Incident of Bámbouras

Christopher Bakken

I’ve been invited to join one of the great food families of Greece for a seaside lunch. My last meal was steamed-mystery-meat-on-plastic-plate, served at thirty-five thousand feet over Greenland, so I’m going in famished.

Dimitris and Christina Panteleimonitis, my hosts, represent different sides of Greek gastronomy. Dimitris sells John Deere and Kubota farm equipment, and for over thirty years he’s traveled rural Greece, helping farmers modernize their equipment and their approach to agriculture. He knows how to build sanitary milking parlors for sheep and goats, can install state-of-the-art desalination systems, and is capable of taking a small farm from mere subsistence into profit and export-capability. All of which might make him sound like an adversary of artisanal food production. (I think of the American family farms of my father’s generation, many of which went “industrial” overnight and wound up captive to the whims of big seed, pesticide, and farm implement companies, in debt up to their ears, selling out.) But while Dimitris is an entrepreneurial genius with loads of capitalistic acumen, his feet are firmly rooted in agrarian tradition. His family comes from a tiny village on Lesbos, and thanks to his childhood there he has an abiding knowledge of the food ways of his grandparents. As a result, he sees the value of Greece’s rural past to its commercial and touristic future.

The agro-tourism movement is just now beginning to take off in Greece, but Dimitris has been promoting the idea of “farm vacations” for years. “Not everyone who comes to Greece wants to melt on the beach,” he told me the first time we met, a decade ago, “and the trick is to create a value-added holiday.” A small, fleshy fellow with a few wisps of blowsy hair, a forehead always furrowed by the onset of ideas, and a nautical, mostly Ralph Lauren wardrobe that gives no hint of his rural upbringing, Dimitris has a habit of dropping textbook economics phrases into his otherwise impassioned sentences, constantly theorizing about how “cost-benefit analysis,” say, might apply to someone planning a visit to the Dodecanese Islands. His pet project was the restoration of Ta Mylelia, a two-hundred-year-old water mill on Lesbos. Tinkering with ancient machinery, much of which had to be excavated from a hillside, he created a working farm museum where one can see how island agriculture was practiced in Ottoman times. A spring-fed stream turns the water wheel, which turns the giant millstone, which grinds hard durum wheat, which makes a short journey from mill to wood oven, where Yannis, a sprightly seventy-something master baker, stands ready to demonstrate breadmaking techniques to the hundreds of schoolchildren who come to Ta Mylelia on field trips. For Greeks, the experience is akin to what an American feels wandering colonial Williamsburg.

Christina, meanwhile, is a celebrated chef, the author of several glossy cookbooks, and the mastermind behind Ta Mylelia’s line of preserves, teas, sea salts, and unusual pastas (I’m partial to her saffron fettuccine). Hers was the first line of boutique, organic food products in Greece, and the business is wildly successful. Christina’s an elegant being: tiny, doe-like, and soft-spoken, but with a boisterous mane of reddish hair and gigantic penetrating eyes. She has four sons, all of whom look very much like her, and is clearly adored by her little army of Panteleimonitis men. Indeed, it’s impossible not to adore either Christina or her food, with its island ingredients and perfect balance between sophistication and handmade simplicity.

I’d been buying Ta Mylelia’s products in the Athens airport for years before I met Spyros, the Panteleimonitis’ eldest son, whom they sent to study at the Pennsylvania college where I teach. When Spyros, having come to my office to introduce himself to “the professor who knows Greece,” told me he was the son of the Ta Mylelia folks, I nearly kissed his feet. Now not only Spyros but his three brothers are studying abroad and becoming integrated into the family business. Today’s lunch, in fact, celebrates the return of the youngest, Pavlos, from the U.K. after his first year of university. He sits next to Christina, clutching her hand and grinning.

We’re dining at Mikrolimano, one of those spots that make me forget my troubled relationship with Athens. The city and I have never been on very good terms. My Greek “hometown,” Thessaloniki, boasts about a million inhabitants but has the neighborly atmosphere of a large village. There, I bump into people I know on a regular basis. Athens, by contrast, has always felt anonymous, not to mention smoggy and scattered: urban blight from horizon to horizon.

But gradually I’ve made peace with the place, if only because it’s hard to love Greece without finding some way to come to terms with Athens. In truth, there’s much to like. There are many quiet little parks and alleyways where one can retreat for espresso or ouzo. The suburbs of Maroussi, Kifisia, and Agios Stephanos are entirely hospitable. The new light rail system (built for the Olympics) runs from the center to the beach at Glyfada or Edem, where one can swim and then eat calamari with feet in the sand. There’s Mount Lykavitos to climb, with its little whitewashed shrine at the top. Coming down from the mountain, with its spectacular view over the Acropolis all the way to the first Saronic Islands, one strolls through a placid pine forest teeming with Mediterranean nature; during my last descent, I was astonished to glimpse the darting swoops of a gold-crested Hoopoe, the kind of psychedelic bird one would expect to find in Madagascar, not Athens.

Mikrolimano (“Little Port”) is another such gem, located just down the coast from suffocating Piraeus. Only fifteen minutes earlier I was dodging traffic near Syntagma Square, and now I’m sitting by the sea, watching minnows harass a fisherman’s hooked bait. The Athens Yacht Club—formerly the Royal Yacht Club, before Greek royalty was sent packing—is here, and the place is swanky. (Dimitris is a member, his smart blue sailboat moored a few docks away.) Open-air restaurants line the harbor front, all teeming with well-dressed families out for Sunday afternoon lunch. The scent of salt water and grilled fish is everywhere, and I’m very hungry.

Now, I can cook most kinds of Greek food back home in Pennsylvania, utilizing local organic produce, free-range lamb from a friend’s farm in Wisconsin, and the olives, dried chickpeas, and Santorini fava with which I stuff my luggage on every return from Greece. I can crank out sublime moussaka with Pennsylvania eggplants, and in August, with the help of Amish tomatoes and imported feta (one market in town orders Greek goat’s milk feta through a warehouse in Pittsburgh), I can assemble an effervescent horiatiki salata. But I crave real seafood all year long. As a rule, one shouldn’t eat fish more than a few miles from salt water. In Greece, that’s an easy rule to obey. Back in Pennsylvania, however, it means avoiding fish altogether. There’s great fly-fishing where I live, but our streams are so polluted from agricultural run-off that it’s unwise to eat more than one trout per month. And I wouldn’t touch anything from Lake Erie, which famously once caught fire, with a tenfoot pole. Now and then my piscatory longings become so intense that I raid the grocery store for a plank of frozen salmon, but mostly I save them up for Greece.

