Tuesday, 19 December 2017

December 20 - A Blues of Christmas Songs

snow covering all ugly things.

Like it was after Last Christmas,
& during all of the winter months

forgetting I was not alone.

In the Silent Night & all those other cold days,
in the refugee camps they were freezing

the Jingle Bells ringing
because some met their death.

again I wonder

& how many Little Drummer Boys
are still stuck in the camps

to give them a peaceful living.

nothing compared with what most refugees endured

they for sure saw worse.

Mary's Boy Child was born in a shed
because she had to flee persecution.

Now again: many families torn apart,

his white season ready to come

but this year I beg you: no cold nor snow

of all those muddy desperate camps.

do not forget all those people

stuck in summer tents, without a home,

also for the many angels who are still there to help

to distribute all over the world

to those who have nothing

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Saint Nicholas & Saint Cargo


In the Netherlands the birthday of Saint Nicholas, December 5th, is a big celebration, especially for children. Each year he arrives with his steam ship from Spain. But why Spain? He is a copy-cat of the bishop of Myra, whose remains – according to many people – are buried in the Saint Nicholas Basilica in Bari, Italy. In his home town Demre, in modern day Turkey, a crypt with his remains has never been found. It is said that, around 1087, some 700 years after his death, Italian merchants took his bones to their homeland.

That is the story. A story that never ends: just look at Saint Nicholas' knight, the black Piet, who so irritates many coloured immigrants in the Netherlands with his dark skin that he will soon change colour.
Last month under the church in Demre a grave was discovered and now archaeologists think, because it looks undisturbed, the bones of Nicholas of Myra must be in that crypt. Did the Italian merchants fool everybody?

We cannot be sure yet, because they have only detected the grave with electronics. To really touch it an antique mosaic floor must first be lifted, which will take some time. Of course this might just be a publicity stunt to attract some tourists to Turkey. Although I do not know anybody who has ever visited Saint Nicholas in Bari, nor in Spain where his address is unknown.

We all know that Santa Claus lives somewhere in Lapland, close to the Arctic. Here is is address in case you didn't know:
Santa Claus
Santa Claus Main Post Office
FI-96930 Arctic Circle

Why so far in the cold? Santa Claus should live in Turkey, not far from the grave of Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra, or even better, in the United States, this way he has to travel less. Because Santa Claus is just the American version of the Dutch SinterKlaas , who only had time for the American children at the end of December. Santa Claus is a copy-cat of a copy-cat.

In Greece neither Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus have anything to say, even that Mr. Christmas is trying hard to gain some influence. In Greece it is the bishop of Myra who gets honoured on his namesday on December 6th: Agios Nikolaos. However, no Greek will ever dare to dress like this saint and visit parties. In most cultures the bishop of Myra is known to be a protector of children. The Greeks chose another story from his miraculous life: one day he rescued a bunch of sailors from a heavy storm and that is why he became the patron saint of the seafarers.

He is needed very badly these days. The small boats keep on coming from Turkey and the winter with its nasty weather has just arrived. Refugees even have more than one patron saint, like Saint Alban and Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, although they are a bit obscure. Saint Cargo is the latest patron saint for refugees. Even though he is created by the German art duo Various & Gould and he has not yet visited the Pope to get canonized, but with his present deeds he might gain popularity with a greater public.

I do not know if Lampedusa claims Saint Cargo's grave. If not, we should do that on Lesvos. Saint Nicholas could help to remove his remains in his steam ship, that may refresh Saint Nicholas' dusty CV. The crypt will be placed in Camp Moria, because Camp Moria urgently needs a saint!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)
© Smitaki 2017

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

November 14 - For somebody

In memoriam for the 3 unknown (refugee) people,
at least 2 of them children estimated 9-13 yrs old,
washed ashore on Lesvos in the second week of November 2017

For somebody

Somebody must have seen you
when you were born.
Your mother that is
and perhaps your father
or was he away
fighting, or just defending the family?

