Wednesday, 8 February 2017

February 7 – The earth shakes

(The remains of a city gate of Old Andissa)

I'm restless, waiting for the next shock: the trembling of the earth, thundering like a heavily loaded truck passing by, the glasses, lamps and paintings shaking furiously - all causing slight panic. For two days the island has been sieged by earthquakes, the three biggest as strong as 5.2 according to the Richter scale.

Greece is the most seismic country in Europe and sixth on the world list. So Lesvos knows the antics of the Earth's crusts: the North-Anatolia Fault runs close along its northern coast. The tectonic plates grate against each other in order to have a better place to continue slumbering. The fight between the European and Asian plates is now taking place opposite Molyvos in Turkey (not far from the legendary city of Troy that was not only destroyed by warriors, but also by earthquakes). You might even wonder if Erdogan isn't stimulating the quakes in order to cream off a little of Greece.

Due to these recurring natural disasters, nearly every village or town on Lesvos has been rebuilt one or more times. In 231 BC however the little town of Pyrrha was forever swept off the map, under the gently waves of the Gulf of Kalloni. The waters there are shallow and brackish, so fortune hunters cannot see anything underwater: the town is forever lost.

Also the islet on the coast which was once Andissa was erased, going to a watery grave in 167 BC. Parts of the city walls and some houses kept their heads above the water. With a bit of imagination you can see how this very old Levorian town was. But the ruins of walls and houses are so overgrown that it has became an ideal nest for snakes. There is no way that I will re-enter, through the half preserved gate, this city of ruins, now called Ancient Andissa.

In the 19th century the villages Lisvori, Chidera and Agia Paraskevi were destroyed by three different earthquakes. Only 2 of the 70 to 80 houses of Lisvori remained standing; in Agia Paraskevi 500 inhabitants did not survive, likewise in Chidera only 30. Even though there were so many losses, all villages were restored.

Molyvos has its houses sturdily anchored on the rocks but has also had its share of earthquake misery. One quake after another: in 1865 and in 1867. That last seismic event, with 25 quakes during the night of February 23 to 24, shook the entire island. Mytilini was, for a second time in its history, badly stricken: 2248 houses were completely destroyed (previously in 1383 the whole city of Mytilini was totally destroyed, causing the death of the majority of its citizens, amongst them the ruler Francesco Gateluzi, his wife and children). According to an eyewitness the water in the harbour swirled upwards with lots of foam. Afterwards fishes were found in boats, for days afterwards springs gave only salted water and a meters deep fault was found running from the Bay of Kalloni all the way to Agia Paraskevi. That night 550 people lost their lives, Napi was totally erased and Afalonas burnt to the ground after the shakes.

Even though a 5.2 on the Richter's scale is categorized as a bad one, I know that the Lesvorians have learned a lesson from history and have built their houses as earthquake proof as possible. But the villagers of Molyvos still do not trust their buildings. When the day before yesterday, a 5.2 occurred in daytime, swift as arrows everyone was out on the street and children were promptly marched out of their classrooms into the school yard.

Now it is raining cats and dogs and a furious Zeus thunders through heaven with flashing arrows. The warmth is over and the temperature is descending rapidly. Ear deafening thundering make doors and windows rattle in their frames. It is like Zeus is joining Gaia (Goddess of the earth) to create havoc on earth. Heaven and earth are angry, yes I do understand. But please, can the tectonic plates stop fighting. There are already enough camps on the island.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Sunday, 5 February 2017

February 2 – Lepetimnos

(The Lepetimnos)

Like a lazy Ottoman pasha, Mt Lepetimnos stretches in the north musing over the island. His volcanic fire was extinguished long ago and today his coat is still dotted with some specks of snow. With his tops reaching for the clouds, he reflects the last sun rays and smiles you a welcome when you travel to the north of Lesvos. One of its tops, the Vigla, is, at 968 meters, officially the highest peak of the island.
The story goes that Mt Olympus had the highest top, but due to the placement of military buildings and masts, the top was reduced by a few meters. From its highest ridges Lepetimnos offers spectacular views over a great part of the island as well as the faraway hills and mountains deep into Turkey. On clear days you may even see the islands Limnos and Ai Stratis and even Mount Athos on the mainland.

