Tuesday, 31 March 2015

March 26 – Turkish delight

(A Turkish boat in front of Lesvos, with Turkey at the background)

In Greece on March 25 Independence Day is celebrated: the day that the war for freedom started, a fight to get rid of the Ottomans. Lesvos however had to wait many more years before she was liberated, in 1912.

There is not much documentation about the period during which the Lesvorians had to obey the Ottoman pashas who ruled the island. After the first battle for freedom was lost on Lesvos, the Ottomans confiscated a big lake near Agiasos (Megali Limni) and forced the people from Agiasos to drain it and turn it into agricultural land where they then had to work. The people from Lesvos also were put to work after 1850, when most of the trees died on the island after a very severe winter. Life was not so pretty under the Ottomans, but there were some advantages.

At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century the island (and the Turkish coast opposite Lesvos 12 miles away, around the coastal towns of Ayvalik, Edremit and Dikili, where many Greeks lived) began to prosper, thanks to the increase in olives and the growth in international commerce. Mytilini became an important transit port for goods to Marseille, Alexandria, Smyrna, Istanbul, Triest, Odessa and Rostov: a late Golden Age for the island, making Mytilini a swinging international commercial town. The welfare ended when Lesvos was freed by the Greek army in 1912 and the Ottoman empire started its fall, to be ended after the Greek – Turkish war of 1919 – 1922. When the war finished there was a huge population exchange; Lesvos got 30,000 new inhabitants from Asia Minor (about 10,000 Muslims where deported from the island) and prosperity soon dwindled. The island again became dependent on agriculture and the islanders could just barely survive. The centuries’ long connection with the Turkish mainland was broken and the island became isolated and dependent on faraway Athens.

The frontier was not totally closed, because plenty of smugglers operated: camel manure was brought to the island for the olive trees and (secretly) olive oil and soap was sold to Turkey. Fish and fishnets were exchanged for sheep and dynamite (used for fishing purposes). There were also secret expeditions from some of the island inhabitants who had been forced to flee so quickly their homes in Turkey, they had to return to dig up gold coins, icons and other treasures that they had hidden. In this way they met up with old friends and neighbours and after the first illegal trips, others followed. When the Germans occupied the island during World War II there was food shortage and many an islander’s hunger was stilled by food smuggled from Ayvalik.

It was only in September 1955, when in Istanbul there were pogroms against the remaining Greek minority (and Armenians and Jews) that mistrust against the Turks increased (and even more when the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974). By then all the borders were hermetically closed by the Greek Junta. Although according to a custom official even in those times, 30 to 40 cows were weekly smuggled to the island. The borders opened a bit for commercial purposes in 1975, when sardines, tuna, sheep, goats and cows could be negotiated.

A long enduring mistrust between neighbours is a shame. In 1980 the mayor of Dikili invited the mayor of Mytilini to attend a cultural festival. So the exchange started up again between Lesvos and Turkey: first with the dignitaries on both sides who attended all kind of events and then slowly the citizens followed, even the children were sent to holiday camps at the other side of the border.

In 2005 lots of Greeks lost their mistrust of the Turkish people. This happened thanks to a Turkish tv-series! Ta Synora tis Agapis (Borders of love; Turkish titel Yabanci Damat: Foreign Groom). It was about a Turkish girl, Nasli, who fell in love with a Greek boy, Nikos. Both extended families tried to interfere in the couple’s proposed marriage. Turks as well as Greeks spent many evenings in front of the television enjoying this drama, and many discussions followed. Lots of Greeks had to admit that there was much to recognize in the Turkish family: there is not so much difference between a Greek and a Turkish family.

Nowadays the circulation between the island and the Turkish coast is much the same as before the war; daily there are boats going to and from Turkey. Because prices in Turkey are low, the Lesvorians go to buy lots of stuff on the other side. But Turks also come to the island, to enjoy its beauty and quiet nature. It is not easy for all Turks to get a visa, otherwise Lesvos would be overrun with Turkish tourists.

The borders are open, but there still is smuggling. Even though the Lesvorians have made up with their Turkish neighbours, elsewhere in the world new enemies are made and disputes keep happening and Turkey is now flooded with refugees from Asia and Africa. And they cannot use the ferry between Ayvalik and Lesvos. For ridiculously high prices, they have to risk crossing over in rickety little boats. Here on Lesvos it is not yet Lampedusa, where refugees arrive by thousands, but lately the refugee numbers have increased alarmingly and the spare clothes, given by the islanders to the many wet arrivals are about to run out. New ways have to be found to provide humanitarian help.

