Saturday, 25 April 2015

April 22 – Looking for Zorba

(Remnants of the cableway near Pessas)

Life and Times of Zorba the Greek from the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis was published in 1946, but became really famous in 1964, when a movie was made of the book by the Greek director Michaelis Kakoyannis. Believe it or not, the movie not only made Zorba world famous but also introduced a new popular dance in the world: the sirtaki.

Actually the sirtaki is an invention of the choreographer of the movie, because the leading actor Anthony Quinn was too stiff to dance the traditional dance hassapikos which is described in the book. Sirtaki is such a merry dance that you get even the most stubborn donkey up a mountain with it (see this cheerful movie). Just like the sirtaki is an invention, the protagonist in the movie is fictitious, even though Kazantzakis’ friend Yorgos Zorba was the inspiration for the book and the man who conquered the hearts of so many.

The story is about an English/Greek writer, Vassilis, who wants to open a mine on Crete. He meets a miner called Alexis Zorba and asks him to come and work in the mine. Zorba turns out to be a man full of stories and philosophies, a source of information for Vassilis who is trying to write a book about Buddha. Zorba loves women, satirizes the small mindedness of the villagers and that of the pious monks; he is full of ideas, looks at life as a challenge and is not afraid of death.

Was there a predecessor? The book The Colossus of Maroussi by the American writer Henry Miller also is about a friendship between a writer and a Greek. Miller met Yorgos Katsimbalis (1899-1978) when he visited Greece in 1939. This Greek writer and founder of the magazine Ta Nea Grammata lived just like Zorba: having a spirited mind, a love for drinking, long discussions and social outings. Maybe this Greek way of life – taking life as it comes – made even more impression on Miller than all the archaeological sites that they visited together (even though Miller described them as fabulous). Miller did met his Zorba, but was forced to go home when the Second World War became a serious threat.

The Colossus of Maroussi (the title refers to the name Miller gave Katsimbalis) which he wrote upon returning home is a strong ode to Greece and was published in 1941. In the Fifties and Sixties the book made many people decide to visit the country of the Greek Gods and I guess in those times there was no better publicity for Greece than this book.

Neither Henri Miller, Katsimbalis nor Jorgos Zorbás visited Lesvos, as far as I know. Of all famous people produced by the island, maybe it is the painter Theophilos who comes closest to the Zorba character: a man living without conventions, dressing as he wanted and all the while studying the people around him in order to make paintings.
Also Sappho dearly loved life and wrote about it. But this lady was more into the dark blues. She introduced poems based on the stirrings of her soul, mostly causing pain in the heart.
Another free-minded person coming from the island was the famous Barbarossa. Whether this pirate greeted the days as if everything was new, is not known.

But there must have been a Zorba on the island, who just like Alexis, build a cableway. Not for a sawmill, but for the resin, which last century was harvested on the island, especially in the woods around Megali Limni and around the waterfall of Pessas (Polistami). There you can see some of the remains of a cableway going all the way down to the Gulf of Kalloni near Skala Vassilika, from where the resin was shipped. And it seems that (unlike the fictional character) this one did do the job.

Lots of people visiting Lesvos, return yearly: the island might be the spot with the largest number of repeaters of all of Greece. There are even some among them who have come here since the Sixties. When you hear their stories about the past, you might think that they too met their Katsimbalis: they spent hours in the cafenions drinking and talking, making adventurous trips into nature, and mostly accompanied by one or more locals. It seems that in those early times the island was full with Zorbas.

It is sometimes said that time has come to a standstill on Lesvos. It is a fact that the island is not flooded with masses of tourists. In the sleepy villages men sip at their ouzo, men who were sitting there long before Zorba appeared in the cinemas. The mysterious monasteries (some still habited by dusty monks, others regularly busy with visiting pilgrims) make you realize that there is another life besides the one in the over populated western world. Even the few modern windmills, towering high on inhospitable mountaintops already seem part of history.

