Laughter

On Saturday night Elias, Rea and three of Elias’s friends from the village went to a classmate’s birthday party in the village of Plumari, which is a 20 minute drive from Karavostamo.  It was my job to pick them up at the end of the night.  Sofia drove me, and when we got there we found them waiting on the side of the road.  Instantly the quiet car was filled with the sound of teens–laughing and joking and cell phones ringing and everyone talking all at once.  As Sofia drove and Rea sat on my lap I turned around and saw Elias talking in Greek at full speed, gesturing with his arms, as his friends were listening intently.  And then, there was full-out laughter.  We could have been in a car in America, with his friends from Lancaster all in the back seat, reliving the events of a fun night out.  But we weren’t in America.  We were in Greece.  And Elias was being a teenager.  A real teenager.  All in Greek.  I smiled and hugged Rea a little tighter.  I was so happy for him.  And I was so proud of how far he has come since I posted Sunshine.  Funny thing.  The sun is back.  The days are beautiful.  And not only do we have sunshine to fill our days again, but now we have laughter that fill our souls.

 

 

The Big, Round, Green Tree

When we arrived last summer my cousin Sofia was here with her son, Antoni, who quickly became Zach’s best buddy. We did a lot of exploring with the two of them and took many trips out of the village to see more of the island with our kids. Sofia and Antoni made multiple appearances on the blog in such posts as Around the Island, Exploring Ikaria, and One Month. Well now they are back in Ikaria. They arrived the week before Easter and will be here throughout our stay. Although the kids are in school, we have managed a few excursions, equally as great as those last summer.

About a month ago, when Chris was still here, we all (including Stella) met up with some new friends we met while walking with the Ikarian Hiking Club (Thomas and Barbara) and headed to the western part of the island, to a region called Pezi. Pezi is a region found on the plateau of the mountain that overlooks the southern side of Ikaria. Its beauty is found in these massive rocks that have been tossed around like tumbleweeds on a ranch by winds that whip across the open space. The rocks are weathered and cracked and found resting on top of each other in ways that look like they were precariously placed there. We only explored the area for a brief amount of time before heading back to Raches, where we walked along a river, searching for cool water creatures and insects. We ended the afternoon’s adventures with a meal together and enjoyed the company of friends.

The day was such a success that last week Thomas and Barbara asked if we wanted to take another hike in the Randi Forest, which is said to have trees over 1000 years old. Impossible to resist the offer of a leisurely hike and their company, I told them we’d love to join them, but that there was a cave that Sophia and I were determined to find. I suggested that we might be able to do both Friday after the kids got home from school. Barbara and Thomas did a little research and found out that there was a cave in the village of Petropouli, which was at the edge of the Randi Forest. We would meet there, ask for more specific directions, explore the cave, hike a bit, and then head back to Karavostamo for souvlaki.

When we arrived in Petropouli Sofia asked for directions to cave. Then it all came flooding back….the multiple times I asked for directions over the year only to receive the location in terms of “house,” “tree,” “wall,” “minutes,” “curve in the road,” and the like. There are very few road markers to offer assistance–no street numbers, no stop lights, and no street names. And with abstract directions such as those, finding your destination usually takes multiple attempts–that is if you are even lucky enough to find it.

We were told to walk down the road to the “old stone house” and to go up the “old stairs” next to the house. From there follow the path like so (imagine a man waving his arm in the air, making the motion of a meandering stream–a little this way, a little that way) until we saw a hole in the ground. So, off we went, to the stone house and up the stairs. We found a “path” that split and it appeared that both ways lead to dead ends. So we turned around, walked further down the road, searching for another stone house with stairs next to it. We didn’t find another house but we did find two older women who we were able to ask for directions. Sadly, their directions were not any more enlightening. We were told to “go up the path, which had just been recently cleared, and walk ‘this way’ (more arm pointing) and look for the big, round, green tree.” The cave entrance is just a small hole in the ground. We would find it near the “big, round, green tree.” Thanking the women, we turned around, headed back to the path we started on and laughed at the completely “clear” directions we were just given. Remember, we were in a town that was on the edge of a forest….everywhere we looked we saw trees!

We attempted to find a the specific tree that guarded the entrance to the cave, but had no luck. We kept walking, splitting up, searching the base of any tree that looked like it could be the “big and round and green” one. We ended up fairly high up the mountain side and on the edge of the Randi forest. We were told by our original source that we would find yellow trail markers and trail signs, just like those that guided along the network of trails we’ve hiked all over the island. Unfortunately all we found was thick underbrush, scrubby trees, and no signs indicating we were walking amongst 1000 year old trees.

With a heavy sigh, we turned around and headed back down towards our car. We felt a bit defeated, having not found either of our destinations, but the sun would be setting soon, and we were all ready for our souvlaki. At the base of the hillside, where the path split into two, we came across a new man feeding his chickens and goats. Sofia said hello and told him we had tried to find the cave but had had no luck. He said, “It’s easy. Come back tomorrow and find it.” Again she said, “Well, we didn’t find it.” Then, with a heavy sigh and more arm pointing he mumbled “It’s right there, up that path.” So, we turned around and headed down the right fork of the path. Behind me Thomas was saying that maybe we should call it a night, and I said, no way…we were this close, we weren’t giving up…and honestly, the kids had really wanted to go exploring a cave (and Sophia and I had really wanted to find it). However, before we knew it, the man was behind us yelling at us…where were we going? That was the wrong path. He marched us up the path to the left and pointed. “There. It’s right there.” We all looked at the mountain side and thought, “What is he talking about?” Frustrated that we didn’t say, “Oh, yes, so easy. Don’t know how we missed it.” He took Sophia’s arm and pointed it towards the cave…”RIGHT THERE!” Then he did the same to Thomas, and then finally to me. I said, “I see a wall.” And that was it…he got excited and said, “Yes, it’s right by the stone wall!” Of course we wondered why none of the people we asked has mentioned this landmark before.

