Monday, 26 June 2017

June 26: Goodbye, Michaelis

Yamas, Michaelis
I am sure they have ouzo
in heaven
although I am not sure
if there are donkeys or any horses
grazing above the clouds

You embraced life as a free man
loving donkeys, horses and women
You were always full of crazy stories
to celebrate life and friendship
while your Greek heart
could not beat without music
and dancing
as long as something was in the glass
and the table surrounded by company

You kept on smiling
whenever crisis or human disaster struck
you would fill a glass
raise it to heaven and challenge the gods
in order to drink to a happy life
you thought that lasted forever
and then you danced the night away

Your donkeys known by the entire village
in the winter finding their food in mountains and emptying my garden
in the summer carrying the weight of tourists
while you taught them how to live as a Greek,
enjoy sun, water, food and Ambrosia

I am sure you took everything
life offered you
and now it is time
to give back that free life you lived
to rest in heaven
where you probably will raise your glass once more:
Yamas, Michaelis!

Monday, 19 June 2017

June 17 - Requiem for Vrissa

(The Gattelusi Tower near Vrissa)

I have to admit that I’ve never wandered around in the village of Vrissa, meaning that I’ve only passed through the village a hundreds of times whilst going to and from Vatera. Each time its traditional silhouette beckoned to come and discover its quiet, colourful streets, I always decided: later. Now that the earth has moved and the stones of the houses have shaken loose, it is too late. Vrissa will never again be that innocent, beautiful traditional little village.

In the Seventies the same thing happened to the village of Chalikas, at the feet of Lepetimnos. There the earthquakes triggered landslides which made the village uninhabitable. The residents were evacuated and never returned. I hope that Vrissa will not become such a ghost town and that it can be rebuilt, although I wonder if the villagers want that.

Vrissa is kind of a nomad village, having moved from one place to another place throughout its history. Once its houses stood at Cape Fokas, later the people flourished at the banks of the Almyra river, from where it moved to its actual place. The cause of the village relocating from one place to another can be easily guessed. The temple of Dionysos that once attracted people to Cape Fokas, and now left with just one pillar gesturing to the sky, was completely destroyed by natural disasters, or was it war?

Vrissa was surrounded by stone factories, where they transformed mined ignimbrite into bricks. Most houses of Vrissa were built with these stones. On Lesvos you will see various local styles, like that of Pterounda where special nice crafted bricks can be seen in some of the walls of the houses and it was explained to me that they were fabricated locally. Lesvos with its volcanic history has plenty of building materials, although I wonder how steady they are. According to Wikipedia: “Ignimbrites are made of a very poorly sorted mixture of volcanic ash (or tuff when lithified) and pumicelapilli, commonly with scattered lithic fragments.”

Even before the earthquakes the walls and roofs of these factories were in a poor state, so I guess it was a long time ago that their chimneys blew smoke into the air. I wonder if these Vrissian icons are still standing, or have they met the same fate as the village, falling into pieces, and finally finding a place in dusty history books.

Not far from the village is the Paleopirgos, a watchtower built by the Gattelusi family that reigned the island for about a century from 1355 on. From pirate roots, the Gattelusi became kings and they fortified the castles of Molyvos and Mytilini and built several watchtowers in order to defend themselves against other pirates. Who knows how far into the land Vrissa was then, because in those times nobody without fortification walls and castles dared to live close to the coast risking being slaughtered by those sea bullies. Will you still see this impressive tower from the road passing from Vrissa to Vatera?

The most known attraction of the village was situated in the old school: the Natural History Museum. There is not much left of this eccentric and interesting museum. It housed the bones of prehistoric animals found in the area and that of Gavathas. They have already survived so many earthquakes that I do not fear for their well being; but I do for that of the plant fossils and animal skeletons and other things in the display cabinets and, of course, the building itself, now scattered into millions of pieces. The bones can be dug up again.

Also all street dogs have mysteriously disappeared from the village. Apart from two. Street dog Liza used to hang around the museum and will not move from its shattered remains. Instead of by visitors, she now is patted by the rescue people and those that have started cleaning the village. The only caretaker of the museum keeps on feeding her. The other dog that did not want to leave the shattered village was the dog of the one person that was killed by the earthquake (a mother of 43). He dug into the debris looking for her and once she was found he did not want to move and could only cry. They had to remove him to an animal shelter.

Lesvos has many traditional villages like Vrissa, each one with its own history, all marked by time and every one is an important historical monument. Now there is one pearl less on the island. It is a pity that it was the eldest houses, those telling most of the stories, that were the first victims of the earthquakes. Lots of houses, churches and other buildings in Plomari, Polichnitos, Lisvori, Akrasi and other villages have been severely damaged. And so time is devouring another piece of history.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Sunday, 11 June 2017

June 7 – Help: a queen!

(A camel spider)

Summer can be lovely but it also has its dark sides, sometimes even creepy sides, like scary insects and other small creepy-crawlies. My biggest nightmare is the Camel spider (Solifugae). You won't come across him daily, but yesterday I found a dead one lying outside my front door and I went nuts: where did this moron came from?

