Chapter 2: Pioneers
When we emerged, heavy lidded from our dark cabin below deck on the “Knossos Palace” ferry, the heavy Mediterranean air settled on us like promises. We could already see faint blotches on the horizon that were surely land. All five of us wormed our way against the forward deck, mesmerized as the blotches slowly, imperceptibly took shape.
It’s hard to describe the feeling as I watched our future looming towards us, taking shape in white rectangular blocks of buildings stacked randomly, the old Venetian Castle fortifications, guarding the right section of the bay, protecting what had once been a fortress. Hundreds of masts poked up from nesting against the large circular harbor. This is real, I acknowledged to myself.
Had it only been a month or so that I had made that heroic attempt to find the most desirable to place to settle for our year abroad? With no Internet in 1987 I had to find Greek people as resources. But how to find Greeks in Salt Lake City? Surely there was a good gaggle because every year in September a big Greek Festival clogged a three block area downtown where the smell of roasting lamb was intoxicating.
My first foray was a trip to the one Greek restaurant in Salt Lake City. I ordered an eggplant dish served by a pimply blonde waiter – definitely NOT Greek – and eventually the owner, Spiros, came to my table. He was from the Peloponnese Peninsula, the town of Sparta, and insisted that was the Only place to live in Greece.
Next I took a weekend trip to Las Vegas, staying with a 30 year old Greek friend of a friend hoping to hear his answer to my question: “Where do you think is the best place to live in Greece?” Definitely in Thessaloniki he asserted. Where was he from? Thessaloniki. The pattern was beginning to develop.
I next stopped in at the Greek Orthodox Church to talk to the priest who also taught Greek language classes. Our conversation resulted in him assuring me that his birthplace the island of Cyprus was definitely the location we would love the most. Then Costas from Athens, who owned a wholesale produce company, and played racket ball with my Dad insisted that no one in their right mind would consider living anywhere but in that ancient metropolis.
By this time I realized that whomever I talked to from Greece would obviously think his city of origin was the best place to live. It’s a loaded question. I haunted the library travel section, took out dozens of books and thumbed through them. I knew we did not want to live in a big city such as Athens. We wanted a town large enough to be interesting but not rank with traffic fumes and concrete vistas. Napflion, on the landmass of the Peloponnese Peninsula stood out as my first choice. Our other choice was an island with beaches and warmth, small hidden villages, mountains or at the very least hills. We needed an island big enough that we would not be able to explore it all in a year. Rhodes seemed too small, Cyprus too politically divided and Corfu was too far north. Crete, only 200 miles north of Libya Seemed like the obvious island choice. So Napflion or Crete. It all hinged on a coin.
Everyone was now scattering from the decks to their cabins, their cars, the luggage hold, as the ear piercing horn of our ferry announced our arrival. Again, the Battle of the Bags. It was clear that they were becoming an albatross around our necks, metaphorically speaking. Logistically it was necessary for Trent to carry the bags from the hold up and out several hundred feet to the flat cement dock. I stayed with the two younger children and the bags on the boat while Tyler guarded the mound on the dock that was slowly growing like a little hillock on steroids. By the time we had finished this Herculean task and had established our safe cache of suitcases and bags, we all sat on the cement, leaning against the big bulge of luggage to rest. It was 6:30 in the morning.
What now? We don’t know where we are going. My first priority was to rent a car so we could start our exploration of the island to find “place perfect.” A hotel was not in our price range… at least not the ones close to the harbor. In any case we had no intention of staying in a city, even one as compact as Iraklion, and wanted to get on the road. We would need to drop our luggage somewhere for the next few days and just make a brief reconnoiter around the island.
I had the travelers bible: Frommer’s Greece on $30 a day, which devotes a chapter to Crete and it is mildly helpful. But at 6:30 in the morning nothing is open. We were ravenous. Food that should have lasted two days, jammed into every nook and cranny of our bags, disappeared early on into those bottomless caverns, my kids’ mouths. At least three times a day they are hungry all with various levels of pickiness, but there simply was nothing in sight that gave any evidence of having any kind of food for sale.
