“Not long ago, we went to a christening in a sweet little church just outside Athens. The ceremony unfolded the way it’s meant to: the priest was benignly pious, the baby howled when dunked in the font, the parents beamed throughout, and the guests were delighted with such a good excuse for a party. I couldn’t help but compare it to the first Greek Orthodox christening I ever attended—my own son’s—in the late 1960s on the island of Spetses.”—Diana Farr Louis
Eating Well Is The Best Revenge
By Diana Farr Louis
ATHENS Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—(This column first ran in January 2012.)—Not long ago, we went to a christening in a sweet little church just outside Athens. The ceremony unfolded the way it’s meant to: the priest was benignly pious, the baby howled when dunked in the font, the parents beamed throughout, and the guests were delighted with such a good excuse for a party.
I couldn’t help but compare it to the first Greek Orthodox christening I ever attended—my own son’s—in the late 1960s on the island of Spetses.
It was a bright afternoon in early September. Before entering the monastery church of Aghios Nikolaos above the Old Harbor, my son and I posed for the camera. In the photo both of us are wearing yellow. Simple yellow seersucker that matches our almost identical thatch of straw-colored hair. We are smiling innocently. Neither of us has any idea of what is about to happen.
I’m not even meant to be there. According to Greek tradition, the mother does not enter the church but waits at home for the messenger who will announce to her the name of her child. Of course, there’s never any serious danger of a surprise, since most babies are named after their grandparents. And we will do the same. My little one is about to become, officially at least, Christoforos Petros—Christopher for his long dead pappou, Christos Ladas, and Peter for his uncle and godfather, Peter Payne. I do bend to tradition by agreeing to hide behind a column once inside the church. Where I can see without being seen. It would be a shame for the baby to catch sight of me and start howling.
When it is all over, I come to the conclusion that staying at home—especially for a foreign mother—is by far the wiser behavior.
After the photo-snapping, I hand my boy over to his godmother, Peter’s sister Monica. She gives the white box she’s been holding to Eleni, the family cook. It contains an official christening kit. Monica has had to buy a complete set of white clothes for her godson: from shirt and shorts to a little round bonnet and knee-length socks. The kit also includes two thin white candles entwined with white satin ribbons, a bar of soap in the shape of a teddy bear, a white towel, a sheet, and a small bottle of olive oil.
I let the guests and godparents enter the monastery and linger a minute or two before I pass through the thick door, through the cloister with its four towering cypresses, and into the shadow-filled church. But instead of solemn silence or the nasal intonement of holy words, I hear voices raised in a heated discussion. Greeks often exchange pleasantries in elevated decibels, a habit from centuries of calling across mountains, but it’s obvious that the priest and my relatives are not inquiring about each other’s health.
Tiptoeing over to where my husband is standing on the edge of the group, I tap Alexi’s sleeve and whisper, “What’s going on?”
Alexi takes a moment to detach himself from the drama. “Ah, there you are,” he grins. “It seems the priest has certain objections to our unconventional family. He’s already disqualified Monica from acting as godmother.”
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“He says that godparents have to be Orthodox and he’s discovered that she’s Anglican. She wouldn’t be able to bring up our son in the true faith.”
“I suppose that makes sense, but what about Peter? Isn’t he Anglican, too?”
“As a matter of fact, he is. But either there are two standards at work here, one for males and one for females, or else Peter hasn’t admitted the truth. Anyway, he’s allowing Peter to be godfather and Nata has volunteered to be godmother.”
“Then we can go ahead, so why don’t they?”
“Oh, now the priest is balking at giving the child two names. He says it isn’t done. And asks why we can’t settle on one or the other.”
“I thought you can have as many names as you wanted. I have English friends with as many as four so-called Christian names.”
“I’m surprised at you,” teases Alexi. “Surely you must have realized by now that Greece runs on a different set of rules.”
