Friday, 31 October 2014

October 28 – Coming and going (2)

(Goats at the road)

(By: Pip)

Now that the tourist season has finished, it’s also time for me to take a plane homewards. After I check-in and walk towards the gate, the check-in clerk calls me back and asks me to take my suitcase. Oops, I forgot. You have to move your suitcase yourself to a scanner about ten metres further along. That is the way they do it on Lesbos.

The flight is going well. When I look out of the window just before landing, I already know that I will miss Lesbos. If you had to judge a culture of a land and its inhabitants from the sky, I would think the Netherlands and the Dutch are pretty tight and rectilinear. All parcels of land are properly demarcated by fences or ditches. The roads are at right-angles, as are the canals and even the cows seem aligned in the same direction. I am back into a country where everything is organized and regulated. A country where, for ten years now, a discussion has been going on about whether an ambulance should arrive within fifteen or thirty minutes. A country where people receive financial compensation, if for part of the day they are without electricity. A country where people of a district protest against the arrival of another big supermarket. A country where dogs are no longer allowed in parks, lest a playing child steps into a turd. And it even gets more crazy: on my return to the centre of the city there appeared bicycle coaches who have been appointed to ‘advise’ me where I can park my bike.

What a change from Lesbos! Where the landscape is overwhelming: all mountains, a chestnut forest, pine trees and olive groves; it is beyond me how the Lesvorians can have built any roads at all. Driving along the roads, it is swinging through one curve after the other. Sometimes you get stopped by goats roaming freely over the road — or a stoic donkey, crossing snakes, foxes, dogs and cats, or a shepherd with his flock of sheep. On spotting their little piles of dung, you can trace where they crossed the road. The only hospital is in the capital, in the southeast of the island. When being in the North or West and there is an emergency, you’d better drive the person in your car in the direction of the hospital, so that an ambulance can take-over midway. The only Lidl (big chain supermarket) on the island is also in the capital and in the mini-supermarkets elsewhere food stuff – much of it bought at Lidl – are relatively expensive. And you cannot always be sure of warm water, electricity or a good internet connection.

Despite these geographical and logistic inconveniences, life on Lesbos is relaxed and good. I am pretty amazed by how good everything works and how often you do have warm water, electricity and internet. The shops are well provided. Cars and scooters may be parked criss-cross - where they should or not - but its place measured on the centimetre. Large vehicles like vans or buses always manage to just squeeze by. Bus drivers are real steering artists. I seldom saw collisions. You best be prepared for a little patience when travelling by public transport. It can happen, as I once witnessed, that the driver takes a detour through a village in order to pick up a tin of olive oil or to fill-up at a gas station. But in the end you will always arrive where you want to go.

As a big city habitant, who barely knows my neighbours, I love the friendly and helpful people on the island. Because I was not prepared for a cold spring, someone gave me a warm blanket, another person a woollen waistcoat. When I had parked my scooter a little clumsy on a slope and I was unable to get it off its stand, I was helped by a shaky old man, who could barely keep to his feet. When I was unable to start my scooter, there always appeared a boy to do the job for me. When I was stung by a wasp, out of nowhere, there appeared a lady with some ointment. When I decided to walk, cars always stopped to offer a ride. Due to a minimum of physical exercise and the many invitations to join a Greek dinner party on a terrace, my body shows off how good life was for me on Lesbos. People take care of each other; crowdfunding to help people out is pretty normal. And it is admirable to see how many animal lovers take care of the street dogs and cats.

Now back into my hectic ‘normal’ life, I might be a danger of idealizing Lesbos too much. Let’s be honest: life there is not always, nor for everybody that easy, especially in the winter, when a large number of the islanders are without work. And the fact that within an hour, half of them know where you have been, what you did and with whom, can also be annoying. But for me I consider Lesbos as a pearl in the Aegean Sea that has to be cherished.
New developments, like the much discussed and criticized tourist train that runs between Molyvos and Anaxos, will do no harm. When in the Netherlands you sit in a train full of sulky commuters or are stuck in a traffic jam with reared motorists, it is hard to imagine that people could have problems with this slow going train full of merry tourists. Or am I mistaken?


