Volume 29, Number 4

Vasily’s Eggs

Mike Bates

Peter pushed his dish away.

“A lot on your mind?” his lunch companion, a colleague named Martin, asked.

“Yes,” Peter replied with a frown.

There was a lot, the mortgage, the kid’s tuition, the pressures of a corporate job, looming deadlines and commitments, dozens of them with no way to prioritize one over the other.

“No,” he said on second thought.

No more than at any other time in his life. It’s just what people in his circle liked to call “living large.” It had never prevented him from enjoying a moment of extravagance.

“I don’t know,” he was forced to acknowledge.

Martin raised an eyebrow.

“It’s just this food,” Peter said finally. “It has no flavor or texture. It’s been that way since the wife and I got back from vacationing in Greece a couple of months ago. Nothing tastes the same.”

Martin looked down at his own lunch, a plate of sautéed butterfish and glazed carrots, carefully arrayed on a plate of bone china with caramelized cabbage and buttered lentils.

“This is the finest restaurant in the city,” he said.

Peter shrugged. “Whatever happened to simple foods, prepared simply?”

It had been a theme that a chef he’d met Greece had tried to explain about Greek cuisine—local lamb, goat, fowl or seafood prepared with citrus, olive oil and fresh herbs and served with seasonal vegetables.

“Those slobs out there on the streets would kill for a meal like this,” Martin said.

“I don’t know.”

“You can see them now, through the window, the ones wandering around out there like extras in the latest zombie movie.”

Peter looked in the direction of the window, but he found it difficult to see beyond the ambiance of the establishment, the fabrics and veneers of wood and stone displayed in opulent colors and textures and separated into discreet spaces through tricks of the lighting and the placement of objects of art, classical and modern, some of it original, much of it reproduction, all of it kitsch.

“Have I told you about Vasily’s eggs?”

Martin rolled his eyes.

They were veterans of the corporate mating ritual, Peter and Martin, one in which managers took the opportunity to bugger their employees at regular intervals for personal validation. It was a world of artificial environments, with artificial contests based upon artificial values, artificial rules and an artificial lexicon for artificial rewards that motivated men and women of no particular talent to prey on their peers.

“It was in Greece,” Peter said. “We hadn’t been there more than a day or two, when my wife served a couple of fried eggs for breakfast.”

“Vasily’s eggs, I presume.”

Peter nodded.

“They were different, these eggs. The yolks were golden, orange even, almost like they’d been nuked.”

The waitress took Peter’s plate, then asked if she could get him something else. She was an attractive girl, with dark hair and large dark eyes, but the malaise that had overtaken him seemed to extend to his ability to appreciate a pretty face.

“Water,” he told the waitress, then waited as a Hispanic-looking bus boy who appeared suddenly out of nowhere poured iced water from a silver pitcher.

“I must have said something off-colored about the eggs, and she told me she got them at the market, ‘in the lower square,’ she’d said. She made me give them a try despite my hesitancy, and to my surprise they were good, much better than the eggs you get here at home.”

Peter stopped to sip the water, the sweat already beading from the leaded crystal.

“A couple of days later, she takes me into the market. ‘The eggs I made for you,’ she says to me pointing at a basket full of them as though I’d had no right to question her judgment.”

“There’s a wife for you.”

“These eggs, though. You had to see them, a hundred of them, perhaps more, individually stacked into a pyramid in something like a large wicker basket, each of them a different color and size, some of them still carrying the filth of their origin.”

“Charming,” Martin said, his nose wrinkled.

“’Where do you get your eggs?’ I asked the shopkeeper. ‘From Jimmy,’ he replied. ‘Jimmy the Albanian.’”

“Jimmy, the Albanian,” Martin repeated, as though savoring the description.

“We went about our business after that, running in the morning, hiking the cobbled trails in the afternoon, drinking local wine each evening and retiring to a good book with the dusk. It was a small village, the one in which we made our base, situated high up on the west flank of an island, and the sunsets were stunning.”

“Santorini?” Martin interrupted.





Peter shook his head.

“Where then?”


“Never heard of it.”

“There couldn’t have been more than a thousand people in the village,” Peter continued, ignoring Martin’s quip. “Many of them were poor by our standards, but their lives were rich by comparison. You could hear them in their homes each evening, playing, singing and laughing—or crying for that matter, but living.”

“How novel.”

“My wife observed they lived ‘close to the bone,’ I think her words were, and it took me a long time to understand what she meant.”

They’d been hiking a monopati, a footpath, through terraced groves of olive trees when she’d said it, and Peter had been too enamored with the scenery to pay much attention. It wasn’t until later, when he’d reflected on the moment, that he’d thought to ask, and by then his wife’s observation had lost its potency.

“And what was it you concluded?” Martin asked.

“I don’t know. I think she meant that they had to rely on their own resources for the basic things in life we take for granted—you know things like food, fuel and shelter, entertainment even and that it was that struggle that gave their lives so much texture.”