Somebody must have fed you
because you have lasted some years.
Were there toys around you
where you spent the first years of your life
learning this cruel world
while playing between ruined houses?

Somebody must have thrown a bomb
or triggered a nasty gun
tearing apart people and homes
instilling an endless fear.
Did your mother die
or was it somebody else from the family?

Somebody must have taken the decision to flee,
you were too young to make that choice
and had to follow mother, or father
or, maybe it was an uncle
who tried to bring you to safety
together with maybe a brother and a sister.

Somebody must have protected you
on the road in the cold.
Maybe having to sleep under a naked sky
putting a warm blanket around you
whispering in your soft ear
that not everywhere are there bad people.

Somebody must have told you
about safe countries without a war.
Giving you sweet dreams
about a new and shiny life
where you can trust people
who do not kill.

Somebody must have told your protector
where to take a boat to this new life.
Or were you already on your own
having lost your family
just taking care of your siblings
trying to get them to a promised land?

Did somebody see you when you touched the water
or were you asleep and given a shock.
Or were you pushed
or was the boat not resisting the waves?
Did you cry out for your mother
or were you only concerned for your brother and sister?

All the somebodies who were in your life
do not know that you are now gone.
Into a sea that took your breath
into a heaven, of that I am sure.
Or were the somebodies you have known
long gone before you touched the water?

So many godless somebodies
who never learned to love.
Making war and killing not only you
but so many other innocent souls.
Turning them into nobodies
forgotten even before the war is over.

I am somebody reading your story
taking you into my heart.
Crying for you and telling the sea
how cruel it has behaved.
But it was not the sea (but somebody)
who decided your life was over.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)
© Smitaki 2017

Friday, 10 November 2017

November 5 – Honey meadows

(The moor at Lesvos)

You might not expect it on a Greek island, but well hidden amidst the light green pinetrees, heather fields colour their environment deep purple during these magnificent autumnal days. You may see some of these plants along the main roads, but the best heather experience you will have is at Alogeli, a little north of Megali Limni.

Finding your way through the pine forest, a melody plays high through the waving treetops, that might well be coming from the god and musician Orpheus, whose head and lyre came ashore at Old Andissa. It’s said that since then his music can always be heard. When arriving at the moors, another concert also plays: millions of heather flowers attract thousands of bees who – without a director – buzz madly along. The soft buzzing is another music to listen to and wonder about.

I imagine that bees buzz out of happiness, seeing those sweet scenting flower fields. The scientific explanation for their music however is less romantic: what you hear is the crackling of their skeleton. While a bee flies, their bones crack up and down a 190 times per second, a soft sound we interpret as buzzing.

Making honey will probably produce another specific sound, although I have never ventured close enough to the many beehives parked all over the island to be able to research this. As a child I learned from Winnie the Pooh that you could steal honey unpunished, but now I know better: many a tourist on Lesvos, curious about the beehives, has had to run, fleeing from a swarm of bees. Honey on Lesvos gets very well defended!

And on Crete: There Zeus was brought up with honey in a well hidden cave, prior to starting his career as leader of the Olympic gods. It is said that since then the bees stayed behind in the cave and attack anybody who dares to enter the cave. Four thieves thought to be clever and dressed all in bronze, but as soon as they had tasted Zeus' honey, their bronze and other clothing fell from their bodies and huge bees started an attack. Zeus wanted also to punish them by sending deadly lightning, but Themis, goddess of fate, didn’t like the idea of people being killed in the sacred cave and changed the thieves into birds.

The discovery of honey was made by Dionysus, the bon vivant of the Greek gods. The less famous god Aristaeus learned how to keep bees. This very first bee keeper could not resist the beauty of the nymph Eurydice, but she was the promised bride of Orpheus, so she ran, not wanting to record another #MeToo. As she panicked she did not watch out and was bitten by a deadly snake and died. Orpheus was inconsolable and dropped all music, making the gods untuned. As punishment all the bees of Aristaeus died, which made him inconsolable. Orpheus could bring his bride back from Hades, provided that he did not look back, which he did by accident, thus condemning Eurydice to stay forever in the underworld. The gods also pitied Aristaeus and he was commanded to make an offering of 4 cows and 4 bulls whilst letting their bodies remain untouched. He succeeded in doing so and in the cadavers were born new bee peoples Aristaeus could place back in his hives.