On the flanks of Lepetimnos you can find an assembly of sleepy villages: Vafios, Argenos, Lepetimnos, Sykaminia, Kapi, Pelopi, Ypsilometopo and Stypsi, all dependent on the moods of the mountain. The village of Chalikos was banished when, around 1970, earthquakes and landslides made the houses uninhabitable. I wonder if the villagers called the new village, built on lower slopes, Lepetimnos in order to propitiate the angry mountain.

The old volcanic giant was named after the groom of Mythimna (one of the daughters of King Makara); she gave her name to the little town now also known as Molyvos. We do not know much about their marriage, but Mythimna and Lepetimnos never lost sight of each other. It is Mt Lepetimnos, rich with sources, some even with hot water, that provides the little town with water. The Romans, always busy constructing bridges and aqueducts, even led warm water to Molyvos.

Theophrastus wrote that on the top of Lepetimnos there was an observatory where the astrologer Matriketas of Mythimna observed the stars. The only thing we know of this scientist is that he worked at a height of 986m. Some say that he was just an ordinary weatherman. I can see the donkeys running up and down the mountain in order to give the latest news about the weather. Or was there a clever system with flags or fire signals, like they also used during the war of Troy?

Mythimna always remained dependent on Lepetimnos. As a caring husband he provided her, not only with water and weather reports, but also with shiny metals and marble; some gold mines are still to be found on the mountain. He took care of green meadows and fertile ground where once masses of grapes grew, making the wine of Mythimna world famous.

On the other side of the mountain the village of Mandamados attracts lots of tourists and pilgrims with its Taxiarchis Monastery. The old icon of archangel Michael (Taxiarchis) has been attributed with many miracles. In ancient times it was to the oracle here that people went in order to ask for healing, a victory or other wishes. Because Lepetimnos was a hero from the war of Troy, there was also a sanctuary in his name on the mountain, where it was the crows who had the power to predict.

Around Kapi and Pelopi many archeological finds prove that even in ancient times this was a popular region, with many castles and temples. It is a pity that no archeologist has been doing thorough research on that site of the island. Any proof of a lively society will disappear slowly with the recycling of stones to build walls, stables, houses and roads. The region now is living mainly on cattle breeding and only a very few tourists know these charming villages which group around that site of Lepetimnos.

The folds of the mountain (that can be explored by feet and even by car) hide many different and surprising landscapes: meters' thick plane trees along gurgling streamlets, sweet scented chestnut woods, tender green meadows, quiet and secret little lakes and on top a whimsical landscape with rough rocks where in spring blood red tulips flower. Century old foot paths slowly gaining height invite fantasies about what people could have passed there: was it the astrologer with his assistant, refugees looking for places to hide or couples making love in secret? If trees could talk, what a colourful parade of stories we would hear.

For thousands of years this tamed volcano has lain on guard. He has seen the passing of the heroes of Troy, he has seen how a daughter of a king, in love with the hero Achilles, betrayed her besieged town Mythimna, by giving the key of the entrance to Achilles. He has seen Pelasgians, Aegeans, Aeolians, Lydians, Romans, Italians and Ottomans grab the power on the island.

Recently the husband of Myhtimna again saw thousands of refugees stranded on its shores. Silently he is watching how desperately the islanders battle the enduring crisis. No longer does anyone climb its slopes, looking for a sanctuary where the gods can be asked for help. Water and grassy meadows are not enough anymore to keep the spoiled inhabitants of Mythimna happy. But this old, rich icon who each day again tries to catch the last sun rays, knows that for sure new times will come and that no crisis or war will separate him from his beloved Mythimna.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Dear Emilaki

Eftalou, January 25 2017

As a real amazon
you rode the Aegean waves
to battle
the poison in your body.
Even without hairs
and with so nice hats
you embraced life
like you could live forever.
India or whatever country
nothing was better than yours
especially Eftalou was calling
for your soul to rest.
Food and drinks
laughter and helping
they made your life
like you were invincible,
you smiling and talking
eating & drinking
like the world was always yours
until the gods decided different.
But you got the snow
I promised you
and now you are free
to travel wherever you want to.

