Thursday, 24 June 2010

A stupid man does not speak

(A statue of Theophrastus in Eresos)

In earlier times a scientist used to be quite different from now: ancient Greeks like Theophrastus and Aristotle were all round scholars. They did not specialize in just one thing, but researched everything that came their way. I can easily understand that when you come from an island like Lesvos, you need a lot of time just to study nature there.

Theophrastus is especially known for his study of plants. His surviving books ‘De causis plantarum’ and ‘De historia plantarum’ are our first sources of botanical knowledge. But not all his work has survived. If we are to believe past writers who studied his works, this Lesvorian scientist wrote over 200 scientific books about various subjects such as about perspiration and body odours, about tiredness and dizziness, about mourning and melancholy. He wrote about animals that bite or sting or are jealous, about the education of a king, about winds, storms and water; he wrote about metaphysics and minerals - including volcanic and semiprecious stones, about silver and copper and many more things.

So it is understandable that just before he died, Theophrastus complained that there was not enough time in a single life to study all the world’s problems.

He started his studies of philosophy on Lesvos, and then left for Athens where it is thought he continued his learning at the school founded by Plato and where he met Aristotle. After Plato’s death he followed Aristotle out of the city, and around 345 BC he returned to Lesvos, this time with Aristotle following him. It is thought that while Aristotle studied the animals of Lesvos, Theophrastus started out on his extensive study on plants but when Aristotle was appointed tutor to the then fourteen year old Alexander the Great, Theophrastus followed him to Macedonia.

Theophrastus not only was a good researcher, he was a much praised orator. His original name was Tyrtamus (in those time Greeks were not yet named Yorgos, Yannis or Dimitris), but because of ability to ‘speak like the gods’ he got the nickname Theo (God) phrastus (talk). Not only did he talk well, but he studied the people he talked to. That is evident from another work that, like his books over plants, has survived: ‘Characters’.

This little book is an amusing satirical prose work on human behaviour and even though it was written more than two thousand years ago it is clear that human beings have not changed much since his time: the Ironical Man, the Flatterer, the Garrulous Man, the Boor, the Complaisant Man, the Reckless Man, the Chatty Man, the Gossip, the Shameless Man, the Penurious Man, the Gross Man and so on. So many characters that it is very easy to find something of yourself. In Holland we would call it ‘psychology from the cold earth’, in this case it is psychology from the Lesvorian earth.

Nowadays there are few people who can stand up in comparison to the industrious writers and wise philosophers from Antiquity, like Theophrastus and Aristotle. One contemporary who may come a little close is the greatest (and still living) Greek musical maestro Mikis Theodorakis, with his many compositions - including protest songs from the dark times of the colonels regime - that all Greeks still know by heart and, of course, his biggest success ‘Zorba’s Dance’ from the legendary movie ‘Zorba the Greek’ (1964) from Michaelis Kakoyannis is known all over the world..

Thanks to his protest songs Theodorakis is loved by nearly all Greeks. But I wonder if he really is still such a wise man. At the end of April he wrote something (on his website) about the crisis in Greece that really shocked me: that the Americans that are behind the current economic crisis and it worries him that they have become such good friends with Turkey. Together with the Central Bank of Europe and countries such as Germany (led by Angela Merkel) they are trying to get Greece down on its knees which will destroy the Greek people.

I flipped through the pages of ‘Characters’ from Theophrastus, but I could not really find one that fitted Theodorakis. As well as his character studies, Theophrastus was widely known for his sayings. He once said to a man who did not say one word during an elaborate dinner party: If you are a stupid man, you have done well (not to speak), but if you are an intelligent man, you behaved stupidly. A wise saying, but Theodorakis proves that even intelligent men can say stupid things. You perhaps might think that Theodorakis, once the voice of the Greek people, is now is on the side of the rich – the ones who know the skilful art of tax evasion, the practice that has brought Greece to near bankruptcy.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Russian Amazons

(The archaeological site at Thermi)

Homer once wrote that the island of Lesvos was named after a son-in-law of the mythical king Makar. Makar had five daughters and different places (which still exist to this day) were named after them: Mytilini, Mithimna, Arisvi, Eresos and Andissa. However there are people who think that it was someone else who gave the capital of Lesvos its name: a famous queen Myrina, who named Mytilini after her sister.

Myrina was one of the queens that reigned over the notorious fighting women known as Amazons. It is not known for sure where they lived, but most historians think it was originally around the Black Sea and that they moved south later. It is said that queen Myrina raised an enormous army of thousands of women to conquer the south: Syria, Libya and Egypt and that she then planned to go deep into Asia. Mytilini was the Amazon who fought by sea and tried to conquer Greece from the Aegean Sea. On their way south the Amazons founded different cities, including in Myrina (capital of Lemnos) and Myitlini in Greece, and in Turkey Cyme (an old Aeolian city now called Namurt), Smyrna (Izmir) Ephesus, and Cyrene in Libya

It is difficult to say what is really true in these stories and what is fantasy. But, after all, it was once conventional wisdom that the splendid story of the siege of Troy was made up, a myth, but archaeological discoveries prove that the Trojan war as described in the ‘Iliad’ of Homer, really did take place.

