cold weather everybody in Molyvos thought that the arsonist would stop work. But after a number of small fires a week ago the community was shaken awake by two violent fires which this time were both only stopped a few metres from a house.

The next day the news of the arrest of two teenagers shot like a running fire through the village. Had they finally caught the rascals? The village is good at gossip, especially when serious business is involved that has to be dealt with behind closed doors. The fact is that the boys were soon released. But there are different opinions about whether they were the arsonists. It's said that a number of young people were frustrated, because in the area where most fires occurred, they wanted to build a site for motorcross, for which the municipality did not give permission.

There are also rumours that the family of one of the boys had used its influence to speak to a very important person and cut a deal, so that the boys could go free. Village rules only disappear slowly...

Nobody knows on what grounds the boys were arrested, many say they were caught red handed. Nobody knows for sure if they did it. And nobody knows if Molyvos is now safe from fires. Fact is that for a week now the fire brigade hasn't had to extinguish a sngle fire, although one truck from the fire brigade is still on the watch. Another fact is that a new sad record can be written in the history of Molyvos: around 41 fires in two months.

While they still expect a few tourists from the Netherlands, a lot of Greeks have finished their season. Most shops and restaurants have closed their doors and windows, which is a little odd because they all want a longer season. Also a landscape full of black burnt areas and a coast with a mess of abandoned clothing and rubber boats doesn't look very inviting.

But happily enough these are only small details in the magnificent Lesvorian landscape. September is over and the barometer is now finally announcing beautiful days. Lesvos has become quiet and the nets are rolled out for the upcoming olive harvest. Kalo Chimonas!

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Scatter light donkeys


Greece was once the country of donkeys. When there was no motorised transport, you travelled by donkey. When there were no cars, the donkey helped to gather the olives, to harvest the hay and so on. The only island where this tradition is preserved is the island of Hydra, where motorised transport is prohibited and where donkeys still wait at the harbour for the boats, in order to take cargo up into the village.

Also on the island of Santorini you can still find a donkey service. They work in the tourist business, for those who want to climb up the 600 steps to the crater on the back of a donkey. Given this traffic continues throughout the day, donkeys on Santorini have a hard life.

Also on Lesvos you will find working donkeys. But they only do an excursion once a day: a safari to the beach, where the people can enjoy a barbecue, or on a ride through the mountains, so the tourists see something other than the beach. In the south of the island they still use donkeys for the olive harvest, because of the steep slopes the olive trees grow on.

The Greek donkey, however, is becoming an endangered species. A landscape with a Greek sitting on a jogging donkey used to be a common sight, now you will be lucky to photograph such a sight. Previously, there were half a million donkeys in Greece, but from 1950 to 1996 their population was reduced by 96%, to 18,000. That number has dramatically decreased in the last few years, partly due to the large wildfires last summer in the Peloponnese, the region where 40% of Greek donkeys live.

The farmers who previously used donkeys for transport, now drive around in pick-ups and donkeys are let go. They are simply released and are left alone to figure out for themselves how they want to live.

The donkeys on Lesvos with which you have such pleasant excursions are also given their freedom after the season. They are released in the mountains and have to look for food on their own. Not really such a bad life, because the mountains are full of tender morsels and they have the whole day to nibble on them.

Donkeys are firmly convinced that they have the right to eat everything, even if they accidentally come into your garden. The saying that donkeys are stupid is wrong. Donkeys are very smart animals. And their so-called stubbornness is just a refusal to do what someone asks them to do: a donkey knows what he wants and refuses occasionally, because he likes to follow his own course. If he discovers a nice snack in your garden, why would he abandon it?

The danger of wandering donkeys, however, is that they have no lights at night and also sometimes stand in the middle of the road to muse on their donkey life. So if you are driving in your car and round a bend, there may suddenly be a donkey in your path. Not that donkeys are the only hazard on Greek roads. Sheep and goats also make regular use of the road, just like the Greeks who are not afraid to gather in middle of the road with a passer by to share the latest news.

Greeks are not easy to change and sheep and goats have to cross the road from time to time in order to reach other pastures. The Greek government however believes that it can tackle the problem of stray animals. They started a project to mark horses (yes, even these animals regularly roam through the landscape and on the roads) and donkeys, so the owner can be easily found in case they are destroying your garden or they are involved in a collision, which frequently happens here on the island, sometimes with bad consequences.

