Thursday, 2 July 2009

The first supper (Ο πρώτος δείπνος)

Imagine that it's your first night living in a new country, where every single thing you see before you is so different from what you were used to seeing for so many years all your life, that there is no comparison between this moment in time and your previous life...

*** *** ***

Mr Christou, a gentle looking man with a calm pale complexion, met us as arranged at Heathrow airport. His friendly face warmed up the dullness of a cold foggy London night, our introduction to the widely discussed Great British weather phenomenon. It had not yet rained in Crete before we left, even though the summer was over and autumn was supposedly setting in; here, the skies were thick with dark clouds, announcing the imminence of rain. Now I knew why those tourists were so pale when they first arrived on the island, and why they spent hours tanning their hide a hideous leathery colour before they left Crete.

Mr Christou drove us to where we were staying. I had momentarily forgotten my hunger as I tried to take in all the new sights as we passed them from the car window: large empty fields filled with green grass and sodden brown patches, some lined with tall trees. What fruit grew from their branches? I could not place these trees in my mind. I asked Mr Christou, but he just shook his head at me and replied: "Nothing edible."

We were now entering the denser residential zones: rows of box-like houses, all in the same shape, colour and size. I had seen such houses in the photos of my school textbooks when I was studying English; it was an uncanny deja vu experience seeing them in real life. They looked derelict, soulless, with the only sign of life from them coming from the lights that were on in one or two of the rooms. No movement could be detected from within.

My companions were dropped off first at the campus dormitories. I caught a glimpse of the university I would be studying at. How was it that all the buildings of this educational establishment looked in perfect condition? Were they like that on the inside too? I remembered all my years spent at the village schools I attended, in rundown premises that were always in need of a paint job, were never heated or cooled, and never had the facilities and amenities required to function decently.

"Lucky you, you'll be living in a house, not a room," said Nikola as he and Fanouri bid me farewell for the night. "You can tell us all about it tomorrow."

Nikola was from a very poor farming family in Sfakia, and it had come as quite a shock to his parents when they found out he wanted to study abroad. He had applied for a scholarship and was accepted into the same school that I would be attending, Tourism Studies. My parents weren't rich, but we were considered well off; we had a lot of land, we raised a lot of olive trees which yielded ten tonnes of olive oil annually. I was in a better position financially.

As we left the campus area, I began to view the commercial part of North London for the first time. People were moving hurriedly but orderly, in and out of shops, wrapped in warm clothing, heads topped with a woolly hat and necks swathed in scarves. I had been warned about the English weather, but had not believed that I would need these accessories until Christmas, when I expected it to be snowing. The air that night was frosty enough to see your breath as you expired; I had packed my cap, gloves and scarf in the most inaccessible depths of my suitcases, and would have to wait till I arrived at my new residence before I could find them and explore the town. I was hoping that my landlady would remember to provide me with a few maps to get me started.

It was at that point that I remembered I was hungry. Mr Christou had explained to me that in boarding situations, the landlady provides at least two meals a day. I asked him what I could expect as a meal tonight.

"Well...," he began to reply, in a way that indicated that he thought my question odd, "everyone eats almost anything here... you can find any international cuisine you feel like eating... anything that takes your fancy." At the time, I had no idea what he meant by this; I was expecting to hear the name of a meal, something like "Yorkshire pudding" or "Beef Wellington." International cuisine was pretty much limited to "English breakfast" in Crete.

Finally we reached the house where I was staying, near a large junction on Holloway Road close to a hospital. The house looked just like all the other houses we had passed on our way from the airport. I began to worry that I would confuse it with another house on the same street, or even worse, on a different street. Mr Christou parked the car and we both came out and passed through the front gate. Before he even knocked on the door, a woman opened it with an angry look on her face.

"Where have you been! I've been waiting for the last half hour! I'm already late for an appointment! We did say 7.30pm!"

Mr Christou apologised to her, explaining that there had been heavy traffic on the road. The landlady then looked my way and handed me some keys. Even though I towered a good few centimetres over her, she still managed to look down on me.

"This key opens the front door, and this other one opens your room. Your room's upstairs next to the bathroom. Please write the time you want to have a bath every day on the door on the roster provided. Any questions?"

