Tom, June, 2012
I dropped out of college in Memphis, Tennessee in 1969 and I put my thumb out and lived on the road for most of the next thirteen years. But in 1971 I took a job in a factory for 10 months to save money to get myself to Europe with money where my plan was to do nothing as I ran out of money and then do more of what I was doing in America... learning by traveling.
Icelandic Airlines got me to Luxembourg cheap and the kindness of strangers took me everywhere else for free. Nonetheless, the little money that I arrived with (an entanglement back home took most of the money a month before I left) was going fast as I learned the ropes of living broke in countries where I didn't know the customs, laws or languages. It was September and I saw some of Germany and Austria but the weather told me to go south. I hitchhiked down to Graz, Austria and then into and through Yugoslavia. I stayed no where for more than a couple of days and even when I came into Greece I kept heading south. Saloniki to Athens where I took only a short time to visit the Parthenon and then out to Pireus to board a boat to Heraklion, Crete. There, I made my way to Knossos and then, with a Canadian buddy met along the way, hitchhiked to Matala. We’d heard road stories about this town and its caves. Someone along the way let us know that the tourist police were chasing people from the coastal caves but they spoke of Red Beach and so, when we arrived in town we got out of the car and immediately walked over the hill to that piece of paradise.
We decided that that was where we wanted to stay so, while he hiked back to town to get some supplies, I built us a rock shelter from the wind. We didn’t go back to see Matala for a week or so. Just red sand, big stones, the Mediterranean and the African wind. We would have day visitors from town so we picked up reports of the current scene, the police, the Greeks, the agricultural jobs for foreigners in Pitsidia and such but we mostly spent time in the water or out of the water, on the beach or clambering around the hills.
When we did head to town we easily fell into the company of travelers in the cafe, on the beach and in the rooms that they rented surrounding the bay. There were some people staying in one or two of the upper caves. They got away with it because the police didn’t like having to walk all the way up there all the time but so many of them had been used as toilets that there was no attraction to them except as a pretty background from a distance.
I stayed in Matala about three months. I had next to no money but I was a skinny 22 year old and I got by drinking grapefruit juice with yogurt for breakfast and a big fish sandwich for dinner. The occasional salad or potato omelette here and there added to it. I’d earn the money for that by walking to Pitsidia some mornings and sitting in the cafenion where the men who picked olives would gather for their morning coffee. I joined the foreigners, sitting apart and allowing them to look us over as they chatted. Eventually, one or another would point to one or more of us and tell us the price they would pay for a day of work with them.
I’ve heard from other people that picking olives can be difficult labor. It is ‘stoop work’ in that we had to bend down and pick the ripe olives off of the ground. In fact, the old man and wife who hired me did only that ... others would hang nets or shake the trees to get near ripe ones to fall but this old couple were content to simply pick up the ones that fell to the ground. We would toss them into a bucket and from there dump them into burlap sacks that the donkey carried when the day was done. Other than raking the ground a bit to make things somewhat smoother for the next time around, that was it.They were old but this was their life’s work and they were nimble and I saw that they were getting more olives than I was during the same time. So, I used my youth to hurry along, keeping up.
But this didn’t please him. He saw my efforts and came close so I could see his face while he explained with one word: ‘σιγά’ (pronounced ‘See-ga’). He showed me with his hands, with his body and with his eyes... σιγά... σιγά. He indicated the sky and the sun then he pointed to the olives on the ground and my hurried movements contrasted to his more gentle and slow picking up of fallen olives. The word means ‘gently’ or ‘slow’. This was my boss, the man who would benefit most directly by my additional work but that didn't really interest him. I got the idea that he wasn’t really interested in getting as many olives over the hours of work we were doing. He showed me the path of the sun in the sky and indicated that we would be here doing this work from this hour to that hour. During that time, we would pick up olives and then go home. It was not, for him, a matter of picking up as many olives as we could, only that we would be engaged in olive picking during this time. I slowed down and he relaxed... smiling to show me his approval.
