Monday, 19 December 2016

December 15 – Sitting next to the fire

(Cooking fig syrup)

Thinking of Greece, you may see sun, heat and a blue sea. You’d never guess that the Greeks were the inventors of central heating; but they built systems where heat from a central fire was transferred via tubes to different spaces, like in the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Later the Romans used this principle to make floor heating in their houses and other buildings.

In Greece it can be pretty cold, and snow not only falls in the north or on mountain tops: many touristic islands can also be surprised by a cover of fluffy snow. This autumn consisted of endless days of summery weather, inviting one to mosey along terraces all day and to take kilometers long walks. But as soon as the sun sets on these beautiful days, even on Lesvos, it is time to crawl inside and settle next to a stove.

Adam and Eva did not come into a world with heaters. It was Prometheus who stole the fire from Olympus in order to give it to man to cook and to heat. The oldest ovens (about 20,000 years old) have been discovered in Central Europe. They were simple fire pits in the ground, but apparently working well enough that entire mammoths could be prepared on them. And the bones of those huge animals also served as fuel.

The ancient Greeks loved bread and were always keen to improve their baking. They produced clay ovens; around 7000 BC flat breads came out of them and, sprinkled with herbs, onions and garlic, they might have been the first pizzas. On the Cycladic islands a portable clay oven from the 17th century BC has been found.
It was the Romans who started to build stone ovens. In the volcanic ash covered city of Pompeij they found at least 30 stone ovens. They were the precursers of the outdoor oven, still seen in many Greek houses and used during festivity days to prepare large traditional dishes with meat and vegetables.

Greeks still like to play with fire. Making home beverages like tsipouro, cooking figs or grapes into a syrup, it’s still happening on an open fire, even though these domestic crafts are slowly dying out. As is preparing a meal in the outside oven. Now you only find cooking plates fired by gas or electricity in the kitchens. But the fire keeps on burning, though not always to prepare food. Many houses still have an open fireplace (tzaki), although more to satisfy a romantic soul than to produce heat. Households with central heating are still a minority. Not many people can afford the high price of oil fuel since this long lasting crisis. Commerce in wood stoves (zomba) has been stoked up enormously, causing in the big cities like Athens smog alerts. Many poor families are using old windows or furniture as fuel.

It seems that Lesvorians, just like tourists, think they live in a country of only sun, heat and blue sea. Window frames are only made to keep up the glass, doors to keep people inside or out; wind and rain are on the guest list and can always pass through. The houses seem to be made for an island of year-round summer. Which is not the case.

In autumn a certain chill will creep into the stone houses, especially after the first rains and when temperatures drop to under 20 oC. When the winter approaches (they say that in Greece the real winter only starts in January) you cannot sit quietly for more than a few moments without getting chilled to the bone. To make yourself comfortable there are stinking oil fuel stoves, small electric big-spenders or wood stoves. Open fire places might also chase the first colds, but when the real winter enters, an entire forest of trees will not warm your house; the efficiency of an open fire is very low.

The best solution is a wood stove, that can heat an entire house (especially when the stove pipe wanders through half the rooms). I started out with an open fire place, in two of the coldest Lesvorian winters of this century: snow, ice, rain and storms kept on attacking the island for months. I practically lived ín the open fireplace because my house was a first class air vent, even though the window sills were covered with towels in order to save the house from flooding.
Now next to me is the satisfying sound of a purring wood stove, behind new windows and doors that are made for what they are meant. The nice thing about my wood stove is that it has an oven: excellent to make pizzas, bread and other oven dishes. On top of the oven there is always hot water for a tea or a coffee. I am wondering why there are so many wood stoves without an oven. Such a lost of energy! Wood stoves were originally made for cooking, just like fire was given to the people to cook.

A wood stove does not have a button you can press and ‘oppah’ the flames spring up. The ash drawer has to be emptied, the glass window must be cleaned (with ash), kindling has to be gathered and a woodpile has to be built. Then you may set the fire. And then you have to maintain the fire, a rhythm you will soon make your own. And of course you have to chop wood and transport the wood to your house. I bet keeping a wood stove requires as many sporty moves as a fitness lesson: chopping, toting, getting down, getting up, cleaning, you do it all and for free.

I used to dream of having an AGA cooker. That dream has been fulfilled, even though it is with a Bulgarian Prity that – for just a small fraction of the price of an AGA – produces as many delicious dishes and also warms the house. For the open fireplace there also is a solution of installing a closed oven in it, sometimes with tubes attached that can bring the warmth elsewhere in the house. And so the wheel again has been invented (Dutch expression).

With the crackling flames fighting the moisture and cold in the house and with spring still faraway, and with the scent of a leg of a lamb covered in honey and herbs filling the house, in silence I thank Prometheus for the divine gift of fire.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

Smitaki 2016

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

November 17 – Lesvos under the moon and stars

(Full Moon over Eftalou)

The media has been full of news of the biggest super moon in ages. I get a little confused about all the phenomena in the sky. For example, you have a blue moon when there are two full moons in one calendar month. Or a red moon, although I have forgotten when this occurs. And there are different lunar eclipses. And sun eclipses, and star showers. It's one big paradise of events in the heavens.

