Living in Thessaloniki, Greece, in the shadow of Mount Olympus, it feels only natural to claim being shot by Eros’s arrow. [Cupid only works in Italy and was unavailable – it’s out of his jurisdiction.] We both were. We looked. We salivated. We counted down the days until we could meet, scanned the room whenever we walked in, looking and searching for what could satisfy. We were looking for feta.
My friend and I moved to Greece after graduating from college to do a fellowship with a school. We did not know each other before meeting in Greece, and we had to work up to becoming friends. [Me more than her, as I am a raging introvert: I party alone a lot, and by party I mean read a book or watch a movie.] We had to get there, like taking a long journey and doing things and suddenly realizing, like Odysseus reaching Ithaka, you’ve reached the land called friendship. Or you could eat with someone. That works too. It’s faster and more enjoyable than strapping each other to sheep to avoid a Cyclops.
After I had spent a few Sundays in the city wandering around by myself, taking photographs, she asked if she could come with me. I felt an immense pressure to make the day a success because I did not consider myself a cool person and considered her a cool person by all societal standards: she was good at drinking and staying up late and had red hair and ran marathons and had lived in a house with boys and had a nose ring.
It was the first Sunday in October. It was actually the first day of October. I only remember this because of the date on the photograph on my phone. [Yes, I took a photograph on my phone of the food we ate and several on my camera of the scenery, because this is a food piece written by a millennial.] Because we walked up the hill to Ano Poli, the old city, as Greeks do – dressed for the season and not for the weather – we were hot and tired and really, the most significant part, we were hungry. But we were new to hanging out with each other, and neither of us wanted to say that we needed to eat because otherwise we’d soon transform into ugly creatures who scream and wail, which is to say, we would revert back to our toddler selves. The trudging up hills, avoiding cars rounding hairpin curves at high speeds, and sweat had somehow fortuitously placed us at a spot with a view of the sea and a seven to ten minute walk from a taverna recommended to us that week we had decided not to eat at with a group on Friday night. [The gods had rewarded us. Or they were setting us up.] Thank goodness for karma, data, and map apps.
And thank goodness, too, for our timing, as we got a table in a crowded covered patio, the waiter harried and put off by our inability to speak Greek, diners all around us having leisurely Sunday lunches at 2:30 in the afternoon, a practice that has not quite taken on in America. We did it by accident and somehow, again, were afforded good luck. Or the gods were working. [Mostly it was because we were a bit early. Sunday lunch is eaten later in the afternoon, but again, we were hungry.]
The menu was given in English, because when you walk around with someone who has red hair, it’s obvious she’s not Greek, and then it is assumed that you also are not Greek, a thought confirmed by looking into my blue-green eyes. As we sat there, breeze blowing, people laughing around us and ordering more wine, kids playing in the grass across the street, I looked over the menu, and she looked over the menu, and we would look up: “What do you think that is? What is it supposed to be?” Menu translations can be entertaining. But it was also a distraction, as we were again cautious, not wanting to impose our desires for all the food we could eat on the other person. So we picked blindly, focusing on keywords that sounded appealing and playing it safe with the number of dishes.
We ordered something that translated as tomato balls – like a meatball, but with tomato, a meat bourek – a pita-like pastry usually rolled around meat and cheese, an arugula and halloumi and sundried tomato and walnut salad, 500mL of rosé, and the star of the show, feta wrapped in filo drizzled with honey and sesame. Feta. Wrapped in filo. Fried. Drizzled with honey. Sprinkled with sesame seeds [and sometimes slices of hot pepper]. Zing. Did you hear that? That was Eros’s arrow, okay, his arrows, flying through the air straight into our hearts. Or stomachs. Really, it was a full body experience, so the arrow could have hit anywhere.
