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




Tuesday, 8 November 2016

November 1 – The Empire of Stones goes China

(Lesvos; photo: Tzeli Hadjidimitriou)

The latest Chinese National Geographic published a big article about the Petrified Forest of Lesvos. Woaw, are we going to have a Chinese run on Lesvos now?! I’m sure that the Chinese will also love the rest of the island. Even though Lesvos doesn’t have dangerous walking paths, like those on the Chinese mountain of Huashan, it does have kilometers of old footpaths through the mountains, with views as stunning as in China. The small donkey paths meandering through the olive groves, the pine and chestnut forests are also a challenge for hikers.

When you walk from the chestnut wood above Agiasos to the Cristal mountain in the direction of Karionas, you might just get such a Huashan feeling, because it leads over a narrow mountain ridge with steep slopes on both sides: one side looking over a Chinese like panorama with capricious silhouettes of mountain ridges descending to the sparkling sea and in the background the floating landmass of Chios. At the other side the view is over the Bay of Gera, nibbling at the mountains where Mytilini tries to hide and beyond the mountains is the light blue sea, with Turkey beyond. It is a dream spot for photographers.

However, the petrified trees of Lesvos are not alone in getting notice in the Chinese papers. In August the beauty of the island was spotted in Bejing during an exhibition of the Lesvorian photographer Tzeli Hadjidimitriou, the first Greek woman to have a solo exhibition in China.

Many tourists may know Tzeli because of her books about cafenions (39 coffee houses & a barber's shop) and the hot springs of the island (Το άγιο νερό, The sacred water). Those beautiful Greek traditional cafes, where bright neon lights shine over treasures of faded glory, will eventually die out, because young Greeks do not want to spend time in the interiors of their grandparents. The same is true for the hot springs. Tzeli’s photos catch particularly well the lightfall in these springs, all carefully calculated long ago by Ottoman architects.

My favourite book of Tzeli is the one about stones: In communion with stone, a symphony of old stone houses, walls and enormous boulders which are so characteristic for the Lesvorian landscape. Volcanoes long ago distributed them profusely all over the place and the inhabitants were very happy with this wealth: everywhere on the island, you will spot a stone wall, used as a barrier or a support for an olive tree. There are places so crowded with old walls that you are bewildered and wonder how anyone found the time to build them. Coming across ‘kula's’, old sheds or little houses, on mountain slopes is not unusual, and you wonder how the old inhabitants managed to live there. And of course, even in the most remote and impossible spots, like on top of mountains or hidden in caves with difficult access, you will find churches built with old stones. Some regions, like near Kalochori, are studded with Stonehenge-like boulders, making you glad that you were not there when the volcanoes spewed them out. In the area of Plati, above Michou, you will find plenty of tower-like heaps of stones scattered over the olive groves, as if generations of farmers had too much free time and built them.

When you watch out over this Empire of Stones, you also ask yourself why most tourists only come for the summer sun. Lesvos is so much more than beaches, sea, Molyvos and Petra.
Tzeli's work is as varied as is Lesvos. Besides her travel guides like a Greek guide of car tours on Lesvos (Ανεχερεύνητη Λέσβος) and A girl's guide to Lesbos, her photographs catch the amazing fall of light on the apparently never-changing landscapes. These are the colourful works that were on exhibition in Istanbul in summer 2015 and this year travelled to faraway China. In Bejing a new piquant detail was added: from her series of naked women in the sea, some images were printed on very thin and large silk clothes, hung in the space in front of sunsets, olive trees, flamingo's and mountains, bringing alive these ‘floating Sappho's’.

Before the refugee deluge of last year, Lesvos (the third biggest island of Greece) was still fairly unknown and had small tourism. Now everybody knows of the island with the nickname ‘refugee island’. However, the wealth of natural treasures, the magnificent varied landscapes and the still traditional lifestyle remain one of the best kept secrets of the Aegean. Let's see if the Chinese – who received a taste of Lesvos in Bejing and who can read now about what nature has created on Lesvos – will appreciate the island as it is.


