Saturday, 16 February 2008

Junk food treat (Φαστφουντάδικο)

The 30th of January is a school holiday, the feast of the three Hierarchs, considered the Fathers of Christian Orthodox education. Anyone remotely involved in education has a day off from work. We woke up with the sun shining, with the feeling of an icy coldness in the air. Even though it was not a school day, the children were up bright and early. Whenever they know that there is no school, they always seem to wake up early without the alarm clock ringing. I asked them if they wanted to attend the optional church service organised by their school in commemoration of the event; I would have been quite comfortable to stay in the warmth of our house out of harm’s way of the cold weather. I wish church services started at comfortable hours, like they did in New Zealand; we'd set off for church at about 10 o'clock (they end here at that time), and the service would finish at midday. Mother had already prepared the midday meal, and when we went home, she'd serve it up. With the frosty morning, staying at home didn't seem to bad an idea.

Children see church as a socialising event, so of course they wanted to go
. So we got dressed, and without having breakfast or even a glass of water, as I instructed them not to in order to receive Holy Communion, we set off for church. I often wonder why I bother to have breakfast when I know I am not hungry in the morning, and the coffee I drink is more out of habit than real thirst. I suppose I have breakfast as a good example of practising what I preach. About half the school's pupils were in attendance at the service, there was a short speech about the lives and works of the Holy Teachers, and the children were all given some sweet bread and orange juice afterwards. It was a fun way of enjoying a rather solemn religious service.

I had some errands to run in town, so I left the children with their 83-year-old grandmother, a very active, albeit matriarchal woman. When there are urgent jobs to be done, her (only) son informs her that his wife must leave the children in her care. This is important because, in her way of thinking, nothing is urgent, except for olive-picking, orange-picking and watering the garden and the fields. As this job had to be done today, I had to succumb to the humiliation of asking her to look after the children; it’s not easy to dump two young ones onto a senior citizen who has always believed that a woman’s place is in the home, and just what is Maria doing by leaving the house anyway. I was to meet up with the representative of a car dealer in the bank. This woman wanted us to pay for our new car in cash. And that’s not all she wanted – she expected us to withdraw 25,000 euro from our bank account, and rush off down the road to deposit it into her account which was at another bank. Imagine walking around with 25,000 euro in cash in your pocket or handbag. The only place for 25,000 euro in cash is in your underpants, and make sure they’ve got no holes. "Can't we just write out a bank cheque?" No,” she said, “that won't do at all.” I didn't ask her why she had to have it in cash; either she was trying to avoid paying cheque charges (could she be that stingy?), or because it was the 30th of January, and the late Archbishop Christodoulos was being buried the next day, rendering the last day of the month a public holiday (ONLY for schools, banks and civil servants of all manners - why a shop assistant or construction site worker isn’t included in this elite list of people deserving a day off, I have no idea), therefore the cheque would not show up the next day as a deposit in her account, and it would have to wait until the first of the following month, thereby ruining their chances of showing a good sales record for the month of January. I refused to be sucked into doing her dirty work for her, so I arranged to meet up with her at the bank so she could take the cash herself and dispense with it in any way she wanted to.

It was a gloriously sunny day, a ‘halcyon’ day, meaning a short spell of good weather in the middle of winter, even though it was cold – ήλιος με δόντια – sun with sharp teeth – as we say in Greece. Hania (or maybe you prefer Chania, or Khania, or Canea, among the various spellings of the town’s name, ascribed to it by the various European travellers from times gone by) always looks beautiful on sunny winter days. They start off icy cold, but by lunchtime, you’re carrying your coat and warming yourself with the sun’s hot rays. The snowy mountains of Lefka Ori are deceptive. What a nice day to take the children out, I thought, even though I knew what Mama and Papa Bear might have to say about that. They belong to the Culto del Sosto, the “We know what’s best” club, the one that believes that when it’s winter, it’s always cold, and children shouldn’t go out at all because they will catch their death of cold. If this were true, then no child would be up at 7 in the morning and going to school in the freezing cold, not even the ones that were well. And children in Alaska would be schooled only during summer, and take their holidays in winter. If I didn’t have that errand to run, I’d take them out window shopping. Young children window-shopping, you say? Yes, why not, we live in the country, and when we go into town, it’s usually by car to predetermined places without any strolls about the town. Our senses are embellished every morning with the sight of green fields, the sounds of farm animals and the smell of manure. The saying ‘Don’t leave town till you see the country’ applies to us vice-versa.

