Posts Tagged ‘Skiathos’

Where are You From?

May 3, 2010

The summer season on my little island has begun – a Dutch charter flight flew past my window just a few hours ago and tomorrow the first British will arrive. It is always a strange feeling after a quiet winter but soon, the island will be buzzing and the sea will be warm enough for chickens like me to get in…

Because there will be all sorts of nationalities here now I thought it would be a good idea to produce a little list of what some countries are called in Greek. Many of them still go by their ancient names to the Greeks, such as Gallía – Gaul = France and Elvetía – Helvetia = Switzerland.

With the exception of Greece, which is Elláda, you will notice that all the countries end with –ía, which means you should pronounce them by emphasizing the -eeeeea at the end. Here we go:

Italy = Italía

Spain = Ispanía

England = Aglía

Wales = Oualía

Scotland = Skotía

Ireland = Irlandía

Sweden = Souidía

Norway = Norvigía

Finland = Finlandía

Denmark = Danía

Holland = Ollandía

France = Gallía

Portugal = Portogalía

Germany = Germanía

If your country is not listed here and you would like to know what it is called, please send an email:

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The Language of Animals

April 26, 2010

It’s 6AM, the sun is coming up and a sleepy cockerel slowly wakes up…and what does he say….HUUUUUNG FER HER!!!


Because that’s apparently what he says in China!

In Greece, the same cockerel would have said KOKORIKO, in Britain COCK A DOODLE DOO and in Sweden KUCKELIKU!!!

Animals might sound the same wherever we go in the world, but each native language describes it differently. Here is a short list of what animals say in English, Greek and Swedish:


Greek: niaou

English: meow

Swedish: mjau


Greek: gav

English: woff

Swedish: vov


Greek:  gri gri

English:  oink oink

Swedish:  noff noff


Greek:  chlimintrizo

English:  neigh

Swedish:  gnagg


Greek:  iaa iaa

English:  hee haw

Swedish:  skri


Greek:  kra

English:  caw

Swedish:  krax

If you speak another language, please let me know what your animals say!

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The Evil Eye

March 22, 2010

If you have been to Greece, you will surely have noticed the little blue eyes that many are wearing or hanging in their cars/businesses/houses etc. This is the amulet that protects them against To Mati – the Evil Eye, also known as Vaskania.

The Mati is an age-old belief that people staring at you can provoke all sorts of unpleasant symptoms such as headaches, constant yawning, falling over or just really bad luck. It usually happens when they stare in a sort of envious admiration, which is why young children and animals, good looking or successful people and new houses and cars are more likely to get matiasmeni – “evil eyed”. Usually, the matiasma – evil eyeing – is not intentional – it just happens because you are looking at someone or something that you admire – perhaps with a sting of jealousy somewhere deep inside.

If you have a really bad headache (and know it is not a hangover) you might be matiasmenos and to get rid of the curse you will need to find someone to lift it. The process is known as ksematiasma – un evil eyeing – and is normally done by elderly ladies. They will put you to the test by dripping some olive oil into a glass of water – if it stays on the surface you just have had too much to drink or are maybe coming down with something – but if it dissolves into the water, the Mati has gotten you! A series of prayers are then said, accompanied by spitting and sprinkling of Holy Water and that should do the trick.

Spitting is, incidentally, a way of protecting people you admire from the Evil Eye. When you pay someone a compliment you are, by definition, admiring them and that is exactly when you might give them the Mati. Rest assured, the solution is easy: pay the compliment and then spit on them three times (not actually spitting – more like ftou ftou ftou in the air) and they are protected by your counter spell. Good to know next time you want to flirt with a Greek!

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It’s Raining Chairlegs!

March 15, 2010

Being from northern Europe, I was brought up to talk about the weather and it came as quite a surprise to find out that the Greeks do the same. Although the main complaint here seems to be zeeeesth – hot – people in Greece seem to be just as fond of weather discussions as we are.

