We’re back in Northern Greece after a four-day weekend spent in the English countryside—specifically in Gloucestershire where a dear friend was celebrating her husband’s 90th birthday with a lavish outdoor party at Chastleton House which included tours of the stately home, waiters who were professional opera singers and a picnic lunch which included champagne and smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches in the famous topiary gardens.
The day before—Saturday—an erudite gentleman named Sebastian Halliday gave us a tour of the bucolic villages of the area including Bibury, Swinbrook, Minster Lovell and Burford.
We explored the thatch-roofed cottages and ancient churches covered with climbing roses and honeysuckle vines and ate in a pub overlooking the wide, shallow river that wound through each village.
Along with Japanese tourists we photographed swans, ducks and horses with new foals, sheep and gardens at their peak of glory. We saw graves of knights and soldiers, church dignitaries and ordinary people who died of the black plague in 1349.
I love exploring cemeteries in every place I visit. (Favorites are in Edinburgh, New Orleans, Pere Lachaise in Paris and the poor cemetery in Martinique.) The green, mossy ancient stones leaning every which way in a rural Cotswold churchyard always remind me of Sir Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” which mourns the many simple peasants and villages who have lived and died without leaving any record of their lives or their talents and abilities.
I photographed the tombs of the Fettiplace knights, all resting on their elbows in the church of St. Mary’s in Swinbrook, and was fascinated by the tombs of several of the Mitford sisters—perhaps the most controversial, scandalous and talented sisters ever produced by England (more about them another time). But the only gravestone that moved me to tears was one near the ruins of the Lovell stately home at Minster Lovell, near the wide shallow river, filled with water lilies, where children and dogs were wading.
I was drawn to the grave because it featured a statue of a sleeping cat. The stone read “Noah Wright/ 14-11-05/ 16-1-05/ May your light shine through.”
This grave was in memory of a little boy, born in November of 2005 who lived only two days—not even surviving to his first Christmas. His parents and mourners had visited his grave repeatedly, leaving flowers (fresh and artificial), a stone, and, on top of the sleeping cat statue, a yellow ceramic star. I picked it up and turned it over, thinking it looked like a Christmas ornament. On the other side someone had lettered in a child-like hand “Noah.”
I put the star back where it was and went into the church to photograph the tomb of a sleeping knight with his hands folded in prayer but I couldn’t get the thought of Noah and his parents out of my mind.
And I remembered the most famous lines from Thomas Gray’s elegy:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen And waste its sweetness on the desert air
I always say that on our annual summer vacation in Greece, as soon as I get off the plane and take a deep breath of the air, I instantly put on five pounds.
Eating is just better in this country—a Greek tomato is a thousand times tastier than an American one, and I’d be happy eating nothing but Greek salad as long as I can sop up the olive oil from the bottom of the bowl with crusty Greek bread.
I’ve been four days in Athens eating at some world-class restaurants.
As soon as we arrived at the Grande Bretagne, our favorite hotel, which overlooks Constitution Square and the Parliament building, with its skirted Evzone soldiers in their pleated skirts doing their hourly dance in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, we found in our hotel room a bottle of wine, a bowl of fruit and a white-chocolate figure of one of the Acropolis’s caryatids overlooking a half dozen handmade chocolates. (In my photo you can’t see the chocolates because somebody ate them!)
Lunch was often shared lobster risotto from a restaurant called Passajes in the courtyard of the shopping mall behind the GB Hotel. (Below is the view from the BG roof where we ate breakfast)
One night we walked to a nearby restaurant called Epta Thalassas (Seven Seas) nearby. The tabletops there are made of river stones and the ceiling lights are enclosed by woven fish traps. They feature exotic dishes like fresh sea urchin eggs (Aristotle Onassis used to send his sailors over the side of his yacht to harvest them by the light of the full moon. ) Also on the menu are “smoked eel sautéed with white wine and mustard”, “grilled Santorini sprat stuffed with tomato and coriander “, “hard roe from Mesolongi with blinis and fig pie”, and cockles. I had the “Dogtooth grouper filet cooked in the oven according to a Mt .Athos recipe.”
