Now, one year later, a flurry of letters and transatlantic
phone calls have brought Babis and me a nourishing friendship.
My companion of the year before was no longer in my
life; Babis had called frequently when he learned of
the changes; he had been a caring friend. His life was
somewhat different, too. Sophia was in New York, working,
and he was awaiting her return.
Within half an hour of greeting one another on the dock,
I am sitting in Babis' living room, ready to eat from
the feast before me. It is four o'clock in the morning.
In celebration of my arrival, he prepares a full meal
for us: lamb chops, fried long green peppers, tomato
and cucumber salad, fried potatoes and crusty bread.
It covers the table in front of me.
How many times have I eaten the same meal, yet it tastes
new and special.
It was somewhat of a psychic shock to me when I first
walked into his kitchen to watch him prepare our food.
It was like walking into my grandparents' homes. The
aromas were the same, the particular mixture of vegetables,
fruity olive oil and spices transported me back to my
childhood in Yiayia's kitchen. It is then I realize
that the island life Babis lives today is not far removed
from my grandparents' early lives on Samos, Lesvos and
Limnos, all islands a few hours further east by boat.
The traditions and styles of cooking they brought with
them to the new world are based in island roots similar
to those that sustain Babis today.
We eat and talk, drinking beer and laughing until five
thirty, when he remembers that he must be up working
in two hours.
My days are spent quietly. While my host works on his
house, assisting the technician whose job it is to get
the wooden forms ready for the cement truck, I drink
my morning cup of Greek coffee on what will be the balcony
of the unfinished third floor, looking down and out
over the houses below toward the sea. Everywhere I look
there is construction; unfinished floors open to the
elements, awaiting either money or time for completion.
Everywhere there is rebar, cement platforms and columns,
Nature is both friend and foe. Even barren hillsides
somehow manage to give something back to life as it
is lived on this island. Olive trees shaped by the wind
lean toward the sea and bee-hives and windmills top
hillsides for miles.
evening, while we drink sweet wine and eat galactobouriko,
a custard dessert, he talks about the devastating island
fire that served as the impetus not only for rebuilding
his house, but for the new building going on all around.
In 1992 a fire burst through the area, demolishing many
homes and killing several people.
The fire was stopped at his house, but not before it
destroyed the interior of his own home and the four
apartments he rented out on the second floor. He rebuilt
his apartment, but had not been able to add the new
third floor nor complete the reconstruction on the rental
apartments because he had been running the restaurant
in the intervening summers.
He remembers the days before the fire, full of anticipation
and joy: a wedding for 800 people was planned. He was
doing all the cooking; the entire community was to be
present for the celebration. The waterfront was covered
with tables and chairs Babis had been collecting from
villagers for days. Everything was in readiness.
Someone comes running, tells of the fire raging "Up
near your house, Babis!" He remembers leaving everything,
running up the hills, moving inexorably upward through
people fleeing the fire and their homes, surging past
him down to the sea and safety. Still, he plunged upward.
In the basement of his home were several containers
of bottled gas, the major source of cooking fuel. If
the fire reached them and they blew, the village could
be wiped out. "Tell the firemen to come here first;
I have petrol bombs!" he yelled to anyone who would
listen. Fortunately they came; the fire was stopped
at his house. He lost a boat, his rental apartments,
his own apartment, money he had been paid for the wedding
reception; all up in flames. He was lucky, though. He
Others are not so lucky. Many of his friends died in
the fire. Of the villagers who remain, many are still
devastated by their losses; their lives permanently
changed, personalities lessened grievously; living with
souls unlikely to find absolution for the fact they
still live while those they loved were consumed in the
For some, their impotence has destroyed them. Their
loved ones simply fell asleep for their afternoon rest
and were rapidly surrounded by flames, burned beyond
recognition before anyone even knew there was danger.
The knowledge of their inability to help is as fully
consuming as the flames.
As the house above me grows, a superstructure formed
from wood, the days slip one into the other, quiet,
dreamlike. Food is ever present, fresh and bountiful.
I awaken one morning to find that Babis' father has
stopped by to deliver huge trays filled with vegetables
from his garden. He has brought some of this wealth
to each of his children. Tomatoes, beans, long green
peppers abound, bursting with life, fully ripe and ready
to eat; they completely cover the coffee table in the
While Babis works on his house, I write and visit the
village, practice speaking Greek with the technician's
family who also stays at the house, take pictures and
visit with people I had met the summer before.
The men, working hard in the heat from seven a.m. until
3 p.m., have had several Greek coffees over the course
of the day, perhaps eating some fruit or slices of bread
with homemade marmalade.
After an afternoon swim in the ocean, then a sunbath
and a bath, we eat our first real meal of the day. For
spice there are hot peppers we pick from the plant by
the front door; bright red, beautiful. The plant itself
is a study in purples changing to greens and then reds.
For protein, one day there is lamb, another, homemade
cheese, a third escargot he has gathered from his own
land. Today we fry small fish so fresh they were caught
within hours of purchase from the fisherman on his boat.
One third is fried for our lunch, the balance salted
and weighted down to make sardines. Babis has searched
incoming boats for days to find these little delights,
so bright-eyed and perfect.
Mealtime is a study in concentration. Whatever the meal,
we approach each one similarly, first attacking the
food ravenously, the only sounds our forks and other
utensils hitting the plates and our chewing. Then, on
a second round, settling in to savor each bite, we discuss
the food we are eating, its merits, comparisons to other
meals, other flavors. This discussion seems to make
us appreciate the food even more and we talk and eat
until we are past full, then everyone naps.
During the second part of our day we visit, eating fruit
or dessert, drinking a half-bottle of sweet Greek wine
between us over the course of the evening: Samos Nectar
or one by Boutari. We talk about our lives, our dreams.
Laughter is ever-present in our conversations. We find
humor in our foibles, sharing some of the same Cancerian
strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps this is another of
the bonds between us.
With lives thousands of miles apart, we discover friends
in common. This brings on a burst of new hilarity. We
find joy in our new lives. His future is assured, his
life grounded deep here on his island home. We discuss
plans for our cookbook, a project for our next summer
together, when there will be more time; his home will
be finished by then and I will be living in Athens.
We talk of the motorcycle accident he had fifteen years
before as he traveled -too fast- in his rush between
the two tavernas he owned and a third restaurant he
managed; how it had changed his fast-paced life, caused
his doctors to give him up, his parents and wife to
fear his death as he clung to life by a thread; it changed
him. His dreams are different now, more simple. The
island life is his strength.
On our way to the dock, I stand on the street above
the old location of Ta Botsala and am sad. Now cars
park where the restaurant had been. Only the sign remains
in the tree above. The restaurant is gone, the pebbles
themselves covered over with cement. "Progress"
has come to the waterfront.
We sit in his van awaiting the Athens ferry, my bags
stuffed with gifts of olive oil, olive oil soap he has
made himself, spices and other gifts from the riches
of his land and heart. I laugh with him, teasing both
him and me at our behavior the last evening and day
of my stay. We each spent more and more busy time doing
things: him fixing things, me writing, rather than talking
or visiting as has been our way. Not until an hour before
it was time to leave did I realize we have each been
staying busy so as not to feel the inevitable parting.
When I tell him my thoughts, he looks at me, nods his
head slowly and puts down the sander he has been using.
In this wonderful week in which both friendship and
food have run neck and neck as major themes, it is not
surprising that the last thing we talk about is friendship,
about the lines that people must draw to get and keep
friends, and the trust that comes only over time.
I realize he speaks of our friendship. There is a circle
of autonomy around each of us, and a larger one of care
and respect that encompasses us both. It is a gift I