Monday, 25 May 2009

The secret of Ikarian life

Can you imagine: being a hundred years old on a Greek island? No stress, to maintain a little vegetable garden, looking out over the bright blue sea, taking a stroll through the mountains, picking wild vegetables, figs, walnuts, drinking a glass with your friends in the cafenion, taking a nap each day and eating according to the Ikarian diet…

This is the secret of the Ikarian life, which, according to the American health guru Dan Buettner, gives you a better chance of a long and healthy life. Buettner has named four regions in the world he calls “blue zones” (, all of them places where the environment is conducive to old age. Besides the Greek island of Ikaria there are Nicoya in Costa Rica, Okinawa in Japan and Loma Linda in California, United States. Buettner published his findings last year in the book: The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest.

These regions all have their secrets, and on Ikaria it’s not only diet, but social life and exercise. The Ikarian diet is a variant different of the classic Mediterranean diet: lots of vegetables (amongst them plenty of wild vegetables and beans), a little sugar and meat, fewer grains and less fish and more potatoes, goat milk, with regular doses of honey, herb tea, a glass of home made red wine and, of course, olive oil.

And do no think that all people from a little Greek village exercise daily on a home trainer, or do gymnastics together in the village square like they use to do in Japan, or that they are all member of a football club.

Greeks are known for doing very little exercise: everything that can be done by car, even if it means a few dozen meters to the shops, is done on four wheels. Here on Lesvos, the locals are amazed that so many tourists come to the island just to walk. And there is many a Greek who will stop and offer walkers a lift – a generous habit that will only change if and when the Greeks realize walking is healthy.

The tourist part of Lesvos in the north might still be almost as healthy as on Ikaria, but not if more and more people decide to ‘walk by car’. Many Greeks in the villages here have heart diseases and will not reach the age of 60, whereas in the north of Ikaria a third of the population reaches the wonderful age of 90.

Although Molyvos is a village with steep slopes and plenty of steps, whenever and wherever you step outdoors on Ikaria you have to either climb or descend through the village streets. I am always full of admiration when I see the old people doing their daily shuffle up and down the stairs – while their younger neighbors do it by motor. (A former mayor of Molivos once said that he was against building a new road down from the town to the port because it was healthier for people to walk TB).

Keeping a garden is also a very healthy way of life. Not only for the homegrown vegetables, but because it means lots of exercise: digging, sowing, weeding, harvesting. Daily walks and gardening will keep you in shape.

Another factor of the good Ikarian lifestyle is the afternoon nap, the famous siesta. All Greeks used to take a nap in the afternoon but especially in the tourist areas, this is disappearing. When you walk around in Molyvos early afternoon, you will always see some life, but on Ikaria you will not meet a soul. It has to be said that the Greeks have their main meal of the day in the afternoon and after such a dinner a nap is more than welcome.

The curious factor of the Ikarian good life is the social side of it. Here in Greece the family ties are very important and houses are shared by more than two generations. Old people’s homes are practically unknown in Greece. Grandparents play a key role in the upbringing of their grand children and the household, so the old people have an active social role. According to the Ikarians, living alone is very unhealthy, and there’s an old Greek saying: if you go to church regularly you’ll live longer. Maybe it’s the walking as well as the prayers.

Concerning the food, the “blue zone” message is clear: eat fresh food, lots of different dishes and eat what’s in season. The Ikarian diet is full of home products — as it is on Lesvos — although here we eat more according to the usually Mediterranean diet — with more fish and grains. Lately, scientists have been alarmed by the impact modern life has on our diet as we move to frozen and fast food, especially in the tourist areas. (Last year it was revealed by the international Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that of all EU citizens, the Greeks now have the highest (and unhealthiest) body mass index (BMI) The reason? Because they have largely abandoned the traditional diet — and the Ikarian variant — in favor of food with too much fat, salt and sugar. Sad but true. TB)

Happily enough, though, the modern food style has not yet conquered Lesvos, and even the tourists tend to eat the real Greek food that is served in nearly all the restaurants. Maybe not so many Greeks here on the island reach the age of 90 as they do on Ikaria, but I am sure that in the Lesvorian mountain villages where the traditional life continues like in the old times, a third of the people will easily reach the age of 80. So, I bet Lesvos qualifies as a light Blue Zone…

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki, 2009

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

High Heels Forbidden

If you organized a race for women wearing high heels to see who could run fastest down from the castle above Molyvos, through the cobbled streets to the village, I bet the winner would be Greek.

