Wednesday, 23 February 2011

UFOs have landed!

(A platform with solar panels close to Skalochori)

While the old Greece still wrestles with its great crisis, investors are busy making the country ready for the future. Slim windmills are invading the landscape as more and more licenses are given for big green energy projects.

For example, one group wants to build the biggest solar park in the Balkans, just outside of the city of Kozani, in northern Greece. It will cost hundreds of millions of euro but will create lots of green energy and jobs.

However, I am glad they did not choose Lesvos for it because that many solar panels would definitively mark our landscape. However, Lesvos too is building its future. I had not been to the west of the island for months, but a few days ago I got a big surprise when it seemed I had arrived in the middle of a UFO-park. On both sides of the road from Skoutaros to Skalochori huge solar platforms which look as if they are based on the design for a UFO have been installed. Take a look at the one filmed near Eresos (on YouTube). Does it not look like flying sun panels?

Lesviots are not completely unfamiliar with UFOs. Last summer I spoke to a couple of Greeks who told me that their son was sure he was followed by one on his way to Eresos. But the really big UFO-year here was 1954, when in autumn hundreds of people saw them. The sightings were reported in newspaper stories at the time:

October 6. A telegram from a local police station on Lesvos island (Aegean sea), reports that at 3:15 pm, the mayor and residents of Vryssos community, saw a small star-like object which manoeuvered over the village for a quarter of an hour. Eventually, at 3:30 pm, it moved to the NW, then North and finally disappeared westwards. (Acropolis, October 7.)

October 8. Another telegram from the same source reports that at 6:00 pm a luminous object with a ‘tail’ was seen hovering over Anemotia village. The UFO was as big as the full moon and emitted beams of gold-white light. After three minutes it moved NE and disappeared. (Macedonia, October 9.)

October 9. Again at Lesvos island, Mr S. Horiatellis and his 12 year-old son were hunting near the village of Stymmi, when they witnessed a luminous cigar-shaped body, moving horizontally. The object then moved vertically and simultaneously parted in two. Both parts were also cigar-shaped and continued to moving with a constant distance between them. The newspaper reports that these two UFOs were also sighted by scientists in nearby Turkey. (Hellenicos Vorras - Hellenic North - October 10.)

October 15. Another telegram from the local police station of Ayassos, Lesvos, reports a ‘luminous phenomenon’, witnessed by hundreds of people. The UFO was round and hovered at 2-3,000 m (6-9,000 ft) for about half and hour. It disappeared, then reappear after ten minutes, divided into two separate objects that departed and vanished, moving into two different directions. (Acropolis, October 16, Macedonia, October 19.)

At that same time strange flying objects were seen in other parts of Greece, also in France and in South America. Nowadays you might still sometimes see unidentified objects in the sky, but most people no longer believe they are ‘UFOs’. So when traveling through the west part of Lesbvos, and you suddenly think you arrived at an UFO-airport, don’t panic. What you see there is the landscape of the future, needed for green energy. Maybe the whole of West Lesvos is going to be conquered by these UFO-looking solar panels and Don Quixote-style windmills: a modern energy park that will be a great contrast to the national park with its forest of ancient petrified trees.

With this much green energy you might think that the electric car will be introduced pretty soon. But for that to happen lots of our moonlike roads full of pot-holes and craters will have to be remade - especially at Eftalou and Petra - where, as long as the economic crisis lasts, they will no doubt remain a fairground attraction for car drivers!

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Island of Dracula!

(Photo from the internet)

Imagine that you find on old grave and you open it to do some research and you discover a skeleton that has been hammered into its coffin with huge spikes! Not so long ago this happened to the American archaeologist Hector Williams of the University of British Columbia, who has been investigating relics around Mytilini. He found the grave in a nineteenth century Turkish cemetery near the city’s northern harbour.

It seems likely that people had buried a man who they feared might rise from the dead: one spike was hammered through his throat, another through his pelvis and a third through his ankle. And to be sure heavy stones were placed on the coffin lid.

The find blew a gust of excitement through the scientific world, made all the more mysterious with the discovery of another grave close to a little Taxiarchis church just above Mytilini. Here the same enormous spikes were found lying beside the skeleton. The find suggested that people thought they were burying a vampire and it inspired the film director Julian Thomas to make a television documentary (for the History Channel) about it. He called it Vampire Island. The poor spike-victim was called ‘Vlad’, after the Walachian ruler Vlad Tepes (1431-1476), aka Vlad Dracula or count Dracula.

It was the Irish writer Bram Stoker who made vampires popular (and feared) in Western Europe with his book Dracula (1897), a fantasy about the blood guzzling count Dracula from Transylvania. Stories about vampires however are much older and every culture has mythical beings who rise from the dead to drink the blood of the living. In Greek culture they are the vrikolakes.

