Saturday, 23 August 2008

Fish and chips (Ψάρι και πατάτες)

When I was 12 years old, my parents bought a fish and chip shop in one of the not-so-interesting suburbs of the greater area of Wellington. Mum had been made redundant from her factory job after its closure, while Dad knew that his factory job was on the line, as that business was also on the verge of closure. At the start of the 80s when factories started to close down at the rate of one per hour, my parents were in their mid-40s: far too young to retire, far too uneducated and unskilled to look for work in trades other than service sector. The house we had bought five years ago (which permanently put off any dreams they might have had of moving back to Greece) had rotten wooden foundations, disused fireplaces and chimneys and a leaky bathroom ceiling. Unemployment benefit was out of the question, according to the work ethic upheld by most Greek migrants at the time. It was the service sector or nothing.

fish shop
(Dad at the shop with one of his employees)

I acted as my parents’ official translator at the lawyer’s office when they signed the contract to buy a fish and chip shop. It must have been one of the hardest moments in their life, to realize that the time had come for them to get into the catering business, the livelihood of most of the successful Greeks in the Greek Orthodox Community of Wellington. Why didn’t they enter the food trade earlier, when they were younger, more mobile, more able to work under pressure? They had probably put it off for so long, since they were comfortable in their routine factory jobs. For the last dozen or so years, they had been working 9 to 5 jobs, with the odd night shift and overtime, enabling them to be home in the evenings, and always close to their children. The shop would change their whole way of life.

Every morning, Dad would get up early to buy fish fillets and potatoes at the market warehouses in Allen St, not too far from our house. Or he’d shop at the Moore Wilson’s food supplier for flour, baking powder, ketchup sachets and tartare sauce. Then he’d drop us off at school, and make his way to the shop in Newlands, a quarter of an hour away from our house, to start cleaning, filleting and cutting fish. The potatoes had to be scraped of their skin and chipped (all by machine). All the delivery agents would make their calls at some point or other in the day. They popped in some time in the morning to deliver hot dogs, sausages, pineapple rings, curry rolls, spring rolls, donuts, corn fritters, paua fritters, reams of paper, Coca-Cola, Fanta and Leed, among the hundreds of bits and pieces we needed to keep the fish and chip shop stocked. How he managed to do all this without any English skills to speak of amazes me.

My mother stayed at home to cook, wash and clean, like all Greek ladies of her time. By 10 o’clock, she had prepared the evening meal and done most of the daily household chores. Then she did something that practically no other Greek woman of her time did: she took her bag and keys, locked the house and drove her own car to the shop. She was one of the few Greek immigrant women driving in Wellington, an awesome spectacle, the envy of the other Greek women who knew that this feat of my mother’s – gaining a driver’s licence after her fourth driving test – placed her well above them in the ranks of the successful Greek families. She only learnt to drive after my parents bought the fish shop; she had no other choice but to learn, what with the business being located so far from our house.

Mum’s job was to pre-cook all the fried bits and pieces that were sold along with the chips. First, a light batter would be made up and allowed to rise. Then she’d take the fish pieces, dredge them in flour, dip them in the batter and toss them into one of the two vats filled with lard that were used for this purpose. Dad took care of the third vat, pre-cooking chips in huge rectangular metal baskets. Everything would be drained well, then laid out on paper-lined drawers below the counter, and allowed to cool down before they were re-cooked in the customers’ orders.

In the early afternoon, Dad would come to pick us up from school. We were in our mid-teens before we were allowed to take the bus by ourselves. To get to the bus stop, we had to walk past the Parliament buildings, probably the most policed area of the whole of the city. It took a while for our parents to realize that the chances of being raped or kidnapped at half-past three in the afternoon after school when the streets of Wellington were teeming with trails of teal-uniformed school girls were actually quite minimal.

I’d take up my position by one of the deep freezers that we had in the work space behind the counter, while the little laughing olive tree took up her position by the second freezer. We’d open our school bags, spread out our books and start doing our homework, as fast as we could before the 6 o’clock teatime customers started arriving. I earned my linguistics major on that freezer. That’s where all my term papers were written. When the shop got busy, we’d leave our textbooks, notebooks and pencil cases to come out to the front of the shop and take the customers’ orders while Mum and Dad did the greasy cooking. When we needed something from the deep freezers, we’d pile our books one on top of the other, hold on to them tightly, open the freezer and get what we wanted. When things started to quieten down on the front, after seven o’clock, we’d go back to our homework. Kiwis all wanted to eat a the same time, or so it seemed to us. The rush over, Mum and Dad would clean up and get ready to close down by 8pm – unless it was late night shopping night, and we’d close at 9pm. The last customers were the drinkers from the pub at the shopping centre. They’d come in just before we closed down, reeking of alcohol, with their friends of the opposite sex, laughing rather raucously, as though they had just left from a Christmas party. They were the most talkative customers, the ones my parents were most afraid of.

When we came home, we weren’t so much exhausted, as smelly, greasy and rattled. We reeked of fish and lard. We ate our meal late, had a bath, finished off our homework and laid out our school uniforms clean and ready for the next day. Then we went to bed. There wasn’t much else that could be fitted into the evening. This was what most days of the year were like for us. This is what I thought life in New Zealand was going to be like for the rest of my life. No wonder I liked Greece better.

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I had the pleasure of enjoying fish and chips today – fish and chips, Greek style, that is. Mama was with me. True, it wasn’t my mama, but this mama was the same age that my own mama would have been, were she still alive today. She would also have been wearing a stocking to tighten her swollen arm filled with fluid after her lymph glands were snipped following breast cancer. Mama would have enjoyed the ride out to the fish taverna at Kissamos, which took us past a little church built on the side of a rock, the sacred cite dedicated to the birthday of St John the Baptist, celebrated on the 23rd of June, a place I had visited with her during the brief period we spent together in Crete.

st john baptist kasteli hania chania.

She would have asked me to stop – as I did – so that she could go into the church, make the sign of the cross and light a candle.

st john baptist kasteli hania chaniast johna kasteli hania chania

Then she would have taken her grandchildren into the church to do the same. She’d probably have washed her hands and face at the fountain with the cool running water and walked around the cave telling the children that everyone has a guardian angel looking out for them.

st john kasteli hania chania

She probably wouldn’t have wanted to walk down the underpass just next to the cave, which leads to the coolest bluest lagoon I've ever seen, the perfect place for a secluded swim away from the crowds; it's not the right kind of place for sufferers of osteoporosis.

underpass from cave to lagoon hania chanialagoon st john hania chania

She would probably have rested on one of the stone benches outside the church in the cool damp air of the cave, away from the harsh bright sunlight and the high levels of humidity, which would probably have done her more good anyway.

As we drive by the Kasteli shipyards, she might have looked out at the fishermen's boats and told to the children to watch out for pirates.

kasteli shipyard hania chaniakasteli shipyard hania chania

“We’re having fish today!” she would announce as we seat ourselves at the taverna, with probably a hint of irony in her voice as memories of the fish and chip shop would flood back to us.

"And no alcohol for you because you're driving!" she would add, and I would agree with her.


We’d talk about it as if it were yesterday that we were serving our regular customers in the shop – you never forget those ones: the lady whose cat had an amputated leg, the old man who always said 'woo-o-oo' at the end of every sentence
, the widower who would always cry when he mentioned his late wife – and wonder what all the friends and relatives we left behind are doing now in Aotearoa.

calamari and chipstsikoudia grapes

After we eat our meal, she’d ask for the bill. I’d offer to pay, and she’d say, “No dear, let me get it this time.” And I’d say, “OK, thanks, mama,” just like I did today.

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