Thursday, 29 September 2011

Going away

Whilst Greece is sinking into the crisis, the sun keeps on shining, as if she wants to warm up the shadows in the hearts of the desperate people before the dark winter starts.

On the island international charter flights still arrive to disgorge loads of tourists: summer was so bad in the West-European countries that lots of people want to see some sun before they enter the cold winter.

However the largest groups of tourists have left the island: the small number of Greeks who could still afford a holiday and the masses of tourists who wanted to spend their holidays at the seaside. Now the island has regained its quietness and it is preparing for the winter. Grapes, figs, and walnuts are greedily harvested.

Spring was cool, wet and unpredictable, for a Greek summer we didn’t have many heat waves, but September was lovely, hot and warm. Last week a front with thunderstorms passed the island with loud concerts of thunder, splashing lightshows, only a short serious downfall and some small rain showers. In the West of the island only some droplets reached the dry earth.

In Soha, close to Leonidio on the Peloponnesus, this bad weather front hit full force, but it didn’t destroy, it left a present. The heavy rain unveiled an old Mycenean cemetery from the 14th century BC - or as the BBC likes to say: before common era - and in some graves were found various bits of old earthenware.

More days followed with happy white and gray clouds chasing each other across the blue sky. Then the sun picked up her dominant place in the sky and autumn seems still far away.

But hidden in the hearts of the people autumn has long started. The Greek people suffer from increasing prices and taxes, bankruptcies and unemployment. More and more retired people return to their villages in the country and on the islands where they came from ¬ because there they still can grow their own food.

Greeks from the mainland (and later the islands) have a long tradition of emigration. Since the Eighth Century BC (BCE) they left to settle on islands and foreign coasts as far as the Black Sea and Egypt. Later many fled back because of political mayhem after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the Fifteenth century. Then they returned in the Nineteenth century to Egypt and Minor Asia to increase their commerce.

In the Twentieth century it was poverty and oppression that chased them even further into the world. In 1910 a quarter of Greek manpower left for faraway countries like America, where in 1914 more than 35.000 Greeks arrived. A beautiful movie about this emigration is America America made in 1963 by the Greek/American director Elia Kazan, who himself in 1913 emigrated with his parents to New York.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire (1923) it was not so easy to enter America because of stricter immigration laws. So lots of Greeks then went to Canada, Egypt, Australia, South Africa and South America. Between 1940 and 1974 more than one million Greeks took off with their suitcases. A large number of them however didn’t go that far; but went to work in other European countries. For instance, in 1973 there were over 430.000 Greeks working in West Germany.

Since the end of the Twentieth century Greece itself became a country for immigration. Along with lots of Greeks who returned to their country it was Albanians and Egyptians who came to fill low paid jobs. Now they can all return home, unemployment rises like a barometer going mad.

The history of the last centuries on Lesvos is all the same: in the Twentieth century poverty made lots of people leave the beautiful island, leaving semi-abandoned or empty villages behind, like Ambeliko or Milies.

The amateur historian Vasilis Vasilos became fascinated by stories of the immigrant Lesviot people in Australia, where most Greeks are gathering in clubs according from which Greek region they come from. You even have clubs with people from the same villages like Antissa, Agiasos or Mytilini. Vasilis started to collect their stories and photographs, which has resulted now in two books: Journeys of Uncertainty and Hope and Our Homeland: Lesvos.

His website Syndesmos (where you can find more information about the books) lists which people departed from which village. It is of course not the entire list of emigrants but it gives you an idea of how many families were broken because of the immigration. Some of them have written stories of their lives, which are also on the website. They’re success stories of people who had no future on Lesvos and by very hard work in Australia made new businesses and thus created a dignified existence.

It is fascinating to read these stories. But also it is sad to know why these people left their roots in the Lesviot soil to start a new life far away from their country. Children departed in order that their parents had less mouths to feed; boys were exploited on the tobacco fields or didn’t earn a dime keeping sheep, girls didn’t want to have to marry poor farmers and followed their brothers on the long travels to the unknown.

Greece is again at the border of a heavy crisis. Already on Lesvos, youngsters were leaving for a better future in the big cities of the mainland. Young people are now reaching even further: they try to go abroad for study and better work.

I am wondering if we are at the beginning of an era when bitter poverty will again force many Greeks to pack their bags to find a better life elsewhere. But wherever they will go, their hearts will remain in Greece.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Pearls from the sea

(Shells from the Greek islands)

Everybody knows that snails have houses and everybody knows what they look like: a long body with two antennae at the head. But do you know what the animals who have been living in the shells that you find on the beach really look like?

