Monday, December 31, 2018

Italian Christmas Traditions

Italian Christmas Traditions

I already miss Italy.  Maria Elena feels the same.  We’ve been back for three months now and we miss being there.  Over the years it has grown on us like moss on a statue. Thankfully the pigeons haven’t found us, at least not yet.  Back there, since we locked our door and headed off to catch the bus to Naples, the weather has turned.  By this time, it has turned cold.  When it was time to leave, the Goldie Locks zone had come and gone.  The Goldie Locks zone, you know it.  It’s that time of year when the weather is just right, the temperature not too hot and not too cold.  In Calitri that time of year certainly isn’t August.  It’s more like early to mid-July.  From experience, sunny Italy begins to prep for the winter around mid-November.  It rains more, gets damp and stays that way, a cold wind makes its debut, and days begin to cool.  Under this assault, the thermal mass of our thick walls is soon exhausted, any remaining heat conducted outside to an increasingly cooling world.  
While we’ve flirted with spending time there, about now, over Christmas in fact, even going so far as to plan it one year, we have never pulled the trigger and done it.  Christmas is a time with family.  Ours is here in the States and our Italian friends are busy with theirs, probably too busy to bother with two American expats.  No need to get them thinking, “What’s wrong with those people that they are away from their family at Christmas.”  Besides, the Borgo is quiet, very quiet during this time of year.  Sometime visitors like ourselves have also moved off until activity reawakens in the spring and summer.  Even the evening passeggiata would be ill-attended.  For those who did venture out for this evening walk, their mufflers, caps, scarves, and puffy parkas would make them hard to recognize.  And then there is an albero di Natale (Christmas tree) and decorations to deal with.  A tree is something we don’t have the fixings for, even if we were to get hold of one in Calitri.  It’s not as if you can go out into the woods and cut your own Charlie Brown tree like we can at home.  We have forests.  In fact, we live in a forest, so trees are easy to come by.  Cutting a tree down where we live in Italy, let alone an obligatory evergreen like a balsam or spruce tree, what with all the vineyards, cultivated fields, and few forested areas, may constitute a federal offense for deforestation.  
Seeing they celebrate Halloween as we do, I want to believe they also celebrate Christmas like us.  Our friend Pietro reports that there are differences, however.  One revolves around the Christmas
tree.  Live trees a rare commodity in southern Italy.  Oh, you can find them sold in Canosa di Puglia where he lives, like here in the States, but they come at a premium.  They are imported from northern Italy, even as far away as Germany.  Due to the recurring cost for the real thing, artificial trees are becoming the norm in Italian homes.  As a possible stand-in for a real tree, we find the Ceppo (Italian for log).  An American would most likely pronounce it as “cheap-po”, nothing derogatory intended, but it properly sounds like “che-po”.  What started out as a yule log to be burned on Christmas night eventually matured into a wooden structure several feet high with a pyramid shape, giving it the profile of a Christmas tree.  Its frame supports several tiers of shelves each with a specific meaning: a nativity scene on the bottom level representing the gift of God; fruits, nuts and candy representing the gifts of the earth make up the next level; while presents signifying the gifts of man take up higher shelves.  What might be considered a “substitute tree” is decorated with ribbons and bows, gilded pinecones, greens, family mementos and colorful streamers.  Some families attach candles on the outside of each shelf and light them.  Others fasten electric lights to the tapering sides.  To finish it off a star, small doll or pineapple, which signifies hospitality, is sometimes positioned at the apex.  Making a Ceppo becomes a holiday event bringing the family together to plan its makeup, based on a very old Italian tradition. 
Nowadays, a fair number of families decorate evergreen trees in their homes. While the Christmas tree has grown in popularity as Italians embrace northern European traditions, it is by far the precepe, what we call a nativity scene, that takes center stage as the most popular decoration both in an artificial form and live format.  These cribs, a tradition initiated by Saint Francis of Assisi, depict the stable scene within the story of the birth of baby Jesus.  They are enjoyed all month long in churches, city squares, and homes.  There is a reason for their popularity.  Italy remains a very religious country with the precepe its Christmas standard, as opposed to the secular nature of a Christmas tree.  After all, the whole reason for Christmas centers around the holy family and the birth of Christ.  There are many grottos in the Calitri Borgo.  Before Christmas, a grotto is chosen and decorated as a stable with living participants including an infant baby in a manger, Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, animals, and shepherds all in a reenactment of this blessed event.  Talk about getting into the spirit of Christmas.  Beyond these dynamic representations, nativity scenes crop up everywhere, in shop windows, homes, and of course in churches.  On arriving in Calitri years ago, one of the first things our new friend Antonio was proud to show us was the nativity scene in the basement of Immaculate Conception Church.  Although it was summer and in storage, he prided himself on its size and detail.  They are serious about their precepi.  At the Royal Palace of Caserta, not far from Naples, at what I like to call the Italian version of Versailles, there was an entire room filled with
these ornate works of art.  Not limited to a simple grotto, these scenes are composed of entire villages in elaborate detail.  In fact, an entire industry thrives on the continuation of this tradition.  The area around Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, affectionately referred to as “Christmas Alley”, serves as the headquarters for this hand-crafted artisanal tradition.  It is here that nativity workshops operate year-round to the delight of tourists to produce every imaginable element of a nativity scene whatever its dimension, style, or conceivable detail.
In addition to the routine assortment of Christmas personages from old Saint Nick himself (Babbo Natale to Italians) and the Grinch and beyond to the religious icons in the stable on that night of nights so faithfully depicted in the thousands upon thousands of precepi throughout all of Italy, there is one additional embodiment peculiar to an Italian Christmas.  In its present format, while Babbo Natale Santa might bring gifts on Christmas day, the main day for gift giving is on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.  This is the day which remembers the Wise Men who came to Bethlehem to offer gifts to Jesus, still in Bethlehem and incidentally no longer an infant but approximately two years old by the time they arrived.  I’ve always wondered about these mysterious Magi (a Greek term for sages or astrologers) and their gifts, evidently fit for a king.  There were reportedly three, why
three?  Is this number related to the three gifts and a need for three gift bearers?  The idea of Mary and Joseph, likely a middle-class family regardless of their being of the House of David, receiving gold, frankincense, and myrrh, must have been quite a shock to them when they received it from these strange visitors.  The visit concluded, just imagine the conversation that followed.  They must have been flabbergasted having just won the equivalent of a present-day lottery, essentially now wealthy.  Then the issue of what they did with these gifts presents itself.  Doubtful there were places like a bank around, especially when they were so far from their home in Nazareth (about 70 miles north).  Was the gold in coin, a Roman coin, embossed with the face of Augustus Caesar or some Eastern potentate, possibly themselves? … and on and on with unending conjecture fit for an adventure novel.  It seems that events in the story of the birth of Jesus have been modified in time, compressed if needed, a common practice of the recorders of events free to edit the past for a stronger present.  The exact day let alone the year of Jesus’ birth though thought to be in 6 or 5 BC timeframe is unknown.  A census is said to have triggered Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem which was Joseph’s hometown, but this is doubtful because the census was almost 12 years after Jesus’ birth when it was called for by Emperor Augustus and collected by Quirinius sometime following his appointment as governor of Syria in 6 BC.  The Bible records that Jesus was born while Herod the Great was King of Judaea, which was before Judaea, for administrative purposes, was incorporated into the Roman province of Syria under Quirinius.  In any case, it being Joseph’s hometown, he likely had family there which helps explain the length of their stay.
