Sunday Surprises in Kifissia

It’s been snowing for days. Practically blizzarding. We can’t open the windows or huge flakes come right into the flat and litter the rugs and tiles with thick white balls. Of course, I’m not talking about real snow. This is the end of April, the season for poplar fluff, which comes right on the heels of the pine pollen, which turned our cars and balconies yellow a few weeks ago.

Nobody really minds. The messy fluff that piles into grubby grey drifts on our sidewalks and gardens gives us a chance to complain about something other than our upcoming elections, plethora of unworthy candidates and worries about the day after when no one wins. And we lose.

We’re not often stuck in our apartment on a spring Sunday. But Joy of the People was feeling too unwell (nothing serious, don’t worry) to even accept a lunch invitation from dear friends for “more lamb if you can stand it.” So he collapsed on the sofa with the paper and I sat at the diningroom table with my laptop.

Our own lunch was a nonevent. The perfect looking avocado I’d hoped to serve proved impossible to cut through; the center was hard as wood even though the outer flesh was squshy. In fact, it rather took away our appetite so we contented ourselves with yogurt and strawberries.

At about 5 pm I decided to go out for a breath of fluffy air and walk up towards Erythraia for a change instead of circling the park, which I’d done Saturday.

I threaded my way through quiet streets to Kefalari Square, where every single café throbbed with animated talkers hunched over half-drunk frappés (the Greek version of iced coffee). A clown was teasing a giggle of children in front of Fridays. A Porsche and an SUV-sized Minis had stopped at the news stand.

Then I turned left and a couple of blocks on I stopped to stare at a crane tilted over a collection of unfinished maisonettes. Lined with blue insulation, fenced with dented aluminum, abandoned buildings are no rarity in Kifissia, but the crane swaying in the breeze added interest. So I went around the corner to get a better look.

And forgot about the construction site. The skeletons of nine burned cars, still reeking of charred rubber, their hoods opened to reveal fused engines, stopped me in my tracks. A few people, similarly dazed, were commenting across the street. “It’s a message.” But from whom to whom? The cars were not particularly luxurious or provocative. Sure there was an Audi sportscar, but the others, a Smart, an aged Cherokee, a battered red van, a tired Golf seemed inadequate targets for enemies of extreme wealth.

One of the charred cars

We got used to hearing about torched cars in Parisian banlieues, but it’s a relatively rare form of vandalism in Athens, and unknown in our suburbs.

A tall mustachioed gentleman with a friendly face approached, so I asked him in Greek what had happened. “They say that around 3 am some hoodies rode by and poured gasoline over the cars and set them alight.” I nodded and asked where he was from. “New York,” said he. “Me too,” said I, so we continued in English, amused at the coincidence.

Back to the joys of spring!

When we parted, I kept walking north, stopping to take photos of a flower standand then on to my destination: a new vegetable garden in a plot attached to an abandoned house. A friend had alerted me to the beautifully tilled soil, neat-as-a-pin rows and the promise of organic veggies for sale. The gardener was absent but a sign gave morning opening hours and a number to call for orders. I’ll go back to find out more. Watch this space.

A welcome addition to our community

Heading homewards, I noticed a new shop. Veneti, perhaps the capital’s best and largest chain of bread and sweets, had moved into premises vacated by a deluxe auto showroom. And this was their inauguration day. An eager employee gave me a tour and I promised to be back.

Veneti's shop window. Doesn't this make you want to taste their bread?

I ambled past Zillions ice cream parlor—with every seat occupied inside and out—and the price per kilo reduced from 19 euros to 16.90. Still pretty expensive. I’d deliberately set out with no cash to avoid such temptations.

Zillions gave way to trillions of roses, their perfume vying with the orange blossom. Some sidewalks were pink with “confetti” from the Judas trees, which had lit up the streets before Easter.

Roses to gladden the heart and the senses.

Back in Kifissia center, where I go almost every day, yet another new shop had opened–a café called Bellini, tucked as close as a Siamese twin to chef Christoforos Peskias’s Π Box, which looked dead.

What? Toppled from its fashionable perch? I went to the back courtyard. There three cafés, Π Box, Bellini and the Muffin Shop, were enjoying capacity crowds. Not an empty table. At 7 on a Sunday afternoon.

