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

Sunday, 2 August 2015

July 30 – Heat wave

Now that spirits are somewhat cooled down after the negotiations with Europe, there is something else to keep you from your sleep: a heat wave! By definition: a period of days where temperatures are far above normal. Each country or region has its own precise understanding, for instance, in Holland there must be five consecutive days of temperatures above 25 ˚C with at least three days above 30 ˚C. The definition of a Greek heat wave (kafsonas) is three consecutive days with temperatures above 39 ˚C.

It’s so warm now that even some of the refugees arriving today plunged into the sea to cool off. I am glad that Medecins sans Frontiers have now organized regular busses that pick up the refugees in the north of Lesvos, to take them to Mytilini. It would have been a shame if, just like all those thousands of people who in past weeks had to walk to the capital, they now had to do the same in these inhuman temperatures.

So what is to be done during a heat wave? Well, keep your head cool, of course. The best way to survive the hottest parts of a day is to relax inside a cool and dark home or in deep shade outside. Or, even better, to pack up your things and go to the beach, to the blue, babbling sea.

Lesvos is surrounded by the Aegean Sea, a water of some 214,000 square kilometers, stretching between Turkey and Greece. In the north it is connected with the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea and in the south it merges into the Mediterranean Sea. Three big river deltas supply water to the Aegean Sea: that of the Evros, the Nestor and the Strymonas. If you follow those rivers upstream – and the many others that drain into them – you will arrive in Bulgaria. One part of the Evros forms the frontier between Turkey and Greece and the delta of the Strymonas is partly in the Republic of Macedonia (see: Drainage basin of the Mediterranean Sea).

So when you dive into the Aegean to keep cool during a heat wave, you are throwing yourself into international waters. But also the water of the Mediterranean circulates in the Aegean Sea, so its waters are even richer. The French Rhone (that smuggles water from the Lake of Geneva) and the Italian Po (that comes from the Swiss Alps, and is also fed with water from the Lakes of Lugano and Maggiori) come out into the Mediterranean Sea. Additionally the Isonzo, Krka, Neretva, Drin, Vijose and Vardar find their way from the middle of Europe to the blue sea, feeding themselves with water from all the lakes they encounter. It is a funny idea to swim in a soup of all those famous rivers and lakes, all of which, I am sure, are popular during a heat wave.

A lot of swimming goes on in the Aegean Sea. When you put on a snorkel and nose about looking for what is going on underwater, you will still come across plenty of fish (although fewer than there used to be because of over-fishing). I will not mention what fish are common, that would be too long a list (but many of them will be served to you in the Greek taverns); and they all share the sea with octopus, squids, dolphins and other sea animals. Even seals are part of this population, although nobody knows exactly how many remain. In wintertime I sometimes spot a seal who, with his round head dives in and out the water, showing his beautiful moustache for a few seconds and then disappearing under the water without a trace.

There are also people who believe that there are even more creatures roaming the seas: mermaids. According to some myths, the fist mermaid was spotted in Syria. About 3,000 years ago one of the most important goddesses of Syria was Atargatis. In her charge was the fertility of the earth and of the seas. Just like a dove, a fish for her was sacred. One day she madly fell in love with a shepherd, by whom she became pregnant. The shepherd however did not survive the divine lovemaking. Atargatis became inconsolable and after she gave birth to a baby girl, in desperation, she threw herself into a lake. However she could not die, and half of her body was changed into that of a fish. Her daughter Semiramis became Queen of Syria and in memory of her mother she forbade the eating of fish. Except for at the coast, fish eating is still not popular in Syria.

Lesvos has a mermaid-village that was built in 1922, when refugees sought shelter on Lesvos: Skala Sykaminia. The little church of the Gorgóna (mermaid) Madonna still glitters on a white rock at its picturesque harbour. The story is that once there lived a captain, who one day disappeared, leaving behind a mural of Maria with a fish tail. The next day the refugees arrived. The village and its gorgóna became famous thanks to the novel of Stratis Myrivilis: The mermaid Madonna. It is the story of an extremely beautiful girl, who according to some old villagers, was born to a mermaid.
Some of the dinghies that are bringing the refugees to Lesvos nowadays, reach the coast not far from Skala Sykaminia where I hope the Mermaid Madonna will bless all those people who have lost their homes and countries.

There are endless such myths about the Aegean. Heroes like Odysseus got lost there for years, the flying Icarus lost his life in the sea, people threw themselves into its waters because they had broken hearts (Alcyone and Sappho), and the Aegean waves once transported the head of Orpheus and its lyre to a Lesvorian beach.

The sea is full of stories and when you listen carefully, those stories will take you across the frontiers of Greece, deep into Europe, but also to the other side, for example to Syria (not a good place at the moment to get nice stories). Syria also borders on the Mediterranean, but I am afraid that its waters do not provide cooling against the war, rather only an escape route to safer places.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015