The streets of Molyvos are surely hell for heels but, I am always flabbergasted and filled with admiration when I see the Sunday processions with the priest in front of a flock of women, some on stiletto heels, walking gracefully in their high heels down the narrow streets of the village as if they were walking in bare feet.

I used to walk high heeled all over the world. I even walked parts of the leveda’s in Madeira on high heels. But I do remember that taking them off to walk in the ancient town of Rhodes. I didn’t do it because I was afraid of damaging the warm grey medieval stones there. At that time I still was young and unconcerned, but although I was used to the badly paved streets of Amsterdam, the stones of Rhodes felt better in bare feet.

Those medieval streets were really made for leather sandals. In ancient Greek and Roman times, high heels were barely known. The heel came really in vogue in 1533, after the wedding of Catherine de Medici and the French king Henri II. The bride was a little short and that is why she appeared at her wedding in Paris on a pair of quite high heels, which immediately made her famous with the ladies of the court. England’s Mary Tudor soon followed the fashion and wore the highest possible heels.

Since I now live in in the country and warmth, I wear flipflops in the summer and in the winter I wear clogs, like plastic sabots. I know, they are not the most elegant kind of footwear, but there is nobody here I should parade for, although whenever I go into the town or for an evening out, I take my heels out of the closet.

Lesvos really is an agricultural island. You realize that as soon as you arrive back at the airport in Athens, and see plenty of well dressed people and lots of women struggling on all heights of heel.

The Central Archeological Service of Athens wants to ban these high heeled ladies (and gum chewing people) from its archeological sites, like the Acropolis and the Epidavros theatre. The Service says high heels (just like splats of chewing-gum) are bad for the old marbles and stones.

I doubt this ban will ever extend to Lesvos which does not have that many grand archeological sites. The petrified forest can never by threatened by high heels — and how would you dance on those petrified trunks? And anyway it is already forbidden to touch the exposed trees. The castles of Molyvos and Mytilini don’t have marble floors that could be spoiled by stilettos and the early Christian church of Georgios Demetrius close to Ypsilometopo does not even have a floor to damage. This nearly forgotten little church has already been got desecrated by cattle using it as a cowshed. In one corner you will find a tiny fragment of what once must have been a splendid mosaic floor. The rest has been destroyed by the hooves of hundreds of goats and sheep. I said it was an agricultural island.

Instead of measuring the damage caused by high heels the Archeological Service should pay more attention to neglect of so many of its archeological sites, some of which are not yet unearthed. Lesvos has plenty of lost treasures: the ancient towns of old-Antissa and Pyrghi, the ruined castle of Sigri, old watermills, the unknown graves at Palios, the old Roman waterways and so on (12 churches of Lesvos are listed on the 100 most endangered sites by the World Monument Watch). If we read the story of Peter Green about the history of Lesvos ‘Lesbos and the genius loci’ one of the chapters of his book ‘Classic bearings’, it is clear that there are still plenty of archeological treasures hidden beneath in the Lesvian earth.

I have never seen the castle of Mytilini from the inside, so I do not know if the concert there on the 4th of July by the German pop group The Scorpions will be performed on an earthen ‘floor’, like the floor of the open air theatre within the castle of Molyvos. Actually, it is a small field of grass on which they place a podium and a stand for concerts. Maybe this place once had stone or marble floors, but they were removed a long time ago to build houses and other buildings in the town. So, you are welcome there in your high heels, but leave the chewing-gum at home. However, a warning for the high heeled tourists who think Molyvos is quite a challenge: take a shoe repair kit with you, because the nearest shoemaker who can fix your heels is in Kaloni.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Friday, 15 May 2009

The mermaid of Sykaminia

One of the most touristic and popular places on Lesvos is the little coastal village of Skala Sykaminia. The harbor with the little white church on a rock looking out over its colored fishing boats (and beyond to the coast of Turkey) is so picturesque that none of the kafenions around the harbor have trouble getting all their tables occupied during the summer months.

For the Greek tourists there is another reason to visit this place: it is the village of the ‘Mermaid Madonna’, the title is of a well known novel by the Lesvorian writer Stratis Myrivilis. Myrivilis was born in Sykaminia – the village up the hill from the ‘skala’ - in 1892. He went to the gymnasium in Mytilini and then to Athens to university. But when the Balkan war broke out (in 1912-13, after which Greece was expanded to include most of Macedonia) he signed up as a soldier, but did not return home to the island for ten years, by which time he was a pacifist. His first novel was about Sappho - The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes – but his best known work, The Mermaid Madonna, was written in 1949 after he had moved to Athens, but it was all about his unforgettable home island.

