Christ always rises Saturday at midnight. But this Easter eve He rose at 11. The priest in the Greek seaside village where my uncle has a cottage had too many other villages to visit. The announcement of the time change was made during siesta by a buzzy voice from a megaphone-wielding pickup truck. We slept through the proclamation--or maybe we dismissed it, assuming it was the usual traveling salesman hawking melons or cleaning implements.
Timing church arrivals is an important skill. Too early and you're facing too much church. But miss the last ten minutes at Easter and you miss the drama: the shift in intensity of the priest's voice, the bursts of iron bells, the raising of the icon, the spread of fire as neighbors light each other's candles. Built on the side of a small mountain that overlooks the tiny stucco church beside the sea, the cottage is strategically placed for a proper arrival. But when the priest, conducting the outdoor service from the church steps with a megaphone, began ascending to loud, impassioned cadences at 10:50, our precisely late entrance became impossible. From the balcony we saw explosives already bursting red among the villagers, candlelight spreading at a hopeless speed, incense clouds accumulating. Unlit candles in hand and children in tow, villagers who'd also missed the news ran down to the sea, swearing out loud at the change in Christ's schedule.
On the shore we dodged the fireworks that burst randomly among the crowd. Fireworks had been part of the ceremonies of years past, but never were they so loud and frequent. Children screamed and cried, and many older people were clearly frightened too. Exploding trash cans and hysterically barking dogs intermittently masked the singing voices. Smoldering hair joined forces with the incense to create a familiar Easter aroma.
The beginning of the NATO air strikes had coincided with preparations for Orthodox Easter, the most important holiday in Greece--and surely in Serbia too. One Greek TV anchor concluding his Easter report--with its scenes of lambs roasting on spits, outdoor dancing, and the Easter egg game--said this: "How unfair it is that we here are having such a good time and our Serbian friends suffer so much." On Orthodox "Big" Friday, a week after the West's Good Friday, one Greek newspaper's front page offered large color photos of smiling Hillary and Bill making their Easter address to the world. Behind them were two people in goofy-looking bunny outfits. Need I mention that "irony" is a Greek word? So is "sarcasm."
Before we left for Greece I'd learned that the front pages of certain Greek newspapers carried images of Clinton with a Hitler mustache. In my grandparents' Athens neighborhood, graffiti continued this theme. One red scribble said in English, "Wanted: Dr. Adolph Clinton, for Murder." Another said "USA," with a swastika replacing the S. Some of these scribbles were signed "KKE," the Greek Communist Party. One day at dusk we drove past the American embassy, a site of turmoil for decades. Behind a tall fence of spiked metal, it looks like a corporate fortress. About 50 Greek police in riot gear stood in scattered groups, smoking and making conversation, awaiting the protest that would take place later in the evening. We watched it on television at my uncle's house in the suburbs.
Greeks are constant protesters. When we were in Greece three years ago, there was an electrical workers' strike. We visited dark islands and couldn't eat ice cream because store owners refused to open their coolers. The time before it had been a garbage strike. Athens in August is an effective time for a garbage strike. On this trip we stopped at a town where our siesta was disrupted by another pickup with a megaphone, this one announcing an evening protest. After the sun had set a huge group of marchers passed by our hotel window, young and old and many entire families shouting for the U.S. and NATO to get out of the Balkans.
I never had to resort to saying I was from Canada, the lie I'd rehearsed in Greek on the plane. In Greece I am repeatedly asked where I'm from. I look Greek, but I speak Greek with an accent and don't dress like other Greek women my age. "America" has always been the answer to this question. Where are you from? I am from America. But with little premeditation the answer shifted this trip. "Chicago." I am from Chicago. "Ooooh Chicago!" they would say, and I'd hear about a brother or cousin or uncle who lives here or about an unforgettable visit. This came as no surprise, for Chicago contains one of the largest Greek populations in the world. "Chicago," an answer with no roots in nationalism or political allegiance, rang true for me. It approximates the local response to the question, in which a Greek names the village or "patrida" where his or her family originated, as in the golden age of city-states when one was Argos or Athens or Sparta.
When we arrived in Athens, we'd loaded into my uncle's sport-utility vehicle and I'd found a newspaper on the dashboard. This was April 3, and it spoke of Russians coming by ship to visit the Serbs. The article pondered whether this was simply a fact-finding mission or whether the Russians would get involved on the side of the Serbs. I thought about Clinton's address the night before, when he'd said he was confident that Russia would be a force for peace. My uncle asked if I'd heard about the outdoor concerts in Serbia. Thousands of Serbs were attending these events, singing folk songs for hours and musically taunting the bombers. Here, listen, and you'll find your target easily. Many Greek musicians had gone to take part, and Serbian musicians were visiting Greece, particularly Thessaloniki in the north, to join in similar protests. The next day I would learn about a popular new symbol in Serbia: a black target on a white background. At some of the concerts in Belgrade giant tents were pitched flaunting the logo, which said to the bombers, "Come and get us!" Sympathetic Greeks wore it on badges.
