A Good Evening in Greece

While Midwesterners are enjoying lunch hour, the Southerners are perhaps reclining into afternoon naps. A long way away, the Greeks are out to dinner. It is ten o’clock and tonight I am Greek, too. It is my first meal in Athens and the evening begins with moussakka. Our host, Pantelis–a relative of my parter, Alex–has ordered a full set of traditional Greek fare to welcome us to his city. The flaky crust of moussakka is layered with cheese, eggplant, tomato, lamb, and a dozen spices. Pantelis slices two grand wedges out of the pan and hands one each to me and Alex. He takes a very small portion for himself and points at our plates with his knife.

“Please, please. Eat up! Enjoy. I am not so hungry tonight.” He waits for us to eat first, then takes a bite and shrugs. “It is good. Not the best, but good.”

I eat mine in three chomps and grab another slice. I’ve had moussakka once before at Alex’s house. His grandfather brings lunch over every Saturday, reliable as a clock. His moussakka is dry and flaky–in a good quick-hot food kind of way. His grandfather called it peasant food. But this is a step above.

It is obvious we’re in an upper-scale restaurant–the type with no prices on the menu. We are seated on the top floor with a view of the light-bright Parthenon. Sensual music from the singer below us wafts up the stairs. I am comfortable and getting ever more so with each refill of my wine glass. I start to reach for a piece of bread, but Pantelis recommends I wait for the next dish. It is a plate of rich eggplant slices, dripping with olive oil and deeply spiced. I dig in with enthusiasm. This Greek man probably thinks I’m devilishly unmannered.

The waiter arrives with another dish filled with tiny pieces of a fish-like substance floating in brine.

Pantelis introduces it, “Ah, this is the insides of those–how do you call it–the black spiked things in the sea. Anyway it is good for–how do you say it–good for sex.”

“Aphrodisiac?” I raise my eyebrows.

“Yes, an aphrodisiac. I don’t like it very much. It tastes like how the sea smells.”

I try it. It tastes exactly how the sea smells.

We sip our wine and say nothing for a bit. I look over at Alex. A few strands of hair are caught in his mouth and he is ungracefully trying to remove them with fishy fingers. I smile at him and pull the hair away. He looks at me, grins, and wipes his hands on his napkin.

The next dish is souvlaki–crispy, yet juicy. I can tell Pantelis likes this one, he keeps offering it to us, insisting we have more and more. By the time the roast lamb arrives, I’m pleasantly full. Pantelis tops off our glasses of wine and smiles. Between large bites, I ask him what he does for a living.

“Me? Oh, I am an engineer. That is how I learned English. I went to school in New York, undergrad and graduate. I lived in Brooklyn and then I came home to work for Heineken.” He says it like it’s no big deal. I struggle to imagine moving to Brooklyn without knowing English–or studying engineering at all, for that matter. He explains further. His job entails a moderate amount of travel and he tells us of the beautiful countries far north of us and the coldness of the British.

“The British, I don’t like them–and I am not a racist!” As a temporary citizen of England, I’m intrigued.

“They think they are better than everyone else–the empire, you know–and they are no fun.” I understand his point, but I can also think of counter arguments. Considering the present dining situation, I add ‘bad food’ to his list of complaints.

As we finish the second bottle of wine, Pantelis offers to order a third bottle. Alex and I almost agree, but then shake our hazy heads and decline. Pantelis insists on ordering desserts. I am not sure I can walk with all the additional food weight I’ve just put on, but I try some anyway. To finish, Pantelis snaps his fingers at the waiter and orders a Greek after dinner drink make from a gum tree.

“Good for the digestion.” Alex’s other relatives have already mentioned almonds, yogurt, and soymilk–all which are also ‘good for the digestion’.

The waiter returns with three tiny glasses. We sip them. My whole mouth feels like an icy lemon tree. Cold and sharp. Pantelis nods his head at us.

“It is good, I think, to see the world. To see that other people’s pain is the same as yours. To know other people die and live and have jobs just like you. I am glad you are doing this.” He says it factually. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. And suddenly this is not just someone else’s relative being kind. It is not just requisite hospitality, something authentically Greek. It is something wise and real from one person to two young ones. And I am honored.

The bill comes. Alex and I have plotted beforehand about how to offer to pay for ourselves. I slide sixty euro across the table.

“What is this? A joke? Not a funny joke. Put it away and I will forget about the whole thing.”

I put the money away and don’t know what to do with my face. I want to laugh, but not at him. Alex squeezes my hand under the table. Pantelis’ hospitality is unlike anything else.