My Big Fat Greek Wedding

My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  Isn’t that the phrase that comes to mind when you hear Greek wedding?  This weekend I attended my first “Greek Wedding.”  By that I mean, my first wedding in Greece.  And it was exactly as I imagined!  Fun, loud, large, chaotic, and wonderful.

The couple getting married is from Pittsburgh.  The groom,George, is my age, and I grew up attending various Greek events with him.  Although we never knew each other very well, we did know each other somewhat.  Because we haven’t seen each other in over 20 years, at first I felt strange about going to the wedding. I felt almost as though I’d be “crashing” his party.  But, once again, in Greece it’s not the same as in America.  Here, when a couple gets married, the parents do the inviting, and they invite the entire village–yes, literally the entire village.  In this case, both families–the bride and the groom–are from Ikaria, and their parents are from at least two different villages.  So, two villages were invited, as well as most of the people from Pittsburgh who happened to be on the island.  In my defense, I wasn’t a wedding crasher.  Our families do know each other, and the father of the groom called and invited us all to attend.

A few days before the wedding we saw George and his fiance on the beach, and we had a chance to visit with them briefly.  One of my cousins asked George how many people he expected to attend.  He said, as calm as could be, “Between 500 and 1500.”  And he was serious!  When you invite two villages, all the Ikarians from Pittsburgh, and other friends and family, you never know how many will show up.  As it turns out, I’m guessing there were about 700 people there.

So, Saturday night my sister and I loaded up two cars and our families and headed up into the mountain village of Frandato for our first “Greek” wedding, which was also combined with a baptism.  George and his now wife have a baby boy who was going to be baptized prior to the wedding.  George had told us the events were suppose to start at 7 pm.  However, the priest doing the service was supposed to start a wedding the week before at 7 pm and showed up at 8 pm (sound familiar.)  So, the good Ikarians we are, we left the house at 8:25 pm, fairly confident things wouldn’t start on time.  When we arrived in Frandato at 9:20 you could hear the party going on.  As we walked closer to the church and the platia,  you could hear the people and the laughter.  We came across two cousins sitting outside of a cafenio having a frappe (a foam covered, ice coffee drink).  Fearful that we actually missed the baptism and the wedding, I asked them what was going on.  They said the electricity had just come on after being out for 30 minutes, and they thought the baptism was still happening.  Chris and I walked to the church to see what we could.  Instead of finding a quiet church with people sitting in pews watching the service, we found a bit of chaos going on.  People were entering and leaving the church like there was a revolving door, greeting friends and relatives they hadn’t seen for a while, and holding rather loud conversations.  Kids were running in and out and all around the building, including the flower girl and her friends.  My niece and daughter, who had run ahead, come barreling out of the church to let us know they had been standing right next to the bride.  There was no pews, no reverence, and no order.  I figured I could join the masses and begin taking photos from where ever I could.  At one point I found myself, egged on by my cousin, outside, standing on a pile of wood, looking into the window at the front of the church in order go get a good shot of the couple.

The reception started immediately following the ceremony right outside of the church.  Tables were set up all around the platia, and everyone found a place to squeeze in.  While I was walking around outside during the ceremony, I saw them preparing the food for the masses–greek salad, rice, and lamb.  I was amazed and how they could figure out how much to actually prepare when there was never an official headcount.

Men and women walked around serving the meal.  First came the bottles of wine in the olive oil bottles, followed by a salad and a loaf of sliced bread pulled from an empty 50 lb flour bag.  Shortly there after we each were given a plate with very tasty lamb and a huge serving of rice.  It took awhile for the individual plates to be prepped and passed out, so we were done eating before many others were served.  About 30 minutes after we finished the appetizers arrived–bite sized treats wrapped in filo dough.  We weren’t surprised the appetizers came late!

