At bang on 8 am the next morning I was at the travel office. I parked my little yellow car with the other cars in Eleftheriou Square and went to go in. Nobody there at all yet. The door was still locked. I decided to sit down at the outside tables of the cafe next door, in fact the tables were in front of the travel office. I ordered a hot nescafe metrio with a little milk. It came in a few minutes, so I relaxed there looking around the square.
This square, Freedom Square as it was called in english was in the heart of Iraklion. Most traffic entering or leaving Iraklion came through the square and there were maybe five or six big cafes on the square all with loads of chairs and tables outside impinging on the roadway. On the far side opposite where I was sitting was the open side of the area with no buildings just what was left of the old venetian wall of Candia.
It was so good to be back in Crete. Other people were drinking coffees and frappes on the tables around me in the morning sunlight. It was fun to watch them conversing, doing business, whatever. Greeks can’t simply talk, they gesticulate and their entire body is involved in the conversation. One moment they are shouting, the next they speak quietly. Their hands play with a variety of things, car keys, but mostly the kombouloy, the worry beads, that they spin back and forth around their fingers. They laugh a lot too and that is what warms me to them. Life is never as serious as it seems with greeks. And never as flippant.
Then Costas arrived. ‘Good morning, Ray. What a wonderful day.’ He opened up the office and we went inside. ‘Here is your desk and this is where you can deal with customers. It was a very nice desk, closer to the front of the office than his desk at the rear. Then he went into a long explanation about how to issue Olympic Airways tickets and ferry tickets. He gave me the timetables for the ferry and the airlines. It wasn’t difficult to understand. Then he showed me the telex machine and gave me the telex numbers to dial for both Olympic and the Cretan ferry company and at the end of each day I had to telex the details of all sales to whichever company. He also gave me the telex layout for each booking. None of it was any problem.
‘We sell some of these tickets most days,’ he explained, ‘but what we do in this office is much more important, lots more fun and a great deal more profitable. We service tours for the Italian cruise ships that visit Crete.’
‘First though, I need a coffee.’ He picked up the phone, dialed a number and ordered coffee in greek over the phone. ‘You want one’, he asked?
‘Yes please’, I replied, ‘ a metrio’.
Then he started to explain to me what made the money for his agency. The Italian cruise ships were special. They were ships operating out of Italy and cruising the entire Mediterranean area. The customers were ninety-nine percent americans buying into their cruise systems to see the lands of their birth. They were italian-americans, greek-americans and whatever other americans coming home on holiday just to look and enjoy. Costas had contracts with several companies that berthed in Iraklion. The deal was that they berthed in the morning and we got around fifty passengers. It was our job to take them on a bus to an interesting site or two, see they got lunch and usually dinner and get them back to Iraklion port by eight or nine o’clock.
‘How do we transport fifty people’ I asked hopefully, reasonably.
‘It is no problem’ he said, ‘we use Dimitris buses in Iraklion – excellent buses from Germany – Mann Deisels with air conditioning – we hire a driver and one bus per day. You will be the courier giving guidance in english about wherever you decide to send them. In future the choice will become yours giving me less to do. Then I can spend more time with my wife, God help me.’
Costas gave me a spare set of keys for the office, told me that there would be no cruise ships anyway for two to three weeks and said that he was off to get on with other business. I knew that we closed around two and opened again at five pm. There were not many customers that day just a few people wanting tickets for the ferry and one Olympic ticket just to Athens and back. This was very easy work, and hey, I was getting paid for doing it.
Some people came in just to see this new phenomenen, an englishman working in Iraklion. Could he speak greek, can he do the job. I think I passed all the tests that the locals had for me and I felt comfortable with them. One man, Vassilis, was the owner of the next door cigarette shop. He was about thirty years old and looked a bit like Buddy Holly right down to the spectacles. He told me some amazing things. He was in fact a part-time singer at the Ariadne Taverna. He would go there some evenings with a small group of players and they would sing until they closed. It made a lot of money, he said but most of all he enjoyed it. They would sing gentle songs at first and as the hour got later they would sing some rebetika and sometimes songs from the war, fighting songs. The audience apparently loved this and the Ariadne was a little expensive but there was nowhere like it on the island. ‘You must come,’ he said, ‘Costas is often there.’
