Chapter 4: Finding Home
“No, we need it until June,” I repeated to the woman holding a squealing baby in her arms. “Ioúnios,” I said the month in Greek. She shook her head. “Mono Martios,” Only March. And she turned to help her toddler navigate the stairs up to the villa she had shown us. I shrugged, and thanked her.
“Mom, we just might have to get something until March and move again.” Trent whispered to me as we walked down the stone stairs, with the Eastern view of the bay of Mirabello calling to us. “It’s a terrific view though. I wouldn’t mind waking up to this every morning.” I glanced wistfully at the Meditterean Sea in the distance with a ribbon of white sand separating it from the rugged hillsides between us and its cerulean silence.
“It really was so tiny. One bedroom for all of us. But the price was right.” I sighed.
We wanted to live somewhere in our tiny, picturesque town, where everything would be in walking distance. After a month of searching we found nothing to rent that we felt we could stay in for an extended time. All rental units were too small, with kitchens consisting of a one burner stove and a midget refrigerator without a freezer. Most were built to be let to the summer tourists who would only be staying one week. And the fact that we needed the villa until June put many owners off. March was when the tourists would begin their annual flood into the island, and the weekly rates would double which meant no owner wanted to commit to losing the spring money by having us still renting those months when they could get a higher rate. It was silly, really. I call it the island mentality, total lack of logic. They would forfeit a stable rent from October through March, six dead months, so for three months they could get double rent. It was exactly the same amount. And to me, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
We had spent our first three nights in one room in a hostel where we shared a bathroom with everyone on the floor. There were three very thin single beds that we slid together to try to all squeeze in. Still, finding a place for Clayton to sleep was always the problem. We were an uneven number, and finding accommodations with beds for five pushed the price up dramatically. The showers, shared by the entire floor of 17 rooms had five open stalled showers with a hand spigot for each. No privacy at all. There was one toilet and sink for the entire floor, all in a separate room.
Ashley and I washed everyone’s socks out in the tiny smelly bathroom. It was high time. I stood on the top of the toilet and there was just enough room for her to stand next to the sink and scrub the socks. I would then take one sock and squeeze the water out, letting it fall into the stained toilet below. We had to do all this holding our noses as the smell of urine was overpowering. I had bought some twine which we strung up in our room, and we hung about 10 pairs of socks up there to dry. In the morning I awakened to find Tyler asleep with three or four damp socks on his sleeping bag and one rakishly positioned on his hair.
Trent looked up at me as I quickly gathered up the socks. “They were dripping on me all night, Mom. That’s why I changed spots with Ty.” That did it. We would just have to find an interim place for a month while we continued our search.
By asking every shopkeeper who spoke English I found a small house on the south side of town, still a bus ride away. We were not happy with this commute. We needed to mingle. This newly built rental house was very basic. One mini refrigerator, one burner for a stove, only one shelf to put pots and pans. And even that shelf only had one old pot. and a mini refrigerator.
Trent came out of the one bathroom the first night in our interim house.
“Mom, I’m trying to be positive. The one good thing about the bathroom is that it’s so small I can sit on the toilet and brush my teeth and spit in the sink at the same time all while taking a shower.” The shower head was over the toilet, so that when one did take a shower, the entire bathroom was drenched. No shower curtain or stall.
The three rooms of the house were spare, with no furniture other than built in beds and a built in sofa on a slab of concrete. We decided it was better than wet socks dripping on our heads. And at least we had a bathroom to ourselves. So I pounded and pounded the pavement. There was nothing like a real estate office. No place that listed rentals. How could that be? How did tourists find places to stay?
It was with great excitement that the kids and I walked through Georgio’s villa on the hillside on the road to Elounda. It was new. it was modern. It had as much space in balconies as it had inside. The floors were tiled and the ceiling had large beams. The sparse furniture was modern and almost new. There was an upstairs with two bedrooms and an incredible view from every room of the coastline and the sea with the mountains of Crete in the distance contrasting their colors of purple with the turquoise of the Mediterranean.
“Mom we love this place,” Tyler called breathlessly to me as he and Trent discovered another balcony off the room that would be theirs.
“Well, Mr. Kristopolous hasn’t said for sure we can have it. He’ll let me know in a few weeks, after we get back from Jordan.” There was a stove with three burners. Heaven. And one had only to light a pilot light and wait for 20 minutes to have hot water. Bliss. A refrigerator big enough to put three days worth of groceries inside. Only one frying pan and one saucepan. No bathtub, but still, two bathrooms. We would have to drive to town. Way too far to walk. I could adjust.
