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