Our first Piraeus trip takes the tourist route: Metro from Monastiraki – get off at Piraeus, walk out of station – turn right – walk 10 meters – take the escalator up over-bridge across busy road – walk to ferry terminal – find ferry – get on ferry – leave Piraeus.
Visit number two is different. The Girl has been here before and wants to see a little more. I am indifferent, but trust her judgment – she knows about fun stuff. And I am a bit lazy organising when there is someone else willing to organise it (I do not like this about myself, and it’s something The Girl & I have some discussions about).
We get off a stop before the end of the line and take a strange walk along a motorway underpass, exposed to speeding traffic. We take this route so we can walk behind Piraeus centre, and come to it over the hill. We walk through the beautiful but touristy Mikrolimano, and up the hill toward the Zea Marina. These two are small harbours on the south side of Piraeus, mainly for fishing boats, yachts, and with upmarket (but deserted) restaurants occupying the totality of the waterfront. We cross over the hump of Piraeus, and into the centre of the town proper, a steep decline from aerated seclusion into the disorder.
The Girl often confuses me, as she seems to know these streets intimately (she doesn’t really, but reads a map well, and shames me again because I am lazy). Suddenly we veer off down a street, or an alleyway, or into a shop. We are going somewhere particular, and as we get close, she begins to recognise it and casts off the map. I am trailing her again, but this time it is a little more intentional, I let her go ahead.
We walk with some pace, through a market-place – it’s about 3 pm, the market seems to be closing. Just a couple of shops, one of them a fish stall with the proprietor washing down the shelves and display cases, another with a small store-front, the owner tidying away the outdoor merchandise. I hope it’s open she says, as she leads me down a dark alleyway, that smells of rotting vegetables and dusty footpaths. To a little café, a little brown café. It straddles a corner of a back alley of the market – an L-shape, half white – the counter area, with what I think is a large chest freezer with a few metal chairs scattered and occupied by a couple of ancients; and half brown (the actual restaurant), all brown wood-panelling, brown formica tables, brown wicker chairs. The menus are attached to the tables by string, and slipped into plastic covers, clouded and faded with age.
Clouded and faded with age too, are the clientele.
In the white area, a group of old men sit and don’t move from their posts during the entire time we are there. They appear to be the cadre of the owner, a large man with a friendly but slightly distrusting face, who wears the white coat of a fish-monger. Three or four men sit here, talking, laughing, smoking. Old-timers – faces creased and well acquainted with the sun, bewhiskered. Almost clichéd Mediterranean men, handsome, beautiful even. They watch us the entire time we eat – not threateningly or fearfully, but seemingly curious. I suspect this place is a social hub for these men, where they spend most of their days.
In the brown restaurant section, we sit against the window, facing in. A group of four, they look like workers, probably from the market. They are loud, jocular, enjoying each other’s company. Another man sits by himself, self-conscious as most people are when they eat by themselves in a restaurant.
Everyone smokes. In the white room, it sits in a haze around eye-level, at least one of the cadre seems to be smoking for the duration of our visit. In the brown room, they smoke only when they have finished eating.
We order. Fava beans – mashed and with the consistency of a rough hummus, sprinkled lightly with olive oil and red onion; sardines, grilled and liberally doused in olive oil and oregano; calamari – battered and fried in pieces but with very small whole baby squid; a white bean salad, in a vinaigrette with parsley; bread – dusty Greek country bread, saganaki cheese – very salty, fried. A half kilo of wine served in a carafe with two glass tumblers.
It is so basic this meal, but so great. Certainly the best meal we eat in Greece, maybe the best. Good food, cooked well.
We talk, and laugh, and recognise how lucky we are – to be able to do this, to be here, now, sharing this moment. We’ve already been to Mycenae, the Acropolis – done the sites, been to one of the islands, visited monasteries, churches, beaches, done boat, bus and train trips. But just now, it all seems to culminate in this meal, this restaurant, this place that no one seems to go to. This meal is made up of the sum of its parts. And the parts stretch out before it, and after it, the axis. It doesn’t define this trip, but it does define the memory of it, because it is the one moment that contains the entirety, contains everything that the trip has encompassed. Every moment, compressed and concentrated into this one singularity.
We talk with the owner, Yioryious, after we’ve eaten – or rather The Girl does, I cannot speak one iota of Greek. Times are tough; he’s been here thirty years, and it’s hard work. Rather, there isn’t enough work. He is a big, friendly, nice man, who tells me my Greek will improve.
I resolve to help in the only way I know, by speaking about this place when I get back, whenever I get a chance.
So if you are ever out this way, go. If you are going to the islands, leave Athens a couple of hours early, and come here. If you are in the vicinity – of this city, or this country, come.