Richard Clark, A Traditional Existence (A Day in Crete)

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From Richard Clark, The Greek Islands – A Notebook, Occasional journeys through Crete, Corfu, Rhodes and other islands, pp. 243-7


My back felt as though it would go into spasm as we hit yet another pothole on the road which led out of Heraklion to Archanes. Perched with my bum just inches from the rear mudguard of the oldest, single cylinder 250cc BMW motorbike I had ever seen, I wondered how it had managed to survive so many years. It was made of sturdier stuff than I was.

It was only a short journey I had been assured by Vasilis, the proud owner of the redoubtable machine on which we were bouncing uphill at an alarming rate. Ten miles might not seem far but, back then, this particular Cretan road was something of a challenge. To top that off, the late-autumn wind cut to the bone, making the short trip appear to last an eternity.

Vasilis had asked me to accompany him back to his village, as he had to return to vote in an election. He was a friend who worked as a waiter in my local taverna and I had been teaching him English. He said his mother would welcome the chance to show me some philoxenia, the traditional kindness of welcoming strangers.

When we arrived, despite the cold, she was outside sweeping the step up to her doorway. Vasilis was about my age, in his early twenties, but his mother was already a widow, dressed in the traditional black weeds. If I’d been asked her age I would have said around 70 years old, but common sense told me she was a lot younger, maybe by as much as 30 years.

Life was tough for the majority of Cretans who made their living from the land or at sea, this could be seen in the lines etched deep on Maria’s face which lit up at the sight of her son and me arriving on his battered motorbike. ‘Ella, ella’, she called, come here, come here, as she ushered us through the front door, its green paint bleached by years of summer sun and peeling with age.

I had never been inside one of the traditional Greek cottages before and, like others, had been seduced by dreams of the simple life living in such a house. In the summer, with the sun reflecting off the peeling, faded stucco, with their residents sitting outside around a front door surrounded by pots of flaming orange begonias the life appeared idyllic.

Stepping over the threshold into Vasilis’ family house brought home the reality of how hard life for many people living in paradise could be.

The room we entered served as both the main living and sleeping area, with a couple of wooden single beds pushed against two of the walls, in the center stood a small table covered with an embroidered cloth with four upright chairs with rushwork seats. In one corner stood a wood-burning stove with a single upholstered chair in front of it.

The floor was bare concrete with two woven woolen rugs. Off this living area, through an arched opening, was a tiny room which housed a sink and a simple hob, more resembling a camping stove, which was fuelled by bottled gas. There were shelves containing a few kitchen essentials and a tiny fridge. A door led from here to a back yard and outside toilet.

Maria disappeared into the adjoining room and fussed over filling the long-handled kafebriko, or coffee pot, with coffee grains, sugar and water before heating it on the hob making us a warming cup of Greek coffee, metrio, or medium. This was served in small white cups with a glass of water and a piece of baklava each. Maria had not bought one of the delicious nut, cinnamon and honey pastries for herself.

As I thanked her she nodded, smiling all the time, then removed herself to her chair in front of the fire.

Vasilis had arranged for us to meet some friends of his at a local taverna that evening, then to spend the night at his family home before the election the following day, after which we would return to the city. One thing was playing on my mind. There were only two beds in the house. He assured me this would not be a problem.

Returning after our meal, I noticed a foldaway camp bed had been made up in the room. When it was time for bed I made to get into the put you up but I was told in no uncertain terms that I was to sleep in the bed made up with extra blankets and that Vasilis would have the other bed. Maria was adamant that that was the way it was to be.

Throughout the night I was grateful for the extra bedding as the wind rattled through the poorly fitted window frames and under the door, reaching even through the layers of blankets. I thought about how tough life was for the majority of everyday Greek people without the home comforts we take so for-granted. Vasilis worked waiting tables to support his mother and try to secure some money to make the foundation for a better life. He still farmed his family’s few olive trees in the autumn and hoped to buy some more. But his real dream was to open a jewellery shop to serve the burgeoning tourist industry.

Whenever I hear myself harking back to the halcyon days of a Greece before tourism had taken such a hold I think of that night and the hospitality and welcome I was shown by people who had so little, but were willing to share what they had.

Cf. Richard Clark’s book at Amazon

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