I am sure I will have lots of pictures of beautiful restaurant meals once we get out of quarantine, but I’ll just share a little slide show here of some of the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners the hotel has served us over the past two weeks. For institutional food, it’s been pretty darn good.
We had our third round of COVID-19 tests today. We’re starting to feel like old pros.
If you haven’t experienced this yet, I can say that a lot depends on the person doing the test.
The PCR test, which is the type of COVID-19 test generally required for international flights, involves someone sticking an extra long Q-tip way up your nose and swooshing it around. My son Kosta was the first in our family to have it done. He said it felt “kind of like if you vomited al dente pasta and it got stuck in your nasal cavity.” A pretty picture.
The first test we had was at a public clinic run by Ain Shams University in Cairo. It was a first-come, first-served situation and there were several stages and a couple of hours before I got to the testing room, a small bare office containing a desk, a table, and a wooden chair. Once I finally sat down in the chair, the test was over in a flash: one swab in the throat (gag) then one up each nostril (ouch). It was over in less than 5 seconds. Unpleasant, but easily forgotten.
Our negative results on that PCR got us into Thailand, but we had to take the test twice more as part of our quarantine.
The first time at the quarantine hotel was a little rough. The technician really took her time swooshing those sticks around, and I had a sore nose for a few days. We were just the slightest bit concerned waiting for our results because I had learned from the news that someone on our flight had tested positive. If you test positive in quarantine, you do not pass go, you proceed directly to the COVID hospital until you recover. Happily our results were negative.
Today we took the test for the third, and hopefully the last, time. We got a different technician this round and it was a breeze. Really hardly felt a thing, and no swooshing. If we’re negative again we’ll be out of here in two days.
Like many people, we’ve had plenty of practice over the past few months with keeping ourselves entertained at home. The options in a hotel room are limited but somehow we manage to fill the days. I listen to my audio book, read stuff on my iPad, play Carcassonne online with my friend in Kansas, video chat with my friend in Seoul. This would be a whole different experience without technology.
I notice that established routines help – we find ourselves looking forward to any regular daily task like making tea and coffee in the morning, submitting meal requests for the next day, reporting our temperatures, and washing underwear. I do my daily NYT crossword, Andreas plays Words with Friends. I spend some time planning lessons for school, Andreas learns a few new words in Thai.
Here are some of the things we do:
As I mentioned in the previous post, our outdoor “relaxing time” was delayed by a few days but today we finally got our moment in the sun. We felt like the big kids, riding an elevator all by ourselves down to the 8th floor for our 30 scheduled minutes of outside time. Andreas used the bike, I walked around the grass square for 15 minutes and then did 15 more on the elliptical machine before the hall monitor sent us back to our room.
Only 23.5 hours to fill until our next relaxing time. Guess I could work on my blog.
We are all just prisoners here, of our own device
The government of Thailand has had a ban on incoming international passenger flights since April. The only exceptions other than emergency landings are for military planes and repatriation flights chartered to carry Thai citizens home.
At the beginning of July the government adjusted the rules so that a few categories of foreigners can apply for a certificate of entry on a repatriation flight. The list includes immediate family of Thai nationals, medical personnel, diplomats, and, happily for us, teachers and students at international schools.
Anyone who enters the country, Thai or foreigner, has to do 14 full days of supervised quarantine.
Most Thai nationals go to the official state facilities in converted military barracks – here’s a video I found showing what that looks like.
All foreign arrivals except diplomats have to quarantine at one of sixty Alternative State Quarantine facilities. The ASQs are mainly business or luxury hotels that are certified by the state to provide secure full-service quarantine packages in partnership with a major hospital. A pretty clever plan, when you think about it: with no international tourists coming in, the hotels and hospitals (Bangkok is a normally major medical tourism destination) need the business, and the hotels are already set up to transport, house, and feed visitors.
We are fortunate in that my school selected a particularly well-appointed ASQ for its incoming teachers. It’s called the Grand Richmond “stylish convention hotel,” with medical services provided by World Medical Hospital.
