Tue., March 31. 9:59am.
Easter’s been called off this year. Government spokesman Stelios Petsas offered the somber proclamation on Monday that “this year we’ll celebrate Easter from home.”
Δεν θα κάνουμε Πάσχα στο χωριό, δεν θα ψήσουμε τα αρνιά στις αυλές μας, δεν θα επισκεφθούμε τις Εκκλησιές μας. Αλλά έχουμε μπροστά μας πολλά χρόνια να το γιορτάσουμε με τα ήθη, τα έθιμα και φυσικά την πίστη μας.
We won’t have Easter in the village, we won’t roast lamb in our yards, we won’t visit our churches. But we have many years before us to celebrate it with our beliefs, our traditions, and naturally our faith.
Petsas then warned that the government might close toll booths across the country for the holidays to prevent Greeks from fleeing to their villages.
These have been trying times for the ol’ Ιερά Σύνοδος, which had to practically be strong-armed into canceling daily services and sacraments two weeks ago, even after the rest of the country had gone into lockdown. (The coronavirus pandemic has done more than just upset the Church’s spiritual accounts: the Holy Synod petitioned the Ministry of Labor to ensure that clergy are among the Greek workers entitled to the emergency €800 compensation being doled out by the government.) Church leaders have consistently downplayed the severity of the coronavirus crisis and refused to toe the party line in a country that ostensibly upholds the separation of Church and State.
For weeks, the Orthodox Church has insisted that receiving communion from a common spoon in fact poses no risk of coronavirus transmission, since worshippers would be partaking from the body and blood of Christ and therefore can’t be harmed. Last week, the Bishop of Corfu encouraged islanders to sidestep the nationwide lockdown in order to receive communion, urging them to commit a small act of Church-sanctioned fraud by telling the authorities they were going for exercise instead.
None of this should really come as much of a surprise: when I was applying for citizenship a couple years back, the Greek government was about as interested in the official record of my birth as the fact that I was shortly thereafter baptized in the Orthodox faith. Throughout the ordeal, I spent so much time trying to translate and certify official church documents that I practically rented a spare bedroom at the Archdiocese’s U.S. headquarters on the Upper East Side. It’s this odd flirtation with theocracy in an otherwise secular, democratic state that’s been one of the hardest things to swallow about modern Greek life.
On Monday, Greece mourned the passing of Manolis Glezos, the former resistance fighter who, as a teenager during the German occupation, tore down the Nazi flag flying over the Acropolis. From Helena Smith’s obit in The Guardian:
Then 18, the young Glezos had scaled the walls of the ancient citadel with a comrade in the dead of night on 30 May 1941 on a mission to remove the hated symbol. The first act of defiance under German occupation was credited with boosting morale and spurring the country’s resistance movement.
Glezos was, in a sense, a life-long leader of the resistance; after being elected to the European Parliament at the tender age of 92, he fought against the austerity measures being imposed on Greece at the height of the crisis, arguing, “Greece is the guinea pig of policies exacted by governments whose only God is money.” Smith again:
He was often to be seen, tousled white hair under seaman’s cap, his frame steadied by a walking cane, participating in mass anti-austerity protests and in one now notorious incident was carried away by fellow demonstrators after being tear gassed in the face at the foot of the Greek parliament.
I came across the story of Glezos’ daring nighttime mission a few years ago, on my first visit to Greece as an adult. Like just about everything in the country’s past outside the realm of ancient myth, it evoked a history that was a complete blank slate to me. Under lockdown, I’ve been trying to Greeken up a bit, slogging my way through Η Τελευταία Μπλόφα (The Last Bluff), an account of the pivotal crisis years around the time of the great όχι referendum, and reading Patricia Storace’s early-‘90s memoir about her year in Greece, Dinner With Persephone. It’s the fourth time I’ve picked it up, this time determined to see it through to the end. Not that it isn’t written in beautiful, florid prose or meticulously researched; the problem, in fact, is that it’s too much of those things.
When Storace came to Greece she was fluent not only in the language, but in its history and philosophy, its writings and myths. The depth and breadth of her knowledge is staggering, as in, e.g., this passage where she describes the eerie sensation she felt after leaving a doctor’s office: “Staring absently at my bookshelf, I have a sudden enlightenment about the source of the déjà vu. It comes from the twelfth-century chronicle of the life of the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus.” I had my own sense of déjà vu the other morning, when I’d staggered around the bathroom, my vision a blur, until I realized I was wearing two contacts in the same eye. Storace saw everything with crystal clarity, her mind a sponge absorbing every cultural tic and tell of her Greek hosts, until her narrative seemed to me like less an evocative exploration of her time in a foreign land than a pissing contest. As a writer and ersatz son of the soil, it was humbling to be so thoroughly out-Greeked.