This is my last column about my personal experiences and meanings about life on Lesbos. I enjoyed writing them. Without any scientific substantiation, my wish was to inform, amuse, tickle and provoke a discussion. For some the subjects were recognisable, for others amusing and for some it hurt a little. Thank you for reading and all your reactions. My special thanks are for Julie for having made a place in her blog for me. 
I wish you all a good winter!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Pip

Monday, 20 October 2014

October 18 - Ftinoporo

(A plane tree at Agios Alexandros)

When a damp veil drapes itself over the landscape
Enfolding faraway mountain tops in mysterious light,
As though they were not part of the island of Lesvos
But part of far far-off poetic China.

When the purple-pink cyclamen with their frail turned-down petals
Massively and shamelessly change green slopes in another colour,
Their existence, a danger to pregnant women
But besides the bed, an encouragement to libido.

When monumental planes lose leaves like falling tears
Who knows for what punishment they have to spend the winter naked,
Leaving village squares unprotected under their titanic branches
That, in whimsical curves, bow to the high heaven.

When the bees buzz loud, partying like Dionysus
in the seductive scented ivy, full of nectar
That winds round trees in some places thick as vines,
Always thinking they are immortal.

When the pink heather coyly opens its buds
So that her sweet fragrance can invade the hills
Doing everything to lure all useful insects
For a contribution to a jar of honey or some royal jelly.

When the pokeweed has her bunches of stunning berries hanging
With such an intense colour but such awful poison,
Tempting daredevils who think it might bring about a cure
If prepared according to the book or when the plant is young.

When the shy grey fig trees crumple their large yellow leaves
Setting them free because their work has been done,
Their nutty fruit patiently dried as a winter sweet
Syrup pots empty, bottles filled, just leaving a delicious scent.

When ceps, milk-caps and other mushrooms awaken
Pushing their way up through the moist earth
Hastening to unfold their parasol heads
under layers of pine needles or the naked blue sky.

When the small red blushing apples of Agiasos
Have fallen from the wild trees and collected in green groves,
Gardeners with curved spines, both selling and praising them
As the mythical golden apples from the garden of Hesperides.

When the pomegranates with a colour tending to pink
Some stubbornly aiming to survive till Christmas
Offer their uncountable blood-red seeds to all lovers
Like Persephone, kept in Hades because she ate too much of them.

When the corpulent quinces have finally ripened
And their velvet golden skin waits to be scratched off
So that their hard yellow flesh can be put in pots and pans
To make a winter stock of cough syrup, jelly and liquor

When the irresistible, cheerful strawberry trees
With long straight boles like enormous cinnamon sticks
Show their fruit, as red as bright Christmas balls
Allowing but only one to eat.

When the prickly husks of the proud chestnut trees
Once brought to Greece by Alexander the Great
Tear open to show their Sardian nuts
Plopping down with soft thuds onto the tapestry of fallen leaves.

When the sunbeams keep on bringing warmth
Their light wandering over all these natural miracles
In the evenings adding more orange to the already colourful land
Looking for their bedstead each day a little earlier

When these warm colours and crackling leaves
Sweet fruit and flowering plants with their perfume overpower the island
When even the sea has to say goodbye to its summery swimmers
And this colourful season is finally here.

Then it is autumn again, or ftinoporo
And there are no more words to fully describe
How the Greek gods of Olympos again and again
Make a party of this crying world.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Monday, 13 October 2014

October 10 – Pottery Land

(A potters wood oven at Agios Stefanos)

The last column by Pip caused a bit of a stir with some islanders: is it possible that low costs airlines will change Lesvos? The only thing I hope is that the Lesvorians don't fancy making their island into a mass tourist destination like Rhodes, Kos or Corfu. They should be proud of their island as it is: the richness of its magnificent nature cannot be found on any other Greek island.

Lesvos is a pretty big island (the third largest in Greece) and, certainly, filling the entire island with tourist resorts and villages - as has been done on the island of Rhodes and on the Spanish island of Mallorca - will require Herculean effort from developers. Imagine: in Mallorca you mostly find a traffic jam when attempting to visit any of its remaining green areas. Do we want that on Lesvos?