At the airport, after efficient and fully socially distanced document checks, temperature checks, immigration processing, and disinfected luggage collection, we showed our printed ASQ reservation confirmations and were sorted into groups by hotel. Andreas and I were the only passengers for the Grand Richmond van.
A nap might have been nice after the 26 hour journey but I was too interested in looking out the window at our new city.
At a reception desk in the basement garage entrance a fully haz-matted employee took our temperatures and had us fill out intake forms one person at a time. Then we rode a designated service elevator to floor 29 where another haz-mat man escorted us to our room. Our re-disinfected suitcases were already waiting for us.
I always enjoy exploring a new hotel room and this one had lots of little things designed to make our two weeks more pleasant. The mini fridge and the drawer above it were stocked with free drinks and snacks in the spicy, lemony, sweet, and fishy flavors of Thailand. There was an electric kettle and supplies for tea, instant coffee, hot chocolate, and instant noodle cups, and two cases of bottled water. There was a toaster, two sets of metal silverware, and a fruit plate with fresh tropical fruit.
A drawer in the main room held masks, alcohol spray, laundry bags, tissue boxes, toilet paper, red “hazardous materials” trash bags, and a bag of rubber bands.
My school had dropped off some welcome gifts for us, too: a bag of western snacks including a loaf of sliced bread, jam, peanut butter, crackers, and granola bars, and another bag with stationery supplies and a school T-shirt so I can feel like a part of the team. There was also a school laptop so I could do my job (or as much of it as is possible from a distance).
Alas, no alcohol allowed in the quarantine hotel. I read in the news that for a time during the early COVID weeks all alcohol sales were banned in Thailand. Bars and shops have reopened, but a law has just been passed outlawing online alcohol sales and home delivery. I suspect a powerful teetotal faction in this country. Maybe these rules cut down on the kinds of bad choices that contribute to spreading the virus, but I am glad we made a stop at the duty free in London. They’ll never know about our after-dinner dram.
Smoking isn’t allowed either. Fortunately we are not smokers, because no one is permitted to leave the room and there are no balconies. We have a window that opens a few inches but it wouldn’t be fun trying to blow all the smoke through the crack.
The hotel provides four sets of blue hospital scrubs for us to wear during our stay. If we put a set outside in a laundry bag they will bring us a clean one the next day. We can wear our own clothes if we prefer, but if we want the hotel to wash them there is an extra fee. Plus they wash everything for quarantine guests in near-boiling water, which isn’t usually what you want. I have plenty of comfortable clothes with me so I am mostly wearing my own things, but Andreas likes the scrubs. He says he is going to buy a set as a souvenir.
There’s a washtub in the bathroom, a dish towel, and small bottles of laundry detergent and dish soap. Quarantined guests only get one visit from housekeeping staff on day 7 so we’ve got a swiffer to clean the floors. There are lots of towels and we can always request more if needed.
Many people in Thailand use an app called LINE to communicate. It’s similar to WhatsApp. The information booklet in the room had QR codes that we used to connect with the hotel’s and nurse’s station LINE accounts. The hotel used LINE to send us links to google forms for ordering our meals and for getting replacement amenities if we run out.
We have to report our body temperatures twice a day to the nurse’s LINE account. The hotel issued us two thermometers to use. She calls to remind us if we forget.
Three meals a day are delivered to a small table to the left of the door and announced with a light knock. We order what we want using a google app. We could also order extra things from 7/11 but you have to pay with a bank transfer and as we don’t have a local account it wouldn’t be worth the bank fees. Besides, the hotel meals are tasty and more than ample so there isn’t really anything more we want. We tie up the trash and leave it on a marked square on the floor to the right of the door.
On days 5 and 12 we put on masks and go for COVID PCR tests. Someone came on day 5 to escort us down to the ground floor where there is a nurses’ testing station set up outdoors. They swab your throat then stick long Qtips up both nostrils.
