Monday, 28 April 2008

Loud Speakers

I bet there are no village criers anymore in Europe. But they still exist, only now they are electronic criers. Here on the island, in each village they have an electronic village crier: everywhere there are loud-speakers that regularly announce important messages from the municipality. They announce for example when the electricity or the water will be cut because of repairs, they announce when there is a municipality meeting or when and where festivities will take place. But with this system you can also try to find your lost dog and people are even summoned to remove their car when they are parked in the wrong place (wich makes you the laughing stock of the town!).

We don't live in the village so we have no idea when it is forbidden to water your plants because there is not enough water, or at what time a concert will take place, which has been organised in the summer. That's good, because when I'm in the village and the village crier starts yelling messages I always get scared to death!

People living in the villages are used to it. For them it's a good way to stay tuned to what's happening in the village. But for people who are still not used to this electronic voice, the Holy Week which ends with Easter, was an ordeal, because the village crier is also used by the Church.

Masses in the Orthodox Church are very relaxed and look more like a social gathering than a Holy gathering. While the priest is saying the mass, the church-goers have only one ear and one eye cocked to the priest. The other eye and ear is for their fellow worshippers. They shake hands, they chat and they try to control their children, who are running and playing hide-and-seek between the legs of the adults. They all walk in and out of the church as if they were attending a reception.

What a difference to a catholic mass! I was raised a catholic and as a child I hated to go to church, where I had to attend an event that I didn't understand and where I had to keep quiet for at least an hour.

It's much easier for Greek children, because during the Orthodox celebrations they can run around with their friends. And for the adults it's also nicer. That's why most Greeks attend a mass at Easter: to meet friends and family and to exchange Easter greetings.

On Holy Saturday the Holy Light is flown in from Jerusalem to Athens, and from there to all other destinations and when this Holy Light arrives in the church around 23:00 the midnight mass can begin. A lot of people only go to church to be there at the height of the mass, around midnight, when the papas starts distributing the Holy Light to the church-goers who all brought a candle for the purpose. Then the church bells start ringing and fireworks are crackling in the night sky.

Christos Anexi (Christ has risen) is what you say to each other (though what a strange wish!). Then people hurry home to finally eat the long missed meat. They start with the majeritsa soup, made of the organs of the lamb that will later follow as a roasted or stuffed dish from the oven, served after the soup or the next day.

This Easter night I went to a friend in Petra who has a marvellous view of the beautiful church on the rock of Petra. And, very important that night, she has an open fire. Because although during the last few weeks the temperatures has tried more than once to reach 30°C, at Easter the winter cold seemed to have returned.

When the mass started, the chanting voice of the papas sounded through the loudspeakers and into the cozy warm living room. How luxuriously can you attend mass? At midnight the bells started ringing and hundreds of firecrackers were thrown from the huge rock. For some minutes fire works painted the sky with thousands of colourful stars, which made me feel like I was on a canal in Amsterdam on New Years Night. Happy Easter!

Between the firecrackers people started to descend slowly from the church, careful to keep their flames alive until they got home. But the priest kept on going with the mass. I thought that at midnight everybody went home for an Easter meal. But not the papas, he even had company from a second priest and together they chanted for another full hour. For whom, I asked myself...

This was not the only mass that was brought to you by the loudspeakers. All during the Holy Week before Easter masses were celebrated early in the morning or late at night. And you could attend all of them via the village crier! There was no escape: in the villages all important masses are served at home.

The Holy Fire from Jerusalem is called a miracle. But the weather can also be called a miracle, because it's starting to look like a tradition that the weather forecast for Easter is always bad. (by the way, there are no weather forecasts cried through the loudspeakers). Cold and rain, nice forecasts when you organised a souvla (roasted lamb over a fire). But on Sunday morning suddenly there was the sun and the blue sky. The fire under the lamb was not rained out and the guests were warmed by the sun. If that wasn't an Easter miracle...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Tulips from Lesvos

As a child you collected cigar-bands, sugar-bags or stamps. Growing older the collectors boxes and albums were put into a cupboard and forgotten. Only getting much older people get to an age to restart collecting things...

