Friday, 21 March 2008

The daily shopping (Ψώνια καθημερινής βάσης)

"Good morning, Mama, do you need anything from the shops?" Dimitra asked her bedridden mother-in-law, even though she knew that the question was pointless. Supermarket shopping, which she loathed, had now become a daily morning chore. If it wasn't a carton of milk that was needed, then it was half a dozen carrots or a couple of bananas - her mother-in-law believed in buying as fresh as possible, and would bin anything that her sight deceived her into believing that it was stale or had gone off, even if its sell-by date hadn't passed, or it was practically unblemished. Neither she nor her live-in nurse kept shopping lists. "We'll be in town today. I'm taking the children to their clubs."

As Dimitra spoke, Harikleia waved her wiry hand in the air. "I don't think you're in a position to know my needs."

Dimitra had heard so many different versions of this so many times that she had now become completely immune to feeling any degree of insult by it. "OK," she said, keeping her tone neutral so as not to show her broiling ire; she knew that before she had stepped out onto the threshold, somebody would think of something that had run out, each item spontaneously emerging as if its need was precipitated at that very moment. She tur
ned to leave the house. "Margaret, do you need anything?" she asked the live-in Bulgarian nurse.

"I've run out of honey, you know," Harikelia said, just as Margaret opened her mouth.

"Yiani gave me the honey jar. I'll get it filled for you," Dimitra answered nonplussed. She had asked Yiani to fill the jar with the honey that they had in their own house produced by her beekeeper cousin, but Yiani told her to get the jar filled from the Agora where his mother usually bought her honey. "Can she really tell the difference?" Dimitra's mind was on the extra weight she'd have to carry in her bag.

"Are you going to the Agora?" asked Harikleia.

"Yes, I am," she replied.

"What I want is a really good chicken," Harikleia spoke as she stared at the wall. Before she had broken her leg, she did all her shopping without anyone's help, not even her son's. She'd order a taxi, be dropped off at the bank to pick up her pension, then go across the road to the Agora. Throughout her married and widowed life, after she had left the village, the Agora had been her supermarket and shopping centre combined. Everything she needed came from there. But now, this privilege - her mobility as an octogenarian - had been taken away from her without any prior warning. And now she had to rely on the foreign wife of her son, who bought in bulk and always from the local supermarket, where the products could be lying on the shelves for goodness knows how long before they were sold.

"Mama, you know I'm no good when it comes to buying meat." Yiani had picked up a similar prejudice against all supermarket-bought meat, no matter how good it tasted before he was told where she'd bought it from. One minute, he'd be licking his fingers, telling her the chicken was as tender as boiled potato. "Mmm, where did you get this chicken from?" As soon as she told him it was from the supermarket, he'd be spitting out his last bite and casting his plate aside: "I'll just have some salad and bread." She knew better than to pretend that she could buy the kind of chicken meat her mother-in-law wanted.

When she first came to live with them, as a new bride, Dimitra was taken on a shopping trip to the butcher's with her husband and his mother. As they entered the butcher's at the back entrance of the Agora, the same stall that she'd been buying from for years, Harikleia, clutching her handbag and dressed in a black skirt, black blouse, black blazer, black shoes and black stockings, walked slowly up to the counter - time always seemed immaterial to her - and spoke slowly and clearly, as if she were talking to someone who was hard of hearing. "I'm wanting some goat, today." The butcher stared blankly at the carcasses that were hanging from the meat hooks and pointed to them. "Yes, but is it really goat?" Harikleia smiled sarcastically. Dimitra wondered why she had to ask the butcher this question; after all, she had been shopping from this person for so many years. "It's goat," the butcher glared back at her. Yiani stood next to his mother, waiting to speak when told to. "Have you got any goat with its tail still attached?" Dimitra felt uncomfortable; she would choose divorce rather than enter a butcher's and ask to see an animal's backside, and why on earth couldn't she just buy lamb and be done with it, anyway? "Spring lamb contains too much cholesterol, and a goat's tail looks distinctive, so he can't switch it with lamb, which always costs less." She wondered if her parents used to pose the same kind of questions to the butchers in Courtenay Place in Wellington, where they always bought half a side of spring lamb once a month, chopped up appropriately into stewing, roast and barbecue cuts. She couldn't ask them if they did, as they had both passed away by this time, and all the butchers in Courtenay Place had closed down, ever since the New World supermarket opened up for business across from the fire station.