Having been tested once already in Cairo we knew what we were in for but we were still pretty keen to take the test. If the results come back negative on the first test, you get to sign up for a half hour of supervised outdoor time each day. After 5 days cooped up we were pretty jazzed to breathe some outdoor air. We had the test and got negative results but unfortunately the news came in that another passenger on our flight had tested positive. That put us in the high risk category: our day 7 housekeeping appointment was canceled, and we weren’t eligible for any outdoor time until further notice.
This evening the hotel called to say we’ve been cleared to book “relaxing time” outside in the yard on the 8th floor. I actually have too much relaxing time; what I want is active time. We’ve signed up and will see what the outdoors offers tomorrow.
All in all it’s pretty good here, for jail. But I am completely cured of any romantic notions of retiring to a tiny house one day. I need a little more space to thrive in the long term.
Toward the end of June, our moving plans started to get a lot more complicated.
The direct flight I had booked on United was cancelled. The Cairo airport was closed until further notice.There were no future commercial flights scheduled from Cairo to Bangkok.
Then Thailand announced that it was closing its borders to all commercial flights and all foreigners. After a couple of weeks they added an exception for teachers and students, but not for their dependents. So we made a new plan for me to go to Bangkok on a to-be-arranged repatriation flight (special charters organized by embassies to return citizens to their home country), and Andreas would go to the US to wait until dependents were permitted to enter Thailand. Because each passenger can only take one cat in cabin, we decided I would take Mishmish with me and he would take Rosie to the US. I booked a flight for Andreas and cat for Medford via Istanbul.
On July 17 Thailand announced some adjustments to the rules, and dependents of teachers could be admitted into Thailand. This was excellent news. However no pets would be allowed on the repatriation flights. I cancelled Andreas’s flight and made arrangements with a boarding facility in Cairo and a pet shipper to send the cats to us after we were settled in Bangkok.
Now we were getting into July and the end of our apartment lease. We didn’t have our visas for Thailand yet because the consulate will only issue a visa if you have a flight booked, and we didn’t. There was no telling how long it would take to get a reservation on one of the two or three repatriation flights leaving Egypt each month. Fortunately for us, some friends offered us their apartment to use while we waited (they had renewed their lease and then after weighing the risks decided not to return to Egypt at the end of summer). After the shippers picked up our boxes to be sent by sea to Bangkok and Medford, we spent a few days cleaning up the old apartment before moving into our friends’ place. We took the cats to the cat hotel across town, where they were installed in a lovely plexiglass room with two cat trees and a view of the Nile.
Meanwhile my school in Bangkok was working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and embassies all over the world to get their ten newly hired teachers onto repatriation flights in time for the start of school. In addition to us in Egypt, there were new hires in Ecuador, the US, Myanmar, and Israel trying to get to Thailand. We were all supposed to arrive in Bangkok three weeks ahead of the students, in time for two weeks of orientation for us newbies followed by another week of all-staff trainings. On-site orientation was now looking unlikely, especially after the government set a mandatory two-week quarantine for anyone entering the country from abroad. The school made plans to conduct new teacher orientation online, as most of us would either be still abroad or in quarantine during those two weeks. Starting July 27 at 4 am and 10 am Cairo time I attended virtual meetings with my new colleagues.
New Thailand entry requirements were added: in addition to getting a visa, foreigners would need to also apply at their local Thai embassy for a Certificate of Entry. For this COE we would each need to present:
1. Signed declaration form (emergency contacts and agreement to comply with Thai COVID regulations)
2. Proof of $100,000 medical insurance policy including COVID coverage
3. T-8 health declaration form
4. Proof of reservations for 14 full days at an Alternative State Quarantine hotel
Also we needed three items that had to be obtained within 72 hours of departure:
5. Fit to Fly – certification of general health, signed by a doctor
6. COVID-19 PCR negative test results certified by a government laboratory
7. Medical certificate signed by a doctor interpreting lab results and verifying that we were COVID-free
The biggest issue was still tickets. We had to get those first before we could apply for the visa or the COE, schedule the COVID test or medical check, or make the reservation at the quarantine hotel.
