Thursday, 31 December 2009

Kali Chronia!

The picture besides was taken on December 31 2008, a good year ago when snow fell not only on the mountains on Lesvos but even some villages.

A year later the island is radiant green under a brightly shining sun. Yesterday it shone all day, ending in a flaming sunset so full of colours it hurt the eyes. A pity I had no camera to register such a stunning spectacle.

The temperature in December stayed around 20°C nearly every day. It was that warm you only had to heat the house a little to keep the damp out. However this warm weather is not without its danger. Two rough southerly storms hit the island, pushing the waves over the quays in Molyvos harbour and stewing up the water like fountains against the road here in Eftalou.

Both boats and trees perished in the onslaught. Part of the road from Plomari to Melinda was so damaged you have to go up the mountain through Megalochori and down again to the coast to get to Melinda. A few weeks ago even more harm was done by a storm that showered the island with hail stones as big as walnuts. Especially around Kaloni and Polichnitos there was serious damage with greenhouses, cars and sun panels all smashed and winter vegetables disappeared into the earth again. Even our satellite receiver was crushed by the hail.

Last week a nasty thunderstorm hit with heavy rain and a strong wind which forced several outward bound flights from Athens to turn around. I found it strange that in Athens they did not know there was such bad weather here over the island. More than one plane had taken off for nothing and returned to leave passengers stranded at the airport. Anyhow, those Greek fliers may not be so smart. A few weeks ago a pilot was about to land on an island when he realised it was the wrong one: oops where should I be, again?

With the rains the rivers fill up fast and you find waterfalls everywhere. Except at the Pesas, near Achladeri, where the municipality has built a beautiful path leading to a stunning panorama point from where you can view the famous waterfall. However, since last winter, there is no waterfall, because a farmer who owns land above it thought his farm needed the water more than this magic place (that attracts visitors from all over the island) and so the water has disappeared.

But at least nature is happy with the warm weather. A lonely rose mallow is already blooming, anemones and daffodils are eager to open up their buds, while the saffron crocus and the autumnal cyclams are still to flowering. About a hundred kinds of grasses fill the meadows with all shades of green, and together with the evergreens and the silvery leaves of the olive trees this December landscape is a sensational visual prospect.

And our ears are treated with songbirds, some of them already starting their spring tunes. That may be a little too early, in the new year for sure winter will appear.

I wish everybody a very happy 2010!

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


(Photo: Explore Crete)

It has never been completely proved that Christmas originates from pagan festivities like the Romans’ Saturnalia, when social roles were reversed, slaves were served by their masters and people gambled their fortunes away. Saturnalia was named after the Roman god Saturnus who, lest an oracle’s prediction that they would kill him came to pass, ate his own children. Saturnalia lasted at least a week from the 17th till the 24th of December, so that the dark god was fully appeased and new life was welcomed at the end of the year.

For the Romans the party didn’t end there. After Saturnalia came Juvenalia, a celebration for children who were spoiled with gifts and tokens of good luck. And then on December 25th the miraculous birth of the Persian god Mythra was celebrated. He came as a man out of the rock, with a knife and a torch in his hands. He was a Sun God and fought against darkness. And then there were some other lesser Roman Gods who were also celebrated in December —the ultimate party month. In the year 274 emperor Aurelianus decreed that one day was enough for all this - the Sol Invectus – to be celebrated on December 25th.

This was at the time when the Christian religion was gaining popularity in the Roman empire and with it the question: what was the true date of Christ’s birth? Some thought it was April 19th, others said it was on the March 25th or 28th. There was a suggestion that it should be January 6th but the bishop of Rome was not in favour. Since people were also tired of the endless pagan parties of December it was decided in the year 354 by Pope Liberius that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25th.

As it happens this date for the birth of Jesus was close to the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere day – December 21 - mid-winter, when the victory of the light over the darkness was celebrated with lots of lights.

And what did the Greeks do? They may have invented the December tradition of Saturnalia, by celebrating their god Cronus, the same deity as Saturnus, but they were not so fond of this youngest son of the Titans who liked chaos and also ate his own children (for the same reasons as Saturnus). So Saturnalia on a grand scale was really the doing of the Romans. The Greeks preferred their own god Dionysus, the god of wine and parties. Around midwinter they celebrated Lenaia, the Day of the Wild Women, the Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus (TB: who supposedly tore apart the poet Orpheus and tossed his body to the four corners of the world — his head is believed to have floated across the Aegean and landed here on Lesbos). On Dionysus’ day a man, or a bull, was killed and cut in pieces that were then eaten raw by the same Maenads who then sang and danced as really crazy women. Later on the Lenaia turned into a theater festival in Athens where plays like those of Aristophanes were performed,

Christmas in Greece is not so wild these days. The children go around the streets with triangles and little drums and sing Christmas carols and are rewarded for their efforts with candy and small gifts of money. The carols (calanda’s) they sing are very old and it is is said that in ancient times when they called on houses to sing, they carried with them a little ship, a symbol of the arrival of the god Dionysus.

Christmas is of much less importance than Easter in Greece. Maybe that has something to do with the Greek distaste for the excesses of Cronus. In the dark month of December the Greeks are more likely to barricade themselves inside their houses, in front of their TV sets, waiting for the days to grow longer. Presents are exchanged on the first of January, brought by Agios Vasilis, the Greek Christmas Man, and as during Saturnalia they still like to gamble on card games, but that also goes on at New Years Eve. Winning a game is supposed to bring luck for the coming new year.

The Christmas period in Greece is from December 23rd untill January 6th — Ephiphania. On the last day Greeks have a special celebration all their own when the waters, seas, rivers and ships are blessed by priests. In Holland on that day we celebrate the arrival in Bethlehem of the Three Wise Men (or Kings) who came from the East to visit the newborn Jesus. But they are totally unknown in Greece, unless they be the Pappas, the head of the Coastguard service and the Mayor that usually walk together in front of every public procession that you see anywhere in Greece on that day.

It is also possible that at Christmas in Greece you can might also encounter a plague of little men — kobolds, called in Greek kallikantzari’s — that try to invade your house, piss on your food or make other minor nuisances of themselves (see: Saint Nicolas).

And there is of course the Christmas tree which for Greeks is a modern tradition that comes from the West. The Greeks used to decorate a little ship at Christmas, a symbol for Agios Nicolaos, the patron saint of fishermen and sailors.

Nowadays, more and more Christmas lights appear all over Greece, but Christmas still is a comparatively minor celebration. But there is one thing the Greeks will do as everywhere else on December 25th: they wish you a very merry Christmas: Kala Christoujenna!

(with thanks to: Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The falling walls

(Picture: the polygonal Lesbian wall at Delphi)

A very long time ago, many centuries before we started counting the years, there was a Lesvorian building style that was famous far beyond the borders of the island and was even mentioned by Aristotle: the polygonal Lesbian walls. One of the eye catching attractions at Delphi is the same kind of polygonal wall. The stones have irregular sides and form a dazzling mosaic. A few years ago digging at the archaeological site of Xanthos (close to Antalya, Turkey) where they uncovered the ancient capital of Lycia, they also found the same kind of polygonal Lesbian wall.

Finding such a very distinctive old wall means archaeologists can immediately date it: 7th-6th centuries BC. Special to the polygonal walls on Lesvos are their curved sides. Imagine how the builders made these walls: no stone was square, no stone the same size, no stone with the same sides, and then all those curves! Imagine how much time it took to find stones that could match each other. Well, they also did a bit of chiselling to make them fit, and the seams were not always millimetre perfect, so sometimes there were gaps which were filled in with little stones.

It is thought that building these complex polygonal Lesbian walls was a sign of luxury: you could show off with them. So when you find such a wall, do not think that it was used just to separate two gardens. Behind such there might have been a sanctuary or some other important building.

On Lesvos these walls have been found amongst others at the acropolis of Eresos, in Mythilini, at the harbor of Molyvos, in Xirokastrini (close to Parakila) and the finest preserved polygonal wall of Lesvos you will find at Apothiki. The archaeologist Nigel Spencer has been wondering why this wall was at Apothiki. Apothiki is in the middle of nowhere, far from the six ancient cities of Lesvos: Arisve (now a suburb of Kaloni), Mytilini, Eresos, Mythimna (now mostly called Molyvos) and Andissa. In ancient times did they build those walls to keep the neighbours out? It is known that these city states of Lesvos were often at war with each other. Mythimna took Arisve and one of the multiple little wars between Mythimna and Mytilini is mentioned in the romantic story of Daphne and Chloe, written by the Lesvorian writer Longos.

Nigel Spender also discovered traces of many towers, especially in the west and the central part of the island. The towers did not seem to be for any military or agricultural purpose. In his book ‘Time, tradition, and society in Greek archaeology: bridging the 'great divide'’ Spencer suggests that the towers were probably built to impress their neighbours. But he does not think that the polygonal walls were built for the same reason. He thinks that the wall at Apothiki was used to protect an important sanctuary.

