Athens in the springtime is the city at its best. Before the oppressive summer heat sets in, the sun makes a dramatic return, bathing the country in that blinding picture-perfect light. During the winter, you feel that the earth has hit a glitch in the track circuit and is frozen in its orbit. Time seems to stand still as Athens frosts over. But now, with the onset of spring, someone has hit the fast-forward button. Bare branches transform into flowering bushy enormities in a mere matter of days. Exquisite wildflowers have set up campsites everywhere I look. I put an onion in a bowl of dirt, watered it, and returned two days later wondering who had replaced my onion with this beautiful bouquet of scallions.
The neighborhood farmers’ markets have also experienced startling transformations. Gone are the grim winter melons, the beets, cauliflowers, and cabbages. The stalls now overflow with strawberries and other cheerful fruits like figs and apricots. The vendors slice open watermelons and honeydews, using the bright pinks and juicy greens as advertisement. Tomatoes make their grand debut and the horiatiki salata, the traditional tomato-cucumber salad, is restored to all its glory.
With the return of the tomato, Greek cuisine sheds the confines of winter recipes and bursts into full bloom. Fresh produce elbows the jarred, artificially-sweetened varieties off the stage. As the summer vegetables reclaim their territory, meat and potatoes (a combination which has temporary ascendancy over the entirety of Europe) are forced out of Greece. Boiled greens, batter-fried zucchini, green bean and tomato casseroles, sweet peppers stuffed with spicy cheeses, are among the many timeless classics that return to the scene. Year-round dishes like moussaka, that famous eggplant, potato, and minced meat combination, and spanakopita, aka spinach pie, experience substantial upgrades with the arrival of fresh produce. The slimy cabbage coatings that are used to hold meat and rice, are replaced by hollowed-out tomatoes and peppers. And then there are some summer dishes that the winter months wouldn’t dare try to reproduce, like briam, a dish comprised of roasted and seasoned summer vegetables.
As warmer weather sets in, taverna doors swing open and tables spill out onto the sidewalks and into the streets. Eateries remain open much later, as customers bask in the warm air. With the arrival of springtime, typical after-dinner sweets, like preserved fruits and nuts, are replaced by fresh watermelon. As the evening progresses and waiters fold up the outdoor tables, the volta, the Greek tradition of following dinner with a peaceful stroll around the neighborhood, comes to dominate the streets. With the onslaught of summer, customers will begin opting for inside seating and air-conditioned car rides, but right now, in the spring, mild temperatures beckon any and all to come outside.
It is perfect beach weather. The breezes have not yet receded and the sun is not yet blistering. Spring in Greece allows for suntanning without painful burns and pleasant seashore walks without perspiration. Preceding the wave of tourists, the beaches of Athens are clean and empty. In July and August, you will lose the ability to lay out your towel on the sand and will most likely find far too many unidentifiable objects floating in the water. The spring is also the ideal time to hike Greece’s mountain trails. While there are myriad hiking opportunities in the countryside, Athens offers spectacular trails around the Lykavittos, Philopappos Hill, and Mt. Hymettus in the northeast suburbs, along with walking paths in parks like Zappeion Park, the National Gardens, and Veikou Park.
The parks of Athens come alive on May 1st, a public holiday known as May Day or International Workers Day. Though the holiday was labeled and popularized by the Soviet Union (and thus often serves as an excuse for labor unions to protest), it has its roots in the ancient “Festival of the Flowers,” a pagan holiday associated with Persephone’s return from the underworld to her mother Demeter and the consequent arrival of spring. Across Athens, families set out sheets and picnic in the parks. Kids pick at the Tupperware containers filled with homemade goodies, while the adults laugh over a bottle of wine. The parks are inundated with kids throwing pine cones, kicking soccer balls, and playing monkey-in-the-middle. Teenagers set off fire crackers, while the younger children plug their ears and scream with a mix of fright and delight. The parents sit in the shade oblivious to it all, playing tavli (backgammon) and sipping their coffees. Vendors set up stalls with traditional ice cream or different varieties of nuts, while farmers park their pickup trucks to sell peaches, strawberries, and oranges on the side of the road.
Enveloped by wildflowers, the parks are quilted in patches of yellows and reds and speckled with elegant pinks, and purples, like a drawing in a Dr. Seuss book. Every now and again you’ll see people emerging from the bushes with bundles of flowers, which they will sit with in the shade and meld into the traditional wreaths. The wreaths are much more complicated than they look, involving lots of twisting, turning, and threading so that they maintain their shapes. People often intertwine the flowers with colorful ribbons, taking care to allow the flower heads to peek out in between the branches. When they return home from the parks, they tie these wreaths to their balconies, hang them on their doors, and leave them at the local church as offerings for a promising new beginning.
Springtime has been regarded as a time of new beginnings throughout human history, with the ancient Minoans’ celebration of New Year’s in the spring for example and, of course, the Christian world’s celebration of Easter. Easter in Greece lacks the commercialism of American Easter, devoid of Easter bunnies, chocolate eggs, and marshmallow peeps, and is instead much more religious. The last leg of the journey towards Easter begins with Palm Sunday, a day which is commemorated in Greece with daphne and bay leaves instead of the palm crosses you receive in Orthodox churches in the States.