Over our hushed voices, priest and godparents appear to have reached an understanding. Nata adjusts the baby in her arms and follows the priest, not to the font as I expect but back to the entrance of the church. There, joined by Peter, they stop in front of the biggest icon and, to my horror, Peter spits at it.
How could he have done such a thing? Spit in a church. And on this beautiful, slightly uneven marble floor, its plaques worn smooth by more than two centuries of worshipful feet. It’s unthinkable. But then the quartet proceed through the gloom to another icon and he does it again. I can see that Peter’s heart is not in this defilement. Whether he really is Orthodox or heathen C of E, he obviously has never done this before.
By the time they’ve stepped in front of the third icon, the priest has to nudge him. He’s swinging thick clouds of acrid incense into the dusky air with one hand, reading from the prayer book he’s holding in the other. But he manages to give Peter a sharp jab with his elbow without missing a syllable of his droning recitativo.
“What is going on here?” I hiss into Alexi’s ear. “This spitting is disgusting!”
“They are exorcising the devil,” Alexi replies, as if this is a commonplace occurrence one might witness every day.
As of course it is. I suddenly remember the behavior of my offspring’s admirers on the island. Whether elderly strangers encountered in the port or young hyphenated Greek friends meeting him for the first time, they all said the equivalent of “Isn’t he cute!” and then puckered their lips and exclaimed “Phtou, Phtou,” as they expelled a little air from their mouths.
Someone had told me this was to ward off the evil eye. Compliments do more than attract unwanted attention; they alert the kallikantzari, who specialize in kidnapping or doing harm to children. These demons have their feet stitched on backwards, so you can never track them. Still, a cautionary phtou, phtou was a far cry from a gobbet of real spit.
The explanation doesn’t stop me from remaining appalled.
With Satan removed from the church, the baptismal party homes in on the real center of attention today, the font, a bronze cauldron that glistens with reflected candlelight. My boy’s beginning to wiggle and squirm now, but hasn’t uttered a whimper. He leans out of Nata’s embrace and tries to stroke the priest’s fluffy beard. Untrimmed, it looks like it belongs to a Gold Rush prospector from a B-Western, and I giggle irreverently but silently behind my column. As for Father Prokopis, he is blissfully unaware of such associations and very accustomed to exploratory tugs by fascinated babies. He simply raises his prayer book in front of the babe’s questing fingers and chants on.
At the same time, the priest signals to Nata to begin undressing the child. Monica and Eleni, the family’s beloved cook, sidle next to her, so that Monica can grab his yellow overalls and Eleni can be ready with the christening outfit. Father Prokopis rolls up his shirt sleeves and puts an apron over his cassock. He pours some water from a terracotta pitcher into the cauldron and nods to Eleni as if he were a surgeon in an operating theater. She’s been through this many times, so he doesn’t have to ask. She hands him the teddy bear soap and the bottle of oil, which he puts to the side of the font. Then, like any experienced mother, he dips his elbow into the water. He nods to himself; it’s neither freezing nor scalding.
By now, my little one is naked and possibly growing apprehensive, for he scans the faces staring at him, trying to pick out mine. Father Prokopis lifts him from Nata’s arms and unceremoniously dunks him in the font, splashing his face and wetting his hair. The poor thing’s too surprised at first to protest and then he lets out one wail after another, sputtering in between howls. He also kicks a good deal of water onto Father Prokopis, who is trying to give him a perfunctory wash with the soap. What my father would have called “a lick and a promise.”
My father would have been so intrigued with this service. He would have demanded a running commentary. At this point, I don’t even want to know what the priest is saying. I’d just like it to be over.
Meanwhile, Father Prokopis is performing a juggling act. He’s submerged my son three times, once for each member of the Trinity, announcing his name as he plunges him under water: Christophoros KAI Petros. Christopher AND Peter. The AND sounds more important than either name. This is our punishment for forcing a compromise.
