Friday, 29 May 2015

May 26 - Let’s go Lesvos

(Newly arrived refugees in Eftalou)

Last Sunday Molyvos was filled with cyclists instead of with refugees. Big and small, old and young, it seemed like every bicycle owner in the village was participating, under the burning sun. The steep mediaeval streets, the bumpy boulders and sharp bends are an ideal challenge for the village ride which was running for the second year.

For centuries the donkey served as transport in Greece. Until last century when they were (sometimes literally) parked beside the road to make room for the car. Lots of Greeks still see an aftekineto as a motorized donkey, thus creating dangerous traffic situations. It still is very common to stop in the middle of the road in order to greet a friend coming from the other direction. And passing another car on a bend is also very common because on a donkey you did the same, without taking too many risks. And I won’t even talk about all those sidelined donkeys that are parked on the streets in order to eat the green green grass at the side of the roads.

There is a new road user, seen more and more often emerging from a difficult bend or on winding roads: the cyclist. Cycling in Greece is getting hot and drivers now should seriously get used to this group that might come sailing down a slope or bend in the road at full speed. Do you recall ever seeing a cyclist many years ago in Greece? It seems that a first one was seen in 1880, according to a book about bicycles in Greece, from 1880 to 2012 (Το ποδηλατο στην Ελλαδα).

Cycling is not expensive and the bike is a very good way of transport in these times of crisis. Although I can imagine that not all Greeks have the money to buy one. But bike lovers are doing their utmost to promote this vehicle: in the big cities as well as on the islands more and more bike events are being organised, like the Athens Bike Festival, this year taking place on September 18 – 20, and also Mytilini, who, in spring for some years in a row, gets a part of its inhabitants onto two wheels, so that its streets are crowded just with bicycles.

Probably due to the mountain stages in the famous tours, sport cyclists also love to go around on the island. For years now the Lesvos Brevet event is organised for some tens of fanatic cyclists who are more than amateurs. Throughout the year they go to different islands and places on the mainland of Greece to obtain another brevet and the distances grow longer and longer. This year in the Lesvos Brevet there was a choice of two distances. The 400 km race has already taken place in March and the 200 km (with the start and finish in Molyvos) will take place on Sunday June 7 (last year the distance was 300 km). The course clearly is not for foreigners (for years my brother is the only non Greek speaking participant) because all information is only in Greek. Which is a pity, because this tough course leads you in one day all over this beautiful island. Imagine if the Tour de Lesvos becomes as popular as the Tour de France?

The very newest road user however is the refugee. They trudge over the many roads of the island towards the capital of Mytlini, protecting themselves against a burning sun with t-shirts on their heads, with all the belongings they have left carried on their tired backs. For them, there are no checkpoints where water or a bite is distributed to revive their spirit in order to accomplish this two (or three) day tour. And you will see them everywhere: going to Plomari, Sigri, Mandamados, Kalloni or Molyvos. They are not difficult road users, but in the night I can imagine that they are at peril, because they are difficult to see on the dark roads of the island.

Do we have to wait until an accident occurs, like the one in Macedonia, where 14 refugees were run over by a train, while they followed the rails in order to find a safe place? Is it humane that we let women, children, elders and wounded people make this long journey on Lesvos?

I live at the border of Europe. In the south this border is flooded by refugees. But the northern countries don’t care about their own borders. When the refugees safely reach the shore here, they cheer because they think they are in Europe. Well, I don’t think so. They have arrived in Greece and there will be another long journey before they reach Europe. Europe is ruled by its northern countries who loaned so much money to the southern countries, who now can no longer pay their debts and will soon become as poor as most of the refugees. I bet the northern countries would love to install an iron curtain across the middle of geographical Europe between the poor south and the rich north (was the European Union not created just to have this frontier disappear?).