Two summers ago I saw at least five of those creepy spiders, one of them climbing on my screen door, probably looking for a tiny hole to break into the house. Imagine if such a monster were to succeed in hiding behind your computer, or to crawl under a cushion on the couch just to watch tv, or if it were to take a nap under your sheets. The very thought of any of these things makes me panic, just as I was so horrified when I saw one of these creeps hanging onto my screen door. I rushed to the bathroom, took whatever spray I could grab hold of and sprayed the monster dead. A friend had to save me from the (dead) spider, and finding the camel spider so interesting, he decided to keep it and put it in a glass box where it remained until now (the hairspray having done such a good job of preserving it).

As far as I know, in Greece camel spiders do not get any bigger than 10 to 15 cm. In Afghanistan and other desert-like countries – where these spiders belong – stories go that the wind scorpions (another name for them) can be double that size and can easily dig a huge hole in the belly of a camel. Scientists defend them saying that they are not poisonous, even though the bite of this monster hurts enormously. I will make a detour of any size in order not to meet such a sun spider (this creep with eight legs, that officially even isn't a spider, has lots of names). If you have seen one, more will follow, so I will be more on guard this summer.

I am not afraid of the jumping grasshoppers. As long as they do not land on my arms or, for sure, on my nose. But they are catastrophically gluttonous. Two weeks ago, on the neighbouring island of Ai Stratis, a state of emergency was declared because of a grasshopper plague of biblical dimension. I am wondering if they might come to Lesvos, once they have completely stripped that little island. The very first colourful messengers – already quite an army – have landed in my strawberry plants, and eaten the leaves and tasted the fruit. Some of them, having had enough of the strawberries, have jumped onto my roses, even though there they have competition from lice, beetles and mildew.

There are also entire armies of mini ants, making the kitchen and the pantry into battle fields. These don't scare me too much, but they too can constitute another huge plague. I make enormous efforts not to drop a single crumb for them and seal away all the sweets. The popular jar with honey in it I put in a bowl with water, hoping to save it from the ants. But this lovely sweet-water pond is now used for swimming lessons: and the most successful ants have reached the jar of honey. So now I have to create an enormous wavy ocean around it, if I do not want to share the honey with these nasty rascals.

Then I got 'royalty' visiting me. For years now, a gigantic wasp, a Hornet-Queen, has succeeded in penetrating my house and even though I throw her out as an unwanted guest, early each summer she tries exactly three times to come for a coffee. Maybe she is less scary than she looks; but, like the sword of Damocles, she hangs from the ceiling right above my head, screeching loudly as if she was on a soap box in Speakers' Corner, making it impossible or me to work. But I refuse to let her chase me out of my house. From a decent distance I spend long hours waiting for her to come down from the ceiling, so that I can catch her with a glass and a whisk and remove her from the house. In a way I should be honoured with this regal visit, because it's impossible that each year it is the same queen (that would make her over ten years old!). I wonder if I am part of the traditions around the coronation celebrations: she may only be crowned if she invades my house three times and get thrown out three times without damage.

Overall, I am pretty tired of it all: scared because of the camel spider, sad because of my sick roses, desperate because of not knowing how to stop the grasshoppers eating my garden, tired of my fights against the armies of ants and having to be constantly alert for a secret fourth mission by the Queen. But before you know it, I will be relaxed again: gone will be all offenders, but then too the summer will be gone.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Saturday, 3 June 2017

27 mei – Love related


Every year, before the summer really starts, I spend hours in the grocery store, not knowing what to chose because most crates are empty: the cabbages have perished, green salads are finally flowering, all the beans have been picked and it's still some time before the tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines and the zucchini can be harvested from the gardens.

A vegetable easy to preserve and what I previously thought of as a winter vegetable, is filling the gaps of all those vegetables not yet ready for summer: beetroots! Cucumber and tomatoes are synonymous with Greek cooking, and not many people will believe me when I say beetroots also belong to the Greek kitchen. This vegetable even had its cradle in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea.

According to old Assyrian writings beetroots were present in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In ancient times Egyptians and Greeks just ate the green stalks; it was the Romans who discovered the culinary side of the tuber. Greeks preserved the tubers for the gods and offered them in Delphi to Apollo, their weight counted in silver (turnips in gold). Aphrodite must have eaten tonnes of them because she believed it was beetroots that kept her beauty and lust for love alive. No wonder the Romans later thought beetroots to have aphrodisiac power. Even the walls of a brothel in Pompeij were covered with paintings of beetroots. There still is a belief that when two persons eat from the same beetroot, they will fall in love. And when in ancient times you ‘went to the beetroot fields’, it meant you were visiting the whores. Montgomery still used this expression during World War Two, sending his soldiers not only to the Killing Fields, but also to the beetroot fields.

The beetroots on the plates of the Greeks and Romans in ancient times were not like the ones we eat now, rather more like a kind of wild spinach (the plant that was the precursor of the beetroot). That might explain why their leaves still taste like spinach. Moreover, the tubers were black or white. I am wondering how it is that through time the beetroots got their red color. Was it through the Crusaders having brought them from the battlefields drenched in blood? It was only in the Middle Ages that the red beetroots turned up in the European kitchens.

