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Antissa and Gavatha

(from In Search of Sardeles Pastes)

Gavatha, Lesvos, Greece Gavatha is a tiny fishing port at the end of a lush plain between several mountains. There is nowhere to stay in the village itself and Mary is beginning to lose her composure. We send her into the Paradise Hotel to get information and she comes out in a frustrated panic because there is only one available room which means she will have to "share her space" with us. This idea horrifies her. It puzzles me because Andrea and I have been on our best behavior. We haven't had one argument or extended period of bickering. Mary is just having trouble dealing with the normal setbacks and tribulations of Greek island group travel. As far as I'm concerned once we rented the car, everything was fine. I don't care where we stay. I'd just as soon drive twenty-four hours a day, taking little catnaps when I can. But Mary, with our first failed attempt at finding a room has given in to despair. We try several other places but none are suitable. While the girls are ready to move on to Sigri, forty-five minutes away, I want to check the other side of the valley where all the farms are. We drive through the winding dirt roads and find two remote tavernas right next to each other. At the first one a young man who's name is Kosta, directs us to a shack, at the end of a paved over riverbed that is serving as a road in the dry season. It is owned by an old man named Apostolis who has given up on his attempt to run a beach side ouzerie because there are no customers. He has two rooms next to his house. He charges five thousand dracs for the pair and we take them.

The rooms are in a cinder block shack in the middle of his garden. I can see and hear the sea from the small front porch. There is a river nearby, or what is probably a river in the rainy season. In the summer it is several small pools full of frogs and if our landlord is telling us the truth, eels, which people come to catch and eat.
     "The frogs", he says, "keep the mosquito population down." This may be true. I haven't been bitten yet. Apostoli wants to sell the ouzerie for about twenty-five thousand dollars. His kids hate it here and are angry that he opened the place. They never visit. He gives me the lowdown and the grand tour of the property hoping I'll buy it. Maybe we'll get it for Andrea's mom.
    The best thing about this place they call Campo, which means valley, is the taverna where we got directions. We go there to have an ouzo and to wait for a call from Pamela in New York. We end up staying there all night eating these incredible fresh sardines that are grilled, then served with lemon and oil. As we eat, the restaurant begins to fill up with Greek Americans and Canadians who are back for the summer. I speak with three teenage girls from Toronto and Vancouver who are on their way to the village of Antissa, fifteen kilometers away, where there are two bars. For the young people that is the extent of the night life in the area. I'm surprised there is any nightlife at all for them. The tavernas here were a surprise to me and the fact that this one was so good is a gift from God. I feel like we have stumbled upon another wonderful place and with the flexibility the car gives us I'll be happy to stay here if not indefinitely, at least another night.

Campo Antissa (from In Search of Sardeles Pastes)

Campo Antissa, Lesvos, Greece The girls are going to Ann's for lunch. I forsee an afternoon of chatting about the tiles in Pam's bathroom and the dreaded ceramic icons with the cracking paint so I let them know that I plan to venture out alone. Andrea wants to come but there is no way that Pam can bring Amarandi back on her motorbike unless she is sandwiched in between them. I say good-bye in the lower platia of Vatousa and jump into the car. For the next few hours I am free.

With half a tank of gas and a pocket full of drachma there's nowhere I can't go with the exception of Eressos or Sigri since that is where Andrea wanted to go. But I head in that direction anyway and turn off the road at the Monastery of the Perivoli, which is a fancy word for garden. I drive down the mountain to a fertile little valley and pull into a big yard outside the walls of the monastery. There is an old man sitting at the gate and he shows me around. He's the caretaker. There are no monks there anymore but I can't understand why. The place is heaven on earth with a small chapel and the monks former home enclosed by a big wall. Also within the wall is a beautiful garden that has been kept up. The old man gives me the grande tour of the church which is painted from top to bottom with murals that are now faded and difficult to see. He carefully points out each scene and explains the significance of which I understand about half of. I'm more interested in him. Is this his job? Can I take his place when he retires? There is a big panagiri on November twenty-first when the church and the yard outside it's walls fill with people. As I am leaving I wonder if it's customary to tip in this situation. I don't want to take the chance of insulting him by asking but I leave two hundred drachs on the bench where he had been sitting when I drove up. If he doesn't realize it's from me maybe he will think it's from God.
     There is a dirt road that runs parallel to the beach in the fertile valley of Campo Antissa. Where it connects with the paved riverbed that serves as the road to the beach are two small tavernas, both shaded by grape vines and fruit and nut trees. It was last summer that we came to this quiet place and ate the best grilled sardines of our lives. As we ate, the restaurant gradually filled up with Greek/Americans who were returning to their village for the summer, though it's not really a village, but a collection of small farms. Now in mid September they have all gone home. In the restaurant across the street the only customer is the man who delivers the Tsekeli Brand ouzo while I am the lone customer here. This could be the quietest spot on earth. But it's not. Because of the elections, televisions in both restaurants are on full blast as candidates try to get their points across to an audience they can't see. Occasionally I hear the tweet of a bird, in the  short silence between one important point and the next. The commercials are full of patriotic music and slogans about the future and destiny of a country that wants desperately to be a part of Europe but is probably better off as the leader of a united Balkans.

