Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The good old times

(Vangelis cutting wood)

During these times of crisis, many must be thinking: Away with the Greeks! But I don’t think that the Greeks alone have contributed to this European crisis. And have you ever thought how the world would be if there had never been Greeks?

In the last decades Greece has become known as a popular holiday destination and as a country with mighty shipping magnates. In ancient times however Greece was the birthplace of lots of scientists and philosophers and many of their inventions and theories are still part of the modern world.

For example, when you get brutally awakened from your sweet dreams by your alarm clock, do you ever think of Plato, who may have used the very first alarm clock? And then when you take your shower, do you realise that in the fourth century BC Greeks were also taking showers and, just like you, they used a bar of soap? Then you check your computer. Centuries ago Greeks did the same: The Antikythera mechanism is the famous analog computer that was found, about a century ago, in a shipwreck close to the island of Antikythera. Only recently has it been discovered how smart this mechanism is. It calculates astrological positions and it can calculate the dates for cultural events like the Olympic Games.
When you set off to work and you take along some chewing gum, you will be chewing on a Greek invention. And when you unfurl your umbrella against the rain, you take shelter under another Greek invention.
The list of Greek inventions is much longer and also contains the anchor, the catapult, the steam machine, the thermometer and central heating.

According to Wikipedia central heating was invented by the Roman Sergius Orata. The system used to be called hypocaust and was originally floor heating: in ancient Greek hypo means under and caust means burnt. So the name is Greek and according to Pliny the Elder, long before the Romans marched into Greece, there were houses and buildings that had this hypocaust system. So, it’s more accurate to say that the Greeks invented central heating and that the Romans adjusted it.

Last week this invention was bitterly needed, because we suddenly got a preview of winter: the thermometer descended to below 5oC! Suddenly this beautiful Indian summer was gone and the heaters had to be lit.

Most people here on the island have oil-fired central heating. But some ten years ago the heaters on Lesvos were mainly small oil or electric heaters and some people had a woodstove or an open fire. Nowadays there are even people who survive the winter with only their aircon. But in latter years many people have changed to central heating and no newly build house is without it. Just like in ancient times.

In Ephesus they have found the remains of a hypocaust: air was heated and was transported through clay pipes to the houses (of the rich) and public buildings. Although in that time they did not use oil to create the heat.

Did they use gas? Natural gas comes from the earth and cannot be claimed as an invention; but in ancient Greece they were already using natural gas. Some thousands years BC, there was a shepherd on Mount Parnassus who discovered a fountain of fire coming from the earth. The flame would not stop and was seen as a sign from a god. That is why they built a temple around the flame: the famous temple of Delphi, where priestesses used this eternal fire to see into the future. Gas was used as an oracle fire.

Could these priestesses have foretold that there would one day be a time when the Greeks could no longer pay for their central heating? The price of the oil has now risen so high that many Greeks can no longer afford it and on the island many people are rushing to buy woodstoves.

In a way, the heat of a woodstove is better than that of a central heating system. Lots of houses here on Lesvos fight against moisture that causes mould on the walls. No matter how much you clean or cover the walls with water resisting paint, the mould always comes back. The best way to fight it is to burn a woodstove that takes the moisture away.

So lots of people will benefit from buying a woodstove: the heat is more efficient and using one is many times cheaper than buying this incredibly expensive oil. The island has enough wood: the lop (pruning wood) of the olive fields and the many dead trees in the woods.

So the countryside will be more busy this coming winter. People will be going into the woods more often to pick-up a free meal, searching for wild vegetables (chorta) and mushrooms. And there will be a new group coming: wood poachers.

The old Greek empire also gave birth to money: coins were invented in what is present day Western Anatolia, where Greek city-states were invaded by the Lydians. The first coin was made during the rule of King Alyattes II. He was the father of the legendary King Croesus, famous for the proverb As rich as Croesus. Croesus was so rich he could afford to build one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. And who knows — maybe he also installed central heating there.

Times however have changed since rich King Croesus. So where have all those mighty kings and smart scientist gone, now that the Greeks have no money left and cannot afford the oil for their central heaters?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Monday, 17 October 2011

Crocodiles on Lesvos

(Kafenion in Agios Dimitrios; Photo: Fenna Westerdiep)

Lesvos is a rather big island: 1650 km2. Crete, the largest island of Greece is 8336 km2 and Evia, the second largest is 3584 km2. Lesbos is not overly populated; according to a count this year, 85.000 people live on it, while on Crete some 621.000 and on the smaller island of Rhodes (1398 km2) 119.000. Even fewer people live on Lesvos now than ten years ago. In 2001, 90.643 living souls were counted on Lesvos.

I have no idea how long it would take you to drive around the island by car, nor do I know how much time it would take you to walk it. Roads don’t always follow the coast and the main roads cut right through the heart of the island. But I do know now how long it takes to paddle with a kayak around the island: 5 days.

