Greece Dancing at the Edge of the Cliff

BY PROF. ELISEOS PAUL TAIGANIDES

There is the Greece one imagines from watching CNN in America elaborating on the abyss of disorders, and there is the joy one feels upon landing on the island of Crete. What a feeling, walking into the light, breathing in the salt-tinged breeze of the blue Aegean Sea.

Around 9PM we walked by cafes filled with young people to a taverna that was full, even though it was Thursday night. Across from our table sat three middle-aged ladies of “up-scale” looks eating between looks at their smart phones and smoking cigarettes one after the other. The highest number of cancer deaths in Greece is from lung cancer; smoking is part of the reason!

What I love about dining in Greece is the ordering of a few dishes at first, and keep on ordering as new ones are delivered, or asking for the wine carafe to be refilled, something that would drive American restaurateurs crazy. The plates pile up; they are not removed as is the case in America to turn over the tables to new customers, which is the way to make money. It made me recall the story of the young man who barefooted was peddling donuts at our favorite beach in Hersonissos. I bought nine donuts, but I told him I did not have money; his retort reflects how business is run in Greece: “It’s OK”, he said “I work for Glory, not for Money!”

At the end of our dinner, we received the customary end-of-the-meal-freebie, watermelon and raki, something akin to but much better than the fortune cookie the Chinese restaurants give. Pleased with the service, I left a substantial tip; Greek and European restaurant prices include percentage for the staff; except for Americans, most people do not tip. Another thing that makes coming to Greece enjoyable is the fact that restaurants are run by families. We see no personnel turnover, only inevitable aging, which of course takes its toll!

Since 1994, all of our nine grandchildren were baptized in Greece; the glendi after the ceremony were held in the taverna in the Avdou village church courtyard. Bachelor Nikos offered the best food thanks to his mother Eleftheria. Last year, Eleftheria succumbed to her ailing heart. Nikos closed the taverna. Of the 125 stores that operated in the village, there are now only a grocery shop, two kafeneia, and Cify’s taverna. The other day at the taverna, the bill came to €33.50. Cify said give me 30.

The pageant of the EURO Cup got started without a Greek team. Greece had hired the Italian Claudio Ranieri for the qualification matches, but fired him after 4 months. Hired by Leicester City, the team in the throes of being relegated in the English Premier League, he achieved the “Miracle” – championship. Ranieri is revered in 2016 the way German Otto Rehhagel was when he coached the Cinderella Greek team to the European Championship in 2004, doubling the joy of the Athens Olympics!

We watched the game under the mulberry trees in Eva’s café, as we have done for the 22 summers we have been coming to Avdou. Most of the watchers were foreign-born but residents of Avdou having married here, begat children, baptized them Orthodox, three Albanians, four Romanians, and one Muslim Pakistani, who speaks Greek, but has not converted. In the Albania vs Switzerland game, seven of the players playing for the Swiss were Albanians, one of whom was a brother to the one playing for Albania. Alexi, an Albanian, who grew up in Avdou, is now married with three children, said to me: “Albania lost to Albanians.”

Baptisms and weddings are very rare any more in the village, but the few that we witnessed even during the past few years when Greece was recoiling from the limits imposed by the Northern Europeans, the celebrations have been extravagant. At the wedding of a local girl getting married at the same time that their 3-year-old son was being baptized, 1,000 of us were fed in the old schoolyard with mezedes, three main courses, sweets, fruits, wine, beer, raki, a bottle of whisky at each table, fireworks, and a band playing till 6AM.

Our neighbor Marika told us she had gone to lunch with a friend to a place outside Heraklion where they encountered a group of 29 women all of them over 80 years old. It was the birthday of one of the 29, and they had come by bus to celebrate. When the music started they all got up and started dancing. Marika asked one about their prowess at that advanced age. The answer came in the typical Cretan mantinada, the translation of which is: “One looks at the abyss of a cliff and gets dizzy; another at the edge of the cliff dances pentozali.”

Recall that the movie Zorba the Greek from the novel of Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis ended with a pentozali dance after “the full catastrophe.” It is this spirit of joyful defiance that makes us always want to return to Greece, our Holy Homeland, stare with dignity at the abyss, and dance!

Prof. Eliseos Paul Taiganides is the editor of Greek Ethos.