Friday, November 12, 2010

A Visit to Halkidiki

Saturday, 06 November

It’s not really that there’s so much going on I have no time for blogging; it’s that I’ve spent my spare time finishing a baby blanket because I find I don’t like coming back a year later and having to finish up some old project before beginning a new one. So now I have a pair of blankets, alike except in minor details, to donate to the hospital for preemie twins, in gratitude for the excellent care my twin grandsons received when they came a month early. Been meaning to do this for six years!

It’s been a low-key week for me, although Demetrios has been somewhat busier meeting friends he had not yet caught up with on account of being so busy writing, plus doing his usual round of doctoring. Usually at least two or three people seek his advice while he’s here. So one of Leonidas’ 76 quadrillion relatives has a bad leg and one of our friends has high anxiety resulting in high blood pressure and another, to my distress, is under the care of a homeopath, which would be okay except when it means rejecting standard medical care that seems obviously indicated. What complicates the situation is that this homeopath is also a priest, so now it becomes not only a medical matter but also a religious one. Trusting the medical advice of a homeopath has become a test and/or an article of faith.

Yesterday one of my dreams came true when Pelagia and George took us to their house in Halkidiki for the day. Their house is near the southern tip of the Cassandra Peninsula, the westernmost of the three “fingers” of Halkidiki that juts out into the sea. (The easternmost finger is Mt. Athos.) It’s in a picturesque town called Kardia (yes, ”Heart” just south of the better known and charming tourist town of Hanioti. So we drove to Kardia, meeting Kostas and Mena at the house.

Map of Greece with Halkidiki in Yellow

Cassandra Peninsula

It’s a big house, but divided into two smallish apartments, completely separate from each other, one downstairs and the other upstairs. Downstairs, as you walk in the front door, is a small reception room with a bathroom off it, full of cleaning fluids, mops, brooms, buckets, basins. Then to your right, a living room with fireplace, and further right, a dining room. There is a kitchen for one person at a time, which is all they need in a vacation home where they do a minimum of food preparation.

Upstairs are a living room, bathroom, and two bedrooms, one with a double bed, one with 3 single beds. No kitchen has as yet been installed.

I don’t know how to describe it any further; it was, in fact, rather nondescript. It doesn’t look like your idea of a vacation home by the sea.

We walked a few blocks down to the sea, for Pelagia and George don’t live in the touristy part of town, which in summer is jammed full of thousands of people, and where the noise never stops until the wee hours of the morning and the traffic is bumper to bumper. They live in a quieter area, where actual residents live.

The sea was clear as glass, many shades of blue: turquoise, azure, cyan, indigo, navy, cobalt. And there’s so much of it! From the tops of hills, driving down, you can see such vast expanses of shining water!

Mena has pain when walking, so once we came to the beach, we didn’t walk far, only about a quarter mile to a taverna, where we had our one and only meal of the day – but what a meal it was! Six different kinds of seafood, three salads, fried potatoes, fresh. Plus dessert on the house, cake, ice cream, and baked quince, which tastes a lot like baked apple but more fragrant.

Then we walked slowly back toward the house, through quaint little streets, where many of the shops and eateries are closed for the winter. “What do the people here do in the winter?” I asked.

“They sit around playing cards!” said Pelagia. They make more than enough money in the tourist season to keep them all year long.

“Anastasia!” I heard Demetrios calling. “Come here! Look at this!”

I took me a moment to spot the thing that had caused him such excitement. It was a calico kitten asleep atop an old canvas bag that had been thrown into a dumpster.

The kitty was snoozing and showed no sign of awareness of my approach. So I reached out a hand and petted it, very softly, on the rump.

To my surprise, the kitty didn’t startle and then jump down and run away. Instead, she mewed and asked for more petting. I think she must have smelled seafood on my fingers. (Yes, of course I used a fork, but you know how it is; there are bones to remove from your mouth.)

She was pretty and friendly and scrawny and Demetrios was completely taken with her. We would have adopted her, had it been at all possible. But it just isn’t. Last year we had to find new homes for the cats we already had.

