Thursday, 31 December 2009

Kali Chronia!

The picture besides was taken on December 31 2008, a good year ago when snow fell not only on the mountains on Lesvos but even some villages.

A year later the island is radiant green under a brightly shining sun. Yesterday it shone all day, ending in a flaming sunset so full of colours it hurt the eyes. A pity I had no camera to register such a stunning spectacle.

The temperature in December stayed around 20°C nearly every day. It was that warm you only had to heat the house a little to keep the damp out. However this warm weather is not without its danger. Two rough southerly storms hit the island, pushing the waves over the quays in Molyvos harbour and stewing up the water like fountains against the road here in Eftalou.

Both boats and trees perished in the onslaught. Part of the road from Plomari to Melinda was so damaged you have to go up the mountain through Megalochori and down again to the coast to get to Melinda. A few weeks ago even more harm was done by a storm that showered the island with hail stones as big as walnuts. Especially around Kaloni and Polichnitos there was serious damage with greenhouses, cars and sun panels all smashed and winter vegetables disappeared into the earth again. Even our satellite receiver was crushed by the hail.

Last week a nasty thunderstorm hit with heavy rain and a strong wind which forced several outward bound flights from Athens to turn around. I found it strange that in Athens they did not know there was such bad weather here over the island. More than one plane had taken off for nothing and returned to leave passengers stranded at the airport. Anyhow, those Greek fliers may not be so smart. A few weeks ago a pilot was about to land on an island when he realised it was the wrong one: oops where should I be, again?

With the rains the rivers fill up fast and you find waterfalls everywhere. Except at the Pesas, near Achladeri, where the municipality has built a beautiful path leading to a stunning panorama point from where you can view the famous waterfall. However, since last winter, there is no waterfall, because a farmer who owns land above it thought his farm needed the water more than this magic place (that attracts visitors from all over the island) and so the water has disappeared.

But at least nature is happy with the warm weather. A lonely rose mallow is already blooming, anemones and daffodils are eager to open up their buds, while the saffron crocus and the autumnal cyclams are still to flowering. About a hundred kinds of grasses fill the meadows with all shades of green, and together with the evergreens and the silvery leaves of the olive trees this December landscape is a sensational visual prospect.

And our ears are treated with songbirds, some of them already starting their spring tunes. That may be a little too early, in the new year for sure winter will appear.

I wish everybody a very happy 2010!

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


(Photo: Explore Crete)

It has never been completely proved that Christmas originates from pagan festivities like the Romans’ Saturnalia, when social roles were reversed, slaves were served by their masters and people gambled their fortunes away. Saturnalia was named after the Roman god Saturnus who, lest an oracle’s prediction that they would kill him came to pass, ate his own children. Saturnalia lasted at least a week from the 17th till the 24th of December, so that the dark god was fully appeased and new life was welcomed at the end of the year.

For the Romans the party didn’t end there. After Saturnalia came Juvenalia, a celebration for children who were spoiled with gifts and tokens of good luck. And then on December 25th the miraculous birth of the Persian god Mythra was celebrated. He came as a man out of the rock, with a knife and a torch in his hands. He was a Sun God and fought against darkness. And then there were some other lesser Roman Gods who were also celebrated in December —the ultimate party month. In the year 274 emperor Aurelianus decreed that one day was enough for all this - the Sol Invectus – to be celebrated on December 25th.

This was at the time when the Christian religion was gaining popularity in the Roman empire and with it the question: what was the true date of Christ’s birth? Some thought it was April 19th, others said it was on the March 25th or 28th. There was a suggestion that it should be January 6th but the bishop of Rome was not in favour. Since people were also tired of the endless pagan parties of December it was decided in the year 354 by Pope Liberius that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25th.

As it happens this date for the birth of Jesus was close to the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere day – December 21 - mid-winter, when the victory of the light over the darkness was celebrated with lots of lights.

And what did the Greeks do? They may have invented the December tradition of Saturnalia, by celebrating their god Cronus, the same deity as Saturnus, but they were not so fond of this youngest son of the Titans who liked chaos and also ate his own children (for the same reasons as Saturnus). So Saturnalia on a grand scale was really the doing of the Romans. The Greeks preferred their own god Dionysus, the god of wine and parties. Around midwinter they celebrated Lenaia, the Day of the Wild Women, the Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus (TB: who supposedly tore apart the poet Orpheus and tossed his body to the four corners of the world — his head is believed to have floated across the Aegean and landed here on Lesbos). On Dionysus’ day a man, or a bull, was killed and cut in pieces that were then eaten raw by the same Maenads who then sang and danced as really crazy women. Later on the Lenaia turned into a theater festival in Athens where plays like those of Aristophanes were performed,

Christmas in Greece is not so wild these days. The children go around the streets with triangles and little drums and sing Christmas carols and are rewarded for their efforts with candy and small gifts of money. The carols (calanda’s) they sing are very old and it is is said that in ancient times when they called on houses to sing, they carried with them a little ship, a symbol of the arrival of the god Dionysus.