The birdwatchers and botanists who visit Lesvos are in fact also collectors. Instead of albums with printed places where they have to place their stamps, they follow the books of scientists that have written where things have to flower, grow of fly.

Last week I wrote that here on Lesvos there are some 46 varieties of dragonflies and some 320 varieties of birds. The number of plants here on the island is estimated at about 1,400 to 1,500. A real job to find and document them all.

Last week I went for a walk with two botanists who had met each other only that same day. I soon saw my mistake: going for a walk with one botanist is nice and very interesting. Going for a walk with 2 botanists is a disaster: they put their noses into the long grasses and you can wait as long as you want, but for them no more walking. Their debating about names, sorts, forms and colours has no end.

So yesterday I went for a walk with only one botanist, which still demands some patience, because now it is high season not only for the birdwatchers, but also for the botanists. The island is booming with flowers and on each walk you will find different ones and all are to be photographed and documented. This time we went from Lafionas (close to Petra) to Klapados, a village deserted since the Turks that lived there were chased out in 1920 (rumour says they were all killed). The houses are now taken over by nature.

Standing at the foot of a little waterfall where a huge dark purple Arum (Arum dioscoridis) flowered, I regretted not having stayed home. While I waited for the botanist I followed a tortoise that strolled across the path, I looked for unknown flowers and I tried to identify the different songs of the birds that performed a deafening concert in the mountains. A little later however I didn't at all regret coming for a walk with the botanist: I saw tulips!

I must admit that I am still a Dutch woman who is crazy about tulips. Of course it is now well known that tulips didn't originally come from Holland. They come from somewhere in Central Asia. But it's the Dutch that cultivated the tulips since the 16th century and made all the colourful and fancy varieties that you now see all over the world.

In the 16th century the Austrian ambassador to Turkey took some tulips to his friend Carolus Clusius, who worked in the Royal garden of Vienna. A little later Clusius became professor at the university of Leiden (Holland) and took the tulips with him. He was crazy about tulips and started cultivating them, with beautiful new coloured ones as a result. In 1592 he published a book about tulips, the first book ever written on tulips. The years between 1630 and 1637 are known as the Dutch tulip mania. Tulip bulbs were hyped on the exchange market. A tulip bulb in those years was even more expensive than a house on a canal in Amsterdam! When the speculation crashed, many a merchant went bankrupt.

When you see the wild tulips here (the Aegean Tulip, Tulipa aegenensis), you wonder how come that these simple flowers have such a rich history. If you don't pay close attention you can easily confuse them with the red poppies or the red anemones that are also still flowering.

Here on the island the tulips grow on the higher mountain slopes (I would guess above 500 metres). Last year I though that when you wanted to see them, you had to climb Olympos or Lepetimnos all the way, a journey I made once and never again because of my fear of heights and when finally reaching the tulips, they were fenced in and far from the fences. On the road to Klapados, they were so near I could touch them. It took a great effort not to pick them, they are protected.

After the Arum and the tulip we got another surprise: a very strange flower, which looked like the Star of Bethlehem, but each flower had a large ball between its leaves. A flower with balls so to speak. I first thought that it might be chick peas, the balls had that shape and I must admit that I've still never seen the chick pea plant. But a botanist knows where to look and after consulting different books on plants in the Aegean area we got the name: a fruit bearing Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum sphaerocarpum), a rare form because they do not bear fruit every year. What happened to make them bear fruit is a big question...

So I'm not going to bother you with the names of all the other flowers we encountered. We walked through knee high colourful flowering meadows where bees were buzzing frantically and the sweet smell of honey made you think you had just entered the workplace of a beekeeper. (be careful: last week a woman was hospitalised after she was stung many times by bees while passing some beehives).

We passed forest boundaries where bright yellow Oriental Spring Sunflowers (Doronicum columnae) lit up amongst the dark undergrowth, we saw the mysterious Viagra (Dracunculus vulgaris) which had just opened its enormous flower, we smelled all those odours, we saw so many colours and finally I couldn't resist picking a bunch of bright blue cornflowers to take home.

