The idea for this post came from a set of photos depicting a meal that a friend of mine had in a restaurant in Wellington, New Zealand. This event coincided with the screening of the Greek version of the reality cooking show MASTERCHEF. I wrote this post in Greek because that's how it came to me at the time - some of the ideas expressed in it could not be written in English in the first instance. Just before I finished writing this story, the Paul Henry incident broke out, so I rewrote some parts to include some of the ideas that generated from his remarks, which reminded me of some of my experiences during my last visit to the country that I was born in (2004). This post also reminded me of an incident that occurred to me during the summer: I phoned up a New Zealand-born friend of mine of Greek origin who was visiting Crete. She told me I was always a New Zealander at heart. This came as quite a surprise to me, because I’ve been living in Greece for nearly two decades, and for a long time, I have had very little direct contact with the country I was born in; if it weren’t for Facebook, I probably wouldn’t have any at all.
Where should I take him, I was thinking about this day and night, where could we go that would serve us ‘good food’, as he kept telling me, saying that he missed ‘a good meal out’. He ate whatever I cooked, but the aromas and tastes that he was used to from home were always missing. I could tell by the way he’d push his fork around the plate, as if something was amiss, so that he couldn’t finish the last bite on the plate. How could I tell him that there were many times that even I missed the tastes and aromas of the food of my past, but I didn’t actually have any place I could go to that was close by to me to find them? How could I explain to him that in this country lambs were raised on grass, and they were slaughtered when they had become the size of a pig? How could I make him understand that, here, tomatoes grew in the rain, not the sun, which would come out every now and then in the summer, and not at all in the winter? And why the olive oil we bought from Moore Wilson made me choke if it sat on my throat for too long, and I thought it tasted rancid?
The classic fish and chips meal, wrapped up in (unprinted) newsprint paper. Fish and chip shop menus have not changed much since I was living in Wellington (Photos: Sophia Economou).
“But where do people go, if they want to go out for dinner?” he asked me one day. “Aren’t there tavernas with home-made food, are Chinese takeaways all you have here?” I hadn’t even been to the Chinese takeaways myself, I only thought of fish and chips as the meal people ate when they were eating ‘out’. We bought him paua fritters from the shop, but he said they smelt bad (we actually loved them ourselves). We also bought him spring and curry rolls, but he almost choked on the heat of the curry. He did like the fish though – he said he’d never seen such large fresh fish in his life. “Each fillet is like a joint of lamb,” he told us. Indeed, the fish was quite special here. Many times, I would take a large fillet home and cook it in the oven, in tomato sauce with potatoes. We showed him all the other food we sold at the shop, but nothing made a really great impression on him. He’d constantly be asking us about the origins of everything. What did we know about this ourselves? What was he thinking, that we were reading the labels? And even if we did look at them, we didn’t really know what was written on them, since it was all in English, and we didn’t know how to read the language. People who bought fish and chips wanted something quick to eat, not an analysis of the origins of the product.
That’s why, one day, I got the kids to take him to the McDonalds close to our house, so he can get a chance to see something different. The food wasn’t really anything special, but it looked clean enough to me, and the hamburgers were always quite tasty. They smelt strongly of herbs and spices. Every now and then, when we were returning home from work on a Sunday night, we’d buy a Big Mac from the drive-in, just so we too could change our routine a bit, because here, life is just a routine, which is a topic we never really talked about, because we’d regret it and the thought of home would overwhelm us.
“Well, don’t tell me you call that food!” he said, laughing, as they all returned home. “But really, doesn’t anyone go out for a cooked meal, like a roast or something, with a bit of homemade saltsa? Don’t the locals cook food like that?”
“Well, what can I say, do you think I know what those people eat, brother?” I answered him, with the thought that I had just made a ridicule of myself by sending him to that cheap fast food place, and not some place else where you pay big bucks just for the décor. But where else do people eat, since I myself don’t go anywhere else? All day long, I fry fish and chips at the shop. All day long I cook for others, and at night, when I come home, I too want to eat something I like, I don’t want a takeaway meal, I want some lentils, maybe some stuffed vegetables, or wild greens that I picked myself from the park in Pirie St, or up at the tops of Mt Victoria.