The filo is crunchy and when you bite into this thing, to me a feta Pop-Tart and to the Greeks, φέτα τηγανητή με μέλι και σουσάμι [phonetically, feta tiganiti me meli kai sousame and translated, fried feta with honey and sesame], the pieces of filo fall in shards, the cheese is soft but not melted, the honey sticks to your lips and face, and the sesame is a tiny bitter crunch against the fat of the cheese and sweet of the honey. Mythology says the gods on Olympus ate ambrosia, but ambrosia is thought to be made with honey, so I think it was actually this, feta wrapped in filo, fried, drizzled with honey and topped with sesame.
When Greeks ask what Greek foods I like to eat, and I say this dish, they scoff, laugh, and exclaim, “That’s not even a food! That’s nothing!” To them, of course. To them it’s not a main dish; it’s nothing special. It’s feta, the cheese eaten every day, sometimes twice a day, but more likely with every meal of the day. To me, and to my friend who ate with me that Sunday lunch, it was the first taste of a cuisine we had only sampled, and mostly sampled in America, where it is not touched by the hands of gods. It was the gateway to many wonders. It was, in short, the moment we fell in love with Greek food.
I don’t remember much else about the meal other than that breeze blowing through the patio and the feeling that everyone must be watching us because we were so clearly outsiders in this new world called dining out in Greece. We ate, me more than her, always, and we talked, and every time there was a pause in the conversation, I worried it was because of me, that I wasn’t interesting enough, that we had run out of things to talk about and still had nine months together and if that was the case this would not be a fun nine months because I had already exhausted all conversation in an hour and this would definitely be the last meal we ate together.
This was not the case [it’s easy to talk about feta]. We ate the food, cleaned the plates, wiped them with bread. Someone told me months later that in Greece, when someone leaves a plate empty at the end of a meal, it is a sign they will have a good husband. My husband will be extraordinary. [As will hers. And both of those men better like Greek food.]
She and I walked back down the hill of Ano Poli, stopping for me to take a few photographs along the way. At the bottom, near the Rotunda, we sat under an awning, drank coffee, and she taught me how to play tavli, or backgammon. We had to play more than one game, as I won the first time, and she – already adopting the pride of Greece – would not stand for that.
It wasn’t an automatic match, and we did not immediately begin spending all of our time together, but after that lunch, we began eating together more often. The next dinner was a couple weeks later at a taverna with two other friends. “All the waiters are anarchists,” our friend said to sell us on the place. [I’m still not sure what that had to do with the food, but I suppose if the food hadn’t been good, the attractive anarchist waiters would be a suitable distraction.] We sat outside, ordered and reordered wine so many times we forgot if we had gotten a refill or not, kept ordering plates, passing and moving them around so as to fit everything. It was good, but there was not feta fried in filo, so the satisfaction level was only so high. Already, we were dedicated to it. Eros’s power does not allow for multiple loves; it is an all-consuming, passionate affair.
The more feta we ate – at every meal in the school’s dining hall and as often as we could outside the school, the more our love grew. My friend wrote poetry to it, called it “feta-rotica,” detailed how it made her feel. Sometimes I feel I’m intruding on her relationship. She and feta are exclusive, hot and heavy [especially when eaten in μπουγιουρντί, a baked cheese dish with peppers].
And the more we ate together, the more we became friends. We have eaten at Cretan places and tiny classic tavernas and updated, trendy places with Restoration Hardware-like décor, outside in the sunshine and inside with a woodstove burning, and we have eaten in places with live music and places we had to walk miles to, a place right after vacation outside of Greece even though we were still a bit queasy from being sick, by ourselves and with others, at lunch and at dinner and all the afternoon hours in between. At each one, the first item we look for is φέτα τηγανητή με μέλι και σουσάμι. It is the thing we keep coming back for. It’s in the honey, I think. All that sticky drizzle on top somehow has kept us together, stuck to Greece. [Or it’s the gods. I’m not fully convinced either way.]
All photographs courtesy of Molly McConnell.
Molly McConnell is a writing coach in Thessaloniki, Greece. She doesn’t speak Greek but works on it every time she opens a taverna menu. Her work can be found in Bad Pony Mag, Wraparound South, Roads and Kingdoms, and elsewhere.