Since our arrival in Tuscany, we’ve been hoping to find Etruscan shards underfoot, but the place has been picked clean. No shards to speak of, especially of the highly valued Etruscan variety. But we’re here for another couple of weeks and will continue to look. Continue reading “Volterra”
After twenty-one hours of travel — enough time to jet to Australia — concluding with a harrowing drive on switchbacks with thundering trucks, only dimly registered under the blinding glare of the setting sun, we arrived at Montegemoli.
Like our recent travels in Anacortes, Washington and Hayley, Idaho, Montegemoli is the smallest dot on the map.
Our lovely hostess and her happily leaping dog, Gilda, greeted us and immediately hustled us off to a nearby restaurant — the only restaurant in town — just a five-minute walk away. We hadn’t planned on eating, but were too polite to say so. We were so exhausted that we were looking forward to a quick Spartan meal of a crust of bread and a square of chocolate, before toppling into bed and into the embrace of oblivion.
But we gamely trudged off to Osteria dell’ultimo carbonaio. The place was unassuming, with just a few customers sitting at rough wooden tables and chairs, surrounded by screaming children with plastic swords. We scanned the offerings on the vinyl-covered menu: vegetarians would starve to death. Boer, venison and duck featured prominently in just about every dish.
At a loss, we asked the waiter to recommend a few dishes. Something light, as we were tired and not particularly hungry. The “light” antipasto turned out to be a platter of carpaccio. Our hearts sank. But the carpaccio melted on the tongue. Next, two bowls of homemade pasta: One of sausages and porcini, the other with black truffles and cream. We’ve ordered truffled-up dishes in restaurants back home, and always dismissed them as hype, as it’s almost impossible to taste anything, given the microscopic shavings that, rumour has it, may have been sourced from truffles.
Here, the truffles, likely sliced on a mandolin, were generous, earthy and sharp. A mineral quality so different from anything else we’d tasted, they could have been mined on the moon.
So good it was enough to make you weep.
After a long night’s sleep, Gilda joined us for breakfast on the patio, overlooking the Tuscan hills. The hills are different from those in Idaho: gentler, less abrupt, more cultivated. Geometric fields give the landscape the appearance of a lumpy bed covered with a patchwork quilt. Our hostess brought us figs from her garden, and we drank cup after cup of coffee as the shadows shortened under the rising sun.
(Many years ago, on a deserted beach in Greece, an old man arrives every other morning, bringing us large figs in his straw hat: purple figs, so dark at to be nearly black, bursting with jammy meat. A glass of cold water, three figs on a yellow plate, distant applause from the morning sea.)
The rest of our first day in Tuscany, we spent at Colle di val d’Elsa: a walled city that is nearly invisible in the guidebooks we consulted. Cobbled streets and stone walls and small, tidy museums and palazzi with hanging laundry at their windows. The relative lack of tourists, such ourselves, was a pleasure. But we did see a number of Europeans on some kind of pilgrimage, each of them weighed down with bright nylon backpacks and their private sorrows.
We read a lot about this walled city. Medieval seat of blah-blah, gateway to the duchy of this-and-that, cathedral to Saint-what’s-his-name, celebrated centre of industry. We stepped into a few shops and the tourist office. Famous for its armaments, and its finocchio. Or was it Pinocchio? I forget which; maybe it’s both.
Facts roll out, make a few orbits around the drain, and disappear. Many people collect them — facts, I mean. But I don’t retain a single one, which makes me a terrible travel companion and dinner guest.
Many years ago, at a period when I was cultivating my first moustache, I was persuaded to read a book that has stayed with me ever since. That is to say, the feeling of reading the book lingered long after I was done with it, but not a word did my memory retain, until I picked it up again last week.
Here is a passage:
Now for the Art of catching fish, that is to say, how to make a man that was none to be an Angler by a book; he that undertakes it, shall undertake a harder task than Mr. Hales, a most valiant and excellent fencer, who, in a printed book called A Private School of Defence, undertook to teach that art or science, and was laughed at for his labour. Not but many useful things might be learnt by that book, but he was laughed at because that art was not to be taught by words, but by practice; and so must Angling.
Some of you may recognize the style. The Compleat Angler is by Izaak Walton and it was published in 1653. Everyone should read it, and not just anglers, because the book is so much fun.
It came to mind because we were staying in Hailey, Idaho, which is close to world famous trout streams. Hailey is a ten-minute drive from the town of Ketchum, itself only a longish walk to Sun Valley resort. So close are all these burghs, that they’re generally lumped together as Sun Valley. So, yes, we were in Sun Valley.
But to the fishing. I did not get to fish, but we spent a magical late afternoon at Silver Creek, a place of shallow swift streams, hungry trout and darting mayflies. Ernest Hemingway came here often, as do wealthy anglers from all over the world, for the pleasures of catching and releasing the famous trout.
On another day, we visited the town of Ketchum, whose ersatz village charm rivals the fakery of Mont-Tremblant. Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll break the window of a Gucci store. I’m sure that when Hemingway lived here, it was much less groomed. It probably retained more than a whiff of its mining origins, when mules hauled heavy ore wagons from the mines, to be offloaded onto train cars for refining in Salt Lake City, some three hundred miles away.