I was startled. Even though my stomach was empty, I thought I was going to be sick. At that moment, I had momentarily lost all my English language skills, which I had spent the whole summer polishing off at a frontistirio. As she turned to go, I reminded Mr Christou that I was hungry. I couldn't even remember the English word for food; the cat had really got my tongue. Mr Christou mumbled the question to her in his Greek Cypriot English accent.

"Breakfast's at 7-8 and tea's between 6 and 7 in the evening. If you're late for either, you'll have to go without. Now are you finished, because I'm in a hurry."

That didn't solve my problem for the evening. I was starving, having had literally nothing to eat all day. I had skipped out on the inflight meal all for nothing; there was to be no welcome feast, no comforting mother figure, no one to even talk to until the next day. My throat narrowed. It was my first time using the English language. I did not expect this would be to make a mercy call.

"I am hungry ... tonight ..." I hoped I was making some sense. My English skills sounded stuttered, my voice almost mute, as if I had lost my vocal chords during what now seemed like the longest trip I had ever taken in my life. The red glow on Mr Christou's face had disappeared and turned a shade of grey. He seemed to be embarrassed on my behalf.

"Could you arrange a small supper before you leave, nothing fancy, anything will do." He spoke to the landlady without raising his voice. He may as well have been thanking her for her hospitality. I had never heard the world 'sapa' before. I was hoping it would be at least as edible as my regulation army food. An image of lahanorizo came to my mind.

The landlady hung her bag up in the hallway, and directed us in a huffy tone of voice to the kitchen which smelled of damp. From a cupboard, she took out a tin and opened it, pouring its red sludgy contents onto a plate. Then she placed what looked like a folded square white tea towel and a spoon next to it. She looked straight through me, and said "I've really got to be leaving now, I'm late as it is." She picked up her bag.

dog food
Only our dog gets served like an animal in our house (and she is an animal, of course). This tin of gigandes has been sitting in my pantry for a while now (past its expiry date). My husband didn't get the chance to pay it its due honour by taking it on a hunting trip.

I could not believe that I was going to be left alone in this strange house on my first night in London. If it were my mother instead of this loathsome creature (what did she say her name was?), even if she had urgent business to attend to, even if she had to leave the house on the first night of her new boarder's arrival, I could imagine how the table would be spread out, waiting for the arrival of the weary traveller: the main meal - probably a meat stew for a cold night like this one - would be placed in front of the chair, surrounded by little bowls, each containing something different to complement the meal: olives, a few slices of cheese, a plate of sliced sourdough bread, a larger bowl containing a freshly prepared salad and a bottle of olive oil next to the salt and pepper.

baked beans
A limited range of tinned baked beans are available at INKA supermarket by the sea, on the top shelf (near the ceiling: ie they are bought by tourists): HEINZ - 1.11 euro; HEINZ with pork sausages - 2.41; BRANSTON - 1.23; KYKNOS (Greek canning company) - 0.77 euro, being the cheapest brand.

What was it about my mother's face that radiated love, care, affection, not just for her own kin, but for every person who passed through our family home? I had never had to think about it until now at this moment when the face of revulsion confronted me. If my mother had been in this woman's shoes, she would have apologised for having to leave me alone on my first night. She would have shown me first to my room and expressed her hope that I would be comfortable and happy here. She would then have taken me by the shoulders, hugged me, bid me good night, and reminded me that she would be there the next morning to see me.

baked beans courtesy of freefoto
A plate of baked beans served aesthetically could easily pass for fasolada.

Mr Christou thanked the woman (whose name I had not yet heard her utter herself) for her kind gesture and then turned to me. "Fasolada," he muttered as he pointed to the dish. Then he took my hand in his, and placed his other hand on my shoulder, giving me a firm shake with the former.

"Kalinihta, see you tomorrow morning. Have a goodnight's rest." He would be back to pick me up the next day. My first human contacts with my new world departed together, and I was left all by myself in a new home in a strange country, without any idea of how I could let my parents know that I had safely arrived at my new home.

