26 January 4 a.m.
On the upper deck of the Blue Star ferry, Blue Horizon, listening to the droning of the engines and the slapping of waves against the hull of the vessel as we plough, through an angry sea, towards the island of Crete. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given the hour, I’m all alone up here, sitting wrapped like a mummy in my brand-new (and frightfully expensive) Western Mountaineering sleeping bag amidst a sprawl of white plastic tables and chairs strewn pell-mell across the shiny, blue-painted metal deck. Football is showing to an audience of no-one on the screen above the bar, which has been closed for hours. Beyond the stark neon glow of the deck lights I can faintly discern tendrils of smoke from the stack nearest to me dissipating in the wind against the backdrop of a dour, indeterminate sky. I’ve eaten and drunk reasonably well and have even managed some sleep, curled up under my table, so am feeling quite cheerful. It’s my second night in Greece after a long and occasionally challenging absence and everything glows with an aura of novelty and the promise of adventure. I’m looking forward to arriving on Crete.
The ferry is scheduled to arrive at Herakleion, the busy and somewhat down-at-heel capital of the great island, sometime around 6 a.m. According the purser, however, with whom I recently spoke, it’s unlikely we’ll be reaching port until seven at the earliest. ‘Kakos kairos,’ he said. Bad weather. The culprit is my old sparring partner, O Boreias, the north wind – still known, incidentally, by the same name by which he went in antiquity when, according to myth, he cannily transformed himself into a serpent and impregnated the cosmic egg, thereby creating the world – which has already delayed our departure from Piraeus by twenty-four hours. During this enforced hiatus, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t manage to accomplish terribly much – unless, that is, you count as achievements the consumption of large amounts of coffee and wine and raki, while simultaneously wolfing down some excellent food and making the acquaintance of a number of engaging people. I also became embroiled in a melee in the metro station, which reminded me – if any reminding was needed – why it is that I love coming to Greece.
The day had started promisingly enough. Waking well before dawn in my small, neat and imaginatively coloured – two-tone lime-green-and-turquoise walls, a blue-painted wooden door with pink trim – room on the second floor of the aged and battered, but still somehow noble, Hotel Sparti (erected in 1850, the fine neoclassical building has housed at various times in its history the French Embassy and the Greek Admiralty and has also featured, according to its modest, one-page publicity flyer, in numerous films and documentaries), I could hear nothing of the wind that had whistled around the window for the best part of the night. In its place a lulling and encouraging silence gripped the building (which, despite its great age, failed to emit so much as a groan or creak). Prostrate in my sagging bed, huddled beneath a quartet of brown woollen blankets that looked sufficiently faded and threadbare to have seen service with the French, I felt optimistic that the ferry would leave as planned at 10 a.m. I laid my plans accordingly, visualising how, upon rising, I would go and drink some wonderful Greek coffee somewhere while I wrote up my notes, then afterwards find a shop and buy provisions for the journey to Crete.
Originally the ferry had been scheduled to depart at nine the previous evening; but when, in an arctic twilight beneath a lambent sky, I had made my way to its doors I was greeted by a crew member dressed in faded khaki overalls seated just inside the passenger entrance – actually leaning back on his chair, he was – who cheerfully informed me that sailing had been delayed on account of the weather. The fellow looked like he was enjoying his job, which made the information easier to swallow. Moreover, hitches of this sort are part and parcel of sea travel in Greece, especially in winter, and as it was my first day in the country and I had already consumed quite a few drinks, I was not particularly upset. Hell, I said to myself, what’s one night in port going to matter? It might even be interesting. In this upbeat and indomitable frame of mind I thanked the fellow for his time and bid him a good evening, before retracing my steps around the harbour past several big white ferries that lay, similarly stranded, on the swirling, iron-coloured water. Upon immersing myself in the streets it took me no time at all to zero in on the Sparti, whose air of faded grandeur I found immediately appealing.
I waited until daylight had dawned beyond the window before getting out of bed, dressing, completing fifty-odd push-ups, and leaving the hotel, whereupon the sight of a dramatic sky above Piraeus caused me to alter my plans – instead of going for coffee, I would instead walk to the harbour and take some photographs to commemorate the grand occasion. From the still-elegant hotel portal it lay a short walk away, around the corner, more or less.
