Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Moody Weather Gods

(Storm on the Boulevard of Eftalou)

When we want to know what weather is awaiting us we look at the weather forecast on television or the internet. We have learned so much about the weather that we can predict what wind will be blowing from which direction, or no wind at all, how warm or cold it will be and if we are going to be bothered by rain or snow.

In the days before we were able to predict the weather we thought it was the gods who were responsible for it, and that they alone scattered rains or released storms upon us. So when we wanted a little sunshine or some refreshing winds, we had to pray to them. And when the gods were impressed by our prayers, we were rewarded.

In the Odyssey Homer tells how Odysseus and his travel companions arrived at the floating island of the God of the Winds Aeolus. Aeolus was the son of the God of the Sea Poseidon and he entertained Odysseus for several weeks. They had such a nice time together, that when leaving, Aeolus let the West wind blow Odysseus home, but he also gave him a bag containing the winds that blew from other directions. The companions of Odysseus did not know what was in the bag. They thought that it could be a treasure and when they were nearly home they became so curious that they opened the bag. The opposing winds all flew out of the bag and chased the West wind away - and that is how Odysseus and his men were once again blown far from their home, the search for which had to start over.

The Roman poet Virgil also used Aeolus in his famous epic Aeneid about the Trojan hero Aeneas. At the beginning of the story Aeolus released all the winds in a fury that made such big storms Aeneas, escaping from Troy, got lost and was sent around the known world before he settled near Rome, and according to Virgil founded the Roman empire.

Aeolus kept the gods of the wind on his island and ruled over the world with the power of their temper. His four big gods were called the Anemoi. Boreas was the god of the North wind, Notus blew from the South, Eurus the East and Zephirus the West. And there were also some minor winds like Kaikias for the north east wind, Apeliotis for the south east, Skiron for the north west and Livas for the south west wind.

Zephyros is said to be the kindest wind because he brings the spring. He is also partly responsible for the creation of one of the most beautiful spring flowers: the hyacinth. There used to be a Spartan prince named Hyacinth. Zephyrus fell in love with this beautiful young man but the god Apollo also made a pass at Hyancinth. When Zephyrus came across Hyancinth and Apollo playing with a discus, he became so jealous that he released the wind that made the discus change its direction and hit Hyancinth in the head. The beautiful young man died and Apollo was stricken with grief. From the blood of Hyacinth he created the fine smelling spring flower with the same name.

Boreas and Notus however stand for the most evil weather. Boreas brings cold and snow in winter and Notus brings rain.

It could be that Boreas was in bed with the infamous Mexican flu this winter because he came here only a few times, so it was Notus who ruled in recent months, and plagued the island with storms and rain. And he was not alone in enjoying himself. Zephyrus also attended the party, as did Livas, god of the south west wind.

However the big storms and all the rains we experienced did not feel like Zephirus was trying to bring spring to the island. But maybe at the end of winter during those bacchanals Zephyrus and Notus got into a fight, and I bet the seldom seen Livas, who made the sea and the quays so unsafe with his big and long waves, took the side of Notus.

For the umpteenth time this winter people have had to turn their cars away from the Eftalou Boulevard, too afraid to continue because mighty waves enthusiastically thrash over the street, make the already damaged road much worse. Notus has brought some nice warm temperatures of about 20oC already and Zephyrus has tried to foster spring by opening oceans of anemones, the first orchids, daffodils and other spring flowers. But like a schizophrenic god, Notus then tries to undo the benevolence of spring weather with more nasty storms.

I have been wondering how the frail petals of the almond blossoms will survive the storms. When you hear such a thundering gust of wind coming, you feel sure it will denude the tree of all its flowers in one blow. But no, the almond blossoms continue to open their beautiful flowers and dance happily even in the strongest wind. Maybe they are glad that it is not Boreas, who surely would have killed them all with his cold blasts.

Notus did show us his bad temper this winter, and even though Livas is still partying, spring does seem to have arrived on the island. The sun shines as a mighty arbiter over the turmoil of the winds of Lesvos, and I am sure she will eventually chase away the miscreants. Zephyrus may have finally won the battle and brought spring on, but this year he made us pay a high price.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

No Valentine on Lesvos

Yesterday it was Valentine’s Day and Carnival, but in Mytilini at the Franciscan Church no postman or delivery-man came to the door and for some people it was not such a joyful day to celebrate: because the holy bones of St Valentine were not returned to Lesvos.