Christmas is of much less importance than Easter in Greece. Maybe that has something to do with the Greek distaste for the excesses of Cronus. In the dark month of December the Greeks are more likely to barricade themselves inside their houses, in front of their TV sets, waiting for the days to grow longer. Presents are exchanged on the first of January, brought by Agios Vasilis, the Greek Christmas Man, and as during Saturnalia they still like to gamble on card games, but that also goes on at New Years Eve. Winning a game is supposed to bring luck for the coming new year.

The Christmas period in Greece is from December 23rd untill January 6th — Ephiphania. On the last day Greeks have a special celebration all their own when the waters, seas, rivers and ships are blessed by priests. In Holland on that day we celebrate the arrival in Bethlehem of the Three Wise Men (or Kings) who came from the East to visit the newborn Jesus. But they are totally unknown in Greece, unless they be the Pappas, the head of the Coastguard service and the Mayor that usually walk together in front of every public procession that you see anywhere in Greece on that day.

It is also possible that at Christmas in Greece you can might also encounter a plague of little men — kobolds, called in Greek kallikantzari’s — that try to invade your house, piss on your food or make other minor nuisances of themselves (see: Saint Nicolas).

And there is of course the Christmas tree which for Greeks is a modern tradition that comes from the West. The Greeks used to decorate a little ship at Christmas, a symbol for Agios Nicolaos, the patron saint of fishermen and sailors.

Nowadays, more and more Christmas lights appear all over Greece, but Christmas still is a comparatively minor celebration. But there is one thing the Greeks will do as everywhere else on December 25th: they wish you a very merry Christmas: Kala Christoujenna!

(with thanks to: Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The falling walls

(Picture: the polygonal Lesbian wall at Delphi)

A very long time ago, many centuries before we started counting the years, there was a Lesvorian building style that was famous far beyond the borders of the island and was even mentioned by Aristotle: the polygonal Lesbian walls. One of the eye catching attractions at Delphi is the same kind of polygonal wall. The stones have irregular sides and form a dazzling mosaic. A few years ago digging at the archaeological site of Xanthos (close to Antalya, Turkey) where they uncovered the ancient capital of Lycia, they also found the same kind of polygonal Lesbian wall.

Finding such a very distinctive old wall means archaeologists can immediately date it: 7th-6th centuries BC. Special to the polygonal walls on Lesvos are their curved sides. Imagine how the builders made these walls: no stone was square, no stone the same size, no stone with the same sides, and then all those curves! Imagine how much time it took to find stones that could match each other. Well, they also did a bit of chiselling to make them fit, and the seams were not always millimetre perfect, so sometimes there were gaps which were filled in with little stones.

It is thought that building these complex polygonal Lesbian walls was a sign of luxury: you could show off with them. So when you find such a wall, do not think that it was used just to separate two gardens. Behind such there might have been a sanctuary or some other important building.

On Lesvos these walls have been found amongst others at the acropolis of Eresos, in Mythilini, at the harbor of Molyvos, in Xirokastrini (close to Parakila) and the finest preserved polygonal wall of Lesvos you will find at Apothiki. The archaeologist Nigel Spencer has been wondering why this wall was at Apothiki. Apothiki is in the middle of nowhere, far from the six ancient cities of Lesvos: Arisve (now a suburb of Kaloni), Mytilini, Eresos, Mythimna (now mostly called Molyvos) and Andissa. In ancient times did they build those walls to keep the neighbours out? It is known that these city states of Lesvos were often at war with each other. Mythimna took Arisve and one of the multiple little wars between Mythimna and Mytilini is mentioned in the romantic story of Daphne and Chloe, written by the Lesvorian writer Longos.

Nigel Spender also discovered traces of many towers, especially in the west and the central part of the island. The towers did not seem to be for any military or agricultural purpose. In his book ‘Time, tradition, and society in Greek archaeology: bridging the 'great divide'’ Spencer suggests that the towers were probably built to impress their neighbours. But he does not think that the polygonal walls were built for the same reason. He thinks that the wall at Apothiki was used to protect an important sanctuary.

