Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Kastoria for the Weekend

Or, Carrying Charcoal to Newcastle
Talk about beautiful. Everything about Renna and Theodosios is beautiful. Their souls are beautiful. Their children are incredibly beautiful. Their grandchildren are beautiful. Their village, Petrokerassa (“Cherrystone”) is as beautiful as anywhere in beautiful Greece. And Kastoria, the town where their daughter and son-on-law and grandchildren live, is beautiful. It surrounds a large lake and is closely hemmed in from behind by mountains. It’s a very old little city, with quaint architecture all its own and at any rate used to be a very rich city, although times there are as hard as elsewhere. People made fortunes from the fur industry. Kastoria is the fur capital of the world. Or perhaps not so much any more; that was before the Chinese came with their tons of questions and such great interest (how flattering!) and their video cameras… Kastor is “beaver” and I suppose the beautiful city is named after that furry creature.

Renna and Theodosios went there earlier in the week to help their Katerina with the grandchildren, while Nikos was away in Athens to give a lecture. (And while he was there, his sister, who is one of the Prime Minister’s innermost circle, got him into the Parliament where he was able to observe firsthand all the amazing things going on there in the last several days.)

So Renna and Theodosios invited us to come for as much of the week as we liked, and we accepted.

Turned out Mena and Kostas had a wedding there on Saturday night, so they cadged us an invitation and we all went to Kastoria together on Saturday and stayed until Sunday evening. Katerina got us rooms in the Hotel Kastoria, which sits right on the lake, and both our rooms overlooked it.

Of course we didn’t know how to get to the hotel. I’m finding out more and more people have the same habit as Demetrios, of going somewhere without first figuring out where it is. That’s hard for me. My father was the sort who consulted a map days ahead of time and then highlighted the route with a marker, and even figured out where he was going to stop for food and fuel. He once drew Demetrios a map of the route from my parents’ house to the subway station, 6 blocks away. The printed map wasn’t detailed enough.

However, by asking our way repeatedly, we found our hotel, and were pleased that our rooms both overlooked the lake and had huge bathrooms.

Katerina hosted the midday meal. Katerina has succeeded her mother as the most beautiful woman in Greece. She and Renna served some delicious salads, one with pomegranate, and rice and heavenly, heavenly chicken in sauce. Mena had brought a “sausage” for dessert, a sausage of chocolate. “Just for you,” she told me with a smile. I said, “As you know, I don’t eat chocolate, but since you made it just for me…” There were two or three other sorts of chocolate, as well.

Little Spyros, who is six now, still has blond hair and enormous blue eyes with very long lashes, and his sister, Semiramis (accented on the second syllable) looks just like him. She’s three, and we hadn’t seen her since her baptism in June, 2009. Though the children are shy about speaking English, they both understand whatever you say. That’s because their other grandmother, Norma, makes a point of speaking to them in English all the time. She lived in Canada for 12 years when she was young.

Norma and her husband, Spyros, the other grandparents, came over in the late afternoon. I was very happy to see them, partly because they are such kind, good people, partly because of having another person with whom to speak English (though Renna and especially Katerina both speak it well, too), and partly because I was worried about the senior Spyros, who has Alzheimer’s. I stayed and conversed happily with them while Mena and Kostas and Demetrios went to the wedding service.

Spyros is at that stage at which he no longer takes part in conversations; if you say anything to him he will answer very briefly (and very politely) but you can’t really have a dialogue with him any more. He still looks very dashing though, dresses nattily and is handsome, with bushy white eyebrows over very blue eyes. And as I pointed out to Norma and Katerina, the good thing about dementia (if dementia can be said to have anything good about it), is that although his condition is breaking your heart one piece at a time, the patient himself is not unhappy. That’s some consolation, especially if, like me, you wonder whether the condition is hereditary.

The others returned form the wedding by about 6:30, and as the reception wasn’t until 8:30, we had time to chat. I had a look at the wedding invitation, trying to see if I could understand where the reception was to be held, as nobody else seemed to take an interest. The Hotel of the Lake, the Swan Room. Wherever that was.

The invitation was engraved on very heavy cardboard, and besides announcing the couple’s parents, also announced the koumbaroi, the best man and maid of honor. Bottom right corner had telephone numbers for RSVPs, and down on the bottom right corner, for your convenience, was the couple’s bank account number.

Norma said I should go to the reception. She knew the parents of the bride, and they were very rich, so it would be a glamorous affair. So at about quarter to nine, we set out, having only a vague notion, from Theodosios, where we were going, but asking our way.

It was only as Demetrios was helping me off with my coat I realized my huge gaffe. Here we were in the fur capital of the world, and my coat? It was of fake fur! With large, rhinestone-studded buttons. The other ladies were wearing diamonds, probably flawless, priceless ones, but only one per person. Understated elegance, I saw, was the theme of the evening among the glitterati. (Oh, and the fashion in women’s hair, for anybody interested, is long and straight, blonde if you can get away with it, and worn back or up, if you’re over 50. Well, I got the blonde bit right…)

There were 44 tables, each decorated with white roses and many candles and each seating 11 guests.