We visited the embassy to talk with the visa officer. He told us we had no chance of getting on a repatriation flight out of Cairo before October because there was a huge waiting list of Thai students wanting to return home who would get their tickets ahead of us. Cairo airport had by this time reopened, and he recommended taking a commercial flight to another country to connect with a repatriation flight. This would require coordination between the embassy in Cairo and the embassy in the third country, but it could be done.
Now it was August. My school worked without success to get us reservations on a repatriation flight out of Istanbul, then Dubai, then Qatar, Frankfurt, Japan, and Amsterdam. On August 10 while we were still pursuing the Amsterdam possibility, another flight opened up in London. The embassy in Cairo talked to the embassy in London, and miraculously on August 17 I got an email saying we were on the passenger list.
There were a few more complications. We had packed for the usual international baggage allowance of two 23kg suitcases per passenger, but on this charter flight we could only take 30kg each with no overweight or excess bags permitted. So we arranged for the cat shipper to also ship two of our suitcases for us. Also, EgyptAir informed me that we couldn’t get our boarding passes for the second flight in Cairo nor would they check our bags all the way through. The way Heathrow is arranged this meant we would have to do a landside transfer through immigration into the UK and back out again, which in turn involved another piece of COVID paperwork – although in the end Cairo did give us the boarding passes at the airport and checked the bags through, no questions asked.
The big crunch came at the end, in the 72 hours before flying where we first had to take the COVID test at a government lab, then go to a doctor’s office for the Fit to Fly form, pick up the COVID results at the lab the next day, take those documents and the rest of the items on the list to the embassy between 9 and 11 am to get the COE, and finally get a doctor’s COVID certification for the flight. There were problems at the lab where they initially said they couldn’t have the results done on time (we had to get the lab director involved to expedite), and that night there was a mixup with the appointment at the clinic and the doctor wasn’t there that day (we begged to see another one). The next morning the lab director had called in sick and we had to jump through more hoops to get the lab results., and then the doctor refused to sign the medical certificate (he objected to the wording on the form). We were late for the embassy but we called and they agreed to wait. That afternoon we had to catch my own doctor on the fly as he was driving to another hospital to get the final form signed.
Finally, the next morning at 5 am we left the key on the table and were off to the airport to begin our 26 hour journey to Thailand.
And that, dear readers, is how we got to Bangkok, at last.
We decided a while back that 2020 would be the year we’d leave Egypt. Andreas would take his retirement and I would find a new job that would take us somewhere new and different. Last fall I spent evenings and weekends searching for a library position on the recruiting circuit. I made some connections at a job fair in October followed by many hours researching schools, writing emails, and doing interviews. Finally, while on a family Christmas holiday in London, I carried a freshly signed contract into the post office in Maida Vale and mailed it back to my new school in Bangkok, Thailand.
The instructions the school sent for obtaining a Thai work visa and teaching license for me and a dependent visa for Andreas were daunting, but we were very motivated by the prospect of moving to southeast Asia and joining a school I was excited about. Eight months seemed like plenty of time to gather everything. Of course no one knew then that a pandemic was on its way, nor how that would complicate the process.