Lesvos has been chosen as the pilot area for this project. I wonder how they will proceed. Especially in the south of the island you often meet donkeys, happy nibbling at the greenery and not at all concerned that their fat arses occupy a third of the road. To whom do these donkeys belong? Will they be gathered and put in a donkey home?

Here in the north, especially in the winter, it is much easier, because there are only two Greeks who have donkeys, namely those who organize the donkey safaris (I am not referring to some older Greeks who cherish their old donkeys as their best friend). When you find a herd of donkeys in your garden, marked or not, you know at whom you have to point your angry finger. With horses it is the same. Greeks are crazy about horses and once a year they like to parade them through the village. But why they continue to keep horses is a mystery to me. Not for the meat. Horses in Greece are like the sacred cows in India. When you tell a Greek that in the country you come from, they eat horsemeat, they look as if you just confessed that you're a cannibal.

Farmers all know each other and when you meet a stray horse it's easy to track down the owner. I doubt that farmers, once their animals are marked, will keep their animals in their fields. I am more worried about what will happen to all those stray donkeys. Will they release them so they can continue their free life and so that accidents will keep on happening?

I didn't get a clear answer from the article I read about this project in the Lesvorian Embros newspaper . I've only recently discovered that with just one click of a button on the internet you can translate whole websites. But don't be surprised with the result: Dutch (or English) as stupid as a donkey! But now at least I can page through the local papers online. The mysterious Greek words suddenly become recognisable and see here: an article on 'scatter light donkeys', the translation for 'adespota gaïdoeria' from Greek into Dutch (in English they give a correct translation: stray donkeys). Which Dutch dictionary is used by Google?

Fact is that the 'scatter light' donkeys of Lesvos are on their way to extinction. Killed by traffic or not, you see them less and less along the sides of roads. Another classic Greek image that will soon be gone, especially if this new marking project is introduced, because then all farmers will deny they have a donkey...

@ copyright Smitaki 2008

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The Vatopedi Code


Lesvos has many monasteries and many are part of modern life. The Mandamados Monastery is the most popular place for baptisms and weddings and the Limonos Monastery, close to Kalloni, always has busloads of local and international tourists, because of the many little chapels around the monastery.

The third biggest monastery, and the richest monastery on the island, is the Saint Raphael Monastery in the green hills of Thermi (near Mytilini). The monastery is a relatively new monastery for women, built in 1963, and it is mainly visited because of its colourful history and its devout image.

In 1235 on the same spot, also known as Karyes, there was a womens monastery called Holy Olympia. This was destroyed by barbarians. Two centuries later, another monastery for men was built. After the fall of Constantinople, which was also the end of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans started to conquer Greece including Lesvos. One day in 1463 some soldiers went to the monastery in Thermi, where a teacher and the mayor of Mytilini and his family fled, after other Christians fled into the mountains. The Ottomans tortured and killed them in order to find out where the Christians were hidden. The abbot of the Monastery, Raphael, was tortured for days and Irene, the 12 years old daughter of the mayor, first had an arm cut off, and then, in front of her parents, was thrown into a huge cooking pot and put on the fire. The monastery was destroyed.

Since the destruction of the monastery on Easter Tuesday, inhabitants of Mytilini used to go to Karyes and light a little candle because they remembered that people were killed there, but they didn't remember who or what for.

In 1912 the Ottoman owner of a piece of land in Karyes made an enquiry about who was the monk seen so many times wandering his land. It turned out he was an apparition. In 1956 a devout man from Mytilini decided to build a chapel on the spot and during the excavation they found human bones. When the bones where put in a sack however, nobody could lift the sack. People trying to kick it, went lame. So obviously something was the matter. A priest was called to say a mass for the human remains, but the night before the mass Raphael appeared to the priest and told him who he was. He told the history of his life and where they could find other remains of people. This is how they found the cooking pot with the remains of Irene, as well as the bones of a follower of Raphael, Nicolas. Since then not only Saint Raphael but also the holy Irene and Nicolas appeared to many people.

In 1963 a new monastery for women was built. Today its leader is Eugenia Klidara. This devout abbess has written some 150 books, mainly stories about Saint Raphael and other saints. The books are very popular both in Greece and abroad and this literary missionary work makes a lot of money. Although recently questions have been raised about this money because it seems that no one sees any tax revenues from it. The situation however is not so critical, so the monastery of Saint Raphael can play a part in 'The Vatopedi Code'.