As we sat there on the top of the mountain and talked and laughed with our cousins, the wind blew and kept us all cool and comfortable.  My sister kept saying that she felt like we were in a movie set.  There were lights stung across the platia, a greek band played in the background, and everyone was smiling.  We watched the bride and groom dance their first dance together as a married couple; and then we watched their parents lead them in the traditional Greek wedding dance, the Kalamatiano, just as we all had danced at our weddings in America.  Soon thereafter everyone crowded the dance floor in traditional Greek line dancing.  Arms were hooked around each other, and one person lead each line, as it grew longer and longer every minute of the 10-15 minute song.  The lines of dancers circled and coiled as the leader tried to find a place for their line to go.  As I danced a Sousata with my relatives, someone broke into the line and placed their arm on mine. I looked up to find Chris joining the party on the dance floor.  My jaw dropped and I thought to myself,  “Well isn’t it amazing what a little bit of Greek wine can do!”

With an hour drive down the mountain, back along the main road to Karavostamo, we called it a night shortly after 2 am.  Chris picked up a sleeping Zach off of the bench and carried him to the car.  The rest of us walked back down the hill, away from the platia and the party with a bit of regret.  We knew the party would go on until 6 am, and we wanted to stay and dance some more.  But with five kids between us and a long drive ahead, we realized that leaving was what was best.  Driving home I thought about how much I enjoyed the sights and sounds of my first real Greek wedding and about how much it really did feel like an entire village had come together to wish the newlyweds the best as they start their life together as husband and wife.


A few months before I left, my cousin shared this photo with me.

Anyone who is Ikarian “gets” this photo and usually laughs hysterically when they see it.  I showed it to an American friend, and they didn’t get it.  For the non-Greeks out there, IKAPIA is the island of Ikaria — the Greek R looks like a P.   So as a way of explanation, here are a few examples.

Yesterday the brakes on my sister’s rental car were making a lot of noise and were obviously bad.  I called the woman we rented the car from at 1:00 in the afternoon to report the problem.  As we were sitting the platia last night, my phone rang at 11:30 pm to make arrangements to fix it.

My cousin had an appointment at 9:00 am yesterday to meet someone.  They showed up at 11:00 am.

Two nights ago there was a big celebration, a panagiri, for one of the local churches down in the river bed.  There you can buy a dinner of lamb, salad, potatoes, and wine.  There is always a band and  Greek dancing.  The band began their warm ups at 11:30 pm.  We walked down at midnight, and we strolled in at 3:45 am.  Kids included.

I have gone grocery shopping at midnight for items I need for breakfast.

A repair man told my father he would be at the house at 10 am to fix something.  He arrived at 9:30 at night.

In other words, in Ikaria, there is no such thing as time or a schedule.  Life just is.

Below are a few photos of the panagiri.  The lamb is served in brown paper and the wine is served in olive oil bottles.  If you click on one photo, the images will increase in size and you can scroll through.

Olive Oil

I have only been on the island for twelve days so far, but I have learned so much already.  In the evening everyone goes to the platia, or town square, to gather with friends and relatives and talk.  Everyone knows everyone, and my best guess is that everyone makes it down to the square at least a few times a week.  The children run around and the adults sit, enjoy a drink, mazettas (appetizers) and each others company.  I have found that everyone has a story about the past and most love to share–and for that, I am grateful.

The “platia” during the day in Karavostamo, Ikaraia,

I have spent almost all of the nights, sitting with my two cousins, Sophia and Stella, who have helped to make the transition to Karavostamo very smooth.  They are Americans, and Sophia and her family are visiting for a few months this summer.  Stella returned to Greece 15 years ago and still lives in the village.  Between the two sisters, and their father, Zacharias, I have learned a lot about the island.  We can sit and talk for hours on end, and I never get restless.