Collecting is fun, especially when you have some 1500 plants to discover. But sometimes you get dizzy from the idea that you have to find them on such a big island. You have to be at the right place at the right time, because plants have their own calendar for when to appear. We have a few more weeks to go in this crazy world of flowers and then we are facing the drying out landscapes. Sometimes you wish it could always be spring...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Under the Sahara

We live in a strange world... We don't live in the Sahara, but we live under the Sahara! For a few days clouds of sand have covered the sun and the blue sky. I'm not sure if the high temperatures are due to this Sahara sand. But it's certain that I had to dig deep into my closet to find some summer clothes. At 28°C even a light sweater is too hot.

Not only Lesvos is carrying the weight of the African Sahara, but the whole of Greece and who knows what other places in Europe. In Athens people with respiratory problems have been advised to stay indoors.

Our friend and professor of dragonflies, Wolgang Lopau, is however excited by this clammy weather: will the African Schrabacken dragonfly (anax ephipigel) hitch a ride with the Sahara sand? Wolfgang Lopau travels as much as he can around Greece to visit the haunts of the dragonflies. His home is Lesvos, where you can find at least 46 varieties of dragonflies. That makes Lesvos the biggest dragonfliy island in Greece, as well as the best researched island in Greece.

That's why we were happy to take Lopau to one of our favourite places on the island, which he did not yet know. Certainly it's a place of interest to him because the loamy soil there means that there are a lot of little ponds, even during hot summers.

Palios is a region south of Mandamados, towards Mytilini. Already next to Clio by the road you will see a little lake that shows the loamy soil we're dealing with. This area stretches for kilometres down to the coast and it offers a landscape of low mastic trees, strawberry trees, wild lavender, Cistus bushes and little ponds where frogs, tortoises, ducks and dragonflies live.

Close to the little hamlet of Palios there were graves thousands of years old. But now we are not so sure if there are graves. The square holes cut out of stone do seem like the graves they found here in Molyvos. But there are scientists that say that they used to be hot air ovens where pieces of loam were baked in the sun. When you consider this loam rich region, this theory is fairly possible.

Anyhow, Lopau was very happy with so much water. I saw him thinking hard: what dragonflies were hiding under the water?

A dragonfly starts as an egg in the mud, just below the waterline or scattered over the water. From the egg comes a larva which has to shed its skin 7 times, which can take anything from a few months up to 5 years. During all that time the larva hides in the water. At the last shedding of skin it will crawl out of the water (around May) and then the dragonfly wriggles itself out of the larva and takes a first short flight to find a place in the sun to dry.

On this warm day in April we saw some early heather dragonflies (Sympetrum fonscolombii) that were encouraged by the hot weather to take to the air. Also a Libella depressa, which had just shed its last skin and flew out with glittering brand new wet wings to find a place in the sun to dry.

Dragonflies are like fairytale creatures, with their 4 fragile transparent wings and a usually brightly coloured body. They live by ponds or lakes, a very few of them daring to live close to running water. Whenever you are looking for dragonflies, you have to search for water. Which can be challenging in Greece. Lopau has learned to study the landscape. For example where there are oleanders there is usually water. However it's best to ask the locals. Most of them kind of know dragonflies. But when Lopau shows them his book full of pictures of dragonflies, they generally can point him to a secret hidden little pond.

The day we went to Palios the Sahara sand was still not there and the sun had the sky to itself. Although we knew it was too early for dragonflies, Lopau turned out to be a mine of information. For example, I have no knowledge at all of birds, although I live on an island famous for its birds. At this moment bird watchers are flocking to the island to look for the 320 species, (according to the birdwatchers bible 'Birding on the Greek Island of Lesvos' by Richard Brooks), that live or take a break during their migration on Lesvos.

Even though we were mainly looking down in order to find dragonflies and orchids (Palios was full of a few kinds of orchids), thanks to Lopau in a few hours we saw an impressive list of birds: a Black Stork (Ciconia Nigra), a Ruddy Shelduck (Tadorna Ferruginea), a Cretzschmar's Bunting (Emberiza Caesia), a Crested Lark (Galerida Cristata), a Hooded Crow (Corvus Corone Sharpii), a Little Egret (Egretta Garzetta) and a Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe Hispanica).

