My earliest childhood memories were Athenian ones. Souvlaki in Plaka, olive trees in our backyard and feta cheese pie for breakfast. Those halcyon days came abruptly to an end when my sister became sick and we moved back to London. I then switched from peachy, balmy life to a chilly, rainy one.
Gone also was the big family lifestyle -- the noisy tavernas, the whole lamb on a spit for Easter with all my cousins and animated dinner parties.
Nothing was ever quite the same. Everything was glacial by comparison. Christmas was often us four rattling around the house. My parents of course surrounded us with love but something was missing. No amount of cracker-pulling and Slade at full volume could fill that void. Nostalgia -- a Greek word -- means pain from a past wound. That wound was going to fester until I had reconnected with my roots.
Until I met my long-lost big, fat, Greek family. My father passed away and his cousin George came to visit him in his final hour. I have never seen my father's eyes so bright -- photos of Uncle George, Great-Uncle George and, you guessed it, Great-Great-Uncle George were passed 'round. There was so much hand gesticulation but my father was not remotely tired.
My uncle George was the same spirit as my father. And after my father's passing, when we visited my uncle and his family in Piraeus, it was like going home. The Greeks get a bad write-up -- bad food, bad economy, in fact for a nation that established civilization, it has not really followed its own code. Yet despite the streets being full of litter and paving broken, they love life. They are so alive that they drive like maniacs, they have no sense of urgency (everything is avrio/ tomorrow) and they scrape their way through problems.
There is an apocryphal story that the day before the recent Olympics, the stadium was still half unfinished. The story goes that the main site manager, on being challenged about the potential disaster, said, "Itsa ok. We still have this afternoon to fix it."
There is nothing like their warmth, joie de vie and depth. They may not move mountains but they can have a good discussion about how to do it. Cafe culture has never thrived so much. Men line the terrasses, putting the world to rights with a sugary espresso and flicking worry beads. My family -- the Kesses -- have taken my beau and I under their wing. I have never felt such hospitality. Every meal is a celebration -- mezze to share turns a dinner into an immediate party. Big dishes of tasty meat, potatoes -- all terribly simple but with olive oil and oregano more delicious than any Michelin affair.
At Easter -- the biggest and holiest celebration in the year -- they go nuts and set off bangers at midnight around the church. This is followed by a weird soup made of lamb innards. Having fasted through Lent, it is the first dish they eat. A little queasy-making but giagia -- the granny of the house -- tucked in like there was no tomorrow.
Going out is also a total hoot. Despite the economic depression, bars are heaving with fun-loving Greeks. The best music is pumping and the whole family dancing around their table. There is no separation. Teens drink champagne and groove around with their dads. In every club I have ever been to around the world, there is an implicit code -- first to dance is a loser. In Greece the first to dance wins all -- and it is usually the Kesses clan. My uncle George and my beau with cigars arm-in-arm, my cousins jumping around like beans and me high-kicking, of course.
The day my uncle's wife prepared nourishing chicken and lemon soup. Then my beau had a disco nap and my uncle touchingly tucked him in with a blanket. It was then that he told me about the conversations he had with my dad. How he planned to go to Greece with me. Sitting in his smoky office, surrounded by Greek nicknacks -- religious icons, evil eye charms, worry beads -- I never felt more at home.
They say people who emigrate never really leave behind their country of origin. I may be half British in birth, breeding and accent, but my spirit is Hellenic. I am from now on and very proudly Elisavet Kesses.