'The Vatopedi Code' is a feature on Al Tsantiri, the most popular satirical show in Greece, which pokes fun at everything and everybody, even the clergy. Elsewhere in the world the financial world is falling apart, here in Greece it's the clergy who walk a thin line. The head of the Vatopedi monastery made a great deal with a Greek minister: they exchanged land, but only afterwards was it discovered that the land that the Greek State got was worth millions less than the land they gave the monastery. On top of that it came out that the wife of the minister was the lawyer for the deal and earned some 300,000 euros. This is how the scandal starting rolling and even though the leader of the monastic state Mount Athos declared that the deal was off, the Greeks start to doubt the holiness of the monks.

A lot of monasteries recently claimed land and to prove it they showed very old documents, some of them dating from the Byzantine time (meaning 800 years old!). The scandal has only just started and will fuel many more scandals in the real estate world. Meanwhile many Greeks have to leave house and land because the church claims their land. And also the Cavo Sidero project on Crete (see an older Boulevard news Cavo Gavathas) will come under scrutiny, because the deal between a monastery and the project leaders stinks.

Just as it's high time that the financial world gets cleaned out, the Greeks have to rethink the status of the Orthodox Church. If it appears that certain monks and priests are acting as suspect real estate agents, doing the Greek people harm rather than giving them a helping hand in difficult times, one should ask what religion this clergy follows.

So tonight the whole nation will be watching 'The Vatopedi Code' and I bet Al Tsantiri will make a fool of clergymen and ministers. With all those Byzantine rights and mysteries of the monasteries, this will be as exciting as watching the 'Da Vinci Code'...

Painting of Saint Raphael, Irene and Nicolas photographed by Gabriele Podzierkski

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Refugees


After this summer I no longer believe the earth is getting warmer. Maybe at the North Pole, but not here on Lesvos. This summer was quite cool without major heat waves, the sea never got as warm as in other summers and now it looks like winter has already started in September. Within a week the temperature dropped by half: 17°C!

Last Wednesday the heavens opened to let loose a real flood and in the last few days there was more rain. Winter clouds still fill the sky and I really couldn't look at Lepetimnos, wondering if the first snow was already there.

This sudden end of the summer is not the reason that the island has still not emptied. Although more and more tourists leave the island through the airport at Mytilini on the Southeast side, in the Northeast refugees flood the coasts with their dinghies.

Some smart Turkish guy on the other side now buys dinghies for 20 people (until this summer smaller boats for 4-6 persons were used for Lesvos). A very good business, work it out for yourself: when you ask the refugees 5,000 euros per person for the crossing from Turkey to Greece, with this boat trip you earn 100,000 euros!

But the Greek islands are getting a bit fed up with the refugees that, uninvited, disrupt more and more their daily life. Last week the island of Patmos threatened to close its port to the refugees. Patmos has about 3,000 inhabitants and received since the beginning of the year 4,000 refugees already. Mostly the smugglers abandon the refugees on the inhabited island of Agathonissi, which is close to Patmos. Then at Patmos the refugees have to wait to be transported to another island with a refugee camp. You can imagine that in high summer it's difficult to find a boat for this transport. The emergency accommodation, in an old discotheque in Patmos, was not very comfortable in the soaring summer heat, which meant that huge amounts of refugees roamed through the small streets of the main village Skala, begging for food and drinks.

Samos island also cried for help this month. The new refugee centre that was opened just last summer and had place for some 280 persons, was crammed with 500 refugees. And their coastguards are becoming overworked, they desperately need more officers to be able to keep up their patrols.

The refugee centre on Lesvos, near Mytilini, is as overcrowded as the one on Samos and was heavily criticised this summer. It is easy to criticise, but who is catching the human traders, who ensures that the refugees don't have to flee anymore? Who helps the Greek islands that can no longer deal with the huge flows of people seeking refuge on their coasts?

The worst is the situation in Patras. There an illegal slum has arisen full of refugees. In Patras the refugees hope to find a truck or a boat to hide on and so reach their promised land.

The Greek government promises new refugee centres, complains to Europe that Greece has to guard such a long line of European border, but doesn't do anything positive. The alarming cries from the islands and the international press releases about the undignified situations in Patras and on the islands are lost in the reports about the national scandals.

