Greek Easter

I hadn’t intended to spend Easter in Greece.  I originally found myself there at Easter time simply because I hadn’t wanted to go in the crowded summer tourist season, or when it might be cold and I would need to pack heavy clothes.  So I went there in the spring and found myself, to a certain inconvenience, in the midst of Holy Week.

An Accidental Easter on the Island of Crete

My first Easter in Greece began unpromisingly on the island of Crete, when I found I had left my passport and all identification back at the car rental office at the port of Iráklion and no hotel would have me.  I discovered this when I arrived late evening, on the southern coast, at the village of Plakiás, after a several hour drive across the island.  When I tried to phone the car agency I found that everyone had gone home for the Easter weekend, which came as a surprise, as I had not realized it was Easter.  Some years Greek and Roman Easter fall on the same day, but this was one of the years that they did not, and I discovered that I had arrived in Greece in the midst of Holy Week and my passport would be sitting safe on the desk of the nice man at the car rental agency across the mountains on the other side of the island, which would be closed until he came back to work on Monday.  I thought it all very unbusinesslike.  But I had a car and a pocket-full of money and was at large in Greece, and was sure everything would work out just fine.
    I drove a few miles down the coast to the monastery of Moní Preveli, confident that the monks would offer a room to anyone as personable as myself.  But alas, the monks were off on some monkish business and the place was in the care of an agéd and ill-tempered Cretan peasant.  I would be overstating my knowledge of the Greek language to say that it was elementary, but it probably made no difference, for as Lawrence Durrell once wrote, you may speak Greek quite well and still not be able to understand a word of a Cretan peasant.  In fact, I am sure that neither of us understood a word of the other, though he managed to communicate quite clearly that I would not be staying there that evening.
Leaving the monastery, I gave a ride to an elderly Greek couple who told me there was an inn farther up the coast.  Their directions took me down a treacherous and unpaved road coiling over mountains and along cliffs, but at the end I reached the sea and found the promised inn, and one so obviously isolated that I was sure a missing passport would be no problem.  And indeed it wasn’t, though, alas, there was no room in the inn.  They had, I believe, only four rooms, and all these were taken, but I shouldn’t worry as someone might leave tomorrow and I could sleep on the beach in the meantime.
    Well now, what is adventure but inconvenience rightly understood.  A night on the beach  --  on the shore of what the Greeks call the Lybian Sea  --  sounded positively romantic.  I had supper at the inn and then looked for some soft sand to curl up on.
    But there is no such thing as soft sand.  Or, after a while, even comfortable sand.  And then the winds came up off the sea.  I dug a burrow into the sand to get out of the wind and tried to fashion a comfortable surface to lie on, but a few inches below the surface the sand was not only no softer, it was also wet.
    I returned to my car and found that, as I suspected, a Volkswagen Beetle is about as comfortable to sleep in as a box of carpenter’s tools.  I unpacked my clothes and used them to try to cushion the knobs and levers that seemed to poke out from every surface.  I was only partially successful.
    Taking another tack, I walked back to the inn and bought a small bottle of ouzo, which turned out to do the trick.  I relaxed and drifted off into a passable night’s sleep.

The next morning when I came into the inn  --  the first customer of the day  --  the owner was singing what seemed to be a church song and I remembered that this was the Sunday of Greek Easter, and so I greeted him with the traditional Christós anésti, "Christ is risen".
    You are a Christian, he asked, and when I said ‘yes’ his attitude became friendly and solicitous.  I did not realize why being a Christian should make such a difference until later in the day I began to meet his other customers, some very strange young people from a hippie colony who had been living in caves down the beach since the ‘Sixties, and I understood why he was so pleased to find that his new customer was God-fearing and reasonably well-scrubbed.  Although he was never able to give me a room he apologized for it regularly and lent me a blanket to sleep on.  When some Italian tourists arrived in the days that followed I discovered that I was sleeping on a nude beach.

