Thursday, 31 March 2011

Oh oh, a shark!

(The shark of Petra; Photo: Eleonora Pouwels)


You can feel totally happy standing knee deep in spring flowers and looking out at a calm blue sea. In trees and bushes birds are singing their spring songs but on such days there’s another sound that makes me very happy: the simmering of the motor of a small fishing boat gliding over the water.

I have never gone fishing in my life, not many women do, and especially here on a Greek island it’s men’s business. Even in winter, if the weather is good, men who have a little boat will go out for whole days on end looking for a catch. Because their husbands spend so much time at sea, lots of women probably curse the fish. Those men without a boat might go to a stretch of coast where they can throw out a line from a rod.

Even though Molyvos has over the years changed into an attractive tourist village, fish soup is still available but the fishing itself has changed too. You can see how from Psarades ke Psaremata, a short black and white film made here in 1960 by the marine biologist Kostas Ananiadis.

I had no idea there were so many ways to catch fish or that sometimes half of the village would take part in communal fishing trips. Like for example during a so called Tsetes lots of boats would go out together, throw the nets, make a line and to chase the fish in they would throw stones in the water, bat it with sticks and stamp their feet on the boats’ wooden floors in what looks like an elegant dance.

For the so called GriGri the boats would leave the harbour for the night, some with powerful lamps in their bows, which the film’s commentary says had the power of 2000 candle watts. The boats with lights would attract the fish, and the others would then quietly steal up and quickly drop a large net over the shoal.

While half of the village was out there for the Grigri, children roamed over the rocks and shallow waters with torches to attract and spear more fish.

In those years fishermen even used dynamite. They would throw bait into the water and when the fish came for it out went the dynamite sticks and then they just had to pick up their haul. The commentator in Psarades ke Psaremata remarks that there was a risk to this kind of practice, as is clear where the man throwing the sticks of dynamite has only one arm.

There were also days when nobody could go out to the sea because of strong northerly winds. Then a large group of fishermen might look for sheltered beaches where they could throw a drag-net into the sea, pull it across the sea bottom and haul it on to the beach. After hours of this kind of hard work the catch might be a mere half basket of fish. In the movie they say: the plate of the fisherman is nine times empty, the tenth time it is filled with plenty of fish.

Even in those times there were already trawlers dragging their vast nets along the sea bottom. Nowadays Greek trawlers are even bigger with crews from Egypt spending days at sea.

Nobody here, except tourists, gets very excited these days when the fishing boats come back into harbour. Except last week, half the village went down to Petra harbour when a boat came with a three-and-a-half metre shark alongside. Small sharks in the nets are quite common around Lesvos, but one of this size is a rare sight. It needed a crane to get it out of the water. According to eyewitness Jan Hoekstra, a Dutch tourist: ‘The animal was filleted on the quay and a refrigerated truck was brought to take it away. Those cutting up the fish found it was pregnant with fifty-six little baby sharks. Someone remarked “Good job they caught her, otherwise it would have been very dangerous for snorkellers and tourists!”. Which suggests to me that some Greeks do not know much about wild animals, because this fish Cetorhinus maximus is on the red list of threatened sea beasts, normally swims only in deep waters and eats small fish and plankton.’

I am no hero regarding sharks and I dare not even look at the Jaws movies, because for sure I won’t dare to go for a swim for several days after. When there is such a catch I immediately wonder where was it made. So with shaking hands I opened my internet search engine and typed in ‘sharks in Greece’ fearing that although I know better, I was going to find they are all over Greece.

Well, in the Mediterranean there are forty-six species of sharks of which sixteen can grow to more than three metres and fifteen of which are said to be dangerous. But do not panic: most sharks in Greece are only seen when they are scooped up by fishermen or end up on the plates of those restaurants that serve a small species called Galeos. In all the Mediterranean, encounters between swimmers and sharks are so rare you would think there were no sharks living there at all. The ones that do are not interested in people and – as Jan Hoekstra mentioned above - only want fish or plankton. You have a bigger chance of being stung by a jellyfish than experiencing a bloody attack by a shark.

