Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Monkey business

As soon as from the first of October it is allowed to make fires in Greece, the farmers start burning pieces of land that are overgrown with small bushes. When the smoke close to the top curls up right to heaven it makes some mountains look like real volcanos. After the first rains you see the black earth turn green, thanks to the juicy new grass that form a real treat for the sheep and goats.

I hated these fires: they destroy the beauty of the landscape by many black burned patches and not all farmers are as careful as they should be. Last November a pretty big piece of nature on Rhodes went into flames because a farmer was not careful enough.

But landscape in Greece is not only there to be beautiful. The land is used as well by farmers for herding their sheep and goats. The farmers use the parts of land that are not used, making new land owners angry when they find their land eaten by the goats because they did not fence their land well enough.

I have been thinking about all this and came to the conclusion that the farmers here on the island (and off course elsewhere in the country) are facing difficult times. More and more land is sold and becomes a no go area for their sheep and goats. In the past they could herd their animals all over the mountains, now their region consist of go and no go pieces of land. Even if the land was not theirs, the owners who did not do anything on their land were happy that their plot kept passable thanks to the sheep and goats. After the big wildfires that raged through the country at the end of the summer in 2007 there even was a discussion about these land burnings: they could prevent fires.

When the animals do not eat all bushes and grass, the land can get overgrown, when the animals eat too much the land becomes bare and a danger for land or mud slides. There are many inhabitants here, especially western foreigners, who scold at goats and sheep because they destroy the landscape and are often enough as well a danger on the roads. They do not agree with the land burnings for new grass and they do not appreciate at all that a sheep farmer herds his animals on land that he does not own.

Modern time is gaining land, as well here on the island. And it looks like there is no place anymore for the traditional sheep and goat herding. Then I ask myself, what will happen when farmers stop working, like they do now in numbers? Will there be no free-range meat from goats, sheep and cows anymore, like is the tasty speciality on the island? And how are they going to make feta or lado tiri?

It may be clear that modern time and old cultures like herding goats clash. That does not mean that I do agree with everything concerning farm products. I am happy that finally they give penalties to the cheese and milk factories around Vatoussa, Andissa and Skalochori because they pollute the rivers. It stinks so much there that I even do not want to get out of the car whenever we were planning a walk in that region.

More and more farmers stop their work not only because their working areas get smaller but as well because cattle-fodder becomes too expensive and the sales of the animals and the milk do not bring enough money anymore. You do not earn any money anymore and you can barely live on herding sheep and goats.

However it are not the stock-farmers who turn Greece into a new chaos. It are the agriculture farmers all over Greece who are demonstrating now already for ten days. They use about 9000 tractors to block frontiers to Turkey, Bulgaria and FYROM, roads like the main road from Athens to Thessaloniki and even on Crete they close roads. Neighbor countries are getting mad because their truck drivers get stuck, shops in Athens are not provided anymore and today even the traffic controllers of the Athens airport want to support the farmers by a strike for a day.

The farmers are angry because Europe give too low prices for wheat, cotton and olive oil, the subsidies get lower and the government refuses to help.

Although here on Lesvos the farmers do not demonstrate, they as well are angry about the low prices of olive oil, milk and vegetables.

It is said that especially the middlemen get rich over the backs (Dutch expression) of the farmers and the consumers. Take a kilo of broccoli. In Molyvos a farmer sells the broccoli for 40 cents a kilo to a vegetable seller who sells it for 1,40! While the farmer has to plow, seed and harvest this vegetable seller only had to sell it and walks away with most of the money!

And it is not only the farmers that do not earn enough money. Wages in Greece are way too low so do not wonder that many Greeks regularly demonstrate or strike. Due to a bad tax system and a culture of corruption life gets even more expensive. Since the introduction of the euro Greece became the most expensive country of Europe.

If we do not take care farmers will die out, just like the meandering goats and sheep in the landscape. Modern time will take care that there will not be anymore local free-range meat, cheese, vegetables, fruit and olive oil. Greece will become just like Holland where you only can get packages of meat and vegetables from who knows which country or from the glasshouses and where most of the children do not know that meat comes from a cow or pig and the milk comes from the cow.

Copyright © Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 20 January 2009


You may think that your life here is so healthy: a lot of fresh vegetables, a lot of fish, biological meat, a lot of exercises and fresh air. But that does not stop the flu finding you...

I was lucky that this autumn I made a lot of fig-syrup: you are collecting lots of figs, you dry them in the sun and then you cook them for a day in some water. You strain the juice out and cook this until you get a syrupy substance and you have vrasma (as well called peti-mesi), a syrup that is a treat on a pancake but serves as well as a good and calming cough remedy. The flu started with a pain in the throat.

When the pain in the throat was more or less gone a real cold started coming through. Beside kilo’s of handkerchiefs I used a kilo (In Greece liters are said to be kilo’s; so you order a kilo of wine instead of 1 liter) of homemade thyme liquor (you put lots of thyme in a pot, you fill this pot up with cognac and you leave it for some weeks getting its flavor). Thyme kills all bacteria, so I guess it was a real battle, because the flu slowly disappeared. (Will Tieleman, editor: flu is caused by virus, not by bacteria, so thyme has no influence!)