Just as the heroes who fought in the Trojan war were thought to be mythical so too were the Amazons. Several ancient writers, like Homer, Herodotus or Pausianas, described their brave feats of arms, but just as with Troy archaeology gives us proof that perhaps these fabulous female fighters really existed. In different parts of Greece graves of women fighters have been discovered and in the land were the Sarmatians lived - what is now the Ukraine - more graves have been found of women buried with weapons. So they could be the Amazons.

The Amazon Research Network tries to list all scientific publications about Amazons in order to convince us that they were real historical figures. That is how I discovered that archaeologist suspect that the Amazons once lived here on Lesvos too, and on the neighbouring island of Lemnos. The physical proof have been found in diggings at the sites of the ancient towns of Thermi on Lesvos and Poliochni and Myrina on Lemnos. All three cities seems to be similar and the artefacts found there indicate that female soldiers lived there..

Lesvos once gave its name to the lesbians but Lemnos also has a place in the history of women. Once the women there stopped worshipping Aphrodite, goddess of love and she became so angry she gave a bad smell to all the island’s women. It was bad enough to put men off from sleeping with them - and so they decamped to Thrace on the mainland where they found women who would bear their offspring. However, the women on Lemnos became angry and murdered all men left on the island, including young boys. That is why when Jason and his Argonauts came looking for the Golden Fleece, they found only women there - women who welcomed them with open arms.

I dare not make a link between the story of the women of Lemnos and the whereabouts of the Amazons. But both groups of women were eager to get men into their beds. It is a story of survival.

Nowadays it is quite the opposite: there is a shortage of women both on Lesvos and on Lemnos. Because most people work in the agricultural sector and there are very few jobs for women, so they leave and flee to the mainland, hoping to find a more satisfying and modern life.

The successful Dutch television program ‘Farmer searches a wife’ has been made in Greece as well, but with this program just a few farmers find a wife this way. On Lemnos they have come up with another solution: why not get a group of Russian women to come to the island? After all, the internet is full of ads from desperate Russian women offering their love and many successfully leave a miserable life behind and come to a sunny island like Lesvos. Here there is more than one Greek man who has separated from his Greek wife because he has found a Russian bride (in a brothel or another dark room!). A sensual Russian woman who will do anything to improve her life seems irresistible to a Greek man.

On Lemnos a group of some seventy men got together to try and get a group of women to come to the island. They even found some forty Russian women who were interested in sharing the life of a Greek farmer. The problem is that they could not find a tour operator to bring them to the island. So what now?

If this group of women eventually succeeds in getting to the island, I am curious about the reaction of the women of Lemnos. When Russian Amazons come to take their husbands and sons away from them, will they temper their wrath this time?

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Wednesday, 16 June 2010


(a caper plant)
We now know pretty much of how the Greeks used to eat in earlier times. Through books of old philosophers and writers, but as well thanks to pottery digged out of the earth and archeaology scientists can imagine how the kitchen of Antique Greeks once looked like.

They used to eat lots of bread, until the fifth century BC mainly barley bread. Other grain bread came later, with grain that first was imported and later was grown in Greece itself. Bread was mainly made home or baked in communal ovens. When the choice of different bread became bigger, there came as well the first bakers in the Greek cities where you could buy bread.

Breakfast and lunch for the old Greeks consisted mainly of wine mixed with water and bread that you dipped into the wine and sometimes aside some dried figs or olives. Only in the evening vegetables and when it could be afforded fish or meat was served. As vegetables it were mainly beans and cabbages.

Spices were then not added to dishes for a new flavour, but were mainly used as medicine. Salt was used to conserve for example fish and onions were thought to give a man new strength. That is why Alexander the Great fed his soldiers with lots of onions. This way he hoped his army would last forever. From garlic as well it was thought that it could bring you special strength. That is why participants of the early Olympic Games eat garlic before the matches, although garlic was mainly used as a cure for bites and infections.

Capers as well were seen as a cure. Theophrastus (371 - 287 BC), who came from Lesvos (Eresos) and is seen as the first botanist, wrote that capers were a good carminative: they stimulate the blood stream in the stomach. Later they thought capers were as well good against rheumatism.

So capers may have been served sometimes as an appetizer (they stimulate the appetite) and maybe an old Greek may have served it as an aphrodisiac during a symposium (in Antiquity this was an evening dinner were guests were invited, only for men!), but a sauce or salad with capers was probably not yet invented then.