As Lesvos is having so many days with sun shine, it offers a perfect possibility to see all those natural events. No teasing clouds stopping the show. Except on the day (November 14) that that huge moon was expected. I was quite busy that day, so it suited me that a thick layer of cotton-like moisture was filling the sky: even a super deluxe moon could not shine through it. I also had no idea what time that moon would appear above the mountains. I didn't lay down on a comfortable stretcher, like I do when the stars shoot through the sky. But I was wrong: friends watching from the castle of Molyvos did see this bright orange ball appearing and when I finally decided to take a look, all I saw was a blue shiny light from behind the clouds.

It wasn't sensationally big. And there was a negative effect: the night the moon was supposed to rise like an opera star in the sky, temperatures quickly dropped. So it's really so long to a beautiful summer. We have to wait for another weather event: the Alcionides Days in January, which will bring back some summer warmth.

So the moon tricked me. Just like the time when I decided to organize a romantic dinner in her dreamlike blue full beams. It was in the middle of the summer and there was no cloud to be seen. The table was set in the middle of a field and my guests took their seats, giggling because of the strange light. But soon enough you couldn't even find a saltshaker and the diners were slowly disappearing in darkness. The Moonlight was fading fast, and a nasty black shadow drove across the moon: a lunar eclipse!

The sun also knows how to fool you. Once on a bright sunny day I was driving through the mountains, towards Tsonia. The view through my sun glasses got more and more obscured. So time for a thorough cleaning session, and then another one, but it didn't help: even without glasses the view disappeared slowly. I panicked a bit, thinking that I would be blind any minute! The sky in the east took on an ominous darkness, the mountains disappeared in dark purple shadows and I saw less and less. Then a friend phoned me and asked: “Are you outside? Are you seeing it?”. I stared at my phone in disbelief and, totally upset, screamed back: “I'm practically blind”. “Great”, my friend answered, “enjoy the eclipse of the sun!” It did not become totally dark that afternoon, but all the birds, normally so loud on the island, kept their beaks shut. And I parked along the road, waiting for the comforting sunshine to come back.

Years ago whole tribes panicked when the sun or the moon performed these tricks, and many prediction for the end of the world coincided with days when darkness fell too early. But sometimes those eclipses did some good. In the time of Sappho, the Lydian empire stretched as far as the coasts opposite Lesvos (nowadays Turkey). In her poems she praised the Lydian soldiers, stout fighters who for years had been at war with the Medes. On a sunny day (on May 28, 585 BC) when the two armies faced each other, what happened to me happened to them: the light dimmed slowly and the battle field disappeared slowly into darkness. Although there was a scientist (Thales) who predicted the eclipse, the darkness was thought to be a punishment of the gods: terrified, swords and maces were thrown down and soon peace was signed.

So ignorance can also be good. Imagine if all fighting parties in the Middle East were to drop their rifles and UZI's because Allah makes the sun disappear. I then would immediately become a muslim to thank Allah for this humane gesture.

Now half a moon, upside down, laughs in the sky, but on December 14 she will again take on the guise of a super moon, although a bit smaller than the one of November. This show however might spoil the fun of star gazers, who will also be ready on December 13 & 14 for the super star show of the Geminids, the biggest of the year with 120 meteors a minute shooting through the sky.
But next year the events in heaven will be poor, with only one extraordinary show: a partial lunar eclipse on February 11. I hope I will not forget that date, so that I won't take fright and drop all my ladles and pans, but instead will think of times when a sun or lunar eclipse could bring peace on earth.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

November 1 – The Empire of Stones goes China

(Lesvos; photo: Tzeli Hadjidimitriou)

The latest Chinese National Geographic published a big article about the Petrified Forest of Lesvos. Woaw, are we going to have a Chinese run on Lesvos now?! I’m sure that the Chinese will also love the rest of the island. Even though Lesvos doesn’t have dangerous walking paths, like those on the Chinese mountain of Huashan, it does have kilometers of old footpaths through the mountains, with views as stunning as in China. The small donkey paths meandering through the olive groves, the pine and chestnut forests are also a challenge for hikers.

When you walk from the chestnut wood above Agiasos to the Cristal mountain in the direction of Karionas, you might just get such a Huashan feeling, because it leads over a narrow mountain ridge with steep slopes on both sides: one side looking over a Chinese like panorama with capricious silhouettes of mountain ridges descending to the sparkling sea and in the background the floating landmass of Chios. At the other side the view is over the Bay of Gera, nibbling at the mountains where Mytilini tries to hide and beyond the mountains is the light blue sea, with Turkey beyond. It is a dream spot for photographers.

However, the petrified trees of Lesvos are not alone in getting notice in the Chinese papers. In August the beauty of the island was spotted in Bejing during an exhibition of the Lesvorian photographer Tzeli Hadjidimitriou, the first Greek woman to have a solo exhibition in China.

