Thursday, 31 July 2014

July 28 - Greek bloopers

(By: Pip)

From experience I know what fun it gives and how much more easy it is if you speak and understand the local language. So I intended to learn Greek as fast as I could.

When I had just arrived on Lesvos, a Greek man came up to me. He seemed to be in a panic; he showered me with a stream of words and I didn't understand a word of what he said. Even though he repeated himself at least three times I had not the slightest idea what he wanted, although it became clear to me that he needed some help. What was the matter? He did not speak English and so he tried to speak with his hands. He pointed to the scooter saying Bloop. Bloop? Nai, bloop!I wondered what he meant with bloop? The man got irritated that I did not understood him and he took me by the arm to a nearby well and repeated his bloop, bloop, in the same time pointing to his scooter. He pointed down the well and motioned as if he was fishing in the well. And then I finally got it: he had dropped the key of his scooter down the well and wondered if I had a rope and a magnet. No, I did not have those items.

After this, I intended to quickly learn Greek and I started with the alphabet. That did not help much, because then I could decipher a written word, but had not a clue of what it meant. And I am very lazy when it comes to looking things up. To keep the story short: after a few months I had not learned much more Greek than the common phrases that all Greeks exchange each day. When somebody starts speaking Greek to me, I still do not understand much of it. It's so bad that when a Greek says 'nai' to me, I keep on thinking it is a negative answer because it seems so much like all other European no-words: no, non, nein, nee. I still have problems realizing that 'nai'  in Greek means yes. Greeks have experience with this misunderstanding, they can see the humour of it and mostly laugh it away. They are not mad at me for not speaking their language. Most of the Lesvorian people (in the tourist areas) speak English and so we work out together what we mean. If that fails, there always is sign language.

Greeks have championed the art in using their head, hands and other body parts. They often use so many movements to support their words that it may look as if they are engaged in a serious row. It took some time for me to realize that this was their usual way of having a discussion. Just like I have only just now learned that when they move their head down it means a yes and when they throw it backwards it means no. The gesture for come here(ella), can be interpreted as go away (only the fingers are moved towards the body) and when a finger is held in front of the mouth it is not to say that I have to be silent, but means that they have to tell me something. It is a pity such movements are not universal because it causes many misunderstandings.

Gestures are cultural and set. And so they are very stubborn. The movements a police officer has to know in order to regulate the traffic might be easy to learn, but gestures that support a conversation or express feelings or thoughts come from the genes. Foreign ones are not easy to master and your own ones certainly not easy to ignore. You use them as automatically as you walk. For instance, I keep on sticking my thump up when I agree with something or I find something cool. This is a gesture you had better do not do in Greece, because it can be understood as 'fuck you'. And you do not want to offend a Greek, do you? Even though I know this, my thump keeps on going up. Youd better control also your forefinger in pointing things out; it is the same story and it can become a very offending finger for a Greek.

Even though I keep on using crude gestures, the Lesvorians keep on being polite and nice. The gesture I like most is a subtle movement of the head that Lesvorian men use to say hello when they pass in a car or on a scooter. I think it a very sensual gesture and each time it melts my heart. But automatically I carry on answering with the wrong gesture in saying hello back: waving my hand with stretched fingers: this is stupid and so totally wrong! This gesture in Greek means moutza!', best translated as asshole!

If I continue with these gesture bloopersand I don't learn the language very quickly, I am afraid that one of these days the Lesvorians will teach me a less than nice little lesson.

© Pip 2014

Monday, 21 July 2014

July 19 – Roadkills Lesvos

(A hedgehog)

It may be due to the very late spring that hundreds of snails were wandering in my garden. Even now, after an unusual summer outburst of rain on the island, you can see them swarming slowly in all directions. When you pick something up from a dark corner in the garden, an entire family, trying to survive the dry spell, may be glued to it. 

In one way or another the garden survived the plague and now it is time to enjoy the sight of another animal that, in far smaller numbers than snails, roams around the house: the hedgehog. These creatures are the opposite of a disaster for your garden: they eat worms, spiders, sometimes snakes and snails; unfortunately, only the small ones, not the big ones that I suspect can eat an entire rosebush in one day.

Probably not many people will associate Greece with hedgehogs. In Greek mythology its name barely appears. Although Aristotle did remark that this animal mated standing up. Pliny the Elder also unjustly noted a fact: hedgehogs were fruit thieves! According to this Roman philosopher they climbed apple trees and vines, shook the branches and then rolled with their spines in the fallen fruit in order to transport the fruit on their back to their winter domiciles.

Centuries later the reputation of the hedgehog was still not really good: they were suspected of being milk and egg thieves: it was believed that they drank milk straight from the udder of a cow and stole the eggs from the chickens. Even Shakespeare never appreciated how clever and helpful hedgehogs could be: he thought that these spiny creatures were messengers of bad news. Over the centuries in England hedgehogs were seen as harmful animals and there was a period when there was a bounty for each killed hedgehog.

