"Look But Don't Touch"
"What is it with tourists and ice cream? They had some this morning, then again after lunch, and now again with the four-dollar cones, I don't get it!" - My Life in Ruins
Eventually I did go to Chania. Elena was exuberant. "Remember-"
"I know, I know," I said. "Look but don't touch." Jeez, she'd all but told me to get a bucket of popcorn and set up camp on the beach with a pair of binoculars. She might not have been so excited if she knew I'd booked a day trip through a tourism office. Greeks (and in fact the locals of any travel destination) often looked down their noses at tours as overpriced, pre-packaged experiences. They thought it much better to go and see things on your own, with the freedom to stay and explore. And normally I would agree. But on this trip, where I was forced to experience EVERYTHING on my own, tours had become my best friend, a rare and guilty indulgence where transportation, accommodation, food and sight-seeing were all arranged for me. All the work was done. All I had to do was get on the bus, hand the guide my voucher and sit there. After the stress of travelling alone for weeks, you have no idea what a treat this was.
I chose a window seat at the back of the bus (God, I had become THAT GIRL) and ignored the curious stares of the Indian family a few rows up, the honeymooners from Germany in the seats next to me. With my colourful, hippie-ish clothes and bag and mute, almost-invisible solitary presence, I might as well have been a stowaway.
When we got off the bus at the Arkadi Monastery in the mountains of West Crete, one of the other passengers said something to me I didn't understand. When he figured out I spoke English, he adjusted languages and asked where I was from. I told him, and euros changed hands between him and his travelling companion. "I told you she wasn't Chilean."
Stepping through the stone archway of the monastery, I was struck by the most surreal sense of paradox. Six-year-olds wearing Disney backpacks - visitors on a school field trip - were playing tag in front of a sixteenth-century church pockmarked with bullet holes. Teachers were handing out juice boxes and slices of fruit, exchanging casual banter as they seeded watermelon beneath the sacred cypress tree in the centre of the courtyard, where a fragment of a Turkish cannonball can still be seen lodged in the dead bark. Everywhere roses and climbing vines were choking the ancient arbors and stone walls, a burst of living colour against the pale marble giving the illusion of a peaceful and prolific garden. You would never guess this was the site of one of the most tragic and violent battles in Greek history.
Situated on a high plateau, the Arkadi Monastery had been used as a fortress during the Ottoman occupation in 1866. During the Cretan revolution, five hundred women and children found refuge inside its thick stone walls while monks and soldiers alike fought to keep the Turkish invaders at bay. The battle lasted eight days and eight nights. An entirely Turkish army could have made short work of it, but among the Ottoman troops were a number of Coptic Egyptians, Christians who refused to fight other Christians. On the bus ride up someone had asked what the difference was between Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. "They both believe in the Holy Trinity," our guide explained, "but the Greek Orthodox gospel says that the Holy Ghost derives from the spirit of the Father and not of the Son."
That's it? I thought. A technicality is what has stood between two spiritual cultures for almost a thousand years? I flashed on the St. Christopher medallion that was currently tucked in the same pocket as the evil eye talisman in my luggage. To me it didn't matter whose god was watching over me. With the risks I was taking, I wasn't picky. Why couldn't the same go for everyday life? Anyway, I digress...
When the Turks finally forced the door, the rebels saw the futility of their position. Outnumbered by more than fifteen-to-one, fighting cannons with bayonets, they understood that either option of winning the battle or escaping the fortress was lost to them. So they made a decision. Rather than becoming captive slaves of the Turks, 964 Cretans gathered in the gunpowder storage room, monks, soldiers, women and children cramming together amongst the barrels, and they lit a match. Talk about a sense of hopelessness.