It was my first Easter in Greece and I had a fine time, sometimes sleeping on the beach and sometimes curled up in the front seat of the Volkswagen, lulled to sleep by the soft licorice warmth of ouzo.  Though the hoped-for vacancy never materialized, the fellow at the inn fed me well and we damned the hippies together.  I found a place far down the beach from the unwashed cave-dwellers and the disrobed Italians, where I passed my days reading and writing and lying in the sun, perfectly contented.  And even today, when I smell the sweet licorice aroma of ouzo, I remember that happy time on the beach on the shore of the Lybian Sea.
Easter in Athens

The Gods Willed Otherwise

In a year in which Greek and Roman Easter fell upon the same day, I resolved to spend Easter on the small, remote island of Karpathos, which I had read about in an old National Geographic.
    By this time I fancied myself an old hand at Greek travel and made the trip with the casual indifference of a commuter.  Once arrived at the terminal in Athens I strolled through the empty customs lane for returning nationals, announcing in practiced Demotiki that I had nothing to declare, and caught a 35-cent bus downtown, where I intended to walk across Syntagma Square and pick up a schedule at the boat office, then off to Pireaus to catch the next sailing to Karpathos.  But the gods willed otherwise.
    The boats were on strike.
    And it was not one of your typical Greek strikes, not one of those worker-declared holidays that they tolerate there, and everyone knows they will go back to work next Monday.  It was a real strike, with much head-shaking and upturned palms, baffling even the usually authoritative old fellows in black suits who sip thick coffee from tiny cups at the coffee shop to Neon on Omonia Square.
    I was stranded in Athens.  Miles away, across the wine dark sea, in the charming mountain villages of Karpathos, the sturdy islanders were observing Holy Week with their ancient rites and processions while I was stranded in the dirty cement canyons of Athens, listening to unmufflered traffic and breathing the same air that was dissolving the marble off the Parthenon.  Odysseus on his journey to Ithaka had been frustrated by the wrath of Poseidon Earthshaker, but I was put upon by the greed of the seafarers union.  The Age of Heroes was indeed passed.

Omonia Square lies about a mile or so north and west of Syntagma Square where Parliament sits and blonde and slender Scandinavians take their iced coffee in a sea of outdoor tables in the cool shade of trees and awnings acrosss the street from the King George Hotel.
    Omonia is not shade and graciousness, but commerce and traffic.  All distances in Greece, I am told, are measured from Omonia Square, and it is on Omonia Square that sits Kafenion to Neon, a great, cavernous, high-ceilinged room on the corner of an ancient building fronting on the Square, strewn thick with small tables where old men sit in rumpled black suits drinking thick Greek coffee and reading newspapers and smoking continually.  The waiters, in white jackets as venerable as their customers, bring coffee and water and empty ashtrays onto the floor, and the old men can sit as long as they like over a 15-cent cup of coffee.
    “I will tell you what is wrong with America,” said an old fellow in a worn black suit at the next table, without my ever asking.  “Everyone works too hard.  You don’t have time to live life.  I have a cousin in America, and I know it is so.”
    What could I say?  He was right.  A Greek man gets married and has children and works hard taking care of his wife and kids and parents, and as soon as his sons are big enough to take over, he gives them the farm or the shop and they take care of him and he spends the rest of his life drinking coffee and playing cards with his old friends down at the coffee shop.
    Middle-aged Greek men wear old, comfortable clothes and hang out with their buddies.  They do not chase girls.  In fact, they have as little to do with women as possible.
    “Women are no good,” my source at the next table continued.   “A woman of good character is almost impossible to find.  You are not married?  Good.  You are better off.”
    There were, unsurprisingly, few women in Kafenion to Neon.  By Orthodox practice, a man may marry three times, but I doubt that many use up their quota.  I do not think Greek men have mid-life crises.  I think I might learn something from Greek men.

