Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Bright Side of Summer: Greek Celebrations and Gatherings


Awaiting the Belated Bride, in Confusion

Have you ever given a wedding present to the wrong couple?  We have. It happened like this.  D's stress level was climbing as we passed our planned departure time for a wedding about 40 minutes' drive west of Chania last weekend.  I wasn't worried.  Although I'm the American and he's the Greek, I felt more confident that a Greek wedding would begin late.  We arrived at the designated Greek Orthodox church just before the appointed hour of 8:00 p.m. and joined the crowd of well dressed people waiting outside.  Not recognizing anyone, D was concerned and puzzled.  We did notice a glass cylinder full of white envelopes, the typical Greek "fakelakia" that might hold bribes for officials or doctors one wishes to please before surgery, or the monetary wedding presents preferred in Crete.  So we dropped our envelope in, with its signed card and cash (since Greeks seldom use checks), and our kids pounced on some of the sugared almond favors (boubounieres), although it struck me as strange that people were already holding favors that were generally distributed after a wedding.

Actually, those favors had been provided after a wedding:  it was a case of mistaken wedding party identity and overlapping weddings, which we'd actually seen at another popular church another summer in Greece.  Although it was time for "our" wedding to begin, we were among the first--rather than the last--in our party to appear.  While we waited another thirty or forty minutes for the bride's appearance and talked with friends, it was our eight-year-old daughter who suddenly realized what we had not:  we'd provided a wedding present for strangers!  And they'd left with it--their glass cylinder of envelopes was gone!  Shocked, D hurried off to find another envelope and card so we could give his friends a gift.  And I realized I had exhausted the batteries in my camera with snapshots of an unknown wedding party, so that I had no way of photographing the spectacle that had not yet begun.  An expensive spectacle, in many ways.

The Bride Arrives; the Ceremony Begins

Finally, we turned toward the source of music and spotted the bride among an entourage preceded by a small band.  Professional photographers with immense cameras imposed themselves between the bride and the guests (and even in the middle of dances at the reception later), as they recorded every minute of an evening that was to last until after 1:30 a.m.  The bride didn't seem to mind; she glowed in her full-length lacy white, with her long veil descending backwards from a headpiece that held her abundant dark hair, into the hands of two small girls who were dressed like miniature brides.  They continued on toward the church, but did not enter.  Like many a Greek wedding and baptism, this ceremony was conducted entirely in front of the church that wouldn't hold a fraction of the guests, and would have been stifling hot.  I pushed through the throngs of people with my small children, since little ones are allowed to gather round the altar to watch--which only a few people can actually do, since guests stand shoulder to shoulder.  The photographer's powerful lights, set up on either side of the church door, illuminated the flowery embroidery of the young priest's robe, the blue and white crosses on the older priest's robe, the simple button-down shirt and ordinary pants of the cantor (or chanter), the gold cover of the holy books on the outdoor altar, the bride's endlessly bright smile, and the crowding friends and relatives who jostled with me and the children for a spot with a view of the bride and groom. 

A regular hum of conversation competed with the priests and cantor throughout the service, with only one person protesting that completely normal behavior for a Greek wedding (or baptism, speech, or children's school performance) with "ssss" (since most Greeks have trouble with the "sh" sound, which doesn't exist in their language).  A small rat ran down the dirt bank behind the wedding party, where a hill had been cut away to make space for the church yard.  The best man had trouble reaching high enough to move the twisted wire crowns that were joined with a ribbon between the heads of the tall bride and groom, and back, and back again, to symbolize the union of their souls and their "reign" over the "kingdom" of their own new household.  Led by the priests, who held Bibles to show how the couple would follow the word of God, the bride and groom, best man, and maid of honor circled the altar three times, through a shower of the rice that is thrown at that point rather than after the ceremony, leaving white grains stuck to the groom's sweaty neck and the priest's balding head.  The groom shook some of the rice from his hair onto the amused children near him.  (For more on the religious symbolism of the Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony, you might take a look at Greek Orthodox Wedding Ceremony Wedding Traditions--to list just one site that comes up in a search.)

