A guy ahead of me in line looks like he spent the previous night pouring gallons of Rioja down his throat, without the benefit of tapas. He’s wearing soiled beige pants and a black and grey leopard-skin patterned nylon shirt. It’s too tight, though. Pale flesh oozes between his pants and shirt like a pouty lower lip. His hair sticks out at all angles, and his unshaven face is pocked with zits. By the looks of him, he ended up on some stranger’s floor just two hours previously, when a chute opened up and he went hurtling along its length, landing in the security area of Barcelona International Airport like a sack of laundry.
He looks bewildered, as if in mid-nightmare, with a where-the-hell-am-I, who-are-all-these-people look.
A security officer glares at him, and since he’s not budging, I take his spot. As I load up my trays, I glance back. The security officer, still glaring, says something — maybe, are you carrying any liquids? The guy reaches into his bag and pulls out a 1.5 litre plastic bottle of something carbonated, that might be Coke but isn’t. As travelers swirl around, he unscrews the top, tilts back his head and guzzles, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a kid on a pogo stick.
* * *
I offer the above as a palate cleanser, before our flight to Athens. We land late in the evening and meet our cab driver, who will take us to Vouliagmeni, a beachy suburb of Athens 25 minutes south of the airport. With its posh resorts and restaurants, Vouliagmeni is often called the Riviera of Greece, which is hardly a recommendation for me. But it did host the triathlon during the Athens Olympics. There’s a nearby ruin. Lots of expensive real estate. And oligarch-scale yachts prowling off the beach at the Four Seasons resort.
Apart from that, our place is perfect: A ten-minute walk from an excellent taverna and bakery. We have fresh figs, grapes, tomatoes and olive oil on our lunch table. And we’ve discovered a peppercorn-studded graviera cheese from Crete. I’ve never seen this cheese in Canada, and it’s so good that, if that slippery rat, Pierre Poilievre, stood up in the House of Commons and made peppercorn-studded graviera a central plank in his trade policy, I would vote for him.
* * *
I had two grandmothers, whom I got to know when I went to grade school for a year in Greece. They represented two sides of my family; two sides of the Greek character, too.
One grandmother was plump and kind-hearted, and always quick to shed tears, whether in sorrow or joy. She lived in a small whitewashed house adjacent to the church, whose bronze voice would announce the hour and half hour, and burst into song each Sunday morning. I remember a few things from her house. Such as a bench by the fireplace where my mother had sat as a girl. Or the tiny screened cages hanging from the rafters, that would hold saucers of leftover stew or scraps of cheese, so the flies and mice couldn’t get at them. Or an ancient treadle Singer, whose gold decorations had faded after decades of use, and on which my mother had learned to sew.
When I visited again as a young man, I took her portrait with my camera. Later during that visit, she brought out a tape measure and held it to my arms and across my shoulders, around my waist and chest. She brought out her shears and, only by eye, cut pieces from a blue-striped raw cotton sheet, and then sat at her Singer to make a collarless peasant shirt, which I wore for years until it fell apart.
My other grandmother lived on the coast, and she was in many ways the opposite. Thin, severe, undemonstrative. She had been widowed young, when my grandfather was killed in the Balkan wars, leaving her to raise four children during times of war and hardship. Perhaps this had narrowed her. During the year I lived with her and my uncle’s family, my grandmother and I slept in the same room, with a chamber pot in the corner, herds of goats and sheep clattering by just outside, swallows swooping every evening, and dewy white roses wafting their morning scent just outside our open window.
Lying in our respective beds during the afternoon siesta, we would sometimes wake up together and she would read aloud from the newspaper, pausing to make comments laced with sarcasm. I didn’t understand a word of the formal Greek, nor anything about the political actors, but took her reading aloud as an invitation join her in bed. One afternoon, she began reading a letter from my mother in Montreal, asking after my health and progress in school. My father’s business in Montreal had failed, and my father had been obliged to find work on a troky.
My grandmother paused her reading. “What’s a troky?” she asked.
“A truck,” I translated. “My father is now working on a truck.” I thought this was an exciting development, and a fresh gust of homesickness engulfed me.
“Good luck to him, then,” she harumphed, before continuing the letter.
* * *
At the corner of Ermou and Agios Panteleimonos Streets, a few minutes from our rental place in Vouliagmeni, stands an ancient olive tree wearing a sign that suggests she’s 1,200 years old.
The yiayiá is gnarled and twisted with age, but her head is crowned with a lively thatch of twigs and silvery leaves. Elevated a few feet above the road, she stands behind a fringe of grass, honoured and remembered, as I remember my own yiayiádes and honour them with these words.