Eleni entered the house with her key, and without looking at the wall, raised her free hand to the wall and pushed the light switch. The light didn't come on. She flicked it back up, and tried again, still clutching the supermarket carrier bag and the shoulder strap on her handbag. Still nothing happened. She walked to the kitchen and lay down all her bags on the table. From there, she spotted her husband sitting in his favorite armchair, watching the news. All the lights were out, save the small lamp in the corner of the living room, which had been dimmed.
"Hey, Demo," Eleni called out, "the phota's not working." Demostheni made a small mumbling sound, which didn't give away any idea of whether he knew about the light problem or not.
"Dja hear me, Demostheni?" Eleni asked again. "The light in the hol's not working."
"I heard 'ja!" Demostheni called back. He had been having a quiet snooze, when his wife's calls broke the silence.
"Well, are ya gonna fix it?" she snapped. She had just come home from her afternoon laundry job at the local hospital, and was understandably not in the pleasantest of moods.
My favorite bread is made with prozimi - sourdough starter that doesn't contain yeast. After 10 days, the starter is ready to be used in bread-making.
"Well, who dja take me for?" snapped Demostheni back. "The ilektrilogo?" Before he had nodded off in front of the box, Demos had been working in the garden. He did a lot of work in the garden, so much so that all his neighbours were constantly complimenting him on his weed-free plots and carefully aligned crops, which he had planted with the use of a tape measure and laser level that one of their grandchildren had given him for Christmas.
"Still haven't fixed the tap, have ya?" Eleni was whinging again.
"Now you think I'm the idravliko, too," he whined back.
"Well, whaddy dja learn all those years when you were working on the oikodomi?" Eleni was particularly annoyed with the tap, as it had been dripping for the past month. In the beginning, the tap was dripping ever so slightly, and the size of the droplets was so small that it could hardly be felt. But it was not so much the wasted water that she was thinking of; it was the noise that the heavy droplets made as they pelted onto the hollow of the stainless steel sink. At night, if she left the bedroom door open, the noise prevented her from sleeping.
To avoid waste when making the sourdough starter, you can bake this baguette with the extra starter.
Remembering his wife's reprimanding voice in the morning before she left for work, Demostheni tried to downplay his negligence. He had meant to fix the tap (he had been promising to do so for the last week) and the bulb (which he had discovered after he had come home from the klap* an hour before Eleni), but couldn't find where Eleni kept the new light bulbs. Since his retirement, he was becoming concerned about his sanity, as he had the idea that he had become slightly forgetful. But he was also conscious of the fact that retirement wasn't living up to the hype that some people made it out to be. He was purposely slowing down his pace so that he didn't run out of things to do now that he wasn't working.
Sometimes, there was never enough time in the day, like when his children asked him to look after the grandchildren to run their errands, while at other times, like when the grandchildren were in the care of the other grandparents (they all chipped in to make things easier for all of them), there was just too much time on his hands. Once he had finished with the garden that morning, Eleni left for work, and he felt the house too empty for his liking. After cleaning himself up, he decided to take a stroll down to the klap, where he met a few more of his retired Greek friends, and stayed there till sundown. He walked back home so that he would be there when Eleni would be coming an hour later. As he entered the gate of their house, he noticed the letterbox slightly ajar; the letters were just bilia, since no one wrote letters any more, they just telephoned, not like in the old days. As he entered the house, he flicked the light switch to turn on the lights; that's when he discovered the bulb had gone out.
It's not a lie to say that the best bread in Europe is not found in Greece...
He wondered if that was what Eleni had told him to do before she left for work. Had she discovered the light had gone before she left for work? But how could she, since it was still daylight? But she DID tell him to do something, he did remember that. He had begun worrying about getting Alzheimer's, which is why he always tried to keep himself busy. He had once asked his GP about this once. Dr Kefalas had told him that Greeks are generally quite resilient people, and although there has been an increase in cardiac disease and cancer hitting many community members, they usually didn't suffer from senility. "We Greeks are very family-oriented," he explained to him, "we keep ourselves busy raising the next generation, and are usually involved in family life till the day we die. We don't need to do stavrolexa to keep ourselves occupied, do we?" At this, they both laughed, and Demostheni felt slightly comforted.
