Saturday, 19 April 2014

April 17 - Kalo Paska

(Mitsos kanis souvla)

A drizzling rain has descended on the island. We say it each year: when the first tourists arrive, there will be rain. Easter also has a reputation for attracting bad weather, although I can’t remember a single Easter Party that was ever spoilt by rain. Just as they have this year, weather reports always announce rain for Easter, even though the heavens on the day itself may decide otherwise and we may yet see the sun contribute to the festivities. I can only remember one occasion when the forecast actually was for good weather and that was last year when Easter Sunday was as hot as a day in a heat wave.

This week in Greece is called Holy Week as we approach the end of Lent. Today, on Maundy Thursday all officials are on holiday, so if you want to get something from the municipal cooperative shop you will find the door closed. Today the women will colour the eggs red and they will bake Easter bread (tsoereki). In Greece all eggs will be painted with the symbolic blood of Jesus Christ, although you may see other coloured eggs appear too, probably the influence of other countries. Men will be busy slaughtering lambs, for the traditional dish to be served on Easter Sunday. Passing through the streets you may already be seeing skinned lambs hanging under a roof. On Sunday those poor animals will all end up above the fire for a souvla (lamb on an spit) or stuffed in the oven.

I don’t live in the village so I am spared the nightmare of the church bells this week. During the Holy Week the bells toll for every step made by the priests; but even worse is the electronic bellman, the speakers all over the village, that do not allow any liturgical service to go unnoticed. Living in the village you don’t actually have to go to church in order to attend a mass.

Tomorrow it will be Good Friday which is kind of a day of mourning in Greece: according to the Orthodox Church one should mourn the crucifixion of Jesus. Women will hurry to the churches in order to decorate all shrines with flowers. Flowers will be easy to gather as the island looks like a great flower paradise right now. Although I wonder if picking flowers in the rain is such a nice job. In the evening a procession will pass through the village with a symbolic bier of Jesus, it too is covered with flowers. I grew up between the fields of flowers in Holland and as a child each year I saw the great flower processions and I have to say: the Greek flower decorations always make me a bit homesick for the time when I was a child wondering how on earth could they gather so much flowers.

Here on the island you can also find tulips and hyacinths. But they don’t smell as strong as they used to in Holland. And I do hope that I will never see a bier decorated with tulips, because that will mean that they will have picked bare one of the very rare fields. You know, there are even people who pick very rare orchids: barbarians. Although I do not think they take them to cover the bier of Jesus or to decorate churches; they probably will end up in a herbarium.

Saturday is the day for preparations: for the food on Sunday, for the midnight mass and for the traditional soup that is served after the midnight mass. This Mayiritsa or Easter Soup is prepared with the offal of the slaughtered lamb. I do not like soup in general, and especially not this pretty sour soup often thickened with an egg-lemon paste (avgolemono). I had it once and I prefer not to taste it again. I am waiting for the food on Sunday, for when in the early hours the fires are lit for the souvla and the ovens warmed for the stuffed lamb. Then the air will be pregnant with the scent of roasted lamb and full of the cheerful voices of the Greeks celebrating Easter, I await the nice taste of a sweet and spiced Easter lamb.

Easter is traditionally celebrated with lots of family and friends. Often everybody brings a dish and I will also be attending such an Easter Party. But for days now I have been wondering what food I will make to bring. The closer Easter comes, the emptier the shops are. Are the Greeks buying so much stuff?

Greeks prefer to eat according to the season: cabbages in the winter, aubergines in the summer. In autumn you can eat the last tomatoes or the first fresh spinach. In late spring it’s different. Winter vegetables are gone and the fields are ploughed to make room for the summer vegetables. The result is that there are not so many vegetables available in the shops and the ones that are for sale wilt within the day. This is a time when I really long for the well-stocked supermarkets in Holland that sell all kind of vegetables all year round.

I cannot make wild asparagus. I have been eating them for weeks and now they’ve stop making new stems and I don’t believe that the rains of today will revive them. So the choice is between mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli, or if I am lucky, fresh broad beans. Even though I have already been eating these vegetables for weeks, at least I have a choice. I’m probably just a bit sulky because of a day of rain and the weather forecast that, yet again, threatens us with a wet Easter Sunday.

