21 December 2015

Nauplion Christmas

This was our Christmas in Nauplion 38 years ago, when my children were younger than my grandchildren are now, and when Greece was an endearingly different world: when most people had little money instead of being attacked by incompetent government, when the old town was full of homes instead of little pink hotels, when the ringing we heard was the hourly bell instead of cell phones, when the voices of children were heard in the streets, and when we met neighbors taking their lunches to be cooked in the bakery ovens. It is a world that has disappeared more completely than Dicken's London, because that world is good for seasonal merchandise and Nauplion of the 70s has had no literary genius.  Greeks will remember a different Christmas: this was ours seen from the culture of Washington, DC.

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It rained relentlessly for the first three weeks of December, and during those same three, there was no mail. We felt abandoned.  There were no Christmas carols played in Nauplion stores, no crass commercialization, no blatant attempts to blackmail us into buying presents we did not need, no cranberries, no cider, no fireplaces. No anticipating the Christmas Eve party where the grownups wore evening dress, or Vespers at the cathedral, no driving around the North Capitol Street neighborhood to look at lights. And no Christmas trees.

As far as we had been able to learn, Christmas trees were available only in Athens and there at high prices. Then the younger girls ran up the stairs crying out that one of the tourist hotels had just brought a tree in its front door. At the hotel, the desk clerk said the tree had come from the florist shop in Argos opposite the bus stop. We were on the next bus to Argos. The florist said to come back after 2:30, when his tree delivery was to arrive. We had lunch in one of the venerable old restaurants on the town square, a cavernous grey room, hung with enormous fading photographs of stern Greek royalties. The other patrons seemed to all be very old men who smoked a great deal and watched us closely. We ate hurriedly and went out to see the newest diggings.

It is the misfortune of the residents of Argos to live on a site inhabited without interruption for six thousand years, and given special attention by the Romans. Every time someone wanted to build a house, add an extra room or storage shed, or do something to the garage, they dug up another Roman relic. Legally, all such discoveries were to be reported to the Ephor of Antiquities and the site properly investigated before any more building. A proper investigation might not come for years, and the land could then be appropriated by the government at its own evaluation. Anyone with any sense at all, of course, followed the advice of the Duke of Wellington and buried the damn thing immediately. Still, it did happen that something was embroiled in official attention, and every visit to Argos turned up a dig or two worth looking at.

Just after 2:30, the florist had a load of trees, each of them perfect, each bearing a lead government seal. Christmas trees in Greece came from government plantations. Those approved for sale were marked, and possession of an unmarked tree could mean a year in jail. The previous Christmas, Jorn and Erika, from South Africa, had  suggested we go in their van to a tree plantation and liberate our own trees. We went to a ski resort down in the Peloponnesos on the slopes of Menelaion. It was a splendid day, the snow was knee-deep and the children raced about throwing snowballs with Erika, and watching for approaching traffic. Jorn and I, stumbling with saws and implements hidden in our boots and sleeves, slid into snow-covered crevices looking for trees. Sawing through tree trunks was more difficult than we had anticipated, and after we had slipped into more crevices taking the trees back to the road, we crouched behind rocks until Erika signaled that it was safe to dash to the van with our trees. Crossing the plain of Tripolis coming home, we bought large sacks of potatoes and walnuts. That was last year.

In Argos we selected an elegant silver fir which cost three times what I had ever paid for a tree, and walked it to the bus stop where it waited in line with us for tickets. The other passengers and the passers-by admired it so generously that we began to feel we were performing a social service. The bus driver, however, adamantly refused to put the tree into his empty luggage compartment. Should I have had any doubts on the matter, he explained that he had never transported trees and never would. I shoved the children on the bus where two of them immediately began to cry with a moderate degree of sincerity. In those days Greeks could not abide seeing children cry, especially blond children. The passengers on the bus began shouting at the driver. He shouted at the bystanders on the sidewalk and pointed at me and the tree. I fancied I bore a certain resemblance to Joan of Arc carrying her own stake. The bystanders shouted at each other and the tree and the bus, and I had the hopeful impression that the driver was very close to being lynched. He must have had a similar impression, for he abruptly decided the tree could ride in the luggage carrier on top of the bus.

For the twenty minutes back to Nauplion, I watched the shadow of the tree in the low afternoon light ripple along the side of the road. The shadow rippled over the reed thatch on the roadside stands hung with bunches of oranges, it rippled across the great stones of Tiryns, and it rippled over the yellow prison walls. In Nauplion, we walked our tree home, supporting it with arms through the branches as if it were an unsteady friend, pausing constantly for it to be admired. 

We have always collected decorations, each decoration bearing a memory to be recounted every year during the decorating: a china bell from Irene's godmother; the gold birds from the Christmas I was pregnant with Kathleen; the straw stars made by my father's German POWs; a glass unicorn made one Midsummer's Eve on the Boardwalk at Ocean City; a Robert Kennedy button, Jan's red paper dolls from Denmark (the last remnants above). We added tiny Greek dolls and icons, and Diana Stravouradis brought a dozen sugar mice from Wales. Elias, Arete, Apostolos, Evangelitsa,Yannis, Sophia, Michaelis, Costas, Maritsa, all saw the lights from the street and came up to admire. "Afto inai oreio. Inai kalo." It is beautiful, it is good. Strangers knocked on the door and asked if they might bring their children who had never seen a Christmas tree before. The next day we cycled to the far side of Palamidi – now gnawed up by roads and houses – to collect armfuls of heather, narcissus and pine. We put tall beeswax candles and crêches in the window alcoves – Irene's from Nigeria (still with us this Christmas), Kathleen's from Mexico, Rosalind's from Germany.