Christina offers me a menu out of politeness, but I know from experience to trust her to place our order with the chef—no one has more exacting standards. The waiters know this too, circling her like nervous sparrows. A salad of arugula, tomatoes, and cucumbers arrives, followed by a long wave of things from the sea. First come velvety, flash-fried langostinos, garides Symi (little fuchsia shrimp eaten whole, shell and all), and crunchy baby squid lightly breaded with what I think is semolina flour. And now what’s this? A triangular vessel has appeared on the table, filled to the brim with sea urchin roe. The golden eggs are scraped from urchin skeletons during the full moon (when they are most swollen) and then dunked in lemon juice and olive oil. They land on the tongue with a slightly bitter mineral darkness, then depart in a paroxysm of iodine, salt water, and sweet citrus: quintessence of the Aegean. My enthusiasm for them is so obvious that I’m made to drink the remaining roe right from the dish—“like the Japanese do,” Christina says. Next comes octopus. Rather than the standard grilled tentacles, however, the chef has braised a small octopus until fork-tender in Mavrodaphne, a cloying dessert wine from Patras. A salty-sweet pool of crimson reduction, voluptuous as demi-glace, serves as the dish’s exquisite foundation.

While we chatter on about my family and theirs, and about Pavlos’s life in England, all of us relaxing into the Sunday heat, I notice that Dimitris has disengaged from the conversation, evidently at work on one of his big ideas. His jaw’s moving a little and his eyes are flashing, and I wonder what he’s scheming. He waits impatiently for a break in the conversation, then smacks his lips twice and exclaims, matter-of-factly, “So, Christopher, here’s what we must do.” He proceeds to tell me that the mayor of the city of Drama, way up in Thrace, has been working for decades to create a seed bank of local grains—many of them very obscure, limited to specific valleys and ecosystems of the southern Balkans. Each seed has a tale to tell, many involving the sad history of war, diaspora, and population exchange that’s hardened the people of Thrace—grain seeds have been carried here and there in the pockets of the displaced. The mayor has set aside a lush valley outside Drama where little plots will be sown with each grain, both as a kind of agricultural and historical exhibition and in order to produce heirloom seeds, which are to be distributed to the locals. Dimitris is so moved by the mayor’s altruism that he’s ready to make me a deal: He’ll provide all the tractors and heavy machinery if I’ll go up there and help write the exhibition’s catalogue. I’m astonished to find myself the linchpin of the plan, but I listen as he outlines the next two years of my life. What could stop me from pulling up stakes and moving my family to Thrace?

By the time our main courses arrive (two dishes featuring locally-farmed mussels) I’m off my head with jetlag and ouzo, imagining life as an anthropologist of grain. I know Dimitris is serious, and I’m taking him seriously, but our attention is diverted again by food: Now there’s an expertly composed midiopilafo to attend to. The chef knows how to handle his Arborio, the creaminess of the rice serving to soak up the saline excretions of the mussels. On another plate, a tower of squid-ink linguine has been tossed in slivered garlic and fresh tomatoes and spiked with black mussel shells, each bearing a succulent morsel.

Then suddenly our table is empty, except for a small carafe of the restaurant’s own limoncello and a bottle of mastic spirits. I raise a glass to whatever the future might bring. Finally, we devour a superfluous platter of profiteroles, chocolate cakes, and ice cream.

I must stop to wipe the sweat from my brow, so exhausting is all this pleasure. More satisfaction is impossible to imagine, and yet, thankfully, there’s one thing missing from the feast. If not, where would I go from here? From this point on, I announce to my hosts, I’ll be following the trail of my favorite Mediterranean fish: Mullus surmuletus, which the Greeks call barbounia, the French rouget, and we Anglophones red mullet. Tomorrow my friend Corey will arrive, and then we’ll meet up with my brother and his friend Darrin and all proceed to the island of Thassos, where my old friend Stamatis the fisherman has promised we shall catch barbounia from the comfort of his boat.

***

In any good Greek restaurant, guests are invited into the kitchen to inspect fish before buying them. “There, file mou, is the Aegean,” the proprietor will indicate with his open palm, “and here’s the fish” (resting before us on its mattress of crushed ice), “and over there is the grill, ready for your order.” The discerning customer will always be on the lookout for the crimson gills and convex, pellucid eyes that indicate freshness. When it comes to selecting mullet, however, there are other things to watch for. There are two kinds of red mullet, and most diners don’t know the difference. Both are a species of goatfish, named for the beard-like barbs hanging from their lower lips, which they drag like antennae along the sea bottom. Of the two, the more desirable—the one the Greeks call barbounia—is Mullus surmuletus, which is almost bright red after being scaled, with two or three golden stripes running from gills to tail (for this reason, it is sometimes referred to in English as “striped red mullet”). It also boasts a single horizontal stripe across the first dorsal fin, though you’d have to handle the fish to notice it. (Some restaurant proprietors draw a sanitary line here—you fondle the fish, you buy it.) Mullus barbatus, which the Greeks call koutsomoura, is paler and lacks the gilded striations of its cousins, though it is also quite beautiful.

Not only tourists but plenty of Greeks wind up paying barbounia prices for koutsomoura. To be honest, both fish are delicious, but many fishermen insist that barbounia are sweeter, and I agree. While both kinds of mullet can grow rather large—some as big as two kilos—it’s rare to find them bigger than a quarter-kilo. This is not a matter of over-fishing (though that is a problem); the smaller mullet are just tastier, perhaps because of their diet of minuscule shrimp. Like most good things, they aren’t cheap: Barbounia averages fifty euros per kilo, making it the most expensive seafood (except for lobster) sold at most tavernas. (Trustworthy restaurants sell koutsomoura at a more reasonable forty euros per kilo, around the same price as sea bream and John Dory.) That translates to around ten euros per small fish, and my barbounia cravings are never satisfied by just one.

Beloved from Tel Aviv to Tarifa, the red mullet has been among the most esteemed Mediterranean fishes since Roman times. Mulletomania afflicted first-century Romans much as the “bacillus of tulipomania” (Zbiegniew Herbert’s phrase) would infect the Dutch in the 1630s. Predictably, the Romans preferred their mullets massive, since to them bigger was always better, and prices for large ones became so extravagant that Rome’s greatest satirical poets—Horace, Martial, and Juvenal—took turns disparaging the idiots who paid more for mullets than they did for quality slaves, or who wasted their time hand-feeding those they tried to raise in captivity. In Natural Questions, Seneca tartly observes, “The belly of gourmets has reached such daintiness that they cannot taste a fish unless they see it swimming and palpitating in the very dining room.” The mullo was prized for its sweet flesh and its delectable liver, but even more for the fleeting colors displayed by the fish in its death throes. To those same dainty-bellied gourmets, Seneca continues, “there is nothing more beautiful than a dying [mullet]. In the very struggle of its failing breath of life, first a red, then a pale tint suffuses it, and its scales change hue, and between life and death there is a gradation of color into subtle shades….” Leave it to the Romans to combine seafood, avarice, and sadism.