Hooray, when I made the phone call to Athens to discover we could rent the villa. Until June, he lied. But that is a later part of the story.
Our wonderful “spiti” (villa) outside of Aghios Nikolaos. Much bigger and better than this photo shows. notice water tank on roof
The location, while further out of town than I had hoped, without neighbors close by, nevertheless had it’s pluses. The hillside was literally littered with exploration possibilities. Random goats with little fear of two young boys bleated to each other and sounded their bells as they skipped from a boulder to a plateau. Half built structures, potential homes, left unfinished were scars on the landscape, but provided endless hours of fun for the older two. They were construction zones frozen in time. As the owners got more money, they would do a little more work, leaving tools and supplies and even old appliances in the half finished structures until they got a hankering to do a little more work. No one was in a hurry, and while some of the houses looked almost finished, others, with just the floor and walls standing looked as if someone had totally forgotten about them. Hours fled as the kids climbed in, on, and around these lonely, partially completed structures.
My pint sized explorers discovered marine life on the shore several hundred yards below our villa, and tried to catch anything that moved. While following some wiggling fish tails through the shallow as they waded to a mini island they realized they were walking on submerged tiles.
Remains of submerged buildings on the seabed of the Poros bay in Elounda (photo: Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports)
The locals without much interest said it was the ancient city of Olous. We were surprised that these amazing mosaics were ignored, and allowed to simply sunbath in peace and liquid obscurity. Later research told us that Olous was one of the most important Dorian cities of ancient Crete, with more than 30,000 inhabitants. The city disappeared either because of a landslide or as a result of the large earthquake of 780 A.D. Archeologists didn’t start paying attention to these underwater ruins until 15 years or more after we left Crete.
Olous Mosaic, Courtesy Greek Tourist Board
The proximity to the sea opened up many other avenues of interest. Trent and Tyler decided to try fishing using ineffective sticks, strings and safety pins. They didn’t catch any fish, but they caught a lot of seaweed and plastic. The real treasure was the Elounda Bay Hotel, which was closed up for the winter. It was a small complex on the beach, less than a 10 minute walk downhill from our home. The boys ducked under the metal gate and had sand and piled deck chairs and …
We five with grandpa when he came to visit in March, playing in the sand at the deserted Elounda Beach Hotel
“Okay, everyone has to take turns helping with the laundry,” I said in exasperation one evening, after fighting a losing battle with the washing machine that came with our house.
“I thought that’s one of the reasons we chose this house,” Trent looked up from a puzzle he was putting together with Ty. “Is the washing machine broken? Again?”
“Yep, I pulled it out and can’t see what’s going wrong. I hooked everything up right. I know, cause I watched the repairman do it.” This was probably the third time our washer had mysteriously malfunctioned, and for a different reason every time. This required me to call my landlord in Athens, and for him to call a repairman. When the repairman didn’t show up after a week I called Georgios in Athens again and asked for the guys name and address. I would annoy the elusive fix it person until he showed up. I found Elias wearing an ‘I Love London’ sweatshirt and baggy bikers shorts in a hole in the wall repair shop. His hands were covered with black grease, his dark hair hadn’t been brushed in weeks and a cigarette was hanging out of the side of his mouth.
“I live in Georgios Kristopolous’s house on the Elounda road,” I introduced myself, hoping his expertise in repair was more encouraging than his actual shop.
“I know, I know. Difficult time. Many things broken.” He wiped his hands on a dirty cloth and spoke with the cigarette moving up and down at the side of his mouth as he spoke. “Car is broken, so must wait. I know, I know. Georgios call me,” and he turned as if to go back to the machine he had spread out in front of him.
“What if I drive you to our house?” I suggested, with a note of pleading in my voice that was impossible to hide. “And I’ll fix you lunch.”
Elias was friendly and talkative on the drive, continuing to light up another cigarette when one was finished. It took weeks to get the smell out of the car. He talked about his two little children, a girl and a boy that he adored, on the 15 minute drive. I led him to the offending machine and after a half hour of grunting and muttering to himself, and I’m sure cursing in Greek, he found the problem. I watched as he put the washer back together. He ate the sandwich I had prepared on the drive back and asked if I would go out with him next week.
“Elias,” I almost yelled. “But you’re married! You talked about your wife!”
“No problem” he countered. “She very busy. Not problem I tell you. Little drink at Du Lac, only, Not too serious,” indicating his suggestion was very harmless.
