Friday, November 10, 2006

Grecian Holiday

I was invited to spend two weeks at my friend Gisele's house on the Greek island of Paros this summer. Gisele's family has a beautiful house up on the hills, overlooking the Mediterranean. She assured me that my two weeks would be filled with unbelievable food, perfect sunshine, hours swimming in the ocean, glasses of milky cold ouzo, and dancing to heart thumping Greek music in clubs until dawn. There was no possible way I could have resisted that kind of combination so I ponied up for the ticket and packed my bags.

I've always admired the Mediterranean people's magic touch with everything they pull from the sea, and I couldn't wait to see the Grecian take on their harvests from Poseidon's realm. The first restaurant that I got seriously acquainted with was called Lavadaki. A little taverna on a small secluded beach called Agia Irini, down the road from Gisele's house. Gisele had some business to take care of and planed on meeting me and two of our friends at the beach that afternoon. She gave us walking directions from the house and as she got into her dusty Range Rover, leaned out the window and yelled "Make sure you tell Tassos that you're friend's of Aphrodite!" A summer local since she was born, Gisele had been annointed with the name of the Greek goddess of love, desire and beauty. I walked down the road, wondering if I could have a Greek god's name what would I choose. Would it be Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, or Artemis, the goddess of wilderness and the vigin huntress of the gods? Bacchus, the god of wine, was probably not an option as he was a man, but that one was appealing too...

When we got to the taverna, I saw an old man sitting at a table outside the front door with a pipe in his mouth and a bottle of Ouzo set before him. He wore a Greek fisherman's hat, and under that peeked two tufts of white curls and a weathered face, the color of warm leather, punctuated by brilliant blue eyes. He eyed us with an enviable combination of indifference and curiosity as we approached the patio. I walked over and said we were there to have some lunch and that we were very thirsty too. I quickly realized he had understood not a word of what I had said, so I remembered my trump card and mentioned that we were friend's of Aphrodite and was his name Tasso? His face lit up at her name and his eyes crinkled in a smile as he stood up to shake hands with us. He started speaking to me in rapid fire Greek, and then it was my turn to feel the barrier of foreign language. He stopped and motioned for me to follow him, leading me to a wall with photographs of Gisele (Aphrodite) celebrating numerous birthdays at the restaurant and you could tell by his smile that Aphrodite's powers of beauty and making all desire her had won him over years ago.

I knew we were in good hands but the lunch that Tasso and his staff churned out from their kitchen and outdoor grill was truly outstanding -- things that a food lover's most prized vacation memories are made from. We ate there a few times each week and there was nothing better than after a swim in the ocean and a bit of lying in the sun, to walk up to a table and have our two charming waiters bring us dish after dish and carafes of cool white wine or bottles of ouzo and buckets of ice so we could make that delicious, milk, anisette concoction to quench our thirst and warm our bodies from the cool of the sea. We'd start with bread and various mezethes, little dishes of things for the table to share. Common mezethes are tatziki (cucumber yogurt dip), melitzanosalata (eggplant dip), htapothi sti skhara (grilled octopus) and my favorite, a fried cheese called saganaki. They're served at the beginning of a meal to enhance the taste of your drink, whether it's ouzo or wine, and more importantly, to help provide that social, communal feeling at the table which the Greeks are famous for. I witnessed families and friends sitting at tables for four hours, talking, laughing, eating and drinking. Not once did I see that lamentable and unfortunately common occurrence in American restaurants of couples eating at a table together in gloomy silence. For the main dishes, the standouts were the grilled squid and fish and we would always have a Greek salad to round out our meals. Sometimes we'd take a break mid-way through the meal (we could sit there for hours) and our waiters would cover our food for us while we would take a quick swim to revive our appetites and shake off a little of the ouzo buzz that would slowly sneak up on us. And then we would nap, have another amazing dinner (more on the dinners to come) and then we would dance in tiny bars and packed clubs until the sun came up over the waters that held our next meal.