Because It's Greece
"I'd tell you about last night but I'd throw up in my mouth. I woke up feeling funky-fresh. I like the coffee here. It's crunchy. Both the coffee and that raki stuff are like rocket fuel. I drank a little more of that than I would have liked under ordinary circumstances." - Anthony Bourdain (on Crete)
When I woke up this morning I was in Venice, Florida. Living a mobile existence can leave you a bit...disoriented. In moments of semi-consciousness especially, I often default to thinking I'm still in Italy or Croatia. Toss into the mix an overnight ferry ride across the Aegean, the strongest liquor known to mankind and the sound of ocean waves outside my window, infiltrating my dreams, and I forget even what continent I'm on.
My head pounded as I rolled over to check my watch on the nightstand. 8:30. AM? PM? I had no idea anymore. Was it only the day before that my ferry pulled into the port of Heraklion? I vaguely remembered the island of Crete materializing in a hazy sunrise in front of the ship's bow, the shapes of the mountains bleary after a sleepless nine hours.
Nine hours, I told myself when I boarded in Athens the evening before. Less than half a day. I could do anything for nine hours. It hadn't occurred to me until I was already aboard the colossal vessel that I was terrified of boats. I had no problem speeding at six hundred miles per hour thirty thousand feet in the air inside a pressurized steel tube, but something about floating on water had always petrified me. Maybe I went down with the Titanic in a former life. I also hated the cold. It didn't matter that Blue Star Ferries was the most popular fleet in Greece, each ship equipped with multiple floors of lounges, cabins, restaurants, gift shops and cafes. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, I say.
I stayed close to the window while the ferry disembarked into the sunset, watching as the cluster of lights in the harbour thinned, then faded to black. There's nothing out there, I thought, no longer able to distinguish sea from sky. It was going to be a long night.
Because it's Greece, the preliminary safety instructions were overridden by a broadcast of the election on the onboard televisions. Deck officials and passengers alike were gathered around the screens, engrossed in the live feed, which was all Greek to me. I tried to get comfortable in my seat, hoping to shorten the night by drifting off for a few hours, if i was lucky. One of the officials turned his attention from the TV just long enough to inform me that resting my feet on another chair wasn't permitted. Sure, I mused wryly, you let your cab drivers smoke pot but God forbid a paying passenger rest comfortably on a cruise ship.
I was swaying on my feet when I approached another taxi in the harbour in Heraklion. I handed him my suitcase and a crumpled piece of paper on which I'd written the address of the apartment I'd rented, then climbed into the backseat and fantasized about a shower and any horizontal surface.
The front gate was locked, so I had to phone up when I arrived. My host, a Greek-Canadian who now lived with her family on Crete, appeared dishevelled, yawning as she shook my hand. "Were you asleep?" I asked, perturbed. I'd messaged Agapi the day before to let her know my ferry docked at 6AM, but I would be happy to wait until whatever time was convenient for her to check in. I could swear she'd told me not to worry about the hour and to come straight to the house.
"Wouldn't you be?" Was her withering reply. "What time is it, anyway?"
I recoiled, stung. My emotional state was delicate, and I'd expected a bit more Canadian cordiality.
"We can take care of business later," Agapi left me at my door with keys and the Wi-Fi password. "Are you going out or do you want to rest?"
I pointed to the bed. "I...had a...big boat."
"I'll talk to you when you wake up."
I dumped my bags and made a beeline for the bathroom. Overnight transfers always left me feeling mangy, and I couldn't sleep well unless I was clean. The bathroom was spacious enough, and the shower had curtain and a lip around the bottom so the floor wouldn't flood the way it had in some of the places I'd stayed. Shivering (the ferry had been cold as a movie theatre and the thermostat here hadn't been turned on yet), I took off my clothes and opened the hot faucet all the way. I held my hand under the water and waited. And waited. And waited. Oh. No. Way. This room had three beds with clean, freshly-pressed sheets, a stove and refrigerator, heating and air conditioning, even a television and laundry service. It HAD to have hot water!
