My Big Fat Greek Easter

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“Yamas!” everyone shouted, banging their glasses on the countertop and gulping down their drinks aggressively. I widened my eyes at Nora and Tino, and we all chuckled, as this was the fifth “yamas” in the past half an hour. My eyes were already glazed, my head slightly dizzy from drinking since eleven in the morning, and a perpetual, hazy smile was fixed on my face. I finished the last few sips of my wine, and before I could even put the glass back on the table, Alexandros took it out of my hand and filled it up to the brim again. “No more!” I shook my head at him. “You are in Greece, you are here for Easter, you must drink!” he grinned. “Yes?” He held the glass out to me. I laughed, took the glass and tapped it to his beer mug as we both yelled, “yamas!”

I was studying abroad in London this past spring, and after the tiresome process of acquiring my Schengen visa, I finally got the opportunity to explore the neighboring countries in Europe with my fellow Brown study abroaders, Tino and Nora. Athens was the third stop on our trip. We spent only two and a half days in the divine capital of the Greek gods and goddesses, but those two and a half days sparked some of the best memories from our entire trip.

We came to Greece by pure luck. My friend Nora, who studied abroad in Brussels, met a Greek couple on her weekend trip in Budapest. According to Nora, she was sitting next to them on a ferry and was visibly trying to photobomb the couple’s selfie together.

***

The woman couldn’t stop laughing, which led to Nora fighting the urge to giggle.

“Hello, my name is Ioanna,” the woman stuck out her hand, still beaming with laughter. “My husband, Giannis.”

“Hi, I’m Nora,” Nora shook her hand, recovering from her giggle fit. Within a few minutes, the three of them were engaged in a delightful conversation about how a Rwandan girl from the U.S.A and a couple from Greece had found each other in Budapest, Hungary. Nora casually mentioned that she was coming to Athens in a few weeks.

“Wait, what are the dates?” Ioanna asked.

“Right now, we’ve planned from the 10th to the 14th,” Nora said.

“Wow! Those are the dates of Easter! You must celebrate with us!” Giannis smiled.

“Oh, yeah!” Nora exclaimed. That’s never going to happen.

***

And here we were, in the hot, humid, beautiful city of Athens on the 11th of April, on a bus, completely perplexed by the puzzling circles, triangles, and figures that covered the signboards. After trying desperately find the street name that matched the symbols that our AirBnB host sent us and cursing the horrors of no Wi-Fi and actually having to look at a paper map to figure out where the hell we were, we found our temporary home miles away from the city center. The place was tiny. The three of us each fought furiously over the one twin bed, but since we were staying for three nights, we could each sleep on the bed once. The other two could try to find some shut-eye on the sofa bed. We were dumbfounded when we saw that our balcony was three quarters the size of the room. Why is this balcony so big when the inside is so small? Why is there no hot water? Why is there a trickle of water coming out in the shower? How am I going to wash my hair? After a few minutes of mindless complaining while sitting on the ledges of the balcony, we looked at the view in front of us and shut up. It was mostly apartment buildings, similar to ours. No high rises, no skyscrapers, no sophisticated glass windows. Most had balconies where clothes were being dried and plants were being watered. It was a pretty great view. Nothing fancy, nothing I hadn’t seen before. But I was in Athens. I was in fucking Greece.

“Okay, this lady is super excited to see us tomorrow,” Nora said, showing us her phone. “Look at the number of exclamation points in her message.”

NORA!!!! WE ARE SO EXCITED TO SEE YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS TOMORROW!!!!!!!! IT IS GOING TO BE CRAZY!!!!!

“Wow, that’s a lot of enthusiasm,” Tino’s eyes widened as she saw the message. “But it’s Orthodox Easter. The Greeks do it best.”

“I know. We have to go. We can’t miss this.” I said.

“Yeah, they’re picking us up tomorrow at 10,” Nora typed in her phone. I leaned over her shoulder and saw her response.

Great. See you soon. 

“Nora, add a few exclamation points!” I nudged her. She chuckled.

The next morning was a struggle to wake up. We showered, dressed, dabbed some makeup on our faces, and were standing outside our apartment at approximately 10. A car turned into our street and slowly approached us.

Smiles plastered on our faces, we walked up to the car. The woman, Ioanna stepped out of the passenger side of the car, beaming from ear to ear. She was tall, her blonde hair burnt from the sun, her eyes light and grey, her skin wrinkle free. She walked to us, her arms outstretched. We made introductions as she hugged the three of us and told us how happy she was to see us. She was animated and loud. Not obnoxiously loud but happy loud, excited loud. We got into the car, and she introduced us to her husband, Giannis. He looked slightly older, with salt-and-pepper hair. He had a gentle smile and was quiet for most of the ride. Ioanna told us that we were going to a place that was a little outside Athens. Her infectious energy made me smile. Her warm nature, her sincere interest in getting to know us better, her determination in pronouncing my name correctly, her wonderful confusion when we explained to her that I was from Sri Lanka, Tino was from Zimbabwe, and Nora was born in Rwanda but grew up in New York, that we met at university in the US, that we studied abroad in London and Brussels, and that we are now here in Greece together, made me feel at ease. I trusted Ioanna and Giannis.

As we made our way out of the city, I could see fields stretching out on either side of us. The car pulled into this huge property and approached what looked like to be an abandoned country club. When we got out of the car and walked towards the back area, the first thing I saw was three whole lambs on long, pointed skewers roasting in a large grill on the ground. I stopped in my tracks as bile filled up in my throat. For the first time, I felt uncomfortable. The skewer came out through the nose, and I could see its dead eyes staring into the depths of my soul. I was repulsed. There were two smaller skewers on the side, one wrapped in pork and one wrapped in potatoes. At least there wasn’t a whole pig rotating on the skewer. My guts would have been on the floor at that point. There were two guys manning the grill, shades on, beers in hand, having a powerful conversation in Greek. Tino, Nora, and I followed Ioanna as she walked out and greeted them with loud exclamations and tight embraces. They also greeted us with hugs and shouts of “Welcome to Greece!”

