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.