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