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

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, bricks.

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.

One 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 had life.

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 inferno.

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 living room.

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 hold dearest.


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