Most of the original polygonal walls are lost but the landscape of Lesvos is littered with other walls built in a different style that is also now a threatened species: the drystone walls that meander over the mountains and through the fields. They separate different lands, they support the olive and fruit or nut tree terraces, or they are made to keep out the animals.

One of the conclusions of the study ‘Agricultural landscape dynamics in the Mediterranean: Lesvos (Greece) case studying evidence from the last three centuries’ by Thanasis Kizos and Maria Koulouri is that these drystone walls will slowly disappear. Although lots of them still function, not much care is taken of them; they are neither maintained nor repaired. Most of them are left to the sheep and goats to wear them away and to the passage of time that will assist their eventual decay into rubble. (TB: People, of course, like to ‘borrow’ stones for their own purposes).

If you take a good look at them, you will notice how they are made without any kind of cement. There are not many Greeks left who have the skill to build a drystone wall, and to get them repaired means going to a lot of trouble: you have to find somebody who knows how to build them; sometimes you have to rebuild a whole wall for which you would need ‘new’ stones. As the art of making drystone walls is lost so, of course, all this work costs more and more. There are plenty of modern alternatives: building walls with cement or surrounding your land with iron fences that you can put in yourself. Poor farmers, or people who do not want to spend money on fencing, will use old iron beds, parts of cars, rusty washing machines and any garbage that can fill a hole. (TB: up behind Molyvos one shepherd has made a wall using a couple of those ancient polygonal stones mixed up with stones from the beach). But happily enough this is also an ‘art’ that may itself disappear as most Greeks realize that garbage has no place any more in the Greek landscapes.

And so the landscape of Lesvos, once filled with polygonal walls and still threaded through with hundreds of dry stonewalls, will slowly change. More houses will decorate the hills and mountains, agricultural land will be abandoned, terraces will slide down the hillsides and one day a landscape without walls will appear...

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Flu talking

When there was a lot of loud talk about the flu, I always thought: well, I live in a healthy way, on an island, out in the country, what can happen to me in the middle of nature? So I am pretty disappointed that being healthy is no guarantee against catching the flu - or a cold.

I do not know exactly what I have caught. I keep on sneezing and sniffing. No sore throat, no fever, no pain in the lungs, just a feeling that my head is a separate part of my body because only there does the angry flu seem to rage.

I feel like Laura Johnston, the twelve year old American girl that was in the news in November because she sneezed about a twelve thousand times a day! I should count my sneezing, although I think that even on a bad day I sneeze only about one thousand times, so I won’t be part of the forty people in the world who have Laura’s rare sneezing disease.

At the pharmacy they say it’s an allergy. Because when you sneeze without coughing it can’t be anything else. This pharmacist probably never heard of Laura, otherwise he would have put the media on to me. In Greece you can get lots of medicines without a doctor’s prescription, even antibiotics. So, when I am feeling ill I usually sort out what to take with the pharmacist. This time he just gave me some anti-allergy pills to stop the sneezing. Besides these pills I used the steam method to try and bring out the cold in my head, and drank litres of fresh orange juice, and just to be sure I even took extra vitamin C tablets. But it did not get better, so I had to call a doctor who diagnosed a bad cold but no flu. Throat, lungs, heart and muscles were all right, I just had to sit it out.

When you tell somebody on the island that you are ill (arostos), they understand because half the village is always ill. “It prevails”, they say, like it is quite normal. Even in the middle of the summer when you tell them you are not feeling well people say “it prevails”. Then they start naming all the other persons who are ill and patiently listening to that list, it does indeed seem like half of the village is in bed and indisposed; but there is a clear difference between a summer and a winter flu. With summer flu your stomach tends to empty very quickly and it may only last a day. With a winter flu your nose runs, and you have a cough and a sore throat which can take ages to get better. This flu can come even to the healthy island life.

Now that everybody has been scared by the prospect of getting Mexican flu (also known as “swine flu”), only the media dare to name it. If you tell someone you have the flu they now tend to take a step away. Now there is talk of getting vaccinated, but many people are hesitating: will it help, or is it too late for it to work this winter?

It’s certain that Mexican flu has reached this island. The first cases were actually in summer. Now many schools are closed, especially around Mytilini, where most people live, as well as in the east of the island and in Kaloni, Perama and Illios.

I heard somebody saying that I probably had a ‘variant’ of the Mexican flu. “That prevails”, they say, meaning the variant. Although nobody dares to name this Frightening Flu, they think that anything flu-like is a new variant of the Horrible Flu. Experts say that the variant that has appeared on the island is very mild and they tell healthy people not to vaccinate.

And so this flu epidemic continues to simmer away and everybody knows at least ten people who are ill with it, although they never name it - as if saying the name will mean you catch it! Only very few victims have to go to hospital - but nobody will mention that either.

The one advantage of the epidemic is that not many people are leaving the island - they are afraid of catching a dose of flu elsewhere. Other people see this because of the economic crisis. Compared to last winter there are 70% fewer flights out booked so far. So there are bargains on ticket prices to Athens and abroad. But where would you travel if you already have the flu... And why leave an island that is full of oranges and lemons - vitamin C hanging from the trees!

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Olive Menuet

(picture: old olive press at Milellia)

I did not sleep much the night before we took off to do a walk described by the Andersons in their book on walking on Lesvos. The walks as they recommend them are not necessarily my favorites, because there’s always a risk of getting lost and the estimated time they say a walk will take, usually ends up doubled! Given my poor walking experience I was also worried whether I would actually reach the destination of this walk, the village of Kournella that is situated high up a mountain overlooking the coast on the southern side of the island. For years when driving to the port town of Plomari, I have seen this Kournella from a distance, hanging on the mountainside and have wondered how is this place could be reached and what it was like.

The walk was not too bad, though right to the end I did not take my eyes from the top of the mountain, desperately watching out for the village to appear. And when it did, and we arrived, I even had enough energy left to wander along its streets, admiring the play of the autumn coloring plane trees and the picturesque houses, most of them abandoned. Only three people are still living there, so obviously the village must have known better times.

Walking back was much easier because the road winds gradually down back to the sea and the village of Melinda. Just under Paleochori, the village opposing Kournella at the other side of a valley, we had to cross a little stream, its water smelled bad and was of a purple colour. Not only do I know now how to get to Kournella, but I also know from where this dark and dirty water comes, — you can see it on the beautiful quartz pebble beach at Melinda, flowing into the sea — it’s from the olive press in Paleochori!

To press olives for their oil it takes no more than machines and water. But the process is a source of pollution. What comes out is the water used to clean the olives and what is needed for the pressing itself is also mixed with waste juices and other waste products which together is called the Olive Mill Waste (OMW).

OMW contains mucilage, pectic substances and small amounts of oil, all organic substances, but they do not easily degrade naturally into the environment. Especially polyphenols which occur naturally in fruits and berries like olives but are not necessarily good friends of the environment when concentrated in large quantities. However, according to Wikipedia, polyphenols seem to be more healthy for human beings as an antioxidants. They might possibly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and new researches even believe they could help decrease the encroachment of Alzheimer’s disease.

These days the polyphenols which are much in demand by the food industry flow freely all through the Lesvorian landscape. Lesvos has some 70 olive presses (all big villages have one) that during the coming months will be working hard to reduce thousands tons of olives into the beautiful green-yellow oil.

In earlier times there were many more olive presses on the island, although the modern presses have more capacity. In the golden years of Lesvos around 1900 there were some 200 olive presses, most of them worked by steam engines. A lot of them are now in ruins, although some have been preserved and turned into little museums like in Millelia, Mandamados and Paleochori. There are two new museums which are restored old olive presses: The Museum of Industrial Olive Oil in Agia Paraskevi and the Industrial Museum in Papados, where they restored one of the first steam engines of the island, but I bet you will find no more flows of OMW from there! Two olive presses even have been transformed into a hotel: The Olive Press in Molyvos and Hotel Zaira in Skala Loutron.

The environmental authorities in Europe have been looking into the problem of OMW, because as well as Greece, Italy, Spain and France all have olive oil industries. And up to now none have found a satisfactory way to dispose of their olive press waste. In Spain they try to reduce the outflow by using less water; in Kalamata (Peloponnesus) they tried to turn OMW into compost; on Crete they use lakes to evaporate the waste; on Chios they dump it into holes in the ground, but none of these experiments give us a cleaner environment.

The food industry claims it puts more and more healthier products on the market and they are interested in this OMW - especially in the polyphenol that it contains. So let us hope that these mighty industrials will cry out for so much polyphenol they get the OMW flowing as quickly into their tanker-trucks as the oil flows into the bottles!

Last week I worked for some days in the olive harvest. As long as you don’t have to do it for weeks on end harvesting is fun when you do it with friends. The men slay the trees and make big jokes, the women empty the nets while they gossip, and after a day of hard work the communal meal is even more fun. When you are not used to this work you better visit a hot spring afterwards in order to heal your muscles for the next day.

