40 Notes From Crete

I’ve been enjoying some R n’ R on the Greek island of Crete these last couple of weeks. Since I’ve taken up residence in the USA for much of my time, it’s the first family vacation I’ve been on in four years. I’ve always wanted to visit Greece, so here are my comments on the country, with a focus on life on its largest island.

  1. Life has a slower pace here. The contrast to the USA is jarring. There are no drive-thrus and I haven’t seen a single fast food chain. You’ll have to wait a little longer for food in restaurants, even if you’re just going for drinks. We had the displeasure of witnessing some particularly bad-tempered Americans who complained at the slow service of a taverna, yelling at the patient staff that they still wanted their food but would now refuse to pay for it. It made me sad, because these are the kind of people that give Americans a bad reputation here in Europe.
  2. Beers are served in steins, not glasses.
  3. Greek food consists of a lot of grilled red meat, squid, mussels, served with potatoes, orzo, and salad. Lamb chops seem to be a staple and are more common than chicken on restaurant menus.
  4. My favorite meal has been goat in a wine sauce.
  5. I saw Ian Hislop at a taverna in a small, seaside village. For those who don’t know, he’s a political commentator and satirist from the U.K, who made his name as the editor of Private Eye. I’m not too familiar with him myself, but he’s got this very distinctive face that anyone with a TV license in the U.K will recognize. At first I couldn’t quite figure out where I recognized him from, and I had the feeling he was perhaps an old teacher of mine or one of my friends’ dads. So I was staring at him, and it only dawned on me it was Ian Hislop when he looked back at me with a look in his eye that told me he knew he had been recognized. He stared back and seemed like he was expecting me to say something. At that point I blushed and hurried away. He was with his sons and I’ve always hated the idea of going up to famous people and bothering them for being normal.
  6. Greeks seem to believe in the hard sell. Their approach to potential business is proactive and boy does it show. I swear Dale Carnegie would have a field day out here. You can’t walk past a restaurant without one of the staff chasing you down and trying to persuade you to eat there. The restaurants are very good but we’re reluctant to stop and peruse a menu because we, like most Brits (and I’m sure Americans too) prefer to do so at our own leisure. It’s a lamentable fact but the desperation of the proprietors is off-putting as they yell about how fresh their food is and how comfy their seats are.
  7. Shopkeepers are much the same. I’m reticent about browsing in a gift shop here because if you so much as stop outside the shopkeeper gets his or her hopes right up. You can feel a crushing sense of disappointment on their part if you leave without a purchase. Sometimes a shopkeeper will appear right behind you and proceed to follow you around the place, insisting that everything is local and handcrafted by their sister, even if the same exact item is literally for sale in the shop next door.
  8. The gift shops themselves are very good, especially when compared to other gift shops in Europe. The shops sell fine jewelry, linens, olive wood carvings, local herbs, olive soaps, beautiful flowery scarves and dresses, and giant wooden bottle openers shaped like cocks.
  9. Wait- what was that last one? Yeah, the Greeks are big on their erotica. All the coffee mugs and finely-carved bookends are endowed with massive tits with areolas that have the circumference of Oreos. It’s a well-known fact that it’s only the British that get all embarrassed about sex, and that on the mainland folks talk about it openly without blushing or giggling. However I don’t remember walking down the Champs-Elysees and seeing ten-inch wooden phalluses staring at me from every angle like I just walked into a Minoan Bukkake Party. The Greeks are all about erotic art and imagery and clearly it sells because the carpenters here can’t make so much as a keyring without adding a forested scrotum.
  10. Owls are pretty big here too. Clearly the owls are important to Greek or at least Cretan culture because I’ve seen them everywhere- on lunchboxes, tote bags, tapestries, and in the form of pencil-holders and statues.
  11. It can be hard to separate the local handcrafted goods from the mass-produced stuff. But even the mass-produced gifts can’t be considered tacky tripe. A lot of it is good quality and worth the money.
  12. Fish Spas are quite popular here. There’s a species of fish native to Anatolia and other parts of the Mideast called Doctor Fish. Basically you put your feet in a tank of these little nibblers and they start eating your feet, clearing off any dry skin you might have. I went to a fish spa in Heraklion with my mom and it was a pleasant, ticklish experience.
  13. “Sorry, everyone here smokes,” the waitress of a taverna told us in Heraklion. It’s true. Smoking has almost been wiped out in the US, so by comparison my native U.K looks pretty bad, but on the mainland in general it’s even worse.
  14. The cities, towns, and streets are very clean and well-maintained.
  15. Feral cats are found in abundance in the streets of the cities. They’re not shy either. We had a tiny little kitty come right up to us and climb up our legs and paw at us for scraps.
  16. The drivers here are aggressive- not necessarily in the ragey way, but in their assertive driving style. I still say the worst drivers I have ever seen come from Houston, TX, but the driving on Crete is somewhat dangerous too.
  17. The signs here are thoroughly substandard. What few there are seem to be either faded away or covered in graffiti. It can be hard to get anywhere without GPS. We got lost several times! Even major tourist attractions are poorly signposted.