Not many such stories are told about heather, even though it must have been a very satisfied god who created the heather fields as a reward for the bees: their nectar brought up more than one son of the gods and on many old Greek coins a bee is depicted. Was it Pontia, who during the Minoan culture was called Mother of the bees? Or was it Apollo, who got the gift of prophesy from three bees? Or from Demeter of Ephese who had a bee as one of her holy symbols? It is clear that the mythology here lacks some history.

Greece is the second country on the list of numbers of beekeepers per square meter (Hungary is first). So honey still is richly flowing. But the gods seem to care less these days: Greek bees also suffer from Colony collapse disorder. However, wandering along the Lesvorian moorlands, there seem to be still enough bees to provide the entire island and all the gods with this divine honey.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

October 21 – Fishes

(Fishermen on Lesvos)

Now that most tourists have left the island, a saturated silence has descended upon the greening hills and mountains. The quietness is only disturbed by twittering birds or a gust of wind playing through the trees. With no Zeus reining his horses across the white foam-capped sea, the waters are also resting. There’s a little fishing boat approaching, the sound of its purr-purring motor good for meditation. That may be why so many men on Lesvos love going fishing: either swaying in a little boat on sea or from the beach while smoking and gazing out to sea. If a fish decides to bite, so much the better.

However last week the coast of the north was vibrating due to roaring motors far away. In the Turkish waters there were at least twenty enormous fishing trawlers emptying the sea. Because of their super bright lights, it was like being across from Istanbul. I can’t bear to think about the tonnes of fish lifted from the sea that night.

Like elsewhere in the world, the number of fish on Lesvos is decreasing dramatically. Not due to the Lesvorians: they have only a few big trawlers (Greece has approximately 300). The fishing fleet of Lesvos consists mostly of small, traditional fishing boats, some still wooden. There will be one man looking out for a school of fish, while another man steers the boat over the waves. The island has many picturesque harbours where the colourful little boats wait to embrace the sea.

Two years ago the fishermen really had a bad year. They nearly only fished refugees out of the sea. Not only did they not bring home fish, many of them became traumatized. Now war ships and those of Frontex guard the seas and pick up the 2 to 4 boats of refugees arriving each night, leaving the fishermen with plenty of time to do their fishing things.

Small fishermen deliver mostly to local restaurants. Super fresh is the fish that will appear on your plate. Fish however also have seasons: now it’s the time of palamida (bonito) and lakerda (as many Lesvorians call this small kind of tuna; originally lakerda is a way to pickle fish). The world famous sardines from Kalloni are only served in the summer, while in winter you can enjoy shell fish. On stormy days or nights when the full moon makes the nets visible even to the fish, no fisherman shows up on the water, meaning days without fish.

In Eftalou (not far from Molyvos) there once lived the famous fisherman Adonis. He lived on the beach with many cats, dogs and a seagull. His father was also famous. The book Ψαρόγιαννος (fisherman Yannis) by Takis Chatzianagnostou is based on this family and was even made into a movie shot on Lesvos, with great music from Yannis Markopoulou. Watching a trailer of the movie, I experienced déjà vu: the images show unashamedly the Lesvorian version of the famous Zorba-the-Greek dance, once so beautifully performed by Anthony Quinn. I checked it: Zorba was released in 1963 and the other mentioned movie in 1966.

Andonis can be seen in an interesting documentary about the fishermen of Molyvos: Ψαραδες και ψαρεματα (Fishermen and their ways of fishing). This movie shows that in earlier times the battle between fishermen and fish was much more honest. With dancing feet and stones the fish were lured to the nets or spotted through bottomless buckets.

