Monday, 27 July 2009


What else should you do during a heat wave but write about drinking? Tourists used to think that the two national beverages of Greece were retsina and ouzo. Nowadays, however, many tourists have never even heard of retsina. Retsina is a white wine flavoured with pine resin (originally this resin helped preserve the wine). It is a light wine with a slight bitter taste, which makes it a wonderful drink during the heat.

Fashions change, including for drinks. Retsina has lost its popularity and has become more or less a folkloric beverage, despised by most tourists. It is beer they favour, and gaining popularity amongst Greeks too. Dutch brands like Heineken and Amstel appear more often on the table than the Greek made Mythos and Alpha. But there is also ordinary wine. Some tavernas serve home made local vintages, but the taste can be a little too acidic. Seldom will you be given a separate wine list and the wine that is offered is of medium range quality. But that is going to change. After many centuries Greek quality wines are on the rise again and are being voted best at international competitions.

Greek wine was very popular in Antiquity and there was a lively wine commerce, which reached far across European borders. Writers like Theophrastus (ca. 371 – 287 BC) and Homer (ca. 800 – 750 BC) wrote priceless details about wine production and trade in their times. Homer wrote so often about wine that a friend called him Vinesos Homerus (wine nose Homer).

The Greeks cannot claim to have invented wine, but it is said that Greek conquerors did bring viticulture first to Italy and then to France. Later on the Romans spread it further throughout their world.

But wine is much older than the way to Rome (a Dutch expression). Ever since the merry god Dionysus offered it to the people, Greek mythology has been full of anecdotes about how sweet the wine can be, but also how treacherous.

The old story goes that Dionysos taught an Athenian, Ikarios, how to make wine. When Ikarios offered some peasants a couple of cups of they got drunk and thought Ikarios was poisoning them. So they stoned him to death. The next morning they hid his body, but the dead man’s dog Maira showed his daughter Erigone where the body was. Erigone was so upset about her father’s death that she hanged herself. The dog Maira jumped into a well. Dionysus was very angry about all this and immortalised the three — Maira, Erigone and Ikarios — amongst the stars, then, as punishment, created a drought over the whole country and for Athens a plague of suicides: many young girls hanged themselves, just like Erigone.

It is said that Dionysos drank just three cups of wine a day: the first for health, the second for love and the third for sleep. The myth proceeds: the fourth cup is for violence, the fifth is revolt, the sixth for drunkenness, the seventh for black eyes, the eighth for the police, the ninth for billiousness and the tenth for madness.

In Roman times on the island Lesvorian wine was still famous and treasured, but after the Romans left, the great days of Lesvorian viticulture came to an end. And in the rest of the country, the golden centuries of Greek wine culture were numbered when the Greek states became part of the Byzantine Empire. The farmers had to pay more and more taxes and abandoned many vineyards. The monasteries took advantage, and monks bought up vineyards and specialized in making wine. After occupation by Franks and Venetians, the Ottomans ruled over Greece for several centuries and they were not wine lovers. The Greeks eventually freed themselves from Ottomans control, but the twentieth century proved unstable as national and international wars raged across the country: not a good time to build up viticulture. And then there was the devastatiing disease philloxera which destroyed many vineyards all across Europe, including Greece.

Not until the 1960s did Greek viticulture emerge from the ruins as retsina became very popular and wine houses put plenty of cheap wine on the market. In the seventies more wineries started and made better quality wines. A trend that continues now. Greece can be proud of its improving wine culture and some farmers are even trying to reintroduce the old grape varieties from Antiquity.

In the fourth century BC the most expensive wine traded in Athens was from Chios. But high quality wines also came from Lesvos, Kos, Naxos, Skopelos, Tasos and Chalkidiki. The most famous Lesvorian wine from Antiquity was Pramnian. These days it wouldn’t be thought of as a table wine at all, because it was sweet and thick as nectar. The grapes were harvested as late as possible to maximise their sugar content. They were then put in a container and, under their own weight, without the need for a wine press, they yielded a thick and sweet juice which ran free.

