Thursday, 5 August 2010

Feast (Πανηγύρι)

Sometimes, it feels a little bit like this in my neighbourhood: you never know just who might be passing by on his donkey...

On the eve of the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ, the village was celebrating with a paniyiri, as they did every year on the same day. It was hot and humid, as it always was at this time of year, being early August. Heatwaves always seemed to take place at the same time annually.

A novelty in this year's paniyiri was the roadworks. Roadworks in the middle of summer means that most of the time, very little gets done, because most of the people involved in them are taking annual leave, so that the roadworks are delayed into the winter when it starts raining, and work cannot take place; the roadworks stretch out interminably, leaving the roads exposed, without a layer of tar to keep down the dust and grit (which turns to mud and sludge in the winter rain). These roadworks were similar to the ones that had taken place only a few months before. The tar layer had been removed, large channels were dug into the middle of the ground, and pipes had been laid. Then the gullies were covered with earth, and only the tar needed to be laid; for some reason, this part of the job was always delayed. Last year's roadworks were for sewerage pipes, while this year's were to repair and change the old water supply pipes. If the pipes had been laid at the same time, the residents would not have to be eating dust off their tables for two years in a row. In the summer, the windows of the houses were always left open, and only the shutters were closed, so that every time a car passed, or more drilling was taking place, all the houses would fill up with the dust that was enveloping the village, which entered through the gaps in the wooden slats of the shutters.

Alkmene was watering the garden. It had to be done early that day before the priest came to begin the vespers service. She could not be seen to be watering the garden while he was performing the liturgy. In fact, she should not be seen even now, because she was wearing a bright green T-shirt, highly inappropriate a colour for a woman in her predicament, but there were few people about at this hour. It was too hot to be walking around. She thought about the people in the neighbouring streets who would be watering their gardens later in the evening when it was cooler, since they would not be in full view of the ceremony, and felt a pang of jealousy that she could not enjoy the same privacy that the others would have. Alkmene's house was positioned right across the road from the iconostasi, and on this particular day, not only would there be no privacy, but people would be wandering in and around her front yard as they observed the service taking place from the opposite side of the road where the shrine was located.

iconostasi kalithea vamvakolpoulo

Alkmene's neighbour, Koula, was at the iconostasi cleaning it. The passing cars continued to drive up and down the road without slowing down, lifting the dust off the ground and spraying it up in the air as they sped past, so that it came to rest on the icons that Koula had just wiped down. The icons were very old, tired-looking family heirlooms; they had obviously been kept in storage for the whole year and only taken out on this day, when they would be displayed on the roadside shrine. She waved to Koula as she placed a watering hose in the irrigation gully beside a row of tomatoes. She turned on the hose full blast to let the water run into the channels very quickly. Her husband would have had a fit if he had seen her. He was always warning her to be gentle with the plants, while Alkmene complained that it would take too long that way to water the garden and there were other jobs to do apart from holding a water hose and standing in the same position for 10 minutes per irrigation channel.

She began to sweep the yard, keeping a tab on the gullies as they filled up and moving the hoses appropriately. As if the dirt from the road wasn't enough, there were the berries from the benjamin tree that were dropping by the hundreds every time a puff of hot air blew through the leaves. There were so many of them covering the ground that, as she tried to sweep them away, she stepped on them and they opened up leaving behind their powdery residue which exuded a fig-like aroma. The yard had to be clean today, as her house would be in full view of the events that were about to start in only a short time. People would be congregating in it to hear the priest's chants.

A car stopped outside the house, and a plump woman stepped out. Even though it was hot, she was dressed in a full-skirted floral polyester dress and a black short-sleeved blazer, traditional church finery for the area. She was holding a plate covered in tin foil. Her rounded face was glowing red from the heat as she spoke to Alkmene.

"Has the paniyiri not started yet?"

"It's a bit early," Alkmene replied curtly. The sun was still burning hot, and nobody was interested in walking about on the street in such climatic conditions. There was very little shade to offer, and no way to avoid the gritty dust of the untarred road.

