The Island of Crete: history and modernity

CreteThe backstory of my trip to Crete was as follows. That year, I had my holiday in October. Where could one move to in October, staying within the limits of Europe, so that there would be both a sea and mountains, and so that it would be warm? I stupidly glanced at a geographic map, and my eyes fell on a certain island having peculiar contours, situated in the latitude of Africa. It was the island of Crete, and it was exactly there that I made tracks for.

On my arrival in Crete’s capital, the city of Heraklion (actually, it is one of Greece’s provincial centres), we were taken onboard a coach, and I had to go through a tiresome procedure of driving holiday-makers to their hotels. The road wound its way along the island’s northern coast. I looked through the window and became more and more disappointed. The surrounding landscape was rather scanty: it represented a hilly and woodless space, overgrown with low shrubs here and there (I had expected to see something looking like Crimea’s South Coast, however Crete’s north coast proved but its poor mimicry). My hotel turned out to be the last on the conveyance list, so I was pretty worn out, when I reached the destination point. The hotel was located rather far from the sea, and by the level of services provided, it might well be rated as “economy”. It was chilly in my room in the first night, and the next day I could hardly get me a 2nd blanket.

Having come for breakfast at the hotel restaurant, I suffered yet another disenchantment: instead of the promised “buffet,” there was a fixed menu there. I was pretty worked up by then, so I started expressing loudly my indignation. At that moment, some man came up to me and said in pure Russian: “Don’t take it to heart! You can’t change anything, anyway. Since you’ve come here to have a rest, just have it”. He invited me to the table, where his wife as sitting. We became acquainted: his name was Roman, and hers, Svetlana. This acquaintance helped me considerably in adapting myself to life in Crete. A kind of mutually beneficial cooperation was established between us. They would rent a car and drive me around, while I would help them with translation into English, especially when they went shopping and buy goldware on cheap.

Yet, our cooperation did not last long. Soon, Roman and Svetlana left the hotel, and I stayed at the restaurant table alone. But my loneliness, did not last long, either. Another married couple approached my table, and I heard, this time, not in very pure Russian: “Razreshitte?” /Would you mind?/ My new acquaintances were called Rudolf and Lily, and they had come from Austria. We formed a nice company, and we would spend much time together, both during the meal and while walking around. We spoke English, although I tried to express some of my thoughts in German. Rudolf had at one time worked in Russia, so he could understand and speak a little bit of Russian. I was especially amused, when to my routine question “Wie geht es Ihnen?” /How are you?/ he replied with a specifically Russian old-fashioned expression: “Vashimi molitvami” /By your prayers/.

Another few days passed, and now it was their turn to leave. Despite the brevity of our acquaintance, we parted as old friends. But as soon as I found myself alone, a lady approached my table. She put on it a bottle of dry wine and asked in English: “It this seat vacant?” I smiled at her and answered: “You’re welcome, madam.” Although we had not been formally introduced to each other, I had noticed her long ago. She had an aquiline nose, and she looked like a true Teuton, so I nicknamed her “Brunhilde.” She had used to sit at the neighbouring table and to continuously discuss something with her vis-à-vis. However, it had been mainly her vis-à-vis who had been speaking, while “Brunhilde” would only passionately echo her (they had spoken German, and only individual words would reach me, so I could not understand what they had talked about all along). “Where is your companion?” – Iasked. “She’s got food poisoning, – answered “Brunhilde,” and her steel eyes sparkled. “Anyway, – she went on, I’m not her nurse, and, in any case, we have nothing in common.” Having said this, “Brunhilde” handed me the bottle, I uncorked it, and we drank “to our acquaintance!” Before too long, we were talking animatedly “about life,” singing popular songs, in between, kind of:

  • In einem Bächlein helle,
  • Da schoß in froher Eil
  • Die launische Forelle
  • Vorüber wie ein Pfeil.