At lunchtime his wife took out a spread for themselves and for me and the other worker who was with us. Bread, feta cheese, fish, the choicest fattest olives (I saw him isolating those for himself as the day went by) and a bottle of red wine (or ‘black wine’ μαύρο κρασί, as the Greeks refer to it). The wine at midday did wonders to slow down my work and that too pleased him. It truly is a different way of thinking about work. The Americans and the Germans might think it important to hustle to maximize work time and money but the rural Mediterranean people respect the sun and work is only one of the things that life requires of us.
I treasured this encounter and after a few months in Matala I had to reflect on how few of my marvelous experiences were Greek experiences. Matala was filled with travelers who came and went and brought with them interesting life stories and songs. A gathering on the beach invariably included a passing of the guitar and we were regaled with a Welsh folk song followed by a Spanish love song and then a German getting the words to a British rock song almost right. People shared and I was delighted with the company. But after a while I began to notice that Greeks were underrepresented in our circles and I wanted to visit Greece.
I said goodbye to friends who’d become close and I went to the other end of the island to live in Xania. I'd arrived in Matala with $35US and after three months I still had $23 but when I got to Xania I found that to be too tempting a sum. It was enough to get a boat ticket back to Piraeus and then one to Brindisi, Italy and from there I could hitchhike back to Luxembourg where I had a meal waiting for me on the plane home. That was the temptation... what else could I do? I had been broke on the streets of New York and traveling across America but I didn’t even speak Greek and... what would happen if I was broke on Crete? I worried. I should leave while I still can.
Then I wondered the same thing aloud again. What would happen if I was broke on Crete? What would happen? Nothing? I've never seen nothing happen. So something would happen and it would be a Greek something. It might be difficult but when it was over, I will have had a Greek experience. I went to a shop and bought gifts ... just to get rid of my money. I bought something for my Mom and something for a girlfriend and something for another friend back home. I sent them off with the very last of my money paying the post. There. That was it, it was official. I was broke. now I needed to learn to say in Greek, ‘Me to work for you?’ and ‘How much is that cheese?’
I did house painting, I taught English... I found a kind of hippie crash pad and stayed there through the winter. I met an American girl and help her to spend her father’s money while we both read Kazantzakis books and learned to love the culture and the people. I stayed on Crete for a total of 8 months and by then I could speak about any topic using terrible grammar but understandable Greek (with a Cretean accent).
When an American buddy showed up in the early summer of 1972, I was nearly ready to leave but he and I hitchhiked around the island together and I went back to visit Crete. I introduced him to Red Beach and the the Mermaid Cafe and to Mama. When I left for the UK I had enough money for the boat tickets to Piraeus and Brindisi plus $11US. But getting on the boat to Italy, the guy at Greek customs said that I would have to pay a fine for overstaying my visa (it was good for 6 months, I stayed 8). I laughed and asked how much the fine would be... 363 Drachma. I did the calculations and laughed again. The fine was $11US. I had to dig out every bill and coin I had. One hundred Lepta equaled one Drachma and one Drachma equaled three cents American. They were made from what felt like a hard aluminum foil and, to save even more on material, they had a hole in them.
I had some Lepta down in a bag where I saved souvenirs and toys. Using the hole,
I was making bracelets for my nieces but I had to surrender those too and then...
I was good to get on the boat. I arrived in Brindisi with a smile but not much else.
I loved my time in Greece ... it’s made a difference in my life.
I am a professional entertainer and, while I perform in Europe a lot, I was only invited to Greece once. I performed on a Greek television program in the 1990’s and then, with my girlfriend, went to Crete where we rented a car and drove around the island in the winter.
I went to Matala and I was, like many, disappointed by the shift to tourist hordes. But I did buy a blanket from an older woman who I knew to be Mama. I didn’t say anything but she looked at me and then told me that she remembered me. That pleased me then and still does now.