Monday, December 27, 2010

Day 318: Sea Urchins and Love Stories

We woke up in Greece for our first full day ready to tackle the important things: more eating, more lounging, more tanning, more swimming. Though the jet-lag made me feel strange and I had little concept of time or what day it was, I woke up feeling rested and excited, all thanks to Ambien and a super comfortable bed.
Breakfasts at Yaya's, Katy explained, are the same everyday, and are all self-serve. Since everyone usually wakes up at different times, a supply of tea, coffee, bread and fruit was left out on the table for us to help ourselves. So we did, and then changed into our swimsuits to get started with our day.

Ahead of Day 318, there was a great deal of conversation about whether or not we would attend an annual football match to be played on a nearby island. Surprising to everyone, including him, Nico was rumored to have been tapped to lead the Chios team as captain; nearly everyone that Katy knew from spending her summers in Greece would be there. The potential for fun and adventure and things I've never done would be sky-high, plus I'd get to hang out with Nico, Tatiana and Michael, who in the short time I'd spent with them, I'd already taken a liking to. But there were understandable reasons why we shouldn't go. We were still adjusting to Greece time and this trip would involve a long car ride, followed by a ferry ride, and late night, not to mention we'd be leaving Yaya less than 12 hours after arriving on her doorstep. Plus, even though I was going to be away from the United States for more than a week, with travel days and time changes, my actual time in Greece was limited, and Katy wanted me to be able to soak up as much Chios and as much relaxation as possible. So after lots of discussion, Katy, Jana and I decided that we would forgo the football (soccer) match, and stay behind with Yaya.

I love it when "staying behind" means taking a boat ride around the Mediterranean and diving for sea urchins, which were both Day 318's things I've never done before.

Katy started to tell me about diving for sea urchins before I had even decided for sure that I would come with her to Greece, but she stopped herself; she was afraid, she said, that whatever she said might scare me. I demanded that she complete her thought, certain that whatever she had to say wasn't going to scare me. I mean, she reads the blog. She knows I'm adventurous! I guess having already completed 300+ new things wasn't enough to make her trust I was serious about embracing new opportunities.

How dare Katy think that diving and catching my own food would freak me out! So what if I never fell in love with beets? Her doubting my sense of adventure, especially as it pertains to food, was frustrating. I can, and would, of course, give sea urchins a chance.

Shortly after breakfast, Jana, Katy and I walked down to the street to meet Stelios, the boat captain, who took us to Yaya and Pappou's boats that are anchored with other boats in the middle of the harbor. We collected flippers, masks, old forks and a basket for collecting our urchins and then loaded the smaller of the two boats and were on our way.

When we got to our first diving spot, there was a small instruction session given by Jana and Katy on exactly what I was supposed to do. The sea urchins are attached to the reef, and our goal was to dive down and with the fork, pry the female urchins loose. Females only because they are the ones with eggs, and that's what, "eating a sea urchin," really means, eating the roe. According to Katy, female sea urchins have shorter spines, bigger bodies and usually have seaweed or rocks stuck on them; they're usually tinted red, purple or green. Males have all black needles and smaller bodies.

In her hands, the difference between a female and a male sea urchin seemed pretty obvious, but once under water, I found making the distinction quite difficult. I'd bring a handful of sea urchins to the surface, only to find that they were all male ones and had to go back. Overall, though, Katy and Jana were pleased with my performance, even as a rookie.

There weren't a lot of sea urchins at the first place we stopped, so we moved on to another area and were much more successful. Once the basket was full, we headed back to the harbor, sunned for an hour on the boat and then headed back to Yaya's house to get ready for lunch.

When we returned, Katy showed me around Yaya's yard, including a trip to her greenhouse where she keeps all of her orchids; Yaya is a master when it comes to orchids and her house is full of them, on the inside and on the out. On the way back from the greenhouse, we ran into Stelios, who was now preparing the sea urchins we had caught. Preparing a sea urchin is really nothing more than cutting it half. No cooking required. Stelios handed me the special knife he was using and I took a turn cutting one open, a task that he made look a lot easier than it actually was.

Once at the dining room table, I took a look at our bounty and I strangely felt proud of myself, like a gatherer who had collected a feast for her family.

Katy showed me how to eat the eggs, by taking a spoon and scraping the orange eggs from the shell. People eat them in a variety of ways, Katy and Jana both explained. Some people eat them directly off the spoon; others, like Katy, spoon the eggs on top a piece of bread to cover it like a spread before eating.

