Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Reflecting the future

Santorini is an island that thrives on tourism. It makes sense though, since the white washed walls and blue shuttered buildings make it as picturesque a local as any can find. But, seeing as though the island makes nearly all its revenue off tourists, the tenants do all they can to ensure their guests have a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Which is why, when I was left stranded at the (tiny, three gate) airport upon my arrival, I became the talk of the island. The only two people left to keep me company was a lady collecting carts and a kindly, extremely helpful, rental car representative.

When the (previously paid for and quite expensive) hotel transport finally arrived, after a number of phone calls, I was not the happiest of persons. Yet, I smiled and spoke sweetly through gritted teeth to the driver and hotel owners. And then I walked down the white-washed stairs to my traditional cave-room overlooking the sea, when an Australian man stopped me to say he had seen me on the plane. Confused, I asked, "Wait... what? If we were on the same plane, then... um... how did you get here?" "Oh... the hotel taxi," came his response.

I should have figured my first taste of Santorini was just a prototype of things to come.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Not for the squeamish


That is the only thing on the minds of Greeks during Easter Sunday. Lamb. Those on grilling duty have to wake early to dig a pit in the ground to prepare a rotisserie, if they're not lucky enough to have a permanent one already. Lamb. The entire corpse of the animal, from head to hoof is pulled out of the butcher bag. Lamb. A metal skewer, larger than the animal itself, is shoved up its rectum, through its body until jabbed through the skull. Lamb. Prongs are forced through the inside of the carcass to the outside, along the spine, and screwed in to stabilize the lamb to the skewer. Lamb. A thick, large needle is used to sew the two sides of the belly, previously opened by the butcher to remove the innards, shut. Lamb. Slits are made in the arms and legs for garlic and other herbs to be inserted before being sewn back together. Lamb. Sheets of skin are placed over the nearly prepared body and held into place by knots of string sewn in random spots. Lamb.  All set, the skewered animal is propped against a wall to drain any remaining juices.


A second skewer, just as large as the first, is held upright to be filled with a delicacy. Lamb. A prized, highly anticipated, treat - coveted more than the whole lamb propped against a wall awaiting its fate. Lamb. For, the second skewer is layered like a shish kabob: liver, heart, skin, liver, heart, skin, liver, heart, skin - repeated until sufficiently full. Lamb. Although, that alone leaves it incomplete. Lamb. It is missing an essential, mouth watering, ingredient: intestines. Lamb. To add it involves more hands. Lamb. Creating a delicacy is a two person job, one to spin the skewer while the other wraps the intestines (cleaned three times and left soaking in vinegar) around the pieces of heart, liver and skin.


The skewers are placed on the rotisserie. Lamb. The meat is roasted. Lamb. Fingers and mouths become greasy. Lamb. Stomaches fill. Lamb. Dinner completes. Lamb. And minds move on to other things.



Tuesday, May 15, 2012

He is risen

"Christos Anesti!" they exclaim to one another while giving congratulatory kisses on each cheek at the midnight hour. It is a time of celebration, for Christ has risen.

More Greeks attend Easter Mass than they do Christmas. For them, the power to overcome death (along with death and sainthood in general) is greater than birth itself. In fact, as an interesting side-note, most Greeks not only have a birthday but also a name day - which is the day of the saint (ie. the date of the saint's death) from whom they are named after.

But Mass doesn't start when the doors of the church are opened. Its beginnings stem much earlier, and in an entirely different country.  At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in Jerusalem, an Orthodox priest enters the spot the Catholic church believes to have been the temporary resting place of Christ's body, in order to receive the annual holy light.  That light is then transported to a small, rather unremarkable, church in Athens (called "The Remote Office of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher") near the base of the Acropolis at six o'clock in the evening. During following six hours, that light is carried to each and every Catholic church throughout the country by helicopter, plane, train, boat and police car.

An hour before midnight, men, women and children begin to silently file into the church as priests chant hymns of doctrine. The strict Orthodox make the sign of the cross and kiss idols located on the left and right sides of the entrance. Those who haven't brought their own candle purchase one just inside the church doors. Once inside, the women congregate to the left and men to the right. It is an observation Aurelie had never made before. "Out of all the weddings and funerals I've ever been to, I have never seen this type of segregation," she whispers. A look of disbelief crosses Alex's face before explaining that the separation has been around for as long as he can remember... although it may be that this was the first time Aurelie had been inside the walls of a church during Easter Mass in order to witness it.

Moments before the holy light is brought forth, all lights in the church go out. Those eager to be the first to receive the holy light rush to the front and stick their candles in the air before the head priest even enters. When the high priest emerges from behind a hidden door, he says the words "Come, receive the light" and holds a candle, lit with the holy light, high for all to see.