The businesswoman was not in the bank when I arrived. I decided to make the transaction, and asked the bank teller to hold the cash until she came; I felt a little stupid (not to mention self-conscious) taking 25,000 euro and stuffing it into my handy little backpack, the best-hands-free device ever discovered, only to take it out again and give it to the businesswoman. I don’t think I have seen that much money in cash ever in my life, let alone handled it. She finally arrived half an hour late, as she had been delayed in traffic. “I’ve parked the car quite a way from here, and I had a long walk ahead of me,” she explained, maybe trying to make me feel guilty that I had made her leave her office (when I could have run her errands too). I thought she would have taken a cab or be driven into town (don’t rich businesswomen have chauffeurs?), as her firm was located in a busy area just out of town. It would have been unwise to use it to drive into town since she wouldn’t be able to find a place to park last minute (not to mention unnecessarily leaving behind carbon footprints). Parking in the centre of a historic Mediterranean town is a nightmare, with busy narrow roads and more cars than people.

She looked at my backpack. “Is that where you’ve put the money?” Was this woman trying to be funny or what? I directed her to the cashier who had dealt with the transaction, and he brought out the cash for the businesswoman. She picked up the bundles of bills, which looked slightly grubby – talk about dirty money – and started stuffing them into her Gucci handbag, which was the size and shape of a small evening bag. She had to keep pushing them down into her bag because those huge bundles just wouldn’t fit in, together with her mobile phone, wallet, lipstick, sunglasses-cum-case, cigarette, lighter, and goodness knows whatever else she kept there. It was embarrassing to watch her, firstly because she looked tragi-comic, stuffing this money into a dainty handbag which wasn’t big enough, and secondly because I didn’t want to be seen with her; I didn’t want others to associate me with this twit. She had to re-arrange some items in her handbag to make the bundles all fit so that she could zip it up. The whole scenario just didn’t suit the woman’s stylish clothes, accessories to match and businesswoman’s status. It left me wondering what kind of car she would eventually be delivering us. I started wishing we had chosen another model.

The errand over, I returned home, having enjoyed the walkabout in town. All the shops seemed to be busy, with people taking advantage of the school holiday and the good weather. It was too late to prepare or cook anything apart from a fry-up of chips and sausages. There was some leftover chili con carne and fasolada, good home-cooked meals. I was hungry, but I didn’t want to eat before I first let my other half choose which leftovers he wanted. I wanted the chilli, but there was only one portion. Fasolada didn’t appeal to me today. I craved for something different, something prepared by someone else, so that I wouldn’t have to clean up afterwards. My walk into town had whetted my appetite for a bit of an outing. Junk food fit the bill. But where do you find junk food in the middle of a hillside suburban village in the middle of winter? Images of the town sprung to my mind, the junky town that Hania has recently become – glass-and-metal cafes, low-slung jeans with protruding stomachs, overly-pierced teenagers, sandwich bars alternating among Benetton, Burberry and Gant clothing stores, all selling goods in excess of 100 euro apiece to the wealthy Haniotes, who profit from the tourist industry in the summer and the agriculture in the winter, while at the same time working in some other form of paid employment. There’s a lot of money in this area, all being saved away in over 40 banks in a provincial town with a population of just over 150,000 in its greater area: 1 bank per 4000 residents. No wonder Zoniana residents kept their money at home; there were obviously not enough banks in their village to cater for their marijuana proceeds.

The day was just too nice to spend indoors. I wanted to go out for lunch with the children. So I made up an errand: “Mama, I just need to pop out to the SUPERMARKET. Who wants to come for the ride?” Kids love supermarkets; apart from the chocolate biscuits, sugary sweet packets and coloured yoghurts, there’s the toys section, the stationery department and the sliding doors. My children love sliding down the aisles, bumping into other people’s shopping trolleys and changing the price tags on the racks. These are some of the many reasons I avoid taking them with me during the weekly shop.

I needn’t have bothered pretending; while I snuck us all out of the house, yiayia was too busy enthralled in the television reports about the Archbishop’s death to see us running off. I wasn’t hungry for food; I was hungry for an outing. My morning walkabout hadn’t taken me as far as the Old Port of Hania, with its myriads of trendy cafes, snack bars and bistros lining the cobbled harbour which houses a former mosque looking out to a Venetian lighthouse. The best time to enjoy it is in the winter, not when it’s thronging with tourists and all the seats in the eateries are taken. It’s the only place in Hania where you can eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, a snack, and a dessert in different places all less than a few metres from each other. It’s the best place to people-watch, not necessarily the best place to enjoy fine dining, unless you’re into junk food, and that’s what we all wanted: something tasty, something stodgy, something fast.

