Wednesday, 23 December 2015

December 20 – Do not forget the island


Wild waves of froth roll towards the island, while the mountains in Turkey, hidden by the shadow of a sun that does not shine, bare their teeth while laughing. The leaden grey water hides many tragedies, but hasn’t lost its majestic look. Nor has Lesvos, that over the past year has had the eyes of the world upon it.

Dramatic scenes and the sorrows of so many people have created a veil of tears as deep as the mountain of lifejackets is high; but the green mountains of Lesvos tower higher over this all. History is like a rough sea, with waves that rise and fall. The island has plenty of stories to tell, about people acting badly or as heroes.

Roads and paths cut through a rampant wilderness, hiding many woes long forgotten by the islanders. As a visitor you can ask each stone what it has seen during its century long life. But nature is a master in covering up under its green carpet all that once was, just as the sea keeps on pulsing her water until all the tears and fear have been lost in the dancing of the waves.

The island of the beautiful weaver of words, Sappho, is not in a hurry to reach into the future, nor does it weep for its many deaths at sea. Formed long ago by fire-spitting landmasses, Lesvos challenges its visitors and makes them seem small. It radiates a kind of eternal life and is stubborn about its traditions, only moving slowly towards modern times.

Faraway wars have pushed refugees towards Lesvos and now its north and east coasts are known worldwide, whilst the other regions of the island stubbornly continue their daily life. Men rake the olives out of their trees, jog along behind their sheep or sit in the cafenions looking in the papers for news that happened only next door. Women peel, cut and cook and in their simple kitchens conjure up amazingly divine dishes.

Between the many villages of the island, the treetops bow respectfully to the Gods of the wind, at the same time gossiping about all the mushrooms and wild strawberries that were forgotten to be collected, or about the bold anemones and sweet scented narcissi that have decided to see the light before Christmas: a sign that playful Spring wants to have her entrance arm-in-arm with Father Winter.

Sweet waters from so many sources search new ways to waterfalls, tender green meadows and jerrycans. Holy churches have been named to watch over them, but are also there for other purposes, like honouring miracle creating saints. Faith is as deep as the Lesvorian bubbling core, where the sources begin.

In the South and West many isolated beaches run along the sea, unknown to many tourists, who think that the best holidays can only be taken in the North. Like a medieval Queen, Molyvos towers high above the coasts that are battered by shipwrecked people. While small Sigri, at whose tide lines only real sailors appear, radiates white and innocent like a sweet princess. There, like a gold prospector, the wild wind uncovers in the earth sleeping treasures that only have to be kissed by geologists to show their by centuries' formed beauty.

Steep peeks of sleeping volcanoes form the majestic entrance to Eressos and where Skala Eressou meets the sea, lips of women touch each other. It was here that Sappho rose from the earth like the goddess Venus from the sea and she still is worshipped in the many bars where evenings, full of colourful cocktails, have hearts and tongues dancing.

There where bent pines kiss the foam from the sea, stretches the sandpit of Vatera. So long that it is hard to believe that tourists do overlook this great beach. Large sand plains dappled with stones polished by the sea offer a surprising loneliness with the airy Graffiti Museum as an added bonus.

High in the mountains a small source gathers strength and curls down like an impatient river through tunnels of trees, bushes and dilapidated watermills towards the sea, cutting in half a princely little town. Plomari, growing against steep slopes, consists of rising and descending stairs and streets. There faded glory lives next to the lively terraces at the harbour, looking out over a south sea that only once in a while embraces a refugee.

The lungs of the island – the Bays of Yera and Kalloni – have kilometres' long coast lines, not polluted by rubber boats or lifejackets. They manage saltpans full of pink flamingoes, chatting pelicans and other swimming birds. There where the salt and sweet water merge (and further) you can find amazing deserted aquamarine bays and by trees shadowed beaches.

In the north of this Pearl of the Aegean, Molyvos and Sikaminia, fire-spitting dragons, watch over the safety of stranded strangers. The largest part of the island however stretches endlessly and undisturbed towards the south and east, where history still sleeps and where the appearance of a refugee or a tourist still causes talk in smokey cafenions. Lesvos is far more than an island sheltering refugees. Do not forget that island.

I wish everybody a peaceful, better, helpful, compassionate, healthy and happy New Year.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Sunday, 13 December 2015

December 7 – Saint Nicholas

(Saint Nicholas saving people; photo from internet)

Christmas on a Greek island still remains a bit odd. In daytime you can enjoy the sun in a Christmas tree decorated t-shirt. But once the sun kisses the sea, a wintry cold creeps up from the ground and then a hot spiced wine (glühwein) taste as sweet as a Christmas angel on your tongue, just like past Sunday, when hundreds of people came to the Christmas market in Molyvos.

You may throw a party on the 6th of December in honour of the little Holy Baby in his manger, but this day remains first and foremost the Names Day of Saint Nicholas, in Greek Ayos Nikolaos. He is amongst others the patron saint of children and of everybody travelling over water. I’m sure that all Greek islands have a church dedicated to him. On Lesvos you even may find a Saint Nicholas church in each harbour, and that is very much needed, because saving lives has become a daily matter here.