It wasn’t until 1985 that the family of Dimitris Lambrou reopened a winery on the island to make the wine Methimneos. They revived the old Lesvorian grape (Lesvos Grape Variety) and made it in the small village of Chidira — where they now bottle both red and white wines. The red is fresh and fruity, but expensive. The white isn’t cheap either, but it’s a fresh, dry and spicy wine.

Lots of Lesvorians make wine for their own use. The island has a perfect environment for viticulture: lots of volcanic earth and plenty of sunshine. These young local wines are often a little acidic, but sometimes you taste one and want to ask for a whole barrel — except that these days, home wine makers preserve the wine in plastic containers, not in wooden barrels, which I think means they miss the opportunity to make really good wine. My favorite (white) wine comes from the neighbouring island of Lemnos.

I do know that alcoholic beverages do not cool you down during heat waves. But when you drink enough water in between and you remember the 10 wine rules of Dionysos, nothing bad will happen. And by the way, the most common drink on this island is water. Not just because the island is rich in water springs (which all taste different) but because there is a lot of water in daily Greek life: tables laid out with food are always decorated with the bottles of water (also plastic these days) and when you are served with a coffee, an ouzo or a whisky, you always get a glass of water. Now that wine is becoming more and more popular it might be a good custom to serve water with your glass of wine.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Monday, 20 July 2009

Dog Days

The Dog Days last about a month, starting around the 20th of July. They are named after the constellation Canis Major (or Big Dog). Sirius is the biggest star of the Big Dog (and is also known as the Dog Star). When Sirius rises next to the sun (heliacal rising), for weeks it is invisible: these are the Dog Days.

In Greek mythology Sirius was the dog of Orion, the celestial hunter. The goddess of the hunt, Artemis fell in love with Orion, but her brother Apollo disapproved of the relationship and so sent a huge scorpion to attack Orion, who fled to the sea and swam for his life. Apollo called to his sister: “You see that man swimming? He just raped one of your nymphs.” Artemis immediately took her bow and sent a deadly arrow across the sea. When she saw who she had killed she was in despair. She immortalised Orion and his dog Sirius between the stars, and that is where they still are. Artemis herself vowed that she would never love a man again.

On the Cycladic island of Kea, they used to make sacred offerings to the Dog Star Sirius (and Zeus), in order to beg for a cooling wind. That is because the Dog Days are known to be the hottest of the summer. When Sirius reappeared in the sky (after the Dog Days), the old Greeks thought that if the star was obscured by mist, plagues would invade the world. In ancient Egypt the yearly flood of the Nile happened during the Dog Days.

In earlier times it was thought that during the Dog Days the sea would boil, wine would turn acidic, people would become hysterical and dogs go crazy. Some people even muzzled their dogs during the Dog Days because they were afraid of rabies.

In my experience that’s the opposite of what really happens. The black Labrador Black Jack lies like he’s stone dead all day, refusing to move one leg in front of the other. It’s too doggy hot to move...

But not only dogs suffer from the heat, which here on the island now rises over 35 °C and elsewhere in Greece as far as 40 °C. Today I am using my Spanish fan to cool me down a little. According to the weather forecast this heat wave will continue and according to the Dog Days legend it could last until the middle of August.

I am sorely tempted to burn a candle in one of the many churches here — for Sirius the Dog Star: please send us a cooling wind. Only at night do we feel comfortable, the energy revives us and even the dog is ready for a walk.

Just like some people say they get moonstruck, I ask myself if I am perhaps touched by the Dog Days. Last night I had some really dark,thoughts, thanks to a book I read last winter that a left big impression: The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

In this book a father and his small son try to survive in a world that is in ashes after an apocalyptic disaster. They try to reach the coast, where they hope to be saved. On the way the earth looks bad: high up in the mountains fires are still burning; on deserted highways there are burned out cars, often with the charcoaled remains of their human occupants; the air is full of ash and blocks the sun and the sky; it rains black flecks of soot; nothing is growing anymore; the trees, if not already burned, fall like firewood.

In this horrible but beautiful story nothing is said about what exactly happened to the earth. But feeling these hot temperatures I can imagine what it might be. With the warming of the earth and the ever hotter annual Dog Days, the opportunities for natural disasters are on the increase. Imagine a rash of huge wild fires everywhere and the sad scenario of The Road becomes more and more realistic.

