Oracles, Caterpillars, Forts, and Wine

My mother and mother-in-law left a few days ago and as I type, they are still trying to reach America–a number of delays has added a full 24 hours to their already long trip!  They were here  for a second visit, having been sure to space the visits out so they only had  to go four months without seeing their grandkids.  Sadly enough, I guess that means we are rounding the corner towards the end of our year’s adventure.  We miss our friends and family, but we have found a whole other set here in Ikaria.  There are still a lot of places we’d like to explore and things we’d like to do.  And, we know saying goodbye to this life, that is so different from the one we lead in Pennsylvania, isn’t going to be easy.

We planned their visit to coincide with the end of Chris’s last visit, and we all met up in Athens to spend a weekend together.  We traveled in a big white van (which was Zach’s favorite part of the trip) to the town of Galaxidi, which is where my mother’s father was born and raised.  He came to America, and unfortunately died young and was never able to return to Greece.  Galaxidi is a town rich in nautical history and was once a leader in shipbuilding.  It is now a stunningly beautiful village that survives on tourism.  Located in south central Greece, on the Gulf of Corinth, it is very close to the ancient town of Delphi.  It is in Delphi that the Greek god, Apollo, slayed a giant python in the valley below and claimed the beautiful mountainside to be his sanctuary.   It is also here in Delphi that the Oracle, a priestess named Pythia, foretold the future on only a few days each month.  It was believed she could communicate with Apollo and that is how she would get her information.  People would travel from all over the Mediterranean and pay great sums to consult the Oracle before making any major decisions.

The Temple of Apollo where people would consult the Oracle of Delphi.

Apollo was the god of light, archery, and music. Because of this, four times a year there were musical competitions held in the ampitheater.

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This is the stadium, above the Temple of Delphi, where every four years athletic games were held. On previous years (as recent as 2007) we were able to run inside of the stadium and even sit on the benches. Due to land shifting, as well as for the preservation of this archeological site, the grounds have been blocked off to tourists.

One of the most interesting things we came across had nothing to do with the ancient gods or temples but with mother nature.  We came across lines and lines of Pine Processionary Caterpillars, traveling head to toe, across the path.  The kids counted a caterpillar train of 75, but with a little research on the computer, we found out that the lines can be as long as 200-300!  If you are as fascinated as we were, you can learn more about them at this website: web.cortland.edu  

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Pine Processionary Catipillar train

After a few days in Galaxidi and Delphi, we had to return to Athens.  Chris was heading back to America, and we were taking the grandmothers to Ikaria.  We took the long way back in hopes of seeing the Corinth Canal.  Long before the canal, we  stopped in the town of Nafpaktos, a town known for an important naval battle in 1571.  The battle, fought in five hours, defeated the Ottoman Empire, keeping them from progressing further along the Mediterranean coast of Europe.  It was also the last major naval battle fought in the Mediterranean using galley ships.  It seems that every town or village in Greece has its own unique beauty, and this one was no different.

From there, the trip to the Corinth Canal continued.  Although we never found the exit to see this amazing engineering accomplishment, we did cross over another amazing engineering feet–the second largest cable bridge in the world.  As for the canal, it was dusk when we reached Corinth, and I am fairly certain I saw it as we drove across, but it was just a glimpse.  We asked for directions at a toll booth, but once again, the language barrier got in the way.

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Rio-Antirrio Bridge–Second Largest Cable Bridge in the World

Back in Ikaria, we lived daily life–cooking, shopping, and doing homework.  One afternoon, while the kids were still in school, we went to Evdilos to sit by the harbor and have a cup of coffee.  We were approached by a lovely couple  who were on vacation in Ikaria.  Actually, Leila heard us speaking English and promptly introduced herself.   Here from Israel, they were staying at a local winery for 10 days.  I knew of the winery–it was a place that Chris had insisted I take our mothers to visit–and we made plans to visit while they were there.  Later in the week, accompanied by Stella, we drove to Pigi and were welcomed by Leila and Gavin, George and Eleni–the owners of the winery–and their dog, Rea!  We toured the vineyards and the winery, and then we sat around Eleni’s kitchen table, sampled the wine, and of course ate–cheese, olives, baked goods, and possibly the best potato salad my mothers have ever eaten!  It was a lovely afternoon made so much more enjoyable by being able to spend it our new-found friends.

We spent the last month with company in the house–first Chris and then the grandmothers.  It’s quiet again here, but spring has arrived.  Today it was almost 70 and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  We will be spending more and more time outside hiking, playing, and sitting in the platia.  The kids are anxious for summer and can’t wait to swim in the sea once again.  While we can, we are going to enjoy everything that comes our way.