Most of the original polygonal walls are lost but the landscape of Lesvos is littered with other walls built in a different style that is also now a threatened species: the drystone walls that meander over the mountains and through the fields. They separate different lands, they support the olive and fruit or nut tree terraces, or they are made to keep out the animals.

One of the conclusions of the study ‘Agricultural landscape dynamics in the Mediterranean: Lesvos (Greece) case studying evidence from the last three centuries’ by Thanasis Kizos and Maria Koulouri is that these drystone walls will slowly disappear. Although lots of them still function, not much care is taken of them; they are neither maintained nor repaired. Most of them are left to the sheep and goats to wear them away and to the passage of time that will assist their eventual decay into rubble. (TB: People, of course, like to ‘borrow’ stones for their own purposes).

If you take a good look at them, you will notice how they are made without any kind of cement. There are not many Greeks left who have the skill to build a drystone wall, and to get them repaired means going to a lot of trouble: you have to find somebody who knows how to build them; sometimes you have to rebuild a whole wall for which you would need ‘new’ stones. As the art of making drystone walls is lost so, of course, all this work costs more and more. There are plenty of modern alternatives: building walls with cement or surrounding your land with iron fences that you can put in yourself. Poor farmers, or people who do not want to spend money on fencing, will use old iron beds, parts of cars, rusty washing machines and any garbage that can fill a hole. (TB: up behind Molyvos one shepherd has made a wall using a couple of those ancient polygonal stones mixed up with stones from the beach). But happily enough this is also an ‘art’ that may itself disappear as most Greeks realize that garbage has no place any more in the Greek landscapes.

And so the landscape of Lesvos, once filled with polygonal walls and still threaded through with hundreds of dry stonewalls, will slowly change. More houses will decorate the hills and mountains, agricultural land will be abandoned, terraces will slide down the hillsides and one day a landscape without walls will appear...

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Flu talking

When there was a lot of loud talk about the flu, I always thought: well, I live in a healthy way, on an island, out in the country, what can happen to me in the middle of nature? So I am pretty disappointed that being healthy is no guarantee against catching the flu - or a cold.

I do not know exactly what I have caught. I keep on sneezing and sniffing. No sore throat, no fever, no pain in the lungs, just a feeling that my head is a separate part of my body because only there does the angry flu seem to rage.

I feel like Laura Johnston, the twelve year old American girl that was in the news in November because she sneezed about a twelve thousand times a day! I should count my sneezing, although I think that even on a bad day I sneeze only about one thousand times, so I won’t be part of the forty people in the world who have Laura’s rare sneezing disease.

At the pharmacy they say it’s an allergy. Because when you sneeze without coughing it can’t be anything else. This pharmacist probably never heard of Laura, otherwise he would have put the media on to me. In Greece you can get lots of medicines without a doctor’s prescription, even antibiotics. So, when I am feeling ill I usually sort out what to take with the pharmacist. This time he just gave me some anti-allergy pills to stop the sneezing. Besides these pills I used the steam method to try and bring out the cold in my head, and drank litres of fresh orange juice, and just to be sure I even took extra vitamin C tablets. But it did not get better, so I had to call a doctor who diagnosed a bad cold but no flu. Throat, lungs, heart and muscles were all right, I just had to sit it out.

When you tell somebody on the island that you are ill (arostos), they understand because half the village is always ill. “It prevails”, they say, like it is quite normal. Even in the middle of the summer when you tell them you are not feeling well people say “it prevails”. Then they start naming all the other persons who are ill and patiently listening to that list, it does indeed seem like half of the village is in bed and indisposed; but there is a clear difference between a summer and a winter flu. With summer flu your stomach tends to empty very quickly and it may only last a day. With a winter flu your nose runs, and you have a cough and a sore throat which can take ages to get better. This flu can come even to the healthy island life.

Now that everybody has been scared by the prospect of getting Mexican flu (also known as “swine flu”), only the media dare to name it. If you tell someone you have the flu they now tend to take a step away. Now there is talk of getting vaccinated, but many people are hesitating: will it help, or is it too late for it to work this winter?

It’s certain that Mexican flu has reached this island. The first cases were actually in summer. Now many schools are closed, especially around Mytilini, where most people live, as well as in the east of the island and in Kaloni, Perama and Illios.

I heard somebody saying that I probably had a ‘variant’ of the Mexican flu. “That prevails”, they say, meaning the variant. Although nobody dares to name this Frightening Flu, they think that anything flu-like is a new variant of the Horrible Flu. Experts say that the variant that has appeared on the island is very mild and they tell healthy people not to vaccinate.

And so this flu epidemic continues to simmer away and everybody knows at least ten people who are ill with it, although they never name it - as if saying the name will mean you catch it! Only very few victims have to go to hospital - but nobody will mention that either.