"It's Greece," I reminded myself out loud, exhaustion eating away what remained of my patience. I shut off the water and put the same clothes back on. No reason to grunge up clean ones while I was will dirty. I was near tears as I climbed beneath the covers of my new bed. I'd booked this apartment for almost two weeks. I considered myself pretty adaptable, but cold showers for that length of time was pushing it. Then again, I'd had worse.
My eyelids were just about to close when I saw it. A gleaming red light high on the wall. I'd opened the wardrobe in the corner when I got here, and the door had been covering it before. A ray of hope? Suddenly reenergized, I threw off the covers and crawled on my hands and knees to the foot of the bed to get a better look. Yes, it was a switchboard like the one I'd used at Antonio's to turn on the boiler. Maybe, just maybe (please, God, let it be so), that was the way it worked everywhere in Greece.
It's funny how everything can change like the flip of a switch. I went for a walk when I woke up and decided this lazy beach town I'd ended up in wasn't the eighth circle of hell after all. My apartment was right on the water, and the abounding tiki bars and coral shops reminded me of the March Breaks I'd spent with my family in Florida as a kid. Also within walking distance were several tourism offices and tavernas (traditional Greek restaurants). I stopped in what looked to me like the best one. With its wooden tables and chairs, red-and-white checkered tablecloths, outdoor patio and rustic dining room decorated with wine barrels and hanging cast iron skillets that looked like they were from the Minoan period, Creta House was reminiscent of the kanobas I'd loved so much in Croatia. As I suspected, the kitchen served only local products and made their own wine and raki.
Starving and still too brain-dead to decipher most of the menu, I ordered souvlaki and a glass of house red. A basket of homemade bread with tzatziki and beet salad came while I waited, and when the white-bearded man in the corner saw me taking pictures and scribbling in my leather journal, he picked up his cane and approached. "You write books?" He asked, nodding to my journal.
I shrugged. "I'm trying to."
"I have present for you." The old man handed me a plain green hardcover. Inside were black and white photographs of Cretan towns and citizens from every era in recent history, the year printed beneath each one. Thumbing through the glossy pages, I marvelled over images of peasants and shepherds tending their fields in the thirties, soldiers passing around stainless steel coffee cups during WWII, and veiled nuns sitting solemnly side-by-side in their cassocks.
The man headed for the dining room and gestured for me to follow. "Come." Inside, he showed me where the pots and pans, blackened with age, had been patched with welding to be reused over generations. There were also ram skulls and bird cages with live finches in them and more framed photographs on the wall, which, once I realized I must be speaking with the owner, I deduced were of his ancestors. He gave me a tour of the kitchen, and showed me the enormous glass jar he had filled with orange peels distilling for raki.
My meal was outstanding. It finished with a comped dessert of fresh fruit and cakes. "On the house." A little tip for budget travellers: always tell people you're a blogger, even if you're not.
I stopped to check out the beach on the way back to my guesthouse. There was a cocktail bar advertising Pina Coladas and frozen cappuccinos literally steps from my back door. Stretched out in the space between its back deck and the ocean were row upon row of reclined beach loungers, each equipped with its own parasol and plastic table for drinks.
"Stay a while!" There was a man in a paint-flecked T-shirt preparing the deck for tourist season. "The sun and the sand are free!"
I pointed to the water. "Can you swim?"
A grin split the man's face in two and he threw both hands in the air, paint slinging from the end of his brush. "Of course!"
I looked out at the sea. I enjoyed swimming in open water about as much as I liked crossing it in a boat, but I banked the option, like so many, in the back of my mind.
When I got back I drafted a consciously polite message to Agapi. I apologized for disturbing her again and explained that there must have been some sort of mix up this morning, as I'd been under the impression that she knew what time I was coming. I would never have showed up so early, I insisted, if I'd known she would still be asleep. Formal amendments taken care of, I respectfully asked if we might take care of the rest of the details, whenever she had a minute. I received a response right away. "Are you in your room now?" Agapi asked. "I can come up in ten minutes if that's okay with you."