Timeless or not, there still are Zorbas on the island: men keeping some sheep and some olive trees and having a simple but happy life. You may meet them in the cafenions where they take their daily ouzo and eat their Mèzes. Enjoying life with a small income, it is what lots of Greeks still do, forced by the crisis or just because it is their way of life.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Thursday, 9 April 2015

April 5 – Easter unlimited

(Poppies and orchids)

This year part of the world – that is most countries in the west and south of Europe along with other catholic countries – celebrated Easter on April 6, while other parts of the world, that’s the east of Europe and other orthodox countries, will enjoy this religious celebration on April 13. Why? Because the leaders of churches, just like politicians, can be as stubborn as donkeys.

First of all, I wonder why Easter should always be on a different date: exactly which Sunday (thankfully it ‘is’ a Sunday each year) it will be calculated each year by an extremely complicated schedule, which involves the vernal equinox, the full moon and the calendar. Differences already start with this calendar: the Catholic Church uses the Gregorian calendar, while the Orthodox Church still maintains the Julian calendar. But Passover and Nisan are also part of the calculation. By the Catholic Church calculations Easter can happen before Passover, while for the Orthodox Church this is an impossibility, because Easter can never fall before the date Christ was crucified and resurrected.

And so it is that only once in every four years that both Easters can be celebrated on one and the same day. The World Organization for Churches has tried to have the two churches agree to make the celebration on a same date, but since a congress in 1997 nothing has been decided. They also tried to arrange to have Easter each year on a fixed day, like the second Sunday of April, but also this proposition never met the approval of the two different churches.

Easter is the biggest religious celebration in Greece and after such a long and cold winter everybody longs for it, because then this dark season gets left behind and the warm months will not be far away. On the islands and other tourist regions, this festivity also means the start of the summer season. The Greeks swarm out all over Greece to celebrate Easter together with their family and friends and so the islands will receive the first guests of the year.

On Lesvos it’s not only Greeks visiting their families, the month of April is also popular with birdwatchers who come in great numbers to take photographs of rare flying species and the orchid lovers also seem to be visiting the island more and more in order to see these exotic flowers.

But I still cannot imagine there will ever be a summer. Even though the sun now regularly shines and the sky is more and more painted blue, nights remain treacherously cold and the wearing of thick jackets, scarves and even bonnets is no luxury.

Birdwatchers are saying that this year fewer migrant birds have been using the island for a break because of the prolonged winter weather. The first brave tourists must have had it pretty cold and I hope they understand that preparing hotels and guesthouses for the season has been heavily delayed, because it was impossible to work in the gardens thanks to all the rain and cold, and that lick of paint that is needed has had to wait too because of the dampness.

But the swallows, the traditional Greek heralds of spring, are back on the island and skim through the sky while twittering as if they never left the island. It seems that they gave the impetus for the spring, because suddenly nature has wakened up and there has been an explosion of flowers. In my garden, the wild grasses and flowers do as they please and are towering towards the tops of those trees that survived the winter. Yes, sadly there is not much left of the garden. Lots of plants died during the (for Lesvos) unusually cold winter. The garden shops for sure will do good business this year.

Not only the birds and plants had problems. Last year Sifis, a crocodile, became a new tourist attraction on Crete. He was found in a reservoir and proved impossible to catch. This month they found his lifeless body and they presume that the severe winter was the cause of his death.

In orchid country it’s a bit different. For months these frivolous flowers remained underground in order not to catch a cold and now they too have also decided that it is time to flower. They are doing that in big numbers, despite the fact that some species normally should be waiting a bit to unfold their flowers. Who knows, they might - just like the churches’ calculating the date for Easter – be using an elaborated system for when they are allowed to bloom, because there is no system to be found that determines why one species is too early or the other too late this year.

For flower lovers and for orchid hunters it would be nice if all species flowered each year at a same date. But nature has his own life and schedule and does what it deems right. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches also just do what they want, but unlike nature, they could make deals. Would it not be nice if they could put aside their stubbornness, so that we get fixed Easter Days and that all people wanting to celebrate Easter can do that on the same day?


(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015