The Greco-Italian connection, as usual, is wonderfully complicated. My friend Titos Patrikios, who spent much of his life in Rome, tells me that the ancient Greeks called the mullet trigli (perhaps, the scholar James Grout has speculated, because it spawns three times a year) and that modern Italians still refer to the fish as triglia di scoglio (for surmuletus) or triglia di fango (for barbatus). But the Venetians brought their love for mullet with them when they colonized parts of Greece in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and left behind their dialect name for mullet: barbone (“beard-bearing”). So, Titos concluded, now the Italians use the Greek word and the Greeks use the Italian. The Turks, who occupied Greece for seven centuries but who were themselves colonized by Greek seafood-eating habits, still call the fish barbunya. I enjoyed the ironies of this linguistic tangle a few summers back while sipping white wine and devouring inexpensive barbunya at Gümüs,lük, south of Bodrum on the (now) Turkish Aegean coast, where I overlooked the ruins of the ancient Greek city Myndos.

***

My brother Aaron calls to report that he’s caught in some circle of travel hell, having missed several connections Stateside. He’ll arrive a whole day late, he tells me, his heartbroken sentences punctuated by a lot of swearing. But Darrin, who was Aaron’s college roommate, has arrived on time, looking cheerful if a bit bedraggled (and much balder than when I last saw him, fifteen years earlier). Aaron, Darrin, and Corey are all turning forty this summer, and since I crossed that ominous threshold several years ago, it’s my solemn duty to serve as their elder chaperone. Luckily, they’ve agreed to accompany me on my barbounia quest.

The three of us board the flight from Athens to Kavala, and within an hour we’re shaking the hand of my old friend George Kaltsas, who drives us down to the port of Keramoti, where we sip coffee and beer until our ferry to Thassos pulls into harbor. Generous as always, George has volunteered to fetch Aaron when he arrives. “One should be greeted by a friend, not a stranger,” he counters when I assure him my brother could manage with a taxi. I’m concerned by George’s gauntness and ashen pallor, but he brushes my inquiries about his health aside. “I’ll join you the day after tomorrow,” he says, “and we’ll share stories on the island. Until then, give Tassos, Eva, and Stamatis my greetings.”

Stamatis, Eva, and Tassos Kouzis (father, mother, and son, respectively) are the closest thing I have to a Greek family; Pension Archontissa, the small hotel they run overlooking the peninsula of Aliki, is like a second home. After parking in the driveway, we immediately cross paths with Stamatis, who has just pulled in his evening nets and is sorting the catch. I take it as a good omen that my first Thassian embrace leaves me smelling of fish. Stamatis shows us what he’s brought in from the cove: a whole bucket of small lithrinia (Pagellus erythrinus, known as Pandora in English), two large squid, a still-throbbing cuttlefish, and a dozen barbounia. “We’ve been waiting for you,” Stamatis says when I introduce him to my friends—a sentence Eva repeats verbatim a few moments later when we crowd into the busy kitchen. Tassos and his girlfriend Elpida (who has recently moved here from Thessaloniki and is, I see, now working in the family restaurant) are running like mad from table to table, smiling in welcome. We drop our bags, find a seat near the railing, and take in the view—as familiar to me as my own backyard, but no less gorgeous for that fact. With dusk coming on, the three bays of Aliki are turning indigo, and the marbles of the ruined Temple of Demeter, just visible on the far edge of the second bay, are glowing in the last of the sunlight. “We’ll spend the better part of the next week gazing at this,” I tell Corey and Darrin, “so if you tire of it, just let me know and we’ll drive down the coast a ways.” They both look at me like I’ve said something stupid.

Truth is, the moment I arrive at Archontissa, a kind of weird oscillation kicks in. I’m thrilled to be here, since nowhere in Greece do I feel more at home. Even the cats look familiar to me, their faces mustached with squid ink. I’m told to help myself to food from the refrigerators in the restaurant kitchen, and am pretty much forbidden to spend anything beyond a symbolic pittance. I have a history here that I slip back into like a second skin. It occurs to me that I’ve been coming to Aliki for almost twenty years now, and should feel relief upon arrival. But I take one look out across the coves and the gleaming edge of the marble quarry and my mind begins racing, my feet tapping beneath the table. I can’t find a way to be still.

I confess to being a restless person. I tend to move quickly, driven by a combination of impatience, ambition, curiosity, insecurity, and a conspicuous lack of “inner peace.” Given the difficulties of my life back home, coming to Greece is crucial for my well-being. And yet the Greek light also tends to have a Prufrockian effect on me, “as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen.” My restlessness is especially magnified here at Aliki: All at once I feel the desire to swim (in all three coves), to dive for octopus, to hike up into the nearby olive groves, to chat with Stamatis about the state of the sea, to join Eva in the kitchen (where she’s stuffing zucchini flowers with rice, onions, and mint), to sip some tsipouro with Tassos, to read Wallace Stevens out on my patio, to scribble something in my notebook, to call home, to throw rocks, and to scream (I don’t know what) with all the air in my lungs. It takes me three or four days to settle into being here, and by that time I must prepare to leave again. Some island calm will wash over me eventually, I trust, but my inquietude never gives up easily.

Dinner will help. With food imminent, Tassos demands I switch from beer to tsipouro. “You are on Thassos now, Christopher. Plus, this is the best batch I’ve made in years.” I do as he insists, then dive into Eva’s roka-marouli—a salad of arugula and romaine tossed with capers, dried tomatoes, throumbes olives, and feta—and an entire squid grilled over coals. Soon I’m wiping the flavor of the island from my chin, savoring the combination of tsipouro anise, squid juice, charcoal, and olive oil that triggers on my tongue the idea of Thassos, its terroir.

Next comes a platter of six barbounia. Barbounia can be bathed in garlic, bay leaves, allspice, and olive oil, then baked in a wood oven. The fish’s delicate flesh also makes it a good candidate for preparations al cartoccio (baked in parchment, that is). In the Ionian Islands, barbounia are fried and then marinated with vinegar, currants, rosemary, and honey—a centuries-old method of preservation suited to long sea voyages. But I prefer the simplest possible preparation for red mullet: either fried in olive oil until the skin is crisp, or basted with oil and lemon and grilled over wood coals. (Often, very small barbounia are not even gutted, since the innards are thought to contribute to the flavor of the fish.) Tonight I’ve ordered them fried, since I know Tassos has a way with this preparation. The skin has become even redder after its submersion in hot oil and peels back in crisp little wafers to reveal tender white flesh, which I think has a flavor closer to shellfish—oysters in particular—than any other fish. Wash each bite down with some tsipouro, I declare, and barbounia is indeed the best fish in the sea. “It’s a pity you don’t eat the heads,” Tassos says when he stops by to check on our progress. And so we do, crunchy skull bones and all.

