Thursday, 4 October 2012

Bric-a-brac (Ψιλικά)

The simplest people, with their down-to-earth ways, are often the most honest people. 

Last Saturday, I found myself in the port town of Souda, close to the Athens ferry terminal. For such a significant port of call, which has been frequented by enormous cruise ships throughout the spring and summer, the town of Souda remains chaotically undeveloped. It is not uncommon to find uncultivated fields covered in thorny gorse, while the port itself is modestly unassuming, despite its being the gateway to Hania for those who choose to come to the island by sea.

The Athens-to-Hania ferry boat (above) fits in the photo, but cruise liners (bottom) do not!

The main road of Souda contains the usual array of shops and service offices commonly found in any Greek town, which provide all the facilities needed to make it a hub zone for the surrounding region: baker, zaharoplasteio, chemist, greengrocer's,post office, bookshop, toyshop, glassware, horticultural supplier, DIY store, kiosk, souvlatzidiko, snack bar, kafeneio and modern fast-food outlet, being the main ones, along with at least one omnipresent multi-national supermarket chain. The side-street leading off the main road to the ships is lined with ticket agencies and flashy cafes, as if it is an entertainment centre that everyone would want to stop off at as soon as they land on the island.

Now that I'm making kefir on a daily basis, I found that I needed to buy some new kitchen equipment. Metal tools are best avoided with kefir, so I needed to buy a small plastic strainer with a handle as I only had metal ones at home. Avoiding the supermarket due to my aversion of the mainly imported foods it stocks, rather than their Greek (and slightly pricier) equivalents, I looked out for one of those 'general stores' that stock all sorts of bric-a-brac, from small electronic kitchen gadgets (eg mini-mixers, mini-vacuum cleaners, etc), to possible gifts (eg ceramic Made-in-China picture frames), incandescent light bulbs and even Christmas decorations, which are often moved to the darkest corners of the shelves until their time comes to be displayed more prominently.

Sure enough, there was one of those shops. It looked as tired and dusty as its owner, a largish woman wearing a flowery housecoat, who was jabbering away with another customer when I entered. "Zesti, zesti! Kaikame oloi!" she complained, wiping her brow, which was dripping with sweat even so early in the morning, as we were in the middle of an autumn heatwave which saw temperatures soaring to the mid-30s and no sign of waning. She paid no attention to me, as she undividingly splattered it over the other customer. This was a cue as to how she would treat me when it was my turn to get her undivided attention: each customer is of utmost priority.

So I waited my turn, rummaging through the bric-a-brac on display, carefully avoiding any objects covered in dust, when I found some small plastic airtight containers which looked perfect for my kids' lunchboxes. Last week, they complained that I put yemista in their lunch, without a small pot of yoghurt to accompany the rice, which we usually have at home. My son returned the yemista untouched; when I scolded him, he told me he would reheat his meal and eat it with yoghurt now that he had come home, prompting me to find less deceptive ways to stave off their hunger while they were at school.

"Do you have one more of these plastic containers?" I asked the woman, explaining that I need two of them.

"Just a minute, dear," she replied, "I think I'm still asleep - this weather's gonna kill us off!" she said, as she tried to count some change she was handing to the previous customer. The container was found on a portable rack of 'seasonal' items which included children's drink bottles, it being the start of the school year, and there would be a need for such things. While she was finishing off with the previous customer (they still had some gossip to catch up on), I looked around for a plastic strainer, but to no avail, as there didn't seem to be any order in the shelves which I could make sense of.

"Right, love, what can I do for you?" I asked her about a plastic strainer. "Middle aisle, right at the end, on your right," she answered, pinpointing me to the exact location where I found a number of strainers in different sizes and colours. I found exactly what I was looking for, and brought it back to the counter.

"Anything else, dearie?" she asked me, just as a fat black and white cat walked into the store, meowing softly. I showed her the plastic container and explained that I wanted another one in the same size. She promptly went to search the same places in the store that I had already searched.

"I've looked there already, and I don't seem to have found anything," I tried to offer helpfully, but she wasn't listening because she was too involved in what she was doing, knowing better than I did the nooks and crannies of her haberdashery cornucopia.

"I know where I've got them," she suddenly announced, "I'll just look out the back in the store room where I keep other tupperware along the same lines. You just take a seat and make yourself comfy," she said, pointing to a chair near the cashier's desk, in front of which was an old TV set that looked remarkably similar to one I have in the kitchen. It's so old (more than 25 years) that I keep wondering why it hasn't broken down yet, and I've often cursed it as it is the protagonist of many arguments over eating times in our house, when somebody wants to watch something, while somebody else wants to watch something else, leading me to remove the aerial plug so that everyone ends up watching nothing.

"Yes, puss, I know you're hungry, and I'm going to feed you soon, just be a little more patient, sweetie." She was humming as spoke to the cat, as if trying to placate it by pretending to be looking after its needs when she was actually looking after mine. She disappeared round the back of the shop, allowing me to snap a few photos without any bother. After a few moments, she reappeared with a mountain of tupper boxes, which all looked quite inappropriate, but she had a smile on her face which gave me the impression that she was going to find exactly what I was looking for. By this point, another customer had entered the shop.

"I hope you don't mind if it's not the same shape," she apologised, "but it will be the same capacity," she emphasised. Sure enough, when she opened the boxes, which had other boxes nestled inside them like a Russian matryoshka doll, the last box she opened contained the box that I wanted. She looked very pleased with herself; I thanked her for taking so much trouble to find it for me, and asked her how much my wares cost.
"That's 50 cents for each container, and... what does that strainer say on the side?" She scrutinised it carefully. "€1, so that's  €2 altogether." She took out a plastic bag and placed my bric-a-brac into it and then ran up a receipt on the till.

"Are you still handing out receipts?" asked the next customer. "They won't count towards anything you know," she said looking at me. "The only ones that will be needed are for doctors, restaurants and cabs," she said knowingly. Printing out a receipt is now standard practice in most stores, and there has been a severe clampdown in tax evasion of this petty kind, but 'freelancers' (of the type mentioned by the woman) still pose a problem.

"Well, I'd better collect as many as I can, because my husband's a cabbie," I let her know.

"Oh, in that case, here's a few more," the store owner said to me, pointing to the pile of uncollected receipts that some of her customers left behind. "Not everyone needs them for filing their tax forms, so they leave them here." I picked up a couple more, thanking her once again, and wishing her a good day as I made my way out of the shop.

"See you again soon, κοπέλα μου," she said, and I told her that most likely I will.

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