Sunday, 29 April 2012

Living with 'Little Hendrix'

This last Sunday of April 2012 promises to be dominated by the remains of last night's adrenaline rush and the need to chill out. 

Why? Because, last night 'Crosswires', the band my teenage son plays lead guitar for, came first in an Attica-wide school and college band contest.

The band must have be one of the youngest of the 29 competing in the 'F*ck School Festival' (yes, I know, but what can you do?) and at 15, the ManChild was the youngest band member taking part.

They were great, despite some technical problems. They enjoyed their time on stage (and it showed), they had energy, they had communication with the audience, and a certain 40-something mum (a.k.a. The Oldest Groupy in Town) whooped, screamed and sang her lungs out. They were smart enough to vary the mood and tempo of their songs in their set, and (importantly) to include three of their own songs as well as covers of rock classics and a 'pot-pourri' mix of favourites. They finished their set with what is rapidly becoming their signature song and a big favourite with their loyal fans "Conspiracy". You can see it for yourself here  although (unlike all good children) the ManChild is heard and not seen, as he and his ghostly white guitar are lurking in the background. 

After finishing their set, they tumbled off stage with a mixture of huge grins, dripping sweat, self-congratulation and pats on the back. The air was electric and they were riding high on the post-performance buzz.

That buzz is still with us as we sip our Sunday morning coffee and look out the window at the glorious spring sunshine. As the Ovver Arf and I chill out and field congratulatory phone calls from all and sundry, our 'Little Hendrix' (as he's been dubbed by his bandmates) is still bouncing off the walls like a hyperactive goat that's downed 5 espressos and a truckload of Red Bull. My poor furniture will forever bear the scars of his post-performance enthusiasm as he improvises solos on the cushions with the drummer's battered and discarded sticks. Fortunately, we're more of an IKEA household than guardians of precious family heirlooms.

Guitar Hero on the PlayStation is getting a bashing, and we're on the receiving end of versions of anything from Pantera to the theme to Sponge Bob Squarepants, bizarrely stopping by some rock versions of Christmas classics on the way.

No doubt, some time soon, the adrenaline wave will recede and he'll sink into a teen torpor.

So, what do you reckon the chances are now of getting 'Little Hendrix' to buckle down and do his homework?

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Surviving Pascha: An outsider's guide to Greek Easter (and not a creme egg in sight)

Easter in Greece is heavy on symbolism, rich in tradition and dripping in calories. In a country where religion is woven into the very fabric of society, Easter is a very big deal.

It’s THE religious festival, and like so many occasions here – including elections, military parades, graduation ceremonies, funerals – it’s an intensely social event.

It can come as a bit of a shock, especially for a visitor from places like the UK where most folk see Easter as an excuse to stuff yourself with chocolate and hot cross buns, watch endless hours of sport and old movies on the goggle-box, or take your place in the traditional Bank Holiday traffic jams that clog the roads like too much cholesterol in the nation’s arteries.

So, here is my guide (as an outsider on the inside) to surviving one of Greece’s most enchanting and evocative traditions.

Get your timing right:
If you’re planning to book a trip to experience Orthodox Easter in Greece, check first. There’s a good chance that it won’t conveniently fall at the same time as your 4-day long weekend. Though the dates occasionally coincide, the Greek festival usually comes a week or so after it has been celebrated in many countries.
So, as my friends and family in the UK tucked into Hot Cross Buns to mark this year's Good Friday, we still had Palm Sunday and Holy Week leading up to Easter ahead of us,

Religious run-up: 
The week before Easter – Holy Week – is marked by heavy religiosity, solemn tolling of church bells, the melodic melancholy of priests and psalters chanting, and the gradual emptying of the cities as Greeks head for their villages. 

It can come as a disappointment to visitors to Athens, especially when they find that EVERYTHING shuts on the morning of Good Friday. But, on the other hand, it gives you a rare chance to enjoy the city without crowds and choking traffic. 

Maundy Thursday is a day of preparations, with traditionally-minded housewives (and the occasional obliging grandchild) hard-boiling and dying the red eggs that Greeks crack and eat once the Lenten fast is over (though the less traditional housewives buy them ready-dyed from the supermarket).

At every church, an army of ladies painstakingly place hundreds of flowerheads into the “epitaphio” – a funeral byre covered in countless blooms, which young children are encouraged to pass under throughout the day, for good luck. Come evening, however, the mood becomes much more somber, as a the epitaphio winds its way through the local streets in a symbolic funeral procession.

Fast food:
Strange as it may seem in a country where vegetarianism is considered an eccentricity and vegans as downright certifiable, most folk (even the non-religious) swear off meat, eggs, fish and dairy products for a full week before Easter. Like so many traditions, this is based in pure practicality – a kind of detox before the assault on your body that will follow with the feast on Easter Sunday.

But don’t worry – you won’t go hungry. Seafood, salads, pasta and a plethora of fast-friendly delights are always on offer (and as a visitor, no-one will begrudge you for tucking into a plate of souvlaki).

There is even a “get out early” clause for Greeks suffering from meat withdrawal symptoms – thanks to the so-called “little Resurrection”, marking the time when Christ’s tomb was said to be found empty, they can get carnivorous again from the afternoon of Easter Saturday.

Lighting the way:
My favourite part of the Greek Easter is the midnight ceremony on Saturday when everyone gathers outside their local church waiting for the priest to emerge and announce “Christos anesti!” (Christ has risen), at which point, things go berserk.

