Estuaries

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The picture’s terrible, but I’m afraid it’s hard to take appetizing pictures in a cramped corner of an Athenian restaurant. It’s chili-fried tofu, by the way.
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Trilingual menus!

Not much in a way of pictorial evidence for this one, friends.  My apologies. I ate too quickly. As Caldwell says, I regret nothing.

So I visited a tiny Chinese restaurant in the middle of Syntagma Square, Athens. Tucked away to the left of the hipsterville Ermou Street, was a little pan-Asian enclave of sushi joints, Korean barbecues, and the ubiquitous noodle shops for gullible tourists. About as far west as the Silk Road goes, the bashless “East Pearl Restaurant” plies its trade feeding hungry Athenians, and the Chinese tourists who come to Greece…to order takeout.

It was really not something I expected to find.  Here I was in the heart of modern Athens, a stone’s throw from the Parliament and a spit away from the plateia where 19th century Greeks rallied for their constitution.  And here I was, a Malaysian-Chinese American Classics major studying Byzantine Greek.  And still, swirling in the middle of everything, a little shop sells tofu, fried rice, and stir-fried pak choy.

It’s about as Overseas Chinese as it gets in here. A vast Golden buddha pats his paunch in a corner of the room. Mirrors, calligraphy, bamboo, check. So much for ostensibility. Oh, and a little potted plant with the Greek and Communist flags crossed over each other.  It’s shamelessly tacky but frankly I don’t mind.  The window dressing is for tourists; I’m here for food.

Walking in, however, it’s a pony-tailed, middled-age Greek guy manning the counter.  I ask for the menu in Greek, but ask if I can use my credit card in Mandarin, rather by mistake. There are three languages running in my head and the mixed signals are confuzzling everything.  It turns out he also speaks Mandarin, evidently taught by his wife, who owns the establishment. A brief conversation with her lets me know she’s lived here for four years.  She’s from Wenzhou, a city two provinces south of Shanghai.

“Oh, me? I’m a student,” I say, the hilt of my once-decent Chinese rusting away like a Mycenaean burial spear, “studying Greek history.”

“Oh yes,” she nods. “They’ve a very long history, don’t they. You’re studying here for how long? Four months? Only four?  Well! And after that you’re going back to…”

“America,” I say, rather hastily.  “But my family lives in Malaysia.”

“Ah! Yes, you’re Malaysian Chinese, then?”

It’s incomplete but close enough, so I nod. We smile. I order tofu, which I’ve been sorely missing, among other things.  “Your Mandarin’s not bad,” she adds, not unkindly.  Then she tosses her waves of hair and strides over the French lady at the next table.

Don’t get me wrong, Amy in the Study Abroad Office.  Greek food is gobsmackingly stupendous. I can’t begin to describe the joy of Northern Greek cheese, or Epirot-styled sausage, or souvlaki with fries wrapped inside the pita, or cheese-baked egglant, or apple pie gelatos. I’m intending to post something about all those fantastic things in a jiffy. 😉 But there is something remarkable about eating home-food in a place one didn’t expect to find home-food. And it’s so bizarre when very interesting, very separate parts of my identity meet physically, in a restaurant, or a book, or anything.  I’m not going to spoil with triteness, of course, so I best drop the pen soon. I had a splendid lunch. I paid.  Then I gathered my books on Byzantine poetry, swept them into my satchel, and stepped out into Syntagma Square. The street was buzzing with a dozen languages and the trolleys were surging on their way past Ermou to Omonoia, and the tour guides were swatting at buildings with their placards; couples were sipping frappés, Germans were pushing their strollers, and I was in Greece again, jostling my way to Pangrati district.

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Joshua Chun Wah Kam

Josh is an omnivorous sophomore. A self-identified Malaysian-Chinese American, he's spent his youth wandering the Pacific Rim, eating sushi and buying books. He likes Tolkien, Hindu myths, Byzantine cathedrals, and cheese. When he's at hope, you might find him at night wandering Lubbers Hall like a wraith. His foray to Greece will be his first real trip to the Mediterranean. He likes meeting people, and baking them things.

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