Early Days Chapter 03

In the days that followed I did very little. I kind of tidied my house. I swept the floor and I cleaned the window. There wasn’t much else to do. I think that my little house was once intended for animals. The floor was made of stone as was the bed. But I had a mattress and I had a two burner gas cooker, a chair and a window. It had a sink and an outside toilet. I liked the simplicity. It was all that I needed and most of all it was incredibly cheap. I guess it may have been a good price for the landlord, but I didn’t argue. It cost too little to argue.

Staying in Myrtos was very good indeed. It was more than good. I had traveled a lot of miles to get there and I wanted – needed a rest. As the days went by I learned more Greek. I found out where the fournos (bakery) was and I bought what I needed from the little shop there. I never argued about prices and I lived my life, day to day, and it was a good life. I made some friends in the village, sure we could not communicate well, but we did a good job. Then the soldiers came.

They weren’t a bad bunch, the soldiers. They were just about all Greek lads doing their national service – or at least the Greek version of national service. Their job was to build the road to Myrtos, and if that was ever finished, to continue on up the mountain to the west.

It didn’t make that much difference to Myrtos. Their mobile base was about four miles away but they did work hard. I say hard, not well. I am not completely sure that there was anyone with them that was a civil engineer. Someone who knew how to build roads. Not that it really mattered, they built the road anyway. Athens had decided to build a road around Crete and the young soldiers were there to see it built. Strangely enough it was a good road. I watched them building the road from Irapetra and they had big tractors and asphalt machines and a will to succeed. They also enjoyed a drink and a dance and all went very well.

I did like Myrtos. I was the only non Greek person there and for six weeks, all was bliss. People would leave and arrive in pick-up trucks that ferried them to and from the greenhouses. There wasn’t a great deal of meat to be seen but this was certainly salad city. Greek feta cheese and graviera were the most common, Graviera is made from sheep’s milk in village co-ops and is a firm cheese like its namesake gruyere. I was often invited to meals at people’s houses. Then I used to get meatballs in gravy mostly, or chicken and salad and cakes. These meals somehow used to last for hours and into the night. I was learning Greek as fast as I could and I could now get by. I didn’t have any way of understanding tenses but the words I needed I remembered and I presented them fairly well. At least the Greeks could understand me. Some school kids used to try out their English on me. They were pretty good too.

I learned what little Greek I knew by listening carefully and trying to make the sentence that I wanted. If I got it wrong – which was most of the time – people would correct me. Slowly the sentences I made got better and the misunderstandings became fewer. I was learning dhimotiki, the Greek spoken by the people of Greece. To read the shop signs I had to learn a little kathourevesa, cleaned Greek. Everybody calls the bakery the ‘fournos’ meaning oven and bread ‘psomi.’ But the written name of the bakers shop is Artopoleion from the katherevousa word ‘artos’ meaning bread. But this only applies to the shop signs so I wouldn’t bother too much with that aspect of language. Just learn to speak the most common words that everybody speaks and you get the hang of it. Eventually.

There was the dance too. Not so much in the kafeneon, but when we had a sort of party or I went out to a meal. There would be the meal, of course, that lasted for hours. Lots of talk, I didn’t understand all of it, and there would be drinks. A lot of drinks but Greeks handled drink very well. I rarely saw any drunkenness in my whole time in Crete and never any hangovers – perhaps they hid them well, but that wasn’t my impression. Yet it was the dancing that defined the men. Mostly after, but often in the middle of a conversation a man would get up to dance. Sometimes there was music, but not always. It was an expression of his soul – of his being. And this was not odd or strange to the company, but perfectly normal.

There was more than one dance, and no two men danced exactly the same. They would get up and stand tall, lift their arms upward and drop almost to the ground. Rise and stretch again, turn around and drop once more. There would be foot movements as well but mostly it was this slow dance that held the attention. Sometimes they would stretch their arms outward and with foot movements drift sideways and back. It was fascinating. In party type moments maybe two or three men would dance together in a line with arms on each others shoulders with fast matching foot movements and then together drop to a crouch and up again and around. Others would crouch on one knee and clap in time to the music. Often shouting as well, such as “woopah” and “ya.”

Often this dancing would become faster and the men were obviously stretched by all of the movements, but then they would slow again and with enormous grace, continue to move around, dropping and rising as if it was all they had. I asked what it was, this dance, but the answer was always “parea mou” – my parea – my innermost feelings of this moment. To Greeks, this parea was an almost sacred thing. Not religious, but bound up in their way of life, their history and heritage as well as their own personality.

It is one thing to learn Greek, but to learn this untaught dance was something else. They looked at me sometimes to see if I too would dance, but I never did. I could not. Not yet anyway, probably not ever, but maybe I could learn. After all I felt deep down that I understood why they danced. What it meant to them and it was a lot, a huge amount of feeling passed from parea into movement and thus to dance. Another aspect of Greek life that I was beginning to feel as well. The dancing would come later, I hoped.

Much as I would have loved to stay in Myrtos for ever, I knew that I would have to get going. I could take the bus back to Irapetra and explore the east of the island, but someone in the village had told me of this mysterious town called Viannos to the west of Myrtos ‘high in the hills overlooking the sea.’ There was no road west from Myrtos but my map showed a semi coastal path along to the west that passed below Ano Viannos. Full of the joys and energy of youth, along with some Greek which I had learned in Myrtos, I decided to give it a go. I could sleep almost anywhere in this stunning weather and if it became impossible, I could come back to Myrtos.

That evening most of the village, the men anyway, turned out to wish me well and there was a lot of drink starting with beer and finishing with raki, the locally made clear spirit. Stories were told of shepherds who lived in the hills and how they singlehandedly fought the Germans and the Turks. You will find them, I was told, but I had my doubts. In the morning I was all packed up and ready to leave when I found outside my door bags of tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese and sausage. Another gift from my friends that I was unable to answer other than with thanks. I packed most of it into my rucksack and ate the rest and set off to the west.

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