The movie Psarades ke Psaremata only shows hauls of small fish. Last year Leon Loïsios finished another documentary (for Greek television channel ERT) to update the original 1960 film as a homage to the old fishermen of Molyvos and their ways of fishing, and to show how the majority of fish is now caught by big trawlers. In the new film you can also see Adonis, the cat & dog man of Eftalou who died last year. He is seen cooking food for his brood of animals and going out in his little boat with a bottomless bucket to spot the fish.

Sadly the sight of Adonis fishing has vanished, but there are still plenty of fishing boats moving up and down the coast. The small one-man boats go out for fish to feed the family so I think that the Grigri and Tsetes ‘dances’ belong only to the past. Most old fishermen don’t tell tales of shark catching, so I bet there were very few.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Radiating Island

(Hot springs of Lisvori)


As far as we know Marie Curie (1867–1934) was probably the first person to die from radioactivity poisoning. The Polish-French physicist and chemist is regarded as one of the discoverers of radioactivity, a natural phenomenon by which material emits ionizing particles. In her time it was not thought radiation was dangerous which may be the reason she died (of anaemia) at the age of 66.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the world fell in love with the discovery. Not only was X-radiation a big step forward in medical science, the radioactive element radium was for a short time popular in the home pharmacy. In the Twenties and Thirties you could buy beauty creams, toothpaste, salves, soaps and even chocolates all containing a little bit of radium; products that were thought to be good for your health. Pads that had to be held to the nose or mouth (or elsewhere) were manufactured to cure almost any ailment.

Since the discovery of radioactivity in 1896 it also became known that many hot springs contained radium and so they too were thought to be very healthy. There was a run on the spas, but only for rich people who could afford to travel. They bathed in it, they sniffed its air and drank plenty of this radioactive water. The question was: how to bring it to the masses?

Adding radium to water and bottling it was no good because its radioactive properties soon decayed. The solution they found was a radioactive crock, or jar, in which you could make radioactive water at home. You put the jar in water overnight and then you could drink as much irradiated ‘healing’ water as you liked. The best known jar in those early days was made in San Francisco - the Revigator. Hundred of thousands of them were sold. In 1929 a Revigator cost $29.90 which was quite a sum, so it was a goldmine of a business.

In the Thirties they realized that radioactive products may not be so healthy. As they contained more and more radium in their miracle healers some people took overdoses. Even though radioactive products were banned you could still find some (illegal of course) products for sale as late as the 1980s.

What many people probably don’t know is that every day we are subjected to some kind of radiation from both the atmosphere and the earth. Even people radiate, so when you sleep with somebody, you get it from your bedfellow! Natural radiation varies from place to place. It’s higher in Norway than Germany and at some places on the earth like India, China and Brazil it can be even higher.

Very high natural radiation has been measured in Ramsar, in the north of Iran. The effect it has on people who live there has been the subject of a scientific study.

As we do in Lesvos, the region of Ramsar has plenty of hot springs, all with a varying amount of radium. Both tourists and locals use these springs and nobody seems to care about radiation, they only become healthier.

I sometimes say (as a joke) that the small amounts of (unharmful) radioactivity here in the hot springs of Lesvos make you resistant to radioactivity, just as insects become resistant to some pesticides. Anyway, the research seems to confirm that. The inhabitants of Ramsar have built up a resistance to radioactivity!

I have no idea how much radiation comes from the hot springs of Lesvos. People have been living here with these magic springs for so long I’m not worried that there’s a little bit more radiation here than is measured back in Holland.

Scientists agree that a small amount of natural radiation does not harm anyone. Radiation from a nuclear plant is something different. Sir James Chadwick, an English physicist, identified the neutron in 1934, a discovery that led the way to nuclear energy. A year later he received the Nobel price for his work. The results of his research are not so noble: they changed the world.