Leading up to Lent

A bit of Halloween, a bit of Mardi-Gras and a bit of wind are the ingredients for a fun-filled three weeks before Lent begins in the Orthodox church.  Lent began this past Monday and lasts 49 days, until Easter Sunday, or Pascha, which falls on May 5th this year.  Easter is the most important feast day in Greece, celebrating the resurrection of Christ.  It is celebrated with more energy and attention than any other holiday, including Christmas.

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Three weeks ago, the kids came home from school and told me that they were going to go out the following night with friends as moutsoyniaredes. This Ikarian word describes masqueraders who wear wigs, masks, and scary or funny costumes and go door to door, trying to have their neighbors and friends guess their identity.  This three-week period before lent, known as Apokreis (away from meat), is filled with a variety of traditions and fun festivities, because once lent begins, the Orthodox Christians abstain from eating meat and dairy products and participating in celebrations until Easter Sunday.

Although the idea behind moutsoyniaredes is to maintain your anonymity, in the recent years there has been an American influence and the masqueraders are given a small piece of candy when they enter a home.  However, let it be known that the kids might be given anything the people in the house have to offer–treats aren’t restricted to candy.  They might be given, say, a sleeve of biscuit cookies, an apple, or a homemade koularlakia–whatever is on hand.  My kids went out multiple nights with different friends, dressing in a new costume each time.  Most of the fun came from finding a new way to disguise themselves in funny costumes.   The majority of the times they had a great time tricking the villagers, but it didn’t take them long to discover that getting free candy in Ikaria takes a lot more work than it does in the States on Halloween.  As you know, two hours of walking on October 31st can yield a pillow case full of chocolate and sweet treats.  Here they were able to put the fruits of their labor inside of a jacket pocket, or as Zach did, inside of the hood of his sweatshirt.

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This pile contains the candy Rea AND Zach collected one Saturday evening masquerading.

During the weeks that lead up to Clean Monday, there is a focus on the foods that can or cannot be eaten.  The second week of Aprokries is known as meat week and meat can be eaten everyday of the week.  The Thursday of that week is known as Tsiknopmepti, and traditionally, families gather and grill or smoke their meat so that the smells of meat fill the air.  Unfortunately, we were traveling to Athens that day and didn’t get to join our extended family for smoked pork chops.    The third week of Aprokries is Tyrini, or cheese week, and people can eat dairy products and fish but no meat.  Aprokries ends on Kathari Deftera (Clean Monday), which is the first day of lent. This is a national holiday and traditionally families and friends go on a picnic with their baskets full of Lenten food (beans, salad, octopus, squid, taramosalata–fish roe,  leaven bread, and halva), and they fly kites.  As you may or may not know, Ikaria is an extremely windy island.  Many days the winds whip over the mountains at speed of 50 miles an hour, and even if the winds aren’t whipping, there always seems to be a breeze.  However, this year, there was NO wind on Clean Monday.  We went to the beaches in Galaskari–a beach known for its wind and waves–with Marina, Yianni, Avgi, and Lemonia. During the summer the surfers flock to this beach to ride waves that rival the waves of the Atlantic Coast.  On this day, although we saw a dozen or more kites, they just were lying in the sand.  It took a lot of running and effort to get a kite in the air for even just a few seconds.  One group of young men were so determined to see a kite fly that one of them ran down the road and jumped onto a moving motorcycle hoping to keep the kite aloft!

The day before Kathari Deftera is known as Carnivale, and it has the air of Mardi-Gras celebrations, without the overabundance of beer, beads, and breasts.  People from the villages on the north side of the island gathered in the town of Evdilos for a parade, food, and dancing in the streets.  The children from the schools, young adult groups, and various others dress up in theme costumes and parade around the harbor.  Tables are set up in the platia and they are overflowing with free food and drink.  There are vendors selling balloons and giant lollipops, confetti, and paper streamers.  This past Sunday was a beautiful day for Carnivale, and we arrived (kids dressed as farmers) at 11:3oam, as instructed.  Not forgetting “Ikarian Time,” but not wanting to risk being too late, we were one of the first to arrive.  My mother and mother-in-law found a wonderful seat in the sun and drank cappuccinos as we waited for the parade to begin at noon.  The majority of the people (not only from our village, but from all over the island) arrived between 12:30 and 1:00pm, and the parade began by 1:20.  Despite the heavy basket Rea was carrying, the itchy beard Elias was wearing, and the hours of waiting, it was a great way to end Aprokries and begin the more somber Lenten period.   Now, we are anxiously awaiting celebrating our first Easter, or Pascha, in Ikaria.  We are told the weather will be beautiful, the church services powerful and the bonfires enormous!

To the Top, Again

When people from the village find out that Chris and I (and the kids) have been to the top of the mountain, their reactions are all similar.  They look at me and ask, “To the very top?”  The majority of the people here don’t hike, walk or run for fun.  They go to work and/or spend time in their gardens and vineyards.  When they are done with their responsibilities they spend time with family and friends, relaxing, visiting and having a coffee.  Many have said that Chris and I have seen more of the island than they have in the short time that we’ve been here, yet they have lived here their entire lives.  Of course we have.  We have the time.  And that’s why we are here–to see and do as much as we can.

