Monday, 25 September 2017

September 24 - Farewell Perikles, dancing myth of Molyvos



As a naughty Karagiozis
he danced around customers
his wrinkled face
always in a fat grin

A meatball here, a tasty fish there
juggling with full plates
sometimes a bow, sometimes a greet
never a complaint crossing his lips

Languorous evenings full with traditional sounds
colorful puppets endless gossiping
about the Greek world
with a laugh and a tear

Then his laughing eyes
would light up with pleasure
just like when fingers bowed
the smooth strings of a bouzouki

And when the summer evening progressed
empty bottles starting to make music
feet floated off the floor
father, daughter, father, son

Dearly celebrating Greek life
nights full of swirling people
and he, in the middle of the dance floor
of his restaurant full of flowers

Sometimes waving with his rifle
towards tables full of clients
a sudden shot in the blue air
and gone were the fish-eating wasps

His rich life going towards twilight
in his little old white car
embracing the sunset
to fish in Eftalou

To the gardens or the sea
Georgina always at his side
driving and enjoying
the empty winter evenings

O, Perikles, dancing myth of Molyvos
sleep took your voice
music, dance and life
far beyond the evening red

In heaven you can angle
as long as you want
while we here
will miss you so much

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017





Saturday, 9 September 2017

September 4 – Where is the Summer?



Month of August blessed with Summer
highlight of Greek holidays
this year pestered by foul cold streams
making naked shoulders long for coats

Even as Maria floated to heaven
in the midst of the high season
normal sweating pilgrims
were greeted with cold

The sea as cold as a polar bear’s love
lost to Mediterranean warmth
as if we’ve started all over again
from that jubilant spring

Unusual cool August
more like the end of September
when you are on the doorstep of Autumn
pulling the blankets up the beds

Where is that desirable hot summer
warming hearts and then so quickly
like time here on the island
passing as fast as a rocket

Fat figs in the trees
first signs of Autumn
Summer causing the fall of the leaves
beside the rotting but sweet scented fruit

This Summer disguised as a belated guest
who comfortably seats herself
only to stand up as quickly to pace around
in haste and impatient, as if elsewhere would be better

Boom, the door will slam shut
behind the Summer sneaking off
leaving us to the colourful Autumn
come to prepare us for the Winter

No bad words about the Winter and its soft whispering stoves
but it's like I have not yet stored up enough heat
and haven’t dallied sufficient hours in the blue sea
and still have long languorous evenings to go under the stars

Grapes already disappeared
wasps fattened with their juice
Sardines still in the sea and on the plates
until the last rays of Summer.

Burning hot healing Summer
melting momentarily all sorrows
fraternizing at beaches and in the sea
why such a hurry to deliver us to Autumn?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017





Tuesday, 22 August 2017

August 21 - So long, Ioanna



You came to the island
to find a new home
a new life
or a new beginning

you followed the colourful threads
of your ambition
yarns and other woolly materials
transferred into pieces of art

You seemed to be so happy
in your working space full of treasures
learning from old traditions
and pass them through

the yarn giving you enough energy
to help out who ever suffered
human or animal
your spinning wheel kept on helping

There must have been disturbances
that cut your yarn
maybe trust, maybe illness
made you to an object in need

Giving up the loom
and that beautiful space you created
out of your big heart
and the joy of living

I hope you have been happy
on this island full of invisible threads
that kept you busy
learning your skills to other people

giving them a way of creativity
so needed in life
because you believed in beauty
and giving it to others

forgive me I was not there
when you needed love in return
may there have been others
to have kept your faith in humanity

because that was what you were:
a beautiful woman
coming to the island
to spread goodness, beauty and assistance.


Thursday, 10 August 2017

August 8 – Greetings from Nissiopi

(A little beach at Nissiopi)

The tectonic plates under the island will never give up dancing. In small steps they shift and brush past each other, a tango in slow motion (2.0), and nobody knows if they will fall back to sleep or will continue with an up-tempo: we still depend on the moods of the gods, or Mother Earth.

Some days ago I was on an excursion to the little island of Nissopi, the newest part of the Petrified Forest Park of the Natural History Museum of Lesvos at Sigri. There my fantasy really got triggered: I tried to imagine what would happen if the earth were to take revenge over our abuse of her wealth, for example by opening wide her volcanoes. We are used to natural disasters: a storm here, floods there or an earthquake elsewhere. But the forces that were released millions of years ago on the island are unimaginable. Huge rocks and lava spitting mountains, that vomitted all their innards with inhumane force, causing oceans of fire, tsunami's and earthquakes. It must have been hell on earth.

