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At Large on Lesbos


When going out in Mytilini, the capital of the Greek island of Lesbos, you may choose between two widely different scenarios: the Southern or the Northern Port. South is lively, North a guarantee of peace and quiet.

The southern side of Mytilini

In good form, I start in the South, the pulsating city centre. Since it’s not dark yet, I can still make out the surrounding pine covered hillsides. My first stop is going to be the Statue of Liberty where the lungs of the city begin – the mole. To judge by the traffic, the 30,000 inhabitants each seem to have a car. The mole, however, is car-free despite being long and broad like a runway. This is the residents’ favourite spot for winding down after a busy day; sauntering arm in arm, chatting on the benches or trying their luck with a fishing line.

Eye Catcher
The waiter of Elena, a pizzeria out by the mole, laughs in despair as two cars collide, causing bottles and glasses to topple over on the table behind me, seconds later smashing against the asphalt. A stream of locals come to pick up the pizzas they ordered by phone, while two young guys, on mopeds equipped with a pizza carrier, keep rushing back and forth. The entire Mytilini appears to be having pizza tonight, at home though.

A colour changing cafe

After dinner, the continually colour changing facade of Flame, a local café, catches my attention. The light show, at the actual centre of the café area, is no doubt an eye catcher, in bad taste. Inside, a young crowd is wrapped up in basketball on an oversized screen. At a nearby café, the Papagallina, the customers are in danger of getting their delicious fancy cakes down the wrong way due to musical terror from the other bars.

All  the outside tables are occupied. I must content myself with a bar stool, in the doorway of Faces, a typical Greek music bar; you pay twice as much for a small beer as you pay for a large one elsewhere. The young men are strutting, showing off their expensive T-shirts, carefully ironed by their dear mothers. In spite of meticulous nail brushing, their fingers reveal that stirring a drink is merely a spare-time occupation. The bold young ladies also have something to show off: their bare bellies.

Twinkling Turkey
The following evening, I rather prefer some peace and quiet so I turn into the Ermou street to walk northwards, a ten-minute walk through former Turkish quarters. Ermou is in daytime a cosy shopping street for pedestrians only, but now the cars are back, fortunately not many. I walk all the way to the water’s edge where little boats are gently rocking at ramshackle wooden piers.

Northern peace and quiet

Two enormous chimneys on the left, with strings of red lights at the top, try to convince me they are Greek columns. I know better. This morning, I saw disgusting smoke pour out of them. I’m suddenly startled by a chained dog. It jumps up, scared by a rat perhaps, for the dog is hovering at a pipeline disappearing into the sea, probably a sewer. I suspect the sewage is transported over to the Turks whose lights are twinkling at me from the opposite side of the calm strait.

Out with Grandma
I’m the very first customer in the Dimos tavern tonight. Shortly though, Grandma and her two grandchildren join me, boys at the age of about 18 and 13. They sit down right by the sea, blocking my view. Grandma, who just had her hair done, is wearing a long white blouse. The big boy is in a light grey T-shirt, his younger brother in a red one. The old lady has the gift of the gab and can’t stop showering the teenagers with her great wisdom.

Before digging her teeth into a piece of meat, Grandma eagerly gesticulates with her fork. The boys listen politely in the beginning, especially the oldest one who is facing her. The younger boy is soon fed up and goes to the toilet. Meanwhile, his brother starts rubbing his hands and stroking his hair aggressively, eventually hides his face to yawn. I fear he will lay his hands round Grandma’s neck and squeeze hard, but the old lady survives of course. The boys were brought up to tolerate Grandma, even when her talkativeness drives them crazy.

On the Wings of Sleep
On my way back, a few metres down the Ermou, two oases on either side of the street tempt me with a goodnight beer; the old kafenion Ermis and the Kastro tavern, named after the landmark of Mytilini, an impressive castle dominating the background. As long as Grandma is not present, it makes no difference which place I choose. Both are adorned with terraces framed by green vines where people are talking peacefully or keeping quiet, out of fatigue.

City Beach

Evil tongues maintain that you should put Mytilini behind you, the sooner the better. I disagree totally, possibly because I’m fascinated by Greek everyday life. Just seeing a Greek making his arrangements on two plastic chairs on the city beach, is a sight not to be missed: he glides down into the bottom of one chair, parks his feet on another, lowers his chin, pulls his sunhat forward, drops his heavy arms vertically down and – suspended between heaven and earth – takes a long nap.

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