  18. Olives are a huge part of Greek and Cretan culture. They are a central ingredient to cooking and have been celebrated since ancient times as a symbol of fertility.
  19. It’s hot, but it’s a dry heat. There is next to no humidity and the heat is always mitigated by a cool breeze that comes south off the Aegean.
  20. Crete is the largest of the several thousand islands that make up Greece. The eastern part where we are staying is quite dusty and dry, but the western regions are meant to be more green.
  21. The topography of Crete is about as flat as your nan’s pimply ass. If you like cliffs and mountains, this is the place for you! The whole island is basically one big mountain range, with a carpet of densely-packed olive tree groves.
  22. The crown jewel of the island’s tourism industry is the archeological site of Knossos. It’s an impressive Minoan palace and supposedly the site of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. It’s not as big as the more grandiose Greek and Roman ruins you will find in Italy, Tunisia, and mainland Greece, but you have to remember that the Minoans were about as ancient to the Romans as the Romans are to us. The palace of Knossos was first built about 4000 years ago, meaning that we are currently closer in time to the construction of Colosseum of Rome than the Colosseum is to the founding of Knossos.
  23. If you plan on going to Knossos, go early. You want to beat the coaches, because there’s little to no regulation on crowd control and the term hectic ceases to be adequate. We got there for about nine and thank Globb we didn’t get there later, because even in the morning it was so aggressively hot.
  24. The Greeks seem to emphasize their traditions more than we do back home. This is partly because tourism is so important to the lifeblood of the economy here, whereas in the U.K tourism exists in concentrated areas. But by and large the Greeks are a people proud of their traditions and history.
  25. The Greek language is beautiful. Click here for my post on the concept of Philia and the passionate temperament of the Greeks.
  26. The language is very poetic, but I never said it was easy to learn. The Greek word for Yes is Ναί, which is pronounced “Nay”, so that can take a while to get used to.
  27. The Greeks are a super-friendly people and always make for excellent company. They have a way of being affable and lively without seeming overbearing. For the most part they seem very laid back, speaking in smooth, low and gentle tones.
  28. The Greeks also love to sing and dance! Theatre, music and poetry are deeply embedded in the soul of these people, and it seems like everyone here has an inner troubadour that takes over at random moments. We were in the old town the other night to watch some traditional Greek dancing, and a nearby waiter at one of the tavernas couldn’t seem to stop himself from dancing around with the professionals, jumping off of chairs to clap his ankles in midair, and swinging around the lampposts like he was doing a tribute to Singin’ in the Rain.
  29. Greek Men seem to have a fascination with blonde women. I suppose it’s because blondes are a rarity south of the Danube, and all of the beautiful women I have seen here have been dark-haired. We were at a taverna and I noticed my family were laughing about something. When I asked what was so funny, they answered that our waiter had seemed to get his hopes up about stealing a kiss from my brother’s girlfriend, who is extremely blonde.
  30. A popular Greek drink is the extremely strong Rakı, which is made from grape pomace (the pressed skin, seeds and stems of the fruit). My brother and his girlfriend actually participated in an authentic production of the drink, stepping on the grape pomaces and crushing it down with large wooden staves to the sound of folk music.
  31. A drink that won’t set your esophagus on fire is the lovely Soumada. It’s non-alcoholic and made from Cretan almonds. Almonds are thought to be a symbol of fertility here on Crete so it’s often served at weddings and engagements. Definitely more my sort of drink!
  32. Watermelons are never in short supply on this island. They’re everywhere. A lot of tavernas will serve you refreshing slices of watermelon free of charge.
  33. The parking lots here can be an absolute Cluster-Molest. Often times the spaces aren’t marked and you’ll find people try to park their cars in places they really shouldn’t, even if it means blocking someone else’s route out. You kind of make it up as you go along I guess.
  34. The roads here have lanes inside the kerb that can just about fit a car, and they’re meant to be used if you want to let someone overtake you, which will happen a lot.
  35. The lanes are also used by the many quadbikes that roam around the hills here. Tourists are able to rent mopeds and quadbikes to drive around in (even if they don’t possess a license), and you can often see them taking selfies to get the obligatory Insta that’s so damn important to them, and which seems to be slightly higher priority-wise than seeing where the fuck they are going.
  36. Greek men seem to respect acts of decisiveness and authority, often referring to the first of us to decide to eat in their restaurant as a “big boss”.
  37. Most of the tourists you get here are British and German, but we’ve also seen French, American and Russian travelers here and there.
  38. There are very few rivers on Crete (I haven’t seen any!), so the natives are reliant on springs and subterranean aquifers.
  39. The sea closest to the shore has this delightful, turquoise coloring to it.
  40. It’s been a nice trip, and the perfect setting to sit down and read a good book between dips in the pool!

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