“Looking back over all that has happened since the 4th of June, 1972, it seems I was extraordinarily fortunate in that roll of the dice that sent me here. It didn’t look like it at the time, since the whole chain of events started with a near fatal car accident that landed me in the Mass General Hospital.”—Diana Farr Louis
Eating Well Is The Best Revenge
By Diana Farr Louis
ATHENS Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—1 June 2022—By the time you read this, I will be drinking a glass of champagne—not retsina—to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my arrival in Greece as a permanent resident.
Looking back over all that has happened since the 4th of June, 1972, it seems I was extraordinarily fortunate in that roll of the dice that sent me here. It didn’t look like it at the time, since the whole chain of events started with a near fatal car accident that landed me in the Mass General Hospital a week after graduation from high school, instead of Radcliffe College that September.
But if everything had gone according to plan, and I’d enjoyed a summer of deb parties and four years of normal college, cossetted by the companionship of girls and boys I already knew, I would never have met the first-year, half-Greek Cliffie who invited me to “her island” the summer that I graduated, a year later than originally scheduled.
History is not written with “ifs” so I will not speculate on what I might have become or where I would have ended up. It’s enough to be grateful that the accident left no unmanageable trauma and that the insurance, when it finally came through four years after the event, gave me enough money to take myself and my younger brother to Europe, buy a car, and spend a year in Paris without having to work too hard. The windfall coincided with a drastic change in my father’s fortunes when Fidel Castro left his sugar brokerage firm teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
That summer of ’63 in Greece would change my life, introducing me to forever friends and not one but two future husbands.
When I met Alexis Ladas for the second time in Paris a year later, I fell heavily, like Desdemona to his Othello, enthralled by his stories and his charm. The simile is apt because one of his famous friends, Steven Runciman, had told him that he was related to the Moor of Venice, who was not a Moor at all, but a Mr. Mavros (Black) who married a Miss Gordatos on Cyprus and thus became one of the first branches on the family tree of Alexis’ grandmother, Maria Mavrogordatos.
Marrying Alexis in 1965 would bind me to his family, story tellers all, who welcomed me, his third wife, and kept me close even when he—self-described as “periodically monogamous”—ran off with his secretary.
Our marriage lasted but five years and began inauspiciously when he left me on Spetses with his mother, sister, and my college friend and returned to New York for a couple of months. But newly christened “Auntie,” I had a ball and barely missed him; fell in love with the delicious island routine of jasmine-scented breakfasts with fresh-picked figs, morning swims with sea urchins for snacks, a long lunch prepared by Eleni, the best home cook any of us has ever known, a long siesta, and then evenings on the terrace or at a taverna, disco, or simple nightclub, padding everywhere in a fluid group of Greeks and foreigners, laughing and learning.
Although Alexis was certainly not the ideal husband, I will always be grateful to him for giving me my son, giving me his family, and giving me Greece. With his war stories, he left me a good grounding in Greek history; he taught me to love Greek food as “soul food,” how to play backgammon, and how to spearfish. Thanks to him, I am horrified if I see the new moon through glass, which he considered terribly unlucky, and use expressions like Hara Theou (“Joy of God day”) when the sky has a special radiance.
But if my Greek summers of the 1960s had all the highs and lows of a love affair, my arrival in Maroussi on the 4th of June marked the start of a long and happy marriage. The house was bliss—pinkish stucco with hyacinth-blue shutters, red tile floors that caressed our bare feet, thick walls with recessed windows, a fireplace, and an ample garden with olive, fig, almond, lemon, peach, cypress, and eucalyptus trees; plus lilacs, yellow and white jasmine, pink oleanders, and orange trumpet vine, not to mention rosemary bushes and patches where we tried to grow strawberries and raspberries, along with vegetables.
Our corner of Maroussi back then had dirt roads and no apartment houses. Not one of those family homes remains today, alas, but for 19 years we had perfection. Maroussi would not have been nearly as perfect, had we not had Christina, a fairy godmother who thought of herself as my mother-in-law, since Alexis’ mama declined that role, preferring to think of herself as my friend. From Ikaria like Eleni, Christina cleaned and cooked divine meals for us, baby-sat Duff, showed me how to pick olives, and left a wreath on our door before dawn every May Day. The dog and cats would scuttle out as soon as they heard her open the door—she scolded them for leaving furballs everywhere—and she would wish lunch guests Petit garçon! instead of Bon appetit!, a relic of forgotten French lessons. But she certainly broadened my Greek.
