Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Crete - In Praise of Books

Every so often, I curl up and ride with Irma Kurtz on Greyhound buses across America, travel the very edge of Great Britain with Paul Theroux (or laugh at our British foibles with Bill Bryson).  I sometimes sail the Aegean Sea with Mimi Lafollette Summerville.  I may never do any of those exact journeys in the flesh but, in my imagination, I have been there -  thanks to the authors.

Sometimes, it works the other way.  I bought a new copy of ‘Aegean Summer’ in a bookshop in Heraklion and turned to the chapter ‘Cretan Interlude’ while having a coffee and read ‘Noon found us, as planned, at the Taverna in front of the Morosini Fountain.’  I looked up – and there it was.  I was sitting where the author sat with her family in the summer of 1965.

My interest in Crete didn’t start with a travel book, though.  It was Mary Renault’s first novel about Theseus, ‘The King Must Die’ that sparked my interest in the Minoan civilisation when it was first published in 1958.  At that time, most of the books I read were borrowed from the Public Library and I finally bought my own copy in Heraklion in 2005 when I fulfilled my ambition of visiting Crete and Knossos.

Books mentioned:
The King Must Die by Mary Renault
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson,  
The Kingdom by the Sea by Paul Theroux
Aegean Summer by Mimi Lafollette Summerskill 
The Great American Bus Ride by Irma Kurtz

My trip was a Christmas present from Alan and Jon.   As it happened, one of Alan's students came from Crete and her parents met me from the plane and took me to my hotel in Heraklion and said, quite casually, "You must come for dinner with us tonight."  This was all in a mix of their inadequate English and my even less adequate Greek!  I was a little reluctant to impose but, having sampled Greek hospitality before, I knew better than to refuse.

"We'll pick you up at 10 o'clock." To cut a long story short, they insisted in taking me out every night (at 10 o'clock) and each night I rolled back into the hotel at about 2 in the morning having been to a different restaurant and being the only non Cretan there. It ranged from large places - in one of which I was toasted with shouts of 'Manchester United' by a group of youngsters, who were celebrating their own success in a local league, to a small cafe where you could hardly raise your elbows but served the most gorgeous fresh seafood I have ever tasted. That was the one where a young man suddenly produced his guitar and played a succession of traditional songs and everyone joined in.

On hearing that Vickie (Alan's daughter) was getting married and I needed an outfit, the student's mother marched me off to a local boutique and I was treated to a hilarious couple of hours where I tried on various outfits and more and more women arrived and poked me and tweaked the clothes and expressed quite blunt opinions till I had chosen one which met their satisfaction. It didn't quite fit so the proprietor got on the phone and within 10 minutes a seamstress had arrived and I was wearing the dress, inside out, while she adjusted the seams with pins - with advice and comments from all the locals. Two hours later, it was delivered to the hotel, fitted perfectly and was duly worn at the wedding in North Carolina and was worn for many formal occasions after that.

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