Sitting in our white MGB, we’ve just driven off the ferry—surviving a treacherous winter crossing from Bari, Italy, to Corfu (a.k.a. Kerkyra.}
Corfu, the most northern of the Ionian Islands, was once home to brothers Lawrence and Gerald Durrel, and then home to Ted’s Papou—none of whom were there to greet us in the early morning hour of our tardy arrival. The usual morning crossing of our ferry was delayed until the storm somewhat settled. It left later in the evening, so we crossed the heady sea throughout the night. (I'll tell about this crazy crossing in another blog because in my mind this storm was hardly settled as the boat was pushed from the dock.)
Who greeted us from the dark was a swarthy, small-shouldered but sizable man. He asks if we need help and from his bulging pockets he extends his hand with an offering of walnuts still in their shells.
"I ahm Antonio. I know this island. Where you going?"
Antonio helps us find a place to stay as we immediately befriend him. We find out days later that he owns the only tire shop on the island and is a relatively wealthy and important man to know. This revelation unfolds when we blow out a tire on our white windstorm.
Antonio likes us and finds us to be people who listen, so he caws about his tire business and his home where he keeps a tall bureau with drawers full of unshelled walnuts. Sworn socialist, he confides in us about owning a tire store on the island.
He smiles in wonderment saying, “I don’t understand biziness!
The bank lend me money. I buy tires. I do nothing. Put tire on cars. I make profit—good money. Is in America? Is trick? Ah, who cares! My son, he say—is easy work!”
After several encounters with Antonio, he insists, “You MUST come to MY house.”
Eventually, we do and on a sweltering day big, brown, affable Antonio escorts us on his own white-windstorm scooter.
His wife is out so he motions his upped chin to the dining room table and chairs, offering us a seat. The white lace curtains are drawn to succor us from the brutal sun. One flutters with an occasional breeze.
Antonio yanks the top drawer of the tall bureau, clattering through piles of unshelled walnuts. He surfaces with a hand-rolled cigarette filled with cheap Egyptian tobacco.
Twitching his pursed lips from side to side he strikes a large wooden match, lifts his chin again for the light, and draws a deep breath. With sudden realization, he dashes to close the open window, sputtering deep belly laughs through his tight smile as he exhales clouds of smoke onto the clean curtains. He wants his precious smoke to stay in close confines.
Amused by Antonio’s antics, we especially consider him worthy of knowing during our stay on the island. We also befriend Cindy, an American trust-fund brat who overnight decides to marry Spiros, a local Corfuian. Cindy loves to give sexual advice to newlyweds and handsome Spiro is a devoted homosexual with an eye for ladies. He also loves to ride horses.
“I’m going to buy Spiro a horse,” says Cindy nodding.
During our stay on the island, Cindy and Spiros laugh and sing invariably wherever they are. She also fulfills her sixties’ obligation to give away money and stay socially outside the norm, and Spiro meets his obligation as a stud.
Next door to Cindy and Spiros lives Yanni, an eighty-year-old who tends a tiny kumquat grove in front of his house. He makes, according to Cindy, a magic marmalade—the recipe told to him by a gypsy whom Yanni met when in his thirties.
The gypsy promises that those who savor her orange potion will be rewarded with an astonishing passion, the likes of which no Corfuian has ever felt or beheld. The gypsy, Rube, was a wild child and Yanni found that though born on the island, he too, deep in his soul was a wanderer. He took off with Rube and never looked back until a strange incident beckoned his return. All this was many decades ago.
Now, after a jam-canning lesson with Yanni and several bottles of Retsina, Cindy and Spiros propose their marriage for the very next morning. Yanni cautions them—not about lost love but about his aphrodisiac jam as he knows too well the consequences of its consumption.
It was Ted’s Grandpa (Papou) who discovers for us a one-room apartment that is half of a typical Greek-island, white-stucco duplex. The tiny kitchen has a two-burner propane stove, and a two-gallon hot water tank that hangs from the ceiling. Near it on the stucco wall is a showerhead and a large drain in the tiled floor. There is a dial on the tank so when taking a shower in the kitchen you can gauge how much hot water is left and wash accordingly, usually very fast!
It is a rainy and cold February in Corfu and by that time we are tired of piccolo cittas (we’ll explain this in an upcoming blog) so we appreciate the indulgence. The apartment costs fifty US dollars a month.
Thanks to our Belgian friend, Stefan, we have a supply of good grass and dreamily spend our days smoking, loving, reading, or simply sitting watching flowers open, marveling as a butterfly lands on the page of an open book.