I had to assume that many foreign women would be interested in a proposal such as this, or else Greek men were endlessly optimistic. Maybe the little snippets of American television they saw gave them an erroneous impression of American women. Or maybe I was hopelessly naive. However that was not an isolated incident. In the future, if I couldn’t fix the washer we resorted to the primitive method. No more repairmen on the prowl for me. Ashley immediately made a list of who did what when for laundry duty.
We tried to limit the wash to twice a week. We would fill a plastic tub with our dirty clothes, turn on the water heater, and when it was warm, we carried buckets out to the veranda and dumped them. The tub could only fit two pairs of feet at a time, so each child took a turn with me being the “feet agitators.” I poured a cup of the powdered stuff that I hoped was laundry soap into the melange and with bare feet began lifting our legs up and down as if we were squashing grapes.
“If I’m gonna do this I want some music,” said Trent rolling up his pant legs, on his first turn, and turning his cassette player on its loudest to some Rolling Stones song. But we danced in the wet laundry, using our feet to swish and swirl the dirty clothes. The next step was pouring out the water, and carrying the heavy tub, full of wet clothes, up the stairs to the shower. We dumped the sodden bundle on the floor of the shower and turned on the cold water (we had used all the hot water for the washing) and tried to stay dry as we reached in and rearranged the wet clothes so they could all be rinsed.
Ringing them out to dry took a lot of hand strength and Clayton could not help with that. One by one we carried each item outside to hang on our improvised clothes line. If the weather was cold and rainy they had to dry inside…eventually. How did these people live without clothes dryers, I thought with my spoiled, upscale, pampered American mind.
The winds of Crete were notorious. They blasted in around the closed windows and caused the curtains to blow wildly like angered sprites. Rain was another challenge. Actually, only an eastern rain. Rain from other directions simply pummeled the roof. But rain from the east quickly made puddles on the cold tile floors in our home.
“Help, it’s flooding,” called Ashley the night we experienced our first eastern rain. The doors on that side of the house were useless in keeping out the encroaching liquid that surreptitiously meandered into our living spaces, both upstairs and downstairs.
“Grab towels, everyone” I was already taking the stairs two at a time to get the few towels we had. “What else can we use? We don’t have enough towels.” The water was advancing at a frightening speed.
Trent ran outside. He returned in a minute with a drowned rat kind of look, hair plastered to his head, carrying old bricks from the yard and a blanket from the car..
“We’ll make a dam. Come on you guys. Tyler, take some of these bricks upstairs, then we can put the towels behind them. It will at least slow down the water. Shove them right up against the door. And Mom and Ash can clean up the part that is already wet.”
Clayton had taken off his shoes and was splashing in the spreading pool.
It took days for the towels to dry. We squeezed the water out the best we could and hung them in random spots in the cold house. Clothes that take days to dry are one of the downsides of living near the sea, in a moist humid climate in an un-insulated building during the winter.
The winds of Crete are also famous for their sudden appearance and severity during the winter. One night in January we had offered to babysit for an American couple from the US Air Force base (chapter 7) while they escaped to our house for a second honeymoon. We were enjoying American videos and chips and cookies with their four little children, while Dawn and Bob, 45 minutes away, were happily doing whatever couples do when they get a night away from their children. It was that night that the wind blew our water tank totally off the roof, along with a solar panel and the landlord’s TV antenna, scaring the poor couple to death.
We were five days without water. I had to be very obnoxious with my landlord, enjoying the winter in Athens, to get the water tank reinstalled on the roof. What a shock, once it was repaired, to realize it didn’t fill itself. That water didn’t endlessly come out of the taps unless I paid a big water truck $85.00 to come and fill the tank on the top of the house!! Somehow I always thought water was free. But even in Utah our bill was a fraction of what it costs on an arid island in the South Mediterranean.
Crete had the generosity to provide us at least one day a month throughout the whole winter where the sun halfheartedly gave us some healing rays. On those days, after school, we would head for the beach we loved, climb down the many stairs and set up towels, toys and treats. The children would play on the sand and make daring forays into the waves. They found starfish, and chased tiny crabs that were faster than they were. Trent tried to catch fish with his hands. We were cocooned, just us, on that gentle private bay, serenely isolated. I would lean against the cliff that rose up behind us, and write letters and watch my little savages frolic. Wind blown hair, sand on their bodies, faces flushed, naked, flailing limbs, uninhibited frolicking. At that minute I so loved being me.