"Oh... but the sign said 7.00pm." The woman looked disapponted.

"It's not seven yet," replied Alkmene, at once realising that she was being rather terse. This woman may have travelled far to get here, and she had obviously cooked a dish for the pot-luck meal after the event.

"There's a park next to Kir Manolis' house if you want to rest before the priest comes," she offered. Alkmene thought about bringing out a chair for her to sit, but she was still cleaning up the yard. It would feel odd if the woman sat with her while she was pushing a broom. She did not invite her in.

"Thank you," answered the lady cheerfully, and then turned to her son who was driving. "Don't come back for me... someone will be going back down the hill... I'll catch a lift with them...No don't worry."

Alkmene did not know this woman, but she did know quite a few of those who began arriving afterwards. She knew she had to hurry to change clothes, because she was still in that green T-shirt, and it would be frowned upon by all of her acquaintances; most people in the area had not kept up with the changing times. Her own family did not give two tosses what colour clothes she wore, but twelve months had not passed yet since her mother-in-law's death, and the locals would be talking.

iconostasis kalithea vamvakolpoulo

Some people began to arrive on foot, while others were being dropped off by car, while the driver went off in search of a parking spot in the narrow street close to the iconostasi. Pretty soon, there would be a traffic jam, but this was only to be expected. The road leading to the shrine was rather steep, and there would be no joy to derive from parking further away and walking up the street under a hot baking sun. Most of the women had haggard-looking wrinkled faces, with tired smiles lowered eyes; their lives had closed the fill circle, but their faces still gleamed of hope for the future.

They had nowhere to sit. The women were leaning against the iron railings of the house, under the shade of the benjamin tree which was still dropping its filthy fruit. By the time the liturgy begins, they'll be suffering from heat stroke, Alkmene thought to herself. She opened the door of her late mother-in-law's house and began to bring out all the rickety wooden chairs with the woven straw seats, offering them to the women in order of probable age.

"Na 'sai kala, koritsi mou," the women thanked her as she handed them a chair.

"Tipota tipota," she replied. She would have to hurry herself, as she was still wearing her muddy gardening shoes. He legs were spattered with dirt, as were her black shorts. She felt unclean, standing so close to the women who had made the effort to spruce themselves up for the event, shedding their dowdy black robes for the evening. More and more people were arriving, and the cars were now slowing down as they passed the congested village street.

"Kopelia," one of them called out, "where can we leave the food?" She directed her to the little park close to the shrine where the lenten feast (if those two words could possibly be ever collocated, she thought to herself) would take place after the service. The Transfiguration of Christ fell during the two-week fast before the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, and even though it was a celebration, the fast was still observed.

Alkmene looked at her watch: 6.45. She hadn't realised how late it was getting. And it was still burning hot. She had a quarter of an hour to finish her tasks, get the children dressed and have a quick shower herself before coming down to attend the liturgy. She hoped that she could find something black to wear that did not need ironing and was free of oil stains.


The priest had just turned up in his new Rav. He was accompanied by the mayor and a representative from the village council. Kir Manolis approached him before anyone else, and began the customary round of handshakes and official smiles. Kir Manolis shook hands with everyone, even the old ladies, who had all come to take part in the celebration which he had organised. He didn't live in the village any longer, but still maintained a house in the area where he put up his guests, usually Athenians who he did business with. He would come to stay overnight on the day before the feast and leave the day after. The older women then greeted the priest and bent down and kissed his hand. Then they filed past to queue up before the icon of the Transfiguration. They left money in a basket on a table that Koula had decked with a plain white tablecloth. Then they took a candle from a box the priest had brought with him and lit it in the candlelabra. They made the sign of the cross by jiggling their hands quickly up and down in front of their body and bent down to kiss the icon which had been hung up on Manolis' chicken wire fence with a piece of cord. Then they moved away and found a spot to lean against for support as they crowded into the front yard of Alkmene's house, which had suddenly been turned into a church, with various shapes and sizes of seating forming the pews under the shade of the benjamin tree.