After dinner, when I ask Stamatis about when we’ll begin fishing in the morning, he delivers two pieces of bad news: Tomorrow he’s off to see the doctor in Kavala (he had a cardiac shunt installed a few years ago, and must go to the mainland for a check-up) and his boat isn’t working. He gives me an explanation I don’t understand, something about there being too much fresh water in the engine. (Should there be salt water instead? I find myself wondering.) The day after tomorrow a mechanic will come from the other side of the island to have a look. Then we shall see about barbounia.

Since I’ve come such a long way to fish, however, Tassos has an idea. “Tomorrow will be a slow day here at the restaurant, and Elpida can manage,” he says. “I haven’t been out diving yet this year. Let’s go out on my boat and see what we can catch.” Then he looks at my friends. “You can both swim, right?” Corey and Darrin assure him they can.

Later, Tassos fills us a plastic bottle with tsipouro, and we head down the goat-path to the beach for a nightcap and some stargazing. The universe looks good from here, we all agree, and when Tassos switches off the bright lights of the restaurant, another billion stars swim free from their net of blackness and seem to dart before our eyes. Luckily, the tsipouro doesn’t hold out for long, and we crawl back up the dark cliff toward bed.

***

Aaron calls at six in the morning to tell me he’ll be on the first flight to Kavala and the earliest ferry to Thassos. When I pick him up at the port, he looks exhausted and very, very happy. He hasn’t been on Thassos since we came here to harvest olives a few years ago, but I can tell that he too feels the warmth of homecoming. He also reports that we’ll be adding another man to our party: Our old friend Hans Richter is coming from Istanbul. Hans lived with my family for a month when I was in high school; then my brother went to Germany to live with Hans’s family a year later. I remember Hans as a great wit, full of noisy facts and gruffness. He now works for an American export company in Turkey, and is planning to drive a company car to Keramoti, then hop on the ferry. But he calls later that morning to report that the car’s been confiscated at the border, and that he’ll have to take a taxi to Keramoti, which is going to cost him a fortune. For the past six months, the Greek economy has been going down the toilet, the country defaulting on its many loans, strikes turning more and more violent, while the German government has dug in its heels, refusing to bail the Greeks out. As Hans puts it: “Considering the latest problems in Europe, imagine what it means for a German to try to drive someone else’s Turkish vehicle into Greece. I’m just not very popular today.”

By the time I’ve shuttled Aaron to Archontissa and taken a nap to subdue the thumping of last night’s tsipouro in my forehead, it’s time to head out to sea. My brother decides not to join us, thinking it wiser to work off his jetlag by gazing at the view from the patio. Plus, he’s waiting to see if Hans turns up.

That turns out to be a good decision.

Tassos fits us each with fins and checks to see that our American snorkel gear is up to snuff. Then back down the goat-path we go to prepare for fishing. His boat is not a boat at all, but an inflatable orange dinghy patched here and there with duct tape. We take turns manning an air pump, reinflating the thing as best we can. “It’s not pretty,” Tassos says proudly, “but it will float. I bought it from an Italian friend for only a hundred fifty euros.” That’s hardly comforting. Into this dubious craft we pile our gear, including a duffel bag covered in old fish scales, and a prickly bouquet of spear guns.

“Have I taken you to Bámbouras before, Christopher?” Tassos asks. “It’s out on the point—the big fish wait for us there.”

Tassos contorts himself into a full wet suit (the rest of us are swimming without), and then off we go, bouncing across the whitecaps, laughing as we’re bombarded by spray, the motor screaming, the three of us eager to help Tassos catch dinner. We pass two or three exquisite little coves (“for later,” Tassos shouts) and head out across the open water. The sky is cloudless, and heat haze clings to the scrub-covered hillsides, which rise steeply all along the coast. Soon it becomes clear we’re headed toward a point where, to spectacular effect, a high cliff has broken off, leaving one megalith of marble at a sharp angle to the water and a half-sunken, smaller one jutting a hundred yards out. Between them lies crystalline water. After Tassos kills the motor and tosses the anchor overboard, I ask him why this is such a good fishing spot.

“Fish come here because of the revma. The small fish become confused and so the big ones come to feed. You’re all strong swimmers, right? Because there’s revma here, you know, and sometimes it’s strong. If you get tired, just come back to the boat.”

Corey and Darrin look at me curiously, awaiting translation. “What’s ‘revma’?” Darrin asks finally.

This requires a bit of explanation. “Revma” means “current,” and (as in English) can apply to electricity, air, or water. But the word also serves as the root of “révmatismós,” from which we get “rheumatism,” and the link is telling, for Greeks have some curious superstitions about the perils of circulated air. When I first moved to Greece, I wondered why passengers chose to keep the windows shut on stifling buses, why taxi drivers removed the window controls in the back seat, and why electric fans were almost impossible to find. The reason, a Greek friend explained, was revma: Currents wafting across the back of the neck were thought to cause paralysis. This old wives’ tale was so pervasive that even my educated friends bought into it, avoiding the occasional breezes for which I was desperate in summer. But, I assure Corey and Darrin, a little revma in the water off Bámbouras won’t do us any harm.

Tassos waits for us to don our fins and then gives us a lecture: “I’ll swim with the large speargun, and you must always be careful to stay behind me in the water. I’m fishing for fish, not friends. Christopher, you will hunt with the smaller speargun—but stay close behind, since if I hit a large rophós I may need the small gun to finish it off.”

The idea of bagging a big grouper is enough to get us moving, and one at a time we tip backwards overboard. The moment my mask is below the surface I see hundreds of fish, so busy avoiding one another that they pay no attention to me. I give an underwater thumbsup to Corey and Darrin, who paddle along behind me, then point downward, making sure they see that Tassos has made his first dive. I begin the descent with him, but having ruptured my eardrum diving for octopus last summer, I don’t dare go deeper than about fifteen feet. Thanks to the belt of lead weights Tassos is wearing, in seconds he’s gone so deep we can’t even see him. He stays down a long time, several minutes on one breath, leaving us to tread water as instructed so we don’t get pulled ahead of him. Eventually a chain of bubbles rises from the murk and up comes the black figure of Tassos, with a roughly four-pound synagrida (dentex) quivering on his spear. I watch him pull a knife from his ankle holster and stab it between the eyes to put it out of its misery. Not a bad start.