There are masses of beetroot recipes. The oldest surviving cookbook, De re Coquinaria, by the Roman cook Apicius has two recipes for beetroots. The classical Greek recipe for beetroots is (just like all other Greek dishes) very simple: they are cooked and served with their green leaves, sprinkled with olive oil, lemon or vinegar. You may eat them together with a garlic dip (skordalia).
I was very happy when last week I was served a new salad in my favorite Greek restaurant Meltemi in Skamnioudi: grated beetroots with nuts and a dressing that I cannot yet identify. My other favorite beetroot salad is served in Majoram (Molyvos) where besides traditional Greek they also serve fusion food and salads that are like mountains, only to be eaten by more than one set of knife and fork.

This week when I cooked beetroots, I was wondering how to dress them: I still had those grated beetroots in mind, so I decided to give them a go. But where to get nuts? It was too late to crack walnuts or to crush almonds and peel them. Then I saw a pot of serundeng, a leftover from an Indonesian meal. Nuts! And coconut? Why not. I mixed two tablespoons with mayonnaise, one tea spoon honey and three tablespoons of serundeng and put it over the rasped beetroots: divine!

In ancient times and in the Middle Ages there was a strong belief in the medicinal benefits of beetroots. Modern food gurus now confirm how healthy it is to eat them. Before the tomato-madness breaks out, I will be cooking plenty of these undervalued, purple-red tubers. Greece is not only the country of tsatsiki and choriatiki, but also of these by Aphrodite so much appreciated pantsaria (beetroots).

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Sunday, 21 May 2017

May 17 – The Pollen Blues

(Olive flowers)

It’s not always easy to live in nature and especially under the trees. In spring you have to cut back weeds as numerous as hay in a stack and hack away at nature that wants to invade you. You would think that the paved parts of the garden would not need as much work: just a sweep of a broom and you’re done. Well, forget that, if you have black locust trees. They produce creamy white, lovely scented flowers, a real treat for the hundreds of buzzing bees; but when the flowering is over, the misery starts.

No broom can keep up with a black locust tree that is losing its flowers: you will find them everywhere on the ground, the garden furniture, in your clothes and hair. And if you think that this will only be a problem for a few days – you’d be wrong: it might take weeks before you can sit down on a chair without first having to clean away locust-flowers.

What’s worse is that there are even more trees around the house whose leafy branches provide cool shade in the summer, but in spring cause a real plague. Take the olive trees surrounding the garden. Generally people only think of their friendly silvery green leaves and the golden oil produced. But when they come out of their hibernation and are in bud and forming new branches, they produce hundreds of thousands of tiny yellow-white flowers (an adult tree can have as many as 500,000). And those blossoms also produce tonnes of pollen. The perfume industry loves those flowers, filling elegant little bottles with expensive scented liquid. But I’m not at all happy with these blossoms, because they too have to fly free from the tree – just at the moment when the black locusts have finished shedding their flowers. And no broom can compete with the fall of olive flowers: once you finish sweeping the far end of the terrace, you just have to start anew at the beginning.

It’s not just the unwanted flower carpet that annoys, there is also the pollen that colours all the plants yellow and is a danger to health. The pollen of the olive tree is transported by wind and insects to the place of fertilization, but can also end up in your nose. It all depends on how sensitive you are, but olive pollen rank high on the list of allergies and that is why it is forbidden to plant new olive trees in Amman, the capital of Jordan.

Another tree high on the allergy-list is the pine, and yes, there are also some of them around the house. I must admit that pine trees do not deposit as many shitty flowers. Pine trees have cones that are responsible for propagation. The female cones are woody and fall with the seeds of the trees in autumn, while the male ones – much smaller – are herbaceous and fall from the tree after making the pollen in the spring. That yellow powder is spread by the wind and the female cones know how to manipulate the pine needles in order to create an airstream bringing the pollen exactly were it is needed. Well, part of it – because the other part covers my plants, terrace etc.

By the way, this transport of pollen can produce impressive visual effects. Once, when looking over the pine woods above Parakila, I thought I saw a wild fire. By observing it longer it turned out to be pollen, that in dense sulfur-coloured clouds, rose from the trees, turning and dancing in the air, before descending gently between the pine needles. A rain shower can shoot down all that pollen, turning the roads in olive groves and pine woods yellow, a phenomenon I once thought was a kind of earth pollution

The Greeks fear such a cooling rain shower, because the water can wash away the pollen. So I am not sure if I should be thanking the gods for the refreshing shower we got today. My garden is finally a bit cleaner, but that rain might have also abruptly finished the fertilization rituals of the olive trees. The Greeks, who are nearly entirely economized away by Europa, have the little that they have left mostly due to nature, like chorta (wild vegetables), their vegetable gardens and the products of the olive trees (and here I mean olives and olive oil). So perhaps I’d better sing these pollen blues in silence, nor will I mention that I probably discovered the cause of my recurrent springtime sinusitis: pollen.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Sunday, 14 May 2017