Many tourists may know Tzeli because of her books about cafenions (39 coffee houses & a barber's shop) and the hot springs of the island (Το άγιο νερό, The sacred water). Those beautiful Greek traditional cafes, where bright neon lights shine over treasures of faded glory, will eventually die out, because young Greeks do not want to spend time in the interiors of their grandparents. The same is true for the hot springs. Tzeli’s photos catch particularly well the lightfall in these springs, all carefully calculated long ago by Ottoman architects.

My favourite book of Tzeli is the one about stones: In communion with stone, a symphony of old stone houses, walls and enormous boulders which are so characteristic for the Lesvorian landscape. Volcanoes long ago distributed them profusely all over the place and the inhabitants were very happy with this wealth: everywhere on the island, you will spot a stone wall, used as a barrier or a support for an olive tree. There are places so crowded with old walls that you are bewildered and wonder how anyone found the time to build them. Coming across ‘kula's’, old sheds or little houses, on mountain slopes is not unusual, and you wonder how the old inhabitants managed to live there. And of course, even in the most remote and impossible spots, like on top of mountains or hidden in caves with difficult access, you will find churches built with old stones. Some regions, like near Kalochori, are studded with Stonehenge-like boulders, making you glad that you were not there when the volcanoes spewed them out. In the area of Plati, above Michou, you will find plenty of tower-like heaps of stones scattered over the olive groves, as if generations of farmers had too much free time and built them.

When you watch out over this Empire of Stones, you also ask yourself why most tourists only come for the summer sun. Lesvos is so much more than beaches, sea, Molyvos and Petra.
Tzeli's work is as varied as is Lesvos. Besides her travel guides like a Greek guide of car tours on Lesvos (Ανεχερεύνητη Λέσβος) and A girl's guide to Lesbos, her photographs catch the amazing fall of light on the apparently never-changing landscapes. These are the colourful works that were on exhibition in Istanbul in summer 2015 and this year travelled to faraway China. In Bejing a new piquant detail was added: from her series of naked women in the sea, some images were printed on very thin and large silk clothes, hung in the space in front of sunsets, olive trees, flamingo's and mountains, bringing alive these ‘floating Sappho's’.

Before the refugee deluge of last year, Lesvos (the third biggest island of Greece) was still fairly unknown and had small tourism. Now everybody knows of the island with the nickname ‘refugee island’. However, the wealth of natural treasures, the magnificent varied landscapes and the still traditional lifestyle remain one of the best kept secrets of the Aegean. Let's see if the Chinese – who received a taste of Lesvos in Bejing and who can read now about what nature has created on Lesvos – will appreciate the island as it is.

Books of Tzeli Hadjidimitriou:
39 coffee houses & a barber shop, Crete University Press
In communion with stone, Crete University Press
Ανεχερευνητη Λεσωοσ (travel guide Lesvos), Road Εκδοσεισ
A girl's guide to Lesbos, Tzeli Hadjidimitriou

Saturday, 15 October 2016

October 12 – Dragon children

(A Painted Dragon)

A very long time ago Lesvos was part of the continent. This was a time when huge mammals, mammoths and giant tortoises, roamed the woods and fields, all as scary as dragons. I am happy that I did not live then: imagine if during a nice walk through Lesvos' beautiful nature you suddenly came eye to eye with an enormous, roaring, long haired elephant with long lethal tusks.

A dragon is like a very big, flying, lizard which I would prefer to meet rather than the fire-spitting enormous variety. But what about these legendary animals? There is no museum in the world that exhibits a skeleton of a dragon. Do they only exist in a fantasy world, like those in Greek mythology? Those ones however looked more like monster-size serpents. There was Python in Delphi that had to be slain by Apollo; dealing with the serpent of Colchis was a task presented to Jason in order to steal the Golden Fleece; killing the Lernaean Hydra, a water-serpent dragon with 5 - 100 heads, was one of the Twelve Feats of Heracles and there were Sun Dragons, who are depicted as serpents towing the vehicle of Medea through the sky.

It is not too strange that Greeks saw dragons as monstrous serpents: there are lizards who look more like serpents than animals with legs and claws. Like the Pallas' Glass Lizard (Pseudopus apodus), a lizard without legs, which can become almost one and a half meters long! But do not panic seeing such a scary, light to dark brown serpent: he only eats insects and spiders.

If you want an insect free house, lizards can do the job for you. I am not saying that I actually want a Glass Lizard in the house. Even though I know they are completely harmless, each time I meet one I run as fast as I can.
No, in the house I have some of those very tiny cute geckos, also belonging to the lizard family. They may be transparent, or light rose and look like they have just crept out of a fairytale. Before you can say 'Hello!' they will disappear behind a plinth or through a little hole in the wall that you’ve never noticed before. They are like invisible pets, dealing with bloodthirsty mosquitoes and scary spiders, although I wonder if these very small, innocent looking animals are big enough to kill and eat those eery big spiders that sometimes race through the living room.