Here on Lesvos as well they hardly know the caper, even that on some places they grow abundantly. In some taverns they are served in a salad, like the one in Liota, but you will never get capers on a pizza nor a capers sauce served over ray (nor in the rest of Greece, I guess). There are even people living their whole life here on the island who do not believe that capers grow on their island!

I love capers and I now understand quite well why they are so expensive to buy. Harvesting capers is a hell of a job and you need time to do it because they are so small that you easily need an hour to fill a little pot. While strawberries, cherries, plums, apricots and mulberries are screaming to be harvested, you as well have to go on a caper expedition to pick those delicate flower buds on those prickly plants that grow on rocky ground near the sea.

When you once have picked them it is not a time consuming job anymore to preserve them like it is with other fruit that you have to peel or extract a kern. You just have to put them some days on fresh water and then put them in a pot with a mix of salted water, vinegar and some spices.

And when the pots are getting ready in your larder, all scratches from the caper plants are healed and the heatstroke caught during picking capers has subdued you will be delighted to use them on a pizza or in a beetroot salad. When you must believe the scientists the old Greeks who were rich had enormous and interesting banquets that they drank away with wine while debating and philosophizing. But I would not have wanted to live in that time. After Antiquity so many new products, like the tomato, eggplant and potato invaded the Greek kitchen that it totally changed. They may have had so many smart philosophers who wrote books about plants and grounded the medicinal science like Hippocratus (ca. 460 - 370 BC) did, but food is much better nowadays.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 3 June 2010

A new Parthenon

(Renovation of the Parthenon in Athens)

Besides the word for cutting down on spending – perikopes – there are two other words that are often to be found in the Greek news nowadays: cabotage and kallikrates.

I had assumed kallikrates meant something like ‘good country’. Kalli from kalo (good) and krates from kratos (land). But I was totally wrong. Kallikrates is the name of one of the two architects who built the Parthenon on the Athenian hill the Acropolis (Iktonos was the other architect) in the fifth century BC. So it takes a lot of courage and maybe some arrogance to name a project that will turn Greece upside down after the architect who designed its most famous icon. Maybe not many Greeks knew the names of the architects of the Parthenon, but plenty do now thanks to ‘project kallikrates’ that will restructure the entire nation: the number of municipalities will be reduced from 1034 to 370. That means many villages and small islands have be merged into one large municipality.

This ‘rationalisation’ will not only will save lots of money, it will be a way of making civic rule easier for mayors, governors and other authorities, simply because there will be fewer of them to hold up the decision-making that can influence projects which cross over local boundaries or are the favourites of particular individuals..

And we know, the Greek, do not like change. Especially the kind that melds their village with another. Because, imagine if you can’t go and complain to your own mayor — who you know — but have to take your case to a total stranger. Many people on Lesvos were against the project, especially when it appeared that the island had to reduce thirteen municipalities into an only one. So now Agia Paraskevi, Agiassos, Jera, Eresos-Andissa, Evergetoulas, Kalloni, Loutropoli Thermi, Mandamados, Mytilini, Molyvos, Petra, Plomari and Polichnitos will come under just one mayor. Some people here are praising the kallikrates plan because it may solve some long existing problems (like getting a new waste treatment facility and a new electricity power plant (no individual municipality wants a plant within its borders). Other people are against the plan because they say: how can a man from, say, Mytilini, solve the problems in Plomari? That is why, as in many parts of Greece, lots of people have taken to the streets in Mytilini to protest against the kallikrates policy.

I cannot choose which side I am on. I must admit that it is easy to have your own mayor in your own village. You always can sit at his table or besides him on the beach to confront him with a problem. On the other hand it is madness to maintain thirteen municipalities whose personnel often spend their working days drinking coffee.

Another new policy that drove people on to the streets is about that other word I did not know: cabotage — which means the transport of goods or people between two points in a country, done by businesses based in a foreign country. Cabotage was not allowed in Greece, and the ban acted as a form of protection(ism) for local business and employment. So, foreign cruise ships weren’t allowed to bring their passengers to more than one port in Greece, because bringing them from one island to another was technically cabotage. Last April passengers from an Italian cruise ship visiting Athens found out about the situation in a very confrontational situation when a large group of people protested against the government’s intention to lift the ban on cabotage for cruise ships, and blocked the passengers’ way back to their ship, so they were forced to spend a night in a hotel. However, despite all the protests the new law was passed — but the economy minister made a little adjustment to appease the people against it: now 10% of the crews of all ships doing cabotage has to be of Greek nationality!

When you just change just one letter of cabotage you get sabotage. You would think that one part of Greece somehow enjoys sabotaging the other: think how many families get their living from tourism but why doesn’t this group (against the lifting of the ban) see how their selfishness destroys the already stressed tourist industry?

