from Nike in Katerini, Greece: Greek Orthodox Easter

On Easter Saturday at midnight Christ’s resurrection is celebrated in Orthodox churches. Not this year. The resurrection service of midnight mass was brought forward to 9 pm so the curfews could still be in place.

Last night our curfew was lifted from 9 pm to 11 pm. Honestly, it felt as if we’d been liberated after being long-term hostages. I couldn’t help looking over my shoulder as I was actually outdoors after 9 pm.

There were police aplenty but this time not one of them was stopping anyone to check for documentation or to check on where we were going or if we were wearing masks properly. They all stood back in spite of the blatant breaking of, and frankly impossible to maintain, social distancing. Everyone was out on the street heading to church, even the non- believers, just to partake in the ritual of resurrection and rebirth.

I wasn’t going to attend: I was too busy because we can have up to 12 people to our homes if we are sitting outside. Our apartment is too small but my aunt who lives on the fifth floor has a penthouse which is twice the size of an average house and has a balcony as big as most backyards so we will be probably dining there even though I’ve set up the dining room for her. I’m doing all the cooking and preparing because no one can come and help me and the two old ladies just can’t cope any more with such activity. So, I was too busy.

But a wonderful neighbour called me and said, ‘Come on. Let’s get out of the house and go bring the holy light home.’

the holy light

I was wearing a T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms. To stop, shower and refresh and change into a suitable outfit would’ve taken too long and I was in the middle of my work so I just threw a light overcoat on top of what I was wearing, grabbed a candle to receive the light, and went.

Do you remember the old barrel organs the organ grinders used to wheel along the streets sometimes with a performing monkey? Occasionally, you still see them here in Greece. They are called laternas. They are festooned with all sorts of blooms, ribbons and in general made as colourful or as gaudy as possible. Last night there were two types of women attending the ritual of the holy light. Those, like me, who pulled an overcoat over their work clothes and dashed out to participate.

It was only my politeness that stopped me from taking photographs to show you some examples but there is one set of massive bright orange tasselled earrings so long they hit the shoulder that are still fresh in my memory.

The holy light comes from Jerusalem. Every Easter Saturday from deep within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a light is said to spontaneously combust from beneath the marble that covers the rock which is said to be Christ’s tomb. We can argue the origin of that light for a long time but the point of this tale is to tell of how the light reaches us. How it originates is a secret the monks keep. And they can keep it.

The light arriving

The Prime Minister of Greece sends his aeroplane to Jerusalem and a guard of honour comprised of all the armed forces. As that church is primarily governed by the Greek Orthodox church, they are given direct access to the first emergence of the light and then they all get back on the plane and fly straight to Athens.

When it arrives, it is given the same honours given to a head of state with full military greeting, bands, processions, everything. It’s quite a spectacle.

But not this year.

The light arrived at 6 pm. It wasn’t able to be distributed to every city by 9 pm so the other cities further away will have had to compromise. Perhaps they can have a chat to the monks who guard the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as to how they create spontaneous combustion.

In spite of the drastically changed circumstances, my casual attire and the curfew it was the most moving Anastasi (resurrection service) I’ve ever been to.  I confess I did shed a tear. I’m far away from my adored children and grandchildren for whom I usually make these Easter feasts. I still don’t know when I’ll be back in my home in Australia but I have so much to be grateful for. I’m sending you some photographs but I don’t know that they can capture the atmosphere and emotion of the night. We’ve all suffered during this pandemic.

As I was leaving, I heard a man’s voice in the apartment next door. That man caught Covid-19 and spent three months intubated. He then spent a further three months in intensive care. He is home now so there’s a resurrection for you. On the other side was gloriously happily married couple with four amazing children, they both died within days of each other just last week, from Covid. We can’t relax yet. Another mini resurrection which means the world to us here in Greece, after literally months and months and months of lockdown, is that the cafes will open on Tuesday. I’ve never wanted to have a cup of coffee so badly. I’m going to dress up my two charges and take them out for the first time in seven months. I’ve been able to leave the house and do the shopping and minor chores those two ladies have not.

It does feel like a rebirth is happening it’s slow, cautious, but it’s happening.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: Dark Thoughts …

I’ve been having dark thoughts. So dark I’m not sure I should express them. Greece is going to remain in full lockdown for the remainder of April and most likely till early May. We’ve been in Greece over six months now. We come often, we being my parents and I. Every year my father announces he wants to die in Greece so every year we come over spend half the year here, he doesn’t die, and we return to Australia until the next year.

