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


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


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...


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
150 gr chopped walnuts
leaves of a walnut or fig tree

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