Nevertheless, the Italian Christmas season is traditionally celebrated from December 24, or Christmas Eve through January 6, Epiphany, a period often referred to as “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, although serious decorating in preparation begins on the Day of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, and a national holiday.  Celebrating Christmas for 12 days follows the pagan season of celebrations that started with Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival and ended with the Roman New Year, the Kalendae Ianuariae.  It was a common practice for the early Church to co-op pagan festivals by aligning them with their own celebrations, the celebration of Christmas being a standout example
In the US, even though we have a song about the Twelve Days of Christmas, we’ve managed to jam its commemoration all into one day, forgotten the significance of the Wise Men, and given Santa the prima facie role as gift giver as we rush on to
celebrate the arrival of the New Year in a mashup we have anointed “The Holidays”.  Italian tradition attempts to keep it straight with the introduction of another fabled character, La Befana.  It's on the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men presented Jesus their gifts.  Commemorating this event, presents are brought by a friendly old witch named La Befana, who arrives in the night to fill children's stockings.  According to the popular lore of La Befana, the Three Wise Men stopped at her hut to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem and invited her to join them.  Unless the Wise Men passed through present-day Italy on camelback on their way to Bethlehem, La Befana was apparently middle Eastern, but I digress.  In any case, she refused to go along.  Later, a shepherd asked her to join him in paying respect to the Christ Child.  Again, she refused.  When night fell, she saw a great light in the sky and regretting her decision not to have gone.  In a sort of head fake, she gathered some toys and ran off to find the kings and the shepherd in their quest to find the child.  Unfortunately, La Befana got lost and never found them or the stable.  Now, each year she continues her quest to look for the Christ Child.  Since she cannot find him, the Epiphany witch, thought to ride the night skies on a broomstick, leaves gifts for the children of Italy.  It is she who fills the children’s stockings with sweets and small gifts for those on the nice list and pieces of coal (nowadays carbone dolce, a rock candy that looks remarkably like coal) or bags of ash for those who have misbehaved.  So it is on Epiphany night that Italian children believe that this good witch brings them presents.  She is the more traditional figure of Italian Christmases, while Santa, who presents his gifts on Christmas Day and whose popularity is growing year after year, is a closing second.
One other noticeable difference in Christmas traditions is the absence of the overt commercialization of Christmas that threatens to swallow up and completely secularize the holiday.  In the States, we’re inundated with advertisements and not only during the Christmas season.  In a blizzard of retail numbers, we have Black Fridays, Cyber Mondays, generally any excuse for a sale, that peak in a fury of marketing just before Christmas.  Conditioned to repetitive sales, unless we’re desperate, why buy anything, unless it’s on sale?  Clearly, a major instigator of this “in the black” or “in the red” syndrome is American television.  Ever count the number of drug commercials, car commercials, “buy me” now, stay forever young and diet commercials we’re exposed to in just one hour?  Can you fathom a Christmas absent the gaudy advertisements and pressure to buy and consume?  I just don’t notice it in Italy, where for example, instead of writing letters to Santa Claus asking for presents, Italian children write letters to tell their parents how much they love them.  In the solemn quietude of such a joyous occasion, just imagine children not tweeting or texting but writing to their parents.  Yes, Italy is surprisingly that different. 
If there is an emphasis on consumption in Italy, it concerns the intake of food, not so bad an enticement at all, where indoctrination on the specifics begin early in life under the tutelage of mamma and nonna.  After all, this is Italy and what, but food comes to mind at its mention.  And Christmas, well the season of Christmas, pushes matters overboard just a smidgen more than usual in the food department, although Christmas festivities don’t start off that way.  There is initially what might be thought of as a preparation phase, where food consumption is downplayed, the operative word here being “initially”.  It’s not that there is any hesitation on what specialty to prepare, for kitchens throughout the country are ready to go with traditional recipes, handed down and refined over the years, in hand.  These preparations are not of the food but of the body.  Knowing what’s coming, there is a pause, a sort of respite from certain foods.  We may want to think of it as an effort to purify the body as in a fast.  However, it’s more like a temporary diet, very temporary.  Be assured, it doesn’t last long either, and no one loses weight, for the food denied has a ready substitute at hand.
Italians refer to the Christmas Eve Vigil as la Vigilia di Natale.  This celebration commemorates the wait for the midnight birth of baby Jesus which is celebrated at a midnight Mass.  Christmas Eve day is a fast day with the idea of making it a giorno di magro, a day of eating lean.  On this day Italians abstain from meat and instead substitute fish and seafood, multiple courses, in fact, accompanied by assorted veggiesThe long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve carries over from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat on the eve of a feast day or in general on Fridays.  As no meat could be consumed on these days, observant Catholics would instead eat fish.  In the US, Italian-Americans enjoy “The Feast of the Seven Fishes”, although it is not called that in Italy or are seven fish dishes necessarily a part of it.  It has been suggested that the "seven fishes” idea originated in an American restaurant.  While we certainly missed the inaugural feast, we confess participating in this Americanized seven fish and seafood extravaganza once ourselves in the States at a place called Pasquale’s.  Let me assure you that as “lean” an evening as it was intended to be, there was more than adequate compensation in the form of a long evening among friends around a merry table (please understand it takes some time to partake of seven fish courses), the wonderful servings crafted by Pasquale himself, not to mention the wines consumed.  Let tradition refer to it as “a day of eating lean”, personally I’ll tempt losing weight this way any time. 
The most famous dish for Southern Italians is baccala (salted codfish) along with spaghetti or some other form of this ubiquitous noodle.  This custom of celebrating with baccalà reflects the tradition from the historically impoverished regions of Southern Italy.  Alici friti (fried anchovies), calamari and other types of seafood to include combinations of whiting, lobsters, sardines, smelts, eels, squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels, and clams have been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years.  In Naples, a starter might be a sautéed mix of broccoli and seafood.  Following
the fish, seafood and vegetable courses, the meal concludes with typical Italian Christmas sweets, ranging from pandoro, panettone, toffee, nut-filled torrone (nougat), panforte, balls of struffoli, caggionetti, and the airy pureed chestnuts of a Monte Bianco topped with whipped cream, all depending on regional cuisine.  It’s hard to believe this is thought to be a “lean meal” embracing some form of self-denial and restraint.  Possibly when compared with what comes next it is, for on Christmas Day, close friends and relatives go to each other's homes for a massive dinner that often begins with antipasti, followed of course by pasta dishes.  These also differ by region.  In the north, Lasagna Bolognese and filled pasta like manicotti and ravioli are the traditional fares.  In nearby Naples, it’s vermicelli with clams or mussels.  In Central Italy, baked pasta is a must.  Next comes the main event, the meat.  Roasted veal, baked chicken, sausages or braised beef are common Natale entrées.  Then come the sweets and Christmas cakes once more, all accompanied by wine and spumante (Italian champagne).  After a dark espresso, young and old may play tombola (bingo), and then card games.  Later, the table is reset and those who not five hours earlier said they'd never eat another thing, gladly come back to the dining room, ready to take the plunge yet again.  What else could you call this but buon (good), ala Buon Natale!