My mother picked a lot of horta in her lifetime from these parks in Wellington; top-left clockwise: the Botanical Gardens, Mount Victoria (does it remind you of Lord of the Rings?), Pirie St Park, Marjoribanks Park.
The arrival of my brother reminded me of my first years in this country, when everything was new to me. There were no hamburgers then, only fish and chips. That was in fact the first ready meal that I ever ate in my life. I’d only been to a restaurant one time, when the boarding school in Fielding where I cleaned the rooms and kitchen had closed for the summer. We’d been taken to a restaurant as a farewell meal. I couldn’t read the menu, so I let my bosses order for me. They bought me a beef steak full of blood, even though they said it was well cooked. Despite wanting to vomit as I looked at it, I didn’t say anything, because I was too embarrassed to say anything. I didn't want to upset Mr Miles. He was such a good man. I didn’t want him to think that he’d made a bad choice on my behalf. But everyone round me was eating the same thing, so it was a case of ‘do as the Romans do’. I thought that it can’t be that bad, since they were obviously enjoying what they were eating.
After I got married, I never ate a restaurant again. Now and again, we’d think about going out for a meal, just me and my husband, but we always seemed to find a good reason not to. We might have been invited to a wedding, or maybe a baptism – but never a funeral: in the good old days, there were no sorrows, only joys. We were all young and healthy, death came along much later among the community members. We’d always go to all the dances that the community organized. It was at such functions that we’d discover the food that the locals were eating, since the cooks there weren’t always Greek. All the food was always plated beautifully and had an appealing appearance. It was tasty too, but not in the same way as our food. They didn’t use oil in salads, they’d use mayonnaise. Their meat dishes all resembled boiled meat. Beef was served with a thick brown sauce made from the meat juices, while lamb was accompanied by something like green marmalade! It was all just too whacky for us, but we ate it. We never saw thick tomato sauces on anything except macaroni. Everything looked well-cooked, but we never really found it delicious, it was as though the food was lacking in taste somehow. Their sweets were always delicious though, and they were never really sweet, either. I was particularly fond of trifle, as my children called it, and we made it once at home from a recipe my daughter found in the newspaper.
The Green Parrot Cafe is a classic icon in the food business of Wellington (Photo: Sophia Economou).
In other words, this is how we ate at home, and we rarely tried to find out what other people were doing in their homes. We’d eat the odd fried potato at the shop, but I’d always cook at home in the morning before I went to work, and always in the way that I remembered my dearly beloved and departed mother doing. It had never occurred to us to book a table and have a meal out. And what would we eat out anyway, if we did go out for a meal? Porterhouse steak and chips with boiled vegetables, that’s what my husband told me he ate one night at the Green Parrot, when he went out with his friends. Everyone knows that place, both Greeks and non-Greeks, they advertise it in the newspaper as one of the best restaurants in town, and they always have a good thing to say about the Greek owners. He said it tasted really good, but I was cooking the same meals at home that we’d see on their menus, and I’d cook them with the herbs and spices that would get them as near as possible to that special taste we knew from home. In the foreign land that we find ourselves, there’s a big difference between the people that stay home and cook their meals and the ones that go out to eat, and the two groups don’t always see eye to eye on most things.
But my brother had crossed three continents for the first time in his life, just to see us, and I know it isn’t easy at all for him to come back to visit me. So this was a chance for all of us to go out together to a good restaurant. Since we were his hosts, we had to show him a good time, lest he go back home and tell everyone that his sister didn’t pay him much attention when he came to visit her. I got the kids to book a table at a restaurant. I told them to choose an expensive place close to Oriental Bay, somewhere where we can have a view over to the sea, and to avoid the places where the loud youths and drunks hung around in Courtenay Place, somewhere a bit further away from the pubs and the cafes with the dark interiors…
*** *** ***
I simply asked to go out to something like a taverna, and they acted as if they hadn’t heard of the word before in their life! They took me to a restaurant in a very picturesque area close to the sea. Both the beach and hills were visible. If it weren’t so green, and the houses weren’t made of wood, then it wouldn’t have looked too different from the village. I would have liked to live in one of those pastel-coloured little boxes myself. The green hills don’t compare at all with the stones and rocks of the village. Wellington is really quite a beautiful place, with a particularly English feel to it with its Victorian houses. If you don’t take the weather into account, you could build yourself an easy life here, without stress, noise or dirt. Not even the dust settles here for long, since the rain washes it away in the gutters as soon as it falls. Theano’s house always looks clean. The air always smells fresh, but summertime – in the best instance – is like a cold Greek spring.
