Monday, 27 December 2010

Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream

Because I am working hard finishing the book of my columns I will write no more for this year. The book includes many photographs taken by Jan van Lent and to keep you informed about its making I have started a new blog which over the coming weeks gives you information about Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream. I hope, the book will be published at the end of January 2011.

A Merry Christmas & a Happy New year

Καλά Χριστούγεννα
Καλή Χρονιά

Thursday, 16 December 2010


(The harbour of Mytilini)

It cannot be always summer. So after a night of 19°C, the temperature dropped quickly and the next night it was freezing: so coooooold!

Winter clothes were brought out of the closet, gloves and woollen caps were dug out of remote corners and the fireplace put into action: suddenly it was winter! Up in the mountains snow and ice made the roads treacherous, and although the temperature did move off zero, snow showers kept people off the roads in Skalochori, and Mt Lepetymnos is slowly turning white. The forecast is not so good: winter weather will keep on playing tricks in the coming week.

The day before yesterday a hard north wind drove ice cold waves over the Eftalou boulevard making the already damaged road even worse. On Samos a state of emergency was called when the sea swamped the main quay of the harbour making it impassable for pedestrians and cars. Troops had to be called in to protect the city with sandbags.

Yesterday was a cold but nice day in Eftalou and when the sun drove most of the clouds away the sea seemed to settle. However, in Mytilini a cargo boat from Chios trying to negotiate the port entrance rammed into a jetty damaged several trucks and spilled oil into the harbour. Luckily the Mytilini emergency services are prepared for such calamities and within a few hours the breach was closed, the oil cleaned up and environmental disaster avoided.

Athens also felt the sudden drop in temperature and some parts got a layer of snow. Aside from the weather the capital (and the rest of the country) is facing a difficult week with a big program of daily strikes.

December 14: the banks will strike for 48 hours, so for two days no-one can access their money. Here on the island it’s not so much of a problem because shops and businesses will let you pay later.

There’s also a three hours strike planned by private sector unions. I have no idea what that will mean - it could mean people will just take a longer lunch hours, between noon and three o’clock. It seems to be more like a general exercise for a strike because…

On December 15 the private unions will strike for up to 24 hours. We still won’t be able to tell exactly who is following these private unions and their strike because that same day public officials will also stay at home. The stoppage includes air traffic controllers so we can forget flying to Athens for a day’s shopping. And there’ll be no inter-island travel either - the ferries won’t be weighing anchor for 24 hours. Any attempt to sue the state or the unions won’t go far because lawyers won’t be at work either. Even if you wanted to make a noise in the street to express your anger against the strikers, no-one would know because the journalists are also on strike. So no newspapers or television news - which is not so bad because everybody can easily imagine what the day will be like: chaos in Athens and most people spending the day at home.

December 16: There will be no public transport for the whole day. It won’t be so bad here on the island because there is hardly any public transport anyway.

December 17 & 18: ‘Journalists’ will be on strike for 48 hours, although I think it’s more likely to be support workers because I don’t think journalists will really strike - they are too curious about what is happening. But anyhow, we will not miss the efforts of reporters: they usually bring bad news and anyway, these days we have internet and Wikileaks to give us much more interesting news.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Tuesday, 14 December 2010


It is not easy to write something new every week about life on the island when nothing much happens or where the highlights like celebrations and harvests come at the same time every year. At the moment, as always, people are busy with the olive harvest and every time you visit a friend you are more than likely given a bottle of newly pressed oil. It is so good could you could just drink it straight down. It smells like fresh herbs and I understand why people who take their oil from the mill immediately open the barrel to get a first taste.

The mill will have already told them what quality their pressing is - it always depends on how quickly (and when) it’s been harvested. Mostly the nets will have been spread under the trees for weeks, so that older olives will be mixed together with the newly fallen fruit. Oil made from this mix will be reasonable in quality but not the best. Oil made from the first fall only will be of low quality, but when the last fruit that ripens is quickly brought to the mill there’s a good chance it will be a very good oil.

So, the harvest has to be well organised, and the mill has to be told well in advance when the sacks are coming, or they will have to wait in line. Any delay will affect the quality - the more time between harvest and press the higher will be the level of acidity .The best oil comes from olives pressed the same day they are harvested.

However, even if there is a wait of a few days and your harvest is a hodgepodge of olives fallen off the trees at different times, your oil will always be better than anything you buy in a supermarket.

The actual time of the harvest also affects the product. As they ripen, olives turn from green to black and some people - in Greece and Italy - like them to be still a little green when pressed, whereas the Spanish prefer oil made when they are harvested late and very dark. Moroccans leave the olives in barrels until they are almost spoiled before they press them, so their oil is even heavier. Their preference indicates taste rather than quality to be the deciding factor.

And then there is the weather. In the Netherlands, even if it snows, or rains ice or it’s foggy and damp, people will always go to work because they are used to slipping around on the ice; but if it rains in Greece, there will be no harvesting. It’s not because the Greeks don’t like the wet, but because, they say, harvesting in wet weather will yield only poor quality oil. Why that is I don’t quite know.

Harvesting olives is not that complicated, but there are some rules you need to know. I like this time of year, but not stumbling across the nets being careful not to step on the olives.

So the winter storms don’t blow them away the nets are held down by stones, but in the groves where there are no stones to be found solutions have to be more creative. I have seen nets held in place by bright pink plastic bags full of sand, like a nice art project. The nets always used to be black but nowadays they come in all colours, green, orange, even red; but I don’t like red or green nets. They are so unnatural they hurt your eyes, and anyway. I like passing through olive country where the nets are black: they give the countryside a shiny gloss.

I have no olive trees so I don’t have to organise a harvest, which can be a nice thing to do for a few days, and although I am not much good at it I like to help friends and neighbours with their work. However, people with hundreds of trees or children who had to help each year with their parents’ harvest of their liquid gold, probably have nightmares as the time approaches. Check out: Why I dread the Olive Harvest.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

St Tax

Last week in the western Polish city of Swiebodzin, the tallest statue of Christ was finished. It is as many metres high as the number of years that Jesus lived - three metres higher than the famous Brazilian statue of Christ that towers over Rio de Janeiro. According to Poland’s bishop Stefan Regmunt the statue is a clear sign of the people’s faith in Christ.

On Lesvos they do not need such a huge demonstration of faith. Here they just keep on building little churches. In the most remote spots, on tops of the mountains or just in somebody’s back garden you will find them, and I do not exaggerate when I say that there are more than a thousand of them on Lesvos.

The biggest concentration is at the Limonas monastery, where there is a project to build a church dedicated to every Christian saint - dozens of little churches already surround the main monastery and the plan is as ambitious as the building of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Greeks are not megalomaniacs. The grandest Orthodox churches ever built are mostly in Russia - as big as huge palaces. However, inside a Greek church you will find an awful lot of gold and other glittery decorations: it is through your senses that you feel the presence of God and the more those senses are stimulated, the better you feel His presence.

Prince Vladimir of Kiev (c 958–1015) believed in pagan gods. On one occasion he was looking for a human being to sacrifice in their honour and came across Ioann, son of Fyodor, a Christian who proclaimed his belief only in one God and told Vladimir his pagan gods were vassals of the devil. There was no way he would allow his son to be sacrificed to them. In those days, most Russian people followed the pagan way and so father and son were both killed. Now Fyodor and Ioann are seen as the first martyrs of the Russian Orthodox church.

Prince Vladimir was haunted by what happened and sent his people to other countries to study their faiths. Only when his messengers came back from Constantinople did he change his own belief. His messengers had visited a celebration at the Byzantium Hagia Sophia, a church so brilliantly decorated that they testified: ‘We were not sure if we were in heaven or on earth’. In 988 Vladimir had himself baptised, after which he married a Byzantine princess named Anna, set about the demolition of all pagan shrines and started building Orthodox churches and monasteries, styled like the one on Mt Athos in Greece.

When you enter a big Greek Orthodox church you immediately notice all its gold and glamour, the chandeliers decorated with crystal and the many icons and paintings on the walls but the little churches don’t all have this glamorous allure. A church used to be built for worshipful services or to house the relics of a saint which many have hidden in their inner sanctums. However, I doubt every one of them has one here, otherwise Lesvos would be would be a much more holy island. In the small churches there are no regular services - only once a year on the name day of the saint to whom they are dedicated.

And we shouldn’t confuse these small churches with the tiny chapels you see everywhere by the side of the road. They are memorials to the victims of road accidents.

Over the centuries, many of the older little churches have become derelict. There are twelve Byzantine churches listed on the hundred most endangered world monuments. While the old churches decay, new ones are being built – thanks to a saint who cured somebody, or because a family prospered. However, there is no saint to help you to pay your taxes and last week all self-employed workers were hit with huge assessments, even people who had gone out of business years ago. If you made a profit of 500 euro you now have to pay double in tax. They say a man in Plomari was so disturbed by his assessment he hanged himself.

