August the 15th is the day Greeks celebrate the third most important religious feast in the Greek Orthodox calendar. Easter takes precedence as the most important feast, followed by Christmas (ever wondered why Christmas in Greece is so dull?), followed by the Dormition (Assumption to the Catholics) of the Virgin Mary. A 14-day-long fasting period, along exactly the same guidelines as the Great Lent, precedes the feast day. Although it is a national holiday, it does not seem like one, mainly because it falls in the middle of the summer, just when everyone seems to be on holiday anyway: just like Christmas time in my Antipodes homeland.
Mary, Maria, Panagiota (the One above the Saints, but presumably below God) all celebrate their nameday today, along with Mario and Panagioti. Namedays, believe it or not, are more important than birthdays. Despite the fact that many people are happy to celebrate both their name and birthday, it's the nameday that won't ever be forgotten by friends and relatives. It's also the one that evokes pleasant feelings, which is what makes Greeks the envy of the non-Greeks on such auspicious occasions:
Woman announcing her nameday: "It's my nameday today!" "Oh, really? What's your name?"
Woman announcing her birthday: "It's my birthday today!" "Oh, really? How old are you?"
And for those of you - Greeks and non-Greeks alike - who have a name which is not recognised in the religious calendar of the Greek Orthodox church (my mother's, and even my son's, don't feature in it), don't worry: there's always All-Saints Day.
So here I am, on my nameday, expecting a dozen guests to be fed and watered. In Crete, namedays are celebrated without inviting people to them. Friends and relatives will either phone to wish the celebrant χρόνια πολλά, which loosely translates as: "may you have many years of life to come", which is OK if you're not, say, 84 years old, otherwise it might sound like a curse.
Here are the choices most people select from to celebrate their nameday:
1. Have a big sit-down meal at home. This means lots of cooking and cleaning. This kind of revelry is reserved for Papa Bear: his nameday falls in the autumn, when cooking up a feast is a good way of heating up the house on a cool evening and entertaining guests indoors is the norm.
2. Have guests over at home, but serve only finger food and sweets, kind of like a buffet. I love the idea but would prefer it if someone else would make the finger food and cakes. It still means cleaning up before and after the event.
3. Go out for either a sit-down meal or finger food and sweets. This works well if you know who is coming to your nameday, because it's one of those parties which custom dictates you do not invite people to; in other words, you must make the effort to let people know where you will be instead, because you won't be at home where they may expect to find you.
4. Invite certain people to go out with you on your nameday, but not your regular well-wishers. Too elitist for us; simply not our style.
We decided to go out to a place we knew well and could hope on finding a free table. It's best to book a table if you want good food on this day, being the holiday that it is, otherwise, you have to contend with restaurants, tavernas and other food establishments that may offer a lower standard of food and service. As I have a strong opinion about where you will find very good tasty well-cooked food in Hania (only in a private house), the place I chose was selected purely on the grounds of location: it was right next to the beach (it operates as a beach taverna during the day), the waves could be heard crashing on the sand, and there was a small playground for the younger members of the party to amuse themselves within view of the parents. I was simply lucky that the food also turned out to be good.
Caretta Caretta has nothing to do with turtles: the name simply has a good gimmicky sound to it. We've been going to this seaside taverna for a long time now. It's located on the west coast of Hania, in a village called Agia Marina (Saint Marina). The village borders two other seaside villages which play host to the the classiest nightlife zones in Hania at this time of year: Stalos to the east, and Platanias to the west. This is where everyone comes if they want to boogie the
summer night away. Neither Stalos, Ayia Marina nor Platanias have specific borders, melding into each other in the way that neighbourhoods tend to do when they start sprawling. Once the poorest areas in the district, they are now the wealthiest. Up until the early 1950's (ie pre-mass tourism), the seaside soil was considered infertile, and lay barren-looking. It was the kind of land that refugees were gifted by the state, because it was deemed useless. Some clever person had the idea that they could build basic rooms to meet the low standards of the backpacking beach-sleeping mosquito-bitten grubby tourists at the time, and since then, Greece has been treated as a cheap holiday destination, an opinion which suddenly changed this year with the dollar crisis, or should I say the euro crisis, since our Northern European tourists are particularly feeling the sting of an expensive currency.
Every year, Caretta Caretta shows signs of improvement rather than stagnating. It offers the full range of Greek cuisine, along with internationally known pasta dishes (like carbonara) which are safe choices for the poor tourists who do not know how to ask for good Greek food by name. Along with this standard menu, it also offers some surprises, some of which we chose for my special day: grilled filleted sardines, seafood kalitsounia (better get the chef police onto them for the misuse of Greek culinary terminology), crab stuffed with a cheese filling and our all-time favorite delicacy, the most expensive meze of all, sea urchins, which are dressed with the ubiquitous olive oil and lemon juice and enjoyed as a dip with sourdough bread: a very acquired taste, but a special one nonetheless. We also ordered a seafood salad, some dakos, a plate of fried whitebait, some tasty octopus in vinegar dressing, some fried calamari a few plates of fried potatoes - they were that good. Total cost: 135 euro, for a party of 12.
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