"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.