Thursday, 21 August 2008

Mylos taverna (Η μύλος του κερατά)

My father was born in the hills behind the seaside village of Platanias, near the village of Agia Marina on the west coast of Hania, in a neighbourhood called Drakiana. All that remains of it are the ruins of his first home, a 14th-century church dedicated to St George and a zillion fields full of orange and olive trees.

(the house Dad was born in - Drakiana)
He lived there until the mid-50s when, as a young raunchy lad, he was talked into going to Athens and working at the docks in Pireas harbour. The work he found instead was as a drudge, carrying heavy loads on and off ships, while the pay was extremely low. He always remembered his early years in the village as the best he had ever lived; his brother would play klarino at night, while during the day, he would take his dog hunting. He hated every single minute of his working life in Athens. All he liked about his time in the big Greek smoke was the yard of the house where he lived with his family, when neighbours and friends would come to spend the evening together in Agia Sofia, a working class neighbourhood of Pireaus.

(all the letters my Dad wrote to my Mum)

When at last he could take no more of the slave-like under-paid working conditions that his employers forced him to accept, instead of returning to the village, he decided to take up someone’s offer to marry a Greek woman who had emigrated to New Zealand two years before him. They had been corresponding for a year before his departure from Greece; my mother wrote the first letter, then he replied, then she wrote back, and so on, until the 13th letter, when he didn’t write back. My mother never wrote another letter, thinking that maybe he had ditched her. He turned up on her doorstep instead, on a beautiful summer’s day in Wellington on the 31st of January, 1965:

(Dad's first few months in New Zealand, with Mum - left - and Mum's sister)

and married her a week later, on Waitangi Day, the 6th of February, 1965, as he had promised he would do in his last letter.


They spent nearly three decades together, until the death of my mother in Wellington, after which Dad came back to Crete and lived the last decade of his life in his beloved hometown.

(Makara cemetery, Wellington)

Most people now think of Platanias as the summer boogie capital of Hania. MYLOS nightclub rules the roost on the outskirts of the village. Right across the road is MYLOS taverna which has a long standing tradition for fine (and expensive) food. All the dishes are presented artistically, and the owners (there were three of them at the time, as the business was worth millions) place a great deal of emphasis on the decor of the restaurant. Watermelons are carved into statues, various fruits and vegetables are dried to form floral arrangements, and there are urns and herbs decorating the seating area. An old mill, working inside a fountain, forms part of the décor of this open-air restaurant, which I suppose justifies its name…

keratas taverna
(Dad - left - as a teenager at Keratas taverna)

…but it was never known as MYLOS taverna in my father’s years. The original name of this restaurant was «Η ταβέρνα του κερατά» - “The kerata’s taverna”. You can get a more succinct explanation of ‘kerata’ with clear examples in my other blog. My father was a frequent visitor to the taverna; apart from the food and ambience, mantinades (Cretan poetry) and rizitika (Cretan songs) were regularly heard chiming from its interior (the open-air idea came with the advent of tourism).

*** *** ***

The last time I ever dined at MYLOS taverna was at my father’s 65th birthday. His whole family was there: his two daughters, their children, quite a few holidaying relatives from abroad – and his wife. She was a malevolent peasant woman who had divorced her husband and left her 10-year old daughter in the care of her two older daughters so that she could marry the 'rich Americano', as my father was known, because he had recently come from overseas (which is all called ‘America’) and anyone who had lived 30 years of their life abroad was considered rich (as all ‘Americanos’ are believed to be).

Ever since he had married this woman, we were fighting a losing battle of trying to keep in touch with our father. He was obviously having a better time with his new family than his old one. Or was he? Maybe his new family didn’t want us mixing with him. After all, we had been presented with our dowries, and now it was time for someone else to devour whatever remained in the coffer, money my father had made with my mother while working at the fish and chip shop (where his children both helped out after school for over a decade) in Wellington.

When we asked him to replace his broken mobile phone, his wife said the expense wasn’t necessary. We could just phone him on the landline at home, where he never seemed to be at most normal hours of the day. When we phoned very early in the morning, or very late at night, his wife always answered: ‘he’s in bed right now’. We were being treated like Cinderellas by the wicked stepmother. That didn't bother us so much, having already found our princes, but we had to find a way to sneak a friggin' cellphone into his hands, otherwise, she would claim both the battle and the war.

It was the middle of summer. A whole host of cousins from New Zealand had arrived in Hania, as well as their parents. We decided to ask Dad to organise a night out at a restaurant. Dad always chose MYLOS taverna, because of the special memories it held for him as a young man. He also knew the owners. What a blessing that turned out to be. The little laughing olive tree had organised with her husband that she would park the car. I stayed with her – ‘for company’, I replied when everyone tried to coax me into the restaurant to ease my hefty pregnant body onto a comfortable chair. The rest of our party – Dad and wife included – settled themselves at a table.

The little laughing olive tree and I headed for the kitchen. The owner of the restaurant spotted us.

