A Letter from Paris
The back table by the kitchen at Kasaphani, Paris’s premier Greek Cypriot restaurant, is reserved for family and friends. Tony, the oldest of the three brothers who operate the restaurant, was sitting there with another man one December afternoon. Tony’s kitchen assistant, Miah, was in the kitchen, by the sink. No one else was in the restaurant.
Tony introduced the other man as “a Greek friend”; he introduced me as “an American friend.” We shook hands. The Greek friend was drinking tsikoudia, a smooth and bitter Cretan brandy. The clear Varvaki bottle was in front of him on the table. In front of Tony was a bottle of Nemea, a Greek wine that is a staple at the back table, alongside a pack of Gitanes and a full glass.
I nodded to Miah in the kitchen and he nodded back the usual extent of our contact. Miah is a short, round-faced Indian, a hard worker with a murky spirit and a cautious smile. He speaks little, a result of both language and temperament. I like seeing him there because he adds depth to the scene, like the woman in the pond in Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, but we rarely speak.
“Get yourself a glass and join us for a drink,” said Tony.
I’d stopped by that afternoon on my way home from interviewing a woman who offers cooking classes in a kitchen-studio on rue Oberkampf. She had given me a bag of freshly made sugar cookies, so I opened the bag, set it on the table, and invited Tony and his friend to have some. The Greek friend spoke no French. He shook his head No. “You bake now?” Tony said with a chuckle. He has the thick chest and tender demeanor of an old boxer. Dark grey hair sweeps across his forehead. He got up to make me coffee.
Just then someone opened the door. Looking to the front of the restaurant I saw that it was almost dark out. In fact, it had been dark out all day, and cold and rainy. A woman shook a tin can. She said, “Collecting money for associations for the blind.”
Tony went over to her. I thought he was going over to tell her that the restaurant was closed, but he reached into his pocket and put some change into her box.
“Thank you,” she said.
I expected him now to lead her out, but instead he returned to the espresso machine behind the brick bar in the corner. Without turning to her he asked, “Would you like something to drink?”
“It is cold out,” she said.
She came over to the table and sat down across from me. She said, “If it isn’t any trouble.”
I said, “Hello.” The Greek man nodded.
The woman looked me in the eyerather, one of her eyes looked into one of my eyes, the other seemed to be watching the hallway that leads to the WCand she said, “Thank you.”
She was polite if slightly off, probably about forty, with a soft, expressionless face. She took off her black wool cap and held it on her lap. She smoothed down the hair on one side of her head. I said something about the weather. She concurred. She smiled to the Greek man.
Tony set the coffee in front of me then went into the kitchen. In a minute he brought out a full plate of meat and salad. He handed her a knife and fork and a napkin. He brought her a glass, poured some red wine then returned to the kitchen.
The woman looked down at the plate, moving her head side to side to see all it contained, then raised her head to me and said, “Thank you.”
I said, “It’s not me, it’s him.”
Tony now returned to the table with some warm bread in a basket that he set in front of her. Then he went back into the kitchen.
The woman faced me once again and said, “Thank you.”
I said, “He’s the one to thank. I’m just a pilgrim here like you.”
She held the fork in her hand for a minute without taking a bite. Finally she turned to Tony’s Greek friend, who’d been sitting silently beside her, and she said, “Some people you meet when you’re collecting money for a good cause are very nice. Others don’t pay attention to you. But that isn’t a problem. Not everyone has to give to every cause. Some causes don’t touch people. They can be kind but not give. But some people are very kind. It is cold out.”
The Greek friend looked at me for help since he didn’t understand what she was saying.
I said, “You’re the nice one for being out in weather like this collecting for your cause.”
“It isn’t easy,” she told the Greek, “but it’s worth it.” She concluded, “December,” before lowering her head for a close look at her plate and forking a slice of tomato.
Tony returned to the table and sat down just as the woman was lifting the fork to her mouth. Set it down without taking a bite. Instead she lifted her glass and, looking at me, she said, “Thank you.”
I said, “Thank him.”
Tony told me that there had been a short circuit in the restaurant toward the end of yesterday evening’s service. Luckily almost everyone had been served by then, he said, so they lit candles and made it through the evening. But unable to correct the problem they hadn’t been able to open for lunch today. He pointed over to the bar in the corner.
There was an open toolbox there. A disheveled array of wires poured out of the electrical box by the espresso machine.
Just then a man entered and Tony got up to greet him. They shook hands. It was the electrician. He came over to the table and shook hands with me, with the Greek man, and with the woman. Tony introduced us: “Friends.” The electrician said “Bon appétit!” to the woman. I offered him a cookie. He said “Thank you” as he reached into the bag. The woman raised her head from her plate just then and also said “Thank you,” so I held the bag out to her, too.
“After I finish,” she said. “This is very good.”
The electrician went to work behind the bar. Tony returned to the table. He told his friend in Greek to serve himself some more tsikoudia. He filled the woman’s glass with wine. Holding the bottle to me he said, “Are you sure?” I told him the coffee was fine. He served himself. The woman raised her eyes from the plate and said, “Thank you.”
“He’s the one,” I said, pointing to Tony.
Before long another man entered. He shook a tin can. He said, “Collecting money for associations for the blind.”
“I’m here,” the woman called out without looking toward the door.
The woman looked up to me and said, “Thank you.”
It was only then that I realized that she wasn’t looking at me at all even though her face was turned to me. All this time I’d been refusing her thanks yet she’d actually been turning her good eye to Tony.
Tony fixed her colleague a cup of coffee. As it dripped in the espresso machine by the electrician, Tony took some change out of his pocket and put it into the man’s tin cup. Then the electrician, who hadn’t seemed to be paying attention, came over to the table. He pulled change out of his pocket. He put some in the woman’s box then some in the man’s box. Then he went back to the electrical box.
I was amazed and embarrassed by everyone’s generosity.
Just then Miah emerged from the kitchen into the foreground to fill a drawer by the kitchen with knives and forks.
I asked him if he wanted a cookie. He shook his head.
The electrician was pulling at wires, his back to us, when he said, “My wife’s blind.”
“Was she at the demonstration yesterday?” said the man with the tin cup. He was a small, slim man in brown and grey. He came across as both meek and confident.
“Yes,” said the electrician.
“That was very nice of her,” said the man. “It’s important. We were there.”
“Yes we were,” said the woman.
“It wasn’t very nice weather,” said the man, “but we had a good turnout.”
“By the time my wife got home she was exhausted,” said the electrician. “Then she fell in the apartment and I had to take her to the hospital.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the man.
“We were at the hospital most of the night, but I think she’s alright now.”
The woman lifted her head, her eyes aimed somewhere over my shoulder, listening to the conversation. She said, “They can be slow at the hospital, especially when it’s an emergency. But that was nice of her to go to the demonstration.”
The electrician continued working.
The man drinking coffee said to the woman, “When you’re finished we’ll go.”
She set down her fork. She said, “I’ll take that cookie now.”
I pushed the bag on the table closer to her. I said, “Take several.”
She faced Tony’s Greek friend and said, “Thank you.”
The Greek friend nodded.
Then the electrician said, “Attention, everyone, I’m going to have to cut off the lights.”
And he did.