Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Ducks and orchids

30 March – Ducks and orchids

Even if the winter takes long (although temperatures went up a little and we even have some rainless days), for sure the flowers keep on bursting out of the ground and the fields form a spectacular colorful scene.

Amongst the group of the first spring flowers are the orchids that start blossoming as well. When I heard that there were so many orchids here on the island, as a person totally estranged from nature I immediately thought about the orchids that you buy at the flower shops. So I was greatly disappointed when someone pointed me out a wild orchid here on the island: it was so many times smaller than the ones in the shop.

If you want to see the beauty of a wild orchid, you have about to lie on the ground. But I have to admit, when you really do take a good look at them, you risk getting addicted to their absolute beauty.

In a way orchids are a strange bunch of flowers. Their ‘under lips’ can look like naked little men (Orchis italica), like merry apes (Orchis simia) or like tender butterfly wings (Orchis papilionaceae) and some flowers are like thick fat bumblebees (Ophrys bombiliflora). They sometimes have great drawings on their ‘lips’ that resemble the pointillism or crafty abstract paintings. Some flowers consist of a complicated construction and their colors can be a soft white, pink, blue or green but as well dark brown or bright purple.

You better do not mention the Latin name of an orchid when Greeks are around. ‘Orchis’ means ‘testicle’ in Greek (in Greek an orchid is an ‘orchidéa’). I mean when you tell a nice story about orchids, a Greek hears you telling a story about testicles.

Orchis was the name of the son of a satyr and a nymph. Once on a party of Dionyssos he became so hot that he assaulted a high priestess of the temple. As punishment he was torn in pieces by wild animals and then he was transformed into a plant: an orchid.

Theophrastus (371 – 287 BC) was a nature scientist from Lesvos, as well as the first botanist in the world, and he named the orchid. He probably referred to the story of Orchis. The tube roots of the orchids look like the testicles of a man and earlier in Greece they thought that these tube roots could help to determinate in having a daughter or a son. If the men ate big tube roots they got a son, if the mother ate small tube roots, they ware having a daughter.

There are about 68 species of orchids here on Lesvos, many more off course in Greece and most orchids you will find on Crete. It is a Hercules job to find them all, because they grow in so many different areas and you have to be there in the right time. And then orchids are that small that you do not see them immediately. When you look for them, you really have to look out because before you know you passed them without seeing them.

Yesterday we went on an orchid hunt to Palios (Sarakina), a wild area between Mandamados and Mytilini, where the lime forms ideal earth for orchids. Between the just blooming lavender, pricking bushes, old graves and colorful life-jackets of refugees there were plenty of orchids: the Harlequin orchid (Orchis morio), the Butterfly orchid (Orchis papilionaceae), the Provence orchid (Orchis provincialis) and at least three kinds of Tongue-serapias.

In the Netherlands all orchids are protected. In Greece I sometimes think that nothing at all is protected, and I really had to keep myself from picking one of the many orchids. It is good that nowadays the Greek do go to the supermarket in order to buy food, instead of getting it out of the nature. From the roots of a Man Orchid (Orchid mascula) you can make a nice and medical drink that is popular in the Middle East and in Turkey. But as well in Greece it is said that they make a drink with this orchid, to drink when you have gastric complaints.

In Turkey they dig up the roots after the blooming, they dry them and ground them into a thick flour that they stir through a glass of milk until it gets thicker. This sahlep, like this soft drink is called, made that many orchids disappeared in Turkey. A nearly identical beverage, saloop, was a popular drink during the Victorian times in England.

On the way to Palios you not only find plants that are protected in the Netherlands, but as well birds that are considered as holy in Tibet and Mongolia: the red shellduck (Tadorna Ferruginea). This colorful duck, as big as a goose, lives since years at the sign on the road to Palios, an information board that gives all the information about this duck. I am amazed about his staying at the same place. Each time when I drive there and I see the sign, the shellduck is around. Like he gets paid by the government to stay there. But off course when you open the car to get out, he flies away.

Orchids do not fly away but have the nasty habit to hide. When you are hunting orchids, it is just like with looking for mushrooms: at one moment you know how and where to look and then an amazing world of beauty opens before your eyes…

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


This winter you would think that it pays if all watermills get restored. People get sad about all the rain that keeps on falling and filling all rivers. Last week showers even colored the mountains snowy white and the only way to go to Anemotia and Vatoussa was when you used winter tires.