During one of the conversations, I mentioned a “statistic” that I had read on the internet regarding the number of people who died in Karavostamo during the German/Italian occupation of the island.  As I wrote about earlier, in Four Weeks, my grandmother, as well as many others, had to escape the island because there was no food.  What I read on Wikipedia was, “The island suffered tremendous losses in property and lives during the Second World War as the result of the Italian and then German occupation. There are no exact figures on how many people starved, but, in the village of Karavostamo alone, over 100 perished from starvation.”   Stella explained to me that it was only here, in our village, that so many died, and so many other villages went unaffected by the occupation.  The men of Karavostamo made their living by climbing up into the mountains to cut down trees and make, karvouna, or charcoal.  They would leave for weeks at a time and return to the seaside village with money in their pockets.  The families didn’t need to live off of the land because of the incoming income; therefore, Karavastamo was a village without olive trees.  When the war broke out, all food stopped coming to the island.  The villagers were contained to their village and had to scrounge for food.  They would boil the greens and weeds they found, but they had no olive oil to cook with.  Without the oil, or the fat, nothing stuck to their bones.  People in the other villages survived because they had lots of olive oil and because of their location, high up in the mountains.  It is said that after the war, the people of the village planted olive trees in every free space they could find.

Kambos Beach

My sister and her kids arrived in Greece a few days ago.  Elias, Rea and Zach are thrilled to have their cousins here, and I’m happy to have Dianna with me.  Once again, we’ve done a lot of nothing, including going to the beach.  Kambos Beach is less rocky and had a beautiful breeze.

Around the Island

I went to the grocery store a few days ago — the BIG grocery store.  I counted.  Five aisles of food.  Each aisle is 8 feet long.  That’s not a lot of food. And they had an awful lot of meat in tubes like cookie dough.  I didn’t buy any.

On my way home I needed gas in the rental car.  It was empty.  I figured that since I am going to have the car for a month, I should just fill it up–I didn’t want to buy gas every three days.  I pulled in and notice that the last person who bought gas bought only 5 euros worth.  I rememberer in the past being told to only put 10 or 20 Euro in a rental car and wondered if filling it up was something anyone ever did here.  But when the man came over to the car, I went for it and said, “Fifty Euro.”  He looked at me and repeated what I said.  I shook my head yes and said, “Nai.”  He called for another man, who I believe was the owner, and said, “This lady said she wants 50 euro of gas!”  That owner came over to the car, looked in the window an asked me, “Fifty euro?!”  They really must have thought I was from another planet  (no, just another country, I thought)!  Now I am totally feeling like a rich American, so I rethink my request and say, “Oxi, no, 40 euro.”  “Oh, ok” he says…like that was fine! Apparently 50 euro is unheard of but 40 isn’t a problem!  (Obviously with the economic crisis, 50 euro is a crazy amount of money…most people really do only put 5 or 10 euro in at a time.)

I proceed to drive home, into the town, across the little bridge, drive through the restaurant that spans both sides of the small street, and try to head up the hill past the bakery to the house.  There was a truck parked in front of the bakery…delivery type of truck.  I had to back up, back through the restaurant, across the bridge and pull to the side and wait.  And wait.  And wait.  About 10 minutes later the truck leaves and I can go up the hill.

I travel another 500 feet, past the bakery, around a few corners, up the almost perpidicular road, only to see a woman vaccuming her parked car in the middle of the road.  The road that is only as wide as one car.  I beep.  She doesn’t hear me because of the vacuum.  I wait.  And eventualy she sees me!  She puts the vacuum back into her house (because her house is right up against the road and the vacuum is plugged in inside), moves her car, and I make it home.

Yesterday my cousin Sophia and I decided to take our kids on a road trip to the reservoirs in the mountains to hike, explore, and feed the turtles.  The trip began with Zach feeling car sick.  He’s notorious for getting car sick, so 15 minutes into the ride he begins telling me he he’s sick.  We pull over so he can walk around.  We get back in the car, drive another 5 minutes, and he tells me he’s going to be sick.  We pull over, he gets fresh air, we get back in the car, and we drive again.  Soon, we stop, we sit, we wait, and still no vomiting.  This continues and after about an hour and 6 stops later, he finally throws up.  Thank goodness!  After he throws up, he usually is better the remainder of the trip.  That was a good thing, because although the island is extremely small, there are apparently a lot of roads. The trip took much longer than anticipated.  We drove for three hours and never found the reservoir (and we stopped and asked at least six times for directions)!  I can’t imagine how long the trip would have taken if we had to stop every five minutes for Zach to work out his car sickness!  When we got back to the village, Sophia told her father we never made it, and he said, “How did you not find it?  It is so easy to get to!”  Later she told her sister, Stella, who said, “Sophia, how could you get lost?  It’s so easy to find!”  Next time we are taking one of them with us and leaving Zach at home!


