Anacortes, Washington

Bull boat angle
This brute of a boat appeared as we rounded the corner . It was like being punched in the nose.

More than 3,500 kilometres from Montreal, at a reception in a condominium overlooking the San Juan Islands in Washington State, where we sat during the late afternoon and watched barges loaded with granite heading south, possibly to Seattle, and ferries bound for the islands and Victoria slip from the dock below, a woman handed me a book she’d been saving for just this moment — Cuisines Collectives MultiEthniques: La Richesse de Parc-Extension.

It’s like a homecoming far from home. And, except for mis-spelling Park Ex, the book is perfect. So is the woman, the lovely Theresa, who grew up in Park Ex at the same time as I did, but who attended Catholic schools and therefore moved in different social circles from mine.

The book is exhaustive, more than 200 recipes, but only one for salmon (Saumon à l’oriental, with the inevitable ginger and unexpected cayenne). Just as well, for the wild salmon are being depleted. Anacortes, where we’re staying for a few days, once canned more salmon than any other place on earth. In season, the rivers positively boiled with the fish.

On our second night in Anacortes, which lies about halfway between Vancouver and Seattle, we bought some wild sockeye, what’s left of it in the wild, and feasted.

Puget salmon
Without a trace of irony, the old part of Anacortes celebrates an era when salmon was wealth. Trash bins dotting the neighbourhood replicate now long-forgotten brands of salmon.

Red breast

Trident salmonRevenue salmon2

Everett

The day before we arrived in Anacortes, we endured a terribly long drive from the Seattle airport to Anacortes. No one had warned us of the risks of driving by Everett, which lies about halfway along the route. It was a Friday afternoon, around the time when the massive Boeing plant in Everett releases a torrent of people and cars in every direction. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper on roadways for miles around, and this near-gridlock added more than an hour to our drive.

I’ve never seen the plant, but our hosts informed us that, at 13.3 million cubic metres, it’s the largest building, by volume, in the world. It covers nearly a hundred acres and employs 1.8 million people. It’s so big that it has a pack of bloodhounds for locating missing visitors, and is built over a titanium mine and aluminum smelter, for the convenience of making aerospace components in-house.

And yet, for such a massive operation, the Everett Boeing plant has just one bathroom, which means the lineups must be positively horrendous. To my mind, this is bad planning, and perhaps explains why their airplanes keep falling from the sky.

Bull boatB+W
I loaded up my Brownie and packed lots of extra film for our trip to Anacortes. As soon as we returned to Montreal, I rushed to the pharmacy and asked for “doubles.” 

Lovric’s
Someone from Anacortes has to tell you about Lovric’s, otherwise you’ll drive right past the place on your way to the ferry terminal. Guidebooks don’t mention Lovric’s Seacraft, but it may well be the best reason to visit Anacortes. This was our third visit to Anacortes, and we made the pilgrimage to Lovric’s on the first day.

The place was founded in 1965 by Anton Lovric, a Croatian naval architect and marine engineer. He died some time ago, and the business is now run by his widow and two sons.

Lovric spool
Lovric’s is a theme park of broken-down machinery, flaking paint, ancient cogs and gears underfoot, and massive winches bolted into the cliff and meant for hauling ships from the sea.

Lovric silosLovric trucks

Lovric rusted tanker

But here’s what makes Lovric’s interesting. Two years later after Anton Lovric founded it, needing a northern breakwater, he beached an old four-masted schooner, La Merced, alongside the business and filled its hold with sand. Before its retirement, La Merced had spent decades sailing up and down the coast and across the Pacific. At its last commercial gig, when La Merced was slow and arthritic, La Merced served as a floating fish cannery in Alaska.

In the fifty years since, mature trees have burst through the schooner’s decks. Bushes and vines sprout from holes in the wooden hull. And alongside its vast haunches, like an invisible gas, an air of decay and menace.

Lovric ship from top
The breakwater at Lovric’s, formerly a four-masted schooner, protects the pleasure craft moored beside it. 
Lovric prow1
The schooner’s busted prow.

Long before he emigrated to Anacortes, during the Second World War, the Nazis sent Lovric for hard labour at Dachau. I wonder, did the prisoners share memories of pre-war meals and cigarettes under starlit skies, the breath of their beloved warm in their ears?

