Tuesday, 26 February 2019

February 25 - The village of Djam

(Skala Loutron)

You can wake me up for rebetiko music. I love the melancholic tunes. It does not make me homesick for my country, it makes me long for the days in Greece before the crisis, when everybody seems to be happy and lots of live music sounded in the kafenions. 

But this music has its origins in expatriation. It came with the more than one million refugees after the Greek-Turkish war, that ended in 1922, followed a year later by a huge exchange of people. The oriental tunes and the swollen singing are clearly of Arabian roots. The words speak of homesickness, longing, love and later revolution. The first rebetiko songs were about a happy world the Greeks had to leave and about the horrors they lived through during the last days in the Ottoman empire, like in Smyrna (Izmir). Later some songs were about the wine and drugs that could soften their unhappiness.

I liked the movie Djam immediately upon seeing the first scene: a girl on a mountain dancing along a gate, singing a beautiful rebetiko song, her movements nearly unorthodox. It gave away what the movie would be about: a pretty crazy girl (her mother a well known rebetiko singer who lived and died in Paris) living with her uncle on Lesvos, in Skala Loutron on the Gulf of Yera. The uncle sends Djam to Istanbul to get an important motor part for his boat. It is a kind of road movie where Djam dances and sings rebetiko whenever it suits her, just to forget, to celebrate, to please or to comfort.

There might be two reasons why the French director, Tony Gatlif, chose to begin and end in Skala Loutron. This little hamlet has one of the very few shipyards left on the island. Its old wooden docks clearly remembrances of another world, when rebetiko still could be heard on each corner of the street.
The other reason could be because the village has a little museum about the Greek refugees who last century poured into the island from Turkey. Many of them settled in Skala Loutron, but also elsewhere on the island. In the museum you will find a treasure of photographs, documents and objects of these Ottoman Greeks, giving an excellent image of how they lived and what they lost. No wonder they needed music to comfort their souls.

Gatlif could not have foreseen that when he shot the movie on Lesvos, it was the time when the refugee crisis was at its highest point on the island. And he could not ignore it. So he wove that actual situation through his movie about refugee music and the current Greek crisis. More than once Djam sees signs of the refugees on her way back over the Turkish mainland to Greece, with as a giant climax images of the most sad monument of Lesvos: the big mountain of life vests at Eftalou. 

Djamis a modern rebetiko movie: not a historical document but a movie that shows in an original way the Turkish roots of the music and the actual problems of Greece.

Last week I was in Skala Loutron, enjoying a rare spring day with sun and I sat at the terrace of one of the kafenions, looking out over the water. At the end of the shipyards there was a white boat, I thought it was the boat that plays such a beautiful role in Djam (it was not, I later realized). I thought about this splendid movie I enjoyed so much, saw the crazy Djam singing and dancing. And I thought about the refugees who still come daily. I wonder if they also carry their music with them and if, when they settle, they will create a new music style.

The popularity of the Greek blues, the old rebetiko music, reached its peak during the Second World War and the Greek civil war, when they also became protest songs. In the Fifties and Sixties they lost a bit of power but remained popular. Nowadays the old rebetiko songs pop up again, because of this new crisis. They haunt us with their melancholy and touch the heart.

When you walk around in the little village of Skala Loutron, you might think it is boring there. But it has more history than you see at first sight and it has made it all the way to the famous film festival in Cannes, where Djamgot its premiere in 2017. It did not win any golden calves, but it did receive good reviews. However, the kafenion of the uncle of Djam could not be saved by this beautiful movie. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2019

Monday, 11 February 2019

February 10 – On the road again

(The road between Eftalou and Skala Sykaminia)

A few millions of euro for the beautification of the street around the castle in Mytilini. It will get a lane for pedestrians and a strawberry-red-lane for cyclists. The municipality of Lesvos is proud on this decision and sees it as a visiting card of the island. I think it a strange choice: not far from the castle is the most miserable refugee camp of Europe. Camp Moria is more in the international news than the medieval castle, so you'd better pave Moria's muddy streets as a visiting card.

Many roads on the island need renewing. Especially after this winter with extreme rain fall. Lesvos got only 300.000 euro's from the country to repair its damaged streets. It seems that for other roads there are other and better filled pots of money. Like for the asphalt road between Skala Polichnitos and Nifida. No idea what is wrong with that road. It is a bit a narrow road, but when you meet five cars in oncoming traffic it is much. Okay, in high season the double amount. Nifida is packed with summer residences, part of them languish in paradise-like gardens full of fruit trees. It has one of the few sandy beaches on the island and is popular among the locals. Would a new layer of asphalt make this summer-house-village more lively?

Asphalt is older than the road to Rome: the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and also the old Greeks used it to make waterproof baths, reservoirs and even ships. Babylon had the first asphalted road, but only with the invention of asphalt concrete, at the end of the 19thcentury, the real asphalting of the roads started. People loved it, or hated it.

Take the road from Eftalou to Skala Sykaminia. This bumpy, sandy street, along cliffs, steep hills and roaming cattle, crossed by rivers and sheep stables, is the most popular hiking route of the island. I thought that the idyllic Skala Sykaminia had not to complain about its number of visitors: in the summer it may look like an over-touristic Santorini. But rumors again started about asphalting this road. I understand the car renters, who forbid their customers to take dirt roads and get back damaged cars because people seem not to understand what is a dirt road. The street between Eftalou and Skala Sykaminia is notorious for this sin. Will you throw a thick layer of asphalt over it, the island will miss another one of its attractions. Just like the road from the reservoir of Molyvos to Petra used to be a very popular hike route, but since asphalting it, no pedestrian is ever seen there anymore.