My paternal grandmother, Demetra, was one of nine children.  I believe she was the seventh of nine. She died when I was a baby, so I do not have any memory of her, other than photographs.  People have often said that I look like her, and every time I am here,  the older people of the village, who remember her, can identify who I am right away because of my resemblance to her.   Demetra’s younger sister, Alithani, and younger brother, George, both remained in Karavostamo, and I met them on previous trips to the island. They have both since passed, but their children and grandchildren still live here.

Roula is my father’s first cousin, and every time she sees me her eyes light up.  She is genuinely happy to see me, and she is thrilled beyond words that I have chosen to bring my children to live here for the year.  When we were vacationing here last year, every morning I would take a walk.  I would walk up the mountain to the main road and pass by her house.  She would see me and invite me in.  I never stayed long, but she always gave me something from their farm to bring back down the hill.  One of the reasons I never stayed is because she doesn’t know a word of English, and my Greek last year was very rusty.  She would look at me and talk a mile a minute, shaking her head, waving her hands, convinced I knew exactly what she was saying!

Tonight I walked up to Thea Alithani’s house, where Roula spends the summer. Roula’s brother, Sid, and his family live above her, and her other brother, Peter, lives next door.  I had brought kitchen towels and Wilbur chocolates as a small gift of thanks for the three  families, for all that they had given me last summer.  After a 10 minute walk straight up a hill, I knocked on the kitchen door and Roula welcomed me in.  I sat on her couch, my heart was still pounding, sweat was dripping down my forehead, and my shirt was sticking to my back.  I was really hoping for a drink of water.

I gave her my gifts and she thanked me, and I felt embarrassed they were so small.  I wished I could have brought them items for America that they might have wanted, but the truth is, I don’t know them that well.  Immediately Roula got up from the couch and went outside.  She came in with three shirts for Elias.  We don’t need them, but I didn’t want to offend her, so I said thank you.  She then walked out of the room and came back with a jar.  Then to the kitchen cabinet.  Then back outside.  Then she went into the freezer. And then back outside.  Each trip, she brought back something else for me to taste and then to have.  First it was marmalade she had made from figs.  Then glika (glee-ka) a sweet made from grapes that is reserved for guests only.  More marmalade–tangerine and orange, and another made from apricots, I believe.  With each sweet she opened, I was given another spoonful to taste.  The fig marmalade left seeds in my teeth.  The glika had caramelized sugar that felt like sandpaper on my tongue.  The flavors all began to meld together and my palate and stomach were anxious for it to come to an end.  Every time she came back with another jar, I’d say, “Oxi, oxi.  Stamata, stamata.–No, no, stop, stop.”  But I had to keep eating, because that is what is expected.  The final treat she broke out was a cold sweet–one was made from peaches, the other from figs.  It was sweet like the glika, but cold like a frozen treat.  With every taste, she asked me if I liked it.  And with every bite I said, yes.  (But the truth is, it was too sweet for me!) With each jar she’d tell me that I needed to take this and feed it to my kids.  “They are much too skinny,” she said.   I laughed and nodded my head in agreement, but told her it was too much.  She settled on two jars of marmalade, lemons, walnuts, and dried figs.  She apologized she had no eggs to give me this year, but the chickens weren’t laying eggs yet–they were too young.  I hugged her, thanked her, picked up my two bags–one with the shirts and one with the loot, and headed back down in search of the–now desperately needed–glass of water.

Dried figs, walnuts, lemons, and unidentified fruit marmalade!