I ask the woman who is glued to her television if she has sardines. She nods her head which unfortunately in Greece means no. She does have salpa and tomato salad and rather then insult her by leaving I order one, not knowing if it's the size of an anchovy or a marlin. It sounds like there is more action across they way and I momentarily regret my weakness and wish I had gone there instead, especially because she acts as if I have interrupted her while doing something important, but by the time the fish comes she is friendly and all smiles. Plus the fish is delicious and the perfect meal for me and her cat. I ask if she remembers me and she says she does but I can tell she thinks I am someone else when she asks me how things are at the gas station. At least she thinks I am Greek which is a compliment to my ability to order food. I finish my fish and I am happy. Satisfied with my meal and feeling that by eating here I have done some kind of research since we were planning on coming back here tonight for a dinner of grilled sardines and now I know they don't have any.
     I hear thunder approaching and get up to pay. I'm a little apprehensive about the cost of the fish but she only charges me a thousand drachs for the entire meal, less then four dollars. I thank her and get her phone number so we can call and ask if they have sardines. Her son Kosta, remembers me from last year, especially when I tell him that he had made the best grilled sardines not only on the island, but in the whole world. "Ahh.., now I remember you," he laughs, remembering our sardine orgy of last summer. "Call us", he says. "For sure we will have some this week."
     It's music to my ears.
     With the first few drops of rain falling I drive down the paved ravine to the beach. I don't want to stay long because in an hour the road could be a river as the water pours down the mountains and empties into this channel to the sea. I stop by the shack of the old man who rented rooms to us last year. He's trying to sell some land around it along with the building itself which he has been running unsuccessfully as a beach ouzerie-cafeneon. To me it looks like paradise and I wonder if he's raised his price since last year. I envision a tiny music-cafeneon, serving wine, beer, ouzo and snacks cooked by my mother and mother-in-law, while every night I entertain the customers, singing my songs while occasionally bringing in a special guest star. I imagine this really hip folk club in the most remote beach on the island, where sea meets swamp, music echoing through the reeds and across the sea to the coast of Turkey. A few posters scattered around and it could be the hottest spot in Lesvos. And there's plenty of free parking.
I walk down to the beach where the drops are beginning to show on the water and the coast of Turkey is fading into the mist. I can't really tell which way the clouds are moving but it looks like it must be raining like hell in Vatousa. I wonder how the girls will get back to Xidera. There is a fisherman's net stretching out from the beach in a zig-zag pattern about fifty meters off shore. I walk over to the pond that has formed where the riverbed ends and the beach begins. As I walk along the shore hundreds of tiny frogs jump into the water. I assume they are frogs. I never actually see anything except the continuous little splashes as I pass. A fisherman drives up in a pick-up truck and drags his rowboat further from the water and then to make sure, ties it to a pole. He's expecting heavy weather and he's right. In a few minutes it is pouring rain and I'm learning how to work the windshield wipers of the Puegeot. It's not long before I have mastered them and am happily driving to the sea-side village of Gavatha. The pavement ends abruptly and the entrance to the village is a sea of mud, but the harbor is very scenic and the fishing boats look lovely in the rain. I watch them for awhile but I can't get the thought of Amarandi, Andrea and Pam driving home through the downpour on her little papaki motorbike, out of my head. The battle between inner peace and guilt is over quickly and I drive the now hazardous mountain road  to Vatousa where I search in vain for Anna's house. By the time I get back to the car I am as wet as they would be on the motorbike. I drive back to Xidera and spend half an hour looking for a clever place to park the car. I end up in the exact same spot I had so much trouble getting out of the first day. At least now I have experience.
     The girls arrive at the house five minutes after me, all soaking wet except Amarandi in her lime green waterproof wind breaker. The rain continues to fall until the late afternoon when the sky clears and a rainbow appears. It's Amarandi's first.

Liota(from In Search of Sardeles Pastes)

    We turn on to the dirt road that leads to Liotta. We drive through the village and run smack into a herd of sheep who panic and turn down the wrong road. The woman shepherdess has to run after them and bring them back. She looks annoyed. We continue but come to a dead end. We backtrack and take another branch in the road but this one leads up a mountain and gets so bad that I make Andrea and Pam get out of the car so I can back down the mountain without tearing off the muffler. We change our plans and stop in the platia of the village. There is a spring in the square with sweet water pouring out. I go to look at the church. It's ancient and full of old icons. The girls make their crosses and kiss their favorite images while I sit on the hill behind the church that has a view of the entire valley. I am amazed at how green it is. I feel like I am in the Smokey Mountains. The view of Gavatha, the sea and the valley beneath us is breathtaking. Most of the houses are in ruins, waiting for foreigners to snatch them up and restore so they can live in this quiet little village for two weeks every summer.
    When we go back to the platia we meet a woman who lives in the village who tells us the history of the church and the holy spring. In the tenth century the daughter of a king in Anatolia developed leprosy. Her father sent her away in a boat and she came here. When she walked to this spot she saw some pigs that even though they were rolling in the mud from the spring, they didn't get dirty. She thought that perhaps this was a magical spring so she too rolled in the mud. She was instantly cured and built this church. It was over a thousand years old.
    As amazing is the platanos tree that shades the platia. It's base was the size of a giant California Redwood. The woman tells us that according to the records from Molyvos, the tree is also a thousand years old.
     The woman invites us to her house for coffee but I elect to stay by myself in the square and enjoy the tranquility. Leaves from the old tree have fallen into the waters of the spring and it suddenly looks and feels like autumn. I am relaxed and at peace, until I hear Amarandi crying from the woman's house. An old man walks up leading his donkey and sees me at the fountain. My presence takes him by surprise and he asks me who I am and what I am doing here.
    I tell him I am from Xidera.
    "But why do you speak like that?" he asks me.
    I admit that I am American and to my relief he doesn't talk about Clinton's love for Turkey, which is the topic of conversation this summer. He tells me that everyone has left the village except for a few families. Now some Germans have bought the ruins and restored them. He points at a monstrosity of a house with enormous windows that looks as out of place as a Coney Island hot-dog stand.
    "Malakas", he snorts and walks off.
    I return to my contemplation, half expecting him to come back and continue the conversation, but he never does and eventually the girls return and we drive the winding roads back to Xidera.

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Heliotopos Hotel, Lesvos

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