KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Philoxenia
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Thursday, October 11, 2007
In the months prior to this post, I'd been working extra shifts at the restaurant in an effort to save up some extra cash for my holiday in Greece. The closer I got to the date of my departure, it would seem, the further I removed myself from the guests entrusted to my care. As pleasant and down right friendly as I was with my guests-- most often genuinely, I suppose the strain of too many shifts was beginning to seep trough the cracks of my smile. The people who sat at my tables were losing their status as welcomed guests, becoming now customers with open wallets whose purpose was to fund my impending trip. I started muttering unpleasantries under my minted waiter's breath over the slightest inconvenience. Perhaps that's going a bit too far, but I could feel it happening and that's not good, especially in my line of work.

I began to sincerely question the wisdom of running myself into the ground physically and emotionally so that I might be more able to relax on vacation. As a front line player in the hospitality industry, I was losing the sense of what it means to be truly hospitable.

And then I met Dina.

A colleague of mine arranged for me to stay with an old family friend of his in Oia, Santorini. She had a couple of apartments to let. "Great," I said, "How much will it cost? What's her email?" When I asked if I could take a look at her website, my friend gave me a pitying look one might offer a person who has sustained irreversible brain damage. No website. No email. What I didn't know about little old Greek ladies could have filled... I don't know what it could have filled, but it would have to have been big.

"Just trust me. I spent my honeymoon there. You'll love it." Trust me. That's what he says to guests who tell him to select a nice Burgundy for them. Given his rather expensive taste in wine, I had the feeling Dina's place would probably suit me just fine. He made a call and arranged everything for me. "You'll meet her in front of Restaurant 1800 on the 20th between 9:00 and 9:30 pm." That's all the information I had.

I was exhausted when I arrived in Santorini after spending twenty sleepless--thanks to a well-meaning Philipina woman who kept poking my Ambien-drugged arm to tell me not to forget my shoes. As if I were somehow going to walk off the plane for some fresh air over Greenland-- hours wedged into three different plane seats and as many airports and taxis. I showed up at the restaurant with two equally exhausted friends in tow. As we stood in front of the restaurant, I realized that I had just come half way around the world to stay with some woman I've never met, whose accommodations I've never seen let alone received an address for, and that we were meeting her at a rather vague hour. What if she didn't show? I felt rather helpless over the situation and entirely responsible for the well being of my friends.

9:00 came and went. So did 9:30. I began composing my apology to Michael and Dan, who were leaning against the wall of the restaurant, trying to smile. Where else could we stay on such short notice? As I began mentally calculating my now-plummeting credibility rating, a small woman of about 60 in a sleeveless dress came straight up to me.

"Michalis?" she asked. "Neh?", I responded with one of the twelve Greek words I knew. It was Dina. Everything else she said to me was in Greek except "sorry". She was sorry for being a little late, but her explanation was completely lost on me. I didn't much care, I was just so happy to see her. She led us off into the dark streets and down about one hundred steps to our apartment.

As we put our bags down and settled in, Dina talked and talked. I wondered if she thought I spoke Greek because I had been able to say "yes" in her language. That, and the fact that my friend who made the arrangements for us was Greek. Whatever the case, it didn't really matter. I found her fascinating, even in my exhausted state. She brought out a bottle of ouzo, three glasses and some ice. It was clear that we understood each other. Words were unimportant.

In the morning, we were greeted again by Dina's sing song voice. She told us to have a seat, or so we gathered from her hand gestures. The sun was very bright and we were somewhat stunned at the beautiful view we had of the Caldera and surrounding little islands. She opened a large table umbrella to shade us as we sat down to breakfast.

I was expecting some bread and jam with a little coffee-- the typical European breakfast staples. Bread and jam did, in fact come out, but now how I expected...

Dakos, a barley rusk bread from Crete arrived smeared with fresh island tomatoes of a concentrated flavor and fresh feta cheese. She'd even picked the tops off her basil plants to garnish every piece.

The apricot jam she made herself arrived both in a giant glass jar and inside these little cookies she had baked for us while we were sleeping...

Rounding things out nicely were the tiropita she made-- little triangles of phyllo filled with cheese and served with Greek honey, which also accompanied the Yogurt, which is unlike any other yogurt I've tasted.

In the evenings, if she saw us sitting outside, she'd pull out an unlabeled bottle of local white wine, pour us each a glass and leave the bottle or grill us up some octopus. A little pat on the shoulder for me in the afternoon, a fresh towel at night, a cup of Greek coffee in the morning. Everything Dina did seemed to be touched with a sense of grace and humor. She was as warm as the sun on our yet-to-be-burned shoulders. The words she spoke to me weren't necessarily understood, but her meaning was always clear. "You are most welcome."

The Greeks have a word for it, but don't they seem to have a word for everything? In this case, the word is philoxenia. Philos= love, xeno= stranger. Essentially, the word means "hospitality" but that definition is too facile. One enters a Greek household and one is immediately offered a drink and something to eat. Taking care of a guest's wants and needs is deeply ingrained into the culture. There is a sense of generosity that seems completely unstrained. As a guest of Dina's, even though this was ultimately (and I do not mean this cynically) to be a moneyed transaction, I found her kindness was not something that was paid for. My stay with her completely refreshing in every sense of the word. I felt restored. And I am most grateful.

One of the reasons I am grateful is that I was given a refresher course on what it means to be truly hospitable. I think that this souvenir of Santorini is much more valuable to me and my work than any t-shirt or postcard could ever be, certainly. While I'm still basking in the glow of my vacation and as-yet-unfaded tan, that sense of hospitality and warmth is easy to share. But as the tan disappears and I head into foreseeable pressures of the oncoming holiday season, I will remember Dina and how she treated me, and be able to keep smiling as I go get that side of ketchup for that woman who wants to taste about 15 different wines after she's finally settled to the fourth table she's tried on for size. She is a guest, after all.

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Blogger exodus said...

I myself am facing a culture different from my own. Here's how I deal with it.

10/13/2007 2:04 AM

Blogger wendygee said...

Wow! great story...truly touching...I have encountered numerous experiences like yours traveling and that is one of the best parts about visiting other cultures and places...the generosity of strangers...making meaningful connections spontaneously...living for the moment...glad u had a worthwhile vacation! now you can be nice to your customers again ;-)

10/13/2007 10:33 AM

Blogger Clio said...

Dako, wow, so many versions and so wonderful. Such a summer staple and if only I could find those hearty rusks here. In some islands, they soak the rusk in the sea to soften it then put the tomatoes, feta, olive oil. Dako is Greek comfort food.
Philoxenia, yes. I recently read about hospitality is the ability to gracefully encounter the unknown with grace (stranger). It is a virtue.

10/19/2007 1:59 PM

Blogger rusty said...

Michael: Any chance you can share the contact details for Dina, or that you have recommendations for how to find a similar homestay? I will be traveling to Greece with my girlfriend in May, and your post has inspired me to look for a more authentic way to experience the country. Please post a follow-up comment if you have any info. Thanks, Russ.

1/13/2008 8:16 PM

Blogger Michael Procopio said...

Hey Rusty,

Dina's great, but rather difficult to get in contact with. I got the place through a friend who is friends with Dina's daughter. I have no address, email, or telephone contact information. And Dina speaks only a few words of English, but that certainly didn't stop us from communicating with each other. I'd be happy to ask my friend about accomodations. I am just not certain if this residence is a "friends only" sort of thing. I will check on that for you, if you wish...


1/14/2008 11:51 AM


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