Miss you, but good luck
my dear Emilaki!

Saturday, 7 January 2017

January 6 – Holy Men!

(Eftalou 2004; now again covered by snow)

Today is the day in Greece that the water is being blessed: priests go in procession to the sea, a river or a lake, where they commence the ritual of blessing. The water from heaven must have decided to hang around for a bit, because the island has finally had a day of rain. Blessed rain!

The various harbours on the island will have been black with umbrella's and pappas. One part of the Epiphany ritual is the so called 'cross diving': the pappas throws a cross in the water and young men, happy to take a wintery bath, plunge into the water to find the cross and return it to the pappas. The winner and his family will be sure of extra blessings. Women however are excluded from this holy bathing. In earlier times they dipped cottons in the blessed water in order to clean icons; a ritual performed to renovate the holy powers of the icon.

The orthodox Epiphany is based on the baptism of Christ. In the West however on January 6 they do not swing a brush over the water, but celebrate the three kings bringing presents to the newly born Jesus in Bethlehem. Originally it was a group of wise men who saw a special star and went looking for the King of Jews: their number is related to the number of presents they brought: gold, incense and myrrh. Eventually, through the oral storytelling, the wise men became kings.

During Epiphany in the West people throw themselves into something quite different: special cakes are baked, with a small hard object, like a coin, is hidden inside. The lucky one who finds this (and does not break his teeth on it) will be king for a day and get as many blessings and luck as the finder of the cross. In Greece there is no Epiphany Cake: the Greek epiphany cake is a vasilopita and will already have been consumed on the first of January.

You would think that the name vasilopita is the Greek translation of king cake: vasilias means king in Greek. The cake however is named after Ayos Vasilis (saint Basil). Or would that name be Holy King? Santa Claus is no holy man, although Saint Basil is his personification in Greece. He however has more in common with that other holy man, Saint Nicolas, in Greek Agios Nikolaos, whose Names Day is celebrated a month earlier, on December 6th (and in Holland a big celebration). Saint Basil was a man who took care of the sick and the poor, especially children. And he came from the same region as Saint Nicolas (Turkey). In Holland Saint Nicolas brings presents on December 5th, Agios Vasilis however brings them as late as New Year's morning. To make the confusion even bigger: it is said that Santa Claus, who appeared first in America, is the same as Saint Nicolas. His celebration came with the immigrants from Europe, but in America they probably did not want another festivity day and so Saint Nicolas had to wait until Christmas to make his appearance as Santa Claus.

The Three Kings have been honoured, the waters blessed, a new year's dive performed; but about one thing all parts of the torn religion are united: after January 6th all christmas decoration but be cleared.
Agios Vassilis, Agias Nicolaos and Santa Claus have all had their parties: now we are left in the realm of the Winter King.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Happy New Year

If the Martians come
will the people stop
their savage fighting and firing
so that black, white, brown and red
whatever their religion
come together to direct their evil arrows
at a communal enemy?

If the Martians come
will we then realize
how precious our earth is
with its woods and meadows
rivers and oceans
animals and flowers
which we have to defend?

If the Martians come
will we then finally understand
that we are all equal:
2 arms, 2 legs, 1 mouth
2 ears, 10 toes, 1 nose
and a big heart
to respect each other?

If the Martians come
to this world in turmoil
will all battles cease
for peace on earth
I sometimes think:
do we really need the Martians
to save the world?

Monday, 19 December 2016

December 15 – Sitting next to the fire

(Cooking fig syrup)

Thinking of Greece, you may see sun, heat and a blue sea. You’d never guess that the Greeks were the inventors of central heating; but they built systems where heat from a central fire was transferred via tubes to different spaces, like in the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Later the Romans used this principle to make floor heating in their houses and other buildings.

