Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Greek monsoon

(The lighthouse and unknown building in Hiyarlik Koyu, Turkey)

The monsoon is a wind that returns each year and is the announcement of the change of a season. When I think about a monsoon, I immediately see images from India or someother southeastern country where long and heavy rainfalls make humans and animals thoroughly wet and changes their world to a huge mud pool.

Here on the Greek islands we also have a yearly wind (sometimes called a monsoon) ¬ the meltemi, which the ancient Greeks used to call the Etesian winds. However, this northern wind that can blow over the Aegean from May to September is dry and brings not a drop of rain.

The Etesians are due to low pressure above Asia and high pressure above the Azores. The heat above Turkey reinforces this tension and creates the meltemi that can blow for days on end with a force from 6 to 8 Beaufort.

The ancient Greeks used to have numerous Gods who were responsible for the winds. They were regularly asked for help. When the island of Kea, was struck by a severe heat wave that made all crops die, the ancients accused the dogstar Sirius for this evil. This shiny big star is at its clearest during the Dogdays in July and August. Zeus decided to help out and sent the Etesian winds to cool the island for forty days. This brought about a new cult dedicated to begging for the yearly return of the Etesian winds.

Forty days? I would go crazy! In India people look forward to the monsoon. Equally the Greeks wait for their monsoon, because this wind is seen as a blessing: it chases away the heat and lowers the humidity.

Some days ago the meltemi came and I wonder who invited him, because we were not suffering from a heat wave. It was nicely warm. Of course, a day with a meltemi blowing can be a refreshing change from the usual heat — but please, not for so many days! After just one day, I am already a bit itchy because of the draught in the house. Even with the meltemi blowing the house becomes a furnace if you close all windows and doors; so you need to open them all, which means turning your house into a playground for the wind.

The Etesian winds are also fairly unpredictable. It slows down whenever it wants. Whilst there are some people who say that it always dies down in the night; I got blown out of my bed for several nights. On the sea it brings foam to the waves and in the water it shuffles the loose seaweed into moving clouds, which can be upsetting when you swim. Just when you think that the sea has calmed down and you go down to the beach, the waves start climbing again, the seaweed rises from the bottom and you have to think twice about entering the water. Another habit of the meltemi is to cool off the sea.

One advantage of the meltemi is that it clears the air. Sometimes during heat waves visability can become so bad, due to the humidity, that Turkey, which is opposite Lesvos, disappears completely from sight. But, when the meltemi sweeps through the air, you can start to see people lying on the beach in Turkey. Well, I admit that, is a little exaggerated; but you can clearly see the buildings in Turkey.

Just opposite Eftalou you can see a slim white tower. I thought that this was a minaret, but viewing the Turkish coast by Google Earth I learned that this is a lighthouse (if the picture is right). When the meltemi had chased away the hot muggy air, I discovered that behind this lighthouse there appeared another tower, a brown building covered in something red, twice as high and maybe three times wider than the lighthouse. I am intrigued because I cannot imagine why they built such a tower just behind (or beside) a pretty lighthouse. I think this mysterious building is at Hiyarlik Koyu, somewhere between Assos (Behramkale) and Koyunevi. Does anybody know what they are building there?

On the sea, when the waves appear with their white manes, sometimes you see the sail of a kitesurfer racing past. Surfers have the time of their lives during the meltemi. Other sailors are not that happy with this kind of weather; ferries sometimes have to stay in the harbour and it’s a treacherous time for sailing.

The meltemi announces the change of season, which makes me a little sad because it means that the summer is beginning to end. The dry leaves that fall because of the heat are the messengers and they dance in the wind, impatient to welcome the autumn. But we still have some summer weeks to go and it is not yet clear for how long the meltemi will rattle doors and windows. At least most people are happy that August is no longer ruled by the heat wave. So I’d better stop complaining.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The miraculous world of Mary

(Interior of the Maria Vrefokratousa church in Ayasos)

On Monday August 15 it will be Maria Assumption. After Easter this is the biggest holiday in Greece: when Maria will be taken into heaven. It is said that Maria spent the last years of her life in Ephesus, across the Aegean in Turkey, just opposite Samos. The Virgin Maria had been taken there from Jerusalem, by the apostle John, in order to escape the prosecutions of Christians.