All that those very well paid people in the European capital Brussels have come up with, is to catch the smugglers in Libya (no one talked about smugglers in Turkey) and they even intend to destroy the boats the refugees come on, afraid they will be re-used. Well, here that job is already done by the refugees themselves: all boats reaching the Greek shores are destroyed. How stupid is Europe?! Put international police at its frontiers to take in the refugees, to register them and give them a ticket to a country they can go. Show everybody that it is Europes border, and not only that of Greece, Italy or Spain.

I am afraid my country (the Netherlands) is one of the worst. They do not want to take in more refugees from the southern countries and the government will take ages to decide if they agree with what is decided in Brussels. The Dutch government behaves like a class of little children and I bet they first want to go on holiday before taking any serious decision (hoping that this flood of refugees might be over then).

Well, all European politicians: I challenge you to come for a holiday to Lesvos and bring your bicycle with a little cart, in order to be able to distribute water and bread to all those refugees who have to walk for days along Lesvos’ roads, looking for Europe.

PS I am happy to tell that there are some exceptions: Norway has announced to help and will amongst others finance a new refugee centre (on Lesvos). Bravo Norway!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

May 18 – Refugee weather

(The coast guard of Molyvos in action at Eftalou)

The summer finally is there: wild flowers wear their last scented petals, the acacia trees cry white blossoms and the hillsides are starting to change into their dried, yellow, summer colour. The sea again is bright blue, as is the sky above. When also the white caps on the sea lie down, you can see straight through the clear water to the mysterious underwater landscape where fishes swim and seaweed merrily waves.

But when the sea is so alluring, we now say: it is refugee weather. And yes, the next morning they again arrive in rubber boats containing sometimes as many as 50 or more people. When reaching the beach they may yell out with joy because they have made it safe and sound, when they fall into the water a bit out at sea they may scream, but most of them come ashore safely.

This summer the sea will have to be shared with these people who have left home and country. And also bread and water has to be shared. Here in Molyvos there is no Red Cross or any other official institution. Just a couple of port police and some volunteers who, as soon as the boats are in sight (which is every day that there is no hard wind) receive hundreds of refugees with water, bread, diapers and, when needed, dry clothes. When the numbers are too big, or the need too great, they even might ask for assistance from the entire village, as happened a few weeks ago, when the parking lot next to the school was filled with cold wet refugees, and most villagers showed up to help out, which was an impressive sight.

Never have the beaches of the island been so full with rubber boats, innertubes and lifejackets. A bit weird, because, also this year, some beaches got the Blue Flag designation: Tsamakia, Eftalou/Agi Anargri, Kaga, Anaxos, Agios Isidoros, Molyvos, Vatera and Thermis.

Not even a hundred years ago the situation was much worse: during the first week of October 1922, 50.000 refugees arrived on Lesvos, mainly coming from Ayvalik and Izmir, where the Greek Turkish war came to an end (the infamous population exchange decided by the Treaty of Lausanne took place a year later). There was an American nurse in Izmir during the Great Catastrophe and later on in Lesvos, who gives a description of how disastrous this was on the island: Certain Samaritans (see chapter XIX). Lots of those people remained on the island, resulting in many inhabitants now are a descendant from a refugee.

I do not think that there will be 50.000 refugees arriving on the island in one week, but some people estimate that there might be 1000 a day over the entire island, which already is quite a number. And we have not mentioned how many are making a safe landing on other Greek islands like Chios, Samos, Leros, Kos and Rhodes, other favourite places of the smugglers. The islands cannot deal with these high numbers and the government, well, they have their own crisis with Europe to deal with. So it will be pointless to ask for help.

Two days ago, a group of 120 refugees arrived in Eftalou, and the occupants of one boat had to be saved out at sea. A lot of shouting was heard: from the port police in order to keep the people calm in the drifting dinghy, and from the others out of fear of drowning. They were all picked up safely and received in the harbour of Molyvos (the parking lot next to the school is only used when the school is closed), where volunteers saw that they got bread, water and when needed, dry clothes. Amongst them was a man in a wheelchair and even a man who recently had heart surgery, was diabetic and who had lost his much needed medicines in the sea. Because Mytilini also had too many arrivals they would not send a bus to pick them up. So a meadow nearby was quickly mowed, where the group could have a bivouac and they could easily have passed the night there.
Mandamados also filled up with refugees the same day. I doubt that the monastery there gave them shelter and help. From Mandamados, refugees normally walk to the capital. 