Christmas, the style celebrated in Italy, continues the cherished tradition of emphasizing the Christian meaning of the holiday.  While gifts are now given on Christmas Day by an American style Santa Claus, Italy holds fast to its tradition of La Befana on the eve of the Epiphany.  For most of the country, theirs remains an uncommercial way of celebrating Christmas.  Missing are the Santa’s in the stores, the wreaths, the lights, the music, the flashy holiday decorations adorning houses street after street, and the metallic jangle of jingle-bells.  Their observance of Christmas is bolstered by the still widespread practice of setting up the sheltering precepe nativity scene centered on the Holy Family, a focus that transfers to the Italian family of today where over the twelve days of Christmas, attention is given to spending time together.  And unlike anywhere else, the days gathered around the table, in addition to the bounty before them, create generations of memories.  A religious devotion persists with respect to what it’s all about regardless of the exact nature of the underlying backstory of events in the blurry wilderness of history.  In small-town Italy, good will toward men and glad tidings of great joy retain their ageless meaning.  

From that Rogue Tourist

Friday, November 30, 2018

Strolling the Other Rome

Strolling the Other Rome       

It was as if we were being bombarded.  The shock of it was palpable.  You couldn’t help but flinch with each explosive discharge.  There was tangible fear of being hit, that something might collapse or a window shatter.  I didn’t dare go to the balcony to look, but the recurring sharp detonations seemed to trigger right above our heads.  Their initial snaps, mindful of a sort of ignition, followed immediately by mighty booms, occurred one after another.  There was seemingly just enough time to reload as the dying reverberations of one concussive jolt heralded the beginning of the next.  Each initial snap was startling, causing us to instinctively duck in protective reaction.  We knew we were at the epicenter when the raw beauty of the blinding light and booming claps occurred simultaneously.  The air was electric, the wind whirled with pulses of extreme shear sending rattling quivers through our windows.  There was little comfort counting "one-one thousand, two-one thousand" flash to clap.  Everything converged for a multisensory experience.  It was the worst thunderstorm either of us had ever experienced.  During my flying years, we were cautioned not to get within 20 miles of a thunderstorm and here they were just overhead.  While I couldn’t recall, I could only pray that I’d parked our little Fiat, Bianca, near a tree or wall in the piazza for some protection from the icy popcorn size hail that began to fall.  I did my best to protect what was at hand by unplugging the radio, refrigerator, TV, and DVD player.  I’d been trained the hard way, having lost two DVD machines in the past to electrical pulses.  Without exaggeration, our raw experience with nature had been hell unleashed.  Unlike Martin Luther, who while out walking when a thunderstorm struck, promised God that if saved, he’d become a monk, I resolved to wipe up the water that had gotten through the window and determine why.
The battle concluded, Zeus now finished hurling lightning bolts, his anger hopefully appeased, we toweled-up the water.  I needed to understand how the water was getting in, for a gas heater was mounted to the wall right below our leaking windowsill.  We’d be leaving, and it being thunderstorm season, the leaking had to stop, for replacing a motherboard was expensive.  The sill was a stone slab.  Its outer surface was separated from its inner surface by a groove, much like a rounded trench cut into its top, that ran its length, left to right.  We’d always kept it clean, free of debris, but we hadn’t the slightest idea what it was for.  I suspected it was meant to stop water from getting through, though as had been confirmed, its shallow depth couldn’t hold much.  We could also see that the window-lock mechanism fit into a finger sized hole straight down into this groove.
I began by poking around in the vertical hole thinking that by clearing out any debris down deep in the bottom, it would hold more water.  My probing and vacuuming eventually got me deeper into this hole.  I began to wonder why it had been cut so deep and then that lightbulb above my head, like an angel’s halo, turned on.  Could it be a drain?  Leaning out the window, looking down toward the street, Eureka, there was an outlet that emerged from the wall!  It was some distance here to there and I had nothing, not even a wire coat hanger, to clean out the dense cement-like material that, no doubt, had to have been years in the making.  Our neighbor, Vincenzo, however, had just what I
needed in his grotto, a stiff wire.  I used it to clear the drain and permit Zeus’ wrath to once again flow freely.  Problem solved.  The home front, now hopefully waterproof, it was time to take to the road.  It may have begun by auto, but in Naples, it transitioned to a train ride.  Whoosh, and in just over an hour an Italo high-speed train had whisked us to Termini Train Station, Rome.  A taxi ride later and we’d arrived at our destination in the heart of Trastevere, a very different part of Rome.

It is an interesting place.  It is more like a city then the tourist attraction of Rome proper.  More people live there then go there to visit.  We had sensed this on our previous evening visit years earlier for it had more of a neighborhood, working-class family feel to it.  The evidence is there.  In this regard, it mimics the old Spanish section of Naples though nowhere near as densely packed.  Even in the central section, children play in the streets while above their heads, laundry stretches across its narrow lanes. 
We’d visited Trastevere before and coursed through its streets on an evening Foodie Tour (see Blog Archive, “Twilight in Trastevere”, Apr & May 2013).  In ancient Rome, it had once been home to the Syrian community, later to become a Jewish neighborhood.  Trastevere, what many consider an unknown part of Rome, is removed from the historic sites in the center of the city.  It is insulated from the hurry and intensity of Rome for it sits across the Tiber River that courses through metropolitan Rome.  When I look at a map, I find the Tiber labeled “Tevere”.  As for the prefix, the Latin word “tiberim” means trans.  Joined together, “trans-tevere” means "Beyond the Tiber" and thus it is, west of the river and south of the Vatican.  When you tire of the crowds of downtown Rome’s hotspots, have had a selfie taken with a Centurion at the Coliseum, and while shoulder to shoulder with everyone else thrown three coins into the Trevi Fountain, it’s time to retreat to Trastevere, just a short walk across one of the Tiber’s bridges. 
Our host, as chance would have it, was another Paolo.  He was also a pilot for Ryan Air and had inherited the apartment.  We had arranged to meet him at the door.  His apartment was on the third floor and his presence proved to be a godsend for he insisted on helping with our luggage.  No resistance on our part.  Though there wasn’t much, it was still appreciated because in those old buildings there were none of those new-fangled things Mr. Otis called an elevator.  Besides, Maria Elena had seen her foot cast removed only days earlier.  It was swollen and yet tender which made for a slow climb up the stairs.  We were not overly impressed as the door on the street opened to a hallway that had seen, let’s say, better days.  It appeared to also serve as access to a restaurant’s storage space and had a few bikes as well.  The walls were badly marked, the paint ancient with some surfaces pocked with holes crying for repair.  Tennant mailboxes took up part of a wall.  Scattered about were flyers and the discarded debris of unwanted mail.  It all seemed typical of the Italian penchant for non-regard for common or communal spaces we’d often observed.  Personal property, on the other hand, is treated differently and with deference.  True to form, this all changed when Paolo swung open the door and we entered his apartment. 
We were greeted by a tastefully decorated living room beneath the cross beams of a checkered
ceiling.  In addition to a TV there was a leather sectional couch, a glass-topped coffee table, and a burlwood secretary.  Additional rooms included a bathroom along with two bedrooms, one to the front, the other to the rear of the apartment, separated from each other by the living room and kitchen.  Abutting the living room, the kitchen had everything you might need if you wanted to stay in and cook.  It was a surprise to find an American sized refrigerator, rare in any Italian rental.  A farmer’s sink with a skirt to hide the plumbing hung at one end of a counter.  The center of the room was taken up by an inviting
kitchen table with enough chairs for a small crowd, while just beyond it a large free-standing dish cabinet occupied most of the wall.  By far the wonder of the kitchen was a magnificent Italian made Majestic gas range, on par with a Wolf range, in a shiny shade of green.  Somehow, a click at a time, we’d managed to Google our way into a wonderful apartment in the heart of Trastevere.