Books of Tzeli Hadjidimitriou:
39 coffee houses & a barber shop, Crete University Press
In communion with stone, Crete University Press
Ανεχερευνητη Λεσωοσ (travel guide Lesvos), Road Εκδοσεισ
A girl's guide to Lesbos, Tzeli Hadjidimitriou



Saturday, 15 October 2016

October 12 – Dragon children

(A Painted Dragon)

A very long time ago Lesvos was part of the continent. This was a time when huge mammals, mammoths and giant tortoises, roamed the woods and fields, all as scary as dragons. I am happy that I did not live then: imagine if during a nice walk through Lesvos' beautiful nature you suddenly came eye to eye with an enormous, roaring, long haired elephant with long lethal tusks.

A dragon is like a very big, flying, lizard which I would prefer to meet rather than the fire-spitting enormous variety. But what about these legendary animals? There is no museum in the world that exhibits a skeleton of a dragon. Do they only exist in a fantasy world, like those in Greek mythology? Those ones however looked more like monster-size serpents. There was Python in Delphi that had to be slain by Apollo; dealing with the serpent of Colchis was a task presented to Jason in order to steal the Golden Fleece; killing the Lernaean Hydra, a water-serpent dragon with 5 - 100 heads, was one of the Twelve Feats of Heracles and there were Sun Dragons, who are depicted as serpents towing the vehicle of Medea through the sky.

It is not too strange that Greeks saw dragons as monstrous serpents: there are lizards who look more like serpents than animals with legs and claws. Like the Pallas' Glass Lizard (Pseudopus apodus), a lizard without legs, which can become almost one and a half meters long! But do not panic seeing such a scary, light to dark brown serpent: he only eats insects and spiders.

If you want an insect free house, lizards can do the job for you. I am not saying that I actually want a Glass Lizard in the house. Even though I know they are completely harmless, each time I meet one I run as fast as I can.
No, in the house I have some of those very tiny cute geckos, also belonging to the lizard family. They may be transparent, or light rose and look like they have just crept out of a fairytale. Before you can say 'Hello!' they will disappear behind a plinth or through a little hole in the wall that you’ve never noticed before. They are like invisible pets, dealing with bloodthirsty mosquitoes and scary spiders, although I wonder if these very small, innocent looking animals are big enough to kill and eat those eery big spiders that sometimes race through the living room.

During my daily walks with the dogs I come along rocks inhabited by Stellagama stellio, also known as star lizards or painted dragons. These lizards have a dark rocky colour, but are easy to recognize by the diamond shape spots on their back. I am fascinated by these prehistorical looking animals: they are just like dragon babies. Unlike geckos they stay put, only their eyes moving, ready to flee. First I thought that each painted dragon had its own little cave to live in, behind a narrow opening between rocks. But each day they seem to have changed places and there is only one crack that is under permanent guard. Which immediately rouses the fantasy: do they protect the cave of Ali Baba? They are difficult to spot and when you see them, it is fun to play a game: how long can you stare at each other? Their black round eyes see you as a giant wanting to harm them. But what would I do with a star lizard? I already have plenty of invisible geckos in the house. So I stare at them, not moving, until the dog has had enough of it, barks, lays down in front of a car or runs away, breaking the spell between me and the lizard.

According to the old stories most dragons were not so sweet. Long after prehistorical times, when volcano eruptions and other disasters had killed all those legendary huge animals and Lesvos become an island, dappled with the villages that still exist, there used to live a dragon on Lesvos. No Greek serpent-dragon, but a real one, with legs. It might have been a bloodthirsty robber eating small cattle and children, he was called Dragon by the scared villagers. This dragon lived around the ravine Dèmonolanka, where a footpath leads from Agia Paraskevi to Mandamados. Like a giant lizard he roamed over the rocks and wherever he set his big feet, he caused small earthquakes. When she became pregnant and had to deliver, she put one leg on one side of the ravine and the other leg on the other side of the ravine. But having eaten so many lambs, little goats and children, she was so heavy that she pancaked. Her cry made the whole island shake and she broke into smithereens on the rocks.

