Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"You must earn your Ouzo"

Costas, the silver-haired chairman of one of Athens's leading companies pronounces, in perfect King's English, "You must earn your Ouzo."

We don't know this man. He is a friend of a friend. But, for him, the fact that we are friends of his friend is a big deal. He has welcomed us into his home, so we feel obliged to earn some Ouzo. Ten minutes later, in borrowed swim suits, flippers, and scuba masks, we waddle down to the beach in front of his house in the Voutakos section on the island of Paros. "This is a good beach," he says. He then points south. "That is a better beach." He then points north, around a rocky point, about a half mile away. "That is the best beach. Today, the good beach will have to do."

And then we're in the water, swimming toward the rocky point. We are propelled by flippers, and are bounced around by the waves. A half hour ago, the idyllic windmills that dot the coast line seemed so serene. But now they are just another reminder of the powerful gusts that start in June, and last throughout the summer. Those gusts are making the surf feel like a giant mogul run. And we are feeling like first-time snowboarders, without the option of pulling over to the side of the slope to catch our breaths.

Costas doesn't need flippers, and he is leading the way. He is gliding through the waves like a methodical fishing boat. He counts his swim strokes. If he doesn't make one thousand strokes, he will swim around in a circle at the end for a few more minutes.

About half-way to the rocky point, we finally get a rhythm going, and we start to notice the terrific sights through the eye-blue water below us. A half dozen varieties of small fish dance around corals, and in and out of small caves. Tiny sea urchins dot the rocky floor.

Our "little swim" to the rocky point and back is indeed rewarded with Ouzo, in the drink's most refreshing form: over ice, with a good dose of water. It's like liquorish-ade, and it was well worth the workout. Costas does this twice a day, every day. "I like my Ouzo, but I have to earn it."

We enjoy our first Ouzo on an open patio surrounded by a vineyard and vegetable garden. We are joined by Costas' wife Anthi, and her sister Kalli -- both educated at American universities, and delighted to share their Sunday afternoon with total strangers from the United States and Sweden. We then move on to a mid-day lunch of octopus, fish roe spread, Greek salad, beans, olives, and local baked bread. Everything is local, it turns out, and everything is fresh and exquisite. The olives are home grown; the olive-oil cold-pressed.

The conversation dances from politics and the economy to an extended discussion of food and agriculture. Kalli is a devotee of Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Julia Childs and Barbara Kingslover. Needless to say, she and Kristen become fast friends.

Another couple drops by -- George and Sophiana. They're not staying to eat; they simply wanted to invite us over to dinner later in the week. A third couple -- visiting Brits -- drop in half-way through the meal. They're not late ... actually, they're just in time for the main course: a local fish that looks like trout but tastes like lobster. That is about when the second Ouzo arrived. Evidently, we earned more than one. And then, the final delicacy: karathopita -- walnut cake, smothered in honey.

When we are finally escorted back to the ferry for the ride across the channel to Anitparos (i.e. opposite from Paros), we ponder our good fortune and try to figure out when we are next going to earn some Ouzo.

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