Lesvos is anyhow always troubled by its roads. The new road between Kalloni and Sigri is a real nightmare. Every few years a new part is delivered. I imagine that on a big table there are still thousands of puzzle pieces, that have to find its place to connect with the parts already in use. When you drive from Filia to Kalloni, just before Dafia, there is a piece of 'new' road with no beginning nor an end. Looking over the rolling hills you will wonder where did they plan the continuation of this road. Part of the delay is due to the petrified trees that keep on coming up while digging. The Natural History Museum of Sigri, that because of lack of money keep the Petrified Forest Park closed, keep a close look on the building of the new road. Not on the building of the new harbour in Sigri. That has to welcome the first ferries coming June. Even that they worked miraculously quick during 18 months, will they keep their deadline? When they would have put all that energy in building the road, then we now would need only ten minutes to drive from Kalloni to Sigri.

I keep on believing that the municipality of Lesvos does not have priorities. Why there is nobody who can find a pot of money to restore Vrisa, the village that got swept away by an earthquake in the summer of 2017. Who is going to help Plomari, where recently half a district of the little town got destroyed by landslides and where the bad weather threw rocks all over the road of Plomari to Melina. That bad that there is no safe passage guarantied. Now all inhabitants of Melinda and Megalochori need a long detour to reach Plomari and tourists cannot enjoy anymore one of Lesvos' most beautiful roads.

No matter if you arrive by boat or by airplane on the island, you will first see Mytilini, the proud capital of Lesvos with, in the future, this beautiful street rounding the castle. The moment Mytilini is out of sight, you might see some misery. Not everybody gets the best parts of the cake, also on Lesvos.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2019

Sunday, 3 February 2019

January 28 - It rains and it rains

(A rainbow on the Eftalou Boulevard)

It is said that Dutch people always talk about the weather. However here on Lesvos we have champions weather talkers especially when the weather is out-of -tune. For instance, when all the rain fell this month, there was no other conversation possible. In ancient times Greeks had the gods to bargain with or to plead for some sunshine.

Agamemnon for example made a horrible deal with the gods: he and his army were on the way to Troy when he got into a quarrel with the Goddess of hunting, Diana (he shot her favourite deer). She stopped the wind so that he could sail no further. To have the wind blow again he offered his own daughter Iphigenia.

Odysseus also ran into troubles with the winds. Coming back from fighting in Troy, he visited Aeolus, the upper god of the winds on his island Aeolia. He entertained his host with colourful stories about the fightings and Aeolus thanked Odysseus by giving him the west wind that would blow him back all the way to Ithaca, where Odysseus' wife Penelope was impatiently waiting for his return. Aeolus also gave his guest a closed bag containing the other winds, warning him that the bag was not to be opened. Upon his return to Ithaca, Odysseus was so tired that he decided to take a little nap. His crew, who had speculated what could be in this mysterious bag, then decided to have a look and opened the bag, hoping it was full of gold and precious stones. But it was the winds that rushed out in full anger, blowing the boat back to Aeolia, where Aeolus showed them no pity and threw them off his island. And so began the long and famous journey home of this Trojan hero.

Chione is the name of the Greek goddess of the snow. The rain does not have its own god. All the water that is dropped on earth from the heavens is sent by Zeus, who is also responsible for thunder, lightning and rainbows. Zeus is a moody God: be careful of making him angry. 

And angry he is at this moment. He tortures the country, in any case Lesvos, with tons of water that form countless new rivers and waterfalls, make dangerous swamps of the olive fields, flood houses and cellars, this way making the people desperate because no mop can help here. Thundering dark clouds keep chasing over the island to discharge their water.

A very long time ago, when Zeus was maybe even more angry as now, he sent so much rain to Greece that the valleys filled with water, fields got flooded and the water rose higher than the trees, villages and cities. Prometheus whispered to his son Deucalion to quickly build a raft, and so only Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha survived those dramatic floods. The couple stranded on Mount Parnassus (or it could have been Mount Athos, Mount Othrys or even Etna in Sicily).

It is funny that in this Greek version of Noah and his Arkthere are no animals involved. It is however a kind of Creation Story, because when Deucalion asked Zeus how he could revive the world, he was told to bow his head while throwing the bones of his mother over his shoulders. Both he and Pyrrha interpreted this as mother Earth. They picked up some rocks and threw them over their shoulders and indeed created new people.

Those new people still believed in the responsibility of Poseidon for volcano eruptions and earthquakes, or that the goddess Athena could make the world disappear in a fog. But slowly people started to realize that not all weather depended on the moods of the gods. Greek poet Hesiod, who lived around the same time as Homer, wrote a famous poem called Works and Days, which is rather like an almanac. Itgives plenty of directions to farmers, for example when the stars are at the right position, to sow or to harvest, or when sailors can safely set out to sea. 

Also Aristotle was an observer. In his Meteorologicahe wrote about all possible weather phenomenons like snow, hail, thunderstorms or whirlwinds, which he tried to explain without the interference of the gods. He compared the wind reviving a wood fire and causing a crackling sound, with the wind raging through the clouds thus causing thunder. Okay, that explanation (like others in his book) were later proved wrong, but it is a fact that from those times the gods slowly lost control over the weather, because it became better and better explained by reason and science. 

Nowadays nobody would be so foolish to go to Zeus to beg him to please stop these torrents of rain. Although I do believe that there are Greeks who go to their favourite little church or chapel to burn a candle and ask the gods to stop the floods. And because there are so many churches on the island, I suspect not all those gods have left. What will they do?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2019