Conclusion: The crisis does not seem to have hit café/frappé society; gilded youth, young families with double strollers and rambunctious toddlers, even older couples filled Kifissia with life and ease.

And yet, how would they have reacted to the sight of the burned cars? Or to the news I learned only this morning (Monday), when we ran into a friend outside yet another new bakery on the same block as Veneti’s?

“Did you hear,” he said, “about the car bomb that went off under my grandmother’s apartment a few nights ago? That one was aimed at the Uruguay ambassador!”

I don’t know what to think, how to react. So I’ll brave the fluffy air once more and make a foray to the organic farmers’ market. We’ve run out of strawberries.

RECIPE

And just so you don’t go away with a bitter taste or a feeling of foreboding, here’s the recipe for the Chocolate Cloud Cake we swooned over at Easter.

250 grams dark chocolate (70%)

120 grams unsalted butter

170 grams fine sugar

6 eggs, 2 whole, 4 separated

2 tablespoons liqueur (I’d put mastiha or cointreau)

Line a 22 cm cake tin with baking parchment. Melt the chocolate in a double-boiler or in the microwave. Add the butter and remove from heat when melted.

Beat the whole eggs and 4 yolks with 75 grams of the sugar until thick and creamy. Add the chocolate mixture and fold in until no streaks remain.

Beat the egg whites until thick, gradually adding the remaining sugar until peaks form. Fold them into the chocolate gently.

Pour the mixture into the cake pan and shake a little to even the surface. Bake at 170 C (360 F) for 35-45 minutes until set and small cracks have formed. Cool in the tin. Don’t worry if the middle sinks a bit and the rim cracks some more.

When cold, spread whipped cream over the top and decorate with chocolate shavings or as inspired.

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Easter on Andros

Christos Anesti! Christ is risen. The words pop out of our mouths at the stroke of midnight on Easter Eve and for the rest of the week even if the Passion of Christ means nothing more to us than uplifting music by Bach. Even if we have not been fasting for 48 days, even if we have not darkened the door of a church.

My father, a vestryman and dedicated churchgoer, used to be very disparaging about what he called “oncers”—people who attend one service a year, at either Christmas or Easter. But though I always mean to join the procession following the Epitaphios—a flower-bedecked facsimile of Christ’s casket—on Good Friday and wait with the crowds outside a country chapel for the priest to burst out with his lit candle and announce the joyful news of the Resurrection, I don’t often manage even that any more.

I’m not at all religious in the conventional sense. Four years of enforced dogma and twice-daily prayers at an Episcopalian boarding school extinguished any residual childhood beliefs or expectations of solace from the pulpit. But ceremony is another matter and I love the drama and theatrical aspects of the Greek church, the poetry and hymns of the Protestants.

In the old days when we were new to Andros, I never missed going to the church at Fellos, the only one functioning between our house in the outback and the port. There we would greet friends, stand somewhat apart from the local congregation (being both oncers and foreigners—Athenians are regarded as alien as Anglo-Saxons), clutch our candles and wince when the lay chanters we knew as the tiler or the plumber intoned off-key.

Sadly, I have never taken part in the preparation of the Epitaphios. In some places, on islands like Spetses, Poros or Hydra, or towns like Corfu and Heraklio, where there are several churches within a small radius, the processions converge in a central square and there’s an unofficial competition as to which parish has created the loveliest bier. The equivalent of the Women’s Auxiliary meet in the morning, bringing flowers from their gardens, preferably white, and decorate the “coffin” with them.

I could have brought apple blossoms to the Epitaphios.

Walking behind it in the evening with hundreds of other people, all singing the achingly beautiful Byzantine hymn, “O Glykí Mou Eár” (O My Sweet Spring), can be incredibly moving and inspiring, even to a jaded agnostic.

But when there is just one church, on a hill no less battered than wuthering heights, the straggly procession simply circles it three times and the hymn disappears into the wind and emptiness. The experience bears repeating only just so often, and I think I’ve had my share. I also no longer welcome the firecrackers and explosions that drown out the equally wonderful Easter hymn and reduce the service to a raucous charade.