In the evening I walked from my hotel on Athenai Street through the Monasteraki district to the Metropolitan Cathedral.  The narrow streets of the old section were full of the sounds of antiphonal bells and the beautiful voices of priests reading the liturgy over loudspeakers from the Cathedral.  It was Good Friday.
    I entered the Cathedral by a side door and found inside that the golden fixtures and mosaics, whose beauty is to remind the faithful of the glory of Heaven, had their glory magnified by the glare of studio lights, as the service was being broadcast in its entirety over state television for a country of whose citizens 98 percent adhere to the Orthodox faith.
    There were two choirs of seminarians, young men in black robes with red piping, and bearded priests, both bareheaded and crowned.  Toward the front of the church and a little to one side was enthroned the Metropolitan, bearded and ancient, in one hand his staff with the twined serpents, looking like something that had grown out of the earth, making his sign over those who came for his blessing.
    The altar is screened from the people by a low wall.  In the Eastern Church it is called an iconostasis; in the Anglican Church it is called a rood screen, but such things were mostly abandoned in the West during the Reformation and nowadays you see them only in very old European churches.  But in the Eastern Church there was no Reformation, and still today their priests enter a place set apart to address their prayers to God, as a Jewish priest of the Temple in Jesus’ time would have entered the Holy of Holies to address his prayers to the Most High.
    What strikes the protestant eye as a riot of decoration in an Orthodox Church is in fact a disciplined and well-thought-out scheme devised in the Ninth Century for the instruction of the faithful.  From his entrance into a church, the believer is confronted with a series of precisely placed illustrations which make clear the story of Christ’s earthly mission and its relation to the scheme of heaven, rising from the lives of the saints on earth, through prophets, angels and archangels, to a starry dome of heaven surmounted at its very peak by a portrait of Christ Pantocrator, Christ the Ruler of All.
    But Christ Pantocrator was obscured by the lights of the state television and so I looked at the iconostasis, the icon screen, with its pictures of the Blesséd Virgin, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, on my left, and on my right of Christ Enthroned, staring straight at me with a level gaze that seemed at first severe but with familiarity became the confident and serene gaze of Christ the King, who had passed through the suffering of the flesh and come at last to his rightful kingdom.

I stood beside a column and saw a small silver casket, about a meter long.  A sign tells us that the casket contains the remains of Gregory the Fifth, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, “who was hanged and thrown into the waters of the Bosporus by barbarian and impious persons.”
    The service was in progress when I arrived and was in progress an hour later when I left.  In the Western Church we celebrate the most significant events in the history of the world in roughly an hour and fifteen minutes, so that we may be on our way to attended to other, less significant matters.  In the Eastern Church, with its surer sense of proportion, they devote the time appropriate.  To be fair, while in the West our sense of piety requires that we sit still and pay attention to what’s going on in the service, in the East it is permissible to walk around or wander outside and stretch your legs or have a smoke.  There, religion is not a thing separate, but a part of life, and if life must accommodate faith, so will faith accommodate life.

On the way back to my room I noticed that a certain hotel was still a den of prostitution, as it had been on my first visit to Athens.  Youngish women in short garments lounged in the stairwell, looking out with a bored expression.  The name of the hotel had struck me as a pun, but I shall not mention it as this was a few years ago and the establishment may now have a different business plan.

I went back to my hotel on Athenai Street and read more of the book I had brought with me, Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Greek Passion, and was moved to tears when Yanokos realizes his sinful purpose and confesses to Father Fotis, and gave him Lada’s Turkish gold.  I try to get into in the spirit of these things.

Saturday passed uneventfully.  Near my hotel is a large indoor meat market and I see in the street Greek men returning home with a whole skinned lamb over their shoulder, wrapped in a sheet of plastic, for the Easter meal.
    Later in the day I nap for a while, then up and dress for the Great Vigil of Easter, which will begin at 11:30 that night at the Cathedral.  There will be long prayers and the church will be darkened and then the priest will come out from behind the icon screen with a candle and cry out, “Come, ye, partake of the never-setting Light and glorify Christ who is risen from the dead,” and light the candles of the people nearest him, who will pass the fire back through the church, each candle lighting another, and as they do so they will say “Christos anesti”, “Christ is risen”, to which their neighbor will reply “Alithios anesti”, “He is risen indeed”.
    But reality so seldom lives up to expectations.  When I reached the Cathedral I found the Square cordoned off by hundreds of police and soldiers, and at that moment arrived a large limousine which someone in the crowd told me brought the Prime Minister.  There were two military bands.  It was the State at prayer.

I left Cathedral Square and walked across the old section of town to a small street a few blocks from Syntagma, to St. Paul’s Anglican Church, where they were also observing the Great Vigil, though without bands or prime ministers.  In the small, old church of the English community of Athens, its walls hung with banners of the Royal Navy and the RAF, led by a white-haired cleric with a booming voice, we said the well-worn words of the common prayers and prayed for the health of the Queen.  Afterward, when I walked out of the church it was a shock to find myself in Athens, so familiar had been the worship.  It was as if I had walked out of my own church in California and found myself in Marrakesh.
    On the way back to the hotel I passed the Cathedral.  There were neither limousines nor military bands nor, so far as I could tell, any prime ministers.  Just regular Christians.  But they were still singing their glorious songs and there were priests in beautiful robes;  there were icons gleaming in the haze of incense and joy on the face of the people.  It was all completely satisfactory.