The classic Wellington shot (Photo: Wikipedia)
There were some chairs and tables on the footpath, but who would want to sit outside in this weather, since you can’t always predict when the wind will start blowing or when it will start raining. It was a Saturday afternoon in February, or evening as they call anything after 6pm here. It was still supposed to be summer in the Antipodes, but all the seasons appear at some time in the same day! Now that the wind wasn’t blowing so hard, the weather was quite bearable, but the rain was falling in fine drops, like the drip irrigation under the orange trees when the water was lacking pressure. The seasons were upside down, and sometimes they didn’t resemble real seasons at all.
“Is there any point in leaving the tables and chairs outside?” I asked my niece and nephews. “How likely is it that anyone would want to sit outside in this kind of weather?” Many times I would see them wearing their short-sleeved clothes, even though I was shivering from the cold. They would insist that it is summertime now, and if they don’t wear short sleeves at this time, then they’d never get a chance to wear them!
“The restaurant is on the first floor,” my niece Stella informed me. She was the one that had chosen the restaurant. First time I see myself climbing steps to go to a restaurant! How on earth does the business attract customers if no one can see what’s going on inside before they enter! As I entered, however, I immediately understood that this place was of a different class than the average restaurant. The first thing that caught my eye as we entered the large room was the tables. The decor looked luxurious, even if slightly minimalist, with ice-white tablecloths, stem glasses, and bright shiny cutlery. There were more knives and forks at each place setting than there were fingers on both my hands! But… why was there no one else in the restaurant?
“I told you so, Stella,” muttered her mother. “You booked way too early.”
"People have dinner at this time, mum, and you know it.” The empty room did not convince me, either. But the staff were at their posts, as if they had been waiting for us to come at exactly that moment.
“Kia ora”. One of the staff - a very well-dressed man - welcomed us into the restaurant with a Maori greeting. I had first heard that phrase from the weather lady at the end of the television news broadcast, and it always sounded to me as if she was saying ‘kakiora'. I couldn't get used to the dark atmosphere of the restaurant. The lighting seemed inadequate, more appropriate for a bar than a restaurant. It reminded me of those photographs in the Greek newspaper supplements that showcased well-known Athenian restaurants. The paintings hanging on the walls did not impress me. They showed unfamiliar landscapes for me. I felt some anxiety about how I should behave in a place like this - and some relief when another well-dressed man wearing a blazer and tie led us to our table, which was right in front of the windows. Despite the poor visibility, the view of the sea had a soothing effect on me; the sea is the kind of view I look forward to when I go out to eat at home. Although it did lend an air of familiarity to my new dining experience, just at that moment, it occurred to me that the Mediterranean would not look too different now from what I was seeing outside the window, even though the seasons were supposed to be in reverse. Crete was wrapped in the midst of winter, while the tail end of the New Zealand summer was not much different.
Based on this degustation menu, if something similar were to appear in the standard Cretan dining experience, then I suppose it would start off with sea urchins served with frothy lemon mousse surrounded by the seaweed they came entwined in, and maybe it would end off with some mizithra decorated with seasonal fruit, served with paximadi (Photo: Vera Lingonis).
The attention that the restaurant was paying to detail was exceptional. The staff seemed to be glistening in cleanliness, just like the restaurant itself. The waiter responsible for our table pulled out our chairs for us to sit down, told us his name, wore a wide smile all evening, and never raised his voice. When he brought the menu card, he remained for a few minutes at the table to explain it to us. My niece then translated everything to me. It was a really proud moment for me to see my sister's children speaking fluently and with such ease in both languages. It's just not the same thing to have another dominant language other than English these days, especially in young people today, like my children who learnt foreign languages at the afternoon language schools. They're still learning them even now that they're grown up, they always seem to be needing a certificate or something in order to get on in life. I wonder how it is that my sister and her husband haven't really learnt the English language. They run a whole business, but can't seem to move along with the times in their new homeland...
