Water is the most elemental ingredient of a Greek meal. It is life and survival reduced to the contents of a glass. As Henry Miller wrote in The Colossus of Maroussi, “…everywhere I saw the glass of water. It became obsessional. I began to think of water as a new thing, a new vital element of life. Earth, air, fire, water. Right now water became the cardinal element.” So it was during my Greek stay too. Yet, as much as some travelers to Sitia, wanted to follow Miller’s path, to contemplate and speak poetically about the elements and their sacred qualities, such aspirations were being altered by fate.
A few were immediately conscripted, and most transportation stopped. Instead of just water, visitors were forced to be preoccupied with vehicle fuel. We were grounded in Sitia and on Crete, while preparations were being made for war. While there was still a functioning taxi or two in town, gasoline was being rationed, and the taxis could only be used for emergencies.
Amidst this state of siege in picture paradise, Jo, a Greek student, who I’d met during the Piraeus-to-Crete ferry ride, stopped by the villa. She invited me and Chris, an Australian, to go to pick grapes at her aunt’s vineyard. We met at five in the afternoon in the plaza. Jo’s aunt had succeeded- under false pretenses- in convincing one of the cab drivers to take us to the vineyard. It was only up the road, another kilometer or two past Madame Victoria’s, but Aunt was not the type of lady to walk. Predilections aside, she was also wearing-high-heeled shoes that weren’t suitable for walking very far in comfort.
When we reached the vineyard- rather than finding a sickbed or another woeful destination- the driver realized that he’d been duped. It caused a row with Aunt of considerable length and drama. While I couldn’t follow the verbal argument in Greek, their hand waving and wringing provided the gist of it in gestures. He was worried about both fuel and fines. Without reaching a resolution with Aunt, the driver finally abandoned us to the land and drove off. In spite of Aunt’s pleading, he would not return to take us back to town.
My focus quickly shifted to the lovely spot. I soon forgot both the driver and the war preparations. There were sand- and rock-covered tracks leading back to the grapevines, which sat on a slope amidst almonds and pomegranates. By then, the afternoon was heading toward the blue hour: The sea in the distance was a particularly deep blue color set off and intensified by a frame of almost equally blue mountains. The ripe grapes were violet blue, and I imagined that I was tasting the color as I swallowed my first bite of their succulent sweetness. Once again, a sensual border had become fluid. I wished that I could paint the grapes. It seemed like a way to capture their essence, yet I knew too that no still life could fully contain the spirit of such grapes. They too responded to light as heat and were living and flourishing and changing even as we stooped to pick them.
Chris and I were mostly useless as workers. We probably ate more than half of what we picked. We couldn’t resist, for we were unaccustomed to warm grapes, fresh from the vine, a taste that seemed like an edible spirit of place. Jo and Aunt excused us nonetheless. They seemed less interested in the quantity of grapes that they took home, and more concerned with preventing waste. Aunt knew- in spite of her town clothes and physical languidness- that the grapes would begin to ferment if they baked on the vines for another day or two. She had to seize their moment, whether there was a war going on or not.
After we’d picked the grapes, we also collected snails. They seemed to be everywhere. We picked them off the base of trees, off the grapevines, and off other unidentified, fragile plants that seemed too slender to bear the snails that they were supporting. Jo said that the snails would be good to eat and told Chris and me to keep them. She instructed us on how to prepare them in the tiny communal villa kitchen that neither of us had ever used. Jo became insistent that Chris and I should eat a simple repast in Sitia that we would prepare with our own hands.
We walked home at sunset. Along the way, we collected a few sprigs of flowers that Jo said opened only at the sunset hour. I wanted to press at least one in my journal as a souvenir of the excursion. It felt as if the blue hour, the dark, juicy grapes, the unexpected snail gathering, and the place-induced sense of well-being had made us open up like sunset flowers too. I wanted to carry away a memento of the occasion and hoped the flower would embody its essence: In the future, when I looked at the flower, it would be a trigger for remembrance in the way that a wine can be the pressed essence of sun, soil, and grape history.
En route, we stopped at the trough of a neighbor for a drink of water. The pause was another watery step in a Sitia day that seemed to be fueled by careful relationships with water. Aunt grumbled some of the way, since her shoes pinched and her soles hurt from the high heels. She may never have walked that far before in her life. However, even she grew quiet as time passed. Maybe Aunt could see the magic of the evening through our thrilled traveler senses. Sometimes the traveler without even realizing it also bears gifts. When we reached the villa entrance, we all embraced as much to heal any outstanding disgruntlements as to say farewell. Then, Chris and I departed with our bags of snails.
We deposited them in the communal kitchen and found some battered and blackened pots and mismatched dishes of irregular sizes. Neither of us had prepared or even eaten snails before. Our efforts became quite a fumble of Jo’s meticulous instructions. We let the water boil over and extinguish the light on the stove. Then, we let the boiling stop once the snails were in the pot. When we realized what had happened, we had to bring the water to a boil for a second time. Our final recipe was an improvisation and mélange of Jo’s original instructions, our bungling efforts to execute them, the German guests’ kibitzing, and Madame Victoria’s gift.
“First, clean the snails by scraping them with a knife,” Jo had advised. “Then put them into cool water. Discard the ones that float, since they are probably dead. Transfer the remaining snails to a pot of boiling water. Cook them for about five minutes. Drain them and shell them.” We added- “assembly-line style”- to her instructions for shelling. This involved use of a board, a stone, and a strong male German arm for cracking. Finally, there were two sets of hands for picking the snails out of their shells. “Serve them with a sprinkle of lemon juice, salt, and pepper,” Jo had concluded.
There were variations to her last instruction to consider. Even she had offered the alternative to eat the snails au natural, but added, “Then drink ouzo with them.” The Germans insisted upon contributing thick slices of bread for mopping up the lemon juice, after they had also provided the lemons. We found the salt and pepper stashed among the kitchen utensils. There was also some discussion about using olive oil and vinegar to flavor the snails.
Madame Victoria had come out of her own kitchen, when she heard the unusual frenzy that was emerging from the guest kitchen. She watched our efforts and negotiations attentively and silently, but offered no new advice about how to salvage and serve the snails. Finally, she headed off to her own larger and better stocked kitchen. She wasn’t gone for long. Madame Victoria reemerged a minute later. In her hands, she carried a platter of earthy, garlicky olive oil-dressed potato cubes, slender green beans, and peppery tomatoes that were nearly dissolving into a rough sauce.
Her garnish for the snails, which was really a dish in its own right, was the most delicious of the choices. How could it have been otherwise, since so many of the ingredients in the dish came from her garden? In their vegetable flesh, they contained the miracle of the water, the balance between heat and light, and the tender and devoted care of Madame Victoria. Through her vegetable dish, she extended the same nurture to us. Chris and I bloomed for the second time, becoming evening flowers under Madame Victoria’s tending. If there were any still-closed shells left among the other guests, they opened as we ate. There were no longer strangers among us as we were all susceptible to friendly warmth. We had responded to Madame Victoria’s hospitality and generosity. They seemed to never stop growing inside her. Amidst a war, through her guidance and the thin line between Greek public and private space, we’d established our own peaceable queendom at the villa.
Joan Haladay lives in Northern Manhattan. She has prepared indexes for many books. Luso-Brazilian interests are her avocation. She likes to write fiction and non-fiction about place, travel, food, and literature. Her work has been published in Travelers’ Tales Provence, Travelers’ Tales The World Is a Kitchen, The Brasilians, Under the Sun, Small Press, Independent Publisher, and the New York Times “Metropolitan Diary.”