“Anything I can do for you, girls?” We explained that our father – ‘Manolis with the BMW’ as the restaurant owner knew him – was celebrating his birthday, but he didn’t know that we were organising a surprise party for him, and would they be so kind as to look after the cake we had brought, along with his birthday present (no need to tell anyone what was in the gold coloured bag) until we informed him to bring them out.

“It’s Manolis’ birthday? No problem, girls!’

In the meantime, Dad’s tall obese two-decades-younger-than-himself wife was jollying herself up with a little wine. She claimed that all she needed was just a tipple to get her going. When we asked her what she would like to order, she stated that there was no need for food, the wine was enough, and anyway, she was the best cook in the world, and the restaurant’s high quality standards (known throughout the guide book world) could not serve food to her liking, because only she knew how to cook. So we just ordered mezedakia for everyone to nibble on, and bided our time with pretentious banter just to make Dad happy, which he usually was, and keep her in check. She never once stopped laughing raucously, nor did she stop drinking.

«Υγεία she kept calling out every time she raised her glass (I had lost count how many times she had done that). She spoke in a heavy Cretan dialect; instead of saying “iyia”, she pronounced it ”ijia”, a telling sign that she was staunchly against any show of manners in front of her husband’s polite company. Her daughters – three very pretty, slim, smiling lasses - were not with her tonight. They never seemed to come when we arranged family events, even though they were always invited.

When the fruit platter finally arrived – a sign of the end of a meal at a Greek restaurant I decided to take the opportunity to go to the ladies’.

“Oh, Maria, you simply don’t know who’s been shitting there before you. Mind you don’t get a urinary infection in your state!” She was so full of advice, that woman.

I found the owner at the reception desk, and signalled to him to bring the cake (lit up with sparkles) and the present. When I arrived back at the table, Dad was amusing his guests with stories of life in New Zealand. His wife would butt in every now and then, reminding him that those days were over, now he lived in Crete, and he’s started a new life.

The owner of the restaurant finally arrived. He was carrying a glass of wine.

Χρόνια πολλά, Μανώλη!»
“Thank you” replied my father, raising his glass without batting an eyelid.
“For your birthday” added the owner.
“Oh yeah,” chirped my father, always jolly in nature with his Santa Claus looks.

(This is the way my father always liked people to see him, smiling and cheery)

His wife turned to the restaurant owner. “You knew it was his birthday?” she enquired somewhat perplexed, because now she would have to hide the fact that she had forgotten it.

“And here’s a little something from your daughters,” the owner revealed, giving him the

Dad was laughing now. “So you remembered my birthday!” he said, looking our way. His wife was now quiet, an annoyed jealous look covering her face. She had folded her hands over her plethoric body, making her look even more elephantine. The pretentious smile she had been wearing most of the evening was instantly wiped off her face. Dad was now receiving a round of applause and handshakes from the table of guests. She had become a ticking time-bomb, ready to explode over the fact that she had been ridiculed by her husband’s own family.

Dad was so busy being congratulated by all the guests that he forgot all about the present. We had to remind him to open it. When he saw what it was, he laughed and said:

"Well, I wasn't going to get one any other way, was I?"

His wife looked at her watch and asked him to get the bill. She had stopped drinking and was now smoking sulkily on her own, no more the star attraction of the night with her staged drunken antics. She may have won the battle, but the war was still raging. As for that cellphone, Dad kept it in use till the day he died, his last call being made to his own family.

*** *** ***

orange fournes
(the taps - part and parcel of village life)

Had I known then what I know now, I would have written a mantinada for that woman. Not that I can't write one for her now, but I don't see her often (at all, actually) so that I could recite it to her. All Cretans are born with the innate skill of producing a mantinada (whether they realize it or not) when the moment calls for one. When I recently went to Fournes to irrigate our orange groves, I returned in the afternoon to close the taps, and found that one of them had been closed by someone else; they had probably found the water lacking in pressure, and so, to increase the pressure in their own field, they thought it only rightful that they close off our tap, which meant that our field was not watered at all. I stuck a little note by the taps:

Βρε βλάκα, ίντα μού’κανες (Hey bozo, whatcha doing)
Και μού’κλεισες τη βάνα
; (closing all my taps?)
Σου εύχομαι να πας να βρεις
(My wish is that you go and find)
Ξερά τα πορτοκάλια!
(Your orange fields in rags!)

In accordance with the mantinada tradition of my ancestors, I have written another one, specially dedicated to my anonymous commentator who has helped raise my ratings, thereby increasing my readership, and generally making a fool of him/herself:

Ανάθεμά σε κερατά (Be damned, you foolish cuckold)
Που κατουράς στο μπλογκ μου
! (For pissing on my blog!)
Κότσια δεν έχεις να χαρείς
(You ain’t got balls to show your pride;)
Και κρύβεις τ’όνομά σου!
(That’s why you hide your nom!)

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