“Do you want something to drink?” Alexandros immediately asked. “Beer, wine, vodka, tequila? We have everything.” My introverted nature almost made me coyly say, No thank you, maybe later, and giggle excessively because Alexandros was very cute. But no, screw it. I knew I would be a lot less high strung with some liquor inside me.

“Yes! Do you have some rum?” I exclaimed.

“Of course!” Alexandros grinned. “With some coca cola?”

“Perfect!” I smiled back.

The bar was inside the clubhouse and within a few minutes, he was back with a tall glass of a very light looking rum and coke.

“Yamas, Nitya! Cheers!” Alexandros said as he touched his beer to my glass.

“Yamas!” I said as I took a sip of my drink. Yup, definitely tasted like 90% rum and 10% coke.

Many more friends of Ioanna and Giannis arrived, some with children, some with teenagers, some with elderly parents, and the greetings were delightfully similar. Surprise, animated expressions, hugs, sometimes kisses on the cheeks, and curiosity. Many “Oh wow! Sri Lanka! So exotic!” and countless “You are so lucky to celebrate our biggest tradition in Greece!” and I really felt it. They welcomed us with open arms and hearts; they wanted to know about us as much as we wanted to know about them; they spoke of Orthodox Easter and why it was so special. They kept asking us if we were okay or if we were feeling uncomfortable. And the answer was always no. I loved it. I loved the conversations I had with Eva about our passions, about what inspires us, and about the experiences I’ve had on this incredible Eurotrip. I loved cuddling the cute half Ghanaian half Greek baby whose adorable smile just dissolved my heart into mush. I loved shouting “Yamas!” and cheering with Alexandros every couple of minutes whenever we made eye contact. I loved coming back to Tino and Nora and laughing with them about how surreal this whole experience was.

Then came the food. Wow. My uneasiness about what we were going to eat completely evaporated when Ioanna offered us the barbequed pork pieces. Usually, I stay away from pork but there was no way I could resist on this particular occasion. The meat was glistening, perfectly burnt, and calling out to me. I cautiously took a piece and dipped it in the Greek tzatziki sauce and bit into it. My other senses stopped working. All I could think about was this piece of pork in my mouth and how incredibly delicious it was. It was juicy and tender. It was succulent, and it was devouring my taste buds. It was not chewy but still soft and crispy, and I just couldn’t stop. Ioanna saw the look on my face and started laughing. “Please! Take more!” she said. I took a paper plate, grabbed a few more pieces of pork as gracefully as I possibly could without looking like I hadn’t seen food in days, hammered on dollops of creamy tzatziki sauce and sat down at the table. I ripped apart pieces of flesh using my fingers and inhaled the meat while trying to savor every bite.

Giannis walked over to us, balancing a tray of foil that had small pieces of meat on skewers. It was beef. Okay, no. I’m not going to eat beef. I never eat beef. Be a good Hindu, Nitya! “This is my special dish,” he said. “I make it the best.” I watched Tino and Nora as they took the skewers, pushed out a chunk of beef using their fingers, submerged it in tzatziki sauce, and took a bite. I waited for their reactions, my mouth slightly open and salivating. “Oh. My. God.” Tino said as she nodded her head in sound approval. “I…just…can’t even,” Nora remarked as she reached for another chunk. All my non-existent resolve vanished as I reached for a beef cube. And another. And another. And then half an hour later, everything on that foil tray was already being digested inside of me. And I wasn’t even embarrassed. Sorry, Lord Ganesh. Not today.

Traditional Greek music was always in the background, and at one point, people started to dance. One particular entertaining sight was watching a gentlemen dance around a cup of whiskey, trying not to knock it over. I’m assuming this game was to test your level of drunkenness. After a few minutes of frolicking around the cup, the guy got on his knees, bent down and seized the cup with his teeth and gulped down the shot of whiskey, as the cheers for him got louder. In this part of the world, we prove to our friends that we are not drunk by trying to walk in a straight line. But I think I prefer this version where we even get a reward after.

It was around 5pm when Ioanna and Giannis told us that we were heading back into the city soon. A whole day spent with strangers at a country club outside Athens celebrating Greek Orthodox Easter was an experience I never would have even imagined. It reminded me of Sri Lanka, when I would spend the day with my large extended family at the beach. A day full of laughter, hugs, kisses, and love for everyone. And just like the norm in Sri Lanka, goodbyes in Athens took forever. We hugged the same people once, twice, even three times and promised to come back.

I visited the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and other godly Greek monuments, but those memories will soon fade away. I will remember the Greeks’ warmth, the laughs we had, the delicious homemade food I ate, the drinks we enjoyed, and the excitement of new connections and friendships.

Ioanna and Giannis dropped us back at our AirBnB, and we furiously thanked them for this unbelievable adventure. That day reinforced everything I love about going to new cities and making friends with people who are from that place. It was luck that brought Nora, Ioanna, and Giannis together in Budapest, it was luck that we happened to be in Athens the weekend of their most auspicious tradition, and it was pure luck that we were actually invited to celebrate this tradition with them. All these opportunities were handed to us on a silver platter, and all we had to do was say ‘yes’. We experienced a side of Greece that we never would have seen if we had convinced ourselves that the situation would be too awkward. Thanks to my Greek adventure, I realized that we shouldn’t be afraid of novel circumstances, afraid of new people, afraid of our differences, or afraid of being uncomfortable.




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