I wonder if Cormac McCarthy wrote his story during the Dog Days. This tiresome heat inhabits thinking and makes you slow and sleepy, with little energy to do anything whatsoever. The idea of the fall of the earth is definitely a Dog Days Thought. During this heat, it’s impossible to think about happy things...

But I never really was moonstruck, and I will not let the Dog Days get me down. While I watch the tempting blue sea and drink my umpteenth glass of water, I realize that living at the seaside during the Dog Days is not at all bad. Although the seawater is quite warm, taking a dip in it is still a refreshing experience.

The best way to survive a heat wave is just live like the Greeks do: stay inside as much as possible, and do not go into the sun. Have your meal in the early afternoon and afterwards, give in to tiredness and take a long nap. Wake up in the cooling night. These days most Greeks go to the beach at 7 or 8 at night and many don’t come out of their houses until well after the sun has dived into the sea. Then they have a coffee and prepare for the coming night. Only around 10 do they go for another meal and until the late hours, they parade through the streets, enjoying a warm summer night.

(Thanks to Tony Barell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Kangaroo court

It’s been very hot here in Greece and that is why it was a little like the torment of Tantalus to see merry clouds hovering above Turkey. In daytime they expanded into huge and impressive cauliflowers and at sunset they turned to gold. At night, with our temperature still not below 30 oC, the clouds were illuminated by a fascinating light show started by orange flashes of lightning that played a game with the clouds. The bolts flashed out of the clouds, and made the cauliflower transparent or coloured its edges bright orange.

We had the lightshow, but not the rain or any cooling off, because showers that were forecast did not fall on the island. I only could imagine how far into the land mass of Turkey people were embracing the rain and totally refreshed by it — enough to sleep in their beds — while here even a swim in the sea wouldn’t cool you down. The sea was as hot as the water in your bath tub!

The flashes of lightning raised our hopes, but, sadly, we cannot complain about an absence of fire on the island. Some weeks ago the wild fires at Molyvos started again and just as they were at the end of last summer they were deliberately kindled. The inhabitants of Mollywood, the region where most fires started, had more sleepless nights and angry residents called for action and formed civil fire-watcher teams.

When there is danger rumours fly around in the village. Last year they were about a group of boys who were supposedly caught taken red handed kindling a fire, although nobody could or wanted to confirm what was really only gossip. The boys were arrested and the grapevine was very busy about who they were, but they were released and afterwards nobody could or wanted to confirm that this group of teenagers was indeed responsible for all the fires that raged last summer. The only fact is that since that time the fires last year stopped.

Last week a huge blaze started outside Kaloni, the biggest fire on the island since 2006 and it threatened several places: one fire front moved to Agia Paraskevi and another towards Klapados. The local firemen, together with helicopters from Chios, Samos and Thessaloniki all fought for 24 hours against this terrible fire, but 600 hectares of wood and agricultural areas went up in flames. When you drive now from Kaloni to Petra you not only see the charcoaled area, but smell it as well.

The rumours about the cause followed pretty quickly. Some said it was started by Turks — a favourite accusation from Greeks. Others said it was last year’s arsonist from Molyvos. In the papers there was talk about sparks from the armoured cars of the army driving around near where the fire started. The only fact is that the investigations into it are still underway.

Around Athens the causes of fires has more than once been connected to the bad behaviour of the real estate industry, but here on Lesvos nobody can profit from a burned out area. Unless, like in Molyvos, you have an arsonist, fires here on Lesvos are mostly accidents, caused by matches or cigarette buts thrown out of car windows, fires that start on illegal dumps or sparks made by machines.

According to a study by the University of the Aegean the wild fires in 2004 on Lesvos were all caused by humans. At the Department of Natural Disasters in Mytilini (the university has departments spread through the islands Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Rhodos, Syros and Lemnos) several studies of fire behaviour and prevention have been made together with research into the development of equipment to prevent, forecast or detect wild fires. However even the best systems, connected to the latest communications technology could not prevent the huge Kalloni catastrophe. Even though there is plenty of publicity and public messages about how to avoid throwing cigarettes out of car windows, burning garbage illegally and the rest, people still carelessly do these things and so the wild fires start.