Two years later . . .

A Pascal Mystery

It was early afternoon, bright and windy, with the sun sparking off the waves as I waited on the cement quay on the harbor of the Greek island of Naxos.  It was spring and Greek Easter was coming.  The sea was rough and my boat was late.

There was a scattering of Greeks, also waiting, with luggage and pasteboard boxes tied with twine.  The Greeks were quiet.  It was always strange to me to see Greeks being quiet.  The only other foreigners are an older German couple, the man smoking a large, evil-smelling cigar.  I sat on a box, upwind of the cigar.  In the distance I saw the dark speck of a boat.

A car arrived  --  large, black and of unfamiliar manufacture  --  flying the double-headed eagle flag of the Orthodox Church.  It carried two black-robed priests in their flat-topped, cylindrical hats, their dark hair pulled back into a small queue.

The priests, seeing the boat, stood by their car, waiting.  The Church flags on the front fenders snapped in the stiff breeze.

I assumed they were awaiting someone’s arrival on the boat.  Why did they have flags on their car?  It is Holy Week in the Greek Church.  Had they come to meet some important cleric?

The boat comes alongside the quay.  The priests rush on board, intent upon their mission.  For whom were they waiting?  A priest, ancient and pious?  Or perhaps an abbot or archdeacon or archimandrite.  Or some bishop or prelate, some primate or patriarch.

Surely, I think, this must be no mere black-robed papa, but a be-chasubled primate garbed in a gold-threaded Phenolion  --  crowned with a Mitra and bearing in his hand the serpent-headed staff of a Pateressa  --  preceded by acolytes with torches and thurifers swinging censers to cloud the air with great billows of dusty rose, as the faithful rush forward to cross themselves with pious exclamations.  A crimson carpet will appear, and from the town will come the peal of bells and unseen voices will raise the Thrice-Holy, the glory of this holy man’s presence a reflection and reminder to those on earth of God’s glorious kingdom in Heaven.

The priests reappear.  The largest of them, a black-bearded bear of a man, carries across his shoulders the object of their mission: a trussed lamb for their Easter meal.

Do I expect too much of reality?

Easter on a Small Island

I once briefly knew a beautiful young Danish woman who told me what a special place had been a certain small island not far from Naxos.  And as I was in those days in such a frame of mind that I would believe anything she told me, I decided on my next visit to spend Easter there.

It was late at night when we reached the island.  We had had high winds for days and our ship, a milk run from Piraeus that served the small islands, was so far behind schedule that we had stopped asking.  There being no harbor, we pulled up off shore to wait for a small boat to come out from the island to pick up passengers, mail and freight.  Everything that comes to these small islands must make this transfer to a small boat and then be rowed ashore.

It was not an easy process.  It was well past midnight when we reached the island.  The sea was rough and there was no moon.  The ship shuddered as it gunned its engines, riding forward and back to hold itself in position against the wind and currents.  The islanders who had rowed out to meet us were in a testy mood and there was a good deal of yelling back and forth between our ship and the small boat.  I did not know whether this was the result of some specific quarrel with the shipping company  --  in the islands these were apparently common enough  --  or if they were simply unhappy about having to come out in the middle of a dark night in a storm.

Their small boat came alongside our ship and we dropped a rope ladder over the side.  It was hard to tell on the moonless night how far it was to the water, but the light from the deck did not reach and from where I stoods the ladder seemed to disappear into the darkness.  I was sent down the ladder first.  I do not know whether this was a courtesy to a visitor, or to see if it were safe.  As I climbed over the railing and down the side the argument between the men on our ship and the men in the boat seemed to heat up and as I had almost reached the small boat it pulled away, leaving me dangling at the end of the swaying rope ladder.  It was so dark that I could not tell how far I was from the water.  This was also the year I had decided to try traveling with a backpack.  Up to this point, it had proven a handy arrangement, though as I swung back and forth at the end of the rope ladder it seemed at the moment less so.

The argument continued. Needless to say, I could understand not a word of it, but I feared that no one was urging concern for the poor stranger dangling in the darkness.  I rehearsed in my mind the actions I would take should I fall: the few and rapid motions that would strip off my backpack and slip off my heavy shoes before I kicked and stroked toward the surface and air where, in the dark, choppy waters, I would consider my next move.