By the time we’ve waited for Tassos to tuck the fish into the net he wears around his waist, we’ve been sucked almost around the point. He dives two or three more times, and we have to swim with all our might back against the current—suddenly very strong—to stay behind him. For my part, I’m swimming with one hand, since I’m trying not to shoot myself through the neck with the spear gun in my other. Before long, my heart is thumping way too hard in my chest and I can’t seem to get enough oxygen through the narrow tube of my snorkel. When I surface to catch a few breaths, I see Darrin’s fins disappearing around the last of the outcroppings. I’m tempted to follow, since I wonder if the current might subside there, but that seems unwise. Plus, I see Corey right behind me, also gasping for breath.

“Want to head back to the boat?” I shout over the crashing water.

“Definitely,” he shouts back.

This is easier said than swum. We’re on a watery treadmill: As I can tell by marking my progress—or lack thereof—along the rock wall to my right, despite crawling as hard as I can (with one arm), I’m not budging. I know that if I allow myself to succumb to fear, I’ll begin to hyperventilate. Though the urge is strong, I resist coming up for air again. It’d only take a few seconds to be pulled out to sea. Just while I’m contemplating how much longer I can manage this pace before my heart explodes, I get a wicked cramp in the arch of my left foot. Now I’m swimming with only one arm and one leg, still trying not to shoot myself with the other hand. I should probably ditch the spear gun, but doing so would deal a severe blow to my machismo, one I’m not quite desperate enough to resign myself to. At any rate, what I’m doing isn’t working, and I can see that Corey’s struggling too, so we both veer at right angles into the rock wall, even though it’s being battered by waves and is covered with spiky urchins. We find a ledge and hang on, but the accursed revma is so fierce that it threatens to sweep our feet out from under us. Still, what a relief to stick our heads above water and to gulp air for a moment! When I ask Corey how he’s doing, I see a look of dread on his face—the same look, no doubt, that has come over my own. Then something completely unforeseen happens.

Suddenly, all around us, silver arrows are flashing, colliding with our arms and hair, darting over our shoulders: Sardines have been bewildered into flight by the disruption of our lumpy bodies. This sets off a frenzied reaction from above: A gang of hungry seagulls begins dive-bombing the sardines. The gulls plunge so close that I could reach out and grab one by the neck, if I weren’t busy hanging on to the rock. It’s a giddy, surreal moment (made more so by our oxygen deprivation) that leaves us laughing aloud. I begin to wonder if this is the first in a series of marine hallucinations that will precede my death. It’s easy to feel lulled by such comic beauty, exhausted as I am, and I’m tempted to just let go, surrender to the revma. But the sardines also leave me feeling like bait: At what point are we going to be raked over the rocks by a wave and ground into grouper food? It’s time to move on.

Corey replaces his mask and shoves off back into the revma, kicking along close to the cliff, and I follow at a distance, not wanting to shoot him. The dinghy is right there, bobbing in the waves perhaps thirty yards away, but it’s impossible to make any progress toward it. We stop once more after several minutes of flailing, wedging our fingers into a seam on the cliff just long enough to fill our lungs with air. I feel my heart racing beneath my ribcage, and my limbs are throbbing with adrenaline. Reluctantly launching myself back into the current yet again, I’m prepared for a bitter struggle, but suddenly the revma disappears, and within moments my fingers are around the anchor line of the dinghy, to which Corey is already clinging. We spill ourselves over the boat’s now-sagging sides, too out of breath to speak. Corey points to my hands, which are covered in blood.

“What the hell just happened?” he asks, “and where the hell is Darrin?”

He’s gone pale, and judging from the wave of nausea coming over me, I’m also in shock. When I look down, I notice that blood is welling up from gashes on my palms, forearms, and calves: Those blessed rocks, which may have saved us from drowning, were covered in razor-sharp barnacles. We spend a moment comparing our wounds, and I remark that I’m happy for the absence of sharks in Greek waters. Now we see Darrin’s fins splashing on the other side of the outcropping— rather than return through the revma as we did, he’s been clever enough to go around, and is coming back diagonally across the sardine pool. He looks annoyingly calm, making slow but gradual progress against the current, and after about ten minutes we pull him back into the dinghy, feeling a little foolish.

“You guys look awful,” he remarks.

“And you look just fine—I take it the current wasn’t an issue for you?”

“You’re kidding, right? I just hoped you guys couldn’t see me around the point. I was hanging on to some rocks for the past ten minutes and whimpering like a baby for my mother. When I saw that you hadn’t come around the point, I tried to follow. But there’s a whirlpool on the other side. A fucking whirlpool.”

Tassos, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen. Darrin (who, we now see, is also bleeding) reports that he last saw Tassos’s fins disappear way off the edge of the last outcropping. I know better than to worry— this is Tassos’s backyard. He grew up eating revma for breakfast.

When Tassos finally does return, we see evidence of what he’s been up to: Several more synagrides and a melanouri (saddled bream) glisten on the floor of the dinghy, entwined in the writhing tentacles of a huge octopus. He pulls the dagger from his ankle holster and hands it to me, laughing at the bloody pulp of my palms.

“Show them how to kill the octopus, Christopher.”

And though my hands are still quaking, I’m able to steady them just enough to plunge the knife between the beast’s glaring eyes, then twist the point until the tentacles begin to relax. I once saw Tassos execute the same coup de grace with his teeth: While treading water, he dispatched an octopus with a single bite between the eyes.

“Well done, file,” he mutters. “But we have a problem here.” He points to the small spear gun, which I’d tossed into the dinghy without unloading it. Had I kicked the trigger, I could have sunk the boat. I’ve never felt so mortified.

“Never mind,” he says, patting me on the back. “Let me pump the boat back up and then, what, shall we go for a real swim now?”

We stop several more times on the way back to Aliki, but to our relief none of the dives yields the terrors (or bounty) of Bámbouras. Then we anchor for one final plunge back at Aliki, just off the edge of the marble quarry. Above water is an acre of what looks like Cubist sculpture, formed when huge blocks of marble were hacked away centuries earlier; below are eerie flights of encrusted marble stairs leading down to nothingness. Tassos clearly knows his way around down there, returning with a haul of urchins and fouskes, a local mollusk that looks exactly like a rock.

