Friday, 24 April 2009

Jeni Food

‘Jeni Food’ was the quaint name of a tiny Chinese restaurant in Kolonaki, the posh bit of central Athens. The place was a one-woman show run by Jeni Chen, who for a while was a friend of mine. Uniting Taiwanese and Spanish genes, Jeni was strikingly beautiful, especially in her twenties and thirties. She had the face and figure of a Hollywood star and the mouth of a brickie’s labourer. ‘I know dis fuckin shit Greek way to think’ she’d fume, if she felt someone had been trying to get one over on her. ‘Fuckin Greek bastard’. The restaurant had no menu, price list or cash register and Jeni, when making up bills, would simply think of a number and double it. The food was excellent if Jeni was in the mood, but could be wretched if she wasn’t. This was Kolonaki, Chinese food was très snob at the time, so the well-dressed customers would cough up.

'Jeni Food' had only one table, a huge, more or less heart-shaped affair painted cinnabar red. Buddhas, tall dried flowers, candles and joss sticks in jars formed a centre piece, and tassels and lanterns depended from the ceiling over the middle of the table, thus affording a measure of privacy to diners seated on opposite sides. The flattering candlelight disguised the establishment's spectacular filth, for Jeni had no notion of hygiene. She would shut up shop at one in the morning, leaving the washing-up undone, left-overs uncollected and spillages unmopped. Thus on a hot night the place must have been Club Med for vermin, with gorging and fornicating roaches whooping it up on every surface, chasing one another up and down the tassels and crapping onto the table from aloft. I once suggested Jeni might consider spraying or putting down roach bait.

‘We are buddiss’ she said piously. ‘We dough kill da animal’.

After closing time on a Saturday evening, Jeni and I would sometimes go round the corner to Alexander’s, a gay bar that in the late eighties and early nineties was agreeably scruffy, seedy and cruisy. Later it would be tarted up into something resembling the juice-bar of an upmarket fitness-centre - what a weenie shrinker. Meanwhile, Jeni kept an eye open for any potential nooky for me, knowing I was not one to make the first move.

‘He ruckin at you’ she’d say in a stage whisper, nudging me in the ribs and jerking her head at some bloke nearby. ‘He rike you.’

‘Yeah, I don’t fancy him, though.’

‘You too fuckin fussy’ she’d say, and I would wonder if she realised just how unflattering that was.

One hot evening a woman from Egypt was the only other customer in the shop. The conversation turned, grindingly, to my cat, and the lady expressed a desire to see him. Knowing the meeting would never take place, I said ‘sure’. ‘She no fuckin interess in your fuckin cat!’ Jeni said later, with commingled pity and exasperation. I suppose they were justified. I am usually quite blind to blandishments from women – after all, I would never be tempted. This was one of several come-ons I failed to register in my time in Greece, because they were from women and had none of the unambiguous quality one associates with Greek gay bars. A fist round one's cock is hard to misinterpret, but women will hint so, I can’t be doing with it.

Jeni had no shortage of affairs, usually with vapid young fashion victims who were never around for long. She and her bloke du jour always made a handsome couple, but I wonder what they ever had in common besides uncommon good looks. Then Ruben came along.

Ruben was Bulgarian, a handsome and well-proportioned lad of twenty-two whom Jeni found penniless, hungry and sleeping rough on Lycavittos. He worked for her in the shop. Eventually they married. They came to my house, we went out together, and Ruben was always smiling and personable. They had been married for about a year when Ruben changed quite suddenly from sunny help-meet to sullen, petulant drunk.

One evening I got a phone call: the restaurant was busy, Ruben was nowhere in evidence, could I come and help? I was very reluctant, but went up to Kolonaki where Jeni was cooking for about ten people, burning the fried rice and rehashing the previous night’s whiffy leavings. In the tiny, shitty kitchen, we skidded about and bumped into one another on a mush of chicken skin, squid, onion and cockroach bits, reminding me of Orwell and that Russian woman in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, plongeur and chef, cooking in squalor for people who would pay trans-nasally for the stuff they served up. I hacked inexpertly at rubbery carrots with one of those huge oblong Chinese knives, Jeni impatiently dismissing my protestations that this stuff probably wouldn't pass muster at Korydallos, Greece's wretched main prison. Customers called for mineral water. Jeni filled a finger-printy plastic bottle from the tap and asked me to present it to them.

