Sunday, April 19, 2009

Kalo Pasxa

The final panel in a Greek Easter triptych: Friday, Saturday, and now the wee hours of the morning, officially Easter Sunday. "Christos anesti!" "Alithos anesti!" He is risen indeed. Leaving church past midnight, through the smoke of celebratory explosives, my mom and I found ourselves following George Kanellopoulos, my grandmother's cousin on the paternal side, a man who was probably a good twenty years younger than Yiayia, but who now looked the spitting image of my memories of her in her old age. He was, for an evening, a surrogate Greek papou. We went with him to his house over the protestations and histrionics of another cousin of my mother's (on her father's side); she wanted to know why we weren't going to her house, although we only had learned of her existence moments before. She carried on about how she'd found us and now we were being taken away, and po po po . . . the Greek tragedy continued behind her own closed doors, while, with some feelings of guilt and remorse that we couldn't accept every invitation, we went to George's house to break a fast that we hadn't observed. The Kanellopoulos house was not large, especially the space to the side of the kitchen that served as a combined dining and living room. For all of us to sit around the table, my mother and I were very nearly perched on the edge of a daybed. We were seven: George; his wife, Soula; their daughter Maria, plus Maria's own daughter, Nancy; and finally Maria's partner, Andreas, plus the two of us. Nancy went to sleep immediately, and the rest of us settled in for the most tradition-bound meal of the Orthodox year: mageiritsa (lamb tripe soup), with tsoureki (a sweet Easter bread) and boiled eggs that had been dyed the obligatory blood red color on Great Thursday. There was also a salad and some tzatziki (the famous yogurt-cucumber dip that has made its way onto the menu of every Greek or pseudo-Greek establishment in the States). The eggs this year had come out more maroon in color than a proper red, and there was some shrugging of shoulders by Maria and Soula over this before George held the dish of eggs out to each of us for our selection. Then, the egg-cracking competition began. George was the undisputed champion; he cracked Mom's egg, then mine, on each end. Asked if he was stacking the odds with a wooden egg, George smashed his own on the table to break the shell, and the matter was settled with good humor and appetite as we all peeled the eggs and ate them. The mageiritsa was another story. Thick and green, pungent in a way I don't want to describe—there'd been no attempt made to disguise what we all knew was in the soup anyway: tubes of chewy intestine floated in the bowl, chopped into pieces not nearly small enough. Maria flat-out refused, but we could hardly do the same. I have to say, it was not as bad as I would have thought. Still, it was not anything I wanted seconds of, and I watched George carefully to see if he was going to finish his bowl, or if I could safely stop eating when he did, without offense. My mom somehow ended up with additional servings of innards, and I know she thinks I got off scott free, although I did eat almost the entire (and generous) contents of my bowl. The hours slipped by, and we found all manner of things to talk about. We talked about family connections; about America and Australia, where some others in the family had gone; we heard about life in Filiatra and in Athens, where Maria had gone to work; we talked about jobs and culture, about Greek pop stars and other talent. We pulled family photos from our wallets, and George kissed the picture of my son. We exchanged addresses, and promised to write (which we did, but with no certainty that our letters ever arrived). Finally, hours into the holiest Sunday of the year, we embraced and said our final "Kalo Pasxa," Happy Easter, as Soula pressed bags of homemade koulouria (braided cookies) into our hands to take away with us, back to Methoni after a few short hours of sleep. If there is one thing Greeks have earned in reputation, it's the honor of welcoming visitors in a spirit of "filotima," or hospitality. Of course, however remote our connection might have seemed, they were family to us. They were what we'd come to find this Easter holiday: a rekindling of blood ties, a bond that transcends all distance of time and space. Now, two years later, I think of them with great affection and a deep desire to see them again. Kali anastasi to the Kanellopoulos family of Filiatra. And efxaristo para poli to my mom, for vowing to find them for me, which she did.

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