Crete scenes

  • Author: Jim Toner
  • Date: Oct 4, 2013
  • Location: Crete

This isn’t the scenic Greece of photographs, the blue-and-white domes of churches rising in villages of chalk white homes, of old women in black hunched over at the waist and leaning heavily on canes. This isn’t the Greece of steep villages that drop into a sea of turquoise blue, of tavernas at the water’s edge serving Greek salads with pita on tablecloths of that blue that is the blue of Greece.


Crete is something else. Or rather, the limited Crete that we’re seeing is scrubby and dry, a spine of steep mountains running east to west that descends into long low plains that eventually become the sea. The hot winds from Libya blow across Crete, and I imagine that is the source of its landscape. Something unforgiving is in that wind, something that doesn’t want life. The moonscape of the Sahara is carried in the wind across a thin band of sea to drop enough particles of moon sand onto Crete to deter any lush life.


The wind from Africa was strong the other day. Since then I’ve been dealing with allergies that have me awake throughout the night, coughing like my father—like everyone’s father. Natalie, the Scottish woman at the front desk of our hotel, blames the African wind for carrying something in the air that my lungs are trying to heave out. I want to turn this into a very poor joke, to say it’s more likely a gust of wind from the chambers of the Republican Party in Washington that has me sick, a Party that has engineered the shutdown of the government and the hardship it is bringing to millions. But that wouldn’t really be funny so I won’t write it.


It’s raining this Thursday morning. It’s not supposed to rain in Crete, is it? I’m sure that’s what all these bicyclists are thinking who paid $4200 to BackRoads, an American company, for a week of cycling Crete. They are walking through the old pedestrian district with helmets in one hand and bicycling cleats in the other, down to the parking lot where awaits their vans topped with bicycles standing on their handlebars. They are looking at the sky. It isn’t fun to bicycle in the rain, especially at a cost of $600 per day. The brochures sure didn’t look like this. The brochures promised an idyllic week of easy pedaling through sun-dappled olive groves. They said nothing about rain. They said nothing about the winds of Africa carrying pathogens that turn us Americans into hacking coughing wheezing tuberculosis victims at night.


Yesterday was sweet and I’ll tell you about all things sweet in the next paragraph. For now, for today beneath a café’s umbrella on a rocky island, we don’t know what to do. Nothing is falling into place. The hike down the Samaria Gorge is too long for Liam; the bike tour of the nearby area never got back to me; the place with all the must-see ruins, Knossos, is too far for us late starters, with Liam and Dolora just rising from bed around 8:30am. We’re caught in some sort of vortex of indolence. Wasn’t the Odyssey set in these islands? Have the Lotus Eaters intoxicated us into a dreamy state? There’s a good chance we won’t move beyond a quarter mile of this spot all day, and maybe that’ll be fine. A grandmother is holding a baby in the light rain, dancing in a weaving motion to the song “YMCA” that is coming from the balcony up there, the balcony with the black wrought-iron with images of cranes. The baby in her arms reaches up to the rain. Maybe it’ll be that type of day, being alert to the life beneath our noses, reaching up to that most ordinary of things: water in the air.


I’m not unhappy. Yes, “not unhappy” is a double negative but it’s the right nuance of meaning, so back off. Chania, the town in western Crete that’s been our home for a few days, is charming in an artificial way. The old town is a warren of narrow twisting IMG_6880alleys lined with restaurants and shops selling rugs and jewelry. These pedestrian streets are crowded with tourists, with tall white tourists from Scandinavia and Russia and America. The alleys open up to a broad harbor with a lighthouse at the end which the Venetians built. Lining the narrow part of the harbor are restaurant upon restaurant, and then in the broader square there is a… are you ready? Are you really ready?


A Starbucks. There is a Starbucks here in Crete. There is a Domino’s Pizza here in Crete. There is an American company called BackRoads that brings cyclists to Crete, for $4200.


When did this happen? When did Crete become an American destination? Where was I when this was announced, and why did no one tell me?




It’s now a day later, once again a quiet morning on my balcony overlooking a Venetian fort and the sea. The clouds are IMG_6877scattered, a good sign after the steady rain yesterday. The only sounds are a pair of ragged dogs chasing after pigeons, and the clatter of suitcases being wheeled across the cobblestones—tourists heading toward their bus that will whisk them away.