The Holy Nicholas originally comes from Patara, nowadays in Turkey. As the Bishop of Myra he helped poor children and saved people from the sea. Now that masses of refugees use Turkey to come to Europe, he will be the saint responsible for a safe journey over the Aegean Sea.

European politicians may have celebrated this childrens’ event (especially in Holland), eating lots of sweet and with their hearts at peace, because they shifted their guilt to Greece and they have dropped an enormous bag full of money in Turkey, so that no refugee dares to enter Europe anymore. Naughty kids in Holland can end up in the big bag of the coloured helpers of Saint Nicholas and I think that those Peters should cram those politicians playing Judas in their bag and transport them to Lesvos. There they will have to participate in a cold night wake in order to see what their faulty decisions have caused: devilish Erdogan has caused the refugee stream to dry up, just to show that he is the boss over Europe and that he has sent his smugglers for a Christmas Holiday. Those few not obeying Erdogan will have to play at being real smugglers, using the night as their cover: now the refugees do the crossing mainly in the pitch-dark, regularly choosing the longer route to Mytilini, which makes the journey even more dangerous.

As far as I can see Turkey does not have a patron saint, but Greece does: Saint Nicholas. Now look at the Greek people! Entirely in the spirit of their patron saint and with the help of lots of gifts from abroad, they are trying to give the refugees dignified shelter.

The patron saint of Lesvos is the archangel Michael (Taxiarchis), who normally is pictured like a fierce fighter out of a modern computer game. He regularly uses his weapon. According to believers the last time he took up his shiny sword was during the Cyprus crisis (1974), when his mural painting at the Mandamados Monastery disappeared. It reappeared within a week and several Greek soldiers vow that in the time between, they fought their battle against the Turks side by side with Michael.

This combative archangel also is no stranger to Muslims. Mikal is known to have fought against the devil. That he did not win that battle proves all the evil that still is around. Since the death of Mary (who died in Ephese, also now in Turkey) Turkey has been the centre of several powerful empires, like the Byzantines and the Ottomans. Today someone else is enthroned in Turkey dreaming of another megalomaniac empire.

These days feel like we are in the world of Game of Thrones, where rulers and politicians are blinded by wealth and trample their people; they play dirty tricks and fight each other, while in the background, not a new Ice Age, but the warming of the globe is the real enemy.

Jesus’ father Joseph is the protector of a long list of people, amongst them the refugees. But he has so many to protect that it seems he may not be up to his task. I think the refugees better stick with Ayos Nikolaos, who, believe it or not, was the precursor of Santa Claus. Lighting a candle for this white bearded man could be a good idea.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Sunday, 22 November 2015

November 18 – Strange birds on Lesvos

(The pelican of Skala Loutron)

The refugees are not the only illegals on Lesvos. Many birds, unseen and without passports, cross the Aegean to land in Sappho's birthplace. On the other side of the sea, there are plenty of Turkish nature parks from which also birds take a short flight to nose about this beautiful and quiet island.

In spring a large, international army of birdwatchers, armed with cannon-sized cameras, wait for the migratory birds along the island's coastlines. While even in autumn there are plenty of illegal arrivals, November becomes less popular with both birds and their admirers.

The continuing warm and sunny weather might be to blame for still encountering those large brown and yellow European hornets (Vespa cabro), which slowly move through the air like old drunkards. I also met a fat, dark brown caterpillar, armed with a horn on his head, who was looking for an escape from of a gang of snails that were boozing away on the rich dew of these autumnal days.

These days the best wildlife can be seen around the Gulf of Kalloni, where the saltpans at Skala Kallonis and Skala Polichnitou attract many birds like black storks and lots of flamingos. I wonder if this year the flamingos received a travel warning for Lesvos: in the midst of September there were none to be seen and now there are just a few daredevils swinging on one leg. There is no reason why they should be afraid of refugees: these people do not land in the saltpans nor do they shoot birds out of the sky.

Because they are big and fat, pelicans appear far more sturdy than those fragile white and pink acrobats. They seem to have ignored whatever brought about the absence of so many flamingos and probably just think: “What luck not to have any competition for all those shrimps!” Last week there were as many as 44 Dalmatian pelicans and 4 White pelicans lounging on the Gulf of Kalloni.

There are plenty of Greek villages that cherish a pelican as an inhabitant. This was the case on Lesvos. In Skala Kallonis there used to live a couple of pelicans, spoiled by tourists and islanders, but one of them died in a car crash and a few years later the partner also disappeared. In Skala Loutron there used to live another one, I've no idea what happened to him. I say: grant all those pelicans a residence permit, give them a house and plenty of fish, because the island could use a new tourist attraction. It will be a pity to send them back to Turkey.

The presence of a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Lesvos will – I am afraid - only attract some entomologists. In America these Jugenstil-like winged insects are a common butterfly, but on Lesvos they are as rare as a refugee on the North Pole. Now that most of the migrants coming to the island are from The Middle East, this butterfly may even have come all the way from Africa. Two of them have been detected in the Mesa swamps.

I was highly surprised to hear that these fragile insects also could be illegal immigrants. Monarch butterflies are the champions of long-distance-butterfly-flying: they can go for thousands of kilometers. They undertake these travels in enormous flocks, for purely economic reasons: to be able to eat Milkweed
 (Asclepias). These lengthy flights often prove lethal: the elderly can tire and just drop down and it may occur that only a new generation reaches the final destination.