It will not be easy to find a solution for the problem of the refugees. But the suggestion of a Dutch politician that Europe should close all its borders to refugees is ridiculous. Clearly this man has never lived at a frontier: borders are there to be crossed, like they have been doing that for centuries on Lesvos.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Sunday, 15 March 2015

March 10 – The struggle of a writer

(Still no spring on Lesvos)

Cold, rain, grey weather and only sometimes a sunny view on a colour field full of flowers: where is the radiant Greek Spring? It is clear, this year spring is stalling at coming out.

This odd weather is not particularly healthy. For the second time this year I have caught a flu-like something: sore throat and a light fever. Well okay, obviously not that light. After I had slept a lot throughout the day and then at night when I closed my eyes again, it seemed like I’d descended into Dante’s Hell. I was musing about a subject for a new column and was thinking about the paucity of flowers seen this winter-like spring and then colourful visions of spring flowers as big as monsters entered my head and these transitional thoughts were so powerful that they nearly choked me.

I suppose I could write about the aggressive great tit who has become a constant on one of my window sills, thinking to see a concurrent in its reflection and now for weeks has tried to break the glass with his little beak, along with quick tempered flying up-and-down when he has not succeeded. This heady little bird changed into a big black crow and then more crows came, so many that my windows looked black and the softly ticking sound of the great tit changed into a fearsome drum-like composition with a whipping rhythm. Suddenly the black mass opened up and a really scary flying dragon with open mouth showed up, throwing lasers of fire against my window. Well, it is good to know that my windows don’t let rain or wind through, nor the nightmare.

I was also thinking about the ants that assaulted the kitchen last week. I thought that these little nitwits only entered houses in times of heat waves, but this month for sure cannot be presented as a heat wave. It might well be weather to walk without coat, but soon enough an icecold wind will pick up, or it could be raining cats and dogs. In my dream the ants besieged the countertop in large rows, changing into the disciplined armies like those of Danearys, wearing armour and shields. They were stopped by a bowl of water where in the middle I had placed the honey for safety. Then the army changed into a mob of horses escaped from the Wildlings – skeletons with pieces of meat clinging. But these animals could not see a way to overcome the water and the assault on the honey was lost.

Even though some of the images were really frightening I was not scared. The only thing I cared for was preserving the images and so I ordered myself to ‘download’ the images or make mental ‘screenshots’ so that I would remember everything because this could be an idea for a column.

When I woke up I looked around, a bit besotted: where could I have sent all those fabulous pictures I took in the night? Not on the computer, because it wasn’t even on, nor on my telephone because it was nowhere to be found. Even though I did not have a very peaceful sleep, I had to laugh about myself: because of the fear of not finding a subject to write about and the fact that the electronic media had entered my dreams. And – people watching this tv series will probably have recognized – it is not such a good idea to watch Game of Thrones when you have a fever. This beautifully made, but violent fantasy series about a world in war, is excellent material for nightmares.

The pain and fever are down a bit, the armies of ants have disappeared like snow in the sun, the great tit still molests the window in order to eliminate his concurrent and I had plenty of time to search the electronic highway for the latest news of the island. But nothing has inspired me to write.

Even though the island has woken up from its hibernation and everywhere gardens are trimmed and hotels and restaurants are cleaned to the bone for the coming season; even though the sound of the chainsaws is dominating the few singing birds and the well-known gossips and whilst this kind of throat-flu, which can hardly be evaded, still hangs about: with the exception of the weather, there is nothing new here. Restaurants are for sale, but when not sold for their ridiculously high asking price, they just will open again, and the biggest question - just like last year - is when will there be a boat to Turkey from the harbour of Petra.
Now that the spring has not sent any warm warnings and has us still fighting with this exceptional Greek weather, I can barely imagine that there is a real summer to follow. You could almost believe that we have landed in the magic of Game of Thrones, where the world is threatened with a year’s long winter.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Sunday, 1 March 2015

February 25 - Dans le port de Sigri

(The harbour of Sigri)

Who doesn't like to hang around on the quayside of a lively little harbour? On an island like Lesvos there is a great choice of idyllic little ports where you can enjoy the sight of fishing boats and fishermen coming and going.

In earlier times fishing harbours tended to be outside the villages and in them you'd only come across the fishermen, some of their children and lots of cats. Fishermen were poor and so the harbour was a poor place, full of mud, garbage and the odd bucket to sit on while repairing the nets. In some places there would be a small ouzeria to slake the thirst of the workingmen, but that was all you could get. Daughters of a fishing family were not sought after for marriage; living by the sea meant poverty.