One difference, however, is that in Greece, the weather – o kairos – is talked about almost as an organism, a deity if you like, and perhaps this comes from the ancient ancestors who regarded every weather phenomenon and every wind as  god sent or even a separate god; Boreas being the northern wind and Zephyros the western, for example. Where you in English say “It is hot” the Greeks say “It does heat/cold” – it, being the weather (o kairos).  The weather does, in other words…

Another example is the old expression for raining: O Theos vrechi = God is raining. Speaking of rain we meet another difference from other European languages as hard rain is expressed with the English “cats and dogs” or the Swedish “sporegn” (whip rain). The Greeks say that it is raining kareklopodara, chair legs!

The astral bodies are named after the ancient gods, apart from the planets, whose names remain Greek in Greece (not Latin as in the rest of Europe): Hermes, Aphrodite, Ares etc. The sun is still called Helios, after the old sun god, and the moon Seline, after his wife. An old myth tells us that Helios was such as jealous husband that Selene only dared go out when he was away, which is why she comes out at night when the sun is sleeping. So if Helios is out tomorrow and it doesn’t do cold and doesn’t rain chair legs…do go out for a walk and enjoy the weather…

To see some weather photos from the North Sporades, Greece, please go to:

Xenos – Friend or Foe?

March 1, 2010

Greeks are well-known for their hospitality and their word for it is filoxenia. The word literally means “friend of strangers” but can also be translated “guest-friend” because of the double meaning of the word xenos.

In Greek, xenos is pronounced ksenos, with emphasis on the “e”, which is pronounced as the “e” in end, or error. The word means stranger or, more generally, anyone who is not from one’s community. An Athenian, in other words, is just as much of a xenos as a foreigner from Britain, Sweden, Germany etc. when he or she comes to Skiathos.

Xenos, however, also means guest! This is a very good reflection on how Greeks view anyone coming from elsewhere as filoxenia, hospitality, has been considered something sacred since antiquity. Mistreating your guests, even of they were your worst enemies, was regarded as sacrilege during antiquity and to this day Greeks, especially the older generations, always make sure to be the best hosts they can be. It is unheard of, for example, to not offer something when a person visits their home, even if you are the gas man coming to read the meter!

In English we encounter the word in xenophobia, the fear of strangers. Here, the word has no reference to the guest-aspect; instead, it plays purely on people’s fear of the unknown. It should be noted that this word is used by Greeks as well to characterize someone who is racist or just generally suspicious of people coming from elsewhere.

The Greek word for hotel is xenodochio and literally means “guest container” and someone who is paraxenos is really strange. What everyone wants to be, though, is filoxenos (masc) or filoxeni (fem) as this is the person who is very hospitable. With filoxenia comes some unwritten rules for the guest as well: never come empty handed when you first visit a Greek’s home and always accept what is offered to you when you visit – you are not expected to finish it, just to acknowledge the offer – not doing so is an insult!  If you are given a plate of food to take home, never return it empty; put some sweets or cakes on it, for example.

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The Three Hierarchs (4th century)

January 30, 2010

The main church of Skiathos is located just above the Old Port and is dedicated to the Three Hierarchs (Tris Ierarches), the three bishops that shaped much of today’s Christian church (sermons, monastic life, creed): St. Basil, St. Gregory and St. John Chrysostom.

St. Basil is the Greek equivalent to Father Christmas and belonged to a deeply religious family where several members became saints. Suffering from ill health since his youth, St. Basil was especially interested in medicine and ended up founding the first public hospital in the western world. He wrote a series of texts about the importance of a good doctor-patient relationship, a topic as important today as it was then.  For a more detailed biography, please go to his individual post.

St. Gregory was a close friend of St. Basil’s and they had been fellow students in both Constantinople and Athens, where they were educated in law, geometry, philosophy, public speech and astronomy. After years of life as a desert hermit, St. Gregory went to Constantinople, where St. Basil eventually made him the archbishop. St. Gregory is often called The Theologist, as he wrote fervent speeches against pagans and scriptures for and about the church.