The streets at that hour were full of people, most of them heading towards the metro. Nearly everyone was bundled up in coats and hats and scarves and gloves. The expressions on their faces, I noticed, were uncharacteristically humourless and grim. (This really is a marvellous time of year to be in Greece.) At the lights on the busy road outside the harbour gates a crowd waited, tense and expectant. When the signal turned to green they charged en masse – straight, as it happened, in my direction, which meant that I had to employ some fancy footwork in order to pass through their undeviating midst. Emerging unscathed from the throng I found myself, moments later, within the harbour precinct, where the weather was creating some spectacular effects. A brisk wind that gusted on and off skated across the water, etching patterns on its cold metallic surface, while through ragged apertures in the bruised and billowing sky shafts of pale yellow sunlight descended, alighting like celestial spotlights both on the sea and on the gleaming flanks of the big white ferries that lay becalmed upon it. The effect was mesmerising and I felt very much one with the moment as I took my camera from its case and started clicking away, mindful as I did so of the cars and lorries that raced and rumbled around me, each embowered in its own pungent cloud of exhaust. It wouldn’t have done to be run over on my second day in Greece.
At the forefront of my mind, of course, was the realisation that I was in Greece. For the last four years I had been uneasily stationary in Australia. During this period I had not only forgotten what it was like to travel, but I had also lost sight of my travelling self – the person, in other words, who used to walk among mountains, drink like a fish and do all sorts of other odd things like sleep under olive trees, wrestle with cats and converse with goats. In his place another person had materialised, a rather staid and unenterprising individual whose role was to look after his ailing mother and whose most inspired moments of a day were his walks into town to do the shopping. He was a bit of a dullard, this fellow, sober and pedestrian, who felt detached from life by circumstances and became increasingly unmoved by, and uninterested in, it. Physical ailments – both real and imaginary – assailed him. Mentally he was a widely yawning door.
I had the feeling that the other person was out there somewhere, only waiting to be found. But until I had tracked him down I felt not only uncertain, but also quite apprehensive, about my prospects. Accordingly, whenever anyone asked me whether I was looking forward to returning to Greece, I tended to prevaricate, unwilling – or unable – to wax lyrical about the future because I felt, quite honestly, incapable of imagining it. Perhaps, too, deep down I didn’t want to hex myself, to give myself, as it were, the ‘evil eye’ by expostulating too extravagantly on how I planned to live or what I hoped to achieve during my upcoming travels. My former life and adventures in Greece seemed so long ago, separated from the present and rendered somehow unreal by an extended and rather weird interlude that, no matter how hard I tried, I found impossible either to clarify or explain, even to myself.
Now it seemed that I need not have worried. Indeed the pieces were falling back into place with astonishing rapidity. As if in pursuit of a kind of vestigial memory I found my way to the local market. This was a single covered laneway in the backstreets behind the waterfront, lined by tiny shops and stalls, the proprietors of which were only just then raising the shutters on their premises. At that hour there were few shoppers in attendance and the ground was clear of the squashed tomatoes, discarded cabbage leaves and what have you that would, over the course of the morning, inevitably accumulate. Absent, too, were the ghastly displays of bloody carcases – sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits – that the resident butchers erected, presumably to attract trade, outside their shops. At the end of the lane I encountered a fish stall stripped and ready for action; a handful of men, bearded and rubber-booted and as thickly swathed in dirty woollens as if they’d just stepped off a caique in the harbour, presided over metal trays of iced and gleaming denizens of the sea, all recently hauled up and disconcertingly stiff and glassy-eyed. (The men also affected an oddly inanimate posture, deprived as yet of the customers whose presence would inspire them to dizzy heights of eloquence). I lingered briefly, curious to see what was on offer; but upon reflecting that a raw fish or an octopus or a pile of shrimp were – however potentially tasty – unlikely to be of much use to me on the ferry, I redirected my steps to a well-stocked smallgoods store across the way where I bought a wedge of graviera cheese, a length of piquant salami and a small bag of wrinkled black olives. The owner seemed a happy-go-lucky, wide-awake sort of fellow, who, upon learning that I was bound for Crete, wished me ‘Kalo taxidi!’ a ‘good journey’, before shouting like an afterthought, as I exited his shop, ‘Drink a raki for me when you arrive.’ I shouted back that I most certainly would.
I finished my provisioning with a 1.5 litre plastic water bottle full of pale red wine, which I purchased from a grumpy, craggy-faced old boy with five days’ worth of stubble greyly prickling his chin and a cigarette clamped between his lips, whom I found in the process of hauling an antique bain-marie into the street. Possibly because of the effort involved in this, the sale of the wine, for the paltry sum of two euros fifty, failed to excite him. In fact, he merely grunted when I thanked him and wished him a cheerful farewell, while I went off singing. With the completion of my purchases it was time to find some coffee.