And did they leave with a hunger to get on with life, but also with a knowledge of a darkness, at the northern edge of things, a knowledge that never goes away?

Rockport, Massachusetts

We woke to sunlight reflected from the seawater beneath our window and dancing on the ceiling above our bed. Yellow and blue lobster traps were stacked above the sea wall opposite, like a seaside condo development.

Traps.jpg
The sight that greeted us on our first morning in Rockport.
Foggy
Rockport can also look like this.

That was six years ago, and we’ve been coming back to Rockport, Massachusetts ever since. The traps are still stacked in the same spot, and many of their former tenants end their days at Roy Moore’s, just around the corner. Roy Moore’s is famous. In sunny weather, people line up all day for lobster rolls, stuffed clams, oysters and whatever else the harbour boats brought in that morning. Patrons sit out back, at three picnic tables, as Roy Moore’s athletic crew shout and laugh, heaving plastic tubs of crushed ice onto the tables of fish and plucking lobster from the boiling water.

Roy Moore
While buying fish for dinner, I asked why cod wasn’t on offer, as in previous years. The young guy serving me was uncharacteristically curt: “They say we shouldn’t fish ’em anymore. They say not enough cod.” They clearly meant government and ocean scientists. The know-it-alls who make life so hard.
Lobster
The front of Roy Moore’s is dominated by several gurgling tanks, where the doomed lobster slowly pace and pace, shouldering each other aside in the murky green.

You like hot sauce?

Asians love Roy Moore’s, and I’ve been speculating loudly, as I do when I don’t know if a thing is true, that Japanese travel guides to American points of interest must devote entire chapters to the thumb-size shack. After all, they stand so patiently in the street on the little spit of land called Bearskin Neck, waiting their turn for the legendary lobster roll in its fluffy, tasteless bun.

But Ken, the current owner of the business, sets me straight when I ask about the Asians. He gets some Japanese and Chinese tourists, but most of his Asian customers are Thai-Americans who live in the Boston area, less than an hour away.

I am crushed, and not a little embarrassed, because I’ve been to Thailand and thought I could tell the difference.

“You like hot sauce?” he asks.

“Who doesn’t,” I say.

“My Thai customers bring their own hot sauce and leave it here so it’s always in stock.”

He takes a small tub from the fridge and dunks a cooked shrimp into the sauce. I take the shrimp whole and my eyes brim with tears.

Seeing machine
There’s a lot to see in Rockport, for just twenty-five cents.
Picturesque
Rockport and Cape Ann generally can be aggressively picturesque.

Small boat

A punch in the nose in Gloucester

In previous years my Saturday long run would take me to Gloucester, on the other side of Cape Ann, but now that I’m waiting for my Achilles tendon to heal, I’m reduced to riding my clown-issue orange folding bike.

People who’ve never seen a folding bike point when I ride by. Sometimes I get a thumbs-up, and most cyclists grin and wave. One woman slowed down beside me, rolled down her window and demanded that I “get off the fucking road!”

Rockport is clean and orderly, and a ghost town by sunset. But Gloucester is none of these things.

Deadsville
Rockport can be deadsville in the evening, which suits us fine.

Down on the waterside and in the boatyards, Gloucester is rusty chains and busted concrete and ancient leaning buildings covered with peeling paint. Rogers Street, a block or so inland, is cluttered with waterfront bars and liquor stores. Men loiter outside. Tattooed, unshaven, of indeterminate age. Wearing old shoes with no laces and pee-stained pants. You see a dozen places where any number of patrons would be glad to punch you in the nose. A folding bike would be provocation enough.

Gloucester port
Dredging was in progress when I arrived in Gloucester. Might be more waterfront redevelopment for the tourists, which is nicely done and for some reason attracts a lot of Brits.
Cape Pond Ice
Just across the water, another Gloucester icon. Every fishing boat heading out to sea stops at Cape Pond Ice to load up. You can buy your ice in blocks, crushed, cubed or bagged, wholesale or retail. You can also order ice sculptures and dry ice for your arena rock show. Cape Pond Ice markets itself as the “coolest shop” with the “coolest gifts.”

