Friday, 26 April 2013

April 22 – As Long as the Grass Shall Grow

(Sheep mowing the grass)

Spring, though beautiful, is not always a joy. Because what do you hear in spring? Here on the island you not only hear the tweettweettweettweettweet of the birds, but also the intimidating wrawwwrrrraaaaaawwwrrrrrrraaaaaawwrrraaaaaa blaring through the landscape. There are days when this noise attacks you from all sides and then it’s best to just go back into your house, lock yourself in, close all the windows, doors and shutters and hope that the grass cutting will soon end.

After the first rains at the end of the summer, I am always amazed by how quickly the island becomes green again: everywhere grasses and wild vegetables pop up. In spring this process happens even faster and amid the grasses the wild flowers appear. And I am surprised to see how many kinds of plants can grow on one square metre; on the internet I read it can be as much as 80 kinds!

By the time summer starts here (unofficially at the end of April when the first groups of tourists appear) Lesvos has turned into one big jungle. Some grasslands can even reach one metre in height. It is a magnificent sight to see the fields full of red poppies, other fields coloured yellow by rapeseed, and the ground beneath the olive trees multi-coloured.

Along with that of your neighbours, your garden will change into a wilderness, a green jungle crawling with lots of animals, like snakes. House owners on my plot of land are very afraid of snakes and as soon as they think there will be no more big rains, the trouble starts: all plants have to be cut so that you can’t be waylaid by a snake waiting for you in the chorta.

I am not that afraid of snakes and I certainly do not think that they just leap out of the chorta. But in spring walking through high grasses brings the risk that you could accidentally step on a sunbathing or napping snake. And if it’s a poisonous one, you may be in trouble. That’s why you see the Greek farmers, no matter how hot it may be, wearing boots for protection against these wriggling reptiles.
I myself take good care where I walk and when there is poor visibility because of the dense vegetation, I walk with a stick, pounding the ground, in order to scare the snakes away (who are, by the way, more afraid of you than you should be of them).

You can’t always do this every time at home when need to go to your car or compost heap in your garden. So yes, once a year I get somebody to mow the grass in the garden and I must admit, that even though I love that juicy green so much, when the grasses and wild flowers are cut, your garden has transformed into a something else. Hotels also prefer to receive their guest on a wellmown lawn rather than send their guests wending their way to their rooms through a jungle. So in spring there are days that you are driven crazy from the wrawwwrrrraaaaaawwwrrrrrrraaaaaawwrrraaaaaa.

An alternative to mowing is to use a scythe. But if you are not used to work like that you could go crazy. Previously cutting the grass was done by the sheep and goats.

Lots of countries, amongst them Greece, have vast dry grasslands: biotopes with poor and dry ground. Most of these areas are controlled by what grazes on them (like big game in Afrika and sheep and goats in Greece). This used to be perfect: while experienced shepherds kept an eye on the flocks, goats and sheep fertilized the land with their droppings, thus attracting useful insects and their eating kept the grass short and the grasslands in good condition.

But shepherds seem to belong to a profession threatened with extinction. Even in Greece you see less and less of these wandering souls. More and more regions are becoming overgrazed because of the increase in building, because more and more people buy land which they manage themselves, because fewer and fewer people use a shepherd to keep their flocks going. Because Europe gives subsidies for sheep and goats, their number has risen enormously yet these animals have less and less pastures to go to. Different studies, like Desertification by overgrazing in Greece; the case of Lesvos island, warn that those barren landscapes might turn into a desert.

Groups, like the European Dry Grassland Group, are drawing attention to this problem. Grasslands might even be popular amongst some people; I found a blog, The Grass is Greener on the Udder Side, where you can vote for the grassland of the year!

So the number of sheep and goats should be increased, just like the subsidies.

Although it is a traditional event and not one to save the landscape, each year the Greeks try to bring the number of sheep down by eating mountains of lamb at Easter. On May 5th it will be Easter again, but the number of sheep will not go down much because most of the lambs eaten will be imported from other countries like Albania an Romania where they are cheaper.

Actually they should reintroduce shepherds so that the sheep and goats can roam through the lands with more prudence. There still remains plenty of grassland to be grazed, although they will not be all next door. Finding a shepherd will be no solution for the grasslands in my garden. Just imagine the sheep feasting on my strawberries, my mint and herbs and even worse my so carefully cultivated flowers! No, I am afraid that I have to accept this horrible spring noise: wrawwwrrrraaaaaawwwrrrrrrraaaaaawwrrraaaaaa. I wish you a happy Easter.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

April 15 – Coins of Methymna


There was a time when the small town of Molyvos – which used to be called Methymna – had its own king and even its own bishop. It was the second city of Lesvos and as a citystate it quarrelled for a long time with the other big town of the island: Mytilini. Regularly soldiers were sent back and forth and they even conquered other states; Arisva (now Kalloni) belonged for some time to Methymna.