The light is passed on from person to person until candlelight fills the chapel and spills outside to those waiting beyond the church doors.

Immediately after, bodies turn and slowly shuffle towards the door. We join the herd, making our way outside; with the wind doing its best to keep us actively trying to protect the light from blowing out. A few minutes later the high priest joins the crowd, along with other priests carrying a cross and an image of an idol. Together they chant. People shush each other in order to hear. They're waiting for the words, the celebration, the affirmation that Christ has risen. "Christos Anesti," the high priest begins to sing. The congregation joins in. Everyone is singing and giving congratulatory kisses.  Church bells begin to ring. Home-made fireworks start to explode. And I absorb the sights and sounds while trying to capture the moment as best I can with the video function on my camera.

Then the greatest feat of the evening begins: transporting the light home to have it grace the table for dinner. Forty days before Easter, Greeks fast, abstaining from meat. The late night/early morning, break-the-fast, dinner is just as anticipated as hearing the priest sing Christ has risen. And just like the traditional Easter soup they eat, the holy light is essential.

Together Alex, Aurelie and I walk back to Freda's house, trying our best to keep our perspective candles lit. Every three steps give way to sounds of "ooh, ooh... no, no!" and one or all three of us turning in circles to block the wind from the light. Every ten steps finds us huddled together. The rate we're going, we would make the half-mile journey by day break. For a brief moment I even thought those who were driving home, with a candle blazing in one passengers hand, were pretty smart.  And then there was an audible gasp, in surround sound. All of our candles blew out.

We laugh it off and quickly make our way to the end of Freda's driveway.  That is when I have a 'genius' moment. "Why don't we just stop the next car that drives by and ask them if we can re-light our candle with their light?," I ask. It seems like a brilliant enough idea. Plus, we were in luck... there was a car coming towards us that very second. Alex waves them down and asks if he could light his candle with theirs. Smarter than others I saw drive by, they have a lantern covering their candle. It is handed to the person in the front passenger seat. They open the door of the lantern and Alex begins fidgeting with the candle, trying to get it to light. And then, just as the light takes hold of the wick, a huge gust of wind blows both lights out. The look of shock on the faces of our Good Samaritans will forever haunt me.

We mumble our apologies as they drive off... and then, we laugh.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

star treatment

As Alex and Aurelie drove me up the winding mountainside in Akrata, I sat in awe. I had found paradise... or, at least a Greek version of it. Freda moved to the holiday haven twenty years ago to escape city life in Athens.  She couldn't have picked a better spot. Purple trees dotted the large green slops.  "They're called Judas trees," Aurelie informed me, "because they only come out around Easter."  Glimpses of the Mediterranean came into sight from time to time as we'd switch-back. It was as if each angle were competing for the title of 'best view'.

We pulled up the driveway and through the gates into a yard filled with grapevines and olive trees. Upon exiting the car, Alex grabbed my suitcase, led us through a doorway into a courtyard and opened the door to the guesthouse. "And this is where you'll stay," he stated while urging me inside.

Just like the main house, the guest house was over a century old, but was renovated from its prior life as an animal shed into an apartment that many would spend top dollar to rent. I looked around the whitewashed walls, the sunken living room, the authentic Greek kitchenette, generous bathroom and everything else in the large space that was to be my home for the next two days. I was overcome with gratitude and sent a telepathic greeting of thanks to my friend George (he had not yet arrived) who orchestrated everything, allowing me to spend a Greek Easter with his family which caused a domino effect ending with his mother offering me the guesthouse -something well beyond my expectations, since I was in need of nothing more than a spare sofa to rest my head on.

Having to pry my eyes away from my temporary abode, we walked into the main house so I could meet the woman who had already accommodated me beautifully. "Thank you so much for letting me stay here," I immediately exclaimed. "Uh, huh," Freda mumbled and then stole a quick glance at the kitchen table dressed for a banquet, asking: "Are you hungry?

It was then she became my new favorite person.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

It's all Greek to me

Three Saturdays ago I sat on a sofa in the seaside village of Akrata, Greece. A long row of windows providing incredible views of the Mediterranean, as the house is situated on a hill, thus avoiding any obstruction of the view. Although, seated on that sofa, I wasn't absorbed in what lay outside; the situation occurring inside was ten times more riveting.

Freda, a friend of mine's mother, her son Alex and his girlfriend Aurelie were in a discussion trumping all discussions. Their voices raised, spewing out Greek so fast it left my head spinning. (Not that I understand the language no matter how slowly it's spoken). But the dialog appeared so intense it was as if the world would end in five minutes unless they, and they alone, could find a way to stop its eminent destruction.

Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth it went until at one point Alex stopped, looked at me, and stated: "We're just figuring out what to get at the grocery store."