When you dared to venture out in thunder and hail, a walk became a survival trip: regularly you had to take off shoes and socks in order to cross a river that blocked a path. All that water however keeps the waterfalls running.

The most known waterfall of Lesvos is the Pesos waterfall. This one is indicated on the road from Achladeri to Agiasos (katarraktis Pesos). Last year we visited the watermill at the bottom of the waterfall close to Eresos (see: Following Sappho), in the autumn we discovered the waterfall of Klapados (see: There at the mill), where as well once stood a watermill. Last week somebody brought us to the Waterfall of Pedi, close to Mandamados, where a wide river falls from a cliff of some ten meters high.

Seeing all that wet violence it is easy to imagine that you can harness energy out of these big amounts of water. However not every winter is so rich with rain and in the summer in most rivers there is no drop of water to be found anymore. I wonder how in the early times during droughts they kept on running the many mills that existed here on the island. Nowadays they use a more secure energy: besides the normal energy on the road from Antissa to Sigri there is a windmill park that keeps on increasing.

In spite of the fact that so much rain has fallen and that there were mostly clouds, and sunshine was sparse, like every spring flowers and plants hurry out of the earth. This year, the colorful flowers are always cheer you up even when the winter seems endless this year.

I always thought that Lesvos was a green island. Even in very dry summers the extended pine tree forests in the center of the island and the millions of olive trees towards the many coastlines color the island green (green is ‘prasino’ in Greek). In the winter this prasino even hurts your eyes because of all the young new plants that grow everywhere.

However in the world there are only three green islands: King Island in Australia, Samsoe in Denmark and Utsira in Norway. Those islands are not green, meaning the color green but because they only use green energy.

We cannot always point a finger to the Greeks sinning against the environment, but the important thing is that they progress in their awakening for the environment. In the Greek capital they already started with collecting separate rubbish and they now even start to experiment with collecting the glass separated in colors. As well in the capital of Lesvos collecting separate rubbish has started and in Molyvos you can bring used batteries to the local supermarket of Timolis (as well as OTE in Petra).

Last week another big step was made by the Greek Minister of development. He gave ten million of euros to transform the small island of Aghios Efstratios, named by the Greeks as well Ai Stratos (see: Sea and Fry Travels into a green island).

Together with the neighboring island of Limnos it belongs to the prefecture of Lesvos and for sure it can use a bit more green, because it is rather a bare island. However they are not going to plant all trees there, like they regularly do on Lesvos to enrich the environment. The island will be made ready to only use green energy.

The electricity will not run anymore on petrol but will come from sun energy, wind energy and biomass. Even the cars will be running on electricity. In about a year Aghios Efstratios hopes to be one of the exclusive green islands. And if this experiment succeeds, two other small islands already asked to become green: Nisyros and Tilos.

Lesvos is still too big for this experiment. But I am sure that when the Lesvorians hear that their neighbors do not have to pay anymore for petrol, they will be first in the row for the waiting islands to become green. And they are right because in a matter of speaking the energy here you can pick up from the street: wind, sun, sea and hot springs. And not to forget for this winter: water!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Flamingo Flambé

I think that the name Natura 2000 still sounds like a brand name for sport items. However Natura 2000 is the name of the European ecological network that helps members of Europe to name and manage protected ecological areas as well as protecting endangered animals.

The over populated Netherlands where it is hard to find green areas has as many as 162 areas on the Natura 2000 list. Greece, a country that is much bigger and greener has 239 areas on the list, with 151 areas pointed out as Special Protected Areas (Spa).

Lesvos has three areas on the Natura 2000 list: The Gulf of Kaloni and surroundings, including the salt pans of Kaloni and those of Skala Polychnitos, The Gulf of Yera and the area around the Olympos Mountain and the Petrified Forest and Sigri. It is strange that only the Gulf of Kaloni is a Special Protected Area and not the incredible heritage of the region of Sigri with its petrified trees.

Greeks and the environment still do not pair well. That is why nearly every day you can read how Greece again sinned against the European rules for protecting the environment. It is cynical that the European commissioner of environment is a Greek named Stavros Dimas. Time after time he has to warn his compatriots and give them big fines because of neglecting the rules for a clean environment or for not protecting enough endangered animals.

