Thursday, 22 May 2014

May 18 – No summer, only nasty animals

(The train from Petra to Molyvos)

Last week I wanted to make a cup of tea and reached for the teapot. The pot was very nearly dropped and broken into thousands of pieces when I saw what it was hiding when I picked it up: a dark brown snake (well, I admit, it was rather small, only about 40 cm)! I put the teapot down quickly and, before the snake could react, I placed one of those mesh food covers on top of him (or her). I think the snake was as scared as I was: he didn’t move.

The weather is still is playing around. If there are no showers or no grey or black clouds sailing across the sky, there is a cold wind blowing from the north or an impressive storm from the south. Real Greek summer weather has not yet reached the island and in the evenings you have the choice of either catching a cold outside or moving inside. Even during the day I am still spending a lot of time inside the house, just like my teapot that has its place on a sideboard in the kitchen. I suspect that the snake had also had enough of the cold May weather and was happy to have found a warm teapot to curl himself around.

But now the snake was trapped under the food-net and I wondered what to do next. It was no use smashing his head in with a hammer; there was the net in between the snake and me and, in any case, I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted to find a way that I could safely transport him out of my house and set him free. But how to proceed? I decided to use the pizza shovel: I ran outside quickly, scared that the snake would come-round and escape. I grabbed the handle with its large round flat metal plate at the end and was back in no-time. The snake had not moved an inch.

The round surface you use to get pizzas out of the oven was about the same circumference as the food net. But how do you shovel a snake out of it? I decided to give it a try — took up an acrobatic pose, trying to manoeuvre the food-net with one hand and the pizza shovel with the other (and, of course, keeping as far away from the snake as possible) while shifting the snake from the net to the shovel.

I should have known that this was a dangerous action: the snake panicked (I already had), it started to squirm, found an opening between the net and the shovel and shot away! Well, there I was, with a pizza shovel in one hand and an empty food-net in the other hand, staring at the crack between the side board and the wall into which the snake had disappeared. What to do next? The sideboard was too heavy to move, but I did not intend to rest the case and let the snake escape. I mean, I couldn’t carry on working, sitting in front of my computer, drinking tea or cooking or anything, with the thought that the snake might enjoy having my company at the table. It might curl up cosily behind my warm computer, or when having my afternoon nap it might think that sleeping with two is much more fun than sleeping alone.

The only thing I could think of was to close all existing gaps between the sideboard and the wall. So I gathered up lots of plastic bags to temporarily stuff the gap, then rushed to the shed where I got slats, a hammer and nails and furiously nailed the slats over the gaps. It was only when there were no more holes to be seen that my breathing returned to normal.

Of course I asked the snake for forgiveness because I’d killed him in such an atrocious way and for days I really felt guilty; nonetheless I couldn’t bring myself to remove the slats. I silently hoped that he might have found a way out, for snakes are also creatures of God. According to friends he was not even a poisonous one, so he would not have hurt a fly. But, having taken over my teapot without asking permission was asking for trouble.

The Queen knew better. For years now I have celebrated Queensday with a glass and a fly swat. This day always takes place at the end of April or in May and starts with the entry of the Queen. It’s an enormous hornet, the biggest wasp in Europe, who flies buzzing loudly into the house (well, whether she is flying or not, I’m not sure; I have never discovered how she enters the house, she is always suddenly there). After circling the house for some time she gets me so mad that I have to stop whatever I’m doing and then we start the game: the Queen flies all over the house and I run behind her with a big glass and the fly swat. As soon as she settles on a flat surface that I can reach, I trap her under the glass, shift the swat under it and I put her out of the house. That is round one. A little later the Lady reappears in the house and the game continues. Last year I won after four rounds when she gave up. Last week she was here again and I guess she was a bit older because this time she gave up after two rounds.

This, of course, is bullshit because a wasp does not live more than a year. So each year it must be a new Queen making her entrance to the house. I wonder why each year I am honoured with the visit of this mega-wasp who enters the house not just once but sometimes four times in a mysterious way.

So even though we are still waiting for the summer, insects are ever present again to give your life even more problems. Spiders, ants, caterpillars and mosquitos are again part of daily life. Recently, I heard somebody say that on Lesvos we have Tiger Mosquitos, a dangerous variant from that buzzing species that gives irritating bites. Yesterday when I was at my computer I saw a kind of mosquito passing by, although it seemed a little too big, so I thought no, maybe not a mosquito. When I took a better look I saw that his body was lightly striped; I became alarmed: was this an infamous Tiger Mosquito? The good thing about working on the computer is that you can quickly find answers for a lot of questions — so I discovered that this was no Tiger Mosquito, just some sort of dragonfly. And after asking some more people about this redoubtable mosquito, there seems to be no evidence that a Tiger Mosquito has ever entered the island.