Friends who last week observed all those winged immigrants on the island came up with another strange bird: The Black Throated Diver (Gavia arctica). The second word in the Latin name gives away their natural home: in the northern cold areas. What is this exotic striped bird doing on Lesvos in such a warm month?

I am not one to gossip and I'm not suggesting that this duck is distributing flyers discouraging the refugees from coming to Sweden or Denmark; I have no respect for these flying activists. It is more likely that these swimming birds are also economic immigrants or, taking advantage of the low presence of flamingos, they all booked cheap holidays to Skala Kallonis.

It is fascinating to learn that more birds than tourists travel around the world. Just like all other animals they have the right to cross borders without restriction, unlike human beings who need a passport to cross any border. And even then, there is no guarantee they will be able to continue to their final destination. Sometimes it just might be better to be a bird.

(With thanks to Eva and Wulf Kappes and Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Monday, 9 November 2015

November 7 – The angels of Lesvos

(Ship wrecks on an beach in Eftalou)

Lesvos once used to be a haunt of Pirates. The famous and powerful Barbarossa actually came from the island. Now when you drive along the shores, you might easily think that the island has returned to the blooming days of piracy: the shorelines are scattered with the wrecks of ships that lie like useless playthings in the lapping waves.

Now with the weather tending towards winter, the Turkish smugglers are offering more luxury and real boats, that on first sight seem to be trustworthy, but in reality are just sinking tubs that when overloaded can barely reach the other side.

The destroyed rubber dinghies are regularly picked up from the beaches, but the once colourful tourist boats, saved from the Turkish dumps for an olive bag full of money, are more difficult to remove and remain sad witnesses of risky rescue operations.

On the sea the pirates have re-appeared. Cowards that they are, they do not hoist the skull and crossbones but, hiding behind masks on fast speed boats, they attack the floating refugees to take their money and cell phones and sometimes to destroy the motor – or worse – the inflatable dinghy.

On many beaches rescuers tumble over each other to welcome the boat people to safety and warmth. They swim to boats that are in trouble close to shore, or jump into the waves to assist boats arriving full of screaming women and children. Afterwards they are as drenched as the people thanking Allah on their wet knees for their safe arrival in Europe.

The village, which in the summer is a vision of scantily dressed people, is still offering that image with people dressed as for summer. Many of the rescuers come from cold countries so they are still embracing the beautiful autumnal weather as hot summer days. From under my woollen hat I sometimes have to peek if I see gooseflesh. But these people are so full of adrenaline that the autumnal wind with a cold winter pitch does not seem to get a hold on their bare arms and legs.

Spying from behind their curtains the elderly of the village must be wondering at the sight of this parade of young people. The age of the visitors has significantly gone down. I guess that the average age of these helping hands is around 30 years, just a little older than that of the refugees. Some villagers think that these young people are gold diggers, not understanding that for no or little money they have come to this island to rescue the near drowning people. In Greece they are used to solving their problems on their own.

The men look like sturdy pirates: nowadays having a beard is fashionable and thick sunglasses have replaced the eyepatch. The women parade with colourful hair or with a modest head kerchief. They come from all corners of the world, and as such all religions now are represented here.

It must be their young blood, which sometimes make them behave like road hogs  (in Holland we say: like road pirates). The rented cars – more used to the grandmothers pace of the usual 50-plus tourists - are stretched as never before, even on dirt and dusty roads. The vehicles on give the image of participants in the Dakar Rally.

Now the North and the East of Lesvos and the capital Mytilini have all become hot spots for rescuers. If you go to other parts of the island, then the unusual stir is not present, and there the old Lesvos-feeling still exists: the peace and quiet of the island that does not fear time carries on as undisturbed as it has always been. Now is the time to gather the olives; no refugees will ever change that.

This is an island with century old traditions and inhabitants (many who were so poor not long ago that they walked barefoot). Occasionally the olive nets may change colour and now more and more people, if they can afford it, buy little machines to shake the olives from the trees; but the hand-held long stick (dèbla) used for centuries to remove the olives from their branches, remains the most used tool.

The unstoppable and increasing stream of refugees however has taken part of the island out of its lethargy. Tourism nearly collapsed at the end of the high season, but then the auxiliaries arrived: many businesses beginning to close for the season would re-open their doors and flights to the island again became overcrowded.

Rescuers are no tourists: they work so hard that they barely know where they are. The largest number of refugees run ashore in the regions around the most touristic and praised villages of the island (Molyvos and Skala Sykaminia). The international troop of helpers is only left to guess what other treasures the island is hiding. They just get a tiny taste of the Greek hospitality and the sun.

You may call Lesvos a bit anarchic: no authority ever gets a hold on the life here. Some islanders quarrel eternally about the best way to help the refugees and reached as much solutions as Europe did with its endless gatherings. Other groups did what all those rescuers did by coming to the island: when politics fail, you do it yourself.

