by Kate Heyhoe
When I was in my late teens, my older brother John, his friends Robert and Jenny, and I hitch-hiked from Italy to Greece, boarding a ferry across the blue Aegean. We first landed the island of Mikanos, whereupon we encountered Yianni, an authentic Greek fisherman, sipping ouzo in one of the local white-washed taverns.
Yianni was no fool. He knew a good thing when he saw one—and we were it. Round bellied and wearing the traditional fisherman's cap, with dark pants and shirt to match, Yianni asked us—no, he graciously invited us—to come out fishing with him tomorrow. Young and adventuresome, bright eyed and bushy tailed, we jumped at the opportunity. None of us had ever been on a fishing boat in the shimmering Greek sea. How nice of Yianni, we thought. He was truly a swell sort of guy.
So, at 4:00 A.M., under the brilliant light of a nearly full moon, we waited on the beach at the designated meeting spot. It was beautiful, but it was cold. The moisture of the sea and fading night air clung to our sweatshirts, making them damp and heavy. We waited and shivered, and waited and shook. Still, no sign of our buddy Yianni. Finally, just as we were putting our packs on to leave, our roly-poly friend suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
Hurray! Yianni had not deserted us after all! and so our adventure began. In addition to his fisherman's hat, Yianni wore a stern face that morning. Perhaps a bit too much ouzo the night before? Who knows, but with few pleasantries, Yianni instructed us to pick up the coiled fishing nets and place them in the boat.
We looked around. Indeed, there was a boat by the water, or should I say it was more of an oversized dinghy. Somehow, this was not what we had expected. But, as instructed, we lifted the not-so-light nets into the vessel. The boat was partially in the water, partially beached on land. Yianni climbed in with the nets and then instructed us to shove off the shore and climb in ourselves. Rolling up our pant legs, which was pointless since they got wet anyway, we did what we were told.
The next hour was filled with lessons to be learned, all taught by Professor Yianni. Under his commands, we rowed our trusty craft out to the far depths of the sea and then proceeded to cast the nets in a large circular area. We rowed and we cast, and we rowed and we cast, until all the netting was set in place. And then we waited.
During this time, our Professor made good use of that fisherman's cap of his. He reclined into the bow of the boat, pulled the cap over his eyes and retreated into the warmth of ouzo-spiked dreams. He wasn't totally asleep though, for periodically I would catch him casting his own eyes about to review our casting of his nets. Satisfied that we were good students, Yianni would then roll over and continue his rest.
The sun rose, the sun shined, and we waited. And our skin burned. And the sun shined higher. And our skin burned redder. Finally, with no warning, Yianni awoke. He stood up and barked more instructions at us. The fruits of our labor, it seems were soon to become evident, an event in which Yianni became actively involved.
Rowing and pulling, hand over fist, we gathered the nets into the boat. I was shocked and amazed. We all were. None of us had ever in our lives seen such a vast and vivid variety of fish before. There were red ones, blue ones, orange and striped ones, spiked ones, flat ones, bloated ones and spotted ones. And as we pulled the nets in, Yianni pulled the fish out.
He had a definite method of sorting, which he explained to us. The best ones, the ones for market, he tossed in a basket on the left. The no-good ones, those that weren't fit to eat or varieties that just tasted bad, were tossed into a pile on the right to be thrown back to sea later. In a plastic bucket behind him, Yianni threw in the fisherman's catch, those pieces he would keep for himself.
The fishing done and the nets back in the boat, we rowed ourselves and Yianni back to shore. Just before getting there, Yianni steered us to some giant boulders. He climbed onto the rocks and, picking up an octopus from his personal bucket, proceeded to sling the creature against the rocks. Whap! He must have smashed it across the rocks thirty times, periodically rinsing it in the sea to clear off the black ink. Similarly, he smashed a large squid against the rock face, beating it until the ink had all run off. This, he said, was to tenderize it.
Back at the beach, Yianni spent a moment with the man who would take his fish to market to be sold. Then he took the limp, beaten octopus and squid to a beachside restaurant, which was more like a shack, and beckoned us over. We bought beers and sat at picnic tables while the cook fried our hand-tenderized cephalopods in garlic, olive oil, oregano and pepper over a seemingly ancient, red-hot grill.
Honestly, that was the best meal I had ever had in my life. And to this day, I am grateful to Yianni (who we never saw again) for the many lessons of fishing, rowing, cooking and eating that he taught us that day. And of course, I am most grateful to him for those bigger lessons of life, the ones we learned the hard way.
Copyright © 2004, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created May 2004
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