‘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. The food was excellent if Jeni was in the mood, but could be wretched if she wasn’t. 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’. Not that she was any paragon of virtue herself. 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. This was Kolonaki, Chinese food was très snob at the time, and the well-dressed customers would cough up.
The restaurant had only one table, a huge, more or less heart-shaped affair painted lacquer 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. Candlelight disguised the fact that the place was spectacularly filthy, 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 July 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 buddhiss’ 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 pleasingly scruffy, seedy and cruisy. (Later it was tarted up and turned into something resembling the juice-bar of an upmarket fitness-centre. What a weenie shrinker.) Here 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 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, because they were from women and had none of the unambiguous quality one associates with Greek gay bars. A fist round your 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 helpmeet to sullen, petulant drunk.
One evening I got a phone call: the restaurant was busy, Ruben was nowhere to be found, 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 wasn’t fit to be served up in 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 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 jewellery from his pockets, and discovered he was already married in Bulgaria.
She 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.
This was a blogpost.