I dropped in on an elderly aunt in Park Extension, who greeted me with kisses and tears and immediately began bustling in the kitchen, her walker clanking against the stove and getting snagged on table legs as she manoeuvred within the narrow space to make Greek coffee.
She’s well into her nineties, so I offered to take over, but she wouldn’t hear of it. The rules of Greek hospitality are never to be trifled with.
Before finally collapsing into a chair, my aunt dug into her cupboard for a small plastic bag of homemade trahana, a slightly sour, crumbly pasta made with milk or yogurt. Someone had visited the village and had brought back a supply, and this was the last of it, about a cup. She instructed me to make trahana with chicken and stewed tomatoes. I knew better than to protest.
I put the bag on the table so I wouldn’t forget it and saluted her health, taking a long, appreciative slurp of coffee.
Nothing to declare
At Canadian customs, Greeks tell outrageous lies about the contents of their luggage.
Meanwhile, their suitcases clatter with half a dozen bottles of Metaxa brandy, ouzo, tsipouro or mastiha, the last flavoured with the sap of an evergreen that grows on the Island of Chios. More than once, during pre-9/11 days, I’d seen a favourite shotgun, disassembled and lovingly wrapped in cotton batting, resting among the herbs.
For generations, suitcases and tin trunks bulged with needlepoints and tablecloths, rugs, wedding clothes, icons and even pots and pans. But also cotton sacks filled with trahana and chilopites (another kind of pasta). Hard pastelli, made with sesame seeds and honey, bags of dried beans, twists of paper containing tomato seeds, tins heavy with honey. Also, bunches of dried oregano and bags of thyme, chamomile and mountain tea, whose aromas impregnated everything and made clothes unusable for months.
You can buy trahana and chilopites at Greek grocery stores. You can also get pretty good olive oil. The olives, though, never quite measure up to the 25-litre tins families ship to Canada by sea. I stopped receiving those precious tins of olive oil and olives long ago, and this I regret.
Led Zeppelin and sweet basil
One summer, my parents slipped a couple of bottles of Canadian Club into my suitcase, as gifts to my uncle and aunt, with whom I’d be staying in Greece.
I gradually fell in with a group of guys about my age, that summer, and one of the bottles somehow came into our possession on a hot and airless July afternoon. I remember we were in Mitso’s front yard, and the bougainvillea was brilliant against the whitewashed wall. A grey cat dozed in the shade, beside a tub of sweet basil.
There were about six of us, and we took refuge in Mitso’s bedroom, closing the wooden shutters against the heat and light. Someone put on music and we began passing the Canadian Club, taking slugs and growing more relaxed. By the bottle’s third circuit, we were already lurching around the room and performing a kind of dance, sweat pouring from our bodies. Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” was playing.
In the middle of all this, Mitso turned to me and asked, “So what are these guys singing about, anyway?”
Everyone stopped and turned to me, expectantly. I liked Robert Plant and Jimmy Page well enough, with John Bonham thundering behind, but the words were hardly the point. What could be more insipid than “Stairway to Heaven”?
But here I was, drunk, attempting a simultaneous translation of “Kashmir.”
Oh, let the sun beat down upon my face
And stars fill my dream
I’m a traveler of both time and space
To be where I have been…
I had to make most of it up.
Then it was on to the Doors. “Light My Fire” was easy enough…sort of, if you’ve had enough to drink. But what about “Rider on the Storm”?
And so it went, all afternoon, getting drunker by the minute and force-marching my addled brain through a dense thicket of rock lyrics.
We finished the bottle and staggered from the house, blinded by the light. The shadow behind the bougainvillea had shifted and the cat was gone.
Still drunk, we climbed on motorcycles and motorbikes, me clinging for dear life behind Mitso, and roared off to the beach. Orange groves whipped by, the fresh blacktop decorated with mysterious green splatters that, when we slowed for the curves, turned into lizard road kill.
By the time we arrived we had cooled off and jumping into the water seemed like too much work. So we sat on plastic chairs under a bamboo shelter and stared at the blue water, our toes curling in the sand. We ordered fried potatoes and beer.
Greek hospitality, the impulse to share food and drink, is baked in. A villager gave a bag of trahana to someone from Canada, who shared it with my aunt, or with someone else who gave it to my aunt — I have no way of knowing, ultimately, how many hands the trahana passed through before it wound up in a small plastic bag, next to my coffee, in a cramped kitchen in Park Ex.
I suppose I could have divided my cup of trahana into thimblefuls and shared it with my own family circle. But just as the supply eventually dribbles away to nothing, so too do the old ways weaken and die. Another thing to regret.