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Stories to Go 7: Far from Iowa

It is not difficult to find hospitality mostly everywhere in Greece as long as one avoids the peak tourist seasons. Newspapers have been full of the Greek financial crisis in the past few years and ‘expert’ commentators writing about it often imply that the Greeks are shiftless and have only themselves to blame for the current situation.

Visiting Greece as a tourist, I have mostly met hard-working people; hard-working, resilient and hospitable. Some of the most enjoyable moments have been random encounters that surmounted language barriers. So instead of thinking about whom to blame for its current problems, here is a reminder of the countless spontaneous acts of hospitality and kindness that makes a visit really worthwhile; that briefly, or permanently (as in this case) changes one’s view of a people. Perhaps it is also a timely reminder that quality of life and economic prosperity do not always go hand in hand.

FAR FROM IOWA

‘Something’s got to happen today!’  It was a plea addressed to the heavens, to a Superior Being she did not really believe in.  And yet, in the silence that followed she thought she heard the faint trace of an answer.

She raised her head to the blue sky in confusion and heard the wind soughing through the tall grass that grew by the roadside.  The road ran straight for a distance and then began to curve its way up a hillside into a tapering point.  Beyond the first low hills was a snow covered mountain.  Sun and blue sky all around her, that was fine, but snow she had not expected, did not fit in with her image of sunny Greece.  Crete.  Big island.  The Greek Navy and NATO had hogged the finest spot; the beautiful natural harbor and most of Souda Bay were off limits to tourists; clusters of sleek gray destroyers and other warships mottled the aquamarine Sea of Candia like patches of an early carcinoma. Beyond the field of grass was a grove of orange trees, late April, and the fruit almost ready for plucking.  Fiona shouldered her backpack and left the road, walking through the grass, springy underfoot and accompanied by the tiny buzz and hum of hundreds of invisible insects.  As she approached the orange grove, the heavy aroma of ripening fruit was overpowering, such profusion that there was no question of not taking a few.  Not to be too greedy, only half a dozen, wrapping them in her scarf and then cascading into her rucksack.

The holiday was unlike anything she had anticipated, also a plethora of firsts.  First time in Europe.  First time away from her family.  First trip alone.  The first time in a country where they spoke anything but English, listening to the Cretans talk among themselves, spending hours in their cafes sipping from glasses of amber Nescafe, milkless, cold and frothy.

Maybe it was just as well that her best friend Moira could not come and had cancelled at the last minute.  It was good to experience everything alone; the strangeness, the foreign-ness of Crete. Good, but a bit lonely.  Walking through the mountainous parts of the island she had seen women in black riding donkeys, quaint, like extras from “Zorba the Greek,” and she half-expected to see an unshaven Anthony Quinn saunter round the corner.  But the women frowned at her, as though she were trespassing on their territory.  People living in isolation are bound to be hostile to strangers, she thought as she descended to the coastal plain.  Besides there were not too many places to stay higher up and it got very cold at night.

In the villages by the sea, which tourism and progress had developed into noisy towns, the problem was quite different.  There was too much traffic, too many discotheks and bars, hustlers’ English spoken everywhere and little flavor of being in Greece, except that the hamburgers left a lingering taste of lamb, sage and wild thyme, and the bread was unsalted and chewy.  In one of the coastal towns some young German tourists accosted her, attracted by her dark curls and hook-nosed beauty, but she shook her head with the hot-tempered pride inherited from her Irish-Ojibwa forbears and left them far behind with her long limbed stride.

Now she was nearing one end of the island and, God, it was a long way to walk and she was fed up of her holiday.  This was no way to enjoy Crete, slogging alone on foot, from one end of the island to the other.  A beautiful island, true, but progress was simply too slow and she had only another six days left of her fifteen.  Roughly half the nights spent in cheap hotels and the rest camping under the stars.

As she walked she ate one of the oranges and looked out at the sea.  The road climbed now and she took a hunk of bread from her backpack and chewed slowly.  To her right the sand and shingle lined beach, scrub running up to the road.  To her left, a hillslope of red earth, a bunch of olive trees, leaves rattling in the breeze like ancient bones or a child’s box of sea shells.

‘Something’s got to happen today!’  Fiona repeated her morning’s plea and again it was as though somebody or something heard and laughed at her.