Last week 15 flamingos were shot in the Gulf of Amvrakikos (close to Arta in the western part of Greece), a wetland that should be protected. Who wants to shoot 15 flamingos? Just for the fun or because they needed those fancy pink feathers for a carnival outfit, that by now is long over…

Or did they want to make an old fancy Roman dinner? According to articles on the internet the Roman emperors sometimes did get served flamingos. This story comes from the eldest cooking book that got preserved. It is some 1600 years old: ‘Apicius’ or ‘De re coquinara (around cooking). This cooking book not only describes how to cook flamingos or ostriches, it as well gives you advice of how to cheer up old smelling meat by cooking it with so many spices and other ingredients that your guests will never taste that you served them bad meat. For example he used pepper, lovage, thyme, mint, hazelnuts, dates, honey, vinegar, fish sauce, wine and mustard.

‘De re coquinaria’ was compiled in the 4th century with old Roman recipes and some scientists believe that it contains as well recipes from Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmand who lived in the first century AC, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius.

Apicius loved to give big dinners with extravagant food. According to Pliny (Natural History) Apicius fed figs to some pigs in order to serve their liver as a delicacy accompanied by a glass of wine sweetened with honey. I think this recipe is known here on the island of Lesvos because I know some pigs that in autumn were parked under a huge fig tree and they stuffed themselves the whole day only with the figs that fell from the tree. According to this same Pliny it was as well Apicius that said that flamingo tongues were a delicacy. Strange boys, those Romans!

Yesterday when I passed the flamingos in the salt pans of Skala Polychnitos, they stood dreaming away in the sun. I could not imagine a flamingo steak on my plate. Nor would I eat a parrot pie (in the book it is said that if you cannot get any flamingos you can use the recipe as well as for parrots). And I could not imagine at all that somebody wanted to shoot those beautiful birds.

A little later we passed the freemen of Polychnitos: a pair of storks that for years now live high above the village on a chimney. Later on we saw a black stork flying over Vatera. Leviticus says in the bible (11:19) that you cannot eat storks. And everybody agrees, only not those old Romans that were so crazy for fancy food. Apicius as well was a little crazy. One day he counted what he had earned with his culinary services. He spent millions on luxurious food and now he had nothing left. So he chose to poison himself because he did not want to live without having his fancy but expensive delicacies…

Monday, 9 March 2009


9 March - Helicopter

If the Greeks today would have to vote between the two main Greek parties PASOK and ND (Neo Demokratia) a majority would have voted for no party at all. The Greeks have lost their faith in all their political leaders and you just have to say ‘helicoptero’ and they will have a big laugh.

Instead of looking at the very long political discussions on the news the Greeks now are hooked on the weather forecast. Which is kind of dull these days, because it is only clouds, showers and when you are lucky some bit of sun. Temperatures are between 6 and 20oC. The winter, although it is spring, keeps on plodding with rain showers, grey skies and sun.

Even the sand of the Sahara did arrive already. And that did not come from the Sahara of Limnos, like is called the sand dunes of the neighboring island of Lesvos, neither did it come from the sand dunes at the beach of Kampos, not far from Gavathas. Each spring here in Greece there come sand clouds from the African desert. They love to sprinkle everything in a red dust. Last week we had such a day that the sky was covered in dust and thanks to a storm from the south it took only one day to disappear, further to the North on their way more into Europe.

The Greeks do not follow the weather forecast because the nowadays politics are less trustworthy than the weather forecast. They all watch the weather forecast on the television channel STAR, because it is presented by a real Star-weather woman: Petroula.

Petroula Kostidou is not really a weather woman, she is more a sexy stand-up comedian, who just like Lakis Lazopoulos, the anchorman of the popular satiric program Al Tsantiri News on Alpha tv, makes fun of everything and everybody. Each night at five to nine Petroula appears on the screen in another sexy outfit in front of the weather map of the country and chats like a housewife drinking sherry about life and the weather in Greece. At the end of her five minutes show, giggling like a schoolgirl, wiggling her backside in a too small dress she lays her hand under the temperatures that she has to read as a weather woman.

The talk of the day is not about what weather we are getting, but about what Petroula was wearing and about who she made fun of. The bigger the chaos in Greece, the more the Greeks and Petroula and Lakis Lazopoulos have fun. Each political misfit is a beautiful target, like the escape of the criminal Palaiokosta and his mate from the prison of Korydallos by helicopter. This last word did lose its common meaning of a flying means of transport, it now means a big joke about the failure of the government.