And now he’s drenching him with oil. This is no little-dab-will-do-you kind of anointment; this child of mine is better basted than a spitted Easter lamb, his blond hair slick in dark stripes against his forehead. How much Johnson’s No More Tears baby shampoo will I need to restore him to normal? Much later, I learn that the olive oil offers further protection against Satan. It acts as a shield, “deflecting the darts he slyly aims at the unbaptized Christian and enabling him to avoid sin.” Or slither out of predicaments, a uniquely Greek talent.
Nata in the meantime is facing a more immediate problem: how to dry and dress this slippery toddler. Her charge is putting up a fight and she’s out of practice; her own children are almost teenagers. Eleni has prepared a place on the table, pulling a small sheet out of her kit and spreading the towel on top of it. I breathe easier once Christophoros Kai Petros is lying there and in no danger of rolling onto the marble floor.
And, with Eleni’s help, Nata pins the diaper without stabbing her godson. Slipping on the little shift-like undergarment requires more patience. The fine fabric clings to my oily child like a leaf of phyllo pastry. It creases and bunches up in awkward spots but at least it doesn’t tear when she tugs it. Eventually, C&P is fully dressed in a suit he’ll never wear again. He looks sheepish as well as flushed with heat. He’s sporting far too many clothes for this warm summer evening.
I breathe a sigh of relief. It must be almost over. But no. Nata hands her godson back to Father Prokopis. He, eyes gleaming behind his thick-rimmed spectacles, takes a pair of nail scissors from his robes and, quick as a wink, extracts a lock of greasy hair from under the child’s little bonnet. Renewing his atonal chant, he snips it off. I gasp. Then Father Prokopis lights a match and burns it. Before the flame can singe his fingers, he flicks the ash into the font.
I don’t even need to ask what this is all about. Alexi himself is so superstitious, he cuts his nails in private. “Because you never know who might get hold of the clippings and use them to cast the evil eye on you.” And the same goes for hair. This could make going to the barber problematic, but Alexi seems to consider the barbershop neutral territory, at least in New York. But he’s told me that burning hair or nails is the surest way to avoid tempting the devil.
It’s bad enough that a graduate of Columbia University should engage in such practices. I just never expected to find them thriving in a church.
Superstitions run rife in Alexi’s family. No one is allowed to pass the salt from hand to hand at the dinner table. You have to set it down for the other person to pick up or you’ll ruin your friendship. Never give a knife as a present; sell it to your friend for a penny or the knife will sever your bond. Also, it’s considered terribly unlucky to see the new moon through glass, whether through a closed window or through your eye glasses. But if you do glimpse it in the open, then you must touch gold (your wedding ring or a filling, for example), bow three times and make a wish. I’ve seen Alexi do this so often, I’ve caught the habit.
Some superstitions can be awkward. Both Alexi and his mother consider it the worst possible luck to sight a priest or a nun when about to travel. Much worse than having a black cat cross your path, opening an umbrella inside the house, or walking under a ladder. I’m not sure how it ranks against breaking a mirror. If such an unfortunate coincidence occurs, you have to pass on the bad luck to someone else. Many’s the time I’ve watched Alexi careen down the corridor in an airport, accidentally on purpose bumping into an unaware individual, walking in the opposite direction, of course. Once after spotting a whole flock of black-robed nuns, he ricocheted around the terminal like a drunk, while I pretended not to know him.
But what do you do when there’s no one around to pass the bad luck to? Easy. Tie a knot in your handkerchief. My mother-in-law was energetically tying multiple knots in her hanky in the Athens airport to redirect the ill effect of a priest she’d seen at a distance when, all of a sudden he was standing in front of her. As his copious skirts blocked out her light, she looked up and he slapped her. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he exclaimed. “I can see you’re an educated woman. Yet you behave like an illiterate peasant. Let this be a lesson to you. Don’t indulge in such ridiculous behavior again!”
