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Simple Village Life

 cafeneon, LesvosI am a victim of Greek Village Restaurant Syndrome. Anyone who has spent more than a week in a small Greek village knows what this is. You have three restaurants in the village, all in the square within view of each other. One restaurant is good, one is bad and one is OK. Someone who is a tourist will find the good one, hopefully, and will settle on that and never eat at the others. For a tourist life is easy and they have no awareness of the complications that we 'locals' must endure. But for us, we can't just eat at the 'good' restaurant because in the village everything is interconnected and everyone sees what is going on, especially in the restaurant of your competitor right next door.

In our village we have three cafeneons-restaurants in the upper platia, and one in the lower, which is Tryfon's and happens to be the best but does not matter because the other three cafeneons can't see who is eating there unless they send someone down on a motorcycle to spy on him, which I am sure they do on occasion. So in the upper platia we have the new cafeneon which is run by a nice family who know how to cook reasonably well, well enough that it would take a week or so before you really got tired of the food. Then we have Vasso's Zacharoplasteion which is really a sweet shop but because so many old people in Greece have diabetes and can't hang out all day eating baklava and kataiffi, she is also a cafeneon and serves mezedes with her ouzo and even a main dish or two for those old men who don't want to go home to their old wives when they can stay at Vasso's, who happens to be the most beautiful woman in the village and has two or three daughters who are even prettier.

our village cafeneon, lesvosThe third cafeneon is the oldest and is called Michalis' but because Michali has a daughter who is ill he has to go to Athens regularly and so his mother and his father run it and of the three, this one is the least good or in our village terms, the most bad. Because really, besides Tryfon's they are not the kind of places you would return to if you did not live in the village. First of all you have to climb to the upper platia, and second, they all serve the same things which are not meant to grace the cover of Gourmet Magazine or draw praise from Jamie Oliver. They are snacks meant to soak up the ouzo so people can sit all day and drink and talk, instead of becoming insanely drunk like Mitsos. But despite Michalis not having the best food, they do have a saving grace which is when Michalis in not in Athens he opens the little souvlaki shop down the street and you can order from the cafeneon so you don't have to eat the cafeneon food if you don't want to.

So last night after being away from the village all day, Andrea and Amarandi and I went down to the upper platia to eat. Pam and Yaya were eating spaghetti at home because neither of them could bear the walk back up to the house another time, and Arkoudi was feeling sick after another day of drinking wine and ouzo. When we got to the bottom of the road that leads to the upper platia, the new cafeneon (good), had lots of people of all ages and great music and we could smell the grill making sausages and brizoles. Vasso's (OK) had one table and she looked like she was sweeping up, hoping they would leave so she could go out on a date or something. In between at Michalis, his mother was working by herself and there were several tables of old men. This seemed like a good opportunity to have dinner there since we had not really eaten there yet and we have been in our village for ten days and we know that she knows this and also she has seen us go into the new cafeneon several times, and anyway, once we made eye contact there was no way out.

 Cafeneon, LesvosSo we sat down and Mikey, our friend from NY who left America before I was born and never returned, joined us. I ordered ouzo and Michali's mom said she had sikotaria which is usually all the insides of a lamb like liver, spleen, and other odd-tasting things, that go well with ouzo so I ordered that and a salad. When she told us that Michalis was working at the souvlaki shop Andrea ordered two kotopoulo kalamaki (chicken shiskebab on a stick) and Amarandi ordered hirino kalamaki (same thing with pork). I ordered a souvlaki-gyro me pita, which you know is the typical souvlaki rolled up in paper with tomatoes, onions and sadziki, only I wanted to make sure they did not put fried potatoes in, which in my opinion has been the demise of the souvlaki. I still wanted the tomato, onions, sadziki and of course the meat, I made clear to her, "I just don't want potatoes". I poured a half a glass of ouzo and added water and ate one of the three miniscule pieces of liver that came on a bed of fried potatoes, while Amarandi, who did not even have an ouzo, ate the other two. In the meantime Michali's mother had given the order to her granddaughter whose job it was to run down the street, give the paper to her father, and come back with the souvlakia, which she did very well.

