Almonds, Icons and Weddings
We had taken all morning to scramble up from the glittering blue harbour through a patchwork of rock and wild herbs to reach the nunnery. It perched at the end of a rocky outcrop in the shadow of main mountain range. A low, squat building, it had a domed, red-tiled roof and arched windows and its outer walls were solid blocks of white-washed stone that looked to have grown straight up from out of the surrounding earth.
We knocked on its iron-ribbed door, and waited, each with a shy hope that we would be let in. This was far from certain given that earlier in the day we had been sternly refused entry to a monastery because my companion was wearing shorts and possibly a little too much makeup for the admitting monk's taste. So it was a great relief when a small, gentle-faced woman appeared and beckoned us through.
The rough outer walls of the nunnery had betrayed nothing of the architectural beauty that lay inside. The central courtyard was enclosed by a colonnade of smooth white marble which, apart from the main and side entrances, were fitted with wooden screens of intricately carved fretwork. Its flagstones were arranged in a striking diamond pattern of black and white marble and this continued on into the narthex of a chapel the nun had led us to and bid us enter.
It took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust to the dimness but what struck us immediately was the chapel's stillness, it’s cool, scented silence. Gradually, from out of the shadows things began to take shape. There was the usual iconry of Greek orthodoxy and the dark weightiness of its architecture but the ceiling of the domed cupola was painted in blue and turquoise and printed with a scattering of stars in gold leaf and looked more like a child's nursery. And instead of the gaunt, dark faces of saints and stern, bearded patriarchs lining its walls, a kindly Madonna (Panagia) painted in red and blue smiled back at us from out of the gloom. She was set in a gilt frame alongside another of Saint George, the dragon slayer, heroically astride a white charger, and on the opposite wall a youthful, beardless Jesus Christ, a shining halo crowning his curly locks, extended a golden goblet toward us in what was perhaps an invitation to eternal life.
These were striking, evocative images and quite unlike the usual otherworldliness of religious asceticism. They were human, accessible, and to an agnostic like myself, surprisingly uplifting and yet another unexpected pleasure.
From the chapel the tiny nun led us to a cloistered garden where orange and lemon trees hung heavy with globes of fruit and some pomegranates in coiled pithoi pots were flowering, their showers of vermillion blooms and swelling pips so highly polished, so generously warm, that they looked like summer. Against one wall the pale green tendrils of young vines snaked up coppiced poles towards an overhanging trellis and yellow and red nasturtiums sprawled across the white stone cobbles. The air was redolent with the warm scent of wild thyme and origanum and filled with the constant background thrum of cicadas.
Some almond trees grew along the outer rim of the cultivated plot, their twisted black boughs lifting a haze of soft green leaves into a sky so bright that it seemed everything could dissolve before its gaze. I pointed to the fuzzy little fruits that clung there in clusters. "Pos te lene", I asked our hostess. "Amygdala", she replied as she shepherded us towards a table and chairs set in the coolness of the colannade.
She disappeared through one of the many doors that lined the courtyard and after a short time returned, placing before each of us a glass of water, a smaller glass of cloudy, syrupy liquid and a plate of small biscuits. "Amygdalato!", she said with some emphasis to make the point that these pastries were made of ground almonds. They had the swirly shell-like shape of macaroons and were crispy on the outside but soft and sweet within.
As I took a sip from the smaller glass my companion asked, "Do you know the story of this drink? This is called soumada and is made from the almond. It is given to the bridegroom on his wedding day to remind him what marriage is, mostly sweet but sometimes a little bitter". It was indeed sweet with a bitter aftertaste and I replied in a half-joking way, "Maybe it symbolises the course of marriage? Sweet at first but ending in tears."
My companion, obviously put out by my flippancy, retorted, "I think it is meant to remind the man to accept and embrace all of the other person. It stops him from being selfish and the marriage has a chance to work".
In an attempt to escape a tight corner I called the nun, who was standing a respectful distance away, and offered her a few notes to repay her hospitality. To my surprise this was met with much head-shaking and a very clear NO. My companion, who had been watching all this, spoke to the nun, "Ine gia to Theo". This had an immediate, almost magical effect, for the nun stopped shaking her head, smiled ever so sweetly at me and putting her right hand over her heart, accepted the money. Nonplussed I shot my companion a look of surprise, and blurted out, "How the Hell did you do that?" The woman took a small sip of her drink, drew back in her seat, and with an air of self satisfaction, replied, "I told her it was for God".