The tourism on Lesvos has been mainly concentrated in the north, around the medieval village of Molyvos, the most popular destination for tourists. But Lesvos has so many other special places, some of them still not known by people who have visited the island for years.

In the area south east of Mandamados, the village of Aspropotamos, the hamlets Agios Stefanos (known for its early-Christian basilica) and Palios held lots of archaeological sites, much of which have been lost, and historians only can guess what this region looked like in ancient times.

In the past people did not always recognise what value old ruins could have for their history. The islanders probably did not even dream of strangers coming to Lesvos to admire dilapidated castles and tumbled-down houses. So with no further thought they re-used the stones of strongholds and temples and also helped the rare foreign visitor to find stones with (to them) incomprehensible inscriptions and other archaeological treasures. Although not everybody did so.

In 1852 Thomas Newton was sent to Mytilini as the new British consul. He was interested in archaeology and had connections with the British Museum. Apart from his consular work he travelled across the island looking for museum pieces. Newton visited the basilica in Agios Stefanos. By then this little church had already been without a roof for years, but inside Newton found an interesting stone with an inscription. He asked a local farmer if he could have the stone and the farmer answered that he could take whatever he wanted.  Newton found some oxen to help transport the stone, then the Turkish Aga came by and I presume Newton had to give him some money in order to continue his enterprise. But then a woman, the owner of the land, came and sat down on the stone, forbidding Newton to take the stone. She changed into a fury defending the church, lit some incense to clean the church of the presence of Newton, who had to leave the stone in the church.*

For the English and other foreigners it was quite normal to savearchaeological treasures for their museums in those times. The biggest theft in that period happened in Athens, where the then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, (in those times Greece was still occupied by the Ottomans) took several years (1801 1804) to remove the frieze of the Parthenon. He had it transported to England, where he sold the beautyful art piece to the British Museum. The pieces are now known as the Elgin Marbles. Fortunately not everywhere did people have their history stolen from under their noses (Dutch expression). The stone that Newton wanted to take, may still be in the small basilica in Agios Stefanos (there remains a stone with roman inscriptions). And later on the villagers built a new roof on the church.

If you continue travelling North towards Palios, in the area of Kafkares, at the estuary of a river, lie the remains of an old castle. In this place there must once have been a big settlement, because there you can find plenty of ruined houses, cultivated stones and lots of shards of ancient pottery. It is thought that this might have been a lively little port, from where jars full of olive oil and wine were transported.

A little further on, just beside Palios with its idyllic little harbour, there are graves cut out of the stones of the rough landscape. Palios now a gathering of not more than a handful of houses had also been much more lively: until 1922 pilgrims from Ayvalik arrived here in order to visit the Taxiarchis Monastery, that has a famous icon of the archangel Michael known for its miracles.

In ancient times, transporting goods like wine and oil was done by earthen jars. Those jars were made by potters and especially in this area near Mandamados, many of them used to live. Quite a few ruined houses have pottery kilns beside their dilapidated walls. The pottery from this region (and that from Agiasos) was once famous all over Greece.

In Agios Stefanos a potter lives who still makes pots and plates in the traditional way. The clay is dug out of the ground and is put on the road, where it can be spread by the cars. This part of the process of course is not so traditional: when there were not yet cars, the clay was kneaded by elbows and feet, a very heavy job to get the clay supple. Once the clay comes off the road it is put into water, then it is sieved with some powder added to make the clay more elastic. The making and baking of the pottery does however follow the ancient process: formed by hand, dried under the sun and baked in a traditional woodstove.

When travelling through this pottery land, many little pools surrounded by birds and dragonflies will come to your attention. These were all created by the removal of the clay from the ground. Imagine how many plates and jars come from there! Little beaches boarding the crystal clear sea, birds, insects, wild lavender, hidden orchids and plenty of old ruins make this area a great place, full of surprises. I am not sure if the many cows, also wandering free around there, have a place in the history of the pottery. But I am fairly sure that no tourist resort will be making its appearance there soon because the beaches are too small and the landscape too wild.

 by Lucia Patrizio Gunnin

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

About repeaters and recreationists

(Storm approaching Hotel Panselinos)

By: Pip

For a long time Lesvos has seemed untouched by time, but the type of tourist coming to the island has started to change. The question is what influence this will have on the island, the inhabitants and the solid core of tourists the so-called repeaters who come here year after year.