On a hill, just beside a source John built her a house. Maria died after nine years living in Ephesus. The apostles buried her coffin in a cave a few kilometres from her house. St. Thomas however couldn’t make it on time for the funeral and when he did arrive, they all returned to the cave. Opening the coffin so that St. Thomas could have a proper goodbye it was revealed that Maria’s body was gone, although the coffin had been properly locked before opening: Maria had been taken to Heaven.

This is the story of the German nun Anna Katherina Emmerich
(1774 – 1824) who had, during her life, experienced plenty of visions from the lives of Jesus and Mary. When, at the end of her life, she became seriously ill there were few people she allowed around her. One of them was the German poet Clemens Brentano who wrote down Emmerich’s stories and later published them.

This is how curious people started to look for the house of Maria, that Emmerich had described so clearly, in the surroundings of Ephesus. In 1881 a priest from Paris found the location, but nobody believed he had found the house of Mary. Ten years later a group of people found the same location and this time they were believed. It was the ruins of an old monastery, with behind a path leading to the top of a mountain, a little stream passing by and a source. It is amazing to think that a German woman, who had never been there, had described this place so accurately. Later scientists revealed that under the remains of the monastery from the 6th – 7th century, there were indeed walls from the first century. Today the house of Maria has been rebuilt and it is a very popular place of pilgrimage.

Greece’s number one place for Maria pilgrimages on the island of Tinos – say the Lourdes of Greece – is also connected to a story from a nun who had a vision. The nun Pelagia was aged only fifteen in 1822 when Mary told her where to find an icon. So people went digging in the field she described and at the second try they indeed found an old icon, which is said to have been made by the evangelist Lucas. It has been attributed with so many miracles, curing people from illnesses, that the church Our Lady of Tinos (PanagĂ­a EvangelĂ­stria) was built to house the icon. It now attracts thousands of pilgrims. Even today many people pray to Maria to be cured and in return they promise to travel to her church on their knees, or even rolling or on their stomach..

Lesvos has two pilgrims centres dedicated to Maria: the
Maria Vrefokratousa church in Ayasos and the Maria Glikofiloussa church in Petra. The story of the icon in the church on the rock in Petra says that the icon belonged to a fisherman who always took it with him. In a rough sea the icon was lost. Once ashore, the fisherman saw a tiny light glowing on a huge rock and there he found his icon. He took the icon back to sea and again the icon got lost. When he found the icon for the second time on the huge rock, he realised that he had to build a church and leave the icon there. The church is from the seventeenth century and was rebuilt in 1840.

Another miraculous story is that of the Church of Lagouvarda in Markopoulo on the island of Kefalonia (Cephalonia). Each year in the first weeks of August this church is visited by snakes! When the people come to honour Mary during the 14th and 15th of August, the little snakes not only crawl around the icons, but are also passed from hand to hand by the believers. When Assumption Day is over, the snakes disappear as quickly as they came. These snakes belong to the Catsnake family (Telescopus fallax ) and are said to bring luck. Their non-appearance in the church during two years was seen as a bad omen: in 1940 when the island was occupied by the Italians during World War II and in 1953, in the midst of August when serious earthquakes destroyed large parts of the villages on the island.

It is another story involving nuns explaining these odd visitors. Once a monastery with nuns in Markopoulo was besieged by pirates. The nuns were very scared and they prayed to the Holy Mary saying that they preferred to be changed into snakes rather than fall into the hands of the pirates. And so it happened. When the pirates finally penetrated the monastery they were met by hundreds of snakes and they fled as fast as they could, leaving the monastery unharmed.

So here in Greece people keep occupied with Mary and her miracles during the month of August; the faithfull flood all the different places of pilgrimage, such as Agiasos and Petra, where it’s so busy you wouldn’t think there is a crisis going on.

I myself am not such a big believer, but I have to thank Mary on my bare knees for bringing back my dog Humpedumpy. We had to take her to the vet in Mytilini and when she arrived in the city she panicked, got off her collar and ran away. For ten days she was lost in the big city. Then a friend phoned me saying that she had seen the dog walking in a busy street outside of Mytilini where I was later able to pick her up. In the meantime my beloved Labrador Black Jack has died after a short illness but I guess no miracle can be produced to bring him back.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki

Friday, 5 August 2011

Singing lessons

(Cicadas; photo from internet)

In summer, on Greek islands like Lesvos, the number of inhabitants doubles or even triples. This results in more noise in the streets. The holidaying youth have all the time in the world to go around on their noisy motorbikes, car rental companies put hundreds of cars on the roads, cabs race up and down the streets (unless they are striking as they have these last three weeks) and Greeks from the mainland fill up the summer car parks.