Although I was nose deep into the olive branches for days I did not harvest any muscle pains but instead acquired a fast runny nose and lots of sneezing. And I thought I was doing very healthy work amongst those heavenly smelling olives! I probably did not inhale enough of the polyphenol, or maybe I have developed an allergy against it?

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Mushroom weather

(picture: a cep from Agiasos)

If the forecast is good, get on a plane and experience the most beautiful weather we are having here right now on Lesvos. Maybe beach lovers will find it a bit chilly, but for people who love walking this is the best time of year.

To be honest, I don’t want the island to attract too many large groups of tourists. The main attraction when the weather is beautiful at this time of year is that the island is quiet. The occasional car passes by and the only other busy sound you hear comes from the people harvesting olives, — the ricky-tickety-tick of their sticks battering the branches to bring down the fruit. A sound you would have heard down the ages, a peaceful sound that calms you down after all the hustle of a busy summer.

We often talk to our friends about tourism in winter here. On many days the winter sun can be like the middle of summer. However, it really does depend on good weather. I do remember other November months that were grey and very wet. And you wouldn’t enjoy sitting alone in a cold hotel room.

During winter most restaurants are closed, and in bad weather the villages look deserted as everybody retreats inside their houses and with everywhere damp and cold no amount of Metaxa will warm you up again.

But now, the few tourists who are here must be enjoying the island a lot, very lucky that we have this incredible burst of sunny days. When the sun has decided to party like now the island is magnificent with autumn colours, the sweet perfume of the saffron crocus, the pink cyclamen, the strawberry trees full with bright red fruit, looking like Christmas trees — and the busily growing mushrooms.

Even the Greeks come out of their lazy chairs in this weather, and they do so because they like going to the woods looking for mushrooms. Hunting for the pefkites under the pine trees is a favourite pleasure, like looking for red amanita it is getting more and more popular.

The chestnuts and other trees dropping their leaves up around Agiasos usually have a more varied offering of mushrooms. But only a few Greeks know that, because they tend to eat what they are used to – traditional food if you like. Near Agiasos for example you can find plenty of the most delicious boletus, porcini (or ceps) which no Greek will ever touch or eat, although this year we haven’t found so many because the centre and south of the island and the south are still too dry — it’s different here in the north.

On a spot not far from our house we found peppery milk-caps, red musola’s, field mushrooms, bright orange mushrooms under olive trees (we don’t kow what it is) and, hidden under the leaves beneath an old oak tree, we found a fat boletus erythopus (in Dutch the witch boletus).

So we have not needed to go all the way to Agiasos to find mushrooms. Although up there, the chestnut forests are now at their best with bright golden leaves, misty sun rays filtering through the branches and between the trees you see incredible views over the Bay of Yera.

This time we passed the woods and continued our way by car to Karionas, from where we walked towards Milies. At the side of the road we found plenty of boletus. They were not the best ones to eat (they were probably ‘cow’ mushrooms) and the Greek walking here before us must have thought the same. He picked up all the mushrooms he laid eyes on, then decided they were not tasty enough and threw them away.

Like Hansel and Gretel we followed this guy’s trail of mushrooms, but we never found the culprit. But we did not get lost. We ended our walk (at our departure point) at the most idyllic and highest taverna on the island with a superb view deep into Turkey and round towards Olympos mountain. The kitchen at the Karionas taverna surprised us that afternoon with a very tasty manitaropita (a kind of mushroom quiche).

This week in the paper there was a call from the Mushroom Club of Lesvos (Yes, there is a mushroom club here on the island which is active all year round, and goes around finding the most amazing mushrooms) telling us not to rake up the woods when we go out mushrooming. The pefkites especially hide under the pine needles and some people will rummage with rakes through the woods, tearing them up and filling bags full of them, in huge amounts they will never be able to eat. So they are kindly asked by the Mushroom Club to retrieve mushrooms from the earth with a knife, not a rake, take no more then that they are going to eat and leave the ground like they found it. Yeah, those Greeks!

During a surprisingly beautiful walk around Pterounda, Chidera and Vatoussa and a walk near Polychnitos we did not see many mushrooms at all. But before you know it, you can turn a corner and suddenly be in mushroom paradise. On Lesvos you never know, but for sure nature here is always full of welcome surprises.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The wondrous world of bleeding icons

(picture: The weeping icon of Holland)

“Good afternoon. I have a strange story. Came home last month from a holiday on Rhodes. Bought an icon. I had already seen it, last May, but didn’t buy it then because it was too expensive. This time I did. I have no interest in religion, I just fancied it. The day after coming home I put it on a spike already sticking out of the wall. I then saw something on the wall and tried to clean it off. I got a fright because about 10 –15 cm from the icon a red fluid seeped out of the wall. The building surveyor came, but he could not explain what it was. The paint shop could not explain it either. A laboratory at the hospital tested it: it was not blood and difficult to dissolve in water. What is it? Friends on Rhodes say it is a miracle. An Orthodox priest says the same. He has blessed it. It does not mean anything to me. Have you ever heard of this kind of phenomenon? I hear it has to do with positivism.” An email from Holland.

Imagine it happened to you! You buy a nice icon just because you like the image and then this image turns out to be not only a work of beauty but a miracle! You often read in the papers about these kind of odd events that attract hundreds of believers. The lady who sent me the email prefers to stay anonymous: “I do not want my living room turned into a place of pilgrimage” she says.

And she is right. Especially in America, plenty of weeping and bleeding icons regularly get discovered, filling their churches immediately with faithful believers, news hunters and sensation seekers.

In the Catholic Church most miracles seem to be connected to a vision of the Virgin Mary. In the Orthodox Church they have icons of the weeping Mary but also saints who bleed. This is not a modern phenomenon because in Byzantine time weeping and bleeding icons were already recorded.

Around the year 861 three Patriarchs wrote a letter to the emperor Theophilos about three bleeding icons. There was an icon of Mary on Cyprus that was pierced by an arrow shot by an Arab; an icon of Christ in Beirut that was struck by a lance wielded by a Jew; and another icon of Christ from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) was damaged by a Jew using a knife. This last one became known down the centuries (although some writers says it was a Mary icon). It seems from these legends that for an icon to bleed it had to be damaged, by an infidel.

Many icons that shed tears have been written about in old books and papers, but few of the stories are seriously researched. That might be difficult because in early days icons traveled a lot. After the Turks conquered Constantinople and turned its biggest cathedral into a mosque, the bleeding Christ of the Hagia Sophia was believed to have been moved to Peribleptos Church in the town of Mystras, in the Peloponnese. At the beginning of the ninth century the famous icon of Mary with the Holy Child (Panayia I Vrefokratousa) now at the Panagia Church in Agiasos was supposedly taken there from Jerusalem to Lesvos, by a monk who was evicted from Constantinople. He wanted to give the icon to the empress Irene who had been banished to Lesvos, but when he arrived on the island, he found she had already died. So he fled to the mountains, and as soon as he could trust the people there, he revealed his treasure: an icon painted by the evangelist Lucas. Then a monastery was established by monks to safeguard this holy icon. In 1170 they got permission to build a church dedicated to Mary and then there grew the little mountain town of Agiasos.

I am not sure what kind of miracles this Maria Vrefokratousa performed. She does not weep, but she attracts thousands of pilgrims every year, as does her biggest competitor on the island, the icon (made of clay and blood) of the archangel Michael in the Taxiarchis monastery in Mandamados. This other famous Lesvorian icon not only cries from time to time but is also said to have the power to move other images. When in 1974 the Turks invaded Cyprus a huge wall painting of the archangel Michael disappeared for a week from the Taxiarchis church. Greek soldiers battling with the Turks on Cyprus are sure they saw Michael fighting with them against the enemy on Cyprus!

Non-believers will immediately try to explain the teary eyes of miraculous icons because the painted wood can ooze resin, and when the glue that is used to make the panel gets hot, it melts. There are many ways to use these natural phenomena to cheat true believers.

In North America they even have a specialist whose job it is to debunk the iconic “miracles”. Years ago he was called to look into a weeping icon in Toronto, Canada. When he arrived with his weeping-icon-detection-kit at the church overrun by believers, he immediately saw that there were no tears flowing from the eyes of Mary but oil. When it became known that the priest of this church had another weeping icon in another church in New York and that he also ran a brothel in Athens there was no more talk of miracles! What priests will do to enlarge their flock…

Here on Lesvos we have many churches and small ones especially seem to be everywhere. Because many of them are falling into ruin (and with them many a cultural treasure disappears) they could do with a miraculous weeping or bleeding icon to cure pilgrims of their afflictions. There are plenty of icons hanging on their damp walls, some very old and precious, some just reproductions in fancy frames, or fading pictures from a magazine. Some churches even have murals, but even though they are in need of attention, none of their saints weep or bleed.

