Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In The Deep Blue Sea

Here are two fascinating videos on Gaia Winery's project to find out how their Thalassitis Santorini P.D.O. Assyrtiko will age underwater. The first clip shows the actual process of submerging the wines, while the second is an interview with Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, winemaker and co-owner of Gaia, discussing this effort. Next year, they plan on comparing their 2009 cellar-aged Thalassitis to that of the same vintage that's been kept underwater in the Aegean Sea for five years. I would love to sit in on that tasting!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Something Different #3

Yeah, I know I've been bad. Call it the summer blues. To make it up to you, though, here's my short story, "Milk and Cookies," which I submitted to the 'Creative Writing Competition: the Transformative Power of Words’ organized by Reading the Lines and the Cyprus Association on Books for Young People. Lo and behold, I won Second Best in Show and a nice contribution to the Jarrin Wine & Diaper (J-WAD) fund.

The first time our family’s chauffer drove us through the gargantuan favela, my younger brother and I cowered in the backseat of our grey Volkswagen station wagon. Had Mother known about our driver’s brash decision that morning, she would’ve fired him on the spot. But rush-hour traffic heading into the city from the southwestern beachfront properties of the rich was heavy, and the winding, uncongested road into the shantytown ended on the other side at the American international school’s main gate.
The school—six hexagonal towers that rose from a lush forest like giant honeycombs—educated the sons and daughters of foreign diplomats, country managers of multinational corporations, wealthy Brazilian families and Protestant missionaries. Students’ padlocked metallic lockers lined each floor’s long encircling balconies and the view east showcased at a distance Corcovado’s arm-spread Christ and Sugar Loaf. Even the buildings’ less privileged sides were witnesses to nature’s beauty. From my English classroom, its wide doors shrunk like oriental folding screens into the greenness that surrounded us, we saw macaques swing from limb to limb, gnawing on anything edible and chattering in the same way preschoolers do.
Like my brother and me, students wore typical American brands and head-banged to typical American bands. For the studious, school time was for sealing a spot at an Ivy League or Stanford; for the lazy, smokes, gossip and sexual innuendo in an isolated vertex of one of the hexagons. After-school hours were spent figuring out how to hit B-Flat on a saxophone or a worn-out softball over the school’s massive fences that protected its grounds from the neighboring slum’s miscreants. Students vacationed in Miami, Aspen or Paris and came back each time with scrummy candy, fashionable alternative music and hip haircuts. There was little life beyond those blocks, the southwestern high-rises with their private pools and garrulous maids, and the shopping malls, movie theaters, and country clubs that served as weekend escapes.
I didn’t know what to expect but I imagined a scene out of a Hollywood action movie. A potholed road narrowed by thousands of haphazard shacks made of cardboard boxes, aluminum panels and mud spread out like an infection into the mountainside. Rotting garbage piled up outside and the acrid smell that impregnated itself onto one’s hair and skin was impossible to scrub off. Scrawny children ran barefoot behind a wobbly ball, while older versions of themselves, bandanas covering their pursed lips, manned each meandering passage with rusty weapons and vicious stares. These same men—I pictured them as dark skinned and muscular versions of Tony Montana—catcalled aging prostitutes, who traipsed along the streets revealing too much of their product and expecting too little in return, and sold tainted drugs to addicts that floated along like ghosts. Any random dark overcast afternoon, a swarm of rainwater, sludge and human waste would slither down the hill like a nest of snakes, knocking down the makeshift homes and slowing to a halt with all of its weighty baggage on a wide sandy beach in front of the Atlantic Ocean.
The car pushed its way over a few bumps on the main road and I took a quick peek out the window. Our chauffer, a potbellied older man who’d been with our family for about a month, caught sight of my trepidation from the rearview mirror. He chuckled and shook his head in disbelief while expertly shifting gears.
“There’s no danger, boys. Take a look,” he said.