I want to be on that bus. I want someone else to plan this itinerary down to the last detail. I’ll agree to tote my luggage across the cobblestones but that’s it. Someone else find the best hotels, find the roads, find the sites to not miss on Crete. And then while I’m sleeping, someone else figure out all the details of Athens and the islands, and onward to Turkey and India.


It hit us yesterday. There was a moment in the hotel room when Dolora had a vacant look in her eyes, a stare outward to a space that either held some demons or, worse, held nothing at all. We were sinking into a vortex on Crete and didn’t know how to move. The bike ride I’d planned fell through; the hike down the gorge wouldn’t work in the rain; the bus ride to the ruins of Knossos was too far. And besides, I’m sick of ruins. I’ve fallen behind in writing this blog, so add that to the trash heap.


What do we do? Where do we go? The ferries leave from there but not here and not on this day but maybe on that day. This makes no geographic sense, being in Crete and then going north to Athens and then west to some old sites and then back to Athens to take the ferries to the islands in the east. I turn myself over to the bus. Figure this whole thing out while I roam the old streets with my hands held loosely behind my back.


The vacant look from Dolora snapped when we decided to stay put in Chania for another day, to not see the typical sites but to IMG_6921walk to an outdoor market set up along the sea. This proved to be the tonic we needed. It was authentic, full of real Cretons, and overflowing with the separate things that make Dolora and me giddy: for Dolora, olives and cheese and fruit; for me, characters.IMG_6902


The first sight on our way out of the pension taught me the lesson I still needed to learn: that the sights in all these places is right beneath your nose, is the ordinary lives and doorknobs and soil that requires no tour guide. The sight was a man sitting on the ground, caning a IMG_6927chair. Every so often he’d pull a four-foot long strand of cane from a sack lying on the cobblestones, and twist it into the cane already woven into the chair. The cables of muscles in his wrists and forearms told me he had done a lot of twisting in his life. With a mix of twisting, tugging, inserting, overlapping—in other words, a lot of verbs—he created a work of art before our eyes: the bottom of a chair, a place to suspend my hefty butt. He didn’t speak English but I think he understood my look of admiration. He rested for a moment and smiled. He had no teeth. He finished the last weave and sliced off all the fringes, tested the chair and nodded. One chair down, another lifetime of chairs to go.


We walked toward the sea and down to the market. On the front edge a man was barbecuing lamb on a stick and toasting bread with olive oil. He sat on a white plastic chair and turned the sticks, his hands thick like the caner’s. The light rain hit the coals with a hiss. His business was not brisk but steady, he turning the sticks with his left hand and taking one euro coins with his right and tossing them into a cigar box. With each transaction came some banter among these familiar people, and by their looks to the sky, it was the day’s rain they were discussing.IMG_6923


“Do you want one of those sticks?” Liam asked. He’s a little confused about my waffling vegetarian ways, my attitude that food is a crucial part of a culture and therefore, for the sake of experience, I may eat fish and meat and blood.


“Not lamb. I hate lamb.”


“Would you eat it if it was fish?”












White awnings covered the stalls that lined this backstreet along the sea for a few hundred yards. The first section was food. At the fish stall a thick woman in front sold what the thick man in back was scaling. At the egg stall a woman in black stacked eggs into a pyramid. At the melon stall a stoic man held out a sample to us and we sighed at the taste. We bought one, even though we haven’t any way to eat it on the road. No matter, we were buying the sigh.


Nirvana for Dolora, however, happened at the olive stall. If IMG_6913Dolora had a choice—linger in this olive stall or save Liam from falling off a cliff—well, she’d at least ask Liam to wait a little while. At the stall was a sweet man in his thirties and a cross around his neck, and splayed out on the three tables surrounding him were large bowls of different olives. There were no toothpicks for sampling. There were fingers, and with these fingers we sampled from each bowl. “I make all myself,” he said. “Try, you need try more. Young man,” he said to Liam, “you taste the olive and you stay in Crete. We find a wife for you.”


From there with our sack of olives and melon we strolled on to other stalls where we sampled cheese and yogurt and honey and apples, all local, all managed by these people with big smiles and passable English. Here in one place, at long last, were Cretans. Until now the dominant human species in Chania have been the white tourist, but here were the locals: short, dark, solid, men with scruffy faces and women with deep wrinkles in their faces. They had a Baltic look, or Turkish, or southern Italy—all likely since this island has been invaded by all the tyrants who mixed their blood with all the other bloods of the world.