There is no longer communal fishing, apart from those huge fishing monsters, hiding along the Turkish coasts, emptying the seas around Lesvos. And there are not many young people following in the steps of their father, taking a little boat to the sea: the catches are less and less worth the trouble. If this continues fishermen will also be threatened with extinction, just like the donkeys which, after the death of donkey man Michaelis, are rarely seen in the north of Lesvos. What a shame if the purr-purring sound of little boats gets lost and I am wondering who will be the first starved out: the fishermen or the fish.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Saturday, 14 October 2017

October 10 – Away with the summer holidays!

(A little church near Agiasos)

Once a young street dog arrived at a school. His dark loyal dog-eyes lit up at hearing childrens’ voices. The pupils liked him, called him Bubu and gave him food and shelter: Bubu had found a home. Until one day the earth started shaking, walls tumbled down and even at the school stones were flying around. Bubu had never been so afraid in his life: he fled to the fields where no stone could hurt him.

On June 12 (2017) an earthquake destroyed most of the village of Vrisa on Lesvos, including the school. As nobody ever saw Bubu again, they assumed he was buried under the debris of the school. Last week the rebuilding of the school was complete and the school opened with lots of festivity. For the first time since the catastrophe the school bell sounded through the village, and all the children and their parents were gathered. Suddenly there came Bubu, rushing out of the fields, happy that everybody was back, knowing that he would be loved again.

Probably the dog was conditioned and when he heard the bell, he understood that is was safe again in the village. Now that sunlight sets nature on fire, tree leaves changing from green to red to yellow, I wonder if tourists also are conditioned: you just lure them with the sun and some warmth, and they come flying like Winnie the Pooh for sweet honey. But once they are in Greece, they complain about the crowds, snappy waiters and the heat.

Not that Lesvos recently has had masses of tourists. Although last summer there were some complaints about the crowds in the harbour of Molyvos during August. The summer also had some heat waves – a well known phenomenal in a Greek summer – and again the tourists could not sleep, burned alive on the beaches and started to complain. I am wondering why those people come back again and again, as if there is no other time to visit Lesvos.

It's also a bit strange that Demeter, goddess of agriculture, celebrates in the summer the half year that her daughter Persephone is allowed out of Hades. It's only when Persephone goes back and Demeter shed her tears, that the real party can begin: autumn is there and nature comes back to life.

Fthinoporo (φθινόπωρο) is the Greek name of this colourful season, meaning that the fruit will fall (from the trees). This means plenty of labour: figs have to be dried, walnuts gathered from the trees, grapes trampled, apples collected. High in the mountains, surrounded by lovely colouring woods, Agiasos prepares for the chestnut festival and people get ready for mushroom hunts. Quinces and pomegranates are still clinging to the trees; they will be the last fruits of the autumn, before the big olive harvest begins and before oranges and lemons decorate the winter trees like colourful christmas decoration.

Last week it rained chair legs on the island. That is what the Greeks say when it rains cats and dogs (another funny expression we do not have in Dutch): “Βρέχει καρεκλοπόδαρα!”. The earth gave a sigh of relief: finally something to drink. All dust washed away, the horizon swept straight again, and the sun gloriously back in the sky. The autumn definitively had arrived, but most tourists were gone. A bit dazed, the island now shows her new fresh beauty: a glittering satisfied sea inviting you for joyful swims, trees changing colours like magic balls, a low light that will make photographers salivate and some deserted terraces where one can sit with an ouzo, enjoying the warm sunlight.

Yesterday when I took a walk in the sunlit, glittering woods and the first chestnuts thudded down right beside my feet, I wondered if the tourists were wrongly conditioned. The summer wears none of this beauty, nor enjoys the delicious temperatures that only cause a bit of healthy sweat. In Agiasos thousands of local souvenirs, next to boxes full of chestnuts, apples, quinces and beans, await the lonely tourist who dares to visit the village. Agios Dimitrios, that little hamlet full of sources, nearly forgotten on the old road to Agiasos, is like a dream location for a movie. Along with the sweet perfume of the damp earth, the colourful little traditional taverns and the intensity of the sunrays upon the trees, it appears like a master work of a painter.