Nowadays it is the opposite. Having a house at the seaside is considered a luxury of the wealthy. The closer your house is to the sea, the more you are envied. Also the harbours have changed. They have now been found to be a source of entertainment; in the popular ones you may find plenty of cafenions and a fisherman is seldom alone mending his nets.

The little harbour of Skala Sykaminia is said to be the most beautiful on Lesvos. Beautiful fishing boats come and go, a gang of lean cats watch closely for the boats' arrivals and the quay of the harbour is cluttered with restaurants and cafes, where the fish metaphorically jump from the sea onto your plate.

The harbour at Molyvos offers even more in the way of terraces and boats, everything from small caiques and fishing cutters to the fast boat of the harbour police and some yachts. However at Molyvos at least, you will not find those huge and luxurious yachts of the rich.
 It is along the extended quays of Mytilini that you will find the more frivolous cafes and also the bigger boats like the ferrys going to Turkey or the ones connecting the island with the rest of Greece.
The second town of the island, Plomari, also has a pretty large harbour, although filled with mainly fishing boats. Along the quays of this southern city, you will find an extended choice of hangouts, similar to Skala Kalloni which also has a small number of restaurants around its fishing harbour.

A harbour possibly even more picturesque than that of Skala Sykaminia is Skala Polichnitos. It is the centre of the shellfish trade and sometimes you will see a big cargo boat, looking bigger than the entire village, moored at its small quay. These kinds of cargo ships also come into the harbour of Petra - a harbour with no drinking place. Here the ships are loaded with sheep, or the salt that is delivered by road from Skala Kalloni. I always wonder why this salt cannot be transported to Skala Polichnitos instead of being driven over the small winding road from Kalloni to Petra. I understand that the Bay of Kalloni at the end is very shallow, but surely they could organize a fleet of small caiques to ferry the salt across the bay to Skala Polichnitos. Those big salt trucks on the road are a real annoyance (and sometimes called Assault trucks).

The harbour of beautiful Gavathas has a quay nearly as big as the village and you would expect that they would use the space for a bunch of cafenions in the summer. But this huge paved place is as empty in high season as it is in the winter. There is only a fashionably old and tiny ouzeria, hidden somewhere above in the middle of the main road (this tiny village must have what? - 5 streets), to provide the fishermen with an ouzo and mรจzes (as does the restaurant at the beach).

Sigri, another small village at the most western point of the island, also has a similarly spacious quay. Her harbour has been provided with a huge concrete square where daily you can expect to see a ship as big as the Titanic. There are also rumours that there is a secret submarine base, but if so, then they must be unmanned submarines, because I've never seen a marine. Or maybe the crew and technicians have a secret access tunnel?

 Adorable Sigri feels a bit like the end of the world. Mostly there is a lot of wind; tourists and inhabitants are scarce and the surrounding beaches offer plenty of occasions to spend days without seeing anybody. But suddenly this quietness has become endangered: plans have been announced for a big commercial harbour. But maybe they are, in fact, old plans; maybe that is why the quay is already so big and we know already the water is so deep that big boats already can moor at Sigri? Having a commercial harbour means that you will also need big roads. So two years ago a big fleet of diggers started to redo the road from Sigri to Kalloni, along with some additional building roads.
If I understand correctly, the Egnatia SA company got the contract. The same company was also responsible for the building of the Egnatia Motorway, a highway cutting through the mainland of Greece, following the ancient Via Egnatia, famous since ancient times (and especially in Roman and Byzantine times) as the main connection between the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea. The 670 km long road connects 332 towns and villages by road, high bridges, tunnels and complicated intersections. So you would think that they have good road building expertise; but the unruly west of Lesvos got them on their knees. The works overran by so much that the job was abandoned. Meaning that the bickering over the realisation of Sigri Harbour and its highway to Kalloni has begun all over again. The result is not yet known, especially now that there is a new government with new ministers who have to sign for any continuation of this project.

I suspected that the people who planned the road had done so in collaboration with the megalomaniac windmill parc (see: All roads lead to Sigri), but I was wrong. The rebuilding of the road was because they want to build a huge harbour at the end of the world. For whom or for what do they want that? For the empty West, for goods for Mytilini? I thought the capital already had its own port. Or has Kalloni grown so much that it wants also a port for itself?
At least the Natural History Museum of Sigri will be happy: because of the works done until now, they were able to increase considerably their collection of petrified trees. The people who love the quietness of this sweet village no longer have sleepless nights and the restaurant at the harbour of Sigri will, for the moment, remain a hot spot for food lovers, and for the time-being not spoiled by building activity nor huge boats hiding the seaview.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015