Category: Greece

Three–No, FIVE!–Ways to Help Refugees on Mytilene

For the last two weeks, I was on the island of Mytilene (aka Lesvos or Lesbos) in Greece. Peter and I go every other summer or so–he’s been going since 1992. It just so happened this summer the island is inundated with refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and more, who are taking boats over from the Turkish coast.

I wrote a lot about the people I met at the refugee camps on my personal Facebook page, and near the end of the trip, I collected donations from friends to redistribute directly to refugees and to give to volunteers on Mytilene for supplies.

Some people missed that window to donate, so I’m posting a few options for helping out here, if you are so moved.

1) See what the Lesvos Volunteers group needs.

This is a kind of umbrella website for all the volunteers on Mytilene (a few are mentioned below). I have met and/or worked with almost all of them, and can vouch for their efficacy. As of now (early October), this website is the best way to figure out what they need.

This is because–fortunately!–the various specific volunteer groups have gotten a lot of press and subsequent donations. So their needs are now quite specific.

One of those needs, it must be said, is people, on the ground helping. If you are at all entertaining thoughts of going to Greece, and you’re a self-starter who can see what needs doing and just do it, they could use you.

2) Send a shipment of supplies via Amazon.

I set up an wish list with basic gear for kids and adults. (Shipping from the UK to Greece is cheaper than from the US.) If you’re based in the US, ideally order with a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee (a lot of cards charge 3%).

The list is now maintained by Philippa and Eric Kempson, a British couple who live in Eftalou, on the north coast near Molyvos, where many refugees arrive. They and their team help people out of the water, feed them, get them warm clothes. I first read about them in this story.

3) Donate to the NGO O Allos Anthropos.

Here is a GoFundMe page I set up with Annia Ciezadlo. [EDITED: We paused donations for now so I could send a chunk of money. If we gather too much at once, it’s a mess to move it all! Bear with us.]

I cooked with them a bit one day, and Annia went a second time, and wrote this great piece about it.

This is a wonderful team of Athens-based volunteers who came to Mytilene to cook at the refugee camps. While many refugees are not poor, they are still traveling on extremely limited funds (who knows when they’ll work again?), so a hot meal from these guys is a balm for the soul. For others who are totally broke, this is the only real food they’ll get.

Super-awesome volunteer Syrian cooks on the first day I was at Kara Tepe, working with the food-solidarity group O Allos Anthropos.
Super-awesome volunteer Syrian cooks on the first day I was at Kara Tepe, working with O Allos Anthropos. These refugees are capable people–they just need some supplies to work with.

4) Wire money to the NGO Angalia. [As of 23 September: HOLD OFF for now! They are swamped with donations and can’t manage it all at once.]

Angalia (it means ‘hug’ in Greek; also spelled Agkalia) is a three-person organization that spends all donations directly. It was started by a Greek priest (he just passed away September 1)–read about him on the UNHCR blog. I met another member of the NGO, Giorgos Tyrikos, in Kalloni and immediately gave him cash. He was off to buy sandwich fixings. They do good work. See the bank-transfer details below.

If wiring money to a random bank account in Greece makes you nervous, or your bank charges terrible fees drop me an email. I’m happy to take cash via PayPal myself, then wire money in a lump sum, to minimize the cost.

You can also use the new service TransferWise, which sends money internationally with very low fees. And if you use this referral link, you get a kickback and so do I–I will donate mine to Angalia.

4) Donate to International Rescue Committee.

This is the most conventional thing to do–it’s tax-deductible and all. Of course there’s some overhead, and not all your cash will go to help people. But I can definitely vouch for the IRC.

In the short time I was on Mytilene, they did two substantially great things at Kara Tepe: laid down gravel to keep the dust down in the camp, and built shower stalls for women. Since then, they’ve done even more, such as running buses to spare refugees the 40-mile walk across the island.