The icon in Holland does not bleed any more either. It was moved to another place in the house, next to a cross, and the fluid that came out of the wall dried up. How this icon made Mary shed her tears just some centimeters below the icon is still a wonder. There was no priest in desperate need of followers involved, nor a lunatic that cried for attention. I think you just have to accept some of the miracles just like life…

For the people still wanting to perform miracles, here is a website that can help: weeping icons for the whole family.

(Thanks to: Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

A deafening silence

(photo: singing pine forest near Anemotia)

When I visit Holland it strikes me that there is noise everywhere — highways, airplanes and other disturbing ‘background’ sounds. It is said that more than half of the cities in Europe have to put up with sound pollution. Maybe this background noise is not considered to be pollution proper, but the fact is there is never any silence in Holland.

The truth is that this island is also seldom silent. But the noises here are mostly produced by nature. The only disturbing sounds made by human beings come from building sites, motor bikes, small trucks from which people sell vegetables, fish or clothes, even furniture and try to gather customers by shouting through megaphones; radios with the volume turned up to accompany workers; very loud music celebrating a Greek party night or a wedding — and the Greeks themselves who are in the habit of talking pretty loudly.

The other noises you hear are made by the wind, the sea, rain, barking dogs, tingling bells of sheep and goats, howling foxes, singing birds and especially cicadas that probably produce the loudest natural noise here, especially on hot days when you are lying in your hammock trying to have an afternoon nap. When cicadas are screaming in your ears you can forget sleep. The only solution is to forget the nap.

There are less melodious sounds that can wake you up. Like a rhythmical gnawing somewhere in the darkness. A niece visiting her sister went investigating and got a big fright when a huge scorpion emerged from a bag full of papers. Hearing this story I anxiously wondered about the gnawing noise coming out of my bedroom. When I carefully set out to have a look around I spotted big holes in the window-sill: woodworms maybe, or perhaps the loud sawing noises came from a longhorn beetle? Before you know it, these little creeps will have eaten your house!

Lesvos is known for its many birds who can sing solo or in fabulous choirs, just like the bleating sheep and goats with their tingling bells they create a dreamy, meditative sound that can be heard all over the island. The most powerful sound however comes from the wind that plays the island like a natural instrument. It is said that the head of Orpheus with his magic lyre washed ashore at Andissa and that the music he played can still be heard on the island. That is right - when you listen carefully you can hear one concert after the other.

When you walk through a pine forest, you will hear the wind caress the pine needles, creating a melody that fluxes with the gusts of wind. From further away there’s the sound that rolls over the treetops, a sound that gets louder and louder and finally washes over you like a symphony.

Walking in a chestnut forest, when the chestnuts are ripe, there’s the rhythmic sound of falling chestnuts, harmonising with the higher notes of the crisping leaves far above you. When they are joined by the crackle of a forester’s wood fire and the faraway tinkling sounds from invisible sheep, you can enjoy a marvellous afternoon concert.

The wind can change, with the waves of the sea to produce a mighty percussive performance. Never underestimate this sound. Sleeping close to the beach, the play of the waves and pebbles can keep you from sleeping for nights in a row. And it is not only the wind that makes the waves roll. Some years ago when the speedy hydroplane ship Kenderis passed by the island for the first time, I was woken from an afternoon nap by a booming sound I had never heard before. It was a mini-tsunami that sounded like a drum solo beating the pebbles on the beach. A swelling, a crescendo until the waves came to rest and then it slowly rolled away, by which time the Kenderis that created the waves was long gone.

The mightiest concerts come when the wind with all its powers sweeps through the trees and together with branches, shutters, open windows, crackling thunder and lashing rain performs an overwhelming rock concert. Storms can be ear-splitting.

As soon as a storm thunders by, and the waves at sea finally calm down and when the wind goes to sleep, suddenly, it can be threateningly silent and disturbing. It is said that animals can feel the approach of an earthquake and fall silent. Then your ears almost hurt because you hear no sound — if ever I hear a grumbling sound coming out of the earth, announcing disaster, I always listen very anxiously.

When the wind and the animals are silent and the sea is a light blue field that the clouds use as a mirror, you best think of happy things and try to hear the most wonderful sound I ever heard here on this island: the flop-flopping sound of dolphins breaking the flat surface of the sea, a symphony of happiness that shuts you up for quite some time.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Welcome in the hell of Lesvos

(photo: here at the coast...)

Some weeks ago a senior government dignitary visiting the refugee centre Pagani in Mytilini said: “It looks like Dante’s Hell”. The last line of a 9 line verse written on the Gate to the Inferno of Dante (Canto III) says: ‘All ye who enter here, abandon hope.’

It may seem strange to compare a refugee centre with Dante’s Hell. The Inferno consists of 9 circles and the outer circle is filled with pagan people — but the refugees here are mostly Muslim people with strong beliefs. In the next circle you are awaited by King Minos who will judge your sins and send you to the place in Hell you deserve, just like the Greek officials will send refugees to their places, although for them it will always be a better place to go. Young boys without parents or guardians go to the refugee centre at Agiasos, and what all refugees really want is to continue their journey to Athens, and Europe.

You will find all kind of sinners in Dante’s Hell, but I don’t think all our refugees are voracious, greedy, prodigal blasphemers, crooks, schismatics, alchemists, violent people or even killers; although there are some malevolent people who do try to sneak into the country amongst genuine asylum seekers — like the Georgian murderer of the Greek actor Nikos Sergianopoulos who re-entered the country with a group of refugees to the island of Samos (after he was already expelled from Greece).

These last weeks some refugees have used violence to protest being locked up for long periods in the Pagani centre. While the support action group ‘No border’ has been in Mytilini, refugees kept on protesting. There were at least seven hundred people living in the centre — which was built to house only two hundred people maximum — so the conditions, especially hygiene, were appalling. People were locked up in cages that, rather than being a modern refugee centre really were like Dante’s Hell. Last week parts of the centre were even set on fire by the refugees, to protest against their inhumane situation. So indeed it did look like a hellish inferno.

Since September the authorities have tried to ameliorate the situation in Pagani by sending away large groups of people to Athens by boat. Some refugees were so keen to leave they begged doctors to pronounce them sick so that they could get a boat ticket to Athens. When the doctor refused they went beserk and attacked him.

So the doctor left the refugee centre, and because they too felt threatened so did other people working there. Even the police would no longer remain inside the centre, and kept guard outside of the gates. This was really because inmates believed the police had beaten up a seventeen year old refugee boy.

After months of struggle, the refugee centre has been closed down this weekend. It had become an untenable situation. However, I doubt if this is a real solution, because all new refugees now coming to the island (and they will keep coming) will be sent to another refugee centre on the neighbouring island of Chios, where I am sure, nobody will be happy to receive them, because they too have refugees arriving from Turkey. Probably in no time the centre on Chios will be just as overcrowded as Pagani on Lesvos.

In most hells you will find a flaming inferno. Last Tuesday however a kind of inferno happened at sea when a small boat with seventeen refugees capsized. On board were people from Afghanistan and one Turkish ‘asylum seeker’ (he had just got out of prison and could not find work in Turkey so for a good sum of money he smuggled the refugees group to Greece, thinking afterwards he could find himself a job in Greece). The boat hit rocks just near the little port of Skala Sykaminia, and three women and five children drowned.

One boy of 14 lost his mother and two brothers. A man already living in Germany who thought this ‘illegal’ route would be a quicker way to have his wife and child join him, rather than spending of time and trying to get them accepted the ‘legal, lost both of them. It is not known whether the husband of another woman who drowned with her two children (according to the papers) has survived or is missing.

People only make such dangerous journeys if they really want to escape a hell: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Sudan and many such countries where the lives of people are persecuted and hounded by ruthless people craving power. It is those people, of course, who should be cast into the deepest point of Dante’s Hell: Cocytus, the frozen lake where traitors must remain for all eternity.

It is sad that our world knows so many hells that make so many people flee their homes. From one hell into another — which, of course they cannot know before they start their journey. But to compare the refugee centre on Lesvos to Dante’s Hell might be a little exaggerated — certainly if you go look at those countries where they come from...

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Olive rhapsody

Now that most of the tourists have gone, work in the olive groves can start. The nets have to be spread out under the trees and the olives are nearly ready to be harvested.

The olive tree (olea europaea) is a tough tree which is difficult to destroy. You find it all around the Mediterranean, never far from the sea. In more than one country you will find famous and very ancient olive trees, some of them older than 2000 years.

According to Greek mythology the olive tree was a present from Athena, the goddess of Wisdom. She won a competition with Poseidon, god of the Sea — giving the best present to the city of Athens. This is how the first olive tree grew on the Acropolis. In the 4th century BC the father of biology, Theophrastus, recognized the olive tree on the Acropolis was the one given by Athena. Pausianus, a famous traveller and geologist, living in the 2nd century, wrote (in the year 170) that when the Persians set fire to the Acropolis, at the time of the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, Athena’s tree was also burned. However, on the same day, a new branch emerged from the blackened trunk and the olive tree survived.