Last year my father fell so ill I didn’t think we’d make it over in time. His doctors all said don’t bring him to us any more, there’s nothing further we can do. It was okay – I wasn’t even sad. The man is 92 years old and riddled with disease and chronic conditions. He’s lived a big life, seen children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. There’s nothing to mourn, indeed it should be a celebration to have lived like that.

The flight over from Australia was horrendous. That long haul never gets any easier no matter how many times you do it. During half of the flight my father kept yelling how dreadful this cinema is and he kept trying to leave. I spent most of the flight restraining him from trying to open the exit door. A couple of the burlier gentlemen on board kindly helped me out a few times. Dad then lapsed into a semi-coma. I genuinely believed he was going to die on that flight and I was absolutely okay with it because we would be landing soon – in Greece. But, we made it to our home and then he bounced back again.

A month after that again he seem to be at death’s door. Another recovery. He fell over on the pavement outside on the road after a dog scared him. He was startled by its loud barking, fell over backwards and cracked his head. I thought he was going to bleed to death right there on the road. He bounced back. That man has been hunted by Nazis, attacked by communist guerrillas, been accidentally electrocuted, escaped a house fire, had two heart attacks, bypass surgery, a stroke, stroke surgery, been in heart failure twice plus myriad other operations, illnesses and incidents and has myelodysplasia, a rare blood cancer. He doesn’t know he has it. Why tell him?

There are days he just stops eating. He’s been talking to people for the last seven or eight months. There’s no one there but he’s having a spirited conversation. I can hear him when he has his afternoon siesta. He is welcoming someone in. ‘Hello, hello, come in and sit down how have you been?’ This is happening every day.

I’ve read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Keep the environment serene, calm and loving so their passing can be serene too. All very nice advice but it neglects to mention the one who is doing all this for them, how do they stay serene?

He’s in a bad way. He can’t walk, except to shuffle between rooms. He demands a fat juicy steak every day which I supply and he takes maybe half a bite and leaves the rest then demands a fresh one the next day. It took my boy (son) more than 20 days to start to feel somewhere near normal after his battle with COVID-19. It’s a terrible thing to begin to resent someone just for being alive. I came to bury my father yet he’s ordering juicy steaks while my son was battling for breath. Let the dead bury the dead, said Jesus. Am I dead? I must be because I certainly don’t feel alive.

Ritual saves me from my own thoughts. It’s Greek Orthodox Easter. The rituals of Easter are many and mostly to do with food. Ritual and it’s related foods offers the refuge from the surreal. During Holy Week one favourite food is octopus. I see a good large specimen at my regular fishmonger but decide to walk further down the street to see what another fishmonger has in stock. Right in front there’s a case full of smaller cephalopods. One glance reveals to me they are not the true octopus. Every fishmonger warns of buying the small ones with only one row of suckers on their short tentacles. ‘Don’t buy those!’ they warn. ‘They’re not as tasty and they take too much work to prepare. It’s not worth it.’
They’re called musk octopus and they’re 6€ a kilo. The big fellow up the street is 10€ a kilo. I already know that even though it’s almost double the price it will be five times as good so I turn my back on the musky ones and go back to buy the real one with long fat tentacles and double rows of suckers. It’s also the day of Lazarus. The Lazarinas can’t sing and dance
so Greek Facebook accounts are flooded with videos of past Saturdays of Lazarus. The Lazarinas are young women dressed in flower festooned traditional costumes to symbolise the double meaning, that of Spring, the rebirth of the Earth, and the rebirth of a man who had just died.

The Lazarinas fast in the lead up to their dance to be performed in the churchyards. My mother was a Lazarina when she was a girl. She said they could only break their fast for the duration of the pealing of the church bells before the call to come to church. She said the bell-ringers would draw out the chimes to last for many, many minutes to allow for extra mouthfuls of food.

On the way home to cook the octopus I passed one of the many greengrocers. The lady proprietor is named Margarita. She calls out to me, ‘How is your son?’
‘He is well!’ I surprise myself by repeating. It must still be reverberating in my heart. ‘He is well!’
She nods at me with a satisfied look on her face. ‘Of course he is. I prayed for him and I lit a candle for him.’

I left her smiling allowing her to believe she held sole responsibility for his healing. My little outing was beneficial. Grecian sunshine is kissing my cheek, my son is well. I feel alive again.