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Feeding the Muse in Athens, Greece
Is it proper to eat tzatziki with a spoon? Athens raises some unanswered questions.
Is it proper to eat tzatziki with a spoon? Athens raises some unanswered questions.
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What does one say about a city that vibrates in your soul? About the smells and tastes and people born under the bluest of skies that you can imagine? About the interactions that shift your soul the smallest amount and yet leave you profoundly changed?
From the balcony of my apartment I can look across to the Parthenon presiding proudly above the city, left down the street to the Parliament and famous square of so many protests, and below into a river of tourists flowing down the street as they shop, eat, and live. Athenians stand in doorways and outside of cafes, doing business, making deals on cell phones, haggling with shoppers, and then moving through the crowds as only locals can. I am jet lagged from my trip and should really take a nap, but I can’t. I am too excited. I want to get out and explore. I want to taste tzatziki like I have never tasted before. I want to see and touch old things that ground me to the past. I want to taste the tomatoes.
We head out and down the street to hit a Byzantine church, the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The street around it has been built up so much that it sits within a three foot deep well. Cream color with terra cotta roof tiles, it stands in stark contrast to the surrounding buildings, but that’s the way of Athens; the history of the city populates the city itself, appearing in every nook and down every street.
The church has very specific hours and so we’ll need to return, but I’m not dismayed. We grab an espresso at the cafe on the corner and stand outside admiring the structure. This is the expensive shopping street in Athens and tourists from the world are browsing, shopping, buying. The juxtaposition of the church and the H&M store seems totally in place.
Here in Athens it’s only 2:00PM but my body is on its own clock and I’m already looking for dinner. On the map we’re moving towards the Athenian Agora but my stomach is moving towards lunch. We turn down a street lined with tavernas. I am not upset. At the end we settle on a place beneath the trees at the edge of a plaza. I glance up and recognize the name. Of course we just happen to stumble upon one of Athen’s famous slouvaki places. Bairaktaris, here since 1879, with the attitude to match. Yes, it’s a bit touristy, and yes they can be a bit rude, especially if you just expect things and act like you are in Epcot Center at Disney instead of a place that has existed that long in an actual city, and has survived.
In ancient Greece, cutting down an olive tree was punishable by death. — Good Eats, Alton Brown
I, for the record, found them charming. And occasionally you need to have a beer and a bite in the old tourist places. There are tourist places, and then there are TOURIST places. The ones that have been around a while are still there for a reason.
We sit outside, under the awning, but can look into the now empty restaurant. In the window are rotating spits of meat and a small counter to get an order to go if you wished. It’s hot, and the staff are on their break between the lunch rush and dinner, sitting and sipping coffee as the rest of Athens passes by. Old pictures and posters hang on the walls and it is here that I get my first introduction of what Greek slouvaki is all about. I expected a lot of lamb. Instead I found mostly beef, chicken, and pork. I did not expect the pork and now I am really intrigued.
The olives, greek salad, and bread came first, with the tzatziki. Oh, the tzatziki. I need to pause a moment to collect myself. It’s such a simple thing, really, but like all simple things, if done correctly they can be transcendent. The tzatziki was so good it made me buy the bread. In Greece, bread with your meal is not free. It comes wrapped in plastic and is not very good. You don’t eat it. If you unwrap it, you have bought it. So you don’t unwrap it. But I didn’t care. I tore the plastic off of the bread and spread on more than a polite amount of the tzatziki. Rich, creamy, herbaceous, and refreshing it was full of cucumber with a touch of acidity. It was unlike any I had ever had back home and I cursed every Greek restaurant and diner who had lost the old ways. I stopped making a fool of myself, eating the condiment like a side dish, and helped with the salad. The tomatoes were red, sweet, and juicy, and unlike the tasteless mass-produced tomatoes here in the States, they tasted like the tomatoes of my childhood. This was my first meal in Greece and already I knew it would remain in my memory forever. Then came the mixed grill and I knew that Athens and I would be long friends.
Satiated from our first meal in Athens, we headed out into the sun across the plaza and past the train station towards the Athenian Agora. The street, narrow and crowded with stores selling everything from beads to athletic shoes, is filled with tourists and locals, searching for the best deal.
Monastiraki is bustling and vibrant and as you walk past the shops you overhear the negotiations between buyer and seller. Turning left down the street that leads to the Agora you are struck by the burst of color from the graffiti. There are few bare walls in the city. Any open wall or security gate is fair game for the street artist. The graffiti is raw and visceral and adds to, rather than subtracts from, the image of the city.
If cats rule the city of Athens then both the Athenian and Roman Agoras are their home base. They welcome you to their city with nonchalant looks and pure indifference. As you walk though the ruins they appear and disappear in the most unexpected places, mostly in the shade, and as evening falls you hear them calling the clowder together for the night. I wonder, as I watch them, which are feral and which go home at night to their human families and what each type thinks of the other.