But eventually I was plucked from my swaying perch and, together with a crowd of teenagers, old ladies, valises, mail sacks, machinery, cases of beer, an outdoor barbecue and various mysterious necessities and luxuries, found myself on the island’s tiny concrete pier as the little boat made trips back and forth to the ship.

When everything was ashore we were loaded onto a tractor and flatbed for the trip uphill to the village.  Being a guest, I was given a place of honor over the left wheel of the tractor.  Across from me, perched over the right wheel, was a grinning, stubble-faced old farmer, yelling over the noise of the tractor, waving his cane and having a fine time.  When we got to the village, though it was the middle of the night everyone seemed to be out to welcome friends and family home for Holy Week.  I found a room upstairs over what appeared to be the island’s only taverna.  (My host later conceded that there might be another, but that I wouldn’t want to go there.)

The next morning was Tuesday of Holy Week.  Looking out the window of my room I saw a sky as blue as a Greek flag  and rain-washed fields vivid green and splotched with wildflowers and the small angular houses of the village sparkling in their new spring whitewash.  The high wind continued, howling down the narrow street and between the stone houses and rattling the wooden shutters outside my window.

I climbed down the treacherously steep outside steps from my room to the taverna for my usual Greek breakfast of Nescafé and bread and honey.  I put a little butter on my finger and with it I established a good relationship with the taverna cat.  Then out across the island to a round stone tower, broken and roofless, that I had seen in the distance, an old windmill from the days when the island grew its own wheat and made its own bread.  The bread now comes by boat, in large bags from the bakery on Naxos.

When the islands grew their own wheat and made their own bread there were windmills like this throughout the Cyclades.  Now, their utility gone, they are abandoned to the weather, though their fall is slow coming, as their solid stonework is a meter or more thick at the base and their mechanism, now open to the elements, are constructed of heavy wooden beams held together by thick wooden pegs, now graying in the salt air but showing no inclination to crumble.  I don’t think I had ever seen a large wooden machine before, such a solid and obvious thing, a relic of a time before technology had broken with nature.

I spend the day walking around the island and that evening at supper in the taverna I met an unkempt young ouzo-drinker whom I learned was the island’s doctor, a recent medical school graduate here doing his year of national service.  I was told this is how most of the small islands get their doctor.  He was bored out of his mind.  He told me that the islanders, who number a little over a hundred, were intransigently healthy and if anything happened to them they either got better on their own or died, and he was seldom consulted.

I knew there would be a service that evening.  The Orthodox service for Holy Tuesday is dedicated to Mary Magdalene, the sinner who anointed Christ’s feet.  I had been told that in Athens prostitutes feel under special obligation to attend this service.  Being reasonably certain that there were no prostitutes on the island, I decided not to attend and retired early.

I spent Wednesday in my usual island way.  Up early for coffee and bread, then out walking with no particular destination, stopping when I got tired and eating an orange or a bit of a chocolate bar when I felt hungry, or just curling up against a warm stone out of the wind to read or write or nap or look at the world around me.  At the clouds and sky and the grass blowing in the wind  and here and there a ruined windmill perched on a lonesome hill.  I had been told there were Byzantine ruins, but I didn’t find any, and anyway I wasn’t really looking.  Then in the evening I went back to my room to wash and change clothes and go downstairs to the taverna for supper with a glass of retsina, then back upstairs to bed and an easy and untroubled sleep.

On Thursday I saw a young girl carrying a long board, floured and loaded with unbaked loaves.  On Thursday they make Easter bread, kneaded and rolled, with a red hard-boiled egg  --  representing a drop of Christ’s blood  --  baked into them.

For supper that evening at the taverna, my host prepared eel.  The head was included, no doubt to assure me that I was getting the real thing.  The cat got most of it.

At noon of Good Friday the crucifix image of Christ was placed upon an embroidered cloth in a bier-like contrivance called an epitaphos.  The one at their church looked like a miniature 19-Century hearse on table legs, with black bows and brass fittings, and an embroidered skirt surrounding its base.

The service was in progress when I arrived a little past eight that evening.  A number of people had inquired as to my religion and I had been telling them that I was a Frank, that is, a Roman Catholic, which I thought easier than explaining Anglicanism.