I and “Brunhilde” developed a kind of a romance. Her name was not at all “Brunhilde,” and she was only half German. In effect, her name was Margit, and she had Hungarian blood flowing in her veins. At parting, she presented me with a bag of gifts, where there was a little bottle of champagne, chocolates, fruit, and a number of other nice and not quite edible trifles (I keep some of them up till now). She lived in Austria, on the very shore of the Swabian Sea (the street where she lived, was accordingly called Seestraβe4). We were in correspondence for many years, and would exchange presents. I even wanted to come to her, but changed my mind at the last moment: most likely, it was very damp in her place out there, on the shore…

However, my stay in Crete did not amount to communicating with my living contemporaries – it served mainly as a background. Basically, my pastime there was devoted to familiarizing myself with historical monuments, which were in great number in Crete. Surely, I, first of all, set off to the famous king Minos palace. The excursion was enthralling. We had 2 guides, Katya (Russian-speaking) and Eurydice (English-speaking), so, if anyone failed to understand anything in Russian, the same information would be replicated for him in English. The Minoan culture had existed in the 3d millennium B. C., and I could hardly make it out that all the so called “classical Greece,” considered to be the cradle of European civilization, with all its Gods and heroes, had not yet come into being then.

In the meantime, the Minoans must have enjoyed their life. There were paved roads and sewage systems in their cities, and “light wells” lit their homes. No wonder that the neighbouring Greeks envied the Minoans and would make up cock-and-bull stories about them. Surely, the Minos palace had many rooms, and those rooms were situated at various levels. Still, it would be an exaggeration to call it a “labyrinth.” Rather, it was a fruit of the Greek “tourists’” luxuriant imagination. Furthermore, a popular amusement among the Minoans was a somersault over a bull. Some of the Greek “tourists” would also try to follow suit, but it would often result in failure. In this way, the notorious myth of the Minotaur was formed: in Crete, there is a “labyrinth”, in which lives a monster having the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull, to whom youths and virgins are regularly sacrificed.

On another occasion, I visited the cave, where Zeus – the chieftain of the assembly of the ancient-Greek Gods – had been born. His parents had been the siblings Cronus and Rhea, the Gods of fertility, the children of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth). Lightning was considered to be nearest sign of Zeus’s presence, therefore He was dubbed the Thunderer. He is a peer to the Russian Perun (for some reason, it was not Russian, but ancient Greek mythology that was taught as part of classical education in the pre-revolutionary Russia, so we generally are not informed about the life of our Gods in as detail as about that of ancient-Greek Gods). The cave, where Gaia gave birth to Zeus, is spacious, with stalactites and stalagmites, and also with an underground lake. It is said that in Crete there is Zeus’s grave, too. Some people treat it as a curiosity. But, basically, here we deal with an important peculiarity of the ancient-Greek culture, namely, the lack of dogmatism and self-irony. Their sages would reiterate that only guessing was possible for man in respect to supersensible things. The philosopher Xenophanes, when describing his God-Earth, for clarity, would imagine Him as a “lump of mud.” Citizens of the “ideal State,” extolled by Plato, once confessed: “We are but actors playing, perhaps, in the saddest of plays.”

Also, I visited the Archaelogical Museum of Heraklion, where many artefacts of the Minoan civilization were collected. There had been not only the Bull cult in Crete. The biggest cult there was that of the Mother-Goddess, in honour of Whom festivals would be staged and to Whom sacrifices would be offered. The Mother-Goddess would be portrayed with Her arms held up to heaven (in Christianity, She was reimagined as the Oranta Mother of God). A double axe was another important symbol of the Minoan Crete.

I also attended the convent of the Mother of God the Cordial (Panagia Kera), built in the Byzantine period 13th century A. C.) in the picturesque mountainous area. I bought there some little copies of the wonder-working icon of the Mother of God. On my return to Russia, I gave them to my friends. Although the convent was Greek Orthodox, and the Mother of God “cordial,” not all accepted my gift open-heartedly – some preferred to consult a parson fist.

Finally, we were driven to a folk music festival, accompanied by ample food and drink. Cretan music seemed to me different from that, which could be heard, say, in Attica – it sounded more like Turkish or even Arabic music. However, the music we were “treated” to there, represented mostly dances, and there were no slow, lyrical songs, so I could hardly form a comprehensive idea of Cretan music.