According to the Lesvorian paper Ebros the Catholic parish of Lesvos counts about sixty souls. They have their Franciscan Church on the Ermou (the ‘First Avenue’ of Mytilini), a church that was founded in the 19th century when foreign salesmen, from a.o. France, Germany, England and Italy, came to settle on the island. How the shrine with the relic of St Valentine arrived at the island is not known. Probably it came with an Italian family. However the archbishop of Smyrna who visited Lesvos in 1907 confirmed it then as an authentic relic. Later the shrine was donated to the Catholic Church and that is how Valentine found his place on the Ermou.

After the Ottoman Empire collapsed and took in its fall the flourishing economy of Lesvos, and after the Second World War raged over the island, the church and its valuable relic were more or less forgotten. It was only in 1990 when a priest rescue the holy shrine from the neglected church and smuggled it to Athens where it found a new home in the Francis & Clara Church.

Then there was an agreement made that the holy souvenir would be returned to Lesvos in 2009. However, part of the ceiling of the Franciscan Church in Mytilini fell down and Valentine had to wait for another year. But this year there is still scaffoldings in the church and the entrance is hidden by all kinds of boxes from neighbouring shops. Not the kind of welcome you should give the return of a holy saint!

Valentine’s Day is now becoming more and more popular in Greece so the shop owners around the Francis & Clara Church in Athens do not want to let Valentine go to Lesbos, because they do good souvenir business thanks to him. And then there are the civil servants who apparently are working too slowly to get all papers ready that are necessary for saint’s translocation.

Which parts of the real St Valentine are in the old shrine is not sure and such vagueness is the story of his life. In fact Valentine was not on the official Catholic list of Roman martyrs. And it is not known who he really was. There are at least three who might qualify to be the cherished saint. They were all murdered by the Romans for helping Christians, a crime in Rome during the first three centuries after Christ’s birth. The contenders are a priest from Rome, the bishop of Interamna (nowadays Terni) and a martyr from what was then the ‘province’ of Africa. There is only agreement that at some time between the years 200 and 300 a certain Valentine was buried a little north of Rome on the Via Flaminia.

There are more stories about why Valentine became a saint. The bishop of Terni married a Roman soldier to a Christian girl, which was also forbidden. He then went on to marry many other ‘illegal’ Christian couples. Then there was the story of a prisoner who tried to heal the blind daughter of his guard and when he was executed, the daughter received a little note from Valentine containing a flower and she got her sight back and her father then converted to Christianity.

In 1836 the remains of Valentine were discovered in the Roman catacombs. They were probably divided into thousands of small bones and then donated (or sold) as relics to people all over the world who now claim they have a relic of St Valentine. One notable location with its own St Valentine shrine is Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, Ireland. But there is also the French Roquemaure, the Austrian Vienna, The Scottish Glasgow and the English Birmingham all of which claim they have parts of St Valentine’s body. Lesvos also makes the claim, but of course, at the moment, its relic is temporarily exiled in Athens.

Although there was no Valentine on the island for the saint’s day yesterday, there’s plenty of need for love. Our community is much tested by rising water. All winter long heavy rain has pestered Lesvos and the island is saturated, with overflowing rivers, pools of water, flooded fields and whole new rivers.

Even here in Molyvos previously unknown streams have emerged from hiding to flood cellars and houses, collapsing walls and damaging roads, with many households not only having water streaming out of their taps, but water through their house and gardens. Sometimes the taps may run dry but you can find a waterfall in the street outside.

It has been the wettest carnival season ever, although the procession in Molyvos has taken place under a bright blue sky. The gods finally have mercy on us, and it has not rained at all for two days. But I do not think it is a good idea to go kite flying or have a picnic, which is the tradition on Clean Monday (kathari devtera). The fields and the lands are soaked and even the warm sun won’t dry them out quickly enough.