During my daily walks with the dogs I come along rocks inhabited by Stellagama stellio, also known as star lizards or painted dragons. These lizards have a dark rocky colour, but are easy to recognize by the diamond shape spots on their back. I am fascinated by these prehistorical looking animals: they are just like dragon babies. Unlike geckos they stay put, only their eyes moving, ready to flee. First I thought that each painted dragon had its own little cave to live in, behind a narrow opening between rocks. But each day they seem to have changed places and there is only one crack that is under permanent guard. Which immediately rouses the fantasy: do they protect the cave of Ali Baba? They are difficult to spot and when you see them, it is fun to play a game: how long can you stare at each other? Their black round eyes see you as a giant wanting to harm them. But what would I do with a star lizard? I already have plenty of invisible geckos in the house. So I stare at them, not moving, until the dog has had enough of it, barks, lays down in front of a car or runs away, breaking the spell between me and the lizard.

According to the old stories most dragons were not so sweet. Long after prehistorical times, when volcano eruptions and other disasters had killed all those legendary huge animals and Lesvos become an island, dappled with the villages that still exist, there used to live a dragon on Lesvos. No Greek serpent-dragon, but a real one, with legs. It might have been a bloodthirsty robber eating small cattle and children, he was called Dragon by the scared villagers. This dragon lived around the ravine Dèmonolanka, where a footpath leads from Agia Paraskevi to Mandamados. Like a giant lizard he roamed over the rocks and wherever he set his big feet, he caused small earthquakes. When she became pregnant and had to deliver, she put one leg on one side of the ravine and the other leg on the other side of the ravine. But having eaten so many lambs, little goats and children, she was so heavy that she pancaked. Her cry made the whole island shake and she broke into smithereens on the rocks.

No matter how much archaeologists may dig up and piece together, there always will remain mysteries about our wonderful nature. Legends are here to explain those incredible things. The story of the Dragon of Dèmonolanka could explain the source of all those lizards here on the island: these dragon children will never grow because their mother fell apart on the rocks.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

September 24 – Lines of passage

(The Halim Bey Mansion, Mytilini)

Last week a fire spat smoke over the capital Mytilini; the next day the smoldering fire was put out by rain. The refugee camp of Moria was partly burned down and even though in the north of the island we had no idea what was going on, the media soon well picked up news of the fire. European politicians however smelt nothing. They are still parading around proudly saying that their ‘Deal with the Sultan’ stopped the flood of refugees. I am afraid that they will only step into action and do what they promised when another photo of a dead child in a camp shows up and brings people all over the world to tears.

The whole situation makes my heart bleed and my frustrations escalate. Every tourist who visited the island this summer knows that life on the island (except around Moria) continues as usual. Tens of thousands of Greeks are still surviving a national crisis.

Cultural organizations however continue to organize festivals. This past summer the island was full of activities, not only for tourists, but also for the locals. The absolute top was the Molyvos International Music Festival, maybe the best classical music festival of Greece. Young international talents armed with Stradivarius violins and a Steinway piano played some lesser known and beautiful music in the fairytale like atmosphere of Molyvos Castle in several open-air concerts. I am still wondering how they got the Steinway into the massive fort. This kind of event attracts people who are drawn to the island itself, unlike the press-mosquitos drawn by the bad news

The Turkish couple Can and Sevda Elgiz also want to bring another public to Mytilini. They collect modern art and offer space to young artists in their Elgiz Museum in Istanbul, which houses the overflow of their growing home collection.

In the coming month part of this collection is going to be exhibited in Mytilini, and with a special reason: Can's ancestors, the Kulassizades, were governors of Lesvos. Can’s great grandfather, Halim Bey, was the last Ottoman ruler, before Lesvos returned to Greek government in 1912. The entire family left their birthplace eleven years later to settle in Ayvalik, when the Treaty of Lausanne was signed and the population exchange was made. The family house in Mytilini, where Can’s mother grew up, was left empty, but some hundred years later still stands. The house now known as the Halim Bey Mansion has been restored and has become a public art gallery. This was for Can a good reason to reconnect with the island, and especially because Lesvos now needs positive energy.

After an impressive file of movie and pop stars, various artists and the pope, who all came to bring attention and help for the refugees and the Levorian population, we will now see some top-notch art. The Elgiz love to gather the work of the big names like Karel Appel, Robert Rauschenberg, Julian Schnabel, Andy Warhol and Gilbert & George. Which of their art works will cross the Aegean Sea is not yet clear. The exhibition called ‘Lines of passage' is created by the Turkish curator Baak Senova, who has made her name in the international art world.

In earlier times it was not unusual to visit for several days a city that offered a high-profile exhibition. Nowadays masses of art lovers go to the big art attractions, although now you sometimes have to buy tickets months in advance and then still wonder whether you will see the artworks or just the queues of people waiting to get in.
A new trend is to mount exhibitions in lesser known places, and Lesvos offers a perfect opportunity to check this out. Art lovers: hurry to the Paris of the Aegean, Mytilini.

And for the artists (Like Marina Abramovic who last spring worked in Athens): Here is the island of the new art world! Ai Weiwei has already discovered it and because artists will not, like politicians, ignore the refugee crisis, more will follow to the island.