Up the hill, commanding views of the harbour, you find lovingly maintained old houses where the ship and factory owners lived, and where captains’ wives, generations ago, produced needlepoint samplers with homespun sayings, as they waited with a cup of tea in the gathering gloom.

When the whaling ships docked here, the sea was churning with fish. Gloucester ships fed the world, put oil into lamps and stays into corsets, while the lowest-grade fish fed the slaves. There’s still fish, but not as much of it, and the Gorton’s plant (Trusted since 1849) continues to dominate the waterfront.

San Pietro
Italians and Portuguese arrived in Gloucester in the nineteenth century, and their descendants still work on the boats. While I was in town, preparations were underway for the annual San Pietro festivities (St. Peter is the patron saint of fishermen), which features parades, carnival rides, boat races and solemn processions with holy icons and statues. The priest blesses the fishing fleet, says Mass, and leads nine evenings of prayer. The festivities culminate in a greasy pole contest.

Up from Rogers, there’s a main street, called Main Street, with shops and restaurants and places to buy second-hand books and costume jewellery. You can get an excellent espresso at a Sicilian café, called The Sicilian Café, but their cookies and pastries don’t measure up to their coffee.

Plaques declare Gloucester to be the oldest port in the United States. Samuel de Champlain came to Cape Ann twice. The second time, in 1606, several hundred Indigenous people met his arrival and offered a hand of friendship. Within ten years, three-quarters of the Indigenous people of Massachusetts were dead from diseases brought by the Europeans. During his second visit, Champlain also drew a map of the harbour, and called it le beau port.

The name didn’t stick.

 

 

 

The Pelican

graphic pelican
The pelican is on the left. Note the doomed fish in his beak.

We were speaking of pelicans. Shari said they look like cartoon birds, and I had to agree. The brown pelican makes for an ungainly package. Laughable, actually. Especially when it’s earthbound. We watch them settle on the dock, just below our window. Pensive and impenetrable, sequin eyes staring, webbed feet neatly folded over the handrail’s edge.

The brown pelican is a charcoal sketch, maybe just a first draft. Someone’s idea of a concept bird, unlikely to ever fly. But wait…

Unfolding, it becomes a swift galleon sailing inches above the water. Elegant and still, propelled by an unfelt wind. Then, suddenly soaring at a height of twenty or thirty feet for a better view of lunch. The next instant, it folds up and plunges with the grace of a busted umbrella. A bucket of garbage dumped from a window. A jumble of feathery armatures in free fall. Then, a splash. Then, rising from the water, with a doomed struggling fish in its pouchy beak.

One day, we rode our bikes to the J.N. “Ding” Darling nature reserve and observed dozens of large and magnificent birds: snow-white egrets and ibises, great blue and little blue herons, roseate spoonbills, menacing ospreys, and mysterious anhingas. Even loons, on vacation from Canada’s frozen lakes.

Also, white pelicans. Creatures altogether different from the brown pelicans on our dock: large, aristocratic and aloof in their white tails. Not like our pelicans, in their grey overalls and with their lunch-bucket beaks.

photo pelican
Pelican at rest. I named this one Cedric, after a character in a one-act play I wrote shortly after Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

Greetings from Sanibel

Soon after we arrived on Sanibel Island, a golden retriever came bounding up to greet us, and we became instant friends. Lilly’s owner turned out to be an elderly gentleman, who often stood on the lawn overlooking the bay and tossed tennis balls for the tireless Lilly. Whenever our paths crossed, we greeted our new acquaintance, exchanged a friendly word, spent a moment tousling Lilly’s silky coat.

One day, returning from a run, I saw our new friend puttering in the back of his van. We waved and smiled at each other, as usual, and then he went into his condo, leaving the van open. Inside, I saw a sign: TRUMP – PENCE 2016.

I recoiled. And instantly hated myself for it.

Throughout our time on Sanibel Island, I continued to greet the old gentleman. But, somehow, everything was different. Even Lilly…

The Colonels

Growing up in Park Ex, the political divisions of Greece remained firmly and always in place. My people came from an area adjacent to the region of Mani, which has always been fiercely royalist and conservative — God, King and Country. But we were on the left, and on the losing side, as determined by three men at Yalta. The Greek Civil War, which followed immediately after the Second World War, was in many ways more savage and socially corrosive than the German Occupation. It forever divided families and friends. Men spent years in political prisons. With young families at home, and little money, most of them swallowed their pride and signed a shameful declaration renouncing their past and pledging loyalty to the regime. It was the only way back. No one blamed them.

