The old man stood as if transfixed in front of the refrigerator. Clad in ragged blue tracksuit pants that held upon them a suspicion of freshly-turned garden soil, a striped shirt and bedecked in sandals, he clutched the egg carton firmly and yet lovingly, lifting each egg meticulously and peering underneath it to ensure its inviolability.
“Oh my God, you are skasying my gaidaro!” came the piercing screech of a corpulent forty-something, yoga-panted lady. Clutching a handbag almost as large as herself, she held out a faux- metal-bracelet-bedecked arm and pushed the old man backwards, teetering on her precipitous platform wedges as she did so. “You are seriously tsatisying me.” Addressing no one in particular, she continued: “Look at him, going through each egg like his life depended on it. Kseftila.”
As he looked on in bewilderment, she proceeded to angrily snatch the egg carton from his hands and throw it into his shopping cart. Resigning himself to his fate, the old man pushed the trolley obediently behind the spandex-encased being before him, following it towards the bacon section. When they were a safe distance away, I sidled up to the eggs and carefully scrutinised the cartons for the most recent date of production. Having picked one, I proceeded to meticulously lift each egg within it in order to ensure it was intact, a procedure I had absorbed through countless Saturday morning shopping trips with my father.
‘Δεν θα παίρνεις αυγά από την μαρκέτα,’ a voice offered behind me. ‘Δεν είναι φρέσκα. Αν θέλεις αυγά, να έρθεις σπίτι μου, που έχω κότες.’
Invariably, when shopping at our local ‘marketa’, which is the approved Greek Australian equivalent for αγορά, and indeed until the age of fifteen, I knew no other, one will come across compatriots who will, without having ever spoken to you before, know that you are Greek and, being possessed of superior food foraging skills, will not only point out the defects of your own, but also call upon you to justify them.
Thus at the ‘φρουτομαρκέτα’, while once busily engaged in the task of collecting bamyes, and in Hellenic fashion, studiously ignoring the black texta writing on the cut-out cardboard square pleading ‘Please do not pick individually’, I was accosted by a black-clad elderly lady possessed of the largest eyes I have ever seen. “Do you eat these?” she asked. When I replied in the affirmative, she enquired: “You Grik?” Having assured her that this was so, she then launched in the Cypriot dialect, into a lengthy exposition of the art of selecting okra, masterfully refuting point by point, my assertion that smaller bamyes are to be preferred in the preparation of μπάμιες γιαχνί, not only because they are sweeter, but also because they are easier to eat. According to her, size is all and she displayed a remarkable consistency in formulating her argument in those terms. She ended her diatribe by extending an open invitation for me to visit her and sample her own version of the dish, redeemable as she assured me, at any time, without notice.
Similarly, at the κρεατομαρκέτα, when ordering some eye fillet on one occasion, an old gentleman, a regular at the marketa coffee shop who, no matter what time you arrive there, is always holding forth on the issues of the day to a rapt audience, interjected angrily: “That’s not meat for a real man. Real men eat chops and sausages. Αυτά είναι για πούστηδες.’ He looked me up and down, his slanted eyes reveling in the provocation. ‘Τι να κάνουμε,’ I shrugged nonchalantly. ‘Και οι πούστηδες πρέπει να φάνε. Πώς λέμε, πεινάω σαν πούστης;’ The old man considered this for a moment, realised I was calling his bluff and burst out laughing. Prior to making his way back to his designated perpetual seat at the coffee shop, he invited me to his home for a barbeque where, he informed me, I would receive an education as to how real men cook meat. (On a wood fire, not an effeminate gas hot plate.)
I have harboured a morbid fascination for offal ever since my childhood and cannot resist the opportunity to contemplate it, even in its raw form. Nine times out of 10, while staring at the offal displayed in the butcher’s window and mentally salivating (the butcher’s parents are from the same village as my father and I went to school with him, so he charitably indulges my disturbing proclivities), I will feel a pinch in the small of my back. Turning around, I will observe the smiling face of my father.
“The fish shop has fresh ζαργάνες,” he will confide urgently. “Go and get some but make sure you don’t get the snapper. It’s overpriced.” On the odd occasion where he is accompanied by my mother, she will interject: “Don’t worry about it. We will get them. Come over to our place and we will cook them for you.”
The ancestral φρουτομαρκέτα where my grandparents and parents shopped no longer exists. Visiting it was an exercise in socialisation as we could not walk ten metres without coming across someone from my grandparents’ respective villages, or indeed any other local Greek identifiable by their attachment to a clear tied up plastic bag full of a mysterious yellowish liquid, known as άλμη, in which the paper-wrapped feta cheese had to be submerged. In this way, I not only learned how to fruit shop (one begins with a general brisk survey of prices, circling the target area like a shark before coming in for the specific kill), but most importantly for my future weekly shopping trips, how each party was interrelated, for those who linger still remember me, in our contemporary encounters. Such chance meetings would stretch our shopping day by several hours, as we would inevitably be invited to one or the other’s home for coffee.
Along the way, smiling Greek shop owners would offer me a piece of fruit, or a slice of ham, fitting bounty for a good little Greek grandson who remained still, did not ask for chocolates and helped his grandparents with the shopping, though I suspect this was partly a ploy to mollify my forthright grand progenitors, who did not ever refrain from castigating the objects of their patronage if the quality of produce turned out to be questionable, thus unacceptably casting their own judgment into question as well. If I close my eyes, I can still see my late grandmother counting out two cent pieces in order to pay for a kilo of tomatoes, oblivious to the exasperation of those in the queue behind her.
Nowadays, being young and speaking Greek at the marketa still has its advantages, as my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is quickly finding out. In a community where Greek is no longer the first language for the majority of young Greek Australians, the ladies who work in our φρουτομαρκέτα are exhilarated when they hear my daughter saying the names of the various fruit in the Samian dialect (we say μπουρνέλλες instead of δαμάσκηνα for plums, and κατσνάρ for muskmelon), and this always results in her being the recipient of lavish presents of fruit.
Similarly, once, while attempting to address her tears which were spouting profusely, uncannily with the trajectory of ballistic projectiles due to my inability to find enough change to feed into the ride I promised she could enjoy, an unknown lady who, emerging from the deli bore witness to the moving way in which my daughter made her displeasure known in Greek, walked up to the ride and with a broad smile, deposited the requisite coinage. It goes without saying that upon the ride’s conclusion, she invited us to her home for coffee.
When I leave our marketa, I have to negotiate a perilous path between a Scylla, in the form of a gossipy family friend who, having all the time in the world, feels the need to interrogate me closely about my purchases, my family and all persons who I currently know and will get to know in the future, and a Charybdis, in the form of an ancient humpbacked uncle who, in his mid-eighties, still sports a delicately coiffed Elvis Presley hairstyle, carefully pigmented with orange Grecian 2000, and who insists on reciting one of his vast hoard of endless epic Greek poems.
Invariably, when I return home from the marketa replete not only with provender but with the news of most of the Greeks in our suburb for metadosis to my progenitors, I will be called upon to face one final task: the raised eyebrow and the Sphinxian question upon which next week’s sally to the marketa depends: “What on earth took you so long?”
* Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne-based solicitor and freelance journalist.