On a day here at the beach I was flabbergasted when I admired a Triton-shell that had just been fished out of the sea by a fisherman, and suddenly a very strange creature came creeping out of the shell. It even wore a hat!

The animals that make the beautiful shells we find are molluscs. They have three parts: the foot, the interior and the mantle, which is their skeleton or shell. So they have their skeleton on the outside and use it as a shield from predators. Despite looking so weak, many of these beautiful coloured animals are not so soft and friendly.

They chase other sea animals and even their own kind. One of the biggest Triton shells, the Triton charonia, for example, eats starfish. He stalks them, tears off some of the tough skin of the starfish and injects a poison in order to enjoy his dinner at his ease. Starfish - themselves predators – have a sense that enables them to hear the approach of the Triton monster and many times they try to flee. So a real undersea chase scene follows and even the biggest starfish, the Crown of Thorns (Acanthaster planci) can loose the battle because the Triton-creature is always faster. Can you imagine the picture: an animal that has to tote its beautiful shell and on one foot chases a starfish that also uses only one of his feet for escape?

There are stories told that a human can be killed by a Giant Clam,
(Tridacna gigas), the biggest seashell that can grow to over a metre and live to a hundred years old. When you actually see the animal that lives inside this clam you immediately believe those stories about getting stuck in the shell and drowning: but the stories are said to be fairy tales. Just as it’s not true that the Goddess of Love, Venus, was born out of a Giant Clam, as pictured by the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli in his famous painting The birth of Venus. He might have meant it symbolically, because in his time clams were seen as vulvas. But we all know that Venus was born out of the foam of the waves at Cyprus.

However there are molluscs that can be dangerous for humans. There are some inhabitants of the conus shells who have a bite so venomous that they can kill you. So be aware when you pick up shells from the bottom of the sea that are still inhabited by their creators!

We like to eat shellfish like mussels, oysters, venus shells and Coquilles St Jacques. For many people these are culinary delicacies. In the past shells also had other purposes. The ancient Greeks and Romans used to make a purple dye out of Bolinus brandaris (originally called Murex brandaris). This must have been very expensive stuff because to produce one pound you needed at least 30.000 shells. To make the dye, glands of the sea animals were boiled with salt in urine, so you can imagine what a bad smell that must have been. Whole mountains of these shells have been found and now it is easy to tell exactly where this dye had been made in ancient times. It is a wonder that the Bolinus brandaris survived until this era; it still creeps over the sea bottom around the island.

What I didn’t know is that, in ancient times, they produced seasilk. The silk was made from threads produced mainly by the giant mussel, the Mediterranean fan-shell (Pinna nobilis Linneaeus). Cleaning blue mussels you must have noticed that some beards have to be removed. These hairs are used by the shells to cling to rocks and because the Mediterranean Fan-shell can grow to 90 centimetres and is many times bigger than a blue mussel, you can imagine that he also grows much bigger beards. The silk made with this sea hair is finer, lighter and warmer than the normal silk. Some people think that the Egyptians buried their pharaos in seasilk and in China it is also called mermaid silk.

I recently bought the Dutch book Sea shells from the Greek islands (Schelpen van de Griekse eilanden; only available in Dutch) by Jan Veltkamp and Sylvia van Leeuwen, in which they describe 80 shells to be found on Lesvos and other Greek islands.

In this I discovered the Chama gryphoides Linnaeus and the Pseudochama gryphina with the curious names translated from Dutch: the Right turning jewel box and the Left turning jewel box. They look like the irregular form of an oyster but are smaller and the lower part of the clam is deep and the upper part closes like a lid on a box. I did not have them in my shell collection but now having heard of them I found the Left turning jewel box (Pseudochama gryphina) at the Gulf of Kalloni.

There are no Giant Clams around the island but there are plenty of Venus shells. It is not always easy to distinguish the shells, but the Mediterranean fan-shell is easy to recognize. There still are plenty to be found around both the Gulf of Kalloni and Gera. It is said that they can produce pearls. Pearls are made when some grit enters the shell and gets covered by mother of pearl. So take your change and look for pearls! The Mediterranean fan-shell however is now a protected species, due to over-fishing and pollution. I presume they were not yet protected in 2002, when the publishing house Indiktos in Athens published the booklet Panorexia, ouzo appetizers from Lesvos by Stratis P. Panagos. Amongst the recipes you will find one with the Mediterranean fan-shell: Pinokeftedes. Mix the chopped fan mussel with onions, bread, an egg, some ouzo, trachanas and Oregano, knead it into balls and fry them in the oil. But you are no longer allowed to make those. So I make legal keftedakia with Venus shells (Kidonia). Venus balls — that really sounds good!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Fighting against Demons

(cover of Scattered Clearings)

The writer Stratis Myrivilis was born in 1890 in Sykaminia on the island of Lesvos. He grew up in the village and when he was fifteen he went to the gymnasium in Mytilini. He later went to Athens to study law, but not for long, because when in 1912 the First Balkan War began, he joined the Greek army.