No matter how much archaeologists may dig up and piece together, there always will remain mysteries about our wonderful nature. Legends are here to explain those incredible things. The story of the Dragon of Dèmonolanka could explain the source of all those lizards here on the island: these dragon children will never grow because their mother fell apart on the rocks.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016


Tuesday, 27 September 2016

September 24 – Lines of passage

(The Halim Bey Mansion, Mytilini)

Last week a fire spat smoke over the capital Mytilini; the next day the smoldering fire was put out by rain. The refugee camp of Moria was partly burned down and even though in the north of the island we had no idea what was going on, the media soon well picked up news of the fire. European politicians however smelt nothing. They are still parading around proudly saying that their ‘Deal with the Sultan’ stopped the flood of refugees. I am afraid that they will only step into action and do what they promised when another photo of a dead child in a camp shows up and brings people all over the world to tears.

The whole situation makes my heart bleed and my frustrations escalate. Every tourist who visited the island this summer knows that life on the island (except around Moria) continues as usual. Tens of thousands of Greeks are still surviving a national crisis.

Cultural organizations however continue to organize festivals. This past summer the island was full of activities, not only for tourists, but also for the locals. The absolute top was the Molyvos International Music Festival, maybe the best classical music festival of Greece. Young international talents armed with Stradivarius violins and a Steinway piano played some lesser known and beautiful music in the fairytale like atmosphere of Molyvos Castle in several open-air concerts. I am still wondering how they got the Steinway into the massive fort. This kind of event attracts people who are drawn to the island itself, unlike the press-mosquitos drawn by the bad news

The Turkish couple Can and Sevda Elgiz also want to bring another public to Mytilini. They collect modern art and offer space to young artists in their Elgiz Museum in Istanbul, which houses the overflow of their growing home collection.

In the coming month part of this collection is going to be exhibited in Mytilini, and with a special reason: Can's ancestors, the Kulassizades, were governors of Lesvos. Can’s great grandfather, Halim Bey, was the last Ottoman ruler, before Lesvos returned to Greek government in 1912. The entire family left their birthplace eleven years later to settle in Ayvalik, when the Treaty of Lausanne was signed and the population exchange was made. The family house in Mytilini, where Can’s mother grew up, was left empty, but some hundred years later still stands. The house now known as the Halim Bey Mansion has been restored and has become a public art gallery. This was for Can a good reason to reconnect with the island, and especially because Lesvos now needs positive energy.

After an impressive file of movie and pop stars, various artists and the pope, who all came to bring attention and help for the refugees and the Levorian population, we will now see some top-notch art. The Elgiz love to gather the work of the big names like Karel Appel, Robert Rauschenberg, Julian Schnabel, Andy Warhol and Gilbert & George. Which of their art works will cross the Aegean Sea is not yet clear. The exhibition called ‘Lines of passage' is created by the Turkish curator Baak Senova, who has made her name in the international art world.

In earlier times it was not unusual to visit for several days a city that offered a high-profile exhibition. Nowadays masses of art lovers go to the big art attractions, although now you sometimes have to buy tickets months in advance and then still wonder whether you will see the artworks or just the queues of people waiting to get in.
A new trend is to mount exhibitions in lesser known places, and Lesvos offers a perfect opportunity to check this out. Art lovers: hurry to the Paris of the Aegean, Mytilini.

And for the artists (Like Marina Abramovic who last spring worked in Athens): Here is the island of the new art world! Ai Weiwei has already discovered it and because artists will not, like politicians, ignore the refugee crisis, more will follow to the island.

(The exhibition will be open from September 30 to November 11 in the Halim Bey Mansion in Mytilini)

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016