Tsalafos stares intently through an 18 inch metal tube
with a 12 inch diameter glass bottom, watching for signs
of movement. A long lead tied to our boat pulls a frozen
fish wired into a tight cage. There is activity in the
rocks below: an octopus eases slowly toward our bait.
George signals to steady the boat; I drop the oars;
the boat's movement slows. Holding the glass and metal
tube with one hand, a six foot long, 4-tined spear in
the other, George marks his prey.
The octopus has wrapped itself around the baitfish and
is being pulled slowly along by the natural movement
of our boat. Taking careful aim, George waits. His patience
pays off; with a quick thrust, the spear slides through
the water and hits the target. Seconds later, he has
the octopus in hand and slips his knife between the
eyes. He places it into a recycled plastic olive container
with holes drilled through.
Within half an hour, using this method of relaxed watchfulness
and expert hunting skills, we have five octopus, a number
George deems sufficient.
On this mid-August afternoon the water is calm, the
air sultry. Despite hats and sunscreen, the sun broils
our skin. The blue my Grandmother tried so hard to describe
colors the water. And everywhere on the horizon, as
if the Gods scattered them, are rock outcroppings, fingers
of land, and inhabited islands.
While he brings in the boat to the beachfront in this
sheltered cove, we find several fist-sized rocks and
place them on the seawall for George. This takes just
moments; rocks line the shore.
George turns all the octopus inside out, cleans them,
then lifts them high in the air, repeatedly throwing
and pounding them against the seawall several times.
He puts all the octopus and rocks we gathered into the
plastic container, closes the lid tightly and begins
a ten-minute process of rolling the jar, the octopus
moving back and forth between the pounding rocks to
In a final step, he leaves them hanging in the hot sun
before broiling them for dinner.
We hunted for octopus on each of the three days I spent
in a beach house tucked into orange and lemon groves
in Ancient (Palea) Epidavros on the Peloponesse, Greece,
home of the famed Epidavros Theater. George Tsalafos,
my host, lives in New York City in the winter and is
the owner of several parking garages there. Greece is
his homeland, this waterfront home his for the last
twenty years. Nana Loiselle, half-owner of Telly's Taverna
in Astoria, New York, Irene Lista, also of New York,
and I were his guests.
To get here we drove through the village and down a
dirt road, passing orange and lemon groves lining the
roadway. We passed the entrance to the property twice;
there are no signs or mailboxes. Irini recognized an
ancient stone structure at the side of the road. We
parked and found a path leading behind the old dwelling,
walked more than three hundred yards through mandarin
and lemon groves until we reached an opening in the
trees. To the left was George's house, a five room oasis
expanded by a covered patio rimmed with geraniums and
overgrown with grapes. Night-blooming jasmine and trees
full of ripening fruits lining a long path to the sea.
The first thing Nana did was head into a small grove
of trees less than ten feet from the house; within minutes
she was back, her dress pulled up to form a container.
We pulled back thin green skin to expose a sweet center
the consistency of jam, full of tiny seeds. These fresh
tree-ripened figs taste unlike any I have eaten before:
sweeter and livelier. Is it the sunshine? The organic
farming? My love affair with Greece? We eat our fill
under the grape arbor, demolishing the entire mound,
drinking chilled spring water.
From the house we walk through pear, apple and plum
trees down a long marble tiled path to the beach where
George keeps his boat. By the waterfront there is a
round marble table under another grape arbor, and plenty
of seating on the breakfront.
We spend long lazy hours by the water: meal time, siesta
and play time in sunshine or under moonlight. White
grapes heavy with juice hang above our heads.
The water is warm, soothing, buoyant with salt. It is
effortless to float on the surface of the water in the
sunshine, not swimming, lazily hanging out. The sun
is warm and comforting, the air full of voices and laughter.
There is always an ever-changing group of us, swimming,
boating, laughting and talking, eating, playing Greek
music on the radio or on tape, dancing whenever we're
moved. Relatives, friends drop by bringing homemade
wine, bread, and fresh-picked vegetables.
From the fruits of the trees to the fruits of the sea
this area bursts with life and growth: Petalithas (limpets)
clinging to rocks, sea urchins, crabs, baby fish one
or two inches long, all manner of larger fish, are visible
from shore and as we swim. We are warned to wear beach
shoes; sea urchins lurk near shore. Long black prickly
spines poke through the pebbles and rocks, reminding
During the second afternoon, Nana smiles as my eyes
widen: she has picked up a sea urchin with her bare
hands! Telling me not to worry, the secret is in how
you hold it, she sends me to pick a ripe lemon from
the grove beside the water. Then she pries petalithas
from the rocks with a knife and plucks more urchins
from the deeper water, cleans them and hands them to
me, squeezing lemon on top; have I ever eaten seafood
this fresh? It has a thousand taste sensations, each
competing with the other on every surface of my tongue.
I realize why Greeks talk so much about food; why dinner
conversations are as much about the food being eaten
as about politics and life. There is a lot of enjoyment
and much to talk about when food is so fresh that nature's
subtle complexities emerge.
Sounds drift easily through the orange groves. After
eleven PM, I hear Greek music in the distance. I discover
that at the head of the road, within a ten or fifteen
minute walk in either direction are two modern discotheques.
My last night I walk from the beach house up a scented
path to a stunning whitewashed building in the middle
of an orange grove. The lobby leads to a discotheque
with a covered bar and a dance floor open to the night
sky. It has a changing light show dictated by nature:
a big orange moon and thousands of stars traveled over
the dance floor the night I was there.
Combining nature and architecture with a reverence for
the ancient, there is a hint of classical form and shape.
Somehow layered on to the stark modernity of both the
building and music there is a sense of the texture and
depth antiquity lays.
It seldom rains here in the summer; at least not enough
to stop the dancing! There is both Greek folk dancing,
mostly in the style of the area, and ultra modern Greek,
European and American dance.
My three days spent here by the water in Epidavros,
with George's generous hospitality, have been almost
meditative; a good way for my body to complete the ten
hour time shift caused by my trip from Seattle to Greece,
and to downshift from the faster Athenian pace.
Besides the octopus, the homemade wine and bread, the
home-cured olives, our last meal before returning to
Athens includes two platters of fish we have caught:
one fried, one charcoal broiled, and a huge container
of wild greens Nana gathered under the lemon trees.
The aromas, the Greek words and music that ride in the
air all plug into the childhood world that sits just
under my skin, and I begin to understand my immigrant
Grandparents more completely.
The majority of the food I have eaten over the last
few days was something we gathered, hunted, fished for,
picked from trees, plucked from the sea, enjoyed from
the hands of people who made or grew it. There was wine
from a neighbor, tomatoes from George's mother, bread
and olives from friends.
I always heard love in their voices for this other place,
this land where they were born, for the eloquence of
the foods, mineral rich and in season, for the taste
of the water and the color of the sea.
I thought I understood their closeness to the earth
and elements, for they brought that with them by growing
herbs, fruits and vegetables for health and life, and
flowers and nourishing friends for their souls.
But I see there is so much more here, in this land of
sunshine. Now, most of all, I understand the longing
in their voices.