In Molyvos they have tried to put their own ‘prevention measure’ in place. When the fires started again in June this year again, lots of people thought it was a man in the village. Last year it was said that it was he who encouraged kids to start the fires and when a bunch of angry villagers tried to confront him, he fled on his motorbike. After some more fires the villagers took matters into their own hands and refused to sell him bread, no shop would serve him and he couldn’t get a meal in a cafĂ© or restaurant. The man fled to Kaloni and since then there are no more fires in Molyvos. But the people in Kaloni must be wondering!

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Visiting neighbours

It is well known that Greeks and Turks don’t get along that well. Since the founding of the modern, independent state of Greece (1829) and the young secular state of Turkey (1923), friendships have been built but broken even more quickly and these days, the two governments fight each other over the sea borders in the Aegean, and the large number of the refugees that flow into Greece from Turkey.

Nevertheless, here on the island of Lesvos people are trying to re-stablish travel links between the two coasts. After the Cyprus crisis (1974) there was no traffic at all, but commercial interests have met together in recent years, and there is at least one weekly ferry between Mytilini and Ayvalik and for the past year a boat connecting Mytilini with Dikili.

A century ago thing were very different. The sea between Lesvos and Ayvalik was a vital passage for all kinds of boats going back and forth and Mytilini was an active commercial centre communicating the East and the West. Lesvos was still part of the Ottoman Empire, and there was a lot of trade and commerce with ports around the Black Sea and Russia.

In the 19th century business was mostly with Edremit and Ayvalik (in Greek Ayvalik is Kidonies; Skala Kidonies, between Mytilini and Mandamados is named after Ayvalik). Not only goods were traded (Lesvos exported olive oil and soap and grains were imported), there were also many Greek men from Lesvos going to Turkey - from August to October to help harvest the corn. More than one man found happiness in Turkey and left his wife and children on Lesvos, a cause for the break up of quite a few marriages in those days.

When in the middle of the 19th century steam ships moved into the Aegean Sea, Mytilini got even more work thanks to commission trade. Because the new ships were too big for the small harbors on the Turkish coast, their goods were unloaded and stored in warehouses in Mytilini and then shipped across by smaller vessels. That business did so well that by the end of the 19th century that many big churches, public buildings and industrial complexes on Lesvos were built, most of them with materials from the Ottoman Empire — especially beautiful pink rock from the island of Sarmousak (close to Edremit), bricks from other regions, huge tree trunks for roof rafters and basic products used in the olive- and leather tanning industry.

The symbiotic relation between both coasts was not only commercial, but social and cultural, as people from Lesvos bought land, and set up businesses and bought or built houses in Turkey.

In 1912 the East Aegean islands Lesvos, Chios and Samos were taken back by the Greeks and the islands became part of the modern Greek nation. Immediately, the commerce that had been flourishing was subject to taxation: a 1% Greek tax on exports, and a 11% Turkish tax on import so, for Turks, products from Lesvos became more expensive than local Turkish goods, and so trade between the two sides went into decline. When the Greek army, that had foolishly invaded Anatoly, was beaten in 1922, most of the Greek orthodox population was expelled from Turkey (as were the muslims from Greece). This ‘Catastrophe’ as all Greeks know it, lead to the death of commerce between the Greek islands and Turkey and ever since that time there has been tension between the two countries.

Lots of people on Lesvos are not happy with the difficult diplomatic situation created by both governments and want to establish their own commercial contacts with Turkish people. For example, they export sardines from the Gulf of Kaloni and many islanders go to the other side to buy things that are cheaper in Turkey. If you make the trip you will see for yourself how many Greeks are carrying whole towers of household goods on the boat from Ayvalik to Mytilini. Other Lesvorians are just curious to find out how their grandparents who lived in Turkey used to live, and some families even still own the houses in Turkey.

Turks also visit Lesvos as tourists. Last Saturday a record number of Turks came over to attend a concert in the castle Mytilini by the veteran German heavy metal rock group the Scorpions. Some 500-1000 people were expected to come over, but in the end, the crowd was so huge and enthusiastic it was hard to know who was Greek and who was Turkish.