Within a few months, Duff and I both had a wide circle of friends in the neighborhood and beyond that just kept growing, and we would go on expeditions with some of them in my Fiat 500. I was also raising my horizons by climbing mountains once a month with a jovial group called Ypaithria Zoe, or Open-air Life, learning Greek through first-grade textbooks as well as private lessons, and attempting to teach English to a handful of kids and adults, something I dropped after a few months.
I was never lonely, always occupied, and the warnings of family friend Natalia Mela which had sounded prescient proved not to come true. She had shaken her sculptor’s fist at me, saying, “You’re too young to come to Greece. Life is too pleasant here. It will rob you of all ambition and you’ll never do anything serious. This is a country to retire to.”
Instead, I found my niche or a series of niches, first as an editor at Doxiadis Associates, an international architectural/planning company, where I had to plow through regional plans for Abuja and studies for sewage treatment plants in Saudi Arabia but where my colleagues were cosmopolitan, fun, and interesting, from the secretary pool to the bosses. As editor of the DA Review and production editor of Ekistics, the science and study of human settlements, I picked up the rudiments of magazine design and became close friends with Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, the landscape architect whose home at Sparoza is now the headquarters of the Mediterranean Garden Society and dear to my heart.
When a leave of absence caused by a skiing accident on Parnassos in 1986 resulted in both my employers and me concluding that my services were no longer needed, we parted company very amicably, and I embarked on a new career as free-lance translator, editor, and writer. The National Tourist Organization brochures were a breeze, the art and architecture critiques less so, while the most fun came from joining forces with dear friend and fellow American Becky Sakellariou in editing a magazine for Chandris Hotels that had us visiting Crete, Chios, and Corfu, all expenses paid.
By then, I had already written one guidebook to Corfu for a small Greek publisher but imagine my surprise when a phone call from Penguin Guides in New York inquired whether I’d be interested in helping write a guide to Greece. I nearly fainted and that job, Oh Best Beloved, is what brought me on to the same team as our dear editor, Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, though Weekly Hubris would not be born for another 20 years. Penguin led to Berlitz and then to Fodor and the Rough Guide, plus the Best (sic) Guides for a Greek publisher.
Those were lovely jobs, sending me to the Sporades, where I explored by Vespa and even swam with a monk seal, and the Ionian, where the travel bug would merge directly with interest in the cuisine, and, with the help of June Marinos, would produce our cookbook, Prospero’s Kitchen, in 1995.
Two years later was a double milestone, as I joined the Athens News as chief travel writer and was invited on my first of five Mediterranean Diet conferences with Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust. Those week-long gatherings in Italy and Greece deepened my understanding of food and cookery while connecting me with some legendary writers and personalities in the most joyful of circumstances. Whether they involved sampling extraordinary meals, watching the making of mozzarella di bufala from start to finish, laughing and sharing life stories in our bus, or dancing in an ouzo factory, these trips are among my happiest experiences, and a source of lasting friendships, especially with two cherished Turkish women. And they would later lead to three amazing trips to Turkey.
Choosing a career that spanned both travel and food writing probably meant that I did not do full justice to either—no TV shows, no best sellers—but it certainly has been fun. Yet I could not have done any of it were it not for the support and companionship for most of these 50 years of the love of my life, Harilaos Louis, aka Joy of the People, to earlier readers of this column.
Although we had known each other casually from Spetses cocktail parties, our meeting the September after I arrived in Maroussi could only have happened with another roll of those lucky dice.
It was a weekday afternoon in the middle of the month, and I’d taken Duff for our very first visit to the longest beach in Attica, Schinias, near where the Battle of Marathon was fought. Nobody else was there, but as we were basking, I saw a familiar figure walking towards me with a woman I didn’t know. And I said to my son, “Look here comes Dr. Louis, from Spetses. I wonder what he’s doing here.”
