Today is the Greek Orthodox Easter and, after last night, it’s safe to say the Greeks take the idiom “celebrate with a bang” a lot farther than I’d have thought possible!
From what I’ve learned, Easter eve, is a day full of family, baking and cooking. It’s a rush to prepare all of the many dishes for Saturday night and all day Sunday and it’s a good time for everyone to get together. In this spirit, my upstairs neighbor stopped downstairs and brought some fruit for me, knowing I was alone for the night. I have no idea what the fruit is, but it’s delicious! See the attached picture. We had an extremely friendly, albeit word-impoverished, conversation with both of us repeating the few words we knew of the other language with slightly different facial expressions and meaningful hand gestures. When we started coming across cognates the conversation really took off; “economika” and “ecologia” got the point across pretty well. Now I’m fairly sure that she has two sons; one is an economist and the other works on “kompioters.” I’m pleased to be making friends with the neighbors. I imagine they have some mixed feelings about half a dozen Americans moving into their neighborhood so hopefully I can allay some of those fears with many a cheerful “Kalimera!” (Good morning).
I was all set to cook my first dinner in the apartment last night when I went to turn on the stove and… nothing happened. Unfortunately the stove/oven seems to be broken and so, with rumbling stomach, I called Johannes, who was celebrating Easter with his parents on the other side of the country, for help. After a few calls, we got it sorted so the landlady would come to my house (a 20 minute drive for her) to see what she could do to help! I ran out, grabbed a half-wheel of a DELICIOUS local cheese and some rice cakes and started to nibble while I waited. That she was an hour later than expected was completely mitigated by the fact that she’d brought me an exquisite loaf of bread she’d baked that day (above). It’s a sweet bread, traditional for Easter. Wow do I wish I had the recipe. When I get a bit better at Greek I might even ask. She was extremely apologetic and, despite our best efforts, still wasn’t able to get my oven going. So, she left me with the bread (and my by now well-dented wheel of cheese) with promises to come back in the morning to see what she could do to help.
While waiting for the landlady though I got a dinner invitation from another neighbor just a block and a half away. K— is the realtor that helped us find this apartment. He texted and asked if I wanted to come celebrate a traditional Easter meal with his family after the midnight service. Of course I said yes!
In order to get into the full spirit of things I decided to go to the neighborhood’s church for the end of the Saturday services (they’d seemingly been going on for several hours throughout the day) and I had an inkling that the stroke of midnight might be… noteworthy. The church is beautiful with clean whitewashed walls and a graceful dome. It was teeming with people, so I decided not to push my way inside. Instead I found a seat on a wall in the courtyard in front of the church. From there I could hear the priest reading and singing the liturgy and from time to time pausing for the congregation to respond. Many of the people in the church and out in the courtyard had long candles so the whole area was glowing with warm flickering light. It would have been beautiful but for the almighty bangs randomly shocking the senses. The wall I was sitting on overlooked a small courtyard, a story below the one we all were in. As midnight drew closer it became an irresistible target for the most clamorous fire crackers I’ve ever seen, or heard. Young teenagers and not a few happily grinning fathers were tossing what looked to be small sticks of dynamite causing bangs so loud my ears started to ring. As glorious as the backdrop was I decided to shift my vantage point.
(Sorry the picture isn’t great. I was trying to be covert. You can see the church ahead, and in the center is a podium with some beautifully intricate gold and silver ornamentation.)
I took a new perch a slightly safer distance away and watched my clock steadily count down to midnight. Well, at midnight you can see what happened:
(Make sure your computer volume is ALL the way up. For full effect, put on headphones.)
I didn’t get any crying babies in the video – there were many – and you can’t hear but some of the explosions actually set off car alarms!
And thus was Easter welcomed to Naxos. I’ll admit I might have a slight preference for a brass choir playing “Christ the lord is risen today” as the sun comes up, but this was a memorable, joyous celebration to be a part of.
Next was dinner…
I met up with K— at 12:30 at my apartment and walked the block and a half to his parents’ house. They were just about to sit down to the Easter midnight meal. In all there were 8 of us around the table. They were extremely gracious about speaking english and explaining to me the stories behind each of the dishes. Traditionally, this meal breaks the 40 day fast without meat, and we sure broke it with a vengeance!
The first event of the night was the cracking of the red eggs. Everyone picked an egg from the basket in the center that had been dyed bright red. We then had to work our way around the table trying to crack the egg of your neighbor by hitting them end to end. My technique wasn’t so great. My egg triumphed over one other but that was the pinnacle of its success. It was then immediately crushed by the fellow to my left. They even gave me a second egg to see if I could crack anyone else’s, but to no avail. I plan on practicing for next year! The last person with an uncracked egg wins good luck for the upcoming year.
Then it was time for food! The first course was mayiritsa, a soup, served with a beautiful loaf of sweet sesame bread. As a sense of scale, that’s a decent sized walnut sticking out of the top of my slice. We also had some traditional cheese made that day. It was soft and a bit sweet. It was important that it had been made that morning and by the sound of it requires several hours of hand churning.
You can read a bit about the background of mayiritsa here. Traditionally the stew is made from the “left over” parts of the lamb to symbolize not wasting anything. I couldn’t identify all of the different internal organ tissues, and to be honest I didn’t try too hard, but wow, it was absolutely delicious! The variety of extremely fresh herbs gave the whole soup an amazing flavor. It’s hard to tell but I had a heaping bowl and after this I was fairly stuffed. This was only the first course though!
Here was some of the second course. A deliciously fresh green salad, gloriously garlicky tzatziki, another slice of that cheese I described earlier and… some meat. The father began describing what kind of meat this was by gesturing a slit in his side followed by exaggerated hand-over-hand pulling akin to the clown with a rainbow scarf up his sleeve. At this point his wife told him to stop until I’d tasted it. I was apprehensive, but again, it was delicious. VERY rich but oh so tasty.
At this point I was truly fit to burst. I waved off some prepared hard boiled eggs and a beautiful traditional greek salad (I was much sadder about the latter) but with all those innards now weighing down my own, I couldn’t stomach any more (yes, multiple meanings implied). That was, until I saw dessert and I summoned the will to pack a little more in.
This dessert was amazing. The inside was a soft, fluffy, buttery cake crumbled up into tiny pieces and mixed with (the closest thing I can think of comparing it to is) vanilla pudding. All of that was topped with a heavy whipped cream mountain, chilled to make the whole dish light, fluffy and scoopable. Atop that was a strawberry and some little crumbles of strawberry jello. Just for a sense of scale, that spoon is a decently large soup spoon – this dish was, I think, meant to be shared – but they plopped it down in front of me out of generosity and I very nearly licked it clean.
I rolled home at about 2:30 in the morning very nearly dragging my stomach behind me. It was an incredible and memorable night though and I felt so honored to be able to celebrate Easter as part of their family. As I was falling asleep I was wracking my brain as to what I could do in return. I think I’m going to introduce them to Grandma Donihue’s Apple Pie. I can’t think of a better thanks than that. I’ll let you know how it goes!