The moment I was told there was no café to buy a freddo espresso, or a bakery to buy a bougatsa (how good are they?), I knew the village of Egrigoros on the island of Chios was a place like no other I had been before.
Now I’m no stranger to village life, both my parents come from Vizzni, a small Sicilian village, and I’ve spent countless summers there. However, not even that could prepare me for life in Egrigoros, let alone the village’s standout event of the year, the Panigiri tou Christou, a day-long celebration of a religious holiday.
Let me explain to you how I got to this point.
I met my Greek partner last year in Athens while on holiday, and we fell in love. Within a year, I packed my bags and belongings in Melbourne, and in the name of love made a brave and bold move to leave my family, friends and two dogs, Daisy and Jerry, to start a life in Athens.
The first few months were a blast, weekend trips to Agistri, Arachova and Chalkidiki, not to mention all the fun of getting to know the amazing and vibrant city of Athens.
In early August, it was time to visit my partner’s village and to spend some time with his family. I knew this trip would be unique. I wasn’t wrong. It started with a 25-minute flight on a small propeller plane to an island airport with a runway shorter than most McDonalds’ counters. This was followed by a 90 minute drive, up and down mountains, round some of the windiest roads I’ve ever been on. It made the Amalfi coast seem like the straight and wide Tullamarine freeway.
So here I am, on a very hot August morning in Egrigoros, where I’m told the population in winter stands at 2.5 people. Apparently one guy comes and goes a fair bit. Egrigoros’ cobblestone pathways are as vertical as the angle of a traffic light pole. With my very modest flat sandals and a conservative long skirt to respect the religious aspect of the day, my partner and I walked (stumbled more like it, even in flat shoes) to the village church. It was packed. And I don’t mean just inside the church. The courtyard was filled, as people gathered to greet each other, chatting and fanning themselves from the heat whilst the service continued.
“Kalimera” one of very few Greek words I am familiar with, was repeated over and over again during this hour of service and social encounters.
Let me tell you, that in the four months I have already been living here in Greece and with all the restaurants we have dined at, this lunch, cooked by non-professional cooks, was the best meal I have had so far.
Suddenly, the priests with their long beards and hanging rosary beads began to walk outside through the crowd, throwing blessed water on us as they circled the church. The crowd then made a shift from the church to its courtyard and surrounding areas. Wow! This outside space was filled with long tables and chairs, all equipped to feed the 250 or so people here today. It was obvious this occasion was serious and one that was not just set up a few hours beforehand. In fact, a dedicated group of locals were cooking from midnight the night before.
Let me tell you, that in the four months I have already been living here in Greece and with all the restaurants we have dined at, this lunch, cooked by non-professional cooks, was the best meal I have had so far. All 250 guests were served a traditional dish that included huge chunks of delicately fried local cod served with the tastiest spiced chickpea and rice dish. Imagine being up at midnight to fry fish for 250 people. It occurred to me that the smell of fish lingering the village from the night before was not a yiayia cooking for her family – it was for us to eat today. The freshly cut watermelon ended the meal perfectly, but this was not the end of the panigiri. In fact, it was only the beginning.
The day progressed into most families travelling to the nearby beaches. Familiar faces from the morning were now bathing in the crystal blue waters. For an island so big – in fact it’s the fifth largest in Greece – the community felt as small as a Ramsay Street scene, with my partner and his family greeting so many as we settled for our afternoon beach session. Thinking I would have to rush to get ready for the night time event following the beach, I was pleased to know that I had ample time to nap, after all, Greeks do love a good siesta.
The final part to this memorable day did not start until 1.00 am. Yes, 1.00 am. The party had now shifted to the local schoolyard, which incidentally has not been operating for at least three decades. The area where school kids once played was now completely overtaken with long dining tables and chairs catering for now more than 500 people. Despite the late hour, there were children, grandparents and even babies in attendance. The crowd was drinking, eating and dancing on the makeshift dance floor as the band blasted out loud Greek music. This was one huge party for everyone. There was no discrimination on age and no sleep time curfews. Everyone was there, enjoying the essence of what this country is all about: life.
I danced, or let’s just say attempted to Greek dance until my partner grabbed me by the hand and drew my attention to the most surreal moment. As Greek music blared and people danced tsifteteli, others had gathered on the rooftop of an adjoining building to watch the sun rise over the Aegean. The atmosphere was magical. Children who routinely would be sleeping, joined their parents to marvel at the sun and the pink skies that had now become the star of the show.
Egrigoros, Chios. Just as the pink skies capped off a perfect evening, you too have enriched my experience in this beautiful country I now call home.