Skipping tax assessments has long been a national sport here, which has now got a lot more interesting. Lots of people just ignore this new special assessment - called pereosi forologikon ipotheseon literally ‘the finishing business tax’. If you don’t want to pay it you risk the tax people auditing your books and accounts, and only if you have nothing to hide will your tax payments be small. However, even if you played foul, the fine you will have to pay might be less than your new assessment!

To emerge from its economic crisis the Greek government needs to perform the labours of Hercules. If there was a saint who helped people pay their taxes they would build an awful lot of churches, but sadly, he doesn’t exist. Or, if the Greek premier Papandreou successfully lifts this country out of the dust, he could be canonised as a saint. But for the moment even the building of new churches has stopped.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Shall we skip winter?

(the gulf of Kalloni)

This beautiful autumn seems endless. You can’t call it an Indian summer, because the humid nights, the fallen leaves and huge numbers of mushrooms are clear signs that it’s really autumn. However, every day the temperature climbs above 20°C and people are still swimming in the warm blue sea. Having lunch in the sunshine is also a treat: lots of Greeks and a few tourists are taking advantage of the conditions especially on Sundays and all the outdoor areas of the waterside restaurants that don’t close for winter are packed with people.

The olive harvest started early this year and most trees have lots of fruit. Everywhere you hear the ‘rickety-tick’ of the sticks people use to knock down the olives, and around the trees, people picking the olives off the ground. On the roads you meet cars loaded with sacks full on their way to the olive press where you can see them stacked in huge piles waiting to be processed. Sometimes you may even hear a vacuum cleaner being used to suck up the olives - by someone too tired or unwilling to bend down any more.

The light has a warm glow and it is great weather for walking. The trees which are shedding their leaves are beautiful and so are the scenes made by the rays of the sun. Up in the woods above Anemotia or Vatera, or in the forests around Agiasos, you will come across more cars, full of families, or just men and women, who stop and race into the woods with baskets to collect mushrooms. Their tracks are obvious because when they stop to check mushrooms for worms they cut them and chuck away the bits they don’t want - so like Tom Thumb you can follow the tracks of rejected mushrooms, but you won’t find any for yourself.

When there is no wind the gulfs of Gera and of Kalloni are like turquoise mirrors, their surfaces disturbed only by fishes gulping for a bit of fresh air. Small white clouds are reflected in the water, and at the salt lakes of Skala Polichnitou flamingos have returned to walk proudly on their long legs through the shallow water.

There are no shellfish on offer because there’s a ban on catching them - too much cadmium - although levels of salmonella, coliform and lead are said to be okay. Both fishermen and people who love to eat shellfish are disappointed.

However, the splendour of autumn has been spoiled by a fire at the Molyvos garbage dump. Unlucky the houses that are in the wrong wind direction, they have been shrouded in an evil smelling cloud and people have had to keep their doors and windows tight shut and you wouldn’t venture outside without covering your mouth and nose with a cloth - in such fine weather! The Mayor said it was not his decision and blamed farmers for the disaster. Throwing earth on the fire didn’t help and so for weeks we’ve had this stench. The Mayor has promised that next year there won’t be a problem because there will be a proper waste disposal plant. But who believes him? He is the last Mayor of Molyvos whose position disappears in January, after which the whole of Lesvos will have one municipal council, and only one mayor based in Mytilini. These are the moments when you don’t want to live on this island, as such a beautiful place is ruined by people who have no idea what to do with their garbage.

Each time rain is predicted the heap spontaneously bursts into flames - like today. Even though the forecast was bad, the day was splendid, except for the foul smell of burning plastic. A southerly wind chased the clouds high above the mountains but the rain stayed away. Thankfully the wind was strong enough to blow away the fumes and smells.

While I was walking and looking for mushrooms, I suddenly spied a delicious fat shoot of asparagus. So instead of chasing mushrooms I went after more asparagus and, sure enough, found more shoots that were too impatient to wait for spring.

The anemones are also in a hurry. A week ago I saw some already opening their buds and there are little fields full of them. How can we cope with all these people impatiently setting fire to the garbage and an environment that won’t wait for spring?

I love the winter. I love to sit near the fire as the rain drums against the windows and the wind howls around the house. But when you see so many signs of a spring (I’ve even seen a Shaggy Cistus with an open flower) you have to ask yourself the same question as those asparagus shoots and early anemones: shall we skip winter?

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Imperial mushrooms

(a Caesar's amanite)

After all these years I finally found the most popular (and common) mushroom on the island: the Peppery milk cap (Lactarius pepersaus), in Greek peperites or (in local language) pefrites. I knew they grew under pine trees and that if you see a small pile of earth you have to dig for them and yesterday, in the huge pine forest above Anemotia, we saw these little mounds everywhere, including one enormous specimen (they grow twenty to be thirty cms across!).

It is amazing to realize how these sturdy milk caps find the force to lift themselves through the earth. You could use them to dig your garden! I understand now why Greeks often say they come home with several kilos of mushrooms. Some of them are so heavy I bet four would weigh a kilo.

Although I see on internet that these white peperites are not valued as a top culinary dish, it is nevertheless the mushroom that is eaten most on Lesvos. However, there are other kinds of less abundant milk cap to be found that taste even better. For example, we also found the Lactarius sanguifluus (in Dutch the Blood milk cap) and the Lactarius deliciosus, the Saffron milk cap.

The Lactarius sanguifluus looks quite scary: it is bright red and green - not colours you’d like to cook with - and yet it is more valued for its taste than its milk white cousins. I prefer the Saffron milk cap and actually fell in love with it because it reminds me of mandarins. Cut the stem, and the outer ring is bright orange. However, when you clean them for cooking parts can turn bright green. According to mushroom fanciers it has less flavour than the Lactarius sanguifluus.

There’s quite a debate about which is the most delicious mushroom: porcino or ceps (Boletus edulis) or Caesar’s mushroom (Amanita caesarea).

The ceps I know from Holland and Belgium: a real treat and easy to recognize and a few years ago we found some marvellous ones above Agiasos, but never since. Most likely we’ve been looking at the wrong time of year.

I had seen Caesar’s mushroom before, but never eaten it. This orange-red mushroom does its name proud. Maybe it was named after Julius Caesar, or, for its taste which makes it the ‘emperor’ of the Amanita family? The Romans called it boletus and in 54 BC it caused the death of one emperor. Claudius who had taken power after his nephew Caligula was murdered loved both mushrooms and women. His fourth wife was Agripinna who, before they married, already had a son, Nero. She promised him he would be emperor and persuaded Claudius to recognize him as the official heir to the throne. However, Agripinna was impatient for Claudius to die and served him a meal of his favourite Caesar’s mushrooms into which she had sneaked in a few Death caps (Amanita phalloides). That was how Nero came to power.

Amongst the milk caps we also found some Caesar’s mushrooms, which with their red caps were easy to spot in the autumn landscape. Compared to the world famous, and poisonous Fly amanita (Amanita muscaria - and also known as Fly agaric) which is red with white spots, Caesar’s has no red spots and the under part of its cap and the stem are orange. And it’s one of the world’s tastiest.

I am not a hero when it comes to eating mushrooms I do not know and when looking for ceps, I know to leave the red ones alone. So eating red Caesar’s mushrooms was quite an adventure. My host baked them with cheese, cream and cognac and they were excellent. The orange of the mushroom dish made a great contrast with the green and white of a dish of rice and chard, another with red beets and a salad of fennel and oranges.

At the end of this delicious feast one of the other guests felt faint and although we trusted our host’s knowledge of edible mushrooms, we couldn’t help thinking maybe some of them might have been poisonous. I imagined us all being rushed to hospital, so we quickly looked on the internet to check symptoms of mushroom poisoning. Feeling faint was not included and when the doctor finally arrived it was found to be a case of low blood pressure.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

At you the choice

(Mytilini, the capital of Lesvos)

The advantage of living on an island is that you feel far away from the hectic world where the important things are decided. Especially these last days when the weather has been incredible beautiful: high temperatures with the sun trying to dry out the humidity which makes mysterious foggy shapes out of the mountains.

However, thanks to the letter bombs addressed to heads of states and foreign embassies, the Greek capital has been in uproar. The international post was shut down for 48 hours but here at the Molyvos post office mail going to foreign countries has been taken in as usual. Let’s see how far the post will come these days.

Some of the packets were sent by courier services and normally would be delivered within a day. However, when the Speedex company had to bring my new computer from Athens to Lesvos, they took their time. First it went to Patras (how could you confuse Patras with Mytilini?!) When that mistake was discovered the computer stayed a day in Patras before going back to Athens where it stayed another day. Only then was it shipped to Lesvos. The boat arrived at seven in the morning, and you might think that somebody at the courier service would jump into a car to deliver the package to me - it was already three days late. But that was too much to be expected. When I phoned Speedex in Mytilini the employee I spoke to took no interest in my problem and told me there was no way they would deliver it the same day: maybe tomorrow or the day after!

Unfortunately, this lack of service is still common in too many Greek companies (especially those still state owned). Sometimes you think you live in a communistic country where the workers are not interested at all in their work but do everything that make the hours pass as pleasantly and quickly as possible.

