[VACATION] There’s not a terrible lot to add to this blog from Crete that wasn’t in the Private Eye column I wrote last week. Fact is, Crete remains my favorite place in Greece and adding anything to more to my previous exclamations is piling on. Also, Crete seems to be getting crowded, so the fewer people who take to liking it, but better for me lest I have to find another place to spend my hard earned Euros.
It’s easy to like Chania although Old Chania (the Venetian area) is thoroughly tourist driven. Even so, Chania holds quite a few gems that are fully Cretan and the fun is trying to find one while standing fully amidst the other. One obvious tourist area is the stretch of land between Chania and the western city of Kissamos—all of the north shore of Crete is a tourist development, actually.. It could pass for Southern Callifornia except that in SoCal they planned better highways along the coast. On Crete’s narrow roads you’ll find every kitchy tourist shop imaginable interspersed with beach hotels and nightclubs. As any sprawling city anywhere, this could be anywhere too, save for the offering of Cretan cheese pies (Kaltsounia) on the local menus.
But, beyond Kissamos and nearly anywhere into the hills, through the rugged mountains of the Lefka Ori range (home to the proud people of Sfakia), the texture of Crete is entirely different. These are proud and hospitable people who still make daily treks to the market, who tend their gardens, who feed their chickens, who wait for the fish or vegetable mongers to drive by, who still go to church on Sundays, and who will take you into their homes as if you were their own child. It becomes quite hard to say no, but really, just because they have an extra bed or couch, do you for certain want to move your family of six in for a few days?
On the disappointing front, I learned something I actually suspected. Like when I was young and believed in the Santa Claus I knew didn’t exist. That is, almost all those things for sale in all those Chania shops in all those Chania alleys, are not made in Crete at all. Nor even Greece. Much of what is for sale there—especially the trinkets—are made in places like China. I understand the key chains. I understand some of the baubles. But I don’t understand the worry beads. Yikes! Greek worry beads are certifiably a Greek cultural item. Yet, the vast majority of them sold in Crete—and most certainly Athens and elsewhere—are not even made in Greece. That’s like Wisconson Cheese coming from Alabama.
Geez—just like France protects the name Cognac, Greeks have gone to great lengths to protect one of their own particular identifiable brands—Feta. Yet, another one, the Kolomboi (worry beads) are left without protection and instead are shipped in from elsewhere. What next, Octopus and Squid? I think it’s already happened since many menus now asterisk both noting that they are frozen, not fresh. Well, connect the dots ... Oh, and they say the potatoes are from Egypt.
It’s not a big deal—everyone imports and exports. But here, so many people come for the authenticity and even though it’s a unique experience, it is slightly less authentic. For example, you can go to many places in Greece and your waiter will not be Greek. Same for your hotel staff. So far I’ve been served by Russians, Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians, Albanians, Serbians, New Zealanders and Aussies, to name a few. Nothing wrong with that until you know more about the menu than they do. So, where are the Cretans? At the beach.
Not that I blame them, Crete has beautiful beaches including two of the finest I’ve ever seen, Elafonisi and Falasarna. When not at the beach, those Cretans claim to be in school, enroute to becoming doctors, pharmacists and engineers. Great, Crete could use more engineers and better medical care. But there’s a pharmacy on every corner already, and the new one down the street is being built by foreign workers, mostly Albanians. Greece has a relationship with Albania, like we do with Mexico. The difference is, though, many Greeks complain of no jobs available and poor wages, yet pass on the ones that are available. When I ask about this, I am told that, “well, the bosses are Greek.” Oh, now I get it.
What I really think it is, is that Greece—and Crete—are havens for one generation to pass to the next all the things they were deprived of. Greek youth have it made in the shade where life is a beach and hard times are not enough sugar in your morning frappe—which is consumed sometime around noon when they wake up. One side of me envies the laissez-faire style of the modern Greek. Another side understands why many tourists wonder aloud if this race (including my own genes) is comprised of the same one that built the Acropolis, planned great cities, spawned a history of critical thought, and gave history men like Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Byzas, Alexander, Pericles, Leonidas, Euclid and so many more. And women like Aphrodite and Hera.
Then again, today they say it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Who could blame anyone—especially a Greek—for grabbing a hall pass and heading for the beach? Does it really matter if Athens and the North Shore of Crete look as if they were planned by a committee of third graders? Perhaps not, as it sure doesn’t seem to slow the tourist tide. However, I can tell it’s changed in just the four years since my first visit. I can’t imagine the Acropolis architects getting it so wrong. But, I love it anyway. (John Saltas)