I don’t remember what I had that evening. I do remember where it was, though – a taverna halfway down Taverna Street in Aghia Galini. This was way back in 1982.
I was sitting alone at a table just outside the taverna. It was still early in the evening and people were milling about on la volta. Loud groups and silent couples were negotiating the narrow gaps between the already crowded tables spilling out across the street, as they looked for somewhere to eat later, stopping to read the menus, whilst the waiters darted back and forth like flies and the fly zappers got on with their job of zapping flies. Truth be told, one taverna was pretty much like another and there was nothing to choose between them in either the food or the prices. Nevertheless, the tourists liked this leisurely choosing of what to eat and where. It was part of the evening’s entertainment.
I hadn’t seen him arrive: I suppose I only noticed him when I looked up from the book I was reading. He was hovering indecisively by the menu board a few feet from my table – a tall young man with an innocent, bemused expression. When he saw me looking at him he smiled in a good-humoured, lost sort of way. The waiters must have seen him too because one was upon him almost immediately.
“Chip prices. Verr good. You have seat here.”
The waiter indicated a table near mine and the young man sat down obediently.
When my meal arrived I became aware of the young man’s interest in the plate set before me.
“That looks guid,” he said.
“We’ll see,” I said.
He looked puzzled at this and returned earnestly to the menu.
“Why don’t you ask the waiter to recommend something?” I suggested.
His face brightened. “Oh aye, I think I will. That is a guid idea.”
His soft unhurried highland intonation was pleasing to the ear: it gave the impression of a man who trusted in the automatic goodwill of others. I don’t know why but I started feeling a little protective towards him.
When the waiter reappeared the young Scot asked him what he recommended.
“What we have? Is all good. No problem. You like shripp?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“What you have with shripp?”
“Potatoes – chips.”
The waiter wrote a rapid hieroglyph on his pad. “You have salad?” he added.
“Er, yes,” agreedthe young man.
A quick scribble.
“Grik saladz. What you drink?”
“Ah. Oh yes. A beer, I think.”
The waiter wrote it down. “Is all?”
The young man looked unsure of what he was being asked. “I think so,” he said. The waiter disappeared.
The beer, the bread and the salad arrived some ten minutes later and the young man set to enthusiastically. He seemed surprised by the white cubes in the salad, staring at them for a while , then smelling one before popping it speculatively in his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. It was obvious that this was the first time he’d been in Crete or come across Greek food.
Then the main dish arrived, along with a bowl of chips. The shrimps sat on a mound of rice garnished with what looked like seaweed and tomato and cucumber. The seaweed, I later found out, was Greek spinach which does indeed taste more of seaweed than spinach. The aroma wafted pleasantly my way. The dish, I have to admit, looked good enough for an artist to paint.
It was then that I realised that the shrimps were probably what we call prawns. I had been introduced to this exotic delicacy by Berni Inns who served them in wine glasses with lettuce and a thick saladcreamy sort of sauce fancifully named ‘Thousand Island Dressing’ as part of their fine dining experience. So this is what they looked like, I thought, though the beady little eyes were a little offputting. The real thing. Seeing them sitting there in all their armorial glory made me think that Berni Inns were shortchanging their customers.
The young Scot picked one up and without further ado popped it into his mouth. I can still hear the crunching noise the shrimp made. Being well brought up, the young man chomped and chewed with his mouth securely closed. This went on for some time before his tongue appeared and his hand went to his tongue to remove something. In went a second. This time the chomping and crunching was louder, more determined.
Sitting at the table in front of me was a noisy group of young Germans who obviously knew each other well. They had become suddenly very quiet and a couple of them had craned their heads round in the direction of the young Scot. One of them spoke in a low, earnest voice and then the group exploded into subdued guffaws and snortings. Something had amused them.
They kept sneaking looks at the young Scot.
Meanwhile he was still picking out bits of shell from his mouth. Aware that people were now looking in his direction, he smiled bashfully whenever he caught someone’s eye but you could see he did so with growing discomfort at the attention. The German group were now helpless with laughter, taking no trouble to conceal their mirth but having the good grace, at least, to avoid looking at the young man.
But why? I wondered, noticing that they were not alone: others had stopped eating and were staring in his direction with a mixture of amusement and disbelief. Then one of the girls at the German table got up and went quietly over to the young Scot. By now most of the first shrimp was sitting in a neat heap on the side of his plate, but he was still picking bits out of his mouth. She leant over him and smiled. Who knows what confusion of feelings were now raging in him, because the girl was certainly attractive.
“I may?” she asked.
He nodded. He might have been agreeing to anything. She slowly picked up one of the shrimps and demonstrated how to pull it apart. When she had finished she dangled it near his mouth which he gratefully opened. He chewed carefully at first and then with obvious enjoyment. The girl leant forward quickly and kissed him on the forehead. When she stood up there was a spontaneous round of clapping from all the tables. She bowed nicely. Then the young Scot, taking his cue from his pretty rescuer, bowed to all and sundry too. More applause. The girl returned to her seat but I noticed she kept looking in his direction in a fond sort of way.
I still don’t remember what I had that evening.
Incidentally, I often came across the two of them together, the young Scot and his lovely German girl, during that last week of my stay