In other circumstances, I may have trashed my first meal in London, but I was afraid that the landlady might have seen the discarded food in the rubbish bin and admonished me for wasting it. So I ate what turned out to be baked beans and a piece of spongy bread, the kind of bread I had last eaten when my mother made me sandwiches for school, well over five years ago. I took the spoon and empty plate to the sink and left them there. I wondered if I had to wash them myself. There was a scrubbing brush hanging off a hook above the sink, but where was the dishwashing liquid and the dishrag? At this point, my mind was too clouded to take the initiative and find them. I was afraid of causing more damage than I already had. I slowly made my way upstairs to find my room.

I hadn't cried when I left home for the first time to enter the army. I didn't cry when I slept for the first time away from home at bootcamp. I had only shed a few tears without any whimpering when my paternal grandfather died, mainly because I felt sorry for my father when I saw him crying. But I cried all night on my first night in London, a grown man of nearly 23 years. I felt like a disillusioned wimp in this prison that had the facade of a hotel, incarcerated until someone bothered to remember me. I don't recall if I stopped crying when I eventually fell asleep. The pillow was still damp the next morning.

*** *** ***

I was awake in time for breakfast, as stated by the landlady the night before. Again, she wasn't there when I came down to the kitchen, but there was food on the otherwise bare table. There was one placemat set in front of a chair, with a boiled egg in a small metal cup and two slices of that square bread again. It looked the same as in the pictures of my English books, what they call 'toast'. Then there was a teabag in a mug, some butter and jam in separate bowls, a small jug of milk, and what looked like an electric jug plugged into a socket in the wall which adjoined one side of the table.

I had never seen an electric jug before. I wasn't sure how to work it, so I threw out the teabag, making sure it was well hidden in the rubbish bin, underneath the empty tin of baked beans. I didn't want anyone to find it. I sat on the hard wooden chair and began to eat. I was ravenous at this point, so I simply drank the milk cold. But the whole meal tasted better than I thought it would; it was a marked improvement on the previous night's meal, but it still felt wrong. It felt utterly strange to be eating on my own so early in the morning, almost as if I were= stealing food before anyone else could get to it.

The thought suddenly entered my mind that this orderly morning meal was not meant for me. Then a second thought of "Too late" came to me. Was this the kind of meal one gets in London when they are really really good, when they make themselves seen but not heard? Maybe last night's horrendous meal was the punishment one receives for acting disgracefully; an image of last night's 'sapa' came to my mind. But it still felt strange to eat in such stony silence. The house was warm enough to sit in the kitchen so early in the morning, but it was the only reassuring thing about the place. When I finished eating, I stacked the plates and left them in the sink, as I had done the previous night. I noticed that there was no sign of last night's dishes. I returned to my room, my eyes darting quickly around the house to check for any signs of human activity. There was none; not even the bathroom looked as though it had been occupied that morning. Did the English really take a bath by appointment? I began to toy with the idea of this house being haunted, with ghosts magically carrying out all the housekeeping tasks.

I got myself ready to meet up with Mr Christou again who had arranged to take me to the campus. I came downstairs at the prearranged hour and waited in the hallway. A woman in a bathrobe was sitting cross-legged in one of the rooms - the only room with an open door, which I presumed to be the living room. The sound of a television could be heard.

"Morning," she called out to me without coming out or even looking up from the television screen. Was she the same woman I had met last night? She sounded far more placid today.

"Good moaning," I replied, putting on my best English accent. The doorbell rang at that moment.

"Well, go on, open the door, you know it's for you." She sounded cross, making me think of 'sapa' again. I opened the door, and there was Mr Christou, greeting me with a relieved look on his face, as if he was saying "So you didn't go back to Heathrow Airport after all to take the first flight back to Greece." We greeted each other in Greek, and he asked me if I was ready to leave. As I was about to exit the house, I noticed a bowl of fruit on a strange piece of furniture in the hallway that I had never seen before. It looked a little like a closed piano. I wasn't sure what to expect of campus food, so I took an apple to stave away any hunger until the next meal time.

As I was about to close the door, the woman came out of the room. "I must remind you, only breakfast and tea are included in the price of the room (which she pronounced as something like 'rum'). That's not included in the your board, so it'll be added as an extra charge."

I didn't cry that night. Only the first night was the hardest. It got much easier after that.

Yes, this is a true story, and the young man in question (names have been changed) survived the ordeal and came back home with enough education to set himself up in the business of catering for the fancies of English tourists in Crete.

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