But there were also countries in ancient times that saw hedgehogs as useful. In ancient China, hedgehogs were even sacred and in ancient Sumeria hedgehogs were a symbol of the goddess Ishtar (who had the Greek name Astarte), in her guise of Mother Earth (this goddess had many magic appearances). In Egypt hedgehogs were a symbol of reincarnation, probably due to their winter hibernation.

The poor hedgehog has to lug around some eight thousand spines; the clever Romans saw commercial use in them and used them to teasel wool. They even used the skin to make clothing brushes.

Nowadays the reputation of a hedgehog has been cleared: it is a helpmate in the garden and you can even use him indoors to chase mice and cockroaches (that is, if you are a sound sleeper, because hedgehogs in the garden constantly grub about in the earth between swishing dead leaves but inside are also pretty rowdy).

These shambling hedgehogs with their pointed snouts and little black eyes look so sweet and they have few natural enemies: most animals have no idea how to tackle those eight thousand spines. The biggest enemy of a hedgehog is a human being. Not that we know how to crack their spiny shield, but our cars and reapers in the fields know how. In earlier times hedgehogs were collected (and I am not referring here to the hedgehog-witch-hunts in England), in order to cook them. The best known recipe for hedgehog is to put it in a ball of clay, roast the ball slowly on hot coals and when the ball is opened, the spines will remain stuck in the clay; the result being a delicate and tasty piece of meat.

(Warning: this part is not suited for sensitive animal lovers without a sense of humour!)

Additionally, in the United States, England and Australia animals that get killed on the road may get eaten. There even are so-called Roadkill restaurants where you may be served kangaroo, deer, possum, emu and all kinds of other wild animals. I guess nobody would dare to open such a Roadkill restaurant on Lesvos. Then the menu could be similar to this satirical menu of a virtual Roadkill café that I found on the internet.

Hedgehog roasted in a clay ball seems to involve a pretty long wait, so that is not convenient. Neither could I find mention of Hedgehog spaghetti carbonara. Although there were plenty of other dishes that would be suitable for the menu of a Roadkill restaurant on Lesvos, that could include tortoise, frog, snake, squirrel, fox, dog and cat, the animals that commonly get killed here on the roads. Missing were locusts – but I guess they are unlikely to be squished with a car – and smashed snails don't seem appetising to me because their gunk will be full of tar.

Yesterday the field in front of my house was mowed and in the evening it was remarkably quiet around the house: no grunting or rustling amongst the leaves on the ground. I didn't go into the field to look for the humming hedgehog or the hedgehog with the white belly. I could never eat a torn apart nor an entire hedgehog, for that matter! I do hope that the hedgehogs simply got such a fright from the roaring mowing machine that it will just take some days before they reappear again and come to beg for the remains of the dinner for my spoiled cats. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© 2014 Smitaki

Sunday, 13 July 2014

July 9 - Swinging Lesvos

(Beach Street Festival, Mytilini)

According to the Guardian the oldest erotic grafitti was recently discovered on the Greek island of Astypalaia: some phalluses, carved into rocks, with inscriptions telling who did it with whom. The surprising fact is that it is about men loving men.

Was there a secret cult or was the place an army camp in ancient times? This is not known. What is fact is that this Aegean island, lying next to the Cycladic islands, but belonging to the Dodecanese group, was a fairly unknown island, that became news when they discovered mass graves with newborn babies.

Lesvos is known as the island of Sappho. Her many poems about women made lesbian women think that Sappho might have been the first lesbian. This is how the name lesbian came to the world. As far as I know there has been no ancient grafitti found on the island, depicting anything about lesbian love. The grafitti that has made news on the island is not ancient at all and has a more social and political meaning (although some of them do contain some erotic details). Last year during the Beach Street Festival the big unfinished hotel at the end of the longest beach of Lesvos in Vatera finally became a destination because grafitti artists with their astonishing wall paintings turned the big concrete spaces into a kind of an open air museum. And all this to honour the famous painter of Lesvos: Theophilos Chatzimichaïl (1870-1934), who, in his time, decorated lots of walls with his art.

The art of Theophilos was anything but erotic. The naïve style was characteristic of his work; another aspect was that he loved to depict clothes and old costumes. The people he depicted were far from erotic, wearing lots of clothes.

This Lesvorian early grafitti artist will be celebrated again at the Beach Street Festival which presents music and grafitti on August 1, 2 and 3. This time the festival will take place in Mytilini, just below the castle at the seaside. Some hundred artists will kind of pave a road towards Theophilos and to the man who introduced Theophilos to the international art world: Tériade.

Stratis Eleftheriades, better known as Tériade, was born in 1897 in Mytilini, went to Paris to study law but obviously fell in love with the arts. He became a known art critic, helped artists with their career and finally started to publish art books. He also brought the art of his fellow islander to attention of the French art world and this is why today we can find works of Theophilos in the Louvre.