In Park Ex, each side pretty much stuck to its own. If a right-winger strayed into our social circle, politics were carefully avoided. A wrong word, on the wrong night, could get you a bloody nose.

Sometimes, though, through business or marriage, an alliance might be struck. A tenuous, rickety bridge thrown across the divide. Over time, a kind of respect might take root: a measure of tolerance for the other.

“He voted for So-and-so,” an uncle might say of a new acquaintance. “And his cousin fought alongside So-and-so. But, take my word, he’s alright. Once you get to know him. A real palikári.”

“A fascist, you mean.”

“You’re right,” the uncle might sigh. “But my son married his daughter.”

These divisions are now mostly healed, at least in Canada. The legacy of the Civil War (1946-1949), the Colonels and their brutal junta (1967-1974), the suppression of the student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic (1973), and, of course, the ever-resourceful CIA, which served in an “advisory role” to the Colonels (U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew opined that the junta was “the best thing to happen to Greece since Pericles ruled in Ancient Athens.”) — all this is in the history books, and unlikely to get you a bloody nose.

In those days, we also listened to Mikis Theodorakis. As a young man during the war, Theodorakis led resistance fighters, and was later imprisoned for his service. He studied composition in Paris, wrote chamber music and symphonies, and won international prizes. He was a prodigiously talented and prolific composer, but on his return to Greece he abandoned all that for popular music — or, music of the people.

I saw him with his orchestra once, at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, in Montreal. The hall was positively packed with wild-eyed Greeks. In the middle of the concert, a man just a couple of rows in front of me, unable to contain himself any longer, leapt to his feet and clutched his head to keep it from exploding. Theodorakis’s songs, especially when sung by Maria Farandouri or Grigoris Bithikotsis, can have that effect.

Among the thousand or so songs Theodorakis wrote, the Mauthausen Trilogy contains his finest. The trilogy is based on lyrics by the Greek poet, Iakovos Kambanellis, who was imprisoned at the Mauthausen concentration camp and fell in love with a Lithuanian Jewish girl. It includes the heartbreaking Song of Songs (Asma Asmaton), and was premiered in Vienna in 1965. Sung in Greek, Hebrew and German, it was hailed as the greatest piece of music ever written about the Holocaust.

Late in life, Theodorakis disgraced himself with anti-Semitic comments.

It’s so hard to be good; much easier to be bad.

All too human

I think this is what I like about pelicans. Like us, they are improbable creatures. Ugly and laughable when earthbound. But, occasionally, when you’re paying attention, they are transcendent in the air. So much to deplore but also much to admire.I leave you with two more pelicany items.

  1. The pelican is featured on the Albanian 1 lek coin.
  2. In 1910 the American poet Dixon Lanier Merritt published this:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

 

 

Communing with America

jesus lives

Sanibel Island, Florida. I completed my last run on our Christmas vacation on Sanibel Island this morning. Fourteen kilometres, which is not an extreme distance, but as it was my second long run within five days, and less than twenty-four hours after doing intervals, it knocked the stuffing out of me. And it set me thinking.

dock
The dock beneath our window. On most days, grey pelicans would land on the dock and shit at will. I will have more to say about pelicans in a future post.

On our second night here, on our way to pick up a family member at the airport, we spent an hour at Target, where I bought a pair of blue cotton pants, at a final markdown rock-bottom liquidation price of $6.83. Later, back at our rental condo, I discovered a card in the back pocket. Smile, Jesus loves you!

On the back of the card, four bible verses, followed by a prayer. My favourite verse: Understand you are a sinner. As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one. (Romans 3:10). True enough, I thought.

I’ve found this card, or something like it, in the pockets of new garments on previous trips to the U.S. It’s a retail version of the Gideon’s Bible, where righteous Christians spend their free hours slipping cards into empty pockets, instead of bibles into hotel drawers. They are fishers of souls, in an unending war with the devil. What’s the conversion rate, as marketers would say? One, two percent? Probably less than that. The devil is a formidable foe. And we are in the United States, after all, large swathes of which are positively stupid with religion (according to reputable polls, more than half believe that hell is an actual place).