It was here, at his home in Ketchum, that Ernest Hemingway blew his brains out with a shotgun. A genetic disease ran in his family and made many of them crazy. Heavy drinking didn’t help, nor did the writer’s nagging paranoia. Hemingway’s father killed himself, as did his brother and sister. Also, more recently, did Margaux Hemingway. Seven suicides in all.
Achilles and the Count
While in Hailey, I took several runs along Wood River Trail, just seven hundred metres from the place we were renting. Built on an old rail line, the paved trail is twenty miles long and runs from the town of Bellevue to just past Ketchum. The railroad engineer must have determined the route by placing a ruler on a map of Sun Valley and running his pencil along the steel edge. It’s that straight.
As you run, the effects of high altitude, the arid desert climate and blistering mid-day heat accumulate. You note the many grasshoppers on the path. You’ve been warned about rattlers. But also about dehydration: the things it can do…
And so you begin talking to the Achilles tendon on your right heel, which you’ve been mollycoddling long enough — for months, in fact! You’ve caused me no end of frustration, you calmly explain, trying to not betray the bitterness in your heart. It’s always three steps forward, two steps back with you, isn’t it? I took you to run in Rockport, Massachusetts and then to Anacortes, Washington — clear across the continent. Now we’re in sun splashed, world-famous Sun Valley and still you persist in…
You see a small park, a father and two small children, a water fountain. You stop, take a drink and throw some water on your face. Nearby is a large plaque that tells the origin story of Sun Valley.
Early in the twentieth century, the grotesquely rich chairman of Union Pacific Railroad, Averell Harriman, was disturbed that so many American millionaires were spending their money in the Alps — money that could be his! And so he deputized Count Felix Schaffgotsch, an Austrian-Bohemian nobleman who knew a thing or two about skiing, to find the ideal spot for America’s first destination ski resort. The count had his instructions: The resort had to be well away from any large city, to ensure that the developer, who conveniently and not incidentally also owned railways — the only dependable way of getting into high country in winter — would be doubly rewarded.
The count visited dozens of places across the United States. None of them seemed exactly right, and so he gave up. But then, just as he was packing for home, a telegram summoned him to Idaho.
Fine, one last look.
The count toured up and down the area until he arrived where the resort now stands. He pronounced Sun Valley perfect. Soon after opening in December, 1936, Sun Valley became famous for its tycoons and Hollywood stars — Marilyn, Humphrey, Lucille, they all came.
You won’t find any ski hills named after the count. Inside the resort, you’ll search in vain for the oak-panelled Schaffgotsch Alcove, or even a Schaffgotsch baba au rhum on the dessert menu. Not a trace of the count survives by way of commemoration. Nor does the plaque mention why.
But later on, you discover the reason. The count — urbane, dashing, a champion talker — was also a fervent Nazi. He served in the Waffen SS with great distinction, and was killed in action in Belarus, in 1942.
As I pick up my pace, my heart lifts, emptied of bitterness. Fresh blacktop as far as the eye can see. The path littered with grey-green grasshoppers. Many of them lie dead, crushed by bikes. The live ones pivot as they sense my approach, prepare their jump.
On the west coast, the coffee culture is rich, full bodied and intense. They know their coffee, and they like it. Which calls into question why Starbucks remains in business in these here parts. Maybe they’re rooting for the home team that conquered the world.
On our first trip to Washington State, years ago, we toured the Olympic Peninsula, which remains one of the great experiences of my life. Gargantuan cedars and dripping rainforests and vast thundering beaches strewn with boulders and the bleached bones of dinosaurs.
At the tail end of that trip (or was it near the beginning?), in the middle of nowhere, we found ourselves driving through a Native reservation and were struck by the sight of a dilapidated roadside trailer parked on a patch of gravel. Espresso, declared a hand-painted sign. How could we resist?
In the shadowed interior, dreamcatchers hung from the plywood ceiling, posters of Native warriors were scotch taped to the corrugated tin walls. A Native girl, no more than fifteen, reluctantly rose from her stool. She was surly in the way of all fourteen-year-olds who know their time could be better spent at the mall with her pals.
Behind her stood a gleaming, brand new Italian monster at full pressure. We ordered a double espresso, a cappuccino and biscotti, all of them excellent.
Greek coffee in Park Ex
Coffee culture is equally strong among Greeks, where it’s an essential mid-afternoon social lubricant, usually accompanied with several packs of cigarettes.
I often watched my mother read people’s fortunes in their coffee cups. Among Greeks, this is quite common. You simply turn your empty demitasse upside down on its saucer for a few minutes, to allow the coffee grounds to slide down the sides. The soothsayer (i.e. my mother) picks up the cup, turns it slowly in her hand, and closes one eye in a manner freighted with meaning.
I watched her do it plenty of times, and I could never tell if she was conning the neighbours or herself. According to her, the coffee patterns revealed everything: financial windfalls, a death in the Old Country, a meddlesome in-law, a hat trick by Jean Beliveau. Once, in the delicate language employed by adults in the presence of children, she suggested that a baby had been taken before its time. The young woman whose fortune was being told burst into tears.
My mother showed me how. It’s easy, like lying on your back, having a smoke and staring at the clouds. There goes Goofy, followed by Dolly Parton, and, bringing up the rear, a roast turkey.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
- The pelican is featured on the Albanian 1 lek coin.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I finished my latest short story on Boxing Day, just before the stores close. Consider it a gift for the holidays. I’ve titled it They Bruise so Easily, and I do hope you like it.
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.
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.
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.