It’s all about the glendi

Historian and true Philhellene Garrie Hutchinson recaps his first experience of a traditional Cretan wedding... along with 1,300 other guests

Passing through Athens on the way to Crete in September, there were few obvious signs of the austerity crisis that is inflicting so much pain on so many people in Greece.

There were plenty of tourists at the fabulous Parthenon museum, more walking around Monastiraki and eating in the Plaka. There was one sign. It was a poster that said ‘Oxi’ – that most potent phrase, and called for a demonstration on 26 September – a month before the 72nd anniversary of the famous day Metaxas said ‘No’ to Mussolini.

Reminded me of the relationships built between Australia (and New Zealand) and Greece in the dark days of 1941, and since. Which is a roundabout way of explaining how my wife Karen and I were on the way to the wedding of Eleni Papadakis and Dimitris Papadomanolakis in Karines, a village about 35 kilometres south of Rethymno.

John Rerakis was to be koumbaro (best man). We had become friends many years ago because of our shared passion for military history of Greece and Australia and New Zealand’s part in it. When anyone arrives in Melbourne from Crete their first port of call is often John and Susie Rerakis’ restaurant Philhellene in Moonee Ponds. So it was with Eleni and the 30 members of the Vrakofori Dance Group in November 2010.

They came straight from the airport to a long night of compulsory hospitality at Philhellene. It turned out that not only was the group from Rethymno but that Eleni was from Melidoni, not far from Episkopi, John’s family village. So that meant that John was koumbaro, and as we were in the vicinity (Europe) at the time, we were invited.

We arrived in Episkopi having driven from Chania by a circuitous route in the dark, interrogating puzzled locals along the way. ‘Episkopi? Which Episkopi?’ ‘Sort of on the way to Anogia.’ ‘Are you sure you want to go to Anogia?’ ‘No, Episkopi.’ ‘Hmmm Episkopi. Left, right, left, right.’ We arrived, but John was away on koumbaros duties, dedicating the bride-to-be’s bed in Melidoni.

Next morning John gave warning of the festivities to come, especially the pre-wedding. ‘Could be a bit late.’ It was. The pre-wedding feast and the wedding itself were in Eleni’s father’s village of Karines – Melidoni was too small for the 400 or so guests. Karines is off the road from Rethymno to Spili, down what in the dark appeared to be a narrow track even by Cretan standards. The reception was in the square in what was the village school.

Here the celebrations were in full swing with cauldrons of lamb bubbling and the ladies of the village hard at work on salads and kalitsounia. As a friend of the koumbaro I was immediately adopted into the family and set to work stirring the pilafi, discussing the finer points of raki production (koupes!) and the history and traditions of Crete with Michaelis, a cousin of John’s from Chania.

I declined the sheep’s eye delicacy, and the roast sheep heads – I have some way to go before I’m fully localised. There was of course, a great deal of wonderful music, with a changing group of fine musicians, and dancing. Eleni, was most elegant and still – you wouldn’t know her feet were performing their intricate patterns. The men from Vrakaofori were spectacular in the syrto, the dance that begins slowly, feet dragging and skipping, before ending in energetic twirling and boot slapping. And of course – there was the shooting.

I’m not a big fan of guns at any time, but appreciate that the gunfire is a display of tradition, like a toast, that needs to be conserved, like the pilafi, the music, the dancing and the village wedding itself. The shooters were very careful, and the next village was several kilometres away. There was only one casualty – a rabbit, brought in triumphantly and presented to Ianni, father of the bride. And my hearing.

It seems every time I go to Crete I come away a little deafer. It began on Good Friday night a few years ago with an explosive firecracker, and was made a little worse this time by the shooting, and the by the end of the night (actually it was the beginning of the morning) by the music. And so to the wedding, fully recovered after a few days. One of them was spent in Anogia (a raki with a Greek veteran of the resistance) and further up on Psiloritis where there is a beautiful stone-built church and theatre.

This is where the Yakinthia festival has been held in July every year since 1998. On the way back, John spotted a wild pear tree. What happened next seemed to me to typify life in Crete. Or perhaps it was the influence of Zeus, born not far away. Needing a staff to knock down the pears, he found one – right there. And needing a knife to cut the pears – there was one just there as well. The wedding took place at Ianni’s house. A crowd of several hundred tried to get a glimpse of the bride who was inside with her singing girlfriends in full voices.

This went on for quite a while, before they emerged to stand on the small terrace, with parents Ianni and Chrisanthi – and some more music from the lyra and lute, plus a little dancing. After a while gunshots announced the arrival of the groom. Dimitris with John, his koumbaro, and friends all in Cretan dress, one bearing a loaf of bread on a pole symbolising life or fertility. They sang their way to the gate. The gate opened and the groom and entourage were welcomed into the house with more singing.

I couldn’t understand what was being sung, but it was very charming and the meaning was clear as the tradition was observed in the way of this village. Then came the procession to the church, just fifty metres away up a steep hill. So crowded was it that it was difficult to see what was happening. A glimpse of the stefana wedding crowns, the drinking of wine from the common cup, the golden bible that divided the clasped hands (only God can part the happy couple), the throwing of rice, and a good deal of chanting from several priests.

The service was broadcast to the multitude outside, and so the priest needed a good microphone technique to include his brothers at the right moments. It has to be said that not everyone is paying a great deal of attention to the service – chatting and snacking and kissing a saintly relic – but nonetheless witnessing the happy moment. Afterwards there was koufata, and fakelaki and the procession to Rethymno for the reception.

And, eventually, home. The people of Crete have survived austerity and disaster many times before and after Metaxas’ Oxi in 1940. In Melidoni the Ottomans massacred 300 in the cave in 1824, and in Anogia in 1944 the Nazis burned the village and shot all the men they could find. John thinks it is the maintenance of traditions such as the wedding that will enable Greece to get through her current difficulties. This is the ancient tradition of xenia – Greek ‘compulsory’ hospitality that brings people together, and of which I am a willing victim – in Crete, and Melbourne. ‘It’s all about the glendi,’ John says.

* Garrie Hutchinson is a Philhellene and historian.