"The pride and the stubbornness with which the Greeks cling to the best of the old world points out the best in all of us. An epic history of invasion, occupation, deprivation. A powerful wanderlust tempered by a fierce need to return home. It's this uncompromising will, this sometimes incomprehensible strength and obstinacy that years later gives us this: an unbroken circle of tradition, family and food. And like Ulysses, one's eyes always on the sea." - Anthony Bourdain
It's no wonder the Greeks have survived millennia while other cultures have evolved or died out. They are more egotistical than the Americans, more passionate than the Brazilians, more stubborn and unabashed than the Italians and they eat more cheese than the French (this is a fact, not just speculation). They are a hardy and resilient bunch, too proud of their history to let go of it. Like crocodiles, they are dinosaurs living in a modern world. This is especially true on Crete, where life in the mountains and repeated occupations have bred tough and thick-skinned people since the Minoans, the earliest recorded civilization in Europe.
It took me a few days after getting here to stop being intimidated by their prickly nature. Eventually I learned that just because a waiter was curt with you, responding with a blunt "no" when you asked if they had any recommendations on the menu, it didn't necessarily mean they didn't like you. It was the same mistake I'd made with my host, Agapi when I met her. I'd interpreted her abruptness as a sign that she was annoyed with me. The truth is that Greeks, all Greeks - as Antonio had said over and over again - just wanted to see you smile, and their hearts outsized their brass tenfold.
I didn't truly start to believe him until I had lunch at a typically-Cretan old-school seafood taverna on the water yesterday. I asked the waiter if they had ouzo by the glass and didn't hear him when he told me the price. When I asked him to repeat it, he huffed the answer in my face as though I were a complete idiot. The same thing happened with my food order. The crashing waves were loud and he didn't catch the second half of my request for fried cuttlefish. "Fried...?" He asked, and when I answered yes, not understanding the question, he repeated himself, less patient this time. "FRIED...?" I answered yes again, and he separated pen from paper to perch both hands on his hips, looking ready to give up and walk away. "Fried what!?" He demanded.
While I waited for my food I pulled out my journal to catch up on a few notes. The first one was on a topic I was being subjected to at this very moment. The Greeks stare. A lot. I didn't know if it was just that I was a particularly strange sight or if they did this with everyone, pushing it almost to the point of what would be considered rude in North America. The driver who'd taken my bus ticket that morning had let his gaze linger an unprecedented length of time, exploring every inch of my body without a hint of shame. "Take a picture, buddy," I wanted to say. "It lasts longer."
Besides having one of the roughest attitudes, Greece also has some of the prettiest food I've ever seen. Old-world rustic presented so artfully it always looks like poetry on the plate. My dakos was a bright red bloom of crushed tomatoes atop hard brown bread, the centre an eye of crumbled feta drizzled with olive oil and contrasted by a peppering of black olives. My cuttlefish arrived whole, a bulbous, tentacled critter the size of a small squid, lightly breaded and swimming in a delicate pool of olive oil and lemon juice. There is something about fried food that completes the seaside experience, but this was the most extraordinary I'd ever had.
After the plates were cleared the waiter brought me fresh fruit and a small vial of complimentary raki with the bill. Before I could stop it, a bark of surprised laughter escaped my lips. There were easily five or six shots in there. That was when the dam broke. The waiter caught my smile, mirrored it with his own and shrugged theatrically. "Why not?" He beamed.
I remembered Elena's advice from the other night. "Always smile," she'd told me on the matter of dealing with cultural difference. "Smiling is a universal language." And it worked.
The waiter nodded to the brown leather journal spread-eagle on the table. "You write about me?" He baited.
"About your restaurant, yes," I replied candidly. "It was excellent. I would definitely come back."
"Aww, sweet kisses!" The waiter's grin stretched wider still, reaching toward his ears. He grabbed my face between his hands and planted a smooch on both of my cheeks.