At long last we return to the beach, very relieved to be back on land. On the way back to the Archontissa, we gather an armful of kritama, a delicate green succulent (like a cross between seaweed and purslane) that grows between the beach stones and makes an excellent salad. My brother has been drinking beer for three hours with a table of Germans and is looking decidedly cross-eyed, but he revives enough to join us for some mezedes. Tassos shows us how to halve the urchins—with a specially designed set of pincers—and puts Darrin to work scraping the shells of their yellow roe while he gets busy prying open fouskes with a knife. Somehow he locates their seams and wedges them open: Inside are bright orange lumps of muscle that he scrapes out and hits with lemon juice. I confess to disliking fouskes, which taste like very bitter clams, but they’re supposedly excellent for one’s thyroid gland, and at this point, after my humbling near-death experience, I’m willing to submit to any remedial gestures the sea might have to offer. So I gobble them down, along with the delicious urchins. And Tassos is already at work back in the kitchen, boiling our kritama and stewing the octopus with red wine and potatoes. “This is just what you guys need to help you get your strength back,” he teases us.

Soon after, Hans arrives. Like Darrin, he’s gone completely bald since I saw him last. He gets busy punching my brother in the bicep (they are boys again) and regaling us with stories from Istanbul. We lay on many cups of tsipouro to welcome him, and many more to steady our nerves after the afternoon’s adventures.

***

While I’m sipping coffee the next morning, George Kaltsas pulls up on his motorcycle. I’ve been feeling awful since waking up at dawn, once again perplexed at my inability to rest and unsettled by the incident off Bámbouras. But my shoulders loosen when I see George. His years of battling cancer have left him uncommonly clear-sighted about his own life, which puts him in a good position to help others peer into their own. Considering his illness, I feel silly buttonholing him about the vicissitudes of my psyche and yesterday’s mere brush with death, but do so anyway.

“Maybe that’s what you needed, Christopher,” he says without so much as blinking, “to feel yourself being caught up in the sea. But you fought your way free. And look where you are today.”

Swallows are inscribing cursive in the air over the patio, and all three of Aliki’s coves are placid—“san ladi,” as the Greeks say, “like oil.” For a moment, there’s no need for words. Then George blurts out, “What Kazantzakis said was right: ‘Fear nothing, hope for nothing, and you are free.’ But you know, there’s another Greek saying: ‘Fear the sea, fire, and women.’”

I admit to being afraid.

“Fear can help us. You’ll remember the next time you’re in the water. Let’s go now—we can swim out past the marble quarry together.”

It’s hard to imagine ever wanting to swim again, though I’m certain I will. It’s already getting hot. But not yet.

“That reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson,” I tell George. It would be hopeless to try to translate it into Greek, at least in my diminished state, so I recite it in the original:

A darting fear—a pomp—a tear—
A waking on a morn
To find that what one waked for,
Inhales the different dawn.

George nods his head. “I don’t know what this word ‘pomp’ means,” he says, “but with the rest I agree. And it’s especially good to wake up here on Thassos. I will sleep here on the island tonight just so I can have that pleasure tomorrow.”

“And what about your health, George?”

“I’ve been doing chemotherapy again, since last fall. I resist it. They ask me to sit for two hours in a chair every few weeks, but I won’t take the full dose. When they aren’t looking, I pull the needle from my vein and sneak out of the office after the first hour.”
This is ominous news—clearly George’s long period of remission has come to an end.

“How are you feeling, then?” I ask him through the lump in my throat.

“I feel fine, Christopher. I have my motorcycle. I drink good wine with friends. We will swim today. Yes, this is a difficult period at the hotel—business is down forty percent. But I can’t worry about that now.”

I wait for the right words, knowing that any expression of sympathy or concern will be rebuffed; all I manage is an attempt at a hopeful grimace.

An hour later, while gathering dried clothes from the line on my balcony, I see the tiny figure of George down at the beach, with his knees pulled up to his chest. I wonder what he’s thinking, staring out across the water.

***

Stamatis, on the other hand, has returned from Kavala with a clean bill of health, and has assured me we’ll catch some barbounia today, provided he can get the boat running well enough to cruise around the nearest bay. Corey and I meet him in the late afternoon at the far cove, and the three of us tiptoe across the slippery rocks to climb aboard the Evanthoula, the blue-and-white trawler Stamatis has named after his wife.

I grew up fishing with a rod and reel—and once even with a bow and arrow—but have always been baffled by seine net fishing. I’ve spent hours in the little port of Molyvos, on Lesbos, watching fishermen repair their nets, which they pile in chaotic, impossibly tangled mountains. There are five or six such piles on Stamatis’s boat, each covered with a blanket and tarp. The deck is only about twenty feet long, much of it taken up by the engine cabin, and there are rusty buckets and hooks and poles and crooks strewn about. It’s all we can do to stay out of Stamatis’s way while he attacks the engine with a wrench and screwdriver and drags the nets into position. He’s tossed his shirt and shoes into the cabin and has donned a pair of black rubber hip waders with bright orange suspenders.

When I ask him which nets he uses for which fish, he shows us that there are two sizes: Those used to catch barbounia and other shallow-feeders have a mesh size of about one square inch, while those used for larger fish in deeper water have a mesh size roughly twice that big. Today, Stamatis explains, we’re setting the smaller-meshed nets across the entrance to the cove, the aim being to catch whatever swims in at dusk to feed. After a few tries, the stubborn motor awakens in a fit of asthmatic coughing, and we feel an unsteady rumbling beneath us—turns out we’re seated on a piece of plywood just atop the engine. Stamatis doesn’t like what he hears, and says it’s not safe to go far until the mechanic comes tomorrow. But he pulls up anchor anyway, backs expertly away from the rocks, and more or less coasts out to the edge of the marble quarry. While steering, he keeps his eyes fixed on something inside the cabin, and when I make my way back to investigate I see that in addition to numerous oil cans, cookie containers, beer bottles, pieces of radio equipment, and grimy manuals, there’s a full-color radar screen.

Stamatis watches the monitor until the boat is positioned at the right depth—about fifteen meters—then idles the engine and somehow locates the tail of one of the nets (a feat I’d have thought impossible) and ties an orange float to it. Then he fixes a heavy lead weight—called a morouni—to the bottom end and with one quick motion tosses both float and weight overboard. The float bobs on the surface while the weight anchors the bottom and causes some drag on the net Stamatis is about to unfurl. He props what looks like a long broom handle horizontally across the stern, and over this he guides the net out in one steady, untangled stream. He looks almost like a circus clown, with his baggy trousers and improbable posture, leaning at a forty-five degree angle to the water and using an outstretched bare foot to maneuver the rudder while his hands feed out the net in a blur.