May 8 – The Big Five of Lesvos

(Yellow Rhododendron)

You will find The Big Five in many variations. The most known is the Safari-Big-Five, originally the five most difficult to kill animals in Africa: buffalo, lions, leopards, rhinoceros and elephants. We don't have any of those animals on Lesvos. But the Lesvorian novel Daphne & Chloe by the writer Longus shines amidst the Big Five of Great Greek Novels: Kallirhoë by Chariton, Ephesiaka by Xenophon of Efese, Leukippe en Kleitophon by Achilles Tatios and Aethiopica by Heliodoros of Emessa. I must admit that I have never heard about these novels (except that of Longus). It is because Wikipedia says it is so.

There is no Big Five of Lesvos on Wikipedia, but I have invented my own. The list starts with the almond, apple and pear blossoms. In Japan they have huge celebrations during the flowering of the cherry trees. Lesvos should take that as an example: because when part of the island is covered in pink almond clouds, the atmosphere is as magic as at the cherry blossom festival in Japan. As soon as the new year begins you see the buds of the almond swell and open, continuing well into February, even though Winter still reigns the island. The sweet perfume is pure happiness for the nose and the ears are spoiled with a free concert from the bees who noisily awake from their hibernation. Almond blossoms are followed by the wild apple and pear blossoms, both of which lay a delicate carpet of lace over many darkened mountain sides, another memorable spectacle.

The second group of the Big Five of Lesvos are next to emerge from their buds: from February onwards (until June) wild orchids start flowering, having about hundred species on the island. Many of them are rather small, some just a few centimeters, like the cute little sicula (Ophrys sicula), one of the first to appear. One of the biggest – also an early bird – is the Giant Orchid (Himantoglossum robertianum), that can reach up to one meter in height. Orchids love to look like insects, in order to attract them and each species has its own insect. Sometimes things go wrong: maybe due to an imperfect disguise or a stupid bee, and sometimes the wrong bee will end up on the wrong flower and this way a new species of orchid can be created, an unicum in the world of plants. In the past a drink was made from orchid bulbs, salep, mostly consumed instead of coffee. In order to protect orchids, making salep now is forbidden in Europe. But such a potent giving drink is difficult to remove entirely from a culture, so here and there you may find this powerful drink, although there are no longer masses of people hunting orchid bulbs in order to warm their hearts or perform better in bed.

By December and continuing into January colourful anemones revive the fields. When every shade of white, pink and purple had their turn, the red ones come, as the precursor of the red flood; because as the red anemones fade away, the poppies take over in April and May. Fields with many coloured anemones are pretty, but the poppies who paint entire fields in bright blood red are the real champions. Their performance, resembling the famous tulip fields in Holland, may well melt your heart and seeing a single bright red poppy amidst yellow and purple flowers can definitely accelerate your heartbeat. Every year it's worth repeating the divine adventure of roaming over the island to be continuously surprised by these papavers, whose bright colours dominate the landscape for weeks.

On the neighbouring island of Chios there are tulip fields, just like in Holland (and just like the Lesvorian poppy fields). There they are called by the musical name 'Lalades'. On Lesvos there are not as many tulips and – as far as I know – they do not have such a pretty name. They flower on high mountain slopes, mostly well hidden by other flowers, like on Mt Lepetimnos, high above Agiasos and Agra, or close to Klapados, with the exception of one place, between Vrissa and Vatera, where thousands of them, well hidden on a steep slope, expose their petals amidst grey pine trees, and create a fairy tale scene. These are the Tulipa undulatifolia, beautiful red tulips with frivolous undulated leaves. I now can perfectly imagine how there once was a vivid commerce in those bulbs: wandering across that part of the forest leaves you with such respect for the beauty of nature.

The fifth 'must-see' on the island also takes your breath away: the yellow Rhododendron
(rhododendron luteum). They throw themselves from the top of the mountain Ilias (above Parakila). Driving along creepy steep slopes, across an endless dim pine forest, lit up here and there by some orchids, you will come across the yellow rivers of flowers descending the dark slopes. And after each bend in the road you'll meet another river shining bright between the dark trees and the enormous rocks that were placed there millions of years ago by volcanos. This is the only place in Europe where you can enjoy their intoxicating honey sweet perfume, which is not necessarily without risks. Once upon a time, when an army was retreating through Turkey and they had to fed themselves with whatever they could forage, they found a tasty honey and ate and ate and ate. During the night all the men became very ill and fell unconscious. They were lucky that there had been no enemy around and so they survived. Later on scientists worked out that they must have eaten honey made from the yellow Rhododendron.

Of course there are other beautiful or rare flowers to be found on Lesvos. But if there will be a Big Five of flowers on Lesvos, these are the plants you really have to see in their natural habitat: clouds of almond blossoms, wild orchids, the poppy fields, hidden tulips and the rivers of the yellow Rhododendrons.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Saturday, 29 April 2017

April 25 – Boat stories

(The Bellatrix in Petra)

Yesterday was a black day for the island, when at least 16 refugees drowned during a failed crossing from Turkey to Lesvos. Only two women were fished out of the cold water, one of them pregnant. Now though the blue sea smiles at me, pretending to be innocent, but I know that she remains a dangerous thing, and not only for refugees.

