The characters and events described here are fictitious and any similarities to any other persons or events, real or fictitious, are sheer coincidence. Eventually these stories will be edited and prepared for publishing.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Summer on Crete in the 1980's

His mother told him that if he wasn't going to go to school, he must get a job. She had a friend who owed her a favor and she asked him to give her son a job doing construction work. "But, don't be to easy on him," she said, "If he doesn't want to go to school, I want him to know how hard the real world is." The boy worked like a slave for half of minimum wage and paid his mother two-hundred dollars rent every month. When a seventy pound roof-jack fell on his head he started to have problems with his neck and back, but within a few days he went back to work.

Later, after his fifteenth birthday, the financial relief created by his working and paying rent allowed the boy's mother to save enough money to take them both to Europe. After spending a month in London, they hopped on a bus that took them through France, Italy, and Yugoslavia, on the way to Greece. From Athens, they hopped on a boat to Crete. With only about eight-hundred dollars between them, they traveled third-class on the overnight voyage. His mother had been to Crete before, while the boy had been living with his father--she had made friends on the Island and had promised to return.

They took a bus from Heraklion to Rethymnon, where on the first day, the boy was introduced to the Papyraki family, who had befriended his mother on a previous trip she had taken to the island.  Mrs. Papyraki prepared lunch Their first meal with the Papyrakis was one the boy would never forget. On top to the refrigerator in the Papyraki's kitchen, was a large bowl with a fine-mesh screen laid across the top. The bowl was filled with flour and had dark, round looking lumps in it that appeared to be moving very slowly. The boy was curious and asked what was inside the bowl. Some of the lumps were traversing the screen upside-down, attempting to escape their floury doom. “Snails,” explained his hosts. The boy had tried escargot before and wasn't crazy about it, but the way Mrs. Papyraki prepared it was totally different. After washing the snails in clean cool water, she would poke them with a toothpick to make them retreat back into their shells. Then she would place them, shell and all, face down onto the surface of a hot buttered and salted skillet and cook all the way through. When they were all cooked they were put into a clean bowl and placed in the center of the kitchen table.

They were served with cold retsina and freshly baked bread. With small forks the hungry diners extracted the delicious little creatures from their shells and devoured them. The bowl was quickly emptied and the boy wished there were more of the delicacies; damn they were good! He was later told that the dish was considered to be a treat and that the family didn’t often get to have them.

Michalis, their oldest son was about his age and the two boys quickly became friends. Stouter and darker in complexion, he was almost as tall as the boy who was really rather thin and lanky. He took the boy all around the village and introduced him to some of the other local kids. 

Walking around the small village on the second day in Rethymnon, the boy noticed that someone had spray-painted the Russian hammer and sickle in red paint, on a wall facing one of the narrow village streets. It looked something like this:
As he explored the village further he noticed that this graffiti was in several places throughout the remote little town by the sea.

This was during the Cold War and Greece was a battleground in a conflict for the hearts and minds of the Greek people. The boy asked his mother about it but she shrugged it off, "People take politics too seriously." she said.

Having been subjected to a great deal of patriotic propaganda growing up in the United States, the boy was surprised to find this communist presence in a country like Greece, he felt a surge of patriotism and started to hatch a plan--he must make a stand for freedom and democracy. He would buy some blue spray-paint and go around the village crossing out the red hammer and sickle symbols. Instead of any nation-specific symbol, he would paint his own logo underneath the communist symbol. Two swords crossed underneath a hat with a feather. It would look something like this:
The boy saved some of his earnings and bought a couple of cans of blue spray-paint at the only place in the village that sold it. He dressed all in black and waited until the village was asleep--even the bars along the waterfront were all closed. He took his blue spray-paint and crossed out every hammer and sickle with a large blue "X"; above each he painted his own retaliatory logo. After completing his late-night mission, feeling rather satisfied with himself he went back to the room they were renting and, carefully so as not to wake his mother, got quietly in bed. He didn't realize at the time that, in spite of his ninja clothing and cat-like stealth, it would be immediately obvious to everyone in the village who had crossed-out the communist symbols.  

They both got jobs working in restaurants right away--his mother worked as a waitress at Stavros' Restaurant and the boy as a host Tassos' Place. He also worked part-time for a doctor in the village, taking care of his house up in the mountains fixing up the place, taking care of the fruit-trees and chickens, doing little home improvement jobs, etc.

For tourists, dating in Crete can be somewhat risky. Women on the Island are expected to remain virgins until they are married and nuptial unions in the villages are often planned by the parents years before their offspring reach the age to marry. An outsider who tries to bed a local girl might find himself at the wrong end of dagger wielded by her father, uncle, brother, or cousin. The boy knew this but couldn't resist a little flirtation when he was approached by some village girls close to his age.

Poppy was blonde and heavy-chested, her friend, Mary, slim and tall with an aquiline nose. They were intrigued by this American boy who had taken up residence in their neighborhood. They invited him into their homes where they would entertain him with records and practice their English on him. At dusk they would walk up and down the village promenade, a strip of beach-front with a multitude of restaurants facing the beach, the boy with a girl on each arm. Every evening couples and families would walk back and forth along the waterfront, enjoying the fine Mediterranean air and watching an orange sink slowly into the Mediterranean through the invisible layers of atmosphere on the horizon.  

