Soccer, by Elias Fox

Soccer is just about the only sport kids play around here. It is also the only one with it’s own Greek name. All the other sports (basketball, football, baseball, hockey, tennis, and volleyball) are called by their English name. Most people don’t even know hockey or baseball. Some kids do play a little basketball, but soccer is definitely the dominant sport. Kids play it all the time; I’ve even seen a few of my friends kicking around an empty soda can when there was no ball available. And it’s not only the children–all of the men can play soccer well too. My teacher, Mr. Kosta, who doesn’t look like he would like to play sports, is a great goal keeper. Many of the older men sit around in cafenios late at night, playing cards and watching soccer. My school has a courtyard in the back where kids can play soccer, so at almost every recess we play. And, most evenings kids go up there to play it even more. They never get tired of it.

One day in October my friend Kosmas asked me if I wanted to go with him to AOM. AOM is the soccer team on our part of the island. Zach and I are on the “little kid’s team” with boys around 8 years old up to my age. We have practice every Saturday at 5pm for two hours (and on Wednesdays when we don’t have school). It is not as organized as things are in America, but it still is fun. The coach has us run three laps around the field at the beginning of practices (most times). Then we do some stretches and some drills and usually play a scrimmage at the end of practice.

This past Saturday we had our first and only game with Diagora, the team from the Raches area. It wasn’t even scheduled; our coach just called up the coach from Raches the week before an asked him if he wanted to have a game the following Saturday. The game ended in a tie, 6-6. Zach and I both played very well, but neither of us scored. It was a fun experience and I hope we got to play again.

Soccer was never really a sport I liked too much, but since coming here I think it is much more fun. It is also much easier to play whenever you want, because the kids have so much more freedom. If a kid in America wanted to play soccer (or any sport) with some friends, first he would have to find a place to play. If that place happened to be his backyard, he’d have to ask permission if he could have a group of friends over. Next, he’d have to call those friends who, in turn, would have to ask their parents if they could go to his house. The parents would have to drive them to the friend’s house and pick them up at a set time to take them back. Here, the kids tell their moms that they are going to the school and on the way call some friends to tell them to come as well. Then, they return when they want or when their moms call them. Easy. The only problem is that most kids don’t have a good ball to play with!

Here, soccer is a game that people of all ages enjoy. When we come back to America, I’ll miss going to AOM every Saturday evening and playing soccer with friends whenever I want. But when I come back here other times, soccer will still be here, and I will still have my friends to play it with.

***Extra note from Jackie: AOM is a free soccer club. No fees, no uniforms, no frills….no bringing snack to practices or games….nothing but playing. Thank you to the father, Vasili, who gives up his time every week and volunteers to coach!

Greek Dancing (yes, again…)

What would a child’s life be without some sort of structured activity?  Even in Ikaria we were able to find that!  Every Saturday morning for the past eight months Elias and Rea have been taking Greek dance lessons in the community hall of Evdilos.  Somedays they went willingly.  Other days they complained.  But they went.  And they learned dozens of new dances and perfected the ones they knew when they arrived.  Well, the two they knew before they arrived.  This past Sunday there was a Mother’s Day Celebration in the platia of the village of Frandato.  Rea was excited to do the performance for the crowd, but Elias was so-s0.  He did get excited afterward when he heard his friend’s mother say that his grandfather had just seen them on TV.  Live TV in Ikaria.  Who knew?

Here is a very short video clip of one of the dances.

Ikarian Life vs. City LIfe

When we decided to spend a year in Greece we debated the two options that were available to us.  It was possible that with much work, money and time invested we could have spent the year in Galaxidi, where my mother’s father was born.  The other option was to live in Ikaria, where my father was born.  The pros of Galaxidi were that it was on the main land, in a beautiful seaside town, where we would have access to more–including the ease of travel.  The cons were that we would have to do an enormous amount of work to bring the house up to livable standards, we’d need to buy a car, and we’d have no family nearby. The pros of Ikaria were that we had a beautiful home ready and waiting, a car, and an extended family we could get to know.  The cons were that we would be on a tiny (100 square mile small) remote island, in the middle of the Aegean, that isn’t easily accessible–with a population of only 8,000.  Because of it’s size and location, there is very little here–limited shopping, no movie theaters or malls, no restaurant chains or frozen yogurt shops, and a price increase on most items.  Unfortunately we couldn’t have both the luxuries of the mainland and the comfort of a ready made home and family nearby.   Or so we thought that was unfortunate.