Greece has no nuclear plants, nor has neighbouring country Turkey but one is planned for Akkuyu, on the Mediterranean coast in the southern province of Mersin, and there are plans for another one at Sinop on the Black Sea. They may not have not learned anything from the recent events in Japan, because it was recently announced that construction of the first power plant (to be built by the Russians) will go ahead and should be working in a few years. Both the Turkish premier Tayyip Erdogan and his energy minister Hilmi Guler have told the world that their nuclear plant will be able to resist any natural disaster. Nevertheless, protests are flaring up, because the site is next to a fault line in an active earthquake region.

Here on our healthy radium-active island nature is moving into its best season: spring. And who knows, if those researchers at Ramsar are right I am building up a resistance to radioactivity. So curing yourself in the hot springs acquires another meaning: preparing yourself against nuclear disasters!

Resistant or not, I am definitely against nuclear power plants, especially when they are built in a part of the world with a very high risk of earthquakes.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Help, they are eating the island away!

(A nest of Processionaries)


Greece is not really a country you enter fearing you might be stepping into a jungle full of creepy animals. You can find scorpions hidden under a stone, in spring you can meet with snakes but most of them are not poisonous. There are some spiders which like to bite but encountering them is actually an opportunity to see a very special animal because they are so rare. In the sea you might bump into a jellyfish, or out for a walk you might get stung by a wasp or a bee but generally it will mean you suffer just a few moments of pain.

There is however a small and innocent looking animal that kills and destroys, not people, but animals and small trees: the Pine Processionary (Thaumetopoea pityocampa). Maybe you have never come across a procession of caterpillars — thousands of them shuffling head to toe through the landscape, but may have seen their nests: they look like fat, white woollen candy at the end of a branch. In Holland it is mostly the Oak Processionary caterpillar which destroys the landscape. In Mediterranean countries such as Spain, France and Greece the Pine Processionary can eat whole forests away.

Their names tell you where they make their nests — either in oaks or pines (as in Lesvos). They gather at the end of a branch and spin a woolly ball. In daytime you do not see them because it is at night that they are active and go out to gnaw away at the foliage. You might notice that the branch which bears a nest will be totally bare of leaves and if it’s a young tree all its leaves or needles will be eaten. And since the leaves (or needles) function as the lungs of a tree, without them it will die.

As long as they stay in their nest the Processionaries won’t do any harm to people or animals (as long as you aren’t one for walking in the woods at night). But in spring – March and April – they leave their nests in huge processions to look for a place where they can go to ground and pupate until summer when they turn into moths. So you better not meet with them during their migration, because when they sense danger they shoot out bristles (one caterpillar can have as many as 63.000) which contain a toxin which can settle anywhere (trees, clothing, whatever) and cause allergic reactions. Dogs or cats who get it on their tongues can even die.

However the Pine Processionary are most lethal to trees. At the end of the summer the moth lay their eggs. The caterpillars hatch and wander around on their own until they gather together to build nests for winter. You can probably imagine the effect a hungry nest has on a tree especially if there are more than one.

When you travel across the heart of the island, which is covered in pine trees, you can’t avoid seeing hundreds, even thousands of nests. On the road from Kalloni to Vatera many small trees have already succumbed. And more than one big tree really looks seriously distressed. I noticed around Vatera olive and palm trees also looking miserable, but, the pines are the ones that bear the brunt of their attention. I bet when they have eaten all the pines, they’ll retrain themselves to eat the olive leaves and then you can really say goodbye to the beauty of this island.

So what can be done? In earlier times they would have sprayed them by air with chemical pesticides, but it was realised that this did killed lots more besides the caterpillars. So it’s better to use a biological spray — but that costs lots of money. I don’t think an island that doesn’t have enough money to repair its roads will be interested in buying fancy biological pesticides. Another way is to burn the nests, which is a very dangerous job because of those toxic hairs, and there are scientists who think this is not drastic enough. However, I think it might be a fine job for the army, as long as they don’t burn down the whole island.