In Greece it can be pretty cold, and snow not only falls in the north or on mountain tops: many touristic islands can also be surprised by a cover of fluffy snow. This autumn consisted of endless days of summery weather, inviting one to mosey along terraces all day and to take kilometers long walks. But as soon as the sun sets on these beautiful days, even on Lesvos, it is time to crawl inside and settle next to a stove.

Adam and Eva did not come into a world with heaters. It was Prometheus who stole the fire from Olympus in order to give it to man to cook and to heat. The oldest ovens (about 20,000 years old) have been discovered in Central Europe. They were simple fire pits in the ground, but apparently working well enough that entire mammoths could be prepared on them. And the bones of those huge animals also served as fuel.

The ancient Greeks loved bread and were always keen to improve their baking. They produced clay ovens; around 7000 BC flat breads came out of them and, sprinkled with herbs, onions and garlic, they might have been the first pizzas. On the Cycladic islands a portable clay oven from the 17th century BC has been found.
It was the Romans who started to build stone ovens. In the volcanic ash covered city of Pompeij they found at least 30 stone ovens. They were the precursers of the outdoor oven, still seen in many Greek houses and used during festivity days to prepare large traditional dishes with meat and vegetables.

Greeks still like to play with fire. Making home beverages like tsipouro, cooking figs or grapes into a syrup, it’s still happening on an open fire, even though these domestic crafts are slowly dying out. As is preparing a meal in the outside oven. Now you only find cooking plates fired by gas or electricity in the kitchens. But the fire keeps on burning, though not always to prepare food. Many houses still have an open fireplace (tzaki), although more to satisfy a romantic soul than to produce heat. Households with central heating are still a minority. Not many people can afford the high price of oil fuel since this long lasting crisis. Commerce in wood stoves (zomba) has been stoked up enormously, causing in the big cities like Athens smog alerts. Many poor families are using old windows or furniture as fuel.

It seems that Lesvorians, just like tourists, think they live in a country of only sun, heat and blue sea. Window frames are only made to keep up the glass, doors to keep people inside or out; wind and rain are on the guest list and can always pass through. The houses seem to be made for an island of year-round summer. Which is not the case.

In autumn a certain chill will creep into the stone houses, especially after the first rains and when temperatures drop to under 20 oC. When the winter approaches (they say that in Greece the real winter only starts in January) you cannot sit quietly for more than a few moments without getting chilled to the bone. To make yourself comfortable there are stinking oil fuel stoves, small electric big-spenders or wood stoves. Open fire places might also chase the first colds, but when the real winter enters, an entire forest of trees will not warm your house; the efficiency of an open fire is very low.

The best solution is a wood stove, that can heat an entire house (especially when the stove pipe wanders through half the rooms). I started out with an open fire place, in two of the coldest Lesvorian winters of this century: snow, ice, rain and storms kept on attacking the island for months. I practically lived ín the open fireplace because my house was a first class air vent, even though the window sills were covered with towels in order to save the house from flooding.
Now next to me is the satisfying sound of a purring wood stove, behind new windows and doors that are made for what they are meant. The nice thing about my wood stove is that it has an oven: excellent to make pizzas, bread and other oven dishes. On top of the oven there is always hot water for a tea or a coffee. I am wondering why there are so many wood stoves without an oven. Such a lost of energy! Wood stoves were originally made for cooking, just like fire was given to the people to cook.

A wood stove does not have a button you can press and ‘oppah’ the flames spring up. The ash drawer has to be emptied, the glass window must be cleaned (with ash), kindling has to be gathered and a woodpile has to be built. Then you may set the fire. And then you have to maintain the fire, a rhythm you will soon make your own. And of course you have to chop wood and transport the wood to your house. I bet keeping a wood stove requires as many sporty moves as a fitness lesson: chopping, toting, getting down, getting up, cleaning, you do it all and for free.

I used to dream of having an AGA cooker. That dream has been fulfilled, even though it is with a Bulgarian Prity that – for just a small fraction of the price of an AGA – produces as many delicious dishes and also warms the house. For the open fireplace there also is a solution of installing a closed oven in it, sometimes with tubes attached that can bring the warmth elsewhere in the house. And so the wheel again has been invented (Dutch expression).

