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