As a country that is almost homogeneously Orthodox, Greece makes Holy Week, the week preceding Easter, a truly sacred week. Traditionally, the Orthodox prepare for Easter first with the 40-day Lenten fast, followed by the seven-day fast of Holy Week. During this last week, the meat options on the menus of almost all eateries across Athens are replaced by vegetarian options, most of which have vegan alternatives as well. Everest, one of Greece’s largest food chains, sells different kinds of veggie burgers and seafood burgers instead of the usual meat varieties. Most souvlaki places do the same thing, offering skewered mushrooms instead of skewered meat, and vegetable gyros instead of the usual shaved meat in the pita. And whatever you order, whether it be a spanakopita or a sandwich, the cashier will ask you if you would prefer the dairy-free option.
Almost everything is closed on Holy Thursday, and the entire country shuts down on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, recognizing the two days to be days of mourning. At my church in the States, like most other Orthodox churches in the States, the Good Friday evening service commemorates Jesus’s death with a solemn walk around the outside of the church. Parishioners hold candles, while the altar boys carry the Epitaphion, a term which actually refers to the cloth depicting a lifeless Jesus but is more commonly used to refer to the wooden structure resembling His tomb in which the cloth rests. The parishioners follow the Epitaphion around the church, softly singing hymns, and then pass under the Epitaphion to return to the church.
But in the remote mountain village of Sariada, the tiny town outside of Agrinio where I spent my Easter, the evening played out entirely differently. Parishioners left the church to process with the Epitaphion to the local cemetery where they spent some time mourning at the graves of lost loved ones. I walked with my friend and his sobbing family from the church down to the graves, where we left our flowers at the gravestone of a 17-year-old cousin who had died in a motorcycle accident over the summer. We covered her grave with our flowers from Christ’s Epitaphion and stood their silently, reliving the tragedy of the summer. The Epitaphion procession was heartrending, with the harrowing twist of each villager’s personal pain. A few of us followed the Epitaphion back to the church to finish the service, but most remained at the cemetery late into the night before finally returning home.
The Saturday evening service, on the other hand, was much more similar to the service I have grown up with. People arrive early to stake out seats; there is a long, painful wait for the “Christos Anesti!” (a hymn with a title that translates to mean “Christ is risen!”) and then people rush out, eager to begin the Easter celebrations. The few that stick around after the initial round of Christos Anesti hymns are the ones that are waiting to receive communion– the ones that are salivating for the tsoureki, or traditional sweet bread, and the magiritsa, or the lamb stew, awaiting them in the social hall. Rather than bolting to the social hall, we bolted to the village kafeneio, or coffee shop, where two lambs were spinning on the spit. People were swarming the barbeque within seconds, carving out huge hunks to take back to their houses. We went from house to house sampling what each family had produced. At the first house, we sat down for a bowl of magiritsa, a much more potent brew than I am used to, as I suspect that a much larger variety of the lamb innards were incorporated into the stew than I am comfortable with. Then, we moved on to homemade tsoureki, plenty of homemade wine and tsipouro, and a variety of different sweets. As the food coma set in, we fell asleep clutching our bellies.
We awoke in the morning for our second feeding and reconvened at the kafeneio. There, we were greeted with a strange assortment of local dishes like galaktopita, a pie involving a filling of milk and eggs, macaronopita, spaghetti wrapped in phyllo, and piperopita, a phyllo pie made with colorful peppers. Of course, there were two more lambs on the spit and virtually a loaf of tsoureki per person. My highlight of the meal was tigano psomo, a bread fried with various cheeses. The desserts were also odd amalgamations of things, like a thin cheesecake enveloped in sweet jam, chocolate puddings, and a lemon flavored cake made with pieces of oreo cookies. I am still not sure whether the dishes of the day were very traditional or very experimental.
Everywhere we went, people offered us red hard-boiled eggs to crack, a symbolic gesture that reminds us of how life can emerge from what is seemingly lifeless. While one person holds his egg out, with its tip facing up, the other crashes his into it, announcing “Christos Anesti!” Then, both participants turn their eggs over, and the second person crashes his egg into the first’s, responding with “Alithos Anesti!” or “Truly he is risen!” The egg that breaks is eaten, while the one that survives moves on to challenge other contestants. The game sometimes becomes very competitive, with participants half-jokingly accusing other participants of using fraudulent eggs. While in the States you can find eggs of all colors, complete with stenciled designs and stickers, in Greece, all the eggs are dyed red, symbolizing the blood and sacrifice of Christ.
Just as the egg breaking reminds us that there is always hope for new life, Easter marks the end of a period of dormancy. Over the Lenten fast, the faithful are forbidden from having weddings, baptisms, and other church celebrations, but once Easter arrives, families delightedly rush to plan their special events. The first week after Easter is known as Bright Week and is a week in which the faithful do not fast, but instead appreciate life and enjoy food shamelessly. We are reminded of the religious belief that Jesus died to save us from our sins and resurrected to give us a second chance.
In fact, the theme of spring is new beginnings- both spiritually and literally. Athens has had a stunning makeover and is now blossoming overwhelmingly with flowers and foliage. Almost unrecognizable from its cold winter state, the city seems to be alive with this fresh start. Let us hope that this bodes well for the upcoming elections this weekend.