The evening was mellow; Venus and Mars glistened playfully on a clear, ink-blue sky, and there was a floating brightness in the air, bestowing an illusion of glow on the marble ruins of Athens. Plaka’s narrow alleys remained empty, dotted with a few scattered pedestrians whose presence reinforced rather than softened the quiet solitude of the dusk. It was Wednesday, on a February night.
We entered Amaltheia creperie on Tripodon street – both the shop and the lane being unusually quiet, as if in a reverie of their own.
“I come here since 1989,” my friend noted.
“You keep a diary with the dates of your visits to the various cafes and restaurants?” I marveled.
“No, no,” she smiled. “It is just that this place has a story.”
I sat more comfortably on my chair and looked around: a few marble-covered tables, polished wooden chairs of the traditional Greek coffee-shop style, a couple of masks and streamers hanging from the ceiling as seasonal decorations for the carnival period, a juke-box at the corner, a big vase with a bouquet of fresh white lilies, and soft jazz music playing in the background. There was a homey coziness in the place, maybe emphasized by the fact that we were almost alone.
We ordered crepes and hot chocolate – their must-try spécialités, as I was told – and, once settled and relaxed, I turned to my friend:
“I am listening.”
“In 1989,” she started “I had just returned to Athens after spending my adolescent years in Patra, where we had moved due to my father’s job. Even though upon leaving the capital I had many friends, time and distance separated and estranged us, so, when I came back, I had to reconnect with the city and grow new roots.
One morning, while ambling through Plaka, I passed by Amaltheia. It looked quite modest, nothing very interesting, yet, the sign “dairy-creamery products” caught my attention and, on an impulse, I entered, not prepared to buy anything – I didn’t have any money with me anyway – but rather to satisfy my curiosity.
I was greeted by the owner, Mr. Dimitris, a middle-aged man of a rather ordinary appearance who would pass unnoticed if not for the brightness of his eyes, and who, as per the sign of the store, initially produced and traded only dairy products. He even showed me the churns he used for milk and yogurt.
‘Let me show you something new now,’ he said once the initial tour was completed. ‘Have you ever tasted a crepe?’
Crepes were still new in Athens back then, and, admittedly, neither had I eaten one, nor did I know what it was.
‘Then, I will prepare one for you. Try it and let me know your opinion.’
I protested, feeling quite embarrassed, as I could not pay for it.
‘I didn’t ask for money,’ he smiled, dismissing my protest with a wave of his hand as if it were an annoying fly. ‘Your opinion is more than enough.’
Soon, a plate with a large crepe, stuffed with cheese, bacon, and ham blended with a dash of sour cream, landed in front of me. The size and quality have remained intact over the years but, among the growing variety of options, that first crepe I tasted remains my favorite one.
‘A French lady who passed by the shop a few months ago suggested that I introduce crepes to the menu,’ Mr. Dimitris continued, swiftly producing a bunch of photocopies with the story of the crepe’s origins.”
“I did not know crepes have a story of their own…”, I murmured, interrupting the story.
“Me neither,” replied my friend. “Crepes though used to be the food of the poor up in Brittany, in northern France. They were pancakes filled with whatever scraps of food were available, prepared by small restaurants at the port to serve the fishermen upon their return ashore. Soon, they were accompanied with cider – served either warm or at room temperature – as a soft alcoholic option instead of beer or wine. Today, in France, crepes are still served by default with cider, even though they evolved from their humble origins into a gourmet dish.”
We munched for a while in silence. A few more people had arrived in the meantime, occupying a couple of tables close to the windows. Tranquility seemed to be carried on the soft jazz melodies that continued to converse with the evening silence.
“Gradually,” my friend continued, “this place turned into a second home for me, filling the void that I had found upon my return to Athens. I would recede here to relax, think, or study for my exams. I used to occupy a table in the corner, order just a cup of coffee or chocolate – I could never afford more – and I would remain for hours bent over pages of Civil or Commercial Law, lost in the tangled details of articles and paragraphs. Mr. Dimitris kept hovering around me, huffing and puffing, sharing my anxiety, leafing through my books trying to understand their content, guessing when I would be starving, always offering something “on the house” – especially a fresh orange juice – to keep me going. My student life has been imprinted on these walls; my fingertips are on the tables. I still inhale the stale aroma of my frayed, worn books mixed with the scent of melted chocolate and freshly cooked crepes wafting in the air. Years passed, and I kept coming here, alone or with my newly-acquired friends. Sometimes, I would even bring my guitar and sing the evenings away to the great joy of the owner and the soft satisfaction of the customers.”
She stopped, lost in reminiscence. “I was bolder back then,” she concluded with a grin, “ready to jump into life without second thoughts as if there was no tomorrow. I guess I have grown up now, for timidity has finally caught up with me.”
The waiter poured more water into our glasses and removed the plates from our table. More people entered as he dimmed the central lighting, and the glow on the faces seemed to reflect the soft light of decorative garlands that curled on the benches and walls. The music changed to chansons françaises, and along with it, there was a shift in the air: imperceptible, yet tangible.
“Then, I went abroad, and, for a long time, I did not manage to pass by here. During the few days I would spend in Greece, I would rarely stay in Athens, which put a stop to my strolling in the old neighborhoods. It was several years later that I came back to Amaltheia. I opened the door and felt like I was coming home. I sat at my favorite table by the window and ordered a hot chocolate. The place had remained the same: the vase with the fresh lilies, the juke-box – operational as always –, the jazz music, the ambiance. It was all familiar and homey. Only the people had changed, I could recognize none. I asked for Mr. Dimitris. ‘He died,’ they told me. I almost heard the sound of pain inside me. It was as if I had lost someone very close to me.”
She remained silent for a while, her gaze deep into the dark chocolate sediment at the bottom of the mug.
“I still come here frequently,” she finally whispered in a quiet tone. “I find the familiarity comforting, and the quality of the food is anyway superb. But, mainly, I come here for him: to feel him again hovering around me, an additional protective figure of my youth, ready to listen to my anxieties and fears, keen to soothe them with a glass of fresh orange juice. Most places today miss this human touch that turns a simple store into something more than a haunt. We might have forgotten that we can make a difference even with the tiniest of actions: a nod, a glance, a word of courage coming from the heart.”
We got up to leave. I looked around for the last time and felt Mr. Dimitris’ presence, still playful in the nooks of his shop, swaying at the sound of his beloved jazz music, poising between two worlds, carried forward through the love and authenticity he shared. I never met him in person. But, somehow, I had made his acquaintance, and my life was now richer and more colorful.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
Special thanks to Nancy for sharing this story with me!