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Heraklion: Airport Hassles

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

Heraklion Airport Catering

I wish I could finish on a good note, but nothing went right once we got onto the bus to Heraklion.

The journey took longer than expected, and there was no stopover. A shared spanakopita from the bus station was all we had to sustain us while I fantasised about our Last Supper at the ‘to Xania’ Tavern.

The bus drove past endless beachside developments for what seemed like an hour before we finally got to town.

“There are no door trees here,” John said sadly.

Indeed not. Just a few sad potted saplings and row upon row of concrete.

We had about an hour in the centre of town, and that wasn’t enough to try and find a reasonable taverna. I had to forget about eating lunch in the shade of a plane tree, dithering about what wine to choose, having one final cigarette with my legs stretched under a table.

Instead we quarrelled and spat while we flitted from one kiosk to another, buying up cigarettes and tobacco. When we got onto the bus we had forgotten to also buy tickets, but thankfully the driver accepted change. And at the airport it turned out that the snackbars across the street were closed.

Over two hours to kill and no place to eat except for the truly vile, sole catering franchise which sold the worst cardboard pies I have ever encountered on my travels. With hundreds of people milling around and the restaurant likewise closed (missing out on an opportunity to print money, the stupid cunts), I wished for a Mac Donald’s for the first time since Eastercon.

But the two hours would go past faster than we counted on.

The check-in opened on time, even if it took another twenty minutes or so to sort out the logistics. Then the passengers were sent on, one-by-one, with their suitcases in tow.

“Go to counter 31 to check in your luggage,” the woman said.

Counter 31 was a sight to behold. About 300 people and their luggage were gathered in a queue that stretched from the corner of the hall to the entrance at the opposite side before doubling back on itself, and the sign above the counter read ‘Hamburg check-in’. There wasn’t any point in even trying.

I left John guarding the bags and went looking for answers.

The lady at the information counter sent me to the offices of Goldair Handling which, according to a sign that covered nearly the entire door, is considered by Lufthansa (among others) to be the best.

There I was ignored by another woman who typed boredly on a keyboard until I aroused her attention. She sent me on to the Duty Manager with a few succinct words: “It’s not my problem.”

“Trust me, it is your problem!”

I left with her still staring open-mouthed at my back, but the duty manager must have been notified because when I got back, five or six counters were open and the original queue was much diminished. John had almost reached the desk where people were still ostensibly waiting to check in for their flight to Hamburg.

“Some German bloke came up to me when you were gone,” he said. “He was almost in tears. He said he’d been waiting for 2 hours and his flight to Hamburg was about to depart, whether he could go in front.”


“I said no.” A shrug. “Well, I sent him to the managers’ office.”

That’s right: pass on the love.

With that, we had reached the head of the queue. The backpacks had barely left our hands—and we had barely lit a cigarette—when Easyjet invited its special assistance passengers to board the plane.

Several people in the queue began to twitch.

We made our way to security.

Haggling in Reverse

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

There was a tiny grocer’s in the alley of Chania Old Town where we stayed, and since we had decided to get very drunk on our last night, this was the place to get some refreshments before facing the glare of the morning sun.

I was pleased when I handed over the money to the grandmother behind the till: 1.30€. That was cheap.

But wait a minute, that couldn’t be right. The orange juice had a price sticker on it. It was 1 euro. The coke couldn’t just be 30 cents, it’s not even that cheap at Lidl.

I looked at the woman’s wrinkly, smiling eyes and wrestled with my conscience. Difficult as it was, I would have to explain. Otherwise she’d lose out on her livelihood.

So I shook my head and pointed at the receipt. “No, no, no. That is not right. I give you more!”

And was met with blank look.

Thinking myself clever, I went back to the fridge, but of course the coke wasn’t priced. I took out a can of iced tea. That was 80 cents, so I carried it back to the till, pointed at the price sticker on my juice, then at the one on the can and wrote:

€1.80 – 1.30 = €0.50

Then I pointed at the receipt for €1.30 and made the gesture of giving her some money.

Then I searched for—and couldn’t find—my wallet.

Now it was the grandmother’s turn to shake her head. Apparently she now thought that I thought she’d overcharged me. She waved away the iced tea, pointed to the coke and wrote on the receipt:


So the coke was only 70 cents. Whatever.