During the Peloponnesian war (431 – 404 BC) Methymna choose to side with Athens, while the other Lesvorian citystates sided with Sparta. Did Methymna choose Athens for political reasons or was it being faithful to the Goddess Athena, who gave Athens its name and was much depicted on ancient coins and pottery as the Goddess of war.

Lesvos is not far away from the regions where the first Western coins were minted  – the island of Aegina, where the oldest drachma, which depicts a land turtle, was found (about 700 BC), and Ephesus, then part of the kingdom of Lydia, the cradle where the first coins originated. The prosperous citystates of Mytilini and Methymna eventually followed and two centuries later minted their own coins: see this interesting collection of coins from Methymna.

In the fourth century BC the Gods of Olympus were still venerated in Greece and when Zeus was angry with Methymna he released heavy thunderstorms. To appease this God the villagers threw a virgin into the sea. Zeus might have had plenty of reason to be angry with Methymna. For a certain period this citystate was seen as a Sodom and Gomorrah, due to its plenitude of prostitutes who, like their clients, hit the bottle pretty hard and took their time to sleep off the booze. Around 442 – 443 BC the new king Kleomenis having had enough of this debauchery, arrested all the pimps, had them tied in sacks and thrown into the sea – a clear sign for the whores to quit their jobs.

In those times you would find land turtles depicted on the coins of Methymna. This animal was seen as a symbol for fertility and was one of the favourites of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. The head of Silenus was regularly minted into the coins too. This bearded man was the drinking buddy of Dionysus, the God of the wine. He was known for his love for the nymphs and for the donkey he rode which would chase giants while braying. Other people thought Silenus was the teacher of Dionysus, and that he was a foolish but wise man and thus loved by Greek sages.

You could often also find a gorgon’s heads on the coins, the head of a monstrous goddess with a nest of snakes as her hair. You might think that this head was a symbol for the sorry state of Methymna and its whores, but in fact it was the symbol of protection against the evil eye, a phenomenon still existing in today’s world.

Later the coins became more serious and depicted bunches of grapes or drinking cups. You could read this as yet more symbols for bad drinking, but in those times wine making had become very popular and by the time the Romans conquered Greece, Lesvos was reknowned for its good wine, and the one from Methymna was praised as the best.

The citystates eventually disappeared, quarrels were ended because mighty enemies had to be fought together. Lesvos was ruled by many foreign states and when in 1922 it became Greek again, it was divided into different municipalities. This lasted until today’s crisis hit the country and three years ago thousands of municipalities had to be assembled into bigger units and as such Lesvos became one big municipality.

The municipality of Lesvos has very little or no money: none to clean the island (that’s done by the inhabitants), none to repair roads (some of them impossible to use) and none to replace lamps in the lampposts (streets are becoming dark). Even so, many taxes are being paid, nobody knows what that money is used for nor where it is. The big municipality is in chaos.

Last year, when the tourist season started, lots of people believed the crazy stories that came through the grapevine, for instance, that no money would come out of ATM’s, that nothing would function and that the island (and the rest of Greece) was like a big battlefield with riots and tear-gas on every street corner. How stupid can people be.

Although I am talking about a chaotic municipality with broken lampposts, I don’t mean that the island is in darkness. There still is sufficient light on the streets and there still are plenty of people who do everything to keep life normal. For instance last Sunday children and the elder citizens of Molyvos cleaned the streets and beaches around the city.

The plan to install a customhouse in Petra for boats to come and go to Turkey from the north of the island has still not worked out. Is this due to a lack of money or is Mytilini afraid to loose this everincreasing number of tourists to Molyvos and Petra? The Turkish tourists arriving in Mytilini mainly come for just one or two days and a visit to the idyllic medieval town of Molyvos entails a pretty long bus journey, an incentive to remain in Mytilini, where the shops do great business.

If Methymna still had its own king and an army, I am sure that they would by now have attacked Mytilini, because it is said that they keep the municipality money and that they prevent the Turks from sailing straight to Molyvos. If new coins were to be minted, one side would again depict a helmeted Athena, ready for the battle and on the other side you could find a tourist bus – because Molyvos still boasts of its ancient Methymnesian fame and remains the most visited tourist place of the island.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Monday, 8 April 2013

April 4 – About flowers but more about bees

(A large bee fly; photo:  

Whilst the Middle and North of Europe still suffers from severe cold, snow and ice, we here in the south are so happy. Last winter was warm but wet, and strengthened by the high spring temperatures it is an ideal cocktail for an explosion of flowers. It’s even so hot that trained walkers are already complaining about the heat affecting their walks.