And so it is that Lesvos will face an historic winter. Molyvos and Skala Sykaminias can forget about their hibernation and Mytilini will have an extended season. These villages and the capital will fizz with activities and will be for once in the centre of world news, if only because they have become such tragic places. The refugee dramas  will keep on building, the graveyards are already full; the island however will be helped by these young and decisive helpers, who like angels from heaven have flocked in numbers to the island.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Monday, 26 October 2015

October 23 - The Museum of Refugee Garbage.

(Photograph: Internet)

People fleeing war do not come just for money or shelter. They want to work, live in a house, shop or go to a restaurant: they want a human life. All European countries where the uproar over immigrants is getting more and more common, should instead welcome their coming as the opportunity to renovate their economy.

On Lesvos there is also a minority that complain about refugees. They do not realise that this drama has made their island known around the world, all the way from Timbuktu to small villages in the Australian outback. No supersonic Olympian promotion team could have done better.

Refugees as well as the hundreds of recently arrived rescuers and press have awakened the middle class who were in a kind of lethargic state due to the crisis: a new economy has been born on Lesvos because the summer season has been stretched out to November and, who knows, maybe we will have a real winter season with plenty of visitors.

Refugees not only are responsible for the arrival of so many helpers, volunteers and photographers, they also have brought meter high mountains of garbage. Once all assembled, the municipality probably will burn all that. Most of the plastic then will be saved from the fishes, but what cancerous air will that create?

We live in a century where techniques are developing so quickly that I am sure that one day a smart inventor will combine all that refugee garbage in one huge recycling pot to produce some marvellous new things. It could bring the island a fortune as large as that being made by the smugglers.

But no ingenious person such as the young inventor Boyan Slat, who found a way to clean the oceans from hundreds of kilometres of plastic waste, has yet to present himself (or herself). So for the moment we have to deal with all that plastic in a more simple way.

When a rubber dinghy arrives it immediately is slashed, but it offers up some wooden floorboards that are taken by locals to make sheds or to finish off other timber jobs. The rubber parts are welcomed as a waterproof roof for dilapidated little buildings or as a cover for woodpiles. The motors are stolen by vultures or stowed away by the municipality.

The black inner tubes (for children you may find colourful plastic rings) that are supposed to, along with a life jacket, make the sea journey extra safe, are a bit less popular. But that rubber has plenty of opportunities for recycling: you can use it to weave or knot waterproof floor mats, it can be cut in pieces to make trendy jewelery or handbags and you even can use them to make live-size, frightening animals, as has the Korean artist Yong Ho Ji.

Life jackets are somewhat more difficult to recycle. The plastic blocks that are supposed to be inside (although there are cheap 'drown jackets' filled with grass), may serve as building blocks. We all used to play with lego and this is as easy as this childrens' toy. In Bejing they used plastic blocks to build a teahouse; a nice way to welcome the refugees here. For people who may have forgotten to play with lego, just start with a simple house for a dog, a cat or some chickens.

The refugees arriving here on the island may have something different to do than being creative with plastic blocks (do you suppose they grew up with lego?). They can economise on the life jackets. They just need to collect some empty plastic bottles. For a floating jacket you could dress yourself in a big plastic bag, attach 3 to 4 bottles to your breast and the same amount to your back, and then tighten the plastic bag around your belly with a piece of rope. You can also use a fishing net to keep the bottles in place. If I look at the life jackets strewn on the beaches of Lesvos, these home made bottle jackets would probably be as trustworthy.

There are also some refugee dogs and even a cat that dared to cross the Aegean. A life jacket for a dog is easily made: just bind some bottles to his back. A cat can put on a sweater to which you can bind some bottles, see the second picture.

Plastic bottles are anyhow the best garbage you can get. Not only refugees create heaps of plastic waste,  all the thirsty tourists and island inhabitants also join the building of alpines levels of waste. Refugees should not board dangerous dinghies provided by smugglers who are getting rich, but instead should build their own boats with some hundreds or even thousands of bottles. I bet Turkey also is full of bottle waste. Boats of bundled bottles seem to me as seaworthy as those rubber things they come in. You could argue that then the waste piles here on the island were growing even faster, but those big amounts can offer other opportunities.

Fill a plastic bottle with smaller plastic waste and you have an EcoBrick, a sturdy plastic ‘absorbing’ building block. A great idea for the island to fight against its economical crisis: producing them and using them to build. I think there now are so many bottles on the island that you could build a reproduction of Athens with them.

I personal would prefer to find an entrepreneur who would use those hundreds of  thousands of bottles to create a new island in one of the Gulfs of Lesvos: a floating island of plastic bottles, which mixed with driftwood could soon create plenty of possibilities. You could start there a Museum of Refugee Garbage, with plastic bottle sculptures like giant fishes and those great rubber sculptures of Yong Ho Ji. It could attract a new kind of tourism and at the same time be a monument to all those thousands of refugees who have reached the so-called safe Europe through Lesvos.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Thursday, 1 October 2015

September 28 – Dangerous and extreme

(Sunset in Eftalou)

How dangerous countries such as the Netherlands, France or England have become due to its extreme weather? In Greece we survived the past August full of dangerous high temperatures, far above 30 °C. Though it wasn’t really extreme weather because the mercury did not break any records.