We would be staying two nights and almost three days and although attractive and functional, if we wanted to experience the culture and meet the people who lived and worked there, we needed to be on its streets.  Our affordable AirB&B was situated on Via di San Francesco a Ripa.  San Francesco was hemmed in at one end by the area’s main boulevard, Viale Trastevere, and on its opposite end by the ever-popular Piazza di Santa Maria.  Along its considerable length lay just about everything you might need, an assortment of pubs, trattorias, all kinds of shops, cafes, boutique hotels, and laid-back piazzas.  In the cool of the night, the area comes alive.  Busy Viale Trastevere sees tables full of diners extend out to the street’s edge under tall pine trees, while Piazza Santa Maria, dating from the 3rd century AD with its central fountain and the gold mosaic laden Basilica di Santa Maria, remains the focal point of the neighborhood.  At sunset, the Piazza begins to fill as it transitions to a miniature of Venice's Saint Mark's Square.  It may lack the touristy ambiance of the dueling bands of Venice's Caffe Florian and Gran Caffe Quadri in Saint Mark's, but it upholds its distinction as the center of Trastevere’s nightlife. 
Any visit to Trastevere deserves a walk along its narrow picturesque streets hemmed by ochre and faded matte red colored walls of makeover Renaissance dwellings and an eclectic range of shops.  Many support climbing vines alive with flowers that cling to the walls, adding to the mood of a community entwined with its local businesses versus the sterile sameness of government, bank, and Fascist style buildings found in downtown Rome.  The sense of age was everywhere.  Here and there it would take on a physical form by the presence of a discarded Roman column lying on its side in the overgrown grass of some lot or in the crumbling remains of Roman bricks that once built an empire.  We were soon on the move with no particular destination in mind.  We’d wander for the sake of it, for the sake of discovery and what may come of it is a destination unto itself.
Moving slowly down the three flights to street level, we took a right out our door and walked toward the boulevard.  We’d leave turning left for later.  All of a block but not much more away, we turned left toward the Tiber.  Viale Trastevere, which leads to the river, was bustling with four lanes of traffic.  This may account for it being one of the main shopping streets of Trastevere.  On the sidewalk, in the filtered sunshine under the shading canopy of huge trees, we kept to the slow pace an injured foot would allow.  Our slow progress made it convenient to take in its appeal while window shopping and people watching.  The street was alive with merchants, some extending their businesses outside their shops, others set up in kiosks and nests of tables hawking everything imaginable.  Gradually we wove our way down the boulevard to eventually turned right just shy of the river onto Via della Lungaretta, today’s embodiment of an ancient 2nd century BC street called "via Aurelia Nova".  
Ahead, in small triangular Piazza in Piscinula, we came upon Chiesa di San Benedetto.  We stepped into the church’s cool interior to take a look and allow Maria Elena’s foot to relax. Initial construction seemed to have taken the form of a chapel built in the eighth century, while the bell tower, the smallest in Rome, dates from the eleventh century.  Its tiled floor undulated like those in Venice’s Saint Mark’s Basilica.  It too was impressively old, stained with time.  You could feel its age sitting there. The pillars on either side of the nave were made of marble, not “false columns” made of bricks coated with a fluted surface of cement that is far more common in the make-up of many of the columns we see.  These were the real thing.  The fact that they were topped by various style capitals and were of multiple colors led me to believe that they’d been cannibalized for reuse from earlier Roman buildings.  Another striking feature lay in the church’s floor.  It wasn’t simply tiled or bricked.  Before the altar, it featured a design approach known as Cosmatesque.  Cosmatesque flooring is a style of geometric stonework combining glass and mosaic pieces typical of the architecture of the Medieval period and especially of Rome.  Many of the designs featured large roundels which are carefully cut cross sections of Roman columns surrounded with ribbons of colorful mosaic.  In typical Italian fashion, nothing goes to waste. 

Continuing our wanderings, we came upon the 19th century Ponte Palatino Bridge and decided to head across.  In mid-river, on the upstream side of the bridge, we came upon the only remaining arched section of a broken bridge laying close beside Ponte Palatino. It was the much older Pons Aemilius and it lay close to the southern edge of the river’s only city island, Isola Tiberina.  For obvious reason the Pons Aemilius today is simply called the Ponte Rotto or Broken Bridge.  At its beginning in 179 BC, it was the first stone bridge across the Tiber.  Today, old enough to have gone through ten different name changes, its distinction lies in the fact that it is the oldest surviving stone bridge in all of Roman history.  It originally provided access across the Tiber, connecting Trastevere to the suburb of Forum Boarium, a cattle market in its day.  It lay there crowded with overgrowth, the last cart or pedestrian to cross its narrow
span, long, long forgotten.  Bushes and grasses grew from its long-abandoned causeway like the bushy hairs that sprout from an old man’s ears.  Up and down its sides, plants drooped toward the water like natural sconces.  Down below at the water’s edge, its stone block base, like the knife edge of a sword, still cut the current of the Tiber, allowing it to pass to either side of its remaining stanchions.  On closer inspection, I could make out iron pins driven into the base of the structure, topped with metal hoops.  It was easy to imagine some craft once moored there in the current of this once navigable river leading to the sea.  Just above, at the apex of an arch, a decorative relief, much like a heraldic crest, served as a restful roost for pigeons.  Staring across, one bridge to the another, the birds cooed and bobbed their heads, while we reciprocated as best we could with camera clicks and pointing gestures.
Reaching the opposite side of the Tiber, we took our chances like “Frogger” arcade game characters and finally made it across busy Lungotevere Aventino where we immediately came upon a circular building.  We learned that this stunning, round structure was the Temple of Hercules Victor,
built in the 2nd century BC.  A fence encircled the marble structure keeping it at a distance and somewhat mysterious, much like its exact origin.  Though the history of the temple remains uncertain, it is thought to have been commissioned by Consul Lucius Achaicus.  He was an accomplished Roman politician and commander in the Achaean War that precipitated the destruction of Corinth, Greece.  In 146 BC, on order of the Senate to destroy its commercial rival, Lucius plundered the city, burned it to the ground, and slaughtered the remaining inhabitants not sold into slavery.  I guess there was nothing on the order of a Marshall Plan to aid in rebuilding after the war.  Truth be told, rival merchant interests (ancient lobbyists?) in faraway Rome had prevailed.  Like the Pantheon, the temple survives to this day only because of its conversion to a Christian church, making it today the oldest standing marble building in Rome.  It was following its de-consecration in the 19th Century that its circular colonnade of 20 Corinthian columns, supplemented these days with metal support rings, were once again opened to the air with the temple’s almost complete restoration.  The oldest bridge followed by the oldest marble building, just where were we headed? 