Yesterday, this kind of apathy was confirmed by the results of Sunday’s local elections: only 54 % of the Greeks voted. There was even a village in the northwest – Velvendos - that broke a new record. Protesting against the new Kallikrates project 95.77 % of the villagers stayed at home! Greeks are tired of change and don’t believe in the government’s solution to the crisis. They also don’t think it’s possible to prevent politicians and other people with power from putting money into their own pockets, or that the workers will forever continue doing jobs for slave’s wages, or that anybody can get Greece out of this crisis.

However, these elections have shown that small parties - left wing or green parties – are gaining more and more votes which means more Greeks believe that by not voting for the two main parties (Pasok and Neo Dimokratia), they can change the country.

On Sunday there was indeed a lot to decide. Not only was there the choice between parties, but elections according to the new Kallikrates system took place. This means that Lesvos is no longer part of a regional island group including Limnos and Ai Stratis, but is now also with Samos, Chios and Ikaria. So people had to choose a new governor for this expanded group. Kallikrates also meant that our island’s local municipalities were also disbanded, so that now there is only one authority and again, for this a mayor had to be elected - plus a deputy and the entire council from very long lists of candidates. Each of the old municipal districts had to vote for a representative on the central council. It was the same everywhere in Greece because the national government wants this Kallikrates system to save billions of euros.

On the topic of economics, here on the street these days there are more and more people riding horses or donkeys. Will the crisis bring back the old ways of getting around? People also fear that the price of heating fuel has risen so far they won’t be able to afford it for the coming winter, so I think in a lot of houses we’ll see a return to the old wood stoves. Another sign: although the ban on public smoking is opposed by Greeks many have stopped because it’s also become far too expensive.

So, we are facing a hard winter. Although some people are cheered up by the prospect of a good olive harvest - the trees are heavy with fat and juicy fruit ready for the olive press - this year rather than paying people to do the work, many will be doing their own harvesting. This is how people are forced to face the crisis: spending less and working more. And now we have to wait and see how it will work with only one mayor for the whole island. I am wondering if such a mayor, living far away in Mytilini, will take notice that the road here in Eftalou has not been repaired since the storm damage of last winter. Do we have to wait until the road disappears completely into the sea so that people living here can only get to Molyvos via the coastal road to Sykaminia?

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Monday, 1 November 2010


(the house of Andonis)

The Greek Olympos had that many gods they sometimes get into your head. I have tried hard to learn all their names and connections but if you are not careful you make mistakes and mix them up. When writing my last column about quinces I said that the goddess Aphrodite distributed lots of golden apples. However, she only gave away three – to Hippomenes – and although she played a part in story of the apple that (eventually) started the Trojan war, she was not the one who threw it into the crowd of wedding guests. That was Eris, the goddess of strife. So I was very sloppy writing this and I apologise (see my story about Apples from Lesvos).

There are many stories about the man I am going to write about now, but I choose only to pass on what I know to be facts and leave darker stories for what they are.

Everybody who has been to Eftalou, knows this man or at least the place where he lived: close to the Panselinos hotel between the road and the sea there is a complex of shabby structures made out of drift wood where a bent old man lived with dozens of dogs and cats: Andonis. You could only see what lay behind those shacks if you looked at them from the sea. It was a tiny stone house in which this man from Molyvos used to live.

Adonis was born by the sea here in Eftalou where he grew up with his brothers and sisters, together, it’s said, with lots of cats and dogs with which they slept to keep warm in winter.

Andonis married and had children but although his wife had a house in Molyvos, Andonis preferred to live in his little house by the sea and refused to abandon his many cats and dogs.

He was crazy about his animals and whenever he thought somebody might harm them – even if it were an unsuspecting tourist trying to stroke one of his cats – he might suddenly appear, screaming and rushing to save his beloved animal from the hands of a quite innocent animal lover.

If a cat got lost pandemonium broke out and he would run into the garden of the hotel, cursing people because he was sure it had been kidnapped by a tourist. His love for his animals had no limits, neither did the number of strays he took in. Early every morning his wife would come from Molyvos with food for him and all his charges.

Andonis came from a fishing family and he loved going out to sea to catch more food for his animals. Maybe that is how he met the seagull which for years lived at his little jetty, and was always there when he’d been fishing.

Even when big storms blew in the winter, no-one could get him to move into the village. His sons would beg him but he stayed with his animals. In the end it was cancer that made him move out. Two summers ago he started going home to his wife in the evenings, and last winter he no longer stayed at his seaside home with his animals. Although they were still fed by his family, they were in truth abandoned. And this is why they became the terror of the Eftalou boulevard. On the internet they became known as the ‘hellhounds of Eftalou’!

It is a very sad story because the abandoned dogs eventually ate the cats and then ran wild. They still lived on the street but some were not quick enough to jump away when cars sped by. Somebody even put poison down — and so last summer there were only six left.

As they roamed around and their territory expanded, they even came and killed one of my cats and, although I will never forgive the way they tore it to pieces, my heart still bleeds as I hear them barking and struggling to survive without their master.

One week ago the cancer finally took Andonis away and his dogs will never see their master again. It is likely that they will be taken to an animal shelter so that Eftalou will be safe again. Even though they were a real plague these last years, I will miss them, as I do Andonis. We will never see his crooked old back shuffling along the boulevard; we will never hear his shouts when he lost a cat or a dog did something he didn’t like. We will never speak to him when he was sitting at his little house, secretly eyeing the wandering tourists. He would always answer me with an avalanche of Greek words, most of which I never understood — and Andonis loved to talk.

One of his dogs has a new home at my place and I dearly hope that the others find places to live and people to look after them; and that Andonis too has found peace without his animals. Even though his dogs caused us many problems we shall miss this icon of Eftalou. So I am wondering if there are dogs and cats in the timeless fishing grounds where he now is. Goodbye, Andonis, I wish you well.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Saturday, 23 October 2010

From what fruit took Eve a bite?


The Tree of Knowledge, Good and Evil or Forbidden Fruit stood in the Garden of Eden, where, according to the Bible’s book of book Genesis the first people lived: Adam and Eve. However, they were expelled from paradise because Eve could not restrain herself from eating the ‘forbidden fruit’.

Historians keep asking themselves: from what fruit did Eve take the bite? Was it an apple, a grape, a pomegranate, a fig or maybe a quince?

These historians are always busy wondering about fruit: what were the mythological golden apples that grew in the famous gardens of the Hesperides? These were the ones Herakles had to steal (but first he had to kill the dragon which was guarding them).

Aphrodite threw a golden apple amongst the guests at a wedding to which she was not invited, thus (indirectly) setting off the Trojan War. She also gave three golden apples to young Hippomenes who used them to defeat the goddess Atalanta during a foot race. Atalanta had to marry the man who could beat her, but when Hippomenes dropped the apples (one by one) she couldn’t resist stopping to pick them up, and so lost and had to marry him.

The question remains: were all these mythical apples from the garden of Eden, the Hesperides or the ones thrown by Aphrodite real, or were they made of gold, or were they really oranges or, as some people believe, quinces?

Lesvos has just had its first serious autumn rain, a blessing for the olives as some trees are so heavy with fruit they were desperate for water. The figs have all gone, but a few unpicked grapes are withering on their vines. The first chestnuts are falling, but most remarkable are the yellow-gold coloured quinces that you see everywhere around the island and yet few people ever pick them.

Through in western Europe and north America the quince is a forgotten fruit. It originally came from the Caucasus, and centuries before Christ it was known in Arab and Greek kitchens, and later in the Roman kitchens. The Roman cook and gastronome Marcus Gavius Apicius describes several quince dishes in De Re Coquinaria, which is maybe the oldest recipe book we now know.

However, the quince is not such an easy fruit to cook, which may explain why in the era of fast food it is not popular. If Eve really did take a bite from a quince she would have needed strong teeth, because it is like concrete if try and eat it straight from the tree. Botanists think there may have been a softer version in ancient times, because the one we know can only be eaten and enjoyed once it’s cooked. It’s taste is somewhere between an apple and a pear but it also has a magic fragrance. As well as a delicacy the quince was often used as an air refresher!

In ancient Greece, the quince was a symbol of love and people would throw quinces at newlyweds setting off in their carriage - and the pair were supposed to eat at least one to sweeten their breath. The bride then counted the pips to see how many children she would bear - a strange tradition because a quince has so many pips you wouldn’t wish that many children on any woman. The Romans also thought the quince was a symbol of love and gave them when they got engaged.

None of these customs are remembered now; the quince has lost its reputation as a good luck token and has even been forgotten as a tasty fruit and so is not much harvested in Greece. Unlike walnuts, grapes and olives, quinces are left hanging on their trees.

It is said that Charlemagne introduced the quince to France and Germany. In 812 in his Capitulare de Villis he ordered that everywhere in his empire gardens should be made to grow vegetables and fruit trees and the quince was amongst the names of seventy plants he listed. In France they still make and enjoy a beautiful quince liqueur - liqueur de coing.

