It was a sunny July afternoon at Cusina Mediterranean Bistro in Guelph, Ontario, inside as well as out. There was Greek food, Greek wines, the warm hospitality that restaurant is famous for, and the Canadian launch of my second book, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. Plus Greek olive oils too. When I’m at home and can’t stand for another minute not being in Greece, Cusina is always where I head. So when Maria Kiriakopoulos-Kalantzis, one of its owners, asked if I would like to launch my new book there and to help celebrate the Bistro’s 8th anniversary, well, I was thrilled.
I love all things Greek. One of its Cycladic islands, Sifnos, has come to feel like a second home to my husband and me and inspired me to write these two books. So to be at Cusina that day, with an audience as large as that one, one that was anxious to hear me read aloud more of my stories from Sifnos, it’s a treat. An audience that contained many who’d read my first book and had been telling me for a while they couldn’t wait for the second.
“I got teary-eyed as you read,” one person told me later. “I felt like I was back on the island. Oh wait, I thought then,” she went on. “I haven’t actually been to the island. It’s just that your books make me feel I’m right there.”
I’m so grateful to Maria at Cusina. To Sumon, her business partner and chef who, though he’s not Greek, cooks as if he were. To Dora Tsiagas, owner of Dora’s Greek Tours and of Tithorea, a lovely Greek food shop in nearby Rockwood, for educating us about Greek olive oils and so much more. And to everyone who came out. It was an honour to have you there to help me send this book off into the world.
What follows is one of the excerpts I read that afternoon. It concerns Nikolaos, a waiter that my husband, Jim, and I were coming to know in the month we stayed on Sifnos that year:
“Thío kafédes ellínikos, métrios,” Jim says. We’ll have two Greek coffees, please. Medium sweet. He leans back.
“Oh god!” our waiter cries. He throws both arms in the air, then slaps his thighs. “Now I have to make coffees! Again.”
Oh, yes. I’ve been expecting something like this, waiting for it. Would have been disappointed had it failed to appear. Jim, too, has been itching for this moment the whole meal. And I can tell that Nikolaos was as well, for it’s with a bit of a kick that he promptly turns tail and disappears inside.
The latest bit of fun between these two began yesterday morning, out of the most ordinary of circumstances, as it usually does. I’d been wandering around the village with my camera and when I decided I’d finished, I met Jim on Antonis’s terrace. Shortly afterwards Nikolaos arrived for work. He had with him a large paper bag filled with the taverna’s loaves of bread for the day.
“Where do you get your bread?” I asked when he’d unlocked the door and stowed it inside. I like their bread and have been mildly curious where they have to go for it because as far as I know there is no bakery in Xeronissos or anywhere nearby.
“We don’t,” he said, “give out our… se-crrets.” With that, he raised his nose into the air and there it stayed the whole way to his car and back again, this time with a large pan of baklavá.
Okay, Nikolaos. You win.
“Could we have coffees?” one of us asked. Antonis always offers them at this time of the morning and the habit of having one has become a part of our day. But he hadn’t arrived yet.
Nikolaos said nothing. He didn’t, I realized later, even ask what kind we wanted. I recall, though, that he was inside for what felt a very long time. Eventually he returned and, with a small shrug, set two ceramic mugs before us. “I’ve never made coffee before,” he said.
Well no, he hadn’t. That soon was clear.
Every café and taverna has a blender for making frappés, those whipped coffee and ice and sometimes milk concoctions, and whip our coffees Nikolaos had. Though frappé comes in a glass, not the kind of mug he served these coffees in. I lifted mine and tilted it, as one does, but found no liquid in there. What touched my lips instead was a stiff foam, mostly air, and so I slurped. On the next go, I slurped again. And again. How often this was repeated, I can’t really say, but I do know it was only near the cup’s bottom that I finally found a mouthful of liquid. Darkish. Not iced. But a long way from hot.
Jim’s looked much the same and it was about then, I know now, that the plot began to be hatched. “Okay,” he said later as we stepped onto the beach and out of earshot, “If Nikolaos is alone, we’ll order coffees. Always. Whether we need them or not.”
Photos by Jim Blomfield and Montaha Hidefi