We lingered to observe the temple from a ramp that descended from the river to the level of the monument.  A retaining wall, made of brick, served as an overlook between us and the temple. With time, its top course had been exposed.  I could tell that they were ancient Roman style bricks, for thousands of years ago, when some forgotten soul (had he crossed the Pons Aemilius on his way to work?) laid them in place, he had positioned them on edge.  Exposure to the elements had also eroded much of the mortar between the bricks.  Their distinctive shape, longer and thinner than modern bricks, was the giveaway that had made it easy for the sleuth in me to ID them, although being in Rome should have made it a no-brainer.  Not only was the temple amazing but so were these seemingly trivial bricks.  It had nothing to do with their layout or positioning but all to do with their history.  This type of brickmaking, not perfected until the first century BC, had been a breakthrough technology for the Romans.  Gone were the sun-dried mud bricks of old to be replaced by fire-dried clay bricks, a technique originally developed by the Greeks, the same Greeks they had so efficiently eliminated in Corinth.  Mastery of the methodology was a giant step in construction technique and led to the mass production of bricks which in turn resulted in a spurt in building projects throughout Rome.  Meanwhile, Roman legions spread the technology wherever they went.  The "Doozers of Fraggle Rock" were never as prolific.  Later, the introduction of identifying stamps on the bricks stating where they were made and eventually even the name of the Consuls in the year of their production, today helps to pinpoint the date of a structure’s construction.

    Moving farther away from the river, down the ramp into what was once the largest meat market in ancient Rome (Forum Boarium), we arrived at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.  It appeared strange that the spaces between the arches of the church’s portico, running along the entire front of the church, were completely fenced.  I also doubted that the long line of people extending from its entrance down the street had anything to do with an urgent need on their part to confess their sins.  It all became clear as we got closer and realized that this was the home of the mysterious Bocca della Verità.

    The Bocca della Verità or Mouth of Truth, is an ancient marble carving of a bearded old man’s face thought to be the face of the mythical sea god Oceanus.  Ancient as it may be, it was immortalized with its appearance in the 1953 film Roman Holiday staring golden age of Hollywood icons, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.  This large circular disk lies against a wall inside the portico of the church.  Here too, mystery surrounds it, beginning with its purpose and not in the least, how it got there.  There remains uncertainty about the original purpose of the disk.  Due to its shape and the sizable opening of the mouth, this ancient sculpture is thought to have been a drain cover.  You will not find another like it on the streets of Rome, however.  Look as you might, today's versions are embossed with the letters "SPQR" for Senatus Populusque Romanus (Senate and the People of Rome) that once adorned the shields of those Roman legionnaires making bricks wherever they went.  In addition to this one of a kind distinctiveness, it is unique for a particular reason and application, for it is thought to have been used as a drain cover in the floor of the Temple of Hercules, the temple we’d just observed across the street.  Like the Pantheon, the temple had an oculus in its original roof that allowed rainwater inside.  Likewise, the opening in the disk’s mouth permitted the water to drain.  Additionally, it is believed that cattle merchants may have used it to drain the blood of cattle sacrificed to the god Hercules inside the temple.  At some point the disk may have been
removed from the temple and placed against the wall of Basilica Santa Maria only later to be moved to its current location, still outside, but inside the portico of the church.  Could it have been forgotten after some renovation?  Whatever the purpose the disk may have served, in modern times it functions as a lie detector.  A legend surrounds the disk.  It asserts that if a person places their hand inside the mouth and were to swear falsely, the mouth will close and sever the hand.  As of yet, there has never been a reported instance that such an event has ever taken place.  The legend is an attractant, thus the waiting line of intrepid visitors waiting to stick their hands into the mouth.  In the movie when Gregory Peck removed his hand, faking that it had been severed, Hepburn's reaction to the missing hand was unscripted.  It was an ad-lib on Peck's part and it startled the daylights out of Hepburn.

    I'm not sure if it was the length of the line or Maria Elena's injured foot that at this stage abhorred waiting in lines and wasn't too keen about walking either, but we passed on the opportunity of taking the Bocca della Verità challenge.  Yes, one reason, the other, or both had to explain why.  Didn’t they?  But take a moment to think about it.  It was all about truth, a hand the price of a falsehood.  Weighing the odds, seeing that a severed hand had never occurred, the odds it would happen sometime soon had to be astronomical!  With legends, you can never really be sure or risk messing with them.  You might mess with the small stuff like breaking a mirror, walking under a ladder, or having a black cat cross your path but try not to mess with gods.  Sticking to the adage of not betting on a horse unless it told you personally it was going to win, and since Mare was already suffering from a bum foot, we hesitated to chance fate with perfectly good hands and instead walked on by.  We’d seen the wrath of Zeus up close so there was no need to mess with Hercules.  You be the judge, tongue in cheek sarcasm or cautious (maybe overly cautious) reasoning?

A day and a wakeup later, after cappuccinos and cornetti at, by then, “our” corner café, we took an Uber to the train station. Yes, there are Ubers in Rome.  As we sped back to Naples aboard another bullet train, our thoughts lingered on Trastevere where a series of arbitrary turns had brought us to a reincarnated 2nd century street that led the way to Rome’s oldest bridge, then on to Rome’s oldest standing marble building, followed by an encounter with one of its oldest mythical traditions.  What other discoveries might another stroll have revealed?  There was so much yet to explore that a short visit could never accommodate - more streets to wander, so many piazzas to explore like laid-back Piazza di San Calistro, the spacious market space of Piazza di San Cosimato, and lively Piazza Trilussa.  Then the pubs, so many pubs, to linger in over an Ichnusa beer, Negroni, or Aperol Spritz.  Right then, right there, we vowed to growling gods and penitent saints alike, to return.