Without batting an eyelid or uttering a word, the butcher opened the door that led to the cold storage. He came back carrying half a carcass with a bushy black tail, presumably the other half of the animal that was hanging on the display hook. He was probably used to this kind of customer, the ghost dressed in black, as Dimitra liked to call her. Harikleia peered at the tail and nodded. "Yes, it is goat." She stared at it closely, just below the tail. Her last question sounded totally irrelevant to the circumstances: "But it's a male goat, isn't it?" The butcher quickly retorted, as if expecting this remark, "That's all I've got today, madam." "Meat from male animals has an off-putting smell when you cook it, Dimitra. Trust us, we know about this better than you do," Yiani tried to explain to her. The balance of the sexes is kept in order by Nature who ensures that enough of both sexes are born to continue the breed. "Then who ends up buying male meat if you say it stinks? Is it left to rot and thrown away?" It was pointless for Dimitra to argue about such a culturally controversial issue. So Harikleia asked for chicken instead, and Dimitra told Yiani that if he wanted his wife to cook meat in the house, he'd have to bring it to her, otherwise, he'd have to convert to vegetarianism for the rest of his life.

"I'll let Yiani know, Mama, he knows the kind of chicken meat you want."

"Is Yiani at work?" No matter what he was doing, if Mama wanted something, he'd stop and fetch it for her. He never said no to his Mama.

"Yes, he's in town, it won't be difficult for him to stop off at the market, Mama." You know that, she felt like adding.

"So many responsibilities rest on his shoulders," sighed Harikleia. Dimitra could hear the children waging a war against each other in the car. "We need some milk, and we're out of soap." Margaret remembered what they needed just in time before Dimitra left the house, huddling her arms round her as if she felt cold, even though it was a warm sunny day in March.

*** *** ***
Saturday mornings were now always a pleasure for Dimitra. It was the only time in the week that she spent on the only form of exercise she got these days - she loved walking. Hania however was not a walker's paradise. The roads were often full of potholes, the sidewalks narrow, the streets dusty. There were too many cars being driven by reckless drivers. The port area was supposed to be car-free, but even there drivers disobeyed the law by bringing their cars into the designated pedestrian zone. It was a trial to walk anywhere with children; now she was rid of them early enough to enjoy a hassle-free walk from the cafes by Koum Kapi to the former mosque at the main square by the harbour, and then on into the shopping district of the town, before it was time to pick up the children and go home to cook lunch.

Despite its hazardous road conditions, Hania felt like a safe town to Dimitra, at least during the day, and since she was not a night person, preferring to rise early and seize the day by its horns, she didn't care what she heard about what happened in Hania at night. When she lived in Wellington, she walked a great deal. Her walks were taken for the sole purpose of walking and taking in the view. There was no reason why she had to walk a particular route. She simply walked because she liked to walk. She liked to walk by the sea and look up at the hills of the town belt directly above the bays. Starting from her house, the walk would take her along the business district of Kent Terrace, past the large pub across from the Embassy cinema which always had its doors and windows open during the day, presumably to air it, since it stank of beer and cigarette smoke even as Dimitra walked outside it (she had never been inside and had never wished to), past the fire station, onto Oriental Parade. She felt privileged to live within walking distance of the town beach stretching below the foot of the hill which was covered in pine trees.

But once she reached the old pavilion at Oriental Bay, the road started to frighten her; it was void of human life, apart from the few joggers who sped by with their dark sunglasses and walkmans plugged into their ears, staring straight ahead of them, and the odd loner walking a dog. They probably didn't even notice her, as they would be absorbed in their own activities. Once she reached Point Jermingham, she would quicken her pace and stop every now and then to look behind her, in case someone was following her and she hadn't noticed them. This stopped her from enjoying the breathtaking views of the Roseneath hills and the stunning atmosphere of the quiet bays with their pebbly shores. The privilege she felt to live within walking distance of the sea was overshadowed by the fear that all those nasty things that were reported in the newspapers would happen to her in this lonely stretch of scenic beauty, because she had theaudacity to enjoy it alone. It defied the purpose of the walk. Even the road across from the shore looked uninviting. The people who had built houses on the hillside needed cable car lifts to access them. There was always a strong breeze blowing in the area; it was shaded and received little sunshine for most of the day. Despite its lure as a seaside suburb, it felt too hostile; the houses were silent, the curtains never moved, the windows were closed. It resembled a dormitory town, even though it was only a few minutes walk to the city centre.

