Brrrrr…..ring on the spring – it’s COLD!

It’s not only cold – it’s wet too!

I really shouldn’t complain though, especially when I look at what’s happening across the United States and Australia right now. It makes me realise just how fortunate we are here on Skiathos. Yes, there are days when even the roaring fires do nothing to remove the chill in the bones or, being surrounded on all sides by water as we are, the relentless damp! But, thankfully, there are gloriously sunny, warm days in between too, when the promise of spring seems imminent. In eager anticipation of its arrival, when a friend brought me a huge pot of cyclamen, I just had to reach for my watercolours and paint them:

Cyclamen ©Yvonne Ayoub 2011

The days are still short of course and the nights so long people often ask how I spend them. Well there’s always TV of course and books to read but there’s no reason to feel isolated or bored or stuck at home (unless you really want to of course!) because there’s actually quite a lot going on for such a small island.  There are several restaurants and cafe’s open (albeit in the town only) where one can meet up and enjoy the company of good friends and chat to the proprietors too, now they have time on their hands. There are regular nights of fantastic live music gigs in Town too, if a lively bar and socialising is your thing, such as the VAGABONDS performing ‘Live’ at the Sollevante cafe bar:

Their next gig is on FEB,4th at the LEVANTE, 9.30 – late

(join the VAGABOND FACEBOOK PAGE)

There are plenty of other events to attend too. Last week I dropped in to the Skiathos ‘Spiritual’ Centre to attend the annual gathering of the ‘ΜΙΚΡΑΣ ΑΣΙΑΣ’ Society, Greeks of ‘Asia Minor’ (as we call it) origin.

This group makes up a large proportion of the present day ‘Skiathite’ population.  They were the victims of the Hellenic Genocide; the systematic torture, massacre and ethnic cleansing of several millions of Hellenes  (Greeks) and Armenian and Assyrians too, perpetrated by the Turks in Constantinople (Istanbul), Eastern Thrace, Imvros, Tenedos, Macedonia, Cappadocia and Pontos, between the beginning of the 1890’s and the end of the 1950’s.In his preface by  to the 1994 Greek translation of Henry Morgenthau’s book ‘An International Drama’, Grigoris Troufakos talks about the ‘Burning of Smyrna’ (Izmir) the ‘Great Conflagration’ in 1922 and how thousands of men women and children were forced to flee for their lives.



So it was, that a large group of such refugees, expelled from their homeland and escaping persecution, after days at sea, eventually found themselves on Skiathos (chosen, so I’ve been told, because of its striking similarity to the home they’d left behind: Smyrna (Izmir). They’d brought very little with them except their skills, trades and pride in a culture far more developed than that of Skiathos’ small indigenous population present at the time. There were ship-builders among them, but most were simple fisherman and olive farmers. The refugees brought their educated ways, fine clothes, their books, their music and even the odd piano. As such, understandably, these cultured ‘infiltrators’ were not exactly welcomed with open arms. Indeed one story tells of how the islanders’ regarded the newly arrived ‘ladies’, who insisted on bathing every day, with deep suspicion. Skiathites ladies, by contrast, only bathed weekly, for it was firmly believed that only ladies ‘of a certain profession’ would have it necessary to bathe so frequently!

John Frederick Lewis R.A

The refugees never intended to settle permanently, they always expected to be able to return to their beloved homeland one day. The sad reality is they never did and although today they have almost completely integrated into Skiathos society, they’ve never lost sight of their roots. They retain a huge pride in and affection for, their beloved homeland. Only last summer they held an exhibition in the Bourtzi. It was beautifully curated and filled with local family’s contributions; treasured personal memorabilia that illuminated their culture and traditions and traced their history, which is as fascinating as it is tragic.

I took my place in the large auditorium just as Mayor Plomaritis began his welcoming speech and then, with lights dimmed, a screen was unfolded and we were treated to a slide show of photos taken last October by some of the group on a short trip back to the homeland of their forefathers. It was accompanied by an interesting commentary given by Maria Ververi. Photos of the ruins at the ancient city of Ephesus were wonderful to see. The temple of Artemis had been one of the seven wonders of the world and (according to Pausanias) the largest building of the ancient world.  I’d studied St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians in my youth and the images instantly brought to life a city I had only ever been able to imagine.

Smyrna, however, appeared to be of more interest to the assembled Skiathites. It was where many had originated from and it has, it seems, fared well since the war. Today, as Turkey’s third largest city it is a thriving and popular holiday destination. High rise hotels dominate the busy harbour and its beautiful marina at Kusadasi (the photo was taken as an example to the Mayor of how a marina should look!) is today filled with expensive yachts and smart cafe’s:

In the back streets, however, interspersed between the modern architecture stand the ruins of many of the once beautiful mansions of typically Greek architecture.

Instantly  familiar were the carved balconies, sloping red-tiled roofs and heavy wooden shutters  of the smaller houses, resembling many of the old houses in Skiathos Town. But, sadly, almost without exception the ones that escaped the great burning of 1922 have been largely abandoned and just left to go to ruin. Those that are inhabited have large families of modern-day immigrants, from countries such as Bulgaria and Albanians, as tenants. It was pointed out however (again to the recently re-appointed mayor!)  how spotless the streets were and how their practise of only allowing garbage out onto the streets when the bin men are actually collecting. might be worth considering adopting)

A particular highlight for me was seeing the home of famous Greek poet and Nobel prize winner for Literature 1963,  George Seferis. (1900-1971). His study remains as comfortably furnished and book-lined as he left it (with only his icons removed) and in seeing it, his poem ‘Thrush’ came instantly alive:

I ‘The House near the sea’

“The houses I had they took away from me. The times
happened to be unpropitious: war, destruction, exile;
sometimes the hunter hits the migratory birds,
sometimes he doesn’t hit them. Hunting
was good in my time, many felt the pellet;
the rest circle aimlessly or go mad in the shelters.

