February blows in with a grey day and the promise of rain, but I am far from Northern California today and so I hardly notice the chill.
I had planned to write about a delicious soup I made the other night with baby potatoes and leeks straight from the Civic Center farmers market — bought in the slight haze of a cold — but I must put that on hold because my brother has just landed in Athens to spend an indefinite period of time in Greece and I am filled with thoughts of the place.
[I.e., he will be living and working in a country half-way around the world from this little city perched alongside the Pacific Ocean and wow: How he is gonna eat when he’s there.]
My brother is a smart guy: he has studied Greek for years, and will take a two-week course to brush up on his skills before heading out to sea to apprentice himself to an island boatbuilder where he will practice his craft, solidify his knowledge of the language, and (I fervently hope) consume a wide and beautiful variety of all sorts of things.
This Grecian fascination is quite familiar to me: from almost the moment I learned my grandfather was born on Aegina, I wanted to learn everything about the country. I wanted to breathe Greece. I imagined golden hills shining above a blue and bountiful ocean, grapes dripping from the vine, honey pooling in bits of crockery on driftwood tables. I let audio tapes of the ancient myths lull me to sleep at night, and proudly identified with my ancestral land when my skin turned ever browner in the summer (OK: I still razz a certain someone about just how Greek I am because I get a tan and I am from the islands, how about you?). I longed to go, even though I couldn’t speak the language other than a timid “yassou” and “please, thank-you, what-time-is-it.” Greece was my destiny; I knew this before I set my feet onto its dusty roads for the first time.
Two trips and a few convenient curse words tucked under my belt later, I must admit the fantasy does not exist. Greece’s gods and goddesses have long since departed, and its city streets are now filled with the blat of moped motors and choking exhaust. Athens — when I landed there the summer of 2000 — was hot, musty, and crowded with undecipherable street signs. In some of the northern locales, as I learned last year, the post might not be picked up for days (or not at all). And if you can’t speak the language — good luck.
But I love the country all the same. During my last sojourn there I ate corn and potatoes roasted on a wood-burning stove in a tiny mountain village, seasoned with salt and late afternoon sunshine — so purely delicious for their simplicity and for the sweet woman who served them to us. I drank icy water from a spring high up in the forest that tasted all the sweeter for the miles we hiked to reach it. My nightly plate of tzatziki made from thick, creamy yogurt was a perfectly balanced blend of garlic and cucumbers to coat the tongue. I grew accustomed to ingesting an extraordinary amount of caffeine in the form of small cups of strong morning coffee and leisurely afternoon frappés. The retsina was sublime, still pine-y but much more mellow, and slipped down smoothly. We spent days by a Mediterranean as clear and placid as glass (the color of the sea is truly indescribable, and changes with its mood).
The Greece I found was realer, earthier than my childish imaginings, and its tastes will stay with me forever: heavy, juicy tomatoes warm from the garden; crisp cucumbers; slabs of tangy, salty feta placed generously atop fresh salads; firm olives and pistachios; dry, not-too-sweet cookies; oregano potato chips.
If his experience encompasses just a small piece of the country I found, it will be rich indeed.
Let me stop here. Let me, too, look at nature awhile.
The brilliant blue of the morning sea, of the cloudless sky,
the yellow shore; all lovely,
all bathed in light.
Let me stand here. And let me pretend I see all this
(I really did see it for a minute when I first stopped)
and not my usual day-dreams here too,
my memories, those images of sensual pleasure.