St. John was a priest who was so famous for his sermons that he earned the nickname Chrysostom, the Gold Mouthed (in English Silver Tongued is probably a better translation). His religious zeal often angered the emperor, who banished him on several occasions but his popularity with the people brought him back. In the end, the emperor ostracized him once and for all and St. John spent the rest of his life in Armenia.

Because the three saints were educated men of the church they are often depicted holding the Bible in one hand. Each saint has an individual name day (Basil 1/1, Gregory 25/1, John 13/11) but when a dispute broke out between their respective followers on who was the most important in 1100, it was decided they should also have a common one on the 30th of January. The three saints are patrons of students, teachers and of all education in general.

For more about Greek Orthodox saints go to our website:

January Saints: John the Baptist (ca. 6BC – 30AD)

January 6, 2010

There are several St.  Johns in the Greek Orthodox Saints’ calendar but the most famous one is arguably John the Baptist. The Greeks usually call him Prodromos, the Forerunner, as he was the one to prepare the way and announce the coming of Christ. It is no coincidence that his name day is celebrated the day after Theofania, the Blessing of the Waters, where thousands of Greeks jump into the freezing sea to honour the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist himself!

You have probably heard the story about John the Baptist a million times but just in case, here is a short recap:

John was the son of the priest Zachariah and Elizabeth, a cousin of the Virgin Mary. They were an elderly, child-less couple who had given up all hopes of ever having children of their own. One day, the archangel Gabriel announced to Zachariah that they were going to have a son, but as the latter did not believe that was possible at Elizabeth’s age he openly doubted the angel. As a punishment he was struck dumb and got his speech back only after John had been born.

John the Baptist dedicated his life to God and preached the imminent arrival of Christ on the banks of the river Jordan. In icons, he is often depicted with wings, which plays on the Greek word Aggelos, angel, which really means messenger (John was, after all, a prophet). King Herod was wary of John the Baptist and saw him as somewhat of a rebel and had him arrested. At a party Herod’s niece, the beautiful Salome, asked Herod for the head of John as a prize for dancing and thus, poor John was beheaded. In icons this is illustrated by John standing next to or carrying his own head on a platter. There is often an axe on the ground or leaning against the very tree it was made from in the background.

Because of his decapitation, John the Baptist has become the saint that cures you from illnesses of the head: headaches, migraines, epilepsy, mental illness etc., as well as fevers. An old tradition also has it that he comes to the deathbeds of those who have not heard the Christian gospels and so gives them one last chance to be saved. He is also considered the patron saint of Freemasons.

The name John is IoAnnis in Greek and in everyday language it is shortened to Yannis for men and Ioanna for women. Men can also be called Prodromos after him, a name quite common on Skopelos. John the Baptist is a very important saint to the Greek Orthodox and his icon can always be found to the right of Christ on the iconostasis, the screen of icons, in churches. He is honoured on several days of the year, but the 7th of January is the “big” one, where everyone named after him will celebrate. This day is called Synaxis of John the Baptist, which basically means “the gathering of saints and angels”, because of what had happened the day before.

Some of the other days are:

June 24: his birth

August 29: his beheading

September 23: his conception

On Skiathos, there is a lovely little church dedicated to John the Baptist not far from the Kounistra Monastery. It is called O Agios IoAnnis O KryfOs, St. John the Hidden, because it is hidden away in the forest. Alexandros Papadiamantis tells us in his short story The Murderess, that this was a place you could go to pray if you had done something so terrible or had such bad thoughts that you could not go to your normal church, thus giving the name The Hidden a second meaning.

Another church is situated not far from the Old Town, or Kastro. This one is dedicated to the Beheading and has several grim icons of the moment. This is also where the old cemetery used to be. It was at this church some locals were struck and killed by lightning in the 1920’s, while celebrating John on August 29. Local lore has it that they were being disrespectful of the saint and so got their punishment.

Nowadays, many people go to visit the church of John the Baptist on Skopelos, as this is where the wedding scene in the film Mamma Mia was shot. Legend has it that the Baptist himself had chosen the spot for the church on top of a big rock in the sea; by putting his icon there, the locals were convinced this is where he wanted it to be housed.

