Two Faces of Crete

Since a search of News-Record.com did not turn up an online version of Charlie’s latest installment of his and Debby’s journey to Crete, as an FOC (Friend o’ Charlie) I’ve copied the article he emailed to me here.

Wouldn’t you like for Charlie to start blogging? He is writing a book.

Two Faces of Crete: Nikos Migiakis and his Poetry Bookstore, Ourania Remointaki and Her Dying Village

by Charlie Headington

Being a tourist means shelling out money for everything. Soon everything becomes a commodity and you feel like one yourself. Money gives you access to a culture, but the pleasure can dissipate rapidly. After two days in Heraklion, the capital and largest city of Crete, I was wondering: can I do this for 10 more days? Then we found The Poetry Bookstore (the name was in Greek and English). We looked through the poetry and history books in English out on the street, selected one by a Greek author and walked in.

“Here, have one,” Nikos offered a small basket of candy in his hand. He had a handsome face, short hair, soft eyes, speaking good English.

“Can you recommend something about Crete? We have 10 days and want to read along the way.”

“Well, yes. Actually I was watching you. I noticed the books you went to….Have you read the modern Greek poets?”

I had read Kazanzakis’ Zorba the Greek, but I didn’t know he wrote poetry.

Nikos read us a few lines from The Odyssey: The Modern Sequel.”

    Good is the earth, and it suits us!
    Like the global grape it hangs…
    nibbled by all the birds and spirits or the four winds.
    Come, let’s start nibbling too and so refresh our minds!

“Let’s nibble,” he said and opened a bottle of wine.

“And your favorite poet?” Debby asked.

“Odysseus Elytis, the Nobel laureate in 1979.” Nikos read from his creation myth, Axion Esti, in Greek, and then translated it for us.

“That sounds like the creation of Crete–swallows, olive trees, dry land,” I offered.

“Elytis grew up just 15 minutes from here and so did I. He gets, how do you say, under my skin.”

Nikos also grew up in Heraklion. “My city used to be a cultural and intellectual center, but then the money came and now it’s mainly commercial.” He writes poetry, but “I am not a poet. I don’t make a difference. You know in my language, a ‘poet’ is not just a writer of words; he is a doer, a maker; he stands out; he makes a difference.”

“But you write,” Debby insisted. “That counts.”

“Oh, I write, I write,” he said looking off into the distance.

His life is expressed in words and his small bookstore of poetry books.

He also has two boys, ages 7 and 3. We talked about children, ours being 28, 26, and 24.

Somehow we got on reading stories to our children. “Greek myths were their favorite: Theseus and the Minatour ( right here, in Knossos of King Minos, 4 miles away from the Poetry Bookstore!), Odysseus (here, on the Mediterranean Sea!), and Icarus’ fleeing from King Minos with his melting wax-wings (plunging in the far horizon!).

“There is a last time for telling them stories,” I sadly recalled.

“Nostalgia. We call it nostalgia. ‘Talgia’ is to cut, to hurt. Our memories return and cut us. But it is not bad; it is necessary. We need to remember.”

For two hours we talked. “Yamas, Yamas!” we toasted. “To life, to life.” The sun was setting as we finished.

“You are courageous, Nikos. You are strong to have a store of poetry and beautiful books. You are a poet and you must continue writing.”

“You know, sometimes I am angry towards America and all the colonial powers. I fear they will commercialize the world and make things more important than people and poetry. But people are not like their government. People can be human with one another.”

We said goodbye, took our books and the next day we started our journey into Crete with the books and memories of Nikos Migiakis, the poet of Heraklion.

After Heraklion we visited Mochlos where the UNCG archeologist, Jeff Soles, has unearthed a Minoan settlement that casts new light on the fall of the Minoan civilization and some of its artifacts are in the Archeological Museum in Heraklion. Our former student, Jonathan Flood, now a graduate student of Dr. Soles, had worked at the dig for two summers and recommended the town. Debby and I swam out to the island where the Minoan village had been found and walked around. Homes had been reconstructed, a cemetery with undisturbed personal items and jewelry excavated, and the work continues.