This is a rather circuitous rationale for why we stayed home on both nights, cosseted in our comfort zone. The men played backgammon by the fire, we women cooked—a succulent risotto of artichokes and broad beans from our guests’ garden on Friday, and made the avgolémono (egg-lemon) thickener for the mageirítsa, Easter soup with lamb’s innards, on Saturday. We’d shamelessly finished dinner by 10 pm and then, dare I admit it, watched movies on TV until after midnight. Fireworks woke me up at 2:45!

Sunday turned out to be a perfect. Perhaps because it is also a pagan festival and older gods watch over us.

Spit-roasting a lamb at Easter always means that we anxiously check the weather reports every few hours from the beginning of the week on. Will April showers dampen our charcoal? Are fierce winds going to prevent us from lighting it? Strong southeasterlies—the worst for our terrace—had been blowing for days, but the forecasts maintained they would shift to the southwest and drop. Sure enough, Aeolos took pity on us and reduced his presence to a gentle breeze. Helios banished all clouds. And that lamb from next door tasted even better than I’d predicted.

Our team has got the spitting/roasting routine down to a fine art. The guys got up around 8—none of that rising at 6 to dig a pit and prepare the fire. They drank their coffee and then skewered the lamb, which had been delivered to our door on Saturday afternoon. I gathered bunches of all the herbs in our garden—oregano, rosemary, mint, thyme—leaving out the sage, and they stuffed them into its belly along with some garlic, salt, pepper and lemon juice. I made an oil, lemon and oregano basting sauce and the critter was twirling by 10, rotating by machine and not, as in the old days, by hand.

Just ready to come off the spit. I think I like the skin even better than the meat.

Our friends started arriving after 12:30, while I was still picking wild flowers—white and blue lupins, yellow daisies, pink mallows with purple stripes and many other mauve-blue combinations—for the tables. They all came laden, with wine and with food, dips and desserts to complement the pièce de resistance.

Tzatziki, hummus, taramosalata, something spicy and creamy, beet/orange salad, roast potatoes, cheeses; strawberries and cream, chocolate cloud cake, apple tart and an English simnal cake—a rich fruit cake with marzipan icing and 11 balls that symbolize the Apostles.

Desserts to fill the eye and the tummy.

Many couples brought both starter and sweet as well as wine, overwhelming us with their generosity. We have enough wine left to hold another party.

Conversation stayed light. No one mentioned “the crisis” but there was a gentleness in the atmosphere, a feeling of deep appreciation for the multiple gifts of friendship, good food and perfect weather.

As for that lamb, Greeks and English-speakers alike descended on the crispy succulent beast as soon as it was laid on our (covered) marble table not long after 2 pm. Nobody bothered with plates. We all tore at the skin, offering each other the best bites, some armed with forks, others with sharp knives. Only when we were sated with meat did we retire to the tables for our salads and potatoes.

Some people might have been shocked but I was pleased. Our houseguests and family always attack the lamb this way. To serve it sliced and congealing on a plate is disrespectful to the animal. We all agreed it was the best ever.

The response to Christos Anesti is Aleithos Anesti, Verily He Is Risen! Another less religious greeting is Chronia Polla or Many Years, which is a standard wish for longevity that Greeks proclaim around any sort of holiday, be it name day, birthday, Christmas, New Year’s, whatever.

The one I like best is “Kai tou Chronou.” May we all be together again doing the same thing next year. In times like these a year is a long time, but I can think of no better wish to get us through it.

Pre-Easter Thoughts from Andros

It’s raining. I wouldn’t be here sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop if it weren’t. Since we arrived on Andros on Friday (the 6th), we’ve been outdoors from sunup (well, more like 9:30) till sundown close to 8 pm. Quite apart from our thirst to be in the embrace of nature as much as possible after a month in Athens, there’s been so much to do.

Taking first things first, our dear friend and neighbor Costa Fixit kept his promise and really did solve the black water problem (see Joys of Country Living). It took about two hours but he cleared out the accumulated sludge of 23 years with a pump that forces water through the pipe at high pressure.

