Travel

A MEMORY OF CRETE, 1968

An excerpt from the forthcoming book, ‘Travels with Nana‘.

Orthodox church in Crete

Georgio had said he would collect me around four o’clock and take me for a drive to the ancient site of Phaestos, just over thirty seven miles away across the island on a rugged route to the south side, Iraklion being central north. Crete has a mountainous interior. As promised my host arrived promptly that afternoon, smiling and eager but with even less German at his command than I had which made it very hard work. We formed some kind of conversational code out of the five main words at his disposal apart from please and thank you: alles, arbeiten, essen, zusammen, schlafen and kommen being roughly translated in that order as ‘all, work, eat, together, sleep and come’. I was careful to try and use them in the right order. Humming the tune to the record he was playing in the car and forever smiling he drove us to Phaestos in the late afternoon light through some fantastic scenery, stopping to arrange a meal for us for the evening in a village on the way back. Everyone seemed to know him.

The road over the mountains had subsided considerably at one place with fairly large holes and muddy ruts with oil cans placed roughly near the crumbling edge with its deep drop into a gorge below but Georgio negotiated this like a true rally driver, still turning and grinning at me; a somewhat disconcerting experience but then I argued to myself that the man with his bullet hole was still alive so presumably knew what he was doing.

Phaestos then and today is vastly different. Now it is a tourist trap with a large coach park and unrecognisable as the place I visited in 1968. The palace was probably built in the late bronze age around 1850 b.c.e and was part of the Minoan civilization of which Knossos is the most beautifully restored example on Crete with its road, stairway, aqueducts and wonderful wall paintings. Phaestos was built on a ridge overlooking the huge plain of Messara.

The sun was setting as we arrived at this ancient site with only a guard in a little hut nearby, whom Georgio knew of course and to whom he started talking. No-one else was there. The evening air seemed soft but hanging heavily around us with the strong scent of pine and the thing which impressed me was the stillness with not a breeze to flutter in the tall, dark trees. The vast Messara plain below me ran east west over which landscape a huge, red sun was slowly setting. Breathtaking scenery.

I started to wander among the remains of an ancient building, excavations of little walls and flooring once part of a busy palace with people and slaves walking through high doors in walls covered with frescos. I stopped suddenly in a room which I fancied from all the smells was a kitchen and a strange feeling came over me in an instant of time collapsed, for I was no stranger there. Somehow I had been physically blasted back nearly four thousand years into that landscape in a moment of ‘real’ time and was part of a daily scene with everyone busily working around me in a familiar palace in which I was happily present. Was it seconds or a minute or two or more before I was returned suddenly to a different present? I couldn’t say because however it happened I knew I had been there as a real person in a real place. It was dusk, I was on my own and there were no distractions. Maybe others have had a similar time warp experience in their lives?

Returning to September 1968, to the guard and my friend Georgio, I felt very peculiar indeed and rather sad. How is it in our short life times that, fired by an existential longing maybe, we sense or imagine, despite knowledge to the contrary, that our own little lives can represent some kind of ongoingness, have some kind of particular value in time, universal value maybe, as many religions might suggest; or is this in fact just part and parcel of nature’s necessary survival kit in every sentient and not so sentient creature? So, what occurred to me then in Phaestos, what I had just been privileged to experience that evening, was it a sharing of something of the common existential struggle of all human lives across time, no matter how many thousands of years pass between us? If so, I suddenly realised that nothing divides us.

I returned through the trees to find Georgio still nattering to his friend, the car still parked on the sandy road to the site, so that I was obliged to set aside that strange sense of having been elsewhere, strange sense of a parallel world and totally different sense of immanent knowledge. To this day, I am forever grateful for that unforgettable experience after nearly fifty years.

Georgio explained and apologised profusely because there had been no guide to take me around at that time in the evening, about six-thirty by then and getting dark, but with a huge grin I simply thanked him for bringing me to such a magical place and assured him I had seen so much, ‘einen wunderbar augenblick’ I said to him (a wonderful moment) since wunderbar had definitely already been added to the shared vocabulary, even if the word that followed had not.

Anxious, that as my host he had to feed me despite the arrangement to eat later, Georgio insisted I bite into a loaf of his bread, eating a banana as he drove the car through the evening twilight to our taverna stop. Only the wine was missing but the lively music played on. Somehow Georgio had rigged up a battery powered tape recorder or record player in his car.. Don’t ask me how because CD players in cars did not exist then but all the way to Phaestos and back it was playing well known popular Greek songs, one of which I was able to buy on a little seven inch EP disc from a barber’s shop in Iraklion after singing the tune to the owner. since I had no idea of its Greek name. Miraculously he recognised it, hurrah, and I brought it home to remind me of that amazing day out. At the taverna I had to make an effort to eat some meat and salad but managed the delicious melon that followed.

After that we stopped at the house of his taxi driver’s family. Georgio ran a taxi business. His driver was called Mitsou and spoke English and had suggested we call on his wife and mother on our way home. The little square white house had nothing in it but basic beds, a table and chairs. I was offered a glass of cool, sweet milk and handed a bunch of grapes to take with us on the rest of the trip. By now it was close to eight-thirty when we stopped in the square at a village called Daphnos, which was packed with the entire population who were sitting on their own chairs or standing, watching a hilarious shadow puppet show or galanti. A white screen had been strung up tight and onto it were thrown the shadows of puppets manipulated behind the screen. Sufficient to say that the humour was extremely basic, you needed no special language or knowledge to recognise what was going on. I laughed too. Georgio insisted on threading his way through the crowd in his car with me sitting next to him and I had the feeling that he wanted everyone to see him with the young blonde foreigner at his side. There were a lot of Yasous with laughter to follow and Georgio seemed to be a very happy man that evening. We had a coffee and then stopped again later for a couple glasses of schnapps after which Georgio insisted on feeding me sunflower seeds followed by a stop for another schnapps before we finally drove into Iraklion at half past eleven that night. I was dropped at my lodgings and fell into bed with a head full of quite remarkable happenings and slept the sleep of a baby. …