Greece loved to fight in words with Turkey, but they were not too enthusiastic to do this when it was proven that not only jets crossed illegal Greek borders but also coast guards, in order to deposit refugees on the Greek islands.

It's less than a hundred years ago that the Greek islands last saw so many refugees. In the years 1922-1923, after the Greek Turkish war, some one and a half million Greeks were forced to flee from Turkey to Greece (from Greece about half a million Ottomans were returned to the new Turkey). see this item on youtube

Especially in Smyrna, present day Izmir, the expulsion was a huge tragedy. But seeing the images from the refugee camp in Patras can also bring tears to your eyes

The government would like to remove the camp, but it's good that there are still Greeks and international organisations that manage to keep the camp alive.

Summer or winter, the refugees continue to come. The sea crossing between Turkey and Greece is just a short passage in a very long journey...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Monday, 15 September 2008

Creepy!

For over a month Mollywood, the new part of Molyvos bulit on the right hand side of the road to Vafios, has lain under fire. An arsonist starts fires, mostly in the middle of the day, but sometimes also at night. The first and biggest fire happened at the beginning of August (see: Summer hits). Since then nearly every day there has been a fire.

On a few occasions the arsonist moved to another place like Eftalou. Mostly the fires were in the area going from the reservoir to the Petra road. There were as many theoris as there were fires: first you had to look out for somebody in a red car, then it was said that the arsonist used a moped, then it was said that his transport was a white car and one day it was said there were two people: a big one and a small one. The mayor had a serious talk with some young people: they should watch out for the arsonist and if they were the culprits, they should realise that once they were caught, they could look forward to many years in prison.

The arsonist has still not been found and the fires are still the number one subject of gossip. Because everybody is on alert the fires remain small. We can say that until now, thanks to luck and good firemen, there have been no casualties no houses or hotels have been evacuated because of the threat of fire.

The temperatures are falling, there's more moisture in the evenings and even rain is forecast for the coming days. The danger of fires reduces, but still people in Mollywood keep up the watch for a red glow which means a new fire.

And then there is a new plague coming over Mollywood: somebody spreads poison, and I'm sure it killed some foxes but also many pets. It's common for the sheep farmers to use poison to get rid of the foxes, although it's forbidden. But how can you catch a poisoning farmer if you can't even catch an arsonist?

And then, when you go to the police to make a complaint, you first have to go to the municipality in order to pay 10 euros for the complaint and then the police will be on strike or too busy with refugees. And after waiting for days to make your complaint, they will shrug their shoulders and say: 'ti na kanoeme' (what can we do...).

I don't live in Mollywood and even though I regularly sniff the air to check if there will be a fire, I'm not afraid of the arsonist. Neither do we have poisoning farmrs in the neighbourhood, although our cats do have other dangers they have to avoid. Like last week I saw a spider attacking one of our cats!

The evil thing came straight from a horror movie: the camel or roll spider, that had its head and forelegs in the air to charge at the cat. The cat had hoped to play a nice game, but more than once it had to jump away from the attacking spider.

Thinking back on this spider gives me the creeps. I never was good with spiders and coming to Greece I had adjust to all the creepy-crawlies here. Nowadays I'll dare to put a glass over a spider, pushing a fly swatter under the glass in order to transport the spider outside. Although there are always spiders who are quicker than me...

Now that I've met the camel spider, I knock out my shoes before putting them on, I look under my blanket before I go to bed and I monitor my handbag by taking out every item each time I take it with me (yesterday I found a big black spider in my handbag).

When I told a neighbour about the attacking spider, she immediately knew the name and told me they are very rare. Well, rare or not, the internet is full of creepy stories about these horrifying creatures: when you sleep they inject a poison and then eat your flesh, they jump on the belly of a camel and make a gaping wound and last week there was even an English family who fled their house because a camel spider, that came illegally with the luggage of the husband who was in Afghanistan, killed their dog.

Scientists try to deny these horror stories by saying that the spider isn't poisonous. But an Indian survey came to the conclusion that the camel spider is indeed poisonous. The camel spider isn't a spider but just belongs to the spider family; it is really something between a spider and a scorpion. They say they cannot jump, but I saw with my own eyes how quick it was and that it could jump fight like a real boxer. I also saw a huge mouth and scientist say that the mature ones can have very crafty jaws. Some of these camel spiders are called wind scorpions and the one I saw looked pretty much like one.