Who makes these names?! Here is another list: Caloteryx Virgo Festina, Platycnemis Pennipes Pennipes, Ischnura Elegans Ebneri, Hemianax Ephippiger, Crocothemis Erythraea. They all live on Lesvos and are names for small creatures, welcome at the Dragonfly island. Another side of nature that makes Lesvos a very special island.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 6 April 2008

It is raining...

It's a pity for the tourists that arrive on the island, but it has now been raining for some 2 to 3 days. The first tourists are mainly birdwatchers. They will not get wet in their cars that most of them use to watch the birds, but the birds are hardly to be seen through the thick shower curtains of rain. One thing is funny: it is the birds that signal the end of a shower: as soon as the water stops falling from heaven, above the dripping sounds comes the carols of the birds.

Now the birdwatchers don't have to worry that their beloved marshlands are becoming dry, the places where most of the migrating birds are staying. So much water fell these last three days that the rivers are swollen and the marshlands are full.

Life on the island stopped for some days, because no Greek likes to go out during the rain. A perfect time to see how life is on other Greek islands. When you read for example 'Water in the Ouzo' by Cathy Lewin, or 'The Messenger of Athens' by Anne Zouroudi, you would say that life isn't so much different on the other islands.

'Water in the Ouzo' is set on the island of Kythera, which is south of the Peloponnese. The Dutch Cathy Lewin went there with her husband, a vet, to restore an old village house. The book is about all the problems that can befall you when you have a similar project in mind. The writer gives strong portraits of the workers and other people she encountered on the island. How to bribe in order to get your permissions, the strange working habits of some lazy Greek workers, nasty people who think they can fool you. It's all the same on Lesvos.

However life on a Greek island is best described by the Englishwoman Anne Zouroudi in 'The Messenger of Athens', a story that is set on the imaginary island of Thiminos. One day a fat man disembarks from the ferry and starts asking questions about the suicide of Irini, a woman living on Thiminos. It's not only the truth surrounding the death of Irini that is slowly revealed, but also how timid a small community can be. The writer herself lived on the Greek islands and she describes masterfully the gossiping, the power of the most important families in a small community and the habit of Greek men to have affairs.

Both women left the Greek islands, but certainly you can feel that both the ladies spent many years on the islands where they became vey well acquainted with village life. Cathy was already more distant from her Greek years. You can see that in the way she humours the colourful people she describes. Anne maybe had harder times. You feel a bitter sweetness beneath her words.

The German born Bertina Henrichs only knows the Greek islands from her holidays. But she wrote a book about a local chambermaid on the island of Naxos: 'The Chess-Player'. It is a beautiful crafted story about a local woman who risks her marriage because she develops a serious passion for playing chess.

And then for the people who don't have enough time for novels, there is also a volume of verses full of life from the Greek born Agni Fournaraki: 'Perceptions'. Like a modern Sappho she writes about life, love and nature in sweet, colourful, soft, thrilling, warming and quiet sentences. However, her poems are only in Greek and in Dutch. The volume is published with works of different artists and a CD where the poems can be listened to in Greek.

Looking at the water searching for a way on the road between the gardens, the drops drumming on the window-sill, it is a perfect moment to dwell on one of Agni Fournaraki’s poems:

"It is raining
a refreshing rain for my body,
thoughts, my spirit of love

It is raining
the drops slip and fall
above me
taking care of my worries

It is raining
a purifying rain,
a relief from being on the rack

From: Agni Fournaraki - Belevingen, Totemboek, (Holland).
Available at the Ianos bookstore in Athens and Thessaloniki:

Cathy Lewin - Water bij de ouzo, Totemboek, (Holland)
Anne Zouroudi - The Messenger of Athens, Bloomsbury Publishing
Bertina Henrichs – The Chess Player, an article from Queen’s Quarterly

Copyright © Smitaki 2008