There used to be another famous olive tree in Athens, in the western part: Plato’s Olive, where it was said that some 2500 years ago Plato held his academy. The tree lived through many turbulent centuries until 1975 when a bus drove into it and not only damaged the tree but uprooted it too.

Most of the old trees have fascinating whimsical forms and no wonder many people have fallen in love with them, so much so that they give a cheery salute to their silver grey leaves. The tree itself does not have too many enemies, although the fruit, the olives themselves can be attacked by a particularly nasty pest: the olive fruit fly bactrocera (dacus) oleae, known by the Greeks as dakos.

The females of species lay eggs in a olive and when they become larvae, they feed on the olive for ten days before becoming adult flies. By that time you can forget about the olive! In this way a single female fly can damage around 400 olives; and through the summer months at least 5 generations of these flies can be born into the world.

When after World War II chemical pesticides were introduced to farming, the Greeks, just like many other Europeans, were so happy with this new killer spray they hired planes to douse the landscapes with the mission: kill the dakos! The result was a bigger harvest of olives and better quality oil.

Well, I am glad that since I’ve been living here, these planes have never appeared. I would have stayed inside the house for at least a week if they sprayed their lethal cargo. Fifty years later even children know how poisonous these pesticides were.

For other farmers, including those into viticulture, it is easier now to farm organically without chemicals, but for the olive farmers there is still no way to find an environmentally friendly way to completely eliminate the dakos fly.

Although most farmers here on the island have changed their farming ways: the poison sprayers are more and more banned from the orchards with signs warning: ‘organic garden’. This does not mean that all owners of olive trees did it for a safer cleaner environment. No, the Lesvorian olive farmers have changed to organic because they get a good subsidy to do so.

The result is that at many entrances to the olive groves there are signs saying they are ‘organic only’ and in the trees you will see little square green or white bags (pheromone traps) which contain a powder to attract the male olive fruit flies. As soon as a male touches the powder and flies away with some on his legs, other males think he is a female and will follow him instead of the females. This way fewer and fewer females get fertilized. How do they find such things out?!

Another way to get rid of the dakos is by hanging plastic bottles in the trees containing a mix of ammonia, water and honey or some other sweet juice which will attract the flies. In these ways the islanders hope finally to get rid of the olive fruit fly.

But organic farming remains a difficult choice because without the dakos you have a bigger harvest of good quality while using these organic methods not all flies are immediately killed, which means that it’s very likely in the first years of organic growing the harvest can be disappointing.

This year on Lesvos the expectations were that they could harvest some 25.000 tons of olive oil. However due to the frequent rains in spring this number has to be reduced to 8.000 tons. Another problem comes because many farmers aren’t able to look after their groves and their trees more or less run wild and bear less and less fruit. Because of a lack of money some farmers don’t plough under the trees at the beginning of summer, nor can they afford to hire a specialist to prune their trees.

Thanks to mass production in countries such as Italy and Spain (where I bet they do not grow organic olives) the prices of the olives goes lower and lower, putting small farmers in a vulnerable position.

But anyhow it will be virtually impossible to remove the olive tree from the Mediterranean landscape. Not only are the trees tough, but so are the people who live with them. They are born amongst the olive trees and grew up on olive oil. It is a tradition that cannot easily be lost, neither because of dakos the olive fruit fly, nor the pressure from international olive businesses.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Free-range snails

This month Lesvos has been picked as one of the 22 European Destinations of Excellence for 2009. Other regions on the list include: the Viroin Hermeton Nature Park in Belgium, Vouni Panagias on Cyprus, the Northern Vosges Regional Natural Park in France, Park Gravenrode in the Netherlands, The Bird Republic in Warta Mouth in Poland and the Municipality of Remich in Schengen, Luxemburg.

This nomination is a small consolation for the tourists who are here now and who have to endure heavy rainfalls and thunderstorms. I can imagine they are a little disappointed, because going on walks will be a challenge - because they would have to cross many a mud stream trying to find its way to the sea.

So I pity them, but as I am living here I secretly love all this water. The summer dust finally gets washed away and lovely fragrances are freed. It is a real joy to inhale he fresh odour of the pine trees, the spicy smell of the earth and the prickly smell of the first wood fires.

In between the rain showers I am quite enjoying trying to navigate the mud, over the pine needles brought down and rendered by the rain into artful patterns, and between the olives that have started to fall; and I am careful not to step on the snails that now are part of the micro traffic on the paths. And when you see some Greeks with their noses down shuffling through the landscape, you know that they are not looking for chorta (wild vegetables) but for snails (saligaria).

I love to eat snails, but not to prepare them. I know it is a little contradictory maybe to enjoy eating them but to be too afraid to kill them in order to prepare them for cooking, but I cannot butcher a chicken, cow or pig, either, even though I eat their meat.

Before you start cooking the snails they have to be cleaned; they obviously eat dirty things and all that has to come out. The Greeks put them in a box or a cage (they need air) from where they cannot escape. Then they feed them with a little flower and pasta. Then, as far as I understand it, the snails can eat their bellies full and, again, all the dirt passes through,

Another way to clean them is to put them in water with some vinegar, and an even more lousy way is to starve them: they are put in a box/cage for 5 –6 days without food so they will empty themselves. I am sure that I would not sleep one night, or would free them on the their first day of fasting.

But snails are very healthy to eat. They have lots of calcium, they are rich in proteins and they have lots of vitamins B1 and E. It is said that snail eating is good for curing anaemia, asthma and rheumatics.

According to an article on the internet, a Dutchman Ruud Bank in 1988, found as many as 63 species of land- and sweet water snails on Lesvos. I could not find much more about his investigation or this Mr Bank so I have to do it with the list of the 63 snail names. I guess the species of snail that I always encounter on my way around here is the Helix cincta anatolica, a snail which probably came from Anatolia in Turkey.

The Greeks have eaten snails for a very long time. In the old Lycian town of Aperlae (founded in the 4th-3rd century BC, in the South west of Turkey) archaeologists excavated a site of about 1600 square meters full of shells from the Murex snail. So for sure it must have been a snail farm. Besides being eaten, the Murex snails were used for making a purple-red dye. Scientists calculated that for 1.4 gram of dye, 12.000 snails were needed. Wow, if you would have to eat that many...

The Greeks that lived in Anatolia used to prepare snails with onions, tomato sauce and bay leaf. On Lesvos, where many Anatolian Greeks fled at the beginning of the 20th century, they also add quinces, which makes a delicate combination of tastes.

People from Crete however have the most snail recipes. It is said that they know as many as 300 ways to cook them. A Cretan cook once served snails at a festival in Athens cooked in 20 different ways.

‘Bourbouristi’ is the name of a Cretan dish with fried snails. It is named after the plopping sound the snails make when they fall into the hot oil. Then they are seasoned with olive oil, vinegar and rosemary. Another snail dish is made with bulghur, tomatoes and spices; another with potatoes and spices and, continuing like that you can vary the ingredients until you have 300 recipes.

Especially in Bulgaria snail farms prosper. This year this Balkan country will export no less than 800 to 900 tons of snails. Mostly to France, but also to Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. And even now they cannot meet the demand.

Here on Lesvos you only have free-range snails. You can even think of the island as one big snail farm. The Cretans may say that snails are a Cretan speciality, but first try out this Lesvorian recipe: snails with quinces.

1 plate with cleaned snails
1 cup of tomato sauce
2-3 bay leaves
half a cup with green olives
2 onions, chopped
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
pepper, salt
2 quinces, cut in big pieces

Fry the onions in some oil. Add the tomato sauce, the snails and the bay leaves. Stew it a little, than add salt, pepper and cinnamon. Then add the quinces and olives. Cook until the quinces are soft, then the dish is ready to serve.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Kalo Ftinopero

(Picture: The harbour of Molyvos in autumn evening light)

Greeks are not only hospital people, they also have plenty of good wishes for you: kali mera (good day), kali apojevma (good late afternoon), kalo vradi (good evening), kali nichta (good night) and those are only wishes for a day. On Monday they also wish you a kalo efdomada (good week), and on the first of every month a kalo mina (good month).

At the end of the summer, when the sea is still warm and temperatures are around 30ÂșC, they start wishing you a kalo chimona (good winter) and it won’t take long before they start saying kalo Christojenna (Happy Christmas). At midwinter they start again, wishing you a kalo kalo kero (good summer). Summer cannot start quickly enough. Strangely, NOBODY HAS EVER WISHED ME a good autumn (kalo ftinopero).

I love the seasons. I could never go and live in tropical country where there is no clear differentiation of the seasons. When autumn comes I love to see the beautiful fading light, the warm sea, the changing colour of the leaves and especially the typical aroma of autumn: a combination of dying figs and grapes, humid earth and the sweet smell of quinces. In summer I long for the open fire, in winter the burning sun and the cooling water of the sea. But it is good that after autumn comes winter, maybe with some snow, always in front of the fire. Then, just when you have had enough of the cold, spring announces itself.