The waiter left at some point, just as another waiter brought us jugs of water.
"Well," I began, feeling slightly hungry from all the menu choices that I had just heard about. My appetite was beginning to open. "Have you decided what you're going to order? In the village, beef is always a little too tough for my liking, so I feel like--."
"But, theio," my nephew Mihali interrupted me, "we don't need to order. They're going to bring us everything the waiter told us about!" I was bowled over, I could hardly believe what I had just heard. Duck, pork, seafood, beef, even turtle - we'd be eating it all in the same night!
"Look where the kids brought us," my sister spoke in a reprimanding voice, as if she herself had no idea what was going on.
"Didn't I tell you, kids?" Babis had now joined into the conversation. "We should have gone to the Green Parrot!"
"Stella chose the restaurant, not us," Spiros jumped to defend himself. "Not my fault, Dad!"
I could now see that I was creating trouble. They were doing all this to make me happy, and I had just started a family argument among them!
"Hey, who said there's anything wrong with this place?" I said, in an attempt to appease them. "I've never been to a more appealing restaurant in my life!"
"It's one of the most recommended in town, theio," said Stella. I discerned a sense of embarrassment in her voice. Stella was in her second year at university. I had asked her once about what she was studying and she told me it was something called Linguistics.
"And what are you going to do when you finish with these studies?" I asked her.
"I still haven't decided," she answered. This is something I couldn't very well understand, to be studying without knowing where your studies will eventually lead you in life. It didn't seem to worry her parents, since they couldn't explain it to me, either. "It's a different country here," my sister would remind me when I compared my new experiences with my home life. Mihali and Spiros were finishing college this year. All the children helped their parents at the shop. They had shared out the days amongst themselves, so that one child was always present at the shop with them every day. Everyone in the family toiled and tired together - they were deemed a successful family.
"What we're doing here is something called 'degustation'," Stella continued.
"I thought I just heard you say 'disgusting'." My sister was laughing.
"You didn't hear right, mum," Spiros chided her.
"De-gus-ta-tion." Stella syllabified the word for her parents' benefit. "The chef's going to cook his best dishes, which he's created himself, and... these recipes aren't found in books, ... and he's going to bring each one of us a plate of each of these foods, so that we can try them all." Stella showed me the menu card - the waiter hadn't taken it back - and I counted nearly ten dishes, which Stella told me were called 'courses'. I began to like the sound of this - I was going to become a taste connoisseur!
Wellington generally has a cool wet climate. Although sunny days do exist, they are not a frequent occurrence. Living in Crete for so long, I take the sun for granted these days, but I do miss a good rain shower every now and then (Photos: Sophia Economou).
In the meantime, the view from the window did not bring the good tidings that I should have been enjoying at that moment. The sky had darkened, but the sea was still distinguishable from the waves that had appeared on its surface. It was my first time seeing the sea looking like the colour of soap water, sitting below a cotton-wool sky! The wind had started up again. It began to sound like an aeroplane taking off from the tarmac; the sound it made felt like an earthquake brewing without the houses moving. A man was jogging on the street, looking slightly drenched from the rain and sweat. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt; I felt the cold ripple through me.
The waiter turned up at this point, opening the bottle of wine that Babis - or more likely Stella - had ordered, and poured a little into a glass. He offered it to Babis, who didn't pay much attention to it, and promptly placed the glass on the table without having a sip.
"Taste it, Dad," Stella whispered to him, and he immediately picked up the glass and drank it.
"Good, good," he said, gesturing towards the waiter with a nod of his head, who interpreted it as a sign of satisfaction. The waiter placed the bottle of wine in a little silver bucket and left the table.
The sound of footsteps could be heard in the staircase leading to the restaurant. Some more customers had arrived. For some reason that I cannot explain, I felt more comfortable now that I knew that there were more people in the restaurant. Two men had entered the room. Another waiter - not ours - led them to their table at the far side of the restaurant, close to the wall where there was a fireplace.
"Why didn't they come to sit by the window?" I asked out loud, not really expecting an answer to my rhetorical thoughts.
