“Tell what you saw…”

greece

Now I know why I saved the olive oil tin and planted rosemary in it. All spring I’ve remembered Crete and my time there 43 years ago, a girl in love with Agamemnon, and all the beauty of the herbs and music.

Tell what you saw as the bus raced towards Agia Galini. Mountains. Tiny villages, white with churches, perched so high that you couldn’t imagine a reason for a village to be there until you remembered the history of Turks, Venetians, Germans; and yet a road lurched up the mountainside, sheep and goats grazed on the rocky slope, a few donkeys carried their riders uphill, laden with sticks and sacks.

Steep rises covered in dittany, juniper, plane trees in the squares of towns we passed through, shady and green. Holm oak and kermes oak. Rocks covered in low-growing thyme—by now you’d eaten your γιαούρτι με μέλι and knew that the bees had worked the thyme flowers to create this ambrosia, the first honey for which you’d been able to detect its origins.

Groves of olives, and long rows of grapes on the fertile plains. Through the open windows you smelled dust and unfamiliar wind.

Signs in Greek, which you yearned to be able to read. (You had your grammar and were trying to master the alphabet.)

You passed houses almost smothered in vines, the window frames and doors painted blue. Rusty oil cans held geraniums and lush basil; tomato plants climbed the whitewashed walls. Old women shrouded in black sat on chairs and held up a hand to the driver of the bus.

Outside a church in a small town, you saw an Orthodox priest eating an apple.

–from “Olea europaea: Young Woman with Eros on her Shoulder”, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, Goose Lane Editions, 2012.

 

a copper briki

“A tiny copper briki in which coffee had been boiled three times.” That phrase occurs in my novella, Patrin. I wrote it, remembering how much I’d loved coffee the months I spent in Greece in the last century when I was in my early 20s. I had a sweetheart on Crete — I’ve written about him in my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, in the chapter “Olea europaea: Young Woman with Eros on her Shoulder”: “A very old man, a fisherman with a bright blue boat, used to bring me slices of melon when I sat at the dock and read my book. One day he brought his son, whom I will call Agamemnon. He was older, had served in the army, and spoke English only marginally better than my Greek.” I had many cups of coffee with Agamemnon and his father. They made it by spooning coffee into water in a little briki, along with sugar. The briki was placed on a gas burner (Agamemnon and his family owned a small taverna) and brought to the boil, removed, placed back on the burner, removed, and then placed on the burner one more time. It took some time for me to convince them that I wanted mine without sugar — sketos. But that’s how I liked it best. They didn’t drink their coffee quickly, the way people drink an espresso in Italy, but they sat at a table or on a bench, with a tall glass of water, and they sipped the coffee slowly and appreciatively. I learned to do the same. The first few times I had coffee with them,  I drank mine right down to the last drop — which was grounds. And I was told not to do that. I soon figured out when to consider my coffee finished. All this is so long ago now but the other day, on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, I was shopping for Christmas presents and as I was about to pay for all the things I’d chosen at the Mediterranean Market (this will be an edible Christmas!), I saw some brikis hanging behind the counter. I asked to see one and as I held in my hands, a whole world came back to me, filled with the rustling of olive leaves, the flavours of retsina and salty cheese, the feel of my body alive in the ocean, and then the company of two men under shade trees in front of Agamemnon’s taverna. Of course I bought the briki and will keep it in my kitchen for the memories it conjures on winter mornings, the taste of strong coffee — sketos — and the warmth of sunlight, almost forty years later.

briki