At the beginning of October Nektarios Paraskevidis from Mandamados proved that the journey along the 320 km long coastline of Lesvos was not that difficult. He departed from Mytilini, having loaded his kayak with food, drinks and a tent to sleep in. He peddled around 10 hours each day and slept overnight on the beaches of Plomari, Tavari, Lapsarna and Tsonia. The only problem he encountered was peddling against the wind. So now you know how much time you will need to circumnavigate the island by kayak.

Lesvos is a pretty old island. It was once part of the Asian landmass and maybe that was the case when millions of years ago the southwest part of Lesvos was a huge lake. The lake was more or less filled up and disappeared when two vulcanoes spewed their fire and lava over the island. This is what created the petrified trees that are now found mainly in the west of the island.

Those trees that were changed into stone, as if by magic, can be seen in the Petrified Forest and the Natural History Museum in Sigri, where you can also learn lots about the natural changes that took place on the island. But what was living on the island when the sequoias towered to heaven and there was a lake that now is just barren land?

Some years ago near Gavathas they found evidences of a huge prehistoric elephant: the Prodeinotherium bavaricum. But there had been no further knowledge about what animals dwelled in the woods or lived in the lake; until last June, when professor Katarina Vassiliadou revealed her discoveries at the 9th congress of the European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontologists on Crete.

In the sediments of the old lake, Katarina found traces of snails, lake fish, reptiles and even prehistoric crocodiles! We are of course speaking about a time some twenty million years ago; so when visiting the turtles that still live here in the small lakes and rivers, don’t be afraid, that a large head with a giant jaw and sharp teeth will suddenly appear out of the water and snap at your hand as you attempt to pat a turtle.

Wildlife on Lesvos has not done well since those ancient times. There remain now are only lots of foxes, some wild boar and a single variety of deer. So when you participate in a safari it won’t be like in Africa, where you can meet giraffes, elephants and crocodiles. Here you will only cross paths with some wild cats, dogs, cows and horses.

Nor has Lesvos that many thousands-of-year-old buildings or temples. Close to Klopedi and Messa (near Agia Paraskevi) there remain some standing pillars from an Aeolian and Ionian temple. Mostly Lesvos has to do with the remains of centuries-old little churches from Byzantium and the Middle Ages and a few old castles.

Nonetheless tourists still say that the island is unique and authentic, more so than the popular Greek islands like Rhodes or Crete. Lesvos does not have famous temples, but beside its hundreds of little churches and tens of monasteries, it is rich with very old kafenions.

Those are, of course, not hundreds-of-years-old, but I bet that some can celebrate their hundredth birthday. When you travel through the sleepy villages of Lesvos you’ll find more than one old kafenion per village, where, behind the counter, the grandmother prepares mez├Ędes (little snacks) to be served with the ouzo.

The hamlet Agios Dimitrios, famous for its springs, seems only to exist of two kafenions and one real Loungebar. You can find it – just before Agiasos, along a byroad ‘The old road’, a kind of bypass off the new road from Polichnitos to Agiasos. Since the kafenions no longer face the main road they tend to look almost forlorn; but their environment is breathtaking: they are surrounded by old chestnut and walnut trees. Within the interiors, on their huge verandas, that seem not to have been changed since the Fifties, they serve you coffee and other drinks with a Spoon Sweet (sweet preserved fruit and vegetables), for which they are famous.

Young Greeks, however, want something different from those dusty kafenions of their grandparents’ time – so they have their Loungebar opposite. Even so, the entrance door of the Loungebar is kept in a beautiful and colourful old style.

Just like the crocodiles, elephants and old Greek temples, those old kafenions with their interiors, worthy of museum status, are doomed to disappear. But for the time being, Lesvos still is like an open air museum, full of little churches and kafenios in a gorgeous natural setting, that – if the vulcanoes keep guiet – will remain so for many more years.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Thursday, 13 October 2011


Rain over the Gulf of Kalloni

On Saturday we were all looking forward for the rain to fall. After a summer with only blue skies, you want something different. But instead of the rain, we got the last trick of the season from our arsonist. He set fire to a field left from the road from Molyvos to Favios. The southwest wind that preceded the rain was blowing hard; the firemen were not at strength, because, amongst other things, there were no planes to help control the fire as they already were parked in their winter stabling.

The fire was lit in at least five different places and it was free to travel; it hurried up the mountains in the direction of both Eftalou and Vafios. Within two hours the fire crept over the mountain at the camping site at Eftalou, where it threatened a farm and houses. Fortunately the firemen on the road to the dump knew how to stop the fire; because had it gone further, crossing that road, the fire would have found a paradise of pines and olive trees and then the disaster would been great and Eftalou left totally blackened and charred.

About an hour after the last flames were extinguished, a hesitant rain started to pour down from the black sky. There was just enough water to give the people living around the fire a worryless sleep.

