2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Alcohol and Other Elemental Things That Carry On

Photo by: Julius Motal

Alcohol and Other Elemental Things That Carry On

Souma in Samos

I was driving on the roads of Samos with the sea on my left and the sea on my right. Pine trees and cypress trees and fig trees stood all around me, the figs still hard and green but giving off a strong scent. Something else was in that amazing fragrance as well. Wild thyme and lavender? Heliotrope and thistle? Muscat grapes ripening on the vine, ready to become the topaz-hued Samos Nectar?

I had already passed one sign as I drove on these mountain roads, so green and sweet-smelling, the rich blue of the sea appearing now and then through the trees. At the second sign, I pulled off the road to procure some souma, the imagined taste of it a magnet strong enough to stop my continuous wending.

Souma is the local name of a drink known throughout the Mediterranean, called variously tsikoudia, grappa, marc. Inside the cabin store, I admired the many different hues of local honeys, jams, and sweets next to the small bottles of souma. The shop owner had blue eyes and grey hair and was neither young nor old. He had made a good choice, living here in the mountains, making what can be extracted from the land: wine, fig marmalade, and tsipouro, memories.

I lingered, and he asked about me, and he was both interested and disinterested, which is the best kind of conversationalist. And since it was the day of the referendum in Greece, we discussed the outcome. As soon as I said I thought the results would be “oxi”—no, a vote against austerity—he warmed to me and explained how this couldn’t go on, this squeezing of the people, those working paying for those not working. This reminded me of the parable Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, had used of the ant and the grasshopper in reference to Greece, where some people worked a lot harder than others in the past.

Because the results came in that night as “oxi,” I felt that our meeting had been a good omen. I was reminded of what stretches back through the life of these islands, unchanging: The simple dignity of an exchange between merchant and traveler. The sea at dusk when it drinks the last of the light. This souma, which seemed to contain all the mountain air, dark sea, fruit, plants, and herbs of Samos simmered down and distilled into their essence. These elemental things, these remain.


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