The only new ‘danger’ here in the north of the island is the motorized caterpillar, also called The little Train. It is an amusement park style vehicle that has its habitat now in Molyvos and in Pètra. First there was only one, but now it has increased to three and its habitat now extends as far as Anaxos. It transports everybody who wants (and pays) from Pètra to Molyvos, all the way to the harbour and even up to the castle. You do not have to be afraid of it because it creeps very slowly (causing plenty of irritation to fast drivers) along the road. In the evening it is so brightly illuminated that it looks like a fairground attraction. The route of this sweet locomotive with its two or three wagons has not yet extended to Eftalou, so there is no reason for me to be afraid that coming home one day I might find a derailed train trying to steal my teapot.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Friday, 16 May 2014

May 13 - Coming and going

(The airport of Mytilini)

It has been more than ten years that I have been writing about the island of Lesvos. I will not pretend to know all corners of the island, nor that I have written about everything on the island; but it’s not easy to find an entertaining subject to write about every week. If it was only for me I would have written: “Woahh, the island is so beautiful”, because I do enjoy being on Lesvos. But writing each week things like: “The apricots start to blush, the vines are reaching to heaven and this morning the sky was ink black”, is not too interesting for a reader.

This summer a cultural anthropologist / sociologist who is also a writer has settled on the island. I have persuaded her to write some columns for me. Because everything will be new for her, we start afresh discovering the island. I am not finishing writing, but my columns and those from Pip will be published alternately on this blog.

Here is her first column: Coming and going.

The friend who is picking me up from the airport in Mytilini is not waiting behind glass walls, but just next to the luggage belt. While we have a welcome hug, my suitcase passes by on the belt and I have a tenth of a second to grab it before it will disappear outside again. My plane landed barely five minutes ago, it was four minutes ago that I descended the wobbly stairs leading out of the Havilland Bombardier. It is still early in the season, so there are not yet direct flights to Lesvos. The Havilland Bombardier came from Athens. The name of this relatively small two-prop plane, reminds me of images from the end of the movie Casablanca: Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in a romantic scene at an airport, in the background an airplane looking like the one on which I had just travelled. It is a strange association, because this movie is from 1942 and relates a story occuring during the Second World War. It may be that I have mixed up Ingrid Bergman with Olivia de Havilland, who is another actress from those times. Although de Havilland did not have a role in Casablanca, but in Gone With the Wind, and she was not in the same movie as Humphrey Bogart. Even stranger is the fact that I was born decades after those movies were made and I was not at all impressed seeing them so many years later on television.

What did impress me was the landing of the de Havilland at the airport of Mytilini. The forty passengers just barely ended-up not in the cockpit, because the plane had to brake so hard. Another impressive thing was that the hundred or so metres from the plane to the arrival hall were crossed by bus (it is not long ago that you just could walk this distance). This arrival is so different to those at the big airports elsewhere in Europe, where you leave the plane through a tube, then you still have to walk another kilometre and a half and you may wait at least half an hour before your suitcase arrives. Arrival at Mytilini airport is pretty rapid: within ten minutes I am standing outside. Tourist season on Lesvos starts around the first of May, when people from (a.o.) England, Netherlands, Scandinavia, Czech Republic and Turkey start pouring in with the big international charter planes. And even though they come in big numbers, they all quickly are able to depart the arriving hall, pleased to be facing the bright blue sea and an idyllic chapel at the other side of the road at the beach.

Returning home is another story. The gap between a big airport and a local Greek airport such as on Lesvos then starts to show. The automation is simple and controlling names and luggage costs time, a lot of time. The fact that each airline has its own rules for luggage gives the airport staff hard times. Handling the luggage is not easy, because the belt that used to run behind the checkin counter has been removed because it failed so often. This means that passengers after checking in their luggage, must take their suitcases back and drag them a few metres further along to the scanning machine. A metre before the checkin there are poles indicating that you have to wait there for your turn. But nobody seems to notice them or they just disregard them. As soon as holidaymakers pack their suitcases to go home, they become impatient: everything has to go fast again. The Greek siga siga (slowly, slowly) – so enjoyed during their Greek holiday – is now cause for stress. Everyone wants to be first in the queue and everything has to be handled as fast as possible. People pushing-in and suitcases that block the paths are causing chaos. Slaloming your luggage through the waiting crowd from checkin to scanner requires a lifetime of experience. You will hear and see irritations accumulate in this traffic jam as time runs out.