Nothing like a story of indiscriminate genocide to give you a jolt of perspective, I mused as I stepped into the old ammunitions chamber for myself. I didn't expect it to still be here when I heard the story, but here it was, tucked into the back corner of the monastery where hundreds of Cretan refugees hid for days, praying for deliverance. The roof was gone (obviously), the impossibly small space between the four walls flooded with sunlight, making it impossible to imagine how dark it had once been. Even with this openness, the air was lifeless. Not just old and heavy with history like the air inside the Pantheon or Dante's church, but stagnant, as if any hope of a future incarnation for this place had been dead for a long time. There was too much despair here. Too much grief. I'd felt this kind of energy in a place once before, as a fifteen-year-old visiting Elmina Castle, an infamous "Point of No Return" port in the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana, Africa. Even after all these years, the suffering was so potent you could smell it.
At the far end of the storeroom, there was a commemorative oil lamp perched atop a modest pedestal, and behind it a black-and-white mural depicting what the revolutionaries must have looked like huddled together in this tiny, pivotal space, a sacrificial alter. It almost felt wrong to be standing here, to be viewing something so personal. I wanted to cry, but then a chattering swarm of school children skipped through the doorway, their light-up sneakers kicking up dust as they crowded around the oil lamp, bumping into each other as they tried to catch a glimpse of they-didn't-know-what. This is a happy place, you want to think as they run past you, laughing and shoving. Nothing bad could ever happen here.
Back on the bus, our guide sounded indifferent. Only a tour operator who'd been giving the same information for too many years could make the Fourth Crusade sound boring. At the start of the tour she'd made an announcement that anyone who talked over her would not have their questions answered later. "I am not a tape recorder," she'd lectured jadedly. I begged to differ as I listened to her talk about the different types of rock that could be found on the island, resisting the urge to voice the words, "Bueller, Bueller..."
"The olive tree," our guide went on, "has been a fixture in Greece since before Europe was inhabited, and has been the source of life for Cretans for thousands of years..." Good grief, were we back to that again? I get it - the Greeks use olives for medicine, cooking, building furniture, lighting oil lamps, making soap, etc. Still, I couldn't help but be amazed by the size of the olive trees whizzing past outside the bus window. Their gnarled trunks and witch-finger-like branches had to be hundreds - if not thousands - of years old, their jade leaves flushing silver as they caught the sunlight in the ripple of the wind.
The ride toward Chania was a brochure photographer's dream - checkered mountains which were in equal parts grey rock and green shrubbery peppered with wild goats. White and pink and purple and yellow wildflowers lined the roads, and oleander carpeted the basins of canyons, growing, I assumed, alongside streams which carved out veins in the muscles of the landscape. It was easy to see why the Ancients had come up with stories of giants to explain the earthquakes that happened here almost daily. Our guide was talking about the pygmy elephants, hippos, lions and panthers that once made their home on Crete when it was a subtropical island as we wound down the switchback roads toward the sea.
Chania's Old Town is a romantic web of narrow market streets which tumble down into a postcard Venetian harbour. Azure waves beat against an unwalled walkway lined with tavernas facing the white globe of a Turkish mosque and, beyond it, the darker blue of the open sea. The atmosphere is reminiscent of Florence and Venice with Crete's own resilient Greek character thrown in. I was starving when we got there, and headed straight for the long line of waterfront restaurants once we'd passed through the market hall and leather goods street.
It's impossible to take the time to choose wisely. The minute you stop to check out a menu or the interior of a place, a waiter appears as if from nowhere and proceeds to do everything in his power short of standing on his head to convince you to come in and sit down. Some probably would have done that too, if I hesitated long enough. The trick is to just keep walking. Don't even slow down, or they will sense weakness.
One greeter was particularly pushy, stepping into my path and offering a free drink and dessert with my meal. I thought about it a second too long. The hand-painted sign over the outdoor patio read "traditional taverna". No frills. Not even a name. The only customers I saw were Greeks, not tourists. These were good signs. My best bet was this was a family-run establishment being buried by the international franchises popping up to cater to the booming tourism industry. No wonder they were desperate. I was sure I could find better, cheaper places to eat, but I only had two hours until I had to be back on the bus and I didn't want to spend half that time scouting out a restaurant. My growling stomach cast its vote, and I let the young waiter lead me to a table by the hand (he actually took my hand!).