When he returned to Lesvos, the island had been freed from the Turks and was filled with refugees from the fallen Ottoman Empire. His first novel Life from the Tomb is about the soldiers’ dreadful life during World War I and is set in the battlefields. His third novel The Mermaid Madonna, about a foundling in a little village, made the fishing village of Skala Sykaminia famous. His second novel The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes, published in 1933, has something of both the other novels: the atrocities of the war and the life in a small community.

The story is set in a fictitious village on Lesvos. It is called Megalochori (the real village of Megalochori on Lesvos is above Plomari in the mountains), but it could have been Molyvos, because the village is on the coast and has a castle towering high above it. It’s said that a schoolteacher from Molyvos was the model for the schoolmistress with the golden eyes. She is the widow of the war hero Vranas and is the most beautiful woman of the village.

The main character Leon Drivas is there when Vranas dies in a military hospital. He promises the dying man to bring some personal belongings to his wife Sappho, who lives in the same village where Leon’s family has a summerhouse by the sea. When Leon returns from the war he and his sister go to their summerhouse in Megalochori and he meets Sappho. And you’ve probably already guessed it: he falls in love with the beautiful Sappho. The story is about Leon’s inability to give in to this love because she is the widow of his friend from the war.

And of course, a love affair is no simple matter in a village where all houses have ears and eyes. It is a very traditional village where they will not accept that the widow of a war hero finds another man so quickly. Sappho already turns the heads of all the village men, giving the women even more reason to gossip about this tragic character.

The story is set around 1930 and fifty years later the village is still full of gossips. You can read about this in a newly released Dutch novel, Scattered Clearings (Verspreide opklaringen; not yet translated in English), written by the Dutch writer Peter van Ardenne.

This is the story about Rudolph, a Dutch guy who went to Molyvos in the Eighties to fight his demon: alcohol. A friend advised him to switch the town cafes where beer and jenever flowed plentifully for a sunny island. So lonely Rudolph takes the train and boat to go to Lesvos and ends up in Molyvos.

There is no jenever in Greece but pretty soon Rudolph discovers that there’s as much ouzo flowing in the Greek taverns as ever there was jenever in the Dutch bars.

Rudolph is a foreigner in the Greek village, so he doesn’t care that the villagers know exactly which girls stay at his house and how often he struggles to get home after long hours of drinking. Nor does he care about the attractions of the island that his girlfriends enjoy. Better to go to the beach and have an ouzo party than to visit the Petrified Forest or Eresos.

He is taken in by a group of colourful people who the more they drink, the more discussions they will have, especially about the revolution. But just as Leon in Myrivilis’ novel does not like communism, Rudolph has no sympathy for a revolution. Both main characters dislike politics: Leon because of his experiences during the war and Rudolh, well, he doesn’t believe in anything.

Scattered Clearings is a beautiful book about a person who wants to stop drinking, which is a lot to ask. At the background is Molyvos in the Eighties, when there were few tourists, the only official accommodation being the Hotel Delphinia and most roads – like the one to Eftalou - still dirt tracks. The people of the village were very hospitable but, at the same time, also very gossip-like and quick in judging the libertine life of the foreigners. Even those who come from the ‘faraway’ city of Athens were considered as outsiders.

In those days, many foreigners had been coming to the island for a long time. They were not all like Rudolph, more like Saskia (one of Rudolph’s girl friends) and her father and his friends: writers, scientists and philosophers who were all well integrated in Greek life and knew how to handle the drinking. Lots of these people are still returning to the island and they know most of the villagers.

Peter van Ardenne also returned and has now realised his dream to write a novel. According to him ,it’s a not difficult read: about a cynical person who starts to realise what consequences his behaviour can have. If you were to count the number of bottles emptied during the story, it would be surprising for you not to be fed up with Rudolph who keeps on falling into his own traps – ‘one more glass and then I will stop’. He is cynical and can be pretty blunt, yet the reader will love him. And even though he regularly is too pissed to enjoy the island, there still is magic to be found in the author’s descriptions of island life.

Leon had to fight the demons of his war – the death of his friend Vranas; Rudolph has to fight as hard against his alcohol problem. Whatever demon the model for the Schoolmistress with the golden eyes had to fight is unknown. In Scattered Clearings there is the description how she died: a tragic death worth a novel.