Under normal circumstances, a move to Thailand for us would require assembling the following items for our visas. All legal documents have to be signed in blue ink only, all letters printed on official letterhead, and anything not in English translated and notarized:
1. Employer’s letter of request for visa
2. Employment certification from school
3. Proof of accreditation of Thai school (these first three items in both English and Thai, signed and stamped and sent to me DHL by my new school)
4. Original signed employment contract
5. Visa application forms for both me and my husband
6. Scans of passport main page and all pages with visas on them, for both me and my husband (for us, about 40 pages each)
7. New passport sized photos for me and my husband
9. Original teaching credential with seal
10. Official university diplomas for all degrees earned, with signatures and seals
11. Proof of accreditation of all universities attended (in my case, that’s three schools)
12. Official sealed transcripts from all universities attended, to be sent directly to Bangkok by the universities
13. Personalized confirmation letter signed and sealed by registrar of university where I obtained my highest degree, addressed to Teachers Council of Thailand, confirming awarding of degree
14. Letter from last job confirming two years of employment at that school
15. Official police clearance report from country of last employment with notarized English translation
16. Original marriage certificate
17. Notarized affidavit of name change (for Andreas, because our marriage certificate says Andrew)
18. Stamped bank statements for the preceding three months
19. Unexpired residence visas for current country of residence for both of us
About half of these are things I had in my files in Egypt or in the US (hurray for DHL and my daughter Alice). Some were forms to fill out myself or letters my current school could generate for me.
Others were trickier. We had to go to a photo shop for new pictures (#7). Not difficult as there is a Kodak store about a 20 minute walk from our apartment, but stressful, as COVID was raging in Cairo just then and we really didn’t want to go. Then I had to do it over because I had missed the instruction that said not to wear a white shirt.
Same thing with the stamped bank statements, #18. Didn’t enjoy having to sit in a crowded waiting room but we suited up with our masks and face shields and did it.
My undergraduate diploma from UC Berkeley, #10, had gone missing sometime between 1987 and 2020 and I had to order a new one. That wasn’t too bad as it was just an online form, but it took some serious sleuthing to find my old Cal ID number.
I had to submit a special request to the registrar at UCLA for #13 – a letter stating that yes I had earned my MA there on such and such a date because apparently the original diploma together with the sealed transcript weren’t quite enough evidence. Special requests have to be made in writing and paid for with a check (!) so again I had to enlist Alice in Oregon to do the legwork. Then because of COVID the process was delayed and it took seven weeks instead of the usual three making me quite nervous, but eventually the letter arrived in Bangkok.
My school in Egypt helped with the police clearance report, #15. A driver took me to a bleak little office at Cairo police headquarters to be fingerprinted, and a few days later the school picked up the finished document and had it translated and the translation verified.
#19, the Egyptian visa requirement, was a challenge. Our work visas had expired during the lockdown period when Egypt closed all the government offices. They stayed closed throughout Ramadan, finally reopening at the beginning of June. I don’t imagine the school was thrilled about sponsoring work visas for two departing employees with only two weeks of teaching left to complete, but they took us to the visa office and got us renewed through August 31. At the time that seemed more than sufficient, but as it turned out that was the day we left Egypt. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I don’t know how we lost our marriage certificate (#16) but we looked everywhere in Cairo and Alice looked everywhere in Medford and all anyone could find were photocopies. I had to order a new one. In California, where we got married, vital records are managed by county. At that time we lived in Alameda county and our wedding was in Berkeley, in the same county. I went online and discovered that in Alameda county you have to provide a notarized request or appear in person to get an official copy. Well…. the only place in Egypt you can get a legal US notary stamp is the US embassy. The embassy website informed me that notary services are suspended indefinitely due to COVID. I called them and they said nope, no emergency notary. It was an impossible situation. Then I looked again at the photocopy. I have no recollection of why, but for some reason we had applied for the marriage license and filed the certificate in Contra Costa County. I checked the county records office there and hallelujah, no notarization required. I ordered a copy sent to Alice and she added it to the DHL pile.
#17, the Andrew-Andreas name change, posed a problem again because of the notary requirement. After some investigation I located an American bar certified lawyer in Cairo who did notary services. An hour’s drive away and a ridiculous price, but the stamps and seal were worth it.
Whew. By the middle of June I had collected everything we needed for our visas. I had already bought our airline tickets back in May. We were to fly out on July 23, with our two cats Rosie and Mishmish in their reserved spots under the seats in front of us. Perfect timing as that was the day the lease on our apartment was up. Now I just had to get the import permits and some other documents for the cats and arrange for shipping our household goods to Bangkok. We also thought we’d ship a few things back to Medford, including my younger daughter’s belongings from when she left for university (and still more stuff that she brought back from the UK after she graduated).