The story starts around 1922, when a captain is living in the little church on the rock of Skala Sykaminia. One day he disappears but leaves behind, in the church, a wall painting of a Madonna with a fishtail. The inhabitants of Sykaminia are surprised but soon get used to this new goddess whose icon they begin to worship with prayers and incense. However, one day, boats full of refugees (Greeks expelled from Asia minor in the ‘Great Catastrophe’) fill the little skala of Sykaminia. No-one says a word about their horrible experiences in their beloved homeland of Anatolia. Most of them were fishermen and when new houses are built to accommodate them, they demanded to live near the harbor, which is how Skala Sykaminia came to be. The huge mulberry tree which shade the terrace outside what was the kafenion of Smaragthi’s godfather is still there — it’s now a restaurant called Skamnia (what means mulberry).

The story continues with the fisherman Varouhos going one day to Hora (Mytilini) and when he has done with his business and drunk a little too much, he sets off to row back home around the coast, but, astonishingly, he discovers a tiny baby in his boat. It’s a little girl with green eyes, a flower amongst the weeds, whom the villagers immediately realize cannot be ‘one of them’. An ancient lady, Permahoula, more than a hundred years old, understands well enough who the girl is —the daughter of a mermaid who, she says, must have seduced a fisherman.

Mermaids are lovely creatures but when you get seduced by them it is as good as signing your own death sentence. Permahoula knows this and for sure, one stormy night she hears a mermaid singing a lullaby. She recalls the many stories of fishermen who, once having heard the song or meet a mermaid, are never the same again.

In Greek mythology (which is so intertwined with the real life of the village in The Mermaid Madonna) there are also Sirens, half woman half bird, that seduce seamen with their sweet singing, like they tried with the Homeric hero Odysseus in his travels back home from Troy. Odysseus knew about the danger of listening and succumbing to the exquisite song, but wanted to hear it for himself, so he forced his crew to block their ears with wax and tie him firmly to the mast so that he could enjoy the beauty without being able to cast himself into their arms. The Argonauts also encountered Sirens, and their method of escape was to ask one of their party, the musician Orpheus, to play his lyre and sing loud enough to drown out their seductive wails. As time went by, artists depicted Sirens as mermaids.

So Skala Sykaminia is the village of the mermaid, who in modern times, continues her ancient craft, by seducing tourists. It is not difficult to fall in love with this little sweet fishing village, where the water laps gently against the harbor walls and the tinkling of the masts of the fishing boats brings you back immediately to the story of Myrivilis and his girl with the green eyes. Myrivilis knew how to describe the old life of the village, the beauty of the island and the nature of its people, the Greeks. In the course of his life, Greek ways probably didn’t change very much, and as the schoolteacher Avgustis in the book says wistfully: “If one bit of Greece remains uncorrupted, it will be due to the simple, uneducated folk.”

Standing in front of the little church of the mermaid Madonna (if the painting ever did exist, it now is lost) you can look dreamily out over the crystal clear blue Aegean sea, and, if you are lucky, see not mermaids, but dolphins breasting the waves. The only ‘real’ mermaids are in the souvenir shops.

There are other magical apparitions. When a strong wind blows from the north, and the waves crash on to the beach, with a little bit of imagination you can also see the hippocampus —the half-horse-half fish that towed the chariot of the God of the Sea Poseidon. And when the wind blows really hard it turns the water into a spray of mist through which you can just see the Nereïdes, the daughters of Poseidon, who ride the horse-fish.

Real seahorses got their name from the hippocampus, but for a long time I thought they existed only in fairy tales. However, they are real enough and swim freely in warm seas and oceans. The Chinese catch them for a love potion and here on Lesvos they float in the sea-grass of the beautiful Gulf of Kaloni. A friend who is a fisherman regularly brings them in by accident in his nets. Even if he were to put them back in the water, they are too delicate to survive, so now he dries them in the sun and I have a small collection of seahorses. So magical is their appearance, I still believe they must have come out of a fairy story.

PS English paperback versions of the novels were published in 1998 by Efstathiadis, Athens

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki, 2009

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Save Greece

Whenever you drive through the Greek landscape, you risk getting confused by road signs that point to the ‘Prophet Ilias’ (Pροφητησ Ηλιασ). Everywhere in Greece in the mountains you will see these signs. They simply mean: to the top of the mountain.

