As a Thanksgiving tribute, I felt I should honor food with a blog post— specifically, in this case, Argentine cuisine. While you are probably skimming this with a full load of cranberry-soaked turkey in your belly, my singular goal with this blog is to make you more hungry.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – J.R.R Tolkien
I have found myself reflecting on this quote an awful lot this summer. Every single day brings a new experience, a new adventure. Everything is exciting and exotic! But more and more often I find myself losing my footing. I make spontaneous decisions and put myself in some precarious situations (hitchhiking, climbing up cliffs, etc.). It is easy to trust the people in my community here, because we are all essentially strangers. I go out with new people almost every night and have a wonderful time. But I’m learning how important it is to “keep your feet”, to make wise decisions in the midst of all the thrills. There are nights where I go home and curl up with a book or watch a few episodes of Mad Men. I enjoy cooking dinner at the apartment and coming up with new recipes using my extremely limited supplies. I value my roommate’s friendship and the honesty we share. Rima and I often go out together and watch each other’s backs. Greece is the place to get swept off your feet– that’s why I make sure to always wear my golf spikes…
Sunday happened to be another ridiculously fantastic day.
We had a great session with our junior golfers in the morning. The group has been growing steadily; kids often bring friends and some new families have arrived for the summer months. After a short practice session on the putting green, I sent them off hole number 10. They are getting much better at managing the course. I am particularly impressed with how well the girls are playing! It’s great to see them progress in the sport and know that golf has a future here in Greece.
After relaxing a bit over lunch (those kids are fun but they can be rather exhausting), I went down to help clean up the practice range. While I was remaking the pyramids of golf balls, I spotted two guys attempting to hit a ball out of the sand trap. It looked more like they were hoeing a garden! I went over to give them some tips and realized they were two of the resort workers who had participated in my lesson last week. I was thrilled that they had come back for more practice. Georgios and Kostas, I learned, were from the Raquet Academy. As in, they were the head pros over at the tennis courts. They said that they had been coming back to practice every day so far! This is exactly what I was hoping to accomplish with my weekly golf sessions. Georgios invited me to come for a tennis lesson and I said, “Sounds great! When should I come?”
“How about eight o’clock tonight?” he replied.
I agreed on the spot.
The rest of the day passed quickly. I was just about to head home when Petros (my boss) asked me if I would like to go see the new Bay Course. He was taking a German couple over and there was an extra spot available in the car. The Bay Course is a Robert Trent Jones Jr. course that will open the first week of October. I have been hearing about the design and the construction all summer; there is a lot of buzz about Costa Navarino’s second golf course! Of course I wanted to see it. We piled in the car and headed up the road. It is about 15 minutes away from the resort. In that time span, I learned that the German couple were not the VIP guests I expected them to be: The husband was going to be doing the golf course Slope Rating. During the next hour, as we drove down the unfinished cart paths, I received a full introduction to the world of Course Rating. It was fascinating to hear about the mathematics and science behind a golf course, while viewing one of the most magnificent landscapes every covered in green grass. The Bay Course is right on Navarino Bay, with several holes coming right down to the water’s edge. Highly reminiscent of Pebble Beach. Hopefully, I will have a chance to play the course before I head back home!
My afternoon was mostly gone by the time I returned to the Dunes Clubhouse. It was still warm so I headed up to one of the many resort pools (I’ve found four pools so far, and I still think there’s more hiding somewhere in the vastness of the resort complex). I spent several hours working on tanning my feet (if you’re a golfer, you’ll understand) and reading on my Kindle. My phone buzzed.
“Hello Debby? This is Chef Hussein. Would you like to have dinner tonight?”
“Absolutely! What time?”
“Does eleven work very good for you?” he said in his Lebanese accent.
“Sounds perfect, Hussein. I’m looking forward to it!”
Chef Hussein happens to be the Executive Chef of Nargile, the Lebanese restaurant at Costa Navarino. We had met several times– Nargile is by far my favorite restaurant around here. The waiters all know me and inform him when I’m eating dinner there. Each time he surprises me with some delicious dish: the Nargile filet, chocolate souffle, and (my absolute favorite) pumpkin kebbe. Chef Hussein makes me feel like a princess!
