Thursday, 26 November 2009

Mushroom weather

(picture: a cep from Agiasos)

If the forecast is good, get on a plane and experience the most beautiful weather we are having here right now on Lesvos. Maybe beach lovers will find it a bit chilly, but for people who love walking this is the best time of year.

To be honest, I don’t want the island to attract too many large groups of tourists. The main attraction when the weather is beautiful at this time of year is that the island is quiet. The occasional car passes by and the only other busy sound you hear comes from the people harvesting olives, — the ricky-tickety-tick of their sticks battering the branches to bring down the fruit. A sound you would have heard down the ages, a peaceful sound that calms you down after all the hustle of a busy summer.

We often talk to our friends about tourism in winter here. On many days the winter sun can be like the middle of summer. However, it really does depend on good weather. I do remember other November months that were grey and very wet. And you wouldn’t enjoy sitting alone in a cold hotel room.

During winter most restaurants are closed, and in bad weather the villages look deserted as everybody retreats inside their houses and with everywhere damp and cold no amount of Metaxa will warm you up again.

But now, the few tourists who are here must be enjoying the island a lot, very lucky that we have this incredible burst of sunny days. When the sun has decided to party like now the island is magnificent with autumn colours, the sweet perfume of the saffron crocus, the pink cyclamen, the strawberry trees full with bright red fruit, looking like Christmas trees — and the busily growing mushrooms.

Even the Greeks come out of their lazy chairs in this weather, and they do so because they like going to the woods looking for mushrooms. Hunting for the pefkites under the pine trees is a favourite pleasure, like looking for red amanita it is getting more and more popular.

The chestnuts and other trees dropping their leaves up around Agiasos usually have a more varied offering of mushrooms. But only a few Greeks know that, because they tend to eat what they are used to – traditional food if you like. Near Agiasos for example you can find plenty of the most delicious boletus, porcini (or ceps) which no Greek will ever touch or eat, although this year we haven’t found so many because the centre and south of the island and the south are still too dry — it’s different here in the north.

On a spot not far from our house we found peppery milk-caps, red musola’s, field mushrooms, bright orange mushrooms under olive trees (we don’t kow what it is) and, hidden under the leaves beneath an old oak tree, we found a fat boletus erythopus (in Dutch the witch boletus).

So we have not needed to go all the way to Agiasos to find mushrooms. Although up there, the chestnut forests are now at their best with bright golden leaves, misty sun rays filtering through the branches and between the trees you see incredible views over the Bay of Yera.

This time we passed the woods and continued our way by car to Karionas, from where we walked towards Milies. At the side of the road we found plenty of boletus. They were not the best ones to eat (they were probably ‘cow’ mushrooms) and the Greek walking here before us must have thought the same. He picked up all the mushrooms he laid eyes on, then decided they were not tasty enough and threw them away.

Like Hansel and Gretel we followed this guy’s trail of mushrooms, but we never found the culprit. But we did not get lost. We ended our walk (at our departure point) at the most idyllic and highest taverna on the island with a superb view deep into Turkey and round towards Olympos mountain. The kitchen at the Karionas taverna surprised us that afternoon with a very tasty manitaropita (a kind of mushroom quiche).

This week in the paper there was a call from the Mushroom Club of Lesvos (Yes, there is a mushroom club here on the island which is active all year round, and goes around finding the most amazing mushrooms) telling us not to rake up the woods when we go out mushrooming. The pefkites especially hide under the pine needles and some people will rummage with rakes through the woods, tearing them up and filling bags full of them, in huge amounts they will never be able to eat. So they are kindly asked by the Mushroom Club to retrieve mushrooms from the earth with a knife, not a rake, take no more then that they are going to eat and leave the ground like they found it. Yeah, those Greeks!