Lesvos used to have mighty fleets with fishing and transport ships, with important commerce overseas (Plomari only once had a fleet of more than 200 cargo ships). There were various places on the island where you could buy new boats; the ship yards of Plomari were famous for a special kind of boat: trechantiria. Wooden boats, of course, the craft of building them going from father to son. Nowadays ships are made of different materials and the traditional fleet of wooden vessels shrinks by the day. Also European laws seem to militate against traditional built boats.

The shipyards of the island suffer with the same history. Only in Skala Loutron will you see boats docked. But that is for reparation or maintenance, because who is interested in having a new wooden boat? In Plomari, Sigri or Skala Loutron you might see, now and then, a ship simply docked in the street. There are plenty of islanders still having the skill to keep those old rigs going.

Entire forests used to be cut for the ships. And, until not long ago, the resin from pine trees was tapped and used amongst other things to waterproof the boats. All those industries have gone and even though Greece still has a leading role in international shipping, the huge tankers and container ships are not made of wood anymore, nor produced in Lesvos.

Maybe Lesvos tried one last time to compete with its neighbour Chios (where most of the mighty Greek shipping families come from): in 1972 NEL Lines was founded, a socialist company where all islanders could buy a share. The company grew and was one of the regular ferry services sailing the Aegean Sea with 8 ships. But the new century and her crisis only brought misery. The ships grew old and now they no longer even serve their home island. Last week, one of their ships, the Virgin Mary of Paros, sank in the Spanish harbour of Algeciras. Since 2012 this ship was chartered by a Moroccan company to serve as a ferry between the cities of Tarifa and Tangier. But the ship was too big and was latterly anchored in the harbour of Algeciras, where it remained because then Nell Lines already had plenty of problems. During the last few years all their big passengers ferries - Mytilene, Taxiarchis, Theofilos and European Express – were taken out of service and now you can only see the Kenteris I, II en III speeding somewhere over the Aegean waves.

The sea between the coasts of Eftalou and Turkey is not only dangerous for refugees. Somewhere in the middle a mountain peak under water, like a treacherous, invisible iceberg, reaches to the surface and many a boat has been trapped there.

Last February the 17th: the Togo registered Bellatrix, belonging to a Turkish company, did not pay attention and BANG, a collision with the famous peak stopped the boat in the middle of the sea. After the cargo of grain – destination Izmir – was loaded onto other ships and the emergency services got the boat floating again, it had to go to Petra, to undergo some repair and wait until the Greek authorities thought the ship was fit enough to continue its journey. Now, either the boat has lots of failures, or its captain rather likes to watch football, because the fact is that only two months previously, on December 4, 2016, the Bellatrix also got stranded, this time in the Russian Azov Sea, nearby Yeysk.

I presume the Greek authorities must also have some doubts, because the boat still only moves (when the salt and war ships need to dock) between the port of Petra and the middle of the bay. Now the rusty ship almost seems to belong to the landscape. Had this have happened in Holland, there would be plenty of entrepreneurs grasping a chance to open up a brilliant business: what a marvellous place to have a cafe or restaurant - it's huge deck offering a splendid view over Petra and Molyvos. But here in Greece, where having a business means years of fighting against an opaque wall of rules, you can forget about such a project. In Greece, so lumbered by its crisis, it is a nightmare to start a business, especially an unusual one. So the Bellatrix continues to float around: wasting money instead of earning money - until, just like the Virgin Mary of Paros, it sinking to the bottom of the Aegean Sea.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Monday, 17 April 2017

April 14 – A mad neighbour

(Turkey seen from Eftalou)

Spring is in the air and everywhere they mop, sweep, paint, mow, prune and brush: Lesvos slowly enters a new season full of surprises. Once again a new ferry connection between Petra and Turkey has been announced (at the moment there is only one, between Mytilini and Turkey). This has happened so often that everybody just thinks: “ I’ll believe it when I see it”. Moreover the much wanted ferry is not coming at a fortuitous moment: German and Dutch people are not particularly welcome on the other side of the Aegean. The Turkish ‘Sultan’ is looking for troubles with the island, as proven by daily violations of Greek airspace by Turkish fighter jets, with the biggest provocation being a Turkish helicopter flying above Mytilini for some minutes.

As far as I know the Greeks – if they do not have any connection with the Gülen-movement – can shop what they want in Turkey without being afraid. I’ve not heard of any Greek having an account at the wrong bank in Turkey and now cannot return home (like it happened to tens of Dutch/Turkish and German/Turkish people who are not allowed to go back to Holland or Germany anymore). Not all Turks seem to be afraid of the tensions created by the Sultan because they still come to visit Lesvos. Although I wonder which people they are, who still get issued a visa allowing them to travel abroad.

