By Fred A. Reed
During the three years I lived in Athens several of my places of residence were situated on the Street of the Highwaymen and Brigands (Armatolon kai Klefton, in Greek) on the north slope of Mount Lykavitos. It was named for the armed bands of Greeks and Albanians that waged hit-and run warfare against the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled the land known today as Greece. (A cynic might comment that such people are currently running the country.)
Lining that street, whose hard-packed earth turned to mud after a rain, were rooming houses that catered to students at the University of Athens, just a short bus ride away. There I too rented a room after moving to the city, for I had academic ambitions. But soon enough I thought better of it, and enrolled in what the Greeks called “the University of the People”, where courses consisted of daily and intensive interaction with one’s neighbours, with shopkeepers, with barbers and coffee-house waiters and anyone else who would take the time to correct me. Such people were, to my immense good fortune, a multitude. Like a sponge I absorbed everything.
Ah yes, the room. Its furniture consisted of a bed, a table, a straw-bottomed chair, a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, and a kerosene-fired space heater on which I prepared my meals and close to which I huddled, overcoat draped over my shoulders, as I attempted to read the works of Nikos Kazantzakis in the original: the reason I’d gone to Greece in the first place.
While brief, the Athenian winter could be bitter. Icy wind whistled through cracks in the door, and rattled the shutters that covered the room’s one window. To reach the seatless toilet—more like an outhouse—I had to cross, shivering, a courtyard. As toilet paper was unavailable, we used the pages from gossip magazines torn into quarters and impaled on a nail.
Cretan students come up to Athens to make something of themselves inhabited the other rooms. Radical to a fault, these young men conceived me as their project. It was three against one. I never stood a chance. In my primitive Greek I attempted to engage them in argument, only to be corrected, linguistically and politically. Vigorously shaken and then set aright.
Come evening I would head downtown to the superintendent’s cubicle at a medium-sized office building. Upstairs, in one of the offices, worked a young lady for whom I’d developed a fancy that was almost totally unreciprocated. While waiting for her to leave her office, at which time I hoped she would gratify me with a glimpse, the super, a former restaurant cook, would ply me with one-dish recipes for my space heater.
One evening, he leaned forward with a gleam in his eye and said: “Fred, here’s one that’ll have you licking your fingers!” It was simple: take a narrow-necked clay jug of the kind used in Greece for millennia, fill it with a mixture of finely chopped meat, rice, onions, spices, an appropriate amount of water and—of course—olive oil. Seal the opening with a flour and water paste and take it to the neighbourhood bakery, pick it up before the noon meal, crack open the jug and enjoy.
What could possibly go wrong?
To the bakery, which lay just down the street and around the corner, I delivered what would be my midday meal early one fine morning.
“Are you sure this will work?” said the baker, as he placed it among the trays of meat and potatoes scheduled for roasting, for in those days household ovens barely existed.
“Can’t miss,” I assured him, describing my impeccable source, and headed downtown for the day’s errands.
Come early afternoon as I stepped from the bus and made my way up the hill to collect my meal I noticed thick black smoke billowing from the bakery. Something must be amiss, I said to myself.
When I stepped through the door, coughing from the smoke, I immediately ascertained what that “something” was. There, on the counter, lay the shards of my shattered jug with the meat-rice mixture still clinging to them. The rest of the remnants had been propelled to the ceiling and the walls when the build-up of unvented steam caused the jug to explode. Fragments had landed in the trays of roasted meat entrusted by housewives to the bakery.
The day’s batch of bread was ruined. Everywhere was smoke and desolation.
“Take what’s left, get out of here and never come back!” snarled the baker. “Only because you’re a foreign student I’m not calling the police.”
Chastened I crept out as other customers glared in disbelief and muttered curses. Once home, in my dank and miserable room, I sat down and ate what had survived: it was still hot, succulent and delicious. As my friend had predicted, I licked my fingers, savouring the meaty rice and spice mixture, quite unlike any meal I’ve ever tasted since, even years later at the three star Oustau de la Baumanière near Arles, in the south of France.
Further along the street, in a northerly direction, lay my ultimate but short-lived residence there. Run by a sternly disciplinarian land-lady called Mrs. Athena, its rooms housed the author of these lines, the soon-to-be physician Manolis Rousakis who had befriended me when I first moved to Athens, and an enigmatic young lady who shared a room with her mother.
Natasha was her name, and its exotic ring matched her equally exotic appearance: flowing black hair, olive skin, dark almond-shaped eyes and a languorous manner. Natasha was not just another pretty—very pretty—face. She was also a vocalist who specialized in the rebétiko repertoire then popular in Greece: music with Turkish overtones, played by bands featuring the bouzouki, with its unique percussive qualities.
The kind of music that thrived in harbour dives and roadhouses on the edge of town, where men danced alone and downed glasses of ouzo, often both simultaneously. Women like Natasha performed in these places; mistresses of the genre, they sang of forsaken love, of loss, of unrequited longing. They wore their hearts on their sleeves; lived and languished for love, just like in the songs they sang.
Natasha’s mother kept close watch over her daughter, and accompanied her on the piano when she rehearsed. Natasha and I got along very well; she would sit on the edge of my bed (just as I was emerging from my afternoon nap) and, in a throaty whisper sang “plunge your knife into my heart with your own two hands.”
Natasha had a guardian protector, a guy—I almost wrote ‘thug’—named Byron who claimed to be a professional boxer and who, judging by the thickness of his neck, I believed implicitly. Had he become suspicious of my intentions? Of his protégée’s fidelity? Did he think her song was metaphorical?
One day he stopped me in the hallway and, slamming his right fist into the palm of his left hand, hissed: “See! This is what’ll happen to anybody who messes with Natasha.”
My idyll on the Street of the Highwaymen and Brigands was rapidly comng to an end. In any confrontation with Byron I was bound to be the loser. My budding intellectual pretentions would avail me not a whit. Chastely I took my leave of Natasha, and with my friend Manolis—soon to be Doctor Rousakis, who with his wife had shared that inimitable meal at the Oustau de la Baumanière with us decades later—relocated to another neighbourhood, one populated by families where I would likely not encounter nightclub singers and their bouncer boyfriends.
What became of Natasha? Years later, back in Athens, I attempted to find out. The rooming house had been demolished to make way for a high-rise apartment building. Mrs. Athena had gone the way of all flesh. It was too late.