The one advantage of the epidemic is that not many people are leaving the island - they are afraid of catching a dose of flu elsewhere. Other people see this because of the economic crisis. Compared to last winter there are 70% fewer flights out booked so far. So there are bargains on ticket prices to Athens and abroad. But where would you travel if you already have the flu... And why leave an island that is full of oranges and lemons - vitamin C hanging from the trees!

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Olive Menuet

(picture: old olive press at Milellia)

I did not sleep much the night before we took off to do a walk described by the Andersons in their book on walking on Lesvos. The walks as they recommend them are not necessarily my favorites, because there’s always a risk of getting lost and the estimated time they say a walk will take, usually ends up doubled! Given my poor walking experience I was also worried whether I would actually reach the destination of this walk, the village of Kournella that is situated high up a mountain overlooking the coast on the southern side of the island. For years when driving to the port town of Plomari, I have seen this Kournella from a distance, hanging on the mountainside and have wondered how is this place could be reached and what it was like.

The walk was not too bad, though right to the end I did not take my eyes from the top of the mountain, desperately watching out for the village to appear. And when it did, and we arrived, I even had enough energy left to wander along its streets, admiring the play of the autumn coloring plane trees and the picturesque houses, most of them abandoned. Only three people are still living there, so obviously the village must have known better times.

Walking back was much easier because the road winds gradually down back to the sea and the village of Melinda. Just under Paleochori, the village opposing Kournella at the other side of a valley, we had to cross a little stream, its water smelled bad and was of a purple colour. Not only do I know now how to get to Kournella, but I also know from where this dark and dirty water comes, — you can see it on the beautiful quartz pebble beach at Melinda, flowing into the sea — it’s from the olive press in Paleochori!

To press olives for their oil it takes no more than machines and water. But the process is a source of pollution. What comes out is the water used to clean the olives and what is needed for the pressing itself is also mixed with waste juices and other waste products which together is called the Olive Mill Waste (OMW).

OMW contains mucilage, pectic substances and small amounts of oil, all organic substances, but they do not easily degrade naturally into the environment. Especially polyphenols which occur naturally in fruits and berries like olives but are not necessarily good friends of the environment when concentrated in large quantities. However, according to Wikipedia, polyphenols seem to be more healthy for human beings as an antioxidants. They might possibly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and new researches even believe they could help decrease the encroachment of Alzheimer’s disease.

These days the polyphenols which are much in demand by the food industry flow freely all through the Lesvorian landscape. Lesvos has some 70 olive presses (all big villages have one) that during the coming months will be working hard to reduce thousands tons of olives into the beautiful green-yellow oil.

In earlier times there were many more olive presses on the island, although the modern presses have more capacity. In the golden years of Lesvos around 1900 there were some 200 olive presses, most of them worked by steam engines. A lot of them are now in ruins, although some have been preserved and turned into little museums like in Millelia, Mandamados and Paleochori. There are two new museums which are restored old olive presses: The Museum of Industrial Olive Oil in Agia Paraskevi and the Industrial Museum in Papados, where they restored one of the first steam engines of the island, but I bet you will find no more flows of OMW from there! Two olive presses even have been transformed into a hotel: The Olive Press in Molyvos and Hotel Zaira in Skala Loutron.

The environmental authorities in Europe have been looking into the problem of OMW, because as well as Greece, Italy, Spain and France all have olive oil industries. And up to now none have found a satisfactory way to dispose of their olive press waste. In Spain they try to reduce the outflow by using less water; in Kalamata (Peloponnesus) they tried to turn OMW into compost; on Crete they use lakes to evaporate the waste; on Chios they dump it into holes in the ground, but none of these experiments give us a cleaner environment.

The food industry claims it puts more and more healthier products on the market and they are interested in this OMW - especially in the polyphenol that it contains. So let us hope that these mighty industrials will cry out for so much polyphenol they get the OMW flowing as quickly into their tanker-trucks as the oil flows into the bottles!

Last week I worked for some days in the olive harvest. As long as you don’t have to do it for weeks on end harvesting is fun when you do it with friends. The men slay the trees and make big jokes, the women empty the nets while they gossip, and after a day of hard work the communal meal is even more fun. When you are not used to this work you better visit a hot spring afterwards in order to heal your muscles for the next day.

Although I was nose deep into the olive branches for days I did not harvest any muscle pains but instead acquired a fast runny nose and lots of sneezing. And I thought I was doing very healthy work amongst those heavenly smelling olives! I probably did not inhale enough of the polyphenol, or maybe I have developed an allergy against it?

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009