The Sultan would love to occupy this beautiful island (and others lying close to Turkey’s coast). Millions of years ago Lesvos was attached to the country that flies the red flag with a shrinking moon and a star. The remains of dinosaurs and mammoth-like elephants prove that Lesvos once belonged to a mainland. Much later mighty Ottomans ruled the island for a few centuries. That is right. But they ruled from an enormous empire that stretched as far as the Arabian countries up to Israel/Palestine. Those countries the Sultan has not claimed yet, has he? And has Mister Sultan forgotten his history? Before the Ottoman empire, plenty of Turkish regions were inhabited by Hellenic people (that is why there are so many Greek temples in Turkey). But we already knew that the Sultan is not good in history.

Just like Bashar Al-Assad is ruling his beautiful country with I-do-not-know-what-kind-of craziness, the Sultan also seems to be leading his country towards a steep ravine. More and more tourists no longer feel comfortable in Turkey, thousands of people, not to the Sultan’s taste, have been arrested, bank accounts are frozen and the economy wavers. Maybe the Sultan no longer knows how to get Syrian people to make the dangerous crossing on leaking dinghy's towards Europe, if he continues like this there may soon be another refugee fleet of creaky boats coming to the island this time with Turkish people.

Of course there always have been tensions between Greece and Turkey. This is nothing new. For example it has not always been possible for tourists to make the crossing from the Greek islands to Turkey. The atmosphere depends on the rulers and for sure the Sultan is now steering towards a pretty dangerous horizon. It wouldn’t take much to happen and the ferry line between Petra and Turkey can be closed again.

It was not that bad living under Ottoman rule. Due to its great nautical and mercantile traditions Lesvos earned lots of privileges and became one of the wealthier areas in the Levant, doing business in a great part of the world, trading in olive oil, soap, wine and ships. When the Greek flag again was raised on the island, the wealth melted like ice in the sun and lots of factories and impressive houses now remain only as silent witnesses of this golden century of Lesvos.

A few years ago Lesvos became one big geopark (Unesco), but that has not brought masses of tourists, as it has to the Nature Parks of the United States, and so ‘new times’ of great economy – (partly because of the Greek crisis) has not come. Additionally there are people that think that refugees are still hiding all over the island behind the great tapestry of flowers the red poppies, the pink tamarisks, the many coloured anemones, the blankets of orchids. Yet, when you climb up green Olympus and cast your eye along the capricious coasts of the Gulfs of Yera and Kalloni, when you become enchanted in the mountains above Plomari or clean your spirit on the deserted beaches around Sigri, you will not meet a single soul (meaning also no refugees).

Were I ever to become Sultan, I would immediately take Lesvos and make it a private island. All ingredients for a paradise are here: mysterious caves, gurgling waterfalls, steep mountains with jungle-like vegetation, all the fruit you could wish for and everything surrounded by the wonderful blue Aegean sea. The Turkish mainland boarding the Aegean is growing, so with a bit of time, the Sultan will not even have to move one finger before Lesvos will be touching Turkish soil. Although, that will take lots of patience because the land is growing at only about 1 mm a year. That the country is shifting is proven by all the earthquakes felt in the Lesvorian region, whose epicenters are mostly to be found in Turkey.

Long before that will occur, the island is entering a new season. Spring has been late, yet came pretty hastily when she decided to come, causing an explosion of flowers. The island is now at her prettiest, even though there are regions which are clearly too dry for this time of the year and are not so generous with flowers as other years.

But Lesvos is rich with water sources and will not be quickly defeated by the warming up of the earth. Just as the inhabitants keep on combatting the crisis. After all bad things that have happened the island has now been given a present, and this from the Sultan. Tourists who do not want to go to Turkey may venture out and to look for new holiday destinations under the same sun, and of course the new ferry line from the most touristic region of Lesvos to the country of the Sultan, where a Greek temple and the twin sister of Molyvos, Assos, are waiting. Or could this new ferry line bring hundreds of Turkish tourists to the island? Let's hope that this will then not turn out to be a Trojan horse.

(Last week came also the announcement of a new ferry line, a fast one, between Mytilini and Dikili)

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Monday, 27 March 2017

March 23 – The Gauguin of Lesvos

(from Theophilos; photo: internet)

Greece 1965. That summer the country was experiencing a political crisis - the king having dismissed the socialist government. Setting up a new one caused demonstrations and riots in Athens. Amidst this chaos a large delegation of art lovers and some foreign consuls made their way to the island of Lesvos: on August 29th the Theophilos Museum would be opened in Varia, a little town now better described as a suburb of Mytilini.

The whole idea for this museum started with the friendship between a neurologist and an art book publisher, both coming from the same island as Theophilos. Angelos Katakouzenos was born in 1904 in Mytilini and went to France to study psychiatry. In 1925 he met Stratis Eleftheriade (Teriade), a Lesvorian who lived in the midst of the fancy art scene in Paris. Katakouzenos was also an art lover and many Parisian nights were spent in discussions about Picasso, Miro, Chagall, Matisse and others.