It seemed a typical Orthodox service, with people wandering in and out of the church or standing around and talking, and children running behind the stasis and the priest reading interminable prayers and occasionally stopping to tell people to be quiet.  Everyone was being perfectly human.

There was a group of men and another of women, reading responsively, and when someone lost their place people chuckled and then went on reading.  There was chanting and singing, but no organ or accompanying instrument, for the Orthodox believe that we should praise God with our own living voice.  Almost everyone stands; only the oldest have chairs.  I found a place in a stall along a wall where I could lean without obvious impiety.

At about 9:30 or 10:00 we processed out of the church behind a black cross and two sunburst monstrances, the priest and the epitaphos, and walk through the village to the end of each of its three streets, where the priest said prayers, and as we passed along old women came out of their houses and spray us with incensed (and I suppose Holy) water from plastic squeeze bottles, much to the irritation of some in the procession.  We returned to the church where the men who carried the epitaphos held it up over the door and we re-enter the church by passing beneath it, being symbolically buried with Christ.  Inside, there were more prayers and a Gospel reading, then a simple discharge by the priest and we all went home.  Christ was in his tomb and the service of Good Friday was concluded.

The Orthodox do not belabor the sorrow of the Crucifixion, regarding it as a necessary business that sets the stage for the true purpose of Easter, which is the celebration of our Lord’s Resurrection and the new order it brings into the world.

On Saturday, as Christ lay in his tomb, I sat late morning in the taverna and saw men bringing in lambs, bleating, carried across their shoulder, as shepherds have always carried lambs.  How soft I am, sad to think that they were not being brought home to enjoy a saucer of milk.  But that is not their role in the Easter pageant, for the Lamb of God did not come for a saucer of milk, but to be sacrificed for us all.  And it was done quickly, in the empty lot beside the taverna, with the quiet skill of men who have done this all their life.  They were skinned and gutted and their hooves cut off and then carried away to become tomorrow’s Easter meal.

While it is of neither cultural nor religious significance, I noticed that when the lambs were brought the cats of the village came running and sat watching the proceedings from the top of a low stone wall, apparently aware that they were immune from the fate of these more useful creatures.

Later, I saw old women carrying pictures to the church.  Traditionally, there is a service today at graveside for the departed, and anyone who dies on this day is considered particularly fortunate.

But among the Greeks, Easter is by no means a time only for pious observations, and at precisely 11:12 in the morning I heard the first firecrackers.  Easter Week is celebrated with loud and constant fireworks in the city and I was impressed that the adults of the island had been able to restrain the children for so long, but once they had begun they continued a steady background rattle all day.

I arrived at church Saturday evening about 11:30.  I bought a candle and found a comfortable place to lean against the wall.  The priest was praying behind the iconostasis.  Then the lights dimmed and he came out in festal robes and carrying a candle and cried out “Come, partake of the never-setting Light, and glorify Christ who is risen from the dead.”  Then the people nearest him lit their candles from his and then, in turn, lit the candles of those behind them, saying “Christos anesti”  --  Christ is risen  --  and those receiving the light responded “Alithos anesti”  --  He is risen, indeed.

And as the light of the risen Christ spread from candle to candle, as from believer to believer, the people followed the priest out of the church to where a scaffolding has been set up and there the priest climbed up and read the Gospel account of the finding of the empty tomb and the message of the angels that Christ is risen, and the bells of the church tolled three times between each verse.

The readings concluded almost exactly at midnight Easter morning and all Heaven broke loose, with bombs and flares and rockets and firecrackers.  At one point I turned to see a rocket heading straight for me.  I stepped aside and it burst a few yards from me with an ear-ringing explosion.  The church bells were pealing madly and friends embraced and bombs and rockets fell into the crowd and full of happiness the crowd went home, trying to keep their candle lit so that they could use this holy flame to make the sign of the cross above their door.

I was invited that night by my landlord to share with his family the traditional after-church meal of Easter bread and tripe soup, made from the slaughtered lambs.  At the end of the meal we played a game with the red eggs that had been baked into the bread, hitting them against eachother’s to see which would break.  True to the standards of Greek hospitality, they let me win.  Having grown up in a family that did not believe in letting children win at games, I appreciated the gesture.  Afterward, I went to bed.  I went to sleep to the sound of the wind and firecrackers.