Everywhere on Lesvos you will see witness to these events: lonely enormous rocks hurled just about anywhere, volcanic stones pressed or moulded into artistic forms and other impressive rock formations. The island must have been pretty shaken. The best finds however are due to sheer happenstance during the madness: after the firestorms, cloud-bursts with lots of water flooded the ravaged region, causing a large part of the trees to become petrified rather than carbonized. Lesvos hides plenty of them, just like the little island of Nissiopi.

At my feet a little beach full of petrified tree trunks and shards, lying as innocent rocks in the sea, their smooth surfaces glittering in the sun. Brown, red, but also yellow, orange, green, blue, these fossils look like treasures washed ashore from the Cave of Ali Baba. The inner wood often conjured into half precious stones. My fingers itched to pick up some of the smaller pieces, shining between the sand. But the guide was serious: “Do not touch anything!” So I behaved myself, knowing that I already have some small stones, collected from other beaches where the waves casually deposited them in the sand. I looked around this amazing little beach, protected by walls of lava layers, some exposed petrified trees still stuck in there, many tree trunks still standing, their roots safely nestled deep in the earth. It was like standing in a million year old wood.

The sea was not here in those days,” the guide said and I gazed out over the water, stretching itself as blue as heaven towards the indefinite sky and wondered where would the sea have been in those times. I knew that millions of years ago Lesvos was part of the Asia plate - just ordinary main land.

I looked at the various layers of volcanic deposit, stapled under hills which were laid naked and I shivered: imagine if you were out for a day in this forest of mammoth trees (sequoia's), their tops reaching almost a hundred meters into the sky. Just as you spread a cloth under one of those impressive trees and opened your picnic basket, there was a thundering noise. It all could happen very quickly (proved by the excavations in Pompeii, where people were buried alive). The trees may have been chatting to each other and then suddenly it would became dark. Thick, grey clouds of ash would descend from the tree tops and branches, like a black snowstorm, cutting the oxygen supply. That is how these trees and everything what lived below died: by suffocation. Some trees were taken by streams of mud and other volcano junk and came stuck on the ‘not yet’ an island. Maybe this island just consists of those drifting trees, caught between the broken trees of the forest embedded in layers of ash and spitted rocks.

However, the absence of the sea at that small island kept me wondering. Once there must have been a fascinating forest full of trees, that only after they were immortalized in ash, met the sea, that patiently but persisting, started to nibble at the ash, thus freeing the trees.
Now with global warming and the rising of sea levels, you could think that this is no new phenomenal at all. Sea water for millions of years has slowly crept up the land, filling valleys with water, thus creating islands. But most Greek islands were created by heavy earthquakes, tearing and shifting the earth crust, even absorbing whole villages, like ancient Pyrrha in the Gulf of Kalloni.

Imagine if it were to happen to you: living in a vast country, then the earth trembles and hoppa, you find your house standing alone on an island, surrounded by water, mountain slopes disappeared into the sea, only their tops towering above the waves. It is said that the Greek islands are part of the foothills of the Alps. I am still not sure when the Gods decided to create the Greek island empire, only that is was long after these mammoth trees disappeared under the ash.

You cannot compare petrified trees with those cute 'prehistoric' animals that mooch about the Galapagos islands. I dare to say though that, for scientists, Lesvos and Nissiopi are just as important a Valhalla as the Galápagos Islands. Maybe there are fewer animals for visitors to cuddle, but those beautiful, very old trees invite you to fantasize like crazy about the fascinating, lethal monkey business of Mother Earth.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)


© Smitaki 2017

Sunday, 30 July 2017

July 27 – Strange sardines

(Bowie looking for sardines)

There are some days – and there are plenty of them here on the island – that Lou Reed’s song A Perfect Day keeps popping up in your head. For example when the sea is smooth as oil (as the Greeks say), transparent and of a spellbinding blue colour. On such a perfect day last week I came to the sea and saw she was covered with white speckles. What was floating in the water?

I concentrated on the spots and realized they were thousands of little fish floating in the sea. Bah. What was the matter? I had come to cool off a bit, so I decided to have a quick swim. However after just a few strokes I recognized the fish as sardines, I wondered what could have caused their death and I ran out of the water. Together with some bystanders we gazed at the sea swarming with fat sardines, and we alerted the coast guard.

Some hours later I returned to the beach, curious if I would find a sea full of water or fish. I was bewildered to see some men happily collecting bags full of sardines. Were they cleaning the sea? The men laughed at my concern: “No, no, the sardines are good!” Eat, eat, they gestured. I indeed did remark that the fish hadn’t ended up on the beach. Were they dead or not? Someone told me that probably some fishing nets had broken, which is why the sea had turned into a free market: you could just pick up the tasty fish from the water. I watched the men stuffing bag after bag with the fish and decided that the sea was safe enough to have a swim and went to look for a patch of sea less fish-rich.

