I met Vasilis during my pre-workshop days at Archodissa. He is one of Tassos of Thassos’ best friends. They grew up in Theologos together, and he was the person who “bapticide” Tassos’ son, which means he was made the godfather. Vasilis’ voice is deep and rasps, almost as if he needs to clear his throat at all times, but there is a lightness in his speech and always a smile in his voice. Unfortunately, I can’t understand a thing he says in Greek. Not only does he speak with a Thassian dialect, he eats his words—the end of one blends into the beginning of another—and I must constantly tell him, “Siga, siga,” slowly slowly, please!
The other day I came up from the beach, fantasizing about the yogurt in my fridge, having not eaten all day. It was 4 p.m., and as I ascended the stone mosaic of steps to Archodissa, the first face I saw was Vasilis’. He was at the table atop the stairs, wearing his aviator shades, clinking glasses of tsipouro with Tassos and another friend. I stopped to say hello, ti kanis?, and he said he was very good.
“Do you want to sit for some tsipouro?” he asked. “It is my recipe. You should try.”
Tsipouro, if I haven’t mentioned, in a distilled liquor that is so strong, even the distillers themselves drink it on the rocks with a splash of water. On this island, it is the elixir of life. The first time I tasted tsipouro was similar to first time I tasted Italian grappa: my tongue went numb, a cascade of fire descended my throat, and I thought demons would surely spawn inside me. Last year, the only time I welcomed its flavor was after I ate my first sea urchin, but this year I am starting to acquire a taste for it. The flavor, I’ve learned, is infused with one’s parea, one’s friends, and the camaraderie and conversation that are shared with glasses in hand. It was an honor to be asked to sit for a glass of tsipouro.
There was an empty seat next to Vasilis, which is where I sat. Across from him was Makis, whom he introduced me to, and beside him was a seat saved for the third member of their party. The three of them had been fishing, and the missing member was still diving, but it was time to feast. They already placed their order.
“Katse, katse,” he said, pointing to the chair beside him. Sit, sit. He poured me a shot of tsipouro and asked Dimitri, our waiter (whom I’ve nicknamed “The Man”) for an extra plate.
“Oh, no, I don’t want to intrude,” I said, a concept lost on Vasilis.
“Why will you go?” he asked. “We have food coming.”
I sipped my fire water, and we talked about swimming and fishing, about what I’m doing in Greece and where I’m from. I’ve become very skilled at answering introductory questions, so I spoke Greek as much as I could. They speak more English than I speak Greek, so they could understand me when I reached my limits, but they always seem impressed by the small vocabulary I have.
As soon as the food started to arrive, I knew I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to. Grilled red peppers stuffed with feta, Greek salad, mussels, octopus, fried zucchini, fresh bread, giant beans, beet salad with garlic sauce, hot cheese with peppers, eggplant, plate after plate of all of my favorites. The tablecloth disappeared and my eyes grew in disbelief.
Fifteen dishes for three people. This is Greece. This is delight. This is indulgence that cannot be usurped by designer clothing and four-car garages and six-figure paychecks. Octopus caught by Stamatis’ net days before, tenderized by hand and rock, left out the sun to dry, grilled and sliced into olive oil, onions, and thrombs olives; zucchini grown in the garden behind the restaurant, dipped in the olive oil that was pressed from the trees that grow through the restaurant floor; feta cheese milked from the mountain goats, baked in a ceramic pot with homegrown peppers and herbs that grow along the side of the road, the wood oven whose temperature is measured by holding an experienced hand to its mouth for one-mississippi, two-mississippi: this is 400 degrees. This is how we are nourished from the inside out. “You are my heroes,” I told them.
“This is normal!” Vasilis exclaimed, and then proceeded to apologize for not having meat dishes. “This is light messimeriano. We order fish and vegetables now. Meat is for dinner.” I assured them I was perfectly content with the tapestry of plates in front of us.
Every time I thought we were finished, they’d bring another dish. It was enough to draw the attention of others. As my friends started to arrive from the beach, they would pause at the table. Some would stare. Some would laugh. One took a picture. I took a picture.
“If I had one meal left on earth, this would be it,” I told Vasilis. “This would be my last supper.” To this, he laughed.
We commandeered my Greek teacher so that I wouldn’t have to leave the table for my Greek lesson. “Mono milate sta ellinka,” she asserted, asking that everyone only speak in Greek around me for the next 30 minutes. Tassos would occasionally join our table and gleaned enjoyment from enforcing this rule. Epivlepse. He supervised, my word of the day. Soon, conversation switched to nationalism and philosophy, and I was lost in vocabulary, but I watched and listened. Lunchtime conversation begins with “What kind of state is Texas?” to “What does it mean to be patriotic in one’s home country?” This is a place where it’s not unusual to speak of the soul or philotimo, the indefinable word that relates to a Greek’s sense of honor, the outpourings of tsipouro and fellowship.
To think that I had sought out yogurt and instead found parea with strangers and friends of friends, where I say, “Thank you,” and in return, I am thanked for my company. It never ceases to amaze me how big, and welcoming, the Greek table is.