Friends and entire families, however, will flood all the restaurants in big numbers to have a great meal before the forty days of Lent start. And the poor Valentine has to wait another year before he returns to his place on the Ermou in Mytilini.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Stin ygeia mas

There are hard times coming in Greece because of the general economic crisis. But Greeks are not people who immediately give up to sit and simmer. And especially not before the 40 days of Lent and Easter: it is time for carnival when, for a while, all problems are swept aside.

The carnival (apokries) in Greece lasts about three weeks. The first week is for getting into the mood, in the second week mostly meat is eaten. The top day of that week is tsiknopempti or Smoked Thursday when Greeks light up their grills and eat lots and lots of meat. The third week is the cheese week, so lots of dairy products are eaten. This week concludes with the big weekend of carnival and the festivities come to a close with Clean Monday (kathari devteri) on February 15.

People who do not have too much money, or who do not fancy going out to party, can stay home and turn on the television. Last tsiknopempti the popular Greek music program ‘Stin ygeia mas’ broadcast a special program as a contribution to the festivities: singing, dancing and making fun, that is always the message of this amazing live program.

Since 2005, on one of the biggest Greek tv-channels NET, the program has been running for three hours every Saturday night. Imagine a long row of tables (each year with ever more fancy table cloths). Behind the tables are the guests: a wide variety of singers, musicians and the host, Spiros Papadoupolo, an actor you will see in a lot of tv-serials. After the introductions, the first singer gets on stage (where there is an orchestra), takes the microphone and the show begins.

If you want to learn the vast collection of Greek popular songs, you have to watch this program each week. Most of the songs are very well known so guests and host can sing along. After a year viewing ‘Stin ygeia mas’ I am sure you will know most of the songs.

Not only do they sing on stage, but also from the tables, and when the evening really warms up, flowers are thrown at the singers. In Greece they used to throw plates and dishes (on the floor) to encourage a beautiful performance by an artist, or because they sang a favourite song. But smashing crockery is maybe not without danger. Years ago plate throwing was forbidden so nowadays people throw flowers. But we know the Greeks, so even on a national television program such as ‘Stin ygeia mas’ the occasional stack of dishes will be shattered into a thousands pieces on the dance floor.

The same faces reappear in the program but some very big artists can also be seen as guests on the program — like Georgos Dalares, Yannis Parios or Kostas Xatsis. Or sometimes they have really special guests like the singing priest or a group of folk dancers with very young members. The situation sometimes can get quite turbulent, which can be very amusing. Have a look at the table dance’ and or the comic ‘broom dance’!

In Holland you will never see a program on television where guests sing so loud without any embarrassment, get drunk and dance the night away. But this is how a Greek evening is. Be it at a wedding, a special dinner or a television program, when there is live music, there is always singing and dancing, on the dance floor, besides the dinner tables or amongst the dishes on the table.

‘Stin ygeia mas’ is not always as entertaining. There are nights when there only old people are featured, who do not smile often so then you have to hope it’s the music that’s enchanting. But when Dimitris Starovas or Yannis Zouganelli are at the tables you can be sure that the evening will bring a lot of fun and sparkling music.

There are also moments when everybody behind the long tables falls quiet, because of a beautiful performance like the one of Iro Lechouriti. And sometimes it’s not all Greek songs but Spanish songs accompanied by Spanish dances; or pop songs or songs with a pretty foreign sound, from a group like Cabaret Balkan.

It is clear that there is music in the Greek blood. The Rebetiko is a popular Greek music style that was formed at the beginning of the 20ste century, a distillation of the Turkish music that the Greek refugees from Smyrna brought with them when they were expelled from Turkey, plus the music style already existing in Piraeus. In the twenties Rebetiko was the ‘blues of Greece’, played in hashish den and all over the poor quarters of the big cities. (TB: Rebetiko was also frowned upon by the Colonels). Many Rebetiko songs are played in ‘Stin ygeia mas’, although young people probably think they are old fashioned. I am sure that with the current crisis Rebetiko will have another revival, like in the Sixties.

Singing aloud with a longing in the heart for the good old years, that is what Greek entertainment is all about. It is something that we are going to need very badly in the coming days.

(Thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The wisdom of farmers

The poor farmer.
“Once upon a time there was a very poor farmer who lived in a tiny house. The only tool he had was an axe to chop wood. On a cold day he went to the forest where he started to cut wood near a river. Suddenly he lost his grip on the axe and the axe glided into the water. The farmer was so upset that he started to cry because he had no money to buy a new axe.

