Saturday, December 12, 2015
The inner city terrace houses of my youth were constantly wreathed in darkness. In winter, their denizens would sit out the cold and darkness in woolen jumpers, their unheated living rooms illuminated only by the flickering light of the television set, for it was by contrivances such as these that they purported to save enough money to pay for their daughter's wedding and first home. This was a mouldy darkness, of foreboding and ancestral memories of far harsher winters that they did their best not to remember and never to relate.
Enter one of these homes in the summer however, with the pitiless sun burning down upon inexorably upon their brick exterior and the ensuing darkness, created by a confluence of the windowless design of the hallway and the blinds sheathing the few sash windows, would immediately envelop you with coolness, coaxing and caressing you in the manner of a corpulent aged aunt, into the "good room," where it was incumbent upon the youthful visitor to insinuate himself into an inconspicuous position at a respectful distance from the carved coffee table, having care not to disturb in any way, the anti-macassars and doilies shrouding the inordinately hard couches, or the glass ashtrays, enclosing lovingly rendered tapestries of roses on the adjoining side tables.
I remember the first two times various terrace dwelling οικοδέσποινες emerged from their cavernous kitchens bearing upon their impeccably balanced silver trays, long glass tumblers into which had been dipped a spoon, whose bowl seemed to be incased in a luminous white substance. Not knowing the identity of this mysterious conglomeration of artifacts the first time and seeking to quench my summer thirst, I drank the water in one gulp. Denuded of water, the white substance became sticky and I found it impossible to remove it from my lips and my teeth. Convinced that this substance was a form of edible putty, designed to ensure that little boys are seen but not heard and in considerable distress, since my hands and face were by now covered with minute shreds of the serviette I had employed in vain to assist me in divesting myself of my viscous nemesis, I interposed myself between the cadences of my aunt's monologue on village news: "What is this?"
"Υποβρύχιο είναι," my aunt-tormenter replied absent-mindedly, before re-absorbing herself in her narration. This meant nothing to me whatsoever. "Τι είναι υποβρύχιο;" I asked again. To interrupt one's aged aunt at the height of their physical and intellectual powers in the eighties was tantamount to inviting the four horsemen of the Apocalypse to run the Melbourne Cup upon your personage. Her eyes grew wide, her brow furrowed and finally, pointing an oversized fungus covered nail in the direction of my glass, she spluttered, "Αυτό είναι υποβρύχιο," before exploding into paroxysms of laughter, the various folds of her torso rippling in timed succession as she did so.
The second time this questionable dessert was imposed upon me was at the home of a well to do, intellectual couple. Unlike the rest of us, they did not Greek souvenir objects d' art upon their walls and there was not a doily in sight. They had never heard of Stratos Dionysiou and instead, would at Greek dances, remain conspicuously seated while everyone else danced the kalamatiano and tsamiko, rising only to dance what was referred to as the "tango," though it bore no resemblance to the Argentinian dance of the same name, to the affected strains of what were known as "Ελαφρά Λαϊκά". They had no garden, did not own a barbeque and instead indulged in mysterious pastimes such as discussing literature and politics.
"Have an υποβρύχιο, my boy," our bespectacled hostess offered. "You do know what means don't you? It's a submarine." I found the provision of this information more hurtful than my aunt's joke at my expense a few weeks before. According to the song we had just learnt at school, submarines were yellow and people lived in them. This substance on the other hand, was a potential harbinger of ultimate doom given that it bore an uncanny resemblance to the "stuff," a seemingly innocuous but thoroughly dangerous material that threatened to envelop mankind in the eponymous film my morbidly sadistic cousins had made me watch the night before.
Seeking to neutralize the "stuff" and remembering my previous clumsy attempts to consume it, I earnestly took up the spoon and placed it in my mouth, slowly teasing its contents into my throat with my tongue. Having completed my task, I made another error of judgment, emptying the glass of water in one gulp. This meant that after the next "γλυκό του κουταλιού" was served, a deceptively innocuous looking cluster of sour cherries in an intricate glass bowl, (which our hostess identified mysteriously as being "μποχιμιακρίσταλ" and which days later became the villain in a story I was writing,) I developed a vicious thirst that was impossible to slake, for my allotted glass of water had been misused and in those days of haute etiquette, to have the temerity to ask for another glass was tantamount to implying that the hosts' hospitality was somehow deficient, inviting social Armageddon. I suffered in silence, politely refusing my hosts' subsequent offer of an ice cream the requisite the three times, for to accept after consuming so many previously proffered comestibles was to imply that I was not adequately fed at home.
My early misadventures notwithstanding, I grew to love my ypovrykhio, also known as vanilla, though it is in actual fact made industrially by beating mastic resin with table sugar. With claims that it is the official dessert of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and verifiable evidence that it has been successfully introduced into Japan, though my attempts to have same in a martini glass (stirred, not shaken), have found a largely unappreciative audience, it is difficult for me to understand why the Hellenic submarine does not have global appeal.
The same goes for all of the so-called "spoon sweets." Sitting in a grandmother's kitchen, slowly and gently boiling kumquats in water and sugar over several hours or days, until the divine oracle with whom the matriarchal progenitor was communing would reveal that the syrup had set, being inducted into the more macrifluvious mysteries of the arcane art: (ie adding some lemon juice can preserve the fruit's original color, as the citric acid prevents oxidation, a small quantity of blanched almonds, added to baby eggplants, apples or grapes provides a satisfying crunch, and the addition while boiling of a quill of cinnamon bark, a mint bouquet, or the green, fragrant leaves of apple geranium add some astringency and a slight aroma of frankincense which is particularly prized), truly was a Greek-Australian rite of passage.
With summer approaching, I already have procured the requisite stocks of spoon sweets. On particularly fine days, I prepare my ypovrykhio and venture out into my back yard. Seated under the verandah, as I lovingly cajole the mastic from the spoon, into my mouth, I see before me the verdant paradise that was my grandparents' garden. We are seated upon milk crates underneath an immense grapevine and my grandmother is peeling the cucumbers she has just picked, as I hastily down my glass of water before the mastic seals my mouth. My grandfather looks down and smiles. There are preserved figs, quinces, walnuts and prunes all within arms reach. It is twilight, yet the sun will never go down. As I pick the remaining obstinate remnants of mastic from my teeth, I drink my water slowly, giving thanks for the eternal Greek-Australian summer and the liturgical vessels sacred to its memory: the tumbler, the spoon and the bohemia crystal serving dish.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 12 December 2015