Alkmene lined up the children to get them to follow the same procedure as the rest of the congregation, one after the other, from the oldest to the youngest, which she had to pick up to do this, as he was still too short to reach the icon. Only her eldest son looked well-dressed; the other three were all wearing his cast-offs, which had become very shabby and worn out by the time her youngest child inherited them. She looked forward to the day that little Alexis would grow out of those clothes, because she could throw them out afterwards. Even though she dearly wanted a daughter, there would be no more babies; she'd had her tubes tied. She had told her husband about it after she returned from the hospital with Alexis. He did not make an issue of it. He also saw it as inevitable; it was the only contraceptive that actually worked.

With his hymn book open, the priest began the service:
Eulogitos o theos...

Five minutes into the service, a ring tune interupted it:
Καίγομαι... στην αγκαλιά σου (I'm burning... in your embrace)
... με τα φιλιά σου (I'm burning... with your kisses)
Καίγομαι... χίλια κομμάτια (I'm burning... into a thousand pieces)
Γίνετ' η ζωή μου και το κορμί μου (My life, my body)
... (I'm burning)

Τhe owner of the cellphone could be seen fumbling around for it in her bag, as she walked away from the crowd to answer it, which she didn't do immediately. In the meantime, the cellphone continued onto the second verse: "I'm burning", it blared, as the priest kept chanting. A gust of wind blew down some more fruit from the benjamin, so that it fell in the women's hair, along with the dust which was being sprayed around them.

More people kept arriving, most of them neighbours coming on foot from the nearby houses in the little enclave that constituted the village, a rather insignificant spread-out area, with a kafeneio and the church at the bottom of the hill. The steeper part was purely residential, with larger expanses of land being used as vegetable gardens, fenced-off olive groves and vineyards. The enclave was located next to another narrow road that formed a junction leading to the larger neighbouring villages.

The people that were coming in their cars were having problems finding a place to park. But everyone was showing respect for the priest, and his chanting, and the religious nature of the meeting, so that no horns were honked, and no tempers were frayed. Older women were being dropped off, while the men parked the cars. Quite a few young people also turned up holding babies, trailed by older children. Alkmene was surprised to see so many unknown faces to her; where did these people hide at other times? The road away from her house led to an auxiliary farmer's road which in turn led to large expanses of unfenced fields. It was in effect, a dead-end street. Few people passed by her house, and those that did were usually in their cars driving up and down the road. They did not stop to have a conversation.

A gypsy drove by in his truck. The driver was holding a microphone hooked up to a sound system:

"Exo kremmidia, (I've got onions)
kala kremidia, (good onions)
kremmidia Mesogiana, (onions from the Middle Earth)
elate na parete kremmidia!" (come and buy some onions!)

His chant was competing with that of the priest's. No one said anything; it was a normal hour for travelling salesmen to be out in the area. Alkmene was thinking about the huge braids of onions that this particular one was selling, but it was not an appropriate moment to purchase one. In any case, onion sellers were plentiful at this time of year, so she would just have to wait for the next one to pass. The driver continued along the road as the family dog started singing her usual dirge every time traveling salesmen passed by calling out his wares, which he reserved only for them:


Alkmene's children started laughing. Nikitas, the oldest one, turned to her. "Mama, the dog's gone nuts again." Alkmene put one finger in front of her mouth to hush him.

"A, a, a, aouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!" The dog continued to howl until the peddler's truck had left the vicinity.

