Sunday, 22 December 2013

December 17: The Club of Love

(A divine landscape on Lesvos)

In ancient times, when the gods on Olympos still reigned over the Hellenic people, there was a god for everything: for love, commerce, war, the harvest, the army, wine, weather or whatever there was. Each god jealously guarded his own department, defending it against the trespass of any other god, leading to quarrels and even wars. The gods were then anything but nice to either their fellow gods or to human beings.

The Gods ruled with rods of iron and there was no place for charity. Although sometimes there was the odd god or one of his offspring who would take pity on humans. Prometheus, a son of Titan Iapetos (god of immortality) gave humans fire in order to defend them against the many violations of Zeus. He was soundly punished for that by being tethered to a mountain where an eagle ate his liver. Even worse, the liver regrew each night and so the eagle came each day.

The Greek poet Aeschylus visited this myth in one of his plays: Prometheus Bound. In this play the fettered Prometheus refused all help, because he knew something with which he could blackmail Zeus. Hermes, God of commerce and messenger of the Gods also tried to mediate on his behalf, but Prometheus did not want to tell the secret. The enraged Zeus gathered together all the Gods of the weather who caused such bad weather and natural disasters that Prometheus perished by falling into an abyss. 

But let us go back to the beginning of this play, when humans still lived in dark holes, always afraid of the fury of Zeus and his threats to destroy them. Prometheus was apparently a nice guy because he decided to help the people. He stole fire from the gods of Olympos and when presented with this phenomenon humans could better defend themselves and developed hope for the future. In the play this kind character of Prometheus was, for the first time, given the name philantropos, from which the word philantrophy comes. Charity in Greek is philantrophia (love [philos] and humanity [anthropos]), and so I suppose we could say that Prometheus is the God of charity and Greece the homeland of charity.

Greece is no longer a country awash with charity. Lots of inhabitants depend on charity but you cannot call the government a philantrophic one: most victims of this on-going crisis are the poor.

Poverty at Christmas is not funny. In December money is spent like water, lots of people are shopping for sweets and presents and others spend money on holidays or to visit family. But when you don’t have the money to do these things the festivity days are less joyfull.

Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, some celebrate it as a celebration of light, but Christmas also means days of forgiveness and charity. Look at all those big tearjerker Christmas movies where poor or unhappy people are presented with some hope for the future, just like when Prometheus gave the people a new future with the gift of fire.

There are hundreds of charity organisations to which you can give money. But I always say: Change the world, start with yourself and your own environment. In Molyvos there is a charity organisation called the syllogo i agape. It was set up in 1920 and started with helping the wounded soldiers in the Greek – Turkish war of 1919 – 1922. Since then its members, mostly village women, take care of the poor. In present day Molyvos some people still have no money for food or heating. And that is what they really need, because the cold has settled on the island and even though the sun shines a lot, causing beautiful clear days, they remain cold. And even though the moons milky-bright light illuminates the landscape there still are dark days around Christmas.

Let this Christmas bring lots of beautiful stories.

I wish everybody a Merry Christmas and a Happy 2014

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Friday, 6 December 2013

December 4 – The mystery of Saint Nicholas from Tzithra

(The Agios Nikolaos Church in Tzithra)

The winter has finally set in on the island: a cold wind now blows the fruit-fly ravaged olives, oranges and mandarins from the trees. Even the last quinces cannot resist the strong winds and are falling from their branches. In one way or another the remaining pomegranates have managed to stay longer on the trees, where they’ll hang as natural Christmas decorations until the end of the month or even longer.

The olive harvest which started early this year and has not been too big. The people now kneeling on the cold earth, gathering the olives from the nets must be adjusting their shawls and headgear and regretting that they didn’t start earlier in a time when the sun still made it possible to have a picnic at the end of the workday.

But, even in Greece, December can be a winter month. And now just as the activities for Christmas have started up, inclement Saint Nicholas-weather has invaded the island. In Holland Saint Nicholas warrants a major holiday, but even though Saint Nicholas came from neighbouring Turkey, in Greece he is only celebrated through his nameday as the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. If you want to know more, you can read about Saint Nicholas, this Holyman from Patara (once a Greek village, now belonging to Turkey) and also find a link to the Dutch who may have introduced Santa Claus in America.

It’s strange that Lesvos has so little affection for the saint who has rescued many seafarers from drowning and saved children from starvation. Even though the island has many big and small harbours and in the winter the main occupation of the men can be found at sea, you will only find three well-known Saint Nicholas churches (I am sure there will be lots more, but small churches, like the one in the harbour of Molyvos, but I doubt that somebody knows all churches on the island). One of them is in Petra, at the foot of the huge rock, upon which stands the famous Maria Glikofiloussa church. So, a Maria, together with a Nicholas watch over the people at sea. Although the church of Saint Nicholas is somewhat small, it is known for its old mural paintings, some of them as old as from the 16th century.

A second Saint Nicholas church – the biggest of all three mentioned – is in Plomari. Built in 1847, it has a few nice icons and is regarded by the inhabitants as the most important church of their little city - which means that on the 6th of December public life there falls still because of the festivities for the name day of Saint Nicholas.

The third Saint Nicholas church can be found in the small village of Tzithra, a gathering of houses hidden in the greenery just below the town of Andissa. I wonder what this Saint Nicholas church is doing in a place relatively far from the sea (Tzithra is one of the few villages on the island without a sea view). The church is however mysterious. There is a mystery surrounding the enormous key that can open the church. I have been told that this key is kept by an old woman of the village (there are just a few inhabitants left), but each time I am in the village, this old lady is nowhere to be found. I have heard the same story from various people who have ventured out to Tzithra. In fact, I have never spoken to somebody who has managed to enter this holy church. So I don’t know anybody who can tell me if this church does indeed have a magnificent icon (or is it a fresco?) worth yet another visit to the village in order to hunt down the woman who keeps the key to the church. Maybe this is the beginning of a new myth: the one about the Saint Nicholas church that keeps its icon (or mural painting) a secret. Perhaps someone once was lucky enough to come across the woman with the key on the one occasion she was home; or maybe the key is just lost and no living soul cares about the interior of the church.