Today a little group made a perfect landing on the pebbles of one of the beaches in Eftalou. Children, parents and grandparents, they all were fine and happy and immediately started to phone to whomever it was, telling they had made it into Europe. People living nearby started cleaning up around them, inner tubes, lifejackets and other garbage and passersby stood still for a minute to watch and then continued walking or driving, as this has become a daily scene. And it indeed has become an event happening each day. When the arrivals are not in need like this particular group they have to make their own way to Molyvos. In Greece it is forbidden to help them with transport or other things; you risk arrest because that is considered as helping the smugglers.

Today is another hot summer day with a sea that is perfect to cross. In Izmir some ten thousand refugees wait to make the journey to Europe, so for sure tomorrow there will be a new group arriving.

But meanwhile also the number of tourists has increased and all restaurants and shops are open in the harbour. A large group of refugees hanging out does not form the best scenery to have at lunch or dinner. So part of the business people complain that they cannot earn money (other owners help the refugees in day time and in the night they run their restaurant). But it's money that they all need here in Greece, because they have to pay lots of taxes and many a business is not too far from bankruptcy.

Not all tourists are happy to be confronted with a reality they only know from the news. And their governments pretend it is only the problem of Greece, Italy and Spain. One leader even dared to say that those countries were just unlucky to be at the borders of Europe. Unity in Europe? No way!

Also travel companies are not happy with so many refugees. One of them ordered a local agent to be informed of everything happening on the island. Why? Are their clients to weak to meet this problem from eye to eye? A big cruise organization threatened not visiting the island anymore if a quay, serving as a rounding up place for refugees (the shelter is already for a long time overcrowded), will not be cleared soon. Imagine that their precious guests will be confronted with the misery of others!

The Greek islands have not been hit by a disastrous earthquake, as has Nepal. Life goes on and the refugees are not always visible. As a tourist you might bump into them or you might not. So you can enjoy your holiday, even though this may sound a bit odd. The Greek islands are just a transit port for refugees. It is in Athens where hell starts again, where they arrive in the streets or create make-shift camps, and from where they plan what next step to take. It is only a few that desire to stay in Greece. And because they cannot just take a plane or book a ferry trip, they depend again on the smugglers. And of those there are nowadays many and they are everywhere.

If the refugees continue to arrive in increasing numbers (which is expected), there will be big problems. Private people cannot provide each day the bread, the clothes and the diapers needed. The municipalities or the government really should provide new shelters and send experienced helpers, otherwise the tide will turn and the Greeks will become irritated.

I wish that the old Syrian city of Palmyra also could flee and arrive safe on the beaches of Eftalou. I really hope that this international heritage site can stay out of the hands of the new barbarians, who are the reason the refugee number has now reached biblical proportions. It is time that the world takes more action against those godless fools who are poisoning the world.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

May 2 – Poppy Balls


In most countries May 1st is celebrated as Labour Day. It’s a holiday in Greece too, but it is primarily as the Day of Flowers that it’s celebrated. Wreaths of flowers are made and presented to friends and neighbours, and many Greeks travel to the countryside to enjoy the flowering landscape, with bunches of flowers stuck under their windscreen wipers. 

Molyvos was flooded with mainly local tourists, even though it is no pastoral field full of flowers. The little town is a beloved destination for people going out for a day-trip. It has lots of green spots within its old stonewalls and so has its own beautiful flower spots. Travelling from the capital to Molyvos will lead you along colourful open fields and lots of orchards where beneath the light green olive leaves lie fields of flowers in all colours. These days the island is at its colourful best and it is the nicest time to take walks or outings by car.

