On Candian Shores

I got a long way to go, I'm getting further away.
— Elliott Smith, "I Better Be Quite Now"

I spent a few days recuperating and reintegrating in Athens, and again visited my favorite place. From the Areopagus hill at sunset, the grid of the city is lost in a disordered mass of cubic concrete, linear windows, stale white blocks, and the twinkle of hasty street lights. The families and lovers and tourists seated on the smooth, uneven marble steps watch the Acropolis redden with the dying star's farewell light. The squeaking bats come out from pits on the hill to harvest.

One morning, when I was rebooking my bed, I heard this speech from a tour guide: "We only have a limited time at each site, and you need to limit yourself to that time frame. Some of the sites close at different times than others, and if we want to see them all today we have to follow the schedule. If you need two to three minutes to take a photo, that's fine, but any longer and the tour group will have to move on. Second: Sometimes people go in the sites and they look like tourists but they are pickpocketers. Now, I've never had a problem with this..." He knocked on the wall.

"That's not wood," called Eduardo, the portly deskman, in his vaguely French-sounding accent. I laughed and said maybe plaster would work.

I hung out with many strange characters in Athens, including no less a celebrity than Spain's former number three DotA player (I didn't even know there was a ladder), an atheist anarchist from Boise. I also observed an Orange County girl, successfully identified by her explosive exuberance and pointless monologues, and found out that New Zealanders and most people are diminished and discouraged by the attitude of California girls. I learned more about Brazilian culture and expectations from a student named Mauricio:

"The women of Slovakia are beautiful. I went into a club, and all the women there were beautiful, except this one girl, who was fat. But still there were fifty women there who I wouldn't mind... How you say?... They were beautiful!" he told Nick and me. "I checked into the hostel and there was one bed left, in a room, and they tell me there is a couple and a single girl in there, and I said, 'Very nice.' So I go up and there is no one there, but there is a bra hanging on the bed post, a big bra." Mauricio demonstrated the size. "And I think, this woman is either very beautiful or very fat. She was very fat."

Anyway, I was going to head north to Thessaloniki in Macedon, but some Greek told me, "Thessaloniki is just a big city. My advice: Pick an island and go there." So on Saturday I took a late ferry from Piraeus to Heraklion on Crete. (Sorry Aunt Pat!)

The ferry, the Kriti I, was much larger than the one I took to Ithaca, with a belly full of cabins and two belching smokestacks that thrummed with a primal drum beat. I sat in the Distinguished Class Lounge, hoping they would kick me out, and then went looking for a place to sleep for the rest of the eight-hour voyage. I curled up behind some chairs in the corner of a dimly lit Internet room. A man was already asleep under a sheet in another corner near the door, and pretty soon a half-dozen other people came in and passed out on the carpet.

Crete is shaped like a comb, with a narrow east, a bulging center, and a western third that bears three peninsulae pointed north towards the Hellenic mainland. Heraklion, at the center of the island's north coast, was originally called Rabd al-Kandaq when the Saracens founded the port, and rechristened Kandakhos by the Byzantines who took it over. The Venetians called it Candia along with the rest of the island. Under this title it suffered a Turkish siege lasting 22 years, and the bloodied victors had no heart to change its name any further than linguistics demanded, to Kandiye. The modern Greek nation, ever looking wistfully over her shoulder, changed the city's name to Heraklion for no apparent reason.

The Kriti I debarked there at 5:30 a.m. I walked straight south from the port a few miles to the ruins of Knossos, the Minoan capital of pre-historic Cretan palace civilization, and fell in with a mixed group from the Aegean Pearl for a free guided tour of the 20-acre palace of Minos, led by a Greek who pronounced "Why" as "Wah-hiy." The stoney bluepring was reconstructed in places by Arthur Evans (as Heinrich Scheimann was previously engaged), so you can get a better idea of how it looked in the time of Cretan dominance. However you can no longer step on any of hte palace rooms due to the daily damage of 5000 pairs of shuffling feet.

When the tour ended, I went back to explore Heraklion, and took great joy in seeing the Morosini Fountain, founded by Venetian governor and Morean-conqueror Francesco Morosini. The joy was derived from my guidebook, which said, "Morosini means lion," since I'm that guy who likes to correct people, especially people with influence. As I entered the Venetian fortress on the cornice, some combination of lighting, tourists, and flagstones made me feel as if I was entering the queue for a Disneyland ride.