Belief in vampires is mainly caused by fear that the dead will come back from their graves to take revenge. There are enough creepy (and hilarious) movies which have scenes in which the dead suddenly stir from their coffins.

The TV documentary tried to explain this fear of the living dead by, for example, the chemical reactions that continue in a body after death - cause nails and hair keep growing for a while, gasses make the belly swell up and rigor mortis can cause limbs to make small movements.

In ancient times people who were different were often treated as outcasts. If they were physically or mentally ill people were afraid they could change into a vampire after death - especially people suffering from tuberculosis (who give up blood when they are very ill).
But what of our Vlad? Scientist researching his skeleton think he was a strong and healthy man, so he was probably an outcast for another reason.

Here in Greece people get buried a day after they die. They then stay in the ground for two years. Traditionally, the family would look after them for this time in the afterlife by bringing food, drink and some conversation. Nowadays the custom of leaving food and drinks at the grave has faded but as long as they are in their graves the dead can still expect plenty of company. At the end of the two years the remains are dug up by which time it is to be hoped all bones will have turned white. If they are not clean or they are black it means the person must have been a sinner and the family should be ashamed. The remains of such people have to be reburied and if after a second exhumation the bones are still not white, it means maybe the deceased was not even human and, who knows, might have even been a vampire.

However, science has proved that the colour of bones depends on the kind of soil they were buried in and anyway they can be washed white by a priest with wine and vinegar (which is another way of dealing with vampires). This way the family doesn’t have to be ashamed of the dead person’s reputation.

The English Archaeologist Charles Thomas Newton wrote a book about his time here on Lesvos, where he was vice consul in Mytilini from 1852 to 1855 - Travels and Discoveries in the Levant (1865). In it he said that in the sea near the coast of the capital there was a small island where anyone suspected of being a vampire was buried. Since people believed that vampires could not survive in salt water, if they did come back to life they could not escape from the island.

According to archaeologist Hector Williams, Newton was referring to an islet just across from Pamfila. Williams did not yet get the chance to dig around there, but from a plane he thought saw the remains of old buildings and he is sure that it was a place unique on earth - vampire island!

Just across from Crete is the island Spinalonga. For some years it has been a popular tourist destination but until the 1950s when a cure was found it was a leper colony. At that time not many people dared visit Spinalonga but these days lots of visitors fearlessly roam the island.

Hector Williams thinks Lesvos has a vampire cemetery just offshore. I hope he soon will dig up its graves to prove his theory. Who knows what atrocities the graves will reveal? It will give the myth of Dracula a Greek twist and could be a stimulus to tourism on Lesvos.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream

Eight years ago, when I sent first reports back to family and friends about life here on the Greek island of Lesvos, I never thought they would end up in a weekly column, let alone a book. But now it is there: this week the book will be ready.

In my years here I have learned a lot - about the food, the celebrations, the people and daily life, the rhythm of the seasons (especially summer and winter) and history. The most wondrous part of life here is Nature which keeps surprising me with what she brings, not only the oceans of plants but its marvellous vistas. Take a walk on any evening along the seashore towards the setting sun and the colours of the sea will never bore you. On windless days along the gulf of Kalloni the views are always breathtaking. A dramatic moon coming up, snow on Mt Lepetymnos or just the sun scattering her light across the olive trees, and I never stop saying: wow, so beautiful.

Of course I discovered there were negatives: a bad bureaucratic system, people pushing in shopping queues, careless drivers, the throw-away garbage culture and cruelty to animals. Greece is not the Netherlands, but I didn’t come here to try to teach Greeks how to behave. All I could do was try and live a good life myself and not get too upset. In the years I’ve been here I have seen a lot of changes. These days more people fight for a better life for animals and for a cleaner environment; they are more likely to share the road with other users; pushing and shoving is decidedly old fashioned and where once piles of waste grew abundantly in the landscape, there are now far fewer illegal dumps to be seen. I even hear that the Molyvos town garbage dump is going to be closed down and replaced by a central waste plant on the island. However I will believe that when I see it.

This year car owners are happier because there is a new ministry of transport (KTEO here) inspection point. It used to take a whole day to get your car checked, and the staff were pretty rude, but now there’s a brand new building where you can watch the process from behind a big glass screen while pretty young girls make sure you car is ready in ten to twenty minutes.

Today I read on the local website that I now live in ‘Natura Area’ No. GR4110012, called Northern’ Lesvos, which includes Mt Lepetymnos, Petra, Molyvos, Stipsi, Ypsolometopo and Mandamados, a region which is a protection zone for plants and animals (especially birds). Natura 2000 is a network of protected areas across the European Union.