After the Ceremony

Once the religious ceremony concluded, the older priest put aside his holy book and ecclesiastical language (which is far beyond my understanding) and spoke informally and kindly to the newlyweds.  I didn't follow everything he said, and I'm sure D didn't hear any of it, since he was at the back of the throng talking with a friend or colleague, like most of the guests.  But the priest did offer his good wishes, promising the support of the wedding guests and advising the newlyweds not to listen to their mothers-in-law (laughter).  Even before he concluded his wishes, the audience had begun shifting position in anticipation of a disorderly push toward a reception line.  I grabbed my children's hands and worked our way toward D, since the couple wouldn't know who we were without him.  Then we struggled to stake our claim to a spot in the stampede, er, reception line, a packed mob of people competing for the fastest route to the newlyweds.  A few polite guests would wait an hour or so in that crowd, but that was not an option for us:  the kids were tired, hungry, grouchy, and demanding, since it was 9:30, their bedtime, and they'd had no supper.  We congratulated the newlyweds and picked up our rightfully earned wedding favors, an odd number of sugar-coated almonds wrapped in large squares of tulle and purple lace tied with satiny ribbon (several square feet of wasted material to hold about 9 nuts--but that waste was nothing to what would come later). 

The Reception

At the immense, semi-open-aired reception hall across the street, with its retractable roof, the well-organized staff directed us to the children's table, where our daughter was content to remain with the little bride-like girls, and then to our table on the far side of the football field--I mean reception hall--where our son insisted on accompanying us.  The children didn't seem to be attended by anyone other than the waitstaff that was busy with the entire function, but eventually they ended up with the perfect Greek children's party fare:  toasted cheese sandwich, hamburger, and pizza.  Then they were off to one of those inflatable rubber bouncing contraptions that show up at children's play places, so the kids could defy adults' rules for digestion.  When our small son found out about that, he lost his shyness, and only returned to our table occasionally for some more food.  Two young women--possibly someone's nannies--watched all the children jump; a young mother wheeled her baby carriage about.  I'd been a silly enough American to think that an 8:00 wedding might end at 9:00, so that by 11:30 or so we might be finished with dinner and justified in taking our children home to bed, but I've lived in Greece almost ten years and should have known better.  It was near 10:00 when we started with our salad and first appetizers, cheeses, melon, and prosciutto, plus wine, beer, tsikoudia, and soft drinks.  We'd eaten through several more appetizer courses--an eggplant dish, small herb pies, crepes with ground meat, and zucchini patties--as well as the first meat dish, incredibly tender pork with bell peppers and feta--before the bride and groom showed up, around 11:30.  Oops--not yet time to take the kids home to bed!

No one could miss the newlyweds' dramatic arrival, a spectacle announced by the band and strobe lights as they strode up to the large circular central stage for their first dance together.  The Cretan band included (we think) a lute, a Cretan lyre, a violin, a drum, and a mandolin, one played by the lead singer.  Its repertoire seemed to be mostly Cretan, with many long, repetitive songs that bored my Scottish friend and didn't generally encourage me to join the dancing.  The bride and maid of honor demonstrated boundless energy, as did many dancers ranging from their teens to their 70s, while the groom and some older men showed a talent for the impressive fast jumping, leg lifting, kicking, and slapping of the more exciting, acrobatic traditional Cretan dances.  I finally joined one of the simpler dances, which I'd learned before, but I lack Greeks' ability to enjoy circle dances in an overcrowded space, so mostly I watched the rainbow of shiny viscose dresses moving around the circle, fuschia, green, ochre, turquoise, yellow, slow, quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, or step, kick, step, kick.... 

I also checked on the kids, discussed the event with my Scottish friend, and spoke with the American woman who'd lived in Crete with her Greek husband and children, but recently moved to Minnesota with the whole family.  Eventually, a group of unmarried women and girls assembled on the stage with the maid of honor--a slim, statuesque woman of classical Greek beauty with long, sleek, elegantly gathered black hair who reminded me of the actresses portraying ancient rituals on TV.  Our daughter joined the little girls dressed in bridal white in the scramble for the bride's bouquet, which initially landed on the floor near the little ones.  After the bride tried again, and succeeded in throwing the bouquet backwards over her shoulder to the maid of honor, our daughter retrieved one lost rosebud to bring home.  Meanwhile, those who still had an appetite ate boiled goat, rice cooked in goat broth, yogurt, potatoes, and a mixture of tasty grilled meat, vegetables, and sausages.  But since most of us had been nearly full for some time, we ended up with enough leftovers at our table to provide an excellent meal for a family of twelve.  And I counted thirty-seven tables of similar size.  There must have been more than 400 guests (in a room that had space for many more), but there was food for about twice as many--not due to error, but because of a tradition of excess at Cretan wedding and baptism receptions, where three meat dishes are expected!  And apparently it was all going to be thrown away, although in Athens there is better organization, and some of it might have been saved for the needy.  Never mind how many people wait at soup kitchens in Greece these days for vastly inferior food. Yes, there are still wealthy people in Greece, especially on our olive-rich island of Crete, and they show off that wealth at weddings.  Their guests appreciate the receptions and reduce the actual expense with their monetary gifts, but they never eat all that meat.