Thursday night we were invited by a friend to Spondi—probably the finest restaurant in Greece and the only one (he said) with two Michelin Stars. The peculiar thing about Spondi was that nothing you ate looked anything like what it was. For example, the chef sent, as an amuse-gueule, the tray of appetizers below: the round things on a stick like lollipops were foie gras rolled in popcorn crumbs (that’s what the waiter said). The cone-shaped things had a sliver of cheese in some savory cream sauce inside a pastry cone, and the cubes on the bottom are made from fruit with a Jello-like consistency.
I ordered sea bass which came topped with what looked like black caviar but was really some kind of grilled toast topped with black squid ink. Then, after the main dish came another surprise—meant to cleanse the palate before desert. It was a cool drink in a martini-shaped two-part glass containing a delicate a liquid of tomato and fruit juice (I think) with green sherbet in it, and underneath the goblet part of the glass, in a hollow stem, was dry ice (not meant for consumption) so the whole thing seemed to be smoking. For dessert I ordered the famous chocolate sablé mousse. If you look carefully, you’ll see the cigarette-shaped cookie (for want of a better name) has gold leaf on one end.
I knew that gold is edible if it’s pure –so I ate it. I first encountered eible gold at another Athens restaurant called Boschetto’s (now closed for renovation) when a black risotto made with squid ink arrived with a square of gold on top. Divine decadence!
Dinner Friday night on the roof of the Grande Bretagne, with a fabulous view of the Acropolis, was a lobster linguine. Saturday night at Alatsi, behind the Hilton hotel, we had Cretan food, including a traditional wedding dish featuring both chicken and lamb in a risotto, followed by three ice creams—rose, sage, and yogurt with honey and walnuts.
Now you see why I put on weight every time I get off the plane at the Athens airport.
But today, after getting up early, lugging my bags to the flying catamaran, and inhaling a cup of coffee (which basically saved my life), we arrived in Hydra.
But just plain Greek food is better than any haute cuisine covered with gold leaf. For lunch in Hydra’s harbor we had the classic, simple, and perfect Greek meal, which is best when eaten at an outdoor taverna near the water: Greek horiotiko salad with heavenly tomatoes, feta cheese and lots of olive oil for dipping, pan-fried red mullet fish (barbounia), and ice-cold local white wine from the barrel. We threw the fish heads to a half dozen happy taverna cats (who may be featured in my next Greek cat book) and then took a stroll around the harbor.
(No, this isn’t the gown Eleni chose. I can’t reveal that one until after the wedding. This is from my collection of vintage wedding photographs-- Grace Weaver Powers who was married to William Denton Bloodgood in New York City on 4/22/1903.)
When daughter Eleni surprised us on June 4 with the news that she was planning to be married to Emilio in Corfu, Greece on 10/10/10—only four months away—she added that she’d made an appointment for us to go shopping on Monday, June 7, at one of the only two places in New York where a bridal gown could be bought off the rack rather than made to order, which takes months. The gowns in this place are all samples, she said, most of them worn once by models and donated by the store or by the designers themselves. Best of all, the gowns are sold for a fraction of what they’d cost at retail and all the proceeds go to charity.
I was about to participate in that hallowed ritual of mother and daughter—the search for the one perfect gown that would showcase her beauty on the most important day of her life. It was a liminal moment—a term Eleni taught me while majoring in folklore and mythology at college—because it marked her stepping across a threshold from one stage of life to another. I felt privileged to be included in the momentous search. (And I mentally swore to keep my opinions to myself and let her find the dress that she’d always dreamed of.)
We drove from Grafton MA to Manhattan and showed up at 12:00 noon at The Bridal Garden on the ninth floor of a grim industrial- looking building on 21st Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue.
Once inside, we were greeted by two salesladies, Winona and Vivienne, in a vast suite lined with gowns, each in a clear plastic zipper bag and sorted by: strapless gowns or gowns with straps and/or sleeves, and gowns with full skirts or straight skirts. They explained to us that they were a non-profit organization and that the profits from selling these donated dresses goes to a charter school in Bedford Stuyvesant.
Eleni, who is only 5 feet tall, already knew that she didn’t want a strapless gown nor a full skirt filled with crinolines. There were two other brides already shopping with their mothers, and each pulled out all the dresses that appealed to them, which Winona and Vivienne carried into their dressing rooms, separated by curtains. (No shoes or moms allowed inside—and a prominent sign warned “no photographs.”)
