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Greek translation Greek dictionariesEleni Vainas [ CV ]
My Summer With Babis - Part I

It is the laughter that I remember best about my time with Babis.

Haralambos (Babis) Kountoupis is a continental chef. During the course of his career, he has cooked in first-class hotels and restaurants all over Europe for just plain folks and many dignitaries; taught fledgling Chefs, and run many restaurants. His roots go deep in the tiny island of Ikaria, Greece. There, in mythology, Icarus flew too near the sun. He died after falling into the ocean when the hot sun melted his wings of wax and feathers.

Like Icarus, Babis has flown too close to the sun: a head injury forced him to retire to Ikaria to recuperate for several years. For five years after that, he operated a tiny restaurant on the pebbled beach at Agios Kirikos, Ikaria, where I first met him the summer of 1995.

During the days and nights I spent eating at his restaurant, I learned he makes his own wine and wine vinegar, cheese from the milk of Mimi, his goat, spaghetti and other pastas. He searches far and wide for the freshest and tastiest ingredients. I have known him to travel on the overnight ferry to Samos, sleeping both ways on benches if there is room, to meet fishermen with their catch in the early morning, then take the ferry back in time to open his restaurant for the day.
Perhaps it was simply my love for his food that forged the beginnings of our friendship; but Babis and I wrote over the winter, me with visions of somehow bringing him and Sophia to Seattle to open a restaurant with me. A really Greek restaurant. Visions of what he would do with the seafood available there, done in his style, made my mouth water. Visions of how Seattleites would accept him and his food made me smile in anticipation. Chefs are lauded there. He would be accepted quickly, and there would be another source of really great Greek food in my own hometown, Seattle.

We wrote of the possibility of his uprooting, changing his life, and he liked America, but throughout his letters I understood his ties to the island where he was born; his roots go deep into the earth and traditions there. He had spent more than twenty years away from his home, teaching Culinary Arts at the Kataegalleo School for Tourism, working at Hilton hotels around Europe, owning his own restaurants and Tavernas, and he had had enough. All he really wanted to do was finish his home on his island, relax and enjoy life. To open another restaurant was not in his plans. "How many years do I have left to look forward to? Twenty? Thirty? I want to spend my days fishing, taking care of my bees and olive trees. This is life."

And one day came another letter, inviting me to spend the summer, where I would possibly understand something of his love for his island. "My restaurant is closed; I lost the lease and I'm not opening another this year. This is my summer: I will finish my home and the apartments for rent. After work we will fish and swim, and I will cook for you. Just you tell me what you want to eat every day."

The summer? In Greece? Too good to be true.
Alas, indeed it was. The invitation from Babis was still there, but my life had changed, and my summer in Greece turned into one month; my time with Babis one short week.

No matter. Bring your friends from Athens and come.

Nine and one half hours on a boat to travel to a quiet island was not in my friends' plans; seeking the more lively life, they remained in Athens.

Now, at 3:00 on a Monday morning in August, I am standing on the top deck of the ferry Samaina, watching Ikaria, a tiny speck on the dark sea, grow slowly larger in front of me, curious to know what adventures lie ahead.

I had slept on the soft benches in the lounge for a short time and was rested and refreshed. More than that, I was excited to be seeing my friend Babis. As I watched the sea, I remembered the previous summer and our first meeting.

"Parros?" It was Greece in September, the high season was over, and the ferries weren't running there from here. Did we want to go to Athens instead?
After the jangling boisterousness of the tourist clientele of Pythagorion, Samos, my companion and I were looking for a quiet, minimally tourist overrun island.
Ikaria, the sign said.

Ikaria? The place in mythology where the man had wings made of wax? That sounded like fun. A small island? No problem. We'd stay the night, sightsee, and take a boat from there the next day.

We arrived at Agios Kirikos on Ikaria on Friday afternoon, took one look, and decided to buy our ticket out immediately. It was a tiny island; we figured we'd see it in a day, then move on closer to our objective.

The first boat out was on Monday morning. Three nights in this tiny place? We'd go nuts. Oh, well. We'd sun, we'd tour, we'd relax.

Our first night's dinner was probably the worst meal we'd had in Greece. We were looking for traditional Greek food, and pizza was not it. This did not bode well for our stay.

The next night we headed toward a small restaurant whose sign pointed down toward the beach. It was the second of the two restaurants recommended by the Hotel owner where we stayed. The first was our previous night's fiasco. Would this be any better or worse?