The best way to fight against the flu however is to rest. And that is a point that I have a problem with. Because the flu got me just when the weather finally got better and then it is easy to think: let’s have a little walk with the dogs (and cats), let’s gather some wood for the fire, let’s sit in the sun for a while and so on.

While the sun outside let the trees and mountains glitter as diamonds, I put myself deep under a blanket before the television. I jumped channels and saw various programs, amongst others about Spain, France and Italy: all about palaces, castles, cathedrals and marketplaces. What beautiful cities and what a rich history!

I instantly got very homesick and I asked myself what am I doing on this poor island that has not even a handful of ransacked medieval castles, without any notorious sculpture or glorious interiors...

I asked myself what in heaven did the Greeks do during the last two thousand years. In France kings went out of their minds building as many palaces as possible and the Catholic church permitted itself to build superb cathedrals. But what did the Greeks do?

The foreign conquerors left traces in Greece with imposing buildings, like the Knights of the Cross in Rhodes. The most famous legacy the Greeks ever left in the world mostly date from the antique world: temples and statues and they barely survived.

I was fascinated by a ship that departed from Gent in Belgium, to go over the rivers to the heart of Burgundy in France, on its way stopping in small towns and villages looking for the Burgundian history. I saw beautiful buildings I never heard of.

That night coughing kept me from sleeping and there were palaces, patrician houses and churches floating through my dreams. The next day I still asked myself why I lived on such a culturally poor island?

Then I read an article in the Ekathimerini (English Greek paper) where the Greeks were warned that they chased the tourists away: the riots in Athens last month, the news that workers from the Akropolis Museum striked because they did not get paid, the abduction of mighty tycoons... It all does not contribute to a popular Greece for tourists.

Then I think the fever surrendered, because suddenly I came to my senses: this island has none of those problems that make Athens a troubled city. Here we do not live like millionaires who can be abducted, there are no extremists that shoot at the police, nor students that demonstrate for weeks. Maybe there only are some people not getting paid.

I looked outside and saw the sun, the sea and the mountains. No, indeed, you will not find strings of castles, cathedrals or palaces here on the island. Here you will find pure mountains, vast fields with olive trees, quiet roads bordered by old oaks, chestnuts or plane trees. In some weeks seas of colourful flowers will open. Instead of full ornamented houses we have century old trees, instead of cathedrals you will find petrified trees and instead of palaces you will find here picturesque villages that seem unharmed by the time. You think, now would I live in an old restored Burgundian village? No, I guess the flu made my head spin...

copyright @ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Neighbor fight

While in Athens peace still is not entirely restored and the government only reformed into a new coat, an old problem did resurrect: violation by Turkish jets of the Greek airspace and the fight over the territorial waters. According to Greece the Greek territorial waters are 12 kilometers into the sea, the Turkish only agree with 6 kilometers. So when Turkish jets fly over the non-acknowledged 6 miles, for Greece that is a violation of its airspace.

The incident last week started when a Greek plane helped on sea with a rescue of refugees, close to Samos and close to the Turkish border. Then Turkish jets came and harassed the rescue action. The next day Turkish and Greek jet planes went into dogfights, amongst others above Lesvos. Since that day relations between the countries have worsened.

The inhabitants of Lesvos however more and more try to forget the old feuds between Turkey and Greece and start visiting Turkey, the country where parents or grandparents from many Lesvorians come from. Some even still have a house at the other side and they venture out as far as Istanbul.

Turkey is a Walhalla for Greek shoppers because except for the fuel everything is far cheaper than on Lesvos. The business between both coasts therefore slowly grows.

Even protest groups are gathering together. Like last week there was a meeting between Greek and Turkish people to protest at the building of a new electricity plant in Aliagi, under the smoke of Izmir, just 50 kilometers away from Mytilini (from East Lesvos you can see its chimney). Between the already existing polluting petrol chemical industry the plant will be working on coal, what will bring more air, water and ground pollution. And they even do not intend using the good quality of Turkish coal, but want to import a more inexpensive but less qualitative coal from South Africa.

It is estimated that the plant will yearly need 2,8 million of tons of coal, the ash will be spread around in the region. They as well will need a daily 50.000 liter seawater to cool the engines, what means that that same amount, only hot water this time (35oC), will flow back into sea. I have nothing against a nice hot sea, but I can imagine that everything that lives in the sea will not like a warmed up sea. So for sure, this pollution in Turkey as well will bother Lesvos.

Another more invisible fight is about the goldmines in Turkey. First of all Lesvos has many (or maybe all) sources thanks to the mountains of Ida (the Kaz Dagi, named as well ‘The Magic Mountains’, that you see from the North of Lesvos: those high mountains towering in the background above all other mountains). Just imagine a pair of communicating barrels: one end in the Ida mountains, the other end in the mountains of Lesvos. Lesvos not only has that many sources, but as well its rivers thanks to Turkey, because underground water flows to the island. It is good that this is just nature and not a pipeline, otherwise, just like Russia, Turkey could shut off the water when having a fight with the Greeks.

