When I lived in the small town of Preveza on the west coast of Greece, I took up running. I was usually not running from anything or anyone, but for purposes of physical fitness. I would wake up at 6:30 a.m., run for about an hour down the beautiful Mediterranean coast before turning back and jogging home.
My large, airy, white-washed apartment in the small town of Preveza was positioned just below an old woman who spoke absolutely no English, who I referred to as Greek grandmother. Greek grandmother was approximately four feet tall. Her black, knitted shawl was an integrated part of her body. Because she had no grandchildren, poor Greek grandmother was lonely and had few activities to fill her day. Hence, she was always looking to rope in unsuspecting new friends to feed and talk to. I was a ripe victim; young, naïve, new in town, and void of Greek language comprehension, I was unable to decline an invitation.
My first real meeting with Greek grandmother came one beautiful morning as I was returning from my run. Greek grandma was perched on her balcony, waiting for me to appear. As I approached our small apartment building, she stood up and yelled at me in incoherent Greek, waving aggressively for me to come up to her apartment. Sweet, old Greek woman wants to make me some coffee perhaps? How nice! How could I say no?
I walked up to Greek grandma’s apartment and she opened the door with a wide, toothless smile. Come in, come in! she mimed. Greek grandma sat me down at the kitchen table and commenced conversation.
It turns out this old lady had lots to talk about – Greek culture, her family, Star Wars, knitting, horses, swimming, and the political state of Greece in the 1950s. I’m really just guessing here, since I couldn’t understand a single fucking word of anything she said.
“Ela makta tha kristosa nichta la pado,” she would tell me.
“No! His own sister!?” I’d respond.
“Umatar baran deptha sigma chi!”
“Oh, that bitch!”
“Ela! Makala dabu nichta na!” Greek grandmother exclaimed as she placed two pieces of freshly toasted bread on a plate and extended it to me.
“Oh, OK, I’m down for some toast,” I said, reaching for the plate. I didn’t even have a toaster at my place.
“Oxi! Bala thame data la!” Greek grandmother shrieked, retracting the plate.
“Oops… OK,” I responded, pulling back my reach. I must have misunderstood.
Then it became apparent that Greek grandma just hadn’t finished preparing the toast.
Greek grandmother reached into a cabinet for her unrefrigerated heaping plate of butter. No need for dairy products to go in the fridge here. Open air is just fine; Greeks like to rock the cabinet-butter. Greek grandmother took a knife, sliced off about half of the pile of lard, and began slathering it on the toast. “Slathering” might not be the right word, since the final result was approximately a three inch layer of butter on the piece of toast. Wow, grandma, don’t you think you’re overdoing it with the butter, there? Maybe she’s going to divide that half pound of butter between the two slices, I thought. Right?
Wrong. Greek Grandmother went in for a second heap of butter. First hypothesis down the drain. Greek Grandma adds the second half pound of butter to the same piece of toast. A full pound of butter now on slice #1, she followed suit by copying her butter distribution method on slice #2. I wasn’t completely convinced that the composition of the bread was going to hold under the weight of all that lard.
As I watched Greek grandma’s preparation, I prayed this toast was for her, her absent daughter, or perhaps one of the ten cats that were prancing around my feet. Jesus Christ, I had just run ten fucking miles! I had no interest in ingesting two full pounds of lard for breakfast.
Greek grandmother reached into a tall cabinet and took down a ceramic bowl with a lid. It looked like a sugar bowl. I definitely didn’t need any sugar in my coffee with all that butter. Maybe I’d take a half teaspoon just to be polite.
Greek grandmother lifted the small lid of the bowl, inserted a spoon, and retracted said spoon with a heaping pile of sugar. She dumped the heap on toast slice #1. Good God, woman! You trying to make me fat and give me diabetes? She followed suit with slice #2, and once completed, held out the plate to me.
I know what you’re thinking: I could have just politely declined obesity-diabetes toast. But as Greek grandmother held out her masterpiece to me, look of joy and loneliness so apparent on her face, her four foot stature barely able to reach my frightened gaze, I just couldn’t say no.
“Efhadisto poli,” I muttered, thanking her in Greek.
I sat down, preparing psychologically for the mouthful of lard and sugarcane I was about to ingest. It’s all in your head, I chanted silently, as I always do when I’m about to eat something that will most likely induce instantaneous vomiting.
I tried not to wince as I sunk my teeth into the soft mess of fat and sugar.
And I ate the whole damn thing.
And I didn’t vomit, not even once.
Now, being polite and eating things like lard sugar toast is a Catch 22. Greek Grandmother loved me for it, and I saved face for all Americans ever visiting Preveza by eating her Greek treat (you can all thank me later). However, Greek grandmother, now believing that I loved her special breakfast, would wait for me every morning at 8am when I returned from my run, wide, toothless smile on display, her table already set with butter and sugar.
Needless to say, I became quite an avid runner that year.