I have many friends and cousins who have come to Ikaria multiple times over the years growing up.  The first time I came to the island was when I was 29 years old.  I returned two other times, for only a total of 25 days before we arrived this summer. I had heard how beautiful and unique the island is, but I didn’t really understand.  I had been here about six weeks when a friend from home asked me which place I liked better, Ikaria or America.  Without hesitation I said, “Ikaria.”  “It’s the lifestyle.”  At that point although I hadn’t quite figured out what exactly what that lifestyle was, I just knew it “fit” with me.

Fast forward ten months to last week.  Chris, the kids, and I went to northern Greece, wanting to explore more of the country.  Everyone told us that it is a beautiful area and had wonderful things to say about the places we were going to visit.  And they were right.  It is beautiful and many places reminded me of the landscape of Pennsylvania.

We started in Thessaloniki, rented a car, and head to Meteora.  Along the way made an unplanned stop in the town of Vergina, where in 1977 a Greek archeologist discovered the burial site of King Phillip II, the father of Alexander the Great.  Unsure what to expect, we were all taken back when we walked into a tunnel that went under a hill, which was really a burial mound.  We were awestruck at what was discovered under this hill.  We saw three multiple room tombs that had been excavated along with countless treasures and tomb stones.  We learned about the death of King Phillip II and saw the gold box that contained his bones and the crown he wore when he was cremated in front of the community.   (The photos below are courtesy of Wikipedia as taking them inside of the museum was forbidden.)

Vergina Tomb Enterance

Vergina Tomb Enterance

Facade of tomb of King Philip II

Facade of tomb of King Philip II

Gold box withe bones of King Philip II and crown he wore after dying

Gold box withe bones of King Philip II and crown he wore after dying

From there we continued to Meteora, a region of impressive natural rocks that tower over the villages below.  The tops of these sandstone pillars house six working monasteries (four for monks and two nunneries, with less than 10 inhabitants each).  Since the fourteenth century there have been more than 25 monasteries built on these rocks.  It is inconceivable to understand how the bricks, mortar and lumber were brought to the tops of the pillars and the buildings were built.   The area is also great for hiking and rock climbing, and although we didn’t climb we watched two men make an impressive climb up a free standing pinnacle.

The monasteries were breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful in every way imaginable–other than the tourists that trampled through by the busload.  I was taken by the iconography inside of the churches in the Monasteries.  Every inch of wall space was covered, telling story after story of Christianity.  We could have spent hours inside looking at the details and learning more about the stories of the Bible. I wish I could have photographed the icons depicting the persecution of Christians–burning at the stake, beheading, and skinning.  I had never seen icons with such detail and history.

We also spent a few days in the town of Ioannina visiting friends, Aphrodite, Reya, and Alex.  Aphrodite is from Lancaster and the sister of one of our dear friends Olga.  We have spent a lot of time with Aph and her daughter when they’ve come to visit, so we were very excited to see where they live and spend time with them in Greece.  Ioannina is a big city with stores, restaurants, movie theaters, retail chains, and even an Ikea. For the first time in ten months I ate something other than Greek cuisine–Chinese and Mexican.  My tastebuds were in heaven!

Ioannina also has history and beauty.  In the center of the city is a massive lake with a small island where Ali Pasha, an Ottoman ruler from the 1800s, was murdered by orders from the Ottoman Sultan.  The bullet holes are still in the floorboards for the viewing pleasure of tourists and history buffs alike.

Cheers to Mexican food!

Cheers to Mexican food!