The Portuguese used to love quinces otherwise we might not have had marmalade. The Portuguese name for quince is marmelo and the original marmalade was quince jam. The quince we know today - Cydonia oblonga – is named after the ancient city of Kydonia in Crete, now called Chania. The English used to make excellent jellies and jams from quinces, but, perhaps because of the cooler climate, they are not easy to find in England.

A quince tree loves warmth but is also is pretty resistant to cold - an ideal fruit for the Mediterranean climate, but a nightmare for cooks who have forgotten how to preserve fruit.

Last week a friend came with a big box full of them. I was a bit alarmed because I know how difficult it is to make them into a preserve. Actually, because they are so hard, cutting them up into slices is quite dangerous: you could easily chop off a piece of finger!

However the rewards are very sweet. Jam, jelly and liqueur are quite easy to make and as the Dutch expression goes: it’s like ‘an angel pissing on your tongue’. Here is an easy recipe for Persian quince jelly,

Peel the quinces and cut them in small parts. Put everything in a pan and add water until they are just covered. Add two cardamom seeds per quince. Cook until the fruit is soft (1–1.5 hours). Put the mixture in a cloth in a pan overnight so that all the juice comes out. In the morning weight the juice and add an equal weight of sugar then boil it until it thickens to a jelly. Pour into sterilised jars, close the jars and cool.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Send me a postcard, darling

(Portret of Theophilos at Karini)

When I was a child, there was no television and I could not yet read the papers, the first images I saw from far away exotic countries came with postcards. Do you remember pictures of Spanish dancers (with real fabric skirts!), a donkey with a straw hat, mountains and bright blue lakes, a Laplander in colourful costume or a group of Greek women dressed for dancing?

In those days the postman would often bring cards from friends or family on holidays, but these days the post box remains pretty empty and you only get cars for your birthday or at Christmas. I have to admit that long ago when I was on holiday I took a long list of friends and family with me to whom I had to send a card and spent at least an afternoon writing them all. Now we send emails or we phone to let the people at home know our holiday is going well.

So old postcards have now become collectors items and sometimes represent a little piece of history. You now can find such relics of old Lesvos - including black and white pictures of Mytilini, or Agiasos - on the internet.

Theophilos Chatzimichaeli (known as Theophilos) was a painter born around 1870 in Varia (close to Mytilini). He died in 1934.
Besides his artistic activity he worked as a doorman at the Greek Consulate in Izmir, as a sheperd in Pilion and in Volos he did all kinds of jobs. After spending some thirty years in foreign parts he returned to his home island where in the last five years of his life he painted walls, cafes and canvasses.

He was an eccentric man who was often teased by people. He loved history especially the great warrior heroes. At carnival times he regularly dressed in a traditional kilt, as Alexander the Great, one of his Macedonian soldiers, or a hero of the Greek war of independence (at the beginning of the nineteenth century).

He took all the work he could get and painted theatre designs for theatres, and, in exchange for a meal, would do a mural on the wall of a café. You can still see his work in Pillon and on Lesvos in some lost cafes. The most colourful part of his life was when he lived in a hollow tree at Karini, near Agiasos.

However, so much of his art perished, or was lost, what remains is worth a fortune and is well regarded by international art dealers. This month there is an exhibition of his work in the Benaki Museum in Kolonaki, Athens which has started people re-thinking Theophilos, the man, especially the long standing perception that his character was like his paintings – simple and naïve.

Already in his time there were postcards of the same subjects he painted in his ‘naïve’ style: people in traditional costume, rural scenes with shepherds, country girls or landscapes with villages which so often feature in his paintings. Art historian Maria Moschou, wrote an article for Athens Plus (October 1) in which she wonders whether he was so naïve. Maybe he simply knew that people liked to see heroes, street vendors or artisans.

I wonder what themes and subjects are popular these days? Besides beautifully photographed landscapes and city scenes there is a fashion for elderly Greek people with lined faces, long gone trades and crafts and, yes, people in traditional costumes which nobody wears any more. So if he been born a century later what would Theophilos have painted?

Would he have depicted cars travelling through the landscapes, or would he look for ones without signs of progress? Would he have painted scantily dressed tourists roaming the lanes of Molyvos and Petra, or would he has have depicted Albanian workers on building sites dusted with white cement, or maybe the old men sitting with their coffees all morning long in the cafenions? Would he have dared paint half naked women?

Stelios Kouniaris of Molyvos, a contemporary equivalent of Theophilos, is not worried by near nakedness or cars. His work is studded with such images, not big in the foreground, but like stray cats and dogs, they wander through his pictures.

Both the works of Theophilos and of Stelios Kouniaris present a colourful vision of Greek life - nice souvenirs to take home - but for the work of Theophilos you have to make do with postcards, unless you are a real art collector willing to spend a tidy sum on an original. Stelios Kouniaris has not yes been discovered by the art market and can still be bought for reasonable prices, although in the castle of Molyvos where he works, there are already some postcards of his work on display. Send me a postcard, now!
(for more information on Stelios Kouniaris, see: Epsilon art).

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Greek – Chinese connection

The port of Piraeus

Greek politicians are happy: China wants to help Greece out of its economic crisis with huge projects including a major investment in the port of Piraeus. What’s more, Chinese tourists have chosen Greece as their favourite European destination.

In May this year, Turkish and Greek tourist agencies worked together to attract Chinese tourists to this region with a plan for twenty-five offices in Istanbul and Athens all aimed at Chinese visitors.

Even though Lesvos has a few Chinese inhabitants, a Chinese tourist is still a curiosity. Chinese residents have shops selling cheap clothing and sometimes you see them driving around in over-loaded old cars, but I bet they total no more than the fingers on your hands.

On Rhodes there are several Chinese restaurants but the only one here, in Mytilini, closed its doors years ago. Chinese on Lesvos? You will only find them in their cheap stores in Kalloni and Mytilini.

This sudden friendship between China and Greece is not so strange. Both countries are said to be the cradle of civilizations: Greece of western civilization, China of the east. A Greek archaeologist, Theresa Mitsopoulou, thinks that the Greeks originally came from China. It is conventional wisdom that they are descend from Indo-European people, but she claims they are Sino-European in origin.

Theresa did her studies in the 1960s and discovered many similarities between ancient Greek and Chinese cultures: in their languages, techniques of shipbuilding, the use of the snake as a symbol, or an amulet against the evil eye. Her theories were too controversial in Greece. No proud Greek could ever admit his roots were in China. However people who agree with Theresa are convinced that there are archaeological finds in Greece that confirm her theory: in particular the use of the undulating snake with the heart shaped face; the ships once built and designed in Santorini especially for shallow waters clearly resemble Chinese ships; and in the language there are several similarities such as the Greek word for wood - dasos - and the Chinese dashu which means ‘tall trees’, and the clincher: the Greek word for grandmother is Yiayia and in Chinese it is Yeye.

Besides being an archaeologist Theresa used to be the bestknown tourist guide in Athens. She speaks six languages including, of course, Chinese. Had she not decided, after thirty years climbing the Acropolis, that she was now too old to get up to the Parthenon, to give up being a tour guide, she would have been be the ideal companion for the coming flood of Chinese visitors.

For Chinese tourists visiting Lesvos there is good news. This week on Lesvos the authorities assembled about the permission to install a custom post in the harbour of Molyvos, so that cruise ship passengers could be processed there instead of Mytilini. At present they have to endure a ninety minute bus ride before they can see the wonderful medieval village of Molybos on the opposite side of the island from Mytilini (although the journey does take them through the island’s gorgeous landscape). To land them directly at the port of Molyvos is a very attractive proposition all round. Lots of cruise ships already pass close by on their way to Istanbul, so it’s hoped by the 2012 season they can drop their passengers in Molyvos - and who knows how many Chinese we will then be meeting?

And although there are similarities between the Greek and Chinese language, Chinese remains impenetrable to people who haven’t studied it. So, it’s probably a smart move if our school children started learning it soon - and shopkeepers too. Before you know it the Chinese might even buy Molyvos harbour. So I say Hyanying! - my first Chinese word and I think it says Welcome!

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Friday, 1 October 2010

Hear the wind sweeping through the mills

(The wind turbines at Andissa)

One of the more powerful sounds you hear on the island is the wind in the trees, especially during storms. Sometimes you hear the winds arriving from far away and the noise made response by the trees varies a lot. Olive trees rustle with a high pitch, the fine needles of the pine forest make a much denser sound – like the booming of kettledrums – so when the winds blow you can enjoy very nice concerts.

In places where there are no trees but only hills and mountains to resist the wind, as in the desolate landscape of the West, some new instruments have recently joined the orchestra. This is the region where huge prehistoric sequoias once reached towards the sky, until thousands of years ago, when they were destroyed by volcanic eruptions. After a series of surveys and excavations some were revealed and displayed as the island’s famous Petrified Forest. But most of them are silent, buried in the earth, quiet witnesses to what once was an ear-splitting episode of natural music. Sequoias are the tallest trees in the world, up to more than a hundred metres! So imagine what play the wind must have made with them.