However that’s no reason not to visit this half deserted but picturesque village buried in the flowers of its abandoned wild gardens. You will find the road to Tzithra on the way from Vatoussa to Andissa, just a little further along from the road leading to Perivoli (a monastery which also has very beautiful frescoes, though its opening times depend on the mood of the monks who care for this now uninhabited monastery).

So the Saint Nicholas festivities are pretty local on Lesvos, but the Christmas festivities are starting up all over like upcoming Christmas markets. The one in Molyvos takes place on Sunday the 8th of December. So right now there’s lots of baking, cooking and craftsworks going on, as well as the rehearsals for the fancy dances and special Christmas carols. And when the market day is over - like there will be no money for Christmas decorations in the streets, no Christmas tree on a central place and I bet that Santa Claus won’t show up - the village will be ready for  hibernation.

The dark days for Christmas have come: the woodstove purrs, the wind blows around the house, many a friend is getting ready to leave the island for brighter places, inhabitants are still filling the sacks with olives and others are already enjoying the new harvest, because the few olives that were harvested, have made a good quality of olive oil.

So there is plenty of time to unravel the Saint-Nicholas-mystery of the absent key-holder of the church of Tzithra. On December 6th I will just have to go to the village, where - I suppose - according to tradition the church and Saint Nicholas will be honoured with flowers and other gifts. Surely, the church will be open then.

On the other hand: nothing is more beautiful than a mystery. Maybe the mystery of the Tzithra Saint-Nicholas, the church with its lost key, is more comforting than a cold winter’s day journey through a cold and bare landscape. Maybe I’d better stay home that day, next to my woodstove, dreaming about imaginative mural paintings of the saints who brought colours to our world.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2012

Monday, 25 November 2013

November 20 – Hunting for treasures in Limonos


Over the last weeks, especially during the weekends, the woods of Lesvos were teeming with mushroom hunters. Even on steep slopes of the pinewoods you saw earth upturned and mushrooms thrown away, probably because they were worm infested. Mushrooming seems to be the newest craze here on the island and I wonder if that’s because it has received publicity in the media, or whether it’s due to the magnificent weather — or is it the crisis that forces people back to nature.

An average Lesvorian only knows the pèperites (peppered milk cap; Lactarius piperatus) which grow mostly under the carpet of pine needles. They can be found in large numbers, they grow quite large and that’s why the island people cut them in pieces and then fry them. I don’t know any people who use mushrooms for medical purposes, but indeed some mushrooms have healing powers. And that has been known for a really long time: Ötzi, the iceman and the oldest European mummy, who was found in 1991 in the Italian Alps, was carrying some mushrooms with him. He lived in the copper Age, many thousands of years BC (5000 - 3300) and the tinder fungus he had with him probably served as a tool for making fire and it’s thought that the birch polypore he also carried was used as a medicine.

I didn’t realise that those leathery fungi, which mostly grow on tree trunks, could make a fire. When on the lookout for this family of fungus, it’s mostly the ox tongue (Fistulina hepatica), a thick and tasty mushroom to be baked like a steak, that I am searching.

According to the ancient Egyptians, mushrooms were food for royalty, and a
Hadith says that truffles were the manna that Allah sent to the Israeli people and that their juices are a medicine for the eyes. I know some Lesvorians who are sure that you can find this delicacy on the island, but I have never seen Lesvorian truffels, nor have I seen people looking for them, although the island still has plenty of oak trees, on whose roots truffles so like to grow.

Digging for treasures under oak trees? You don’t have to dig into the ground in order to find something valuable. The Belgian born Alain Touwaide, who works at the famous American Smithsonian Institute, is the scientific leader of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. This institute studies traditional medicines, originating in the Mediterranean, and especially the medicine practiced in Greece by the ancient wise men like Theophrastus, Aristotle and Dioscorides. Hippocrates, who also belongs to this list, said: “Be the food your medicine and your medicine the food”.

Touwaide studied all the books and papers these sages wrote, because all of them had something to say about the medicinal uses of herbs. Now Touwaide is looking for even more ancient papers containing descriptions of the old medical traditions in order to digitalize them and so preserve them for the future. The modern pharmaceutical industry is also learning from this old knowledge. And now we come to the treasure he found: in the beautiful library of the Limonos monastery near Kalloni he discovered many old scripts describing ancient and traditional ways to use herbs.

Touwaide believes that Lesvos can have a meaningful part in preserving the ancient ways of healing. This big island has a very rich assortment of herbs and many of the island people still believe in their healing powers. Looking for chorta (herbs and wild vegetables) is, on Lesvos, even more popular than mushroom hunting, especially in the winter when the new plants sprout from the earth.

Lesvos is mostly promoted as the island of Sappho, but it also is the island of
Theophrastus, known as the founder of biology; and Lesvos was the island chosen by Aristotle, as the preferred area for his studies written up in his famous book Historia animalium.

But here on the island, similarly to elsewhere in the world, it still remains easier to see a doctor and then the pharmacist than to go into nature looking for suitable healing herbs. Maybe the crisis is now making people return to natural herbs. Why take chemical pills for each small ailment, pills that could poison your liver or damage, who knows what, other parts in your body. I say: back to Nature that has plenty of natural remedies, back to the herbalist who has studied them, or back to the grandmothers who know the secrets of home remedies like cough syrup, calming herbal infusions, wild vegetables for when you have a puffy feeling or an ouzo for stomach pain.