But first, I had to face the tennis courts. My stomach was starting to get a little tight at the thought of facing several skilled tennis pros. I told them I had played a little. And by that I meant very little. I arrived at the Romanos tennis courts just as Georgios was finishing a lesson. He smiled and waved me inside the court, yelling that I would be up in five minutes. I picked up a racket and started bouncing a ball, hoping to muster a little confidence. When it was my turn, he realized quickly that I was not an experienced player. We started close to the net. He fixed my grip and showed me where the “sweet spot” on the tennis racket was. I hit the ball better and better. We moved further apart and I got to really swing at the tennis ball. It was so refreshing to move. I’ve been working out a little bit up at the resort, but I forget how good it feels to really pour out my energy. Georgios helped me with my serve (“hit it higher, Debby. Reach!”) then we moved to full court practice. Kostas arrived, having finished up his last lesson at the Westin courts and suddenly I had two teachers sending balls my way! They turned the lights on at the courts and one of the Raquet Academy receptionists joined me on the court. Balls were flying everywhere, but we had a blast. Georgios sent us to the sidelines for a bit as he and Kostas faced off. I felt like I was watching the Wimbledon. After a short break, we continued to practice. Our tennis session lasted nearly three hours! I realized rather abruptly that I was due for dinner shortly… and I was drenched in sweat. I quickly said my Thank-yous and Goodbyes and ran off to the showers.
I arrived at Nargile right on time. Nargile is the term they use for hookah over here in Greece, so the meals always begin with a beautiful waterpipe brought out to the table. The man in charge of the hookahs, who reminds me of Aladdin’s Jafar, knows that Mint Green Grape is my absolute favorite. Chef Hussein ordered a vast array of plates to get us started: salad and falafel and hummus and kebbe… So many things to taste. I savored each dish as he told me about his special recipes and his attempts to modernize the traditional Lebanese foods.
“I make the hummus every morning myself,” he explained. “It is my secret recipe.”
For the main course, he ordered me kebab with yoghurt. I was unsure of what to expect, and I certainly wasn’t ready for the dish that was served to me. Chunks of tender lamb meat were immersed in a bowl of hot, white cream (a twist on the traditional yoghurt serving). Baked bread and spices were added to make the dish even more rich.
But nothing could compare to the dessert. He asked if I liked chocolate, and I asked him if he was crazy. Unfortunately, some things get lost in translation so I clarified, “Yes, I love chocolate.”
Out came a chocolate truffle oozing hot fudge. Creamy vanilla ice cream complemented the dish perfectly. I scraped the plate clean!
Dinner is a full experience here in Greece. My meal with Chef Hussein lasted well passed 1 o’clock in the morning. As he drove me back to my apartment, I thanked him for the delicious meal and interesting conversation.
Sports, math, kids, golf/tennis balls, hummus. The perfect equation.
I’m fairly sure I’ve lived a week inside of the last two days. Purely considering the thought of cramming it all into one entry is humorous, so I will slim my narrative down to a few key events, then touch on other memorable moments later down the road.
Renee and Peter flew to Rhodes for a business trip on Friday, so I was left to my own devices. I leisurely went about my morning… eating yogurt, opening the windows to feel the cool morning air, examining the handful of people who were hustling about the street below. Rather inevitably, I heard the siren call of the ruins that lay just across the road. I walked to the entrance of the ancient agora under a cloudy sky, camera in hand. It was a perfect day for taking photographs, and I must have logged hundreds amidst the crumbling temples, altars, stoas, and statues (Unfortunately, I’m having techincal difficulties uploading pictures right now. I promise I’ll get some up soon!).
The more I travel, the more I realize the extent to which the human race is intertwined. My ‘small world’ story for the day: My mom’s good friend Mary, who I have enjoyed getting to know, has a daughter in NYC (who I met on my little adventure to the Big Apple over Christmas break) and a sister, Anna, in Athens– who I made plans to have coffee with in the afternoon. I navigated the Metro (pronounced me-TRO, unlike the Chicago MET-ra) and Anna picked me up at the station in her dark blue convertible. Anna immediately reminded me of Mary, with all the Greek passion and excitement. We went to a fancy little coffee shop and ordered freddo cappucinos (absolutely the best coffee I have ever had). We talked for hours, but eventually she had an appointment that she needed to get to, so I made my way back to Plaka.
I had received word from Renee that she would be back around midnight. That meant I had to make my own dinner plans. After days of eating delicious food and interacting with some incredibly intellectual people, I found my own company (let alone cooking) somewhat lacking. So, I put on black heels, donned a smug “I can totally go out to eat by myself” look, and waltzed right up to the nearest taverna, Carte Postale.
