(If you have not caught up with Part I: How to Spend a Bonus Day in Greece, I recommend starting there. This will make far less sense otherwise.)
British Airways gave us vouchers for the Athens Marriott, a 5-star hotel, with complementary lunch and dinner, a drink and snack at the airport, and a bus ride to the hotel. Rob was getting our free airport snacks when the bus came to pick us up, and an airplane’s worth of people flocked out of the doors, leaving me stranded with all the luggage. Having only one working cell phone between us and no way to call my husband, I honest-to-God shouted down the airport in a full-volume, hysterical scream, ROB!! ROOOBBBB!!!! ROBERT SHAND!!!!!!!!! He came running, believing I’d just taken a machete to the arm and was bleeding out on the airport floor. It turns out the bus didn’t leave for another 15 minutes, but at least we were safely on board. The entire ride I kept checking my watch, willing us to arrive faster. We pulled up to the hotel at 8:15am, and while we were circling the block looking for a place to park, a second bus strategically pulled in front of us, their passengers disembarking as quickly as possible.
Rob was calm as a cucumber in the hotel line while I fidgeted and complained, waiting to check in and get our room keys. (For the record, the Marriott did this for all the passengers faster than I’ve seen a bank line move with only four people.) As soon as we could log into our room’s wifi, Rob started looking up bus vs. taxi vs. rental car pricing, in order to get to Nea Makri. It was 9:00am.
The bus, at 7€, would be a four-hour commute each way, so that was out. A taxi, although direct (an hour each way), would cost 160€ round trip. But Rob found a rental car company called “Modi’s” only a mile from the hotel, and it would cost only 35€ for a small car for the day. Rob put in an immediate request. We gathered our things into a backpack and headed out on foot.
The rental car shop had one car parked out front, and we were sure we were mistaken. It looked like a business office in the middle of a residential street, and inside there was one man at a desk. We introduced ourselves, saying we had requested a car online.
“Ah yes, one moment please.”
After shaking our hands, he sat back down, lit a cigarette, and made a phone call to a man named Kostas. “Kosta, xreazomaste to amaxi simera. Nai, tora, an boreis. Nai, nai, teleia.” They hung up.
“No problem,” he said to us. “Go, get a coffee, relax, come back in 15 minutes. Kostas will come with the car.”
Rob and I looked in the direction he pointed and saw a coffee shop across the street. We figured this was a convenient business model for them, but Rob never turns down coffee. I was jittery enough and did not need extra caffeine–the monastery would be opening in 10 minutes. “It’ll be fine,” Rob said.
As promised, Kostas showed up, and as soon as I saw him walk into the building, I sprinted back to Modi’s rental. In true Greek fashion, Kostas was in no hurry. We went through all of the typical introductions (“yes, we are on our honeymoon,” “Greece is amazing,” etc.), signed paperwork, did an exterior damage report, and finally Kostas gave us the keys. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was 10:30am – we would arrive at 11:30am to the monastery, a half hour before they closed the gate.
As soon as Rob and I sat in the car, we noticed a strong smell of cigarettes. Even though Rob was a smoker and spent years smoking cigarettes (he switched to vaping before we met), he found the car’s aroma almost as disturbing as I did. Then we noticed a to-go cup of coffee in the console that still had coffee in it. Rob dumped it on the sidewalk. I noticed duct tape beneath the glove compartment, and unbeknownst to us until that moment, the car had a standard transmission. “Is this…Kostas‘ car?” we simultaneously wondered aloud.
Grateful we had both learned to drive a stick, Rob pulled up the directions on my phone’s GPS, and we hit the highway.
“Oh no,” Rob said.
“We have no gas,” he said. “They gave us a car with no gas!” he added, breaking into laughter.
Far less bemused than he, I texted Kostas. Did you know the gas tank was empty?
We detoured off the highway to the nearest gas station. A teenager came up to our window and asked us something in Greek before he began filling the tank. We couldn’t understand him, but we handed him 15€ and hoped he would only give us enough gasoline to get to the monastery and back – we were not giving Kostas a free tank of gas. I watched the minutes go by. We were barely going to make it. “It’ll be fine,” Rob said again.
As soon as we were back on the highway, I received a reply from Kostas. Yes, I put it on the contract. But be careful – it’s not gasoline, it’s diesel.
“Oh no,” I said.
“What?” Rob said.
“We have a diesel engine.”
“Do we know what they filled it up with?” I asked, googling What happens if you put petrol in a diesel engine?
We both stopped talking and listened for signs of car distress, like wheezing or sputtering, or black smoke emitting from the engine.
The Google results said the car would immediately break down, if it started at all, and we had already been on the road for five minutes at highway speeds. “I think we’re okay?” I said.
“I guess that’s what the kid at the gas station asked?”
Thank God for the teenager who knew more about our car than we did. I prayed for the next 20 minutes, both “please let us be okay” and “thank you that we are okay,” until we definitely seemed okay and began the mountain ascent.
At 11:45am we pulled into the dirt lot, and found ourselves amongst a sea of cars. We weaved through the rows, searching for a place to park. It was as if the fair had rolled into town, an entirely different scene from Thursday’s ominous emptiness.