So there are some new things going on the island where not much seems to happen - but even though we do more and more catching up with modern times. The traffic on the main road from Kalloni to Mytilini gets more and dense, the lesser roads remain as quiet as ever. In some of the villages far away from the tourist itinerary time seems to have stopped altogether. Although you might suddenly see a huge new building (mostly for storing animal feed), more mighty windmills or a freshly bituminized stretch of road.

But don’t be put off: Lesvos is still the enchanting island that people knew many years ago and I hope I have done it justice in my columns. And for those who don’t know Lesvos, please take a look at the book and see for yourself how much variety there is here from the petrified trees, the curling monopatia (ancient foot paths), quiet beaches, sleepy villages, charming cozy towns that have few tourists and the capital of Mytilini itself where there is still much to discover.

Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream will be published Wednesday February 9 so you have time to get a copy before Valentines Day. The saint’s connection with Lesvos, is one of the stories in the book. So make somebody happy with not only my writing but the beautiful photographs of Jan van Lent and the sensational graphic design by Jeroen Koster: a special book for a special person!

title: Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream
orginal Dutch title: Strooilichtezels & Vossenballenijs
editor: Smitaki (Julie Smit)

publication date: c February 11 2011
dimensions: 260 by 210 mm
binding: hardback
pp: 288
photos: 320
columns: 123
ISBN (Dutch): 978-90-816501-1-3
ISBN (English): 978-90-816501-2-0

order from:

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011

Friday, 4 February 2011


(Tomatoes from the book Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream)

Last week the New York Times published an interesting article about a small beer brewer in Komotini, in the north of Greece, close to the Turkish border. 'What’s broken in Greece? Ask an Entrepeneur' was the title. It tells the story of Dimitri Politopoulos, who has been struggling for twelve years now to keep his brewery going. From his experience it seems it isn’t only foreigners looking to invest in Greece who are faced with a barrier of laws and rules - the Greeks themselves don’t have an easy life trying to make and sell products.

I wonder where all those dynamic Greek salesmen have gone, who were once at the flourishing heart of Smyrna (nowadays Izmir) during the days of the Ottoman Empire. It was the Greeks and Armenians who kept the economy booming in those days. After the fall of the empire and the creation of the Turkish state, the country was cleared of foreigners and the healthy economy was more or less destroyed.

Who does not know the story of the shipping giant Aristotle Onassis? He fled Turkey and very quickly built up an enormous shipping business, which made him one of the best known icons of modern Greece. Many Greeks also went to the United States where they too created all kinds of businesses. In those days it was still the land where dreams could come true and by hard work and good business decisions you could become a millionaire.

Not in Greece. Except for Onassis very few got rich by dint of their labours. And so it is today. The NYT article makes that clear. For example Mr Politopoulos wanted to brew a new kind of herbal tea made from plants which he grows in the mountains, but a Greek law forbids brewers to make anything but beer - a law dating back to the time when King Otto of Bavaria ruled Greece (1833–1862).

It was he who first introduced beer to Greece. It was after the time the main part of Greece was able to free itself from Ottoman rule and Otto (the second son of King Luther I of Bavaria) was installed by the European powers to be its ruler. He brought with him a royal Bavarian brewer named Fuchs. Otto, however was never very popular with the Greeks and was sent back home in 1862. However, Fuchs stayed and his son founded the first brewery in Greece, producing a beer he called FIX (after Fuchs).
However, if Mr Politopoulos wants to realise his dream of bottling a new herbal drink, he must first get the government to alter King Otto’s brewing law. We all can imagine what a long and tedious procedure that will be.

I do not drink much beer, although I do like it on a real hot summer’s day. Then I prefer the Mythos brand, the most popular of the Greek beers. They are not always available thanks to the Dutch beer giant Heineken which has grabbed 70% of the Greek beer business.

As far as I know there is no beer made here on Lesvos, but there are plenty of Greek brands from elsewhere: Fix Hellas, Athenian, Marathon, Zorbas, Alfa and Vergina, the beer made by Mr Politopoulos. Most are difficult to obtain but I think I once saw a bottle of Alfa on the island.

Everybody knows that Greek tomatoes - especially those from Lesvos - are much tastier than the Dutch variety, but did anyone ever get a chance to taste any beer other than Heineken or Amstel in Greece? I am sure that if you do find any this summer you will, like me, prefer Mythos (or one of the other Greek beers). As for Mr Politopoulos and his dream of brewing a tea from mountain herbs: a great idea and I really hope he will see this dream come true and if he ever comes to Lesvos, I will be happy to accept a case of his Vergina beer.

The law that says brewers can only make beer is not the only example of archaic legislation in Greece. There is another law that says donkeys are allowed to walk anywhere they like along the road - even highways. So while you will still encounter scatterlight donkeys on the track, they will also be in bookstores: my book Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream will be out very soon: check my blog for information on how to get a copy.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011