Then our plans went awry. Part two tomorrow.
Long before the Blue Zone, Ikaria was known in Greece as the Red Rock.
It doesn’t get its nickname from the geology, but from its left-leaning politics.
A power vacuum in Greece after World War II led to the 1946-1949 Greek Civil War between the government army and the military branch of Greece’s communist party, the KKE. With the help of the US and the UK, the government won the war. What to do with all those communists after the war? Arrest them and send them places far, far, away where they can’t cause any trouble… like Ikaria!
Over the course of the 1950s more than 13,000 leftists were exiled on Ikaria, more than doubling the island’s post-war population. Greece didn’t offer much assistance with feeding and housing these people, but Ikarians are resourceful and communists are willing to pitch in. An unintended consequence of the government’s plan was that Ikarians became communist themselves. And it stuck: according to one source, around 75% of Ikarians belong either to the communist KKE or one of the radical left parties.
Since we were on the island on May Day we thought we’d check out the Workers Day celebrations.
The event started at a small park in upper Evdilos. People gathered along the road across from a monument memorializing three Ikarian communists who were part of the anti-Nazi underground. The three were executed by the government in Athens during WWII. Songs of protest played on a loudspeaker. A woman read the history of the events of leading to the death of the three men. Children put flowers on the monument and an elegiac poem was read.
Everyone moved down the hill to the harbor for more music, more poems, and a lot more history.
It was interesting and colorful, but eventually the novelty wore off for this non-Greek speaker. Lucky for us, the cooks at the gyro shop didn’t take this workers’ day off.
On the morning we arrived in Agios Kyrikos some colorful posters caught our eye.
The text says “Teatro Skion – Sokratis Kotsores; we will eat, we will drink, and fasting we will sleep.” All Greek to me (as they say), but Andreas immediately recognized the character in the illustrations as Karagiozis, star of Greek folklore and shadow puppet tradition.
There is a good website that covers the history of Karagiozis shadow puppet theater here (you’ll need Flash Player). I’ll summarize what I learned: Greek Karagiozis has its deepest roots in southeast Asia. The Arabs brought shadow puppetry along trade routes to North Africa in the Middle Ages. The tradition spread to the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s, and by the 1700s there were Turkish shadow puppet stories about “Karagöz.” From the Muslim Turks the form was gradually assimilated and adapted by the Greeks. In Greece, Karagiozis has been a poor but wily Greek since the early 1800s, a trickster who tries to take advantage of the wealthier ruling class Turks and Albanians. If you want to know more about the formulaic stories and traditional stock characters used in Karagiozis puppetry, this Wikipedia article is informative.
Karagiozis shows were hugely popular in Greece until after World War II when movies and other modern entertainments started to take over. The skills and stories are passed from master to apprentice, and there are still a handful of puppeteers like Sokratis Kotsores who carry on the tradition. Kotsores’s mother is Ikarian and he visits the island every spring to put on a show for the kids. I feel very lucky to have seen it.
When Lent is over, the partying begins.
Ikaria is one of the few places in Greece where the ancient panegyri tradition continues. A panegyri is a community festival held in honor of a village church’s patron saint. Villagers and guests eat, drink, and dance long into the night and often until the next morning. Everyone is welcome to the celebration, and if you find yourself in Ikaria in the summer you absolutely must go. Watch for the posters on walls and signboards.
Panegyria are important summertime social events for Ikarians of all ages. A folklorist might point out that this annual event in the life of the village reinforces values and social bonds within the village community; it also provides an opportunity for the community to negotiate identity and confirm their place in the larger island context by acting in the host role. Even a small village church can attract hundreds of visitors. Back in the old days, panegyria offered the perfect chance for young people from different villages to meet each other. They still serve this purpose to some extent today.