From that Rogue Tourist


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

More then Feta and Tzatziki

View from Our Window on the Edge of the Caldera
More then Feta and Tzatziki
Takeoff from Naples on our Airbus 320 went smoothly.  There were four of us on this adventure, our friends Jack and Dotty, Maria Elena, and me.  Years in the making, we’d talked about making this trip a long time.  Heading out over the Mediterranean, we quickly circled left around mighty Vesuvius that so dominates the Naples skyline.  As we gradually climbed to altitude, we easily traced our progress eastward through clear morning skies.    We knew the area well and could make out
Dotty, Jack and Maria Elena
familiar landmarks – the pass through the Apennine Mountains to Avellino, SS7 east to Lioni, the lake at Conza della Campania followed by lofty Cairano.
  With such a prominent marker like Cairano soaring into sight, hometown Calitri easily came into view spilling down the side of its roost from atop a time-trodden plateau like a landlocked Positano.  Everything looked different, then again, it was all so familiar.
Nearby to Calitri, Our Local Piece of Greece
Before coasting out over the Adriatic Sea, our diagonal track across the boot of southern Italy took us close to Brindisi, once a Greek settlement predating Roman expansion.  It would be from here that Sylla would leave to chase Mithridates of Pontus, whose kingdom surrounded the Black Sea, from Greece and later during Rome’s civil war, where Caesar’s fleet would head off in pursuit of Pompey.  Tied to the sea, Brindisi’s earliest inhabitants entertained strong trading ties with neighbors on the opposite side of the Adriatic and with the Greek inhabitants throughout the adjacent Aegean Sea.  By this point in our journey, perched high above the Adriatic, the 80 miles across the chokepoint between Italy and Albania looked miniscule.  It was easy to visualize how the Greeks, who’d island hopped throughout the Cyclades Islands during their expansion throughout the Aegean, could easily venture west to colonize southern Italy, especially in coastal Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, as far distant as Sicily.  The Romans referred to this phenomenon as Magna Graecia, what we refer to as “Great Greece” because of the dense Greek populations they discovered throughout southern Italy.  It was in this manner that Greek Hellenic culture, and let’s not forget the grapes, made the jump to Italy.  We see it dramatically, for example, in the three exquisite Greek temples still standing a little over an hour away from Calitri in nearby Paestum.  In a way, our flight would return us to our cultural origins in Greece.  It might take an ancestry DNA test to track down the truth.  Who knows, as part of the Greek diaspora maybe there is a trace of Greek blood in me.  Before any test, however, I’d first have to think over the consequences … the trade-off of Sambuca for Ouzo could frankly be “staggering”.
Cyclades Islands
Our short flight terminated at one of the southernmost islands in the Cyclades group, Santorini to be exact.  I guess we’d arrived in the windy season for a heavy crosswind made the approach and landing interesting.  Thankfully, a wing held low, killed our drift and we touched down to the relief of the passengers, maybe even the crew.  An arid landscape bordered by the sea, running parallel to the runway, greeted us.  With little annual rainfall, the terrain was desert-like with clumps of withered scrub-grass across barren terrain.  With our carry-on luggage in hand, we were quickly through the terminal to a waiting van that whisked us to our hotel, Hotel Ilias.  It would be our home for the next five days.  As we drove on what was explained was a new road, it gradually, though ever increasingly, climbed what we’d soon realize was the former cauldron-like wall of an ancient, though still active, volcano.  It is in fact the largest caldera in the world.  On what is promoted as the most extraordinary island in the Aegean, emerged little towns that teetered on the very edge of the yawning mouth of the caldera risking extinction on a quirky whim of Mother Nature.  The rim was topped by a string of whitewash and blue trimmed villages like Oia (ee-ya), Fira, and Firostefani.  From afar, the contrast of the buildings, stunning white against the reddish stone
Our Tenuous Perch
cliffs, looked like snow draped on the sides of the volcanic walls.
  This well-known vista of the vast bay and its trademark white and blue trimmed buildings clinging like gleaming jewels to the slopes, was a feast for the eyes.  The optics, however, are not all of distant vistas.  There are stories here beginning with the land that continues to evolve to this day and there are its people.
Like Italy, Santorini has its share of history.  This history begins in its remote past with the land, a land synonymous with earthquakes.  It experienced what is considered the largest eruption in the last 100,000 years.  This eruption is thought to have occurred sometime between 1200 BC on the more recent side of time to 1483 BC on the far side.  I can’t see why the exact time matters so much but in the field of archaeology, careers can be based on, give or take, the question of a few hundred years.  While this variation concerning when the cataclysmic event took place exists, authorities seem to agree on the time of year of the eruption.  Hard to believe they can pin down the event, but they are confident that it occurred on a spring day from evidence found in the remains of ancient Akrotiri, one of the most important prehistoric settlements in the Aegean.  They reached this conclusion by piecing bits of evidence together.  One concerned seeds found in household jars.  When excavations unearthed these storage jars, they were found to be almost empty.  The absence of seeds is interpreted to mean that plenty of time had passed since the last autumn harvest and yet well before the next.  But couldn’t the Akrotri villagers simply have thrown a big party?  Seriously though, more evidence lies in the large layers of pumice found in Egypt, Eastern Europe, and the Greek Dodecanese island complex carried there by westerly winds on that day of devastation.  These winds are known to have prevailed even back then during autumn and spring in Santorini.  The earthquakes, tsunamis, and rains of pumice, some over ten feet thick that followed, ravaged much of the Aegean.  Events happened fast, with earthquakes preceding the volcanic eruption by weeks or at the most months.  The absence of skeletons, jewelry, or gold in archeological excavations indicate that pre-warning in the form of tremors had given the residents time to escape.  The issue would have been escape to where and how far away considering the catastrophe which shortly followed.
When the entire center of the circular island collapsed beneath the surface of the sea as a result of a tremendous explosion that abolished all life on the 9-mile-wide island, the ensuing tidal wave, 820 unbelievable feet high, traveling at 217 mph, virtually wiped out the neighboring Minoan civilization centered on Crete, at that speed only 18 minutes away to the south.  As opposed to a nuclear blast, Crete’s palaces took the brunt of the equivalent overpressure from an unimaginable wall of water that contributed to the abrupt decline of the Minoan civilization.

In the Background, Still Bubbling "Volcano Island"
Thankfully, the earth lay still our entire stay there.  We were staying in Firostefani, between Oia and Fira, on the bayside of the caldera wall, only a slide and splash above the sea hundreds of feet below.  Set on the volcanic cliff above an enclosed sea, now home to visiting cruise ships, we observed broken pieces of the volcano’s rim that looked like crescent shaped islands.  They trace a circle around the center of the lagoon today occupied by Nea Kameni, referred to as “Volcano”.   This uninhabited island still being formed by oozing lava emissions from the forge of fire far below, gives it the distinction of being the last active volcano in Greece.
The island’s ancient name was Thera.  In modern times it is still officially referred to as “Thíra” after an 8th Century B.C. Theban, Thiras, who arrived with a group of noblemen to settle on Santorini.  Many, however, prefer its medieval name, “Santorini”, born from a reference to the saint and its church by sailors of that day who called it “Saint Ireni”.  This unofficial name has persisted and remains in use to this day.  Santorini also has a romantic tie to being the site of lost Atlantis, described by Greek philosopher Plato in 375 BC.  While earthquakes happened in Santorini as in legendary Atlantis, its claim to be the site of Atlantis remains a myth rivaling for authenticity with other possible sites especially those in the mid-Atlantic.
The Fisherman Fresco
There is a famous fresco which has survived from the time of the obliterating earthquake.  It seems that tremors before the cataclysm made the fresco of a fisherman detach from the wall of what is referred to as the “West House” in Bronze Age Akrotri and slid down vertically until it hit the floor.  It remained there for about 3500 years until this former town of 30,000 inhabitants was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 20th century.  This famous fresco depicts a male nude figure of reddish color carrying fish in both hands tied together with a yellow string.  He has only two locks of hair, painted black, while the greater part of his head is shaved and painted blue.  Interestingly, blue on a figure’s head indicates that part of their head was shaven.  Red was used for male torsos while white was used for females.  But what of the Santorini men of today?