‘I can’t give them this!’ I hissed.

‘Dough matter, dough have anythin else, you give them!’ she scolded.

I ran out and plonked the greasy lukewarm bottle in front of the two women who’d ordered mineral water, and scuttled off back behind the scenes before they could protest. ‘He is not waiter!’ Jeni called, to distract their attention. ‘He is university professor!’ Eventually Ruben showed up, pissed in the British and the American senses of the word. I didn't wait; the ‘university professor’ (for Christ's sake) just got the hell out. I was scared some customer might keel over and expire of food poisoning on the spot.

Jeni began to notice that money and jewellery were missing from her flat, and one day found some of her earrings in Ruben’s pocket. Then one Sunday afternoon I went to the shop and was shocked to find her black-eyed and bruised all over – her face, neck and chest - 'I don't shame to show you' - literally black and blue. Ruben had set about her the night before and was now detained at the cop shop, while they waited to decide what to do with him. She had put together a bundle of his clothes and we went to the police station to hand them over. Again and again she’d laugh, exclaim ‘apithano!’ (unbelievable!) and repeat the story of his thefts, the attack, and how we had both been fooled for more than a year. They kicked him out of Greece. Just before they did, they recovered a few more items of jewelry from his pockets, and discovered he was already married in Bulgaria.

Jeni sold the shop, and thus one risk to the health of Kolonaki residents was removed. I moved and have not seen her since about 1995. Maybe she decided to go back to Taiwan for good. On her one visit there while I knew her, she had managed to achieve a small measure of local celebrity. She showed me photographs of some sort of reception where, glammed up to the hilt, she stood at a lectern with a mike, telling the audience of her experience as lone restauranteuse on the other side of the Earth. No doubt she omitted all mention of the muck and roaches. Indeed, I don’t think they registered on her consciousness. I attribute my strong stomach to an immunity to food-borne contaminants, acquired from eating ‘Jeni Food’ as often as I did.


Bo said...

What a fabulous story! Thanks for sharing it.

Jeni Chan sounds a goodly dame of a quite irresistable stripe. My friend Ian once worked with a splendid, insane lady from Hong Kong who would giggle constantly and call everyone 'swee' har!', saying whatever was on her mind to whoever was present, regardless of appropriateness. The boss, Roger, a massive, soprano old queen, got: 'Ro-jah! yu tu *fa'*, swee' ha'!!!!', accompanied by a poke to his ample belly. A friend called James quite turned her head, albeit inexplicably. She said to Ian, eyes wide: 'Hu yu fren?!!!! He so hansum!!!' [explosion of giggling]

She was, as we said then, a Love and a One.

vilges suola said...

Thanks, glad you liked it! The lady you describe sounds quite similar to 'Jeni' (name changed to protect the less than innocent) I wonder what became of her. She was a bit of a trial actually, because she was so incredibly mistrustful of everybody. I sometimes think she attracted shysters for that very reason.

Fionnchú said...

Wonderfully related, down to the inflections and raised eyebrows I can practically "hear" as well as "see" rising up from the page. One question: how did Jeni ever wind up in those Scrubsian digs in of all places Greece in the first place, if not her last? I know the bit about the Chinese inter alia opening up restaurants (sic) wherever, but I am curious what led her so far from Taiwan-- was it her own biracial blend that set her once pre-glam a-wandering?

vilges suola said...

Thanks for the kind comments! 'Jeni' wound up in Greece after a brief marriage to a captain in the Greek navy, with whom she had sailed around the globe before ending up in Athens - I never knew where the husband went to, or whether he ditched her or she him.

Anonymous said...

Vilges, a wonderful story. I was able to follow every step of each cockroach. Beautifully told, you gave a vibrancy to Jeni Chan that made her real on the screen.

I have eaten Jeni food in both Peru and Bolivia. BTW I have started both those blogs now, the links are on my blogs.


vilges suola said...

Hi Argentum, thanks and glad you enjoyed it. Will have a squint at the blogs later when I have some time

Fionnchú said...

VS, my wife and I, both avid readers of your blog (and former ESL teachers, so we sympathize), nominated this for a "Creative Non-Fiction" contest for best 2009 blog entry. Thanks again for all of your astute, wise, and witty observations.

vilges suola said...

Thank you for the kind comments! Where can I find the site for this? I want to check out the competition!


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