“You are all just going to have to be miserable in silence,” I said after a few complaints. “Your hunger is about number three and a half on our list of things to deal with. “Nothing is open. Or if it is, it’s miles from here. Look around. I’ll go over to that building and see what I can find. Trent, stay here with the kids and our stuff.” His eyes were closed as he leaned against a plaid suitcase and a soft duffel bag.
The ferry office building was open, but empty of people except for a few glazed eyed workers looking like they might open up sometime that morning. I walked through a closed coffee shop and spotted a pay telephone. In those days before cell phones, pay phones were as common as bus stops, and necessary. The phone book and my smattering of Greek led me to car rental companies with a string of numbers after their names. I had a handful of Greek coins, but no idea which ones to use for the yellow machine that stared at me with dials and buttons and slots instructions that looked nothing like any pay phone I had ever encountered.
After losing several coins into the void of the slot mouth I decided I would walk towards what looked like town. I left Ash and Tyler in Trent’s care with the mountain of suitcases and ventured further into the town pulling Clayton alongside me. Eventually establishments would open. I later learned to love Iraklion, but every port town has its seamy side. That’s where I found myself. Shabby, depressing streets, and buildings. Eventually I was able to price shop for the best car rental rates as the town woke up. But one small car would not hold all our suitcases.
I tracked down a tiny establishment where I could leave our luggage for what seemed an outrageous price. Three dollars per bag per day. There was no other choice. I headed back to the dock and we each opened a suitcase to retrieve a sleeping bag and enough clothes for several days. By this time the dock had emptied of people and we commandeered a huge open area of cement to repack. With the tiny little Fiat I rented we shuttled our bags to the left luggage rip-off of $3 a bag per day.
We were all hungry. “We have ten more minutes till the banks open.” I pulled out a half finished pack of chips, bought on the boat with the change from my limited airport purchased drachmas. Every experienced traveler at that time knew you never change your money at the airport. The rates are much higher than elsewhere. “I’ll get plenty of cash. But let’s wait til we get out of town. I got this map from the car rental place.”
We spread out the map on the tiled sidewalk at the bank entrance and perused the names of the towns, thankfully written in both Greek and English.
“I just want to go to a beach” bubbled Ashley, fatigue gone.
“Yeh, we need a beach. We need a beach.” Clay jumped up and down.
“And food,” Tyler reminded me as a mustached man ambled up to the door, a key ring jangling from one hand and worry beads from the other. He had thick eyebrows and his mustache was wet, probably from the coffee he had just gulped down. I moved Clayton so the bank manager could open the door, money was changed and we piled in the Fiat.
“ Trent, you sit in the front with me,” I ordered. “So which direction shall we head first? East or West?”
“Let’s head West,” said Trent. “because on the map West has longer patches of yellow….beaches. But it looks like all along here either way there are beaches.”
It wasn’t until about a half hour later, after we had stopped in a village on our route and procured edibles in a small shop, that I could finally relax. It was euphoria. We had made it. This far at least. Nine days after backing out from our driveway in Salt Lake City, Utah, I had overcome one of the biggest hurdles. All four children and myself, and our luggage had arrived safely in a home-to-be on such incredibly limited funds. And we were great! I smiled as I hummed the Zorba the Greek theme song until the kids stuck their heads out the windows and I was drowned out with the roar of movement. It didn’t matter. The wind was in my face, the sun was blatantly thrusting itself out of the cobalt backdrop of sky. We motored past periodic views on our right of soothing, endless, colorless sand calling to us like sirens.
“There, mom, there,” a disembodied voice penetrated through strains of Zorba the Greek.
“Mom, come on, we’ve passed enough places. Let’s stop.”
“Turn down that road, quick, Mom”
“Beach, beach, beach,” the tiniest voice chanted.
So I did. The car bumped down what passed for a road until we were protected from the main route west by a cliff. The children dove into their bags, scattering contents unceremoniously everywhere and shamelessly donned swimming attire. They ran to the water. It was not entirely post card pristine. There were a few outcroppings of rocks and papers and other bits of organic and inorganic debris. But it was people-less, and mellow waves languidly licked the white sand stretching in each direction.
I breathed out all the stress and pressure of the last few days and sucked in the thick, heady Mediterranean air. I fell asleep on a towel placed in the shade of the car to the backdrop of exuberant yells and shrieks and splashes and squeals.