On the walk back toward the bus stop, another server from a nightclub I passed daily on my trips to the city centre called out to me. "I remember you walking yesterday!" He exclaimed. "Where are you from?"
I stopped and turned to him, still smiling. "Canada."
The server considered this. "Ontario?" He asked.
I blinked. "Yeah."
"Your accent," the server said. "You're either American or from Windsor." He stepped toward me, arms outstretched. "Can I give you a hug?" My charmed laugh was all the permission he needed. He closed his arms around my shoulders, holding me so tightly against him I thought I was going to pass out. When he let go, I waited until I was at a discreet distance to check my bag. My wallet and iPad were still there. That was weird.
I'd gone to three different travel agencies to ask about the same horseback riding tour. In true Greek fashion, I'd been quoted three different prices. I booked the cheapest one. The travel agent told me the pick-up was at eight-thirty and I would be finished around one. "Yesterday you said four," I reminded her flatly and she shrugged in that way that Greeks do.
"Around one," she amended. "Maybe four."
I nodded. "Fine. And they'll drop me off back at the same place?"
"Of course!" She shrugged again, as though this should have been obvious. "We aren't going to just leave you there!"
This time it was my turn to shrug. "It's Greece," I reasoned. "s*** happens."
The agent seemed to agree with that. "This is true," she nodded.
Impressively, the pick-up was on time, but it took us another two hours after arriving at the stable to actually get on the horses, despite the fact they were already tacked up and ready to go. "Everyone should take the time for a coffee," you will be told over and over again here. While the rest of the group finished theirs, I walked to the doorway and scanned the small herd ground-tied in the arena.
"Relax," the owner's younger assistant appeared at my side, gesturing to my poised stance with my arms crossed over my chest. "Have a coffee."
"I'm just excited," I explained with an apologetic smile. "I haven't ridden in a long time."
I walked out to the riding ring. All of the horses looked fit and healthy but one stood head and shoulders above the rest. He was a stunning tricolour paint with an overflowing black mane that hung below both sides of his neck and spilled between his ears to veil his eyes. He had a broad forehead (intelligent) and a muscular back and shoulders, balanced out my long but solid legs. Perfect confirmation. He stood squarely with his head up and ears forward as I approached. I crouched in front of him and held out my hand for him to smell. "Hello, handsome."
"How did you know this was the horse I was going to give to you?" The owner's voice interrupted us.
I smiled. "I always know."
The regal animal's name was Cherokee, and as we rode up into the mountains, it became clear he had been gelded late in life. He wove back and forth across the dirt road, keeping the horses behind him in check, always riding the flank of the mare in front of him. Great, I realized. I'm riding the herd stallion. The king. I thought of Reina, the stately bay mare I'd ridden back in Croatia. Queen. Why did I always get the alphas? Was it some kind of vibe I was giving off? Or did the owners just figure I was experienced enough to handle it?
The answer came to me when we dismounted at the top of the hill for fruit and juice. The owner's assistant asked if I wanted to go for a gallop. "Will he mind leaving the group?" I questioned, nodding to my mount.
The assistant shook his head. "No," he assured me. "He is okay. He's independent."
Independent. That was it. Alphas were loners. They didn't suffer crippling insecurity breaking from the herd, even felt safer watching from a distance, looking at the big picture rather than burying their heads in the grass.
"But Cherokee is very powerful," the assistant warned. "If you want, you can ride Eddy instead."
I looked around at the other horses. "Which one's Eddy?"
He grinned. "Me."
I took Cherokee's reins from him and walked away, holding his level stare as I went. This beauty prefers a beast. The owner, Gregory gave me a leg up. For once, I saw a shadow of forethought cross a Greek face. "The ground here is very hard," he cautioned me, his eyes pleading. "If you fall...it's not my responsibility."
"Don't worry," I noted the irony of the words coming from my own lips. "I understand."