A neighbour who lived on the road just off the enclave had come back home. He had a surprised look on his face when he saw the crowds on the street. He slowed down to look for a parking place in front of his house. Rental properties weren't common in the area; he was one of the few tenants of absentee landladies who had inherited property and moved into a house woned by their husbands. He stopped to let his wife out of the car, holding their newborn baby. She was dressed in a sarong with her bathing suit showing through it. He stopped his car in front of someone else's driveway and stepped out of the car, exposing his overweight body clad only in a speedo, just as the priest was chanting 'Eleison me'. They had just come back from a day at the beach. Their poodle had started yapping out of excitement from the moment it spotted their car.
"Skase," he shouted back to it.
"Kirie eleison," chanted the priest.

artos paniyiri

It had started to cool down slightly. While Alkmene was keeping an eye on her flock, trying to stop them from fighting or shouting, or generally just being heard, the children's cousins came running into the yard. Her sisters-in-law had turned up, concealed somewhere in the crowds. Their children's clothes were very clean and fashionable, with the word ''Benetton" emblazoned all over them. The boys became rather boisterous. It was getting difficult to control them all.

The same cellphone went off again.
Καίγομαι... στην αγκαλιά σου Καίγομαι... με τα φιλιά σου Καίγομαι, χίλια ---

The owner picked it up this time before the verse ended, just as the gypsy was making the return journey back to the main road.


On the hearing the dog, the younger children began to head towards the back part of the house.

"Oxi tora," Alkmene admonished them. She was worried that they would step into the garden. The soil was still very damp; they would get muddy. She knew how much attention the other children's parents paid to their dress. In the past, they had given Alkmene some of their children's old clothes that they had grown out of; nothing was worn out until Alkmene went through it with her children. She turned her head back to the priest. Just then, she noticed two neighbours' children heading out of the garden.

"Oxi stis laspes," she warned them, wondering how the children had managed to get away from their protective grandparents.

An eggplant tree was slanting lopsidedly onto another one. It looked slightly uprooted.

"Kali xefortosi," she thought. There was an eggplant glut in the garden at the moment. It wasn't that she had run out of ideas for different ways to cook them; nobody wanted to eat them any more. The children refused to put it into their mouths, all four of them, even though they were generally good eaters.

"Mono afta trome," Nikitas had complained, and it was no further from the truth; she had been cooking eggplant for the last three days. First she made papoutsakia stuffed with cheese and tomato, the next day she made moussaka (they were not fanatic fasters), and the following day they ate leftovers. Today she had cooked pasta ala Norma, a recipe her Sicilian neighbour had taught her, which used eggplant as a base; this was the last straw. None of the children put any of the eggplant sauce on their pasta, and even her husband winced when he saw what was coming onto the table. They all ate their spaghetti plain with grated cheese, accompanied by a tomato salad. She had mixed some of the sauce into a few dog biscuits so that at least she didn't feel as though she had wasted her time cooking something nobody would eat.

The Sicilian was among the crowd, smiling as she patted the heads of the children and pinched their cheeks. Still a very striking woman despite her 77 years, she always had a sad look on her face. She was a retired schoolteacher who had come to live on the island because her daughter had married a local doctor, and she preferred to live close to her only child rather than live alone in her villa in Sicily. Alkmene couldn't avoid her now.

"I've forgotten it," she started, and tears began to well up in her eyes. "Now I can't even remember how to do the sign of the cross like a good Catholic!" She was going to start shedding buckets now. Alkmene had seen this all before. "Ego no in Italia 14 xronia tora", she began to repeat the same story Alkmene had been hearing since she came to live in the village, which was two years after Suzanna had arrived from Sicily. She gave her a sympathetic smile. The priest was jiggling his censer towards the congregation. Suzanna bowed as she made the sign of the cross, Orthodox-style.