Zach being Zach in Ioannina

Zach being Zach in Ioannina

However, what might be the most impressive thing we’ve seen all year we also found in Ioannina.  Unfortunately yet another site that we were unable to photograph!  We toured the Perama Cave, one of the rarest caves in the world.  It is impressive in size and variety and was discovered only in the 1940s when residents were seeking refuge from bombings in WW II.  The cave is 14,000 sq. meters and visitors are only allowed access to 1,000 sq. meters on a 45 minute tour.  A tour in which we walked for over half of that time.  The cave is massive.  I kept imagining what it must have been like to be one the people who discovered the cave, surrounded by rocks and formations that make you feel like you are walking on another planet.

Most caves create 4 or 5 varieties of stalactites and stalagmites, but this one has thirteen!  There is a massive stalactite and stalagmite formation that looks like the trunk of a giant redwood that took over 200 million years to form.  That’s understandable considering it takes 70-80 years for a stalactite to grow 1 cubic centimeter.  Every turn we took left us stopped in our tracks with a new and completely different view and feel.  All the kids says it is the coolest thing they have ever seen.

A short distance from Ioannina is the ancient town and theater of Dodona–a historical site as impressive as Delphi, but not nearly as popular.  It is the site of the Oracle of Zeus, and it makes an appearance in Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey.  The site is off of the beaten path, and we wouldn’t have found it without Aphrodite as our tour guide.  Years ago she and Olga would come to the theater to see performances.  It was closed to be restored, but it doesn’t appear that much as been done in the past 20 years.

Ancient Theater of Dodona

Ancient Theater of Dodona

On our 6 hour drive back to Athens we chased down a landmark we tried to find when we were with my mom and mother-in-law in March–the Corinth Canal.  It wasn’t easy to find as there were only a few signs pointing traffic in the right direction–the last ones miles before the actual canal.  After asking for directions twice we stumbled upon it.  There was no fanfare and only a small souvenir shop in a parking lot at the end of the bridge–one that sold equal number of topless sunbathers postcards as canal postcards!  When we returned I researched the canal and came up with the reason it might go with such little recognition.  (I would think that any canal is a major engineering feat, and it sure looked that way from where we stood on the bridge. But apparently I would be wrong.)  The canal was built at sea level, so there are no locks.  It is only 70 feet wide at the base which makes it impassable for most modern ships. It has periodic closures because of “landslips” from it’s steep walls.  And it never attracted the traffic it had hoped.  It is used mainly by tourist ships.  That being said, it has no major economic importance so, therefore it must not be worthy of too much recognition. It was an overall disappointment for the amount time and effort put into building it.

The Corinth Canal

The Corinth Canal

DSC_4320

Over the five days we spent in Northern Greece we saw and learned a lot.  However, one quote from a small but award winning documentary “Little Land” kept entering my mind.  “They only know concrete and asphalt.”  A man was talking about the young people of today.  From Thessaloniki to Ioannina to Athens we saw buildings, cars, trucks, buses, sidewalks, abandoned buildings, asphalt and graffiti.  We saw city life.  And it was then that I realized just how fortunate we were to have ended up in the beautiful little land of Ikaria.  It is here where the people live one with the land and learn how to farm and relax.

If we had lived on the mainland and had access to grocery stores that have all the choices we have in America or restaurants with a huge variety of foods, we never would have learned as much as we have.  We have picked grapes, learned how to make wine and tsipouro, identified and picked oregano from the hillside, picked olives and made olive oil, fed chickens and milked goats, gathered fresh eggs, collected figs, lemons, peaches, and oranges, made grape and fig jam, and planted gardens on rocky hillsides.  We’ve seen how every part of a slain animal is used from the meat to the intestines, to the skin that becomes a backpack. Before I leave I am going to learn how to make feta cheese from fresh goats milk as well as homemade noodles and hortapita, something similar to spanikopita but made with wild greens instead of spinach.  The islanders use everything that is available to them, they waste nothing, and they share everything.  If we had lived in a city in Greece, it could have easily been a city in any country.  Living in Ikaria is different.  It is like taking a step back in time.  A time when hard work was rewarded at the end of the day by sitting with friends and family sharing a drink and telling stories.  There was no where else to go. Nothing else to do but to be together.

