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Greek translation Greek dictionariesEleni Vainas [ CV ]
Octopus Fishing in Ancient Epidavros

George 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 complete tenderization.
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. Figs!

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 us.
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.


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