During a surprisingly beautiful walk around Pterounda, Chidera and Vatoussa and a walk near Polychnitos we did not see many mushrooms at all. But before you know it, you can turn a corner and suddenly be in mushroom paradise. On Lesvos you never know, but for sure nature here is always full of welcome surprises.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The wondrous world of bleeding icons

(picture: The weeping icon of Holland)

“Good afternoon. I have a strange story. Came home last month from a holiday on Rhodes. Bought an icon. I had already seen it, last May, but didn’t buy it then because it was too expensive. This time I did. I have no interest in religion, I just fancied it. The day after coming home I put it on a spike already sticking out of the wall. I then saw something on the wall and tried to clean it off. I got a fright because about 10 –15 cm from the icon a red fluid seeped out of the wall. The building surveyor came, but he could not explain what it was. The paint shop could not explain it either. A laboratory at the hospital tested it: it was not blood and difficult to dissolve in water. What is it? Friends on Rhodes say it is a miracle. An Orthodox priest says the same. He has blessed it. It does not mean anything to me. Have you ever heard of this kind of phenomenon? I hear it has to do with positivism.” An email from Holland.

Imagine it happened to you! You buy a nice icon just because you like the image and then this image turns out to be not only a work of beauty but a miracle! You often read in the papers about these kind of odd events that attract hundreds of believers. The lady who sent me the email prefers to stay anonymous: “I do not want my living room turned into a place of pilgrimage” she says.

And she is right. Especially in America, plenty of weeping and bleeding icons regularly get discovered, filling their churches immediately with faithful believers, news hunters and sensation seekers.

In the Catholic Church most miracles seem to be connected to a vision of the Virgin Mary. In the Orthodox Church they have icons of the weeping Mary but also saints who bleed. This is not a modern phenomenon because in Byzantine time weeping and bleeding icons were already recorded.

Around the year 861 three Patriarchs wrote a letter to the emperor Theophilos about three bleeding icons. There was an icon of Mary on Cyprus that was pierced by an arrow shot by an Arab; an icon of Christ in Beirut that was struck by a lance wielded by a Jew; and another icon of Christ from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) was damaged by a Jew using a knife. This last one became known down the centuries (although some writers says it was a Mary icon). It seems from these legends that for an icon to bleed it had to be damaged, by an infidel.

Many icons that shed tears have been written about in old books and papers, but few of the stories are seriously researched. That might be difficult because in early days icons traveled a lot. After the Turks conquered Constantinople and turned its biggest cathedral into a mosque, the bleeding Christ of the Hagia Sophia was believed to have been moved to Peribleptos Church in the town of Mystras, in the Peloponnese. At the beginning of the ninth century the famous icon of Mary with the Holy Child (Panayia I Vrefokratousa) now at the Panagia Church in Agiasos was supposedly taken there from Jerusalem to Lesvos, by a monk who was evicted from Constantinople. He wanted to give the icon to the empress Irene who had been banished to Lesvos, but when he arrived on the island, he found she had already died. So he fled to the mountains, and as soon as he could trust the people there, he revealed his treasure: an icon painted by the evangelist Lucas. Then a monastery was established by monks to safeguard this holy icon. In 1170 they got permission to build a church dedicated to Mary and then there grew the little mountain town of Agiasos.

I am not sure what kind of miracles this Maria Vrefokratousa performed. She does not weep, but she attracts thousands of pilgrims every year, as does her biggest competitor on the island, the icon (made of clay and blood) of the archangel Michael in the Taxiarchis monastery in Mandamados. This other famous Lesvorian icon not only cries from time to time but is also said to have the power to move other images. When in 1974 the Turks invaded Cyprus a huge wall painting of the archangel Michael disappeared for a week from the Taxiarchis church. Greek soldiers battling with the Turks on Cyprus are sure they saw Michael fighting with them against the enemy on Cyprus!

Non-believers will immediately try to explain the teary eyes of miraculous icons because the painted wood can ooze resin, and when the glue that is used to make the panel gets hot, it melts. There are many ways to use these natural phenomena to cheat true believers.

In North America they even have a specialist whose job it is to debunk the iconic “miracles”. Years ago he was called to look into a weeping icon in Toronto, Canada. When he arrived with his weeping-icon-detection-kit at the church overrun by believers, he immediately saw that there were no tears flowing from the eyes of Mary but oil. When it became known that the priest of this church had another weeping icon in another church in New York and that he also ran a brothel in Athens there was no more talk of miracles! What priests will do to enlarge their flock…

Here on Lesvos we have many churches and small ones especially seem to be everywhere. Because many of them are falling into ruin (and with them many a cultural treasure disappears) they could do with a miraculous weeping or bleeding icon to cure pilgrims of their afflictions. There are plenty of icons hanging on their damp walls, some very old and precious, some just reproductions in fancy frames, or fading pictures from a magazine. Some churches even have murals, but even though they are in need of attention, none of their saints weep or bleed.

