I took a break yesterday after seven days. Most of the volunteers do not seem to take days off. The refugee work here is relentless and addictive. It should have been a slow day because the winds did not permit crossings. But at Lighthouse, I found a dozen people repairing damage to the store rooms caused by a storm the night before. Four more were restocking the clothes bins.
I spent most of my day walking around town for the first time and reflecting on the life here. To those who have followed the refugee crisis, Lesvos will always be associated with the half million who have shown up on its shores. But Lesvos is still a romantic and serene Greek Island. Homer refers to Lesvos and Aristotle studied here. In 600 BCE, the island was the home of Sappho, one of the Greek lyric poets who wrote about the love of women and gave us the word “lesbian”. The island has many historic ruins, including a Genoese fortress and a Roman aqueduct.
The town of Molyvos, where I have been staying on the north side of the island, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Most of it sits on a hillside overlooking the sea. I walked up the narrow cobblestone streets that wind around old houses and shops made of stone and stucco and tile. Shop signs are hand painted and trellises of wisteria vines, bare now, form parasols of lavender flowers in summer over the main street.
Throughout the island, the hills are covered in olive trees and grazing sheep. The roads are terrible but no one seems to care. There is no evidence of Walmart, Starbucks or Marriott’s, and if you need a computer, a camera or a mattress, you will probably have to go to Mytilene.
There is plenty of community here. People gather in cafes to talk over coffee or play cards. Cats and dogs roam free and they like you. When they are hungry, they show up at a doorstep or visit a cafe. Greeks I have met are friendly and warm. They laugh, exclaim, touch, wave. This seems to be a more or less democratic economy — no one seems hungry or rich.
And of course the food is delicious — fresh and local. You eat what was picked off a tree this morning or fished out the waters last night. Local wine and ouzo, cheese, olive oil, oranges, vegetables. Some restaurants tell you not to bother with the menu and invite you into the kitchen to see what is available.
Lesvos is a mostly agricultural economy but it has a tourist infrastructure — many small hotels, mostly with sea views and pools. None are luxury hotels, more like family retreats. Some have closed and some are looking tired with the slow down in the tourist industry. In the past, this part of the local economy would shut down for the winter. Recently, it is busy year round with the volunteer industry.
If I were marketing tourism on Lesvos, here is the slogan I would use: