Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The meaning of life (Το νόημα της ζωής)

During one of my wild web-surfing stints, the kind where one page leads you to another and then onto another and yet another, until you forget what it was you were initially looking for, or how you came across the page that you find yourself on at that moment, I landed on an article in the Huffington post by Alex Pattakos. I didn't know who he was when I initially read the article, but I did like the sound of his name: Pattakos reminded me of some of the children I taught when I was working in Paleohora where it was a familiar surname, and in Crete, we have this rather annoying overly nepotistic habit of remembering people by the name they carry and all the family traits that the name implies.

dr meaning alex pattakos

The article was quite short, but there was one brief paragraph in this text that made an instant impression on me:

"... [If you] haven't figured out the ethnic origin of my last name, 'Pattakos,' let me help you. It's Greek. And importantly, it's Cretan! Proudly, I can also say that the Pattakos clan, whose roots are deeply embedded in the "soul" of Crete, has been actively engaged in the political arena throughout Crete's history, long before it became an official part of Greece...."

This statement makes a profound impact; Crete, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea (in actual fact, the fifth largest in the Mediterranean), with about 350,000 inhabitants living on 8,335 square kilometres of space, is being singled out from Greece, an opinion that has also grown on me over the years while I have been living here. It reminded me of a very poignant moment in my life, one which I do not often recall these days. This moment in my life had been packed away in my mind all this time; Alex's words flushed it all back up to the surface.

the ferry boat in port at souda bay
The view of the ferry boat from the balcony of our home

Having left New Zealand in September of 1991, I arrived in Greece, after spending three months travelling through Western Europe. I had already been warned about what Athens was like: dusty, hot, crowded and polluted; I found it no different. Two weeks later in early October, I boarded the overnight ferry boat from the port of Pireas to Crete. When I woke up the next morning, I could not believe what I was seeing: I instantly fell in love with the sight of the green hills visible from Souda Bay, the ferry port of Hania. After my first visit into the town, I wondered how it was that I had found paradise; surely this place should have been found out by others before me long ago. How on earth did my own ancestors bear to leave it in the first place?

Alex Pattakos may be American, but he takes great pride in his grandparents' island origins which are steeped in the history of human civilisation. He even shares the facial features of my own ancestors; anyone who knows enough of the Cretan race will instantly recognise his appearance as Cretan: his height, the white hair and the thick moustache are unmistakeable characteristics of a veritable Cretan face (in fact, he looks incredibly like my dad). Alex connected with his family roots in Crete only relatively recently, and even got the chance to dance like Zorba the Greek, a dance that he says:

"helped my ancestors and their fellow Cretans not become 'prisoners of their thoughts,' even when they were prisoners of foreign powers." (In her past, Crete has been under Venetian, Egyptian and Turkish rule before gaining independence at the end of the nineteenth century and joining the newly formed Greek state.)

.hania chania old port venetian harbour lighthouse hania chania
The evening started off like this... and ended like this.

At the end of the article, Alex invited readers to share their experiences about their kind of "dance", if and how they have connected with their ancestors, and how such a connection has been meaningful for them. His origins also form a central theme in his book Prisoners of our Thoughts. He was visiting Crete recently, and I had the chance to meet him in person. Our common heritage put great meaning into our life, despite the different paths we took to find it. In essence, our roots play similar roles in our life. If we had not found them and made a tangible link to them - of which, as Alex recognises, even food plays an important part, after experiencing his first Greek Easter on the island - we would still be feeling that sense of emptiness that overtakes one when there is nothing to fall back on, when the material world loses its importance and contentment can only be reached by a tangible link to the land and people that breathed life into you.

Economic crisis? Personal crisis? Identity crisis?
Forget the material world and come and solve all your problems here.

A meal at Monastiri by the old harbour near the former mosque, with a view of the lighthouse in the former Venetian port, was a perfect place to talk about how our present life is linked to our past, how we both eventually connected to our roots and how ingrained they are in us, whether we (are lucky to) live in Crete or far away from it. I've been to Monastiri restaurant many times and have never been disappointed. (In fact, this is the only place I go to at the harbour, if that is any endorsement.)

monastiri taverna hania chania
Monastiri taverna at the Venetian harbour in Hania, the dome of the former mosque barely showing in the background.

At my instigation, Alex and his wife Elaine Dundon tried (and loved wholeheartedly) marathopita and boureki; apart from well-cooked traditional Cretan meals, Monastiri also serves monastic twists (as the name of the restaurant suggests) with a shocking appeal, such as: Sin, The Nun's Mistake and Little Devil. The meal finished with some cheese and honey pies (Sfakianes pites) and a shot of tsikoudia, the locally brewed fiery alcoholic spirit.

sfakiani pita and tsikoudia raki haniachania

Sfakianes pites
and ice-cold raki (tsikoudia)

The evening was cool and calm, the harbour was full of people; as the early diners (the tourists) left their seats, the restaurants would fill up with more hungry people (Greeks always dine much later than the tourists). A relaxed atmosphere always whets the apetite. The tables at the edge of the harbour were all full, as everyone wanted to enjoy the best view of the eternal icon of Venetian harbour of Hania, the lighthouse, which never fails to please. The view from the restaurant and the peaceful atmosphere of the people strolling around the port in the middle of the evening was enough for Alex and me to put all the meaning we needed into our life, a meaning that cannot be expressed in words; it was as if this place, our island, had helped us to make peace with ourselves.

Thanks to Global Greek World; I finally realised it was this site that led me to Alex!

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