High temperatures are one of the reasons for the Greeks to have a little sleep in the afternoon. According to a study of the Greek Asklipieio Voula hospital a siesta might lower dangerous high blood pressure. Another reason to encourage Greeks to go napping during the afternoon. I also cannot resist an extreme comfortable sofa in the afternoon, especially during the summer heat.

I think that some of those extreme downpours, which are a plague for other countries, can also increase the blood pressure of the Greeks: at the end of the season they dream of many centimetres of rain, because nature has completely dried out.
In the area I live Mary did not drop any tears around her Ascension. We had to wait until the end of September when the gods finally emptied some buckets of water. The traditional August shower however did come down on other parts of the island, like in Mytilini and Kalloni, and blessed the rivers with so much water that already in August they formed a nice paddling paradise for the black storks.

Kalloni is the most dangerous place on the island due to extreme weather conditions: there you will always find the highest summer or the lowest winter temperatures. If the gods decided to pour some water from heaven, it mostly will fall around Kalloni. In the summer the rare showers are received with lots of joy because it means a temporary relief from the heat, in the winter the rains are cursed because of floods.

I have a stunning view over Turkey from my house, where even more extreme temperatures can occur. This summer I observed that the Turks were also spoiled with lots of unreliable clouds. I often saw pitch black masses hanging above their mountains, promising a fantastic Sound & Light Show. I prayed to Maria to push those dangerous looking, thundering clouds towards the island. You saw curtains of rain and sizzling lightning slashing on hill tops and then on sea: you could smell the sweet perfume of this heavenly water, but over and over again those hydrogen nests fell apart to dissolve into the blue sky. So disappointing that high blood pressure could cause your heart to stop.

During the last days of September Turkey again is regaled: enormous white bulging cauliflowers grow and threaten the frontier. I am wondering how the refugees deal with bad weather. They travel through extreme hot Turkey to cross the sea in dangerous boats, even during siesta times, and when heavy weather bursts out they have no homes to shelter.

Would smugglers take into account dangerous weather? Last month there was a strong wind blowing: no extreme force, but I would have let out a weather alarm for those flimsy dinghies they push the refugees on. At least three people that day did not reach Europe.
Now again those cauliflower clouds start colouring black and I am wondering if the refugees are already soaking wet before they even take place on these frightening and overloaded boats, which continue to make perilous journeys.

The nice weather this summer did not care to stop, just like the high temperatures. Until Monday September 28, a well known day for moon lovers and croakers: that morning you had to get up extremely early to see a rare phenomenon. When yesterday evening I looked at the grey sky there were no stars to be seen. Only a small spot of light betrayed where the moon was hiding behind the clouds. But it should have been the shadow of the earth making the moon invisible instead of humid clouds on the brink of bursting into dangerous tears. I was very disappointed, went to bed, closed my eyes and travelled far away behind the clouds to dreamland where I could not see the eclipse of the moon.

The next day the media presented lots of sensational pictures of a blood red moon, the colours she takes when an eclipse occurs, an event to be seen again only in 2033. I have been praying so often for dangerous clouds to come over. But on the island of the sun, on a day that an extremely rare phenomenon could have been visible, a cloudy lighted spot, not even colouring red or pink, was the only reward for a nearly sleepless night.

In Turkey, during the last weeks, a oneway ticket by dinghy to Lesvos has become extremely ‘cheap’. The price sunk from 1500 to 300 euro. It must have been Big Sales Days in Izmir: even in this smuggling business they know when a season ends. But as a bonus the shelters on Lesvos have much improved: rescuers have landed on the island as a flock of birds. Refugees no longer have to endure long walks in rain and darkness, because busses and other transport now finally has been provided for. And if pressure of blood because of dangerous travelling has been risen too high, plenty of medical posts also have been installed in different places.

I wondered if smugglers charged extra money for the fare during the Night of the Superbloodmoon: on such a rickety and dangerous dinghy you were seated first row under the heavens to see this Moonshow. But I guess that even the refugees that night will have been extremely disappointed when arriving at the Lesvorian shores.

Most refugees come from countries where in the coastal region reigns a Mediterranean climate and where in the outback rain and cauliflower-clouds are not a daily phenomenon. They are not used to rain and cold. Most of them want to go to the North of Europe, but they have no idea to what places they are heading: to countries with dangerous and extreme weather conditions and where no siesta regulates blood pressure.

 (with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Friday, 25 September 2015

September 22 – Dangling breasts

(The village of Agiasos)

The only assholes we met in Greece happened to be in a lovely chapel in Agiasos: a gang of teenage boys who threw rocks and spit at us as we left the chapel.This message on FaceBook shocked me: I have never heard of something like this happening on Lesvos.

Many years ago a friend once said that people from the charming village of Agiasos are crazy. I am somewhat suspicious and do not always believe everybody. The ancient psychiatric institute above the little town, now closed for tens of years, still fuels the imagination, even though it no longer functions as a mad house and its location is still called Sanatorium. It is possible that these mountain villagers are just a touch crazy, because their carnival is the hottest of the island, performing theatre is still a great art in Agiasos and the people there have always taken up arms against whomever dared to grab their liberty.