Once she tried on a gown, the future bride would emerge to view herself in the wall of mirrors while the salesladies provided a small stool to stand on in order to see how the skirt would fall and turned the mirrors so she could see the back.
Next to us was a tall, slender, dark-haired young woman with her mother who originally came from Croatia. The Mom carefully unwrapped two rectangular pieces of lace that had been handmade by the girl’s grandmother. They were hoping to incorporate the lace somehow onto the gown she chose.
That bride gravitated toward gowns that were modern, slim and drape-y, often involving panels of chiffon that drifted about the body, reminding me of something that Isadora Duncan might dance in.
Eleni, on the other hand, who came in thinking she wanted something simple and unembellished, found herself selecting gowns that involved lace, like a bride in one of my vintage photographs. Soon she had narrowed down the 12 original selections to three gowns, but in the end, we all agreed that one gown, an absolute vision in exquisite point d’esprit lace, was the clear favorite.
I knew that when she appeared on her wedding day everyone who saw her would gasp in admiration. Even the salesladies exclaimed at the sight, saying the dress was unique—it had arrived from Barcelona, Spain only a week ago, donated by the designer, Rosa Clara, and it was immaculate, having never been worn. (Dresses that have been soiled are cleaned by the Bridal Garden’s special dry cleaner for $250 – a bargain price.)
I asked Winona about her job; it would be so interesting to watch brides and their mothers choosing a gown. Each mother/daughter team must be a mini-drama as the dynamics of their relationship play out. It’s an emotional experience watching a daughter emerge from the dressing room for the first time dressed as a bride. No longer a child who needs her mother to advise and instruct her—she’s ready to walk down the aisle on her own in a dress of her own choosing.
Do the brides and their mothers often cry? I asked Winona, who had mentioned that she had a background in psychology and education. “Usually when we put the veil on it happens,” she nodded.
She added that most brides, when they find the dress that they love, get a particular expression of delight, a “bride face” when they see themselves reflected in the mirror. At this moment Eleni definitely was wearing her bride face.
Eleni twisted her blonde hair into an up-do and Winona brought out a simple veil and placed it on her head. Like all the other MOB’s, I felt my eyes fill with tears. Because Eleni had decided that she was going to buy it then and there, I got permission to take photos, while Vivienne checked the length and the fit. She told Eleni to bring it back to have it shortened and fitted, once she had the perfect shoes.
When we left carrying the dress, expertly packed and rolled, both Winona and Vivienne hugged and kissed Eleni. We rode the elevator down to the street in high elation. The whole transaction had taken less than an hour and a half, and now we were headed off to a favorite restaurant nearby, Le Singe Vert, to have lunch and raise a glass of wine to the bridal gown which had come all the way from Barcelona just in time to find its destiny as the One Perfect Dress for Eleni.
Last weekend (starting June 4) was one of those periods when everything seems to come together as if charmed—one fortunate coincidence after another-- and afterwards you realize that a phase of your life has ended and another has begun.
Daughter Eleni and her boyfriend, Emilio, were scheduled to come from New York City to our home in Massachusetts for the weekend to attend the Grecian Festival at our church in Worcester and for Emilio to meet our extended family and see our home for the first time (although my husband and I had met him on several occasions in New York.)
They were taking the Acela train on Friday to Providence where we would pick them up at 8 p.m. I discovered that the date, June 4, coincided with “Waterfire,” when the river in Providence is lighted with fires along with music and entertainment—so we booked a table at a restaurant overlooking the scene.
The train arrived on time (another rare occurrence) and we were seated in the Waterplace Restaurant just as the sun set. With us were the “Big Eleni” and her daughter Frosso. (Big Eleni came to live with us in 1974, a week before daughter Eleni was born, and she became a second mother to our children and the reason all of them speak fluent Greek. She was married in our Massachusetts house in 1976 and her daughter Frosso is like a younger sibling to our three.)
Daughter Eleni and Emilio produced wrapped gifts for all of us. Mine turned out to be the book “Mother of the Bride” by Ilene Beckerman. Nick’s was a DVD of the 1951 movie “Father of the Bride” starring Elizabeth Taylor as the bride and Spencer Tracy as the FOB. I was starting to get the message.