Bells peel out madly, fireworks go off (some alarmingly nearby), if you’re near a port you’ll hear ship horns blast, and a frenzy of kissing and cracking of painted hard-boiled eggs breaks out. As the priest makes his announcement, the light from his candle (claimed to be lit from the “Holy Flame” that is said to ignite mysteriously and spontaneously in a sealed chamber in Jerusalem) spreads throughout the crowd, lighting the wicks of the long and often garishly decorated candles (“lambades”) everyone holds.

I'm not a religious person, but I am a bit of a sucker for some traditions, and this is one of them. It's a moment with an intense sense of community, and has the power to move the most determined of atheists.

If you plan to attend the occasion, you have been warned. Go with your own lambada in hand and be prepared for startling bangs, whizzes and being grabbed and greeted by people you don’t know. But you won’t regret it. It’s a beautiful event – even to non-believers – as is the sight of everyone walking away from the church with through the scented spring night, lit lambades in hand, to the midnight feast waiting for them at home. And the combined smells of incense, melting wax, intoxicating orange-blossom and jasmine and countless plates of Easter soup waiting in households everywhere are a real treat for the nostrils.

Food, glorious food:
This is what it’s all about. In a traditional Greek household, most of Easter Saturday is spent with the women in a frenzy of preparation for the coming feast. It’s a heavy, heady assault on the senses - and a little rich for some of the uninitiated.

First of the menu is the traditional “magiritsa” soup served up in the deep of the night after everyone returns from church with their lambades. It’s not everyone's cup of tea, as it’s a broth of braised goat intestines (preparation involves meticulously turning them inside out with a knitting needle and scrubbing them clean) with boiled wild greens. I’m told it’s delicious – but even after 20 years, I prefer to take their word for it.

The real feast, however, comes the next day. Throughout the country, from early in the morning, roasting spits spring up over wood fires in gardens, yards, balconies, even the streets, ready for a goat or lamb to be skewered whole (head and all) and turned slowly for hours until it is cooked through to the bone, glistening in the spring sunlight and sending out mouth-watering meaty vapours. Unlike the kitchen duties, turning the spit is traditionally men’s work – and they can be seen gathered in gaggles around the goat, hard at work, fuelled by coffees, cigarettes, little glasses of ouzo and plates of “mezzes”.

By the time the spit-roast meat reaches the Easter platter, the table legs are heaving under the weight of an absolute cornucopia of delights, true to the opt-quoted truism “Den ftanei an perisevei” (“It’s not enough if there’s not too much). Meat galore is joined by glistening salads, hot crusty homemade pies, specially-baked aniseed-flavoured bread, countless red-dyed boiled eggs, cheeses, dips, and veritable rivers of wine and beer. Then, there’s dessert – homemade baklava dripping in honey, cream pies, aromatic sweet Easter bread.

Maybe now you understand why the Greeks aren’t big on chocolate eggs?
Easter in Greece is not for the faint-hearted (and those with weak hearts need to watch themselves too!), but, even for the most secular of us, it’s a feast for all the senses....

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Snapshots of fear and uncertainty: Last exit Syntagma

This morning, I walked past a man minutes after he took his own life. 

Crossing Syntagma Square, in front of Greece's Parliament, on my way from the Metro station to my bus, I spotted the figure of a man lying on his back at the foot of one of the tall trees ten metres to my right. He was old, slight, with grey hair and a close-cropped beard, lying motionless on the grass with his right arm thrown out to his side. Around him were a handful of police officers and a couple of concerned members of the public. 

I gave it little thought (much to my later shame), guessing he was a drunk or junkie overcome by his weakness, or that one of the growing number of homeless men living on the city streets had died in the night. At worst, I thought he might have been attacked by a group of thugs with more brute strength than human compassion. 

It was a sad sight but there was nothing I could do to help, I figured, and I was running late for work. So, I put my head down and picked up my pace to catch the next bus for Piraeus, making a mental note to check the Greek news sites when I reached the office.

What I didn't know, like dozens of other Athenians in Syntagma at 8.45 this morning, was that a 77-year-old retired pharmacist had come to the square with a desperately sad mission. Facing the Parliament building, he took out a gun, pointed it to his head...   and pulled the trigger. 

A note in his pocket explained his actions. It condemned the Government of scoundrels, decried the austerity measures that had reduced him to penury after a lifetime of work, and said he preferred to take his own life than being reduced to the indignity of searching rubbish bins for food. 

As I made my way back across the city this evening, the bus stopped short of Syntagma, which had been cordoned off. I soon saw why. It was filled with people, milling around in a silence strange and uncharacteristic for the garrulous Greeks. The knot of humanity was tightest around the tree where I had seen the figure of the man lying this morning. The place where he had lain was now filled with flowers and hand-written notes. 

The quiet of the place, amid so many faces, was eerie. Hundreds of people were there mourning the sad exit of a man most of them never knew, but who will undoubtedly become a symbol of the desperation more and more Greeks are feeling as they witness their country fall into disarray, disrepute and possible bankruptcy. 

Suicide is not a natural thread in the Greek character. As a people, they are too full of life and in your face for such a defeat. But the past couple of years have seen a worrying spike in one the lowest suicide rates in Europe.

The man who killed himself today no doubt felt he had reached the end of his tether. He brought his life to an abrupt end in a very public, and ultimately highly political, way.  

His message was eloquently expressed by the silence of the people in Syntagma Square this evening. I wonder if the politicians in the Parliament building across the road heard it?