Lesvos has nothing to do with sabotage nor with cabotage. The cruise ships that come to the island can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But maybe the kallikrates project is not so bad at all, if it finally gets the Greeks on one line and not being so selfish anymore.

The Parthenon survived many desecrations: by Demetrios Poliorcetes, a Macedonian conqueror, who after he took Athens in 307 BC put his whores to live in a room at the back of the Parthenon; in the 6th century AD it became a church dedicated to Saint Sophia; in the middle ages a church for Maria (mother of God) and after the Ottomans conquered Athens in 1460, they turned the Parthenon into a mosque. In 1687 it was a store for gun powder and when the Venetians besieged the Acropolis the arsenal went up in a monster explosion and the central part of the Parthenon was badly damaged.

Now the building has been renovated and the Partheon towers proudly on top of the Acropolis. And the new government of Papandreou has taken the name of one of its architects to raise Greece from its terrible crisis, like a new temple. The building of the original Parthenon took some ten years. I really hope that the building of New Greece will go a bit quicker…

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Hiking through Paradise

Lesvos is not that well known as a paradise for walkers. But it is one of the best secret walking treasures of Europe: it is never overcrowded, least of all by walkers. Only a few travel companies promote the island as a destination for hikers and there are a few books with walks on Lesvos.

The lush green nature and the agrarian character of the landscape of Lesvos make it a landscape of many varieties with open fields and terraces, oak, chestnut and pine forests and, of course olive groves. On every walk there are hills or even mountains offering grand views of the landscape, the sea distant Turkey or other islands such as Chios. Secret tiny archaeological sites can easily be the highlight of a walk. Or tiny churches and little rural villages that give you the opportunity to have a break in the shade. The landscapes are so different you are bound to encounter more than one on any walk.

The roads can be single donkey paths (monopathis), to centuries old half-forgotten kalderimis (the old, with big stone paved main roads of the island), to the broader sandy or dirt roads, and of course, if there is no other way to get there, you can take to the asphalt or bitumen. You will meet farmers travelling by pick up or donkey to or from their land holdings and many of the ‘farms’ you pass may be just a few wooden sheds with iron utensils holding water for goats, sheep and sometimes cows or pigs. Wandering chickens will not be bothered by you, some dogs might happily greet you, unless they are tied to a chain, and cats? Oh yes, some will be scared of you but others will harass you for a cuddle. Then there are always song birds, or the occasional lonely tortoise or hedgehog, the only living creatures you run into.

Impressive huge plane trees, century old and whimsically formed olive trees, impenetrable hedges of strawberry, laurel or mastico trees linger along the roads. Dark green ferns hide in shadowy places, bright exotic flowers light up the scene near waterfalls, and in spring orchids glimmer in fields mostly filled with other spring flowers. In autumn there are fig trees, wild apple, chestnut and wild wine branches all presenting you with their hearty bounty of health-giving fruits. Does this not sound like paradise?

It’s a paradise that will only be disturbed should you get lost. But however quiet the landscape may seem, in most places you are never so far away from where people live and work and in most areas there will be always a farmer in his field who you can ask for directions.

Most walkers are not happy when their walking tour book turns out to have wrong information in it. If a walk that takes some kilometres just gets you lost and wandering for several more, it’s not surprising people are reduced to tears. It happens, but it may be that they didn’t read the directions properly. Writers do make errors (and plenty can go wrong when their descriptions are translated) but there’s another facet —the landscape is always changing. Lesvos is an island that moves on. A fence may be suddenly closed with a chain, a friendly field may be walled in, a side path made invisible by overgrown vegetation, a ‘dry riverbed’ you have to cross may now be full of water, a road completely washed away, or, when the book clearly states that it must be a dirt road next, you suddenly find yourself on concrete.

Serious people writing about walks regularly check them and re-issue new versions or put changes on the internet. The English walker Mike Maunder is such a writer and does a comprehensive job updating his walks. He published his first walking book in 2000: Mithimna Walks (Mithimna is the other name for Molyvos). A year later came the second edition with corrected and new walks: On Foot in North Lesvos. The third edition was in 2003.

Mike has never stopped walking and looking for new things to say and new walks to try. Last year he teamed up with a Dutch walking companion, Sigrid van der Zee, who lives on the island, and only last week they published a joint edition (the fourth) ‘On foot in North Lesvos’ and next year they are putting out a book of walks for the whole island.

If you want to walk all over the island, there is also ‘Lesvos, Car Tours and Walks’ by Brian and Eileen Anderson (ed Sunflower). If you are afraid of getting lost, you can go with a guide. The German Eva Trauman offers accompanied walks in the North-east, the centre and south of Lesvos.

You can always can walk on your own, without a guide, an organisation or a book. But I feel sure you would then most likely miss some of the beautiful places the walk lovers have found and described for you. Walking on Lesvos is walking in paradise, but it is always good to know where you are heading.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010