But, occasionally, someone gets hooked.

Jesus, standing on a pier, tackle box at his feet, wearing a vintage Kahala shirt and gripping a cigar between his teeth. His pickup is parked out back. Jesus is reeling you in, but you’re not putting up a fight. You are meekly — no, eagerly — swimming to Jesus.

But, no. The metaphor is not quite right. Jesus wouldn’t be angling. A vicious tearing hook in the newly-Christianized mouth? Too unsettling in these times.

Jesus is using a net. Jesus practices sustainable fishing.

foggy dock
From our window, the same dock on a foggy morning. Both photos show the dock deserted, but on most days, people were out there fishing.

Agia Triada

Despite my mother’s heroic exertions, religion never really caught on with me. Like a dog, I’m incapable of seeing certain colours, and so an entire universe remains invisible.

Taking communion begins early in the Greek Orthodox church, which means I don’t remember my first one. But it likely occurred at Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) Church on Sherbrooke and Clark Streets. A boutique hotel now stands on the spot, as Agia Triada burned to the ground on January 16, 1986. Some days after it collapsed into a heap of fiery rubble, a friend, who knew of my early connection with the church (I also went to First Grade in its basement), happened to be walking by and retrieved a hunk of grey granite from the façade. That piece of Agia Triada now sits on a shelf in my house, and comes into service a few times a year. I use it as a weight to compress the fish when I make gravlax.

That was a long digression. I hope you’re still with me.

Agia Triada is still standing. It is the busy centre of the Montreal Greek community.

It’s Sunday morning, following a traditional period of fasting before communion, and my mother has sent me downstairs, in my little suit with its clip-on bow tie. She wants me out of the way so she can finish getting dressed for church.

Bored, I kick at a rock for a while, scuffing my patent-leather shoes. Between kicks, I reach into my jacket pocket and discover a dime. Still no sign of my mother, so I slip around the corner to a basement store for an ice cream cone. When I return, my mother is still getting ready, so I kick at the rock some more, but with less energy, fearing for my precious ice cream.

Eventually she appears, my little sister in tow. As a parent, I now understand the stress of raising two small kids (and, as a Greek mother, doing it virtually alone), getting the squirming bodies washed and dressed and organized, always on the brink of madness. I say this by way of palliating my mother’s actions, because she strides over, murder in her eyes, my sister’s feet barely touching the ground, as her little patent-leather shoes bounce on the concrete under the sudden acceleration. My mother seizes the ice cream from my hand and hurls it across the street.

I freeze. The injustice so monstrous I can’t even cry.

My crime — a sin, actually — is that I have broken the fast too soon. On the sacred morning, even a drop of water is forbidden from crossing your lips before communion.

A more devout mother would have immediately marched me upstairs: No Holy Communion for you, mister. But she already knew me well enough: the cancelled communion would have been a reward, not a punishment.

And so, under a sullen cloud we instead troop to the corner and board the number 55 bus on St. Urbain Street. We enter Agia Triada and cross ourselves, kiss the icon and light a candle. We find a place in a middle row of pews, gaze at the accusing eye of God set in the centre of the dome towering above our heads, stand up and sit down a dozen times or more, when the liturgy requires it, inhale the incense and listen to the psalti’s goaty voice, crossing ourselves repeatedly at the appropriate moments. We then line up at the altar and, when our turn arrives, come face to face with a large bearded man in gold vestments, who spoons from a gold chalice a few drops of sweet Mavrodafni wine, the blood of Christ, into our open mouths.

Like the card says, Understand you are a sinner.

portrait of artist
A portrait of the artist. Also, a shadow of his former self.

The Buccaneers

In the middle of our Sanibel vacation, I was invited to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game — the last of the season and my first NFL experience. The game meant nothing: the playoffs were already decided.

But that wasn’t the point. The real point of the outing was the tailgate party, which begins several hours prior to the game, in the vast parking lots that surround every football stadium. (Maybe I’ll tell you about the tailgate next time.)

It was before lunchtime and we were already sucking on our second beer can, wandering through the parking lot amidst clouds of barbecue smoke and thumping rap. A young black woman with a clipboard approached me.