I watched the fight between the cat and the spider safely from behind a screen door. And when the spider sped away between the plants (it basically looked like he was swept by a huge wind) and the cat thought 'I'd better stay clear of that creep', I wondered why I have cats that no longer kill their prey.

I know for sure that I won't go near those bushes. It'll have to get very cold this winter, before I dare to touch them again in the spring (it's a well known corner for more creepy-crawlies like the centipede).

I'm glad that the evenings are getting colder and I can put shoes on again. The evenings wearing flipflops are definitifely over. Imagine the nightmare of having such a wind scorpion hanging from your big toe...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Monday, 8 September 2008

The Tears of Demeter


Last week visitors to the Partenon in Athens could have been forgiven for thinking they were back in Ancient Times: a high priestess, dressed in a white robe from Ancient Times, raised her arms to heaven and cried out for Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the capital of Greece. She asked the goddess to take better care of her property. The prayer was a protest against the opening of a new museum at the foot of the Acropolis.

This wasn't meant to be a humorous protest. The high priestess is a member of the Ellinais, a small group of people who want to bring back the ancient Greek gods: The Holy Association of Greek Ancient Religion Believers. They recently gained recognition as an official religion. The Athenian union counts tens of members, most of them academics, lawyers and other professionals. Their aim is peace in the world, ecological awareness and the right to education for everybody.

In Greece it's forbidden to hold rituals in archeological sites. But the Ellinais have no other place to pray to their gods than the old temples of the ancient gods so they often break that law. Last January they held an illegal ceremony in an ancient temple of Zeus in Athens, getting plenty of publicity because it was the first ceremony for Zeus held for 1600 years, ever since the Romans banned worship of all the Greek gods.

It's understandable that so many times one refers back to the ancient gods: Greece has such a rich history of gods and myths. And in some ways the Greeks still believe in more than one god. Instead of praying to the different gods, they now pray to the various saints of the Orthodox Church, in the small churches and chapels that are dotted around the country. Each saint has his own area of influence, just as the ancient gods had their own domains.

Although there are no saints for the weather or the seasons, mythology attempts to explain why there are four seasons: When Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, was abducted by Hades and brought into the underworld, Demeter became so sad that everything stopped growing on earth. The lord of the Gods, Zeus, had to intervene to save the earth and with his help they made a deal: Persephone would live half the year in the underworld and half the year on earth. So when Persephone comes back to earth Demeter is so happy that springs starts and when Persephone goes back to the underworld, autumn starts.

We should be sad that Persephone left us. But I love it when the Ftinoporo (autumn) starts. Temperatures cool down and nature displays its fruits: figs, grapes, walnuts, pinenuts and almonds. Followed later by quinces, apples, pears and chestnuts. After the first rains snails will appear (well, they don't really fall off trees) and mushrooms.

Now it's wonderful at the beach, but autumn also means that lounging at the beach is over: the fig fever (see Lesvos news 2006: fig fever) arrived and it's getting busy: picking figs, drying them, conserving them, conserving pears, gathering walnuts and pealing them, picking pinenuts and almonds. The sweet autumn tears from Demeter are like angels on your tongue (Angels on your tongue is a Dutch expression for something very delicious).

Figs make a beautiful combination with walnuts. The walnuts are beaten out of the tree in their green skins and then this skin has to be removed and the nuts dried when you want to conserve them. But watch out when peeling them: your hands will get stained brown because of a pignment that will stay for days on your hands. In earlier times they made a dye from the walnut skins to colour clothes, furniture and hair. The skin from trees and nuts and the leaves as well are used in curing a long list of diseases such as skin disease, perspiring feet and infections of the stomach or intestines.

Walnuts are very popular in Greece for cookies and cakes, like the famous and very sweet baklava. Lesvos doesn't have its own famous special dish with walnuts, but the island of Corfu has one I'll give you. Sikomaida has the characteristic dark autumn taste of nuts and figs, it has a fresh taste because of the grapes and it's not too sweet: a dish worthy of the gods.

When you see all this bounty of fruit on the island, you should thank the gods. I should become a member of the Ellinais to be able to communicate with the ancient gods. Because I have no idea which saint is responsible for this abundance of fruit. I'd better secretly light a candle in one of the many churches to thank Demeter...