We have learned to appreciate the effort put into a good meal and know that every last thing on the table came from the hard work of the family who prepared it–the wine, the meat, the olives, the cheese, the potatoes, the vegetables, the lettuce, the olive oil, the tomatoes, the eggs, and in some cases, even the bread.  We are fortunate that we “unfortunately” couldn’t live with the luxuries the main land had to offer.

If you are interested in learning more about the documentary Little Land, here is a clip.   The film won two awards at the Thessaloniki Film Festival this year.

Tradition versus Religion

Last summer, shortly after we arrived, we sat in the platia, talking with Stella about the unique opportunities the children would have in the coming year.  As we sat around a table, splitting a FIX beer and plate of food, I remember her telling Elias and me about the traditions that surround Christmas, Greek Independence Day, and Pascha, or Easter, among other things that the kids would get to experience.  Although at that point Pascha was ten months away, it was the one holiday I was anxiously awaiting.  This past Sunday we enjoyed all of the events Leading up to Lent, because they are traditions that we don’t have in America.  However, during Holy Week and Easter, I expected familiarity–the religion and church services are the same in all Orthodox churches throughout the world, as they have been for the past 2000 years. Pascha is the most important holiday of the Greek calendar, and the week before, Holy Week, is filled with rituals, leading up to the Resurrection–the biggest celebration of all.  What I was unsure of and excited for were the traditions, some of which are unique to Karavostamo and some which are unique to all of Greece.  Schools all over Greece are closed for two weeks, before and after Pascha.  Many people return to the island to celebrate with their families, and with the beautiful warm weather, the atmosphere in Karavostmo has been reminiscent of summer.

DSC_4103

Much of what we experienced was similar to what we do in America.  We attended church multiple times during the week, including Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday, Good Friday, and the Anastasi, the Resurrection Service, Saturday at midnight.  During the week people are knee-deep in preparations.  On Thursday, the women of the house traditionally prepare a special sweet bread, tsoureki, and dye eggs with a special red dye, which symbolizes the blood of Christ.  I made tsoureki with Marina, and as with all things related to Greeks and food, more is better than less–the recipe made 9-10 loaves of bread.   The following day, Good Friday, is the most somber and religious day of the year.  People are not supposed to do much all day–including cooking.  Eating is limited, abstaining from meat, fish, and dairy products.  Many Orthodox Christians fast from these items during all 48 days of lent.

That morning we saw many women walking to church carrying flowers they picked from their garden.  Women and girls spend the morning decorating the Epitaphio, or the tomb of Christ, that is used in the service that evening.  Rea and I joined them and spent hours working on the decorations.  It was great to see that the majority of flowers were donated and came from the local gardens and hillsides and only carnations and greens needed to be purchased–another example of how all of the resources available are used.

That evening the church was packed with villagers and visitors for Christ’s burial service.  After the symbolic funeral mass, the congregation follows the priest, altar boys, and pallbearers around the church, through the streets of the village, and down to the sea where more prayers are  said.  The procession is supposed to continue back to the church, where the service is concluded.  However, a sure-fire way to lose the congregation is to take them past the restaurants and cafenios in the platia. As I said, most people fast religiously on Good Friday, but apparently not all! Only a handful of people returned up the hill to the church–the priest, the altar boys, the pallbearers, and about ten other people, including the five of us.

On Easter Saturday preparations continue for the dinners that will be eaten after the Resurrection service and on Easter Sunday.  The Resurrection service starts at 11 and at midnight the church is bathed in total darkness.  A single candle lit from the altar is passed from candle to candle, representing the light that shined from Jesus’s tomb.  Once again, the congregation proceeds outside, the church bells are rung incessantly, everyone sings Χριστός Ανέστι, “Christ has Risen,” over and over before reentering the now brightly lit church, and the service continues.  In Ikaria, tradition takes over religion at this point, and the majority, once again, don’t enter the church. (I’ll come back to this.)