(The exhibition will be open from September 30 to November 11 in the Halim Bey Mansion in Mytilini)

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Sunday, 4 September 2016

August 30 – Dresskini

(A bourkini for men)

A bathing suit, I heard somebody say yesterday, makes you look old. I am already a bit old and I have worn out heaps of bikinis and some bathing suits, like the wafer-thin swimsuit in tiger print that was said to let through UV beams, but the covered parts never became the much desired golden colour. Now I am looking for a bathing suit that will make me look younger, one that will restrain my speading belly and other burgeoning parts, and make me look more streamlined. I ordered some online.

One of the bathing suits has its waist practically under my armpits and its leg holes rise so steep that my venus hill barely gets hidden. Greeks still are a bit prudish, so there's no way that I can wear this barely decent piece of clothing on a Greek beach; that is something for a clean-shaven movie star on a beach in Nice.

The second swimming costume is a real Desigual. It fits me perfectly and indeed makes me look slimmer. But on the back - where two pieces of cloth join together between the shoulder blades – is a dastardly little zipper, which can only be closed through dislocating your arms as you try to zip up. I now understand why it is called a sports model. So like a real French duchess I will have to hire a dresser to lace me up tightly into the bathing suit.

The third swimsuit was so narrow (or my behind so thick), that it could barely pass over my buttocks, nor could the shoulder straps pass my breasts. The same problem with the swimsuit-dress. I thought it a lovely invention, this swimsuit with a short skirt. In the morning I walk my dogs over the street along the sea in a baggy dress. I suppose that on the French boulevards nobody thinks twice at seeing a woman in a bikini walking her dogs, but for Greece I think even a swimsuit is not a suitable dog-walking outfit. I thought such a swimsuit-dress would be the solution: you can jump in and out of the water, later chasing the dogs on the street without offending people with your blubbery naked body. After a lot of pulling and stretching I finally managed to put it on: it looks nice on me and certainly does make me look years younger.

So it's not entirely true that a swimsuit makes you look older. Its only disadvantage is that it sits as tight as an iron corset of queen Marie Antoinette. And prevents me from moving, causing cramps within minutes so that I soon wanted to start the battle of removing it. Then I needed at least an hour, stark naked, loosening my muscles. But I made the decision to every day wrestle myself into this fancy swimsuit-dress, hoping that it would stretch. As this summer was rather hot I did this exercise only twice.

The surprise came with a little beach dress I also ordered. The bust covered in black, there then followed a skirt of colourful jungle-print, full of flowers and animals. A beautiful dress, equally suited to an outing to a mundane French restaurant. While unpacking I noticed the synthetic fabric. Bah, I should have been more careful when ordering: I don't wear synthetics in the summer heat.

A luncheon party at the beach seemed the perfect occasion to introduce this dress to my friends. It fitted me perfectly (supportive enough to give the opportunity to not wear a bra, a luxury during hot days) with the skirt fluttering around my legs. A friend felt the fabric and said that it was bathing suit material. Great! Of course: a beach dress should be made in order to challenge the sea. So I ran to the water and dived into the waves. No longer a complicated party dresses; dripping with the sea, I just reappeared at the table and before anybody could remark that I had gone for a swim, my decent dresskini was already dry

I wonder if my dresskini would have brought me any problems on the beach in Nice. Here in Greece there is no problem: old women and widows pleasantly have long chatting sessions far out in the sea, entirely dressed in black clothing. And men after fish, dive into the sea in their bourkini-for-men hunting suits, whilst heavily armed with a harpoon and a scary big knife strapped to their leg. Nobody thinks this is threatening! I think that somebody wearing a bourkini on a Greek beach would be as undisturbed as the Pappas (priests) who roam the villages in their black dresses. So you're more likely to enjoy the beach amongst Greeks than amongst those silly French, who prefer offensive naked to chastely covered.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Thursday, 25 August 2016

August 19 – Tomato-junk


'Help, tomatoes' was the name of a piece that I wrote more than ten years ago, when I was discovering Greek food. It seemed that all you ate was 'infected' with tomatoes. After all these years of eating Greek food, I have to confess that I too have become a tomato-junkie. So imagine when last week I went to the grocery store and I found only empty boxes: “Where are the tomatoes?!”, I screamed in panic.

A few weeks ago the Greeks had taken all the watermelons to the beach and the mountains of juicy green whoppers had totally disappeared. Then I congratulated the greengrocer for doing such good business. Now that the piles of watermelons are back, the boxes with tomatoes are empty. I threw the grocer an aghast look and said: “It's not possible to have a grocery store without tomatoes!”

Tomatoes rank 4th on the list of most beloved vegetables in the world (although they really are fruit). Mediterranean and Arabic countries eat the most, Greeks and Libyans being the people eating the largest amount of tomatoes. In Greece fish, meat, vegetables and pasta swim in tomato sauce, and there is the famous village salad; you will find a decorating slice here, another slice there, a vodka here, a glass of juice there and before you know you it, you are at your limit: more than 100 kg a year. While I would have thought that the pizza and spaghetti country Italy would be at top: there will be no pizza nor pasta without tomatoes.

