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.


Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Monday, 15 December 2008


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


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