Late Easter Sunday morning I walked to Vasili’s house, where I had been invited for the Easter meal. He had a new house built a short distance from the village, next to the site of some ruins, from which he was decorating his home.  From their looks, it had likely been a Byzantine settlement.  These islands had been part of the Eastern Empire until the appearance of the Turks when, apparently deciding they weren’t worth defending, the Byzantines abandoned them.

The lamb was roasting over charcoal on an electric spit.  Flayed and stretched out on the spit, it looked vaguely human.  I wonder how much more vivid to the Greeks must be the image of Christ the Pascal Lamb, slain for our sins, when their lambs came to the slaughter bleating, and not as our lamb comes to us, his life and death disguised by a plastic wrapper.

The lamb took about three hours to roast and by early afternoon we sat down for our meal at a long table and took our time at it.  There were toasts and now and then someone would get up and dance.  The youngster at my left was given the lamb’s head, so I directed my conversation to my right.  After a few hours the wind and sun and food and retsina had done their work on me and I returned to my room for a nap.

About ten that evening I wandered downstairs at the taverna to find musicians setting up and the tables arranged in a long line along the opposite walls.

There was a fiddler and a guitar player and a fellow with a bouzoukia and there was a serious-looking amplifier.  People started to come in and the music began slowly, as if feeling things out.  Now and then someone from the tables would join the musicians and sing a long, repetitive song, some of them sounding to me as if they might be Turkish.

I sat with Vasili and his family.  Some children started dancing in the Greek style and were joined by some very pretty young girls.  Then Dimetrios, the old farmer who was sitting with us and whom I had met that first night sitting over the opposite wheel as we came up the hill to the village, got up and started dancing and it all changed.  By tradition, Greek men and women dance differently.  Women, particularly young women, dance to display their beauty and grace, while men dance to display their strength and agility.  And while I much appreciate the grace of the young women, it was the power and aggression of the unshaven old farmer whose dancing most moved me.

The room was packed with island people, their numbers swollen by teenagers home from school for the holiday.  While a few ordered food, most brought their own and bought only beer or wine from our host, who never asked for money, but kept a running account.  With a near monopoly on the island’s business, he probably did not need to worry about people keeping their credit good with him.

The crowd was so thick that people entered and left by climbing through windows, and teenagers drank freely, there being no serious harm they could get into on the small island.  The musicians, having found their voice, played wild Greek music, music appropriate for a hard-living people whose only recreations were drinking and dancing and avenging their honor, its wildness intensified by the solid walls of the taverna and filling my impressionable mind with vivid impulses of excess and abandon.  It was clearly time for me to climb out a window and get some fresh air.

Beyond the lights of the taverna, the town was empty.  It was past midnight and the high wind that had blown for weeks continued to toss the hanging street lamps and fan the leaves of trees and vines across the face of lighted windows.  The whitewashed stone houses were stark-lit against the black night and the wild, amplified music from the taverna filled the narrow streets and seemed to make the stone walls pulse to its beat.

The next day I slept in and resolved to do nothing, but walking down the street I was pulled into a house for several more hours of feasting before I could get myself away and back to my room to collapse.

On Tuesday morning there was to be a boat, so I sat in the taverna and said my good-byes and the old farmer Dimetrios sent his daughter home to fetch a large home-made cheese to send with me, and men dropped in and bought me ouzos and I bought ouzos for them and we drank toasts and then I rode on the flatbed wagon down to the boat landing and got into a little rowboat to go out to the ship that would take me away from my small Greek island.

 On the Eve of St. George

In the week that followed Easter I came by boat to the island of Kalymnos where, walking along a hillside street above the port  --  the houses all being shut against the wind  --  I looked up onto a porch and saw, looking back at me with an expression of innocent curiosity, a lamb.  He was pure white, with a ribbon around his neck and a spot of bright red on his forehead.  He was tethered to a porch railing with a bowl of food before him and radiated that child-like pleasure of life that lambs are blessed with.

But the red spot on his forehead had a disconcerting, sacrificial overtone which, once I became aware of it, infected even the ribbon around his neck.  But Easter had been a week before.  Were he a Pascal Lamb he should not be around after Easter.  He was a pet, I decided, decorated by some playful little girl to whom the spot of red was only a spot of red.

