Have you ever daydreamed about something, and then that daydream came true? When I was seven years old, that happened to me.
It all started one grey, rainy January day on a family walk in Ireland, the country where I grew up. As my sisters and I splashed through muddy puddles, Mum and Dad said to us, “How would you like to go and live on the Greek island of Corfu?” The first picture that popped into my head was of a deep blue sky, a dusty white road, and an orange tree, heavy with fruit. In my daydream, I reached up on tippy-toe and picked one of those warm, juicy oranges. I couldn’t imagine anything more magical.
In early April shortly after our arrival on Corfu, as we explored the island in our red VW van, we stopped on a deserted country road. Coming over the brow of a hill, I looked up and there, against the blue sky, were my sun-warmed fruit. The smell and taste of a fresh orange is a memory dart that will always recall that moment.
Spring was a busy time in the village of Kinopiastes. Everyone was cleaning and whitewashing their houses and streets for Orthodox Easter. This was nothing like Easter back home, and my sisters and I were eager to see everything. Instead of stores filled with chocolate eggs, we soon added a new word to our expanding vocabulary, kokkina avga. These were dyed red hen’s eggs. At the time, our Greek didn’t run to the explanation of their symbolism of the blood of Christ and the renewal of life. But we got that they were special. They were even baked into an Easter sweet bread.
When the day came for the family we lived with to butcher the lamb for the Easter feast, we watched the gory details with fascination. The lamb was strung up and its throat slit, before being skinned and disemboweled. The blood was smeared in the shape of a cross on the fresh whitewash around the front door of the house. When the Easter procession passed through our cobblestone yard, led by Straggly Beard the village priest, we leaned out the bedroom window to watch. And then we ran outside to join our friends following the flower bedecked icon of Christ, carrying special white Easter candles. The narrow streets were lined with people, holding their lit candles and waiting for the procession, which would eventually wind it’s way back to the church.
On Holy Saturday, we were allowed stay up extra late to attend the special ceremony in Kekira, the main town. We could feel the excitement building all around us as we stood waiting in the dark. Finally, the priest held up the eternal flame and announced, Christos Anesti—Christ is Risen. All hell broke loose: bells tolled, guns saluted, and to our delight, fireworks exploded in the sky, illuminating the fort above the town. Soon a sea of well-wishers and flickering candlelight surrounded us.
There is nothing like the smell and taste of lamb, slow grilled on a spit of charcoal. The Easter feast, like so many of the saint’s days and special occasions on Corfu, was a wonderful excuse for everyone to party. And of course that meant great food, and drink, and dancing. Grown ups sipped ouzo and retsina and laughed and joked. We were even allowed to have some watered down wine, though we preferred Gazoza, the local fizzy beverage. The village kids introduced us to a new game they played with the special red eggs. The aim of it was to crack your opponent’s egg without cracking your own.
Spring turned into early summer. The pace of life on Corfu took some getting used to. People rose early and headed out to work the fields before it got too hot. If you had shopping to do, you did it in the morning at the open air markets, or the bakery, haberdashery, and grocery stores. After lunch shutters were closed and shop doors bolted as everyone went for their siesta. For a child, this was both the most frustrating and most wonderful time of day. How could grown-ups possibly sleep when it was hot and prickly under the sheets and the cicadas were making an ungodly racket in the walnut tree? Ah, but you could tiptoe outside and sit on the cool stone steps and watch the tiny lizards that ran up and down. You could go and steal a peach from the tree in the yard and eat it with the juice running all the way down to your elbows. You could explore the old cemetery and pick bunches of wild, magenta roses. And there was always the cooling relief of the village pump. Not everyone slept. Many of the older men—probably because they didn’t work nearly as hard as the women—preferred to sit in the shade and play backgammon or dominoes. I can still remember the sound of the click of the tiles and the tumble of the dice. And then, like the castle in the Grimm brother’s Sleeping Beauty, slowly the village would come back to life as evening came.
The village square was a nightly focal point for young and old. On weeknights, people brought chairs and gathered to watch episodes of the wildly popular General Hospital. Passeo started after dinner when the villagers came out to walk and talk. Arm and arm with our friends, we’d wander the streets sucking on ice pops and taking in the sights. Older folks would sit, gossiping, while groups of teenager girls and boys giggled and flirted under the watchful eyes of the grannies. We were amazed to discover that many of our playmates would be married by the time they turned sixteen. On weekends and special occasions, speakers were set up around the square and there was traditional Greek dancing. Eleni delighted in showing us the steps, and, arms laced around each other’s shoulders, we joined in the fun.
We soon learned that children were considered the lifeblood of the village. New babies were carried around for everyone to admire. And chubby toddlers were considered fair game for squeezes and tickles from grandfathers to school kids alike. We couldn’t walk the streets without being hugged and pinched. In a small village everyone shares the daily joys and sorrows. During our time in Kinopiastes we were lucky enough to see a wedding, thrilled at the sight of grown-ups smashing plates on the ground, and a baptism where the naked baby was dunked under the water and came up dripping and squealing. Sadly, we also witnessed the communal grief when a young man was killed in a motorcycle accident. Over night his young wife joined the ranks of the black-garbed widows, clothes she would wear for the next seven years. But in that close-knit village we knew that she and her toddler son would never be alone with her grief.
When we had first visited, my sisters and I had been horrified by the hordes of curious people who had turned out to see the unusual sight of an Irish family invading their village. However, I will always be grateful to my parents for making the decision to live there, and to the community itself for embracing us and sharing their lives with us. It was a truly formative experience for a young child. To be continued.