When, after ten years, Katakouzenos returned to Athens, he saw the work of Theophilos Chatzemichael and introduced this folklore artist to his friend Teriade, who also immediately liked the charming and colourful work of the artist. Theophilos had been crazy about history and often dressed up like Alexander the Great, but he had also warmly reproduced rural scenes where farmers and other countryfolk toiled: the Gauguin of Lesvos.

A year after Theophilos' death, in 1934, Teriade exhibited some of Theophilos' works in that temple of all musea: the Louvre. Katakouzenos began to dream about a museum on Lesvos and persisted in reminding Teriade about this project, but the Second World War and the following civil war in Greece made it impossible. Every week, together with his wife Leto, Katakouzenos received artists, writers and other art lovers in his living room in Athens. In 1947 he exhibited some of the works of Theophilos, but not all Greeks were happy with this event: ‘He hauled a communist into his house’ and more than a few despised this folkloric art. But Katakouzenos' belief in the powerful and picturesque images of Theophilos remained strong – thinking his work was as good as the work of all those Parisian stars. It was as late as the turbulent summer of 1965 that his and Teriade’s project finally became reality.

Nowadays the museum is pretty well hidden in ever-expanding Varia, where villa after villa creeps up the mountain. It is in an idyllic little park, right next to the museum of Teriade that was created in 1979. It houses his bulk of 'his' masterpieces, like the art magazine Verve, huge themed books with beautiful work by renowned artists like Picasso, Matisse and Miro. Also the Lesvorian shepherd novel by Longus, Daphne and Chloe got a new life in an edition with colourfull images by Marc Chagall.

While Katakouzenos' name became big in the neurological world, Teriade became a famous publisher who was not afraid of the modernising artworld, but stimulated it further by publishing his revolutionary books. Although I intended to only spend time seeing the works of Theophilos, I was deeply moved by the greatness of this Verve serie, where lots of artists showed their work, but it also is a great testament to that experimental art world. Theophilos never made it into a Verve publication, but he did get his own room in the Teriade Museum, just next to all these other world famous artists.

The Theophilos museum has been closed for years for renovation. Both drought and moisture have damaged part of his works and only half of the collection has remained in Lesvos, the others are in Athens for restoring. About one and a half years ago, without much of a notice, the museum reopened. It is impressive to stand right in front of Theophilos' work. The many humorous details turn some of the works into comic strips. The museum before closing was also like a big comic book, with the works hung very close to each other. Now there are fewer works and more space: a pity, because just as Theophilos' images are so full and rich, so was the former exhibition.

Part of Theophilos' work was painted on the walls of cafenions. In exchange for a dinner, a glass of wine and a place to sleep Theophilos pepped up many a room, especially around Volos, where he lived for some years, as well as on Lesvos. Most of these fresco's have been lost due to the weather, earthquakes and lack of care. Thanks to his patron Giannis Kontos, Theophilos lived for some years in a house in Anakasia, neaby Volos, where he decorated the walls with colourful historical events. Nowadays the Kontos House is also a Theophilos Museum. But it is mainly thanks to the friendship between two Lesvorians, who introduced him to the world at large, that an important part of Theophilos work has not been lost.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Monday, 13 March 2017

March 11 – Via Mytilini


The Dutch writer Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer lives in the Italian town of Genoa, in his documentary Via Genua he refers to it as an African town. It is a new world where immigrants and local inhabitants have to make a life together. This is also our life and our future, because the flow of immigrants cannot be stopped. European history shows one flow of refugees after the other: most of our ancestors came from many different areas.

Lately, Lesvos has been in the news because of the tens of thousands of refugees that landed upon its shores. But although you can reimagine Genoa as an African city, Lesvos really cannot be considered a refugee island. There are plenty of people here who have left their own country, but they remain mainly in and around the camps near Mytilini. The capital of the island stretches out from two different harbours and is still full of signs of the once ruling Ottomans. Now it has been promoted from a provincial to an international town. Not only refugees from all over the world, but also a colourful assortment of rescuers walk its narrow streets and populate its various cafes and restaurants. Even so, Mytilini is still not Genoa: Greek life continues its traditional way, with students filling the cafes and gypsies begging for an euro. But the street crowds are more varied than before and more foreign businesses are opening their doors, like a Syrian restaurant. And a Russian shop, mainly visited by Russian citizens, has already been there for years.

For sure, things are changing. A large number of people have found jobs in one of the many NGO's or set up little shops around the perimeter of the refugee camps at Moria and Kara Tepe. The camps house thousands of people, who have to drink, eat and be clothed. This is big business, although I don't know specific numbers. When passing the camps, the large number of parked cars gives the impression that there are as many rescuers and business people, as there are refugees.

There are many rescuers for whom this is now a way of life. Who doesn't know the 27 years old Malaysian gourmand Rayyan Haries who, after seeing the tragic death of Alan Kurdi, jumped onto a plane (like many of the rescuers who then came to help) and set up a cooking unit at the north shores of Lesvos where most of the refugees landed. After the biggest flows were over he returned home but could not forget the island: this winter his broad smile (and food) once again lit up the different camps. His slogan: food is hope.