I took a bus west from Heraklion to Rethymnon at the end of Crete's central balloon. The Rethymnon Youth Hostel is fronted by a soft- and strangely-spoken Serbian named Ivan, and there I met an Estonian journalist named Kati, something of a philhellene and fluent in Greek. This was her fifth visit to the country, after studying abroad in Hania. From her, I learned much about the vagaries of Greek culture and about my most serious interest: Walking Time.

To add to my previous dissections of the Volta: the Walkers and the Watchers are separate groups and never switch places; the only place the Walkers sit are on benches, and the Watchers never leave the café. If you do Walking Time, you don't go to the clubs later. If you do go to the clubs, you have to watch out for the cool guys who wear all black and spend four hours drinking a Corona, and then announce at 6 that it's time to get serious. They drink two more beers and start smashing bottles. The Gangouri stick their hair up and drive up and down the avenues in souped up red cars, which are their only topics of discussion. I also learned that the beads all the Greek men clack together are not rosaries but worry beads, which are a stress relief toy like the squeeze ball, and might be shaped like rosaries as a jest.

Monday I spent too much time arguing with hostelers about Iran. I found the elections last week fascinating, and followed the currently-cooking revolution as best as I could. Iran interests because it is a modern, industrial, democratic state which is striving for religious rather than secular governance. When democrats revolted in France, the monarchies called them heathens, atheists, and anarchists. Whenever Islamists take power in a Muslim country, democratic Westerners irrationally say the same thing, and often prefer a bloody despot to a freely-elected religious party. I see the Iranian government as an experiment with a new form of rule, and I don't like the notion that we've achieved stasis and perfect government and should maintain the secular status quo.

Without international allies or approval, the Persians are attempting to figure out a new way of managing a modern state, and are doing so with as much violence and oppression as accompanied the birth of any Western one. They are working towards nationhood on their own terms. A tolerant, unobtrusive, non-proselytizing religion gives people a moral and spiritual framework, in addition to the political and economic structure provided by secular democracy. People in the West find our consumerist lifestile empty and unfulfilling. They have no reason to be moral, only lawful. Maybe communal spirituality is what is missing. (These ideas were found equally abhorrent by an atheist anarchist, a secular Dane, and a cynical Welshman.)

On Tuesday, Kati and I hitchhiked (auto-stopped) south to Preveli Monastary. The first drivers to pick us up were an old Greek couple who told us they were on vacation, and so could take their time and do what they wanted. The old man turned up the Greek music and sang along, but dialed it down when his wife's phone rang. Someone wanted to meet them somewhere, but they were noncommittal: "We are on vacation," said the man. "We'll do what we want. Maybe we'll go, maybe we won't."

Being on a strict schedule, we turned down their invitation to see some sort of field and drink raki, and a Dutch couple drove us up closer to the monastery. The rebuilt sections of the Preveli Monastery stand out in red and white against the castellated grey stone of the original structure. A strange zoo below holds peacocks and goats.

East of the monastery and down a long, winding stair is a beach of coarse, grey sand at the outlet of a deep gorge carved through the granite by a stream's long effort. The walls guard against the arid Cretan temperment, and allow a thick jungle along the riverbanks, which are explored by families in pedalboats. The water off the rocky shore is cold and salty, so that floating on your back is easy.

In the afternoon we walked back up the stairs and rode with a French couple to the crossroads, then went west along the coastal highway to Plakias with two concerned Greeks. (The people who pick up hitchhikers are generally either hospitable locals worried for your trip, or well-traveled tourists with open eyes.) The highways in that part of Crete circle without intersecting Imbros Gorge, which in Plakias was exactly between us and Rethymnon. We had taken the eastern road south, and despite the deepening lateness of the day resolved to take the longer western road back, trusting in fate with unthinking stubbornness.

It was a long and rarely-riven walk through the crumbling crags that divide Plakias from Hora Sphakion, ringed by ridges and reefs of limestone, granite, and shale that are patched over with highland scrub. The long cultivation of olives has drained Crete's soil where it is not rock or scree, and leaves little shade for travelers. Finally, an Austrian and an Irishwoman stopped for us and drove us, with many questions, to a point near Phrangokastello: A Venetian fortress at the center of the coastal flatflands under the mountains, which by legend is the haunt of the spirits of Cretan rebels. Cretans have a long history of resisting foreign rule, from Venetians to Turks to Germans, and their traditional clothes are martial in design.

Kati and I walked west along the coast, back to the highway. The next car to pick us up was a Honda sedan without discernable color. In the front sat two teenage brothers, and in the back their plump mother, who had to scoot over to let us in since only one of the back doors worked. The back seat was covered in sand, and the front with plastic-wrapped croissants, which the Greek in the passenger seat offered to us.

Once we were settled, the driver wasted no time in accelerating to 100 kilometers an hour on the winding two-lane highway. "Siga siga Slowly slowly," his mother urged quietly. "Siga malaka!" shouted his brother, but the driver ignored both. All three of them crossed themselves continually, although the driver sometimes had to hold his hand up against the setting star. The sunglasses were buried under croissant wrappers.

"I told you we needed to clean these up." "Shut up, malaka!" "Here, pull over so I can throw them in a bin." "No! Just throw them out the window!" "Pull over malaka!" "Fine!" "Siga malaka, I can't reach it!" "Go out the window." "Malaka!"

Finally, the cab was clean, but the younger Cretan in the passenger seat kept climbing halfway out the window so he could insult the names and professions of the old men seated at the side of the road. "You can't say that," they said. "I'll say what I want," he shouted as we sped off. In Komitades, the mother climbed out with her purse, but told her sons to take us on to our destination at Hora Sphakion. They readily agreed. The engine groaned under the weight on the pedal. "Siga malaka!" When we finally made it, and after the Cretans drove off, Kati told me, "I never want a Greek son."

Hora Sphakion is a coastal town based around a cobblestone esplanade that caresses the bay under the canopies of stores and restaurants, between the hills and a rocky jetty. It was dark, and we had a long way to go. A Drunk Welshman of Rethymnon told me that the greatest Christian sin is despair. Regardless, Kati and I were on the verge of it when the sunset caught us on the road two miles east of Hora Sphaktion and forty miles south of the Rethymnon hostel. Luckily, and entirely unexpected by myself, a German made his girlfriend pull over and pick us up, and together we drove back over the mountains that span Crete's length like the meat of a sandwich. Clouds blanketed the dusky peaks, and mountain goats crowded the road.

June 23rd was the longest day of the year, which in Estonia is a day of unceasing sun, a white night celebrated by bonfires and with vodka. In its honor, we went out to a bar with a few hostelers: John and Tanya of America, Helen of England, Laura of Canada, and Sandra of Spain.

John, a recently released Marine who would bleed stars and stripes, started singing country songs and shouting, and Tanya told him to not use his Marine voice. Tanya was another Hawaiian Mormon, the daughter of an Air Force pilot, who, if you ask him about his service, will rank all the chow halls of the Middle-East, and the wife of an Army aviator. Her thousand-year-old great grandmother is a wrinkled Filipina who lives alone in the island mountains and speaks neither Tgallic or English. When a python ate her chickens, the woman killed the snake and cooked it along with the predigested birds. She had her visiting great-grandaughter hold a chicken while she sawed it to death with a rusted machete.

Anyway, Marine John's full-blooded American spirit, along with other tourists I've seen, got me thinking about my own strange and indefinite race. Americans are a stupidly simple and carelessly honest people. (They say every criticism should start and end with a complement, but I believe in bluntness.) We say exactly what we are thinking, with little barrier between mind and mouth, and by our unmoderated countenance show blatantly our own emotions, passions, and thoughtlessness, which borders on rude, though this is unintended.

Our minds aren't made for intrigue or finesse, and in taking action we prefer the hammer to the stiletto. As a result of our incontinence, we are better built to invent and fulfill our own ambitions and enterprises, not because of arrogance, but because of an unawareness of and unacquaintance with control. We operate in most capacities like constant drunks, unrestrained and uninhibited, and others treat us as the sober would. This appears self-deprecating, but it's not, because as heavy as our hands can be they are dependable and good-natured, with an intolerant abhorrence for politics, injustice, and exploitation. At least for most of us.

"Americans are naïve, with all the good and bad connotations. We believe that we can change anything, and we believe that we can change anything," said Eli Pariser, an executive director of Move-On.org, who has sent me a lot of emails without having ever met me, and happened to be in Rethymnon long enough to give me a quote. "A lot of people tell me, 'Haven't I heard that name before?'


Popular posts from this blog

Portraits of the Early Monsoon

Letters from Eastern Europe

Letters from the Melting Pot