I‘m not too happy about the early appearance of so many flowers, because if there are flowers there are also insects and not everybody likes them. I have already been stalked by a nasty mosquito wanting my blood; and starting from early spring I get scared in the house by fleeing spiders of all sizes and colours and I have already seen many gatherings of ants around the house — ‘hello, what invasions you are planning for this summer?’ And even picking wild asparagus can be dangerous because of the snake attacks, although at least they are not insects.

There are positive sides also: the best spring concerts can be heard by standing in a meadow full of flowers or under a tree with blossoms. Just listen to the sound made by the buzzing busy bees. Or are they wasps or bumblebees?

Wasps, bumblebees and bees belong to the hymenopterous insects because they have two pairs of membranous wings. The differences easiest to see between these insects are that wasps are bold, bees are hairy and bumblebees are like big hairy stuffed bees. Wasps are dressed very smartly with a wasp waist – the small connection between their breast and abdomen - while bees and bumblebees are more squat.

Wasps live off insects and nectar; but we all know those huge wasps – hornets – who love to steal the meat from your plate during barbeques. Bees and humblebees just live off nectar and pollen, so they won’t bother you during dinner — and they make honey, a much appreciated food product.

The Greek word for honeybee is μέλισσα (mèlissa) and honey is μèλι (meli). The name probably comes from a nymph who taught people to use honey. One of the many myths about Melissa is that she was one of the nymphs who nursed  Zeus as a baby. Instead of feeding him with milk, she gave him honey. And she let the honey be delivered by the bees straight into Zeus’ little mouth.

I was surprised to learn that here is another hymenopterous insect. Those sneaky crawling ones who love to invade your house and settle in your storage areas: the ants! They originally were wasps – so they are a kind of wingless wasp – and are as nasty as their winged ancestors. But ants can fly, even if it is just once in a lifetime: when they leave their nest. They prefer to do that on a warm day with no rain and we all know this phenomenon of flying ants who suddenly appear out of nowhere while you are enjoying the quiet of your terrace. Well, see it as a ‘Queensday’ — a new queen is crowned and comes with her entourage and plenty of bells and whistles looking for a new home. So you better do something before Her Majesty decides that your house will become her favourite palace.

In spring I do miss Dutch tulips that can bow their stems so crazily when you put them in a vase of water. That’s why I now pick so many red anemones, which are not as weird as tulips, but you cannot have it all. One evening having guests around the table a funny small bee crept out of the red anemones: it was honey coloured (not striped) and it was woolly and very cute, but rather small for a bee or a bumblebee. I suddenly asked myself if those hymenopterous insects were born small and then grow and whether what we saw at the table might actually be a baby bee.

After research on the internet about bees, bumblebees and wasps, and after several bouts of shivering at pictures of some frightening wasps and bees, I nearly gave up the search for the little bee. Then, by accident, I came upon pages about flies and there was the little hairy insect: a large bee fly (Bombylius major; in Dutch it has the name Wool Floater). And yes, they are like balls of wool, floating in the air, hovering quickly from place to place. So it was a fly! And it is not just an ordinary one. He fools you by being like a bumblebee; no wonder it took me so long to identify it. Birds are the natural enemies of insects, and, just like humans, do not like insects who sting, — so the Large Bee Fly, who has no sting, dresses up like a bumblebee (mimicry) and this way fools the birds. This cute bumblebee-like fly has more tricks: it puts its eggs in the nests of the bee Andrena, so its larvae gets fed by the mother Andrena who pains herself to feed so many extra offspring, who later eat the Andrean larvae! The Large Bee Fly is also a brood parasite.

God created strange lodgers on earth. Most of the bees, bumblebees and ants are pretty harmless, but those sweet looking Large Bee Flies are a bunch of profiteers. Nature keeps on amazing me.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Monday, 1 April 2013

March 26 – Travelling to Lesvos

(Aristotle's Lagoon)

Nowadays there are many more travellers than centuries ago. Thanks to the airplane you do not need years to arrive at the other end of the world. It is because of this fast transport that we can even consider having a holiday several times a year. In fact going on vacation is not the same as travelling: you know to which place you are going, along which road and how long it will take; while when travelling you may not be sure which road you will take, nor how much time it will take and you may only know your final destination.