I finished fumbling through my rucksack and discovered the wallet in the juice bag. I fished it out triumphantly and saw that it contained no change.

With her questioning eyes on me, I turned the receipt around and wrote: 0.50€ (a gesture from me to her), 4.50 (a gesture from her to me) and handed over 5 euros.

She shook her head emphatically, turned the receipt over and scribbled in decisive strokes:


Then she took the fiver and gave me €2.30 change.

Passing Friendships

Thursday, May 1st, 2008


Our guidebook, so the blurb on the back cover claims, is like ‘having a local friend’.

If only.

I always thought it would be great to have a local friend: to get an insight into people’s day-to-day life, to have somebody to guide you around town or teach you about food.

I had forgotten that the trouble with travelling is that you have to leave the local friend behind.

We’re missing Yanis, although I doubt that he’ll miss us as much. He has many friends; he makes new ones every day, and those who meet him are lucky people indeed. The Cosmogonia Bar is one of those rare places I won’t forget. It will stay with me as I grow old, alongside fading memories of a shisha house in Cairo, a beach off Dar es Salaam, a table in a shady village square in the then Zaïre where a man with flashing eyes and ebony skin seduced me and I contemplated eloping for the first time until, panicked, I hurried on.

These are all sites of passing acquaintances. Moving on left a little pang and a lasting—but hazy—memory. There were closer friendships as well. People I felt sure I would meet again one day, and perhaps with the age of the internet there will be a truly global community of ‘local friends’: travellers and those who reciprocate and come to visit them in London, Sydney or New York.

Ironically, for all the friends that Yanis has made in Europe, Australia and the US, he has yet to travel anywhere. He’s too busy.

Snails with Yanis

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Cretan Snail

One Cretan speciality I wanted to try as soon as I spotted the main ingredients piled up in net bags in wicker baskets at the greengrocer’s were snails.

I refrained from purchasing one of those bags (about 7€ per kg.), remembering my promise about not bringing fish, fowl or other creatures into the homestay kitchenette. Besides, I didn’t have the first idea how to set about preparing the things.

None of the lower-end tavernas had snails on their menu. I wished for access to a kitchen with a friendly chef who could teach me about them.

Enter Yanis.

We had asked him whether the Cosmogonia Bar does food. To be honest, late evenings the place is plenty busy serving beer (each order is accompanied by different nibbles), and the bar is surrounded by cafés and restaurants that do. Yanis said he serves breakfast and lunchtime snacks in the season, and yes, mezedhes might be a good idea to stimulate business during early evenings. After all he did have a kitchen.

So we talked about Cretan food, and we talked about snails and Yanis said: “Why don’t I make some for you tomorrow? Come at about eleven, then you can taste them.”

And I said: “Oh, can I watch you and learn how to prepare them?”

It was early in the evening of the fateful night that almost ended in a bar fight. As predicted, the following morning my head was nearly killing me and the tension hadn’t worn off. I was in two minds about going to see Yanis, but I was damn glad that I did, even if I was a bit monosyllabic. He had been expecting me.

We spent almost the entire afternoon in the kitchen, batch-processing a kilogram of snails, with Yanis nearly forgetting about the customers who trickled into the bar every now and then.

All in the name of friendship.
[read on]

Good Days, Bad Days

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

I have an odd superstition, picked up on some of my longer trips. I believe that, when travelling, a good day is usually followed by a bad day and, if I’m lucky, that in turn is followed by an unremarkable day, and so on.

The days after Easter looked to be unremarkable at best. A chilly wind blew through town, making sitting outside unpleasant and whipping up the waves which trashed most of our plans.

However, it was ideal weather for walking.

We had run out of things to do, so we eventually followed the advise of the hillwalkers with whom we shared the homestay’s courtyard. But only because the tiny village of Anidri was barely a stroll away.

Over the course of the morning, leaden clouds built up over the mountains, whisked along by the wind, but they posed no threat. At worst a few heavy drops spotted the pavement, and the clouds would keep the heat at bay. So we filled our waterbottles and set off.

