[Spetses from the boat, August 2007.]
My coworker just gave me the August issue of Saveur, which is the Greece issue, and just a quick glance-through has me sighing, and exclaiming over the photos (oh, it is so real, so truly Greece), and wistful for that place — and also wanting to cook. Soon, soon.
For me, everything began with Greece in both the real and literary sense. It was the place from where my grandfather came, providing me with my name and my very existence. It was also the first country I visited outside of the United States. And it was the place that informed my childish imaginings –- a country of golden light and mist over the hills, strangely resembling the California landscape to which I was accustomed though I wouldn’t know how similar they are until later when I finally visited.
Hellas, agapi-mou, I’ll whisper into the stillness some nights before I fall asleep. Sweet dusty country of battered boats and ferries filled the brim with cars and mykanakis roaring back onto to land at the docks. Younger, I always pictured the Mediterranean as perfectly clear with a deep, true blue farther out and indeed it’s mostly thus though I have seen it also muddy and wild after a storm.
I’ve only gone to Greece in the summers: once in July and twice more in August. When my brother lived there for a year he’d call me from a pay phone during his first few weeks on the island where he’d landed up. February, and I could hear the rain in the background because it was so quiet then, all the tourists safely at home in Athens for the winter. At first he had a tiny apartment he had to scour out upon move-in with not much heat, and I tried to imagine him from my bigger apartment in San Francisco, so far away.
“It’s cold here,” he told me once and we were silent a little, letting the rush of the international phone line fill up the space between the words. I could see the dark, wet streets, the few cafes that were open spilling their light out onto the stone sea-wall, the horses that usually crowded the narrow alleyways shut up for the season.
Greece in the summer is hot and messy. Dogs linger around the train stations and the souvlaki sold down by Piraeus is pretty much the worst souvlaki you’ll eat when you’re there (the frappes, however, are icy cold and delicious). It’s dirty and sometimes it’s hard to breath through the smog and heat. And yet in Athens and Thessaloniki almost all the apartments have balconies and on almost all of the balconies there are plants: bright flowers spilling over the sides, herbs, strange palm-like shrubs with fronds that lift in the occasional, longed-for breeze.
I don’t know what it’s like in the winter -– my brother tells me on the smaller islands it’s quiet and people save up their summer earnings because there is not much work in the off-season, or else they go to Athens –- but I promise myself I’ll go sometime. In the cities at least the bakeries will surely still be open and if I can’t swim I can prowl the ruins of the Acropolis in the rain. I would like to see Athens just once not pressed down with the blasting white heat of summer.
[Spetses, harbor, August 2007.]
As a child I was fascinated with Greece from the moment I learned my grandfather was born there. Though I never got to have him in any real way, he left me my first name (he was “Nicholas” and so I was “Nicole” — or so I like to think it went this way) and my last (originally it was “Spyridakhs” though it was changed, probably when he came through Ellis Island, to “Spiridakis”), a wish to find my lost relatives that is yet unfulfilled, a wicked ability to acquire a good tan, and an affinity for cooking.
Then, I wanted to learn everything. I wanted to breathe Greece. 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. 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.
Rather predictably the first time I went there I found the reality did not live up to the glossy fantasy –- how could it? I had swooned over the country for so long it had grown in my mind into a mythical place of sheep and ships, sweet milk flowing like the nectar the gods and goddesses drank on Mt. Olympus, buildings standing white and sharp against a smear of blue sea. Nevermind I couldn’t speak the language (or read it, for that matter) — I knew it was my place.
[Mt. Olympus, photo by Simo, August 2005.]
It took me three tries to love it. The first time I went I was just 21, traveling with my college boyfriend, and neither of us could speak the language. It was my first transatlantic flight and I sat up through the night wide-awake and clenched with anxiety until I caught the first bright glimpse of the Mediterranean. The man next to me told me how to properly pronounce Aegena (with the hard ‘g’; we’d always thought it was with a soft one), where my grandfather had grown up, and wished us luck.
Athens was brutally hot. The airport was filled with jostling travelers and cigarette smoke; few signs were in English. People rushed around frenetically. I dug my backpack out of the heap of bags that made up baggage claim –- in those pre-Olympics times things were somewhat … disorganized (it’s much better now). Finally we caught a bus into the city, me drooping with heat and fatigue and wanting only to sleep. Everything felt strange, incredibly foreign, and I wondered what I was doing there.
The second time was better. I met my best friend –- a Greek-American -– in Thessaloniki and traveled with him even further north to his family’s village in the mountains. The first night there we drank icy cold retsina and ate tzatziki thick with garlic and cucumbers, onion ‘pita,’ and good, fresh bread. We climbed high through the woods to drink from a mountain spring and ate cold cucumbers rubbed in salt. We visited a matriarch of the village who offered us corn roasted on a wood-burning stove and potatoes dipped in sugar, all of which she’d grown in her sprawling garden. I felt a little bit like I belonged.
But the third time I went to Greece something shifted into place. Maybe it was because I was visiting my brother on one of the beautiful islands –- Spetses –- or because I’d been there before and finally knew a little bit of what to expect. Whatever the reason, that summer I slipped under its skin and it under mine, inexorable and finite. I come to my love of the place now with a more clear-eyed love that sees it both for what it is and what it could be.
[Spetses, harbor, August 2007.]
The last time I went to Greece was over three years ago now and some days it feels so very far away. All I really did was sleep and eat and swim and eat and swim and swim and swim and read on the little rocky beach that was my brother’s favorite. I probably have never been so tan in my entire life and I never got sunburned. We ate languid meals during his lunch hour and then I was dispatched back to the beach for my afternoon. The day I left I felt like planting my feet on the dock and wailing; it was impossible to imagine coming back to the states.