In true Canadian fashion, she was there in five. "First of all," she said in a mock-stern voice that scared me at first, "I knew what I was getting into when you told me about the ferry. I was prepared for you to come early and it's not a problem at all, okay?" After that we exchanged the requisite cultural loop of "sorry-it's-okay-thank-you-sorry-it's-okay-thank-you", and I relished the knowledge that I was among my own kind. "Do you need anything else? Did you find the towels I left-?" Agapi's question broke off as I gestured to a stack of clean towels I'd picked up in the hall. I'd also made my bed with the sheets I'd found in the wardrobe. There were tourism brochures and maps of the area I'd gotten in town spread out on the desk, and my keyboard was already charging with the adapter and converter plugged into the wall. "Well," Agapi looked around, "aren't you self-sufficient."
I smiled. "It's not my first rodeo."
Later that night, Elena, a native Cretan and friend-of-a-friend-of-the-family back home, picked me up for a night on the town. She took me into the city centre of Heraklion and walked me through the labyrinth of souvenir and ice cream shops, souvlaki stands, bars and cafes that were still thriving with nightlife. Despite the fact that Heraklion is the capital city of Crete, it's a small town by North American standards, home to around 100,000 residents. Elena seemed to know every fifth person we passed, making frequent stops for the obligatory kiss on both cheeks. I always got one, too. It's customary even when meeting someone for the first time.
We met up with some of her friends at a taverna where they were celebrating a birthday. In true Greek fashion, we were invited to sit and share in the food even though our presence had been impromptu and uninvited. "You want to try raki?" Elena asked, translating a suggestion someone made in Greek.
"Uh..." I recognized the word from a No Reservations episode on the Greek islands. Anthony Bourdain had affectionately referred to it as antifreeze. "That's strong, isn't it?"
"It's raki," one of Elena's friends shrugged, as if this was all I needed to know. Clearly this liquor was in a class of its own.
I choked on the first shot, but the second and third went down easier. I remember a mountain of meat after that - lamb and pork belly and beef patties and kebab - accompanied by zucchini cakes, tomato-and-bread salad, fried potatoes, mushrooms and saganaki. I think there was wine, too - two kinds - followed by some lopsided walking and then a pita wrap the size of my head from a street-meat stand. The monstrosity must have weighed more than two pounds. I can't say exactly what was in it but I seem to recall some wonderfully wrong combination of spicy sausage, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and French fries. Quintessential booze mop.
By one o'clock I was feeling every second of sleep deprivation I'd suffered over the last two days. Out of the past 40 or so hours, I'd slept a grand total of two, and the delirium was starting to set in. Elena wanted me to choose where we went next. I was having trouble holding my head up as I reminded her I'd only been here since this morning. Crete had been a last-minute decision, and I'd been about as alert as I was now the last time I saw the city centre on the cab ride from the port. I knew nothing.
Actually I did know one thing. The remedy hit me when I woke late this morning. I was thinking about the night before. Elena had dropped me off around 3AM and the power had gone out while I was taking out my contacts and brushing my teeth, because it's Greece. Greece, I remembered suddenly. Not Florida. Greece has some powerful coffee, not to mention good, restorative hangover food.
I took the bus back into the centre to Liontaria, or Lion's Square, where Elena and I had been walking. I'd heard about two really amazing bougatsa specialists there. I picked one and sat down. Traditional Greek coffee comes in cups hardly bigger than a shot glass. Like Turkish coffee, you really don't need more than that. The sediment in Turkish coffee usually settles to an undrinkable sludge in the bottom of the glass, leaving you with, for the most part, black liquid. Greek coffee stays textural, so thick and mud-like you almost have to chew it. It stands up to bougatsa, a true breakfast of champions. Fyllosofies in Lion's Square does it well - handmade phyllo dough so tender you barely know it's there as it envelopes the fresh mizithra inside, an unpasteurized sheep's milk cheese similar to a salty ricotta. I ordered mine with honey.
It was lighter than the bougatsa I'd had in Athens, a perfect balance of sweet and savoury. Not like a dessert, but not so hearty or salty as to leave you looking for one. Just rich enough to satisfy.
Feeling lightyears better, I asked for the bill, the €5 I owed ready in my hand. Instead, the waiter asked if I had fifty cents. I gave it to him. He gave me €15 back and walked away, because it's Greece.