I sat up and pressed my face against the window. Motorcycles, cars and trucks rumbled up and down the hillside. The nondescript structures—homes, shops, apartments, schools and offices—that skirted the road were bunched like books on a shelf, combinations of brick, concrete and tiles that swallowed most signs of plant life throughout the neighborhood. Mothers dressed in work attires held uniformed children by their hands and waited in one of many sheltered and well-marked bus stops. Shop owners unlocked their storefront security gates and slid them open for their employees to mop the floors and sweep the dirty water down the storm drain. Pushy street vendors peddled traditional foods and drinks to pedestrians who consumed them on the run, and boys selling chewy candies, tropical fruit, gossip rags or windshield wiping services approached stopped cars eager for a shiny coin or crumpled bill. It was a hustle and bustle similar to that I experienced on visits with my family to fancier neighborhoods like Ipanema or Leblon.
“Jorge, it’s busy like this every day?” I asked.
He nodded.
“How about at nighttime?”
He laughed again and told me it was sufficiently lit and safe as long as we didn’t wander into the alleyways that branched off the thoroughfare like dark tributaries to a major river. I unbuckled my seatbelt and jumped into the empty front seat for a better view of the controlled chaos.
“Do you know anyone who lives here?” I asked.
“Yes. Actually, we all do.”
“No way. I do not,” I quickly retorted.
“Don’t be so surprised,” he uttered as the German car hit a final left turn and shut down its engine outside the school’s heavily fortified gates.
“See you kids at one-thirty, okay?” Jorge said.
We swung the car’s doors open and jumped out. Our bulky school backpacks dangled off of our feeble shoulders as we darted past the armed guards to catch up with our friends and finish last night’s math homework. Jorge sped away to run endless errands for Mother.
On the way back from school, Jorge swerved off the favela’s main road and parked the car outside an unfinished two-story house. A group of laughing older women sat on plastic lawn chairs outside a contiguous home fanning themselves with old newspapers and drinking hot coffee in espresso cups. A few stray dogs rummaged through garbage bags that had been piled next to a lamppost and a hand-painted sign signaled left to the neighborhood’s Assembleia de Deus temple.
“This is my home,” he said. “I would like you to meet my wife.”
My wide-eyed brother turned to face me and reached for my fingers.
“We want to go home, Jorge,” I pleaded, my heart skipping a beat.
“That’s fine, boys. If you don’t want to get off for a few minutes, I will take you back.” Jorge restarted the car and took a deep breath.
“My wife and I cannot have children,” he blurted out and rubbed his eyes with the palm of his calloused hands.
“We tried and tried. We prayed each Sunday and confided in our pastor for strength. But God preferred for us to be alone and we’ve learned to live with His decision.”
A slim snowy-haired woman—she wore reading glasses, black rubber sandals and a white and blue flowered dress that fluttered with each measured step—tapped the driver’s window with her bare knuckles. Jorge rolled it down and smiled.
“Hello, dear. Boys, this is my wife, Sônia,” he said.
My brother and I apprehensively waved. Sônia greeted us and asked about our day. At first, we hesitated but her motherly countenance and the warmth of her voice put us at ease. I told her about the tying goal I had headed in during recess and my brother revealed how he pretends to be a Japanese television action hero around his classmates. She clapped her hands and chuckled at our childish tales.
“My husband talks about you all the time. He says you’re wonderful children and I’m happy to have finally met you. Would you boys like to come in for a snack?” Sônia asked. In unison, we shook our heads and grimaced.
Without saying goodbye, she turned around and walked back into the exposed brick house. Jorge stormed out of the car and told us to stay inside. “I will be right back,” he repeated and locked the doors. My brother and I got scared; he whimpered and I banged the car’s paneling with my clenched fist yelling out our driver’s name but he disappeared behind his wife. I cradled my brother and waited.
Minutes later, though, Sônia, followed by Jorge, returned lugging a large wicker basket. Upon opening the front passenger door, she set the container on the rubber floor mat, kneeled down on the leather seat and yanked out a variety of foods.
“We thought it’d be nicer to have a picnic. What do you think?” she asked.
My brother wiped a few tears off of his cheeks and we nodded. Jorge said a short prayer before his wife served us chocolate chip cookies out of a sealed pack, some banana slices on paper napkins and plastic cups topped with lukewarm milk.
“Don’t worry about making a mess. I’ll take the car for cleaning as soon as I drop you off,” Jorge assured us. Sônia grinned and spoke to us forever about crocheting, cooking garlicky black beans and her favorite evening soap opera. We stuffed our faces to our heart’s content and never told a soul.