Kiria Klio was being flanked on each side by her daughter and her Bulgarian live-in, each woman walking beside her, with one arm around her shoulder and the other propping her up by the arms. Alkmene had not seen her in a long time. When she first met her, Klio was still tending hens and rabbits in the sohoro behind the park. The woman spent most of her time indoors now; she was a bag of bones. Her carers had dressed her in a blue robe that looked two sizes too large, but it was probably the smallest size that such old ladies' robes came in. Maria wondered if she would get to live to such an old age herself; her mother-in-law had died last year at the age of 92, pampered and looked after in her own home by her son and Alkmene. As Nektarios had inherited the family home, it was deemed appropriate for Alkmene to take care of her, even though the other children - Nektarios' sisters - lived less than a kilometre away on land originally owned by their parents. They had all built new houses on their properties. Only Alkmene and Nektarios lived in an old house which could not be renovated due to building restrictions; it had to be torn down and rebuilt, and that wasn't going to happen in a one-income family with 4 children to raise, unless an earthquake knocked it down. The walls of the house were all cracked.

"Have you got a small table handy?" Niki whispered to Maria, who could hardly hear her above the priest's chants (he was nearing the hymn of the loaves and fishes), Kir Manolis' loud chatter (he was tone deaf), and the braying of Yiannis' donkey (it could even be heard at night)."We need to cut up the artos."

Alkmene entered her late mother-in-law's house, which had originally been a storage area, but was boarded up and turned into a self-contained flat just before Nektarios and Alkmene were married. It was in better condition than their own house because, in a sense, it was newer. Tiles had been laid down just before her mother-in-law had moved in, and only one person had ever lived in it. Everything had been left as it was when she had died. They had only moved the deep freeze into her house, to clear up some space in their own house as the children took it up over the years. There was a small coffee table with a formica top, the old-fashioned kind with trolley wheels on the legs and a small shelf below the surface. She wheeled it out.

"Will this do?"

Margarita was standing next to Niki with a huge transparent plastic bag full of artos. "It's fine," she said. "Got a spare knife?"

She went into the house again, and opened the cutlery drawer. When her mother in law had died, Nektarios' sisters had all raided the drawers and cupboards. She never found out what they had taken, and did not show any interest in the topic until her husband had one day remarked that his father's hunting gun was missing. It was old and hadn't been used in recent times. When he asked his sisters about it, none admitted to taking it. From this point on, he had distanced himself from their families, which he was never really close to anyway, being the only boy. He felt insulted to be lied to by his own family. They in turn accused him of using his mother's pension (479 euro a month) for his own expenses. He reminded them that they were not contributing anything towards their mother's utilities bills ("all the mains are connected to your house!") or buying any groceries for her ("she eats whatever you grow!").

paniyiri lenten foods

After they took what they wanted, they never came back to the house. They only met up at church for the memorial services. Whenever Alkmene ran into them in the street or at the local supermarket, they avoided speaking to her. This did not worry her so much as how the children might feel if they cut off all ties with their cousins in such a small neighbourhood. One of trheir aunts lived close to park where the cousins all met up to play, next to Kir Manolis' house. The children spoke badly about their cousins, so Alkmene assumed that things were OK and her sisters-in-law did not want to hinder the family relationships involved. She wondered where they were hiding among the crowds. Possibly they allowed the children to come to her yard to conceal any ill emotions among their sihoriani.

She found a bread knife in the drawer. It looked old and new at the same time. Her mother-in-law was a lover of fine things, and this knife looked much better than any Alkmene owned herself. Her mother-in-law liked to look after her possessions and berated Alkmene often for not taking care of material goods in the same way. Alkmene could not explain to her that she could not keep up with the antics of the boys, and sometimes things did break, and it wasn't a big deal in the Made-in-China culture of modern society to throw something away and replace it with something new. It was difficult to convince an old woman who had raised five daughters and one son that it was hard work raising four boisterous boys.

"You should have had a daughter to act as your maid," she'd say to her.

