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

Wednesday, 19 August 2009


It is the top of the summer, Athens is deserted, and the islands are full of people. After Easter, the 15th of August is the biggest celebration day in Greece. This day most Greeks go to their parental villages, the islands and to churches dedicated to Maria to celebrate her Assumption to heaven. When you realise that on the same date half of the Greek population has a name day — including amongst many others Despina, Pepi, Krista, Maria, Maro, Mario, Maritsa, Marigoula, Marsia, Mirella, Panayotis, Panos, Panikos and Toula — you can understand why this is a very big day of celebration.

Today Poland also celebrates the Assumption of Maria with a national day off. Lots of Catholics however are not too happy that on their big day this year a concert in Warsaw was scheduled for pop star Madonna, known to the Catholic church for more than one scandal (TB: and for boldly using for herself one of the well known names of the mother of Christ!). Madonna started her current European tour Sticky and Sweet on the 4th of July in London.

In Poland the 15th of August is the day of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa — not of the visiting ‘white’ Madonna ‘possessed by the devil’. In 1656 the Black Madonna of Czestochowa was called out to be the Queen and Protector of Poland, after her icon saved in a miraculous way the Jasna Góra monastery in Czestochowa when a Swedish army tried to invade Poland. Now around the 15th of August thousands of pilgrims flock to this monastery from all over the country.

The Greeks, however, might not mind if the notorious Madonna were to buy a great Greek ‘icon’: the granddaughter of Aristoteles Onassis has put the island of Skorpios on to the market for about $100 million dollars. It was on this private ‘Onassis island’ that the fairy tale wedding of the famous ship magnate and Jacqueline Kennedy took place nearly forty years ago in October 1968. Together with other family members, Onassis himself is buried on the island. As well as Madonna, Bill Gates is named as a possible buyer.

Lesvos has two Madonnas who attract lots of fans on the 15th of August: Madonna Glikofiloussa (Maria with the sweet hug) in Petra and Madonna Vrefokratousa (Maria carrying the Holy Child) in Agiasos. To entertain the pilgrims and other visitors who crowd to these churches on the great day, traditional musicians gather to make music — although most of them play the old songs that don’t have that thrill (and sex appeal) for which Madonna is famous.

Greeks love their traditional music. Most Greeks know hundreds of songs by heart. If for a year you watched the popular tv-programs like Stin ygeia mas (‘Cheers’ on NET) or To parti tis zoies sou (‘The party of your life’ on Alter) you would get to know them all. Most of the songs are pretty old, but they still make up the repertoire of singers like Haris Alexiou, George Dalares, Yannis Parios or Alkisti Protopsalti.

One of my favourite songs is ‘S’agapo giati eisai oraia’ (I love you because you are beautiful). The song came with the refugees from Asia Minor (in the 1920s), although it is said that Aristides Moschos composed it. Anyhow, it was sung in the 1960s by Marianna Gatsoupoulo, but it became even more popular when Geroge Dalares sang it. Haris Alexiou performed the song in 2006 during her first concert in Istanbul.

It is a song which lets you wallow in all your feelings. You will recognize the word s’a – ga – po (I love you) in many Greek songs, a word you can stretch and tease your vocal cords.

Last week I visited a taverna where two musicians played during dinner and I just had to ask the owner Perikles to sing us all a song. He used to sing with Alexiou. Nowadays he can still dance the stars from the sky, but his singing voice is seldom heard.

When he got ready next to the musicians and the first chords were played, I immediately knew that Perikles was going to sing one of my favourite songs. It is the song that our neighbour always sings when she is swimming in the sea and the sweet tunes are brought to me on the wind, as if a mermaid were performing in the waves. It is a timeless song as good as anything by Madonna.

You can find many different interpretations on YouTube, but I think one of the best is the one by Alkisti Protopsalti, accompanied by Goran Bregovic, from their Album Paradexthika.

sagapo giati eisai oraia,
sagapo giati eisai oraia,
sagapo giati eisai esy...

ki agapo,
agapo kai olo to kosmo,
agapo kai olo to kosmo,
giati zeis kai esy mazi...

to para,
to parathiro kleismeno,
to parathiro kleismeno,
to parathiro kleisto...

anoikse to ena filo,
anoikse to ena filo,
tin eikona sou na do...

sagapo giati eisai oraia,
sagapo giati eisai oraia,
sagapo giati eisai esy...

I love you
I love you because you are beautiful
I love you because you are beautiful
I love you because it´s you

And I love
I love the whole world
I love the whole world
Because you are part of it

The win
The window is closed
The window is closed
The window has been closed

Open it for a friend
Open it for a friend
So that we can see you

I love you
I love you because you are beautiful
I love you because you are beautiful
I love you because it´s you

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Empire of water

Last week there was a big fire on the island. It started at Megalo Limni. It took me some time to place this ‘Big Lake’: it is the vast lowland you pass if you are driving from the flats of Kaloni to the mountain town of Agiosos, just before the road that goes over the hills through Ambelika and Akrasi to Plomari. This used to be a large sweet water lake, fed by several streams coming off mount Olympos, and it provided Mytilini, the capital of Lesvos, with water.

