The Writing Project · Zakynthos

Zante’s French connection

Of all the nationalities I could have been if I wasn’t Irish, French would have suited me best. That has nothing to do with my French-sounding surname, which actually comes from a far-flung corner of county Mayo on the west coast of Ireland, but rather from the affinity I’ve pretentiously felt with the language and – oui – the culture since I was young. I did French in school, liked it, did well at it, read some French books, and really got into French cinema, especially if it involved nudity, which it usually did. To this day, my favourite movies include “Le Boucher”, “Diva”, and “Rififi”. Some days here on Zakynthos, I feel like I’m starring in my own Marcel Pagnol adaptation, like the père in “La Gloire de mon Père”.

The Venetian bell tower of Ágia Mávre, Kilioménos
The Venetian bell tower of Ágia Mávra, Kilioménos

Rendez-vous Français à Zacynthe

So when I found out there was an ensemble in Zakynthos that got together once a month for a Rendez-vous Français in the Filion Café, near St. Mark’s Square, I decided to turn up. On the first Sundays of April and May, I sat and chatted with people from France, or Switzerland, who had moved here, and with people from Zante who had moved to France, or Belgium, and had moved back. It was cool being in a café on Zante with the murmur of French around me.

This past Sunday the group met in Kilioménos for a change. Rendez-vous was at the town square at midday, and the plan was to have lunch in a taverna which, I had to admit, neither of us had any idea about. Not that we knew much about Kilioménos, but there was one taverna Tina was keen to try there, and we knew it wasn’t that one. I had explained to Madame Melina, the organiser of the Rendez-Vous, that Tina couldn’t speak any French but was keen to join in anyway, so when we met her Tina found herself naturally pairing off with Melina’s husband Yorgo, who didn’t speak much French either.

Since we didn’t have a clue where this taverna we were going to was, we followed the cortege of cars downhill from the main junction in town, snaked around a few turns, and ended up turning into a pretty lane nearby that ran between vineyards and looked promising as far as a taverna location was concerned. As we pulled up and could see the attractive layout of the taverna better, it seemed to me that this was the stuff of feel-good French movies, the sort of movie where the guy from the city retreats to the campagne to visit his folks after getting the sack, relaxes enough to notice vineyards again after years in the city, decides to buy one, and comes to realise le bonheur est dans le pré – happiness is in the countryside.

Vineyard walkers

The Greek for vineyard is αμπέλι, and the the taverna was called Αμπελοστράτες, which I make out to be “vineyard walkers”. Since one of the things they offer here is pezoporía, which more or less means walking on a path, I’m sticking to my translation. And sure enough, after parking, we had une petite balade dans les environs, a short walk in the surrounding countryside, as Melina had promised we would. Even though we’d be eating en plein air, we first got shown around inside the taverna building itself by Mika, the woman of the house. It doubled as a kind of art gallery, and the pictures weren’t half bad. If we weren’t on the sort of budget which allowed us to spend four months on a Greek island with no income, we definitely would have made an enquiry. Koukla House could do with a bit of cheering up inside.

Yorgo toasts everyone in the Rendez-vous Française ensemble
Yorgo toasts everyone in the Rendez-vous Français ensemble

The path we strolled up was at the foot of Voúna, a mountain at the southeastern end of the main Vrachíonas range of the island. I got chatting to a retired aeronautical engineer called Michel; 72 now, he had retired at 60 and had sailed around the world avec sa femme (also part of today’s entourage). On the way back to France they’d stopped at Zakynthos and decided to stay here. He turned out to be a bit of a connoisseur of the movie adaptations of Marcel Pagnol, and gave me some good tips about what to borrow from the group’s box of DVDs. I’d already seen two, and was glad to hear there were several more. Even though I was concentrating at the moment on taming the wild mountain language of Greek, I loved chatting in French to this interesting guy from Toulon about life, boats, Zacynthe, la Grèce, immigrants, bloody kids nowadays, and Marcel Pagnol film adaptations. It’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’ with languages.

A party of ten or so people arrived with a guide just after we sat down, but nonetheless, I got the feeling we were hidden; this place felt like our secret. How do people find out about it? “De bouche a l’oreille.” Melina said. Yorgo translated: “Από στόμα σε στόμα.” Word of mouth.

Before we could eat, I had to move my car. Normally, that’s a bit of a nuisance to have to do, but since I was asked to move it into the vineyard – I think that’s a first in my life – I couldn’t bring myself to get too put out about it. At the table now, under the tree, we doled out the krasí, and Adonis brought out the fagitó. The smell of the food aroused the cats’ interest. “Je vous assure de la beauté du site et de la qualité des plats.” Melina had written. The taverna is known as a mezedopoleío (μεζεδοπωλείο), and a continuous supply of μέζε plates started at this point, barely stopping until we left, two and a half hours later: soutzoukákia (Smyrna meatballs), fáva, pumpkin slices, cheese puffs, χόρτα (wild greens) in pastry. They’re just the ones I can remember.

Adonis and Yorgo check out the tsipouro
Adonis and Yorgo check out the tsipouro

Once again I was struggling to keep up with the languages ricocheting around me. Tina and Yorgo spoke to each other in Greek, and Melina and Michel spoke to me and the rest of the table in French. Occasionally I got dragged into Tina’s Greek chat with Yorgo, and every now I had to surface and get my breath back in English, asking Tina if she was ok for salad. Michel was getting stuck into the krasí, at one stage announcing loudly to the table, to groans of disapproval, “I only came here today for the jolies femmes!

It’s time for tsípouro

It turns out this versatile taverna was also a Τσιπουράδικο; they make their own τσίπουρο here. What’s τσίπουρο, I asked. It’s tsípouro! I was told, with an exasperated shrug. This time I asked someone who wasn’t Greek. It’s like eau de vie, said Melina. Ah, I said, uisce beatha. What’s that, said Yorgo, pouring himself another tsípouro. It’s Irish for tsípouro, I suppose you could say. He loved it: thought it sounded Arabic with its “ishka” sound.

We felt then that if we didn’t leave soon we’d be there all day, and besides, we thought we’d better rescue Yiayiá and Pappoú from les garçons – Alexander and Eoin. It was fun to experience such a traditional Zakynthos taverna in a different context, as part of a French group, enjoying the camaraderie and watching the va-et-vient of the cats; a style de vie I could get behind, I felt.

When we found out how little we had to pay for the spread we’d enjoyed – for the mezes, for the krasí, for the tsípouro, for the joie de vivre – I have to say it had been un après-midi bon marché. As we left, Yorgo was doing a round of the table, clinking glasses with the puzzled French, who, expecting a “Γειά μας!” were getting an “Uisce beatha!” instead.