"The tables here must all be reserved," Stella replied. "I booked this table two weeks ago so that we can be sure of having it today."
Two weeks! They must have brought me to the most popular restaurant in town!
Our waiter appeared again by our table and began to unfold each of our napkins and place them on our laps, as if we were young children, and our mother was taking care of us lest we soil our clothes!
It didn't take long for all of us to start laughing in turn, while the waiter had an annoyed look on his face. He did not find our amusement funny! I wondered whether it was because he didn't understand what we were saying as we were laughing. Europeans have their own way to make themselves understood, even if they don't know each other's languages, although it's practically impossible not to find a few words in some common languages that are universally known. Many times, facial gestures say a lot. Here, though, I understood that everything had to be clear and upfront.
When he finished laying our napkins, a young woman appeared from the door separating the kitchen from the dining area, dressed in the same colours as the waiter, with a large black apron covering her clothes. She was pushing a little trolley table like the ones we see in hospitals when the nurses come round to administer medication. The first course was about to be served, with so much fanfare! The waiter served our plates, one-by-one, again with his many explanations and his cultured smile, while the girl simply passed the plates to him without speaking. That was when I got my next big surprise for the evening: on the plate, there was one lone oyster in its shell, sitting on a mattress of seaweed!
Live Tio Point Oyster with citrus soy pearls (Photo: Vera Lingonis).
"Is the seaweed cooked?" I asked my sister. I was looking around for a little bottle of oil on the table, as is customary in Greek tavernas; at that point, everyone burst into laughter.
"Careful, theio," Mihali cautioned. "It's alive!" The whole plate looked like a work of art - still life that was almost moving!
"That's only for decoration, theio!" said Mihali. "And I don't eat oysters!"
"Me, neither!" said Spiros.
"OK, pass them over to me," said Stella.
"So, they brought us oysters," said Theano with a huffed voice. "We're going to eat what we sell in the shop, right?" She was looking at Stella and shaking her head as if berating her.
"Is the cook serving all his food raw tonight?" quipped Babis. "I told you everything here would be a load of rubbish!" Tempers were rising. I was starting to think I was the reason why my family was fighting, since I was the reason that they found themselves here. In the meantime, other people were arriving at the restaurant. From where I was sitting, I could see the two men who had arrived after us staring our way. I had to do something to calm things down. So I grabbed the oyster shell and slurped the oyster in one swallow. The oyster had the taste of a salty gel. At first I wanted to throw up, but the taste that stayed in my mouth after I had swallowed it was what I'd felt on a spring day sitting by the beach, that light fresh salty breeze that comes from the sea.
"Theio," Stella was practically whistling, "you should have used the appropriate fork!"
The appropriate fork! I only knew how to use one fork, the same one everywhere!
"Stella," I turned to my niece, "I have to tell you something that perhaps you don't know here in New Zealand. Some things need hands - without a doubt."
Stella looked at me quizzically, without registering what I had just said, but her father laughed.
"There are times," he said, "when I think that everyone around me has missed the train." He spoke in a regretful tone, even though it sounded as though he was laughing. "We have our own customs, while other people have their own ones." I understood immediately that he felt homesick - he yearned for the mother country he had left behind. The shop was now quite full - full of foreign people, foreign sounds, foreign languages, foreign tastes, foreign looks. Nothing felt familiar to me, nothing resembled anything I knew of life up to that point. I could not relate it even to the foreign tourists that I was used to seeing in the village during the summer.
The waiter had returned with the same young woman, and began clearing the plates away from our table. This time, he placed a transparent mug at each setting instead of a plate. I couldn't for the life of me imagine what was going to be poured into it, apart from a hot tea. I asked Stella, who behaved as if nothing was amiss. Theano and Babis looked lost - they were out of place, out of time.
"It's time for the soup," Stella explained as she pointed out the item on the menu card. "It says that it's made from turtle..., mock turtle..." She looked confused as to the translation of the word in Greek. Even though her knowledge of the Greek language was better than her brothers', she lacked the appropriate vocabulary. "The word 'mock'," she continued, "means 'fake', so... it's not really turtle."
"Well, why does it say it's made from turtle?" I asked her.
