If my mother remained an enigma, the circumstances and routines of my father’s life had always been so physically clear and evident to me. Most of his life, he spent endless hours at the store on Egypt Street, a narrow cobblestone street lined with warehouses, a few blocks from Thessaloniki’s Sea Port of entry. After the financial crash of Greece in 1932 and the civil war that followed World War II, business owners in the 1950s had to work hard to start and grow their enterprises. Fortunately for my father, the Greeks from Turkey had brought their love of coffee to Thessaloniki, and more quickly than anyone would have guessed, his business was booming—which was good for him and for me.
In the central wholesale market of Thessaloniki, hammals loaded and unloaded sacks and boxes of goods every workday of the year in a thrum of energy that was fascinating to a young girl. Business owners answered phones, took orders, and arranged for the transportation of goods. Here, perennial congestion and noise reigned. It was the world of Hermes, God of Commerce: a world of hard labor and sweat. I loved the adrenaline of the wholesale market and the constant activity of the street: donkeys and horses pulling long beds and carts, hauling in merchandise. Motorcycles, their sidecars loaded to overflowing, crowded in, too, and our “jalopy,” the company truck, was often parked next to the warehouse, waiting for a load. It barely fit in the narrow street. There was no sidewalk left for pedestrians to walk, as all types of vehicles climbed the curb to get as close to the storefronts as possible.
From the time that I was five years old, my father, then in his mid-forties, brought me occasionally to “the store” as he called it. A Lilliputian in a world of giants, I was caught up in the centrifuge of activity, and the adrenaline of rushing men, even though I tried to stay on the sidelines, hovering near my father’s office, after school. He worked in a small wooden modular space that stood next to the steel coffee roasting machine, right off the entrance. The crowded space housed a metal desk covered with receipts, ledgers, notes, and a constantly ringing black rotary phone. Perched on the extra visitor chair jammed in the office, I watched the activity, but I much preferred to wander around the warehouse.
Besides the attention I got, there was a lot to love about being there. My senses were filled with the aroma of freshly roasting “K” coffee. Dozens of hemp sacks of coffee beans lined the ground floor and flooded the Greek marketplace, ultimately making a fortune for the family. Carried in from the port, these sacks of coffee beans were imported from Latin America, Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula and stacked floor to ceiling all along the left side of the warehouse. Brazilian, Colombian, Madagascar, Ethiopian, Ecuadorian coffee beans and spices filled every square inch of space.
All around me wafted the comforting aroma of roasting coffee, ground into rich, smooth and sensuous combinations of imported varieties. The high art of creating the desirable flavor, the bouquet, with these handpicked beans depended on climate and soil conditions that varied from year to year, similar to the alchemy of winemaking. My father and his brother presided there. Father selected which beans to blend, the length of roasting and the fineness of the grind for the Greek market. He considered taste, aroma, and the body of the drink, aiming to successfully release the essence, the tannins, and caffeine. I had often watched my father sample raw and roasted beans, and the ground powder. He made adjustments every step of the way. He was an au currant (expert) gourmet, when it came to coffee. I loved watching him reign, competent, friendly with his clients and knowledgeable about the coffee and all the machinery that he maintained. There was plenty to admire about my father; and I was proud to be his daughter.
Moreover, had he been born in Thessaloniki, perhaps his marriage to my mother might have lasted; but my father had come from a place with different traditions. His birthplace was the village of Dinar, in Cappadocia, Turkey, though he had soon moved with his family to Istanbul. The culture of Greeks living in Turkey was more closed and conservative when it came to women, who were chaperoned and devoted to household chores and raising children. My mother was not one to be confined to the house, and cooking was not her strong suit, unlike her mother-in-law. Yiayia, especially fond of her young son, would have naturally expected his wife to spoil him, too, according to the traditions she held.
My father was Yiayia’s last son, a boy with deep brown eyes and an easy-going disposition. In his boyhood, he was the little dandy that his two sisters and mother doted on. They fetched and ironed his nice clothes, saving the best bites of fruit to feed him from a bowl while his older three brothers were attending boarding schools in Smyrna. Only his father got more care and attention.
When he was fifteen, he came to Thessaloniki with his parents and five siblings. They had left hearth and home behind in Istanbul where they had relocated to avoid the genocide of Greeks by the Turks in 1922. It was a time when orthodoxy was targeted in the old Ottoman Empire and many Christians that continued living in Turkey subsequently lost their lives. My father even spoke Turkish fluently with some customers, as well as with his business partner and brother, and with my Yiayia at home. As for me, I spoke only Greek and never learned more than the half a dozen Turkish phrases from my Yiayia.
