What can you say after such a Black Tuesday? I will not be the only one, feeling the fear rising. When I go outside (walking is a good remedy for panic attacks) and the wind plays over a field of bright yellow rapeseed, then Brussels seems worlds away. But even on the island there is fear: not of a terrorist attack, but because of the insecurity surrounding the refugee problems. Even though most islanders have a roof over their head, times are getting more and more uncertain and incomes are reduced. Lots of tourists are afraid to come, even though the numbers of refugees arriving have reduced dramatically and you rarely see them anymore. The refugees who reach the island only want one thing: not to be sent back to Turkey, a country they consider to be, just like their homeland, a country without future or hope. Most volunteers and NGO’s have retired from the camps, which are now said to be prisons. Many of them have departed for places where their help is still needed, like Athens or Idomeni.
The island looks as if nothing has happened. Nature also helps us to forget: for the unseasonably high temperatures have encouraged plants and flowers to bloom as never before. They offer consolation in these dark days and I feel very happy that at least I may enjoy this beautiful Lesvos. Amazing landscapes, changing coastlines and villages that seem to be forgotten in time mean that, just for a while, you can forget the evil world.
I love asparagus and because of the scarcity on the island of these fat stalks from Holland or Germany, I have to do with the wild variant. This doesn’t grow in the earth but is a prickly bush whose young shoots try to reach high above all other bushes and whose tips are considered a delicacy here. The Greeks bake them in an omelet; I prefer them parboiled with a vinaigrette, or made into a ragout with eggs and shrimp.
Gathering asparagus is not simple. The thin shoots lend themselves to invisibility and many a time you come smack-up against one swaying in the wind right in front of your nose, despite the fact that that you’ve been intensively staring unsuccessfully in the bushes for the last five minutes. They like to hide in the midst of all kind of prickly bushes, so it’s best to wear gloves. I don’t like gloves and I dare to thrust my hands deep into the thorns because I have to have that very thick asparagus, the thicker the better they taste.
I force myself a way through flowering prickly Spartium, I climb over odorous thyme, oregano and other spice-like bushes, I gaze along slopes hoping to see fresh green stems shooting up to heaven and I even dare to descend into ravines to get some of the most illusive asparagus.
Nowadays I even have to fight a way through fields of Asphodels, where thousands of them reach higher than my hips. They too, this year, seem to want to set new flowering records. They grow like hell and whilst it is such a pity that they do not offer an enchanting scent like the almond does; perhaps it’s just as well, as the whole island would be scented like a broken perfume bottle.
Asphodels are of the same family as the lilies, but they have not got their sweet odour. When your nose approaches an asphodel, it will detect an unpleasant smell. Once I brought a thick bouquet of Asphodels into my house to enjoy their beauty, but only the once and never again! According to Greek mythology they are the flowers of Persephone, and smell of death. Homer even described fields of asphodel in Hades, the afterworld, where restless souls await their verdict. Another story says that for every dead soldier an asphodel flowers.
Even though I know these associations, walking across a field filled with these to towering heavenward flowers, I fall silent because of their beauty. They grow in soil impoverished by draught, overgrazing or erosion, which is not good for the field. But the good news is that they get pollinated by bumblebees and honeybees: insects that are ready to be put on the list of endangered species.
Asphodels grow from oblong tubers, in some countries are used to make bread, and in others used as fodder. The Persians used them to make glue, in other Eastern countries they were used to thicken salep (salepi), a milky brew made from orchid bulbs. I am not sure whether they ever did that in Greece (a country where you still can find some salep sellers in the streets – even though it is forbidden to make this drink from orchid bulbs). I have only once tasted salep and found it to have a horrible taste!
While the huge asphodel with her many flowers overshadows all other flowers in her surroundings, the orchid loves to play hide and seek. Most of them are small and their flowers also pretty teeny. But be aware: when you study them up close, you can become bewitched by their beauty and special forms – especially the flowers belonging to the Ophrys-family, with their imitation of the bees that inseminate them. They can have great designs, extreme colours and funny humps, some that may look like the horns of the devil. But in Hades there is no place for orchids.
Yesterday we went for an orchid hunt close to Koudouroudia and there we found giant Ophrys who tried to reach far above the prickly bushes. I am sure no salep maker would have crept into those bushes to steal their bulbs.
While Europe desperately tries to master the refugee problem, spring on Lesvos has been exploding. On show: the bright coloured anemones, the blood red poppies, the honey-scented yellow rhododendrons, the fat peonies, pine woods hiding slopes full of red tulips, the wind-tinkling Fritillariesor the shy crocuses and wild hyacinths and many more. They all have their own place on the island. Until the end of May (and in the mountains until the middle of June) Lesvos will be one big park of flowers. Come and see it!