Eating Cucumbers in the Mountains

23 August 2006

A year ago I had perhaps the best cucumber of my life: freshly picked from a sunny garden, crunchy, cold from being held under icy water, sprinkled with a bit of salt. I held it with both hands, chewing on it slowly, feeling its crisp bite and disintegration in my mouth. The trees sighed and settled, the water moved gently.

We had started out that morning from Florina, weighted down with liters of water and fortified by a good breakfast of yogurt, honey, cheese, fruit, juice, and strong, thick coffee. The day would be hot, but a mythical fountain — the best, the most pure water ever to touch mortal lips — beckoned from the dim coolness of the sheltering trees high up the mountain.

We climbed, drank our tepid water, swatted at flies. A few cars passed, stirring up dust on the dry road. Their occupants looked at us as though we were very slightly crazy; it seems that not many Greeks embrace exercise to the extent that we foolhardy Americans do. After a few miles I wondered if they had the right idea and less than a mile from our destination we did accept a lift from one of the old men of the village who probably would not have accepted a refusal anyway.

They — the old men — had all gathered there with supplies of meat and bread and cheese and tomatoes and cucumbers. They looked a bit askance at me for not eating the meat, and then also for only having a small drink of ouzo (before noon!), but when they saw my genuine enthusiasm for the cucumber I was forgiven. And what a cucumber! It was rough and knobbly, as proper cucumbers should be, but since it was grown in a small organic garden on a sunny slope it was clean tasting, and sharp. We held them under the cold water from the fountain, dipped them into coarse salt, and gnawed away; it was refreshing, invigorating, and totally delicious.

Afterward, I stood among the trees eating a large piece of watermelon, juice trickling down my hands down to my elbows, looking at the stream as it flowed through a patch of sunlight. In the distance, I could hear the faint tinkle of bells as the goats moved slowly through the forest. I listened to Greek and broken English and Albanian spoken by the men behind me. I could get lost here, I thought; I could stay here forever in these woods, drinking this water, eating this cucumber. In Greece.