Greeks Bearing Gifts

As the Easter season approaches, I am reminded of another one, long ago and far away. The story is one of the first I wrote when I began writing about my life in food and the people with whom I have shared so many meals.


            Adam’s introduction was a godsend for two weary travelers with no itinerary, not much money, and nothing to lose by taking a wrong turn. My husband, Buck and I had been on the road for three months, in that time after college and before serious career or family commitments. We explored the roads of France, Spain, Morocco, Italy, and now Greece in a Volkswagen station wagon that sometimes doubled as living quarters. We were seeking sun and a hospitable place to settle for at least a week or so.

            So it was our chance meeting with Adam Hopkins, a British journalist whose car had run off a desolate stretch of road on the Isle of Crete, that brought us to Sitea, a picturesque town of stucco villas stacked over a barren and hilly landscape that plunged to the Mediterranean. He told us where to find lodging there. “Just go to the barbershop and ask for George.”

            George, an aspiring real estate developer in Sitea, was married to Katina and rented rooms in their home to the occasional tourist who, like us, stumbled onto this bucolic village. Their two daughters and all their family, for that matter, lived within a ten-mile radius of the town.

            How two scruffy young Americans came to be adopted by these Greek Orthodox parents owed a lot to the native and lavish generosity of the people of Crete.  Adam’s arrival at the pension a day afterward was another help, as he provided a rich introduction to Greek history and culture. And he very handily did all our translating for us, albeit sometimes with a little mischief. One night, as we groaned in protest over third helpings of homemade macaroni and grilled redfish, Adam, blue eyes dancing and cheeks blushed from the homemade wine, repeatedly whispered to our hosts in Greek that we were still hungry and were just being polite.

          Dinners at George and Katina’s pension and feasts on the beach with the entire extended family were astonishing in their simplicity and sometimes over-whelming in their magnitude. Everyone thought we were too thin. And that, coupled with a Cretan’s sense of self-respect measured by how much he could feed his guests, led to massive indulgences on our behalf. I remember one Sunday dinner that began just after church, with our gathering of dandelion greens and fresh herbs on a sandy hillside above the sea. Sea urchins were pulled from the azure waters, while all of us pitched in to make enormous bowls of fresh tarama salata, fried sardines, bitter greens, and artichokes.

          Besides fattening us up, Katina tried a number of ploys to turn her stray Americans in proper Greeks.  She took me to church for Orthodox services where I stood devoutly among rows of women in black dresses, my jeans camouflaged by Katina's oversized coat. She taught me how to make her special dolmades and homemade macaroni using only a quick roll of my fingers across the floured wooden table.  Katina took me shopping and introduced me to all her friends at the market. Regularly, as would any self-respecting Greek mother, she took to begging us to "make a baby" at the pension, a request always punctuated by raised eyebrows, a knowing smile and a finger pointing to our upstairs room above the kitchen. And again at breakfast, there was the questioning look we avoided while we sipped our heavy Greek coffee.

            Between meals we explored the island, often with Adam as our expert guide. I recall the vivid color of the sea, the bright bright sun, and the brisk breeze against my face as we sat among Minoan ruins and listened to Adam conjure the mystery and  sense of impending doom as he recounted the story of the sudden demise of this ancient civilization.  Only the distant sound of goat bells accompanied his mesmerizing tale.

            One evening on our own, Buck and I went to a local bar to sample raki, the local equivalent to moonshine - another one of Adam's introductions.  We had learned that ten cents would bring a drink and several small plates of fava beans, artichokes, potatoes or olives to nibble on for dinner an authentic “small plate” menu.  We invited a local fisherman sitting nearby to join us and bought him a drink and tried out our limited Greek in conversation.  When he had finished his drink, he bade us farewell, only to return shortly afterward with a small brown bag.   He offered it to me and puzzled, I opened it. Inside I found a pair of shoelaces to replace the worn and broken ones on my hiking boots.  His gift of welcome to me was typical of this generous community.

          One afternoon, George offered to take us up into the mountains to meet Uncle Manole and Aunt Kaliope while he delivered some meat from the butcher for them. George’s “truck,” clad in dented, faded blue metal, was actually more like a three-wheeled motorcycle with a makeshift cab attached in the back. I rode the harrowing hour-long ride over mountainous dirt roads, clinging to the door frame. Buck and Adam followed in our dusty trail in the Volkswagen.

            As we parked our vehicles and dusted off in Aunt Kaliope’s yard, I thought I had come upon the landscape of a fairy tale. Perhaps it was the magic scene of a stucco cottage nestled in the hillside among fenced garden plots, grape arbors, and olive trees. More likely, it was the enchanting presence of the aging Kaliope and Manole, with their weatherworn faces and hands, their small size, and their welcoming smiles. Since neither of them reached five feet in height, everything in their home was sized for them. Even the fireplace that heated the house was a miniature. We gathered in front of it at their table in the cozy, low-ceilinged room.           

            Since our visit was unexpected, Aunt Kaliope was deeply concerned that they would not be able to feed us properly. She and Manole repeatedly apologized as they set their offerings before us, beginning with bowls of homegrown almonds and olives. Whenever someone asks me about my most memorable meal, I always return for a moment to that scene of us sitting at their handmade wooden table, our faces lit by the fire’s glow and me speechless and practically weeping over their food. Kaliope served us each a large flat bowl of fresh snails gathered that morning from her garden, simmered in homemade red wine, garlic, and herbs and ladled from an iron pot in the fireplace. We tore off chunks of a hot, crusty loaf to sop up the sauce and washed it all down with Manole’s rich red wine. I don’t know how long we lingered at the table. I for one did not want to break the spell. And if ever I felt the restriction of language, it was then. I simply couldn’t thank them enough.

            It was not long after that and at the end of another daylong food orgy that ended in a restaurant with dancing, singing, and a few thrown plates (a customary show of approval), that Buck and I decided it was in the interest of self-preservation that we move on. Breaking the news to our hosts was painful. They protested that Easter was only a week away, and we had to stay to eat the lamb that we had been helping fatten. Finally, as our resolve convinced Katina that we were in fact leaving, she left the kitchen table and began rattling around the stove. I walked up behind her to give her a hug and saw that she was cooking us yet another meal, a farewell gift in a frying pan of hot olive oil and garlic. I watched in silence as each large tear rolled down her cheek and sizzled into the pan.







  1.  Pattie Ward's avatar
    Pattie Ward
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    Kay - I just ran across this while googling for "Hiking in Spain." (!) It is lovely, brought tears to my eyes. Long ago, and far away . . . pattie

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