Not long ago I read the beautiful book The bone sparrow of the Australian writer Zana Fraillon. Even though her story is fiction, it provides an impressive look into the life in a refugee camp, where the biggest enemy is boredom.
To combat this, in the camps of Lesvos there are playing hours for the children, different courses taught and regularly organized days out. One of the biggest challenges, whilst waiting for months, is to lead a human worthy life. Two boys from Syria are, as far as I know, the first vloggers of the island. The twin brothers show the daily life and its problems with a nice humorous touch: meet Basel & Murad in Moria.

And so Lesvos also enters the new world, with refugees, vloggers and rescuers. But like everywhere it is only the capital embracing the modern world. The rest of the island still takes a back seat, leaning towards the Middle Ages, with anarchistic farmers still do what their ancesters did, although with a mobile in their hand; the car has replaced the donkey, but the traffic rules seem unchanged and the fishermen still go out to sea in small wooden and rickety boats.

Not all of Italy is under the spell of refugees, nor is all of Lesvos full of refugees. New initiatives and the modern world slowly seeps into the streets of Mytilini, whilst the rest of the island remains its old traditional self and still a piece of Greece that's becoming more and more rare.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Monday, 6 March 2017

March 5 – Cemetery of Fan Mussels

(A little part of the Cemetery of Fan Mussels)

Lent has started, meaning that the Greeks will try not to eat meat, nor fish having blood vessels. They throw themselves on vegetables and shellfish. The two lungs of the island of Lesvos, the Gulfs of Kalloni and Yera, are blessed with a rich variety of shellfish: oysters, mussels, clams and many others. Those are the small ones, but in the muddy bottom lurk monstrous ones — the fan mussel (Pinna nobilis) can grow to over one meter and they can manage to live up to twenty years.

I love eating shellfish, but cooked. Which is contrary to the Greek way, they just like oysters and other shellfish to slide raw from the shell into the mouth, with just a few drops of lemon juice (which goes over nearly all food). Seeing such enormous mussels, as a gourmand, you wonder how big is the animal that made the shell grow and how he would taste. I am pretty sure that they should belong in the Top Five of Tasty Shellfish, but no chance: they are an endangered species and are forbidden to be collected. Even though we stumble over masses of those huge shells on various beaches along the Gulf of Kalloni; elsewhere they are considered rare.

Last year we were served pinna-balls in a restaurant. According to the cook they were made of those forbidden-to-collect shellfish (but they could have been easily made with other shellfish). I was a little disappointed with their taste, maybe because I also had a portion of those delightful scallops. So I will not ask for pinna-balls again, in order not to stimulate an illegal eating culture.

Yesterday was the first warm spring day of the year and we drove to Anemomilos, a hill behind Skala Loutron, covered with gigantic villas (no Greek crisis there), and with stunning views over the blue Gulf of Yera. A little beach seduced us down to the motionless water and it was so hot that I was tempted to undress and have a swim in the transparent water that without any wrinkle gave an overwhelming view on colourful little stones and shells. I was being a little optimistic and only my feet touched the water.

A little further on, over some rocks, there was another little beach where big silver sardines tried to push each other in order to reach the beach. Coming closer, in fact they were no sardines enjoying a day out, it looked more like a cemetery of fan mussels, lying like rusting skeletons in the water, their mother of pearl points sparkling in the sunlight. What a sad sight, additionally because many of them were pretty big. Could they have been doing a collective suicide, like dolphins or whales sometimes do? The question has not left my thoughts.

Coming home I read on Face Book an article about sea silk (in Dutch, from Luc Lakeman, Blue Yard Hub). I totally forgot that those beautiful big mussels can close their shells shut with their hair (just think about those nasty hairballs you have to remove in order to open a mussel). These hairs are the sea silk and the material used for some exclusive and expensive clothing items.

It made me fantasize further about the ‘cemetery’ and I wondered if there was somebody on the island seeing potential for a little sea silk business. A beginner who has not figured out how to harvest sea silk whilst keeping the fan mussel alive. The harvest should be made by divers cutting under water some of the hairs (not all). Then the threads can be washed and dried before the spinning.

Those giant mussels also can produce pearls, although not of a high quality (there is a big chance that they will have burst). But I presume for treasure hunters it might be a kind of business. Could there have been somebody spending a day on that lovely little beach destroying fan mussels in order to find pearls?

Luc Lakeman himself came with a more realistic answer to this riddle: probably some boats anchored there, destroying a whole village of fan mussels. I can pretty well imagine that, because the little beaches are right in front of a little island with a bright white little church on it: a dream of a setting for a picnic or a little outing. Lesvos should create a better awareness of these valuable shells, that elsewhere are hard to find. But now I am wondering about throwing out your anchor—how can you know what is at the bottom of the sea? It might be an idea for a new app.

It was a splendid day. I should have dived into the water, looking for pearls. One of those many shells must have had some. But then I had to trample them even more, what I didn't wanted to do, because even though their sad destiny was clear, the view of such a ‘cemetery’ was an impressive picture.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

Ç Smitaki 2017