Giorgos of Angalia also had a fantastic story about an IRC rep handing him an envelope full of cash earlier in the summer, on the first day Greece kicked in the capital controls–Giorgos had donated money waiting in the bank, but couldn’t withdraw it. IRC gave him 5K euros to buy food.

Many thanks in advance, and even if you can’t help now, at least keep these refugees in your thoughts.

ADDITIONALLY, for anyone with contacts in Greece: Information is in very short supply for refugees. Here is a Greek-Arabic phrase list–please distribute to anyone you know working with refugees in Greece. Also, please share this map of Mytiline island (PDF, good for printing; JPG, good for viewing on phones), with the various camps marked. And here is a Google map, for online reference.

Counterintuitive Travel Tips #7 and #8: Taxis and Sleep

Two final bits of contrariness, both terribly sensible.

Tip #7: Don’t ask the price of a taxi before you get in.

Guidebooks always say “Agree on a price before you get in a taxi.” I think I’ve even written this myself. But nothing marks you as an out-of-towner like asking a cabbie, “How much to…?” This makes the cabbie’s eyeballs flash dollar signs, just like in the cartoons.

So your one job as a visitor is to find out in advance how much a taxi should cost (ask at your hotel, or ask your Airbnb host, or whatever). Then just get in the cab, say hello in at least a loose approximation of the local language and state your destination. Pay the known fare when you get out (or, in known antagonistic-cabbie towns, get out first and hand the money through the window). This is what locals do, and it works!

I don't have any photos of evil cabbies. Instead, enjoy these perfectly sweet triciclo guys in the Yucatan. Maybe taxi drivers only turn bad when they get engines?

Even if you’re in a metered-taxi town, it’s nice to get a ballpark estimate, for peace of mind.

(Why are taxi drivers the world over so prone to unscrupulousness? They are their own strange tribe. May the honest and generous ones multiply!)

Tip #8: Sleep now, not when you’re dead.

A very concrete aspect of Tip #4 (“be lazy”). Again, you’re on vacation – why tire yourself out? Take plenty of naps. Observe the siesta culture, if there is one.

There is nothing more delicious than waking up in a strange place. (Freya Stark, by way of Matthew Teller, says it even better.)

More practically, the better rested you are, the less likely you are to have those little streetcorner meltdowns, where you’re hungry and tired and just can’t make a decision, and suddenly your travel partner is looking like the worst beast on earth, just because he/she is also hungry and tired and can’t make a decision.

One person I know calls this the Death Mope. The Death Mope is easily avoided through adequate rest. (And carrying some peanuts in your bag–another tip of mine. But there’s nothing counterintuitive about not starving.)

Me enjoying Greek culture and avoiding Death Mope. (Not-so-flattering-but-oh-well photo by Peter. I didn't realize till after the trip that my very ugly bra was always visible through the very large sleeves of that dress.)

Counterintuitive Travel Tip #2: Ugly Places

Continuing my series of cranky travel tips, many of which have to do with how to plan your itinerary. This one’s related to Tip #1, but in the bigger picture.

Go to the ugly places.

I’ve argued this before, specifically about Cancun. But it has a broader application.

Any indie traveler worth his backpack shuns the place with concrete hotels, nor do most people go where there are zero landmarks. But you can learn a lot about a local culture in some random “ugly” city, more than you can at some remote beach where there’s exactly one local, who’s selling you weed and cooking your fish dinner however you like it. Cancun is very, very Mexican if you know where to look—and how to look at it.

Perfectly authentic Mexican sweets in supposedly soulless Cancun.

Another example: Pattaya, in Thailand, universally reviled as ground zero for whoring. But to quote a guy I met in Bangkok: “It was great! There were Indian package tourists, and they were posing for photos with trannies on the beach!”

C’mon! How is that not heartwarming? I’m not saying you should go for a week, but one night can be fun. The nice thing about ugly, over-touristed places is that you can gawp all you want–at prostitutes, at sunburned Brits in gold chains, at whatever.