For more about John the Baptist and other saints, please visit our website:

Theofania – an Old, Cold Tradition

January 5, 2010

Talk about a Leap of Faith! In freezing January, on the 6th to be exact, thousands of Greeks jump into the sea, cold rivers and lakes to retrieve a cross the local priest has just thrown in. Covered in goose bumps, the shivering winner brings it to the priest and receives a blessing in return. This is the day of Theofania, or Epiphany, when the Blessing of the Waters takes place all through the Orthodox world.

Christ is baptised in the river Jordan. The dove symbolises the Holy Spirit and to the left of John an axe is leaning against a tree, waiting to decapitate the Baptist.

What is really celebrated on January 6th is Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist in the river Jordan, thus the significance of the water. John the Baptist would baptise people to wash away their sins but as Christ was free of sin, the waters became blessed instead when it was his turn. Tradition also has it that this was the day of the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. January 6th is also held as the day when the three Magi visited the infant Jesus, which is why this day is also known as Epiphany, the Appearance.

The Greeks, however, call this day Theofania, which can be translated as the Manifestation or Revelation of God and stands for the moment Christ was baptised and so revealed to the world as one and the same with God. The baptism was one of the few occasions when the Holy Trinity revealed itself all together: Christ the Son, God’s Voice in Heaven and the Holy Spirit as a dove.

Another important reason to celebrate this day is that it marks the end of the dangerous twelve days of Christmas, when the evil Kallikantzari (see the article Christmas – A Dangerous Time of Joy) ascend from the depths of Earth to make life difficult for everyone.  These goblins are terrified of Holy Water and in the blessing of the waters, order is restored and the Kallikantzari retire to the underworld again. As the sea is now safe again, tradition has it that sailors can now return to their ships.

The Old Harbour, Skiathos 2009.

Sometimes the whole jumping-in-the-sea-thing goes terribly wrong and if you are in Greece on this day watch the 8 o’clock news on any channel as they usually show a few hilarious moments from the day: no one being able to find the cross, fights breaking out between the competitors or the priest simply being unable to throw the cross in.

Usually the cross is retrieved, though, and the winner goes from house to house to receive blessings and perhaps a little money. If someone knocks on your door and it turns up to be a freezing man with wet hair and a cross in his hand, give him a Euro or two – he deserves it.

On Skiathos, there is a service held at the main church of the Three Hierarchs in Skiathos Town, usually around 10, which is then followed by the Blessing of the Waters in the Old Harbour. See you there!

Christmas – a Dangerous Time of Joy

December 19, 2009

We all know that Easter is the most important religious holiday of the year in Greece but Christmas is, of course, also celebrated. Anyone that has lived in the country for a while will recognise the lighted boats and Christmas trees, the blinking balconies that make whole neighbourhoods look like a UFO has just landed, and the young children singing Christmas Carols from door to door.

Like most of the customs in the western world, Christmas has a well-documented pagan origin and perhaps the best known one is the Roman solstice festivities, celebrated on December 25.  Another ancient remnant is the superstition concerning the Kallikánzari, evil looking little demons that emerge from the depths of the earth on Christmas Day and remain here for 12 days. Tradition has it that they try to break into people’s houses through the chimneys and if they succeed, they do everything they can to pester the inhabitants: they urinate on the food, extinguish the fire, steal things and turn the milk sour. Tip: when the fire crackles it is a sign of them approaching! To this day, many Greeks keep their fires going all through the holidays to keep the goblins away and they will sprinkle the rooms of the house with Holy Water every morning. Tradition has it that the Kallikánzari are ancient soldiers that were killed in battle but never laid to rest and so, they have turned into a kind of vampires or zombies. They finally disappear on the 6th of January when the Greeks celebrate the Baptism of Christ (Theofánia) by throwing crosses in the water.

