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