Dry Biscuits and Earplugs: Greek Easter in Tilos
In England, Easter is heralded by the arrival of chocolate eggs of all shapes and sizes in the shops. In Tilos, we don’t have that many shops but none of them had chocolate eggs. When I did my last English lesson with the little kids before Easter, I asked them to draw pictures of what Easter meant to them so we could write English captions. All of them drew churches, some with candles and biscuits, and little Yorgos drew a big crucifixion with a crowd watching. This was my first indication that Easter might be a bit more serious here.
This would be my first Greek Orthodox Easter in Tilos. I moved here just shy of a year ago.
Easter biscuits are called koulourakia. Wikipedia tactfully describes their taste as ‘delicate’. Have you ever heard anyone say when you are feeling sick that you should nibble on dry biscuits? I was musing on this phrase not long ago, wondering exactly what it meant. I mean, certainly it sounds better than nibbling on a wet biscuit. I concluded it probably meant a biscuit without any goodies in it like raisins or chocolate. Just a very plain, simple, pastry-like biscuit. Well, that’s koulourakia. Not quite as exciting as chocolate Easter eggs, but at least you won’t feel sick.
The week before Easter was the week I started going on long walks again, and spotted my local farmer pulling the intestines out of a dead goat hanging from a tree. Leaves and figs were appearing on the fig trees. Seals were seen chasing fish into the harbour, I disturbed a big flock of migrating birds at Skafi, and I found a huge turtle washed up on the beach. Our garden was thriving with potatoes and onions, peas and rocket and raddichio. The fields were blooming. As, apparently, was love among the lizards. At least, I think that's what these two were up to...
Megali Pempti (Big Thursday)
The Big Thursday church service started in the evening. After we heard the bell ringing, we got ready, left our little country house in the dark and took the motorbike down the dirt track. It was a cool and windy night.
The little church was smoky with incense, crowded with chandeliers and censers and crosses woven from grass hanging from the ceiling, the dark old painted wood of the altar screen leaning inwards, the haunting chant of the priest rising and falling. We lit candles, and Stelios kissed the icon. A cross painted with Jesus crucified was decorated with garlands of flowers. Five minutes later, Stelios went to stand outside with a group of other men; other people arrived, young and old. I stood and watched all the people I knew, and listened. It felt very strange. And mournful.
The last time I went to a church service was here in Megalo Horio four years ago on my first trip to Tilos, on a Sunday morning, and a very old and frail woman told me off for wearing a dress that showed some leg above the knee. Actually she didn’t speak, but glared and prodded a bony finger and made the sign of the cross. This time, I knew jeans were OK. In fact, many of the young women were sporting super-tight trousers and five-inch spike heels.
I went outside for a while, but it was cold. This was a long service, several hours, during which a candle would gradually be lit for each of twelve Evangelists. I found a place inside again, watched people coming and going, and gradually the trance-like effect of listening to a sung service started to feel comforting.
Unable to follow the words or make the sign of the cross or kiss the icons, it became a time for a kind of meditation. Two weeks ago, I was three months pregnant. They had been thrilling moments back in January when we found out I was pregnant, and horrific moments in late March when we found out I wasn’t any more. It had been the only thing really on my mind, and the only thing I coudn't really write about here. Since the surgery that left me feeling so empty inside, I’d finally come to feel positive and OK again thanks to family and friends who helped me realise this was a common part of the process of making a child. But a little space for thinking was in fact just what I needed.
Megali Paraskevi (Big Friday)
Friday night's service took place around the Epitaphio, the symbolic funeral bier of Christ, which stood in the middle of the church, covered in flowers. Children held candles at either end.
Then the priest led a procession. Men carried the bier by its poles. We followed it up the steps behind the church and along a dark alleyway through the village. Now I know why the steps in villages are whitewashed at the edges: so you can see where you’re going in the dark. We passed the ancient wall with its huge stones, and then made our way down towards the cemetery, passing a field where donkeys – my neighbours this time last year – ran around in a panic.
When we reached the graveyard, families dispersed and I realised why there had been a frenzy of candle-buying during the service: the priest went around to each family and said a prayer for their departed loved ones. This part of the Easter ceremony, this remembrance of the dead, took me by surprise and when I heard others crying it made my own tears flow briefly for our own recently departed loved one, and Stelios and I had a silent hug in the darkness.
It was a sad but beautiful occasion, which ended with the rain falling and the repetition of a phrase ‘remembrance of ages’ or ‘aeons’. We all followed the bier slowly back up to the church, and the men held it high above the doorway so we could enter the church underneath it.
