Photo courtesy of the author.

Cretan Lessons

A First Night in Island Exile


Yeorgos walks out of the bathroom and says, “In the ladies room.” I don’t know what he means, but he nods and indicates I go back there. “Go on,” he insists, and adds deliberately, “not the men’s, the ladies.” A lit joint is waiting for me, sitting on the edge of the toilet paper dispenser. I take a few hits and when I emerge, Yeorgos says, “That all?” He thinks I should have been in there longer, but Anna has already gone in to smoke, so I wait to take a second hit. Anna prefers pot to alcohol, but Yeorgos likes both, and in large quantities.

When the pot’s finished, Yeorgos pats his huge belly, which shivers under his hands. “In a month,” he wheezes, “this will be gone. Now I’m working, I’ll be moving all the time. Just you watch. Back and forth like a runner every day.” He’s referring to all the work that needs to be done on the new bar before it opens. Anna had signed the lease only weeks before, and they hope to open before Christmas, only weeks away.

“It’s no good sitting at home all day, drinking, doing nothing,” he says. “A man needs to work, otherwise he gets depressed. And when he gets depressed, he doesn’t want to have sex.” He turns to Anna and grins that infectious Yeorgos grin of his. “Tomorrow will be different,” he tells her.

Anna studies him cagily. “What do you mean?” she says.

“I will have a new program. This is what will happen every day from now on. We will wake up and we will have sex, a good, long fuck every morning to wake us up. And then we drink some coffee and eat a little breakfast, and after that we will fuck again. Good sex, good breakfast, more good sex, and that’s how every day will begin from now on!”

Anna rolls her eyes. “Look at him,” she laughs, turning to me, “dreaming with his eyes open again.”

Everyone is talking, then laughing at a long joke Vangelis tells, and finally, Anna turns to me and asks, “Do you understand anything?”

“Not a word,” I say.

“Nada, nothing? Not even some of the words?”

“I wasn’t listening,” I explain, which is true, “I was lost in thought.”

Yeorgos stares at me and sums up the situation: “Lost in translating.”

There’s truth in his malapropism—I am lost here, and not just in a state of being lost, but somehow in the process of getting lost.

I’m not Greek, or Cretan, I wasn’t born anywhere near here and I certainly don’t speak the language. I’m not a tourist either, not really, and I feel little affinity for the expats who’ve made homes among the ancient stone buildings of Chania, the millennia-old port city where I live now. More and more, I feel little more than a drifter, not sure what brought me here and no longer sure what I’m doing. Originally, I’d come here to find enough peace away from New York City to finish a novel—but that’s done and I’m homesick, but without any real home to feel genuinely called to return to. It’s pure feeling, untethered to place, as much desire for home as a feeling of displacement.

Vangelis goes back to telling jokes, in Greek, and I wonder about the idea of home—something I’ve never felt in all my wanderings: is it even possible? do people genuinely feel it, or just pretend? and if you’ve never had it, can you ever hope to find it? Eventually, I sink into reverie, sitting lost in the corner of an unfinished bar in a small coastal town on a faraway island in an old, old sea.

One night, I ask Yeorgos what brought him to Crete over twenty years ago.

“Ah,” he says, roused out of his late night drunk by the question, “that is a very good story. You see, I grew up in a village an hour north of Thessaloniki, but it was not a small village, we had everything a young man needed, alcohol, drugs, rock and roll and lots of pussy. On Sundays, there was a television program. Greek music from all over the country. Everyone thinks they know this country, but no one does. It is much larger then you can imagine, and it is much more different, from one place to another. On this program—and at that time there were only two channels in Greece—on this program they sometimes showed dancers from Creta, and I looked at them and could not believe it. With their knives and their headgear and their costumes. Oh, that was when I wanted to come here. In my heart, watching them, I was sure I was also Cretan!”

He pours me another small glass of tsikoudia.

“It took me a few years, I traveled the world first, working on cargo ships, then came back to Thessaloniki and worked as chef in a restaurant—a three star restaurant—and one day I meet a friend from my old village and he says he is working in Heraklion as a chef there and anytime I want to come just call him and he will help me. So that is I how I came to Creta, first in Heraklion, and then in Chania, and I know now that I am Cretan, and my children will be Cretan. I am also Macedonian, like the Great Alexander, and Creta and Macedonia,” he says, clasping his powerful hands together, “they are brothers and the same blood going back to the time of the ancient Greeks.”

“I will tell you something, something very important, Ranbiraki,” Yeorgos says one night, using the name he has chosen for me. He leans forward across the bar. “I have been drinking alcohol since I was fourteen, thirteen, and I drink it every day no matter what happens.”

It is early in the evening and the sun has sunk below the water. Outside, the alley drifts into darkness.

“My father was a great drinker of ouzo and so were my uncles and the men I knew, and I am very happy that I knew such people. They drank ouzo and wine and beer, but beer they only drank for food, when they needed something to fill their belly a little. But I will tell you why I am happy. Because these men knew how to live, they loved life, they loved to laugh and drink and knew how to be happy. And I am like them, and I drink every day, good alcohol.”

Yeorgos drinks, says nothing for a minute, and I think he is preparing to tell me the rest of the story, the important part this introduction is leading up to, but he simply nods his large, bearish head, and says quietly, “This is my truth.”

After a minute, he takes another drink; I’m disappointed, having wanted to hear more, thinking perhaps I had found a genuine Greek Zorba, someone who would tell me the secrets of this land. I had forgotten that an alcoholic’s truth begins and ends with a bottle.

Francine tells me there is only one word I must know—forget all the others, if I know this word, I will be able to take part in any conversation and anyone who listens will think I am Greek born and bred.

“What is it?” I ask, already grabbed by the idea of this single magical word.

“It is simply this,” she says, then makes a wide gesture with her hands and says, “Profanos!”

The word means absolutely, or certainly, and all I have to do, she tells me, is use at it at certain moments in conversation while always making sure I say it strongly, with hand gestures. “It is not a word to say softly. If you say it, you must mean it with your whole body.” She adds, “Everyone will be very impressed, and they will also laugh, but not at you, you understand. It will surprise them to hear this word come from your mouth.”

I can’t wait to use it, and a day or so passes and I’m sitting with Yeorgos and I don’t remember who else, when someone turns to me and says something in a deeply serious tone, but in Greek. I have no idea what they’re saying, or even what the subject of the conversation is, so I look back matching their seriousness, lean forward, and with all the physical gusto I can muster, exclaim, “Profanos!”

What happens next is exactly as Francine predicted—everyone turns to look at me with genuine surprise and bursts into peals of laughter, while “Profanos!” is repeated a dozen or more times in quick and delightful succession. Once again, the day edges into night, more tsikoudia is poured, and as I look out at the faces surrounding me, talking in a language I can hardly begin to understand, I  have a sense that maybe I can find something of a home here, among the ancient rocks of this old town.