To our astonishment, the net keeps on unwinding into the wake behind us—Stamatis says he plans to set out six hundred meters this evening. Heavy red rings, interspersed every two feet or so, sink one edge to the sea floor while the top edge gets pulled taut by our forward motion. Stamatis steers in a kind of zigzag pattern across the bay, and by the time the last few meters of the net are in position, I see it’s almost impossible for anything to enter Aliki’s shallowest cove without falling into his trap. With the pile of net considerably diminished, Stamatis ties another float to the tail, tosses it out, and then stops to rest, reaching into a small refrigerator to offer us bottles of Mythos beer—Kouzis hospitality is irrepressible, even on the Evanthoula. We drift there a moment or two, the water so still that we can hear music from one of the shorefront tavernas and the joyful shrieks of a nearly invisible toddler playing on the beach.

“Gyrisoume stis ennia,” Stamatis says when we’ve returned to shore and tied the boat up: We’ll return at nine o’clock, to haul in the nets and see what we’ve caught for dinner.

***

Aaron, Darrin, Hans, and George are waiting for us back at the cove beneath the pension, sitting in a line along the beach, chatting loudly and throwing stones into the waves.

“This is life,” George remarks when we sit down to join them, and I know he means “This is the life,” but his version seems rather more apt, considering.

“The Turks,” Hans chimes in, “have a saying: ‘All a man needs to live is a horse, a gun, and a woman.’”

“That seems very Turkish,” George replies, “because you know how important the horse is on the plains of Anatolia.”

“Well, I think they love their guns even more,” Hans says.

“As for the Greeks, Hans, all we need to live is some barbounia, a salad, some wine, and a woman.”

“Much more civilized!” my brother exclaims, tossing a big rock that hits the water with a satisfying thud.

“You know,” George continues, “Hannibal of Carthage said something like this too. After all his wars and fame, when he retired from military service, he concluded that the key to happiness was having a small house in the country, a dog, and some basil.”

“And what about my American friends?” Hans barks at us, a cigarette dangling from his lips. “What would your saying be? ‘All an American needs to live is a gun, and a gun, and a gun?’”

I wish I could parry his astute joke with some Emersonian dictum about self-reliance, but all I think to utter is an American cliché: “Good fences make good neighbors, Hans. Didn’t you notice that yesterday when you were crossing the border?”

“Yes, just as I said,” Hans retorts with a sinister grin, “and to employ my favorite Turkish insult: Kültürsüzsünüz. Which translates, Christopher, as ‘You have no culture.’”

“So, gentlemen of the United Nations,” George announces, rising to his feet, “the question is, which country has the fastest swimmers?”

In they plunge, leaving Corey and me behind, neither of us quite ready for swimming. The four of them take turns climbing a large rock protruding from the water and doing cannonballs and inelegant swan dives off its highest point.

I finally swim out to join them, taking my time to look along the bottom for octopus dens, rehearsing my love for Greek water, remembering the calm I find there, putting aside the slight fear—more thrill than trepidation—that comes from feeling like a tiny fish wheeling atop fathoms. I too leap from the rock a few times, belting out my best Tarzan yodel. When we tire of jumping, yipping, and hooting like idiots, George suggests we swim to the marble quarry.

So we splash our way toward the horizon, stopping once to pull ourselves up on a shallow marble shelf where we can bob in the waves for a moment and admire the sky, now bruised violet and orange. At rest, at last.

***

Right at nine, Stamatis rouses us from our beer-drinking on the patio and asks us to join him at the boat. “Bring my father some good luck, eh?” Tassos shouts at us over his shoulder.

We make our way out along the rocks, many of them now completely submerged in the tide. Rather than engine noise, however, we hear Stamatis swearing from inside the cabin of the Evanthoula. He tries repeatedly to get the motor started, but all it produces is an irritable whine, punctuated with bursts of grating metal. “The starter’s shot,” he explains when I climb aboard. Never one for words, Stamatis removes his cap and wipes his brow, glancing out at the mouth of the bay where the nets are waiting.

“Avrio to proi,” he says finally. “Tomorrow morning.”

“Alla ta psaria?” I ask. “But the fish?”

He says that they’ll be lost, eaten by bigger fish overnight. But just when we’re about to give up and head back home, another fisherman pulls alongside the Evanthoula and offers Stamatis his rowboat. He hesitates for a moment before deciding it would be unwise to pull the nets in by hand, which evidently he could do, albeit with great effort. (Normally hydraulic spinnerets would lift the wet, heavy nets for him.)

“At night, you need a light to pull in the nets,” he says to me in Greek, “because if you snag a scorpion fish and don’t see it in time—po, po, po.” He holds up his hand and pokes it several times to suggest the wounds a scorpion fish would inflict. “I’ll take his rowboat out at six in the morning. You can come and watch me pull in the nets.”

***

I set my alarm, but by the time I’ve tossed on a sweatshirt and bounded down to the patio, Stamatis has already gone out. Tassos is up too, though his eyes are barely open and he’s in serious need of a shave. “Sit and have a coffee,” he commands, but I’m eager to learn the fate of our catch. Plus, this morning the muddled feeling in my brain has finally disappeared and my head is empty of everything but light. I would levitate if it wasn’t for the canopy of grapevines overhead.

When I meet up with Stamatis on board the Evanthoula, he reports that he was followed in the rowboat by two dolphins. I’d have been thrilled to see them, though Stamatis makes it clear that dolphins and fishermen are not friends, since they’re after the same fish. For the past hour, he’s dragged in his nets hand over fist from the awkward platform of his friend’s rowboat, then transferred them to the deck of his own boat, where they now lie in heaps. Except for the low gurgling of waves and the buzzing of the bees that swarm the catch, it’s exceptionally quiet.

For the next hour and a half, I perch on the deck and watch Stamatis untangle his nets. He smiles, but doesn’t mumble more than a word or two now and then, and I’m content to do the same. There are many fish in the nets, but almost all of them have been decapitated or partially devoured: Octopuses and other predators (large enough to avoid being snagged in the net’s fine mesh) molested the catch overnight. Again, Stamatis has set the broomstick horizontally across the deck, and he uses it to guide one end of the net into a new pile behind him. Next to his bare feet, he positions two plastic buckets into which he tosses anything worth keeping. He throws perhaps thirty fish overboard—including the wreckage of a dozen beautiful barbounia—for every one he keeps, and this makes him very popular with the gulls, which line up along the ledge next to the boat and wrangle over whatever he discards.