My favorite seasons are autumn and spring. And I am lucky because here in Greece these seasons can stretch for months. You can say that ripe figs at the end of August are the first signs of autumn. Then it depends on the weather when autumn really starts. Cold, rain, mushrooms, snails, these can occur at the end of September, or not until November. And the Greeks say that real winter only starts in February, so you can see how long an autumn can last here on Lesvos.

For spring it’s the same story. The first signs of spring are the purple anemones that carefully open their petals in December. And when according to the Greeks it is real winter there are plenty of anemones, together with other spring flowers and blossoms.

We got the dark seasons – autumn and winter — thanks to Demeter the Goddess of the harvest and cereals. Her daughter Persephone was abducted by the god of the underworld, Hades, and disappeared into the kingdom of Death. Ilios (the sun) saw that happening and warned Demeter who immediately took off to Hades to ask for her daughter to be returned. But Hades was clever. He already had offered some of those beautiful red seeds of the pomegranate to her. Persephone could not resist eating a few of them, thus signing her own fate: anyone who ate something in the Underworld had to stay there forever. This is how Persephone married Hades and why Demeter had so much sorrow that nothing grew on the earth anymore.

Would the Gods rule a world where nothing grew? Zeus, who actually helped Hades to abduct Persephone, intervened: Persephone would stay one month in the Underworld for each seed of the pomegranate she ate. In different versions of this story the number of seeds Persephone ate varies. So you can’t be sure just how many months she had to stay in the Underworld or how long Demeter had to cry and not let anything grow on earth. So the months can be anything from two to seven.

If Persephone only ate two pomegranate seeds, then we would have two months with no growth or flowers. Well, Demeter must be a modern Greek politician - getting bribed - because what I really like about Greece especially here on Lesvos is that in each month there is always something growing: in October quinces and pomegranates are ripe and the strawberry trees are full of fruit; by November chestnuts and olives are ready to be harvested (the olive harvest can last until in February); in December anemones start to flower and you can find plenty of mushrooms. They are there as soon as the first rains fall after the end of summer.

In January the first almond blossoms appear, and oranges, lemons and mandarins will be ripe; in February many other trees blossom and in the first months of the year many wild vegetables will slowly start showing their bright green leaves. In March you can go crazy amongst all the spring flowers (some of them edible) and wild asparagus shoots turn their heads towards heaven. So how can you say nature is ‘dead’ in the dark months of winter?

The winter fields here are full of all kinds of cabbages, salads, spinach, carrots. There are no empty fields and harvesting goes on all year through. I think that Persephone must have divorced Hades before staying too long in the Underworld, otherwise her mother Demeter must have offered a bribe in one of those famous envelopes used by the Greeks to settle everything.

After a super post-summer season, the weather forecast now predicts true autumnal temperatures and hopefully the plants will get some water. The soft pink evening light suggests humidity in the air and one of my favorite seasons now starts: kalo ftinopero!

(Thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Friday, 9 October 2009

Messages from the Lesvorian Heather

Aristaeus was the son of the Greek god Apollo. He had many occupations including keeping bees. He liked women as well and when he saw Eurydice, the love of the musician Orpheus, she had to run away from him. In her haste she did not look out and got bitten by a poisonous snake. It was a fatal bite and Orpheus was broken hearted. Aristaeus was also inconsolable, because all his bees then suddenly died. Like a real Greek man he went to his mother to seek comfort. She told him straight: because of him Eurydice died, and his bees died because of the sorrow of Orpheus. As a penance he had to sacrifice bulls and cows to the gods. After which a swarm of bees rose up from one of the corpses. That is how Aristaeus was able to teach humans how to keep bees.

Nowadays too, bee colonies just seem to disappear. You could believe that the gods are once again angry because of something a human being has done. Scientists cannot find why so many bee colonies are disappearing from the face of the earth. The phenomenon, called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is worrying because bees not only make honey but are also responsible for the fertilization of many crops. In 2006 this mysterious disease was discovered in America, European countries like the Netherlands, Belgium and Greece followed too as bee colonies (containing from 20.000 to 60.000 bees) vanishing.

The cause could be urbanization, or a new pesticide, or a new insect-enemy, and it is heard on the grapevine that it might even be mobile phones!

Lesvos is full of radio masts - for telephone, television, radio and all that modern life requires. On the tops of all our mountains you will find forests of antennae pylons. And Lesvos also has masses of beehives. If the Lesvorian beekeepers ever want to enter a new record in the Guinness Book of Records they could line up their hives to a form a line many miles long. A few times in a year their blue and white hives are moved to other places: in the spring they are put out in the meadows amongst the spring flowers, and in the autumn they are moved up into the pine woods.

Bees can fly some 15 miles an hour, to make a pound of honey they would have to fly the equivalent of three journeys around the world, because one bee produces in her life time only one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. Bees communicate with each other by dancing and they are supposed not to be aggressive creatures. Although if they feel their beehive is threathened, they may attack. But when does a bee feel threathened? Plenty of walkers on Lesvos have paid for their ignorance with many a sting, and have had to visit the hospital to get some injectors — just for daring to walk past a row of bee hives.

So, I stay clear of those white and blue boxes. Especially on a road where somebody might pass by once a week. How does a bee knows that I am not a Winnie-The-Pooh on the lookout for honey...

But walking in the pinewoods at this time of the year is a great pleasure. The beehives are in the pinewoods, because of the heather growing between the trees and that is now beginning to blossom. On the mountains between Olympos and the main road between Kaloni and Mytilini you will find many fields of purple heather shining between the bright green trees. And while the wind is so lovely as it plays with the needles of the trees, above the colourful heather the bees buzz their wings at 11.400 times a minute making their wellknown zooming humming noise.

Besides ouzo, olive oil and goat cheese Lesvos also exports honey. There is the honey that is just called Lesvos honey, made in cooperatives, and their are local individual sellers like in Stipsi and Karini and recently (in 2007) the Kamperos family opened a honey bussiness called ‘Melostagma’ in Skalochori. As well as honey they sell pollen, propolis and Queen bee jelly (known as ‘Royal’ jelly).

Pollen is the fertile part of flowers that the bees collect as well as the nectar. Propolis comes from the resin of trees and Royal jelly is made by the socalled nurse-bees. Like the name suggests, it’s a very healthy product. After I stayed some time amongst the heather, thinking of all the healthy products this island has, I decided I would soon make a visit to the Kamperos family in order to buy some of their bee products (Melostagma honey can also be bought along with other brands at the cooperative in Molyvos).

On Google Videos there is a film of the Melostagma compagny. However, for me it doesn’t make a very a positive publicity point, because you see thousands of bees swarming in their hives — quite fascinating, but I would say more scary. Anyhow it gave me the creeps. Although it is also mesmerizing to realise that all those creepy crawling bees are the only insects that make food for humans. In ancient times honey was called the nectar of the gods. And when you consider the high prices for a jar of honey it still is. Even on this island of goats milk and honey...

Friday, 2 October 2009

Some small changes

(picture: Green is for Pasok, blue for Neo Demokratia)

On the 4th of October there are national elections in Greece. The question is apart from possibly a new Prime Minister will they will bring real change?

The government has decreed that during the last two weeks before the vote the media must not publish any prognosis as to the result. Not that they are needed. It is clear that one of the two main parties will win: Neo Demokratia or Pasok. Even if they always keep on promising change, the fact is these two parties have been governing modern Greece for ages, and so any promise of real change is a hollow one.

The other three serious parties, Siriza (a green left party), KKE (the communist party) and Laos (an extreme right party) have no chance of winning, so it seems Greeks are afraid of any real change in their country.

Yesterday, when I arrived in Athens after a week in Holland, three political party stands stood together in fraternal solidarity at the exit of the airport: Neo Demokratia, Pasok and Siriza. Only at the stand of Siriza were people discussing things. Why would you ask anything of the Pasok or Neo Demokratia people? After all these years it is obvious how they govern the country: by corruption and scandal.

The columnist Niki Kitsantonis, who writes for English language weekly paper Athens Plus (not entirely online), is dead right when she says Greece has no money left for anything. And yet when the elections come around, there’s plenty of money to grease the electors’ palms, to pay the people counting the votes, for enormous billboards and advertisements and for stands scattered all over Athens.

This would never happen in Amsterdam. In the Dutch capital there was a possibility that even stands selling flowers and herring might disappear from the streets. This is because the Amsterdam city council is very busy devising new laws to make life in the city more and more dull. Because it is not allowed to smoke any more in public buildings, bar life has moved to the streets but people are banned from drinking while standing. In some quarters of Amsterdam it is even forbidden to drink in front of your own house and last week a city alderman came up with the idea that people who have been drinking should not allowed on the streets at all!