When the girl who rented us our car also suggested this place, we figured we had a better chance for a decent meal. She said the owner had worked as Chef in some of the finest hotels in Europe. He had had a head injury accident many years before, and had taken several years to heal, then opened this tiny place up the beach about five years before. If we liked fish, she said, that was the place. Now here we were standing on the street above.

Ta Botsala. Ta Botsala? Its meaning was past my limited Greek. Great looking menu, printed on a chalkboard. Fresh tuna. Fresh everything… But what did Ta Botsala mean?

We walked down whitewashed steps that opened onto a small concrete dance floor; pebbles -Ta Botsala- covered the surrounding ground where tables and chairs were scattered: the chairs were of both the white plastic and orange tubular vinyl-strung varieties.

The kitchen area was enclosed in wire-mesh that was padlocked when the restaurant was closed. I could not see that lasting long back home.
We chose an empty table across the dirt road next to the water. It was fun to be served with the waves lapping on one side, sitting in semidarkness, the brightly-lit restaurant across the way.

The waitress, Sophia, served us Retsina from the barrel, the first I'd tried in years. What a difference from the bottled variety: light and fresh on the tongue; the resin a whisper, not a hammer; and best of all, no headaches from added sulfites. There are none.

And then the food started.

Chewy bread with a crust that could form only in a wood oven.
A perfect Greek salad. Tomatoes solid red throughout, meaty and juicy; crisp cucumber slices that somehow released bursts of several flavors all at once; sliced onions so sweet they could stand alone.

Tuna, its juices flowing liberally, melting on the tongue.

And, of course the Greek staple, potatoes cooked lightly in a quality olive oil.
Greek cooking was nothing new for me; I had eaten "Greek" food all my life; my grandparents were born in Greece, my childhood a meld of old country traditions and the new world of America. My mother cooked traditional Greek food often. The "American" food she prepared was liberally sprinkled with Greek olive oil and herbs.

This was a cut above, Greek food with a finish. In its simplicity, the richness of flavors from foods so close to the mineral-rich earth, utterly Greek, utterly incredible.

On the open area of the restaurant, people had begun to dance Greek folk dances, mostly Zeibekiko, a dance done by a single dancer, the movements improvised to 9/8 rhythms: slow, syncopated, and showy.

And Chiftetelle, a lovely, sinuous, sensuous belly dance performed alone or with a partner.

I love to dance to Greek folk music. It is my childhood.

The Chiftetelle was my downfall. Everyone in the main restaurant area was dancing or watching the dancers, and I wanted to dance so badly I itched, feeling the music deep within. But my partner did not dance and I did not have the chutzpa to walk to the dance floor alone and dance Chiftetelle -alone- in front of all the patrons. Other nights, maybe, when we sat closer to the dance floor, but not tonight.

It was dark at our table across the road, the music was beckoning, and I could no longer resist dancing, so I stood at our table and began to finally let Greece seep into my body. The "Greece" of my youth as a second generation Greek-American returned through the music, the food, the smells, the sounds of the people, the talk, the quick, explosive sounds of anger followed by even quicker laughter. In the dark I felt loose and free, and slowly danced the belly dance. When the dance was over, we headed toward the main area, my companion to pay the bill, me to the restrooms.

On my return, he was sitting at a small table near the exit, two glasses of wine and two baklava glistening with honey on the table before him, a wide grin on his face.

The entire restaurant had their eyes focused directly on me. This was typical restaurant behavior in Greece, but normally it happened when entering a restaurant for the first time, not returning from the john.

"Enjoy," he said. "It's in your honor."

"What? Why?"

"When I paid the bill, the owner sat me here and said we couldn't leave until he thanked the wonderful dancer. He says he made the wine himself."
I lifted the wineglass in the direction of the owner, a rather wild-haired, gentle-seeming man, and smiled a thank you. I was pleased but also somewhat embarrassed. What had happened to the anonymity of the dark?
The wine was sweet, nectar. The baklava crisp, chewy with nutmeats.
I was in Greece as an adult, my mouth was lost in remembered childhood tastes and pleasures: the sweet wine my grandfather made, the baklava I helped my grandmother and mother build in layers of whisper-thin phyllo dough.
When the music changed, a line dance formed and people beckoned me to join them. That was the last time I lacked for dancing partners on Ikaria. Or for things to do.

We were invited to a local church Glendi, an outdoor dance and all-out-food fest with local wines and delicacies.
We were told how to find the secret staircase to a natural hot springs only locals knew, where hot mineral waters flow into a pool formed by large boulders at the edge of the sea.
And we stayed on for three extra days just to eat Babis' food and visit with him and Sophia.


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