 

After the service, it is customary that the people break their long fast with a meal of margaritsa.  The main meal on Easter Sunday is a  freshly slaughtered lamb or goat.  Margaritsa is a soup designed to use the leftover parts so nothing goes to waste.  It is made from the liver, heart, lungs and intestines.  It is a great meal to break a fast, to get the stomach accustomed to eating meats before the larger, heavier meal that will be eaten the following day.  We were invited to share a bowl of margaritsa, tsoureki, and the red eggs.  I have never had the opportunity to eat this traditional soup in America, so since it was served I ate it.  Well, I ate half of a bowl.  The kids were given a bowl of the lemon flavored broth, without the organ meats, for which they were grateful.

 

One of their favorite parts of Easter is the egg game, called tsougrisma.  Before the eggs are eaten, you hold the egg and the person next to you taps the end of their egg against yours, trying to crack it.  The cracking of the egg represents the cracking open of rocks of Jesus’s tomb.  It is said that if your egg doesn’t crack on either end you will have good luck for the year.

DSC_4029

The following morning the men fire up their grill and put the lamb or goat on the spit, where it roasts for hours.  In Ikaria, most everyone has an outside kitchen, and smells of the foods fill the air everywhere you go.  Outside tables are lined with salads, potatoes, tsoureki, dyed eggs, meats, tzatziki sauce, homemade wines, and tsipiro, the Greek moonshine.  We spent a lovely afternoon at Marina and Yianni’s with all of the family.  In America, the large meal and family gathering would be the end of the celebration, and all would return home in a state of food comatose.  However, in Ikaria, and all over Greece, the traditions continued.

 

What were the differences that made this so unique?  It was the celebrating. The party like atmosphere that began Saturday night when the church bells rang and continued for the next 24 hours.

During Holy Week, the teenagers and young men and women of the village go out to the hillsides searching for alfano, a specific thorny bush.  They spend hours upon hours digging and hacking away, to gather as much of this plant as they can which they will then use for a massive bonfire after the Anastasi, or Resurrection Service.  This is something that only a few villages in Ikaria do.  Karavostamo, the largest village on the island, not only does this, but it has two bonfires.  The village is divided by the road that travels along the island into the upper and lower village. Each village has a church, and years ago there were two priests (my great-grandfather, Papa Petro, was the priest of the lower village church).   It was during that time this friendly competition started.  Each village would gather the wood for a bonfire in hopes of creating the larger of the two.

DSC_3983

As the kids collect the bushes, they hide them in the woods and protect them from the “other village.”  They sleep out over night to make sure their pile isn’t stolen, and the kids of two villages become “enemies.”  My young cousin, who is 17, explained it to me this way. “All of my life I have gone to school with these kids.  We are friends and spend a lot time together.  But during this week, we don’t talk.  We avoid each other and when we see each other we give them the evil eye.  We don’t want to be this way.  But we can’t help it.  It is in our blood to hate them this week.”

Now there is only one priest in the village, and services alternate between the upper and lower village churches.   This year the Anastasi was in the upper village church, so it is they who will burn their alfano on Saturday night.   So, when the church bells rang at midnight, and the flame was passed around from candle to candle, at a time when Orthodox all over are rejoicing in their resurrection, in Ikaria firecrackers were going off, the upper village lit it’s bonfire, and fireworks could be seen above the sea in the neighboring town of Evdilos.  Instead of returning inside the church for the liturgy, 95% of the people headed to watch the alfano, seeing how long it would burn.

DSC_4016

Upper Village Alfano

Easter Sunday night, when the sun was setting and most of the food consumed was digested, everyone went down to the sea where the lower village had set up their bonfire.  On top of the pile was a figure that represents Judas, who would be burnt for betraying Jesus.  As the massive fire burned and many people set off fire crackers, the young adults who worked hard to create the giant alfano also set off an impressive fire works display for such a small village.  Chris and I were a bit concerned with safety, especially as a few fireworks misfired and one landed in the water and continued to explode.  Thankfully thirty minutes later no one had been injured.

The masses of people walked up from the water to the platia and all the tables outside of the restaurants and cafenios were filled.   Three musicians from the village started playing and the air filled with music and laughter.  When the first notes of The Ikariotiko were heard people began to dance.  It was a large party that everyone in the village was “invited to” and attended.  We stayed late into the night talking with Stella and Sophia as the kids played and danced.  It was an amazing culmination to a unique and traditional week, and it was well worth the ten month wait.