It is unbelievable that this pretty red fruit, within one and a half centuries, has taken over a whole kitchen. Greeks were – and still are – pretty conservative with what they throw in their cooking pots. When at the beginning of the 19th century the first elegant tomato plants were introduced to the Greek gardens of monasteries and of wealthy people, no one dared to take the fruit to his mouth, because the plant belonged to the lethal belladonna family.

But the first cookbook appearing in the Greek language (translated from Italian and published in 1827 on the island Syros) already had two recipes with tomatoes (then still called pomme d'oro, golden apple): fried and halved golden apples stuffed with pieces of liver and a hand full of herbs (that really sounds yummy) and butter-baked eggs in a sauce of golden apples, onions, sardines, basil, parsley and fish sauce. But I guess in those times housewives, even if they could read, didn't use cookbooks (rather they referred to their mothers). It was only when in the South of Italy the tomato got married to pasta - in the middle of the 19th century - that tomato sauce slowly streamed into Greece, to really settle here at the beginning of the 20th century.

It is unbelievable that Holland dares to produce tomatoes: they are round and red, yes, they even resemble the golden apples, but they contain no sun, so no taste. Even though tomatoes consist for the most part of water, it is the 5 to 7% solid meat that makes the taste with more than 400 different aromatic materials, and all those love the sun, that is why the mediterranean tomatoes taste so divine. A tomato should taste sweet in the middle and a little sour near the skin. In Peru, the cradle of the tomato, they even thought the fruit had aphrodisiac powers. Maybe that is why those Greek summers are so hot, slow and long. Because all their food is spiced not only with salt, pepper and olive oil but also with this sexy fruit.

The beginning of the season had a good start thanks to the warm spring: so, excellent sweet tomatoes. Taking them in the hand you could feel they were firm and not too hard. Cutting them the juice immediately ran. A slice of such a tomato with just a bit of salt, pepper and olive oil conjured up paradise: Eve must have picked a golden apple from the tree. So I intended to make a winter stock for the freezer, cooking pure tomato sauce without any herbs and I will also dry some of them. But first I had to cook a great dinner for some friends. With my head full of ideas for tomato dishes I arrived at the grocery store. My plans evaporated as soon as I saw those empty boxes. I mean, of course you can make one dish without tomatoes, but a whole Greek dinner? Totally disillusioned I went home with an empty shopping bag, thinking so frantically about Greek dishes without those red rascals that a headache came up and I finally cancelled the dinner without tomatoes.

The next day there were just a few tomatoes in the still mostly empty boxes. I bought them all because I had heard through the grapevine that an illness had killed all the tomatoes on the island. There may be just a few tourists, but when there are no tomatoes on the fields, I will not be the only cook in trouble: how else can a Greek consume his average of one and a half times his weight in tomatoes.

Now the boxes are refilled with tomatoes. The rumour about this tomato-illness has not been confirmed. People do say so many stupid things. If you were to say that the refugees secretly come over at night from Turkey to steal our tomatoes, all the villagers will believe you. But it's really the tourists who have picked up the tomato-battle with the Greeks: they try to eat twice as much as their average weight. Because yes, there are 'some' tourists, and the happy few who are here, fully enjoy the island, sun and sea and they eat all our tomatoes!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Monday, 15 August 2016

August 12 – I ♥ Lesvos

(Beach at Faneromeni)

In my previous column I referred to the failing tourist offices in Greece. Besides beautiful posters the country has offered other attractions. Even in ancient times the Olympic Games hosted masses of people. Today athletes' biggest dream is to win an Olympic medal, only they now have to get it elsewhere. Now more and more people think it better if this traveling circus were to be permanently returned to the cradle of democracy. Many of the countries hosting the Games are left broke, because of the impossibly high cost of security and the expensive demands of the sport buildings. Watch out Brazil.

Greece had no pennies left after the Olympic Games in 2004. Most sport palaces built then at great expense have turned into glorious Greek ruins (just like the country itself, thrown by Europa into the shredder).

Greece used to be so much loved, partly thanks to Who pays the ferryman, a tv-series whose music nobody ever forgets. The movie Zorba the Greek made sure that the now world famous dance sirtaki – especially arranged for the movie - became synonymous with Greece. And who didn't pack their suitcases immediately, looking for sun, sea, love and themselves, after seeing the movie Shirley Valentine ? Marrying in Greece became 'hot' after the happy movie Mamma Mia, which showed Greece as more than a paradise. Never on Sunday already was a legendary movie, but the Muppet Show made the movie immortal with Miss Piggy playing the part, played in the film by Melina Mercouri. This cultural ambassadress of Greece, after a career of a chain smoking actress and singer, perked up Greek politics.