Now the winter cold has gone from the air and temperatures are soaring upwards again lots of trees are already besieged and look very unhappy. It seems the winter just past was not quite cold enough to kill off the caterpillars (they can survive down to —16°C) and so in pretty big numbers they are eating the island away.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Kite flying and grilled shellfish

(Photo from the internet)

(Read a review about my book Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream in Greek and English)

When I was young I used to go kite flying with my brother and friends in the sand dunes of Holland. It was a lot of fun, but we also got a lot of scratches from to the prickly bushes in which the kites used to land. I do remember that we had some with white planes and red rotating wings, but the other kinds of kite I don’t remember.

When you look for kites on the internet you will find lots of sellers. But to find a simple one in a shop is a different matter. The kite world used to be all about single-line kites, as they are called now, but now you can buy kites in all sizes and sorts, because catching the wind for flying or surfing is booming and even the simple single-line kite world has developed: just have a look at the prices they charge — up to several hundred euros.

I believe as kids we probably weren’t much good at kite flying, either that or the kites were sub-standard. All I remember is the huge amount of time we spent painfully searching for ones that went off course and crashed in inaccessible places.

Most websites say kite flying came from China. The story goes that because it was always being blown off by the wind a farmer once tied his hat on with a length of string. Then there was the general who used one to measure the distance of a road into a city he wished to conquer. There are plenty of other stories about the military using kites in warfare: one army refused to continue fighting because the soldiers saw a shooting star that was thought to be a bad omen. The general sent up a kite with a fireball attached, the soldiers thought this it was a comet (a good omen) and resumed fighting.

One website says that kite flying came from countries around the Pacific ocean where people flew them with nets and bait attached to their tails to catch fish, which seems to me a rather complicated but spectacular way of fishing.

Most websites say that at the end of the thirteenth century Marco Polo brought kites to Europe. However they already existed in Greece, as is proved by an image on a vase from the fourth century BC, on which you can see a young girl with a kite. I haven’t found any mythological stories about Greek gods flying kites, although there is the tale of Icarus, who would not listen to his father’s warning and flew too close to the sun on a pair of wings made with wax. They melted so he crashed to the earth.

Even now we can fly around the world in metal machines single-line kite flying is still pretty popular. In many places there are kite festivals where ever more and bigger kites are flown. In many countries kite flying on special days is a tradition, like today in Greece where it is Clean Monday (Kathara Deftera) the last day of the carnival before the beginning of Lent.

Yesterday the children of Molyvos got together to fly kites — well mostly it was their fathers — and even though it rained in the morning and the sky was grey, the little festival was a success because a good wind took the kites way up into the clouds. Today it was more difficult because the wind grew too strong, in fact it brought a storm and freezing temperatures. Not that it stopped people from holding their carnival in the schoolyard. Even though there was no money to fund a big parade there was plenty of fun with singing, dancing, food and a bit to drink.

When the carnival event was over it was time for a proper feast and even though the economic crisis is ongoing the restaurants had plenty of custom. On Clean Monday no meat or fish is eaten, only molluscs and shellfish, of which there was plenty. The day before yesterday a friend gave me a bag of clams and I found some other shellfish. I knew the shells as a kind of ark clams or long clam, but I had never eaten them. So I telephoned the friend who suggested I put them on the grill. Grilled shellfish? Well, in a way I was pleased because often the shellfish you get straight from the fishermen are so covered in algae and mud it is messy and hard work cleaning them for cooking. Now I only had to put them on the grill over our open fire and they opened up just like blue mussels and they had a wonderful smoky taste.