After fumbling around trying to find a new bulb, he gave up, and turned on the TV. He didn't always understand what was being said on the television, but at his age, he didn't really care any more. It probably didn't concern him directly, he thought, and even if it did, one of his children was bound to update him with any of the latest developments in his adopted home country. He knew more about what was happening in Greece, because he was connected to Greek cable TV. He had done a quick zapping round, and found nothing of significance playing on any of the channels (the day/night hours were reversed and there was no news program on at that moment). A documentary about wildlife on the Discovery Channel captured his interest. The moving pictures numbed his mind a little, and made him sleepy. Before he knew it, he was dozing away.
I always wonder how my parents managed to live in NZ and not protest about the quality of their daily bread...
"Didja cut the horta at least?"
So that was what Eleni had told him to do. He'd been working on the vegetable garden, and had forgotten all about the lawn, which was accessed via the patio, where they had planned to have a barbecue lunch the next day (being a Sunday), weather permitting, to celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary. He had forgotten to mow the lawn. He was just about to open his mouth when his wife raised her hand in the air, like a traffic officer, directing the vehicles to stop.
"I know, I know, ya not a kipouro, either. You did ra-pess all day." Eleni was now sorting out the shopping she had brought back from the supermarket. She had planned a simple meal for the family, BBQ meat (Demostheni would be cooking it along with their two sons), two salads and a large tin of roast potatoes. If she had had the time, she would have liked to have made some kalitsounia, a pastitsio and maybe a karidopita for dessert, although she knew that the children would bring along something sweet themselves. Although she loved her children and their families, she had gotten tired of cooking for large groups. She was glad that she was only cooking meals for herself and Demostheni these days. Not that she preferred to buy takeouts or go out for a meal - not at all. She was just glad that this tiresome part of her previous life was not taking up so much of her time, not to mention her mind. When the boys were πάνω στην ανάπτυξή τους, they seemed to go through so much food, which Eleni would prepare herself. She would make everything herself from scratch. In her older age, though, this tired her out. She was thankful to experience relief in this field of her duties.
Stathi and Julie always bought some ice cream: Neapolitan for the adults and orange chocolate chip for the children. Stathi always looked forward to eating at his parents' place. His wife wasn't Greek, so she didn't cook Greek food like his mama. He never cooked like his mama either, since he had always had mama to cook for him. Eleni still found it disconcerting to see him wearing an apron whenever she visited Stathi on his nameday, or on one of the grandchildren's birthdays. She found it much easier to relate to Stavros's wife, Maria. She always bought along something home-made. It wasn't always a Greek dessert, but it generally fitted into the Greek taste spectrum, like a tiramisu, which she had learnt to make from her Italian sister-in-law, or a cold dessert like a gliko psigeiou, made with biscuits, custard and cream. Despite her Greek nationality though, there were times when even Maria seemed a stranger to Eleni. The conversation might be flowing smoothly, when all of a sudden, Maria might make mention of "that really good chicken dinner that Stavros cooked", or how "Stavros irons his own shirts". She knew that young people were more liberal about the idea of the separation of the sexes, but it still struck her as strange to think that her sons were doing housework that she had never expected them to do when she was raising them.
Few tavernas make their own bread for their business - this bread, which we enjoyed at a taverna in Halkidiki, close to Thessaloniki, was very good...
She wasn't sure if she was looking forward to retirement. She was due to pick up her first pension payment in five months, a few days after she turned 65. Her children did not burden her with chores such as babysitting (Demostheni was taking care of things in this field at the moment), because they knew she was working. But would they continue to respect her private time after she retired? She did not like to air her views too loudly, and had not said anything to the children about the changes she would make to her life once her daily routine changed. She had been pestering Demostheni about taking a holiday to the homeland as soon as she retired, as they had done five years earlier when he retired, as a way to gather her thoughts and find some quiet time away from family commitments, but her husband was still dithering about it. His excuses seemed lame to Eleni: he had mentioned possible health issues, budget problems, the children not being able to cope without their help. The last one particularly annoyed Eleni, who had no help in raising their sons when they were young. Even though one of her brothers lived in the same suburb as her, she never felt that closeness with him that other Greek families had among their own kin. She had lived pretty much an insular life with her nuclear family, and still kept herself distant from the mainstream immigrant community. Apart from greeting other Greeks at church on Sunday, she had little to do with them otherwise, and not necessarily because she was still working.
Demostheni came into the kitchen just as she had put away the last of the shopping items. He often felt lost in the kitchen. It was clearly marked as his wife's domain. She ruled the roost here. Even after so many years of marriage, he still couldn't get used to her system of organisation in her domain. He was wondering what was for dinner. Eleni sensed his reticence; she had been married long enough to know him well enough, without the need for words to be exchanged. She opened the bread bin and took out a sliced loaf.