Close to Achladeri you will find famous fields, which are easily as beautiful as the Dutch tulip fields: the red of the poppies is an attraction for many photographers. Even just a few of these bright red flowers in a green field can tempt plenty of people into stopping on the roadside.

Most people know that poppies are not just flowers to colour gardens or fields: opium can be made from them: a drug that can relieve pains, numb your state of mind or bring you to a sweet sleep. It can lead you to addiction and also may kill you. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the English writer Charles Dickens, the movie star Bela Lugosi and even the world famous nurse Florence Nightingale were opium addicts. And many others too, since opium has been known for thousands of years.

In ancient Greece, their Gods for sleep (Hypnos), night (Nyx) and death (Thanatos) were often depicted with a poppy as their symbol, as were the Gods Apollo, Asklepios, Pluton, Demeter, Aphrodite, Kybele and the Egypt Goddess Isis many times seen with a bunch of poppies, sometimes mixed with some ears of corn in their hand.

But it was only in the 8th century BC that poppies were mentioned for the first time in writing. Hesiod mentioned the city of Mekone (Papaver-city, in the region of Corinth), where Prometheus gave portions of poppies at an ox to sweeten the mind of Zeus. Theophrastus later wrote that a combination of the juice of poppies and hemlock (Conium maculatum) gave a painless and easy death. In the Odyssey, written by Homer, the juice of poppies is used to numb people in order to have them forget all sorrows. Aristotle recognized poppy juice as a drug and both Hippocrates and Theophrastus wrote about different kind of poppies and their applications.

Proof that the Greeks in ancient times were already using this flower for healing or enjoyment comes from archaeological finds. On Crete a small statue was discovered of an unknown woman from Minoan times. Her hair was adorned with poppy-capsules. That is why the archaeologists named her as a Goddess of Poppies and healing. But all over Greece poppy-capsules were depicted on many more finds, so a conclusion can be made that opium was a very old drug, known by priests, kings, Gods and other mighty people who knew very well how to use it.

Lesvos is not, of course, full of poppies that can be used to produce opium;
the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), also called the Common Garden Poppy, has a light green stem and its flowers vary in the colour from white to pink, purple and dark red. She may be found on the island, but not in sufficient numbers to provide an opium kit.

The most common poppy on Lesvos is the red Papaver rhoeas, also called corn or field poppy, Flanders poppy, red poppy or coquelicot. You may also find a smaller variation: the Papaver argemone, called the long pricklyhead poppy or pale poppy; and even another pale poppy, called the Long-headed poppy or Blindeyes (Papaver dubium) is to be find on the island. And some of the coasts are brightened by a yellow kind, called a horned poppy (Glaucium phoeniceum).

I think there might be some opium addicts on the island, but for sure this drug is not produced on the island. Even though the common garden poppy was plentiful during ancient times in Greece, nowadays it is hard to find. Maybe that’s the reason that the seeds of these flowers – the delightful poppy seeds – are mostly unknown in Greek food; although you may find some bread decorated with poppy seeds. In earlier times they had babies calmed down or encouraged sleep with some drops of the field poppy (which also contains, but in very very small amounts, some drugs). But nowadays I am not sure if mothers would dare to use this to sooth their children asleep.

Here on the island lots of green leaves picked in nature are very popular as food: the so-called chorta, like dandelion, Milk Thistle or nettles. There are many wild grasses loved by the Greeks, whose leaves are picked when the plants are still young and finish in the kitchens where they are used for super healthy dishes. The leaves of the long pricklyhead poppy also are an edible chorta. These can even be eaten raw, provided that they are picked before the capsule has grown. In a small tavern in Agiasos last week they not only served fresh picked Morchella (another culinary surprise), but also Poppy Balls: not containing opium, of course. But you do not need any opium to get addicted to Greek food, especially when you find such an eatery where they serve so many products, fresh from nature, which they turn into delicate dishes.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015