The icon in Holland does not bleed any more either. It was moved to another place in the house, next to a cross, and the fluid that came out of the wall dried up. How this icon made Mary shed her tears just some centimeters below the icon is still a wonder. There was no priest in desperate need of followers involved, nor a lunatic that cried for attention. I think you just have to accept some of the miracles just like life…

For the people still wanting to perform miracles, here is a website that can help: weeping icons for the whole family.

(Thanks to: Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

A deafening silence

(photo: singing pine forest near Anemotia)

When I visit Holland it strikes me that there is noise everywhere — highways, airplanes and other disturbing ‘background’ sounds. It is said that more than half of the cities in Europe have to put up with sound pollution. Maybe this background noise is not considered to be pollution proper, but the fact is there is never any silence in Holland.

The truth is that this island is also seldom silent. But the noises here are mostly produced by nature. The only disturbing sounds made by human beings come from building sites, motor bikes, small trucks from which people sell vegetables, fish or clothes, even furniture and try to gather customers by shouting through megaphones; radios with the volume turned up to accompany workers; very loud music celebrating a Greek party night or a wedding — and the Greeks themselves who are in the habit of talking pretty loudly.

The other noises you hear are made by the wind, the sea, rain, barking dogs, tingling bells of sheep and goats, howling foxes, singing birds and especially cicadas that probably produce the loudest natural noise here, especially on hot days when you are lying in your hammock trying to have an afternoon nap. When cicadas are screaming in your ears you can forget sleep. The only solution is to forget the nap.

There are less melodious sounds that can wake you up. Like a rhythmical gnawing somewhere in the darkness. A niece visiting her sister went investigating and got a big fright when a huge scorpion emerged from a bag full of papers. Hearing this story I anxiously wondered about the gnawing noise coming out of my bedroom. When I carefully set out to have a look around I spotted big holes in the window-sill: woodworms maybe, or perhaps the loud sawing noises came from a longhorn beetle? Before you know it, these little creeps will have eaten your house!

Lesvos is known for its many birds who can sing solo or in fabulous choirs, just like the bleating sheep and goats with their tingling bells they create a dreamy, meditative sound that can be heard all over the island. The most powerful sound however comes from the wind that plays the island like a natural instrument. It is said that the head of Orpheus with his magic lyre washed ashore at Andissa and that the music he played can still be heard on the island. That is right - when you listen carefully you can hear one concert after the other.

When you walk through a pine forest, you will hear the wind caress the pine needles, creating a melody that fluxes with the gusts of wind. From further away there’s the sound that rolls over the treetops, a sound that gets louder and louder and finally washes over you like a symphony.

Walking in a chestnut forest, when the chestnuts are ripe, there’s the rhythmic sound of falling chestnuts, harmonising with the higher notes of the crisping leaves far above you. When they are joined by the crackle of a forester’s wood fire and the faraway tinkling sounds from invisible sheep, you can enjoy a marvellous afternoon concert.

The wind can change, with the waves of the sea to produce a mighty percussive performance. Never underestimate this sound. Sleeping close to the beach, the play of the waves and pebbles can keep you from sleeping for nights in a row. And it is not only the wind that makes the waves roll. Some years ago when the speedy hydroplane ship Kenderis passed by the island for the first time, I was woken from an afternoon nap by a booming sound I had never heard before. It was a mini-tsunami that sounded like a drum solo beating the pebbles on the beach. A swelling, a crescendo until the waves came to rest and then it slowly rolled away, by which time the Kenderis that created the waves was long gone.

The mightiest concerts come when the wind with all its powers sweeps through the trees and together with branches, shutters, open windows, crackling thunder and lashing rain performs an overwhelming rock concert. Storms can be ear-splitting.

As soon as a storm thunders by, and the waves at sea finally calm down and when the wind goes to sleep, suddenly, it can be threateningly silent and disturbing. It is said that animals can feel the approach of an earthquake and fall silent. Then your ears almost hurt because you hear no sound — if ever I hear a grumbling sound coming out of the earth, announcing disaster, I always listen very anxiously.