But this did not apply to Hania. There were always plenty of people enjoying a walk around the area of the harbour; women pushing prams, men jiggling worry beads, children riding bikes. Kitchens smelled of the aromas that were going to be enjoyed for lunch, shutters were open with curtains moving against the light breeze, rugs were hanging over balconies to be aired, old people were sitting close to the door to keep away from the draught and still be able to enjoy the atmosphere of the colourful little town that they may have lived in all their life, without ever seeking other shores.

*** *** ***

First, she parked the car close to the art academy, dropped her daughter off and walked her son to the chess club close by. She was normally free at this point to roam the town for the next two hours before picking them up again. If she didn't feel like walking, she could choose to go window-shopping, buy a magazine and read at a cafe, or browse through the stalls at Saturday's street market. The town itself wasn't very big, and she could easily cross it twice and walk its circumference in less than the two hours she had to herself.

Today wasn't as free as she had hoped it would be; feeling the weight of the honey jar, she was reminded of her assigned task. She chose the route from the district court, walking past the old mansions lining the former Dimokratias Street, now known as Papandreou Street. The signs had been changed overnight by the PASOK-based city council once the former leader of the left-wing party died, leaving the residents wondering whether the road had been moved to another part of the town right under their noses. The road led to the Agora, where she would have to find a honey supplier.

The Agora's purpose seemed to have become obsolete. Although it was not in decline, it was very much a tourist trap. When she had first arrived in Hania, Dimitra was taken in by its exoticness in and around the square where the Agora was located: a gypsy woman walking up and down its wide corridors selling embroidered tablecloths, old men hawking lottery tickets, a young boy being pushed in a wheelchair by his mother asking for spare drachma. After a few years of living in the town, she got tired of seeing the gypsy woman selling old-fashioned items that nobody seemed to use any longer, the lottery ticket vendors who seemed to push the tickets under your nose, and the paralytic son whose mother always seemed to hit the streets just before Christmas, Easter and the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. Its vegetable stalls didn't hint anything towards organic production, and she couldn't distinguish any special feature to force her to choose any one of the meat, fish and poultry stalls over the local village butcher. There were more souvenir shops and food outlets than what one would have expected of a traditional Greek market.

As she entered, she passed a group of tourists: young, blond, thin, wearing low-slung trousers, singlet tops and flip-flops. The good Hania weather easily fooled most people during the day. But once night fell, the humidity settled and the evenings would become cold enough to shiver in such clothing, especially along the harbour where the tourists usually congested. She saw a row of honey jars on the display case at one of the stalls. As she approached it, she noticed another row of honey jars on display directly opposite the first stall. She knew it wouldn't make any difference which stall she chose, but she wondered just what criteria her mother-in-law used when choosing which stall to mark out as her favorite.

As she was trying to make up her mind which stall to go to, she saw Kiki, the mother of one of her son's classmates, looking very busy and wearing a large white apron behind a butcher's counter. She neared the counter, narrowly avoiding crashing into the tail of a hige specimen of black-skinned fish lying in a supermarket trolley. A man was selling raffle tickets for it: "Simera klironete, prolavete na parete! (Raffle finishes today! Buy your tickets in time!)"

"Dimitra how nice to see you here, you don't often come this way, do you?" No, Dimitra didn't often come into the market; even if she came into Hania every day of the week, the last place she'd go to was the Agora.

"Hello, Kiki, I didn't realise you worked here."

Kiki was a lovely smiling happy woman whose children, in Dimitra's opinion, were very well-mannered and not as boisterous as the other children in the village school. "Oh, I usually help my husband out in his stall every Saturday, you know," she winked as she spoke, "just to keep him company." As she spoke, an Asian peddler passed the stall, carrying an array of goods in a box which she supported with a strap over her head.

What have I got to lose, Dimitra thought. "Kiki, do you think you could help me out?" She explained the situation with her mother-in-law, how she had broken her leg and was now bedridden. "Oh dear," said Kiki, "those old people - it's either pesimo (a fall) or hesimo (soiling themselves) with them." Dimitra was shocked at the crudeness of the joke, but it seemed so fitting for the occasion. She burst out laughing; she hadn't laughed like this in a while. There was no one around at home that could crack a joke with her like this one about her mother-in-law's condition. It was treated as a serious matter. She daydreamed about telling her husband what Kiki had said to her. Would he call it blasphemy, or would he laugh with her? At that moment, she was glad to be away from the house.

