Farewell to Kriti

Anywhere I lay my head, that place I call my home.
—Tom Waits

The city of Rethymno strikes east from a triangular peninsula, which ends in the walls of the Fortrezza. Canopied restaurants encircle the old Venetian harbor on the peninsular flank, defined by a limestone jetty and lighthouse, which flashes green at night. There is little room to maneuver down this promenade, and the proselytizing maitre d's block the only route with desperate appeals to fill their empty tables.

"You want rest and drink?" "Look at these fish. You can have any of them for eat." "You know Frommer's? Well, I have a Frommer's guide right here — and look, we are in it!" "Why are you wearing that Albania shirt? Don't you have any other shirts to wear? You wear it every day!" (I'd never worn it before!)

The Greeks are incorrigible schemers, who are constantly and inexpertly considering possible enterprises, and who follow through with a single-minded determination to create something which at leasts looks like their dream. One manager bought ten leather-backed massage chairs and lined them up around a pair of fans next to his café, then charged €6 for their use.

Beside the Venetian harbor is the old town of narrow cobblestone streets, with walls of white stone and unpainted wood and pastel stucco. The few domed Turkish mosques, made of sandstone, look like buildings from Tatooine. The main street, which is also the arcade circuit for Rethymno's popular Walking Time, runs out from the old town and splits the cafés and boutiques of the modern city from a crowded swath of sandy beach. The city is not as large or as congested as Heraklion or Hania, as ferries run there only very rarely.

Monday: The hostel was packed, including eight kids. When the gas ran out, the well-prepared families brought out camping stoves of multiple designs and fuel-types, and Ivan had to run around to stop them from burning anything down. "You see now why I am manager," he told us on a break. "I work twenty-four hours!" He stopped long enough to show us some Serbian torture technique. "You put your thumbs here, and lift. Two seconds. Two seconds and he will tell you everything you want to know."

Later, some of us were drinking in the hostel lounge and considering a game, but Ivan told us to be quiet. Some guests had complained after I taught Kati, a Canadian, and a Brit to play Egyptian Ratscrew, when our frenzied table-slapping kept them awake. Ten of us in a band strolled down to the beach, where floodlights illuminated the neat rows of beach chairs. On the way we bought beer, wine, raki, and a local honey-flavored brandy called Rakomelo from a 24-hour supermarket on the palmy esplanade, and planted the mostly plastic bottles in the sand at the center of a beach chair circle.

The game we played was 21, wherein the circle counted to 21 and the 21st person added a rule to one of the numbers. On my successive turns, I made number four drink three swigs of rakia, and number two sing their national anthem. This would have been embarrassing, as I struggled to mentally recall the words to the Star-Spangled Banner, but the number always seemed to fall on one of the four Scots present, who sang together with egalitarian gusto. Other rules were stranger and more dangerous: crawl like a dog, kangaroo hop over three chairs, demonstrate a Michael Jackson dance move, hop on one foot until the end of the round. The last of these tumbled an unfortunate Colombian and knocked his contact lens back into his ocular recesses, ending the game.

Rethymno suffered from blackouts that night, along with the merry revelers. From the beach we could see the power outages darken blocks of the seaside city. When ours went under, the floodlights clapped off, and the mighty din of the stars sprang out in full. We went down to the surf and found the water as warm as the day had been hot. "You should go swim," someone said to me. I did not need convincing, but left my shirt and jeans on the dry sand while I waded out into the shallow and temperate bay. The rest took a little more convincing, but after I shouted at them enough, they swam out to join.

We ran starlit races along the line of yellow bouies, and floated easily on our backs with our ears underwater. I wished the blackout would return to reignite the glorious heavens, and couldn't stop thinking about the first scene in Jaws. The others had to call me in repeatedly from the shore, as I stubbornly wanted to swim more. They called both Jon and America, since we had not all bothered to learn everyone's names as well as their countries. Denmark and Colombia wanted to leave, but several Scotlands made them stay until I beached myself. Then we went and got gyros.

Wednesday was the first of July, and all the Greeks wished each other "Kali mina!" — Have a good month. It was also the day when a European Union-directed smoking ban turned its hypochondriacal eye on the Hellenes, fining any who dare smoke indoors or outdoors at a café or bar. A similar ban implemented in England two years ago kills three pubs a day, according to the Drunk Welshman of Rethymno. In the bars of Berlin, it is the only rule the obedient Germans ignore. The Greeks, who smoke more than even the French, and are used to ignoring authority, took the first week siga siga. Coffee shop owners watched their neighbors to make sure of a united front, resulting in universal ambiguity. Ashtrays stayed out, and patrons asking about their cigarettes were answered with shrugs.

In the hostel, I joined a Scottish-Canadian named Alana trying to recruit three California girls into a car-renting trip to the rainbow-sand beaches at Elafonisi. This failed, so Alana and I hitchhiked to Hania, the westernmost of the great Venetian ports on the northern coast of Crete, with a larger old town than Rethymno and less of the modern concrete blight that infests Heraklion. A young woman picked us up near the highway, and left us at the Hanian offramp with a bag of fruit. We rode into the city alongside bags of cement in the dusty back of a four-cylinder truck.

We explored the port, then went to the Etz Hayyim Synagogue, tucked away in an alley accessible only through the the backs of cafés. A lecherous old Sephardi Jew with skin stretched tight over his skull led us around the empty temple. He was one of its two residents, and one of Crete's ten Jews, all the rest having been exterminated in World War Two — delivered from the horrors of Auschwitz by an Allied submarine that unwittingly sank their transport.

"When the woman makes the sex, she must go to the bath here and pray until she is clean," he told us. The 500-year-old synagogue follows the old building pattern, with benches for the men and a secluded balcony for the Jewesses. "When there is a beautiful woman in the prayers, I cannot pay attention. She must go away upstairs. You know, it's for the women, too, because now I am old, but years ago I was very handsome." He smiled with all six of his yellowed front teeth.

After we got back, and with greater sobriety than the first time, I went night-swimming with Kati, Alana, and a Dutch diving instructor with the unpronounceable name of Roel. Friday was my last day. I had a grand time with the people from the hostel, now as close as family, under our weird uncle Ivan. It's strange how quickly a place becomes a home when you are traveling for a long time, how immediately an acquaintance becomes a close friend, and how ephemeral these vagabond relationships really are.

With a heavy heart, I took a midnight ferry to Athens the following day and restored myself to the capital once more, at the end of another Hellenic circuit. I turned north toward Boeotia, Thessaly, Macedonia, FYROM, and cooler Thracian lands.

Comments

  1. i like the part about the dirty sex women soaking in bathtubs

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for writing such an easy-to-udnersnatd article on this topic.

    ReplyDelete

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