“Not for me,” Martin said, shaking his head.

Peter didn’t know whether he wanted to laugh at Martin or cry, but discretion got the better of him in either event. Could it be that none of us can appreciate the small pleasures of life, he wondered, until we challenge our privileged existence?

“Anyway, these villagers, they kept their distance for a few days,” he said, allowing his gaze to lengthen as he recalled the experience. “I guess it’s fair to say they regarded us with suspicion at first and perhaps a little good-natured derision if I’m honest with you. I would learn later that we had become known about the village as those ‘crazy Americans’ who had a habit of saying ‘hi’ to everyone we encountered.”

“Hard to believe, given your personality.”

“All of a sudden, they took us into their confidence, like we were family. I don’t know how it happened or why. It just did.”

“And to think you’re usually such a snob.”

“We met Poulxeria, and she led us to Elizabet. Elizabet led us to Angeliki, and Angeliki to Sotiris, and Sotiris to Dinos. It was like that with everyone we met, each new acquaintance expanding our circle of friends. We met Thannasos and Nikos and Evagelia and Teresa and Ann and Ioda and Nina and Vageli and an entire community of other people until, one day, I was introduced to this man named Jimmy.”

“The Albanian?” Martin chuckled.

“Albanians in Greece are kind of like Mexicans in the United States. They cross the border into Greece looking for a better life. They work hard. They save their money and send a little to the families they left back home.”

“Just like Mexicans from the sound of it.”



“They’re respected by the community for what they contribute, not vilified for where they come from or how they got there. Jimmy had developed quite a reputation around the village as a stonemason and landscaper and, if I’m not mistaken, a gardener.”

“And he sold eggs from the sound of it,” Martin added with a hint of sarcasm.

“Jimmy didn’t speak much English, and I don’t speak any Albanian or Greek, except for the few words of Greek I could pick up from Fodor’s. But we were able to work out between us, Jimmy and me, that he got the eggs from a man named Vasily who lived nearby at the upper end of the village.”

Martin raised a hand to hail the waitress.

“You want another martini?” she asked.

Peter shook his head as Martin handed the waitress his credit card.

“All of a sudden,” Peter said, “Jimmy is leading me by the arm through the village. ‘I show you,’ he says to me in broken English.”

“A tour guide to boot, this Albanian.”

“You have to understand something about Greek island villages. They’re built high on the sides of mountains for a reason—to discourage pirates that used to ply the seas for plunder. They’ve grown over the centuries almost organically, one stone structure at a time, so there is no rhyme or reason to the way they’re organized. You might be able to drive a small car down a couple of the streets, but most of the streets are made for mules. Everything is literally up and down, with alleyways, blind turns, forks, hidden staircases and dead ends behind every structure.”

The waitress returned with the check.

“There’s no rush, gentlemen,” she said, though Peter could tell by the phoniness of her smile that she expected compensation for her forbearance.

Martin accepted the bill folder with a wink.

“The point is that walking through these villages is supposed to be difficult,” Peter said after the waitress left.

“I’m sorry,” Martin said, his eyes fixed on the waitress’s backside as she walked away.

“I said walking through these villages is supposed to be difficult.”

“Right,” Martin said, his focus back on the conversation.

“Jimmy drags me down the nearest road, shoving me against a cottage abruptly when a couple of scooters came racing around a curve. Then he pulls me up a side street and bids me to follow, right then left, then right again, climbing every step of the way until we reach this long staircase, a couple of blocks at least, that runs straight up to the top of the village with a name that translates, roughly, as ‘Nirvana Road.’”

“Of course.”

“I’m out of breath by now and lost, as lost as you can get in a village of a thousand people situated on a mountain overlooking the sea, and Jimmy hasn’t shown any sign of slowing down on those stubby Albanian legs of his. I’m almost ready to give up, when Jimmy stops at the top of the staircase several meters ahead of me and points.”

Peter stopped to catch his breath, as if he’d been reliving the story with the telling.

“It’s an odd thing about these villages. You’re in them until you’re not, and the line between in and out is black and white. I catch up with Jimmy and look in the direction he’s pointing to see a grove of olive trees, interspersed here and there with citrus and fig and almond, and in the middle of them this man is feeding what I estimated to be several dozen chickens at his feet.”

“The mysterious Vasily, at last.”

“Did you know that a rooster will crow at almost any time of the day, not just at dawn, and scientists can’t figure out why?”

“Interesting,” Martin said,

“Anyway, I’m watching this man, and I see something odd about his chickens. They’re all kind of scrawny, not at all like the chickens you see here in the United States, all plumped up with hormones and filled with antibiotics before they’re shipped off to China for processing.”

“Your point?” Martin asked.

“I don’t know. That there is nothing like local eggs, I guess, laid by free-range chickens, delivered without a hint of pasteurization, homogenization, preservatives and dyes or frozen to keep them edible from a processing facility located hundreds or even thousands of miles from your home to your dining room table.”