Don’t talk to me about the nightingale or the lark
or the little wagtail
inscribing figures with his tail in the light;
I don’t know much about houses
I know they have their own nature, nothing else.
New at first, like babies
who play in gardens with the tassels of the sun.
they embroider colored shutters and shining doors
over the day.
When the architect’s finished, they change,
they frown or smile or even grow stubborn
with those who stayed behind, with those who went away
with others who’d come back if they could
or others who disappeared, now that the world’s become
an endless hotel.

I don’t know much about houses,
I remember their joy and their sorrow
sometimes, when I stop to think;
again
sometimes, near the sea, in naked rooms
with a single iron bed and nothing of my own,
watching the evening spider, I imagine
that someone is getting ready to come, that they dress
him up*
in white and black robes, with many-colored jewels,
and around him venerable ladies,
gray hair and dark lace shawls, talk softly,
that he is getting ready to come and say goodbye to me;
or that a woman—eyelashes quivering, slim-waisted,
returning from southern ports,
Smyrna Phodes Syracuse Alexandria,
from cities closed like hot shutters,
with perfume of golden fruit and herbs—
climbs the stairs without seeing
those who’ve fallen asleep under the stairs.

Houses, you know, grow stubborn easily when you strip
them bare.

One of the saddest sights was of a once majestic Greek Orthodox church, completely stripped of all its previous glory being used today as a pretty run-down community centre but, most poignant of all, were the plaques barely visible above the doorways of so many of the crumbling houses; plaques that to this day, although mostly weathered and worn, still bear the names of their first inhabitants. As each was pointed out a hush fell over the crowd as well-known Skiathos families, with the same name, realised they were seeing (many for the first time) the homes their forefathers had been forced to leave behind. By the time the slide show ended, looking around I could see several moist eyes, especially amongst the older members of the audience.

Then a choir (including my good friend Vasilis Koralis) with soloist Ageliki Mavroyianni took to the stage and entertained us magically with several songs. Pianist Themis Symvoulides accompanied beautifully the haunting traditional melodies. The Asia Minor Greeks’ contribution to the immensely popular music known as Rembetika, is well known and documented and, well, by then, even I had a lump in my throat!  But of all the laments filled with longing and regret, one song was particularly moving, S’agapo giato eisai oraia or ‘I love you because you’re beautiful’ which has become over time almost an anthem for these proud, once displaced people who, even several generations on, know exactly who and what they are. I particularly like this version:

The sombre mood was quickly replaced with laughter and jollity once the traditional cakes and lemonade appeared at the end of what for me had been a valuable insight; an opportunity to better understand the mentality of the Skiathos people. It was a fascinating evening.

Further reading: ‘The Refugees of Asia Minor’, is one of the many excellent essays written by Theo Pavlides

‘The Ruined City of Smyrna’ Giles Milton’s Paradise Lost provides an interesting point of view

‘Greece – Poetry on the web, George Seferis’

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I’m beginning to feel a bit spoiled because the following evening I had yet another special event to look forward to:

As you may already be aware, this year marks the 100 year anniversary of the death of Skiathos’ most famous son and great Greek writer of prose, Alexandros Papadiamantis. To honour this, Skiathos will be staging numerous events throughout the coming year. I attended the first of these last week when the Municipality, in conjunction with the Museum of Papadiamantis arranged a performance of one of his best known short stories: ‘The American”.

A Monologue performed by famous and amazingly talented Athenian actor, Thanasis Sarantos, it was particularly difficult for me to follow as it was delivered entirely in the ‘old’ Skiathiti dialect of Papadiamantis’ day. That said, accompanied as it was by a single musician, Lambros Pivounis playing music specifically written for this production, it was most entertaining and I was surprised by how much I managed to follow (a testament to am amazing actor’s brilliant performance!) It was clearly thoroughly enjoyed by the whole audience too. The High School Theatre was filled to capacity, it seemed the whole of Skiathos had crammed into it on that rainy evening, which was only to be expected given the rarity of entertainment of such calibre, on the island. Long may it continue!

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On a final note, the big excitement here at the moment is the sudden appearance of several new shiny bins, about town. Not just ordinary bins, these all carry a ‘Green Fox’ logo:

They’ve been placed in strategic spots (outside the major supermarkets etc) for the sole purpose of RECYCLING PLASTIC BOTTLES. This is an initiative of the International Women’s Group.  It’s a small operation at the moment but, come the summer (when literally hundreds of thousands of water bottles usually just get dumped in the regular garbage bins and then taken to be buried at the local tip) the operation should be in full swing and perfectly ready to cope. This is a giant step forward for Skiathos and, hopefully the first of many. Awareness Education has already begun in the schools (in fact it’s the Girl Guides who ‘ve volunteered to assist the Women’s group members in collecting and dispatching all the bottles). If you’d like to know more or have any suggestions, you can follow the project’s progress on the new “GREEN FOX’ Blog which is written in Greek AND english!

One that positive note I’ll sign off….till the next time and to all my American friends – Keep Warm!