'Dining in Santorini' by Patrick Treacy
Santorini is an island in the southern Aegean Sea, about 200 km (120 mi) southeast from Greece's mainland. It is the largest island of a small, circular archipelago which bears the same name and is the remnant of a volcanic caldera.
Trine, my girlfriend is probably married in some northern town in Denmark, but she alone could help us to find the way to that little restaurant. You know, it’s only seems like yesterday that we both stepped through that open door into the courtyard of these memories. And all been said, the village of Akrotiri is remote, probably the capital village of that part of Greece that no package tourist ever sees, or would wish ever to return if they had savoured the service in that little taverna. The building, I remember consisted of a string of old buildings opening onto the courtyard, not very romantic and a far cry from the philoloyika kafeneia (literary cafes) of Syntagma Square, where writers and actors were wont to gather in the evenings and sip some ouzos. I remember the green creepers on the flaking white walls and how I felt awkward about having farm animals wandering in the courtyard, but we were hungry then and not inclined to ask questions. There was a long wooden table placed under a pomegranate tree at which a half a dozen locals were eating from platters laden with magaritsa, mousakka and salad. The sweet smell of cooking filled the night air and to our hungry eyes the meal was a banquet. A squeaking metal fan with three and a half blades provided the only background sound but we were tired from searching the smaller streets for food and not seeking more traditional melodies. I remember how the locals stopped eating when we arrived and watched us in silence as we took off our backpacks and waited by the doorway.
An old woman, dressed in black, politely shooed away the animals away but left us standing where we were, seemingly unwilling to give us a table. We nodded across at her, even smiled politely, but she just muttered some words under her breath and then rudely walked away. I had never been left unattended in a restaurant on the island before and I was surprised how unsettling and undignified the feeling was. We were hungry and despite our best efforts, our eyes wandered into hunter mode and occasionally were wont to settle on the table with the food. When we stared too long, the other customers looked resentful and they also turned away. From time to time, I even felt these sons of Socrates even giggled amongst themselves, until eventually an old man with an upturned moustache threw his hands in the air and said, "Ti na kanoume!". (What can we do!). After about twenty more minutes we became impatient, and felt obliged to take it upon ourselves to sit with the others at the table and order a bottle of wine. The old woman came back, moving with those sort of shuffling steps that would instantly deny her promotion anywhere else. For a long time, she stood in silence, studying us with those kind of unswerving eyes that can look deep inside your soul, but she still made no effort to provide us with a meal.
"Retsina!" I declared, getting rather annoyed with the lack of service and striking the wooden table in defiance. An instant hush descended on the gathering and many mouths opened in anticipation of what was going to happen next.
"And Magaritsa!" I continued.
I glanced at Trine, all the time wondering why the old woman was so unwilling to serve us. The hush in the courtyard reigned supreme until a small man in a neatly pressed white shirt got up from his chair and spoke to the old woman. He talked gently, all the time retaining eye contact with her, as if he was eager to see her response. The old woman slowly smiled, cackled something aloud about foreigners and then went back inside to the kitchen. She returned a few moments later with a bottle of retsina and a large platter of food. A young girl appeared with a large jug of water and glasses and placed them on the table. There was something likeable about the old gentleman and I thanked him for his help. I also smiled at the other customers, hoping they would forgive my previous rudeness towards the old woman. The old man was eager to know if we came from Australia and the other guests wished us Kali orexi, the Greek words for ‘enjoy your meal’.
The young girl brought us more food and our feasting continued until there wasn’t an empty plate left on the table. She then went upstairs and returned with a small candle, which she lit and placed on our table. I watched its flickering flame and noticed how its golden glow fell upon the edges of Trine's face, its light raised our spirits, giving us a hormonal thirst for more retsina. I'm sure the fact that we were in love, enchanted with the turn of events and had all the time in the world also played a role. We inquired of the old gentleman during a gap in his conversation if he would get the owner to fetch us another bottle. The old woman reappeared, small beads of sweat gathering on her forehead and she put another bottle of retsina on the table. As the night progressed, she increasingly had the look of a tired barman who was anxious to please but was exhausted by the experience of carrying wine to tourists.
Soon it was past midnight and time for us to make our way back to our hostel in the village of Thera. A thousand stars glinted in the night sky as I reached for my credit card and went over to the half-open kitchen door to pay for our meal. In the glimmer of the moon the old woman took my credit card and studied it under its light. She examined it for a long while, her eyes wide open and I could see from her response that she was unsure of what to do next. I waited quietly, as she went back along the courtyard and gave it to the guests at the table. In the dusky light, they passed it around from person to person, before it eventually ended up with a younger man whom I had not noticed before. A sudden smile split his face in two and he started laughing heartily, before he turned to me and said.
"Mister Treacy, theese is not a restaurant, you have being eating and drinking with my family in our private house"