It was years later, reading this in my journal and knowing then more than I had known at the time, that I noticed the date and was brought up short.  It had been the 22nd of April.  The next day would be the Feast of St. George, the day when by tradition shepherds would begin to move their flocks to mountain pastures, the festive day when they took lambs  --  decked with ribbons and a spot of blood red on their forehead  --  to the church to be blessed, and then slain as a sacrifice, cooked and eaten in a common meal, for the health and good fortune of the community and to the honor of St. George, patron of shepherds.

That, I am sure, was my lamb’s business as he watched me with his innocent curiosity on that windy day on the island of Kalymnos on the eve of St. George.

A Short Walk on the Island of Kalymnos

With Greek Easter passed, my trip was coming to an end and in a few days I would take a boat back to Athens.  With no grander ambition than to see some more of the island, I struck out on foot toward the south, in the direction of a village that looked on my map an easy walk.  The road passed a line of low hills indifferently terraced and planted with pine trees.  Less than a mile out of town the paving gave way to a dirt road that turned west, toward the center of the island, away from what I had taken to be my destination.  A footpath, however, seemed to continue in the direction I wanted to go, so I took that.
    The path dropped away from the road, crossed a stream and climbed a jumble of gray stone cliffs that faced the sea.  The walk, easy at first, grew more difficult as I climbed toward the cliffs, over rocks weathered to sharp points and knife edges, and ground growing thick with low, spiny plants.
    Near the top of the hill, beneath the cliffs, I came into the full wind blowing from the east, off the sea.  Facing into the wind I could see the coast of Turkey, part obscured by the smoke of grass fires.
    Despite the constant wind, the air on the hillside was thick with the sweet, dusty smell of the early spring flowers and herbs that seemed to sprout from every break and crevice in the rough, gray stone.
    I sat out of the wind, to the lee of a boulder, near an abandoned sheepfold, where I could rest and nibble a chocolate bar and wonder how far I ought try to go.  I had started later in the day than I might have wanted, and it would not be long until evening, but, Easter being just past, I knew there would still be a good moon.  On the other hand, it could well be overcast and these rough, unfamiliar cliffs might not be all that safe even with a good moon.

Then suddenly, around a corner of the hill, came a half dozen Greek children.  There were two girls of maybe thirteen or fourteen, followed by several other youngsters of lesser age.
    We exchanged pleasantries and I asked if the path they had just come up led to the village of Agios Vasilios, as my map seemed to indicate.
    They replied that the trail they had just come skipping up was washed out and dangerous, quite impassable.  Not to put too fine a point on it, I did not believe them.  But not wanting to appear a complete fool and head off squarely against their advice, I bade them a good day and headed instead up the hill toward the base of the cliffs.
    The children started to leave but, perhaps fearful that I would persist in my folly, they turned and started after me.  I dodged behind boulders and slipped through defiles in an attempt to evade them, but the fleet-footed muffins easily cornered me.
    And so, as they would entertain a dim-witted child to keep him out of trouble, the young girls sat down to chat with me.  Having probably figured out that anything more complicated than “See-Spot-run” was beyond my Greek language ability, the children began to talk with me in slow, simple sentences.  And the hill being covered with wild flowers and herbs, they began telling me about these.
    An aromatic plant with thin, furry leaves was called anisfakia, and you could make a tea from it that was good for headache.
    Votani had very small, light green leaves on a spindly stalk, and made into a tea was good for the throat.  What they called thimari is, I think, thyme.
    Alisfakia had a small blossom atop a bulbous base, and its furry leaves could be eaten.  I took a bite of one and I suppose it might have been something to eat if you were particularly hungry.
    Agkathi was a very dry, spiny plant that grew low to the ground.  The children didn’t think it was good for anything.
    It was interesting that the children thought the herbal remedies worked by their own force and did not require that anything be said with them, as I had read that it had long been believed in those parts that there was no good in the herb without the incantation. 
    They wrote in my journal and insisted that I take their pictures, and I took their address so that I could later send them copies, which I did.  By then it was late enough that I decided to give up on my walk to Agios Vasilios and, with a bouquet of herbs and wild flowers that they had picked for me, I followed the children back down the footpath toward the port of Kalymnos.

Easter was passed and there seemed to be a new light in the world and I was ready to go back home and get on with my life.

Alithos anesti

Copyright 2012.  Davis E. Keeler