Ioannina or taste the food, taste the drink, taste the life

I’m caught downwind of the smoke bringing in the pungent smell of roasted pork. This whole lakeside town an hour drive from the Albanian border is outside barbecuing. Even the barista from my usual coffee shop has traded his shiny espresso machine for a greasy charcoal grill. Skewer after skewer of sizzling souvlaki is thrown on rectangular aluminum baking dishes, because the demand is too great for serving on real plates. It’s obvious that the Greeks are gregarious. It’s noon, and there is no such thing as personal space around these small tables trimmed in plastic evergreen garlands. Finally, we spot a rickety one for ourselves and squeeze our way over just barely beating the other hungry people coming in the opposite direction.

Elbows at my throat, I order coffee and tsipouro, the local spirit of choice. The waitress, wearing a shiny gold 2018 head bopper and a heavy dusting of glitter, is unsurprised but furrows her eyebrows when I ask about their vegetable quiche when clearly this is a day for souvlaki. Taking in the ruckus, Stratos explains this as what people here do on New Year’s Eve-- gorge on meat and drink out on the street. Afterwards we meet up with his friends at another makeshift establishment a hundred meters down to join in dancing the Kalamatianos where everyone goes around and around in a great big circle.

At nightfall, we end up at a much loved and relatively new taverna that is decorated to look old and folksy where the owner is also the bartender and the brother of the taverna right next door. The tiny space consisting of one long table is always loud and cramped. The regulars sing folk songs, bang their palms on the table, and play their traditional instruments with much pizzaz. Each song is unbearably sad and ridiculously twisted, but from the expression of joy on everyone’s shouting faces, one could never guess. The owner, a man in his 50s, frequently chimes in then disappears only to float back with big blocks of feta, olives, beer, and rakimelo (tsipouro torched with a gas canister and liberal amounts of cinnamon, honey, and cloves). It does not matter whether you asked for any of it; it just comes anyways. Despite having caught an aggressive smokers cough that will no doubt follow me out of here, this hole in the wall might be my favorite place in Greece yet.

An hour before midnight, phones start to buzz. Calls are from family members reminding them to come home, so the drinks are finished off and the group disbands with plans to meet again after midnight. I’m gifted a whole bottle of tsipouro before Stratos and I begin the long walk to ring in the new year with his mom. I was there the night before when the whole family was celebrating Stratos’ cousin Martha’s birthday. Tonight it will be much quieter--just Stratos, his mom, and me.

She is an old woman, but a new widow. It’s at once obvious to me that it’s been hard for mother and son. She beams as she embraces Stratos. I’m caught by surprise when fat tears roll down her pillowy cheeks. She wipes them away, but they keep coming as she holds tight and continues with well wishes. Stratos is a little embarrassed, but it’s not long before we are all just laughing and only laughing as the TV blares the countdown happening in Athens.

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After midnight, the three of us have dinner. It’s my first meal of 2018, and I’m happy to have it here. I look at the spread hungrily. There is lamb, and salad, and potatoes, and tzatziki, and sweet bread with a lucky coin baked into it called vasilopita. Stratos claims he knows which slice contains the coin before stabbing through his slice without bothering to eat any of it. Lo and behold, there it is!

A few days later, before I leave for Kalambaka, I stop by Martha’s beauty parlor. She closes up shop early so we can enjoy an afternoon of bakery treats and coffee out on the lake. We gossip about people who inspire us and share what we look forward to in the coming year. She tells me all about her doubts and insecurities regarding a new love, but none of the negativity masks her growing and uncontainable excitement. Her eyes are wide and full of mischief. Conversation becomes a retelling of funny situations and strange wounds. We share our best advice. Talking a mile a minute, we plot to turn our lives around. She’s talking too loud, but these kind of things have to be sworn loud and proud. Walking arm in arm, I am reminded the simple fact that a passion for life is contagious.