It was spring in Crete, and the boy was ready to party. In the daytime, when he wasn't working, he would swim in the Mediterranean while the sun painted his skin a golden-brown. His hair grew long and curly and he enjoyed it when tourists would mistake him for a local--asking him directions from tattered English-Greek dictionaries. He would pretend like he didn't understand and speak back to them with the few Greek words that he already knew. At night, he would hang out in the tavernas near the beach, drinking raki, and playing chess with the old men of Rythemnon.

He had a favorite bar on the beach called Rulie's Taverna. It was a dingy, one-room place with two pool-tables in the back and a long bar on the beach-front side. It was operated by a large, good-natured bartender named Zacharia, who would often give him free drinks. Zachariah's big round hands and thick fingers made the shot-glasses look like thimbles; he was well known for being undefeated in arm-wrestling. Strong-men from all over would come to the bar and challenge Zacharia to a match. He would always say no at first, but with some prodding he would usually give in and put his mighty arm up on the bar. The boy was playing chess and watching Zacharia arm-wrestle a muscle-man from England...Zacharia yawned and poured shots for himself and his opponent while the British body builder strained with all his might to bring the bartender's arm down. Zacharia winked at the boy, emptied his shot glass and poured himself another shot. Finally, the Brit gave up and sat down disgusted. Zacharia would never actually beat anyone, perhaps he was too noble, or maybe it had something to do with leverage--he would just sit there with big arm on the bar and drink raki until his opponent gave up. The boy decided to challenge the Giant.

He walked up to the bar and spoke to Zacharia: "That was really impressive, Zacharia." he said, "But that's not the way we arm-wrestle back in the States." Zacharia's large brow furrowed deeply, "How do you do it in the States?" he asked. "Put your arm up on the bar and I will show you." said the boy, "I bet you a shot of raki that I can beat you." Zacharia agreed to the wager and put his arm up on the bar. From the other side of the bar the boy grabbed the big man's huge fist with both hands, put his foot against the bar, and started to pull back with all his might. Zacharia resisted, pulling back hard, determined not to lose to the skinny American kid. By now, everyone in the bar was watching--even the British strong-man got up to watch the contest. The boy put is other foot against the bar and was now totally suspended in the air by Zacharia's great arm as he pulled with all his might. Beads of sweat began to trickle down Zacharia's forehead. The boy couldn't believe he had the nerve to do what he was about to do...

Suddenly, the boy let go of Zacharia's fist and fell to the floor of the bar, laughing hysterically. The huge Greek bartender was surprised--the sudden release of tension didn't give him time to prevent himself from punching himself painfully in the face. Everyone in the bar erupted into thunderous laughter. Zacharia was furious, "Give my your hand!" he said angrily to the boy as he was getting up off the floor. The boy put his thin arm up on the bar, still unable to control his mirth--Zacharia grabbed his hand and slammed it down as on the bar with as much force as he could muster--it hurt, but the boy the was still laughing out loud uncontrollably. Zacharia began to calm down and also started laughing. He had to admit it was a pretty good prank. He poured the boy a shot and the two friends laughed together--the boy with his bruised hand and the bartender with the swollen eye. Zacharia would remain undefeated at arm-wrestling for the foreseeable future.        

Irene was called Renio by those who knew her well. In Greece her name would be pronounced ee-ree-nee, and her nickname ren-yo. She was six years older than the boy, and very beautiful. All the men in the village were interested in her because she was from the mainland and didn't have any family in Crete--she was fair game for dating and one needn't worry about getting into a vendetta with her family. She could have her choice of any available man in the village; the boy was both surprised and flattered when she expressed her interest in him. Even though he was only fifteen, the boy already looked like he was at least twenty and Renio was surprised to learn that he was only fifteen. Nevertheless the the two of them spent all night drinking retsina out on the water-break for the small port that serves Rethymnon, gazing at the moon, talking about the things young lover talk about, and laughing at the wonder and mystery of the universe.

Under the biggest full moon anyone has ever seen, and under the Mediterranean stars, they sat and watched the waves splashing against the rocks while they spoke with the excitement of young people about the wonders and mysteries of the Universe. Finally, after what seemed like both an eternity and the blink of an eye, the full moon began to set into the sea in the west, and the Sun started to rise out of the eastern Mediterranean. Heat waves and moisture of the sea distorted the rising Sun: It wobbled as it rose through layers of atmosphere, stretching into a teardrop as it tried to cling to the ocean's surface on the horizon--elongating, it stretched into an hour-glass, getting longer and narrower until it finally broke into two suns--the first, brightly continued its way up into the morning, while the other, a darker shade of orange and red, began to set back into the eastern ocean.

The two young lovers would spend weekends hiking in the mountains of Crete--they found a valley in those mountains where they would stay for days at a time. It was a magical place with a river flowing through groves of olive and lemon trees, and patches of wild oregano. There were two aqua-ducts which carried water along the steep hills that bordered the valley, there they would fill their canteens and cool off during the hot summer afternoons. He loved the girl, but she was six-years older and she soon sought out someone closer to her own age. The boy was heartbroken. 

Pamela was from England; she was nearly twenty-six years old. Her curly brown hair, hung in ringlets around her face. She had a room not far from the village-square: She and the boy would go there in the afternoon and make love on an old and rickety metal bed. The metal springs complained loudly, but Pamela's land-lady never said a word.

The boy lived the culture of crete. He loved the warm Mediterranean sea; eating souvlaki in the afteroons; walking at sunset on the promenade with the young girls in the village; and, pretending to be an adult in the tavernas at night. He hoped it would go on forever.


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