Everything starts so much later than I expect here. When I’d asked Stelios what time we’d be going to church today, he said to vrathi, meaning evening. In fact, the church bell calling us to the service started ringing at eleven p.m.
I’d noticed some interesting candle fetishism at various stages over the last few days; the priest’s helper chopping candles into small pieces, which ladies at the back of the church stuffed into their handbags. Tonight I noticed for the first time that the priest’s helper, overseer of candles and revenues, was keeping an eye on the little candles we’d lit on the way into church, and snuffing them out as they reached their last couple of inches and throwing them in the box below. Out, out brief candle… Tonight’s candles were white and red at either end, marking the celebration of Christ’s rising again.
Something else had changed tonight: the profusion of vomves, bombs or firecrackers. Stelios had been complaining about the lack of vomves this year, and indeed to him part of the appeal of standing outside the church is setting off of vomves. Older folks coming outside to complain from time to time just adds to the fun. I’m afraid Stelios and I don’t see eye to eye on this one. To me, the utter charmlessness of a thing that simply makes a loud bang cannot be overstated, especially when being somewhat sensitive in the hearing department, even the screech of Tube trains makes me cover my ears. I finally fled the church when a loud crack echoed in the doorway, and found a safe spot in a dark part of the village from which to watch the fireworks at midnight.
As everyone left the church and greeted one another with Christos Anesti (Christ is risen) and Alithinos Anesti (He is truly risen), they went home to break the fast with a meat soup called mayiritsa. But this was only the beginning of the evening: the next step was for us all to drive down to Bozi, the club at the edge of Livadia, park the car so close to the entrance that would be impossible for anyone but a Greek to retrieve it several hours later when hemmed in from all directions, and celebrate this solemn religious occasion by drinking and dancing for several hours…
It was a breezy but sunny morning and I worked in the garden for a couple of hours, clearing away weeds to find hidden tomato plants and forgotten shoots.
A whole lamb was turning on the spit over a bed of coals when we arrived for lunch with Stelios’ aunts and uncles and cousin down in Eristos.
‘Ela Jenni! Here, try this,’ said Nikos, ‘entera.’ Intestines, he said, urging me to take a piece – but they looked surprisingly appetising plaited and barbecued. I took a bite and the taste was salty but not unpleasant.
‘Is that liver?’ I asked, pointing to the darker pieces on the plate; I like liver.
‘Yes!’ said Nikos. My hand had already reached for a piece when he added, ‘ – and lung, heart…’
The round table in the garden at the edge of the orchard was spread with marinated wild greens, salad, cheese, tzatziki and bread and fried potatoes. And a huge oven dish packed with Flintstones-style portions of lamb – big bones with hunks of meat, rib cages, an accusing eye and what I realised was a row of teeth. This wasn’t the lamb roast I was used to from English kitchens, which Nikos acknowledged by jokingly insisting I must be fed, and putting a joint of meat suitable for a medieval warriors’ banquet onto my plate.
Thankfully a flagon of golden home-made wine appeared from under the table with increasing frequency. Pameh! Roufa! shouted Nikos – let's go, gulp it down!
The girls finally got up from the table with some difficulty and took ourselves (and a pan full of Greek doughnuts in honey) to the beach at Plaka, where the water was clear and deep blue. Perhaps this is what Christmas in Australia feels like. I walked part of the way home in the sunshine, passing only goats. Live ones.
The church bell rang in early evening, when it was still warm and sunny. The service would be in the other church at the top of the village. Stelios said maybe I shouldn’t come as there would be lots of vomves, but I had an idea. Earplugs. I grabbed the set I keep in my suitcase.
As we followed the little alleyways and reached the courtyard in front of the church, the views over the still-sunny valleys and hills and sea were beautiful. There was our little house down in the distance, with only bare mountainside beyond. Everything was so much greener than the last time I came up here, during summer. As I saw the cheeky grins of a couple of boys preparing to light and throw firecrackers, I stuffed the orange plugs into my ears and grinned. They dulled the noise just perfectly.
For an hour or so, I listened to the comforting singing of the service and breathed in the incense, with a view of our house just visible through the open doorway. I looked around. Everyone seemed happier now that Christ had risen. The cracks and bangs of vomves outside grew more insistent, as if we were being besieged by an invading army. There was a little confusion over some readings and a mistimed ringing of the bell outside, but the priest just smiled. Soon, we followed the priest outside, and it was time to burn Judas.