By Thomas Leinkauf
How strangers made friends and became closer because they aren’t so strange after all
A long table with an open-air buffet at the Old Venetian Harbour of Chania, made from driftwood from the shores of Crete. A public meeting place for three days, eating, drinking, talking, partying. That was the plan Mischa Leinkauf had come up with for Europe’s Kitchen in Berlin.
Then came corona with renewed vigour. Meetings were restricted, cooking outside was not allowed. And the material he’d thought up lacked creativity too. The idea needed new momentum. And there wasn’t much time left.
But we hadn’t met the Greeks yet.
Heraklis from the recycling centre in Chania searched his yard the next day. There was plenty of rubbish that was useless for the project, but there were also a few interesting objects. Blocks made from compressed drinks cans, for instance. A pile of old beams and boards. Bent metal tubes of which no one remembered the original use. It was all worth considering. Heraklis delivered it free of charge promptly the next day in a truck to the Technical University, which had provided a construction workshop facility. Greeks like to help, he said, smiling.
In the workshop that the artists from Berlin started with students the following day, the project began to take shape. Eight architecture students responded to their professor’s call to become involved in the project. In the workshop they collaborated to try and translate the European idea into a visual design. They discussed how a public space could be transformed. How it might then offer added value for visitors.
The recycling yard finds inspired the students’ imagination. Second-hand, but not worthless. Material for new ideas. Points of reference for their perspective on Greece and Europe.
Christos and Mina fell in love with the blocks made of drinks cans. They could be cast in epoxy resin, thought Christos, as table tops. That wouldn’t work, they realised when they visited the local DIY store – epoxy resin is expensive, unaffordable on the available budget. Christos promptly picked up his phone and called the manufacturer in Athens. Explained the scale and significance of the project, funded by the EU and backed by international artists, a bit of name-dropping, that helped. He wheedled first two, then four, then six litres out of the company in exchange for a donation receipt and a mention in the local press. Christos’ father picked up the canisters in Athens and brought them to Crete on the ferry. Christos collected them the next morning, and in the afternoon the blocks were cast.
Greeks are good at improvising.
The students built table number two out of old planks, irregular in form, with corners and edges, which was supposed to symbolise the continent of Europe. They spent hours sawing, sanding, screwing, and painted a few stripes on the map in blue and yellow. A rough and rudimentary view of the continent, but a friendly one.
Efharis, Smaragda and Yro told them about some old tiles and bricks they would be able to find in a certain place on the coast, in the west, at the old tanneries that now lay in ruins awaiting gentrification. They wanted to collect them and use tile cement to set them in wooden forms they had made themselves, a sort of ornate decoration for the third table.
Fragments of tile and brick for Ancient Greece, the cradle of Europe. Aluminium waste from Coca Cola and beers of the world for the globalised continent. Recovered timber from the sawmills of Crete. Three tables instead of the original long table, bringing it into line with corona regulations. At least later at the harbour people would link them in their imaginations to create a single communal table, by talking about them.
The leg frames for the tables came from a local scaffolding company in Chania. Stelios, who ran a café in one of the old maritime warehouses down on the quay, brought together artists from Berlin, students and scaffolders. Fuelled by espresso and beer they sketched out ideas on scraps of paper and discussed what might be possible. Everything was possible. The tubes and couplers they had selected at the company were delivered the following day, and someone whizzed out on a moped to fetch the missing items. At the waterfront square they worked as a team, bolting them together to make platforms and flagpoles. The chairs were brought from the university cafeteria.
Stelios, an alpha male type of man, who also ran a taverna up in the town under a six-hundred year-old plane tree, was a tower of strength. Whenever there was a problem to solve, he said: No problem. He had all the right connections – tradesmen, authorities, police officers. Outdoor dining? No problem. He asked some of the restaurants in the surrounding area to come up with a few dishes each. In the evening he and the other chefs came into the square with their creations. There was barely space on the tables.
Stelios didn’t want money for this, despite stubborn insistence. He liked the improvised, crazy project. And you could tell he enjoyed demonstrating that many things can be achieved even under difficult circumstances with philoxenia. You simply have to want it. The red wine came from a local vineyard at a very reasonable price.
A trip to the region of Sfakia was how Mischa first met Manoussos, a Greek who ran a taverna with his family in the mountain region of Anopoli – with goats, sheep and traditional farming. A region with harsh conditions. Many men there carry weapons and at Easter they tend to shoot their sacrificial victims rather than burning them. You get to know people quickly on Crete, that’s because of their hospitable nature too. The question put to Manoussos – whether he could bring along some typical regional dishes including home-produced lamb and cheese – was answered affirmatively after a few glasses of raki, the island’s typical schnaps that’s needed to make anything happen on Crete. And this time they were allowed to take payment for it.
For the last evening they took the students to the market – the Germans and Greeks wanted to cook together as a final farewell. They bought cheese and olives, tomatoes, courgettes and grapes. The butcher put a few kilos of meat through the mincer for them, and the subsequent “Workshop in the Kitchen” involved making it into Berliner Buletten, or meatballs Berlin-style.
Every evening at the old harbour was dry and warm. On the quay the boats bobbed on clear water full of little fish. Passers-by stopped to see what was going on, enjoyed a drink and sampled the food brought to the table. After sunset they listened to talks about Crete, Greece and the origins of Europe, they discussed the different perspectives on the continent, refugees and the failure of politics.
Some people returned. Of course, there was food to eat, plenty of it and all free – people were just asked to donate what they could. Eating together is a bonding experience. But there was more to it. Curiosity about other people. Hospitality without payment, without expecting anything in return. Simply celebrating coming together. After all, to all intents and purposes everyone in the world has missed out on that through this difficult year. But in this mini setting it was to happen nonetheless, and it worked out well.
It was a motley crew that gathered there on those three evenings at the waterfront. Natives of Crete, random passers-by from many countries around Europe, poor children who played drums at the harbour to earn a few cents and were delighted to get an extra pastry, the students and their professors, the people from the Goethe Centre. In the end they sat, separate and connected, at a table together after all.