The children didn't feel tired, because they were having fun.  They didn't want to leave at 12:30, when I thought we'd had enough, but insisted on waiting for the dessert, which arrived after 1:00 a.m.:  Greek donut balls covered with honeyed syrup (loukoumades), oddly flavored masticha ice cream with chocolate sauce, and tourta, which is thin layers of cake between thick layers of something like mousse mixed with icing.  The cake ran out before it got to us--impressively, the only error from the kitchen all night--but our children were consoled by the other desserts.  We managed to say good night and escape before the fresh fruit was served.  The children complained that we were leaving first, which we weren't, but it's true that there were still children running around, and the hall was only starting to thin out.  So the kids were in bed around 3:00.  I couldn't sleep until almost 5:00.  I don't think I've done that since my high school prom.  For some Greeks, it's a common occurrence.  They manage to bounce back and go to work on Monday, but I was still struggling through midweek!


Of course, it didn't help that there was another party the next night.  However, this did enable a study in contrasts:  instead of expensively dressed women in dangerously high heels and an excessive array of food in an enormous reception hall, around seventy casually dressed neighbors met at the basketball court near our house, with our balcony chairs, food and drink to share, and children in tow.  No one spent more than the cost of a few drinks or ingredients, and the children and I enjoyed ourselves just as much.  One family owned, and brought, one of those inflatable slides kids climb up and slither down, and the kids especially loved that. 

Our Neighborhood Association, Its Accomplishments and Concerns

Our gathering was organized by mothers in the neighborhood association that also coordinated a children's torch relay through the neighborhood streets last year to help raise awareness of the importance of donating blood (part of a Greek national effort).  The group also prodded the relevant authorities to finish widening the bridge at one of two entrances to our neighborhood; the previously single-lane bridge was closed for many months, then lacked railings for the sidewalk next to the gorge.  In addition, our organization convinced a number of merchants in our town to offer discounts to its members.  And they've installed a fence to keep roaming dogs out of the playground (once generously adorned with dog dirt), removed a dangerous piece of equipment that was falling apart, and painted the play equipment.  Now our organization is concerned about whether the Silk Oil holding tank area near us--and very close to the closest beach--will be expanded, rather than closing as we'd heard before (when it was called Shell).  So, thanks to the most active neighborhood association officers we've had here since our arrival, there was some serious talk among friends. 

That included my discussion of unemployment in Greece with a friend who's a social worker at the Greek government's employment agency, now working with longer hours, less vacation, and half the pay she used to receive, when she had less work.  She doesn't complain too much, since she's not among the 22% of Greeks who are unemployed.  Many of the immigrants who now comprise around 10% of the people in Greece also seek help, but there's nothing to offer anyone.  I asked her what her office could do for unemployed individuals who seek help, and she said, "Nothing.  There are no jobs."  Sometimes she gives someone a euro or two from her own purse for the bus fare the person can't afford.  I read that unemployment benefits are scheduled to run out for many people here next month.  (However, there's no conclusive news to report just yet on our politico-economic situation; we await additional talks with the troika.)

Fun for the Kids, Food for All

But most of last Sunday evening, we didn't think about such problems any more than most of the wedding guests did.  D discussed soccer and scenic places to visit in eastern Crete.  Babies relaxed in strollers, toddlers toddled perilously underfoot, older kids rode bicycles, and parents and grandparents chased them, chatted with neighbors, or sat in balcony chairs to watch.  The kids ran relay races:  one in snorkeling flippers, another involving cookies they fished out of powdered sugar with their mouths, and a third in which each had to find her own shoe in a huge box of shoes and put it on before running back.  After it got dark, they race "shaved" shaving foam off the men and older boys with plastic forks.  There was plenty to eat and drink, with half-circular cheese pies most abundant, plus an array of rice, Greek salad, schnitzel, pizza, cookies, cakes, cupcakes, popcorn, juice, raki, wine, and rakomelo--a mixture of strong Cretan raki with honey.  Some brought homemade food, others bought things, and there was so much that anyone who wished could take home extra cheese pies--but no food was wasted.  A sound system and a flood light were turned on, so people were still eating, drinking, smoking, talking, and playing when we left at 10:15.  It did quiet down--we could tell from our apartment across the vacant lot--by 11:00.  It was the kind of cool Greek summer night--such a contrast to the heat of the searing sun by day--that brings out previously hidden crowds.  But these were mostly working parents and tired grandparents whose Sunday nights should end in time to get ready for the work week ahead.

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