Alain Touwaide is right in wanting this ancient knowledge to be preserved, afterall, in earlier times people fell ill and recovered thanks to the healing herbs. Even though modern medical science can heal more ailments than the traditional herbalists, the mighty pharmaceutical industry also destroys a lot and is far too expensive.

And Lesvos? That is still the home of biology, offering plenty: from precious papers in the monasteries to a multitude of mushrooms and herbs. A paradise that, maybe because of the crisis, is rediscovering its blessings.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

November 8 – Where is the divine helping hand?

(A painting of Saint Michael from the Taxiarchis Church in Ypsolometopo)

Today it’s another local holiday: as many as half of the inhabitants of Lesvos (all Michaelis’, Gavriela’s, Angelo’s etc) celebrate their names day today. But even more important: it’s also the day that the archangel Michael, who is the patron saint of the island, has his yearly celebration. This chief angel not only has Lesvos under his protecting wings, but also the cities of Brussels and Kiev, regions like Cornwall and Umbria and countries like Germany and Ukrania

To the Greeks, the archangel Michael is also named Taxiarchis (brigadier, chief), so monasteries and churches bear that name if they are built in the honour of Saint Michael. On Lesvos there are many of them, like in Kagiani (suburb of Mytilini), Molyvos, Mandamados, Ypsilometopo, Agia Paraskevi, Napi, Parakila, Asomatos and probably many more of those small churches that decorate the Lesvorian landscape.

It’s easy to see into which church you have come. Go to the front to the iconostase (the icon decorated panel that hide the altar and shrine). To the right of the central door traditionally there is a painting of Christ (Pantokrator) and to the left one of the Holy Mary (Panagia). At the left side of Mary you will find a picture of the saint to whom the church is dedicated. Archangel Michael, who is said to have thrown Satan from Heaven, is mostly depicted as a strong and handsomely dressed warrior with large wings, killing a dragon. The dragon here is a symbol for the Devil, so don’t confuse him with Saint George who also is known for killing a dragon.

Perhaps the world’s most impressive Michael-church is to be seen in Normandy, at Mont Saint-Michel. The largest Taxiarchis church on Lesvos belongs to the monastery in Mandamados and is easily recognizable because of the jetplane that has been placed at its entrance by a grateful believer. Although the church might not be as impressive as the one on Mont Saint-Michel, it is one of the more important monasteries in Greece because of its icon of the archangel Michael. This icon apparently keeps on producing miracles (see: The wondrous world of bleeding icons and the most recent miracle, of this week).

So Michael must be a busy man, because not only is he the much appreciated patron saint of many cities and countries but he’s also the patron saint of bakers, pharmacists, paramedics, artists, bankers, grocers, the sick, the poor, the dying, as well as of horsemen, soldiers, policemen, hatters, radio mechanics, glaziers, masons and painters. He probably has to run up and down and be present at all the wars in the world.

But there are many believers who hope that he also will have time for their private misery. For example in Mandamados they place a pair of iron shoes before Michael’s icon and hope that he will resolve their problems. After some time they look at the soles of the shoes and if they are worn, it will be a sign that Michael has gone off to solve their problem. When the shoes remain unworn they simply believe that Michael has not yet found time to help them. But the numbers of people visiting the monastery in Mandamados on November 8th proves that many people firmly believe in the miracles of this Saint Michel. And by the way, in religions other than Orthodox, Saint Michael Day is celebrated on September 29th.

If you are interested in having a little time with this saint, there are certain ways to recognize that you are, in fact in contact with dear Michael instead of somebody else: of all angels Michael seems to have the loudest and clearest voice, he always speaks straight to the point with a sense of humour and love: so no voice to ignore. When there is contact, you immediately will see the truth, even if this seems an impossible truth. You will feel surrounded by peace and feel safe and sound. You might find a sign in the form of a feather, or see shimmers of blue and purple. Women may think they have menopausal-like hot flashes because of the heat you may experience. You may even meet a person named Michael who can help you.

Well, now we know who we have to deal with when suddenly we will hear a strange voice, become paralyzed with fright, see strange light flashes or grow hot through fear. I am wondering if the monks also communicate with him. As I previously mentioned, Michael is the saint patron of the banking, a profession incidentally also practised by monks. The Mandamados monastery is one of the richest of Lesvos (possibly not as rich as the monastery of Vatopedi with the banking-monks on Mount Athos) but none the less all its money could be of great help in the Greek crisis.

The problem is that this ready-to-fight Michael has to protect the bankers to accumulate money. Is it not now time that God has a good chat with Michael, telling him that this profession no longer needs any protection and that Michael should tell the monks – who in a way take advantage of him – to start paying the same rate of taxes that all other Greeks pay? Now that would be a real miracle, helping the country in one fell swoop out of the crisis.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Friday, 1 November 2013

October 28 – Will the chestnuts disappear?

(Ceps and chestnuts)

Getting bored on Lesvos? Not for a minute! Even now as the summer season finishes and tourist villages like Molyvos and Petra are slowly being deserted, as the beaches are cleared of the sunbeds and umbrellas, there is still so much to enjoy on the island. And I’m not just speaking about the great weather, which is so nice that there’s no day that you’d want to spend inside your home.

In the autumn it’s the trees of Lesvos that attract people. Tourists switch from the beach to the shadowy, wooded mountain slopes with the wide views over the island and the locals (lots of them running shops or restaurants in the summer) return to their fields and olive trees for the harvest. Although this year they will not have too much work because the harvest is said to be pretty poor (see: Waiting for the rain).

Apart from the olives, there are many more trees asking for attention - for example, the pine trees that colour the heart of this green island. Lesvos has extended pinewoods, especially around Mt Olympus and above Parakila in the west. Until the late Sixties people went into the woods to harvest resin (see: When the pine trees still had a face). Even though this was hard work, it made a living for many villagers. Industrial progress however made resin uneconomical and this industry died. Now the pinewoods only offer fertile ground for mushrooms.