Abruptly, Nauplion prepared for Christmas. Soldiers from the local army base set up a life-sized crêche with Byzantine-style figures in the main square, in front of the Venetian armory. Beside it they put a fishing boat hung with colored lights: there was always a competition to have one's boat chosen. Agios Vasilios brings gifts at New Year's in his boat. The windows on the main streets were heaped with sweets in shiny colored papers and boxes. The dark, narrow shops on the side streets smelling of chocolate and oranges – now all become boutiques – were crammed with shiny things piled on the counters and hanging from the ceiling like stalagtites.

The hunchbacked fiddler from across the bay strolled up and down the main streets, fiddling a carol over and over. We went over to him, he said the children were beautiful, then spat to protect them from the Evil Eye. The gypsies came to town.  An aged woman sat near the post office asking for contributions, her grown idiot son sprawled inertly across her lap, the two making a hideous pietà, . A man led a muzzled bear cub about on a rope. When he bashed its feet with a stick, it lifted them up and down: this was dancing. When poked with a stick, it growled: this demonstrated ferocity, and observers squealed. A teen-aged gypsy boy leaned against a pillar of the church porch under our window. He played "St. James Infirmary" on his clarinet in a dozen styles and variations. He was an artist. I wanted to know his name, to hear him play more, but the old man near him spoke sharply and set him to playing a proper carol The old man talked to me for a bit, anxious that I know him to be a "real Christian," that is, one baptized in church, unlike most gypsies. He said the boy was rebellious, and did not know his place.

On December 23, the mail finally arrived. It took three trips to the post office to retrieve all the packages. Phillipa, a graceful Australian, came up the stairs and asked if she could visit. She had been traveling alone for a month and wanted to see someone at Christmas who spoke English. The morning of Christmas Eve, we were awakened by the fire house band, composed mostly of drums, clarinets and tubas. Rosalind ran down to join the horde of small children who danced behind, up and down all the streets of the old town collecting contributions of small change and candy. More packages arrived. The children went out to deliver fruit cakes – I had brought bourbon and pecans for this, and we baked them in the bakery oven next to Evangelitsa's shop (now a bank) – and small gifts to our friends. They returned with more cakes and gifts than they had taken. We made tablecloths from lengths of blue and white material, and set out the silverware, and blue and white china we had brought with us.

The silver had nearly got us into trouble. When we packed to come to Greece, I put household supplies in containers that were carried in the ship's hold, but the sterling I put into my hiking boots in one of the suitcases, thinking we might want to use it before we had access to the containers. We arrived at customs with six suitcases, a trunk, two musical instruments and assorted bags. With stunning intuition, the customs inspector only opened the suitcase with the hiking boots stuffed with silver. No one at customs spoke English, nor did any of us speak Greek. After a long period in a smoke-filled room where several men shouted at each other and at me, I tearfully managed to get one of them to notice the scratches, bent tines and tarnish that might indicate the silver had been in our possession for a while.

We hadn't enough plates to set out all we had cooked, and when guests began arriving with their contributions, there wasn't enough room for all the food, either. Everyone we had invited had found a foreigner who wanted an American Christmas -- two Australian families in the campground, an Irishwoman camping on the beach, an American schoolteacher, a German couple, two Englishwomen who had married Naupliots, several Greeks who had lived in America, and they all brought bottles of drinks and more food. As soon as the first guests appeared, the kitchen sink detached itself from all of its pipes and fell off the wall. We tried to ignore this.

We were interrupted several times by shouts from the Hotel Otto across the street for phone calls from the States, and at the hotel we acquired two solitary salesmen morosely watching television. At midnight, the church bells rang and the ships blew their whistles.
Christmas morning we woke to the bells and incense of Panagia and the warm tones of the priest's chanting. Phillipa breakfasted with us on leftover ham and Roquefort, and then we took the bus to Argos.

Argos has a conical hill crowned with a castle, described in a medieval chronicle as spreading down into the plain like a tent. We climbed up the long way and sat in the arched casements and looked over the snow-covered mountains deep in the Peloponnesos. A troup of merry little boys joined us. They found great amusement in snatching at sweaters and purses and Kathleen's long hair. It seemed best to go back down, but we were looking for what the Blue Guide said was a carving of a Thracian horseman. We had no idea of where to look or what a Thracian horseman might look like. Phillipa asked the boys, but we were saying hippos, which was classical, when we should have said alogos. Phillipa tried sketching a series of men-on-horseback. One of the boys pointed to one and showed us, not ten feet away, a disappointingly small, grubby bas-relief of a man on a horse with a snake. The church on the hill above is a Ag. Georgios. Ag. Georgios is always shown with a dragon. Centuries ago someone thought this carving of a horseman and serpent was he. Bored with archeology, the boys threw stones at us the rest of the way down the hill. Back home at dusk, there was just enough time to start the Franklin stove before we wrapped in blankets and lay across the bed in the firelight to listen to the Queen's Christmas message. We cried a lot and said it was the best Christmas we had ever had. The next morning we were up at six to begin two weeks of being migrant workers picking mandarinis.



  1. Memories of Christmas mature like good wine! Beautifully served ... What a treat!

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