In 1979 the Tériade museum in Lesvos was opened, just south of Mytilini in the village of Varia, alongside the museum of Theophilos which was opened in 1965. In the Tériade museum it is mainly his books that are exhibited, with original works from, amongst others Picasso, Matisse, Miro and of course there are the famous drawings made by Marc Chagall for the Lesvorian fairy tale Daphnis and Chloe.

During the Beach Street Festival the route from the castle in Mytilini to the museums in Varia will be marked by lots of artists who will decorate empty walls and other buildings with their art. That promises to become a nice party! Also because there are workshops given in grafitti art: put your mark to the city!

Another reason to visit the festival in Mytilini are the 50 music acts which will be presented on different stages: the capital is going to swing! And for sure swinging lots of times after that: if the new grafitti will be as impressive as the ones in Vatera, we may enjoy the art long after the festival will be closed.

There is a lot of dancing going on also in the north of the island. Last week the fancy modern open air club oXy (pronounced not as the Greek ochi, but as oxi, of oxygene) opened its doors. The club is settled high on a mountain between Molyvos and Petra, on a kind of boat-like construction (previously the Gatoluzzi club). The enormous platform houses a pool, seats, restaurant and a VIP-lounge where after midnight you’ll be sure to find a swinging crowd. For people who prefer more calm nights, in daytime it is a chic and relaxed lounge club with a superb view over the Aegean and with a pool to cool off.

The oXy club has revived the most well known empty building in the north of Lesvos. The Beach Street Festival not only makes an interesting connection between an older culture (Theophilos) and new grafitti, but also gives empty buildings a new function. Some old olive presses already have been transformed into hotels (Olive Press in Molyvos, Hotel Zaira in Skala Loutron) and museums (olive museums in Aya Paraskevi and in Papados), but still many of them, spread all over the island, remain vacant, just like other interesting buildings like the Arion Hotel in Molyvos, the old spa hotel Sarlitza in Thermi, the old night club in Skala Sykaminia, a school with a magnificent view in Ypsilometopo and plenty of old factories in Plomari and Perama. I do hope that there will come more creative people who think out new functions for these monumental buildings, so that Lesvos’ Old Glory can become the face of the new sparkling and swinging island that has everything for the modern tourist.

(The Tériade museum might open in 2 weeks, after a year of rebuilding (tel. 22510-23372); The museum of Theophilos is open from Monday to Friday, from 09.00 to 14.00. None of the museums will have special opening hours/days during the festival.)

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Sunday, 6 July 2014

July 5 - Integration starts with a nap in the afternoon


By: Pip

After a few months on Lesvos, I have pretty much started to integrate: I increase my number of naps in the afternoon and in the evening I begin to go out later for dinner. Even though my stomach starts to grumble around seven, I no longer go to a restaurant before nine thirty.

This schedule pleases me, because since started dining so late, I no longer have to eat alone. And thus no longer have to endure the prying looks of the holidaying couples that start with their moussaka or stifado at 7 o’clock, a time that the Greeks just wake up from their siesta. I am amazed that a person eating alone attracts so much attention. Normally I do not care and I openly stare back at such couples sitting there without any conversation. And then I wonder to myself why is it that they have nothing to say to each other. In the past I sometimes invited such couples to join me, but the answer was never yes. Although my intention was never more than to pass time together, have a nice evening with good conversation: it was the female member of the couple that would refuse the invitation. Why? I have no idea!

There is something to learn from the Greeks in social behaviour. In Greece having dinner is a social event. A Greek never eats early in the evening and almost never alone.  When most tourist couples on a Saturday night are on the way back to their hotel room or apartment, the restaurants will fill up for a second time, this time with Greeks. Everybody knows each other, everybody is welcome, chairs are shuffled around. So it can happen that when arriving in the harbour at 22.00 o’clock I might share some sardines with Nikos, then later Stavros will take a seat at our table to have a ladotiri saganaki, that Manolis will join us for an ouzo, followed by Maria who may come just to greet me and then a fisherman might want to show off the squid he had caught some minutes before. And at the end of the evening the owner of the restaurant and the cook might appear at the table to celebrate their evening’s work.

The later it gets, the more animated the evening and the more I hear about what is going on in the village: about the four fish that danced in the full moon yesterday; About that arrogant tourist with his catamaran moored in the harbour and is a malaka (asshole) because nobody is allowed to pass his gangway to reach the quay; about the daughter of Heleni who has a boyfriend and about the stubborn donkey of Michaelis who has escaped. I hear that Yannis has shaved off his beard and that the Captains Table – the restaurant that blew up at the start of the season - is trying to make a new start up.

When everybody knows what is going on and the empty ouzo bottles on the table are too many to count and after some dirty jokes, around 2 o’clock it is time to go home. Even though it is Sunday, in a tourist village work still needs to be done – every day, every morning and at the beginning of every evening. The end of the afternoon is for the siesta, otherwise you will not survive the night. The end of the evening is for maintaining social contacts. This is how it works here. Since I have started dining late I have begun to understand Greek life much better as well as to hear much more about what is going on in the island. So if you want to integrate – you had better start with having a nap in the afternoon.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Pip 2014