With the crackling flames fighting the moisture and cold in the house and with spring still faraway, and with the scent of a leg of a lamb covered in honey and herbs filling the house, in silence I thank Prometheus for the divine gift of fire.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

Smitaki 2016

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

November 17 – Lesvos under the moon and stars

(Full Moon over Eftalou)

The media has been full of news of the biggest super moon in ages. I get a little confused about all the phenomena in the sky. For example, you have a blue moon when there are two full moons in one calendar month. Or a red moon, although I have forgotten when this occurs. And there are different lunar eclipses. And sun eclipses, and star showers. It's one big paradise of events in the heavens.

As Lesvos is having so many days with sun shine, it offers a perfect possibility to see all those natural events. No teasing clouds stopping the show. Except on the day (November 14) that that huge moon was expected. I was quite busy that day, so it suited me that a thick layer of cotton-like moisture was filling the sky: even a super deluxe moon could not shine through it. I also had no idea what time that moon would appear above the mountains. I didn't lay down on a comfortable stretcher, like I do when the stars shoot through the sky. But I was wrong: friends watching from the castle of Molyvos did see this bright orange ball appearing and when I finally decided to take a look, all I saw was a blue shiny light from behind the clouds.

It wasn't sensationally big. And there was a negative effect: the night the moon was supposed to rise like an opera star in the sky, temperatures quickly dropped. So it's really so long to a beautiful summer. We have to wait for another weather event: the Alcionides Days in January, which will bring back some summer warmth.

So the moon tricked me. Just like the time when I decided to organize a romantic dinner in her dreamlike blue full beams. It was in the middle of the summer and there was no cloud to be seen. The table was set in the middle of a field and my guests took their seats, giggling because of the strange light. But soon enough you couldn't even find a saltshaker and the diners were slowly disappearing in darkness. The Moonlight was fading fast, and a nasty black shadow drove across the moon: a lunar eclipse!

The sun also knows how to fool you. Once on a bright sunny day I was driving through the mountains, towards Tsonia. The view through my sun glasses got more and more obscured. So time for a thorough cleaning session, and then another one, but it didn't help: even without glasses the view disappeared slowly. I panicked a bit, thinking that I would be blind any minute! The sky in the east took on an ominous darkness, the mountains disappeared in dark purple shadows and I saw less and less. Then a friend phoned me and asked: “Are you outside? Are you seeing it?”. I stared at my phone in disbelief and, totally upset, screamed back: “I'm practically blind”. “Great”, my friend answered, “enjoy the eclipse of the sun!” It did not become totally dark that afternoon, but all the birds, normally so loud on the island, kept their beaks shut. And I parked along the road, waiting for the comforting sunshine to come back.

Years ago whole tribes panicked when the sun or the moon performed these tricks, and many prediction for the end of the world coincided with days when darkness fell too early. But sometimes those eclipses did some good. In the time of Sappho, the Lydian empire stretched as far as the coasts opposite Lesvos (nowadays Turkey). In her poems she praised the Lydian soldiers, stout fighters who for years had been at war with the Medes. On a sunny day (on May 28, 585 BC) when the two armies faced each other, what happened to me happened to them: the light dimmed slowly and the battle field disappeared slowly into darkness. Although there was a scientist (Thales) who predicted the eclipse, the darkness was thought to be a punishment of the gods: terrified, swords and maces were thrown down and soon peace was signed.

So ignorance can also be good. Imagine if all fighting parties in the Middle East were to drop their rifles and UZI's because Allah makes the sun disappear. I then would immediately become a muslim to thank Allah for this humane gesture.

Now half a moon, upside down, laughs in the sky, but on December 14 she will again take on the guise of a super moon, although a bit smaller than the one of November. This show however might spoil the fun of star gazers, who will also be ready on December 13 & 14 for the super star show of the Geminids, the biggest of the year with 120 meteors a minute shooting through the sky.
But next year the events in heaven will be poor, with only one extraordinary show: a partial lunar eclipse on February 11. I hope I will not forget that date, so that I won't take fright and drop all my ladles and pans, but instead will think of times when a sun or lunar eclipse could bring peace on earth.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016