While floating in the sea like a fish, I wondered why a sardine – chosen by destiny to be freed from a fisherman’s net – would not swim away, and would instead, just like me, end belly-up rocking gently in the slow wash of the sea. A little further into the sea I noticed small sparkly backs, summersaulting above the water: there clearly was a school of fish passing by. I began think about the sardine run, regularly taking place in July in South Africa. Milliards of sardines participate, even that though they are in danger of being eaten by bloodthirsty sharks, other predatory fish, birds, fishermen and tourists who come in great numbers to see this spectacle. I wondered if somebody might have organized a smaller Greek sardine run, all those floating fish participants, being tired or taking naps. If this was the case, then there might also be swarms of predators around, because this sort of event never remains a secret for long. A little anxious now, I closely scanned the water around me, looking for that well known black triangle. But even the sea gulls still seemed unaware of what was going on. But I was not much reassured and, like a wise sardine, I returned onto the safety of the beach.

Lesvos is reknowned for its sardines. The papalina sardines from the Gulf of Kalloni (and of Yera) are the emperors of their kind. It is said that these fish get fatter and thus tastier than those from the open sea because they live off special phyto plankton that grows in those warm waters.

Maybe the mini-run was on its way to the Gulf of Kalloni and got lost (the mouth of the Bay is not that wide) and tired. Or maybe they just fled from there, afraid of the coming Sardine Festival in Skala Kallonis*, where hundreds of sardines will participate, though on the grill or buried in salt. Whatever it was, the next day not even one lonely sardine showed up, neither floating on its back, swimming or washed ashore. So with no worries, I jumped into the sea: another Perfect Day.


(*Traditionally this festival is taking place the first weekend of August, but somewhere I read this year it will take place on August 10, 11 and 12).

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017






Thursday, 20 July 2017

July 17 – Time of changes

(Greek publicity for Santé cigarettes)

In 1604 king James VI of England said: A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs. Not everybody agreed with him: tobacco was said to be a medical cure for lots of things. The Spanish brought the plant from the South Americas around 1530 saying it was a miracle plant.

I have to admit that I am still a smoker, even though they now put those horrible pictures on the packs of cigarettes. But I am back to the roots of the tobacco: I smoke natural tobacco from the Mohawk indians. I know: that is no excuse for not quitting, but it does let you smoke less. Most harmful substances in a cigarette are added by the manufacturer; by smoking ‘natural’, I do smoke a little 'healthier'.

There were times that half of the world smoked without worries. Looking at movies from the Sixties and Seventies, the smoke vaporizes from the film screen. One of my favorite scenes is the one where Melina Mercouri sits on her bed, a cigarette hanging at her lips, while she plays a record on her little record player in the movie Never on Sunday. Greece still is a smokers country, even though the e-cigarette is marching in. However I cannot imagine a movie where an e-cigarette is elegantly lit.

There were times that people got rich from smoking, as was once the case on Lesvos. When tobacco mania hit the Ottoman Empire, more and more tobacco fields popped up in the landscape. The North-Aegean islands Lesvos, Samos, Chios and Lemnos switched grapevines for tobacco around the end of the 19th century, at the same time a fatal illness of the vines ended viticulture. There was gold to be earned with tobacco, because apart from official trade – the old pirate blood still not quite cold – there was a huge market for smugglers.

Lesvos enjoyed its last Golden Century (around 1900) thanks not only to olive oil and soap: tobacco was also a mighty export product. Newly purchased steam machines and steam boats made transport much quicker. The country changed: clever traders entered the villages, buying, legally or not, the harvests. There came a new class with workers in the production plants, that quickly got organized against exploitation.

Until the last years of the Ottoman Empire smugglers were rarely chased, the police themselves often involved in this illegal business. For everybody it was also seen an act against the Régie Company, that, helped by foreign bankers, had a monopoly for all tobacco in the Ottoman Empire. At the turn of the 19th century it was estimated that half of all people smoked cigarettes from the Régie Company, the other half the much cheaper and often of better quality tobacco from the smugglers. I wonder if smoking then was healthy.

Did people smoke more because of the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and the several wars taking place at the first half of the 20st century? The tobacco industry kept on growing during the destruction of the old world. Refugees were put to work on the fields and the factories, where lots of women worked, kept on turning. After World War II American cigarettes conquered European markets. The American Cigarette Cowboys anointed their fine cut tobacco with plenty of chemicals, thus increasing its ability to addict. We did not know that in those times. This development however was one of the causes for the Greek cigarette industry’s diminishment. In the Sixties the tobacco fields disappeared from the landscapes of Lesvos, together with thousands of people who emigrated to cities and abroad, fleeing poverty and the hard work on the fields. In the north of the island they then started a new industry: tourism.

