The Dead Are a Long Time Dying

Monday, April 7, 2009

All this early morning travel got to us. We slept for 11 straight hours. We spent the day walking through the streets of Chania’s old town. The thing that struck me most was that after close to 500 years of Venetian domination and 200 years of Turkish domination--Crete was ceded to Greece after the second Balkan War in 1913--there is a great deal of evidence of Venetian influence and practically none of Turkish. The narrow streets of the town with their wrought iron balconies and flower pots, the restaurants with names like The Veneto and the imposing restoratiions of the Venetian Fort Firkas protecting the outer harbor, Moro’s dockyards and the Venetian lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor recall Venice with vengeance. As for the Turks there is a derelictr Mosque of the Janissaries in the middle of the harbor that now serves as an information center but looks as if it is about to fall apart. And then there is the Tamam, a restaurant in a restored Turkish hamam. My guess is that the preference for things Venetian runs along religious lines.

There are two maritime museums in Chania, one at each end of the harbor hugging jetty. The one at the east end features a replica of a Minoan vessel built to prove that such boats were seaworthy. In 2004 it made the 210 miles trip from Crete to Pireus on the mainland in 27 days. The oarsmen included several women.

Walking along the jetty in the early afternoon has the feel of an Italian passagiato though with one exception. Hordes of teenage boys and girls gather in packs and strut the jetty mindless that there are other creatures in the world beside themselves. They hive themselves off into small groups clustering around café tables for lunch, or doing a Greek dance in the aisle of a café or surrounding one of their own while she throws up on the jetty (it is, after all, only 3pm). We, by which I mean the adults in the town, are invisible to them except for the occasional moment when someone jostles up against them. Then a rude gesture and a raucous laugh penetrates the barrior between the two species. But the curtain is soon drawn and we each return to our own isolated worlds

Chania is where one of the major battles of World War II took place, the so-called Battle of Crete in 1941. After the Nazis invaded Greece in 1941, they turned to Crete, capturing the airport on the 20th of May. When Nancy and I first arrived at our hotel, we met a couple in the breakfast room. The man was an American ex-pat who married a New Zealander. They live in Christchurch half the year and the other half in Arizona. They told me this was their seventh visit to Crete. When I asked them why, their answer was remarkable. The woman’s father had fought in the Battle of Crete and been wounded. He was imprisoned on the mainland where he managed, with the help of Greek partisans, to escape. Fifty years later he returned for a reunion with the man who shot him. Both, his daughter told me, were filled with remorse. She also told me of an uncanny experience. She and her husband were browsing in a bookstore when she saw a book about the Battle of Crete. She picked it off the shelf and it opened to a picture of prisoners being forced marched by their German captors. In the picture was her father and the man who shot him.