“Did he make any money?” Martin asked.


“This Vasily? Did he profit from his eggs?”

The fundamental question, Peter thought. Nothing in this world has any value unless it can be reduced to dollars and cents. He would have objected, in this one case at least, but Martin was a true believer. “The free market,” Martin would just say, “is the only fair way to determine the value of goods and services.” We’re all flawed, the thinking went, incapable of establishing the intrinsic value of goods and services without screwing it up somehow, and money allows us to express our naked self-interests independent of fear, bigotry, and greed.

Peter had even believed it all his life, or thought he had.

“I didn’t know it at the time,” he said, “but Vasily had trained as a civil engineer before retiring with a government pension to his cottage, his trees and his chickens. He was quite intelligent, though you’d have difficulty determining that at first impression, he was so sparing with his words.”

Martin put his credit card into his wallet and his wallet into the pocket of his suit coat, then made a show of removing the receipt from the bill folder and signing the check while looking across the table at Peter as though to warn him that his patience, not to mention their conversation, was nearing an end.

“He was large, Vasily, with broad shoulders, and huge, and I mean huge, callused hands,” Peter said. “I dare say he was even handsome, but in a rugged—I hate to say it—almost rough-edged sort of way. He had a shock of thick, gray hair that he brushed back with his hands, gray eyes and a strong nose, cheeks and jaw to go with pink lips that were almost sensitive by contrast. When you spoke to him, he had this way of creasing the flesh on his forehead as though he were afraid he was going to offend you with his reply, and when he smiled, he’d lower his chin in a self-deprecating way.”

“Just answer the question.”

“He was a gentle soul, perhaps the gentlest soul I think I’ve ever met.”

Martin looked at Peter askance and grimaced. “I managed to attract his attention that first time I saw him, that day with Jimmy, and I made a point of saying ‘hi’ whenever I passed him on my afternoon stroll. At first, he would just wave. After a while, he could be heard to utter the word ‘yassos,’ a formal greeting one might offer to a stranger. Then, it was ‘yassou,’ the informal form of the greeting ‘yassos’ reserved for acquaintances. And before long, it was ‘kali mera, Panos. Kalla?’—‘good morning, Peter. Are you well?’—with an invitation to join him for coffee in his cottage.”

“Did he make any money with his eggs?”


Martin let go a sigh heavy with significance. “Then what’s the point of talking about local foods, delivered—how did you put it?—without a hint of pasteurization, homogenization, preservatives and dyes when the business model is not sustainable?” he asked.

“I didn’t say it wasn’t sustainable.”

“You admitted he didn’t make any money,” Martin said as he reached for his water.

“He didn’t make any money because he didn’t charge Jimmy the Albanian for the eggs he gave him.”

Martin choked on a piece of ice. “That’s crazy.”

“I talked to him about it once. We were sitting up against the trunk of a large olive tree, watching the chickens.”


“And I said things were difficult in Greece, with the government involved in the important business of working through the banking crisis and all that. I might have suggested that the government might be forced to implement another round of austerity if the Germans have their way, and the eggs could be an important source of income if pensions were cut again.” 

“Sound advice.”

“He listened, I think. He remained quiet, his forehead creased as I spoke, and I was beginning to wonder whether he heard me.”

“Well, did he?”


“What did he say?”

“He smiled at me, lowering his chin and looking at me in that ‘aw shucks’ sort of way of his. He told me he had his family and friends, his cottage, his trees, his birds and everything he needed to get by just fine.”

“That’s it?”

“And what I heard him to say was that there was nothing those ‘important’ people in Athens and Berlin and Brussels or Washington and New York City even could say or do that would make the least bit of difference in his world.”

“You didn’t pursue it, did you?”

“What could I say?”

“How about there’s virtue in making a little money whether you need it or not.”

“He loved his birds.”

“That’s nonsense.”

“We just sat there together after that, our backs against that olive tree, Vasily with his endearing smile and I.”

Peter remembered for just an instant how the air had smelled under the shade of that tree, thick with the odor of chicken droppings and centuries of humus. The sun was bright, the light warm. Leaves rustled on the branches, turning from green to silver and back to green against an Elysian sky, as clouds, fluffy and white, floated by on an Aegean breeze. 

And for a short while sitting there under the olive tree with Vasily, the world just made sense.

“It was a moment of perfect clarity,” he added.

“What did you see?” Martin asked as he rose from the table, his tone sarcastic, almost irritated. “In your little moment of clarity.”

Peter looked around the restaurant as he folded his napkin and pushed himself back from the table. 

The other patrons hovered over their plates, scratching at the china and pecking at their food with their silverware. The women primped, and the men preened. Heads bobbed this way and that, swiveling toward the latest, or the loudest, stimulus. The room was full of people talking too fast, laughing too loud and trying too hard to be seen, and none of them looked like they’d given the slightest thought to their motivations. 

He swallowed a smile.

“I saw Vasily’s chickens.”