The winding road was easy to walk, if a little boring. We often stopped at the verge to admire interesting flowers or make room for the goats that ran past us in small clusters, following the hooting of their master’s car in the distance. A twenty-first century approach to goat-herding

Just as it began to feel monotonous, we reached the bijou white-washed buildings of Anidri and, even better, found that the village café was open. It was lunchtime.

We were the only guests to sit in the outside garden, overlooking the green valley and the sea in the distance. A plane tree offered shade against the re-emergent sun.
Lamb Pluckings
It got better: one of the dishes chalked up on the board was translated as ‘fried intestines’: lamb pluckings. A rare delicacy, normally much sought after. They must have slaughtered a lot of lambs on Easter Sunday.

Although these were fresh.

The proprietor laughed. “Easter is long ago! These are from today. Kill the lamb, pull of the skin, roll up the intestines, grill over charcoal and five hours later it’s in our stomach!” He laughed again with pleasure.

It was pretty special to share.


Yanis, it turned out, had missed out on Easter altogether. The previous evening, when we went for our customary beer, he told us that he’d kept the bar open until seven, and a group of drunken Albanians nearly started a fight because they didn’t want to leave. They foolishly decided to drive back to Chania. He ended up having to call the police.

“Trouble,” he said. “Too much trouble!”

We asked him whether he’d had Easter lunch with his family and he shook his head. “My brother called at one, but I was asleep. I woke up and it was evening. Lunch was finished. Back to work.”

It hadn’t been his day. We bought him a beer and he sat down at our table, in between keeping an eye on the bar, servicing the music player and occasionally dropping by at other tables. He dipped in and out of his chair like a yoyo.

“We didn’t mean to keep you…” I began, but he had already finished another sip, exchanged a quick smile and was back behind the bar, holding the headphones to one ear while inserting a CD with his other hand. Apparently custom dictates that, when somebody buys you a beer, you finish the round in each other’s company. Now we were keeping him from his work.

But Yanis didn’t seem to mind. When we made to go, he placed two more bottles of Mythos on the table and we continued to chat in between his getting up to do a spot of DJ-ing.

Other than that, the day had been unremarkable.

So what did today have in store?
[read on]

Cretan Cats

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Palaeochora is overrun with semi-feral cats which will shirk away when you approach them, having doubtlessly been at the receiving end of many a kick and cussing.

They don’t bother the locals, but they have an eye for tourists. Sit anywhere at a table in the open air to enjoy your meal and they will appear, peeling away from the shade, and blink at you until you give them some food.

They are patient. They will sit and blink until they drift off to sleep. And eventually they will wear me down.

The first of them appeared at our doorstep when I was preparing the famous chicken. Cats can’t cope with chicken bones, so I brought out the parson’s nose and the cat’s eyes grew big and round, nearly filling her entire face. She kept them wide open in wonderment as she dispatched the delicacy.

The trouble is that with every morsel you give them, their number doubles.

Homestay Cats

The number of cats at the homestead stabilised at three, with some fighting at the periphery. All of them were in pitiful shape, with the otherwise healthy looking tabby coughing pitifully and—so I noticed when he turned around—bare patches marking where the mange had begun to take its toll. The emaciated tiny female that was always at his side looked like she had days to live, at most. But despite their pitiful shape they ate whenever they got the chance.

The remaining female, our first houseguest, was in better shape, although she might have been pregnant and appearances deceptive. She had a boyfriend too, but he wasn’t allowed to set foot on the terrace. We often saw her slink across the road to where he was waiting and they would walk off together, staggering into each other.

I didn’t know cats formed pair bonds. But I never took them for social animals either, at least not from what I knew about my own cat who was Supreme Ruler over the Neighbourhood—including the dogs.

As with old Mietze, you had to be patient to gain their affection, but when they overcame their fear they proved to be hungry for it. The homestay cats remained distant, but this beautiful white farm cat, which we encountered on the way back from the neighbouring village of Anidri, wouldn’t let go of John’s legs even after being approached by a curious sheep and—heartstoppingly—by a huge dog who took no notice of her but made it clear that we’d better move on.

White Cat

Don’t be the Lamb

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Easter Fireworks

There was no build-up.

I had expected everything to be closed, but quite to the contrary, the street was lively as we stepped out at 10 p.m. to look for some entertainment.