Tavernas in Greece are simple affairs: small wooden tables with matching chairs set several rows deep along the street. I recently learned that at night, the restaurant owners remove the woven seats from the chairs to discourage people from running off with them! Along Renee’s street, the Andrianou, there are probably 30 tavernas crammed along the road. The menus, to a casual observer like myself, all appear similar. To locals, however, the fare is markedly different in both type and quality.
It was about 10 o’clock, which I thought was an appropriate dinner time. Carte Postale, however, was completely empty. None of the tavernas were particularly full, but the total lack of people was unnerving. However, one of the waiters smiled and pointed me to a table near the edge of the street, saying it had the best view of all the people walking by. I agreed and took the proffered menu. I actively engrossed myself in it, hoping to avoid thinking about the long, awkward dinner I was about to have, sitting here by myself.
“Debby!” a voice said in only moderately accented English. I looked up from the menu to see Stravos, the manager of Carte Postale who I had met when I arrived. All the taverna owners know and love Renee, and she had been quick to introduce me. I was impressed that he remembered my name, though.
“Kalinikhta” I said, happy to have someone to talk to.
“Where is Renee?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“Oh, she’s off in Rhodes. I’m on my own for dinner tonight,” I replied, shrugging. “Any recommendations? I don’t want anything too heavy, just some good Greek food.”
“Do you like swordfish? It is very nice here,” he said convincingly.
I shrugged again, smiling, “Sounds great!”
He shouted my order in rapid Greek to one of the waiters and then proceeded to pull a chair up next to me. I was thrilled.
I asked Stavros about his life and found he had graduated from college before setting off to Scandinavia to open his first few restaurants. He had traveled all through Europe, but never to the United States. He spoke very candidly of the problems in his country, saying, “Everybody cheats and thinks they are smart. They are ‘clever’ if they beat the system.” I was starting to hear this quite a lot.
My food came then, a round piece of perfectly cooked fish surrounded by cut tomatoes and cucumbers. The juicy tomatoes were a perfect accent to the salty, tangy fish. Stavros ordered me a glass of white wine, informing me that they only served local vintages. Suddenly, loud cheers rang out from a street nearby, reminding me that everyone was probably off watching the Champions League.
“Did you ever play football, Stavros?” I asked, privately congratulating myself for not calling it “soccer”.
“Oh yes, I played as… how do you say it?… as a semi-professional?” He nodded, satisfied with the term.
“Really? Holy cow… that’s really impressive. Why didn’t you continue?”
Now it was his turn to shrug. “I needed to make money, so I went into the restaurant business. The economy just made things too difficult.”
We continued talking. And talking. The waiters began removing the paper tablecloths and candles from the other tables. More people filled the street, heading to their preferred nighttime entertainment. I kept insisting that Stavros could go take care of other things if he needed to, but he just shook his and said “No, no! They can take care of it.”
Midnight finally rolled around and I felt sleepy after the lovely meal. I waved for the check, but Stavros barked something to the waiter in Greek.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a wave of his hand.
“Stavros! I have been your only customer tonight! I need to pay!” I insisted mightily, pulling out my stash of euros and counting out the amount. He quite literally took my money and stuffed it back in my purse.
I glared at him. “Now I know why all Greeks are broke! They won’t let anybody pay for anything!”
He gave me a huge smile, causing me to break a small grin. “You’re just too nice, Stavros.” I sighed, realizing I wasn’t going to get anywhere by arguing further. “Thank you for the great dinner and the wonderful company.”
At that moment, Renee’s cab pulled up and she struggled out of the car, completely exhausted. She laughed when she saw that I was still downstairs. I opened the front door for us and said good-night to Stavros with one last smile and wave.
Time is flying by, yet Greece still seems so far away! So, to bring it just a little bit closer to my mind and heart, I have started enjoying a lovely Greek breakfast every morning.
Best (Simple!) Greek breakfast
– 1/2 c plain, Greek yogurt (my preference is the ‘Fage’ brand)
– A big drizzle of honey
– 1/2 c granola (or, even better, a handful of almonds and fresh strawberries)
The honey tames the tartness of the yogurt, while the nuts and granola give it the perfect level of crunch! Pair with a cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice and something fun to read (perhaps my Israel/Greece blog from my adventures abroad in 2009: http://dwriters.wordpress.com/page/4/)