A wellknown saying on the island is: Never take a woman nor a donkey from Plomari or Agiasos. Well, I know some women from these towns and they are very fine people. And donkeys? About ten years ago you could still find plenty of donkeys roaming the streets, especially around Plomari. Nowadays these donkeys (except for those who are engaged to joggle safaris around Molyvos) are part of the list of the Levorian Big Five (wild boars, wild mountain goats, wild horses, dolphins and donkeys). Wherever they come from, they soon will be on the list of endangered animals, even though one or two farmers - due to the crisis - have exchanged their cars for a donkey.

The friendly face of Greece is showing some cracks, also here on the island. Some foreigners who have lived for years in Molyvos (or come regularly) are truly shocked after attending some of the meetings about the help for the refugees. Just as Europe has showed its true face when debating with Greece, some Molyviotis have shown theirs. Are all Greeks nice? No, I am afraid not. And by the way, people from Molyvos are seen as arrogant, especially by their neighbouring villages.

Not long ago I told my Greek neighbour about a plan to make a transit station for the refugees in the village of Klio. She immediately answered that her mother taught her that the best people of the island live in Klio and in Sigri. This is just to remind you that there are also good villages on the island.

Are there any bad tourists? Yes, of course. The month of August is notorious for its catastrophic tourists, like arrogant Greek towns' people, who boss the islanders around like donkeys. This group of people although was dearly missed last summer; most of them did not show up because of the crisis.

July and August also are the months for the foreign sun-beach-and-sea folk, people who do not come further than about fifty meters from their hotel. As long as the sun shines, they do not care if they eat paella, souvlaki or kebab. They move from their beds to their sun beds and are not ashamed to lie naked under the sun, regardless if there is a Greek family with children next to them on the beach.

Last week I was on a family beach and a lady with dangling bare breasts strolled along the tide line. She enjoyed herself with the water and the sun, and behaved as if she was all alone on the beach. The day before I had been in tears because of the endless stream of refugees passing by this beach. In the soaring heat, at least twenty boats arrived with refugees! Women, children and lots of men, all looking tired though chatting loudly, walked happily past this beach, many of them coming from a culture where a woman cannot even show a bare toe. Imagine if this topless lady had then walked this beach

Since the publishing of the picture of the little Syrian toddler who washed ashore on a Turkish beach, the numbers of the rescue people have explosively increased. Some of them dress a bit naïvelyin the tiniest of t-shirts or bikinis. On the nudist beaches it even can be worse: naked sunbathers remain comfortable on their beach towels while a boat with refugees washes ashore and the nudists are even too lazy to put some clothes on.

There are many differences between the Western and Arabic world. Here you can read a clear document about the people who arrive by thousands on Lesvos, to start their journey further to the north of Europe:

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© 2015 Smitaki

Sunday, 6 September 2015

September 4 - Will Europe go knitting?

(Red socks, Albert & Victoria Museum, London)

Did you know that one of the oldest examples of knitting is a pair of red socks from the period 250 – 420 AD? These feet warmers were found on an archaeological site in Egypt, in a onetime Greek settlement. So we could say that this was possibly the first pair of Greek Knitted Socks. They are made to be worn with sandals and they have space for incredibly large and long big toes.

According to Wikipedia the English word knitting comes from the Dutch word knot. So in Dutch the actual word breien should be knotting. The knitting started with one needle and making knots (nålebinding) and is said to have been invented in the Middle East. The Muslims brought it with them to Europe and European colonists took their knitting needles with them to America.

Around the 14th century knitting became fairly popular, proved by several paintings depicting a knitting Virgin Mary. Or maybe it was a campaign to get the women to take up the needles. Watching such an industrious Mary calms you down, so much that you immediately start looking for your knitting gear.

The first knitting machine appeared in 1589. But only in the mid 19th century did industrial machines take over the woolly handwork business. Now knitting is seen as a hobby. I took up the knitting needles again when I saw what beautiful and colourful wool they make nowadays. In one winter I can now fabricate a total new winter collection. My hands must be busy doing something while watching a movie or reading a book and I am now as hooked to my knitting needles, as some persons are to their mobile phones.

I mostly only knit in the winter, in times that the weather gods have cooled off a bit. When you work with wool threads in the heat, your hands get sweaty and the knitting stiff. The warm climate of Lesvos might be a reason that there is no great knitting tradition on Lesvos, even though there used to be plenty of sheep and goat wool. The women preferred to make embroideries and sat down at their looms. Besides wool they also used clothing and drapes, torn in strokes, to weave into colourful carpets.

Like centuries ago when the knitting works came to Europe, there is a new run from the Middle-East to Europe. The refugees now use Lesvos as a gateway to Europe and the stream of refugees is like a dam that broke; there is no way to stop the flood of people. This year the number of refugees has largely surpassed the number of inhabitants of Lesvos (about 85.000) and last week the daily arrival had risen to 2000. Sheltering those people is still done by volunteers, helped only by a number of officials that can be counted on one hand.

When those refugees step out of their rickety dinghies, they get wet. Result is that on places where they take a rest fences are modified into clotheslines, just like the lines where normally the squids are dried. The hot sun is a super dryer, but when the winter comes, the washing program will have to be changed and wet clothes will become a burden. Had Europe at the beginning of the summer put tills on the Greek islands, now, one season on, it would not be surprised and overwhelmed by the number of refugees knocking on the doors of the ‘ruling’ European countries. Unlike the politicians, I do look forward and this summer I started to knit.