The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes, Stratis Myrivilis, Efstathiadis, 2003

Verspreide opklaringen, (only in Dutch): Peter van Ardenne

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Friday, 2 September 2011

Greek grappa

(Tsipouro Dimino)

When you read about the history of alcoholic drinks like liquors, wine and beer, you may be amazed by the fact that many monasteries are part of their making. In monasteries in Belgium you still can taste beer, like the one that was invented by the Trappists in the seventeenth century.

It was the Greek god Dionysos that taught humans how to change grapes into wine. In the Middle Ages, wine making was mostly done in monasteries. God changed water into wine, so did the monks (well, they actually changed grapes into wine). Greek wines were famous worldwide and also produced by farmers, until the Turks invaded Greece in the fifteenth century. After that the farmers had to pay huge taxes and were unable keep their grape vines. However many monasteries were given privileges and so were able to keep on producing wine.

Of course the monks did not make alcohol to get pissed. Some saw it as a religious symbol – wine was considered to be the blood of Jesus Christ – and above all it was a healthy drink because it was made out of natural products. Some wines were even considered as medicine.

Monks used to be pretty busy people; they formed a closed community that had to produce its own food. So they worked the fields, brewed herb mixes to combat diseases and had all the time of the world to concoct new things; in earlier times monks looked for the secrets of life and were the scientists of the world. They also experimented with wine: an example being the liquor Chartreuse, made from 130 different herbs, which was created in a monastery close to Paris in the seventeenth century.

Much earlier, Greek monks had invented another drink through experimenting. Beginning in the first century they hacked monasteries out of the ground on the most eastern peninsula of Chalcidici (MacedoniĆ«), now renowned for its monastery empire Mount Athos. Wine from Athos was famous. In the fourteenth century a local monk used the ‘must’ that remained after the crushing of the grapes for wine to make another drink: tsipouro, called also tsikoudia (on Crete), raki (the Turkish name) or souma.

After ouzo, wine, retsina and beer, tsipouro is the most popular local alcoholic drink of Greece (whisky is more popular than tsipouro, but is not local). This strong beverage (around 40% alcohol) is best compared with Italian grappa. When the grapes are crushed, stems, skins and stones remain. This substance is put into kettles together with some wine and herbs and after several distillations it gives a clear liquid that may seem to look like ouzo but is quite different.

The secret of tsipouri is to be found in the herbs and everybody uses different ones. In some regions they add saffron, giving the liquid a bright yellow colour, similar to the yellow Chartreuse, although this is quite different. In other tsipouro’s they add aniseed and/or fennel, which creates anethole in the drink, meaning that when you add water it will turn white — just like ouzo, but a different drink. What they call raki in Turkey is often thought of as ouzo, but this is a tsipouro with aniseed and/or fennel.

Tsipouro is also called the poor brother of wine, because it is made with bi-products of wine making. When the recipe of tsipouro was presented to the world, it was mostly poor people and farmers producing and consuming it because the ‘must’, the herbs and the wood to keep the fire going under the distillation kettle did not cost any money. It was mostly made in an amateurish way in copper kettles and commerce in small communities was allowed. In 1883 the first taxes were imposed on alcoholic drinks. In 1896 the first licenses for tsipouri were issued. In 1989 tsipouro came under the European distillation laws and today it’s an official Greek product.

It is thanks to these laws that tsipouro has grown into a quality product. But, as you can imagine, there remained farmers who, in their barns, secretly stoked tsipouro according to their grandfathers’ recipe. And even now when visiting a Greek family, after dinner there might suddenly appear on the table a mysterious bottle with home made tsipouro.

It is said that tsipouro (provided that you drink moderately and eat some mezedes) never gives a hangover. I have to admit that I once drunk so much home-made tsipouro that I fell pretty ill. So for a long time I stayed away from this drink because even the smell made me sick. But now I have tasted another product of the island: the tsipouro Dimino, made in Mytilini — and I was pretty happy drinking it. Sometimes grappas and tsipouros have a flat taste, like you are drinking just alcohol, but Dimino has a full taste of autumnal fruits and herbs. Dimino is the only tsipouro officially produced on Lesvos.

Since the crisis in Greece, prices have risen speedily. In the eight years since I came here, prices for alcoholic drinks have nearly doubled or tripled. The monasteries no longer produce wine, the church now is brewing dinners for the fast growing population group that cannot afford Greek life anymore.

Luckily, here on the island, not many people need to knock on the monasteries’ doors for food. Most of them have their own garden — hence their own food. Many people also make their own wines. And even though Dimino is a very good quality tsipouro, I won’t surprised, if, during the coming grape harvest, the illegal distilleries will be taken out of hiding again.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

Smitaki @ 2011