After viticulture and the tobacco culture, now tourism is increasing on the island. It is said that this is due to the negative publicity around the refugee crisis, that is not or not enough dealt with by the European Union. The absence of long white, sandy beaches and world famous archeological monuments will never make Lesvos into a destination for mass tourism, so much wished for by some people. The international travel companies had realized that long ago, because Lesvos is one of the most expensive islands to fly to; though nobody wants to explain why.

Small, alternative companies however have understand that Lesvos only can prosper by exclusivity. They have their tourists traveling all over the island and it’s rare for them not to get hooked by the authentic villages and the surprising and varying landscape; this magic is bringing a large number of the visitors back to the island.

Times have changed and that requires adaptation. Because of its geographical position refugees, looking for a safe place, will keep on passing through Lesvos. Mass tourism will never reach the island. And smoking will never ever be healthy again.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017




Monday, 10 July 2017

July 6 – Another Greek tradition going down



The tradition of having dinner with the entire family in a restaurant is dying out in Greece. Thanks to the crisis, another piece of culture is becoming something for the history books. Long live the dictatorship of the European Union that not only tries to starve one of his member states but with its pernickety rules in keeping people healthy, only manages to make them very unhappy. Geert Wilders, an ultra rightwing Dutch politician, is right in saying that the Greeks spend all their money on souvlaki and ouzo: they also have to eat and drink, don't they?

Souvlaki (compare it to fish & chips or a hamburger) is at least something Greeks can still afford once in a while. Dinner in a restaurant, where prices are continuously on the rise, has become a rare event, now only to be enjoyed on celebration days, and expensive whisky, once number one drink in Greece, has been replaced by the much cheaper ouzo. Here on Lesvos it's now only tourists that visit some restaurants, the others becoming a sitting room where a mother waits with delicious dishes for husband and children, while the heroes of the village or the favorite singers from yellowed photographs look sad down at the empty room. As soon as the tourists begin to disappear, the restaurants that were able to open during the summer season, will close for the winter.

Europe can dictate what it wants, but it will never – especially on Lesvos – be able to destroy the entire food culture. The few tourists who realize that the island is not entirely filled up with desperate refugees, know what to expect: an island as proud as a peacock, with breath taking nature, its traditional villages and secret beaches, its lovely restaurants spread all over the island offering a culinary adventure, an island where during the summer a large range of festivals are celebrated: from traditional and classic music festivals to folklore and tango events as well as ouzo and sardines festivals.

New this year is the Lesvos Food Festival: from July 14 to July 16, in various locations in the medieval looking village of Molyvos. Different locals and chefs will be presenting open cooking workshops, using the ingredients that Lesvos has to offer, like the dairy products from goats and sheep, the often forgotten pulses, salt from the Gulf of Kalloni, a wide range of herbs, olive products, home made pasta and alcohol. They will even show you how to cook in traditional pots of clay.

For Greek restaurant owners it is normal that you venture into their kitchens to view what will be on the menu that day. This festival however offers you a chance to have a close look at how the cooks magically turn fresh products into tasty regional dishes. A lot of Greek kitchen secrets will be brought into the open. During another part of the festival you will be let loose in making mezèdes (Greek tapas), experimenting with the rich flavours and forms of all those fresh products.

I wonder why sometimes I have the idea that Greek life consists mainly of eating and drinking. Ouzo and fish belong to the sea (ouzo looses its taste the farther you are from the sea). And there is plenty of food on the land. The fields of flowering herbs – an eternal part of the landscape - along with the cooling shadows of the millions of olives, walnut and chestnut trees, and the almond and cherry trees whose blossoms decorate spring, and even the hidden cornfields: they all contribute to the dinners that traditionally are shared by a large number of people. For the food gurus Lesvos is a true culinary paradise, where simplicity and freshness dictate the rules, mixed with sea salt and herbs.

The other aspect of a Greek dinner is the company and the music. With a bit of luck dancing is also part of it and I am sure that this will also be the case during this Food Festival. However seeing a dinner table occupied by three to four generations of Greek people has become a
rare sighting: no entertainment anymore, no spontaneous singing, nor dancing around the table or a bottle of ouzo. This is how slowly the air for life is being squeezed out of the Greeks.

But the Greeks do not give up so easily: this summer Molyvos and Petra will be vibrating with music, singing, dance, food and cheerful people who dare to live, even if they have to survive on souvlaki and tomatoes from their gardens. Kali orexi!


Magical concerts in the castle of Molyvos:

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017