If ever the media picks this up, I am sure that tourists can be newly conditioned to forget the overheated summer holidays, to let the first autumn rains be like the schoolbell for Bubu, and go to Lesvos for an unforgettable autumn vacation.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Thursday, 5 October 2017

October 1 – Samos


Island hopping. That’s what you did when it was the drachma that rolled around in the Greek economy. From Athens by boat to Mykonos, Ikaria, Samos, Leros, Kos. Imaginary lines from dot to dot crossing the blue Aegean sea. From the beach on Telendos, back to Kalymnos, Patmos, Naxos, Amorgos: one idyllic island after the other. So much choice in this sunny island republic. On the ships there were islanders burdened with parcels and island hopping backpackers, and – when the wind took over – puking people. Nothing unusual, in those times, when you travelled from one paradise to another.

Recently when I sailed to Samos plenty of memories of island hopping came back. Waving people welcoming you at the harbours, screaming for your attention: they had the best pensions at sunny little beaches, to which they transported you in the back of their pick-ups and where plates full of tomatoes, cucumber and feta did not stop appearing on the table. Picturesque villages full of hospitable people, bellowing donkeys, cheap wine and strong headed ouzo.

Now there are other boats: with good toilets, comfortable chairs everywhere, apart from the local traveller only a few foreign tourists stand at the railing, even though you are still able to go for only a few euros from one island to another one. Tourists nowadays do not have time to travel, but land immediately on their destination where they settle on a bed in the sun.

Samos rose like green jade straight from the blue Aegean. The harbour of Vathy meanwhile placed to the other side of the bay. Forests everywhere. A beach-hopping-island, thanks to its numerous lovely little beaches, light blue sea, white sand or soft pebbles. The Samiotes understood that these white pearls attract tourists. Most beaches are fully supplied with showers, changing cabins, good road signs and – the most important – sun beds. Sun loving people obviously like company: on most beaches a view of sand was blocked by all those sun mattresses.

Kokkari, once an idyllic fishing village, now buried by restaurants, little hotels and pensions. The tiny fishermen’s houses at the beach – where once there were always women shelling peas, net repairing fishermen and screaming cats – forever lost to the crowds. Now it is only beach, sun and sea pleasing the tourists.

Samos does not like its history: everywhere new houses adorn hills and mountains, barely leaving space for old restored buildings. In contrast to Lesvos, time here has moved on and old times rolled over to create a modern island. Lesvos is proud of its many old, beautiful villages. On Samos they all seem to be shiny new.

Only Karlovassi looks pretty undisturbed, the place where history did not fade: enormous, old, empty tanneries and tobacco warehouses, even dilapidated or restored, rememberance to the old times when this little town was flourishing. Now she proudly shows her old, industrial culture.

It is the tourist business that brings in the money these days. And the wine. I was expecting to see grapevines everywhere, but there was more wine on the table than grapes in vineyards. Besides the world famous sweet Samos wine they make plenty of white wines and I even tasted some local ouzo (none of which was anything compared to those of Lesvos). The white wines (the red I did not drink) however are excellent and can easily be compared to those of Lesvos' neighboring island Limnos.

Viti culture and sheep do not like each other; no four-legged woolies were to be seen, so the cheese mostly came from Lesvos. Although you do find a few beautiful, sturdy goats around with huge curved horns. The island looks clean, not much garbage and I wonder if that may be due to the jackals, still living on Samos, who sneak out of the dark woods at night to clean up the garbage.