“Sir, are you registered?”

It took me a moment to understand what she meant.

“We’re Canadian,” I explained. “So…”

She smiled and thanked me, and then moved on to the next person.

In a riven nation, in which a golden-haired Beelzebub has taken charge, she was registering voters. No less a righteous fisher of souls.

Horta culture

1024px-Nsr-slika-431

I’ve heard Greeks declare that horta (χόρτα) means weeds, making us a nation of weed eaters. Well, no. We eat horta, which are not at all weeds. They are as distinct and various as flowers. Better tasting, too.

At the grocery store, non-Mediterranean types sometimes ask me what I do with the horta in my cart. Couldn’t be simpler, I explain. Boil in salted water and then dress with olive oil and lemon juice. For a change of pace, you can also steam or sauté them with garlic and chilli flakes.

The horta family embraces dandelions, chicory, rappini, beet greens, kale, mustard greens, amaranth (βλίτα), Swiss chard and countless other varieties. The category is elastic and non-scientific, hardly a family at all.

If they’re green and leafy, cook easily, marry well with olive oil, and won’t kill you or cause parts of you to swell up, they’re horta.

Kathryn Hughes, reviewing a recent biography of Edward Lear in The New York Review of Books, begins this way:

One day in 1848 Edward Lear, professional traveler, artist, and purveyor of nonsense, entered a small Albanian village and, spotting a stream full of watercress, pulled up a clump to have with his bread and cheese. Excited by the sight of a tubby foreigner eating weeds, local children proceeded to present the peculiar visitor with a series of even more outlandish snacks — a thistle, a stick, a nice juicy grasshopper. Soon everyone was laughing, none louder than Lear, who recalled that “we parted amazingly good friends.”

For me, a committed horta eater, this passage confirms that weeds are in the eye of the beholder. Horticulturalists tell us as much. Scientifically, there’s no such thing as a weed. But to a gardener, if you don’t want it growing in your garden and don’t expect to make a meal of it, it’s a weed.

Black Bridge

Most families in Park Extension didn’t own cars, so you’d often see Greeks boarding the 179 bus, headed north of the elevated Metropolitan highway, into what were then the wilds of l’Acadie Boulevard.

We called this area Black Bridge, after a railroad bridge running east-west and just visible from Park Ex, if you looked along the north-south track running parallel to Durocher Street.

Black Bridge had legendary status. The untended fields, littered with tires, rebar and burned out cars, and fringed with clusters of bushes and trees, were rumoured to harbour all kinds of wild activity. Kids learned to smoke and drink at Black Bridge. They lit bonfires and had knife fights. Boys hunted birds with pellet guns and slingshots. They returned home bloodied and bruised, refusing to say anything. If a girl got pregnant, it happened at Black Bridge.

Today, this area is entirely paved over. A Costco squats nearby, surrounded by dozens of other big-box stores and strip malls, and serviced by acres and acres of parking lot.

But back then, the surrounding fields yielded enough horta to fill dozens of plastic shopping bags, which the foraging Greeks would wrestle back onto the 179, on their return trip to Park Ex.

On one such expedition to Black Bridge, with my mother and a crew of aunts and neighbours, I left the women pulling greens in the stony field and wandered toward the distant railroad track. Here I ran into a couple of classmates from Barclay School. Glen and Barry were taking turns listening for an oncoming train by placing an ear on the track and holding up a finger for silence.

“I think I hear something. Do you hear something?”

This went on for many minutes, during which neither of them invited me to listen and render an opinion. Eventually a freight train did roar by, but we all heard it coming at the same time.

When it was gone, Glen pointed across the field. “Hey, lookit the fuckin’ peasants.” At this moment my mother straightened up and waved. “Hey, Speez, what are they doing, picking weeds or what?” They both laughed.

“Don’t ask me,” I said. There was a brief silence of mutual assessment. A shifting of cultures and histories, and then a realignment that would stay with me for years. “Yeah, picking weeds, I guess. Fucking Greeks.”

My classmates eventually drifted away, and when they were out of sight I re-joined the women and we lined up at the bus stop, the heavy bags of dandelions beside us bursting with horta, a lingering cargo of shame.

