Friday, 30 June 2017

June 28 – Heat wave oracle

(Klidonas Festival in Molyvos; photo: Arie van Willigen)

It’s difficult to believe but in six months we will again be celebrating Christmas. The summer in Greece has hardly begun but bonfires were already ignited to observe midsummer on a date that also marks the name day of John the Baptist. The St. John’s Fires are lit, as the sun reaches it’s highest point in the northern hemisphere. This happens in several countries on the night of June 23 to 24, including here in Greece where the occasion is called Klidonas, a date that has its own interpretation.

In former times this was a night when young, unmarried girls hoped that the stars would whisper the name of their future husband. A girl had to go to a spring, fill an urn and carry this so-called ‘silent water’ home (she was not allowed to speak when carrying the water). She and other virgins would place small, much-loved objects into the urn and seal it with a red cloth. Then they would find it a place to wait for the sunrise of June 24, somewhere as close as possible to the stars. That night, so the tradition goes, the girls would dream of the man who would be their husband, helped by several fires lit in the surrounding streets. The following day, a poet or storyteller would retrieve the objects from the urn, one by one, while relating some riddles that would reveal even more about the man the girls had dreamed of.

I do not believe that there were a lot of urns on the rooftops of Molyvos hoping that the stars would reveal their secrets this midsummer, because it is only the most sensational part of this tradition, jumping over the fires, that is still practiced. According to tradition, you must put your life at risk by jumping over the flames three times. if you do this, luck will be part of your future life.

The practice of jumping the fires may continue, crossing yourself as you pass one of the many churches on the island, or cherishing the amulets against the evil eye may still be practiced, but nowadays nobody takes a lot of interest in predicting the future. That said, now that the Gods of Olympus have lost their credibility, the Greeks continue to worship a very long list of saints, even if it is only occasionally to mark their name day. Churches are scattered all over the island and they are never neglected. Whatever church you visit - tucked away in caves, perched atop mountains or hidden away in the forests - they are always tended with love and devotion.

In ancient times, however, it was the oracles that kept order in Greek society and the priests that interpreted those oracles were the most important people in that society. No war or battle would be started, no important decision would be taken without seeking the opinion of an oracle. And, like the words for those unmarried girls, this could be an opinion interpreted in many different ways – perhaps in the form of riddles, or even a poem.

Apollo was the god who mainly used oracles to reveal the future, and Delphi was the most important temple from which the secrets of the future were revealed. It was sometimes even referred to as the ‘navel of the world’. But Delphi was only for the rich and the famous. Normal people had to consult more obscure oracles and fortunetellers, who picked the future out of the air by interpreting the flights of the birds, or the whispering of leaves in the trees.

It is said that once upon a time there was an oracle on the slopes of the Lepetimnos, where priests defined what roads life would take by watching the flight of the crows. The most famous Lesvorian oracle, however, was Orpheus, the musician who went mad after loosing his wife, driving beautiful nymphs to such distraction that they cut of his head to stop his wailing. But even this did not stop him. His still anguished head washed ashore somewhere near Ancient Andissa, where it was taken to a cave. Orpheus’s distress continued, according to the legend. People from far and wide came to hear his opinion about their lives, and after hearing about this popular oracle, it was Apollo who finally silenced Orpheus. Even today, when I wander on the beaches of Ancient Andissa, I am sure that the wind still sings the words of Orpheus.

I would love to climb up to Orpheus’s cave and discover for myself if he secretly continues to whisper wise words about the future. Now that the island (and the rest of Greece) has been hit by a serious heat wave, you have to turn to the wisdom, not of an oracle but that of a meteorologist to predict the weather for the coming days. And while with the benefit of modern science, the weather oracles can speak with confidence about what is in store for us, they too, are not always right. In ancient times when the oracle’s prediction was not to your liking, it was best to blame the interpretation, never the gods. Maybe it would be better if our modern day ‘weather priests’ also spoke in riddles. Then we could believe whatever we wanted.

The coming time
the days will be suffering
from the stirring heat of heavenly fires
Streets in the city
will burn the soles of the feet
and the sea has to cool
all flaming hearts
until men will realize
it is only the gods that know about the future

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