Nowadays the west of the island is an empty, undulating, hilly landscape, but it is still very appealing, because in the folds of the mountains you will find surprising green oases with woods and water falls, like at the mill of Krinelou, just above Eresos. And when you think of all the fossil trees still buried under your feet, you sense their connection with this otherwise mostly barren land.

However the emptiness is about to change. Driving from Andissa down towards Eresos and Sigri you will see the agents of that change: the wind turbines, huge modern windmills, installed on three hilltop ridges, a new forest of giants, which will eventually number over a hundred and fifty!

Wind turbines can be built even higher than the ancient sequoias– up to a 150 metres — but those around Andissa will be between about 50 and 80. Looking up from the foot of one these towers it’s difficult to judge its height. It is stabilised by huge pegs anchored deep in the ground, and during my visit the wind was blowing pretty strong and the blades were turning. Trees can be blown down by a gale and I felt a little anxious standing under that enormous colossus. Could it be blown down or lose a blade?

I counted about 25 towers altogether, each of which is said to generate two megawatts of electricity, and that, according to Wikipedia, would be enough for 2 000 American households. If you assume that a Greek household uses the same amount of energy, then the 25 wind turbines at Andissa could power 50 000 houses on the island. Lesvos has over the 90 000 inhabitants, so if you also assume there are two people in every household, these turbines could make enough for the whole island. The Rokas company has plans for 153 wind turbines altogether, which could supply 300 000 households. I do not know how much energy the factories and businesses use – and I don’t suppose sheep and goats consume much electricity – but it’s possible Lesvos could be self-sufficient from wind power, and even have enough left over to sell. I may have made miscalculated, and I don’t know a lot about this new green branch of energy generation, but standing under them, looking up at these impressive artificial trees frankly, I think wind turbine parks are a blight on the landscape!

The Netherlands is covered with them, so children in the future will probably take them for granted, but I don’t; although I don’t dislike them so much in the barren landscape of west Lesvos where they look as if they’ve always been, or like a monument to the long gone sequoias.

The sounds of west Lesvos will also change. The turbines have added a modern element to the symphony of winds: ‘vlaff-vlaff-vlaff’ go the blades, and sudden gust don’t break their steady rhythm. But how will it sound when the wind plays on all 153 mills? There will be some very modern new music generated by our very ancient landscape!

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Crisis time

(The sea at Sigri)

Life goes on during the economic crisis. As in other places, businesses on Lesbos are closing down and I can’t be sure they will open again next year. I think it is easier to survive the crisis here than in a big city. Lots of businesses, like restaurants, are run by families from buildings they own, and most have a plot of land somewhere where they grow vegetables. But it is still a fact that even here people are poorer than they were.

There have been sceptical reactions to the ban on smoking in public places like bars and restaurants which came into force on September 1 for the third time. Of all Europeans Greeks smoke the most and they are not happy: first they take my money and then my cigarettes!

Greeks already have a big enough problem with the new tax system, which means everybody now has to pay up. Every business has to issue a receipt with every purchase — even petrol stations, where before the crisis they never heard of receipts.

Here in the north of the island reactions to the smoking ban are, as usual incredulous. Who will enforce it? In Molyvos you seldom see police, especially in winter when everybody eats (and smokes) indoors. And yet they have enough police to deal with a group hit hardest by the crisis: illegal workers, most of them from Albania.

Last week a special police team from Mytilini invaded some restaurants in Molyvos and if they found illegal workers, arrested the owners as well as the workers. Then they carted them off like cattle to prison in Mytilini. The workers will be thrown out of the country and, after a night in gaol, their employers will have to pay a hefty fine. For some it could be the end of their business. The Albanians will return home in to a country that strangely enough is less affected by the crisis than Greece.

When the communist regime in Albania – the poorest country of Europe – fell in 1991, large numbers left to look for work and a better life elsewhere, especially to Italy and Greece. When Italy closed its borders to them, Greece became their most popular destination and lots of them now live in here — some legal, others illegal. The ‘illegals’ are regularly expelled, but if they are sure of getting work, they find the paths that bring them back unseen over the mountains and are soon doing their jobs again.

Thanks to these people working abroad Albania has come out of a deep recession. As well as learning new skills in Greece they have done what workers in Greece used to do when they went away — sent back money home to keep their families alive. However, the money stream from Greece to Albania has been slowing down because more and more Albanians can now find work at home and the crisis in Greece has seen many of them returning. These are usually those who have lost jobs in Greece and are willing to try their luck in Albania. It remains to be seen whether they swell the numbers of unemployed or whether the arrival of skilled workers stimulates the economy.

For decades the economy in Greece profited from the cheap labour of these workers. Without foreign workers – as well as Albanians there are a lot of other east European nationalities here - there never would have been the Olympic Games in Athens and for the most part Greek agriculture depends on them; so it would not be good for Greece if they all left. It would bring on an even more serious crisis because Greeks have moved out of less skilled jobs and will not work for the poor wages they pay most Albanians.

So Greece is in a difficult position. At the same time the government is taking money out of Greek wallets and the economy is going into decline. Or could it be that this crisis will be the saviour that cleanses the economy from illegal work practices, from employees who do little work and people who pay no tax?? We will find the answer in the future.

On an island like Lesvos the crisis has less impact than in Athens. The fishermen still go out to the sea hoping for a big catch. The tourist season slowly comes to an end and some of the olive trees are so full of fruit you wonder who will harvest them in the coming winter.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Food as cultural heritage

The Petrified Forest of Lesvos did not make UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. Greece has some twenty sites on that list, including the Acropolis in Athens, the medieval town of Rhodes, the Meteora Monastery, the monastery of Saint John the Theologian, its cave and historical centre (chora) in Patmos and the old city of Corfu. Even though the Petrified Forest was nominated, it was not elected.

So as far as UNESCO is concerned if you come to Lesvos now you will not find any world heritage. But this could change quite suddenly. Next time you may well enjoy some real world heritage: the Mediterranean diet.

This healthy diet might sound a little odd placed amongst all those ancient buildings but I have found out that besides its list of material objects, UNESCO now has items from the immaterial fabric of culture, known as the Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

Here you will find all kinds of dance, music and carnivals — the Argentinian tango and the Brazilian samba; the carnival of Binche (in Belgium), the Kunqu opera and Dragon festival from China, a traditional musical from Azerbaijan, and so on.

Together, the countries of Greece, Italy, Spain and Morocco have proposed the Mediterranean diet be included on this list, and although they were knocked back at first, the rules have been changed so that the diet could pass the test and join the list of music, festivals (and lace making) later this year in November.

So my dear tourists, when you come here to Lesvos, I will not hear from you eating a pizza or souvlaki every day. Instead, why not profit from your stay here by enjoying a very healthy diet? I hear through the grapevine that many tourists still have no idea how to eat Greek. They may know tsatsiki and souvlaki, but prefer to stay safe and order pizza or pasta.

We are lucky on Lesvos because we have no foreign restaurants like Chinese, Indian or fish & chips. If we did maybe the tourists might never try Greek food at all and feed only fish & chips and pizza.

So, perhaps you should at least listen to what UNESCO decrees and believe that traditional Greek food as served in nearly all restaurants here on the island is the same Mediterranean diet and discover that it is incredibly healthy. It is not only the olive oil but the variety of vegetables, fruit, grains and fish (with a little meat) that together have a positive influence on cardio–vascular diseases, cancer and diabetes. And food is also eaten according to what is fresh and in season. What could be more healthy?

A Greek salad with a bit of meat or fish is not quite enough. At a restaurant here, first you look at the appetizers, which in truth the Greeks don’t eat as ‘starters’ at all. They are all put on the table together and everybody shares them, and they include a variety of vegetables. You can order dishes based on zucchini, eggplant dish, beans and salad and potatoes as well as fish and meat. And don’t forget a cheese dish. You start eating whatever arrives first on the table and you will see that gradually the table will be spread with everything you have ordered. To know more about these dishes read: Greek Dining for Beginners and when you think you know how to eat Greek you can move on to Greek Dining for Experts.

I realise that most tourists who come here do not speak Greek. That should not be a problem because you are always welcome to go into the kitchen to have a look at what they have because most restaurants have their dishes on display (behind glass). This is definitely not just for tourists because Greeks like to go into the kitchen to see what food is on offer. And do not be afraid to order something you do not recognise. You may not be familiar with a lovely dish made from zucchini flowers stuffed with rice or cheese and you should also know that there is often a variety of different kinds of salted fish. Besides the sardelles pastes they might have salted tuna (lakerda pasto). And don’t be put by the prospect of an enormous serving, because salted or smoked fish are always served on tiny plates, to stimulate your appetite.

Beans with chickpeas is a particular delicacy on this island. Just taste it and you will love it. It’s the variety that defines the Mediterranean diet, so order at least three different kinds of vegetables, or you can stick to ‘starters’ only. When you come home after such a good meal, you feel not only satisfied but much healthier.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Apples from Lesvos

The big heat is over and immediately you feel the spicy breath of autumn. The trees are loaded with ripe figs and grapes and the sun hurries more quickly to disappear into the sea each day. So, once again it’s time for preserving fruit — why just leave them hanging there to rot?