... it came close to the quality of this one in a small taverna in Hiliomoudou, Hania.
"Wanna have some cheese on tost for dinner?" she asked him in a neutral tone, trying to appease the situation and stop it from turning into a pointless argument.
"Yeah," he agreed, "nice idea, nice idea... I'll slice up a few domates to have a salata with that," he offered, feeling guilty for not having prepared the salad before his wife had come home. "We'll fix all the other problems tomorrow then, OK?"
"Nai, kala, tha doume" Eleni replied. She did not have much faith that anything would be fixed tomorrow. Before she could think too much about that issue, there was a knock at the back door.
"Good evening, Mr Demos." Bronwyn, their tenant, had come to pay them his fortnightly rent. Once the boys moved out, they began to convert the large garden shed at the back of the garden into a granny flat, to supplement their income. They only began renting it six months ago, to an English girl who had left the UK for a working holiday abroad. In the winter months when it wasn't feasible to be outdoors, it didn't occur to them that a tenant could be such an intrusion into their daily lives. Now that the weather was better, Demostheni was outdoors most of the day, which wasn't as bad as it sounded, because the tenant was often away during those hours. They felt that it was only right to inform her about the BBQ they had planned. Not only did she not have no objection to it, but she seemed surprised that they would ask her permission in the first place. They would have invited her too, but she told them that she had planned to be away that day anyway, presumably with her boyfriend, a Kiwi chap they had often heard and seldom seen coming and going from the flat at odd hours of the day and night. They had stated "1-bedroom flat to let" in the newspaper ad, and presumed readers would understand that it wasn't very large and would be suitable for only one person, but they forgot to count on the visitors of the opposite sex.
Our local supermarket sells reasonably good bread, which comes from a bakery (it is not baked on the premises - we don't have that kind of supermarket bread in our stores - yet).
"You didn't expect her to be a kalogria, did you, Mum?" joked Stavros when they mentioned this business to him.
Stathi was even more jovial: "At least it's the same inglezo and not a different one every night."
Demostheni also got into the act: "Now we know she's not a lesvia."
"Papste oli sas," Eleni shut them up. "How do you know she doesn't speak Greek?"
*** *** ***
Since retirement, Demostheni's sleeping patterns changed quite drastically. He always woke up once in the night, something he attributed to aging, as many of his friends complained of the same thing, that they never slept right through the night. At those time, he'd get up and go to the toilet. Not that he really needed to go; he felt that his tossing and turning would wake up Eleni. He left a pile of newspapers and magazines to browse through while he waited to feel drowsy again. Turning on the TV felt too immoral. He'd never watched TV to make him drowsy, nor was there a TV in the bedroom. So he had to wait it out, and eventually went back to bed, where sleep would gradually come back to him. Now that he was retired, he didn't have any reason to wake up too early. Eleni was always out of bed well before him. Last night, he found it difficult to go back to sleep too quickly. He had heard noises in the night, coming from the back garden. The noises were not at all loud, but they were faintly discernible in the peace and quiet of their home in suburbia, in as area where most people were owner-occupiers and had been living in the same house for many years, so that there were not so many young children around to make that much noise, and the residents were in the older age-group. He did not venture outside to investigate, out of fear of being attacked. Night time in suburbia was safest indoors, especially in these days of rising crime figures.
When he finally did get up, he noticed it was a little later than usual. The hour was past nine. He only slept in occassionally in this way, but this morning, he felt guilty, because he knew Eleni would be up preparing the midday lunch. He went to the kitchen, where he found her slicing cucumbers, in preparation for the celebratory lunch. He greeted her with the customary "Kalimera", as he always did every morning.
"Happy anniversary to us, remember?" she said with a smile on her face.
Kati skaronei, he thought. She usually waited for him to remember birthdays, namedays and anniversaries. For her to say it first, it was a sign that something had happened. She was even smiling.
"Ti eyine?" His own smile was laced with suspicion.
"Coffee?" She picked up the briki and went to the tap without waiting for him to answer. Just as she was about to turn it on, he realised that the leaky faucet could no longer be heard.
Making bread has a soothing quality about it.
"How dja fix it, then?" he asked.
"Same way I fixed the phota," she answered smugly.
"OK, OK," he replied apologetically. "I'll get to the horta as soon as I have my coffee."
"Already taken care of," said Eleni.
Now he was in shock. Eleni had never mowed the lawn. He always did - in his own time, of course. It was a bright sunny day. He looked out the window to the garden. Sure enough, the lawn was as short as an army cadet's cropped haircut.