There are certain things you can count on at an Ikarian panegyri. It will take place outdoors in a plaza or park adjoining the church. There will be traditional dancing, usually to live music. Food for sale will be homemade and will always include roasted or barbecued lamb or goat, Greek salad, feta or similar cheese, village bread, and homemade wine (“doppio”). There will be a blessing by the priest to start things off in the morning and the church will stay open so visitors can look inside and light a candle. The party will start off pretty sedately, with lots of old people and families. By 11 or 12 at night, a good panegyri can really get hopping.
Then there are features that are unique. Agios Stathis (September 20) is up on a mountain outside Arethousa without electricity; the panegyri there is lit with a bonfire and flashlights, and the music is acoustic. Agios Yiannis (June 24) in Raches has a bonfire that young men jump over, and the girls burn their May Day garlands to bring love and good luck. Some panegyria are on beaches, others on mountain tops or in forests. Between Easter and the end of October, there are over a hundred panegyria in Ikaria.
We saw posters for two panegyria being held the day after Easter. We asked around and learned that Agios Georgiou was expected to be small but fun, with good musicians.
Agios Georgiou is in Vardaradon, up a somewhat nerve-testing road on the mountain above the village of Plagia. It was well worth it.
The setting was lovely
The food was simple, local, and delicious
The musicians were skilled
And the dancing was lively.
Our second spring break this year coincided with Egyptian Coptic Easter. That’s the same date as Orthodox Easter, which meant we’d be able to enjoy the Greek Orthodox celebrations on Ikaria.
We took an overnight ferry from Piraeus (the port for Athens, where we traditionally start our island journey with a meal at the Ikarian cafe there), arriving at the port of Agios Kyrikos just before sunrise on Good Friday. We used to camp out on the floor of the boat but these days our creaky bones are more comfortable in a cabin.
Andreas’s cousin Vasili had left a rental car for us in the parking lot. We used to run around the island in old beater cars, but Vasili recently upgraded his fleet and we got a spiffy new Citroën with a backup camera and a place to plug in my iPhone. Just one of the many indications of (relative) Ikarian prosperity in the era of Blue Zone fame.
There’s a cafe at the port that opens early when a boat is expected, so we had coffee and cheese pies while we waited for the town to wake up.
Easter is the biggest holiday on the Greek calendar. I didn’t know if shopkeepers would be working on Good Friday but fortunately pretty much everything opened in the morning so we were able to lay in supplies for the weekend. Stores would be closing early in the afternoon and staying shut until Tuesday.
We drove across the island, over the central mountain ridge to Evdilos on the north coast and then up another mountain road to Arethousa. This is the little village where both of Andreas’s parents were born. The Airbnb I’d reserved turned out to belong to another cousin – not so surprising, as there probably isn’t anyone in the village who isn’t a cousin of some kind. The house is an old “pygiri”, or tower house, so called because it has a second story bedroom. There was a fine view from the terrace down the mountain toward the sea.
I realized when I opened my suitcase that I didn’t have the right clothes. I’d packed a dressy light green outfit to wear to church Easter Sunday. But Good Friday is somber, and of course everyone would be in black. Oops. This was a bit of a bummer because soon we intend to live in Arethousa for at least part of every year. Village life being what it is I know that our personal details are scrutinized and cataloged. Hopefully the faux pas will be forgiven if not forgotten.
We spent some of the afternoon getting in the proper mood by watching “Jesus, the Christ” on TV. My Greek is not good but I knew the story already.
In the evening the church bell summoned us to the Good Friday service.
Arethousa’s church is a little oversized. In 1915, when Andreas’s grandfather led the campaign to replace the village’s tiny Ottoman-era church, there were about 500 people living in and around Arethousa. I suppose they expected their numbers to grow, but instead many emigrated and didn’t return. There are only about a hundred Arethousans today, and there’s plenty of room for all of them to bring a friend to church.