The same logic applies to under-touristed spots with no major attractions. This summer, Peter and I took an exceptionally great trip to Thrace, the eastern fringe of Greece. According to guidebooks, and even most Greeks, there’s “nothing there.” That means no ancient Greek ruins–but there are very interesting Greek-Turkish towns and more recent history. One town–New Orestiada–is definitely un-charming: it looks like a midsize Midwestern town, with uglier apartment blocks. It was built from scratch on a grid system, and the very reason it’s that way is what makes it interesting.

Greece like you've never seen it before: New Orestiada.

Even if you don’t buy my argument, you should thank me. Every time I get held up in some ugly place, gawking and eating and laughing, I’m not making it to that pristine, off-the-radar beach. I’m one less person ruining the fringes. And the world could use a little more of that.

Summer Break #4: Greece and Turkey: Best Bites

File all this under Things I Wish I’d Eaten More Of.

1. Fresh mizithra
We drove to the next little town to visit the place that makes the killer sheep’s-milk yogurt, with its nice crusty top.

I’ve read rapturous descriptions of fresh ricotta, but I didn’t really believe it until they fed us the mizithra, scooped fresh out of the vat and still warm.

Happy little clouds

Mizithra is, in this form, basically ricotta. It’s also made from the whey from a sturdier cheese (in this case, feta), so it’s soft and jiggly, not too intense.

Having it warm is like eating little dairy clouds–but not so ethereal. More primal. I think people might love it so much because it reminds them of nursing?

2. Ladotiri
Same bat place, same bat channel. Same ‘Oh, now I understand!’ moment.

Why didn't I eat that last chunk?!

Ladotiri is literally ‘oil cheese.’ It’s a specialty of Lesvos, cured in olive oil. It’s normally kind of rubbery and salty and doesn’t seem particularly interesting.

This stuff, though, fresh–ah-ha. It was nutty, like gruyere. A tiny bit grainy, mostly smooth.

3. Ouzo
OK, actually, this was more of a visual thing than a taste thing. They make a lot of ouzo–most of the ouzo–on Lesvos. It’s great. I don’t drink all that much these days, but I always wish I’d drunk more ouzo so I could look at the bottles.

Ouzo Mini, which may be the best ouzo of Lesvos, is also conveniently the cutest. It has a hip new label:

The modern Mini girl

And Ouzo Matis, another brand with babes on the label…well, they cut right to the chase. We’re not sure if this is new, or we only just noticed, but here’s Peter noticing:

Can you find the boobs in this photo?

What’s he noticing? Va-va-voom!

Waiter, another ice cube, please!

OK, so the photo is not the greatest. But yes, peer dreamily through your ouzo bottle, and you’ll see a girl in a red bikini (or blue, should you choose) on the inside.

3. Obscenely ripe fruit

Waiting for the early train in Soufli, we breakfasted on figs from in front of the stationmaster’s house. You know how everyone leers about figs? How they’re vaguely dirty-looking?

Dirty, dirty, dirty

These weren’t even purple on the outside, and they were the dirtiest figs I’ve ever eaten.

Then, in Turkey, a nice old man gave me a tomato. It was hot from the sun. He smiled and kept walking. I cupped that tomato in my hand the whole rest of our walk–it felt like one of my own organs.

We ate it the next morning for breakfast, gulped over the sink.

Tomato porn

Maybe the best tomato of my life? Almost all goo, perfect acid-sweet balance. No need for salt at all.

Days later, Peter said, “Agh! Why didn’t we save the seeds?!”

4. Hot sausage
No innuendo intended.

We were in Komotini, our first real stop after Eressos. Whole new part of Greece. The town is 50 percent Turkish, complete with a mosque and an Ottoman-era cemetery.

The streets were empty, which was partly due to Ramadan, and partly due to it being 108 degrees. One restaurant in the market was open, and fed us this:

There was a lot more when the plate first came.

We marveled at the sensation of hot chili in our throats. The Greeks aren’t so into spicy-hot, and we hadn’t tasted it for weeks. The sausage was spiced like basturma, which is to say, intensely, with coriander and pepper and more. It was a mix of beef and lamb. It was superb.