lesvos cafeI knew I was in trouble the first moment I saw my souvlaki. There was something that did not look right. Even in the dim light I could see the color was off. It was certainly big enough but whether that was good news or bad I did not know yet, and I feared the worst. Amarandi spotted the first problem. "It has mustard". This was not what I wanted to hear. I had never eaten a souvlaki with mustard, or even a hamburger, and I was not in the mood for experimentation. Somehow I was able to get my mouth around it and take the first bite, only to discover that the mustard was the least of this souvlaki's problems. There was ketchup in it too. And if that was not enough there was also mayonaise. And no sadziki that I could tell, not that it would have mattered. I took one bite in the hopes that all these flavors would somehow merge into something that tasted better than a normal souvlaki. But it was awful. And now my problems really began. How was I going to get rid of it without insulting Michalis, his mother and his entire family? Our village is not one of those tourist towns where there is always a stray dog or cat hanging around waiting for fish heads and other leftovers. There are no beggars on the street who instead of giving them a half a euro you can give them ninety percent of a souvlaki. I was trapped with this massive souvlaki and at this point even the old men at the next table were aware that something was amiss and were watching my every move, so I could not just throw it in the town wastebasket unless I somehow distracted them and Michalis mother. But even throwing it in the garbage seemed like a dangerous option. Whose job was it to clean out the garbage cans? What if they told Michalis they had found an uneaten souvlaki with ketchup, mustard and mayo in one of the town bins? How long would it take Michalis to figure out that it was mine? He is not stupid. Probably he had made that souvlaki special for me and because I was American and he wanted to impress me so he put all those familiar condiments in what would have been a normal souvlaki. He was trying to please me and what did he get in return? Humiliation.

There really was no easy way out for me. The bits of meat on Andrea and Amarandi's kalamakia were becoming fewer and fewer but my souvlaki was not getting any smaller and by now Michalis mother must have noticed. I decided to make my move when she went behind the counter to wash the dishes. I unwrapped the souvlaki and ran to the trash can and threw it away, making sure it fell apart so that anyone investigating later would not be certain if it was one souvlaki or the bits and pieces of several different souvlakia. I had the sense to leave the paper it had been wrapped in on the plate so if you had not been sitting there it would appear that I had eaten a souvlaki. It is true that Mikey had witnessed the whole thing but I was pretty sure he wouldn't talk. One of the guys at the next table had seen as well but it was his word against mine.

Yiannis the Barber, LesvosHere is where it gets complicated. For the last week I have been telling Yannis the barber that I would come down for a shave, and every day I have forgotten, and I can tell he is getting more and more annoyed. I don't want to suggest that it is because he loves money that he is so insistent on me getting a shave. I think he has a genuine love of his job and it bothers him to see me scruffy. He is like an artist who is irritated by an incomplete painting or bad art, or a trash collector who will bend down to pick up an empty bag of potato chips and throw it away even when he is not on the clock. And it is not that I have totally forgotten about getting a haircut. I often remember in the evening, but in a town where everyone drinks ouzo all day and again at night the last thing I want is a drunken barber who uses a straight-razor anywhere near my throat. So when I see him at night and he asks me I tell him avreo which means tomorrow, and with every avreo I can sense the anger level rising in him like a pot of patsa about to boil over until it is no longer a joke, but a humiliation that can only be answered in one way: Vendetta.

So what does this have to do with my souvlaki?

Last night while I was going through my souvlaki ordeal Yannis came to the cafeneon and of course he asked me if I would come for a shave tomorrow and of course I said yes. So why was Yannis at the Cafeneon? Because Yannis is the father of Michalis wife. Michalis who made the souvlaki that I threw in the garbage can that may or may not have been discovered by now. You get the picture? A perfect storm of humiliation, and Yannis is in a position to take vengeance on the stupid American who has brought disgrace to their family. You see, for those of you who are envious of me, that I am able to spend months at a time in beautiful Greek villages, life is not so idyllic and as uncomplicated as you think. In America you can go into a fast food place, take a bite of a hamburger and throw it in the garbage and nobody cares. You paid for it. You can do whatever you want with it and if you never go back to that place nobody will care or even notice. But in a small Greek village where people and events are all related you can't afford to offend anybody. So you give equal time to bad restaurants and if you don't eat the awful thing on your plate, you find methods of getting rid of it in a way that makes people think you liked it and ate the whole thing. And what happens? The next time you go back they remember how much you liked it and give it to you again for free, as a gift, because they are hospitable people.

Lesvos barber shopIt reminds me of the story of Dorian and Yannis the port policeman. Yannis had christened one restaurant Chenoble Kitchen because the food was so bad. Dorian had blabbed to the restaurant owner that Yannis had made up this name for them. So Yannis was going to kill Dorian because now he had to eat all his meals there just to prove he did not call it Chernoble Kitchen. To prove to the owners that he liked a restaurant that he actually hated, Yannis had to eat there every day. And this goes on in every village, every day, every year.

So you see, living in a Greek village is not the simple life because when life is simple we make the simple things complicated. Today I will go for a shave, as many people will do all over the world. But while most of them will be happily making small talk about sports and village gossip and feeling quite comfortable, I will be wondering if the man holding a razor to my throat knows about the souvlaki that I threw in the garbage can last night.

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