The newest star in the Greek firmament is Yanis Varoufakis. Last year he gained international fame as Minister of Finance because of his different opinions and self-willed behaviour during the negotiations with Europe. He was reviled by friend and enemy alike because the European Bobos thought him crazy. But now the IMF admits they then took wrong decisions and that the plans of Varoufakis were not so bad. His honour is restored and the people who then distanced themselves from him, now regroup around this professor in economy, who has founded DiEM25, to get Europe reformed with open and more righteous rules. It may be possible that this Greek hero will enter the history books as the rescuer of both Europe and Greece. If we give him a chance.

Because yes, it is quiet around Greece. The country having problems feeding both its people and the thousands of refugees stuck in the country thanks to 'successful' European politics. It is waiting for a movie about the Greek people, with a hero à la Zorba the Greek, who shares all he has left with those without house or country.

Lesvos never belonged in the Top 10 of Greek tourist attractions. But last year due to the refugees crisis, it became the most famous island of the country. And while tourists stay away, the list of VIPs visiting the island is still growing. No other Greek island has had the honor of having a visit from the Pope – I still cannot keep my eyes dry recalling this impressive event on Lesvos. Also movie stars like Susan Sarandon, Angelina Jolie, some stars of the popular Game of Thrones and artists like Ai Wei Wei, are some of the celebrities who took in the faith of the island.

I do hope that, along with all those VIPs, perhaps some location scout will have discovered what a super location the island is, with landscapes matching those of the Game of Thrones: the dry, volcanic West, the jungle like woods in the centre, picturesque villages like Vatoussa, the azure blue sea licking lonely little beaches like at Avlona, the rough and mountainous North, or the long beach of Vatera. Maybe the next tourist attractor will be as great a series as Who pays the ferryman, and will be shot on Lesvos, the island where on some Sundays you still think you are in the middle of Never on Sunday.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Thursday, 4 August 2016

July 30 – The hamam runs dry

(The hamam of Molyvos before restoration)

It is incredible to know that the Greek tourist organization has existed for more than a century. Complaints about shabby hotel rooms, an absence of (local) cooperation or any plan for the future are as old as this state institution. The Greeks think that by publishing nice pictures alone, they can entice visitors to come and add money to their economy.

There always have been tourists in the country of the Olympic Gods. In the near ancient times people traveled from far away just to see the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, to swing at music events, for discussions at theatre festivals or to gain a much wanted laurel wreath at the Olympic Games. The Games were so important that during the period that when the athletes were challenging each other, all wars were stopped in order that participants as well as spectators could have a safe journey across all regions. What a pleasure it would be to find only good news in the papers during the Brazilian Games!

Lesvos, only touched by the traveling Olympic Torch in 2004, has had its tourism somewhat delayed. In ancient times some spa guests will have showed up, but the island had no World Wonder nor important national festivals. Although Lesvos' nature already was celebrated then: it was here that Theophrastus invented botanical science and Aristoteles travelled especially to Lesvos to study its plants and zoological world (see: Aristoteles' Lagoon). Later the Romans celebrated Lesvos as the green pleasure ground of the Aegean. There then followed a long gap in the history of Lesvos' tourist history, only filled up by some travellers' diaries.

The Greek Tourist Bond does not seem to have shared the opinion of the ancient Romans. In any case, by the beginning of the 20th century most tourists only wanted to see archeological treasures, and those had long ago fallen apart on Lesvos, except for some castles here and there. Then, in the Sixties, when the first tourists wanted to keep the island a secret because they thought they had found a lost paradise, the first tourist building was opened: Hotel Delfinia in Molyvos (1961). Since then the number of visitors has been on the rise.

This year, however, the numbers have fallen dramatically because tourists are afraid of refugees, who only hang around the camps near Mytilini these days. Already plagued by the crisis, the middle class is desperate and echoes one after the other their cries of distress in the media. But the island remains incredible quiet. Time for some meditation, necessary for Greek tourism, but also for Lesvos (see Tourism in Greece).

The excursions of the big tourist operators keep on going over the same paths, some hotels have their guests sleeping in the same beds for decades and no director has any idea which touristic values are a trend. Yes, I do admit: in recent years there was no money to renovate. The crisis hovers around like a big moustachio'd maffia boss. But when a new cafe or supermarket is a success, the following year plenty of copycats will open their businesses, so there still is some money going around.

Last week the old bath house of Molyvos was reopened after years of renovation. For many people sweet memories of cleaning parties and lots of water fun will have surfaced. The hamam for a long time was the only place to bathe in the village. The luxury of bathing at home only became available at the time that the pool of Hotel Delfinia was threatened with becoming the second bath house of Molyvos.

The bathrooms have been restored to their rich old marble glory, transparent glass covers the floors and lightholes in the typical Turkish cupolas, changing rooms have been painted bright white and the taps gleam like gold. However there is no water streaming anymore, nor are the spaces filled with that mysterious steam that turns bath houses into those pleasing and exciting places: the hamam of Molyvos has been turned into a museum.

The bath house has been transformed into a jewel. But instead of shaking off the dust and taking a break from the hot sun and passing time gossiping with friends in a refreshing cloud of steam, you now can only watch, salivating over pictures of people enjoying their baths, and long for the quietness of the water or some beneficent massage. Which smart ass turned the water off?