At home, more hours of work lay ahead. On these expeditions, each woman might have thirty or more pounds of dandelions to clean. The kitchen sink was too small, so they’d scrub out the bathtub and spend hours washing and rewashing the horta, setting aside some for the week’s meals, and blanching and freezing the rest for winter.

They never picked greens in a public park because people walk their dogs there. I often pointed out, not unreasonably, that gophers, squirrels and birds also make their homes where Greeks forage. Why was some animal urine and feces less objectionable?

I never received a satisfactory answer.

On the wild side

Supermarkets stock some basic varieties of horta, but these are cultivated. Where you need a slab of feta, good olive oil, bread and olives to make a meal of farmed horta, wild horta need hardly any accompaniment. Olive oil is necessary but enough.

Wild greens are so superior to their cultivated cousins, they may as well be different plants. Take wild dandelions, for example — intoxicatingly bitter, with a minerally flavour of soil, iodine and, I suppose, worm flesh and other microscopic edibles.

To my mind, wild dandelions are horta royalty, and yet they’re the most common and homely greens of all. A paradox: a stubborn peasantry that sprouts everywhere and resists every effort to eradicate it.

Wild dandelions will occasionally appear in Greek supermarkets, and when I’m lucky enough to see them I’ll bring a bag home.

I’ve often wondered where they come from. So I recently asked a friend of a friend who works for one of the big produce importers at Montreal’s central market. Apparently, when air-shipping rates drop low enough, the importation of wild greens becomes temporarily feasible.

A yiayia with rheumy eyes and a bristly chin in a remote Cretan village. It’s early morning, before the sun roars into the sky and makes work impossible. Bent over, she picks horta in a stony field, the delicate roots flecked with dirt, the tops kissed with dew. She carries her brimming basin to a local market, where it joins other horta from other yiayiades. A wholesaler buys the lot and the gathered yiayiades burst into a chorus of blessings. The wholesaler ships the cargo to Athens, where cases of the assembled horta trundle up a motorized ramp and into the belly of an airliner. Twenty-four hours later, wild horta appear in a Park Ex grocery store.

The logistics are impressive. The wild but perishable horta are still edible and yet manage to cost less than caviar and printer toner.

My garden

Today, I have a big lawn that is covered with dandelions each spring, and each spring I’m tempted to boil up a batch and douse them with oil and lemon juice. People warn me against it. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, dog, squirrel and cat piss — there’s no end of hazards.

So I fill garbage cans with dandelions and drag them to the curb for the Monday morning pickup. I can’t bear to call them horta. They’re weeds.

 

 

 

Dreams of Lisbon

After Porto, Lisbon is a thunderclap of light. The Portuguese sketchers we met in Porto tried to prepare us. They told us that Lisbon is a “brighter” city. But we didn’t understand how very different the quality of light actually is until we arrived at the Santa Apolónia station and emerged from the shadowed interior into a blinding vista.

The light seems magnified by the city’s building materials and physical situation — the whitewashed walls and pale stone. But also by the much wider river valley along which the Tagus River, far broader and deeper than the Douro, flows and shimmers in the sun.

On our second day, a massive Disney cruise ship, decorated with Mickey Mouse ears, heaved into position and remained squatting there for forty-eight hours.

We stayed within sight of the Disney ship, in the ancient quarter of Alfama, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Given the number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites we’ve visited on our travels, I’m becoming a little doubtful about their standards of admission. It won’t be long before Decarie Hot Dog is also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its fryer oil protected as a cultural legacy for future generations.

Cityscape
The ancient neighbourhood of Alfama, spread out before us.
Silhouettes
The light is blinding, and so the shadows are sharp.

The Greek confidence man

On our second-to-last day, while Shari sat in a hilltop churchyard to sketch the pattern of clay-tiled roofs below, I wandered the dusty cobbled lanes. Rounding a corner, I discovered a small used-book store with a number of English books in the window — mostly out-dated guidebooks and beach novels.

Inside, a young woman sat behind the counter, wearing an old-style patterned blouse and smoking a cigarette. She barely looked up when I entered.