‘Loneliness plays strange tricks on you,’ she thought as she walked on determinedly.  She heard the sound first, like the buzzing of insects when walking through the grass, only sharper, angrier, a shade metallic.  Then in the distance the trail of thin blue smoke.

The man parked his Vespa, gray, almost white, covered with a fine coating of dust the color of his hair.  Wearing a patched black fishermen’s jersey and white cotton shorts, sockless feet in unlaced canvas shoes, gnarled veins standing out on stringy calf muscles.  Anywhere between sixty and seventy.

‘Poulose,’ he said.  ‘Speak English?’

‘Of course.’  What a question!

‘You like Crete?’

‘Yes,’ she lied.

‘You like fish?’

‘Yes,’ she admitted, surprised at the question, wondering what was coming next. He beckoned economically and, to her own surprise, without thought or contention, she obeyed, climbing onto the narrow pillion.  The Vespa buzzed and they soon left the road, descending by a dirt track to the sea.  Around a corner of headland the unexpected sight of a tiny bay walled off from the sea by an irregular pile of granite blocks.  In this tiny man-made harbor a fishing boat rode at anchor.  It was the boat of Fiona’s dreams, painted blue and white, the canvas awning that covered the wheel flapping at her in friendly fashion.

To the left a two room house, little more than a brick walled shack really, but there were fetching signs of domesticity; a fresh-swept front yard bordered by flower beds filled with small yellow and purple blossoms; two tiny tan colored mongrel puppies growling over a fish’s head; laundry flapping on a sagging jerry-rigged line; grain and olives drying on a mat in the sun; a narrow bench and a table with a chopping board, kitchen knife, two aubergines and a zucchini; a toddler splashing in a pint size bathtub; two cats admiring themselves beneath geraniums in pots on the window sill; the smell of cooking from the open door of the tiny kitchen-cum-living room.

‘Athinai!  Athinai!’  The man hollered through the open door, motioning Fiona to the bench in the shade.  Athinai, grey haired and stout, encased in a dress of Mediterranean blue, waved and smiled at Fiona.  Poulose went indoors and Fiona imagined them discussing her in incomprehensible Greek.  The woman emerged with a plate of olives, a bottle of white wine and three glasses.  She filled two glasses, handed one to Fiona and raised her own.  ‘Is Ichian!’

‘To you!’ said Fiona and emptied her glass.  It was a retsina wine and had a bitter-sour taste of pine resin.  She took an olive from the dish while the woman refilled the glasses.  After the olive the wine tasted much better and she sipped from the second glass with more enjoyment.

There were sounds of frying in the kitchen and after a while Poulose emerged bearing a large plate of small fish fried to a crisp in olive oil.  ‘Marides! Marides!’  He pointed to the fish and took one himself.

‘Kali Oreksi,’ said Athinai, or something to that effect.  Fiona took a small fried fish in her fingers and bit into it.  Warm oil spurted from the fish and filled her mouth with its rich olive sweetness.  The two cats temporarily abandoned one form of self interest for another and began to circle around the bench.  One of them purred and rubbed itself ingratiatingly against Fiona’s shins.

‘Hoi!  Hoi!’  Athinai chased the cats away with a couple of well aimed olive stones.  She turned to Poulose and spoke briefly. Poulose went into the house and brought a small basket of fresh white bread.  He cut five thick slices on the chopping board with the kitchen knife and handed one to Fiona.  Fiona followed their example and mopped up the remaining bits of fish and olive oil with the bread.  Meanwhile Athinai had finished slicing the aubergines and marrows into thin slices and disappeared into the kitchen with the chopping board.  The toddler began to cry and Poulose lifted the child out of the tub, dried and dressed him in red jeans and a blue T-shirt.  Fiona wiped greasy fingers on her jeans and helped Poulose with the child.

‘Grandson,’ he said proudly.  Fiona smiled and nodded her pleasure.

‘What’s his name?’

‘Costas.  You what name?’

‘Fiona.  My name is Fiona.’

‘Fiona?  Fiona.  Fiona.’  He tried the name on his tongue and nodded.

‘Where from?  United States?’

‘Yes.  From Iowa.’

‘Iowa?’  Poulose laughed and lifted Costas in his arms.  ‘Crete far from Iowa.’

‘Yes,’ said Fiona contentedly, chewing an olive and taking another sip of retsina wine.  ‘Yes.  Crete is very far from Iowa.’

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