Petroula used this news item already one day after the Big Escape on 23-02-2009 and Lakis Lazopoulos nowadays sends his show from a helicopter platform in his studio where a small helicopter flies over the heads of the public.

I saw Petroula already a few times on television, but never thought that this was a serious weather forecast. Only seeing the carnival parading through Molyvos with a car depicting a weather station with Lela Petroula, did I realize how deep Petroula already entered the Greek society.

The crisis does not yet seem to have reached the Greeks, although there are daily plenty of disaster forecasts like that this year there will not be enough tourists. And each time when the government fails, they just make jokes about it. Helikoptero! I am happy that the Greeks can find so much humor in their own misery.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009


2 March – Carnival

I think one can never prove that carnival is a Greek invention. Nowadays carnival is celebrated mostly in catholic regions, although some orthodox parts of the world as well join the celebration. Carnival now is celebrated because people want to party before the sober days of Lent start.

Locally some very old rites do turn up during carnival, as old as from pagan times. Carnival looks a lot like the old Roman bacchanals, celebrated in honor of Dionysus (the same god as the Roman Bacchus), you know, this Greek god of partying, drinking and eating (a reason why there are Greeks that say that the Greeks invented carnival).

In Greece there is a little town still celebrating according to the old rites. Where there is a party, there often is as well lovemaking and that is why the inhabitants of Tyrnavos (in Thessaly) on Clean Monday (the last day of carnival and the start for Lent) are having a bacchanal with phalluses. Big, small, thick or narrow, from wood or plastic, they are all paraded through town, they sing with them, they dance with them and they have a lot of fun there in Tyrnavos. Originally this festivity for Dionysus was celebrated only by men, but how do you keep the women off the streets during nowadays carnival? The Orthodox Church does not agree, but today all women do participate in the celebrations.

Anyhow, the Orthodox Church is having a difficult time during carnival. The carnival parades in Greece satirize especially the politic scandals, which includes as well the church. The head of the Vatopedi Monastery (on Mount Athos) earned millions thanks to a clever deal of land swap with the state. This case from last year (that made 2 ministers resign) is now known in history as the Vatopedi-scandal, a great subject for the carnival parade. In Patras they worked at a float that would make a fool out of the abt of the Vatopedi monastery. Besides the local clergy as well 20 monasteries of the Mount Athos sent a letter to Patras with the question if that float could be refused at the parade. The mayor of Patras answered the monks that the float did not intend to offend the clergy, they want just to satirize them.

In Istanbul as well in early times they had a carnival: the Bakla Horani. Before the end of the Ottoman Empire there used to live a lot of Greeks in the quarters of Tatavla and Beyoglu, making a parade through their streets. It was a merry parade of masked people, dressed in the traditional Greek clothes from the region they came from, men dressed like women or women like men. But the best of the parade was at the head where local prostitutes in fancy velvet dresses rode horses, lead by their pimps who walked along. This carnival got banned in 1930 by the Turkish government and the Bakla Horani now remains just a sweet memory.

In the early times Venice was best known for its carnival. Nowadays it is Rio de Janeiro. In Greece it is said that Patras is celebrating the biggest carnival. On Lesvos it is Agra, but as well Molyvos with its carnival parade does attract more and more people.

People in Molyvos were not at all bothered by complaining papas. There were even several floats that satirized the head of the Vatopedi monastery. Another theme that was used several times was the refugees, sitting in their rubber boats.

And off course there was the latest Greek scandal: a driving prison with a lot of prisoners in striped clothes walking outside of the prison. They made publicity for the new Greek air company: Korydallos Airlines (Korydallos is the name of the prison from which two heavy criminals lately escaped for the second time by helicopter).

There was no publicity for the real new air company Athens Airways, that started last week flying from Athens to Mytilini twice a day (they will fly as well from Athens to Kavala, Thessaloniki and Alexandropoulo). The head of the Orthodox Church (see him like the pope of the Orthodox Church), patriarch Bartholomeu I of Constantinople, was the first passenger who took flight from Athens to Mytilini. He opened the office of Athens Airways in Mytilini and visited the island for some days. Bartholomeu lives and works in Istanbul. He tries to keep together the different orthodox churches, he defends the orthodox Church against the Turkish and makes dialogues with the catholic church. Today Bartholomeu was nowhere to be seen on any carnival float. If all papas could be like this good man…