Thousands of people enjoyed what was for Lesvos a special concert. It was very well organized and could be heard all across the city. The old rock stars were in great shape, as were the fans who waved their arms with their mobile phones, jumped around, danced to the great guitar playing of Rudolf Schenker, the pounding drums of James Kottak and joined in as Klaus Menke sang the band’s big hits.

Greeks and Turkish together sang amongst others ‘Wind of Change’, ‘Send me an Angel’, ‘Still loving You’ and ‘Rock You like a Hurricane’. Many recalled the poignant shared memory of the huge earthquakes that happened in Turkey in 1999, and the smaller one in Athens later the same year, events which inspired many people to take a first big step towards a new friendship between Greece and Turkey. The Scorpions did that movement proud, creating an event which allowed people of these two nations, who share hundreds of years of the same history, to stand side by side, for at least one memorable night for Lesvos.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Who pays the ferryman?

From the first of July Greece also now has to follow European law which bans smoking in public buildings, and that means bars and restaurants. Of all countries in Europe Greece has the most smokers in Europe, but it also is a country that tries to evade following European regulations — and tries to duck its own laws too.

So, I am very curious about what will happen when the anti-smoking law comes into effect. July 1 is a curious choice for the date because it’s the time of the year when life, like eating and drinking, is mostly lived outside. When the cold chases the people inside I am sure everybody will have forgotten about this new law.

I’m sure it will be true here on Lesvos — unless the restaurant owner is a heavy anti smoker. Mostly in Greece, people are not fanatically anti- smoking. It tends to be your own business whether you smoke or not, like if you eat sardines or not. And who will police the smoking ban? Here in the north of the island in the winter there are hardly any police officers to do it.

However there are tax collectors. And they are not popular at all, especially as they like to make sure on the busiest Sundays that bars and restaurants don’t employ ‘black’ workers, or that their billing system is correct. While big businesses have the power to elude paying taxes, the tax men control only the ‘small people’. No wonder Greeks are not happy with their tax regime, and regard the avoidance of sending even a dime to Athens as a national sport.

Last week about 600 inhabitants of the island of Limnos (just north of here) ran amuck when tax controllers visited. Limnos feels abandoned by the Greek government. No minister helps with developing the island, or its poor health service, or the growing number of people without work, or the bad air and sea connections with the mainland. Thanks to a very selfish policy of the ferry companies, connections are poor and expensive — air travel too. Last winter the island went for weeks without a single ferry.

When spring came, a large group of islanders tried to get to Athens to protest, but the regular ferry boat Theofilos ran into a harbour wall and could not leave for several days. Only a few people got on a plane to make their point in the capital.

Last week a big group of island people forced this same boat Theofilos to stay in the harbour and wait for three tax controllers who were ‘kindly asked’ to leave the island.

Now people on Limnos have been slighted as ‘tax evaders’, but I feel sure if you take a good look at who really evades paying tax in Greece, the inhabitants of Limnos would not be in the top hundred.

The truth is Athens gets ever less and less popular on the islands. People are especially angry at a government order that the islands have to build camps to house refugees for 6 – 12 months. The government wants them to stay here on Lesvos and other islands near Turkey (where most of them, from Afghanistan and Iraq originally, sail from in tiny boats and rafts) rather than letting them move to mainland towns, especially Athens and Patras (a port close to Italy), where they have become difficult to control.

On Lesvos it is suggested a new refugee camp be built on an old military base, at Achladeri, Petra or Mystegna. But Lesvos is not happy at all with this demand. How will it be for the tourists, on holidays being exposed to the misery and poverty of refugees being penned up or trying desperately to escape the camps? And our local police don’t want to become prison warders.

The refugee problem becomes bigger and bigger in Greece and last week fifty refugees were transported from a camp on Samos to Mytlini, so that a UN inspector on an official visit wouldn’t see, and then comment, on the conditions in the overpopulated camps which the government has done nothing to improve.

I assume that from now on there will be a protracted battle, for years probably, over where the new camps should be built. It will be just like the row over where to build new electricity plants or waste treatment facilities. Rumours about a waste treatment plant planned for Mandamados are very strong. It will take years to build, so meanwhile garbage will be dumped, as ever, on wide open spaces.

Life on a island is beset by anarchy: one for itself and God for all (Dutch expression). From Athens you only receive money, no rules...

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009