We found a spot and followed the people moving toward the large gates, now swung wide open, not a padlock in sight. The monastery is run by nuns, although I didn’t see any of them as we moved through the entrance into the outdoor portico where there were different lines of people. The first line moved past the mulberry tree on which St. Ephraim was hung upside down and impaled with a flaming stick, sheltered behind a plexiglass enclosure that allowed us to view it without getting too close. We started here, and it took me a moment to recognize what I was seeing. Then an unsettled feeling crept up through my belly, the same one I had when visiting a former concentration camp, the kind that says “You don’t understand the kind of suffering that happened here.” I felt a deep respect for this man’s faith.
From there we moved into the exonarthex*. Inside this room were different sizes of candles that visitors could purchase by donation and light in prayer for loved ones. Hundreds of thin tapered candles were already burning, standing upright in trays of sand so they could burn all the way down. After lighting a candle, Rob stopped at another table with pieces of paper, where he wrote a list of names for the nuns to pray over. I imagined how long the nuns must be in prayer to cover all of the names submitted by visitors, hundreds if not thousands of them.
*the narthex is the entrance to the church, and “exo” in Greek means “outer,” so this was an “outer narthex.” It was in a separate building. There was also an esonarthex (inner narthex) before entering the Sanctuary.
Then we stood in the line, the line that would take us into the sanctuary to see the saint himself. The string of people crossed the outdoor portico from door to door, passing underneath a brick archway into the church, where a silver coffin with a glass top lie. St. Ephraim’s relics, which were unearthed 500 years after his death, were dressed in embroidered priest-monk vestments and on display.
The only relics I’d “seen” up to that point where in coffins or boxes completely encased in gold or silver, none of which were visible to those venerating them.
I was weirdly nervous. As someone who is still new to Orthodoxy, I’m always afraid I’m doing something wrong, so I was overthinking what I ought to be thinking. In an effort to calm my nerves, I prayed the Jesus prayer and thanked God that Rob had the opportunity to see St. Ephraim. When we finally approached the relics, all of my jitters ceased and my mind quieted. What happened next passed by quickly, but I remember two things as I venerated the saint: praying for one person—out of the laundry list of people I knew who could use St. Ephraim’s prayers, only one person (whom I met only once) came to mind**—and the way St. Ephraim looked. While I had expected to see the face of skeleton, I saw a face that looked, as they said in The Mummy, “juicy.” I was startled, having never seen this before apart from the movie The Mummy, but I assumed this is what is known in Orthodoxy as being “without corruption,” when some saints’ bodies do not decay the way they ought to under the given circumstances.***
** Rob told me later that he, too, had prayed for this person.
***When I googled St. Ephraim just now for confirmation, the photos I found online are different from what I just described. In the images, his skull is pure white. So whether I imagined his appearance as incorrupt, or that’s how he actually looked that day, I have no idea.
Rob and I stepped out of the dim sanctuary back into the sunlit portico, where people moved in different directions. I stood in a line to receive holy oil. We’d gotten rid of most of our euro since we thought we’d be leaving, but Rob found some coins to purchase two empty plastic bottles that we could fill with the holy oil and bring home with us.
Our last stop of the day was a small gift shop within the monastery that sold books, prayer ropes, prayer bracelets, icons, etc. They only admitted two people at a time since it was a very small shop and we were still in the height of COVID travel, so we waited a long time. Rob talked about a book he wanted to purchase. I just wanted to look around. As soon as we got inside, I knew I would want stuff—most notably a beautiful komboskini, a knotted prayer rope to help me with the Jesus prayer (similar in function to a rosary). Rob geeked out about all of the liturgical books, and grabbed a few knick-knacks, and at the last moment before checking out, he spotted something. It was a locket.
“Look!” he said. It was the same locket he’d found in Raleigh, the one that introduced him to the saint.
“We have to get it,” I said.
The store did not take credit card, and I had only 15€ in cash. The total of our purchases ended up being 14.97€—we had just enough. Rob squeezed me tightly and thanked me for buying these souvenirs, as though I wouldn’t have given one of my kidneys to the nuns to make sure Rob got that locket. He was also excited to translate the book we got of the hymnology for St. Ephraim from Greek into English. It made me happy to see him so happy.
Moreover, when we got back to Kostas’ car, before Rob started the engine, he turned to me and said, “I threw my vape away.”
“Really?” I asked. “When?”
“When we were in line for the gift shop.”
I had no idea what to say. In our time as a couple, I’d seen him go about twelve hours without nicotine, and it was not a pretty sight. But he looked confident, explaining that he’d felt compelled to get rid of it. Miraculously, Rob quit that day and has not smoked since, even bypassing the major withdrawal symptoms we expected—yet another mercy through the intercessions of St. Ephraim.
We could not have asked for a more beautiful experience, and thankfully our car didn’t explode on the way back to Athens.
What we didn’t expect was that there was more to come, and it all fell into place while on a quest for hot chocolate.
To be continued…(for the last time, I promise)