Sorting the catch is gingerly work. Most of Stamatis’s time is spent dealing with stones: Moving with the revma along the sea floor, the nets pick up many sharp, grenade-sized volcanic nuggets, each of which takes a minute or two to pull free. And the fish pose their own challenges. The very thing that makes gill nets so effective— the fact that they trap fish in their mesh—also makes them labor-intensive, since the victims must be extricated one by one. Stamatis gently pulls the net wide in a circular pattern around each fish until he can see where it’s been snagged; if he pulls too hard, he’ll wind up with knots. Then he grips the fish and wiggles it until the gills and fins come free. This is an especially delicate operation when it comes to scorpion fish, which must be handled very carefully to avoid their venomous fins. Even the gulls seem to hesitate when they’re tossed upon the rocks, but the larger ones are either immune to the venom or too hungry to care. I fantasize about turning a pail of these little nasties into a bouillabaisse, but Stamatis considers them too small to bother with.

There’s one immature gull (it’s been living on the beach for the past few months, Stamatis tells me) who tries to join the fun. It makes a plaintive whistling sound completely unlike the assertive caw of the adult gulls. Stamatis tries several times to toss a small fish in its direction, but the adults won’t let it near their breakfast. One of the larger gulls wedges its head beneath the small bird’s breast and flips it over in one swift motion, leaving the young upstart to beat a quick retreat.

It’s all very fascinating and smelly. A large squid is still moving a little in the net, changing colors now and then in the sunlight while its purple tentacles are nibbled by bees. I’ve been stung by such bees many times here at Aliki, but Stamatis ignores them completely, even those working furiously to extricate a knob of fish flesh wedged between his toes.

Two fishermen board a small craft docked nearby and prepare to head out to sea. On their way past us, they cut the motor and shout gruff greetings: “Stamatis,” one exclaims, “don’t catch all the fish, leave some for us!”

“Exakosia metra dichtia, den eixa tipota,” he murmurs back without ever looking up. “Six hundred meters of net, and nothing in them.” When Stamatis finishes with the last of the nets, there’s not enough in the bucket to justify his four hours of labor. A few sargós (bream) have survived intact, as well as a lobster, a spooky flying fish (edible, I’m told), a cuttlefish, and that bee-licked squid. Having seen Stamatis return to the restaurant with many wheelbarrows of fish, I recognize this as part of the regular ebb and flow of his difficult occupation, but I can’t help feeling obscurely responsible for his bad luck. And since we’re leaving tomorrow, this also means no barbounia for our last supper on Thassos.

“Tou hronou,” Stamatis mutters with a smile. “Next year.” It’s a phrase I hear too often when I’m on Thassos, and today it nearly breaks me in two, invoking as it does my imminent departure, reminding me that home is somewhere else. The barbounia will stay put. I won’t.

***

After dinner, Tassos and Elpida disappear, then reappear an hour later dressed to impress: Tassos doing his best with a clean shirt and a shower, Elpida doing quite a bit better with a low-cut black dress, makeup, and her hair pulled back elegantly. They are going to Potos, a half hour down coast, where there are a few fancy cafés in which one can see and be seen. But they agree to stay and have a few drinks with us first.

Soon there are many bottles of wine open, many carafes of tsipouro moving toward empty, and everyone is smoking cigarettes and dancing. Tassos has put the music up loud: traditional songs revamped by Eleftheria Arvanitaki, whose dusky, sexy voice is unmistakable. Hans wastes no time showing off his Turkish dancing, clapping maniacally and tossing his bald head back and forth. Aaron has removed his shirt, at the insistence of a giggly Elpida, and is doing some combination of Elvis and the caveman boogie. Darrin does a cheerful white-boy disco, no matter what the beat. Corey has already gone to bed, exhausted, and I’m relieved for him—he’s generally appalled by dancing, and I can only imagine his horror at these crimes against Terpsichore.

What we’re all chasing is kefi, which is something like merriment or high spirits. Kefi refers to that moment when the party turns ecstatic, when individual feelings are subsumed into the group’s euphoria. You know it’s kicked in when someone is spontaneously moved to dance a zembekiko, an improvised solo that is as much flying as dancing. If you don’t feel it, you don’t dance—in this way, it’s like speaking in tongues. George Kaltsas is the first to step forward tonight, and we drop to our knees in a circle around him, clapping syncopation and cheering him on. He’s wearing clunky motorcycle boots, but when he closes his eyes and the singer’s voice soars, they barely touch the floor. Then he pulls me into the center of the circle, and I’ve got enough tsipouro in me to set aside my American reserve and self-consciousness and shake myself loose through dance.

Greek men have no such inhibitions. For Greeks, there is nothing more macho than a zembekiko, which captures all the hardness and agony of a man’s life while also expressing its folly and unexpected joy. Tassos demonstrates this soon enough when I yield to him, high-kicking his feet within an inch of Darrin’s nose and smashing a shot glass on the floor with his open palm.

Greek women, similarly, keep their inner diva at the ready. Soon enough, Elpida takes over. She is not a small woman, but with a quick lift of her skirts and a leap she’s suddenly up on the table, stretching her arms to the rafters and jiggling her generosities every which way. We must hurry to remove the bottles and glassware so she can dance, and then we gather at her feet like rowdy disciples. She eats it up, belly-dancing her way through the next two songs, enraptured.

At some point, Stamatis comes down in his underwear to report that the neighbors have called, asking us to turn the music down; our kefi is resounding off the temple ruins and marble quarry and can be heard a mile away. So we dim our collective flame a little, and when the others step to the edge of the balcony to cool off, I take Tassos aside to tell him privately about George’s return to chemotherapy. He blanches for a moment and is silent, then drags George over to where we’re sitting, embarrassing him by telling him that he knows the bad news.

“You must prepare yourself for autumn, Yiorgo,” Tassos insists, bunching up a portion of George’s shirt in his fist and bringing his face up close, “because Christopher is coming back and we are making big plans.”

Even I don’t know about these plans yet. I’ve only told Tassos that I’m hoping to return to Greece for the grape harvest.

“I’ve never climbed Mount Olympus. Have you?” Tassos says to George.

George says he hasn’t.

“So here’s what we must do: I’ll pick you up in my truck and we’ll get Christopher at the airport in Thessaloniki. He can lead us up the mountain to visit Zeus. And we’ll write our names in the little book at Mytikas so no one will forget that we were here on earth. Then we’ll climb back down and buy two tons of grapes from a friend of mine who has vineyards in Strymonas. And we’ll come back to Thassos and make wine together and go fishing.”

“OK, filoi mou, then let’s,” George answers after a short pause, smiling. I see that his teeth are stained with the red wine he’s been guzzling.

Tassos’s eyes are watering a little and I know I’m also on the verge of too much feeling, but George claps us both hard on the back and raises his glass: “To the autumn, then, and to sharing more wine, my friends.”

“And to the future,” Tassos says.

“And to barbounia,” I add.

“And to barbounia,” they answer.

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Masthead

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