On Sunday thundering clouds sailed by and flashing lightning hurried along the horizon but it was only at night that the downpour started and on Monday the Heavens opened and let down a continuous fall of water.

That was enough to put out all fires and a blessing for the olive trees, which, for the moment, received enough water – thank you – in order to get ready for a good harvest.

The falling rain also lowered the temperatures and so finally the long and beautiful summer has come to an end.

Tomorrow the sun will be back, but then the leaves will whirl down and temperatures will no longer reach 30oC. Fresh green grasses, yellow and purple autumn crocus and pink cyclamen are emerging from the earth: Kalo ftinopero (have a good autumn), like the Greeks say.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Walnut blues


Once upon a time there was a King in Laconia who had three daughters: Orphe, Lyco and Carya. One day the god Apollo visited and he spent such a nice time at the palace in Laconia that he rewarded the daughters of the king by giving them the power to see into the future: on the one condition that they would never do anything against the wishes of a god. A while later it was Dionysus who paid a visit to the palace. He fell in love with Carya. But Carya’s sisters were jealous and did everything to prevent the two lovers from meeting. The sisters had to be punished because this was going against a wish of a god. Orphe and Lyco went mad and turned into rocks. Carya was changed into a walnut tree.

And this is how the walnut tree (Juglans regia) became a symbol for wisdom and in ancient times was sometimes seen as an oracle. Not only was Carya’s name given to the nut tree (in Greek karydia), but also to a Greek style of building: caryatids. These are sculpted female figures serving as architectural supports, pillars. The most famous Caryatids can be found at the Parthenon in Athens, where six female columns support the roof of the Erechteion.

Others say that these female pillars are named after the village Carya, a place on the Peloponessus famous for its walnuts. Once there was a temple for Artemis Caryatis, where women danced for this goddess with large baskets full of reed on their heads.

You might find a caryatid in Mytilini; but there are not many of them on the island. Though there are plenty of walnut trees around, because its fruit is an important ingredient in the Greek kitchen, especially in sweet dishes.

Just like olives, walnuts are beaten out of the trees. And because a walnut tree is far bigger than an olive tree, the beaters have climb into the trees with their sticks. So don’t be amazed if, walking along, you find a tree full of men striking with full force the branches with sticks. Under the tree the women will wait patiently to gather all the fallen fruit.

The walnut grows in a green shell and when this bursts open or turns black, it’s harvest time. And then work is just beginning; because often you have to get the nut out of this green shell. When I first did this job I didn’t listen to a neighbour who warned me to wear gloves. So my fingers turned brown and the stain stayed for days. With these green shells you can make a wonderful hair dye, used by Greek women to keep their hair beautifully black. Deep black is also the colour of the liquor made out of unripe walnuts.

Once the nut has been removed from its soft green shell it has to be cracked open, which is another time consuming job because cracking of nuts requires some skill with or without a nutcracker. A friend of mine told me that as a child he cracked the nuts in the door hinge. I thought this a very clever idea; but he told me that the only result was that his father got mad because the inner walnut shells are so hard that they can damage the door. In the aeroplane industry the hard shells are used for polishing, NASA still uses ground shells for insulation) material and in the old times bakers used ground nut shells to make an anti-stick coating in their ovens.

In these beautiful autumnal days you might see old women sitting outside with large heaps of walnuts in front of them, carefully cracking all the nuts. They patiently do their job so that they have enough cracked walnuts to make cakes, cookies or a famous baklava.

Baklava is that very sweet pastry in which a filling of nuts is put between filo layers and then it is doused with a sugar syrup or honey. Baklava is also made with pistachios, almonds and pinenuts, as well as walnuts.

All over the world this pastry is called baklava, although spelled differently in each country and it’s fairly certain that it comes from the Ottoman Empire. According to Wikipedia it originated in the kitchens in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul where, every fifteenth of the month during Ramadan, the sultan presented huge plates of baklava to his Janissaries. Others say that this sweet pastry was already known in Mesopotamia or that it was a popular desert in Byzantium times.

How old it may be and wherever it came from, the recipes for baklava were brought to Greece by the refugees from Asia Minor in the Twentieth century and nowadays this pastry is firmly settled in the Greek kitchen. When making a baklava, they always make it big enough to last for days. Of course that also means that it takes many hours to crack the nuts for it.

That doesn’t matter because raw walnuts are good against stress and I imagine that two hours cracking walnuts can also calm you down. Walnuts contain phosphor, magnesium, zinc, iron and calcium; and amongst others things they keep your arteries elastic. They contain twice the antioxidants of other nuts like peanuts, almonds, pistachios and cashews.

So whenever you pass a walnut tree that still has its fruit hanging, beating them out will give you the perfect anti-stress therapy. Look for a nice recipe for cake or cookies with walnuts and you’ll see: walnuts’ curative powers will revive you.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011