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Columnists

Where the Good Greek Life Can Still be Found

Don’t know what Bill Gates had for dinner last night but can guarantee it wasn’t as good as what we had on the island of Tzia, also known as Kea: two large plates of exquisitely fried squid, a giant horiatiki salad, and cold Fix beer at a table close to the sea, watching the moon reflecting off sail boats.

The cost was 33.20 euros for two people, not counting a decent tip, so the meal and beer came in at $33.68, but it wasn’t the price that mattered – even though it was far less than a fancy restaurant – but the quality and the setting.

The produce for the salad at Piiesa restaurant comes from local growers and the onions were so crisp it sounded like a Granny Smith apple when bitten into. You haven’t eaten a tomato in your life unless you’ve had one in Greece, but you’ll be spoiled because all other tomatoes will taste like air after that.

The squid – a very full plate – melted with each slowly savored taste and fresh bread for dipping into the olive oil in the salad was all that you needed to complete the experience of eating well.

And then when it couldn’t get any better, it did – a zephyr off the sea cooling the back of the neck, taking away the heat of a summer night as you had time to remember friends past and gone and wish they could be at the table too.

This is the reason people come to Greece in record numbers, more than three times the population, and while Athens has a buzz and Thessaloniki is cosmopolitan, the islands are where you want to be  in the summer.

Those don’t include the most overrated and overrun, like Mykonos, also known as ‘Scamos’ because it gouges visitors, and on Tzia you can sit on the beach in a lounge chair with a chest full of beer on ice and watch the same sun that sets on Santorini, without being trampled. A vacation is going where people aren’t.

There are hundreds of inhabited islands to choose from, but Tzia is a favorite because the back side on Poisses Beach is quiet even at the height of summer, and there are private coves for even more privacy.

They islands run from the lush like Corfu, to the arid, from the insanely busy and even dangerous, like the thug island of Zakynthos, to a few where vehicles aren’t allowed, Hydra near Athens and Halki near Rhodes, where you can rent a room on the waterfront, step out your door, take two steps and jump into a deep sea.

PASS THE  SMOKED SALT

Then, of course, there’s the food, and even curmudgeon celebrity chief Gordon Ramsay, infuriating the Italians, said Greek cuisine was the world’s best because no matter what shape it is, the Italians’ is just pasta and Greek food is so varied that the Italians can’t match it. They even buy Greek olive oil and rebrand it.

It was Nikos Kazantzakis’ most famous character, Zorba, who, on Crete, knew the joy of Greek life and the way to live it. “I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.”

Famous writers and singers found a muse in Greece too, Henry Miller saying, “It takes a lifetime to discover Greece but it only takes an instant to fall in love with her,” and Lawrence Durrell, who lived on Corfu and made it famous.

“The light of Greece opened my eyes, penetrated my pores, expanded my whole being,” said Miller.

The late British scholar, writer, and soldier Patrick Leigh Fermor, who fought behind the lines in the Cretan resistance in World War II, had a house on the Peloponnese in Kardamyli and was one of those charmed by the Greek way.

He said of Greece that it brought “the feeling of being lost in time with geography with months and years hazily sparkling ahead in a prospect of inconjecturable magic.”

When the rich and famous talk about going to ‘the islands’ in the summer, everyone knows they mean Greece and some – like Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson – have homes on them, and the late Canadian singer Leonard Cohen had a home on Hydra for years that his family still visits.

It would take a hardy soul to live on even the nicest Greek island year-round because the cold and dark winter months don’t bring the magic of lounging on the beach in summer, book in hand, but everyone has to have one on their list.

You don’t have to be writer or TV or movie star or celebrity to feel the essence of Greece and absorb the rare light that has a singular incandescence, or escape to an island for a weekend, a week, or a month because despite the country’s popularity it’s still affordable.

Some come to dance on table tops on Mykonos, or party hardy, tour the archaeological sites, drink in the history, and reach back through the eons to touch the hands of philosophers.

But the real reason is to be found on places like Tzia or your own favorite island, even if it’s just a summer hiatus where COVID is forgotten.

Now it’s time for some more squid.

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