When I was young there were plenty of faraway aunts who gave me the most poorly created handknitted sweaters which I had to wear. I hated them so much that until now I have not dared to surprise a friend (or a refugee) with a handmade sweater. So I knit caps. One evening I realised that it will take some time before I can make enough caps for the passengers of even one boat (on average 50 people) and I will never have enough for a one day arrival (50 – 70 boats), so I called in help.

I have found an organisation for the elderly that organises knitting clubs all over Holland (Samen breien). There the wise and old people teach their tricks to the young ones. They want to help me, knitting for the refugees for the winter. It would be fantastic to create a television show like The Great British Baking Show. In the Netherlands this show is called: Holland is Baking. Imagine if the whole of Europe sets out to knit again: Europe is knitting. Making caps and shawls is a relaxing pastime, so come on, take up those knitting needles and help.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Monday, 31 August 2015

August 29 - The ant and the cricket

During Greek summers sometimes it is hard to make conversation or read in silence. And it is not screaming children at the beach, nor the boom-boom sound of a disco, nor bleating donkeys that make concentration difficult. The higher the temperature, the more this creature is doing its utmost best to tear your eardrums: crickets are the biggest plug-ugly nuisances during the hot days.

It is incredible what hard noises these chirping insects can produce, sometimes well over 100 decibel. The scientific name of this phenomenal is stridulation, a word that makes me think of a violin, although crickets do not sound at all like a string orchestra, more like a staggering motor. The sound is produced by the wings that scrape over each other’s comb-like edges, a bit like a musical saw, so a cricket indeed is a kind of string instrument.

I reread the fable of The ant and the cricket written by La Fontaine. In the summer the ant works hard for its winter stock, while the cricket sings its best songs. When the winter arrives the ant is prepared and the cricket has to visit the ant and ask for help, which is refused by the ant.

I see the fable performed in front of me. The male crickets talk the loudest, while hiding in trees (sometimes in your living room) and flirting with the poor females who cannot answer their calls (only the males can stridulate). The ants, ready for months, are busy cleaning, dragging objects sometimes twice as big as themselves, building nests and I do not know what else they do, but they are always working.

Since spring they have occupied my house. Although they are very tiny, barely visible, their presence is obvious. It is an uneven battle: I really do everything that I can to keep the house as clean as possible, especially in the kitchen where you cannot drop one crumb or an army of ants rushes to the spot of the offense to take away the mess. I really cannot keep up with their speed of cleaning, and certainly not at all during the hot days that have put the country in slow motion during the last few weeks. I now even see bigger ants, also trying to invade the house. You have no idea how many ants I already killed this summer.

The good news is that this summer the ants came concurrently with the hornets. I am not really happy about their arrival: they are among the biggest wasps of Europe and their red colour is pretty intimidating. But after some years of barely being seen, this threatened insect seems to be back again, which is good for the environment. So where the ants have spotted a nice delicacy, the hornets also rush to the spot to eat it. Long live the revolution!

This year the Greek ants – I assume that they have not travelled from Turkey with the refugees – are particularly busy. Do they foresee a long and cold winter? Or do they collect for charity? Nowadays there is a difficult choice to make when making a donation: for the refugees or for the Greeks who, especially in the cities, can barely survive.

The Greeks – just like the crickets – love to sing, especially in the summer. But now that the Greek economy is in bad weather, arrogant Europe refuses to help them (and the refugees) like a haughty ant. The Greeks have stopped singing: there is no money left to go out to the tavernas where they used to sing their popular songs of love and life, a once so great Greek tradition.

The coming winter is going to be very difficult. Although most of them will be deep in the shit, I am sure they will take up singing and dancing, if only to keep warm, just as the ant advised the cricket.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

August 22 – Show horses

 Why do you see so many horses on Lesvos? You see them everywhere, pottering about in little fields; but seeing horse riding is far more rare. The time that they are let out of their normal meadow habitat is during the panayeri’s, small local festivals.

In ancient Greece horses were mainly associated with the Gods. The rulers of the heavens (and earth), like Poseidon, used them to pull their chariots but they were also used as a reward for mortals. In ancient times riding horses was only for the Gods, royal children or famous warriors. 

It is said that the Greeks were one of the first peoples who rode horses into war. Not only could horses pull heavy war equipment to the arenas, it was also soon understood that sitting on a horse on the battlefield made you faster than the infantry. Achilles went to the war against Troy with two horses who spoke: Xanthus and Balius. Bucephalus, the legendary horse of Alexander the Great, had a city named after him when he died.

A horse in Greece was a sign of wealth. I understand that very well, because keeping such an animal costs a lot of money. But what is the use of a horse nowadays? The horse owners that I know on this island own more than one horse. They are mostly poor people who have to struggle to earn a living. When you ask them why they keep horses the answer is simple: “ I’m crazy about horses.” And what do they do with them? Well, one or two times a year, they show off the animals at festivals.