In the river lived a god who took mercy upon the farmer. He crawled out of the river and asked the farmer what was the matter. The farmer answered that he had lost his only axe and that he could no longer cut wood for the coming winter. The god disappeared back into the river and returned with a golden axe. “Here is your axe”, he said to the farmer. But the farmer replied: “No, no that is not my axe”.

The god dived again into the water and reappeared this time with a silver axe. “Here is your axe”, he said to the farmer and again the farmer shook his head: “ No, that is not my axe”. So the god went into the water again and this time emerged with the farmer’s axe. The farmer was glad and cried: “Yes, yes, that is my axe!”

The god dived another time into the river and came back with all the axes: the golden, silver axe and the one the farmer had lost, and said to the farmer “all three belong to you because you are such an honest man”. The farmer was happy and returned to his house and then to the village to tell what happened at the river.

Another farmer heard this story and the next morning he ran with this axe in his hands to the forest. He threw the axe in the river and started to cry. The river god appeared and asked what was the matter. The greedy farmer answered that he lost his axe and that he now was unable to chop wood. The god dived into the river and came back with a golden axe. He asked the farmed if that was the one he lost and the farmer said: Yes, yes, that one is mine”.

The god was very angry and told the farmer that he lied. He was not a trustworthy person and the god disappeared into the river without even retrieving the farmer’s lost axe.

Greeks are very proud. Especially because of their past. Thousands of years ago Greek scientists and philosophers were world famous. There is nothing wrong with being proud, but it seems that the Greeks may have forgotten to learn the lessons of those rich centuries. Maybe they should tell this folk tale about the poor farmer more often to one another. If they did, the farmers might realise it was no use blocking roads every year (it was the same story last winter) to stop imports and to try and get bigger subsidies from the government. Certainly not in such poor economic times as now. Our neighbour Bulgaria is already claiming millions of euros in damages because their exports to Greece have been halted for three weeks at the border by farmers’ blockades of trucks and tractors. You can imagine what the damage can be done by three weeks of such actions.

The farmers might remember the work of the ancient poet Hesiod. In his poem ‘Works and Days’ he gives practical advice to farmers and tells them to do their work in an honest and economical way. Hesiod was a farmer and a poet who lived around the fourth century BC. Because of his clever suggestions to farmers some people see him as our first economist.

But Hesiod had little faith in the future. In the same work, in the part named “The five Ages of Men’ he describes how the world will perish: in the golden age the people lived like gods. Everybody was happy, they did not had to work and even though they had to die, they died very peacefully. In the Silver Age it was Zeus who ruled the world. Although it took some hundred happy years for a child to grow up, once an adult he had to work. But the mortals did not worship the gods, so after their deaths, Zeus banished them to the Underworld where they became blessed spirits.

In the Bronze Age people started wars with each other and fought with their weapons that were just like the tools they worked with made of bronze. In the Heroic Age life became a little better. Mortals lived amongst half-gods and great heroes. This was the time of the famous war at Troy where so many Greek heroes fought. Then came the Iron Age, which looks to be our own time — the time when children betray their parents, brothers fight against each other, guests are no longer treated well, babies are born with grey hair and the gods no longer care for humans. This is the age when Zeus will one day destroy the world.

So Hesiod was an interesting guy. It really is a pity that he died so long ago. He would have been a very welcome guest in all those popular talk shows on television where they try to find solutions for all problems in the world, (such as roadblocks by Greek farmers). Using the popularity of modern media Hesiod could have spread his wise lessons to many more farmers.

I guess not many farmers on Lesvos read Hesiod because many of them also live on subsidies. But they do not block the roads — although they complain enough about promised subsidies that do not come, about social security that is not paid and the general economic crisis faced by Greece. Their complaints are only heard inside the kafenions and the living rooms and they shrug their shoulders and they go into the fields to collect chorta (wild vegetables). There is no subsidy for chorta, it grows free in nature. Here on the island they know everything about the free gifts of nature. It was just a few decennia ago they were so poor that people lived partly from what nature gives. And that is a thing that the people here do not forget so easily...

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010