It’s rather funny but it seems that about a third of male Greek men appear to be named Georgios (George).  It has gained popularity from the widespread veneration of the warrior saint, Saint George, who was of Greek origin.  This, of course, I learned from a waiter also named George!  During our stay on Santorini, I came to meet George the Bartender, George the Hotel Manager, George the Waiter, and George the Store Owner.  I’m sure there were plenty more.
George I
George I was our hotel manager.  A man in his 40s, he supported a wife and two children – a son and daughter.  He was perfect for the job, helpful, available, and willing to chat about daily life on Santorini.  In our conversations he mentioned that he had regular Greek government medical insurance for which he paid about 5000 Euros annually.  At the time, Maria Elena was still in her Velcro boot recovering from her fractured foot, and I was especially interested in European medical care having experienced a sample, Italian style.  As a supplement, George I also paid for private health insurance, for an additional 2500 Euros annually.  He went on to relate how his wife had become sick one evening.  He took her to the hospital, but because of an accident they were too busy to even take her vitals. Understaffed?  Too small a hospital?  They suggested he take her to a pharmacy where they might find a cuff blood pressure machine.  He tried but couldn’t find any open in the early morning hours.  He finally stopped at an ambulance dispatch center where medical staff was on hand and they helped him.
He shared with us another story, this one about the time he’d flown his wife to Athens, not out of pleasure but out of necessity.  She was eight months pregnant at the time and his private doctor had advised that they visit an Athens hospital for neonatal testing, not available on Santorini.  Flying so late in the final trimester would be frowned upon by most doctors but the risk to his wife was most likely mitigated by remaining at low altitude and the short duration of the flight.  Arriving the day before their appointment, they checked into a hotel.  That evening his wife began to experience labor pains.  Possibly the flight was to blame after all.  He called the ambulance service for help, something they call the Misericordia in Italy, but in the time it took them to respond, the baby was born into his hands.  When the EMS team entered the room, they were taken aback in surprise at finding him holding the baby still connected by umbilical to the mother. They explained that their usual experience, upon breathlessly arriving, was to validate a false alarm or have plenty of time to get mother to the hospital.  It had been a first for them and certainly for George I.  His stories served as a sort of template.  I came away with the impression that Santorini is best a place for the young.  If a medical emergency were to arise, little in way of services would be available and the critical time needed to get proper medical attention aggravated by the need to island hop to a bigger island like Naxos or reach the mainland.
George II was one of the ubiquitous journeymen found throughout Santorini.  This George was our waiter at the Aktaion, a highly regarded restaurant in Firostefani.  Very much a part of Santorini’s history, this restaurant dates back to 1922 when it was started by Lefteris and Irene Roussos.   It continued with their son George (another George of course) along with his wife, Argiro.  It has 
The Aktaion Restaurant
since passed to third generation, Vangelis, who continues the family’s tradition of genuine Greek cooking and hospitality.  The Aktaion sits in the center of town at a very active crossroad.  It is here that lanes come together, one from a busy bus-trafficked inner road, another the main passageway to Fira, and finally, an exquisite mini-plaza seemingly right out of the movie Mamma-Mia located in front of a Greek church, all of it overlooking the sea.  Telling from the old pictures that adorn the Aktaion, much of the paraphernalia depicted in the photos is still right where they appear decades earlier.  The name, roughly translated, means “place by the shore”, although it sits high above and back from any sort of shoreline.  On our first night together (it was so good we ate there twice) he was somewhat reserved, a lot like a French waiter we’d once had near Lincoln, England.  By the end of that English evening, that waiter had his tie off and his arms around us for photos.  It wasn’t long
George II
though, after a barrage of questions, not necessarily all about the menu of course, and George began to loosen up too.
  Sitting there so long, practically closing the place with George II, no-doubt also contributed to his growing friendliness. 
You Guessed it, Moussaka
Chatting with him two nights in a row over the comforting dance of flavors known as moussaka, the Greek equivalent of Italian lasagna, I inquired about what he did on days off only to learn that during the lengthy tourist season, he worked over 250 days straight.  Such apparently was the life of a Greek waiter on a touristy island.  Daily, the cruise ships came and went, daily the faces at table would change, daily the pages of his order pad would disappear to be replaced by plates of food served and retrieved.  He could easily have grown numb from his “Groundhog Day” movie-like existence.  He was aware, however, that his fellow countrymen were not so fortunate to suffer from steady work.  Unemployment on the mainland, the highest in the developed world, reflected an economy on
oxygen.  While George II could easily have been suffering, forgive my lapse, from what I’ll refer to as “Same Shit, Different Day” syndrome, we enjoyed our time together.  For us, our stint at the Aktaion had been made extra special because our waiter, George, hadn’t been zombie-numb with us but had remained himself.  The Aktaion has been there all these years for a reason.  It is a delightful little gem of a place, with a refined expression of local cuisine, traditionally Greek through and through.  It’s not a label I gave it, but one it, along with George, has earned.

Oia Shopping
We’d heard that Oia was the shopping and cultural heart of Santorini.  We wanted to visit it but there’s a price to pay greater than the 1.40 Euro bus ticket. To get there you won’t be bored in the least taking the bus ride from Fira to Oia.  From my seat on the aisle, I looked off into nothingness.  The drop-off beside our bus rivaled the Amalfitano.  Instead of an emerald-blue sea extending to the horizon, there was sun scorched terrain that dropped off dramatically just feet from the tires.
Perhaps the only characteristics the Positano and Oia roads had in common were the absence of guardrails, driving on the right side of the road, and a narrowness of lane.  This obligated oncoming vehicles to form temporary coalitions of squirming cooperativeness, for once one vehicle yielded and pulled in its mirrors, it enabled them to get by.  While there is a lot of white paint on the buildings in Santorini, none is used to stripe the roads into lanes.  If they had been divided, there would have remained lanes only wide enough for golf carts and little else.
We found that busy Oia provided the best shopping venue on the island.  A maze of streets led us past elegant art galleries, numerous jewelry and high-end stores, pottery outlets, local handicraft and souvenir shops, as well as many contemporary style clothing boutiques.  My needs were simple.  I was on the lookout for an evil-eye talisman, an ancient blue-eyed symbol to turn away evil and some worry-beads (kombolói), similar to prayer beads, that Greeks calmly flip to relax themselves during difficult moments.  Then again, with our time on Santorini withering, there was a higher calling for our visit.  It was Ammoudi Bay.  This rather small sea-washed cove on the inside wall of the caldera, below Oia, its waters so clear that boats cast their shadows on the bottom, is home to five amazing fish taverns.
The Five Tavernas of Ammoudi Bay
As our journey to Oia had been exciting, entry to Ammoudi Bay was totally unorthodox.  The only way to Ammoudi on foot was by negotiating 214 steps and most likely the feeling of double that on the way back up.  This would have been a physical non-sequitur.  Instead, we threatened the existence of the planet, fell back on internal combustion, and took a taxi.  Something appeared off, however, when our driver pulled into a lot only to immediately reverse out onto the road again.  Had he missed a turn?  It turned out he hadn’t.  However, from this point on, though we weren’t blindfolded, a slipstream of dust only allowed us to glimpse where we had been, not where we were going.  This phenomenon was achieved by going down the cliff road to the sea, backwards.  Just maybe, the exact approach was confidential, as though how you got there was a secret.  It was a strange sensation, something the driver was obviously skilled at as he adeptly maneuvered at high speed, mirrors confidently still extended, between cars parked on either side of us.  It was a relief when he finally stopped, and we realized we’d arrived in one piece.  He was certainly oriented to easily drive back up the ridge which may have been the reason for our arrival in reverse in the first place.  Still, it seemed unnecessary for there was plenty of room there by the sea for him to turn around if we’d arrived more conventionally, front end first.  I rather wanted to believe that like pirate bases of old, Ammoudi Bay was a secret waterfront hideaway … Avast matey!  The secret was apparently out for there were plenty of us wannabe pirates around, even a few pirate flags.  The “base” was a series of restaurants, one beside the other, nestled in the imposing red rock of the caldera walls. Real estate, being scarce, we walked through other restaurants to get to Dimitris Taverna, our destination which happened to be at the very end of, let's call it, restaurant wharf. 