Lesvos is a vacation destination. Even in ancient times, when Rome ruled Europe, it already was a vacation place for the Romans, who called the island The Garden of the Aegean. Later on travellers thought Mytilini was the most beautiful city of the Aegean, but until the middle of the nineteenth century most people preferred to travel to the Greek mainland, to visit the classical monuments of ancient times, like the Acropolis or Delphi. Lesvos was too far away and was only visited by a happy few on their way to the Orient.

They missed something, because Lesvos was the island chosen by Aristotle to study animals, later published in his book Historia animalium. He was invited to do so by Theophrastus, a scientist from Eresos, who is seen as the first botanist. The former did the plants, the latter the animals. Aristotle chose the area around the Gulf of Kalloni, where he could observe and dissect fish as well as land animals. The BBC made an interesting documentary about the importance of Aristotle’s study on Lesvos, Aristoteles’ Lagoon, a movie that also serves as a strong advertisement for the island.

Most of those early travellers were well read and wrote about their journeys, resulting in entertaining literature which, above all, depicted life as it was so many years ago. I am fascinated by these travel journals, especially those about Lesvos, but there are so many! You would think that it was a requirement for every traveller to write about his journey. In the Seventeenth century a Dutchman, Gerard Hindelopen, made a report on his journey to Mytilini (see: The Throne of Potamon). On the internet you can find plenty of travel journals from the end of the Nineteenth to middle of the Twentieth century, like the one of  J. Irving Manatt – Aegean Days (1913) or Mary A. Walker – Old tracks and new landmarks (1897), both describing their visit to Mitilene (as the island used to be called).

Most people stayed in Mytilini and from there travelled to other parts of the island. In those times it was popular to visit the harbour of the Gulf of Yera, known as the Olive Harbour. Or they went to the other big harbour in those times, that of (Skala) Kallonis. Those excursions, of course, were very arduous and by foot, horse chart, horse or donkey, or by boat. Mary Walker for example hired a little boat to go to the hot springs in Thermi and to Moria. Going to Molyvos she took the liner that sailed between ‘Cavalla, Imbros, Tenedos, Molivos, Mitylene and Smyrna’. To visit Petra she had to do it by foot from Molyvos, over a dangerous footpath just destroyed by an earthquake.

Even in the Sixties, when the first cars were introduced on the island, an excursion by car to the monastery of Ypsilou was an adventurous enterprise that took more than a day, according to Betty Roland who described this journey in her book Lesbos, the pagan island.

The islanders themselves did not like to travel, except for the merchants, who mainly lived in Mytilini and travelled from there to faraway countries in the Orient, as far as Russia and Egypt. The villagers remained in their familiar surroundings: what should they do in the capital. But sometimes one had to go to Mytilini for business, a journey often meaning adventure. In his book The Mermaid Madonna the Lesviot writer Stratis Myrivilis told the story of a man from Sykaminia who took his little fishingboat to Mytilini and returned totally drunk and with a foundling in his boat.

By the Sixties there was a bus between Molyvos, Petra and Mytilini, but that journey took 2 to 3 hours and when it was rainy it might even take 4 to 5 hours, because rivers had to be crossed. In the book Lesbos, the pagan island Betty Roland describes such a journey, travelling along very bad roads with passengers behaving like they were on a world trek with all their luggage and food.

Now all main roads are tarmacadamed, bridges have been built and it takes only a little bit more than an hour to drive from the North to Mytilini. Just a few tourists now arrive by ship because a journey by airplane is much quicker. Nowadays people are in a hurry; they want to see the sun and have forgotten that travelling will show you beautiful sceneries and adventures.

Flying is quick but it costs. I regularly hear complaints about expensive tickets for the charter planes to the island – the quickest way – or that they are fully booked. But there are many other ways to go to Lesvos, just like the travellers did in earlier times, to arrive by boat on the island, a much more impressing arrival than by plane. The easiest way is to fly to Athens and from there take the ferry from Pireaus to Lesvos. But there is even a quicker and more adventurous way: you take an early morning flight to Izmir in Turkey, from there you take a shuttle bus to Ayvalik or Dikili (a drive along the beautiful Turkish landscape of about 2 hours). Take some time to visit those scenic villages and then take the boat to Mytilini at the end of the afternoon. This way you will even have had your first excursion. This is the cheapest way and you can take beautiful pictures while travelling. And – by the way – Izmir, too, is an interesting city worth a visit, where you could easily stay one or more days.

Lesvos does not belong to the most visited Greek islands. Therefore it is not yet spoiled by mass tourism and what you see on the island is more or less what saw Aristotle, the Romans and all those other travellers who praised the island as a green and fertile garden in the Aegean: an oasis of quietness, nature, friendly people and just a little bit of ancient culture.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013