We then drove through winding mountain and valley roads through a harsh landscape until we came to the mountain village of Pefki. Here we met Ourania Remointaki, a widow in black, who swept us off our feet with her hospitality and joy of living. Her personality and story contrasts with the melancholic Nikos, but they both express a powerful resistance to losing the earthly pleasures they enjoy.

Pefki is well-maintained with the white-washed walls and blue doors one associates with Cretan village architecture. The homes are composed of cubes, stacked on one another, following the incline of the mountain, so it looks from afar like a haphazad staircase. There are no streets, just walking paths wide enough for a couple of people or a donkey. This organic design was part of their defense system. Attackers could not fight as a group, but had to enter in columns and thus were easily ambushed.

We reached a white chapel and Ourania, an older woman dressed in black, came up to us. She motioned for us to follow her. She showed us flowers and herbs and broke off seed pods for us. She had me reach high for some walnuts and cracked them, “Here, eat,” she said in Greek.

“Follow, follow.” We weni down to her little 10′ x 14′ studio. Stuck to a large mirror were a hundred pictures of family and friends. When she got to a picture of her husband who had died 30 years ago, she just looked up to heaven with praying hands and muttered a few words. She pulled out two chairs for us. She fed us “spoon sweets” in the hospitality tradition of “philoxenia,” candied orange peel and figs with almonds stuck inside. Then she poured us a walnut liqueur.

She did everything with an irrepressible bounce. She lept like a young goat around her studio, up on the bed to retrieve a picture and over to the sink to pour water. We were enchanted by the sparkle of her voice. We bridged the gap of not sharing a language.

We said goodbye feeling that we had met an extraordinary person. The waitress at a taverna said, “Yes, Ourania. She is a force. She knows everybody and everything that is happening.” At a further point in our meal, the waitress, who had grown up in the nearest coastal town, ventured to say, “You know, Pefki is dying. Only 50 inhabitants remain and they want to recruit people to live here. This taverna keeps long hours just so visitors will not leave too quickly. They want people to love Pefki and stay.”

Recruit? Come to Pefki? Was this why Ourania had been so forthcoming with us? Were we just a potential buyer?

Debby and I talked about our experience with Ourania over the next two days. We tried to imagine her world, growing up in this village that had a history of resistence to the Latin Christian Venetians, the Muslim Turks, and the Nazis. Ourania and her ancestors had stubbornly fought off every intruder and remained independent for hundreds of years. Her landscape remained fertile: olive orchards, vineyards and sufficient arable land. Springs supplied water. But what her village didn’t have was modern development. Pefki had no industry, no franchises, no capital. She and her kin were being left behind by the modern world and her children had all left.

But this is her world and she loves it: the flowers, the fruit, the joy of living. If the village dies, she and her family die with it: all the acts of heroism against invaders, the acts of compassion towards the Italian soldiers that were abandoned by Mussolini, the everyday gestures and the monthly dancing to the full moon, and the kindness to strangers.

Yes, Ourania would like for us to stay. She wants this for the sake of the village, her family and herself. But her kindness to us was not fake. Her laughter was unmistakably genuine. Debby said, “She touched me. She’s too happy to scheme.” In fact, she was vulnerable and open.

Ourania and Nikos present two faces of Crete. Each resists the ill effects of modern life, protects his or her own, and creates a place where the soul can be nurtured. For Nikos there is a spiritual poverty to western affluence. The antidote is poetry.

Ourania likewise resists the consequences of modern life. Her village is irrelevant to the modern economy and fits into our society only as a living museum. Her enthusiasm for us expresses her desire to recruit a new generation and a new lease on life for her beloved village. She is the poet-doer that Nikos talked about.

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