“For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” Luke 22:27
Sea urchins have just been split open like sacrifices, their insides pulled out and passed around the table. Our delicacies.
Nina, the woman who collected the sea urchins, has come up from the sea like a mermaid, her long blonde hair still wet from the swim, mask and flippers in one hand, her bounty in the other. The urchins are in a blue bag normally used for snorkel gear, and they stick to the netting like ticks on fur.
Tassos, the owner of the Archodissa hotel and restaurant, is beckoned over to inspect her work. “Yes, yes, you catch?” he says, and before she answers, he disappears.
Five of us are sitting around the table, having just finished a late lunch, the only people in the restaurant. Our waiter brings us a large plate of fruit, a much-anticipated dessert course, moments before Tassos returns. Five forks are impaled in the karpouzi, watermelon which are bright red and full of gritty, juicy water—better than any I’ve had on 4th of July—and peponi, soft and sweet, more like an American cantaloupe than honeydew. Today there are also cherries, piled on the side of the plate nearest me, and I take one before the they hit the table.
Tassos returns with a metal clamp, and Nina hands him a sea urchin. He leans over, his dark hair ungelling and falling lightly on his forehead as his tall frame bends in half. He positions the urchin on the plate in front of me stomach-side down, a black, round porcupine glistening like wet stone, then opens the clamp like a lobster’s claw and breaks into the urchin. Pieces of spines snap as the top half splits from the bottom, and he lifts off the top as if it were a hat, revealing a hollow cavern. Inside, there are five radial lines of bright orange, and coating them is a string of slimy grey pearls, which hang together like the roe I used to pull out of salmon. Tassos says this urchin was a female—I assume grey pearls are the eggs, but I’m told the orange stripes are—and he adds, “You can only eat the females.” (I later learn females are differentiated by the russet color surrounding the circular point where the mouth is; the males are black.)
Nina tries the roe first. “Oh wow.” Tassos uses the outer prong of a fork to pick up the second orange line, asking, “Who will try next?”
I hesitantly volunteer, recognizing that what I’m about to eat comes from the inside of a creature that was alive only seconds ago. He hands me the fork and the roe slides off onto my tongue. Unlike oysters, which slide down my throat intact, this disintegrates against the roof of my mouth, releasing a briny taste.
“Here, drink,” Tassos says, pouring a shot of tsipouro over two ice cubes and handing the glass to me. It’s the first time since arriving that I’ve welcomed or enjoyed the burning taste of this anise-flavored drink. The sea urchin, now cleaned of its insides, still moves on my plate.
* * *
“Please, eat something,” Tassos says as he sits beside me in the kitchen.
I’m not really supposed to be here with Giorgos and the two other waiters who are finally sitting down to have lunch at 4:30 p.m. I came in only in search of a dessert plate, since mine was housing the carcasses of sea urchins. That’s when I noticed the feast set before Giorgos and the others: a heaping plate of mussels, freshly caught fish, a loaf of bread, and bright red florines, chili-shaped red peppers that are grilled, peeled, stuffed with feta cheese, and then grilled again. These red triangles float like islands on a layer of olive oil, with a mixture of herbs sprinkled on top like confetti.
The florines pull me in.
Giorgos smiled at me with sleepy eyes that almost looked closed and said, in his deep voice and thick accent, that I could have a bite only if I sat down and had a glass of ouzo with him and his friends. So, here I sit for a second lunch.
“I did,” I reply to Tassos. “I ate.”
I receive a look that says, “Bullshit*,” before he says, “Take this,” and cuts off a piece of meaty, white fish filet and puts it in front of me. “You try the mussels?” he asks, reaching for one before I can answer. Tassos fills the shell with juice from the plate, squeezes a lemon wedge on it, and hands it to me.
This process of dressing the mussel was one that Giorgos had demonstrated for me just a minute before Tassos sat down. The lesson concluded with me eating the mussel straight from the shell, which felt like slurping miso soup off of the spoons at a Japanese restaurant. The reward was much better than miso.
As everyone continues to eat, I inhale the conversation around me like thick air, trying to process words I don’t understand, willing myself to be more Greek. I can only pick out words that don’t confer meaning, like einaí (it is) and pánda (always), but I don’t want them to switch to English, a language that’s foreign to their own mouths, solely on my behalf. Inevitably, though, they do. “We discuss money and boring things,” Tassos explains. “How is it—you like?” he asks me, nodding at my empty plate.
“Nostimo,” I reply. “Polí nostimo,” I correct, indicating that it is very delicious. Tassos smiles at me in a way that splits me open, a smile that comes from behind his eyes and offers a glimpse into another universe, one in which I am at the center. This is his gift, creating universes within his eyes for every person he encounters. It’s impossible not to smile in return.
“Yiamas!” he cries, raising a glass, and the rest of us follow. Glasses clink, shouts and grins are exchanged in all languages.
This is the music of my afternoon with the Greeks.