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