Madeline Blount
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Cheese, Fire, and the 10-Day Easter

April 26, 2009 @ 10:25 AM | Permalink

It has been a week since Easter Sunday (Π?σχα).  It's taken me that long to recover.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had been doing the 49 day fast for Orthodox Lent; no meat, no dairy, no animal products for the full 49 days before Easter.  Not wanting to relent on my hardcore status (while also realizing there is no where else I should really be if I am studying performance forms and identity in Cyprus), I decided to do the church services as well.  All of them.  

Starting with Lazarus Saturday then and moving into Holy Week, I went to my local church in Nicosia twice a day, morning and night.  Morning meant 6.30am, and night on some nights went into 3am.  The morning services were beautiful, quiet things: pious old ladies from the village and curious me, listening to the priests chant as the distinct spring early hours light streamed in through the windows.  The attendance for the night services grew each day approaching Easter, starting with a few people and ending with a church packed with families at the stroke of midnight Sunday.

Greek Orthodoxy is known for being strict, sure; even in the name it suggests a direct connection with some of the earliest Christian traditions.  A lot of big-name saints made their way here (Andrew, Barnabas, Lazarus), and the priests pride themselves on singing the Bible in services that claim to look not much different than when those saints were practicing.  But like any ritual, the Orthodox mass is a living entity.  Even more than that, so are the people sitting (or standing) in the wooden pews.  It's not as austere as you might think.  

Example: I was trying to subtly record some sounds with a small mic to use later, some of the chanting in Greek and the bells of the incense as the priest walked up and down the aisles.  This was one of the morning serivces, and an old man was sitting next to me, one with anti-gravity greys that looked like they belonged in another century.  He kept craning his neck to see everything he could of the service, he would get up often to go kiss a saint's icon, and he sang along with the priest.  I thought this Einstein-looking man very pious, and I was worried that my recording would disturb him.  About halfway through the service, I hear "The Girl from Ipanema" on a cell phone ring, somewhere in the church.  Einstein pulls it out of his pocket.  Further, Einstein answers it.  Einstein has a five minute conversation while the priest gives communion.  Orthodoxy/modernity.

Each day in Holy Week is special (even called Great and Holy Monday, Great and Holy Tuesday, etc.), but Friday and Saturday nearly explode with build-up.  I could feel it in the streets, the preparation for Easter.  Friday night is Christ's funeral, when the churches do the same mass as a funeral mass and bring a grave covered in flowers into the streets at midnight.  A crowd gathers to join this procession even in the parking lot:

Good Friday is also when every Cypriot kitchen is full of φλ?ουνες, little (well, depending) pastries stuffed with cheese and mint.  Each house has their pies to offer, and there is an unspoken rule that you compare each batch, finding which of your neighbors make the best.  Not wanting to skip any part of my Easter-immersion-frenzy, I baked.

I don't know how people do the fasting and breaking-fasting every year, because these homemade cheese death puffs wreaked havoc on my stomach on Easter Sunday.  

But we haven't made it there yet -- on Saturday night, church services began at 11.  The streets seemed magnetic; everyone was heading to church, without discussion.  Candles were sold out front, for the moment right before midnight when the lights went dark and a flame is passed around the congregation.  In the dark, punctuated by a hundred flickering lights, everyone is quiet and waits.  When the bells chime for midnight, the lights flip back on, the priests start singing, and everyone gets sucked out of the church to celebrate the resurrection outside.  More magnetism.  And I was pulled by the crowd, partially awed by the ritual, enjoying the singing and the small children running amuck, and partially worried that my still-burning candle was going to burn the hair of the woman only centimeters in front of me.  Or that I was going to scream inappropriately loudly, at some particularly holy moment, because my own head was on fire.  Easter miracle, no one was burned.  When the priest knocked loudly on the door to announce "Christ is risen," the big wooden doors flung open once again and the people filed back into the church for the remainder of the liturgy and the last few hours of the fast.  

But I turned around, and the euphoric crowd had dwindled.  The 12 - 3am crowd, even on Easter Sunday, was back to me and the για-γιας (grandmothers).  There was one little girl, however, and I was wondering if she was elated to be up this late, albeit in church.  She was literally doing laps around the congregation at 1 in the morning.  At one point she crawled right up to the priest, looked right at him, and bulged her eyes out to make a silly face.  The priest, carrying a three-pronged gnarly candelabra that looked like antlers, may have been tempted to break but he moved on.  

Easter Sunday itself is actually after that religious climax -- everyone just eats.  I went to a Cypriot friend's family Easter lunch, and even though I took very small bites of my first meat in almost two months, my stomach is still hating me for it.  The feast: roast chicken, roast lamb, cooked liver, pastitsio (pasta with ground meat and cheese sauce), salads, cheeses, bread, and preserved sweet watermelon rind.  

There were fireworks on Easter night, but they came from the Turkish side.  The right-wing nationalist party won the general election, gaining majority in their parliament.  If my experience says anything about a Greek Cypriot Easter, most Greek Cypriots were either too elated or too sick to notice.

Ever notice how fireworks sound like bombs, or gunfire?  Fireworks in a military zone on Easter.  This is Cyprus.



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Loved the ending on this. Related: I find that sometimes I remember a meeting or moment but can't recall what country it happened in. I also find that if I ...

Saleem Reshamwala on Upon Waking, and Placelessness 2009-03-23

Thanks Saleem -- I've also experienced that tonguetied delirium from speaking multiple languages in the same conversation. . . interesting to think of meaning separate from words, does meaning require ...

Madeline Blount on Upon Waking, and Placelessness 2009-03-26

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