I don’t know of any children that would prefer to eat ascrolimbi (a kind of horta) with broad beans, or snails in red sauce, no matter how hard you try to convince them that the taverna you have just taken them to is one of the best in town and the food of excellent quality. Junk food is what kids prefer to eat. And we would too, if only we didn’t think about the consequences of eating it. We all crave junk at some time or other. “Where are we going to eat, Mum?” my daughter asked me. “Anywhere you want.”

We walked away from the town centre, leaving behind the morbid architecture of the hasty 1960s building boom and the main square which houses the public toilets. As you walk down Halydon St, glance across the road to Skridlof St with its tacky souvenir shops selling all kinds of trinkets and memorabilia, and you will be reminded of hot summer nights and a lascivious stay in a sexy seaside summer resort. The first time I took my Kiwi friend down this road, she was put off by the hawkers, all trying to get customers into their shops, when she suddenly caught a glimpse of the sea at the end of the road. With the lighthouse bearing tall in the middle of the port, the area takes you by surprise after the seediness of the main drag; suddenly the peasant atmosphere turns into a cosmopolitan one, where everyone is hankering after a seat by the harbour’s edge, the Greeks wearing the latest European fashion, the Northern Europeans in their white sports socks and Birkenstock sandals. Everyone is completely oblivious to the history of the town, which has changed hands from ancient times, being first ruled by the Romans, who were defeated by the Arabs, who were then thrown out of Hania by the Byzantines, who lost power to the Venetians, who were afraid of the Turks invading them, forcing them to build a wall right round the city. The Turks still managed to sneak in, and in their turn, were finally cast out of the town only just over a hundred years ago. The cathedral of the city has been a Roman Catholic church, a mosque and a Christian Orthodox church at one time or other in its long history.

As we passed the fountain in the middle of the piazza, my son, who has now learnt to read, chose the first place that had a sign bearing the name of his favourite food: πίτσα (pizza). My daughter was delighted to hear that the café also served club sandwiches. We chose a seat under the canopy of the outdoor seating, in view of a building used as a mosque in older times, now converted to an exhibition hall. The place was already crowded with young acne-covered faces wearing Gothic black outfits, pierced noses to match. The four chubby girls next to us were playing backgammon. In one hand, they were carrying a cigarette, in the other a glass of cold frothy instant coffee; I can’t drink that stuff in the summer, let alone in the winter. Every two minutes, a mobile phone would go off. If it weren’t for the backgammon or the cigarettes, they would’ve been holding those ringers the whole time.

It was time to deal with Number 2. I decided to phone Papa Bear and let him know I’d be home a little later than usual. “You’re at the port with the kids? It’s freezing!” Years of his mother’s cosseting couldn’t but rub off onto him; I should have guessed his reaction. “Are the children dressed warmly?”, “Are you sitting indoors?”, “Are you facing north or south?” Sometimes he can be worse than his mother. When I finished with the call, I noticed that the fat pimply girls next to us were bundled up in long black woollen coats, over jeans and boots. Maybe they weren’t just following Gothic fashion. Before the waiter came along, I decided to move indoors.

It was certainly a lot warmer in there, but the atmosphere was completely different. The place looked like a dark dungeon, with an arched roof and brick-lined walls. The music was modern – and loud. Men with shaved heads were sitting in groups smoking roll-ups. Skinny girls in hosepipe jeans accompanied them, their heads covered in short spikes; they were all smoking something too. The tables were all tiled with chess-like boards. The whole scene reminded me of a nightclub rather than a Mediterranean seaside café. The last time I had been into one of these places was on the other side of the harbour before I got engaged (not my other half’s cup of tea). The atmosphere was a complete change to the rural environment where we lived. There were quite a few children sitting outdoors on that day, but there were none indoors. I wondered if it was the darker surroundings that put people off from entering. In any case, my children have seen wackier places than this; on a winter’s evening in London we found ourselves at Wong Kei’s, where you sit beside people you don’t know, and the waiters lay the plates on the table as if they’re dealing out a pack of cards. Near St Paul’s Cathedral, we had lunch with some construction site workers and suited businessmen in what looked like a Victorian sewer. Here, we were surrounded by Greek-speaking people, totally different from our neighbours and classmates. This was a good introduction for the children to alternative forms of Greek-dom. They are less sensitised to strange sights, so to speak; this was a form of education. I let them choose a table. We found one next to a wall close to the glazed entrance, perfect for taking in the view both indoors and out.