Settling In

We left our house at 1:30 pm on Thursday, July 12th and arrived at my father’s home at 12:30 pm on Saturday, July 14th.  With the time change, we traveled a total of 42 hours to reach our new home.  (Albeit, we did get to spend 15 of those hours in a hotel, so it wasn’t too terrible.)  The trip to JFK was more eventful than I had hoped due to traffic on the Belt Parkway.  With only 15 miles left to get to the airport, traffic came to a crawl….literally.  We traveled 6 miles in 75 minutes.  My heart rate spiked, and I began to sweat.  Seven miles out the traffic opened, and Chris pulled into the airport 90 minutes before our flight.  That didn’t give us much time for good-byes…actually there weren’t any.  Just a quick hug and off we ran to check in.  In the airport I turned around and kept saying to the kids, “Push and pull, you can do it!”  The kids were each pushing a large suitcase, wearing a backpack, and pulling a carry-on.  We made it to a line relatively quickly and then the tears started.  Without knowing what was happening, someone had their arms wrapped around me.  I looked up and saw Chris standing there.  I guess he didn’t like the lack of good-bye time either!

Large suitcases checked, we only had to navigate three flights with these pieces!

This is a photo of the beautiful home of my father in Ikaria.  We are currently staying above the garage in a studio apartment.  We fit surprisingly well, and it’s very comfortable.  I’ll never tire of the view from the wall of windows.

Our home in Karavostamo, Ikaria, Greece.

Within an hour of arriving, my father sent Elias to the bakery to buy two fresh loaves of bread for lunch.  He handed him 2 Euro and sent him on his way.  Rea and Zach tagged along, and they walked down the hill to the small bakery.  Elias was able to order and pay for the bread, all in Greek, all by himself.

The bakery is the blue door on the bottom.

Since we have arrived, we have spent many hours at the beaches and sitting at tavernas.  In the daytime we swim to stay cool.  The temperatures have been near 100 daily, and the crystal clear waters are inviting and refreshing.  The evenings are cooler and late at night the village gathers in the platia, or the town square for the company, a drink, and something small to eat.  With nothing else to do on the island, sitting for hours takes no effort and causes no stress.  Sitting and relaxing, for those who know me well, know that in America, this is something I don’t do well at all.  Well, really, I just don’t do it ever! But there is something about Greece that makes the idea of “nothing” seem wonderful.

View from Calypso–a restaurant with a beautiful view and a never ending breeze.

What Lies Ahead

This is what you take you take when you travel for a year–four pieces of luggage (at 49.9 lbs each), 4 carry-ons and 4 backpacks!

I think I’m packed.  And I must admit, I am quite impressed.  Other than the last minute toiletries, I am packed 20 hours before my flight!  That’s pretty much unbelievable for me.  Most of the time we travel I pack the morning of!  But I did it…I had to shuffle from one bag to the next, multiple times, in order to get the four suitcases to weigh less than 50 lbs each.  Now I am just hoping that my scale is right.

Tomorrow morning I have some last minute things to do, and then we will head to the airport.  I still don’t know how I feel.  I don’t feel like I imagined I would.  Maybe it is because the past few weeks have just been one thing after another that I’ve had to acomplish.  The past few days I have been on auto pilot and my mind is constantly racing with things to add my lists.  I’ve joked around with a few people and told them that it’s okay that I’m swamped, because after tomorrow, my calendar is empty!  I’ve even gone so far as to look at the calendar on my iPhone and swipe it–day after day, after day, after day of nothing!  No commitments.  No work.  No traveling.  No teaching at the gym.  No volunteering in the classroom.  No piano lessons.  No coaching sports.  No driving to practices.  No doctor’s appointments.  No hair cuts.  Nothing for as far as I can see.  (And to be honest, I’m not sure how I am going to deal with that!)

Another reason I think I don’t feel anxious, like I had imagined I would, is because for the first month, I am going to be surrounded by family. My father is already there; and the week after I arrive, my sister and her children are going to arrive. The following week Chris and my brother-law will arrive.  Cousins and friends from Pittsburgh will also be there.  It is going to be a big vacation for the first month.  We won’t be alone.  We will be spending more time with the rest of the important people in our lives that we don’t live close enough to see often.  And I think that’s a pretty good way to get adjusted.

So for the first few weeks, the blog may look a lot like a family photo album.  August 14th is when we will be alone for the first time.  Maybe come then I will feel like I imagine I should.  But for now, I will tie up my loose ends here, say goodbye to our pets, and look forward to time with family.