Friday, March 29, 2013

The Kids Go Skiing

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Spring is coming, so we were just in time when we recently took the kids skiing for the first time. We're fortunate to live about 25 minutes away from a ski center, located near the next village above us, Hania. Portaria stands at about 650 meters above sea level, while Hania quickly reaches to almost double that, around 1200. In Portaria, we've had one brief flirtation with snow, while Hania has had much more, although generally in Greece the winter has been unusually mild.

Here's Phoebe as we walk up the hill from the car to the ski lodge.

Through an offer on Groupon, we managed to get ski rentals and a first ski lesson for the kids for only 15 euros. Phoebe decided at the last minute that she didn't want to try it, but the boys were brave and up for the adventure. Above is their teacher, Thanos, who has four small kids of his own, putting on Paul's ski boots.

Here's Benny, with his skis, waiting his turn while Paul goes with the teacher first.

And here's Paul and the teacher taking the rope tow up the hill.

The boys took turns with the teacher, so here was Benny's first turn on the rope tow.

Here's Paul coming down with the teacher on his second turn. The ski lodge is in the background.

Above and below you can see Benny coming down by himself. Both of the boys did extremely well and were very enthusiastic. The teacher was particularly impressed with Benny, whom he said was "born to ski." As you can see in the photos above and below, he had excellent natural posture (or so the teacher said). Of course, he may be trying to drum up business, but it did seem to me, as a ski "layman," that both the boys did really well.

Apparently, Benny kept telling the teacher that he wanted to take the skis home with him.

Afterwards, they were cold and hungry, so we took them to the ski lodge, where we sat in front of the fire and they had hot chocolate and pitas.

And, finally, here we are heading back down the hill to the car. The kids decided to roll most of the way down. A young couple ahead of us looks on and smiles.

For a few more photos, click here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Stealing from the Church

Late at night on the last Thursday before the beginning of Lent, we had a break-in at our central church. It seems that the thieves had probably cased the church from the inside and had developed a plan on how to best break in. They made a beeline for the icon of our parish's patrons--the Holy Wonderworkers and Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian--on the iconostasis, took it down, and stripped it of all its aphieromata or tamata, i.e. jewelry or other offerings of worth that grateful believers had left to the saints to honor them.

This is a very old and widespread tradition in Greece, which almost certainly has its roots in pre-Christian votives offered in gratitude. The faithful will offer something precious -- a watch, necklace, ring, etc. -- to thank them for their divine intercessions. Typically, these offerings are then used to adorn the icon, and it has the additional effect of demonstrating how beloved and active the particular saints are in the people's lives.

Unfortunately, in these difficult times here in Greece, this custom is proving to be too much of a temptation. In our case, we decided to remove the tamata from the icon of the Mother of God at our second church dedicated to the Dormition.

Above, you can see a photo that we happened to take of the icon at the end of January, before the theft. If you look closely, you can make out some jewelry hanging from a wire stretching across the middle of the icon.

Here is how I found the icon on Friday morning, inside the altar area. Thank God the thieves actually seemed to have "respected" the church in a weird way, not doing any unnecessary damage and not stealing or desecrating anything. They also left the icon upright and undamaged.

Above, a photo of the iconostasis as I found it.

Of course, we called the police and filed a report. They also sent a fingerprint technician within a couple of hours to take prints. Above you can see the dust he put on the glass. Of course, he could tell right away that the thieves had used gloves.

So we cleaned up, put things back in place, strengthened our security and moved on. It's a sad commentary, though, on the state of things here now, a state of desperation almost. Many people have told me that, prior to say 1990, it was almost inconceivable for someone to steal from a church. In fact, they were often left unlocked and open so that people could come venerate at any time. Those days are definitely over.

In any event, thank God it was not worse. We can only pray that He help and enlighten the poor, suffering souls who did it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Parish Trip to Lamia, Part 2

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It was 3:00 by the time we left the first monastery, so we headed to our destination for lunch, Gorgopotamos, a beautiful and strategically important site. Although we were all starving, before going to the nearby restaurant, we stopped at the famous rail bridge. During WWII, the German utilized this important rail passage to move supplies from Germany down to Athens/Piraeus, where they were sent by boat to North Africa for Rommel's forces.