Reminders of the resin harvest were the iron cisterns nailed against the tree trunks where the resin was gathered. Although the resin harvest died-out, today these rusted cisterns are still the silent witnesses of that period when the villagers camped out for days in the wood to collect the resin. However, driving through the woods near Achladeri, we noticed that those rusted iron cisterns have been replaced with brand new ones! Has there been new demands for Greek resin and has some smart entrepreneur taken up the resin harvest?

That same smart person might also start cultivating the mastic trees. The neighbouring island of Chios is well known for the mastic (resin) of the Pistacia lentiscus, a bush or small tree from the same family as the pistachio tree (Anacardiacea family). It’s not true that this tree can only be found on Chios: but it’s only on Chios that they have been so long cultivated and where they produce a rich harvest. Were you to cultivate these trees on Lesvos (there are, in fact, many around as for example in Palios), this island also could start mastic production. But we’re speaking about a project that would take years and years; the trees on Chios have been cultivated for hundreds of years, and that is why they are so valuable there.

Then there are the fruit trees: after the olive, the walnut is the tree that gets harvested the most, because not everyone collects the fruit of his almond, quince or pomegranate tree (I must say, lots of them grow in gardens of deserted holiday houses whose owners are far away). Driving around the island in November I often see fruit just rotting away on the branches of trees or lying on the ground.

Around Agiasos, however, collecting sweet chestnuts still brings money in. The biggest woods grow on the slopes of the Olympus mountain range, although everywhere on the island you come across groups of these beautiful trees. They sometimes grow on very steep slopes, making me wonder if this fruit gets wasted or if there’s a person crazy enough to harvest there. When you go to Agiasos now each shop sells the brown fruit and you may meet pick-up trucks full of people who have been gathering big sacks of chestnuts. Sometimes there is such a deep layer of chestnuts on the ground that I imagine you could just scoop them up from a car driven slowly through the forest.

But this may not be the case for long, because the chestnut trees of Agiasos are ill. They are suffering from Cryphonectria parasitica, a mildew that has been killing sweet chestnut trees all over the world. In the United States millions of trees died and nowadays the sweet chestnut is no longer the number one tree in the woods of America. A few years ago it was thought that the chestnut woods on Lesvos and on Crete might escape this illness, but the mildew has managed to travel over the oceans and is now threatening these sweet Lesvorian chestnuts.

Last May I read an article about how the last mayor of Agiasos (Chrys Chatzipanagiotis) lobbied the Greek government to obtain a vaccination program. He was successful: this summer the trees were to be vaccinated. I am not sure if the job has been done and if this vaccine will be successful, but at least something has been attempted to save this (so rare on the Greek islands) chestnut wood.

Last week when I visited the colourful and scented chestnut wood, lots of the trees were a sorry sight: bare, dying branches waving in vain amidst the yellow coloured leaves of their still healthy neighbours. What a sad sight! It might be that I was there just at the very beginning of the chestnut season, but the ground was dotted with far less cupules than other years.

For me, each year visiting the chestnut wood above Agiasos is the highlight of the autumn. Between the bright coloured leaves you have breathtaking views over the Gulf of Yera and the Gulf of Kalloni. I hope that in future years these slopes will not start offering a wider view over all the island or that we can no longer find chestnuts in the shops of Agiasos.

The forests are also a unique habitat for mushrooms. My favourite mushrooms belong to the boletus family, and are plentiful under the chestnut trees if you’re there at the right moment. Even though the autumnal rains (I don’t count the few casual showers we’ve already had) have not arrived yet, it has been moist enough for the first mushrooms – such as the peppery Milkcap (Lactarius piperatus) - to emerge from the ground, just lurking under the first layers of fallen leaves. I could not believe my luck when I also found two ceps (Boletus edulis). It’s hard to find this emperor of all mushrooms, especially on this island. Where will they be growing if the chestnut wood really disappears?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Monday, 21 October 2013

October 16 – Waiting for the rain


 All the weather reports say it: there’s rain coming to Lesvos. According to one weather station it’s already raining cats and dogs, whilst another predicts that the rain won’t reach Lesvos until tomorrow and yet another says the rain will be with us this evening. You never know what will happen on this island. More than once the weather reports have led us to expect a deluge that has never happened.

Today is such a day. Outside I made everything ready: I put a plastic sheet over some furniture and the linen was pinned to the washing line in a way that facilitated its removal to indoors with one fell swoop of an arm. A promising mass of clouds this morning simply curled itself around the tops of the Lepetimnos mountain range. Now the cloud formations congregate but they separate just as quickly, making way for the sun. Well, are we going to have rain or not?

Just like a dog thirsting for a drink with his pink tongue hanging out, the island waits for water. The first nets have already been put under the olive trees; but many olives have already fallen from the trees. The prediction for this year’s olive harvest is not too good. Already, in some parts of the island, more than half the olives are victim to their natural enemy: this mean insect the fruit fly dakos, who with one sting helps the fruit to the next world. Some people say that the natural enemy of the dakos, an ichneumon, is disappearing, but it could also be that, with the increase of biological cultivation here on the island - meaning the dakos is no longer being fought off with chemical spray – the dakos sees his chance to direct a massive offensive against the olives.

The surviving olives still on the trees will be enhanced with rain. They are no Dutch tomatoes full of water; but after some serious rains you can notice the difference, you can see the olives grow fatter and gain colour. And now with the rains starting  - yes indeed, I can see the olives smiling, making up for a great party with lots of booze.

Now the dry autumn is shifting into a wet one with mushrooms and the scent of wet leaves. But there are some flowers that don’t need too much rain to bloom. After the first showers hit the dry meadows and sandy paths, you will first see the appearance of a kind of bright yellow dandelion. Then the yellow autumnal crocus will appear, along with its purple look-alike Naked Lady (what a wonderful name for a Colchicum autumnale!). And when you walk along barren grounds that have been devoured by voracious sheep you’ll discover very small autumnal scillas: small bunches of light purple flowers, so miniature that they manage to be overlooked by the sheep.