In the corner, a box of English books rested on a chair alongside a hand-drawn sign — ONELY €1. Digging through, I found an old paperback translation of a Portuguese novel titled Dreaming Worlds, written by Hingston Vinheiros. By the looks of it, Dreaming Worlds had been produced on the cheap, with a cheesy illustration of people fleeing a flying saucer, which bears no connection to the story inside. The book didn’t name the translator. Nor did the copyright page list the date of the original edition, although the edition I found is marked 1963.

But here’s the really curious thing. A few days earlier, I had read an article in the July 30th issue of The New Yorker about a Spyros Enotiades, who worked for years as a DEA informant. Basically, his job was to infiltrate the society of violent and hyper-suspicious drug lords, and to convince them — through his language, manners and charisma — that he was, like them, a high-stakes criminal. His heroics as a world-class con put many criminals behind bars.

I positively devoured the article, not just because it profiles a Greek confidence man — Greek trickster figures date all the way to the Odyssey — but mostly because he spells his name with a y, as I do, instead of an i. This is the pettiest of reasons for reading a long New Yorker profile of an obscure con man. But I lead a quiet life and am easily impressed.

Sokaki
Around the corner, down a flight of steps, I found a small bookshop.

Feeding the dreamer

In any case, it was barely two days later, and as I thumbed through this yellowed paperback in a tiny bookstore in Lisbon, out from its pages jumped a character named Spyros. Without any more examination of the book, in high excitement, I handed over a one-euro coin and began walking back to our rented apartment, repeatedly tripping over the cobbles as I buried my nose in the book, seeking this other Spyro.

Dreaming Worlds is a work of fantasy. It tells the story of a rich man in Lisbon who gradually withdraws into himself, quits society and stays in bed. He spends his days dreaming about a universe where rebel androids have exterminated all humans and created a society governed by reason and good sense. Eventually a small faction of these androids, working in secret, begins to experiment on life forms, with the intention of restarting humanity — a second chance, as it were. Long conversations ensue in which androids discuss humanity’s deep-seated flaws and…I began to yawn.

The idea wasn’t new. It’s been covered by the science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick, whose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became the Blade Runner movies, and by other writers.

But what happened outside this man’s dreams held me tighter.

Over time, the dreaming man’s family begins to forget about him. They find they can get on quite well without his presence, although they continue to bring a tray of food and water to his door each morning.

As the years pass, forgetfulness, or a kind of sympathetic dreaming state, also overwhelms the family. Only the iron ritual of feeding the dreaming man remains intact, which various members of the family continue to honour. As the home’s inhabitants come and go, as marriage, birth and death alter the size and composition of the family, so, too, does the house change.

During one period of heavy remodelling, the doorway to man’s room is walled off to create a new wing. However, the construction workers are instructed to leave an opening near the floor, so family members can continue to slide a tray of food and water behind the wall, even though they’ve long since forgotten why they do this…

While reading the book, at several points I wondered about the quality of the translation. The language was flat and awkward in many places. It reminded me of reading an English translation of the great novel, Blindness, by the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, José Saramago. Here, too, the wooden prose seems to emerge from a Portuguese speaker who has no feeling for idiomatic English. It’s a translation, but it hardly matters. Saramago’s pitiless vision burns through the lead-footed language.

(Maybe this just a late style of certain great writers? I’ve noticed the same awkward prose in John Coetzee’s later novels, as if winning the Nobel finally gives them permission to not try as hard.)

I don’t know how Dreaming Worlds ends because, as I eventually discovered, its final pages — however many remained — have long since fallen out.

And, by the way, the Spyros that jumped up from its pages turned out to be a Greek servant who prepares the dreaming man’s meals. He also functions as a kind of oracle in the novel. But as I said, I don’t know how the book ends.

We’re back in Montreal now. I’ve looked for more information about Hingston Vinheiros, but have yet to find anything. Let me know if anything comes up.

Saramago
On the left, a small section of the 16th-century Casa dos Bicos, our favourite building in Lisbon, with its facade of pointy titties. It also houses the Saramago Museum.
Cloister
Forget all my nonsense about High Encrustation being a characteristically Portuguese architectural and decorative style. The cloister inside the Jerónimos Monastery in Belem, just outside Lisbon, is magnificent and worth visiting. 
Map.jpg
A view from a tower of people studying the many achievements, some questionable, of Portuguese navigators, explorers and colonizers.