On November 25, 1942, 150 members of the Greek underground resistance, with the aid of British commandos, sabotaged the bridge as part of "Operating Harling" to cut off the German supply route. In retaliation, the Germans executed 16 Greek locals. The bridge was reconstructed after WWII and the ensuing Greek civil war.

In the photo above, you can see Pres. Pelagia and the kids, along with our friend Despina, at the bridge. Just as we were leaving to head to lunch, a train came over the scenic bridge.

Here are the kids playing outside the restaurant in Gorgopotamos.

After lunch, we headed to the Monastery of the Nativity of the Theotokos Damastas. Paul had a nap on the bus, while Phoebe and Benny swung their way with Fr. Stavros and Pres. Maria to the large monastery's central church for Vespers.

The monastery pre-dates 1800, but there is no historical record regarding its foundation. What is known is that the monastery was destroyed by fire in the early 1800s, and quickly rebuilt by 1818 through the generous donation of the local Greek revolutionary military hero, Ioannis Duovouniotis.

Unfortunately, like many, many monasteries in the years right after Greek independence, this monastery had its brotherhood forcibly disbanded and all its property expropriated by the new Greek government. It thus lay dormant from 1833 until it was re-founded in the past few decades as a women's monastery.

Here is the central church, which is the only part of the monastery that survives from 1818. The monastery's pride is a wonderworking icon of the Panagia that dates from the 16th century.

Fr. Stavros and I were honored to be asked by Abbess Ioanna to serve Saturday Vespers for the sisters, who number around 13.

Afterwards, we were invited into the arhontariki for refreshments. Above is a photo of the relatively small central church from the arhontariki.

Here is our group enjoying refreshments in the arhontariki.

Finally, we stopped at the monastery's bookstore as we headed back out to the bus to return to Portaria. Above is a photo of the entrance to the monastery as we were leaving.

For more photos from the trip, click here.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Parish Trip to Lamia, Part 1

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On Saturday, the last weekend before Clean Monday and the beginning of Great Lent, our parish took our monthly pilgrimage to two monasteries in the area of Lamia. The impetus for these particular monasteries was a faithful parishioner who hails from that area, although she married a local Portaria man and has now lived here for many years. Her family, on a recent visit to Portaria, told me about these monasteries and agreed to help me organize the trip with the abbot of the first monastery we visited, the men's monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Agathonos).

The exact origins of the monastery are unknown, but the oral tradition relates that the old monastery in this area fell into decline and its revered icon of the Panagia disappeared. In the 15th century, the icon was discovered in a brilliantly lit cave by the Monk Agathonas, who built the present-day monastery near that site. The monks then named the monastery after its new founder.

We left Portaria at 10:30 and arrived at the monastery around 1:30. The first thing we noticed as we walked toward the entrance was the monastery's collection of peacocks and even an ostrich, which the kids enjoyed feeding.


The entrance to the monastery.

The katholikon (central church) dates to the 15th or 16th century and is the first I've seen of this particular kind, with four circular stone side chapels built into each corner. Above and below, Paul is exiting through one of the tiny chapel doors.

To the left, you can see the glass-enclosed incorrupt remains of Fr. Vessarion, a 20th century monk of the monastery whom many believe to be a modern-day saint. If memory serves, he reposed in 1991, and his body was disinterred (as is customary) in 2006, at which time he was discovered to be incorrupt and fragrant. The monastery was a major point of pilgrimage for all of Greece back around 2006-2008, when this first happened.

One of the built-in stone side chapels.

The katholikon.

This area was only recently unearthed. It was originally one of the famous (and controversial) Greek secret schools during the period of Ottoman occupation. Above you can also see the original burial place of the Fr. Bessarion.

All of us found this fascinating and unique. It's an enormous bronze or copper cover for an open fireplace in the middle of an arhontariki (guest reception area). It was really incredible how it radiated the heat from such a small fire. It was obviously quite old.