The most charming flowers of the autumn are the cyclamen. These small purple-rose flowers are also impatient to bloom and, rain or not, they always start showing themselves in October, preferring shadowy places between rocks or at the edges of the woods where they light up in the dark with their seemingly frail petals staying sturdily upright.

Cyclamen originally came from the Middle East and it’s only in the 19th century that the bigger ones (the cultivated and coloured ones) became popular in West-Europe. The name of this flower Kyklaminos probably derives from a circle - kyklos in Greek - because their petals seem to climb out of a perfect circle.

Cyclamen can make you happy and they actually belong to the plants of ancient Greece known as aphrodisiacs. Theophrastos described a love potion, made from their roots steeped in wine. The Witchipdia (The online encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Paganism and the occult) however warns against this potion: it’s a recipe for drunkenness, so be warned! The same pages tell that people eating a cyclamen cake (made with pounded, roasted slices of cyclamen root) will fall madly in love with the creator of the cake. And pregnant women must be careful where they walk: they could miscarry by stepping on these attractive flowers.

In the bedroom the cylamen can increase the libido and protect against nightmares. Wearing a flower protects you against a broken heart and from the evil eye. When you see these fragile and beautiful flowers in the wilds of Greece, you would hardly think that they have all these mighty properties.

The first showers have dampened the landscape, probably the beginning of a weather front which will bring more rainfall. I wonder if it will be enough to save what remains for the olives. But at least the cyclamen are already doing their best to save the olive trees from the evil eye.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Saturday, 12 October 2013

October 8 – Wind and stones

(Photo: internet (

I have only learned about stone or rock balancing this summer. I have obviously ocassionally seen little towers of stones on the beach, but hadn’t realised that groups of people actually spend hours piling up stones, creating small sculptures of little men or women, towers that you barely believe can keep their balance.

Masters in stone balancing, like Adrian Gray, wait for days without wind in order that their creations are not blown to earth right from the start, but real stone art works need to be resistant to wind and even typhoons (see the pagodas at a buddhist monastery in Korea).

Last summer here on Lesvos, several people kept busy juggling stones, even though the persistant North wind kept on blowing. My house is in the north of the island, which seems to be this winds playground and more than once I was furious with Boreas, the God of the Northern wind who spoilt many a summer’s evening with his continuous whistling. I become very restless from the wind. When the glasses on the table can’t be trusted to stay standing and the paper napkins fly off to serve as a Christmas decoration in the bushes - having a dinner outside is no longer fun.

I was so glad when in September the Meltemi finally settled and we could enjoy some really warm Greek summer nights. Last year the long hot summer went on endlessly until November when the warm sea still invited you to have a swim and the heat waves ceded into very pleasant warm days. But no two years are the same. Last week a majestic stormfront visited the island, with gigantic light shows and rain. The north wind brought temperature drops of more than ten degrees to the island.

I have never been so cold at the beginning of October: the woodstove was turned on and I only felt warm in bed under my winter duvet. I pitied the tourists who came to warm themselves in the sun but had to wear all their clothes and still felt cold, even out of the wind. What a mean prank from the weather!

The cold is gone now and the mercury is slowly rising, but the real warm summer will not come back this year: kalo ftinopero! (a happy autumn).

Yesterday I went to visit a friend in Sigri. If you don’t love the wind, then the one place you should not go is Sigri, where the whole year round, even during the heat waves, a fresh wind blows. For those who don’t like great heat – or windsurfers – lovely Sigri must be Valhalla. So I was surprised to find no wind at all at the back part of the village and on the lovely sandy beach it was so hot that I sat in the sun to rid myself of the winter cold that already invaded my body in the previous days: what a treat! Perhaps over optimistically, we decided to visit a beach in the direction of Skala Eressos. It was a splendid sandy area, but the wind had plenty of access to it so our clothes were kept on, although it offered us a good chance to have a long walk along the beach.

Along the road the bare landscape spread out widely and endlessly and far off, above the sparkling sea, the highest mountaintops of the neighbouring island of Chios magically towered high above us. I can look at this landscape for hours, over the rolling, folding hills that are scattered with rocks and probably still hide an enormous treasure of petrified trees.

I noticed some piles of stones towering above the bent backs of the rolling hills.
Stone balancing? I remember that I had seen them before and wondered if they might be road-markings in the event of snow cover. But now that I know about stone balancing I wonder if the farmers here also spend time in meditative stone stacking.
In ancient Greece – about the 6th century BC – it was common that when a farmer took a loan on his land, the dept was marked by some piled-up stones. Perhaps the higher the dept, the higher the tower. I imagine that if you took a big loan, you would have needed a stone balancing artist to mark this deal. But I don’t think that these particular little towers are that old, for they would have had to survive lots of goat trampling and have withstood many an earthquake. In past times stones were also used to mark fields and roads. From simple rocks these boundaries developed into elaborate obelisk-like boundary towers. So I guess that today these little piles of stone can be seen as very simple boundary demarcations or where a nearly invisible goat path runs. They certainly add to the mysterious air hanging over this bleak but fascinating landscape.

After a tasty lunch in Sigri we came back to the town beach, where the sea was like a mirror and the sun was really hot again. Although a challenge, without any hesitation we jumped into the water and swam as if summer would never end.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

September 29 – The newest hotspot of Lesvos

(Theofilos in Vatera)

The most famous painter from Lesvos is Theofilos Hatzimihail (1870-1934). Born in Mytilini, as a young man he went to Smyrna (today’s Izmir in Turkey), where he did odd jobs and improved the painting techniques that he’d already learned from his hagiographist grandfather. When in 1897 war was declared between Greece and Turkey, Theofilos went to Athens in order to sign up for the army, but the war was very nearly over. He then lived and worked for some 30 years in Volos (on the mainland near Mount Pelion) before returning to Lesvos for the last seven years of his life. He’s the only artist of the island whose work has made it to the prestigious Louvre in Paris.