Kalo Paska

(with thanks to Mary)

© Smitaki

Sunday, 6 April 2014

April 4: The story of two moths

(A Big Emperor Moth)

Mostly I think of moths as those boring light brown butterfly-like insects that invade your wardrobe and enthusiastically redo your clothes. But the other day when a very big butterfly settled on my screen door, there was nothing about him that reminded me of a moth.

This beautiful Big Emperor Moth (Saturnia pyri) is the biggest butterfly found in Europe - his wing span varies from 80 to 160 mm - so he is a real emperor; but in Holland he is named after the peacock’s eye on his wings: the Big Peacock’s Eye. He is an impressive sight, but I have to confess that I’m also a little scared by his huge hairy body and legs that bring to mind a tarantula. Years ago another Big Emperor Moth visited my house and even though I have many cats and dogs around, it remained on a pile of wood for days. Why did such a butterfly stay there so long?

I was amazed that this magnificent creature belongs to the moth family, which I usually only associate with those clothes devouring devils. In Dutch moths can also be called Night Butterflies, which I think is a better definition and a name much easier to associated with those colourful and elegant flying insects. The biggest difference is that moths fly at night and (day) butterflies like to play in the sun. And by the way, the European Peacock (Inachis io) is the Emperor’s little sister, which in Dutch we call the Day Peacock’s eye.

Most people know that all butterflies lie eggs, producing caterpillars that start eating as soon as they can creep around. The caterpillar then change into a nymph, usually protected in a self-woven cocoon, which after some time produces a new butterfly. The Big Emperor Moth has the same cycle. As a youngster the big fat caterpillar is black with orange-yellow spots, then he becomes bright green with yellow spots that might change into a bright sky blue: such nice colours, just like a chameleon slowly changing colours. It is difficult to say which is the most impressive image of the Emperor Moth: the fanciful caterpillar or the butterfly that is a little grayish with dark red, brown, white and black.

(The caterpillar of a Big Emperor Moth)

The caterpillar world offers a wonderful collection of forms and colours: look here for 15 alien looking caterpillars. The Oak Processionaries (also the Pine Processionaries) are renowned for their dangerous ‘hairshooting’. It is a great relief that the caterpillar that shoots with real poison, like the Giant Silkworm Moth, lives far away from Lesvos in South America (Bresil).

There is no danger in taking a closer look at the sturdy caterpillar of the Emperor Moth, because he is totally harmless. This creature feeds on the leaves of fruit trees in the warmer parts of the world, like in the south of Europe. And they had better eat their bellyfull because when they become a butterfly, there is no more eating. The butterfly stage serves only to produce offspring: a lady tries to seduce a man (who can sense her presence from as far as 11 kilometres), then they do it and the female lies eggs.

For days that Big Emperor Moth remained hanging on my screen door (well, I must admit that I did not check whether he or she left for a flight in the night). After two days another Big Emperor Moth came and settled himself on the ear of the plush reindeer head that I have next to my frontdoor screen. Was it a female on the screen door that had attracted a male one? Were they going to produce offspring? I did not spy as to how they went about it. And anyway, on the internet (interpod) I read that their intercourse could last as long as 22 hours. One of them remained hanging on the screen door, no matter how hard or slow you opened or closed it and the other one nestled up to the reindeer’s ear, as if they were preparing for a long mating dance. But – reading further on the internet – the lifespan of a Big Emperor Moth is just one week! So there was no big love story developing between these two because they cannot live long and happy lives. Maybe the invisible mating dance lasted for several days, but without any result. I will never know because one morning the Big Emperor Moth on the screen door was gone and the other on the reindeer’s ear grieved for a day and then disappeared also.

If they’d had a quickie before saying goodbye, the new mother-to-be would have been in a hurry to lay her eggs because she had taken days to seduce her lover and there was so little time left. And then, thinking about the pictures of the Emperor caterpillars, it seemed that I knew them; I suddenly remembered that bright coloured caterpillar that last year had been in the cherry tree next to the front door. When I checked the photographs there indeed was for several days an Emperor’s caterpillar feasting on the leaves of my cherry tree. Could this butterfly have returned to her roots thinking that the screen door was her cherry tree?

The two moths did not eat a hole in the screen door, nor was the ear of the reindeer damaged. But why did they stay so long without moving? Maybe next year their offspring will return and then I will have a better look at what they get up to.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014