Last week on Paros, we finally had the chance to prune my grandmother’s lemon tree. It hasn’t been trimmed in my adult life, and had sprouted branches around itself, tying a Gordian knot in citrus. Its top branches sprawled onto the neighbor’s second-story roof. Wasps had made nests in the shoots prodding into our kitchen veranda.
These lemons exude lemonness. Friends here call them moskolemonia, musk lemons, because their flavor and odor is so powerful and sweet. They’re not Meyer lemons, but they’re not the regular species either. Their peel grows thicker than a grapefruit’s, and even in miniscule quantities their zest can overwhelm a dish. When I futz around the tree, its scent imbues my skin and clothes for the remainder of the day.
According to my uncle Dimitri, the tree was already there in his childhood, dating its birth to sometime before 1940. I know next to nothing about the lifespan of citrus trees, but this gnarled old tree certainly looks that old. Some of the small upper branches that I cut had more than 20 rings.
I salvaged about 15 kilos of lemons from the trimmed branches. The kids helped me gather the fruit that fell to the ground. What to do with them? Even if they’re among the best lemons around, everywhere this time of year lemon branches hang low with unclaimed ripened fruit.
We took them to Dimitris, the artisanal gelato maker of Paroikia. He graciously agreed to turn them into ice cream. When he found out when we planned to leave, he promised to turn it around overnight. He and his family spent the evening squeezing Yiayia Zabio’s lemons.
Precisely half an hour before our boat was scheduled to leave Paros, he trundled up to his shop on the market road to Ekatontapiliani, pushing a dolly stacked with Styrofoam coolers. One held a tray of the fresh sorbet.
It tasted better than any I’ve ever tried, and I don’t think it was only because of their provenance. Already, though, the flavor on my tongue is a feeble memory and I can’t quite describe the odor of that lemon musk on my skin. But the story gains clarity with each telling.
Days later the kids are still talking about Yiayia Zabio’s lemons, which six years after her death produced a sweet far more delicious than the Nescafe-infused frozen condensed milk she used to make for us. They intuitively grasp the nourishing power of narrative. The ice cream, they ate matter-of-factly. Its tale they shared with considerably more gusto.
I had this notion that I could spend a month taking care of my kids in a city I know well but where I don’t live, without skipping a beat in my workflow. Well, I was grossly wrong. I’ve just finished a most wonderful stretch of time in Lebanon while my wife pitched in on the Times’ Libya coverage, and the score ran conclusively in favor of kids and against work. I managed to meet one deadline, but all other writing and most intellectual activity ground to a halt. That’s why I have hardly been present here, or at The Atlantic online. Now I’m back in Cairo and shortly should return to standard output. First, though, I have to figure out exactly what happened while I wasn’t looking.
I’ve been in Egypt covering the referendum and the latest twists of the revolution — a juicy and suspenseful saga, although one easily overlooked as the entire world rises up or melts down, gets bombed or washed away. One reason I’ve not been posting my reporting live is the size of my traveling party, which includes Anne and two quite young tourists, pictured above at the Giza pyramids today.
I will be posting less frequently over the next few weeks as I celebrate the birth of our daughter Athina Emeline Cambanis.