‘But he will be with his family’ I said.
‘You must be joking’ Vassilis said, ‘Costas goes one way and his wife goes another, but you will find that out I expect.’
I asked him to tell me more about the rebetika music. He said that rebetika is basically banned now because of the colonels in Athens, but that they have much less influence in Crete. Since they banned rebetika we sing much more than before. It is like the plates that people smash when they enjoy the music. Before there were very few plates smashed but again an order came from Athens to say that there were to be no plates smashed at all. Now the Ariadne has to buy special cheap plates to provide to the customers to smash. It can take a long while to clean up the mess.
Rebetika is an interesting idea. It has been called the greek blues and some call it the music of the coffee houses where people used to smoke on the narghils, sometimes hashish, also banned. It came from Mikra Asia (Asia Minor), from Smyrna and the other towns where the greeks lived there. They were fine people. the people from Smyrna, Vassilis explained, they used to wear fashions from Paris and walk their voltas along the boulevards of that fine city. They had plenty of money and influence until the war came and the Megali Idea (Great Idea) was crushed for ever.
‘What idea was this’ I asked him?
‘Ah, the great idea of the hellenic people. To reclaim for the nation of Greece all the land that belonged to Greece. The Pontic lands of the Black Sea, Asia Minor and of course the biggest prize, Constantinopolis.’ Vassilis was silent for a few moments, as if he was dreaming just a little.
‘But what happened’ I asked quietly.
‘My father used to tell me the stories,’ he said ‘how the biggest dreams of Greece were washed into the sea.’
Just after the first world war, the Megali Idea was a popular concept in Greece. The Prime Minister was Eleftherios Venizelos, the great Cretan from Hania and Therisso, the man who brought Crete into the new nation of Ellas, Greece. It was said that the great powers, Britain, Russia, France and Italy – especially Britain, said that they would support Greece. To cut a long story very short, Greece invaded Turkey and took all of Asia Minor and Constaninople. Then they seemed to make an incredible decision. The greek military decided to march on Ankara, the capital of Turkey, perhaps to atone for the many years of Ottoman occupation, perhaps for revenge, who can say?
The young turkish leader, Kemal Attaturk was asked to stop the greeks, he rose to the challenge and drove the greek armies back. The Turks were jubilant, the wonderful city of Smyrna was burned and the great powers did nothing to help. Many of the Smyrna greeks were murdered, their houses were set on fire and their possessions stolen. All over the west of Anatolia greeks were being captured. It was a complete disaster. The greeks refer to it now as The Catastrophe. The treaty of Lausanne was signed by Turkey and Greece in January 1923 and these signatories agreed to something that has never been done before or since. They agreed to exchange populations. All orthodox greeks would return to the nation of Greece. All muslim turks would return to Turkey.
This exchange was incredible. The population of Greece was almost doubled by greeks returning from Asia Minor. Many spoke only turkish. Similarly the turks were returned to Turkey, many of them greek speakers.
Athens doubled in size, new houses were built where possible and people were encouraged to use the homes of the turks that had been returned to Turkey. The poverty of those days was terrible. In Crete 30,000 turks were made to leave within a week or two. And 34,000 greeks came to Crete from Asia Minor.
This exchange of populations now made Crete to be of a homogenous ethnic and religious composition. Apart from a few jews and armenians, Crete was restored to being wholly greek, orthodox greek.
‘But that was all a long time ago’ said Vassilis. ‘Since then we have had the german occupation and now these idiots in Athens. But we will survive them, we always have and we always will.’