The people at our table were all very friendly, with big, welcoming smiles. In fact, all weekend long we had the impression the Kastorians were people of exceptionally good character. Demetrios remembered having that impression on our previous visits, too.

The bride was beautiful, the groom, dashing, and as they danced their first dance, he sang the words to her. They were a sweet, sophisticated couple. Don’t ask me to describe the dress; it was so simple I hardly noticed anything about it except the overall, elegant effect. She looked like a princess, as a bride ought to. She was the kind of bride you look at and think, “He’s a lucky man,” and he was the kind of groom that makes you feel she is a lucky woman, too, and you feel so pleased, so happy, to see them united in holy matrimony.

There were waltzes and cha-chas and Greek dances, and we danced until we were all exhausted and had to go back to our hotel.

Theodosios was to meet us in the hotel lobby to take us to church in the morning, but somehow we all found ourselves in the dining room, helping ourselves to a buffet breakfast and looking over the lake. It was shrouded in fog and the whole world looked white, even the trees, just now in their peak autumn glory (even though it’s already distinctly winter in mountainous Kastoria). Colorful little boats were bobbing near the shore.

There are all sorts of water birds on the lake: cormorants, gulls, white geese, assorted ducks, coots – and a flock of White Pelicans. We watched them in amazement as they gathered near us, flying in formation, small groups at a time. They glide very near the surface of the water, scarcely moving a muscle, so they look like planes landing. Then their legs, tucked under their tails, come down and forward, and the pelican lands heels-first in the water, sending up a spray like a water-skier and spreading its wings in a braking action. Of course, nearly all birds, from pipits to parakeets, land in pretty much this same way, but the pelican does it in slow motion, and he is very large, so you see it all much better. And not many birds can glide as far and as perfectly as the pelican.

We did make it to church, albeit late. It’s a new church, all in red stone, and it comes complete with beggars outside the door. These, however, were not the usual beggars. Oh, no. These were fat, twin puppies, wagging their identical tails, looking up at you with soft, brown eyes, and begging for a master or a mistress. They were 9 or 10 weeks old, black and tan, and marked like dachshunds but not at all shaped like them. We wanted them both. Too bad. Serious cases of heartbreak.

Inside, the church seems smaller than it looks from outside. That’s probably because it’s five stories tall, counting the dome. It’s new, so the walls, although well decorated with frescoed icons, are still mainly white and bright. There is no iconostas yet and the dome and other high places where frescoes will eventually go have been left unpainted meanwhile.

I looked around at the people. One man was wearing a fur coat. Several men wore suede jackets. Other than that, there was none of the famous local fur or leather in sight, except my fake fur. Of course not; fur is generally thought too showy to wear in church.  Besides, in Kastoria, the traditional way to wear fur is INSIDE your coat, where it can really keep you warm. It took me a while to get over my stupid self-consciousness and focus on the prayers.

Downstairs there is a chapel to St. Anastasia that Theodosios wanted me to see, so we went down there—and encountered the family of one whose memorial we had just sung, who showed us the chapel and bid us eagerly sit down and eat a little something with them. So we did, Greek coffee with spanikopita and cake.

Wherever we go, when people find out Demetrios is a psychiatrist and see his kind face, there are women eager to tell him their problems. I’m used to it and don’t mind any more (if I ever did). But these problems were really wrenching, because they were economic at root. These were people feeling they were going crazy from worry about mortgages and bills they normally would have paid in full and on time, but today cannot pay at all. These are hotel owners and shopkeepers whose businesses have flat-lined. (Who can afford a fur coat today? Who can afford a holiday?)

Again, we had the strong sense that people in Kastoria are extremely kind, good, and friendly. So that made their plight extra sad.

Next, we met everybody (Norma and Spyros, Renna, Katerina and little Spyros and Semiramis) for a snack and coffee at a little waterfront café. I never know how to describe these convivial gatherings, but again I think they are foretastes of heaven.

We missed Nikos (Katerina’s husband) even more than we normally would have, because he is a professor of sociology and – guess what? – political science! The latter is his passion, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the only one eager to pick his brain on current events in Athens, which he has been witnessing firsthand this whole last week. (Plus, like this whole family, he’s a treat for your soul and a treat for your eyes, as well.)

The fog lifted, the sky and the lake turned blue, and all the colors of foliage glowed, so we enjoyed one last stroll along the lake before going home. Little Spyros set up quite a ruckus by tossing a stone into the air, which every bird for a quarter mile around mistook for food; they all mobbed him, honking, shrieking, quacking, flapping. (Pelicans sound approximately like a foghorn.) He got a big kick out of all this and did it another time or two.

Then, back to Thessaloniki, again not knowing beforehand how to get to the highway, but asking our way as we went. We had remarkably little trouble and were home two hours later, very tired, very sleepy, and greatly rejoicing.


Anam Cara said...

And when will you be returning to your other home in Richmond?

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

In a few days and can't wait!