By the end of my sojourn in Crete, I felt quite at home there. I grew to like our little hotel, I got acquainted with its nice proprietress, and I had all I needed for my everyday life. And the waitress was not rude to me anymore and did not brandish her dirty rag under my nose, and would sometimes even serve me second helping. I would say to her “ευχαριστώ,” (thank you) to which she would ostentatiously respond “παρακαλώ” (you are welcome).

Margit left. Now I made friends with the hotel bartender called Michalis. We would often have a good chat, he taught me Greek and he presented me with a Greek music cassette at parting. I also studied Greek independently, from a teach-yourself book, and now could bargain in this language rather smartly while shopping. However, I at first would be confused with one thing. The point is that “yes” in Greek is “ναί,” which sounds like the Russian “nyet,” or “no”, and in saying so, they shake their heads no. On the contrary, when saying “no” (όχι), they shake their heads yes.

I would often wander around the neighbourhood, familiarizing myself with this hilly semi-desert. They say, somewhere in the depths of Crete there are cypress woods, but I never got there. I would come across fences composed of stones, olive gardens, and herds of sheep. IwouldexchangetraditionGreekwelcomeswithpeasants. Also, I would ride out to the nearest cities, Ierapetra and Agios Nikolaos, which appeared to me as typical hearths of the Mediterranean way of life.

It was already rather cool, but the water in the Mediterranean sea was still suitable for bathing. There were many urchins on the bottom, but their needles were fragile, and pricks, painless. In the evenings, I would not walk far away and would largely stick around the village. The houses there were generally 2-storey high, with the 1st floor representing a family’s living quarters, and the ground floor housing some shop of a cafe. Therefore, the latter facilities would be open virtually round-the-clock. On some of the houses there were noticeable graffiti ΠΑΣΟΚ (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) – the traces of recent political battles.

During one of such evening outings I stumbled on a little café. I did not want to enter it, but, all of a sudden, a nice woman appeared in the doorway and called me in perfect English: “Good evening, sir! How are you?” I was surprised. Certainly, many Cretans speak English, but in a very peculiar way. Now, however, it patently breathed with Albion. “I’m fine, thank you, – I replied and added: “Your English is perfect.” “I’m Welsh,” – said she. I did not get lost and welcomed her in Welsh: “Shud ichi!” Now it was her turn to get surprised:

  • Do you know Welsh?
  • Not quite… Just a couple of words.
  • Well… So, maybe you’ll come into our cafe?

Having settled myself at the table, I ordered a bottle of beer and a portion of sliced cheese. Doris – that was my hostess’s name – left to fulfill my order. When she returned, she had on the tray, apart from, my order, a little glass of raki (Greek brandy) and a plate with thin-sliced lard. “This is our treat,” – she explained. I thanked her and asked: “How come you’ve found yourself here in Crete?” Doris took a seat at my table and told me her story. Once she had lived in a Welsh hamlet on the shore of the Celtic sea. As many lasses of her age, she had been waiting for her “prince”. And one day he appeared before her eyes under the guise of a brave Greek sailor. He took her to his place, and they started living together, again in a hamlet, but, this time, on the shore of the Cretan Sea. Much time has passed sincethen. Youthhasgone. Love has, apparently gone, too. But, as the poet wrote:

  • Habit is given us by heaven’s bequest:
  • It is almost as good as happiness.

Doris keeps on living in this desert, far away from her relatives and friends. “Do you happen to visit your homeland?” – I asked her. “Very seldom”, – she answered.

  • And what does your husband do?
  • He rides foreign tourists aboard a boat.
  • And where is he now?
  • There he is –

Doris pointed at one of the tables. There I saw a portly, grey-haired, aging man, who was boozing with German tourists. I was moved by Doris’s story. But it was time for me to leave – that was the last day of my sojourn in Crete, and in the early morning of the next day I was supposed to be at the airport. I kissed her goodbye and dragged myself along the silent lanes of the night village.

Безимени-3Now, finally, I am aboard a plane. A lady sat down beside me – a Russian, at long last, – with whom we immediately started chatting. We were overwhelmed with impressions, and we could not wait to share them. We talked almost without a break, and all the 3 hours of flight elapsed not so as you’d notice. The next day, I turned up at my friends party wearing a traditional Greek headdress.

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