"I don't know, theio," she answered, with a slight laugh. "Mum cooks only Greek food at home. I've heard of this soup before, but I don't know what it is. A friend of mine at university tells me her mum makes it."
"And why didn't you ask her how it's made, so you can try making it and see for yourself what it's all about?"
"Well..., I felt a bit embarrassed, because I thought, that maybe she'd think I was... "
"Ignorant," I finished off her sentence. She nodded her head in agreement.
At that moment, I understood her worry. I had never imagined my sister's children as New Zealanders, I only thought of them as Greeks, since their ancestors were all Greeks. They simply had the luck to be born in a country that could give them more opportunities in life. Now I thought that maybe they could be something else too, with what I just heard Stella saying. Something else entered my mind at that moment: Who were the real New Zealanders? The colour of one's face does not play any role. The prime minister is white, the queen's representative is chocolate. Maori, English, Chinese, Greek, they all say they are New Zealanders. You can be a New Zealand Greek, or a New Zealand Chinese, or a New Zealand Indian. But would an Indian (or someone who is Chinese or English) be able to say that they are Greek too? Would they want to? I could only imagine that in the case of the Albanians who wanted to gain Greek citizenship; it was being done with a purpose in mind. I am an Albanian Greek, I am a Greek Albanian; they would only be able to say it to themselves - a public announcement of this sort would instigate a fight.
Heston's mock turtle soup (Photo: Vera Lingonis).
At that moment, the waiter placed a small pouch into our glasses, it looked just like a teabag. Then he poured a hot brown liquid over it, whose hefty aroma lingered in the air. It smelt meaty. The twins were once again mumbling that they didn't like it. "But you haven't tasted it!" I said to them. Theano didn't look too keen, but Babis said it reminded him of the freshly cooked goat he last ate in the village a few summers ago. He was right - it did taste of young meat. I liked its warmth as it travelled down my throat. From the window, I could see the rain as it was falling, and the soup brought me great comfort. There were now many other customers in the restaurant, although it wasn't entirely full, like a taverna would be on Saturday night. The customers were all middle-aged. No one had bought along any children, no one looked as though they had come on a family outing. For so many people in the restaurant, it was awfully quiet. Only our table was sounding kind of loud.
The waiter would often come back to the table while we were eating and ask us if everything was to our liking. I can't say that I didn't like anything. It was all very different to what I was used to from home. I wondered why Theano hadn't got used to the New Zealand lifestyle, she had been living here for long enough. If I were in her place, I would not have stayed.
It was difficult to follow the flow of the meal. It didn't seem to have a logical order. First they bought us a fish appetiser, followed by meat soup, now they were bringing us a huge plate, again with fish, some kind of seafood with a fishy-smelling sauce, accompanied by - I swear! - an orange-flavoured cream with raisins. The food was all served in very small quantities, and the plate looked empty. The appearance of the finished dish played a very great role. Instead of oil, there were many colourful sauces and creams with fruity scents, which I wasn't really used to eating with my main meals. The fish were being muddled up with the meats, the salty with the sweet. Even the texture of the foods was entirely novel for me. It was easy to get lost in the conglomeration of the tastes.
Just as the pork was being served (with a jelly that was thankfully placed on the other side of the plate, because I really had no idea what ginger or lychee was, as Stella explained to me that it contained, and I preferred to eat mine plain), the crashing of glass was heard on the other side of the room. A bottle had fallen off the table of the two gents near the fireplace, and had shattered into smithereens. A waiter immediately appeared and cleared up the mess. From where I was sitting, it was easy to observe the two men, without even meaning to do it. I had seen them feeding each other, and when they weren't eating, they had their heads huddled together, as if they were very close to each other, practically kissing. I suppose they were batting for the other side.
Above: Seared scallops, smoked herring puree, fennel, date and orange salad - Free range cured pork belly, ginger and lychee jelly, cashew nam jim. Below: Sous-vide duck, orange kumara mash and mandarin - Angus beef fillet, fried scampi, Worcestershire spatzli, young carrots, oxtail juice (Photos: Vera Lingonis).