Besides figs and grapes, ripe apples are rolling out, especially around Kalo Limni and Agiasos. The apples from Agiasos are known all over the island. They are small sour little crab-apples (Greeks love sour food), but worms love them too so you better use them up quickly: peel them, cut them into pieces, throw away the bad parts. I ask myself what the Greeks do with apples except serving them as fruit after a meal? You won’t find apple chutney in a Greek kitchen, nor an apple sauce.

On the internet I found a recipe for apple soup, milosoupa, not originally Greek so it probably came with immigrants, it is made with a vegetable bouillon, curry spices, lemon juice, an onion, oil, salt, pepper and of course apples. I also found pork chops with apple, but only the name sounds Greek: brizoles girines me krasi. You bake the pork chops in one pan, in another you fry apple slices. The meat is finished off with some white wine and then the baked apple slices are added. The dish is then sprinkled with cinnamon powder. There are other recipes: apples stuffed with walnuts, apples cooked in a sweet syrup and lots of different kinds of apple pie.

An apple does not necessarily remind you of Greece and yet it has a place in mythology. The famous Trojan war even did started with an apple. The goddess Eris - known for her sowing of discord and plots - was angry when she was not invited for the wedding of Peleus and the sea goddess Thetis, when other gods like Hera, Athena and Aphrodite were. So, like a furious fairy she threw an apple amongst the invited wedding guests saying that it was for the most beautiful woman present. To decide who was it fell to Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam and probably the most beautiful man there, to choose between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. In true Greek style they each tried to bribe him — Hera with money and power, Athena with wisdom and Aphrodite with the promise he would be rewarded with the most beautiful woman on earth. Paris choose Aphrodite and so to make good her promise she had to give Paris the beautiful Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaos. When Paris took Helen to his home in Troy, Menelaos gathered his allies and launched the war to get Helen back.

Apples were also involved in one of the twelve ‘Labours of Herakles’. Because, when bewitched by a god he had murdered his wife and children, he had to work for Eurysteus, king of Mycene. The eleventh labour was to find and steal the golden apples from a tree in the garden of the Hesperides, the tree which Gaia had given to Hera and Zeus on their wedding day. Its golden apples had the power to give eternal life, and they were guarded by the Hesperides, the daughters of Atlas, together with an enormous snake, or dragon with a hundred heads. Herakles persuaded Atlas to go and get the apples but while he did so Herakles had to hold up the heavens. When he returned Atlas decided Herakles could continue with the job and he would go and give the apples to King Eurysteus. Herakles agreed but tricked Atlas into taking back the burden of the sky and then ran away with the apples and gave them to Pallas Athena, who returned them to the Hesperides.

In ancient times if you threw an apple to someone, it was a marriage proposal and if they caught it they accepted the offer. Let’s hope no true lover ever dropped one, because there would have been no marriage.

So apples are indeed part of Greek culture. They grow in orchards or in the wild on the slopes of the mountains here. I will not pretend that Lesvos is a paradise full of apples, but it is a paradise of fruit. Even the word paradise comes from fruit. In 401 BC the Greek historian Xenophone was so impressed by the walled fruit gardens of Persia, when he got home he made one himself — thus introducing the Persian word for walled garden, pairidaeza into Greek. In Latin it became paradysus and much later in English paradise. Lesvos is not exactly walled in, but the surrounding salty sea act like a natural protector for this amazing paradise of fruit.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 2 September 2010

In the moonlight

(Full moon over the bay of Molyvos)

If you live in a city, you might not realize it, but when the full moon shines in place without much less artificial light you can have dinner in the moonlight and you can walk without a torch and see where you are goling. I keep on being amazed by the brightness of the full moon and each time it appears I enjoy the blue-white light that shines on the mountains, mirrors itself in the sea and lights up white buildings, like a film set.

When you are in a magical place, like on the Acropolis in Athens, or on an archaeological site like the Temple of Messa (close to Agia Paraskevi), where the marble remains of an Ionic temple from the Aeolian era catches the moon’s rays, time seems to stop.

It is a new tradition in Greece to keep about ninety archaeological sites open for the night of the full moon in August, so visitors can enjoy the play of the moonlight on centuries old columns, stones, buildings and mosaics.

At Thermi (close to Mytilini) the evening was dedicated to Sappho and amongst others her poem about the moon was recited. Our eyes were delighted by moonlight and our ears with music and verse. I can imagine how in ancient times, when there was no artificial light on earth, the days of the full moon were even more dramatic and so Sappho could not help but write about this heavenly, silver disc.

Each culture has its own myths about the moon, or gods representing it. In Greece it was the goddess Selene (later Artemis) the sister of Helios, god of the sun, and of Eos, goddess of the dawn. Selene was a discreet goddess who features in only a handful of stories. The most popular one is how she fell desperately in love with Endymion, a shepherd or hunter (according to Pausianas he was even a king). He was so beautiful that Selene asked Zeus to give him eternal life. This way Endymion would sleep forever, without getting older and Selene could keep on enjoying his beauty. Each time the moon disappears behind the mountains Selene visits her sleeping beauty. The ancient Greeks believed that he slept in a cave on the southern slope of Mt. Latmus, a mountain at the southwest coast of modern Turkey, where there are the remains of a temple dedicated to Selene. Endymion had to be kissed to be woken, or maybe it was electric light — because there is no sign of him now.

Or maybe he woke up because Selene was unfaithful. It is said that after she slept with Zeus the Nemean lion was born. For the first of his labours as ordered by the King of Tiryns, Herakles had to kill it. There is also a rumour that Selene had an affair with Pan. Nevertheless, she supposedly gave birth to fifty offspring all sired by Endymion and each of these moon goddesses represented a phase of the moon.

With so many phases you need a machine to calculate when the full moon would appear or when an eclipse might occur. In 1901 in a sunken ship wrecked close to the island of Anti-Kythera an ancient astronomical instrument was found that for a century kept scientists busy trying to find out how it worked. It now is thought that this Antikythera Mechanism dates from 150–100 BC and is now thought to be an analogue or Moon computer.

After extended studies scientists now think that this machine is more than a planetarium. Two years ago they published a new report that says it is an analogue calculator constructed to identify phases of both moon and sun (including eclipses) and many other astronomical events.

For instance, in ancient times the Olympic games took place every four years starting at the second full moon after the summer solstice. So it would be handy to know when that was going to be and this (and many other events) is what this machine was used to predict — including marriages which Greeks liked to celebrate at full moon, especially in the month of January.

Last Tuesday (August 24) was a full moon night and even after it had started to wane for two days its light was still very bright. On Thursday night boats taking part in the Aegean Regatta slowly sailed through its silver beam, silently gliding into Molyvos harbour. For some days the meltemi had already stopped blowing so now the yachts needed every whisper of wind to get them over the finish line. On Saturday, for a local race, the blue sea between Molyvos and Petra was filled with the white of their sails catching the wind and that night festivities climaxed with music, dance and fireworks.

The moon has finished partying and shrinks a little more each day, but just as its light fades the stars twinkle more brightly. But every time the full moon shines its light on the earth, there is nothing to be done but to get poetic by moonlight.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Karagiozis the weatherman

(Picture from internet)

Some weeks ago a disappointment came for Greeks about their traditional shadow puppet theatre. Unesco decided that its main character originated in Turkey. So Karagiozis came from Turkey, but the puppet theatre generated around this mischievous character is very much part of Greek culture.

The puppet theatre tradition has roots in Indonesia and China and may have come to Turkey with gypsies from India, with travellers from China, or maybe it even came from Egypt. However, it was definitely popular in Turkey around the sixteenth century.

In the nineteenth century when Greece was still occupied by the Ottoman Turks, Karagiozis arrived here. He is a poor man who lives with his wife Aglaia and three sons in a little shack, always on the left hand side of the stage, and to the right is always the rich palace of the Pasha. The Pasha is the local ruler representing the Turkish Sultan.

Karagiozis is an anti-hero. He is always looking for money to survive. His stories always follow strict rules: the introduction where he talks to his sons and goes into his house; then somebody usually Karagiozis’ friend Hadzjivatis, explains that the Pasha has a problem and he keeps on about it until Karagiozis shows up. Karagiozis sees it as an opportunity to make money and offers his help, either with or without the help of Hadzjivatis. Other characters pass by: Barba Yorgos, a man from the mountains dressed in traditional style, Stavrakas a petty thief from Pireaus, Sior Dyonisios an Italian Greek from the island of Zakynthos, Morfonios a European who always falls in love, and Solomon a rich Jew. The Pasha who administers the law on behalf of the Sultan decides punishments and sometimes rewards; his beautiful daughter is called Fatme and the man that carries out Pasha’s orders is his Albanian guard Veligekas.