Sikomaida

750 gr fresh figs or 1 kg dried figs
2 dl grape pulp
2 cl ouzo
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
grated peel of 2 oranges
1 teaspoon of fresh fennel chopped
pepper
150 gr chopped walnuts
leaves of a walnut or fig tree
string

If using fresh figs, cut them and leave them for a few days to dry in the sun. When you have dried figs sprinkle them with some ouzo so that they soften. Chop the figs into small pieces and mix all the other ingredients (except for the leaves and the string) together until they form a stiff dough. Form thick cookies of it and let them dry in the sun or for 2 hours in a medium hot oven, with the door a little open. Wrap the cakes in the leaves and wind the string all round it to seal it. You can keep them for several months stored in a cool place.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Wake up!


Last week the rally drivers from 'Grease to Greece' proved that it's possible to drive a car without petrol. The Englishman Andy Pag, who last year drove to Africa on waste chocolate, chose this time to cover the 2,500 miles from London to Athens driving on used cooking oil. The restaurants they asked for this oil during their journey were all happy to donate it, because it served a good purpose and disposed of it. With this story I don't mean to encourage the whole world to start driving on used cooking oil. Because then you will get an increase in demand for vegetable oil, which would upset the balance in the world: for instance in Asia they now complain that the production of palm oil, another alternative energy source, diverts agriculture from other crops and thus increases the risk of famine.

Olive oil may not be the oil most used for frying (although in Greece it is), but according to the British press the demand for olive oil in England is now so high that the country may be to blame for southern Mediterranean countries becoming deserts. Harvest machinery and water are the main requiremments when producing cheap oil for supermarkets. Because of the increasing demand, big companies buy olive groves but don't care about the environment and the landscape, using lots of water and chemicals for an increased harvest. This already happens in Italy and Spain, but not so often here in Greece.

Greek olive oil is internationally increasingly regarded as an excellent oil, just as the Lesvorian olive oil wins more and more international prizes. Here on Lesvos those machines driving over the trees to harvest the olives are still a distant nightmare. Although I can imagine that for some Lesvorians these machines would be a dream come true, because they make for less work and eventually they will earn you more money. As with the increase of organically grown olives. That is not done because of a better quality or because it's good for the environment, but most Lesvorians do this because you earn more money from organic olives.

Luckily enough Greeks are not good investors in new machinery or in new energy. So old traditions like picking olives by hand, will not quickly be lost. In the case of traditional production, olive oil can even earn them a big advantage. The Lesvorian oil keeps its good quality and there is a growing group of people who want better quality (I don't trust the quality of olive oil produced by the big companies).

Greece could have been as rich as any oil producing country: it has enough energy resources. But it prefers to be fooled by unreliable Russia (by the way, not only Greece) in signing contracts for big oil pipelines from Russia. If the Greeks dared to invest, they would not have to be so dependent of countries with oil and gas. Windmills, solar energy, cars driving on olive oil, why is it that Greece is not full of these things?

They also have plenty of geothermal energy which is currently hardly exploited, mostly just for growing asparagus and tomatoes. Just look at Lesvos and its thermal springs. It's full of boiling energy here under the ground and the only thing they do with it is exploit some thermal baths and those also are not used to their full for health care: some Lesvorians can be as stiff as can be because of rheumatism, you will never get them into the healing waters of a hot spring.

Maybe that will change, because last week the prime minister of Greece, Kostas Karamanlis, had a long conversation with Geir H. Haarde, the prime minister of Iceland. They didn't only talk about economic and tourist exchanges, but also about geothermal energy, a resource that Iceland uses as much as possible.

Karamanlis accepted an invitation to visit Iceland. Will he then realise what a treasure geothermal energy can be? The Greeks refuse to learn from their neighbour Turkey. It was the Turks that made the hot springs on Lesvos popular. Maybe the Lesvorians will not use the baths because they think it's a Turkish tradition. Turkey has exploited for years already its geothermal sources. Hundred and thousands of households there are heated by hot water coming from the ground.

So it's time that somebody convinced the Greeks that there is gold under their soil. Lesvos could become important because the island is so rich in thermal springs. Hot water for central heating, spa centres for tourists, heated greenhouses for vegetables and flowers.