It took me years to even think about my Greekness as anything other than a collection of stage props and performative rites we trotted out on certain holidays (“Αληθώς ανέστη,” he says, smashing his stigmata-red Easter egg.) Reading Glezos’ obit on M.’s balcony, I thought about how long it took me to learn about the Nazi occupation of Greece—said to be among the most brutal of the Second World War—and how old I was before realizing my dad’s youth was anything but the childhood pastoral I imagined after visiting his χωριό as a kid.
It was the spring of 2012, and I’d gone out to Jersey to visit my folks in their new retirement community, Four Seasons, a Potemkin village of chestnut trees and shingled roofs and cheery neighbors who put out themed lawn ornaments for even the most minor holidays. The streets had names like Golden Willows Avenue and Starwinds Court and Summerwinds Drive; it was like my parents had moved into a douche commercial. Studying the clubhouse bulletin board, with its advertisements for bridge and karaoke nights, I tried to imagine my surly dad easing into a new life of congeniality, popping into the Joneses’ for pot luck and marveling with John and Barbara next door that golly, no, they couldn’t have ordered up a better day. It was impossible. Just a few years ago I could’ve pictured him driving up to a place like Four Seasons, blowing through the barricade, and mowing down the seniors doddering across the back nine. And yet there he was, running the garden hose across the lawn and gesturing expansively inside the two-car garage, finally molting his immigrant skin as he began a new life as American sitcom dad.
That afternoon we drove out to Point Pleasant for lunch, my dad in his BluBlockers behind the wheel, mouth working in apoplectic rage at the slow crawl of Jersey drivers. When the inevitable, dreaded day of his funeral finally came, there was no doubt his carcass would pitch forward in the coffin, telling the grave-diggers to get on with it so we didn’t have to go outside to feed the meters. Here, at least, was the dad I remembered: impatient, complaining about gas prices, flexing his hirsute digits over the steering wheel while an almost perfect spring day slipped by without comment or appreciation. Back at the Four Seasons 55-and-over “active adult community” he might have to comport himself like he was auditioning for a Centrum ad, but in the comforts of his car, my pop was free to be himself.
We got a table on the deck of the Shrimp Box. My parents tilted the menus and squinted through their reading glasses, as if they were studying particularly interesting lab specimens for signs of gene mutation. Little boats named for people’s wives bobbed lazily in the harbor, pensioners shuffling off to the all-you-can-eat salad bar, clutching coupons for the early-bird special. After our meal my dad sat there in the sunlight, wearing a look of contentment I’d never seen when I was growing up. “I remember…,” he began, a sign that my long stoic dad—a veritable Aesop in old age—was ready to spin another yarn.
I braced myself to hear about a fight for parking, or a Greek guy he met somewhere, or the treacherous shopkeeper who’d tried to rip him off on new spark plugs or a bag of fertilizer. But instead, he told me about the time his father had an epileptic fit and fell out of a tree. It was the first time I’d heard the story—or, I realized, almost anything about the grandfather who’d died nearly two decades before I was born. In my dad’s telling it sounded more like something out of The Collected Chekhov than an actual episode in the life of the man who used to drop me off at Little League.
Dessert came, and I prodded him to go on. He talked about the παιδόπολη, the “children’s village,” in Volos where he was raised after leaving the χωριό during the civil war, and the Communist guerillas who were kidnapping children and sending them to training camps in the Soviet bloc. He told me about the death squads, and the left- and right-wing sympathizers who ratted on their neighbors, and the German withdrawal in 1944: a scorched-earth campaign whose atrocities are still bitterly remembered by the Greeks. (Glezos, well into his 90s, continued to fight for German wartime reparations.)
The longer he went on, the more the Greece of my dad’s childhood sounded like the fractured places I’d encountered in my travels: Guatemala, Lebanon, the Congo. I was stunned by how little I knew about his past. Somehow the dad who’d spent more than four decades rooted to the same zip code, toiling with clockwork precision season after season, had had one of the most interesting lives of anyone I knew. Why, I wondered, had it taken so long for him to share this with me? And why hadn’t I ever asked?
Sitting on M.’s balcony with my μπλοκάκια, doing my vocabulary drills, I thought about how I’d remember this time as I describe it to my children, and to their children. Even my Greek lessons bear the scars of our collective trauma, as I read stories about the virus’s εξάπλωση (spread), the worrying increase in κρούσματα (cases), the frantic ιχνηλάτηση (tracking) of each patient’s contacts, the crackdown on αισχροκέρδεια (profiteering), and how ultimately, if all goes well, επωμιστούμε το βάρος μαζί (we’ll shoulder the burden together).
But nothing’s for sure these days, except our collective uncertainty. As one user put it on Twitter: “The next two weeks will be critical in determining if the following two weeks will be critical.”