Not only the heat, but also this noise makes living in the city in the summer unenviable. Better to live in nature. But even there the summer months can be pretty noisy. In a way nature is a cacophony of sounds, especially in summer, when the cicadas use the hot air to sing loudly.

This week I wanted to write about these noisy guys and when I started to search the internet for more information I fell upon the column Singing Cicadas of the Muses of Pieria written by Nina Fotiadou
(Zingende cicaden van de Muzen van Pieria). She has written everything I wanted to tell you about the cicadas, so there’s no use for me to write that column again. Since her piece is only available in Dutch, I refer you to the Wikipedia page about Cicadas.

In any case, I would not have been able to write as entertaining a story as Nina Fotiadou did, because amongst other things she writes how the muses of Pieria, living on Mount Olympos close to the Greek Gods, created the cicadas. But Lesvos is far away from that sacred mountain in the mainland Greece and, as far as I know, no muses are living here creating crickets. Oops, now I have made a mistake: I mean cicadas!

Crickets and cicadas are often confused. So the first thing I did when starting to write about them was to observe which of these noisy guys I have here at my house. Very clearly they are cicadas. Not only are they far more loud than crickets, they also produce their music quite differently. They use their muscles to vibrate plates on their bodies, whilst the cricket produces his music by moving his wings along a kind of plate on his legs; these last movements are called stridulation.

Can you believe that Crickets and cicadas were popular pets in ancient times? When I was young I learned that the emperors of China used to have nightingales as pets, but they also had crickets and cicadas for their entertainment. Although I can’t imagine that while drinking a cup of tea you could possibly enjoy the sound of a cicada. Your eardrums start shaking as soon as you approach such an insect.

Crickets make a much softer noise that sounds more lovely to the ears. And to think that all those historians would mix up crickets and cicadas! Listen to this conversation between crickets and cicadas and when the cicada comes in at the second line, you will immediately recognize which insect is dominating the conversation: Crickets & Cicades Conversation. My ears are still hurting from listening to them over the computer!

Many stories from Greek history however did mix up crickets and cicadas, for example the story by Aesop about the Ant and the Cicada. This fable occasionally even named a third insect often confused with a cricket or a cicada: the Ant and the Grasshopper. I was amazed to learn that some grasshoppers also sing. This is not the eating sound they produce when they attack those tasty green leaves: some grasshoppers also know how to stridulate. However their sound is much less loud than that of the crickets and cicadas.

While writing this I am trying to distinguish the different sounds in the ongoing concert in my garden: do I hear a cricket or a cicada and are there some grasshoppers singing with them? This morning there is a little breeze from the sea cooling off the heat wave and the insects sing less. The warmer it is, the louder they are. I feel is unfair because when we humans, exhausted by the heat and after a healthy lunch, wish to have a little siesta in the afternoon, it is right at that hottest part of the day, that the cicadas get ready to play the highlight of their daily concert. And believe me, trying to sleep in a hammock hanging between two trees that are occupied by cicadas is no option at all.

The loudness of their music is related to the temperature. In America there is a cricket (snowy tree cricket) that you can use to calculate the temperature in Fahrenheit: Dolbear’s law. You just add 40 to the times the cricket chirps in 14 seconds. Well, I have my own law: when the cicadas cry so loud that you can’t understand any conversation, the temperature is well over 30o C. Warning: Julie’s law is not scientifically proven.

In the evening you are not as bothered by their singing. But then you are attacked by hundreds of noiseless moths and sometimes by strange flying green triangles that pass with a sound of a small jet. This is the southern stinking bug (Nezara viridula) of which there are plenty here thanks to the growing of vegetables in the neighbourhood. They just love vegetables. They make short flights and during those short distances they open their motors full.

I was once bothered by an insect that looked like one of those remote- controlled toy helicopters. It suddenly hung before my nose, humming with little flying movements, as if there were children hidden in the bushes piloting it and amusing the whole company sitting around the table. I only saw this flying insect with propellers once and now, when I try to remember what it looked like, I only see a small helicopter.

When you start to pay attention to all these insects you enter an amazing world full of bright colours, futuristic formed wings, antennae, shields and electronic sounding music. When you are suffering from a heat wave you can easily be disturbed by these harsh noises. But other than that, here we have free daily concerts that make you feel like a Chinese emperor enjoying the sound of his singing pets. The summer brings a wonderful world of strange musicians.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011