The abbot of the monastery, Fr. Damaskinos, spoke to our group in the katholikon for quite awhile, relating the history of the monastery and answering questions. The brotherhood consists of about 8 monks.

The monks of the monastery all fought in the 1821 Greek Revolution.

For an interesting note about the monastery from one of my favorite blogs, click here.

For more photos from the trip, click here.

Friday, March 15, 2013

More from the Kids

Here are some photos of the kids. Above is Benjamin eating orange slices.

Spring is coming! Pres. Pelagia and the kids took advantage of the nice weather to get outside and play Uno. Of course, the kids have their own set of "rules."

Pres. Pelagia has been busy making wardrobes to fit our bedroom. Here are the kids playing inside one of the new ones, before the doors got put on. Above, Paul and Phoebe are both kissing Benny.

More goofing around in the wardrobe.

Phoebe is quite the fashion diva and dresses herself. Here she is as she heads out to pre-school.

Here we are as we walk down to their pre-school. On the left is an old olive press, which was powered by water coming down the mountain, through the open pipe that crosses above the cobblestone path. Now this press serves as a museum.

Pres. Pelagia and the kids went to Thessaloniki last weekend to visit friends and do some errands. Here they are at the Volos train station.

And here are the kids playing on an old rail cart as we wait for the train.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Our Polyelaioi (Chandeliers)

Back in December, I had a post about Pres. Pelagia cleaning one of the two large chandeliers we have in the center of our main parish church. The one she is cleaning in the photo above probably dates to the 1960s or 70s, while the one to the right dates to about the 1860s or 70s. According to our local expert, it probably came from Rostov, Russia, and constitutes, as far as he knows, the oldest polyelaios (chandelier) in our region.

This is it in the photo above. As you can tell, it needed some work. Obviously, it predates electricity and operated originally with oil lamps (hence the Greek name, polyelaios, which means, literally, something like "much oil"). One of our faithful parishioners, an electrician, remembers being on the crew that retrofitted the chandelier for electricity in 1959. Until then, because it is so difficult and impractical to take it down, it seems that it was regularly cleaned by simply bringing in a hose and spraying it down. The water was then mopped off the church's tile floors.

My friend, Fr. Dn. Riginos, came in late January to take down this old chandelier for cleaning and repair. It took hours to get it down and separated into manageable pieces. Above and below are what the glass pieces looked like before cleaning.

We also found this much smaller chandelier, which has a similar design, in the attached side chapel to St. Anthony. Our idea was to clean and repair this one and put it in the place of the much larger glass one Pres. Pelagia cleaned.

Here is Fr. Riginos and his koumbaros Ioannis taking down the glass one. Fr. Riginos is, fittingly, standing in the raised ambon from which the deacon reads the gospel. It dates from the building of the church in 1791 and is quite small.

Our faithful electrician, who was the one who remembered helping retrofit the chandelier for electricity in 1959, came to finish hooking up the newly cleaned and repaired chandelier, which among many improvements, had the cords running through the inside rather than on the outside.

Here is my friend Nikos, one of our epitropoi (church wardens), putting in the light bulbs.

Here is a photo of both chandeliers from the back of the church. You can see the smaller one in the foreground. The rather unique blue, red, and white strings of glass decorations (strung together by silver wire) were distributed between the two so as to make them match even more.

A closer shot of the large polyelaios. The photos don't do it justice. There is an amazing difference between then and now.

The whole project cost 1250 euros. For a point of reference, the basic monthly salary in Greece is now 500 euros (for those fortunate few who have jobs). Thanks be to God, one parishioner donated nearly 500 euros for the project, and another woman donated 200 euros to get us started. I made an appeal on the first Sunday after the chandelier went for cleaning, and this last Sunday after it returned, and we raised 140 euros that way. So we're well on our way, and we hope to undertake other badly needed projects as well, such as cleaning the smoke residue off the murals on the walls (1000 euros), and replacing the icons of the Holy Unmercenaries above the west and south outside entrances (300 euros each, or 1000 euros each for mosaics).

Although it is a difficult time in Greece, the people still care for the beauty and upkeep of their holy churches.