We pass people on the street trying to navigate the streets to the next sight. Fodor’s guidebook, or some other brand, opened to the map. Cross checking the description with what they see around them. Following the list. Checking things off like it’s some sort of scavenger hunt. There is a flaw in this strategy, however, in that you usually see more of the book than you do of the city. You keep your nose down, looking up every now and again to find the proper landmarks on your way to the main event, and you miss the tiny, important things that make a place a place. And that’s fine on day one and day two, but then you need to find the thing that translates the city for you and go there.
We approached Athens from the north in early twilight, climbing a hill. When we reached its peak, we were dazzled to look down and see the Acropolis struck by one beam of the setting sun, as if posing for a picture. — Donald Hall
For me, that is always the main food market. In the United States, these are rare, but in the rest of the world every city has a market that has usually been there for hundreds of years. In another life, I would’ve been a chef. I love the transformative nature of cooking and the bounty of fresh food. Markets sing to me. The vibrancy of the wares. The energy of those shopping, those selling, the sights and smells all connect me directly to the people of a city.
Athen’s market is no different. Not a lot of tourists find their way here. This is a place for locals and I am a bit of an interloper. The fishmongers, butchers, and produce people are nice, but they know that, if lucky, I’ll buy some olives or pistachios. There’s not a big tourist trade for the amazing array of seafood I am standing in front of. And yet, they still smile and engage in a bit of conversation about the different catches they have on display. We are on our way out of town this afternoon and I regret not coming the day before so that I could have bought the ingredients for a perfect Greek meal on the balcony looking out at the Acropolis.
I shake the thought and we head to the outer stalls in search of olives. Each vendor has bins or buckets of their different varieties, seasoning blends, and olive blends and each will offer you samples, enticing you to buy. They are unlike anything I have tasted. Briny, rich, and sumptuous, each becomes my new favorite, until I hit the king of olives, the kalamata. Dark and meaty, I quickly purchase a pound to have vacuum sealed to take back home. As the bag is being sealed, I seriously wonder if I can keep from opening them during the rest of the trip. I can imagine nothing better than a dinner of some bread, olives, tomato, feta, and a deep, rich, red wine while overlooking the Mediterranean. I put the pouch in my bag, not quite sure of its fate.
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We leave the market area to look for a place to grab lunch. Here the walls have posters about upcoming Communist rallies layered on top of the graffiti. The city is that of a people who have witnessed glory and struggle. And everything in between. There is an attitude of the people that they have seen it all before and they will see it all again. Maybe they will. There is roughness around the edges. Protests that grow from deep in the Greek psyche that displays itself mostly in the form of graffiti and street art and also in the occasional demonstration. If anyone has the right to protest it should be the people who actually invented Democracy in the place where it was created. But mostly there is a joy. A spirit of life. An awareness of what is truly important in the world. And it is intoxicating.
To walk down a street, even a tourist one, connects you to the place. More so if you go off the beaten path into the parts of the city that most of the tourists never visit. There is the kinetic energy that flows through every city where people are living their lives without much regard to you. Inside the area where most of the tourists go, Athens is a bit sanitized; outside, the city shows it’s true personality and it is here that I found the thing that will bring me back to Athens again and again — the gyro.
Every city has some form of food that you can eat as you walk. Cities are busy places, and more times that not you need to grab something on the move. New York is fortunate enough to have two, pizza and the street cart hot dog. Rome has the square of pizza and the porchetta sandwich. And Athens has the gyro. It is spectacular. Simple. Inexpensive. And one of the best things I have ever ate in my life. Sure, I’ve had gyros before, but not in Greece. In fact, what I thought of gyros was so far off the mark that I’m surprised the Greek government doesn’t file a formal complaint with the United States Government. In the States, a gyro is a flat bread or pita wrapped around beef, lamb, or some form of pressed meat that tries to be a combination of both, tomato, onion, and tzatziki. In New York from a street cart, it’s not even tzatziki, but some generic white sauce. It’s good. But it’s not a gyro.
In Greece the pita is soft and billowy. Toasted a bit for some color. The usual meat is pork as lamb is something saved for meals with the family, although you can get one with lamb if you wish. But it is the pork, oh, the glorious, crispy, unctuous, pork that you came for. Roasted on a rotating vertical spit — gyro actually means to turn — until the outside is a dark caramel and glistening, it is then shaved into the pita. The tomatoes and onions of the added salad are fresh and vibrant, and the tzatziki can be eaten out of a bowl with a spoon. And just when you think it is done, the sandwich is topped with a few french fries for good measure. And this ticket to tastebud paradise costs only a few Euros. We take our gyros to the standing tables outside and question how it came to be that this is not the gyro that has populated the States.
Finished, we take the remainder of our cola and walk towards the neighborhood of our apartment, passing hardware stores, and repair shops before coming across a pastry shop. The varieties of greek deserts on display are too tempting to resist so we each buy a different one to share on the remainder of our walk. Sweet, sticky, crispy, and nutty, it too is added to the list of reasons to one day return.
After slowly walking back through the old part of the city and having one last drink looking up at the Acropolis, we pick up our rental car and drive to the highest point in Athens to overlook the city and say farewell.
Originally published at http://www.feedthemuse.press on June 20, 2020.