Literally they point the way to the ‘Prophet of Sun’. Sun is ilios in Greek. Scientists suppose that when the Greeks gods lost their influence, the God of Sun Helios was replaced by the prophet Ilias. Ilias however was not a man of who worshipped sunshine. In fact, he fought against the kings who let their people believe in pagan gods, and some religions say that he punished them with thunder and fire and that he himself rode to heaven in a chariot of fire. Very biblical. In very early times, when the sun was still believed to be a god, temples were built on the tops of mountains, so as to be as close as possible to honor Helios, the sun, and that is why so many mountains still carry the name of Prophet Ilias.

The two highest mountains on Lesvos are the Lepetimnos (969 m) in the north and the Olympos (968 m) near Agiosos. It is said that in order to build an observation post the military removed the original peak of Olympos, and so Lepetimnos became the highest mountain of the island. Instead of ancient temples, all you will find on Olympos is a crumbling military outpost, tall TRV masts and a little church build for ‘Prophet Ilias’.

When you climb the last steep road up to the top of Olympos (you can ride by FWD or SUV), you will also find a wood of masts, which are played by the wind as a harp. There is never total silence on Olympos, because there’s always a breeze or wind, so as well as the beautiful sight of the entire island, you can have music from an Aeolian harp, named for the god of the wind Aeolis. It may be coincidence but the ancient folk music of Greece is also known as Aeolian.

You can also get up to the top of Lepetimnos by 4WD, but it has more than one peak, although the Prophet Ilias occupies the the highest, while TRV masts, another military observation building and a little church are shared around the others. From this mountain you have an astounding, really overwhelming view over the north of the island, and in the other direction northwards deep into Turkey. When the weather is clear you can even see the neighbouring Aegean islands of Limnos and Agios Efstratios.

However, the most beautiful Prophet Ilias-top on Lesvos is between Parakila and Pterounda. In this magical fir-wood, where the wind always whispers mysterious songs, there are many roads winding around the mountains, so many that it is hard to keep your sense of direction. Between the road signs pointing to Agra, Anemotia and Pterounda there also names of different churches, and at each crossroad you have to puzzle over which way to go. Amongst these many signs there is also one pointing to the Prophet Ilias.

Follow the road going up the mountain through the fir-trees in the direction of Prophet Ilias, and suddenly the trees make way for lush green mountain meadows full of orchids and other wild flowers. On this Prophet Ilias there is another dilapidated military observation post and a little church. Again, the view is breathtaking, the green meadows scattered between large stones and the sea of flowers, are like paradise. Scarlet peonies shine under bushes and the green giggling hanging flowers of the fritillaria hide themselves between the other wild flowers.

The top of this mountain looks to be the source of the yellow ‘rivers’ that run down along narrow waterways straight through the fir forest, across the slopes all the way to Pterounda and just above Parakila. These are the island’s famous yellow rhododendrons, and at this time of year the woods are perfumed with their sweet fragrance as the flowers brighten up the dark beneath and between the trees. Not only are they rare (in Europe you can only find them in this part of Lesvos), the way they grow is spectacular: like illuminated guirlandes, the bushes snake down from the Prophet Ilias, a sight you cannot stop looking at.

These days, above the island, clouds are continuously fighting for space in the sky with the sun, and the weather forecast is always predicting rain. The flowers are delighted with all this water and even the relative cold, but our tourists are less happy. And they are in for even worse.

Not from heaven this time, but from the Greek government: the minister of Tourism, Kostas Markopoulos, has decided that Greece should concentrate more on tourism. His colleague and minister of Public Building and of Environment agrees and has taken immediately action so that last week the government agreed to a law that will permit real estate companies to build down to the water on the coasts of Greece. As Markopoulos put it: we have to do more for mass tourism and especially the promotion of all inclusive hotel and travel package deals.

The Greeks do not have a lot of imagination and their government doesn’t listen to people who know more than it does. Anyone pointing out the experience of Spain, where the entire Mediterranean coastline has been destroyed by big real estate (so that tourists are staying away in droves) is ignored. Our politicians love ‘big money’ and this time it’s the big money that comes from shameless real estate developers. All protests by the opposition, environmental groups and even the Greek Building Service, are ruled out of order: so the pristine Greek coastlines must be filled up with hotels and holiday houses. For tourists who may never come!

The yellow rhododendrons may not be bothered, but the views over our magical coastlines from the different peaks honouring Prophet Ilias will change dramatically in the future. Can you imagine high-rise hotels on our boulevard? Read HERE more about it and sign the petition:

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)