Monday, 13 March 2017

March 11 – Via Mytilini

(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




Thursday, 23 February 2017

February 20 – The forest under the road

(Junk Art at Andissa, from Ioannis Theodosiou)

It was at the end of a dark December afternoon, the sun already gone; we drove over a new piece of road, from Vatoussa to Skalochori. It was pitch black and we could not see anything of the surroundings, but we did look forward to each bend the new road took. Nobody knew where the trip would lead us. Suddenly high in the sky a lit building appeared. It looked like a small acropolis surrounded by spotlights. We looked at each other questioning: where were we? How is it that we did not know this highly visible sanctuary? Which village in the west has kept it hidden? 

It could only be the little church, sleeping high on the top of a mountain next to Skalochori, now changed into a glorious light object. Maybe they installed these party lights to celebrate the new road, which has reduced the journey between Molyvos and Sigri by at least fifteen minutes. Just as the new piece of road leading from the mountains down to Sigri (the first part that was constructed of this mega 'New Road’), brings you five minutes sooner into the village. Everywhere you see sections of new tarmac: a lost bridge between Vatoussa and Andissa, a piece of road nearly embracing the road from Filia to Kalloni and another bridge lying neglected in the sheep meadows just outside Dafia.

Everywhere clearcutting and excavators remind you of the making of this road, but it is still difficult to imagine how and where this road is going to be. As it is also unclear for lots of people why in the most sparsely populated part of the island they planned a highway. The traffic in one hour can be counted on one hand.

If we were to give numbers to the thoroughfares on the island, then Kalloni to Mytilini is the A1, Kalloni to Molyvos the A2, Plomari to Larisos (A1) the A3, Polichnitos to Matses (A1) the A4, Loutra to Mytilini the A5 and Mandamados to Mytilini the A6. I think Sigri to Kalloni might be B10. The A1 and A3 are already improved. Building goes on at the A4. But why is it that the busy A2 has never had a remake (even though there was money for a circular road around Stipsi [C6]), that is a Greek mystery. As is the megalomaniac project of the B10. Similarly the boulevard of Eftalou, in summer for sure C4. It is in such bad condition that shortly buses will no longer be able to pass.

But let's go back to the B10, Sigri to Kalloni. In the small fishing village of Sigri, kept alive by the beautiful Natural History Museum of the Petrified Forest, there is no sign of new buildings. So when somebody says that this village has to become a port city, I immediately think about the question of the chicken and the egg: is a city growing thanks to a good road leading there, or is a new road made when the city is growing too much? I still believe that the secret plan to cover the wild west of Lesvos with giant windmills is still on the table.

The building of this new road was not totally useless, as proved by the amount of petrified trees discovered when digging out the road. The first section, from Sigri to Andissa, goes straight through Petrified-Tree-Land and during the making the archaeological service was always present and has reaped a big harvest. So much so that an interesting exhibition was made of it, shown during the summer of 2015 in the museum in Sigri and it has now crossed the Aegean to Thessaloniki, where The Forest under the Road can be visited until April in the Old Archaeological Museum Geni Tzami.

What the new road has to offer, other than saving time, is unclear. Some people, like the owner of the petrol station just below Vatoussa, will not be happy with this change. Reading the signs in the landscape, the road also will skip Andissa, the village which advertises having the most beautiful village square on the island. Passing above the village, along a hill famous amongst orchid hunters, there is also the junkyard of an artist who makes fabulous sculptures out of scrap metals: from amazing tables to amusing beings waving you a friendly hello as you pass by. All made from screws, bolts, fan blades, drive springs and other various car parts. When the new road actually bypasses Andissa, these laughing robots will be waving useless into the blue sky, because nobody will be stopping anymore to take them. But I guess for the time being we can still enjoy this Junk Art, because the new tarmac extends only a few kilometers a year. Or maybe the ‘real’ goal already has been achieved: that exciting exhibition about what was discovered during the making of a road on Lesvos.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017


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