Theofilos loved military costumes and Greek heroes. He dressed mostly in a traditional fustanella, the large white pleated skirt, nowadays still worn by the military honour guard, but there are also pictures where he is seen wearing other military uniforms. One of the fine aspects of his work is the richness of detail he depicts for clothing, headgears and hairstyles (see: Θεοφιλος, a short movie in which particularly the details of his works are highlighted).

Theofilos was a man who held freedom as a main goal in life (see the documentary The Odyssey of a Great Greek Painter). In general he worked for whoever would provide him with food and a place to sleep and as a result he produced lots of mural paintings, many of which have disappeared in time due to neglect of the owners. He painted in many locations like cafes, houses and even a bakery, as well as a tavern in Karini, close to Agiasos. On the outside of this tavern you can still find a very nearly disappeared mural painting of by him and there still is the hollow tree, in which it is said that Theofilos lived for some time.

It seems a big step from the folkloric works of Theofilos to modern graffiti art. Although this step was made last summer by the organizers of the Beach Street Festival in Vatera (July 25-28), who wanted to confront international graffiti artists with the paintings of this Lesvorian painter. In a way Theofilos was himself a graffiti artist, even if only because of the bright colours he used and the walls upon which most of his art has been painted.

Graffiti is known to pop up in the most unexpected places, mostly in cities, where artists leave their elaborate signatures on metro trains, empty city walls, buildings and doors. The modern graffiti art is the aerosol art, which became ‘fashion’ at the end of the Sixties in America, but graffiti itself is much older. The hieroglyphs of the Egyptians can be regarded as ancient graffiti as can the Romans’ chalked political slogans on walls and likewise the announcements for gladiatorial games.

Greece too offers it’s part in graffiti, for example in Athens, but what this festival on Lesvos created is unique. Vatera is in the south of Lesvos, just below Polichnitos, one of the larger villages of the island. I presume it has a rich history, because in this region you can find a tower from a castle of the Gateluzzis, the remains of a temple dedicated to Dionysus (at Agia Fokas) and the Well of Achilles (it is said that Achilles stopped at the well when he finished fighting in Troy, to supply drink for his horse). But there is very little to be found on the web about the history of this region. But it is fact that many, many centuries ago prehistoric animals roamed these parts (some of whose remains are exposed in the Natural History Museum of Vrisa, a little town just above Vatera).

Vatera should have been called Skala Vrisa because it is the bathing place for Vrisa, and it consists mainly of holiday houses, hotels and guesthouses. But it has the longest beach of the island, some 8 kilometres, mostly sandy. The southern light makes this bathing place even more attractive and I am wondering why Vatera has not yet been discovered by large groups of international tourists. It is mainly the locals and Greek tourists who enjoy this beach paradise.

Although there must have been at least one person with the same question and he started to build an enormous hotel at the end of the beach, on the road to Stavros. The building developed as far as a solid skeleton and some marble floors and bathtubs in some of the rooms. It is said that somebody took off with all the money for the project and disappeared abroad and so it never got finished. For years now it has been wasting away at the end of the beach, closed in by green hills and now fully part of the landscape of Vatera.

This summer everything changed. The organizers of the Beach Street Festival recognised that the derelict hotel was a Walhalla for art: plenty of huge blank walls. They invited a number of graffiti artists (or they came themselves) to fill these blank canvasses. It must have been a joyful event to see all those people working on the walls: the result is amazing.

This modern ruin has become a kind of open-air museum where you can cruise its empty spaces, enjoy its cool shadows and discover beautiful graffiti works. While outside the Aegean Sea joyfully laps at the beach, the labyrinth of walls, staircases and room interiors offer up the visions of many artists who have been spraying art on the walls. It is incredible to see this huge ugly building, an unrealised dream, now transformed into an alternative museum where you roam the spaces and enjoy a game of colours, lines, ideas and jokes. Theofilos too is part of the main collection; more than once you can see him ‘glued’ to a wall, in his fustanella with a paint roller in his hand, in the background his beloved azure sea. I cannot imagine a better homage to this Lesvorian painter.

Will there be another Beach Street Graffiti Festival in Vatera next year? I do hope so. I hope that one day no piece of bare concrete will be left in this stylish graffiti museum.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© 2013 Smitaki

Monday, 23 September 2013

September 20 – Lesvos writes

 Lesvos is renowned for Sappho, a poetess living around the 6th century BC. Longos (Daphnis and Chloe), Stratis Mirivilis (Mermaid Madonna), Aryiris Eftaliotis and Ilias Venezis are also famous writers from Lesvos. Has it been these wordsmiths that have inspired many others to make stories, or is it the island itself that irresistibly charms people into writing?

I must admit that, before coming to Lesvos, I had never heard of Sappho nor any other of the above mentioned writers. I was only familiar with the Marc Chagall drawings from Daphnis and Chloe, making this story so famous. But it’s the island that has seduced me with its overwhelming nature and a certain magic that is difficult to define.

This magic power may be the reason that many writers still live on the island. This summer as many as three books were presented at the Bazaar-Brasserie in Molyvos.

Recently Timothy Jay Smith, an American writer frequently residing on Lesvos, presented his second thriller A Vision of Angels. There are plenty of people who believe that Lesvos is the island of angels, (see: Lesvos, the island of Angels?). Although A Vision of Angels is situated in the Israel and Palestine of today, a region that is torn apart and where living on the edge of war does not encourage too many angels. Or maybe it does? Timothy is so well travelled that he can fill a whole library with his stories. So it might be the angels of Lesvos who inspired him to turn his exciting adventures into gripping books.