The Canadian Global company got licenced to dig up gold at the bottom of the mountains of Kaz Dagi. Times are over when masses of people looking for gold came to spend years in little rivers to find the gold, like happened in America. To win gold these days you need cyanide: “In the so-called cyanide progress, finely ground high-grade ore is mixed with the cyanide; low-grade ores are stacked into heaps and sprayed with cyanide solution. The precious-metal cations are complexed by the cyanide anions to form soluble derivatives. The ‘pregnant liquor’ containing these ions is separated from the solids, which are discarded to a tailing pond or spent heap, the recoverable gold having been removed. The metal is recovered from the ‘pregnant solution’ by reduction with zinc dust or by absorption onto activated carbon” (from Wikipedia). So for sure this cyanide will enter the ground water and off course some of it will emerge in the waters of Lesvos.

Lesvos is proud of its undisturbed nature, but you see that this island as well can get a source of an international fight. The Greek government however has more important things that matter than these ‘trivial’ environment pollutions as long as this eternal fight about airspace violations and territorial borders will not be solved. As long as this fight will not grow bigger, the inhabitants of Lesvos do not bother and can better help the Turkish to fight against polluting industries for a clean Turkish as well as a clean Greek environment.

Copyright © Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Odd jobs

All foreigners that buy or renovate a house in Greece have plenty of entertaining stories about it. Some people publish these adventures in a book (Eleni Gage – North of Ithaka, Austen Kark – Attic in Greece, Tom Stone – The Summer of my Greek Taverna), others can fill long evenings with stories about their experience with wayward Greek laborers and the strange world of the Greek bureaucracy.

Thanks to these stories and the problems I heard from several people, we never bought a house to renovate or were planning to build a new house. We are happy in our rented house, although this is a Greek summerhouse and has therefore many deficits.

Since the rains are pouring down these days, our linen-cupboard is upside down, because we need all the towels we have to stop the flood entering through our windows. Each day our clothes line is full of bath and beach towels, like we have nothing better to do as to swim and shower the whole day long. I am afraid all we can do is paddle through the living room.

The windows were renewed only four years ago because the former windows not only were not waterproof but they as well took care that nice gales were blowing inside of the house. So we made kind of progress, but still the windows do not function as a window should do. The problem is that with this experience you do not trust it to place again new windows. Just like we had to replace our boiler each six months, the odds are that new windows are as lousy waterproof as the ones we have now. While each winter there is rain coming down, the Greeks here on Lesvos seem to know to build only summerhouses.

It is good fortune that the Greeks now discovered as well windows made out of synthetics, windows that are a lot more waterproof than those made of wood. But still you keep on hearing people who just build a new house with synthetic windows, who have to mop the entire house after a downpour.

I have to admit that building materials just like the wages are pretty low here in Greece. But the building materials are more than often as well of a very poor quality. When you buy a screwdriver, it will break after turning four screws, when you buy garden shears after cutting the second rose bush you can return to the store. And then they have no building supermarkets, so for the wood you go to a wood store who delivers it uncut (to cut the wood you have to go to a carpenter), for tiles you go to this store, for taps to the other store and for the pipes you go to again another store. Renovating in Greece is not easy, it is more like an obstacle race where you intend not to stop keep on smiling.

In December we thought to replace the shower for a bath tub. However the water pipes were that rotten that our first job was to replace all the pipes. You would think that’s easy. But I am not gonna tell you how often we had to replace pipes, taps and connections. All pipes were of different sizes, there were holes in brand new pipes and connections, we were fooled by buying plastic that looked like metal that exploded when pressured by the water pressure, off course just over a new plastered wall. You ask yourself if the shop does it on purpose. Fact is that we were daily there. So this job took one whole week and then the entire bathroom looked like a battlefield, so we said, why not renovate the entire bathroom.

The bath was delivered on time, but the floor tiles, that were promised to arrive on the island within four days, did still not arrive. Off course there were celebrations, storms, snow and striking days in between, but the four days are now fourteen days, the building had to stop and we still have no bathroom.

So we made something good out of the bad. Because we had no tiles, we pasted stones into a wall, what resulted in quite a beautiful sight. In the shop we saw stones glued to tiles, which cost 200 euro the square meter. Why should you spend so much money when the island here is full of these stones?

The bathroom still is not ready, but as well we have to decide if we replace the windows at the front of the house. We did get an offer of synthetic windows from Germany, an offer that sounds very good. But we still have this fear for placing new windows thanks to the replacement of our front door. One day the laborers came without any warning, they did not give us time to cover anything, they just broke the front door out and placed a new one in no time and left us not only with big holes in the walls but as well with a dust cover of several inches all over the house. So before you can stop them they rip off the front wall, place the new windows and leave you with walls cut in pieces, with openings between the windows and the wall and so you can forget your certificate of waterproof windows.

I am glad we only renovated the bathroom. Although, how will the house look like when they place the new windows? Should we decide then to renovate the whole house because of the tears in the walls, the too old electricity lines that show through the holes and more of this misery? I will keep you informed.

Copyright © Smitaki 2009