One day in early January there is a loud banging on the door of our little home. Ted cautiously cracks it open when suddenly it is flung wide by a wizard standing tall in a soaring, black cone-cap. He has a long white beard, and with his deep voice he slowly chants in Greek moving through our tight quarters clanking a large metal incense burner on a long chain. He throws water at us and we duck. More swaying of the incense burner and more water tossed at us from a clear bottle with a silver cap with holes. After an eternity the door slams closed. He is gone and we are smiling speechless in a heavenly, odiferous cloud with dew in our hair.
We incredulously look at each other, remaining speechless but thinking to each other, “What the hell was that?”
We learn much later that the date was January 6, the day of the Epiphany and the great blessing of the waters, so Papou, encouraged by his wife, Effie, had paid the local Archbishop to bless our home.
Effie, Papou's third wife, is mother of his youngest son and is his agape-mou chantress.
Story is, the entire island knows of Papou’s driving and Effie’s double entendre pleading for him to drive slower, “Agape mou! Siga!
Siga, siga, agape mou!”
It takes us a while to understand this is why people wink with a sideways nod of their head as Papou and Effie buzz past in their tiny powder-blue Fiat Cinquecento.
His face beams in wire-rimed glasses and she with a small silk scarf tied tightly around her neck, eyes wide in bugged alert, purses her red lips trying not to say, "Siga, siga, agape mou!”
Even today whenever I caution Ted he compels me to repeat in Effie’s high fractured voice, “Siga, siga, agape mou! Siga!”
Early after our appearance on Corfu we venture to mountains on the other side of the island and before returning home Ted fills the white windstorm with gas.
It’s just like the many days and nights we soon characteristically indulge in: a romantic sea watch, a swim if it's warm, and on the way home a stop at Chrysí Kardiá, the Golden Heart taverna, where we also fill our glasses from a local barrel of wine.
Eventually Antonio introduces us to the owners of Chrysí Kardiá, a young but older-than-us couple who envision we will buy them out. They half-jokingly repeat we will see the light and purchase Chrysí Kardiá as a step in the search for our future. Their business plan was to cook and clean while Ted and Linda greeted and lured in tourists.
But that day we did not know anyone. We stop at the place where the wooden sign has a large heart painted gold, taste thin slivers of lamb roasting on an outdoor spit set above red-hot coals and smoking embers, then painfully decide to order either the showcased moussaka, stifado, or the giro of lamb. Afterwards we try again to like the muck-thick local coffee.
We’ve been on the island for only a few days, but manage to find our new home in the dark. It's the next morning that Ted finds the windstorm’s gas cap on our doorstep, just then learning he left it those miles away.
The island is currently run by Fascists of military junta fame, so the uneasiness of surveillance versus concern hovers.
‘They know where to find us,” Ted says.
“Are we being watched along with our hippie friends or are we being protected because of Papou and one of his esteemed connections?”
"We'll soon find out."
MUSIC TO COOK BY
Yanni's Aphrodisiac Orange-Almond Marmalade
1.5 lb. oranges, unwaxed and organic if possible
.5 lb. kumquats or splash of kumquat or orange liqueur*
1-1.5 c. honey
1 c. raw almonds, slivered, peeled
Dash of salt or juice of lemon or lime
Optional spicing of your choice, e.g. fresh ginger or cardamon
Scrub the orange rinds and using a vegetable peeler, cut off the rind in strips without removing too much of the white pith. Place rinds in a pot.
Peel off most of the white pith from the oranges and place on a piece of cheesecloth. Chop the remaining fruit, remove seeds and add to the piths.
Scrub the kumquats and slice into thin rounds. Add any seeds to the pile on your cheesecloth. *If using liqueur instead of fresh kumquats, increase the amount of oranges by a half pound.
Tie the cheesecloth into a bundle with string, as in a classic bouquet garni.
Drizzle honey over the citrus and stir until well coated. Add the cheesecloth bundle with seeds and piths. Cover all with water and soak overnight.
Add slivered almonds. (To make your own: blanch whole almonds by boiling them in hot water for several minutes—until the brown skin will slip off. Drain the water, and when cooled remove almond skins and discard. Cut almonds into slivers.)
Add a dash of salt or juice of a small lemon or lime.
Boil all until the mixture thickens and the rinds are soft and tender. Test consistency and sweetness by cooling spoonfuls. If adding more honey bring to a boil. The jelling temperature is best at 221 degrees Fahrenheit if you use a sugar thermometer.
When the mixture is ready for spreading remove the cheesecloth and store marmalade in various ways from short term to long term: refrigerate, freeze, or preserve by the boiling waterbath method in jars.
Consume in small quantities.