Roula, my cousin from England, is here for a short stay, and she asked if we would take her to the top, and Marina, my other cousin, had also told me that she’d like to hike up the mountain–neither had ever been.  Roula grew up on the island and use to walk three hours to the town of Agyios Kyrikos to attend high-school.  As you may remember from View From the Top, Chris explained that the only way to the capital town was by way of the trails that traversed the mountains or by boat.  Despite the fact that she walked many hours and many miles of paths over the years, she had never climbed to the highest point.  So, when Chris returned at the end of February, he gladly told them he’d lead the way.  So, on a beautiful sunny morning, we met in the platia–snacks, cameras and extra layers packed in our backpacks–and drove to the trail head in the village of Arethousa, which is settled in the hills above Karavostamo.

As we climbed, Roula told us that her mother, my Pro-Thea Avgetta, had walked the paths we were walking when she was a teenager during WWII.  With shoes that were worn thin and paper placed inside the shoes to cover the holes, she and two friends climbed up and over the mountain to reach the village of Xristostomo.  Avgetta’s mother was a paid worker in the olive fields.  As payment for her hours collecting and gathering olives she received olive oil, which, as you might remember from Olive Oil, was something that wasn’t available in Karavostamo.  The three girls left in the morning and hiked all day without food or water to the eliwnes, or olive fields, where their mothers worked.  It was Avgetta’s responsibility to take the oil back home to the family.  The following morning she returned to Karavostamo, with the help of a man and his donkey.  At the end of olive picking season, Avgetta’s mother was owed approximately 10 kilos of oil.  A few months later, the oil was ready and needed to be picked up from the town of Christos Raches–at least a seven hour walk along the mountain side to the west of Karavostamo.  Avgetta volunteered to make the trek.  Again, she walked with no food and water, but this time with an older male cousin.  The two reached Raches, collected what was owed to their families, and began the return trek across the rocky terrain, carrying the equivalent of 25 pounds of oil in a glass bottle in a sack on her back.  Before they left, a shy and timid Avgetta mustered up enough courage to ask the maid of the family who had been keeping the oil if she could have a glass of water.  She had really wanted to ask for a few grapes from the vines that hung above her head, but she was afraid she would be told no.  A few hours into the trip home–with about 10 hours of walking in for the day–they had to stop in a town to sleep for the night.  They knew no one, but a man gave them permission to sleep on the steps outside of his home.  Amazingly, the man’s son came home shortly thereafter, and he and Avgetta’s cousin knew each other! He invited them into their home, offered them a place to sleep, and a meal.  Thea claims she has never been able to make a meal as delicious as the one she had that night.  The following morning they woke at 5 am, lifted their bottles of oil on their backs, and walked another 5 hours to their homes.  She was 14 years.

Roula looking down on the village of Xristostomo, where her mother had descended to 60 years before.

Roula looking down on the village of Xristostomo, where her mother had descended to 60 years before.

Climbing 2000 feet, we reached the top of the mountain in about two hours.  Walking leisurely, enjoying the spectacular views, we talked and told stories along the way.  Marina and Roula were thrilled to reach the top and be able to look down either side of the mountain and view the Aegean .  After a short rest and snack to celebrate the accomplishment, Chris said,  “OK.  Time to go!”  The temperature was dropping and a cool front was approaching.  There was no doubt that our descent would be a wet one.  We chose to follow the road down to Arethrousa instead of the trail, in hopes of being able to walk a bit quicker.  About halfway down clouds rolled in, the skies blackened and the rain started.  We kept up the pace, managed to keep from getting too wet, and were only slowed down once by a herd of sheep who stopped and stared at us for a few minutes.  Figuring we weren’t going to give them food, they soon got bored with the staring game and continued on their way.

As we sat in the car and drove the two miles back to Karavostamo, I thought about our five-mile hike with the our light packs filled with food and water, the extra layers of clothes, and the sturdy shoes we were all wearing.  I remembered that Thea Avgetta walked over the same rocky path we did (as well as paths in other directions), in “almost” bare feet and on an empty stomach, while carrying tins or jugs full of oil.  She didn’t do it because she had the time or the interest.  She did it because she had to in order to survive.  I was humbled by the strength, resolve, and fortitude of my relatives from a generation long before.

Sights to See

The weather is turning for the better.  The winds don’t come as often, nor do the rains.  I have taken a lot of walks these past two weeks.  Every time I walk, I think about how different the sights are from the sights in Lancaster; and then I think how similar they are as well–farm animals, gardens, and the occasional farm with the broken down car in the weeds.