One day we road bikes to the supposed best restaurant on the island (and it was very good) up the hills and past the horses in the blazing sun. The last bit was down a dirt path and as soon as we got the beach we threw the bikes down and jumped in the water to wash away all the dust and sweat. We drank beer with dinner and rode back through the deserted roads to town, me stopping every so often to take pictures of the bay and the boats anchored there. It was so quiet I could hear the wind rushing through the dry grass. A tanker ship sailed serenely in at dusk
Every day I drank cups and cups of coffee and frappes and slept dreamlessly and deeply at night even so. I’d have coffee first thing in the still, heavy mornings right when I woke up, with the milk heated in one of those little Greek coffee pot-tins on the hot plate. Then I’d walk through the narrow, hot streets to the kafenio near the boat yard where my brother worked to meet him for a mid-morning frappé (mine I liked metrios, and with a little milk) or met his girlfriend Emily at a restaurant above the dock to watch the ferry come in. We cooked enormous meals at my apartment –- roasted chicken, vegetables baked in the little convection oven, drizzled honey over nectarines and thick yogurt –- and sat outside drinking dry white wine.
For a long time previous, though, I eschewed the tastes of Greece. An early aversion to eggplant meant moussakka, that heavy, baked casserole full of eggplant and cheese, was out. Olives for a long time I found to be too bitter, maybe because I was mostly only familiar with the tinned kind strewn across pizza and I didn’t like those. I turned my nose up at feta for years –- it was too salty, too crumbly, too unfamiliar. I may have draped myself in sheets at Halloween pretending I was Artemis, the goddess of hunting and nature, or wished for a swim in the Mediterranean every time I shivered through another Northern California summer along the coast (the Pacific Ocean, of course, being cold in all seasons), but I missed out on the really good stuff: the food.
Fortunately I grew up a bit and my taste buds developed. Perhaps it was just that I finally forced myself to expand my palate. After all, how could I be a true Greek if I didn’t eat the things so indicative to that dusty, wind-blown place? As a vegetarian I couldn’t eat fish or meat -– a shame, my brother would later tell me, shaking his head in regret that I’d miss out on lamb slow-roasted outside during a spring afternoon and liberally flavored with rosemary, garlic, and olive oil –- but there still were so many other things to snatch up and devour.
Olives, especially when perched alongside a cold glass of retsina and a dish of pistachio nuts, are perfect during a lazy afternoon in the shade (or anytime, really). They’ve become one of my staples when I serve appetizers and it’s rare I’ll have a dinner party without placing small bowls for olives and pits within easy reach of my guests. While it’s unfortunately true I still can’t stand eggplant, I’ve fallen hard and fast for fried zucchini ‘coins,’ particularly when they’re eaten outside at a seaside taverna. And feta -– oh lovely feta. I’ve learned to love that pungent cheese baked with tomatoes, gently warmed on the stove in a pool of olive oil, scrambled quickly with eggs and spinach, or simply crumbled over salads laced with cucumber and mint.
My dad wasn’t –- and still isn’t –- much of a cook when I was growing up. But he always made dolmades, the Greek dish of grape leaves stuffed with slow-simmered rice flecked with onions and tomatoes. The recipe he relied upon is from a book titled “Can the Greeks Cook!” which apparently my grandfather gave my mom when my parents married. They are the best grape leaves I’ve ever had in or out of Greece, and they are still the only ones I’ll eat and then ask for more.
When I’ve made these dolmades myself they never taste quite the same as his version. Probably this is because there is an inexplicable sweetness to a dish your dad has made you because he knows you like it -– an invisible ingredient that serves to elevate a humble meal of grape leaves and rice to something memorable and lasting. Or maybe it’s because I don’t make them enough; I am working on remedying that situation as often as possible.
Living in California, the place that is forever home to me and where I am most contented, I find I miss Greece. It’s a patient, quiet, back-of-the mind ache that is nonetheless always there, a particular kind of homesickness that can’t really be assuaged by looking at photos or eating a certain kind of food (though I try.). And really, Greece has never been my home – I didn’t grow up there, after all, and I don’t even speak the language! But perhaps these things aren’t necessary at the end of it: to love and miss can’t always be explained. It just simply is.
See also a piece I wrote for NPR’s Kitchen Window, on feta:
The Making of a Feta Fan.
1 jar grape leaves, 15 oz. (or fresh, if you’re lucky enough to have them)
1 cup rice
1 cup olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice
5 cups water
3 onions, chopped fine
2 Tb. tomato paste
2 Tb. chopped parsley or mint
Salt and pepper
Soak the rice for 20 minutes in two cups of cold water and one teaspoon of salt. Drain. Sauté the onion over a medium flame with one cup of the water until tender, about 15 minutes. Add oil and cook five minutes. Add rice and tomato paste, salt and pepper to taste. Cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add parsley and cook for about three minutes. Add half the lemon juice and cook for five more minutes. Spread out the grape leaves and place one teaspoon of the filling in the center of each one.
Starting from the stem of the leaf, turn in the ends and roll tightly. Arrange in layers in a medium saucepan. Pour remaining lemon juice over the rolls, and add one cup of water.
Cover and bring to a boil for five minutes. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes. Add one more cup of water if needed. Reduce heat to low, and continue to cook for 15 minutes or until rice is tender. Serve at room temperature.