What a relief and what a blessing to have a wizard at plumbing and electrical conundrums so close at hand. My husband, whose name translates as Joy of the People, is a surgeon. Since retirement he has picked up many new skills—painting, plastering, digging, strimming, even carpentry—but doesn’t do elec/mech jobs. His first DIY table would have walked with a severe limp, but he found himself putting the panels on the sides of the kitchen counters when the tiler said it was the builder’s job and the builder maintained the opposite. That was just the beginning. He also was forced to install a whole false ceiling, beams and all, in the guestroom when the carpenter refused to help after he delivered the pieces. And he dismantled it years later when termites threatened to bring it down inch by inch.

The spring where we get our drinking water never runs black.

But once the water was flowing freely again, we could dedicate ourselves to prettifying the property for Easter. JotP got out the hoe and started carving passages through the weeds to various essential points, like the water tanks, electricity meter, vegetable patch. The grasses, usually wheat and wild oats from the previous owner’s farming days, are only mid-calf height but the thistles are thicker and thornier than we’ve ever seen. I’ve been pulling oxalis, a clover-like pest, from the veg and flower beds, and doing my part in the losing battle against the thistles. I know we could drip Roundup on them but besides being death to bees and everything else who wants to help Monsanto?

Last Sunday was Western Easter. I watched the moon waxing and pondered as I do every spring why the Orthodox and the other Christian persuasions arrive at different dates (most of the time) when their calculations stem from the same rule. For, as Ezra Pound once told me in Rapallo in 1972, “Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.” I suspect it may have something to do with the Orthodox Church’s adoption of the Old Julian Calendar for this particular holiday.

Spring has sprung.

But to return to Ezra Pound. We happened to have dinner at mutual friends, who’d known him for years. The controversial poet retired to Rapallo after his release from St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington DC, where he’d been committed in punishment for his infamous pro-Fascist radio broadcasts during the War, instead of being shot as a traitor. It was thought preferable to treat his actions as mad rather than criminal.

After that, EP made a vow never to talk about anything meaningful ever again, which meant he was largely silent. So our hostess, in an effort to engage him, asked him the Easter question. He was distinguished looking, with his shock of white hair and his pointed white beard, but he did not seem the genius who had helped Eliot rewrite The Waste Land and inspired countless younger poets. He replied without elaborating and the light had gone out of his eyes.

So, our Easter this year falls a week after everyone else’s. We’ll do a lamb on the spit, and I can see it grazing in the field next to ours. Fortunately, I cannot guess which one our neighbor has selected for us or I might feel some qualms about eating it. I’m grateful that Mihalis has not introduced us but that I can still vouch for its free-rangeyness. From past Easters, I know that it will taste of wild mint, oregano and salt air, better than the gigot du pre salé de Normandie so prized in Paris.

Goats grazing nearby. The sheep are even closer.

I’m also grateful that we’re already here on the island. That the sudden seamen’s strike on Holy Tuesday and Wednesday did not blight our travel plans (as they did thousands of others, Greek and foreign), That we didn’t have to venture out of the house today for provisions. That being here takes the edge off our fears that Election Day, tentatively scheduled for May 6th, will plunge Greece into an anarchy far more serious than the disorganized uncertainty which prevails today. And that I can indulge in a little reminiscing.

Now I will put the laptop on a chair and throw together a fasting cake.

Raisin and Walnut Cake from Eastern Crete

This is really easy. It has no eggs or milk and uses olive oil for shortening instead of butter. The inside is dense and moist, the outside crunchy and almost toffee-like.

300 grams (2 cups) golden raisins

60 ml (1/4 cup) raki or brandy

about 420 grams (3 cups) all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

240 ml (1 cup) olive oil

200 grams (1 cup) sugar

120 ml (1/2 cup) fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon baking soda, dissolved in the orange juice

grated peel of one orange

120 ml (1/2 cup) soda water

150 grams (1 cup) chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 190 C (375 F).

Soak the raisins in the brandy for about 10 minutes and then chop them in the food processor.

Sift the flour and spices together into a bowl. In a separate, larger bowl, using an electric mixer if you have one, beat together the olive oil and sugar until creamy and slowly add the orange juice along with the grated peel, soda water, brandy-soaked raisins and chopped walnuts. Stir in the flour, a little at a time, until you have a thick batter.

Slide it into a lightly oiled springform cake pan (24 cm /9.5 inches in diameter)  and bake for about 1 hour. Serves 10.