Freddo Cappuccino

On the drive from Delphi back to Athens, my wife and I hankered for a “freddo cappuccino,” so I began to look on my phone for some kind of roadside place. There were no towns indicated on Google maps for some time, so when we saw a faded “Taberna” sign, I told Cristina to pull over. There were several boarded up buildings, but ahead I could see a smaller building with its front doors clearly propped open. There were a few rusty outdoor tables and chairs under a kind of tin portico, no customers in sight. The day was starting to heat up and it looked cool and shady.

As soon as we pulled up, a mournful-looking man emerged from the open doorway and took up a position near the entry, watching us park. I waved to him, and he waved back, his eyes meeting mine with a like a kind of anxious hope. He appeared to be in his early 50s with a narrow face. He wore a dark, heavily lined jacket with several large, mysterious stains that might have been motor or cooking oil. The jacket was unzipped to his chest, and I could see he was wearing a sweater beneath the stained jacket.

The apparent proprietor continued to stand beside the door as we parked, waving once more to me when I happened to glance his way. Trying to gauge our prospects for a decent cappuccino, I glanced past him through the open door where I could make out a few empty metal shelves, an area with coffee or expresso machines, and a single glass display case. Not too promising, but we were committed.

After picking the least dusty table we could find, we ordered two iced cappuccinos and he hurried inside to prepare them. We chatted in subdued tones and watched a small cat glide back and forth between the empty tables. It was definitely going to be hot again today. Inside, I could see him moving anxiously around the beverage machines.

After a while, he emerged with a tray and served us two watery cappuccinos. He stood by as we sipped, and since I didn’t feel comfortable reacting to our fare in his presence, I opted to find out about him, starting with his clothes.

“Why do you wear such heavy clothes in this hot weather?”

“The weather this time of year, it changes… Just last week it was chilly in the morning.” I nodded vigorously, as if this made perfect sense. After a few moments, Cristina re-started the conversation, explaining that we were from the U.S. and offering how much we had enjoyed Greece. He seemed to brighten when he learned we were from the U.S., as if discovering a new acquaintance who could do him an important favor.

“Can you please end war, make peace in Ukraine? Cost of petrol is now very high. Also, the price of bread very high because of Ukraine situation.” We kept nodding and making sympathetic noises: Yes, the war must make things very tough. When the conversation flagged, he continued to stand by.

Finally, another customer approached, and he darted away to serve him. I saw him lift a six-pack of coke from a cooler and hand the man a can. Cristina, by far the better observer, later told me that she had noticed the proprietor open his arms to the other man in the “give-me-a-hug” gesture. However well he might have known this customer, he did not get a hug.

When we summoned him to pay our bill, he asked, a little plaintively, if we didn’t want to try some souvlaki. I paid our bill, leaving him a generous tip, as if hoping that a few extra Euros would somehow help this very unwell man. I can still see him, smiling his mournful smile and waving as we pulled away.

I have no idea what has become of this man or his establishment. Perhaps, someone has come to convince him to change and wash his clothes. Perhaps, someone has hugged him.

Clark Bouwman is an essayist, translator, and poet living in Richmond, CA. His work has appeared in The Dreaming Machine, Minimus, the Takoma Voice, and in the anthology Music Gigs Gone Wrong.