I tried the sea urchins a variety of ways. I enjoyed it the most the way Katy does, with bread; the moisture from the sea urchin eggs, with a hit of vinegar (a la Katy's mom), and the bread was perfectly salty and delicious.

Katy, all about some dramatic statements, exclaimed, "I love it! This is one of my favorite foods. Seriously. Top. Five. Favorites."

I looked at her and smiled, and nodded that I understood what she was saying.

I liked them too. I liked that I helped catch them, and now we're all enjoying them. I liked that eating them was almost eating caviar, something that I'd always wanted to do.

But favorite foods? I'm not sure I would go that far. I appreciate them for what they are. Salty fish eggs. Perhaps this is the snob in me, but I think part of the reason that I enjoyed them is because Yaya told us that they are a delicacy.

I was surprised when she told us so, since they seemed pretty easy to come by. But Yaya and Pappou found out the hard way just how much of a delicacy they are after ordering plates full of them while out to dinner in New York. When the meal was over, Pappou got stuck with a pretty hefty bill that he was both perplexed by and frustrated with. I imagine paying a high price for something you're used to collecting basket fulls of daily feels strange.

After finishing the sea urchins, our lunch continued with delicious white fish (head and bones included); then we continued our day with more sunning and napping. Katy and I had major plans to exercise everyday while we were in Greece. So far we were off to a terrible start.

Dinner was a quiet affair since just the four of us were there. Lunch was such a delicious, lavish affair, we ate a light lemon soup for dinner.

Before leaving for Greece, Katy had, at my request, told me about her family. Yaya and Pappou had an arranged marriage more than 50 years ago. Like many Greek men do, Pappou and his brothers worked in the shipping industry in New York and in Athens. They had two children, Katy's mom, and her uncle (who has lived in New York, London, and now in Athens), and now have six grandchildren. No offense to Katy, but hearing Yaya tell the story from her perspective was far more entertaining and after finishing dinner, the three of us, Jana, Katy and I sat on the edge of our seats as she spanned several decades of her life.
I assume it was Katy or Jana who asked the next question, but Yaya had been so candid, so open with all of us, I wouldn't be surprised if it was me who asked, about her marriage to Pappou, "How did you feel, marrying someone that you barely knew? Were you nervous?"

I stared intently at Yaya's face waiting for her answer, and if I could've crawled into her brain to know exactly what she was thinking, I would have. The expression on her face spoke volumes as she recalled the life she'd built with this man who she was so obviously devoted to and she said, slowly and honestly, "Well, yes. But after we got into the car, he took my heart . . .," her voice trailed and she stopped briefly to correct herself. "I mean, he took my hand, and looked at me, and I knew it was going to be okay."

I moved my head to Jana and then to Katy, then to Jana, then back to Katy, hoping that I heard what I did, and that their reactions were the same as mine. Yaya said, "heart," but she meant, "hand." But by misspeaking, we all knew he had stolen them both. For a lifetime.

Thanks to being constantly distracted by own thoughts and everything that is going on around me, I can think of but a few moments over the past year, and in my life, when I felt 100 percent present in the moment, completely connected into what I was doing and not thinking about what was going on around me, not caring what was going to happen next. But right then, right there, at Yaya's kitchen table, I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be, listening to a love story Hollywood could only dream of inventing.

Later, I wondered if that feeling of being completely plugged into the present is what I'm supposed to be feeling all of the time. I'm sure that there are people out there who would argue that if you're living your life as you should, then you'll always live in the present and drown out all of the outside "noise." I don't know if I'll ever get there, so instead, I'll cherish moments like this one with Yaya when I felt the stars align, and was, even for a short time, able to block everything else out. It moved me in ways that are hard to describe.

This was why, when I asked her if I should go to Greece, my mom said, "When someone from Greece asks you to go to Greece with them, you go." Because she knew, and now, thanks to this little experience I did too, that this moment wouldn't have happened if I came to Greece on my own. If I had all the money in the world and stayed at the nicest hotels and ate at the fanciest restaurants, nothing could've compared to this moment that had moved me to tears right there at Yaya's kitchen table.

I'm not quite sure why I had such a strong reaction to Yaya's story; I suspect the beautiful story was emotional for everyone, including Yaya, and Katy and Jana, though I don't remember seeing anyone else's eyes welled up with tears. Maybe they'd heard this story before. Or maybe I'm a romantic weirdo.

But I thanked God for Katy, and for Yaya and Jana and for American Express and for irresponsible financial decisions that led me here, to a moment that stopped time and allowed me, if for only a short time, to be in the present.


  1. I loved this blog... It made me really consider begging Katy to take me next year!