The highlight of the Good Friday service is the epitafio. This is a wooden table with a canopy, representing a funeral bier. Local children spent the morning decorating the frame with flowers. During the Good Friday service it occupies a place in the center aisle in front of the altar. As people enter the church, they give a donation in exchange for a white candle which they light and place among the flowers of the canopy.
At a certain point in the ceremony, the priest places the cloth (this is the actual epitafio; it’s a heavily embroidered picture of the dead Jesus) in the tray of the bier and scatters it with flower petals. Soon after that, two men put long boards under the top of the table and lift it onto their shoulders. The priest sings the funeral song and we follow them as they carry the epitafio out of the church. In other villages the procession goes to the graveyard, but Arethousa’s graveyard is a long walk from the village so the procession circles the outside of the church building instead. When they get back to the entrance, the two men hold the bier up high in the doorway for us to stoop under as we reenter the church beneath it for the end of the ceremony. This represents entering the tomb.
A funny thing happened in church. In addition to the priest, there is usually a psaltis (cantor) who sings part of the liturgy, and also a choir that sings a third part. But this church isn’t big enough to have a choir and the poor psaltis was going hoarse singing his part and the choir’s too. The priest got thoroughly annoyed at the lack of audience participation and refused to continue until someone volunteered to go to the front and sing the choir part. It took some harsh words but finally three ladies nudged each other up the aisle and accepted the hymnals. They sure didn’t know the tune but I’ve got to give them credit for trying.
The Easter service is held on Saturday night. It’s supposed to be at midnight, but little Arethousa shares its priest with two other small villages. The priest leads the service at all three over the course of Saturday evening. To make this possible, the usual two-hour event is cut down to a bare-bones 45 minutes. The villages take it in turns to have the priest preside at the preferred midnight time slot; this year Arethousa got 9 pm.
At the end of the ceremony everyone lights candles from the holy flame. Then they follow the priest onto the entry porch of the church for the last part of the liturgy. This is the part where Jesus has risen from the tomb and so a celebratory mood is appropriate. In Ikaria, that means Roman candles, firecrackers, and (alarmingly) gunshots. The priest just keeps on singing.
Back inside the church we greet each other with “Xristos anesti” (Christ has risen – the title of this post), to which the correct response is “alithos anesti” (truly he has risen). The last thing that happens is distribution of the red eggs by the priest. People take these home along with their lit candles. They’ll use the candles to mark a sooty cross above the doorway to their houses, and maybe relight the pilot light on a gas stove.
It’s traditional to have a bonfire after the service, but after a devastating forest fire killed thirteen Ikarians in 1993, islanders are cautious about flames in wooded areas like Arethousa. The harbor village of Karevostomo got the priest for midnight mass this year, and they had a bonfire on the beach there where it’s safer. We talked about following the priest down the hill for a second Easter service but decided to head back to our little house to celebrate on our own instead.
Easter is the end of the forty-day Lenten fast, so feasting is the next order of business. Most people break their fast with the red-dyed eggs from church, but not before using them in a game of tsougrisma: you and someone else tap the pointed ends of your eggs together to see who can crack the other person’s egg. If your egg wins, you play against someone else, until eventually someone’s egg is the champion.
A soup called magaritsa, similar to egg and lemon soup but containing greens and lamb offal, is traditional for the after-midnight meal. We didn’t make any but we had some at cousin Toula’s house. I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of organ meats but I took a few ceremonial sips of Andreas’s.
We prepared a tasty meal of stewed fava beans, loukaniko sausages, and horiatiki salad (aka Greek salad), washed down with our Airbnb host’s homemade wine and ouzo.
On Easter Day the festivities continued with the arrival of the Easter bunny and the best French toast ever, made from tsoureki (masticha-flavored Greek Easter bread).
Andreas read the fortunes in our coffee grounds.
In the afternoon, a braised lamb lunch at Taverna i Plaka in outer Arethousa rounded out the celebrations (and our bellies).