It turned out he had never come midweek before either and wondered what I was doing there, out of the blue, since he hadn’t seen me on the island in two years. I felt my face go bright red and babbled something about not knowing what I was doing but that I’d better start learning Greek.
It seems there was a coup de foudre on both sides, but our romance did not start until the following April. This is not the place to go into our long history, but we weathered all sorts of storms, personal and national, traveled all over Greece by car, by yacht and ferry, and by foot, as well as Europe and twice to the US. And while I never took Hari with me when I was researching recipes—knowing that an American food sleuth could never compete with a Greek surgeon for an audience—he was an enthusiastic co-adventurer on my trips for travel stories, ferreting out information and gossip that I never would have been able to divine, always engaging with the locals with his ready charm and genuine interest.
We got along in so many ways, besides the obvious, sharing a love of tennis, spearfishing, books, movies, the outdoors, meals with friends, and, of course, wine. He too is a wonderful teller of stories that bring pre- and post-war Athens alive, and he also has a wonderful family, nieces and a nephew; while, through his daughter, he has given me riches my own son, dear though he is, has not: two grandchildren and three great-granddaughters.
We have built a house and country life together on Andros, which I have shared on these pages; our flat in Kifissia is close to both parks and delightful shops selling almost everything we need or desire; and even now that lockdowns have curtailed travels, we still manage to enjoy simple things together. In fact, the highlight of our day is the post-news backgammon duel, which lightens the mood, makes us giggle, and heightens awareness of our blessings.
While Harilaos is often prone to complaining about his fellow Greeks and our tangled bureaucracy, I remind him of our late friend Alekos Kyriakos’s wise proverb, told to me in the 70s: “If Greece didn’t have these rough spots, it would be like Florida: for the newly wed and the nearly dead.” Of course, we all have appalling stories, but they usually end with a sympathetic civil servant finding a way around the conflicting laws. And in a way, they simply add to our fascination with this unpredictable country, which, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, “age cannot wither […] or custom stale her infinite variety.”
And so I raise my glass, not to the next 50 years, but to all the people in my overlapping circles who have made my life so rich, joyful, and stimulating. Besides my extended families, there are the Athens Singers, the Mediterranean Garden Society, Book Club, the yoga, Tai Chi, writing, moon and etcetera circles, the Spetses and Andros connections, old friends and new, plus the warm and welcoming shop owners on our street in Kifissia and the smiling vendors at our farmers’ markets.
Thanks for the memories and for all the light, humor, and love that continue to come my way, with a special F Harry Stowe to Elizabeth Boleman-Herring for giving me this platform to voice my thoughts. Naming all your names would result in a column longer than this one.
And now for something to go with that champagne. This is the best carrot cake I have ever tasted, not that I’m a connoisseur, but my niece in Montana has her daughter make it every April for her birthday, and this year the raves were so loud, I asked for the recipe. So, this is reproduced with thanks to Mary Ann and Heidi Gildroy—not everything wonderful in my life is related to Greece!
2 cups sugar (400 g) (I use unrefined and less)
2 cups (280 g) all-purpose flour (I used Zea flour, which has a low gluten content)
1 tsp salt (I always omit salt)
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 ½ cups (600 ml) vegetable oil (naturally, I used light olive oil)
3 cups (ca 450 g) grated (raw) carrots
1 cup (150 g) chopped walnuts
1 3-oz (100 g) packet cream cheese (I use a combination of my own kefir cheese and Katiki, a soft cheese from Domokos in Thessaly: certainly don’t think it has to be “Philadelphia”!)
¼ cup (60 ml) heavy cream°°°
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 ½ cups sifted confectioner’s sugar
Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease a 9- or 10-inch spring form pan. You can also make this as a layer cake.
Combine the sugar, flour, salt, cinnamon, soda, and oil. Using an electric mixer, beat in the eggs one at a time. Stir in the carrots and walnuts. Scrape the thick batter into the cake tin.
Bake for 1 hour 30 minutes or until a knife inserted into it comes out clean. Let cool a bit and then remove from the tin and slide onto a platter.
To make the icing, beat together the cheese, cream, vanilla, and sugar. Spread it on with a knife.
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