Why should we continue to pay huge bills to the electricity company and keep on pumping expensive fuel into our cars, while there is plenty of energy under our houses and cars can run on waste products or (allegedly) water (on the internet you can order a book that apparently tells you exactly how to convert the engine of your car so that it can run on water)? Greece could be a very rich country, because of its volcanic soil and all the hours of sunlight it gets. It's time that Greek scientists stood up to educate the people. The Greek scientists/philosophers of early times are still venerated like gods, but the modern scientists are kept out of the picture by political shenanigans.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

I cry for you, Greece


While many fires still rage through Greece, a state of emergency has been declared for the whole country and there are three days of mourning. Those three days are already nearly finished, the number of victims keeps on increasing and new fires still flare up daily. This disaster is not to be rectified with three days of mourning. This is a disaster such as has never been seen before in Greece.

From Saturday onwards TV stations showed non stop not only the terrible images of the fires, but also intense discussions between notables and anchor women, apparently not disturbed at all by phone calls from mayors desperately begging for help, describing how close the fire had approached their village, and angry people who didn't understand why nobody was coming to help them.

Words and images on TV are not enough to portray this huge disaster. Even the numbers of the ongoing outbreaking fires cannot describe it. Headlines shout: "Greece is burning!". Greece is crying.

Because you cry when you see villagers and homeowners desperately fighting against huge flames that threaten their properties: they fight with branches, buckets and garden-hoses, but in most cases in vain...

The government has stopped commenting. They themselves are now under fire because of the emergency service failures. Premier Karamanlis blames it all on arsonists, but no way do I believe that all fifty or so new fires that break out each day are the work of unscrupulous people.

The Greek government should be ashamed. Not only the current governing party, Nea Demokratia, but also PASOK. They ruled the country for years and are also responsible for this failing system that could not save people, homes, animals and land quickly enough.

In a Dutch book, 'Oriste, een reiswijzer Griekenland' (Oriste, a travelservice Greece) published by Teleac-Not in 1999 on page 154 they write about the fire brigade: "One of the developments to be concerned about is the increase in the number of wild fires and the failing fight against them. Until recently the forest administration was responsible for this, but now the responsibility has been transferred to the fire brigade. Fights between the two services, poor equipment, combined with often high temperatures, are not contributing to safe woods. It is as well to know that in a dry country such as Greece a thrown cigarette stub can cause an enormous disaster."

The Greek government only thinks of public enemy number one: Turkey. They invest huge amounts of money in the military. They forget the other enemy: fire. On a day that Greece was hit with about 180 fires, there were a thousand firemen battling against the flames, helped by 20 planes and 19 helicopters. How can you try to get control of so many fires with so few people and so little equipment?

It's very easy to blame it on landowners who see their land worth more when the trees are gone or on real estate agents that see in burned land ideal building sites. Of course they are to blame for some of the fires. But I'm afraid there are other causes that a government of a modern country should have dealt with long ago.

Was the government ever concerned about the illegal rubbish dumps in the Greek landscape? On every walk you make you will pass at least one such illegal dump. There only needs to be a bottle that works like a magnifying glass and whoops, there's a fire. Did the government ever encourage the building of garbage plants so that all those legal garbage sites would disappear? Last year such a dump caused a big fire close to Thessaloniki releasing toxic clouds. That's never happened in Molyvos, but whenever in the autumn they set fire to the garbage dump in order to clean up the place, it's frightening. Not to mention all the toxic fumes that you have to endure for days.

Some news broadcasters also mentioned the electricity poles that spark. On Lesvos we also have these poles that spread sparks. We even have one just beside the house. Especially in winter time, when there is wind and rain, they can make firework displays. I myself once saw a fire that started like that. But happily enough that was in the winter when we could only dream of drought and heat.

So just as the Chinese are said to be the cause of the increasing price of milk in Europe, the arsonists are all to blame for the devastating fires in Greece. The government should be ashamed. In a few weeks, on the 16th September, there will be elections. Early in the weekend of the disaster, all the leaders of the biggest parties (Nea Demokratia, PASOK and KKE, the communist party) ceased their campaigning in order to visit the worst hit places. Now that the criticism really starts, they stay under cover, too afraid to make a wrong move. Part of the campaign money is to be given to the victims, but you can never tell how people in a rage will react.

The heat wave seems to be over, although the weather reports keep on forecasting hot weather. The fires are far from being extinguished. When the time comes for the Greeks to vote, then the full disaster of human misery, the destruction of the ecological and the economical systems can be fully seen. It is promising to be very hot election days.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007