Ditmars Boulevard sings a lullaby in the afternoon.
The clouds are dark on a humid Wednesday in July, a purple the skin of an eggplant before it is gutted and stuffed with rice and ground beef. Cars parallel park and combine with the rest of the ingredients on the street. The East River whispers in the distance.
The lullaby floats along, landing on the blue awning of Taverna Kyclades, which covers an unusually large number of empty tables on the patio.
One is occupied, though. By my family. A constant for us on Wednesdays, at least once a month. Kyclades is the best Greek restaurant in Astoria. We’ve been coming here since it opened, around the time my father was still teaching me to drive.
A busboy brings four glasses, a pitcher of ice water, and a plate of gibbous-looking lemons. He fills my sister’s glass first and she reaches for the plate. She squeezes one in and the water rises, slightly changing color. Greeks and their lemons.
“Yiasas,” the waiter greets us, placing menus down.
He already knows we’re Greek.
I pick up the menu, and open it, even though I already know what I want.
I sit with a group of friends who’ve joined me on a month-long writing workshop on Thassos, an island in northern Greece. It’s June, and tables fill the patio, overlooking the Aegean and Aliki Beach. Archodissa Restaurant is loud. A carafe of tsipouro, an anise-flavored pomace brandy, is placed in front of me, along with sweet red wine. Everyone grabs pieces of toasted bread lathered in olive oil off plates sitting at either end. There are no menus.
“Okay,” our waiter Giorgos The Best” begins, “So in the oven we have meatballs with lemon potatoes. Chicken with lemon potatoes. Pasticho. Moussaka. Mixed vegetables. Stuffed peppers. Stuffed zucchini. Stuffed eggplant. Chickpeas. Beets.”
The list, unadorned and self-explanatory, continues. “On the grill we have octopus, calamari, barbounia, sausage…”
I’m distracted by the band tuning their instruments. It’s Wednesday. Live Greek music will play late into the night, and the Aegean breeze will shuffle the napkins we throw into the air as we dance. For now, strings are plucked and strummed, the tuning sharing a similar vibrato to Giorgos’ voice.
“Oh,” he says, scratching the scruff on his face with the end of a pen. “We have souvlakia. Pork neck. And lamp chops.”
It’s the second week of the workshop and I’ve already found my permanent seat at this very large dinner table. Archodissa is connected to the hotel where we are staying. Both are owned by the same family that feeds us every night.
It’s a similar feeling, eating anywhere with my family: Permanence.
“Grilled calamari,” I announce, sipping my tsipouro. The ice in my glass has melted a bit and water drips down onto my shorts. Everybody nods in approval at my order and shouts out what they want.
Like the band about to play their first song of the night, we collaborate. Different sounds. Different food. We blend and mix and yell and high five and smile. Putting together our own symphony, a feast.
“Grilled calamari,” I say, the last of my family to order. The waiter collects our menus. Two women sit beside us. They read their menus and quietly speak in a language I don’t know, just as they, I’m sure, don’t understand the Greek coming from our table.
I have lived in New York my entire life, visiting Astoria frequently to see cousins and eat authentic Greek food. But today, in an environment as fluent as the words escaping my mother’s mouth, I feel foreign, like New York is the vacation and Thassos is calling, urging me to come home.
I used to feel the opposite—that no matter where I went, I was being pulled back to my kitchen on Long Island. I longed for my house and its walls that changed colors over the years, painted over with a new brush and new shade, like my identity as someone who has only ever lived with his parents. It was where I wanted to be. Wanted.
Bread is served along with the horiatiki salad. My sister reaches for the spoon and scoops up cucumbers, tomatoes, and rectangular pieces of feta. Oregano flecks the cheese like the stars on a Thassian night sky.
I do the same as my sister, spooning a piece of feta last, dropping it onto my plate. Olive oil escapes from underneath the cheese and seeps towards the cucumbers, looking like water escaping through a crack. I trace the flakes of spice with my fork.
Through an opening in the grapevines, I look up at the bright Greek sky. This is the longest I have been gone from home but it doesn’t feel like I’m away. Hints of Astoria, of my family and my house dangle above me alongside the grapes.
The food starts coming.
The best part about eating at a Greek restaurant is the variety. The way the food is ordered: in groups, mezes, appetizers and dishes that everyone splits.
We attack the salad first, the tzatziki next. Forks dig into the stuffed peppers and stuffed zucchinis, rice and small pieces of beef slipping through the prongs to be collected by the next person. Bread is a vehicle, used to guide residual rice onto forks. Giorgos carries two dishes—one with chicken, one with meatballs— with lemon potatoes that dissolve once they hit your tongue. The meatballs do the same. They’re soft and break easily upon touch.
Food has always filled the seats in my house. It is the reason our door opens, inducing footsteps towards the dinner table. The food Giorgos brings smells like our kitchen, like my grandmother’s. In Thassos, it’s what brings us together every night. The distance we keep from each other during the day, on different beaches or writing under the shade of our balconies, disappears as easily as food on our plates.
The girls pass down a plate of grilled calamari and put it in front of me to cut. I squeeze lemon all over the squid, hovering over each tentacle and the cooked white meat, glazed red from the oven. Giorgos brings out the pork neck. The meat slips off the bone like wax off a lit candle.
A bouzouki—a greek mandolin—starts strumming and heads turn. Another taste of the culture. I finish cutting the calamari, stab a couple pieces, and finger them onto my plate. The music seasons our meal.
The waiter returns with four plates and Kyclades remains empty. The calamari is already cut into small pieces, so all I do is squeeze more lemon. My family is quiet when they dig in. Normally, we’re a loud group.
“When you eat, you don’t talk,” my father always says.
The talking comes after. Same with the music.
I think about Thassos, having been back in New York for only a week. The nights and the noise. I miss it. I speak about the seat I established at Archodissa. It’s a similar feeling, eating anywhere with my family: Permanence. But my love for my family has restricted me from loving anything else. The family that has supported me through everything is the very thing holding me back. I was always scared of searching for permanence elsewhere, worried that I wouldn’t find it, but even more so that I would.
“How’s the calamari?” my mother asks, smiling over her plate of shrimp.
Her yogurt-white teeth jump out at me and I feel guilty about wanting to be elsewhere.
Not like Greece, I want to tell her.
“It’s good, ma,” I say instead.
It’s still quiet in Astoria and I wish it were louder.
Demetri is a writer in New York, plotting his return to Greece. He is the co-founder of Rooftop Readings NYC.