He sat me where other tourists could see me and handed me a menu. As promised, I got a glass of white wine on the house. I asked what "Cretan Pie" was, and the waiter told me only that it was frozen, not worth ordering. "The Lamb Kleftiko," he said, pointing to what the Greeks at the table behind me were eating, "is homemade." I cringed when he showed me on the menu. "You like lamb?" He asked, misreading my reaction.
"I do," I said. "It's just..." I leaned forward in my seat, lowering my voice, "it's a bit expensive."
"Ah," he flashed me a winning smile. "I understand." He knocked three euros off the price for me, and I agreed to try it. "You are very sweet," he told me. "I like you."
"And you are very shy", I countered, "for a Greek."
As I was finishing my meal, the waiter asked what I was doing later. "I get off work at four," he said. "We should get a drink."
"My bus leaves at four," I replied, flattered but apologetic.
"The buses run all night," he entreated. "Please stay."
God help me, I almost said yes. Although I knew he was just being Greek, he had no idea how the simple act of taking my hand sent shockwaves down my spine, how, when he gently lifted my chin with his fingertips to tell me I had beautiful eyes, it was all I could do not to pounce on him like a cat. After too many nights curling up beneath the covers alone and too many mornings waking up alone, I was growing increasingly desperate for touch. Not necessarily the touch of a man. A kiss on the cheek from my sister or a crushing bear hug from my father would have sufficed. Any form of physical affection. From anyone.
Still, I said no. Again. The waiter kissed my hand and asked my name. I told him. "I am Kostas," he reciprocated. Of course you are.
It was impossible to know, in these situations, whether I was missing an opportunity or dodging a bullet. It wasn't worth the risk of finding out. All the same, I was glad I'd chosen that restaurant. As I walked away, I experienced an I-still-got-it confidence-booster that put the smile on my lips I had been waiting for, and a spring in my step as I made a beeline for the ice cream shop I'd passed on my way to the harbour.
After Chania we stopped in Rethymnon, another other-worldly seaside town where I bought myself a small honeypot made of olive wood. It came with one of those old-school dippers with a head shaped like a beehive. The first souvenir I'd bought for myself, it was something I'd always wanted for my hope chest, and Crete seemed like the perfect place to get it. I also bought a second ice cream cone, and a third on the way back to the bus, because I saw another flavour I wanted to try, and because, as the crazy blond, Katherine says in Under the Tuscan Sun, "Ice cream makes me happy." It was a good day for ice cream.
The ride back to Heraklion only got more beautiful, with the rich evening sun setting the cliffs on fire. The honeymooners next to me were sleeping with their heads on each other's shoulders. I leaned mine against the window. My side of the bus was facing the ocean on the way back, and I got to look out at the magnificent green and gold coastline. I saw the waves turning white as they climbed the rocky faces of islets jutting out of the blue, and I wondered why it looked different from the pictures I'd seen in travel magazines.The colours were the same. The scenery was the same. Then it hit me. The scenery was alive. The waves were moving. I was here.
What is it about Greece that makes you feel so...at peace with yourself? Sitting on the beach the other day, I watched an old woman in black roll up her pantyhose to wade into the water. What was she doing? Cooling off? Mourning? I wondered if her pockets were filled with stones. I thought about getting up off my beach lounger and running into the water myself, fully clothed. No one would care. My clothes would dry. What did it matter?
A waitress from the beach bar, Heaven, startled me out of my reverie. "Can I get you something?" It had taken her a long time to notice me. Suddenly it struck me how still I was. A month ago I couldn't sit anywhere for more than a half hour without twitching. Greece - this trip - had done something to me. It had given me endless patience. Patience with the world, with life, and with myself. That was the moment I thought, 'I'm going to make it', the first time I truly believed I could go the distance.
My words were an answer to much more than a drink order. "I'm okay," I told her. "I don't need anything."