At that point, tears and hugs of joy erupted and Waterfire was forgotten. Emilio and Eleni had decided to get married sooner rather than later, on October 10, 2010 (“ten-ten-ten” as Eleni repeated throughout the weekend, like a mantra.)
Long before she met Emilio, Eleni had decided that she would be married on ten-ten-ten in the church of Panagia Mandrakina on the Ionian island of Corfu. That idea took root in April of 2008 when she traveled to Ohio for the engagement party of her friend Neela, whose Hindu wedding in Jodhpur, India, we attended in January of last year.
At that engagement party in Strongsville, Ohio, the family accountant/astrologer-- Joshi Uncle-- told Eleni that she would get married in Sept. or Oct. 2010 and that she must wear an emerald to help make this happen. That same weekend I had been trying unsuccessfully to sell my emerald ring in Manhattan, but emerald prices were down, so I gave it to Eleni.
Months before she met Emilio last July, Eleni’s aunt, Thitsa Kanta, who is an expert at reading one’s fate in the coffee grounds left over when drinking Greek coffee, started seeing a letter “E” in Eleni’s cup every time she did a reading. (She turns the cup over in its saucer when it’s down to the dregs, makes the sign of the cross over it, and when she turns the cup back over, the dried sludge has made designs that Kanta can read with uncanny accuracy, although she does like to throw in advice along with the predictions.)
Eleni was introduced to Emilio (who is from Nicaragua) by Neela and her husband Dave in March of last year in the Village Lantern bar in Manhattan where they had all gathered to watch a Duke football game. After they began dating, when Kanta would find an “E” in Eleni’s cup, she would say that it stands for “Evtychia” – happiness. Eleni would suggest that maybe it stood for “Emilio”, but Kanta would answer, “No, Emilio starts with an A”.
On May 24, Eleni and Emilio decided to marry—fulfilling the prophecies of the Hindu astrologer and Thitsa Kanta. But before telling anyone, Eleni called Arete, a cousin who lives in Corfu, to make sure that the church in Corfu beneath the Crusader fortress that looms over the harbor would be available on her special date. It was. Arete even wrangled the Greek priest who would conduct the ceremony and a Catholic priest who would assist.
By the time they told us the news, the couple already knew their wedding colors (blue and white—the colors of the Greek flag and—another magical coincidence—the colors of the Nicaraguan flag as well! )
By Saturday, phone calls announcing the joyful news had traveled round the world. On Saturday morning, Eleni sat in our kitchen and created a web site – www.eleniandemilio.com -- with information about the couple, how they met, where and when they would wed. When Emilio’s mother in Nicaragua saw the photos on the web site, she shed tears of joy. Back in Grafton we got pretty choked up too. What every parent wants for their child is a mate who will love them and help them cope with the inevitable bumps in the road ahead. Emilio seemed to be the ideal partner for Eleni, sent by the fates all the way from Nicaragua to encounter her in Manhattan.
On Saturday, Greek relatives began to appear to meet the groom. Despite the their aches and pains, two of the four Thitsas (Aunts) came over to sit under the grape arbor by the pool. Nick asked the Big Eleni to bring coffee, but she said no, on this day we must serve only sweet things—she had whipped up plenty of deep-fried loukoumades—like donut holes drenched in honey. Coffee, she said, was bitter and could not be served on such a happy day.
Later we all went to the Grecian Festival where I learned I had sold three paintings in the art exhibit and Emilio –by accident or by divine design—met a third aunt, lots of cousins and nephews and nieces and their offspring and even our Priest Father Dean, who just happened to have with him his brother-in- law who turned out (another coincidence) to be a customer and close friend of Emilio.
On Sunday, we all went to church and Emilio weathered more introductions with great tact and aplomb. At lunch, Nick produced a bottle of Lafitte Rothschild 1966 that he had set aside 36 years ago.
That evening Nick and I drove the newly engaged couple back to Manhattan. Eleni handed me several Bride’s magazines so I could learn my responsibilities as Mother of the Bride. The articles about schedules and favors and invitations and receptions and appropriate dresses sent me into a total panic. Everything needed be done six months to a year in advance and we only had four months!
But Eleni had already made a start on the momentous search for the Bridal Gown. We had an appointment the next day, Monday, she told me, at one of the two places in Manhattan where gowns could be bought off the rack in sample sizes instead of made to order, which took months.
