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General News

Expat Pascha in Ellada – Beauty, Truth and a Bit of the American Way

ATHENS – A large percentage of Greek-Americans have spent many summers in Greece when they were children and traveled with their parents, exposing them to many Greek holidays and traditions. Few, however, have experienced the joy and transcendence of Pascha in the Homeland, and most of those only once they became adults and traveled to Greece on their own.

My first time in 2008 was bittersweet, because my sisters and l lost our father just four months earlier, and it would have been beautiful to experience Holy Week and the Resurrection with my dad, who became a priest later in life, at age 55.

I will tell my story later on, but first I will present some experiences and observations shared by some of my friends and family.

Pascha in Greece’s Biggest Port

Nikitas Panagioti Conrad was born and raised in Virginia by a Greek mom and an American dad. He heeded the call of George Lois’ classic Greek tourism advertisement about… “going home – to Greece.” He moved there, like me, six years ago, a child of the remote work era. The process has been rather piecemeal – but it’s almost complete… any time now… whenever the contractors are all done with his apartment (y’all know how that goes). It’s in a wonderful spot in Piraeus.

Alec Mally, a former U.S. diplomat ,and his wife, actress and theatrologist Ioanna Gavakou, in their home in Palaio Faliro. Above are seen some of the trimmings for Passover, which they celebrate along with Greek Easter. Photo courtesy of Alec Mally

Most of his memories of Greek Pascha entail celebrations with his relatives in Drapetsona.

“There’s a lot of grilling on the balcony and sometimes my uncle’s co-worker brings his bouzouki and he plays and we sing.” Asked “that entailed a lot of meat and drinking, right?” he responded: “Yup.”

He shared several of his Easter church experiences with his Godfather [this author]. “Remember that time we were in Piraeus with all ships blowing their horns and the fireworks. Everyone was singing ‘Christos anesti’ and the band was playing… a beautiful cacophony – as chaotic as Greece is, and as beautiful.”

Passover – Pesach – Pascha

Alec Mally is a former U.S. diplomat with service in Athens, on the Greek Desk in Washington, and as Consul General in Thessaloniki as well as several years at the U.S. Mission to the UN in New York. Now resident in Athens, he is Editor-in-Chief at the NE Global news site and Executive Director for Global Economic Affairs at Foresight Strategy and Communications in Athens. His wife Ioanna Gavakou is a well-known Greek actress and theatrologist from Athens specializing in ancient tragedy. She has worked in Greece, France, Washington, and New York across a wide range of theater, film, and television genres.

The Greek word ‘Pascha’ derives from the Jewish ‘Pesach’ or Passover, and as is well-known, Jesus Christ’s last days on Earth included the Last Supper, which was a Passover meal with his beloved – except for one – disciples.

Julie Kelly, with one of the cats she has taken care of over her 18 years in Greece. Photo courtesy of Julie Kelly

Alec told The National Herald that “Easter time in Greece has always been special for me, even when I was a young diplomat at the U.S. Embassy watching Greek Easter festivities on TV or joining the candlelight processions of Easter services. As an American Jew it turned out Greek Orthodox Easter usually came within a few days or a week of my own Passover (Pesach) holiday, but for that we can blame the Jewish lunar calendar.”

He further noted that “it became something of a challenge to try to enjoy both holidays, especially if Easter fell during the 8-day long Passover holiday when I tried not to eat bread/cake/pasta or any food made with yeast, as is our custom.”

Naturally, “once I married a Greek woman, life in our house over these holidays became quite crazy (neither of us is particularly religious), if not insane… as both of us faced holiday dietary restrictions of different types if the holidays were in sync, and it usually happened that some of Passover overlapped with ‘Megali Evdomada’ and Pascha.”

Alec said that “the Easter meal was basically OK as far as lamb, beef, and chicken were concerned – that was OK for me to consume during Passover as well. My poor wife Ioanna, however, faced tough Greek Orthodox Holy Week dietary customs which she tried valiantly to observe while I could enjoy most kinds of meat, except pork, of course.”

“On the flip side,” he said, “Ioanna had no trouble with the things I absolutely had to avoid, like bread, pasta, and pizza. We always manage to get through it but traveling around Greece over ‘Megali Evdomada’ can be somewhat of a challenge. We survive – sometimes I think, however, that we both need to become total herbivores over these holidays until the Easter ‘arnaki’ [Paschal Lamb] is served!”