I can't say I didn't like the dishes. I just didn't expect that good food would involve so many muddled ingredients. Fish, pork, duck, beef, all in one night. We often hear about New Zealand lamb, but I didn't get to taste one bite that night! It wasn't just that: the most annoying thing for me was the waiting staff. They'd distribute the dishes, then they'd serve us, as if we were children, constantly filling up our glasses, at our service like slaves. We had no opportunity to do anything for ourselves, they even told us which bite to eat first, and what we should follow it with! This pampering was entirely unnecessary, likewise with their foolish-looking smiles, which I stopped trusting after a little while. It felt as if they were trying to pull a fast one on us, which I suppose would have come at the end of the evening, in the form of the bill. The hour of food is a very personal one for me. They did not respect that sacramental moment. On the one hand, this over-fussing made me lose my appetite, while on the other, it simply distracted me. I began to mix up the tastes in my mouth.
Palate cleanser (Photo: Vera Lingonis)
"That's why they bring us a palate cleanser in between meals," Stella informed me as we were being served a deep bowl steaming cold air out of it, like the fog that I could see from the window that was settling over the hills, slightly obscuring them. "To cleanse the tastebuds," she continued. Ice on ice: the white crockery coupled with the scent of rose reminded me of a bathroom! I really couldn't work out why this dessert had to be rose-scented - wouldn't orange have seemed more natural? For one more time, the optical impression counted more than the taste.
Then it suddenly occurred to me that I had spent the whole evening without eating a slice of bread. I didn't even see it on the table, but even if it had been brought to us, what would we have done with it, since there were no sauces, only multi-coloured creams which looked and felt like mayonnaise.
The city lights looked muffled by the fog. A heavy dark cloak draped the city, speckled with shiny buttons. From the window, we could discern the pretty lights on the buildings, which gave the town a festive look. The rain was now falling in very tiny drops, but it suited the atmosphere well; it matched the plastic smiles of the waiting staff and the heavy meal we were enjoying. It was all Greek to me, as the children had explained the joke to me, but it looked so appropriate, right here in its place, at the end of the earth, as Theano often described New Zealand. If you travelled past it, you'd think the earth had disappeared, and you'd need another seven hours flying time over the Pacific Ocean to see a land mass once again.
Just when I thought I could fit nothing more in my stomach, along came the dessert. Mihali, who was sitting next to me, had caught on to what was happening on the other side of the room, and he told Spiros, who told Stella.
"What do you care what they are doing?" she replied to them. "Don't keep turning round to look at them, they'll catch on to what you're doing, you know it's rude to stare."
"Oh, lay off," said Babis, "they're just poofs. They're acting like peacocks spreading their feathers!"
"Leave them alone," said Theano. "I've seen worse behaviour from the couples that come into the shop. You should see the state they're in just before the shops' closing time as they leave the pub, they're practically blind drunk, and they walk into the shop trying to order fish and chips. Babi, remember the woman who came in once with her trousers undone and her boyfriend was hugging her, saying "It wasn't me!"
"Yeah, well, these ones are just a bit confused, but in another way," said Babis. "Many times, I don't know who's the woman, and who's the man. I say 'Yes, sir,' and they reply to me 'Can't you see I'm a lady?'" Their shop was located in the red light district. Babis and Theano, together with their children, had seen a lot of things in their everyday life that I would have to specifically search for to see where I lived. Their life was very public, they had to do with people from all sectors of life; in the village, I would see the same people every day, and the synthesis of the community would not change much until someone died or gave birth.
We were treated to some cheese just before dessert, again with the same fuss and bother that they served us all the other dishes. The cheese was soft and it was covered in some kind of pear compost, so its appetising smell was kind of lost on me. The same could be said of the sweet cream that came drowned in a hat like the sombreros that Mexicans wore in American films. The chocolate and ice-cream came on a plate that reminded me of glass building bricks. I sampled everything, but I didn't eat them all. Everyone else licked their plate. I just needed a raki to ease my indigestion, nothing more! They brought us ten courses in all, multiply that by six people, in other words, sixty plates just for our table! I imagine the dishwasher would have been working overtime to get through all this!
Above: Over the moon brie, blushing pear, house cracker; Creme caramel. Below: Textures of chocolate - Ristretto (Photo: Vera Lingonis).