Another product of the island is honey. The Cave of Pythagoras can be found along a little dirt road that winds deep into the mountains, ending at a small, cute wooden cafe that offers refreshing drinks and pots of honey. You probably need at least 3 tablespoons of the honey and 3 liters of water to climb up the 380 stairs leading to the Cave of Pythagoras. I did not venture up those steps. Not only was the temperature attempting to reach 40 C, just looking up to the cave high up in the rocks caused my fear of heights to roar through my body. So instead I bought a pot of honey and afterwards I regretted that I did not buy half the shop because I’ve rarely tasted such good honey.

Coming back to Lesvos I immediately realized why I have lost lost my heart to it. Lesvos is not only much bigger than Samos, but the volcanoes kneaded it into a unique varied island, with fertile, green woods and little romantic beaches under steep walls of rocks, as well as wide landscapes with bare desolate mountains. One of the highest tops of the Aegean - the grey, bold Kerkis in the south of Samos - did impress me a lot, but only because I’d forgotten that the granite Olympus towering over the centre of Lesvos, has the same beauty.

But what I learned most from this trip is that travelling on a ship is so relaxing and surprising. Roaming from deck to deck, floating over the blue water, silhouettes of a sturdy Turkey and mysterious islands passing by, spotting playing dolphins, and of course being lead to beautiful destinations. Why have we forgotten how to travel comfortably?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Monday, 25 September 2017

September 24 - Farewell Perikles, dancing myth of Molyvos

As a naughty Karagiozis
he danced around customers
his wrinkled face
always in a fat grin

A meatball here, a tasty fish there
juggling with full plates
sometimes a bow, sometimes a greet
never a complaint crossing his lips

Languorous evenings full with traditional sounds
colorful puppets endless gossiping
about the Greek world
with a laugh and a tear

Then his laughing eyes
would light up with pleasure
just like when fingers bowed
the smooth strings of a bouzouki

And when the summer evening progressed
empty bottles starting to make music
feet floated off the floor
father, daughter, father, son

Dearly celebrating Greek life
nights full of swirling people
and he, in the middle of the dance floor
of his restaurant full of flowers

Sometimes waving with his rifle
towards tables full of clients
a sudden shot in the blue air
and gone were the fish-eating wasps

His rich life going towards twilight
in his little old white car
embracing the sunset
to fish in Eftalou

To the gardens or the sea
Georgina always at his side
driving and enjoying
the empty winter evenings

O, Perikles, dancing myth of Molyvos
sleep took your voice
music, dance and life
far beyond the evening red

In heaven you can angle
as long as you want
while we here
will miss you so much

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Saturday, 9 September 2017

September 4 – Where is the Summer?

Month of August blessed with Summer
highlight of Greek holidays
this year pestered by foul cold streams
making naked shoulders long for coats

Even as Maria floated to heaven
in the midst of the high season
normal sweating pilgrims
were greeted with cold

The sea as cold as a polar bear’s love
lost to Mediterranean warmth
as if we’ve started all over again
from that jubilant spring

Unusual cool August
more like the end of September
when you are on the doorstep of Autumn
pulling the blankets up the beds

Where is that desirable hot summer
warming hearts and then so quickly
like time here on the island
passing as fast as a rocket

Fat figs in the trees
first signs of Autumn
Summer causing the fall of the leaves
beside the rotting but sweet scented fruit

This Summer disguised as a belated guest
who comfortably seats herself
only to stand up as quickly to pace around
in haste and impatient, as if elsewhere would be better

Boom, the door will slam shut
behind the Summer sneaking off
leaving us to the colourful Autumn
come to prepare us for the Winter

No bad words about the Winter and its soft whispering stoves
but it's like I have not yet stored up enough heat
and haven’t dallied sufficient hours in the blue sea
and still have long languorous evenings to go under the stars

Grapes already disappeared
wasps fattened with their juice
Sardines still in the sea and on the plates
until the last rays of Summer.

Burning hot healing Summer
melting momentarily all sorrows
fraternizing at beaches and in the sea
why such a hurry to deliver us to Autumn?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017