He stalked off, leaving her more convinced than ever of the connection between bad luck and ecclesiastics. At this point, I couldn’t have agreed more. I never wanted to darken the door of a church again for any other reason besides sightseeing. Alexi wasn’t religious either. Furthermore, his mother had been a follower of Krishnamurti. So why had we submitted our son to all this mumbo-jumbo ritual? Out of superstition?
My reverie is cut short by an apparition that stops my heart. I look up to see Peter and my little boy flying towards the rafters of the church. The two sailors who help look after his cabin cruiser have locked their arms into a seat, coaxed Peter and his charge into it, and then with an ena, thio, tria, launched them into a collision course with the fearsome portrait of Christ Pantocrator, the Almighty, glaring at us from the dome. Will they come down in one piece? Will Peter keep hold of his godson? Will the sailors be able to catch them? I can’t look and yet I can’t tear my eyes away.
Of course, they land safely. But I am trembling. With anger, fright, and culture shock. I grab my baby from Peter’s arms and hug him as if he’s been gone for days. Only an hour, maybe less, has passed since I handed him over to Monica, but it does seem as though we’ve both been hurtled into another world.
My first thought is to get him home and into the bath tub. Wash off that sticky grease and put him to bed. Never mind the party, the guests, propriety, or tradition. But how can we rush off, besieged as we are by well-wishers offering congratulations and little gifts, including more than one bright blue trinket—an evil eye charm to keep that damned devil at bay.
Back at the house, I pull off his wretched bonnet and carry C&P through the kitchen, hoping to get down the back steps and into the downstairs bathroom.
But Eleni stops me with kisses, two for me and two for my son. “Where are you off to, Chrysomou? Wasn’t that a wonderful christening?” she says, relieving me of the stained hat.
When I tell her my intentions, she blanches. “But you can’t do that. The oil has to stay on for three days in order to do its job. Otherwise, he’ll be only half-baptized. And don’t put the clothes in the washing machine. They have to be rinsed in sea water first. Those are the rules.”
“Well, they’re not my rules. I don’t care what happens to this silly little outfit. He’s never going to wear it again. And look at his hair. It’s disgusting.”
“Then peirazi, it doesn’t matter. Here, come sit down for a moment. You both need something to eat.”
And so Eleni, the peacemaker, settles us in her kitchen. In a jiffy, she steals mezedes from the platters she’s about to pass round to the guests on the terrace: a generous dollop of pale pink taramosalata, wrinkled black olives, fresh bread, a few cherry-sized meatballs, and two phyllo triangles that will ooze creamy cheese as soon as we bite into them. A glass of iced retsina for me, orange juice for my son and, slowly, slowly my heartbeat returns to normal in the sanctuary of Eleni’s domain.
Taramosalata (Cod’s Roe Dip)
One of the all-time classics of the Greek kitchen, this dip can make any table festive and can be prepared in minutes. It’s good in any season too, but especially popular during Lent and in the summer.
Cod’s roe paste comes in two colors, a rather virulent pink to which some sort of dye has been added and “white,” which is rather greyish, though it turns white when you add bread and oil. I prefer the white. And as I’ve been playing with this recipe a bit, I thought I’d share my discoveries.
The list of ingredients is short:
Bread. Instead of white bread, I’ve been using sourdough bread with unbleached flour–about 4 thick slices
1 medium onion, peeled
Tarama paste–150 g/6 ounces
½-3/4 cup olive oil, not your best extra virgin, which is a little too strong
Soak the bread in plenty of water and then squeeze it dry. Boil the onion in the microwave or on the stove top till soft. Mix a tablespoonful of lemon juice with the tarama while you’re waiting for the onion to get soft. Put the bread, onion, and tarama paste into a food processor with a dollop of oil and start the machine. Trickle the oil in until the mixture is light and fluffy. The more oil, the fluffier it will be. Taste it. Add more lemon juice. Process some more. Turn out into a pretty bowl with fresh bread, crackers, and crudites and serve.
Photos two and three taken by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, on Mykonos, 2009, at the Monastery of The Virgin Tourliani.
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