It was getting rather late. Late for Londoners, that is. Most Greeks would be arriving at a restaurant after half-past nine (it was something like a quarter to ten) on a warm September evening, even if it were mid-week. The kebab house was typical of the style of London kebaberies: photos of Turkey, Aladdin’s lamps hanging from the ceiling, arabesque red hues covering the walls, with a row of Tunisian wall tiles dividing them, and Greek music playing softly, all alluding to an exotic Mediterranean melange, which in reality does not exist.
“A table for five,” I said to the black-garbed staff member who greeted us at the door. Black is the colour of service workers in London. The kebab house staff wore black shirts and black trousers, the staff at Primark where we would go shopping the next day also wore black, as did the staff at the Italian restaurant where we would have a quick lunch in between visiting exhibitions. Only the Muslim women staffing the museums and clothes stores weren’t wearing black shirts and trousers – they wore black floor-length chadors instead, covering their whole body except their hands and faces.
The waiter waved his arm around the room and told us in his accented English (another London service worker’s characteristic) to sit anywhere we wanted. The place seemed empty, save one occupied table. I felt embarrassed entering the restaurant so late, as if I would be keeping the waiters past their knock-off hour, but our host had warned us that some of the takeaways in the area might have already closed down by the time we got there, and he had chosen the closest eaterie to home. (I suppose we could have come earlier, but our previous view was rather exciting and we lost track of time.)
The table was already set, and the menu cars were brought to the table for our perusal. The word ‘meze’ featured prominently on the card, as it did on the paper placemat. Meze is used in many languages to mean the same thing. But when a Greek sees the word meze, it will be all Greek to him. And our Greek was at that point exploding from our mouths. We sounded just like a Greek TV news broadcast, where the news reader sits in the middle of the screen, with four little open windows on each corner with different people all speaking all at once. Our Greek chatter was immediately picked up by the waiter who came to take our orders.
Έλληνες είστε? he asked, with a big smile on his face. Standing before us was the epitome of Adonis (let’s call him Adonis in this post): a tall, handsome, muscular young man, with an unmistakable fluent not-Cypriot Greek accent. He possessed the perfect proportions of a Greek statue, and in our eyes, his especially good looks and hospitable demeanour represented, precisely and unarguably, the archetype beauty of our country and people. Whatever trepidation I may have expressed initially about the restaurant before we entered it (‘it’s our first night in London and we’re having a souvlaki?’), standing in front of us was proof that we could not have chosen a better place to dine. We felt, in our minds, as if we were in the home of a fellow Greek.
We got talking, in that Greek διασπορά way, where we all ask each other how we ended up in the non-Greek world. Indeed, everyone could tell a different story in answer to this question, even if they are from the same family. Most of us were born in Greece, some were born as Greeks in a faraway land, and one of us was a Greek who wasn’t born Greek. Adonis was a Persian Greek. I recall a group of Persians of the Baha’i faith living in New Zealand; they spoke perfect Greek, having lived a few years in Athens after being granted refugee status there. I don’t know how they arrived in Greece, but Adonis probably does, according to the stories his parents might have told them about how they came to Greece. Eventually some of the people Adonis’ parents arrived with were given the right to travel and live and work in New Zealand. I am guessing that Adonis was born to refugees from the same stock as the people I had met in New Zealand, who never called themselves Iranians. They called themselves Persians.
Adonis had never been to Iran, and had only been in London for two years, as he explained:
“I was born in Athens. I lived in Greece all my life. My parents ran a small shop in an Athens suburb, selling car accessories and sound systems. And then the crisis came. So you can imagine how quickly we went out of business. No one was buying anything any longer. There were no jobs for any of us, my parents and my sister. My brother was still at school.
“Paying the rent suddenly became difficult. We were always worrying about being evicted. We were also worrying about the lack of food. If you live in the centre of Athens and you don’t have any money, you won’t have any food, either. We had put a little bit of money aside from our business. We never thought of savings as something you spend or fritter away on daily living expenses. So when things got really tough, we had to think of a plan. Staying in Athens was not an option. Staying in Greece wasn’t an option either. We were urban people, and we couldn’t make the transition to the rural parts. At any rate, jobs in the rural areas are always seasonal. We’d still have problems paying rent and bills.
Potato soup (with leek)
“Eventually, we made a decision to leave Greece. We had friends in London, and they told us that there were plenty of jobs there for anyone who wanted to work. We left as a family, the five of us. The most important thing for us was that we could remain together. We miss Athens, but we couldn’t live there the way things were. We are all working now, and life isn’t easy anywhere these days, but we are all working, we have a roof over our head, we aren’t hungry.
“For some time before we left Athens, we didn’t have much food in the house, and we didn’t want to spend our savings on daily living expenses, so we ate whatever we had in the house. At one point, all we had was potatoes. My mother cooked the potatoes in different ways. One day, we’d eat them boiled, the next day we’d eat them mashed, the next fried if we got hold of some oil. We had food, but we knew we were eating the same food all the time. We just got so sick of eating potatoes, but we could not do anything else about our predicament at the time. We just waited patiently for a better moment to come…”
Adonis asked us where we were from. “Crete… oh, you’re all better down there. There is tourism, there are jobs, you have food at your doorstep.” We could not disagree. I asked him Adonis if he had been back, and he told us he had:
Potato cakes (with some leftover corn)
“I go back periodically for a visit. All my friends are there, I left a whole life behind in Athens. Sometimes the weather gets you down here. But it’s hard everywhere and all places have their good sides and bad sides. It’s hard… But it’s also scary. Whenever I am returning to the UK, I get stopped at border control. My passport is Greek, but my name isn’t, so I’m always asked to stay behind while they conduct their searches. I get delayed by about two hours before I get through…”
Adonis told us his story while simultaneously serving our meze (or more correctly, mezedes, in the Greek plural). “I told the chef to give you the works,” he assured us, “I hope I haven’t forgotten anything!” His smile was never absent while he spoke to us. Our appetite had of course diminished somewhat on hearing his story, but we did our best to eat everything up, to give a good impression, which was not really that hard, since the mezedes were very tasty.
I don’t think we will ever forget Adonis. If we travel again to London, I intend to look him up. If I find him at the same place, that’s a good sign. If he’s left, that’s even better. It means he will have advanced in his life and not remained stagnant.