We saw target stickers plastered in all kinds of places. We hiked to a monastery in the Peloponnisos where since the 11th century monks have lived in tiny one-room nests built onto the rock face of a mountain. After entering the monastery church, whose back wall was whitewashed rock covered with Byzantine frescoes, we stepped out onto a balcony to contemplate a magnificent gorge. The place was so still we heard a hawk's wings flap. From our vantage we could view the monks' living quarters at close range, and on an outside wall below a little window and next to a hanging braid of drying garlic, we saw a target sticker. The chief monk, a soft-spoken man in his 80s who was jarring olives when we arrived, found out from my father that we were American and instructed us to warn Bill Clinton of his mistake. He gave us a jar of the olives, and I had to believe he meant us to take them to Bill with his message as soon as we got back. An olive jar instead of an olive branch.
On the way to my uncle's seaside cottage to celebrate Easter, we stopped in a village for supplies. We picked up a butchered baby goat at a shop decorated with skinned and gutted lambs and kids. They hung in rows from the roof, hooks in their heels, depositing puddles of blood on the sidewalk. At the next shop we chose a Chinese-made motor over a Greek motor and a hand crank to turn our spit. On this, a day when Greeks prepared to rest and feast, we noticed three or four Albanian men who'd come to the square hoping to be hired for odd jobs. Now as common as old men in coffee shops, Albanian men collect each morning in village squares throughout Greece. I juxtaposed the sight of them with the familiar television images of displaced Kosovars in refugee camps. To Greeks, those desperate masses represent not only pain and pathos but more hungry Albanians in Greece.
Three years earlier we'd seen Albanians streaming into Greece as we hiked a gorge near the border. We were heading north, and saw on the far side of the gorge groups trudging silently in the other direction. I thought they were Greeks but I didn't understand the plastic bags they carried and why they were taking this rough path when they clearly had a purpose and a destination. I shouted in Greek, How long to the end of the trail? They stopped and one who spoke some Greek answered my question. Only later did we put together who they were.
The day before Easter, preparations began in earnest for the feast. The spit and motor needed to be assembled for a trial run, and my father and uncle began this man's work. As he fit the metal rods in place, my father told the story of the Greek revolutionary war hero Athanasios Diakos. He was caught by the Turks one spring during the war for independence and skewered alive and roasted. My father recited Diakos's last words: "Look at the time that Charos elected to pick me up! Now, when the trees bear flowers and the earth sprouts green." With a spit in his hand, the story was particularly dramatic. Serbs share the spit with the Greeks. They share the memory of Turkish occupation. And the Orthodox Church. And the memory of resisting Hitler and suffering greatly. In the war over Kosovo, each side has compared the other's leader to Hitler, but the Serbs remember who he was.
Two days before we returned to Chicago, we sat in a nearly empty restaurant in a mountain village near Delphi. We had spent the day wandering the ancient site where the priestess once sat on a tripod and mumbled answers to questions. In the sixth century BC, King Croesus of Lydia asked whether he should attack Cyrus the Great of Persia. The priestess entered her trance, breathed her magic vapors, and responded that if he crossed the river he would destroy a great empire. She never specified which empire would be destroyed, and of course it was his own. Why do leaders never see a bad thing coming? After serving us her fabulous food and wine, the restaurant owner pulled up a chair to watch the TV that blared above our table. The news was on, as it always seemed to be while we were in Greece. The owner gasped and clucked her tongue in sympathy at the sight of a bloody Serbian woman, the victim of a NATO bomb. Sensing the woman might surmise we were from the U.S., I told her that we were horrified by what was happening. She replied with an oracle of no ambiguity: "War is never a good thing."
The Easter fireworks continued through Saturday night and into Sunday morning, louder and more persistent than at any Fourth of July in Chicago. We stayed near the house Sunday, watching the goat twirl, to avoid the explosions and falling shrapnel. Never before, we were told, had this holiday produced a sonic landscape so closely resembling a battlefield. Was this just a particularly good year for procuring contraband, or was there a submerged desire to approximate the Orthodox Easter experienced by the Serbs?
After missing Christ's rise at 11 PM, my furious uncle led most of the family up the mountain in his SUV to another village where He would rise at the usual hour. The rest of us stayed behind to watch the patriarch of Constantinople celebrate the resurrection in Hagia Sophia on television. We set the table and heated up the celebratory lamb intestine stew, arranged the red Easter eggs, and readied the bread. When the others returned, they reported that up the mountain the blasts had been even more terrifying.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Dorothy Perry.