These stories are about the ‘heroic’ deeds of Karagiozis, mostly based on historical facts from Greek life during Ottoman rule, or are comedies in which Karagiozis is ridiculed. The performances are often accompanied by a singer and a group of musicians.

A lot of puppeteers have their own traditional scripts, handed down by older practitioners. Because of television the puppet theatre has lost some of this popularity but you can still find frequent performances all over the country. In the summer from Wednesday to Sunday at nine o’clock in the evening a puppet theatre performs in the square in front of the Youth Society building in Molyvos.

I can imagine that this week we will get a show as follows:

Karagiozis dries the faces of his sons with a big dirty handkerchief:
“Go to the sea, go to the sea, the only place you can cool off” he says.
They answer together: “But we cannot swim!”.
“Find the fishes and see how they swim, you layabouts”, he replies, “you should always watch how others do things.”
Behind his back the children make faces and go into the little house, and Karagiozis follows, giving his own face an extra long wipe with the handkerchief before he shuts the door.

At the other side of the stage, at the palace of the Pasha, a door opens. Karagiozis’ friend Hadzjivatis appears, pushed only to be outside by Pasha who shouts:
“Find somebody that can end this heat wave. Every time she goes outside it makes my daughter faints.” He gives Hadzjivatis an encouraging kick away from the palace and closes the door.

Hadzjivatis looks around: nobody. He starts to sing a song about the beautiful Greek summer. Still nobody shows up. Then he starts calling for a weatherman. Karagiozis comes out and slaps his friend on the shoulder. Hadzjivatis complains: “This very long heat wave must be stopped but how?”

Karagiozis takes his friend to sit outside his house, and with their heads in their hands they think over the challenge. Then Sior Dyniosios approaches, holding an umbrella. Karagiozis goes to him and asks:
“Can you not procure a cooling wind?” Dyonisios answers:
“I only know the sirocco, a very warm wind from the Sahara”.
“Are you crazy!”, shouts Karagiozis, “temperatures are high enough here on Lesvos. Go back to your Ionian islands, go on, go!” and he pushes poor Dyonisios away.

While Dyonisios slowly exits, from the other side a strolling Barba Yorgos comes near. He is whistling, which irritates Karagiozis.
“How can you whistle in this terrible heat. Have you lost a sheep?”
Barba Yorgos stops whistling and looks at Karagiozis:
“Don’t you feel it? Do you not see that the meltemi is coming?”
Karagiozis scatches his ear:
“The meltemi, the meltemi?”
Barba Yorgos helps him:
“Yeah, you know, that wind from the north that will end the heat wave.”
Karagiozis immediately starts jumping up and down with excitement: “Are you sure, are you sure?!”
As if there are signs that the wind can be seen Barba Yorgos points up into the sky. Karagiozis also looks up and seems to hear something faraway. “I hear a goat, your goat is lost. Go and get him. Go back to the mountains, you!” He pushes Barba Yorgos, who starts whistling again and then quietly disappears.
Karagiozis goes to Hadzjivatis and shouts to him:
“You have done enough thinking at my house. Go home, go on, go. I will take care of the heat problem.”

When Karagiozis is alone, he wipes his face and adjusts his hair then goes to the palace and knocks on the door. It opens and Karagiozis makes a deep bow of reverence.
“My good Pasha, I hear that your daughter cannot bear this heat. That is why I have asked my gods to send a cooling wind.” As Karagiozis bows again, the first blast of wind makes the palm tree next to the palace bend. During a second blow, the tree bends over even lower. Then a third wind gust arrives and this time it’s so strong Karagiozis has to hold on to the Pasha’s door and the tree crashes down on to palace, followed by sounds of breaking glass and the screaming of Fatme.

Karagiozis panics and wants to run away, but Veligekas the guard runs out to catch him. A very angry Pasha also storms out:
“Did you order this wind?! Did you scare my daughter to death and make the palm tree fall over?! You will get ten strokes of the cane! And I warn you, if this wind continues, I will have you cut into pieces!”.

So, once more Karagiozis fails to gain a reward.

And now the real meltemi is blowing over Lesvos. It has chased the prolonged heat wave away — and blown over chairs, tables and many other things. The blue sea is furious with white laced foam and no boat has dared to go out of the harbour. It is said that it will last for a week and we hope that it decreases its force in time for the Aegean Regatta which ends next week on Lesvos.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Shooting stars and hidden Marias

(Panagia Krifti near Melinda)

If you know a lot about astronomy, you will also probably know some Greek mythology. In ancient times the gods of Olympos very generously awarded spaces in heaven to a god, person, animal or even an object, when they died: Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Orion, Orpheus, Perseus, Prometheus, Sirius and his dog, the horse Pegasus, Argo (the Argonauts’ boat), Chrysomallos (the sheep that lost its golden fleece — sought by Jason and his Argonauts), dolphins, bulls, fishes and eagles... you will find them all shining in the sky, each with an interesting story to tell.

For ages August has been called ‘the month of the shooting stars’. It’s caused when the earth wanders through the cluster of meteorites called the Perseids. Timelapse photography can make you think hundreds of these space travellers come into the atmosphere at the same time, but that’s because the cameras are left ‘open’ all night. But if you look persistently with the naked eye you can indeed see two ‘stars’ falling at the same time and dozens through the course of an hour.

However the romantic image of falling stars is not quite true. What you are seeing is the debris of a meteorite colliding with the earth’s atmosphere. And that’s probably a good thing because you wouldn’t want to look up at your favourite constellation like Canis Major and suddenly see Sirius, its brightest star has suddenly fallen out of the sky… So that does not happen, because the shooting rockets of light you see flashing through the sky are just ordinary lumps of space debris.

Many people – including me - believe that when you see a shooting star you should make a wish. So an event such as Earth’s passage through the Perseids could be the jackpot, because on the night of August 12-13 I saw at least thirty of them and believe me I made lots of wishes.

You could call August the month of luck and not only because of the annual shooting star festival. You can also ask the Holy Virgin Maria (Mary the mother of Jesus) for favours because August 15 is the day she rose to Heaven. In the Greek Orthodox church it is called the Dormition (rather than the Assumption) and theologians say she did not take herself into Heaven, but was lifted up by God.

You can stare all night into the sky and see shooting stars, but nobody ever saw Maria ascending into the heavens. Here on Earth her passing is celebrated by pilgrimages to and services in all churches dedicated to her and there are plenty of them in Greece. The church of the Panagia Evangelistria on the island of Tinos is the most popular church of Maria in Greece, followed by the Panagia church Vrefokratousa in Agiasos, here on Lesvos.

August is also the month when the Greek islands are usually cooled down by a dry north wind, the meltemi, but last night, instead of the hoped for cool wind we got a hot storm with temperatures of 34°C. We had been are desperately waiting for the meltemi because the humid heat wave seemed to be going on forever.

Even in this heat pilgrims dragged themselves up the 114 steps that lead to the church of Maria Glikofiloussa, atop the mighty monolith of rock in the middle of Petra, the second most important place for Maria pilgrims on Lesbos. Or they walked all the way up to Agiasos to melt there with the rest of the hot sticky crowd.

There are cooler and less crowded places to honour Maria. Close to Plomari there’s a very small church by sea at the foot of the mountains: Panagia Krifti, or ‘the hidden Maria’. The story is that at the beginning of the nineteenth century a beautiful girl was pursued by a group of Turks (who still occupied the island at the time). She ended up at the foot of a mountain, and as her mounted pursuers closed in she saw no way of escape. She prayed to God, who showed her a cave where she could hide. Once inside the entrance was concealed and in this miraculous way the girl escaped the men. Later she dedicated the cave to Maria and a chapel there was then named the Hidden Maria. You can only reach it by a steep footpath which starts after Melinda, on the road from Plomari, or by boat. Next to the chapel there is a hot spring. The Greek refugees from Minor-Asia who arrived here in 1922 came to see Maria as their patron saint and again, during World War Two the church was a hiding place from the Germans.

The Panagia Krifti of Plomari is pretty well known and visited regularly especially in the summer because it is such a nice place. There is however another Panagia Krifti on the island, which is not so easy to find and much less known. It is hidden in the pinewoods that cover the mountains between Parakila and Vatoussa and you can reach it by a path that goes off one of the many roads leading to the Profitis Ilias (monastery) and it is as well hidden among the rocks. It once belonged to the larger monastery of Lemonas close to Kalloni and only God knows how many people once hid out there.

Even though the path from near Melinda which leads to the Panagia Krifti is very steep, and the other Panagia Krifti is so well hidden, there are still plenty of people who know how to find these hidden Marias on August 15.

And already there has been one miracle this year: the Turkish government allowed the celebration of an Orthodox service in the Soumela Monastery in the Pontus region in Turkey on August 15. After an ancient icon of Maria was found in a cave there, this impressive monastery was built 1200 metres high on the slope of a steep rock. However, after the exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece in 1923 it was shut down and the icon and other holy artefacts were moved to a different monastery in (Greek) Macedonia while the Soumela monastery became a tourist attraction because of its spectacular site and buildings.

