Battle Hymn of the Greek Gyro
Αλλά είναι ακόμη δυνατό να μεταδώσουμε με λόγια τα συναισθήματα που γεμίζουν μια τέτοια δημιουργία? (Greek to you?)
At the beginning of this awful thing some of us tuned out, some tuned in, but whoever you were you still had to eat. There is no distancing the Athenian from the realm of the gustatory, although the rapidity with which denizens of this ancient metropolis went from street food junkies to home delivery ninjas still astonishes me.
And today I was reminded why. On a gorgeous, sunny day in June the little square near my apartment, Platia Varnava, should be packed with people at sidewalk cafes, young folks at this one, older ones at that one, kids kicking around soccer balls by the periptero (newsstand)...and yes there are some humans around—but looking about mostly what you see are empty tables. I slip into my favorite souvlaki place and the familiar faces are happy, I think, to see me though it's difficult to tell because if anybody's smiling it's hidden behind a neat black mask. I am wearing a mask, too. My Greek enunciations, which are pretty bad to begin with, are even worse when they're trying to get past a mask. But we have to keep them on, for now. This crisis is the epidemiological equivalent of a Maroon 5 or Dua Lipa track—just when you think you're out of earshot there it is on the radio again. The more people come out, the louder the bad music could get. Everybody knows it, nobody talks about it.
Not when ordering your gyro, anyway. My colleague Contessa Brewer just interviewed Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York, touching on topical concerns ranging from emotional to economic. But as terrific an interviewer as Brewer is, and as charismatic as Jean-Georges is, what struck me about the exchange is how essential food is to the flow of a city; food not only feeds, it fuels creativity and energizes urban rhythms; I could actually deal with a New York City without Broadway but one without a decent bagel? Forget it. You could take a week's foodie vacation in Paris just to hunt down the best pain au chocolat in town (I've done it), and to me the reopening of cafes in Paris is far more significant than switching on the elevators at the Eiffel Tower. Without her cafes, Paris is just a phantom on the Seine.
And yet! Where there was enthusiasm there is apprehension, where there was the lighthearted quest for a new flavor or urban thrill, if you will, now there is fear. Not everywhere; younger Athenians seem unfazed. But my neighbors still hardly go out. "It's easier to cook, or order delivery," they tell me. Maybe they're right: a young Swede who broke his quarantine may have inadvertently brought coronavirus to Crete. Americans still can't fly directly to Athens. Anxiety is the new normal and as everyone knows, opening the floodgates to travelers from all over the world won't fix things this time...in fact, well—that's where the whispering starts.
As night falls in Pagrati and I look down Astidiamantos Street, or maybe it's Iofontos, to that big stylish dinosaur of a hotel, the Hilton—dark as Broadway circa 2020. If you're someone who thrives on posh hotel rooftop bars and ridiculously overpriced craft cocktails (hand raised!), it's enough to make your heart sink. You think of the wildflowers you didn't see this spring and the colors only the birds saw or the hand you could not hold. So you turn in the other direction, gulp the dry night air and through your damn mask you inhale the scent of an orange blossom—Athens will not be stopped—and summon a sign of hope. And you just don't know. You try to steer clear of melodrama, but then you find yourself at the corner of Kononos and Thironos and there she is, the Parthenon, floating floodlit and stark naked against the ink of the Athenian night, but revealing nothing. Avoid melodrama? Greece is drama.
And Greece is food. Even in the most wretched of times, you do as I said above have to eat. Come Spartans, Persians, Germans or come what may, this land has always crackled with big ideas and myriad tastes. "My" little souvlaki place in Varnava Square, I will swear on a stack of Bibles as long as they aren't from Amazon.com, turns out the best gyros on this messed up planet of ours.
I salute the small Greek business owners and workers who are struggling through this odious crisis but doing their best to make the best of it all the same. Because Greece is drama but it's also persistence, patience, beauty, courage. My allegiance may be to the 'ol red white and blue but my heart (if the Internet barons still allow us to have one) is with the blue and white.
Greece is waiting for you, America...Mykonos, ruins and all.
(Including the best and generously portioned gyros which—though I probably shouldn't say this—at the equivalent of $2.83 is one hell of a steal.)