"Just this morning," Dimitra continued, "she asked me if I could buy her a chicken, but I'm worried that I might bring something for her that she won't like."

"Is that what you're thinking, dear?" Kiki was a large matronly woman, perfectly suited to her role as the butcher's wife. "Did she tell you what she wanted it for, pilafi, roast, a feather duster?" Dimitra wondered why she had shunned the Agora on her previous walks.

"Actually, I didn't ask her, but I could always phone her." Dimitra took out her mobile phone. She would never have even put the idea of calling her up in her mind, if it hadn't been for the chance occasion of bumping into Kiki. Margaret answered the phone but didn't speak. Dimitra could hear her passing the receiver on to her mother-in-law.

"Nai? Poios einai?"

"Mama, I'm in the Agora--" Her mother-in-law interrupted her. "You're in the Agora now?"

"Yes, Mama, I'm at a butcher's stall. I know the owner. Would you like me to buy you some chicken?" She could hear the delight in her mother-in-law's voice. "Yes, yes, buy whatever you find. Just check that it's small and lean. But make sure it's dopio (local)."

Dimitra called out to Kiki. "A small one with no fat, Kiki, is it dopio?" Zeta laughed. "They're all dopio, just like us."

"Mama, I'll do what I can, entaxi." She ended the phone call. "If she doesn't like this chicken, she won't like any other," Kiki mused. Dimitra half-heartedly thought about asking if the chicken was male or female, but decided against it. It might sound catty, speaking ill of the old woman. She started to feel sorry for her. For so long, Dimitra had been waging a losing battle to try to be accepted as the foreigner that she was and couldn't help being. Now the tables had turned, and her mother-in-law had to rely on two foreigners for her daily needs. She wondered how accepting she would be in her old age of other people's attempts to please her. The two women chatted about school matters - mainly the outrageous dress style of the young teacher in their sons' class - until another customer came by, and Dimitra felt that she was holding Kiki up in her work, when she suddenly remembered the honey jar.

"Kiki, where can I get this jar filled with honey?"

"Grigori, ela!" Kiki called out to her husband. "Hang on a moment, and I'll take you to someone who sells really good honey." Kiki's husband came to the counter. Kiki introduced them to each other and excused herself. "Come with me," she said to Dimitra, as she led her through the corridors of the Agora to another stall, much further away from her own stall. She obviously didn't support her neighbours' stalls.

When she finally stopped at a stall, she explained to Dimitra: "This man's a beekeeper, and he only sells what he himself produces. It's really good stuff." She turned to the stall owner. "Yiasou Niko! I've bought you a customer!"

Dimitra knew she could have asked anyone else in the Agora, and they would have done the same thing as Kiki - taken her to their friend's stalls, 'dikos mou anthropos', their own person, someone who they supposedly trust because they know them, and not much else. She thanked Kiki and bought out the honey jar.
*** *** ***

Walking with a kilo's worth of glass, another kilo of honey and a two-kilo chicken under a hot midday sun was not much fun. Dimitra walked all the way back to where she had left the car and put away the shopping bags. She picked up the children and drove home. Her mother-in-law was sleeping when she arrived home, so she left the honey and chicken with Margaret. She then went upstairs and got the midday lunch going. She was curious to see what her mother-in-law would say about the shopping.

In the afternoon, Dimitra took down some spinach pie which she had baked for the evening snack. "Kalispera, Mama, I've made some spinach pie with the last of the spinach you had planted in the garden last season."

"Oh, did it grow very tall?" her mother-in-law asked.

"No," replied Dimitra, "it wasn't very bushy, but there was a lot of it. I've made three pies with it so far."

"That was some chicken you bought there. It's just what I would have bought myself." Her mother-in-law wasn't exactly complimenting her, but maybe this was her way of thanking her without actually spelling it out. Dimitra was relieved. She didn't care about the chicken. She had enjoyed the unexpected rapport with Kiki, and she knew she would go into the Agora again, just to meet up with her friend for another quick laugh. Maybe she could change butchers, but on second thoughts, she preferred to shop close to where she could park the car.

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