As she came out of the house holding the bread knife, a jogger was running up the hill. He looked like a tourist who didn't want to miss out on his daily run even though he was on holiday. Only mad dogs and Englishman, thought Alkmene, a phrase she remembered from her days of English lessons at school. She had finished high school with good grades, but her parents didn't let her go on to university, even though she had earned a place for a Sociology degree at the Aegean University in Mytilene. They did not want her to leave home and live on her own. All her brothers and sisters had ended up studying 'something' in a private institute in the town, and qualifying to be 'someone'. Only she had opted 'not to waste my time studying to be a nobody', as she had put it, and became a waitress at the old harbour in the touristic part of the town, where she met her husband, a regular customer of the beachfront cafe. Nektarios liked her because she paid no attention to him, or to any of the others in his parea. She continued working after they got married until she gave birth to her first son. At first, she was glad to have left the shift hours that the tourist services sector demanded, but now that money was tight, she wondered whether she should look around for a job, even though she knew that this was a hopeless dream, as there would be no one to look after the children while she was out of the house. Nektarios was a lorry driver in the food services sector, delivering goods to supermarkets and other retail outlets. He was out working all hours, but never worked weekends.

Niki and Margarita had taken all the artos out of the bag and were slicing them thickly, to be distributed to the congregation at the end of the service. Maria lined up the boys and passed on the job of cutting up the artos to them. She gave the knife to Nikitas.

"Cut the bread the same way as Kiria Niki, and don't let anyone else use the knife." By 'anyone else', she meant his younger brothers, who were watching Nikitas 'playing' with a new 'toy'..

"Dimitris, you hold the plastic bag. And you can put the slices into the bag, Thodori."

"Kai 'go?" asked Alexis, who was too little to do anything useful.

"You pick up the crumbs and eat them," she said. Alkmene had a knack of getting all the children involved in an activity. People marvelled at her educative skills and kept telling her that she should have become a teacher, which made Alkmene sad that she had missed out on an education. She had heard of young girls going back to school after they had gotten married and had children, but she wondered how to get this one round her husband.

Alexis bent down to pick up the crumbs from the ground.

"From the table, Alexi!" She spoke in a muffled voice, but he didn't hear her. He was enjoying the bread. Just then, some more of the boys' cousins burst through the gate. Alkmene only just glimpsed two of her sisters-in-law joining the by now large crowd of people that the congregation had become. Their husbands were ambling behind at a slower pace, worry beads in their hands, cell phones in their shirt pockets.

"Whatcha doin', Nikitas?" his cousin Yiorgo asked him jealously, wishing he could assume some kind of important role in the fanfare.

"Douleia," Nikitas repsonded.

"We're helping, too," his brothers added.

"Theleis ligo?" Alexis was offering some crumbs to Yiorgo and his sister Eleni.

"Are the others coming?" Thodori asked.

"Mi milate dinata!" Niki admonished them all.

"Poli eftohepsan kai epeinasan..." the service was nearing the end. At this point, Kir Manolis stood up from his chair, picked up his walking stick and made his way towards the priest, where he stood next to him and faced the crowd. The wind blew dust from the untarmacked road over both of them. They shook their heads and waved their hands in front of their face to keep it from entering their eyes and nose.


Kir Manolis was about to tell the story of how the iconostasis came to be built. He did this every year, so everyone attending the event annually must have heard it dozens of times. Alkmene had only been in the neighbourhood for ten years, so she had not quite had her first dozen narrations, and Kir Manolis was getting older, not younger. His hands shook as he stood, but he kept his poise. He had left the village when he was only a teenager and had worked his way up the social ladder. Until only a few years ago, he had owned a small local supermarket chain which he had recently sold to a multinational company. He was very rich, but never seemed happy.

"Some of you might remember my mother," he began, which didn't sound very likely, as she had died three decades ago, and if anyone did remember his mother, they would be close to their 'teleutaia katoikia' themselves.

"She built this shrine in my honour," he continued, "from her grief at my being prisoner by the Nazis when they discovered my role in the resistance movement." Kir Manolis wasn't quite eighty years old, which made him hardly ten years old when the Battle of Crete took place.