The photo book My Greek Island Home concentrates on Lesvos. Last week this treasure was presented by Australian Claire Lloyd. Claire lives on the island, an art director and photographer, not really a writer — but it’s her pictures that are like the poems of Sappho: enchanting compositions of details, colours, structures, and fabrics as well as portraits of Lesviot people. The more you turn the pages of her book, the more you will recognise the rhythm of poetry. You could say that Claire writes with pictures.

There are also writers who have been inspired by Molyvos, a little medieval town where tourists slowly started to come in the Sixties. Dutchman Peter van Ardenne also presented his novel Verspreide opklaringen (the book is not translated into English) this summer at the Bazaar-Brasserie. The story was inspired by his stay in Molyvos in the Eighties. The story which takes place in that time is about a tourist wrestling with alcoholism whilst the Molyviots watch through contemptuous eyes.

I wonder sometimes why the villagers still remain so hospitable, in view of the hard times they have lived through and the things they have seen. The Captive Sun  (as far as I know was not yet presented in Molyvos) by Canadian writer Irena Karafilly presents an overview of the bad times in the recent history of Greece. The story starts at beginning of World War II, centering on a schoolmistress in Molyvos, the village already having gone through big changes due to the influx of refugees expelled from Turkey in the Twenties. The Germans occupy the village, and then it will be the civil war that makes the streets unsafe, followed by the era of the military Junta, another time of anxiety and terror.

This book made me sad, because it illustrates why the inhabitants even today sometimes mistrust everybody and everything. Lots of foreigners have difficulties in understanding the history of this island and this country and in recognising that the anxieties and bloodshed of the past make the Greeks only truly trust their families. Sometimes even families were ripped apart by differing political opinions, so safety was a luxury.

Calliope, the book’s main character, living with her mother after the death of her father, is in love with a German lieutenant. She cannot give in to this love because he is the enemy. She secretly works for the resistance, a fact she cannot reveal even when the villagers begin to suspect her love for the German. After surviving the war, it’s the civil war that denies her a relaxed time. Many of her friends are communists and when the colonels take power the communist hunt continues and Calliope’s friends lead her to continued danger.

It’s a story about a controversial love, but also about dissent in a small village where the lust for power, revenge and jealousies give rise to political betrayals. The walls of the houses in the village don’t seem thick enough to keep in the secrets and the windows are like eyes that see all. This is a book that all ex-pats in Greece should read, just to realise what the old Greeks have been through in their lives. The more recent economic events in Greece, that of thieving directors and European denigration of their country only reinforces the Greeks feeling: that they are on their own.

Peter van Ardenne was intrigued by the gossiping villagers, which you can also read about in Karafilly’s book, Timothy Jay Smith gives hope to the people in hard times; Claire Lloyd is much taken with the transient and the ephemeral — fabrics, materials and colours that also depend on history. Irena Karafilly puts the finger on difficult spots in history, which is, according to Timothy, universal.

Behind the thick and inspirational walls of some houses in Molyvos there are still writers behind their computers, struggling with words, wrestling with sentences to write new stories. When they go on the streets or to the cafes, they listen to the continually debating villagers, who talk about the past but also discuss anew life in Greece, even though it sometimes appears to be on the brink of falling apart. There is nothing new under the sun, except for the books that keep on being published, every time an exiting discovery of new and special writers.

Claire Lloyd – My Greek Island Home, Penguin Group (Australia), 2012
Irena Karafilly – The Captive Sun, Picador (Australia), 2012
And not to forget the photo/column book from me and Jan van Lent:

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Monday, 16 September 2013

September 11 – It’s always party-time in Greece

The little village of Skala Eresos is about to be shaken up with the annual women’s festival which takes place from 7 to 21 September. During these days women from all over the world will flock together, will dance, drink and flirt, but they’ll also attend workshops, make music and visit exhibitions.

This women’s festival is only one of the many festivals you can find on Lesvos. There’s the Sardine Festival of Kalloni, the Ouzo Festival in Plomari and this summer for the first time, in Mytilini and Sigri, there is a Commerce Festival in mytilini, a Beach Street Festival in Vatera and the Chestnut Festival in Agiasos. These are only the festive days that do not have a religious background, although most of the holidays in Greece are based on a religious event.

Christmas, Easter and the Assumption of Mary are the biggest High Days; Easter coming first with many other celebration days connected to this Holy Event. Of the Greek-orthodox calendar of name days (Greeks celebrate their name day and not their birthday), dates that are not dedicated to a saint form a big minority. And it’s not only individuals who celebrate their name day; so too do all churches and chapels (and there are so many of them). These celebrate the day of the saint in whose honour they are built, as do all cities and villages who have a patron saint who will be honoured once a year. For instance, on the last Sunday in July, the patron saint of Molyvos gets a little party, see: The Robinson Crusoe of Molyvos.

You see, Greeks are always busy feasting. Just like today, it is the name day of all Eves and Evanthia’s. I know at least three of them and according to Greek tradition they all have to be bestowed with your best wishes, and, if good friends, they should be visited. If you are in Skala Eresou then you also participate in the festival and I am sure somewhere on the island there must be a chapel dedicated to Saint Eve. There are not so many people named after Evanthia, but imagine October 26th when all Dimitris’, Dimitra’s, Mitsos’ and Stephanos’ are celebrated, or January 7th when all Yannis’, Yanoula’s, Ioanna’s (and all other variations on this name) are going out to have a party. Then half of Greece is celebrating, because who does not know a Yanni or a Dimitra? And now there are more and more Greeks starting to celebrate their birthday as well. Are they clever: they get spoiled twice a year!