So I was very happy to be able to leave that carping country and return to the chaos of Greece. In earlier times when you flew into the old Athens airport you landed right in the chaos when you had to change flights going to the islands. After the new airport of Eleftherios Venizelos was opened in 2001, that chaos was blown away on the wind leaving only sweet memories. Even Greek passengers left chaos behind. You used to have to fight to get to the check-in desk, but now Greeks at the new airport are incredibly disciplined.

Olympic Airways, Greece biggest flight company, has now two new competitors: Aegean Airlines and Athens Airways. However they do not fly to Amsterdam, so when you want to fly to Lesvos, you better go with Olympic and your luggage is transferred and you have time for the connection between the two flights.

It was Aristoteles Onassis who bought the old Greek air company and founded Olympic Airways in 1957. He made it a company to be proud of and it always felt good to fly Olympic. Until recently you ate with a metal knife and fork and the stewardesses kept on wearing the same blue uniforms with coloured shawls.

When I flew to Holland a week ago, we boarded a Hellas Air plane at Athens. I heard that Olympic Airlines (so called since 2003 when they had a financial crisis) was to be taken over, so we flew into a black hole. The service on board was terrible, the food was pretty basic and the plane, yes, it just about flew…

Yesterday, coming back to Greece, was quite another story. Although Olympic Air officially will open on the 1st of October - after a take-over by the Marfin Investment Group – already it had new planes, stewardesses and services. I have not flown in such comfort for years, and in such a sparkling new plane with lots of space between the seats, tasty food and remarkably good service. The six Olympic rings are still on the tail of the plane, but the seats are now made of leather and, as a tribute to the decade when Olympic Airways was founded, the stewardesses wear new kinky retro dresses. We even got an Olympic badge and some super chocolate as a gift.

To spare the pride of the Greeks, the name of their oldest airline has changed only very slightly: Olympic Air. Maybe next week only the name of the Prime Minister will change from Kostas Karamanlis to George Papandreaou, but unfortunately, any other changes...

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Sunday, 20 September 2009

My Greek Wedding & Baptism

(Picture: the baptism of Nicolas)

‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ is very popular here amongst foreigners. Together with the even more popular ‘Mama Mia’ the movies have been leading brides and grooms to descend on the Greek islands for a romantic wedding against a blue sky & sea. However, getting a wedding organized is not so simple – not least because many a papas — the stout, friendly looking Greek priests — are not that keen on marrying people who are not Greek Orthodox by faith.

Last year, a few months before ‘Mama Mia’ hit the Greek cinemas, and thinking it rather unholy commerce, the Greek Orthodox Church moved to try and stop the wedding business. So, wedding goers wanting marriages on popular locations like on Crete or Santorini were to be disappointed. However, a year later and the tour operators are still offering weddings to foreigners. There are even catalogues, like The Complete Guide; Weddings in Greece & the Greek Islands.

Why is it so popular to get married in Greece? Probably because of the romantic locations. Greece is full of beautiful places and not only on the most well known destinations, where I can imagine you will most likely encounter traffic jams of brides and grooms.

A few weeks ago I was surprised when visiting a wedding here on the not so busy Lesvos (it was a real authentic wedding with a Greek bride and groom), that even small local weddings can cause congestion. The bride and groom and all their guests had to wait for another couple who were not yet man and wife.

Greeks also like to choose a romantic setting and this place was very special: Anayeri. Anayeri is down from Asomatos, a place full of little streams, huge plane trees, a large park for picnics (which is also used as a car park), a cute little church and a picturesque taverna, only open in the summer.

In the autumn it is one of my favorite spots on the island because you can walk through the fallen leaves, and the autumn smells and colours are at their best — but on a warm summer night, lit with strings of coloured light bulbs and spotlights it is a real dream location. There’s no blue sea or sky (which you wouldn’t see at night anyway), but there’s the smell of the trees, the sound of murmuring water and the powerful feeling that you are right in the middle of nature.

When the first couple was married and they left with their wedding group — in the dark — they caused a chaotic traffic jam with cars trying to come and go all at the same time in the middle of the forest. But once the sound of their engines had faded away through the trees, the next wedding started. After a simple service in the church, the guests sat down at tables, splendidly laid out with snow-white linen, porcelain plates and crystal glasses (which was unusual, because most weddings use ordinary plates and glasses from the taverna). All this luxury in the middle of a wood!

Later, I realized that Greeks like to marry around the 15th of August, when many family members and friends from the big cities of Athens and Thessaloniki are on the islands for a vacation. That night we encountered at least three other weddings.

My Greek baptism is quite another story. No foreign tourist would come to Greece to have a child baptized, especially after visiting such a ceremony to see what happens. It is quite cruel: taking off all baby’s clothes; dunking the baby three times under water in the baptismal font; cutting off some hair; turning three times around the font; with the baby screaming like hell — which doesn’t disturb the papas from reciting the endless ritual. Officially, the mother is not allowed to touch her child while all this is going on, which might be fine for five minutes, but after that the mother might well yell as hard as her baby: “give me back my child!” Foreign visitors who witnessed the baptism of the son of a friend of ours could hardly hide their bewilderment seeing what happened in the church; but the old Greek ladies present just had a big laugh at their outraged reactions.

You have to be very strong to organize a baptism because this is a family business and everybody wants a say in the event. Mostly the grandparents want the biggest church and the holiest priest; they want the baby to have their name; they come with their own guest list for the party (it is normal to invite not only the family but also the whole village); they criticize the invitations (which are given out to guests together with some sugared almonds and a little toy); not to mention the baptistery candle, the decorations for the church, the sweets that are distributed after the christening and so on and on. The good thing is that it’s the godfather who gets the bill for all these baptismal expenses.

When the drama at the church is finished it is time for the second act —the best part of the baptism — where even without a bride or groom to open up the dancing, everyone one eats, drinks and dances just as much as at a wedding. Greeks sure know how to party, another good reason to have your Greek wedding here!

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Friday, 11 September 2009

A blow went home

(Picture by Igor Alexander: The most famous man of Lesvos)

For us this summer was kind of turbulent. We had to say a final goodbye to a good friend and two other friends left the island because they were ill. We also had some strange pets in and around our place. First the big wasp; we had lots of little frogs jumping around and then we got the Family Mouse, which we tried to deport without the help of any poison or a mousetrap.

The biggest disturbance however was caused by the fires. We do not live in the most affected area where the arsonist of Molyvos is active —although he did once strike near here — but several friends of ours live in around the places that were struck. But besides these wildfires, there were some little fires around here. Like our washing machine recently caught fire (I never thought a washing machine full of wet clothes could burn). I think it must have been our Mouse that caused a short-circuit. However, there was an upside to it — we discovered a snake was living behind the washing machine. When we moved it away, he fled under the refrigerator, and when we moved the refrigerator, he got stuck under it. So now we can proudly say that we killed a snake with a refrigerator.

Some days later our car nearly caught fire — because we forgot to top up the water and brake oil. Our ‘garagist’ told us we should do it more often in summer, but it was the heat that made us forget, of course. Recently during a dinner at the neigbours, their bottle of gas burst into flames and our neighbour very bravely put out them out with wet towels. So you can understand that all this fire fighting has made us a bit fidgety.

Then last Sunday morning a drunken driver drove his car into a telegraph pole, just close to the camping site on the road to Eftalou. The villagers haven’t said anything about who dunnit, which makes me think it might be someone local. The rumors are about a drunken woman or an under-aged boy doing some joyriding. Anyhow, whoever it was got off lightly, but the same was not true for the telephone pole. That came down and cut off all phone lines and internet connections to the whole of Eftalou and parts of Molyvos.

On Sundays although telephones and internet are always working, the people at OTE, the Greek Telephone company don’t have emergency crews standing by. You really have to wonder if OTE cares where or not its customers in homes and hotels have phone and internet services.

I do have to admit, however, that a Sunday without internet and telephone is a surprisingly quiet day. We did not have television either because we overlooked paying our bill to the cable TV company on the due date. A weekend without news and weather forecasts is also a new experience. Although, when the weather suddenly went crazy, with summer ending, cold and rain coming we didn’t know whether it was going to snow (it certainly felt cold enough).

On Monday the telephone remained silent, and there was no internet connection either and even after we paid our bill, the cable guys didn’t re-connect us (it turned out the people who built a new window also cut the cable).

This is how Eftalou got a new attraction: an army of OTE workers has settled down near the camping site, with a different collection of cars each day, and you can see them drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and shouting into their mobiles. They really are well set up, playing with the cables and climbing up the telephone poles. They have a lovely time with people passing by making small talk (but wondering when they will get the telephone again!) and the tourists have their cameras rolling because it is an unusual event to see such a gathering of OTE men. They now work under a brightly colored umbrella, trying to tune in to the telephone exchange, which I heard is one hell of a job.

The Greeks here now think they are living in darkest Africa. How is it possible that a repair job like this takes so much time? As I write this on a Thursday we are still without telephone and internet. Near the camping site you occasionally hear shouting so something must be happening. A day without internet and telephone can be a pleasure, but when it goes on and on, the hotel reservation system doesn’t work, you cannot get or send- mail or use skype, so modern life is impossible.

