I’m super impatient with expat memoirs. And I have a deep dislike for the kind of travel writing that’s all introspection and metaphysical. When I agreed to read and review CafÃ© Tempest: Adventures On a Small Greek Island I did not know it was an expat slice of life read in the voice of a main character who, among other things, is writing about yoga mantras. Had I known that, I’d have rejected the book out of hand, thinking it yet another “me and my feelings in a land of wacky, colorful locals” story. And that would have been a shame because, what do you know? I rather liked this book.
Sarah and her friend Alex are off to Greece. Sarah has some writing to do, Alex’s motives aren’t as clear. The island has been Sarah’s retreat for many years, she knows the ins and outs of life there, the bad food, the erratic postal service, the poor telephone service, the everyone in everyone else’s business island society. The character ranch is in full swing, the clumsy maid, the fat policeman, the handsome doctor, a whole slew of charming fishermen and waiters and taxi drivers and bakers and sisters and wealthy mainlanders and tourists and and and. Sarah gets roped into producing the island’s summer play — The Tempest — and yes, of course, hijinks ensue. There’s a romance, a hot Swede, a handsome doctor, and any number of Iannis’s and Theos. There’s scenery and retsina and a turtle and a stolen Volvo. There’s a lot of things, all tangled in a heap and piled up on a tiny Greek island. And yes, some of these things feel like cliches on first blush.
But. Here’s the thing. I really liked the language in this book. Barbara Bonfigli builds the story in a big playful mess of beautiful words. She mixes Greek and English in a way that, on the one hand, makes you feel the weird disconnect of living in a language not your own, but on the other hand, turns storytelling into a language game. Sarah’s mantras weave in and out of Sanskrit and English and Greek, always changing, as the story unfolds.Â There’s a scene with a phrase book and some Turkish customs officers that made me laugh and laugh, oh, the convenience of what’s understood and what’s not! The setting feels real to me, not some overly romanticized foreign idyll because the characters, even with their theatrical personalities, are big and flawed and made real in the sparkly descriptions.
Maybe enough time has passed between me and expat life to restore my sense of humor and magic. Or maybe it’s the magic and humor in the writing that made this book so easy for me to like.Â There’s nothing huge here, I didn’t walk away from my reading transformed, but I could see the water, the winding roads, the rattling motorbikes, the lines at the bakery and the telephone and the pier. I wanted, for the first time in a long while, to be an expat in a place sunny and blue. And the language, oh, language used well makes me happy. Cafe Tempest is a sweet and entertaining read. And bonus, it made me want to read Shakespeare. Now, I’m off to the library to get a copy of The Tempest.