I do not know any other Greek island where tourists return so often as to Lesvos. Sometimes they come two to three times a year and some for as long as ten to twenty years. Mostly these are vacationers belonging to the category ethnic tourism. For them visiting the traditional villages and being in contact with the locals is the main goal. I am back homethey call out when they arrive and are being hugged by the owner of the apartment they rented. On Lesvos the owners of the accommodations are very good at ensuring that their customers feel that they belong to the family. They spoil their renters in big ways with home made Spanakopita and fresh products like tomatoes and figs from their own garden. When the guests are leaving they wave them goodbye saying: See you next year.

Lesvos also is visited by many eco tourists. Just like the ethnic tourists they return regularly to the island, because there are many remote areas to be explored. On Lesvos you can walk until you are blue. This summer a couple had to be rescued by the police, after long hours of searching, because they had become lost. They were on a mountaintop high above the Mill Valley, without water. But at least they kept a signal on their telephone.
Birdwatchers also see the island as a real paradise. People who want to see other birds than Flamingos and Black Storks will need more than one telephoto lens and one notebook to write down the discovered birds. Or do they have a digital system nowadays for marking the spotted birds? I have no idea about that.
The Lesvorian flora also is very important. The many Oleanders, the Yellow Rhododendron and the many kinds of Orchids are another attraction. A few months ago, in the mountainous area around Agiasos, a new orchid has been discovered that for sure has to be spotted on a next holiday.

There are also tourists who like to explore the cultural and historical background of Lesvos. There is pottery, monasteries, archaeological digs and museums to explore. There even is a Petrified Forest. But lets be honest. When you visited those sights for a second time and you are not interested in other things, you probably will not return for a third time.

In the typology of different forms of tourism there is another kind of tourist: the recreationalist. This group comes for the sun, sea, beach and sex. This year, with the arrival of a low budget airline company, this type of tourist seems to have increased on Lesvos. The hotel and beach cafe owners are very happy with these holidaymakers. They spend the whole day on a sun bed on the beach or at the pool and consume, which means money. The weekly barbeque has risen in popularity. They seldom go to explore the island and when they go they prefer the bazaar in Turkey to the Petrified Forest. Even though they come back  disappointed, because the markets in Ayvalik and Dikili are not the same as in Bodrum.

That they are not totally satisfied is proven by the many complaints they come up with. I mean, imagine: stepping out of the plane, they suddenly are on an authentic Greek island. Driving to the hotel the transfer may take as long as one and a half hour and the driver only speaks Greek. The studio they booked just has one room. The wifi only works at the reception area, there is not constant hot water, the showerhead is not affixed to the wall and there is no curtain in the shower. There is no towel to dry the dishes and you have to buy the washing up liquid yourself. The mattress is too soft or too hard and the sheets are too short. There are five ants marching over the floor and over the ceiling crawls a spider. The sheep in the neighbouring meadow bellow and their tinkling bells keep you from your sleep. There are sea urchins in the sea and on the beach there are pebbles. Also there are heaps of seaweed on the beach! Cant they take that away? And then there is only one Lidl, faraway in Mytilini and there is no McDonalds on the entire island. I do not know if those people also have complaints about sex. I presume not, because you can have sex everywhere, even on Lesvos.

I guess that the major part of this group will not become repeaters. Even though the recreationalists will keep on coming. It is the largest group of tourism. Even if part of this group comes for one time only, they will come in big numbers. The low budget airline company will increase its number of flights to Mytilini next year, so their group will be even bigger. Then the question will not be 'if' but 'how' the (foreign) entrepreneurs will react and how long it will be before they start building bigger hotels. I am afraid that then a lot of repeaters will not come back. Which will be a pity because it is thanks to them that Lesvos could remain what it was and still is: an authentic Greek island with exceptionally friendly local people and a beautiful nature.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Pip 2014