That night, as the four of us dined at an Italian restaurant near Eleni’s apartment, Nick gave the newly engaged couple advice on the secrets of a good marriage and they listened patiently. (“Keep surprising each other every day. Never take your relationship for granted” seemed to be the major message.)
While he pontificated, I pondered how the stars and the gods and the recent full moon had come together to create a magical moment, full of love and joy; a time of new responsibilities and many tasks, but also a time for letting go, preparing to watch my daughter walk down the aisle and into a new life. In one weekend I had been given a new role in life—after three decades of being just a Mom, I had been transformed into a MOB.
Next: How to find the perfect bridal gown in an hour and a half.
My Aunt Kathleen always used to say, after reciting news of the latest ailments suffered by herself or her friends, “Old age is not for sissies!”
Imagine my surprise at reading in today’s New York Times, in the science section, that a large Gallup poll has determined that “people get happier as they get older; and researchers are not sure why.”
The study questioned 340,000 Americans aged 18 to 85, asking various questions about age, sex, current events, personal finances, health and other matters. They were also asked “How did you feel yesterday? Did you experience the following feelings during a large part of the day: enjoyment, happiness, stress, worry, anger, sadness.”
The researchers discovered, according to the Times reporter, that “people start out at age 18 feeling pretty good about themselves, and then, apparently, life begins to throw curve balls. They feel worse and worse until they hit 50. At that point, there is a sharp reversal and people keep getting happier as they age. By the time they are 85, they are even more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18.”
(This study implicitly echoes a brilliant statement I once read somewhere, namely that the secret to happiness is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.)
So this is good news for crones. At 18 you think you’re great. Life from that point gets continuously worse until you hit bottom at fifty. Then there’s a sharp turn around and you get happier and happier until at 85 you’re even happier than you were at 18.
(Come to think of it, I was pretty miserable throughout my 18th year.)
An English professor of psychology said about the study, “It’s a very encouraging fact that we can expect to be happier in our early 80’s than we were in our 20’s. And it’s not being driven predominantly by things that happen in life. It’s something very deep and quite human that seems to be driving this.”
Another professor of psychology, an American, asked “Why at age 50 does something seem to start to change?”
Nobody knows why happiness hits bottom at fifty and then abruptly things start to get better, or happier. There could be a lot of explanations – even hormonal. But I suspect that part of the answer is that when we’re young, we think we can conquer the world, and by the time we’re fifty, it becomes clear that we’re not ever going to do it. Then, perhaps around the fiftieth birthday, we start to make peace with what we have achieved in life and to notice and appreciate everyday pleasures.
Yesterday, Memorial Day, I went to the cemetery in the morning and in the afternoon I went on a “photography walk” through the Tower Hill Botanical Garden, led by photographer Scott Erb and sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum.
The various gardens and fountains of Tower Hill were in full glory, and I was struck by how many of the visitors photographing, picnicking, or just walking around looking with delight at the landscape were very old. Many of them could barely walk—supporting themselves on canes or walkers or even being pushed in wheelchairs. But they were taking such joy in the flowering dogwood trees and the riot of many-colored peonies, irises and roses.
Perhaps with age comes the wisdom to know what’s really important, and, because life is precarious and nearly over, the happiness that comes from something as simple as seeing the roses burst into bloom one more time is intensified. Money can’t buy happiness but maybe old age can bring it.
After 40 years as a journalist, I turned 60 and decided to return to my first love--painting. I’ve exhibited watercolors and photographs in Massachusetts and have a slide show of paintings below. My photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats” can be purchased by clicking on the cover below.
I collect way too many things, but my great passion is antique photographs, from the earliest—daguerreotypes (circa 1840) up to 1900 (cabinet cards, tintypes.) I approach each one as a mystery to solve, and in unlocking their secrets have met some fascinating historic figures. For some of the stories, check the list of “The Story Behind the Photograph”.
My husband Nick and I live in Grafton, MA and recently celebrated our 41st anniversary. We have 3 children, now amazing adults. And on Aug. 26, 2011, we greeted our first grandchild, Amalía-- world’s cutest baby. But this blog isn’t about grandparenting (although photos of the grandkid sneak in). As it says up top, it’s about travel, art, photography and life after sixty. And crone power.