But we’re not yet at the end of the list, because not only the name days of the saints are celebrated, there are also days where an event connected with such a saint is a reason to throw a party. As on August 29th when we went to a taverna in Skamnioudi and found the place empty. No customers, and the staff there had all gone to the village in order to celebrate the day of the Decapitation of John the Baptist. One of the stories goes that John was arrested by Herod Antipas because John made critical remarks about the fact that Herod wanted to divorce his wife in favour of his sister in law. When Salomé, Herod’s niece an daughter of his beloved sister in law, enchanted him with a beautiful dance he accorded her a wish. It was probably her mother who had whispered her the wish for the head of John the Baptist, which was brought to Salomé on a golden plate. You think this is a reason to celebrate?

Coming on September 14th there will be another similarly odd day when shops in Mytilini will be closed for the occasion of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. I have never heard about this, but it is indeed a Catholic and Orthodox celebration of the day that the Holy Cross (on which Jesus died) was found. Flavia Julia Helena was the mother of Constantine the Great (the Roman emperor who stopped the Christian persecution). While he was emperor he took his mother to visit Palestine and Helen went on a souvenir hunt. She discovered the grave of Jesus, took some souvenirs from the remains of the Three Holy Kings and also found the Holy Cross. Later on she was proclaimed a saint, but obviously only a name day was not enough, so her discovery of the Holy Cross became worth a celebration day too. So if you don’t know of these semi-holidays, you could well travel to Mytilini and find shops closed because the shopkeeper wants to celebrate the Holy Cross. Wouldn’t it be better if only Stavros’ and Stavroula’s, named after the Holy Cross, were to celebrate that day?

And finally Greece has also some politically related holidays like March 25th Independence Day, October 28th Ochi day and November 8th the local Independence Day on Lesvos. So if you want to find a day without a party on Lesvos, you will need some planning and research.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Thursday, 5 September 2013

September 2 – Strange birds

(Flamingos and their creche in Skala Polichnitos)

What strange birds, those flamingos! If they’re not happy with their home – in saltpans or other marshy areas –, if the water level is too low or it’s too hot or too cold, they simply say: “Let’s move”. Officially flamingos are not migrant birds that live here in the summer and somewhere else in the winter, but they might well change their habitat due to the weather.

On Lesvos you can find two regions with saltpans (Skala Kalloni and Skala Polichnitos), where in summer and winter you may see flamingos. Where do they come from? The closest place for the flamingos on Lesvos to have come from is mainland Turkey, just on the other side of the Aegean, above Izmir: the Gediz Delta, a 8000 hectare Valhalla for birds. Some 17,000 flamingos live there in the winter, laying thousands of eggs from which little grey flamingos crawl.

Or could the Lesvorian flamingos come from further away, like Lake Tuz, a large salt lake just south of Ankara (Turkey). It seems to me that both Lake Tuz and the Gediz Delta are wonderful places to live for a bird which feeds on the plants and small animals that live in salt areas.

Putting aside the question of where they actually come from, how do you suppose the flamingos know that, in such and such a period, life in Lesvos is better? Do you think they Face-book or twitter like: “Yeah, great water with lots of delicacy’s and nice temperatures here in Skala Polichnitos. Come!”?

And there is another strange thing: when they decide to go for a long holiday (most flamingos eventually return to their birthplace), they choose their destination according to the prevailing winds of their first autumn. Studies of a group flamingos in the south of France showed that some of them went holidaying in Spain and others went to Tunisia or Turkey. So it is possible that on Lesvos you can find flamingos from the French Camargue, I mean they might think that Lesvos is the Turkish Gediz Delta.

Another weird thing is that flamingos know the art of how to change food into colours. The cute pink colour they acquire is from eating algae containing carotenoid and not, as the popular story says, from eating pink shrimps (which they also eat). Just imagine if our hair became red from eating masses of carrots, or green by consuming lots of spinach, or white by eating bananas. That would be fun.

As much fun as looking at a large groups of flamingos, balancing on one leg and filtering the algae, shrimps or little crayfish from the water is; to me it seems a little tiring to stand all day on one leg, especially as God gave them two legs. It is believed that this one leg acts as a cooler (dogs also cool themselves by staying on four legs in the water) and that putting two legs in the water would cause too much cooling to the body. Another theory is that should they get one leg stuck in the mud, they can use the other one to pull themselves free.

In any case, it seems to me that flamingos have a carefree life, especially now that the Roman Empire is long past: a time when people hunted flamingos in order to serve them at fancy dinners. Now I understand why Lesvos was such a beloved holiday destination for the Romans: I bet plenty of stuffed flamingos or flamingo tongues were served here, both considered great delicacies in those times.

As far as I know they didn’t eat the eggs, or the chicks. Flamingo chicks are not as desirable as cute yellow chicken chicks, because they’re grey and only when they get older and have eaten well do they turn into those beautiful creatures with pink feathers. When they’re about two years old their parents send them to a small crèche and later on to a larger one where thousands of other kids come. Last week we saw such a crèche in Skala Polichnitos: ugly grey toddlers who must have been on a school trip because there are rarely baby flamingos born on Lesvos. 

And what do you suppose they do the whole day long? They eat and they blather. Just like the storks, another bird to be seen on Lesvos. Nowadays the black stork is very popular amongst bird watchers and you can see plenty of them at the half-dried rivers around Kalloni, at the saltpans and one has even been spotted at the water reservoir of Molyvos. I am sure they gossip and who knows if the storks, who are migrating birds, try to persuade the flamingos to come with them to Africa where they spend their winters.

That particular journey is not without dangers, especially when wearing scientific equipment. A few days ago a stork was arrested in Egypt because he wore a suspicious electronic device.

In any case, most flamingos do not like to travel that far. And they prefer to fly overnight, so that probably means they’re not really into sightseeing. Having said that, a few weeks go a large group of flamingos arrived on Lesvos, along with the large numbers of Turks who have visited the island this summer. Does that mean that the flamingos here do come from Turkey to have an all-inclusive holiday?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013