Instead of raki, people drink coffee here at the end of the meal. I found the one they served us quite bitter, but it was perfect after such a lot of sweet treats. Again, they bought the cup half empty - it contained just one swill! But it was also very late; how do people sleep when they drink coffee at this hour?!
As the coffee was being brought to us, the blonde girl came out of the kitchen, along with a waiter. She was carrying a cake with sparklers fizzing away on it, making the sound of a sizzling pan, while the waiter had a bottle of champagne in his hand. They headed towards the homosexuals' table. I thought that maybe one of them was celebrating a birthday. The staff was smiling and laughing as they cheered them on with their good wishes.
"Happy Anniversary - is that what I just heard them say?" Theano, who was practically laughing now, was asking for confirmation from her children. Babis also started to laugh, but the children remained neutral, obviously to cover up their parents' outburst.
"What's that all about then?" I asked them, not understanding the phrase myself. I was told that this was a wish often used to celebrate the years of marriage, and New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world that allowed same-sex marriages, which they call 'civil unions'.
"Don't speak so loudly," Stella berated her. She was obviously annoyed with her parents' behaviour. "Do you think that the people around us don't understand what you're saying, just because you're speaking in Greek?" Τhe twins seemed to show no emotion. They simply stared at each other, but it was clear what they were thinking - some things that are acceptable in the general community are not necessarily acceptable in the home environment, and are not discussed. But Stella was more open-minded as a young university student, and she was not prepared to put up any longer with the unjustified reasoning that she had been brought up with.
I never thought of my sister's children as New Zealanders, although they were born and raised in New Zealand; I always thought of them as Greeks. Their facial features were Cretan, they did not differ from other villagers. In terms of Greekness, only their knowledge of Greek was deficient, which was understandable given the situation. I could even say that they were Greeker than the average Greek. They never missed a Sunday at church, they danced Greek dances better than my own children, they eagerly awaited to hear the weekly Greek radio program, they watched Greek television programs with their parents, they knew the Greek cuisine well enough through their mother's cooking. They were in constant touch with Mother Greece, as if they were living there, via the modern electronic means that young people use these days. But why should they go and live there, when they had everything they could possibly conceive they needed right here at their fingertips: schooling, education, work.
Here, there was a real chance that they could make a living independently, while in Greece, this was not the case, they would have to rely a lot on their parents to some extent, who often talked about going back to Greece to retire, but I couldn't see that happening easily. They'd miss the comforts that they enjoyed here, comforts that would either cost an arm and leg to get in the village, or maybe they wouldn't exist at all. In any case, what would they do there?
"You'll have a lot to tell the world when you go back to Greece, brother, won't you?" Theano had almost forgotten the village. She now remembered her homeland as an unbreakable part of a whole, rather than the unique detached part that she knew when she lived there. "It's like 'pick'n'mix here, isn't it? You'll have seen and heard everything that you didn't expect you would."
"That's true, but only up to a certain extent," I replied, "because I've seen so many good things here that I won't forget easily."
"What did you like most of all, theio?" Spiros asked me. This was not such a difficult question to answer as it may sound.
"I liked everything, Spiro," I said, "but... what I liked most of all are those things that I know I can't have back at home. I like your wide roads, the ease with which you can move around here with the transportation system, the pretty old brick building at the university, and the lovely-looking wooden buildings..., they all give your city a particular character all of its own, they all give me the impression that life here can just roll on in peace and quiet, without stress or anxiety."
I knew I wouldn't be able to describe what I was telling them to my fellow country people, because no one would believe me if I told them that I had just found a small paradise that I didn't want to live in, because, at the same time, I was yearning to go back home. Some things are not easy to part with.
I'm a Greek-New Zealander. I'm also a New Zealand-born Greek. Sometimes, I don't know which one of the two I am more of; the passing of time and the location I find myself in often influence this factor. Other times I drop the hyphen and one of the parts, according to which way the wind is blowing at the time. Some of us live most of our lives in the twilight zone, while others prefer to keep one of the hyphenated parts in the closet. I may once have been a New Zealand Greek, but I don't think this is the case any longer. I still hold on to both passports, though (and so do my children); they're precious items in the times we live in.
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