During the Christmas holidays children run around in little groups and knock on doors and enter cafes and shops eagerly asking “na poúme, na poúme” (shall we sing?) and if the answer is yes, they race through a few verses as quickly as possible (after all, time is money), accompanied by hurriedly played triangles, to get rewarded with a few coins. These Greek carols are called Kálanda, from the Latin Calandae, the first days of the month, and are about the birth of Christ, well-wishes for the coming year etc. Sometimes the children carry small wooden boats, which again stems from the ancient world. In ancient Greece, children would go from house to houses during these days, singing very similar songs and the boat represented the arrival of the god Dionysus.

For the Orthodox that want to take Holy Communion on Christmas Day a long fast precedes the 25th but afterwards they make up for it by consuming all sorts of delicacies: turkey or pork, sweet cakes and Christópsomo (Christ Bread). Because St. Basil is Father Christmas in Greece, children are not supposed to get any presents until New Year’s Day (St. Basil’s Day) but these days the “rules” are normally bent.

Kalá Christoúgenna to everyone!

December Saints: St. Nicholas

December 3, 2009

Being a sea farers’ country, St. Nicholas, the protector of the sailors, is very popular in Greece.  His churches overlook harbours everywhere and Skiathos is no exception. On Skiathos there are three churches in his honour; one towering over the town on the Kotronia hill (where the post box stood in Mamma Mia), a smaller one just below and one in Kastro.

But who exactly was St. Nicholas? In icons we see him as a white haired, slightly balding, elderly bishop giving benediction with one hand. The other hand holds the Bible and out of reverence for the Holy Scripture, the hand is covered with his robe. As is usually the case in icons, his face is severe, again a sign of reverence, and around him we often see images of the sea: sailors in need, ships, dolphins etc.

Born to a wealthy, Christian family in the Greek  Lycia (today’s Turkey) in 280, St. Nicholas showed very early signs of being a holy man: only three days old he stood up in his bath and refused his mothers breast on Wednesdays and Fridays, as these are days of fasting. As a toddler, he never wanted to play children’s games that had to do with bluffing or make believe. When both his parents suddenly died of the plague, young Nicholas gave away most of the family wealth to the poor and soon became a priest.

Travelling by sea, St. Nicholas once made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One night, he dreamt that he saw Satan destroying the sails and when he woke up he warned the crew and the captain that they were in danger. Sure enough, a fierce storm soon came over them but through his prayers, St. Nicholas managed to save them all. It is from this story that people all over the world have made him the patron saint of the sea, and it is not unusual that Greeks light a candle or leave a gift (tama) to St. Nicholas before a sea journey.

St. Nicholas became Archbishop of Myra, not far from his home town, and eventually served under Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to make Christianity a state religion and founder of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). He was very much a loved priest, and said to have been very gentle and understanding. The list of acts of compassion and miracles during his lifetime are endless: saving himself and his fellow prisoners when arrested and tortured during the emperor Diocletian’s rule, resurrecting three babies that had been murdered, exorcising a demon from a young man etc. St. Nicholas donations were always anonymous and it was this secret gift giving that eventually turned him into Santa, albeit not in Greece (here, St. Basil is Father Christmas). One story tells us that St. Nicholas once provided three maidens with enough dowries to marry, thus saving them from slavery. He threw bags of gold through their window and the money landed in their socks, which later turned into the custom of hanging out socks for Christmas.

When St. Nicholas died at the age of about 60, he was deeply mourned and his funeral procession was attended by people from all layers of society. Thousands flocked to his grave, as his relics were believed to work miracles and in 1087, his remains were taken to Italy in an act of “saving them from barbarians”, a subject of harsh discussions between Italians and Greeks to this day.

St. Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th and anyone called Nikolaos, Nikos, Nicoletta etc. have their name days. The actual name in Greek is Νικόλαος, NikOlaos and it means “victor of people”. Apart from sailors, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of students, merchants, pawnbrokers, children and the Greek navy. In December, the Greeks put lighted models of boats in the streets and their homes in his honor and even though he is not the Christmas saint, St. Basil’s boats are the traditional Christmas decoration, rather than the Christmas tree.

If you know someone named after St. Nicholas, do not forget to wish them chronia polla (many years) on December 6th. Name days are more important than birthdays in Greece and a message or phone call will always be much appreciated.

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