These poor show horses will be kept at leisure during the year and then some days before the panayeri will have a crash course in order to build up their condition and then they are beautifully dressed-up and then thrown in the midst of the partycrowds.

Most of the panayeris take place in the summer months and nearly all the villages on Lesvos have one; so mostly any weekend you can find one. The best known is the Party of the Bull in Agia Paraskevi, where a bull is sacrified and where it is said that the horses get served ouzo, in order to come in the right mood to celebrate. Also Molyvos has a fancy decorated bull marching in front of its annual parade, but this one goes safely home at the end of the party. Although in Molyvos at least one animal gets to be killed, because, just like in Agia Paraskev, at night big kettles are put on fires in order to cook meat, wheat and herbs for the so-called Kiskeki, that is served to everyone who participated in the festivities. I once tasted this gunk, but like many other traditional Greek festivity dishes (like the majeritsa, a fresh soup made of offal during Easter night), it is hard to swallow.

Goats provide milk and meat, sheep are also eaten (sheep used to be kept for the wool but not anymore, since cheap wool now comes from even poorer countries), chicken lay eggs and also may end up on a plate. But what use is there for a horse? In Greece no horsemeat (nor donkey meat) is eaten. Do you somehow feel royal when you own a horse that you can barely look after and that is just left to meander around in the fields? There are some people who have given up their horses and set them free. Somewhere high in the hills above Mandamados there is a herd of wild horses, totally free and looking for the Horse Heaven.

Lesvos is rich with organisations that aim to better the lives of poor dogs and cats. They for example save chained dogs, which are kept by the farmers in order to keep away foxes from their sheep. I am wondering why there is still is no organisation that will protect the wellbeing of all those horses that are only used during the panayeri’s. During the rest of the year I regularly see them, stashed-away with legs shackled, all on their own. Is that a dignified horse life?

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Saturday, 15 August 2015

August 13: Too many Mary’s in Greece


It was not too long ago that Lesvos was a pretty red island: communist, due to the large number of poor people, mostly farmers.Today its population is no longer that poor and elections show that the revolutionary spirit has softened somewhat.

Communism is against religion. Everybody knows what Marx once said: Religion is opium for the people. That is why you might wonder about the Lesvorians who clearly have not taken this message onboard: if you count all churches and little chapels on the island, I am sure that there are more churches and little chapels than there are inhabitants on Lesvos.

They are all deep into the orthodox religion and each year they celebrate the nameday of the saints to whom those churches and chapels are dedicated. So, nearly each day, somewhere, you can find a festivity. The biggest party is thrown on August 15th, the day that Mary flew to heaven. After Easter, it is the biggest religious festivity of Greece.

In tourist areas August 15th is the busiest day of summer. Most people in the cities, with family living on an island or at the seaside have packed their bags for these cooler areas. The quiet villages on the islands now are bursting with lively big families. The houses where in winter normally only granddad and grandmother live, are now filled with a collection of different generations of Greeks, who loudly talk, laugh, scream and celebrate.

On the Ascension of Mary everyone goes to church. Most of them dressed to the nines, women staggering on towering high heels. Some go to the Mary churches to show penitence or ask Mary for a gift. The custom for this group is to walk long stretches to the church, the last hundred meters or so on their knees. I can imagine that the ladies doing this, remove their high heels.

The Lourdes of Greece is on the island of Tinos, where pilgrims on their knees or even creeping on their bellies enter the holy inner space of the Panagía Evangelístria. This church is built around an icon of Mary, purportedly painted by the apostle Lucas. In 1822 Mary revealed to a fifteen year old nun where this icon was buried and since then thousands of pilgrims visit this small island.

Lesvos also has its share of religious tourists. The Panagia churches in Agiasos and Petra are high on the international list of holy Mary-places of Greece. I always have troubles dealing with Greek names: they all are named Yorgos, Yannis, Yanoula, Despina or something. However, for the thousands of Mary Churches they have a solution. In Petra you have the Mary of the Sweet Kiss (Panagía Glikofiloussa), in Agiasos the Mary with the Holy Child (Panagía Vrefokratoussa) and in Skala Sykaminia the Mermaid Mary (Panagía Gorgonas).

On the south coast, not far from Melinda, there is a little church dedicated to the Hidden Mary: Panagía Krifti. When the Ottomans still ruled over the island a young woman with child was persued by some Turks, right down to the sea. Lost between high rocks, she did not know where to go. She then prayed to God and he was friendly enough to show her a hidden cave that saved her. Later the cave was dedicated to Mary and off course, a little church was build at the spot. In 1922 lots of refugees from Asia Minor arrived at the place and they all took the Hidden Mary as their patron saint.

In the Second World War it was people of the resistance who turned towards the Mary Krifti. But it was not the Hidden-Mary-at-Sea. High in the mountains, in the extended pinewoods above Parakila there is another Panagia Krifti-church hidden in a cave. That place I think was more suitable for resistance heroes, because this place really is difficult to access. The Maria-Krifti-at-Sea is easy to reach by sea, but the Hidden-Mary-in-the-Woods can only be found with a guide.

Hidden or not, civilian or god, after tomorrow all Marys will be celebrated, and in Greece they have a lot of them. That is why on August 15th, all Greeks, even the communists, will have a party.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2012