When the wind and the animals are silent and the sea is a light blue field that the clouds use as a mirror, you best think of happy things and try to hear the most wonderful sound I ever heard here on this island: the flop-flopping sound of dolphins breaking the flat surface of the sea, a symphony of happiness that shuts you up for quite some time.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Welcome in the hell of Lesvos

(photo: here at the coast...)

Some weeks ago a senior government dignitary visiting the refugee centre Pagani in Mytilini said: “It looks like Dante’s Hell”. The last line of a 9 line verse written on the Gate to the Inferno of Dante (Canto III) says: ‘All ye who enter here, abandon hope.’

It may seem strange to compare a refugee centre with Dante’s Hell. The Inferno consists of 9 circles and the outer circle is filled with pagan people — but the refugees here are mostly Muslim people with strong beliefs. In the next circle you are awaited by King Minos who will judge your sins and send you to the place in Hell you deserve, just like the Greek officials will send refugees to their places, although for them it will always be a better place to go. Young boys without parents or guardians go to the refugee centre at Agiasos, and what all refugees really want is to continue their journey to Athens, and Europe.

You will find all kind of sinners in Dante’s Hell, but I don’t think all our refugees are voracious, greedy, prodigal blasphemers, crooks, schismatics, alchemists, violent people or even killers; although there are some malevolent people who do try to sneak into the country amongst genuine asylum seekers — like the Georgian murderer of the Greek actor Nikos Sergianopoulos who re-entered the country with a group of refugees to the island of Samos (after he was already expelled from Greece).

These last weeks some refugees have used violence to protest being locked up for long periods in the Pagani centre. While the support action group ‘No border’ has been in Mytilini, refugees kept on protesting. There were at least seven hundred people living in the centre — which was built to house only two hundred people maximum — so the conditions, especially hygiene, were appalling. People were locked up in cages that, rather than being a modern refugee centre really were like Dante’s Hell. Last week parts of the centre were even set on fire by the refugees, to protest against their inhumane situation. So indeed it did look like a hellish inferno.

Since September the authorities have tried to ameliorate the situation in Pagani by sending away large groups of people to Athens by boat. Some refugees were so keen to leave they begged doctors to pronounce them sick so that they could get a boat ticket to Athens. When the doctor refused they went beserk and attacked him.

So the doctor left the refugee centre, and because they too felt threatened so did other people working there. Even the police would no longer remain inside the centre, and kept guard outside of the gates. This was really because inmates believed the police had beaten up a seventeen year old refugee boy.

After months of struggle, the refugee centre has been closed down this weekend. It had become an untenable situation. However, I doubt if this is a real solution, because all new refugees now coming to the island (and they will keep coming) will be sent to another refugee centre on the neighbouring island of Chios, where I am sure, nobody will be happy to receive them, because they too have refugees arriving from Turkey. Probably in no time the centre on Chios will be just as overcrowded as Pagani on Lesvos.

In most hells you will find a flaming inferno. Last Tuesday however a kind of inferno happened at sea when a small boat with seventeen refugees capsized. On board were people from Afghanistan and one Turkish ‘asylum seeker’ (he had just got out of prison and could not find work in Turkey so for a good sum of money he smuggled the refugees group to Greece, thinking afterwards he could find himself a job in Greece). The boat hit rocks just near the little port of Skala Sykaminia, and three women and five children drowned.

One boy of 14 lost his mother and two brothers. A man already living in Germany who thought this ‘illegal’ route would be a quicker way to have his wife and child join him, rather than spending of time and trying to get them accepted the ‘legal, lost both of them. It is not known whether the husband of another woman who drowned with her two children (according to the papers) has survived or is missing.

People only make such dangerous journeys if they really want to escape a hell: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Sudan and many such countries where the lives of people are persecuted and hounded by ruthless people craving power. It is those people, of course, who should be cast into the deepest point of Dante’s Hell: Cocytus, the frozen lake where traitors must remain for all eternity.

It is sad that our world knows so many hells that make so many people flee their homes. From one hell into another — which, of course they cannot know before they start their journey. But to compare the refugee centre on Lesvos to Dante’s Hell might be a little exaggerated — certainly if you go look at those countries where they come from...

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009