The walls were decorated (if you could call it that) with ornamental mirrors, along with some abstract art pieces. If you don’t understand a piece of artwork, just ask a child to describe what it sees, and if it answers that it doesn’t know what’s in the pictures, then you’re probably not far wrong yourself. I asked them what they saw in the pictures. It felt a bit like watching the emperor parading naked.

A waiter with one of those nifty ordering machines came smiling past us and dropped a couple of menu cards on the table. I was surprised by the variety. It contained a range of international dishes - Mexican red beans, Chinese noodles, sushi rolls – which weren’t stated in the sandwich board outside the café. I wondered how authentic these dishes would be, or whether they actually served them outside the tourist season (do Greeks eat them?) but I would have to wait for another day to try them. It didn't seem right enjoying international cuisine without another adult. I don't think the children would have appreciated the conversation: "Is it authentic?", The children didn’t even bother to look at the menu: one pizza and a club sandwich, having already decided what they wanted before they even got there. It is a great thrill for a mother to see the smiling faces of her children, and hearing them saying: “Mum, this is the best best best place we’ve ever been to.” I feel sorry for having tortured them at previous times in traditional Cretan tavernas we’ve dragged them, begging them to eat tough pork steak, or chewy chicken souvlaki, when all they really wanted were a few fries and a burger.

I ordered one of those posh flavoured coffees – did I hear myself say I’d have a tiramisu filtered coffee? I decided against ordering anything to eat – junk food tends to be served in huge portions, and my children never seem to finish off all the food on their plate, a fact I take great pride over. I hope they never have to deal with being overweight, the pressure of dieting and not being able to wear the clothes they want. The sight of obese people is not easy to deal with, but when it comes to an obese child, it’s downright gross. It’s so easy for children to become overweight in Greece, as the policy is to over-feed in general. The hostess loves to ply food onto your dinner plate, without asking you, without even waiting for you to finish what’s already on your plate. This is part of the Greek hospitality, and the main reason why we’re a fat race. A wise man (I don’t remember ever being told it was a wise woman) once said: “Eat a third of what’s on your plate, drink the equivalent of a third of what’s on your plate in water, and leave the last third on your plate to keep aside some room in your stomach to digest the third that you ate.” I wish this is what my mother had drummed into me rather than “If you don’t eat all the potatoes (or all the rice, or all the macaroni, for that matter) on your plate, I won’t give you any meat.” To this day, this idea lives on in my subconscious mind, that I must first eat what I don’t want to eat before I eat what I really want to eat. An image of my mother conjures up in my head berating me if I do otherwise.

When the food came, my children started cheering. The waiter laughed. I did too. The pizza was plain cheese and ham, my son’s favourite. The pizza base was slightly undercooked, making the centre of the pizza a little soggy, something my son didn’t notice at all. He’s the kind of eater that is satisfied simply by the sight of a familiar dish that he likes. Pizza is pretty much universal; take it or leave it. My daughter’s club sandwich was well-cooked (as well as you can cook a piece of toast, that is). She likes colourful food; yellow cheese, green lettuce, red tomato, pink mayonnaise. She’s a great eater with a skinny body. She definitely doesn’t take after me. “Where’s your plate, Mum?” “Can I have some of yours?” “Yes, Mum, here, here!” Their way of thanking me for taking them out to a place their dad wouldn’t have suggested going to.

Having filled our stomachs, and having had our fill of the weirdly exotic smoky atmosphere of the café, we asked for the bill, and made our way home. Their father was standing outside in the front yard talking with his mother. “I was wondering where you’d been,” she said. “Not the supermarket, I take it. Very cold day for an outing,” she added, pursing her lips as if scolding me for misbehaving. With the full knowledge that it’s best to ignore such comments, I made my way upstairs, and so did the rest of the family. I took out the leftovers from the fridge to prepare hubby’s lunch. He came up after a few minutes.

”What do you prefer, chilli or beans?” He wanted the beans. I could’ve had that chili after all, but I had already stuffed my gut on fast food. I heated up the beans in the microwave.

“Who’s making that noise, Maria?”

“Your mother’s re-arranging the furniture again.” She often did this, but admittedly the noise wasn’t that bad at other times.

I’ll just go down and check,” he said, having only been down there a quarter of an hour ago. I had just warmed up the beans, and now they would need reheating by the time he got back upstairs again. But I wouldn’t have to bother reheating them, because his mum had just fallen down in her own house, after feeling slightly dizzy, and ended up breaking her leg. Oh dear, how sad. I silently thanked the Lord for giving me one good sunny day in winter, in the company of my greatest fans; what a good day it turned out to be. There won’t be many days like this one for a while

This story is dedicated to LHC.

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