He was dumbfounded. "So I suppose you want me to tell you to gratsoulayshon." Eleni carried on stirring the coffee in the briki without saying anything.
"Who dunnit?" he demanded, frowning.
Eleni didn't speak up immediately. She waited for two seconds, hovering over the stofa stirring the coffee in the briki, just enough time to maintain the suspense. "The yeitona," she finally said in a firm tone.
"What neighbour?" Demostheni was wondering where this was leading to.
"The noikari's". She was staring intently at the coffee cup now, diligently pouring it into the demi-tasse.
"Bronwyn did everything?"
"Nohhhhh!" Eleni laughed. "Her inglezo boyfriend did."
"Her boyfriend? He was here again?"
"I saw him leaving at about the time I got up." Eleni had always been an early riser. She was a morning person, and appreciated that short quiet period when she could enjoy her coffee in complete silence with a view to the garden, and a chance to see what the weather would be offering for the day, as well as watching Bronwyn waking up and whether she had any overnight visitors. Since Demostheni's retirement, this was her first opportunity to savor life on her own, and she found that she enjoyed it. She wished it would last longer; eventually her husband would also get up and the solitudal bliss would be over. They were so used to being in each other's way now that it not bother them. But in those short periods that they realised that they were alone (without being lonely), they felt at peace. It was during those early morning solo periods that Eleni had discovered Bronwyn's overnighter, and the fact that it was the same person whenever she chanced to see him.
"Well," said Demostheni impatiently, "did you just go out there in your nihtikia and ask him if he was a mastora?" At other times he may have enjoyed the joke himself, but today, he felt that his wife's actions constituted a breach of trust. Bringing a stranger into their home in the early hours of the morning was completely out of turn. He was also annoyed that he had been caught sta prasa, so to speak. Sunday was lawn-mowing day for most of the neighbours in the area, and they had become so accustomed to hearing everyone's machines (though there were some less noisier models available now), that he was used to their grinding sounds, and slept through the noise that was coming from his own back yard.
"I invited him in for a cup of coffee afterwards, but he said he didn't have time for that today."
"Where was Bronwyn all this time?" Demostheni suddenly remembered that Bronwyn had declined their invitation to the BBQ.
"She was in the flat. They left together in his karo after he mowed the lawn." She didn't stop to look up at him, not even once, while she narrated the morning's events. She was now slicing the spring onions. "I invited him round tomorrow on my day off to help me mouvaro some furniture."
"What furniture?" asked Demostheni. His wife was on a shooting round, firing bricks without waiting for him to catch his breath.
"Oh," Eleni stopped slicing the onions and stared at the wall, pretending to think hard. "I was thinking of redecorating one of the boys' rooms," she continued, "and turning it into a sewing room, so that I can have something to do now that I'm going to be getting sintaxi soon."
Demostheni was taken aback at this. She had never mentioned redecorating, or even needing a room to herself. And if she did think about it, why hadn't she asked him for help in the first place?
"Stathi and Stavros could help you to do that; they're both gonna be here today!" he exclaimed. His day had not started off very well. "You didn't have two sons foronathee!" he reminded her pretentiously.
"O, saddap yo fes, it's a yiorti," she reminded him. "There's no need to put them to any fasaria today."
"No," Demostheni retorted, "you saddap!" He was now livid from what he had just heard. His wife was making plans behind his back, and had even invited complete strangers into his house.
"And did you ask him what he charges?" he was now smiling sarcastically. " I mipos to kanei tzamba?"
Eleni remained astute. She still did not look up at Demostheni as she spoke.
"Of course he doesn't do it for free, and of course I promised him a little something," she replied firmly. "There's no such thing as a free lunch."
Demostheni was at a loss for words. He wasn't able to think as fast as the shots were being fired. "Gonna do a bit of home-baking for him, are ya, maybe some fresh bread?"
This is some of the best bread I have ever made; baking bread is difficult in the Greek summer because it heats up the house unnecessarily.
"Bake him some bread?" Eleni scoffed. "Have you ever seen me bake bread? Who do you take me for, the fournari**?"
* klap: Greek men's club, where they play cards and have a drink together
The average Greek immigrant couple- observe their clothes, the woman's position in the kitchen and the way the man doesn't get up from his chair...
**This story is based on a Greek joke, which ends with the wife telling her husband that she promised to have sex with her handyman, for the same reason that Eleni doesn't bake bread.
Special thanks to my two editors on opposite sides of the coast.
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