This year thousands of Orthodox worshippers from Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Greece and North America were due to attend a service held for the first time there since 1923. When I looked up the weather in Trabzon, on the Black Sea (which the monastery is near) I saw the temperatures were much lower than on Lesvos and, something was expected we can only dream of — rain— and I bet that from this great rock you would have a superb view of the shooting stars of August!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Who loves sardines?

(Grilled sardines)

Between May and July every year a huge natural spectacle takes place off the coast of South Africa. The show starts at the Agulhas Bank, there where the warm water stream of the Indian ocean meets the cold waters of the Atlantic. The show travels north, along the east coast of South Africa taking millions of sardines with it on a voyage as far as Mozambique. The migration of so many silver-toned fish will not go unnoticed, as hundreds of dolphins, seals, sharks and even birds see an opportunity for a right royal feast, and make their own show chasing this enormous cloud of fish that can be seven kilometres long, one and a half kilometres wide and thirty metres deep. So, only half the sardines will reach their destination. There are years when they do not run, but when the start is spotted, hundreds of spectators hurry to the coast to enjoy the spectacle, which includes the dolphins leaping and the fins of the sharks cutting through the surface of the water. However, perhaps the most amazing aspect of the spectacle is the behaviour of seagulls and cormorants, taking part in this epic food festival by dive-bombing the water and reaching down as far as twenty metres. Take a look!

Skala Kallonis has no such sardine run but all over Greece it is known for its sardines. I am happy there is no run because we might also see sharks in pursuit of the shoals, which would mean I would no longer feel safe in the waters around this island. It is claimed that there are sharks in the Aegean, but they stay far away from the shore, and anyway are said not to be of the dangerous kind.

Dolphins can be seen regularly off the island. But as you can see in the sardine video clip they are no friends of the sardine. Just before World War I in the fishing port of Collioure on the Mediterranean coast of France fishermen declared war on dolphins, because even before they could haul their cotton nets in these mighty predators would eat the catch and destroy the nets. So they killed the dolphins with machine guns! After the war, when nets were made of nylon the problem went away: dolphins no longer came after the catch because they couldn’t rip into plastic netting and steal sardines.

In Greece however, dolphins are also mythical creatures and I feel sure that even in bad times no Greek fisherman would venture close to them and let alone kill one which means very bad luck. Even if a dolphin gets caught in a net by accident it still means bad times ahead.

Last week I noticed a lot of splashing in the sea and I thought: it must be dolphins, but when I looked through binoculars I saw huge silver fish jumping straight out of the water: tuna fish! These fishes seemed to be on a run because I could see small fishes jumping out of the water to get away from them. I assume they were not lucky enough to escape because the tuna were so wildly excited they kept on jumping out of the sea and pirouetting on their tails.

Skala Kallonis does have an annual two day sardine festival which this year took place last weekend. Unlike in South Africa, I doubt that millions of sardines disappeared into the stomachs of visitors. Maybe as many as ten thousand, which is how many whales — which also join the South African sardine run – take in one bite! The eating of sardines at the Skala Kallonis festival is not accompanied by an elegant water ballet, but instead there is music, traditional dances, and of course lots of ouzo as hundreds of people amuse themselves.

During the summer months fresh sardines from the gulf of Kalloni are plentiful. They are served grilled, baked or salted (sardelles pastes) but in other times of the year you have to make do with the tinned variety. But mind you: the famous tinned sardines from Kalloni are preserved in salt, so you best treat them as you would anchovies in cans.

In the local restaurants there are not a great many different sardine dishes on offer. Although I could eat grilled sardines every night — although my ouzo prefers an accompaniment of sardelles pastes — and even these small fishes are always healthy and tasty, after a while even they would get boring. However, seeing so many sardine recipes are on the internet maybe you could keep your sardine appetite going for ever: grilled in vine leaves (or served with fried vine leaves), in a salad with chick peas, avocado and sardines, a mousse of sardines, a sardine pie with a mustard sauce, sardines with pesto, a sardine curry, marinated sardines, stuffed sardines, and so on.

I intend to try out all these recipes in time but as we are still enduring a humid heat wave that seems endless, I will make do with my own recipe for a snack with drinks. It’s easy and quick to prepare, especially if you have sardines left over: it’s a sardine cream served on slices of cucumber.

For 1 cucumber in slices: mix a tablespoon of Greek yoghurt with two tablespoons of mayonnaise and a small spoonful of mustard. Crush about ten sardines (grilled or in oil from a tin) and mix together with the mayonnaise. Add some capers or pickles and cut in tiny pieces. Add some fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper and that’s it!

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Robinson Crusoe of Molyvos

Journalists abroad write the strangest things about Greece these days: that the Greeks have nothing left to eat, that normal life is much disturbed because of the strikes, that there is no petrol, or that it is dangerous to come here because there’s a chance you may not be able to get home. Conclusion: Greece is a dangerous country for holidaymakers. In Germany especially very negative things have been said.

This is bullshit! Of course life is not easy for Greeks these days, because of the economic crisis, and a lot of them have to close down their shops, partly because tourists are staying away. But Greeks have survived more bitter times than these and life has gone on, and for tourists too.

About the strikes: it was eventually realised how much damage they were doing to the country and so air traffic strikes have been postponed until the tourist season is over. Then it was only the truck drivers who were making life difficult and their strikes caused a shortage of petrol in the big mainland cities, but Greece still has a government, which ended the truckers’ blockade with the army, so now there is enough petrol for a drive to the beach. So what risk you’re running as a tourist? Maybe some delay, but that can happen in any country.

Last week I heard somebody say that the municipality of Molyvos doubted it would celebrate the yearly Festival of Saint Theoktisti, this weekend, because there was no money. Again, this rumour turned out to be not entirely true: last Friday the horses and a bull paraded through the village in order to collect some money, and in the night, just as in previous years, the collection of kettles with kiskek (a broil of meat and corn) were boiling on fires just outside the little church of Saint Theoktisti, and so Saturday was a day of celebration in Molyvos. But on Sunday there were no horse races, and that was due to lack of money.

July and August are the traditional months of the celebrations for patron saints of the villages. The highlight is the August 15, when Petra and Agiasos celebrate the Ascension of Mary.

Even though there is a crisis going on, Vafios had its celebration a week earlier and last weekend it was the turn for Molyvos to honour its relatively unknown patron saint, Saint Theoktisti, who was born in Mythimna (the old name for Molyvos). When she was still a child she was orphaned and entered a monastery, which she liked. The only time she left was to visit her married sister.

This was in the ninth century, in the time that the Byzantium Emperor Leo VI (886 - 912) had trouble keeping pirates out the country - Saracenes who used to operate out of Crete. It was Saint Symeon, a counsellor at Leo’s court who later wrote down the story of Theoktisti, a story he heard from Nikitas Magister, a man who was sent to Crete in order to speak with the Saracens.

Because of bad weather his boat had to seek shelter on the island of Paros. There he went for a visit to the then well known Church with the Hundred Doors (Ekatontapyliani), where he met a lonely monk who told him this story:

Paros was uninhabited, but because the island had lots of game it was frequently visited by hunters from Evia. One of them met a woman at the church. She was looking wild and was crudely dressed in an animal skin. She asked for the hunter’s cloak and once she was decently covered she introduced herself as Theoktisti. She told him how she and other people had been taken by pirates in a raid on the island of Lesvos and when they anchored off Paros to take in fresh food, she had managed to escape and that is why she was living there for thirty-five years all alone, like a Robinson Crusoe keeping herself alive by eating plants. The only thing she asked the hunter for was if he could return to Paros would he bring her the holy sacrament, so that she could die in peace.

The hunter kept to his word and the next time he and his mates arrived at the island, he immediately went to present Theoktisti with the sacrament. Then he returned to his friends to hunt for several days, but when they prepared to leave and he went to say goodbye to Theoktisti, he found she was dead. He already thought that she must be a saint and so he cut off one of her hands to take it with him as a holy relic. In those times relics were very popular. When the hunters tried to sail away from the island, they could not make it to the open sea. The hunter realised that he had done something God was not pleased with, so he went back and returned the hand to Theoktisti and gave her a proper burial. It was only then that he and the other hunters were able to sail away. However, when he told them what had happened, they were upset and immediately went back to honour the saintly woman. However the corpse of Theoktisti had disappeared.

Later on her bones were found and a little church was built for her. It is said that people from Ikaria stole the bones, leaving only one, and this is the relic that is now in the Chapel of Saint Theoktisti in the Church of the Hundred Doors, the place where Theoktisti used to live, and now the most famous church on Paros.

If Theoktisti could live for thirty-five years on an otherwise uninhabited island, the Greeks for sure will survive these hard times. Tourism will keep going — a crisis will not make the beaches, the blue sea, the warm temperatures, the beautiful nature, the slumbering villages and the friendly Greeks disappear. Even though life is a little slower now, the villages still celebrate and the Greeks enjoy the summer. Instead of keeping away you should help them by visiting their ever enchanting country.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki