«…και το ρακί του, πάντα διπλά και τριπλά αποσταγμένο τσίπουρο. Εξάλλου όλοι αγαπούσαν να ακούνε τις γουστόζικες ιστορίες του, που όσο και να πάλιωναν, πάντα είχαν την νοστιμάδα τους και ποτές δεν έλεγαν να
«…and his raki, always double and tripled distilled tsipouro. Besides they all liked to listen to his funny stories, which no matter how old, they kept their tastefulness and they were never ending…»
«Παναγιά η γοργόνα», Στρατής Μυριβήλης, Λέσβος, 1948
“The Mermaid Madonna”, Stratis Myrivilis, Lesvos, 1948
She stood there in soft Autumnal light gently highlighting her palette of colours as no harsh Summer sun could ever do. A colour dynamics ranging from the deep green of her large mainland-like dense pine forests (‘pefka’ everywhere!) to the yellow-white reflections of sunlight from her large salt-gathering and sardine-breeding, shallow seas in the bay of Kaloni. It was ending, if that word could be used, to that boundless Mediterranean Blue of Sky and Sea. During my sailing and wandering years in the Eastern Mediterranean it was here in Lesvos that I had to come to find the master stroke of Nature putting together landscapes, smells, and island attitudes usually spread over many Aegean and Ionian islands. This was a micro-mega of an island world, with large, tall-ceiling cafes imbued with old-time cosmopolitanism such as Panellinion in Mytilene’s port, and yet also with those small cafes/taverns one comes to expect in a typical Aegean island. Little warm worlds of strong coffee smells, sometimes flavoured with mastic from nearby Chios, and the occasional fish dish accompanied by rounds of tsipouro or that famous Mytilene ouzo. Often intimately close to the sea, both in terms of location as well as clientele, these cafes/taverns, small and unassuming as they are, they serve also as the ‘agora’ of all those villages where lively debates take place and arguments are set out loud.
In Autumn I found them as lively as I would expect from my summer journeys across the Aegean Archipelago: today’s sardine catch, the foul weather mid-October, multiple crescendos on this or the other political issue played out in Athens or some distant European capital, and football (of course). Yet, this being October of 2015 the refugee issue would invariably come up. Then, unlike all other issues where almost everybody would have an opinion to be boisterously expressed, much fewer did so. Several would lapse to a complete silence and sometimes a distant look out of the nearest weather-beaten window. Now these were mostly fishermen, usually the loudest of the souls on most issues. Later I found what these long silences and glances out of the window may have meant, for the moment they simply stood indecipherable.
In sharp contrast to these small-village worlds stood the city of Mytilene itself with her large port. Old- and present- times cosmopolitan, with rows of stately mansions, the so called Καπετανόσπιτα (=Kapetanospita, meaning Captains’ houses), lining up some of its boulevards, belonging to a vibrant merchant-marine class. Large churches like ‘Ageios Therapon’ whose architecture blend Western and Eastern ecclesiastical styles were there, a beautiful City Hall standing next to a cluster of sea-food taverns renowned over the entire Aegean. This seemed a city that went out to the World once, and then returned bearing much of it on her shoulders like a Golden Fleece. Past and current trade brought also a Sea-opened view of the world that helped propel Lesvos to an outsized role in the Greek Letters. Celebrated writers like Stratis Myrivilis, Argyris Eftaliotis, the Nobel-laureate poet Odysseus Elytis, as well as the painter Theofilos, all hail from this island. Cosmopolitanism built by centuries of trade, veins of legend and history still throbbing in shallow ground, gave to these writers inspiration, and to this island its particular character. But that was not all. Another historic event, one that took place almost a century ago, its memories indelibly etched on the people of Lesvos and of other Eastern Aegean islands, added another page on their palimpsest of history. It was one that uniquely prepared these islands and Lesvos in particular for their front-line role in the refugee flows and the sociological shock it meant for small island worlds.
In the year of 1922 extensive pogroms and massacres of the Greek and Armenian populations residing in Asia Minor conducted by the victorious nationalist elements in Turkey set off waves of desperate refugees coming to these islands. Many went on to settle in Athens and the Greek mainland, some continued on to other European countries such as France, or even crossed the Atlantic to the USA. Quite a few stayed in Lesvos. Children of that Exodus, that the Greeks today invariably call ‘The Asia Minor Catastrophe’, are some of today’s grandmothers and grandfathers seen wandering in the parks of Mytilene with their grandchildren or quietly sitting in benches facing the sea in the various villages along Lesvos’ shores. It was memories of that other Exodus from the East to the West, literally still living in Lesvos, that in my view created a different set of social reflexes and average responses of its population towards this new tidal wave of human despair that came rushing on to their shores once again.
In the Autumn of 2015 another World order started cracking up, Western countries were arraying themselves to bomb Syria and Iraq while the war ‘party’ continued on in poor Afghanistan and had just re-engulfed large cities like Kunduz. Death-cult armies, the Frankenstein-like results of previous supposedly well-planned military interventions and occupations by high-tech western armies, razed the ground, vying for control with old-fashioned dictators and their geopolitical allies. That was the stage as the tectonic plates of East and West started moving again. To be at their boundary is to be at a place where horrors as well as flowers emerge. Greece stood on top of that very ground since times immemorial, and in a reprise of tragedies past she awaited once again for those children that came running from the East.