Our journey down the mountainside and through the neighboring restaurants concluded, we were offered an inviting table and a relaxed view of the sea which welcomed us with a glint of a wink.  It was a spectacular day with the fishing boats at anchor following the rhythm of the sea’s shifting surface.  From this cozy wharf-like corner of Santorini, the caldera bay stretched before our taverna table.  The taverna, once a small abandoned warehouse where locals stored their boats, as might be expected, presented a nautical theme.  Among its paraphernalia was a life-sized pirate, embellished with the mandatory trappings of a hook, eyepatch, and pegleg.  It only lacked a parrot, which being a staunch tourist, I suspect, would have been overdoing it just a bit.  All that remained was to find the treasure, the map to which we were sure lay in the menu.
Air-dried Octopus
As you might expect, dishes inspired by Mediterranean cuisine accompanied by ouzo, Crazy Donkey beer, and carafes of vino bianco fresco (cool white wine - I’ll stick with Italian and not attempt the equivalent in Greek) made up the fare.  As we looked over the menu, they enticed us with a rather small bowl of meaty kalamata olives.  No way of telling but it may have been a subtle way to induce us to order larger portions.  As you would expect, fish (psari in Greek) reigned supreme here.  Their fish selection was legion, with just about everything that swam and wiggled tallied.  It ranged from bug-eyed Bogue and tasty Gilt-head Bream to squirmy Octopus.  We got to see the daily catch on ice when the owner took us back stage into the kitchen area.  Convinced of the quality and freshness, our travel mates, Dotty and Jack, tucked into a Sea Bass and grilled vegetables along with, what else but, a crumbly feta Greek salad.  Maria Elena and I began with calamari, shared a Sea Bass cooked with garlic in baking paper, and a Santorini salad that included olive leaves.  If memory serves me, all together, we also consumed three carafes of local Argyros white wine whose special character added to the pleasure of the moment which extended over three hours.
The non-George, Armando
Helping us with these decisions was a token “non-George” named Armando.  While he was proof that not all the men there were named George, he only added to our belief that all the waiters were males.  Yes, males seemed to have clearly co-opted that livelihood.  He was our 21-year old waiter and shared with us that he’d worked there for five years, was single, and lived high above in the nearby village of Tholos.  In addition, he spoke unaccented English to perfection.  When he had a free moment, he’d stop by our table to chat and see how we were getting on.  On first meeting him, I thought he was the taverna’s manager, but when I inquired, I learned that he wasn’t, at least he wasn’t yet.  In comparison with the other wait-staff, he was on the ball, personable, helpful, knew the operation, and certainly had the trust of the owners, Dimitris and Joy.  It was hard to push away and finally leave, especially while listing to one side that I’ll blame on the wine.  We’d stayed such a long time that they were setting up for the sunset dinner crowd when we finally said our goodbye ciao-ciaos.  Dimitris’ had certainly been a winner, well worth the hassle of getting there.  If ever in the area, be sure to come about, furl your sails, and steady your sea legs ashore right there.
Our swaggers adjusted, our lists righted, time for merriment set aside, it was time for reflection.  We got up especially early on Sunday morning.  Close by, in Fira, there was a Greek Orthodox Church that we’d pass just about every day.  It seemed that God was often off somewhere, for its iron gate had always been locked and the door to the church closed. 
Beautiful Greek Church by the Aktrion
It being Sunday, I was sure we’d find it open that morning and we did.  We had been inside a Greek church before.  In fact, in Connecticut once we’d been given a tour by the local priest.  However, we’d never attended their liturgy.  We’d be careful not to give ourselves away as non-Greek parishioners.  Our strategy would be to remain inconspicuous … we’d not look for holy water on entering, abstain from genuflecting and kneeling, and avoid making a non-Greek sign of the cross.  Good luck with that.  It didn’t help at all.  We stuck out like sore thumbs, beginning upon entering when we didn’t make the rounds to kiss all the holy icons as everyone else did, and for late arrivals, even while the service was underway.  This was interesting to observe as people would arrive at any time, walk around the church kissing particular icons, all while vigorously signing themselves.  We hadn’t a clue about their liturgy and Rick Steve’s guide book certainly hadn’t prepped us.  The interior, though small, was ornate with the colors maroon, gold, and silver dominant.  The walls were covered with religious depictions and banners.   Opulent lamps on long chains, much like those we’d seen in Jerusalem, hung in luminous clusters from the ceiling.  The priest stood to one side and from a carousel-like arrangement read from a tome I took to be scripture.    Beside him, an ancient woman dressed in black also read.  Eventually,
You'd Feel Holy Being Near Him
he departed behind a screened sanctuary wall.
  Occasionally, she along with another man who’d joined her, would sing and the absent priest would respond.  I thought there would be communion at some point but instead the priest reappeared carrying an ornate book aloft which I assumed was the Bible.  Communion may have come later, for I understand that it is common in Eastern Orthodoxy for the liturgy to go on long and pass through multiple phases.  We did not stay to its conclusion.  All told there were about 15 in attendance.  Their devotion was in evidence as each approached the venerated book and kissed it along with the priest’s hand.  Our intrusion in this unique service, so rich with tradition, was an enlightening experience.  In the quietness of this sanctuary, the cruise ships anchored outside and the throngs of people with their cell phones and selfies aside, there was a soothing feeling that it has been ever thus.  In sharing in this centuries-old tradition, we’d certainly seen a part of what it means to be Greek.  I’m glad the door was open that morning.

Sunset over Thirasia Island in the Caldera's Bay
John Steinbeck, following his first visit to Positano once wrote in a May’53 Harper’s Bazar article, that tourists would never go there.  He gave his reasons.  Go there today and see just how wrong he was.  Granted the benefit of the doubt, his may have been a treatise in reverse psychology to keep the place pristine.  Santorini likewise had been discovered without any help or hindrance from Steinbeck.  This is borne out by the steady flow of tourists fed by cruise ships that anchor below the caldera walls for a few hours almost every day.  Once upon a time, we were aboard one of those ships.  During that brief visit, Santorini had cast its spell, urging our return.  Helpless, we promised Our stay would not simply be to experience its spectacular sunsets, enjoy more of their cucumber tzatziki dip, or appreciate its stillness when the crowds had departed, but to hopefully get to know the Greek people who live on these few square miles, listen to their tales, feel the texture of their culture, and gain some appreciation for their remarkable history.  We did just that and more, and for this we shout-out a mighty, “Thank You” to Santorini, which if I still have it right, in Greek, sounds like “Ef-har-rist-toe”, Santorini!
that one day we would.  

From that Rogue Tourist