Saturday, March 10, 2012

Greek Easter, pt. 5.

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 to spend Easter there.

Easter on a small island

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 their 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.  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 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 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 at the end of the rope ladder.  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 admitted to me 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.  But now, their utility gone, they are abandoned to the weather, though their fall is not coming easily, 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 and the ecclesiastical politics of Henry VIII.

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 in 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 in 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 AM 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 light their candles from his and then, in turn, light the candles of those behind them, saying “Christos anesti”  --  Christ is risen  --  and those receiving the light respond “Alithos anesti”  --  He is risen, indeed.

And as the light of the risen Christ spreads from candle to candle, as from believer to believer, the people follow the priest out of the church to where a scaffolding has been set up and there the priest climbs up and reads 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 toll three times between each verse.

The readings concluded almost exactly at midnight Easter morning and all Heaven breaks 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.

(Easter on a small island will continue . . )

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