The Romans preferred to live in cities and they took care they were fitted with all sorts of conveniences, especially baths, gardens, swimming pools, and sewerage systems, all of which needed water. According to archaeological findings, several aqueducts delivered water to the ancient city of Rome. In about two centuries BC the Romans were still enlarging their Empire and conquered the Greek states, and began impressive public building schemes with water towers, sewers, drainage-canals and aqueducts.

They built about 200 aqueducts in their new domains, and in Greece the best known were in Athens, Corinth, Nikopolis (Northwest Greece) and on Lesvos. The Aqueduct of Moria — called the aqueduct of Lesvos now — was built around 200 AC. It is said that it used to be 22 kilometers long: from Megalo Limni all the way to Mytilini. The biggest part that still stands (and was recently restored) is a little outside Moria, a few kilometers from the capital. It is 170 meters long and has 17 arches. Close to Lambou Mili you will find another part of the aqueduct, with its old arches spanning a river, but out of the way, lonely and forgotten.

After the Romans left (only a century later) some time during the passing years, these structures fell into decay and Mtyilini had to get its water in other ways. In1935 the Megalo Limni lake was drained to make way for farm land.

In other parts of the island the inhabitants usually found their water from springs on the slopes of the biggest mountains of the island — Olympos and Lepetimnos. These mountains secrete so much water that even in the heat of high summer natural springs just keep on flowing.

In most parts of the island tap water is drinkable, but it still contains additives put in it by municipal authorities for public health. That is why a lot of people buy mineral water in the shops. But why would you buy bottles of water when you live on an island that has so many natural sources?

On a really hot Sunday we made a water tour of the natural springs of Lesvos to compare the taste of different sources. We started from Molyvos and progressed through Favios, Sykaminia, Mandamados, Agia Paraskevi, Lambou Mili, Agios Dimitrios and Vasilka towards Lisvori. In order not to collapse in the heat before we reached Karini, the area of the island richest with springs, we by-passed the popular spring between Petra and Kaloni, the beautiful spring of Ypsilometopo, and the famous water source at Lambou Mili along the main road to Mytilini.

Tasting water is a job. Nothing is as difficult as describing it accurately. So we came up with our own descriptions: funny taste, bitter, even, no aroma, rich, fresh, sweet, chemical, soft, no after-taste, round, fruity, bad taste, acid. At most springs we met people filling large water containers and they all said theirs was the best water on the island. Everyone to his taste. (TB: It’s often said that once you drink the water of Lesbos you are bound to return.)

So we thought the water from the spring between Argenos and Chalikas a little acid and even; the water from Mandamados, Agia Paraskevi and Vasilika without taste —or bitter. And the water from the Hot Springs of Lisvori (which we didn’t like at all) was too heavy with minerals.

The two most famous springs on the island are in our top three: Lambou Mili — where you take the road towards Karini, after the bridge — and Agios Dimitrios, a small hamlet with two tavernas, famous for its Gliko Koutaliou (sweet from the spoon — vegetables and fruit preserved with sugar). The funny thing was that the water from the most popular spring, just down from the hamlet, had an acid first taste and was not sweet at all, in contrast to the water from the spring up from the hamlet, towards to Vasilika, which was really soft and sweet and, for us, the best.

The biggest surprise however was the water from Sykaminia, at the church just before the mountain village (if you are coming from Argenos). This water is rich, fresh and sweet and we thought the best of all we tasted. The only disadvantage is that the flow from the tap is so slow it takes ages to fill a big bottle.

In the North, South and Centre of the island you will never be in danger of death from thirst. Somewhere there’s always some refreshing water. Our tour was excellent, especially as it was a very warm day. Although I rarely felt so happy taking my first swig of ouzo, after we had a second taste of all the water we collected from the different springs.

And by the way, the fire at Megalo Limni was fought with big water bombers which came amongst others from other islands. It crossed the road towards the pine forests and a strong wind made the situation very dangerous. With knowledge and resources, however the fire-fighters knew how to prevent a real catastrophe and only a few hectares of wood went up in flames. Thanks to its ample water supplies, Lesvos got off again.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Lopi (Wolfgang Lopau 1938 - 2009)

The troubadour of Molyvos,
And King of Dragonflies
Has left us.

Your faithful blue four wheels
Paved the way for you
The stocks of the old Malamatina
Finally dried up

Your cheering gitar play
And your inspiring company
Are hushed

In hidden waters
Dragonflies keep on having metamorphoses
Their lives already written down
In the many books you made

Yamas Lopi
As long as sardines
Will swim in the Bay of Kaloni
We will not forget you

“Ach, wie beschäftigt wir sind,
weil die Libellen einander nicht
genügend anstaunen,
weil ihre Pracht
ihnen einander kein Rätsel ist
und kaum Versuchung,
sondern ein Gegenwert.
Genau dem, was sie opfern,
ihrer Lebenskürze genau
entspricht es, so prächtig zu sein,
und von der Pracht, die sie leicht zueinander spielt,
geht ihre Liebe nicht über.
Wir, vor Überflüssen stehen wir, Verschwendungen,
oder, plötzlich, vor zuwenig Dasein.”

(Rainer Maria Rilke, from: Letter exchange in poems between Rainer Maria Rilke and Erika Mitterer, 1924)