Can you see it? The big, round, green tree?

Can you see it? The big, round, green tree?

Once we saw the curved wall, we saw the big, round, green tree. It really was big and round, and different then the others. But in our defense, on a mountainside full of trees, it had been like looking for a needle in a haystack. The kids ran down the path and headed for our new target, and before we knew it, we had found a hole in the ground the size of a manhole. With no hesitation at all the kids grabbed their flashlights and jumped in the hole. We all followed and were amazed at what we found. An actual cave, with stalactites and stalagmites and rocks to climb over and around, all in a giant room. We were in awe. And no, we weren’t scared. It was apparently safe to explore, considering three people given us directions and none of them told us to be careful–which is something Ikarians do–tell you to be careful all of the time, even in situations that Americans don’t tend to find to be dangerous at all. And judging by the names etched in the rocks and the tea candles we found inside, it was obvious many had been inside the cave before. The kids were thrilled. Actually we were all thrilled and impressed. We were so glad we didn’t give up at the last minute and that we had found this hidden treasure that the island has to offer. Apparently there are half a dozen or so caves on the island that can be explored, although I imagine they are all just as difficult to find!

We ended the night back in Karavostamo, where we met up with another cousin from California, Mike, who joined us for dinner. We laughed at the directions we were given and talked about some of the other misadventures Sophia and I had met with last summer. Everyone here says it’s “easy” to find things, and I suppose they are, once you’ve been there and can tell the difference been trees and walls and stone houses. But it seems to me that it’s that first trip that is the most difficult.

At the end of the night we said a proper good-bye to Thomas and Barbara, with hopes that our paths will cross again. They are leaving Ikaria this week and plan to return in 6-9 months, after we will have long been in America. One of the best parts of this year has been the people we have met along the way. However, Elias duly noted last month that it is sad how many people have entered our lives this year that we will most likely never see again. Every time someone walks away he says, “There they go. Another one gone.”

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ikarian Hiking Club

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Chris has walked a lot of the trails on the island, and this fall he even took us on a few long hikes.  The trails were marked with red dots and in some cases, the signs like you see above.  Awhile ago, I saw on another blog that Angelos, the man who helped to create and maintain the trails for the past 15 years, was finally going to “resign” from his volunteer position.  I commented and thanked him, telling him how much we, as a family, have enjoyed seeing Ikaria on foot because of the work he has done.  He later contacted me and told me about an organized hike at the end of March going from our village of Karavostamo, up the old path to Arethrusa, the village in above.  He welcomed the children, and we agreed to go.  We were at Stella’s, and when I mentioned it, her kids said that they seen the hike advertised on an Ikarian website!  Eight months into our trip I  learned that there was another way to disseminate information without having to drive around in a truck with a loudspeaker!

The following Sunday morning was beautiful–blue skies, warm temperatures, and not a cloud to be found.  We met in the platia with about 35 other people, including Stella, Marina and her girls for a three-hour hike on the old trails–across the river, up the mountain, through flowering fields, and a stop at one of the many small churches nestled in the hills.  Apart from it being a wonderful day for a hike, we met new friends–American friends…English speaking friends!  Robin and her husband David have lived here for six years, and Thomas and Barbara only for a month.  It was great to have new conversations, and I think the kids enjoyed that more than I did.

There was another walk scheduled for two weeks later, but the windy weather postponed it until this past Sunday.  This hike was scheduled to take four hours, instead of three, and go from Raches to Kambo.  We met early on Sunday morning, leaving our car in Kambos and catching a ride to Raches with someone else.  Word had circulated that Zach and Rea tend to get car sick, so they offered us the back of a pickup.  The kids were thrilled about the prospect…riding in a pickup, wind blowing in their hair and all without seatbelts!  Seemed like a dream come true, until they found out that looking backwards increases the speed at which car-sickness sets in.  One minute Zach was laughing and smiling, and literally,the next, he was loosing his pancakes in the airplane bag we had brought along.

About 20 people showed up for the second hike, including Robin, David, Thomas, and Barbara.  Once again, we were witness to wonderful views, the small reservoir, lots of sheep, a few cows, bee hives galore, more wild flowers, an abandon truck cemetery, stone houses built 500 years ago, and a monastery–Monastery Theoktisi–which we have visited before.  Because of the distance of the hike (9 kilometers/5.5 miles) and three lengthy stops, the hike took six hours.  Thank goodness for Barbara who was great at playing games with the kids to keep their minds off their tired legs and their mouths from uttering complaints!

We are looking forward to Chris’s return on Sunday and introducing him to our new friends.  There are still new places we have to explore and our time is running out.  We bought our tickets home yesterday.  Less than three months left of island living.