But even if I didn’t speak that language with him, I liked to help him whenever I was at the store. On one particular day in 1950, we had arrived at the warehouse around noon, and I’d followed him out of the office toward the long wooden counter in the back of the store. A steel grinding machine as tall as me was bolted down on the counter. Maria, a trim and tall clerk, was packing the ground coffee into K brand bags for retail.
My father took a pinch of coffee powder from the box she was using, tasted it, and adjusted some levers on the grinding machine. “Nice flavor,” he said to Maria, who smiled and continued scooping coffee into the bags. I could see why my mother always complained about the odor of coffee, hopelessly trapped in the fiber of his clothes. A fresh change of clothes became the first order of business whenever he returned home.
Near the counter, two hammals loaded a couple of hemp sacks of coffee beans on the imposing weighing scale. Once my father noted the weight, each hoisted a bag on his shoulder and carried it out to the customer’s motorcycle sidecar. Then he turned to the back of the warehouse. “Maria, keep an eye on her. I need to make a couple of calls,” he called out.
Just what I wanted. “Can I help?” I asked her.
“Sure,” she answered.
Maria motioned me to climb on a stool that she sometimes used to rest from standing all day. She wore a coat like the kind that doctors have, with buttons down the front, only it was brown, and she wore flat shoes. “Is this high enough?” she said. I settled on the stool and nodded. She handed me a scoop.
“Watch me.” She half-filled the bag with ground coffee and poured it in a half kilo bag, weighed, sealed and stacked it in a row on a tray, all ready for the marketplace.
“What grade are you, in?” she asked.
“Kindergarten,” I answered, pleased.
Copying her motions, I scooped the freshly ground, aromatic powder into the branded ‘Kouides’ bag she handed me. Clumsy at first, I spilled a little. Maria patiently placed my partially filled bag on the weighing scale, topped it off, sealed it and set it on the tray. She smiled and handed me another empty bag and let me work on filling it. I never got as good and fast as she was, but I always liked working next to her. I lasted awhile but soon jumped off the stool and started to wander.
Somewhere on top of the hemp piles, in between the stacks, two oversized cats patrolled. They had no name. One was a calico and the other was gray, both were busy tracking warehouse mice and pests. They were not the petting kind. I called them, “Psss...psss...psss.” They ignored me.
Maria had watched the calico chase a rat the other night. “The cat won.”
That gave me the shivers as I imagined a bloody fight. “Can I give the cats some water?”
But my father, who had returned to pick up a couple of bags for a customer answered, “They drink rainwater, out on the street.”
“Can I take one home?”
He laughed. “They belong to Egypt Street, Sophoula. Cats survive hunting mice and drinking water on the street.” But that seemed like such a cruel reality.
“Come on. I will weigh you,” he gestured toward the large coffee scales.
“She follows you like a tail,” Maria joked. Did I see my father wink back at her? That seemed odd.
The scale, where the 150-pound hemp sacks of coffee were usually weighed, sat next to my father’s office. I climbed on it and looked up at him expectedly. Had I gained some weight?
“Light as a feather,” he announced, adjusting the weights. At about fifty pounds, I was considered a thin child and had to swallow my mother’s awful tasting spoon full of cod liver oil each morning to “stay healthy.”
We returned to the office just as a boy, with his loaded coffee tray, poked his head inside the front door and searched for my father.
“What would you like? A lemonade? An orange soda?” my father asked me and when I answered he shouted out to the boy. “An ‘imiglikos’ for me, and an orange soda for my daughter,” he ordered. He would have ordered another coffee for his customer, but the man had just left.
I watched the young waiter who never stopped moving on the cobble stones of Egypt Street. Soon he returned with the coffee in demitasse, white stock cup and saucer along with a cold glass of water and my orange soda.
At the end of a full day, I rode home with my father in the jalopy, tired but content.
Sophia Kouidou-Giles writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Her work, original and translated texts, has been published in literary journals and anthologies. She has translated theatrical monologs and short stories, and published her memoir, Sophia’s Return: Uncovering My Mother’s Past, in both Greek and English. An Unexpected Ally, a novella, is forthcoming in October 2023 with a sequel, Perse following in the Fall of 2025.