When a neighbor asked an OTE-man if he could photograph him, the man smiled brightly and said proudly: ‘I am going to be the most famous man of Lesvos. Everybody is taking pictures of me!’. I think we better put up a sign near the camping: ‘Photography forbidden!’ because if not it seems likely we will still be without internet and telephone for another week.

(However, now, as I write this on Friday morning, we are very happy to announce that late on Thursday afternoon we got our telephone and internet working, thanks to our neighbor (again, thank you Igor), who begged the OTE-man to put us on top of the list of houses to be reconnected — after the hotels. If he hadn’t done that who knows, we would have had another quiet weekend without communication).

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Monday, 31 August 2009

Unbounded Europe

Panic in Molyvos: where is the fire? On Sunday morning fat white low clouds sneaked over the north of the island in the direction of Molyvos from Turkey. In no time the medieval village was covered in clouds and many people asked themselves where the flames were. After all, people are still anxious about fires because the arsonist of Molyvos is still around and because of the big fires in Attica, so not surprisingly these days people first think of fire when they see dense clouds rolling in.

Sea fog is such a rarity here only a few people are familiar with it as a weather phenomenon. That is why so many people grabbed the phone to ask friends what was happening. A friend of mine, living high up and seeing the wall of clouds approaching from the sea, even thought for a moment that a tsunami was attacking the island.

A fresh wind propelled the low clouds across the sea and it reminded me of my past, of being at the crowded beach of Zandvoort (Netherlands) when a sea mist rolled in over the beach, covering us completely in dense fog where nothing could be seen at all and my mother panicked and gathered up all us children and our belongings. A sea fog might spoil a beautiful day at the seaside, but now it was like a woolen veil was uncovering a tip of faraway memories.

For a time Molyvos disappeared completely from view. I do hope there were no refugees still on their way at sea because they probably would have panicked: where is Greece? They still think Greece is a land of milk and honey. (TB: Like many islands on the Turksih side of the Agean, Lesbos is a destination for refugees from the middle east and even Africa)

Lesvos made the news recently when an UN-organization alarmed the media about the distressing situation at the refugee centre Pagani in Mytilini, the capital of the island. The centre has space for about 250 people, but there are more than 800 refugees kept there, including 200 children. Some of the children recently started a protest hunger strike and this is what alerted the media.

To relief pressure at Pagani, refugees were transported to other camps elsewhere in the country. Protests from the refugees and human rights organizations followed. Just like with the huge fire in Attica, the government has done little to ameliorate the refugee problem. In Greece applying for asylum is such a slow process a hundred years would not be enough time to interview all the refugees now in Greece.

After all the commotion about the hunger strike of the kids in Pagani, another uproar occurred thanks to the Noborder camp in Mytilini. Noborder is an anarchistic-like organization that fights for refugees and they made their camp this summer on Lesvos. They demand better accommodation and faster asylum application processing. Noborder’s final goal is to have all borders disappear in Europe and to let all people travel without documents. I am an old pessimist and do not believe a Europe without borders will ever happen, let alone a whole world without borders. Just like I do not believe anymore in peace for the entire world, even if I really wish it could be true.

There will always be people to spoil it for the others, a human being unfortunately is not perfect. Look at the Greek government. The ministers are far from being perfect, they are even negligent. For years Greece has had problems with the refugees, but nothing has really improved.

For example, all refugees have to go to Athens by regular transport to apply for asylum. Everybody knows that in August, ferries and flights are overbooked by local and international tourists, so that there is no room for refugees, and therefore they have to wait in the detention centres on the islands, which get very full. Why can’t the government arrange special transport?

The Pagani centre owes millions of euros to the companies that provide food for the refugees. That money is supposed to be paid by Athens, but the government is never quick to pay up. The same happened to the firemen who fought so hard the blazes of 2 years ago.

I do not agree with everything this Noborder group does, but at least they stand up and do something. While in Molyvos people were gaping at the sea fog, the inhabitants of Mytilini were stupefied seeing scenes in their town just like the riots in Athens last year. Riot police were brought from Athens and on several occasions marched into battle with the activists. The youngsters of Noborder tried to occupy local government offices, they chased the Frontex boat out of the harbour (Frontexf is the EU agency based in Warsaw, created as a specialized and independent body to coordinate operational cooperation between Member States in the field of border security) and they tried to free the refugees detained in the Pagani-centre.

The Noborder camp was set up on the 25th of August and was due to end on 31st of August. Hopefully they made people think more about this problem, although the Governor of Lesvos has warned them that their drastic actions could be a negative influence on public attitudes towards refugees. Athens is still so busy sorting out the political consequences of the fires in Attica politicians have barely acknowledged the riots on an island so far away from their beds.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell. Listen to his radio show on ex-pats and his story about a boat of refugees, arriving at the beach in Lesvos)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Biblical catastrophe

Attica is on fire: masses of flames are speeding through a beautiful natural forest of tall pine trees, that is called ‘the lungs of Athens’. Fires moved from the north destroying houses and threatening the suburbs of Athens. This disaster is only two years after the big fires in the Peloponnesus, which caused the deaths of 70 people.

On Sunday I watched the fight against the inferno on television. It was remarkable because it was mostly ordinary citizens engaged in the battle using anything they thought might help them put out the flames. You saw people handling garden hoses, you saw men and women running with buckets full of water, you saw people shovelling sand on the fire with spades, you saw small bulldozers trying to shift the fire as it burned, but most of all you saw people beating the flames with tree branches.

The fire started on Friday night, it spread on Saturday and only on Sunday was it recognised to be such a catastrophe. Also on Sunday morning the government woke up and sent Prime Minister Karamanlis (of Neo Democratia) in a helicopter to fly over the burning region, while his political opponent Papandreou (from Pasok) visited a village besieged by flames. Then at last the government sent in the police and the army to help the fire-brigades who were helpless against so many fire centres spread over tens of kilometers. I am not sure who send out the milk cars to transport water, nor the train that was seen carrying water towards the fire-fighters.

In the morning and afternoon civilians were seen everywhere battling the fire, and in the few places where the firemen could get to, they gave a hand. All residents were ordered to evacuate, but many men, some women and even a few grandmothers refused and stayed behind to try to save their houses, or those of family or neighbours. They were right. How much more would the fires have spread if they hadn’t tried to help? Because at many places there were no fire-fighters, no helicopter or water bombers to be seen. They were all on their own. Their civil disobedience made them heroes.

In daytime it was mainly correspondents who talked about the fires on their tv-shows. But as the sun set, the real media carnival started because people could call in to the studios. The anchormen clearly had difficulties remaining calm dealing with the endless streams of angry words from callers. Some were even cut off. Well, how would you react if you are told to evacuate your family to Athens, but there was no place to go when you got there?

People were right to be angry. According to the BBC Greece does not have enough fire-fighters, nor enough equipment to fight big fires on this scale. It is clear that the government has learned no lessons from the wildfires of 2007. Except, perhaps, the municipalities who got the order in spring to keep the grass short at the side of public roads.

It is easy for the government to give orders like that. But whenever a municipality needs serious help of the capital, support is rarely forthcoming. Last week the mayor of Molyvos wrote an angry letter to the government to try and get more fire-trucks, and also to get help to nail down the arsonist who has been setting fires around Molyvos. Yes, it is sad but true, the fires in Molyvos have not stopped and keep starting up on a regular basis. Until now no houses have burned nor anyone hurt, but it is scary to think that one time it could get out off hand like as did in Attica.

Some weeks ago I was confronted with a fire in Eftalou, between the pizzeria and Hotel Panselinos. And I must admit, it was a terrifying experience although it was reassuring to see that many tourists and other passers-by joined in to help fight the flames with tree branches.

On the internet there are lots of tips that say what to do when your house is threatened by a wild fire. You have to remove inflammable furniture and other stuff completely away from the house, specially the wood stack if that is close to the house, saw dead branches out of the trees, or even better, saw down the whole tree like I saw doing some people doing in Attica. Turn off the gas, turn on all lights, so that the house stays visible in dense smoke; close all doors, windows and shutters, but not with the key - so that firefighters can get in and out if they have to; make sure your garden hose is connected and put buckets and other receptacles full of water outside; and of course make sure that your car is filled with your most precious belongings and ready to go.

According to a recent study by Nikolaos Zirogiannis for Amherst University in Massachusetts (after the fires in the Peloponnesus in 2007) “as far as human factors are concerned population density was negatively associated with wildfire spread. In addition, the more olive groves were found within the boundaries of a village the less damage the settlement was found to have sustained. Finally, participation of local people in fire abatement efforts was significant in reducing wildfire risk”.

So my conclusion is: all inhabitants of Greece should get an instant course in fighting wildfires; courses should be published online and more simple instructions for wildfire prevention should also be widely published. This way we will not have to depend upon a failing government nor upon a shortage of firefighters.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009