Saturday, 10 May 2008

Sojourn at Ai-Yiani

Dear Dimitra,

How are you, my good friend? As you know, I visited your mum yesterday. Getting to her house in the south-western suburb of Agios Ioannis in Hania was a breeze – I work a few minutes away from there. At first, the numbers seemed to follow a logical order – one side of the street had even numbers, the other side had odd numbers. Then I got confused – the houses were numbered in consecutive order, like on the famous Cheyne Walk by the river Thames in London where the Rolling Stones used to live, so I guessed that I was going to a special neighbourhood.

And indeed it was – all the houses were ‘maisonette’ style, like the villas that rich people are building now in the coastal areas just out of the town. It’s not enough to live on one level, you’ve got to have upstairs and downstairs rooms these days. The houses in St Johns are all standing next to each other like soldiers, and they all have front and back gardens with a little porch where you can sit outside on one of the many fine days in Hania and have your morning or afternoon coffee – while all the neighbours watch you, of course, because there is a lack of privacy in this kind of accommodation setup. I can imagine your mum cooking fish in her kitchen: “Oh, smell that, do ya? Filio’s cooking fish today, wonder where she bought it from, maybe from the fish market, but she was at work all day, so it must be from the frozen goods at the supermarket, maybe bakaliaro, she’ll have to make some skordalia with that too, but how’s she going to work in the afternoon with garlic breath? And does her granddaughter eat fish?"

It's amazing that these state-provided houses were built especially for poor people with at least four children, isn't it? I wonder where the government expected four children and two parents to sleep if they created them so small with only two bedrooms. But at least they gave them away, and let people live the life they had always wanted - a roof over their head, a patch of garden to grow a tomato or two, and peace of mind. That's the first thing I noticed about this neighbourhood - the peace and quiet while everyone tends the little garden outside their front door. Some of those rose bushes look as old as the houses themselves - weren't they built in 1956? - with their gnarled trunks thickly thorned. The virtue of cleanliness rules supreme here, and there's never a shortage of colours from the blooming flowers; love vibrates in this neighbourhood. You must have spent many happy years being loved by many in the area.

As I walked up to number 26, a young man (who was slightly unshaven, and very good-looking, but did NOT wear earrings or have long hair) who'd been walking in the opposite direction suddenly opened the gate to the house. Oops, I thought, I must be at the wrong place - this did not look like your daughter, and as far as I know, your mother's not married. So I quickly dialed your mum’s number. She answered immediately, and as soon as I said, ‘Kiria Filio”, the polite young gentleman (I wish I were young again) smiled and said “In here,” and your mum came to meet us at the front gate. He obviously knew his way around, because he just headed straight up the indoor staircase of the house; should I be telling you this?

As I entered the house, I noticed the coffee table covered in little bowls of pearls, diamantes and glittery balls. I suppose your mother never rests from her bridal gown work. Even the kitchen table had a sewing machine permanently fixed to it. That's where we decided to sit and have a coffee. I'd bought along a packet of sweets, and she offered me some chocolates. I told her that I didn’t have a coffee at home so I could have one with her, which made her very happy.

“Would you like a frappe, Maria?” she asked me. I told her that I never drink frappe coffee, even though I’ve been in Greece long enough to know that everyone drinks frappe and nothing else. At work, when I ask for a hot instant cup of coffee, they ask me how I can drink the stuff in the heat. I would dearly love to ask them which heat they are talking about, since all the rooms are air-conditioned, and you need a shawl to cover your back so you don't get a chill. I don't know what it is with Greeks and those cold frothy coffees they serve here, which all tourists find a novelty when they first come here and order them at the old harbour. A friend of mine even told me that the coffee grounds used to make it contain Greek olive oil soap, which is what creates the soap suds, but I'm wondering if that's just a way to advertise their product: "Drink frappe: the cleanest coffee in the world." I wonder if tourists would still drink it if they realised just how much coffee is used to make one frappe: nearly one tablespoon! Don't they wonder why their nerves are jittery afterwards? Do they know that it could bore holes through their intestines?

“Elliniko?” your mum then asked me. I never drink that either, even though I think I would enjoy it, and it would even help me to avoid milk during fasting. But I can't stand the waiting around until Greek coffee boils up. It's so much easier to boil a kettle and make some instant coffee. I thought I was going to sound too fussy if I told her that I preferred instant coffee made in the simple way that we used to make it back in New Zealand. You know what I mean: a teaspoon of instant coffee, a teaspoon of sugar and some boiling water, with a splash of milk. Thankfully, she knew just the kind of coffee I meant, and I can tell you that she also knows how to make a very good one! Your mum brought out a china cup and saucer to serve it in with a silver spoon to stir my sugar, so I had to be very careful not to slurp it like I usually do when I’m having my coffee at home in a mug.

We talked lots and lots about life in Greece, and only a little bit about life elsewhere, which just goes to show how happy we are to live here. She told me that she's still not used to living here even though she was born here: some people find it strange that she doesn’t leave her door open all the time so that the neighbours can come and go as they please. In fact, some people tend to think she isn’t at home at all just because her door is closed all the time, and they send her visitors away, telling them she’s out; for goodness sake, don’t they know about doorbells?

I must ask you one thing: why on earth did your mum think I was a good cook? You know I never make up the recipes I cook; they’re all standard Cretan cuisine, nothing new. I told your mum I only cook because I have to. Has no one ever told you that Cretans live to eat, and not the other way around!

Just before I left for work, I remembered to ask her to show me some photos of you and the rest of the family, and we marveled over them for a little while. We called out to the little one to come out of her room, but she was feeling ill. It’s amazing that even that nice gentleman could not cheer her up enough to come downstairs; maybe I’m not supposed to be telling you this either? Anyway, you know what teenagers are like; even though I don’t have any of my own at the moment, I see them at the school all the time. In any case, I now have a good excuse to visit your mum again – I’ll arrange to go when the little one doesn’t have any visitors!

Till the next time, Dimitra. Do write and tell me what’s happening in your neighbourhood. What is everyone cooking there?

Lots of love, MARIA

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

1 comment:

  1. A perfectly delight to read. I enjoyed it very much.