The Aunt, the Blood, the Shrimp and his Tailor

On Sunday morning we went for a visit to our ‘Aunt’ Irene. A feisty character from a Kazantzakis novel if ever there was one, Irene is the same age as my grandmother and, only half-jokingly, claims that she married her husband purely so that she could have my grandmother as a sister-in-law. Irene: “If she had stayed on Rodos, people would think we were lesbians, we were that close.” My mum and I sat watching her speak, trying to glean as much understanding of the Greek as possible from her formidable expressiveness. However, thanks to Anna and John’s translations, I can now offer you a portrait of Irene with (more or less) her own words:

On George Bush: “Whenever I see him on TV, I make the screen filthy with my own spit!” (Irene pronounces the name Bush with such loathing and guttural intonation that his name sounds more like “Brrrrrrsh”)

On my not speaking Greek: “What?! Are you a Turk?”

On Turks: “If you make a Turk your friend, make sure you’re carrying a stick.” (‘friend’ and ‘stick’ rhyme in Greek)

At the age of 79, she still rides her bike to her job as a tea lady at the law courts. When Anna asked if she wore pants when she rode, Irene replied: “No. I wear a dress. It’s good air conditioning. Plus, I can show a bit of leg. My legs aren’t creased yet, you know.”

Anna’s favourite expression the last two weeks has been “My parents were born on Symi, my brother and I were born on Rodos … Their surnames are Polias and Diamantakis”. On Symi, in particular, these facts would often cause the black-dressed, toothless old women to do their best Derek Zoolander impersonation while trying to scrape together in their memory the remnants of long-distant friendships, acquaintances and dalliances. One fine day on Symi, we were sitting at a café with our metrio coffees and limonada when there appeared a woman with an uncanny resemblance to my yiayia (grandmother). She didn’t turn out to be related but she did have a cousin that was a Polias and she knew that the owner of the neighbouring newsagent was a Diamantakis. That’s the way it’s been … “There’s a Polias that builds boats here”, “My father was friends with a Diamantakis”, “Your surname is Polias? Then you must be from Symi, because that name comes from Symi”, “I knew you were from here because of your dialect” etc etc.

So, it was with no great surprise that, here on Rodos, we ended up dining at a restaurant run by a family from Symi that had moved to Rodos at around the same time as our family. We were attracted to it by its simple, unpretentious menu that didn’t have Scandinavian flags plastered all over it, or any pictures of the food (a rarity in the charter-tourism madhouse of Rodos). Like so many times before, as soon as Anna dropped in a smattering of Greek to speak to the owner there were questions about where we were from and the like. Hearing our name, he raced back to the kitchen and shortly afterwards there emerged a small man, shrunken on every axis apart from his soup-spoon-sized earlobes, who had a tuft of grey hair sprouting like bougainvillea from the top of his balding scalp. He knew my grandfather, he knew my grandmother and he remembered their kids. In 1966, when the Poliases had returned to Rodos from Mt Gambier for the year, this man worked as a tailor in a little shop ten steps from where his son now owned a restaurant in the Old Town. My grandfather worked as a cobbler across the alley from him. My father and the restaurateur were born in the same year and had played together on a number of occasions (fortunately, there were no grudges left over from laneway fights). The parallels between our families continued in that they had emigrated to New Jersey in 1968, one year after the Poliases returned to South Australia. However, unlike our family, theirs had returned to Rodos permanently twenty years later. The result, a family-run restaurant on an island where they are regarded and regard themselves as foreigners. It is a familiar migrant story: displacement, loss of belonging, torn identity. They were aliens in the States and they are now aliens in Greece. They wished they had stayed in America. Of course, if they had, we wouldn’t have been able to sample their exquisite cooking (or is that being selfish?). Mussels steamed in white wine, lightly floured calamari, the to-die-for Symi shrimp, perfectly grilled vegetables and more, all topped off by a complimentary shot of limoncello to cleanse the palate. We’ll be back there every night if possible.

See the photos