We settled on what was quickly becoming our regular: Cosmogonia Bar where the locals outnumbered the tourists, the atmosphere was convival and great music played as the night wore on.

And wear on it did: at a quarter past eleven there was still no direction in the way people were ambling up and down the street.

“I think I should go,” I said to John. “I have no idea where everybody is supposed to come from, but come midnight it’s going to be packed out there. Perhaps I should climb up the hill for a better view.”

‘Out there’ was the church yard, barely fifty metres down the road from the bar. Directly behind it was the hill that led up to the fortress. From there I was hoping to get a good vantage point over the crowd that was supposed to gather a few short moments from now, lighting candles at the stroke of midnight, like twinkling stars that announced to the world that Christos anesti—Christ is risen—and Easter had arrived.

I had a beer to finish first. When I stepped out barely a quarter of an hour later, the street had miraculously filled with people. Young and old, visitors and locals, huddled shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the church entrance, awaiting the announcement with bated breath, candles in hand.

There was no way of getting through to the path that led up the hill.

Somebody pressed a candle into my hand. I turned to see another tourist behind me, grinning.

I shook my head. “I’m a atheist!”

“Me too. Enjoy!”

From the direction of the church, flickering lights began to appear. Already?

I handed the candle over to somebody who must have dropped theirs. I wasn’t worthy of it, but I hoped the guy who’d given it to me wouldn’t mind.

Easter Candles

Truth be told, I was too busy clicking away—with the flash off but feeling somewhat dirty nevertheless.

Then fireworks exploded behind the church tower. And something else: shots rang in the air and charges of dynamite shook the ground.

I became a little worried. The land wasn’t parched, and Easter happens every year, but yet…

Suddenly the scene turned unreal. As if in a dream, I watched great orange tongues of flame licking at the hillside, building up into waves that crested the trees and broke at the wall of the fortress, threatening to engulf it.

If the wind turned—just a little—the town would be next.

“Do you think that’s staged?” I whispered to the guy behind me.

He looked grim. “Doesn’t look staged to me. But by all means snap away. Don’t mind the town or the people.”

I stood frozen, staring at the flames, while all around me the people cheered on, oblivious.

Easter Celebrations

[read on]

It’s all Greek to Me…

Friday, April 25th, 2008

Pebble Beach
“Lemme see: e-s-t—estiatorio, restaurant and p-s-i-…p-s-a…psarotaverna—fish restaurant! And also g-a-l, gala-something. Probably a milk bar as well. They tend to have stuff I like.”

We were studying the signs along the Pebble Beach Parade in Palaeochora, looking for refreshments. The promise of a milkshake alured me, so I walked closer to the English language menu. “Oh, Fish Restaurant ‘Galaxia’… I didn’t realise that galaxy was Greek as well!”

John thought for a moment. “But of course! The Milky Way, Galaxy. From the Greek for milk.”

It turns out that we already speak a lot of Greek. There are obvious words like telephone and hippopotamus. Or parts of words such as pedi for child, chronos for time. And dentist is odontriatos. The numbers are everywhere: heptathlon, decathlon, icosahedron, pentagram etc.

Travelling in Greece, trying to decipher the signs, throws up more obscure links: ‘bus stop’ is stasi leoforioo. And ‘thank you’ is pronounced efkastisto, but it’s actually written something like ‘eucharisto’. Now I know what they meant by ‘eucharist’ back in church.

There are countless other examples which don’t come to mind right now, in addition to a whole slew of scientific terms.

We speak a lot of Greek.

Urmentrude’s Dwelling

Friday, April 25th, 2008

In many towns and villages around Crete, plane trees line the streets, their branches trained to grow near horizontally with the aid of weights tied to their tips. During the hot summer these trees offer welcome shade, as well as gaudy splashes of green. In the smaller settlements they are often found at entrances, and this was also true for the Anonymous Homestay where we stayed during our time in Palaeochora.
'Anonymous' Homestay, Entrance

The trees, or in this case their support stuctures, also give shelter to other species. The post that supported the branch which grew across the terrace entry had a thumb-sized hole in it, from which buzzing emanated at times. This was the home of Urmentrude, a European carpenter bee (Xylocopa violacea).

