Friday, November 23, 2007

A Surprise Thanksgiving and a Thanksgiving Surprise

It was sometime in the afternoon yesterday when Mena called and spoke with Demetrios, and when I wondered aloud what was new with her, he said, “Nothing. She’s just wondering what time to pick us up.”

“Pick us up?”

“Pick us up!”

“Pick us up for what?”

“To take us to Manolis’ and Vasilea’s house, of course.”

“My dear, this is the first I’ve heard anything about going to Manolis and Vasilea!”

Long silence. “Really?”


“Well, we’re leaving here at 7:30 with Mena and Kostas in their car.”

There is no such holiday as Thanksgiving here in Greece. It was just another Thursday. I even forgot to wish a happy Thanksgiving to the two American theology students I met in the morning. (And they forgot to wish me a happy Thanksgiving, as well!) I don’t think they even have turkey here, unless perhaps frozen. But there is no way any American ate any better than we did on Thanksgiving evening, never mind it’s the Christmas fast! Vasilea served a fish soup first, what you might call “Cream of Cod”, with lemon, and it was delicious. Then, two more kinds of mild, sweet fish, no heads, no tails, no fins, no scales, no tentacles, filleted, breaded, seasoned, and baked, delicious. Plus soupies (sou-PEE-es), something I don’t know the English for, but it does have tentacles; it’s related to squid. Plus a platter of shrimp. They did have heads and tails, but I know how to remove those and they somehow don’t bother me. Then cole slaw, potato salad, beet salad, skordia (skorth-YA, a garlic paste), macaroni, fresh Greek bread, tarama (tah-rah-MA, Greek caviar), garnished with olives. For dessert there was Vasilea’s famous baked quince, Mena’s oven-warm Jello, I call it, but she says it’s halvah. It’s nothing like the halvah we buy in stores, which is not gelatinous at all. Plus Greek pastries, and later Vasilea brought out slices of apples and bananas.

Ioannis, the theologian not the lawyer, joined us with his wife, the other Mena. They were a bit late as they had attended this evening’s session of the 4-day conference on St. John Chrysostom at the University.

I finally learned how Vasilea makes her marvelous baked quince. In case you are interested, here is the “recipe,” such as it is: Put about a quarter to half inch of sugar in the bottom of a baking pan. Quarter and core the quince. (It has stringy, hard stuff in the middle, such as pears have.) Lay it on the sugar, skin side up. Pour over it equal parts red wine and water. Vasilea uses a cup each, in her largest baking pan. Sprinkle with cinnamon and a wee bit of clove. Sprinkle the whole with more sugar. How much sugar, in all, depends upon whether you want the juice to thicken into syrup, and how thick you want the syrup to be. It will in any case take much more sugar than you suppose. (Vasilea makes a thin syrup, but says you need about 2 pounds for thick. That’s for a very large baking pan that holds, I’d guess, 7 pounds of quince.)

After the dessert, Manolis led us all in the hymn to St. Demetrios, then one to St. Gregory Palamas, also of Thessaloniki, then to St. Paul, who evangelized this city and to whom we therefore owe a special debt of gratitude and love, and then some more I could not identify. (Thessaloniki has adorned the Church with some 16 saints, I think, of whom the best known are Sts. Demetrios, Gregory Palamas, Cosmas and Damian “The Unmercenaries”, meaning physicians who did not charge for their work, and Cyril and Methodios, who evangelized Russia.)

Manolis and Demetrios sang tenor, Ioannis took the baritone part, and Kostas the bass; they sounded wonderful!

It is such a joy to hear Kostas singing again! He always used to sing, but this was the first time I have heard him sing since we got here in September. This was his first evening out of the house, too. We told him, for the first time, what the doctors had said, that they didn’t understand why he was still alive, that it as only by the grace of God. So he has, and we have, much to celebrate and be thankful for.

After the half dozen troparia we adjourned to the living room, where a fire was blazing. Manolis added some more wood and we began singing Christmas carols. First, the old songs they had learned in Zoe, which are not church music, but do have religious lyrics. We sang something to the tune of the German carol, Süßer die Glocken nie Klingen. Then Ioannis suddenly broke out into, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” in English, so as many of us as knew the words sang that. (I got as far as the first four phrases and my mind blanked out. Couldn’t even remember the next words of my favorite Christmas carol! Ioannis did, though: “Joyful all ye nations rise…”) Then, the church hymns proper, the ones that have been sung for nearly a couple of thousand years.

Then more talking, the women, about daily life, the men (and I!) about theology.

Then more singing, then story-telling. One of the favorites is about the time the boys (as our husbands then were and still feel themselves to be) accompanied a certain Fr. Anthimos to visit an old lady, who served them sweets. Fr. Anthimos’ piece, as they boys could see, but too late to warn the far-sighted priest, contained a cockroach. They could hear the crunch as the old man bit into it. Fr. Anthimos put it down, and in his high-pitched, quavering voice, said to the woman, "Forgive me; it appears to me your candy has crystallized.”

Midnight came; Thursday turned to Friday, and Vasilea disappeared into the kitchen, to emerge a few moments later with a box of chocolates, which she passed around, singing a little ditty to Manolis. “It’s his birthday!” she explained.

“I tell you very sincerely,” said Manolis, in English, “I had entirely forgotten it until this moment.”

So we all sang him, “Happy Birthday”, in English. (Did you know that is the most frequently sung song in the whole world? I learned that from some stupid game show once.)

More laughter, more singing, more stories.

Manolis has a very good way of bringing his parties to a close. He has us sing, Phos hilaron, “O Gladsome Light,” and somehow, by the time that quiet hymn is over, everybody knows it is time to go. One no longer feels like laughing or joking or talking or singing. You just sort of automatically get your coat and and hug and kiss everybody and pile into your cars and go home.

We got home early by Greek standards; it was only 1:40. We went to bed feeling it had been Thanksgiving after all. I’m not even going to tell you what time we got up today.