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Bring out the Lamb

April 25, 2011   It seems only fitting that my European spring break begun in quiet beautiful Paris, boated through bizarre and wonderful Berlin, stopped for a brief pause in golden Prague, and finished with a midnight walk through loud, gritty, spectacular Athens. I disembarked the plane from Prague on Tuesday morning, walked through baggage claim and airport security, ordered a frappé (the iconic Greek iced coffee that accounts for the first phrase I learned in Greek), and sat waiting for Emilia with an enormous grin on my face. 

In a strange and wonderful way, I was home again. For those of you who have not read my very first journal entries way back in September, you may not know how very obsessed I am with this meditaranian country. I spent most of last summer on an archaeological dig in eastern Crete with John McEnroe, my Hamilton Art History professor, and Kiernan Acquisto, another student in the year below me. We worked on Gournia, at first digging in dusty trenches, and later drawing the architecture of the Minoan site. I woke up every day with the sunrise, and ate Greek Yogurt by the Aegean, and lay up on the rooftop of the taverna from whom I rented my room, talking to friends as the sun set and the millions of stars came out. Needless to say, it was the best summer of my life, and I left Athens last August with a suitcase full of olive oil and a lump in my throat, not knowing when I would return. 

Now, only eight months later, I was on my way back to celebrate Easter, Greek-style, with Professor McEnroe (who is currently spending his semester sabbatical in the city) and Han, an Art History friend from Hamilton who joined me at the end of her own grand tour. I spent the first few days island-hopping with Emilia, boarding ferries, walking along donky-filled, cobblestoned streets that seemed suspiciously picturesque, and having multiple bizarre encounters with ferel cats. We came back Friday night, and met Han in Plaka, the touristy part of the city directly below the Acropolis, just in time to buy candles from a street vender, and hurry down to the Mitropolis, the city’s main Cathedral, for the start of our Easter weekend. 

Greek Easter, an orthodox holiday that often falls on a different day from that of its Roman counterpart (this year the two happened to coincide) is a phenomenon I had heard a lot about, but never witnessed. Athens, a usually packed city that houses a third of the country’s residents, empties out for the holiday, and the streets are refreshingly easy to navigate. The groups of Greeks who do stay, however, celebrate in style. Good Friday mass consisted of the Epitaphios, a sort of mock-funeral in which robed priests carry around a casket representing the crucified Christ, and are followed by a candlelit procession. We followed the crowds of chanting Greeks to Syntagma square, the political center of town and the site of many protests and demonstrations. There the priests joined other, smaller processions from churches around the city, and were met by a military guard who marched solemnly before the parliament building. 

We came back at around eleven, the ideal dining hour for Greeks in the summer time, and ate at a tiny, crowded taverna in the basement of an ouzo bar, where we were served plates of grilled fish and dolmades and glasses of watery white table wine. I ate with gusto, laughed with Han and Emilia, and, exhausted climbed into bed. The next morning, we said goodbye to Emilia, who was on her way to celebrate Catholic Easter in Naples with an Italian family friend, and begun the mandatory (but still spectacular) climb up the Acropolis. Han and I had taken Classical Art together back at Hamilton, and, though it was now my third time on the famous hill, found ourselves in the same state of educated wonder. 

We wound our way down, past the Ancient Agora (Greek marketplace), and got juicy, spiced kebabs from a famous souvlaki stand in Monastiraki. Unsatisfied by the single climb, we wandered through the Agora, and then went up another, nearby hilltop, to gaze down at the sea. We later took a tram down to the shore itself, dipped our feet in the still chill water, and watched the sparkeling water for some time before heading back. We ate an early dinner and tried to take what my friend Olivia calls a “disco nap” (in preperation for a long night), but found ourselves too excited to sleep. At eleven, we got up, bundled into our warmest clothes (I had, as usual, improperly, and so had to borrow Han’s fleece), and went back to the Mitropolis, where crowds gathered outside the nearby byzantine chapel, tiny and filled with chanting priests. Sometime around half past, the lights in the church were extinguished, and candles lit, as the crowd slowely drifted out towards the church square, following the priests who held a wooden icon with the resurrected Christ. Anticipation was thick in the air, and I looked from one well-dressed Athenian to another in wonder. 

At midnight, the church bells began to toll in a joyful cacophony, and all of the Greeks around us lifted their candles, shouting “Christ is Risen” in Greek, and kissing each other with the words “Kaló Pásha” (Happy Easter)! We climbed to a hotel rooftop in Syntagma Square, and watched the forays of fireworks go off around the city, the yellow-lit-Acropolis shining under the April moon. It was nothing short of magical. We walked back through Plaka, through now-empty streets, and found the crowds of Greek mass-goers now huddled around bowls of traditional tripe soup, cracking red-painted eggs and laughing, their still-lit candles set in vases in the center of their tables. 

The next day, we got up, bought Greek yogurt from one of the two shops open in Plaka, and ate it with ice cream spoons on the way to the metro. I had donned my Royal-wedding-hat-cum-Easter-Bonnet, and when we met Professor McEnroe at his apartment (the latest in a series of unlucky events this semester resulted in him breaking his hip and having to be in crutches for the past month!), it was the first thing he noticed after opening the door. We drove up to the American School for Classical Studies, whose library Professor McEnroe has been using for his research, and whose gardens extend in beautifully tiered expanse behind the neoclassical building. The school roasts lamb in the traditional Greek style (a rather gruesome, spit-turning process that takes hours and ends in the lamb’s head being cut off and placed on a spike!), and we sat in the lawn as archaeologists and classicists slowly trickled in, bearing salads and dessert. Despite its appearance, the lamb itself was delicious and we ate, talked, and laughed for hours under the olive trees. By the evening, when we said goodbye and walked up one final hill to see the sun set over the city, I was well-fed, sunburned despite my hat and layers of sunscreen, and blissfully happy. 

I am right now on a plane back to La Belle France, where I will begin a month of paper-writing and exam-cramming, and have visits from both of my parents. Although I am bound to be overwhelmed and stressed quite soon, at this very moment I cannot help but smile. As we lifted into the air and cruised away from Athens (I watched the Acropolis until it was obscured by the plane wing), over the Aegean, Croatia, and the Italian Alps, I leaned against the window, fabulous hat on my head and suitcase once again filled with olive oil, and closed my eyes. Greece was still there, still wild and wonderful, still my favorite place on Earth. But I had missed Paris, and, as finding multiple homes has been part of my college experience, so I felt the call of the pristine, respectful French, boursin on toast, and my lit Parisienne. And this, I suppose, is how it should be.