"She dedicated this site to the feast day of the Transfiguration of Christ for my safe return," he boomed out as proudly as he could despite his frail voice which had weakened over the years in the same way as his hearing. "As you can see," he waved his hand in the air over the section of land where the shrine was situated, "I honour her act of faith, and maintain the site as it is today."

Epideixies, all of them, Alkmene thought. She knew what he meant by that last statement: Kir Manolis was the eldest of the four children who had inherited that particular section of land, which was now regarded as a 'fillet', ever since the building boom in rural areas, boosted by the foreign import idea of "Living with the Gods", the slogan for a construction company building homes for Northern European retirees. Kir Manolis was the only one who disagreed with the sale of the land, a large plot bordered by the two main roads that ran through the village. He had inherited the family home adjacent to the land, effectively leaving the remaining family members out of pocket. Kir Manolis continued his monologue, until the mayor nudged him and pointed surreptitiously to his watch.

"Diefxon ton agion pateron imon, kirie sou christe o theos, eleison kai soson imas, amen." The service had ended, and everyone relaxed a little. Now people began to move among the crowd, shaking hands with one another. Everyone was smiling, exchanging their 'Chronia Polla's and 'Kai tou chronou's. Alkmene was doing the same thing with all the guests in her yard. As she turned to greet everyone, she was unexpectantly confronted with Toula, one of her sisters-in-law, who had entered the yard on the pretext of looking for her her children. Her black dress looked very summery, even though it was more appropriate for evening wear, with its diamante centrepiece around the bodice.

"Chronia polla, Alkmene mou."

Although Alkmene was taken by surprise, she managed to give an appropriate response - "Kai tou chronou" - and raised her hands to Toula's shoulders to kiss her on both cheeks. Somebody had to break the ice; the one-year memorial service was coming up.

After the xairetoures were over, everyone made their way to the little park next to Kir Manolis house - another of Kir Manolis' possessions, which he had converted into a children's play area, donating the land to the local council, so that in effect, it could never be sold or used by the inheritors - and the feast continued with the food. The Ladies' Auxiliary Society of the parish - funded by Kir Manolis - had ensured a good spread of dishes, despite the lenten associations of the event: octopus salad, fried kalamari, fava dip, shrimp in lemon, giant beans in tomato sauce, cucumber slices, tomato quarters, taramosalata, snails in wine sauce, stuffed vegetables, zucchini flowers, dakos rusks, olives, zucchini patties. Everything looked so colourful that the absence of meat was not noticed in the slightest. Alkmene's contribution was bite-sized pastries made with an oil-based mixture containing aromatic onion and amaranth greens and herbs from the garden.

Everyone lined up to pick up their plastic plate, fork and cup. They passed by all the silver foil tins and platters that had been arranged on trestle tables, and kept coming back and forth to refill their plates. There was more food than was necessary for the number of guests, but very little was left by the end of the evening. Children gorged on fizzy drinks, while their parents cheered each other with wine. There were few places to sit; the children managed to eat while sitting on the swings, the see-saw, the slide and the merry-go-round. Balancing plates on laps made everyone an easy target for olive oil stains* ("there goes my blouse!"). Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and getting along together, putting aside their differences for the day, calling a truce in respect of the miraculous day that was to follow, the Transfiguration of Christ.

Rania, Nektarios' younger sister, took the opportunity to join Alkmene and Toula in this happy moment. Alkmene felt a thaw in their relationship, and hoped that this would continue - at least for long enough to complete the formalities required for her mother-in-law's upcoming memorial service. She had enjoyed the time away from close family relationships that had arisen from the rift, even though it did not feel right to her that such a large close-knit family could disintegrate in so short a time over so trivial a matter. Time would tell.

*To remove olive oil stains from your clothes: if the stain is fresh, put a spot of dishwashing liquid on the stain and rub it a little; it will come out in the next wash. If you don't have access to any at the time, dab the stain with white benzine when you get home and rub it in; it should come out in the next wash.

To see what a typical feast in my area looks like, click here.

Special thanks to my two editors on opposite sides of the coast.

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