Ta Engenia tou Manelis – The Blessing of Manelis’ Restaurant, Artemisio, Greece 6 July 2011

The drive into Artemisio is peaceful, through an avenue lined with plane trees. A few are missing, like a black hole in place of a tooth in the mouth of a weather hardened villager. The gap in the trees has been replaced by iconostasios, white miniature churches, in memory of the young men who were driving too fast and killed themselves.

As the avenue ends, the road forks. On the right is the old village fountain where we used to draw water before pipes were laid in the seventies. In the angle of the fork is a larger iconostasio, welcoming all. “I Analipsi to Theou”, or “The Ascension of Christ”.  Analipsi is also the name of the church on a ledge high up on Artemisio Mountain, a church that Old Man Natsi built when his heath miraculously improved after returning from America.

On the left is the Manelis house. It used to be run down, built in the 20’s. The sisters, one of them my grandmother Marigo, were excluded from inheriting this house. My grandmother’s exclusion came by virtue of the Nuptial Contract signed in 1937. Her husband John accepted ownership of 3 pieces of land, 2 of fields and the third a smaller vineyard at a place called Maneta Lino from her brothers. I have a copy of this document.  One of the paragraphs ends with:” Ioanis (John) Stathoulis declared that (he) gladly accepts the abovementioned dowry and the conditions herein related.”  Conditions that still run in the blood of our veins, conditions that we struggle to honour.

Two years ago I walked past the Manelis house. John Manelis, my grandmother’s nephew called me in to see the corner where she used to wash clothes, and the worn stone used to rub the old soap that would never lather. Much like the stones in the Tugela River where the Zulu woman do the washing. Except the river that runs through Artemisio is dry except when the snow melts and it rains in winter.

Tonight was the engenia of his new restaurant, the first modern eatery serving paradosiaka (traditional) food, in our village.  There are only 3 other cafes unlike any you might imagine, where basic food may fill a lone bachelor or husband who has been kicked out by an angry wife.

The crowd gathered from 8pm and collected sweets and cool drinks from a central table in the garden. The sweets portend a sweet future for the new business. At 8:30 pm the priest arrived and quickly proceeded to bless the new undertaking and then anointed all with Holy water sprinkled on basil leaves. Funny how the Greeks don’t eat basil but use it to bless everything, and keep flies away. The preist extended himself with the blessing, and went on about commitment and faith and the youth, a conversation I mirrored at his house two evenings later with Theodore, an engineering lecturer from Megalopolis who is my grandmothers second nephew.  The priest, in his mid seventies, had a sparkle in his eye and stunned me when he asked Theodore if he uses Facebook to teach.

After the blessing waiters took orders for the usual Greek mezzedaikia, salads and cheeses and 3 meats: roasted lamb, pork and goat. The evening was almost balmy in the mountains, promise of a warm summer to come. The young village children had been roped in to help as waiters, all smartly dressed in black trousers and white shirts. I hope their future extends beyond waitering, what with the crisis in Greece and Europe at the moment. The orders were slow and mixed up, but the 200 people outside and on the veranda ate well and all paid a token as thank for the meal and for good luck. In the old days, they would have walked past an open till and placed money in the drawer. Nowadays they might make a surreptitious withdrawal or two.

If you want to eat at “O Manelis, aim for Tripoli in the Peloponnese and take the narrow road that leads to Artemisio. You’ll pass the ruins of Ancient Mantinea on your right, one of the oldest city states of Greece in ancient time.  The restaurant is on your left after the avenue of trees. Tell John I told you to go eat there, and don’t order, tell him to bring you “tis oras”, of the hour. Enjoy.

Standing Prayers at the Engenia

Conversations on Blessings

My father would always say we should count our blessings.

We always had to go to church on St. John’s day, 6 January, when the priest blesses everyone in church with Holy Water from the Epiphany sprinkled with a sprig of Sweet Basil. The heady mix of a summer day in South Africa, incense, candle wax and the Basil mades one feel blessed without any further ado. But kissing the big gold Crucifix in the priest’s left hand while he sprinkled the Holy Water on you head, cooling the day and your thoughts, was the ultimate blessing.

Until he occasionally got confused and made you kiss the wet Sweet basil and sprinkled your head with a heavy gold Crucifix!

Blessings are important in most cultures, but doubly so in Greece and for the Greeks. Any new building or venture needs to be blessed, and the priest is engaged for the engenia. Obviously babies need to be blessed, and important farm animals and vineyards also need blessing. Domestic pets do not feature, but I am sure if the Orthodox had a St Francis he would gladly bless the arrival of a new precious pet.

The first engenia I remember, a sort of roof wetting, was the blessing of the cellar at 45 Kakouri. After the squatters had been moved out and a house built for them in the village at my father’s expense, Number 45 was quite run down. The cellar was a mess of storage and animal waste and was not desirable.

The cellar was cleaned out, the floor was dusted with sawdust and barrels of wine were installed. The grey double doors which were low and forced you to stoop when entering were painted with a fresh coat. The inside walls of rock were painted with whitewash that left a sweet moist aroma, like bread still to be baked. The six cement steps leading down to the cellar had their edges trimmed in the same whitewash. I remember whitewashing the walls once, with a great big wooden brush that allowed you to slosh the limestone mix happily over the dirtied wall. It was quite therapeutic.

Our whole family was present, with both grandmothers, Big and Small Giagia. All the village friends were invited but the main players were the two men who were to become my father’s greatest friends. Old Man Vlachos and Old Man Simbonis. They were both almost twenty years older than my father, but embraced his desire to be part of the village and sprinkled his life with simple wisdom and love.

The evening of the engenia of the cellar arrived and sheep on the pit were brought from Tripolis. Feta and olives were laid out and the newly pressed Retsina barrel was drilled so that a spigot could be inserted after the sudden rush of pink fluid.

The village priest blessed the proceedings, there were speeches and then people ate and danced. They danced and laughed into the early hours of the morning. Old Man Vlachos drank so much he passed out, and they remaining men carried him home in a funeral procession. They laid him in his wife’s outdoor oven, lit candles around him and closed the door.

I am not sure who was more shocked: Dina when she opened the door to bake and found her husband lying there, or the Old Man who woke dry throated surrounded by heavenly candles in the dark?

My Father's First Trip to No 45 Kakouri 1968