We intended to start home by 5:00, long enough before dusk to be able to see some more sights along the way, but we didn’t actually get underway until 5:30. It was still light enough to see a lot of the pretty scenery, pine trees, palm trees, Mediterranean houses, hills, bays, and the next peninsula over.

It was dark when we came to a little church Pelagia and George wanted us to see, but fortunately, the church was open and an old man, apparently the caretaker, we sitting in the narthex.

So I’m willing to believe a lot, but the story that goes with this church and its special icon seems to me a little too pat, a little too predictable and a little too much like the way popular imagination would have it be. (Matter of fact, quite a few stories like this share these characteristics, it seems to me.) Anyway, the story is that a man walking toward his home one evening saw a bright light out in the sea. As he walked along, he looked at the light from time to time, wondering what it was, and it seemed to be moving in toward land, and finally it seemed to have reached the beach. He pointed it out to the other villagers when he arrived home, and they all watched it until late at night.

In the morning, they went down to the beach to see if they could see what had happened. And there they found a large, flat stone (about 4 feet high and two and a half feet wide) with an image of the Theotokos painted on it.. They wondered what they ought to do, discussed it at length, and then hauled the stone up the hillside a little, further away from the waves. Next morning the stone had moved back to where the people had found it. They moved it away, back up the hill a bit. And (as you can already predict if you’re familiar with very many of these stories) this kept happening several times, until the villagers concluded this was where the Theotokos wanted her icon to be. They thought they should build a church there to house it.

They asked the Turkish authorities for permission, but were turned down. The Turkish ruler and his assistant came to see the rock with the icon and ridiculed it and began stomping upon it to show their contempt.

Mistreating an icon is always a bad idea, as you also know from multiple other icon stories. The Turks’ feet got stuck in the stone as if it were dough and they couldn’t get out. Finally (you could predict this, too) they asked the Christians to pray for them to become unstuck, and promised to be baptized, together with their families, if God should release them from this stone. So the Christians prayed and God freed the Turks and they were baptized and gave permission to build the church you can still see today.

The icon is still there, too, or at least the stone is. There are a few traces of paint remaining, but you cannot see any picture. Normally, that is. Sometimes it re-appears for a few days at a time. There’s a photograph on display that purports to show this.

Sometimes the icon weeps, too. It wept in 1940 just before the Greeks were invaded by Italy. It wept again in 1974 when the Turks invaded Cyprus. Most recently, it wept in 1993, during the events in the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia).

And you can still see in this stone, clearly and with absolutely no room for doubt, two deep human footprints, each toe distinct.

What I think is, the rock was obviously thick mud at some primordial time when someone stepped in it. Then, over eons, the mud became petrified and one day this stone showed up on the beach. And the villagers considered it a marvel, which in its own way it definitely is. So they painted an icon on it (the remnants of which look very much like the remnants of the frescoes on the church walls) and the rest of the story is embroidery — except perhaps the weeping.

“A stone that big doesn’t wash up on a wave,” says Demetrios. So maybe the tide brought it in. I don’t know!

Demetrios bought an icon from the church to give to Stelios and Anastasia when we see them tomorrow.

At least, reading this story (on an enormous plaque on the wall), I did learn the answer to one question I’ve had for a long time: how is it that Greeks, mainland Greeks anyway, having so much gorgeous shoreline, didn’t usually build their houses along it? Most of the waterfront real estate is only now being developed. Most villages, except fishing villages, are built away from the sea. They don’t take advantage of the gorgeous views. Why not? The answer, obvious but only in retrospect, is a single word: pirates.

We came home exhausted and it was only 8:00. We were ready for bed, but made ourselves stay up a couple of hours before we crashed.


GretchenJoanna said...

Your travelogues are the best! And now improved with maps! I love maps and they always add to the appeal.

GretchenJoanna said...

Oh! I see this was from last year...don't know how I got here. That solves the puzzle, as I *did* think you had just arrived in England. :-)