The Greeks eat shellfish raw. My stomach does not agree with that. Today I was with friends who lit the barbeque to grill some rather unorthodox meat and there was also brought a bag of shellfish: oysters, clams and small scallops all of which we grilled. They were superb. After dinner we probably bulged a little and could have done with some kite flying exercise but the roaring wind and the cold where too extreme so the kites were returned to their cupboards until next year. It’s a pity it’s only an annual tradition.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011

Friday, 4 March 2011

Between hope and Hades

(Almond blossom and an asphodel)

The almond tree is the first to blossom, often as early as January. But while the anemones started blooming last November the almonds kept us waiting. They only now starting their metamorphosis into wonderful pink-white clouds. Vincent Van Gogh used to love almond blossoms and one of his well known paintings was done to celebrate the birth of his brother’s wife’s new baby. His almond branches are set against a stark blue sky and the flowers seem to be floating through heaven.

Here in the north of the island, after months of sunshine and warm temperatures, the weather has become more wintry: grey skies and a freezing north wind. As we walk under the almond trees we may miss Van Gogh’s bright blue sky against his delicate pink-white blossoms, but a grey sky can’t spoil the lightness you feel as you take in their fragrant sweet scent. It tells you spring will come soon. The almond tree stands for hope and it is an inspiration for nice stories.

One of the sons of Theseus was Demophon who fought together with all the other heroes and demi-gods at Troy. After the fighting on his way home he met a Thracian princess Phyllis. They fell in love but before they could marry Demophone had to go home and settle his affairs. And so Phyllis waited for his return. And she waited and waited. Some stories say that each day she went to the shore to look out for her lover, others say she waited before the family altar for him. She became more and more despairing and finally took her own life. The goddess Athena had mercy on her and transformed her into an almond tree. When Demophon finally returned to Thrace he found the almond tree. The story goes that the tree was barren of blossom but when Demophon embraced it, suddenly thousands of blossoms sprouted out of the branches.

In Portugal they also have a nice story about the almond tree: once upon a time a Moorish king married a Norwegian princess and they lived in the Algarve. However, the princess did not like the beautiful landscape with its singing birds and colourful flowers and was homesick for the cold and the snow of her own country. She became more and more depressed, would not leave the palace and even had all windows shut because she did not want to face the landscape any more.
However, early in March the king ordered that all windows had to be opened and he made the princess look out. There she saw that everything had turned white - the entire landscape was covered by a layer of almond blossom. Her homesickness disappeared and from then on she and the king lived a long and happy life.

Walking through the ‘snowy’ landscape I have noticed that the almond blossom is not the only flower giving the landscape its spring-like look. The asphodels (Asphodelus aestivus) have also started to flower and from a distance the two look alike. However, there are many differences between them. The sea of almond blossoms seem to descend from the sky while the asphodels send their flowers from deep in the earth. While sweet scenting almond blossoms are like a gift from heaven asphodels are said to come from in the underworld of Hades. I once picked a bunch of these beautiful flowers, but never again - they do not smell nice!

Asphodels used to be planted around graves, as a reminder of the underworld, but I see them as harbingers of spring. They used to be a favourite flower of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, who was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. Many images of Persephone depict her with a garland of them around her head. Maybe the odour in the underworld is already so bad that you would not notice the asphodels. It’s a pity they have this sharp and bitter smell (which you have to be quite near to notice) because their white-rose flowers are as plentiful in the countryside as the almonds. The yellow species (Asphodeline lutea) is a popular flower in the gardens of western Europe, but here it’s the wild white variety which fills the fields here, giving us a view every bit as beautiful as the almond blossoms. It is a pity that they are so little appreciated.

The plant belongs to the lily family and grows from a bulb. You can’t miss them as they often reach as high as a metre. Homer wrote of them as the flowers from the Underworld and Pliny advised they be planted in front of a country house to keep witches away. Theophrastus said the bulbs are good to eat - served together with figs. They were cooked in warm ashes, sprinkled with a little salt and oil and it is said that they were also a favourite of Pythagoras. The pulp of the cooked bulbs was used to treat diseases of the joints and nerves, while fresh pulp was good to remove freckles and asphodel seeds marinated in wine were believed to be a remedy for snake and scorpion bites. So you could say it is a plant with many uses. Now they are in shadow of the almond blossoms, so typical of the early spring landscape, but alas almost forgotten.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011