Sunday, 2 March 2014

Apokries, or Carnival

This dog which I profess to love woke me at four thirty one morning recently. I tossed and turned for an hour, then, defeated, decided it would be light soon anyway, so I might as well take her for her morning walk. I threw on the two closest jumpers and a pair of jeans and wellies, and set off.
It was dark as we walked through the sleeping village. But when we reached the fields below, the songbirds and roosters were beginning to wake. And soon I could hear crashing waves down at Eristos, like a siren call… Lisa was pulling that way too, so we went. Walking at dawn is a nice way to wake up, I rationalised, while thinking about the cup of tea I’d make when I got back.
It was just getting light as we neared the beach, where waves were smoothly rolling in and crashing with white foam on the sand. I looked up to the sky to the southeast, where thick fingers of cloud had started turning a vibrant red, growing deeper by the moment. As it glowed crimson, I looked down and the sea was red, as if flooded with blood. It was an almost scary spectacle. Five minutes later, it was gone. The clouds became orange and then paled.
We turned back, taking the dirt track that passes En Plo, passing the chickens clucking around a field. Towards Profitis Ilias, the rocky hilltop was beginning to be touched by sunlight. Then the mountain seemed to receive the rising sun with full intensity; like switching on an electric fire, when the bar transforms from ash pale to bright orange-red. The top of the mountain was alive, while below and all around remained grey. No wonder the ancients came up with myths.
Again, it lasted five minutes and then faded as the sun rose higher, and as we returned to the village, the sky was blue with puffy pink and purple clouds here and there, a benign and friendly sunshine beginning to spread about generally, and no hint of the mysteries we’d witnessed in that witching hour.

This time of year is known here as Apokries – the Greek version of Carnival. I first started being intrigued by the Apokries customs after a visit to a museum in Athens which displayed some of the freaky traditional costumes, some with animal fur covering their heads. In the Christian calendar, this time of year is all about the giving up of meat for Lent; apokries combining the words ‘away from’ and ‘meat’. Though clearly, it’s all wrapped up with ancient pagan customs too.
There was a party at Bozi on Tsiknopempti, the day for gorging on all the meat you’re about to give up. We arrived when a group of children in fancy dress were dancing zumba. It was entertaining, but the end of the event, and we were left standing in the aftermath of a kids’ party: paper plates, streamers, and little people in fancy dress running around fighting with balloon swords, while tired parents and relatives wandered zombie-like in their wake.
So, we asked anyone who’d listen: if Tsiknopempti is the day for feasting on sizzling barbecued meat before Lent, why are there another ten days before Kathari Deftera, Clean Monday? There are three stages, it turns out. The following week you can still eat animal products.
We hustled a souvlaki from the grill. I’d gone there with Sibylle, our good friend from over at The Island Bus. She’d been over to the house to use the internet that afternoon. Recovering from being loved-up by Lisa, she went to make herself a cup of tea. I turned around to see water streaming out of the kettle, and I had to apologise. You see, I bought that kettle in a supermarket in Rhodes about a year ago. As soon as I got it home I found out that it leaked from the handle if you filled it with water for more than one mug. If I lived in Rhodes, of course, I’d have taken it straight back to the shop. But when you live in Tilos, and the choice is taking it back on the ferry next time you go, and in the meantime living without a kettle… Well, you just keep it. I think of it as an eco-friendly kettle, as if you boil more water than you need for one cup, you’re at risk of electrocution.
A few days later, clearly she had forgiven me, as I was deliberating where to take Lisa for her afternoon walk when a message arrived from Sibylle suggesting we go to the Apokries festivities in Livadia. So that became my destination for the walk, and we arranged to meet there. The weather was cloudy, but hot when the sun peeked out; so, arriving early after our walk, Lisa and I went for a surreptitious dip in the sea.
The festivities began with dances by the young children; then by women wearing brightly coloured flowers in their hair. Then what looked just like a maypole with a mask on top was carried out into the square, and a dance followed with twelve women weaving the ribbons around it. This Greek carnival custom is called the gaitanaki; the twelve ribbons relate to the months of the year, while the interweaving of the ribbons, or gaitania, symbolizes the circle of life and death, winter and spring. This springtime tradition, which occurs in May in northern Europe, happens in late February here when the flowers are already blooming.
Then the dance floor was opened up to all, and we danced. One dance seemed to go on forever, and as the line of dancers got longer with more women joining in, it was a pleasure to see the sea, and the late afternoon sun on the hills; so few festivals take place in daytime, as in summer it’s too hot to dance in the midday sun.
Just as dusk was closing in, there was a commotion and the maskers arrived: villagers dressed up with masks and scarves covering their faces, carrying kitchen tools to clatter and shake in our faces: comical but sinister. Someone had the face of an old man and wore a flowery house-dress. Another wore a pink evening gown and gloves, with slippers and a pink wig, carrying a ladle.
After watching for a while, I decided to do something I haven’t done for ages, and walk home across the island in the dark. Soon Lisa and I were leaving the noise of the music behind, and the lights of the bay; and there were just the high-pitched piped notes of the birds; the different smells as we passed different terrain; and, especially right in the middle of the island, utter calm, with layers of stars up above in the clear gap between the clouds. Only four times in the whole hour was the peace disrupted by a car driving by; the rest of the time, we had the island to ourselves. And when we reached the last quarter of the journey, I could hear the waves down at Eristos. The journey of a few days came full circle with that sound in the darkness. 

The big Apokries celebrations happened this weekend, with more partying and parades. But I’m observing my personal ritual of being borderline antisocial in order to recharge my batteries. Lisa and I have been walking and swimming, and I’ve been celebrating spring by marvelling at the mauve flowers on the sage bushes, the yellow spiny broom and the new, pale green leaves on the trees.
As I started writing this, after an afternoon’s walk to Plaka, I realised on doing some online research that it was good that I had just cut myself a meze plate of graviera, as it is 2 March, tirofagis, the day for eating cheese. Tomorrow is Kathari Deftera, the start of fasting for Easter – which starts, of course, with a feast of seafood…


  1. Didn't see you yesterday!

  2. What a gently wonderful description of Spring on Tilos! I felt I was there (and wished I was!). And those interesting Lenten/pagan dances, I have a feeling that a couple of generations ago they would have been more fearsome and frightening, somehow!

    And I'm pleased to read that Lisa has got your life organised! A walk at that time of day sounds spectacular.

    1. Thanks so much - I find the masked dancers spooky enough already, but imagine... And yes, I don't get much rest with Lisa around but I'm usually grateful for where she takes me!

  3. I am so impressed with your sense for details ... It's like being there!

  4. I miss Greece <3 Do you have idea that is there job for archeologists in Greece like Athens or somewhere or Islands? :) xairetimata apo stin Finlandia ! Amazing pictures :)

    1. Hello Ellada in Finland! Thank you. I'm afraid I have no idea about jobs for archaeologists - that's a little beyond my remit... But glad you enjoy the blog!

  5. Dear Ellada,
    all the jobs for archaeologist and other personel are posted by the Ministry of Culture here:
    it's about short-term contracts all over Greece.