5. Turkish ice cream
I love Mado ice cream. To Turks, it’s probably only as exciting as Haagen-Dazs, but to me, it’s the most fantastic ice-cream brand, the height of luxury. It’s all goat’s-milk, and the fruit flavors (which I think are fruit-only, no dairy, but who knows?) are so intense, it feels like the fruit is communicating directly with your brain, bypassing your tongue entirely.

In Edirne, we sat at the Mado cafe and had ridiculous Mado treats. Just for Peter, it seems, they have the ‘Red Fruits Passion’ (or some such) sundae on the menu. Sour cherry, raspberry and strawberry, plus raspberry goo, and some clotted cream for good measure.


I had a nice orange-creamsicle-ish thing with pistachios, but whatever. Need more red fruits, please.

6. Hazelnut meringue
Sorry, no photo. I bought it on the Istanbul ferry, along with my tulip-glass of tea.

I know from flying Turkish Airlines, which is neck-and-neck with Emirates for the best-food-in-coach prize, that Turkey produces like most of the world’s hazelnuts. They call it a miracle nut, and serve it instead of peanuts.

So I grabbed a hazelnut meringue cookie, and it must have been 99% hazelnuts, because it was more like an energy bar than a meringue or any cookie, really. So intense.

But then again, everything tastes more intense when you’re traveling. But then again again, America is the Land of Bland. These tastes will tide me over till my next adventure.

Summer Break #2: Chicken of the Sea, Greek-Stylie

Peter and I were ambling down the boardwalk in Eressos, on some half-baked errand or other, when we saw…a bloodbath. Flashing knives. Bright-red gore.

At first, I thought Costa was butchering a sheep, right there on a restaurant table.

We got closer and saw that the carcass was, in fact, a tuna.

I’ve seen guys cutting up tunas at Hunts Point fish market in the Bronx, but that was a pretty tidy operation. This was a sloppier affair.

Just working on lunch

Costa had bought the whole fish directly from a random fisherman who’d caught it not far offshore. The guy was someone from another island, Costa said, where they’re experts at catching very big fish. (On Lesvos, they’re masters of sardines.)

He'd used a very, very big hook.

Costa had hired the strolling vendor, a Bangladeshi guy who normally walked along the beach, to help him cut it up. He’d put aside his stack of cheap fedoras and board of sunglasses, and was now up to his wrists in tuna meat. He looked pretty pleased.

An older woman was there collecting the scraps for her cat. “Do I need to cook it first?” she asked.

Costa laughed, in his husky way, through his beard. “No!” he declared, and sliced two chunks off the loins he was slicing up. He thrust them at us, to demonstrate.

When you look up 'raw' in the dictionary, this picture is there.

I’d like to say it was the most transcendant sushi ever, but it was almost too intense. Gamey. It reminded me a little of the whale we ate in Norway a decade ago, like they were from the same murky depths. Serious stuff–it tasted like you could live off one scrap for a week. But a cat would be delighted.

The crime scene

Check out those yellow bits in the photo above. Yup: yellowfin tuna. It never occurred to me that those words, which I’ve read only on can labels, meant something concrete, in real life. Somewhere out there in the sea is a fish with little blue bits on his fins too.

We left Costa to clean up. Remarkably, everyone else at the restaurant was placidly enjoying their lunches, not batting an eye. If they’d been butchering a sheep, of course, the tourists at least would’ve run off screaming. Why are fish so different?

Do they not bleed?

We returned that night. Two kilos of tuna, for our party of 12–we barely made a dent in the full 55 kilos the fish had weighed when hooked.

Grilled. Squeeze of lemon. Salt. Pepper. Cooked all the way through–none of that Asian-seared business.

It was perhaps the most amazing fish I’ve ever eaten. With heat, the gaminess dissipated. The fat oozed through the meat, which flaked.

I saw exactly what all that canned tuna was meant to be. And it sure ain’t chicken.