The local information office has been retrenched to Mytilini; more than one little museum sighs with doors and windows closed under a layer of dust. The Teriade Museum that possesses, apart from paintings by Lesvos' most reknowned painter, Theophilos, works from international artists like Chagall, Matisse and Picasso, has now for years promised in vain to re-open its doors. Time and weather has been given the opportunity to damage its art works. I bet that in three years' time the Hamam of Molyvos will look the same as it has in past decades: another one of the many buildings in the village now doomed to be closed and to fall to pieces - like the customs office in the harbor of Petra, where not even a refugee boat has ever moored.

This is typical for the tourist politics on the island: self-interested people with big mouths run the world, making us miss the opportunity to enjoy how it really feels in a Turkish hamam. Therefore you have to go to Mesagros, where old bathing buildings from 1898 not only are rebuilt, but also where you can enjoy relaxing in warm water, surrounded by clouds of steam and nice scented soap.

The choice for bath houses lessens by the year on this hot spring-rich island. The hot springs of Eftalou were for years, summer and winter, a popular place to gather and bathe, it has now become more and more a no go area because of a bad service and the growing number of days when it is closed. The baths of Lisvori for years now have been abandoned after a catastrophic attempt at restoration. No Councillor lies awake because of this.

In the hundred years that the Greek tourist organization has existed, there has been no minister who has tied local tourism to a workable national plan for the future - leaving the tourism to some local potentates. It seems that we have to wait until that awful sultan from the other side comes over to make the baths ready again for a bigger public.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

July 9 – The advantage of a house full of pharaohs

(an ant)

I confess: I am a mass murderer. Each day I kill thousands of little creatures, just because they get in my way. It's their own fault, because they have attacked my house and now they are swarming all over the place: in the bathroom, the bedroom and (their favourite) - in the kitchen.

They are mini ants and when I checked them out on the internet, I found horror-like images. Look at these little monsters on a site about ants in Greece, Antweb Greece! I wonder how you could tell what kind of ant you are dealing with. Who can look such a minuscule ant right in the eyes?

I see those little dots marching through my house. You can't possibly miss them when they creep around in military convoy. These misfits are so small that I need to have my glasses on to see them, but even then: with or without glasses, head or tail cannot be discerned, let alone a frightening face with antenna.

Of the 290 species calling Greece home, the small ones are the minority. It can be a Pharaoh ant (Monomorium pharaonis), a much too beautiful name for these bullies. They are also called Sugar ants, a logical name because they love sweets. There also are the Monomarium minimum, called simply Little black ants. But I much prefer the name pharaoh. Whatever they actually are, I will call them after those legendary Egyptian rulers, one of whom - Akhenaten (1351–1334 BC) – did look so much like an ant that he could have been an ant pharaoh and gave his name to these creatures as 'big' as 2 to 3 mm.

So I have a house full of pharaohs. The whole day – heat wave or not – they are hyper active, towing invisible things, hunting delicacies and even sending scouts to my laptop, hoping to find a hidden cake there. Where do they get all that energy?
Once long ago the Greek island of Aegina was raged by a mortal disease and most of the inhabitants died. The ruling king was devastated and asked Zeus for new people. This lazy god, who had just seen a train of ants climbing into his favourite tree, changed the ants into people: the Myrmidons. They became reknowned for their endless energy and discipline and made first class soldiers. Later it was Achilles who showed them off during the siege of Troy.

In Africa there still are scary ant armies. When I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, I had nightmares about ants eating my house overnight. I am sure that the ant units mentioned in the book did not consist of warlike pharaohs (even though they too originated in Africa) but of a far more bloodthirsty species.

However, the African, warlike pharaohs of Lesvos party on the dishes waiting to be washed, break into hermetically-sealed pots of honey and jam, eat clean and dirty towels and convert each cupboard into a wriggling nightmare. I am sure that I've drunk several of them, drowned in the endless glasses of water that you are supposed to drink during the Greek heat. Those rascals are thirsty and not only rush for sweets, but also for water: so they have turned the bathtub and sink into permanent camp grounds, even though again and again I attempt to drown them with gigantic tsunamis of water

Could housing those thirsty African warlike pharaohs actually have an advantage, I ask myself desperately, each day thinking more and more about giving up. According to Werner Herzog's movie Where the Green Ants Dream, there once was an aboriginal people who believed that green ants created the world and even kept it alive (you'd better say: kept it clean). Also the American Hopi indians have a legend telling how their people once were saved by ants.

So I have legendary, thirsty, African, warlike pharaohs in my house. They can be combatted only with lemon, vinegar, dish soap or some chemical shit. The problem is that I hate to clean; but those masses of ants have forced me to become an exemplary housewife. Every bite of food now has to be followed at least by ten minutes of cleaning. So the only positive point of the invasion of these forcing-me-to-clean, legendary thirsty, African warlike pharaohs is a free home-polish course! My house has never been so shiny and clean.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016