However the Lesvorian ground stewardesses seem to have a lifetime’s experience of all this and remain calm whilst hearing the grumbling and seeing the angry faces. They keep on doing their work in a friendly and secure way. Even the people who think it is bullshit to come to the airport two hours before their plane leaves, and arrive at the last minute with their rental car and then panic because they cannot find the rental agent, they will be welcomed by reopening the checkin, even though it was long closed. That is: if the latecomer does not cause a row, because that does not work on Lesvos; for then the airport crew will work only according to the rules. So just remember, patience and a smile are the thing. Then all will be good. Even flying back home.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Pip 2014

Friday, 2 May 2014

April 30 – Explosive Spring

(orchid hunters)

Persephone, the goddess who lives half the year underground with her husband Hades and the other half with her mother Demeter on earth, is seen as a spring goddess. When she returns to her mother, who is the goddess of fertility and growth, Demeter becomes so happy that she makes everything on earth grow. Just like this spring, although I think that Demeter must allow some things to grow in winter too because in the dark months we still have plenty of wild vegetables, citrus fruit and mushrooms.

There are people who were concerned about how little rain fell last winter, a time that I remember with blue skies and very pleasant temperatures. But when the real spring arrived and Persephone came from Hades and saw the dry earth, she might have made a plan with her mother to seduce the gods of the weather to bring a little bit of winter weather. Well, temperatures did not drop quite as low as in winter, but for weeks the weather gods have played a game where masses of clouds, heavy rainfall and deafening thunderstorms race through the Greek skies and the earth gets soaked with the water from heaven. The sun has taken up the challenge and tries desperately to win back ground. The result is a muggy atmosphere, like in a subtropical climate, and it is the plants that take profit and shoot out in record-breaking time. If you have not been visiting your little piece of land for a few days, you risk not recognizing it because of the vegetation reaching up to heaven. Even the asparagus have not stopped growing; thanks to the last rains they have started afresh with new shoots.

I don’t know if the birds are also profitting from this subtropical weather. But with the first charter planes, lots of birdwatchers have arrived on the island and taken their positions at strategic places with cars, huge tripods and cameras as big as cannons. If you pass such a gathering of people along the road or if the road is blocked by people wearing all kind of electric devices, this will be the birdwatchers waiting patiently for the one bird they have yet to spot.

However this spring there are also other gatherings of people: the flowerwatchers, including a large number of orchid hunters, who normally travel individually, but now seem to gather more and more in order to shoot pictures of as many orchids as possible. Lesvos was already known as a paradise for birdwatchers, it’s now becoming famous as a paradise for orchids.

For example when you visit the Chestnut wood above Agiasos and you want to quietly admire the view of a Comperia (Himantoglossum comperianum), it may happen that suddenly ten little rented cars stop and out pops a mass of people that kindly pushes you away in order to be able to photograph this miraculous orchid. These gangs of people are not yet trained to behave in groups like birdwatchers and there is a big risk that rare and beautiful orchids, that are difficult to spot amongst all the other greenery, will be trampled by so many sturdy walking boots. Although I must admit that the orchids are not small flowers anymore; they have never been bigger than this spring, and you might think that Demeter mixed the rainwater with some nuclear waste in order to get such huge plants. In America, when a fish with more than a normal size is discovered, they blame this on the 2011 leaks of the Fukushima nuclear plant (Japan) after the tsunami; though scientists deny that nuclear waste can transform fishes into monsters of big sizes. But I bet that Greece (and all other countries around the Mediterranean sea) will be in for terrible surprises once the Syrian chemical waste gets destroyed in the middle of the Mediterranean sea and the fish get feed by the waste waters that has been absorbing chemicals such as sulphur, mustard gas and sarin gas. Will we be finding gigantic octopus or other huge sea monsters in the sea next year, or will all fish slowly die (O, sorry experiment destroying chemical weapons has failed!)?

I suppose orchids will not easily change into monsters, but who knows what influences make them change their habitat. It seems that orchids growing in the warm south are marching northwards. And this spring orchids are spotted here on Lesvos that have been hidden for almost twenty years. For some people looking for orchids is not just about finding different kinds but also to study their habitat, the hybrids and mutations.

This year we will blame the sub-tropical weather for the explosive growth of the greenery and the outburst of big flowers. Persephone and Demeter did a great job. I must admit that Greek Gods are not always so nice — for instance the Weather Gods, who can spoil many a holiday. But at least they keep the world turning. The question is if they can continue doing this, now that chemical and nuclear waste is spread all over the seas of Poseidon and over the earth of Demeter.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014