It’s Valentine ’s Day, that day of the year that allegedly strikes terror into the heart of singles and couples. No sooner has Christmas wound to a close than shop fronts begin hanging out the glittery red hearts and businesses press us to declare our affections measured out once more in notes and coins.
This is the day that unites chocolate lovers and haters alike, the former suddenly finding their favourite treat has magically tripled in price overnight while the latter have to suffer and retch at the sight and smell of the stuff all around them.
But really, what sort of person doesn’t like chocolate? That’s like saying you don’t find David Attenborough’s voice thoroughly comforting and soothing. It’s a scientific impossibility. But God help you if you have a flower allergy. Best stay indoors and order pizza.
In Greece, Valentine’s Day does not spark the gushing, materialistic love fest observed in other places (here’s looking at you, UK). That’s not to say it’s completely ignored. There has been rolling coverage on the television about the build-up to the day and I remember one year watching with great amusement a news slot where a reporter was interviewing a florist.
This florist was throwing a very special promotion for Valentine’s Day. He was offering a two-for-the price-of-one deal on bouquets and said to the camera, without a hint of irony, that his target market was cheating husbands who could give one to the wife and one to the mistress, without raising any suspicion. I could bore you with the tale of how I met my husband when I came to volunteer at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. I could tell you all about how seeing the Olympic rings at the Sochi opening ceremony made me teary-eyed, how I still cry when I watch the Athens 2004 opening ceremony, as if watching my wedding video (which doesn’t exist, in case you’re wondering).
I am a walking, talking advertisement for the benefits of volunteering. Giving up 10 days of my time landed me the love of my life and two children. I could tell you all that, but I would much rather tell you a story.
This is quite a pleasant time of year in Athens, not just because the city is not completely festooned with red hearts. We are currently enjoying the little bursts of glory that are woven through the Greek winter like a thin gold filament. We get a normal winter here, to be sure, but in between are dispersed some days so clear and glorious, it’s as if little bits of late spring escaped and got bundled up with winter. These days are called alkionides, halcyon days for the non-Greeks among you, and as with everything else here, there is a myth to go with it.
In the myth, Alkion is the wife of Ceyx and daughter of Aeolus. One day, her husband went on a fishing trip. Alkion tried in vain to stop him, having had a bad feeling about the trip, but Ceyx went and his ship was sunk while a distraught Alkion watched it happen from afar. Unable to bear the thought of life without her beloved, in her despair she threw herself from a cliff and died.
The immortals, taking a rare break from messing with the lives of mortal, training liver-eating eagles and dreaming up the kind of mythological monsters that can only be the result of inhaling too much of that thin air atop Mount Olympus, felt so sorry for the two lovers that they brought them back to life, transformed as kingfishers. Since kingfishers nest during January, Zeus ordered that a period of unseasonably warm and sunny days be spread across the early part of the year in order for the kingfishers to successfully hatch their young. He could have just not let Ceyx drown I suppose, but then we would be stuck with the kind of weather the rest of Europe has to suffer through at this time of year.
This article appeared in the Khaleej Times on 14 February 2014