Some of the trimmings for Passover, which they celebrate along with Greek Easter. Photo courtesy of Alec Mally

A Special Holiday

As an American living in Greece for more than 18 years, Julie Kelley has come to appreciate Easter as one of the most important holidays of the year – “even surpassing Christmas,” she told TNH. “I have had several Greek Easter experiences ranging from the lamb on the spit family gatherings to welcoming the risen Christ by cracking red-colored eggs in the middle of the night! I think what amazes me most is that this holiday brings together so many families and friends regardless of the intensity of their religious practices. The holiday is taken quite seriously. I am fortunate to live half a block from a small church in Varkiza – on the coast, the Athenian Riviera – and I get to experience the church bells and see the crowds or people attending church. In our troubled times, I feel celebrating such holidays is very important as it keeps people together rather than separated.”

Whatever One Believes, Easter Is Special in Greece

Julie loves that “people can share a joyous occasion of celebrating whatever it is we believe and to just forget our troubles for a few days and be reminded that our family and friends are very special and we need to hold on to these valuable relationships. Also, I admire those people who are very dedicated. They had been fasting for more than 40 days – since ‘Kathara Defetera.’ This takes quite a lot of discipline, but then they can be happy that the Easter celebration usually comes with lots of great food!”

Julie was drawn to Greece by its beauty and a beautiful mission. “I chose Greece in order to advocate on behalf of the stray animals. I founded Let’s Be S.M.A.R.T. (Successfully-Managing- Animal-Rights-Today – ΕΠΙΤΥΧΗΣ ΔΙΑΧΕΙΡΙΣΗ ΤΩΝ ΔΙΚΑΙΩΜΑΤΩΝ ΤΩΝ ΖΩΩΝ ΣΗΜΕΡΑ). It is based in New York City, where I still spend much time, and it promotes awareness and education about an animal’s well-being. While I am in Greece, I enjoy the simple lifestyle, great food, and good energy! Kalo Pascha!”

Sooner or Later, You Win One

The author of this article now returns to his trip in 2008. While it had a powerfully spiritual ending after wonderful first time and first-time-in-a-long-time visits with relatives and, it was born… of a little fit of blasphemy.

I never win anything, raffles, lotteries, etc. My two sisters, Kelly and Dimitra, however, win all the time. In February of that year I attended an award dinner in a grumpy mood. When the raffle was about to be drawn, I literally said to myself “come on God, throw me a bone – I want the free trip to Greece.”

Divine Providence must have overcome Divine Justice because as the prizes began to be awarded from the 10th to the first, I was CERTAIN – 100% – that when the first prize was announced, I would  hear my name. And that is what happened – free round trip to Greece, care of wonderful (everlasting be its memory) Olympic Airways.

The brief visit was super wonderful, culminating in Pascha on my parents’ home island of Siphnos, with Good Friday services in my mom Catherine’s town of Ano Petali and the Resurrection where my father, Anthony, was born: glorious, historic Kastro, built over the millennia on an elliptical hill rising sheer out of the Aegean.

I don’t believe there is any religious journey like Orthodox Holy week anyplace else on Earth. In 2008, mine began on Palm Sunday in Athens at its grand modern churches like the Metropolis and Dionysios Areopagitis and the humble ancient Byzantine church of Kapnikarea. By Holy Wednesday, I was on Siphnos where I was anointed for health of soul and body with the oil of Holy Unction. For a whole week, I was immersed in the fragrance of lovely flowers, the light of luminous icons, intoxicating incense… and the strains  of those magnificent hymns – the flower of Byzantine poesy culminating in the sublime Good Friday Lamentations some believe were penned by the divine Romanos the Melodist.

The feeling on Holy Saturday, when the single candle bearing the Light of the Resurrection felt like it was piercing the incense-infused air because there were no electric lights to compete with it, I cannot describe. Yes, one word is ‘ineffable’.
The culinary highlight was an amazing meal of mastello, lamb marinated in wine and other good stuff overnight and cooked in clay pots in the brick oven of my cousin Frazesko. It melts in your mouth, and the rest of the delightful meal was created by my dear cousin Flora.

Thank you, God! (Gratitude covers a multitude of sins, no?) And thank you Baba. My sisters told me at the time, “you know, Dino, daddy did that for you.” No doubt about it.

And maybe that thought was not blasphemous after all. Later I read: “God gives not when you ask, but when you demand.” I am not sure who said it – but the Lord definitely said: “Ask and you shall receive.” Do it.

I wish you and yours a blessed Pascha and Pesach.


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