Gregory nodded once and let go of the reins. "Have fun," he said. "Ride him like your boyfriend!" He slapped Cherokee's flank and the gelding took off like a 7-47, launching into a half-rear and pushing off with his hind legs. The epic mane billowed back into my face, swallowing my hands as I leaned forward to find my centre of balance.
For all my guides' teasing, their jokes did have some relevancy. When I'd been out with Elena the other night, she'd suggested I take a trip to Chania while I was here, because, she said, the boys were the most beautiful in Greece. "But they are stupid and arrogant," she'd added. "Look but don't touch."
It had been almost six months since I left my boyfriend. "I can't promise anything."
At least the adrenaline surge of flying between rows of olive trees on a sunbathed mountainside in Greece, a rolling valley of grapevines and green farmland stretched out below, helped to relieve some pent-up...frustration. I could count on one hand the number of times I'd gone full-throttle on a horse, and few of those had been as special as this.
"You are glowing!" Gregory proclaimed when I loped back into the rest site, clearly relieved to see me alive. "How did that feel?"
Cherokee tossed his head and gave a little buck as I coerced him to a halt, feeling as good as I was. I was smiling and panting and sweating all at the same time as I answered. "Incredible."
We rode back to the stable where we had a massive lunch waiting for us. I hadn't brought my camera, since the only camera I had was on my iPad which I worried was too big and delicate to carry on horseback, but Gregory had taken some good pictures. They were pinned to the cork board on the dining patio when we got there, on sale for €3 a piece. There were two of me. I chose the shot of me and Cherokee running flat-out on the hillside, backlit by the sun with our manes flying and a huge smile splitting my face. Gregory gave me the other one as I was walking away, holding an index finger to his lips and whispering that it was on the house.
We sat down to an entirely homemade spread of bread and tzatziki, salad, roasted potatoes and eggplant, spiced meatballs in tomato sauce and french fries, just for good measure. Whenever our plates got close to being empty, Gregory and Eddy came around to refill them no matter what we said. They exercised the same level of prudence with our wine glasses, topping them up to the brim with a very tasty homemade white. Ominously, there were shot glasses, too.
"What is that?" The Pennsylvanian woman across from me asked when Gregory filled hers with raki.
"Don't even try to fight it," I said, picking up my glass.
The woman took a whiff, recoiled, and then sipped timidly. "Oh good God," she sputtered, putting the glass down.
"There's really only one way to do this," I told her. I squeezed my eyes shut and threw back my shot in one quick, painful motion.
The woman gaped. "I cannot believe you just did that."
My eyes were watering and my voice was choked as I replied. "It won't go down any other way. Trust me."
After that there was cake - a slice of which ended up in one man's face per a whispered suggestion from Gregory in his wife's ear - and plenty of laughter and conversation. "How many kids do you have, Gregory?" A girl from England wanted to know, motioning to the photos on the wall.
"In Greece," Gregory said, "two." He turned to me. "Where are you from?"
"What's your mother's name?"
And when they had put away the desire for eating and drinking, as Homer once said, they put their drunken asses back in the saddle. "I'm not sure this is a good idea," I mused aloud, the arena tilting under the drag of the raki as I swung aboard for the third time that day. It wasn't something they usually did, Gregory said, but some of the kids had expressed interest in riding again, and it seemed no one was in a hurry to be transferred back to their hotels. I was less impressed with the idea of cantering around the riding ring than I was with going for a run in the mountains (I could ride in a circle back home), but I didn't know when my next chance to ride would be, so I took advantage of the opportunity just the same.
On the way out I caught sight of a fuzzy teacup muzzle peaking out over one of the stall doors, and stopped to give the foal a scratch. Less than a second had passed before a big black head reared out of the darkness toward me, the mare's ears flattened against her neck and her teeth bared in fierce defence of her baby. "Don't touch her," Eddy steered me away from the stall by the shoulders. "She is a Lesbian b****."
I looked at him. "Excuse me?"
"She was born on the island of Lesbos."