This farmer’s market, though full of pleasantness and banter among the customers and merchants, was not the farmer’s market we’d been to in Rye, New York, or our own on Saturday mornings in Sonora. In those places the trucks that brought the produce are not rusted through, the seats not worn down to theIMG_6906 foam. In those places, the mothers wear spandex and $120 running shoes in neon green; here, the mothers lug old carts behind them with wheels that wobble. In those places, the children drink mango smoothies or are pushed in their B.O.B.s; here, the children have wet snot dripping from their noses.


The economic times in Greece are black. Those abstract figures—27% unemployment, utter stagnation while Berlin imposes more austerity on profligate Greece—are not abstract in this market by the sea, especially in the farther section that sold clothes. On one table there are mothers crowded around a IMG_6911mountain of mismatched shoes, lifting and tossing and lifting and tossing, finding a pair and bargaining down from 10 euros to 5 to 3. At another table are bras, piles of them, and women pressing them up against their chests and tossing them back onto the mountain before buying one for a couple of euros. At another table, skirts; at another, spoons; at another, toilet brushes and screw drivers. This is how you survive when you are poor and likely to become poorer: you don’t replace the bumper or the foam seat, you buy a bra for a euro, you spend part some of the finite time that makes up a life rifling through a mound of cheap shoes in search of its partner—an act that could be a child’s game in another setting.


One scene stands out. On a corner sat a woman whose hard life could be detected from a distance: the slump of her shoulders, the hard set of her jaw. She was not selling olives or bras or fish. She was selling three things. Just three things—literally. The three odd things were set out in front of her: a buzzsaw, a footpump you might use to inflate a rubber kayak, a scale.


Think about that for a minute. A buzzsaw, a footpump, a scale—arranged in a semicircle around a woman in dark fraying IMG_6924clothes. What madness or brilliance of imagination led her to believe that at this market there was a burning need for an unemployed man in a city to buy a gas-powered buzzsaw.


Were they stolen? I jumped to a conclusion: she stole that scale. Her husband stole that buzzsaw when the government worker was across the street sipping his espresso.


Or were they stripping down their homes? Did the husband hand over his buzzsaw that he used to prune his family’s olive trees because their children can’t eat metal and gas. And the scale. Who cares about your weight when the rain is dripping through the roof. And the footpump, bought years ago when times were good to inflate the kids’ water toys during summer vacation at the lake. Now there will be no vacations for a long time.


This was Crete. This market was Crete: olives and fruit, generosity and banter, along with the desperation of a woman selling a scale on a street corner. In some ways this was our broader experience of Crete, too. The old town of Chania attracts the world’s tourists to walk these well-kept alleys that are brightly lit at night. The streets are swept, the pensions with balconies have fresh coats of paint, the merchants display their jewelry and paintings of a sunset over the Venetian harbor. The yachts from Monaco are pulling in, their owners at the prow with silk scarves and designer glasses. The lovely young man who serves me my morning cappuccino—Giannus is his name –is singing as he brings it to me on a tray lifted high. And the yachts parked in the harbor will be off to Monaco


Go beyond this affluent tourist district, though, and there you’ll see half-built apartments spray-painted with graffiti. There you’ll see groups of young men huddled in the town center, smoking cigarettes and not laughing. There you’ll see cars without bumpers and fathers scratching away at lottery tickets.


I have so much more to write but have to close up now. We’re checking out of our hotel for an overnight ferry to Athens. I have to write back to tell Nadja Dracula—yes, that’s her last name—that we don’t want to rent her apartment, and that yes, her name played into the decision. Still, I need to tell you in a sentence that two days ago we walked along the sea to the west to find our Grecian beach, and we found it: soft white sand, calm water to play Frisbee and paddle-ball in it with Liam, beach umbrellas and recliners to make me feel like a king. Ugh, I need more time to tell you about the Thai woman who went up and down the beach offering massages, and just when I thought it was as futile as selling a scale on a streetcorner, a stout Russian guy ordered one for him and his wife. The Thai woman went to work, giving less a message and more a battering.


Ok, the show moves on.

















1 Comment

  1. Susan Day

    Thanks Jim for this vivid telling of an An Anerican experiencing Crete.

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