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