Every twenty minutes to half-an-hour throughout the day, Urmentrude would shoot out of the hole (which barely fitted her girth) and dart off towards the gardens and shrubs heavy with flowers. In the mornings, when we were having coffee outside, she would stay around and circle for a while, as if inspecting us. I flinched at first—carpenter bees are big—but she never approached too closely, nor would she waste her energy on something not perceived as a threat.

Still, you wouldn’t want to mess with her kind.

Despite her massive proportions, she was always too quick for me to get a picture, so here’s one of her dwelling:

Urmantrude's Dwelling

Recently, carpenter bees have become established in England, one of many continental/southern European insects which may be extending their ranges as a result of climate change (for the doubters among you: zoologists have kept tap on these phenomena for at least twenty years, as I remember from my undergraduate days).


Thursday, April 24th, 2008

“Kotopoolo, kotopoolo…” Sophia fell silent, shaking her head.

She had made it sound like the clucking of a hen. I thought that ‘pollo’, the Spanish word for chicken, was derived from the Greek, but it makes no sense. ‘Pollo’ (po-yo) doesn’t sound like any noise a chicken would make.

But I digress. Sophia wasn’t pleased. She shook her head again and muttered something in Greek, trying for the right words. “Spaghetti,” she said finally, pointing at the tiny stove with it’s single hotplate and a much smaller plate meant for heating jugs of Greek coffee. She looked disapprovingly at the herbs on the shelf, the spice box and the bottles of oils and vinegar.

“Spagetthi OK,” she reiterated and walked away, still shaking her head.

I may have been forgiven for imagining the homestay’s ‘communal kitchen facilities’ to be dominated by a large stove—perhaps an aga—with cooking paraphernalia hanging on hooks along the walls and wooden cutting boards surrounded by tins and jars. Somewhere in my imagination, a BBQ pit also featured, along with a roasting spit where we might gather to roast an Easter lamb, if one could be procured in time.

I didn’t imagine the facilities to be more along the lines of a tea kitchen, although to be fair there were several of them, and I was the only traveller to bring my own set of knives. Despite the place being fully booked, most of the kitchenettes remained unused.

Well, it was too late. The chicken that was defrosting on the sink needed cooking.

Lemon Chicken with Wheat and Salad

Lemon Chicken

Take one chicken and joint it. Brown it in batches in a pot to which you have added a small slug of vegetable oil and a generous slosh of olive oil (the vegetable oil prevents the latter from burning. Don’t ask me why, but this trick also works with butter).

Set aside the pieces and add a roughly chopped onion to the pot. As soon as this has softened, add 2-3 cloves crushed garlic, some bay leaves and about 2 tsp of dried oregano (frying oily herbs increases their flavour).

When the mix begins to smell aromatic, add 300ml of white wine, return the chicken, add the zest and juice of 1 lemon (I also keep some preserved peel in my spice box, and that goes in as well), a handful of green olives and—since this dish wasn’t going to be braised—enough water or stock to just cover.

I couldn’t resist the tiny courgettes I’d spotted at the greengrocer’s (nor, for that matter, the aubergines, peppers, fresh garlic, spinach and whatnot), so I placed them on top, covered the pot and let the lot simmer for 45 minutes. Greek courgettes are thick-skinned and benefit from slowly steaming in their own juices.

Season and serve with bread, salad and couscous or wheat (which I managed to cook up on the tiny coffe plate).

As for the spinach which I’d also bought: it was nice prepared á’l horta, washed, steamed for a minute or so, with just the water that clings to the leaves, seasoned and tossed with a squirt of lemon juice and plenty of olive oil.

I made sure to keep the kitchen scrupulously clean and refrained from bringing further chickens, lambs or fishes onto the premises.

The next time she found me cooking, Sophia approved. She had come around with a cup of coffee and the divine lemon and vanilla cookies with which she spoils her guests.

She smiled. “Ah, spaghetti!”

No, a sausage, pepper and aubergine stew. I still had to use up that bounty from the greengrocer’s. When it was done, we carried it across to the courtyard to share with the other guests.

There’s no need to be over-ambitious when it comes to cooking on the road.

Anonymous Homestay, Chania