Crete: Ancient Goddesses, Bath Houses, and Souvenir Shops (a postcard from the author's yearly teaching round in Europe)

    Shelley Berc

Greetings from Crete. When the ships came into the harbor in ancient times, the people on board were said to be intoxicated by a pervasive smell of thyme and wild honey. It's exactly the same smell that hits you now driving from the airport through the countryside. This is the island of the beautiful teenage Princess Nausicca. She and her attendant maidens had gone for a picnic (and to do the laundry) by the river and discovered a naked, bedraggled Odysseus on the banks. They shepherded him up to their castle and restored him to health and more adventures. The Venetians owned Crete for over a hundred years and the city of Hania still looks more like a Venetian port than Venice, itself. I am relaxing in a restored 16th century villa where we will be holding our workshop. There is an inner courtyard with an enormous shade tree. The breeze is the perfect temperature on the skin and it gives sound the buoyancy to be musical — everything from old ladies gossiping to birds bickering, children playing, cats fighting — all turned to song because of this wind.

I like to walk to the "real" town. Tourists congregate in the picturesque old port but Hania is Crete's second largest city so it has a life of its own. Walk four blocks away from the port, hit the local outdoor cafes and all you see are men, their shirts open, their legs stretched out, drinking tiny cups of Greek coffee, tossing their worry beads and (I think) arguing over politics. The young bucks hang in the ratty piazza with its overgrown vegetation and faded monuments, striking poses by their motorbikes. After awhile, I return to the port where I go to an upstairs café with a balcony over the sea and a little stone lighthouse. By some miracle, this blissful place is always deserted except for the waiters playing backgammon. From there, a shot of espresso as the big event of the day takes place — the sun going down.

Yesterday we went up to the mountains and it was wonderful. Thick with pine forests and groves of tall twisted olive trees. There is a great "retreat" that’s been around since the Romans and since that time it's been the place on the island to escape the heat. There are six waterfalls through which little cafes are daintily threaded So you drink raki at rickety wooden tables in the midst of raging water. And the water tastes wonderful — silken and oily and bright and metallic.

Back in Hania, we walk through the shaded interior streets of town, heading to the beach, passing open doorways as we go. In Greece, every doorway is a portrait with a person sitting in it. There are the old of course — widows in black and grizzled men with their curved olive wood canes, but also young, belly baring mothers rocking their babies and tattooed teenagers yacking on their cell phones. They all acknowledge you when you walk by — whatever they are doing — there is a smile, a head nod or a hand raised, as if to say: we are both here on earth and cannot ignore the other's presence. It amazes me, coming from New York where I usually feel like a ghost when I go out walking.

There are wild camellias everywhere. I went into the supermarket to buy cheese and the ladies at the counters had placed tiny blossoms in plastic deli containers so everything from salami to fresh bread smelled breathlessly sweet. I have not seen one chain store here in Hania.

The Cretan men and women are antelopes — they must be the Greeks we see on all those ancient vases — tall and dancer lithe, ebony hair, skin the color of wet sand. Alejandro is in love with Cretan women’s noses. They are long and angular, often punctuated with curves and ending in langorous hooks. He says they have the perfect geometry of truncated pyramids and their owners' profiles are like the statues of ancient goddesses.

Yesterday they finally opened the newly restored little fountain in the town square (I remember it being worked on last year). There was an oompah band and the Orthodox priest with his long grey beard and black robes gave an interminable blessing. The fountain promptly broke today. It may be next year until they fix it.

There's a hamman (ritual Islamic bath house) in the old port, right by the water. And its circular domes are echoed by three smaller ones atop its entrance. Now it's a public art gallery. All over town — mosques that are now cafes, old churches turned into mosques made over into souvenir shops, public baths recycled as vegetarian restaurants. You can almost see the layers of history in the stones. Old fishermen now turned into dapper carriage men, their white buggys jingling with bells, full of tourists, children always in the front, happily squeezed in next to the driver, who is always talking to his beautiful horse who always wears a straw hat.

Shelley Berc is a novelist, playwright, and essayist fascinated by the interstices of history, science, and metaphysics. The New York Times called Berc's novel, The Shape of Wilderness, (Coffee House Press) "a vividly imagined parable . . . a strange and potent book . . . a fantastical world of unusual sensuality and invention." Her novella dante: a girls own guide to the divine comedy is currently on the Web at Exquisite Corpse. Berc's other fiction and many chapter excerpts of her novel Light and Its Shadow have been published in Bomb, Exquisite Corpse, Chain, Web Del Sol Review /Editors Picks (chosen for best literature on Web), 5_Trope, In Posse Review, and Linnaean Street, Taitlin's Tower, and Paumanok Review. Her fiction has been nominated for two Pushcart prizes and cited in Best of Web literature in PIF and Gargoyle.

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