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