Monday, 29 February 2016

Feidias' story (Φειδίας)

We are experiencing beautiful weather these days, maybe too beautiful for the month of February. We long for rain, which hasn't come in a while to Hania, and this worries us for the coming summer when our water needs are increased in the very hot weather. While we are waiting for Μάρτης γδάρτης to come, we decided to enjoy the good weather at the weekend with a trip to the small village of Sfinari on the west coast of Crete in the region of Kissamos. A friend had recommended to us an excellent fish taverna in the area, where only fresh line-caught fish is cooked by a family of four brothers, headed by their father Feidias. It was a perfect day to try it out.

On the way to Sfinari. The small island in the middle of the photo is Pontikonisi ('mouse-island'), located close to 'insanely awesome Balos', which is hiding behind the mountain.

The west coast of Crete is appealing for its isolation and remoteness, combined with its wilderness. It's basically off the beaten track. We would not have gone there ourselves had it not been for our friend's suggestion (he is related to the owners). Feidias' taverna is located by the sea, but during the off season in the winter period, when the sea is not so alluring, Feidias and his family operate the business from a building located on the main road of this very peaceful village, close to their home, and mainly at weekends. When we arrived, we found one of his sons preparing hooks and lines, while another was in the kitchen cooking. As Feidias explained to us, their customers are mainly friends, and friends of friends, who usually phone them beforehand to tell them that they are coming. Apart from one other couple, we were the only customers in the restaurant. By the time we left in the middle of the afternoon, some more of his friends had turned up.


"Please excuse me," Feidias said, as he took a chair from a nearby table and set it next to me, joining our table. He was curious to find out who our friend was that recommended his restaurant to us. While we were talking, in his sailor's song-song voice, he told us his story, a story that carries great relevance for the times we are living in.

One of Feidias' sons, cooking and serving in the restaurant. 

"My father was a fisherman. I became a fisherman too, and my sons have now entered the same line of business. From a very young age, I was always involved with the sea. That was all we had here, and this is what gave us our food. My father fished for a living. He sold his fish to the residents of nearby villages. When I was young, I told my father that I wanted to join a fishing ship. He let me go. There was little else to do in those days and you took your chances. I sailed to Africa where I spent many months. When I returned, I spent very little time back at home before I was on another boat. By the time I finished my sailing years, I had been to many places around the world. There isn't an ocean that I haven't sailed in..

Another of Feidias' sons, setting up fishing hooks and lines

"My last journey took me to New York. I was 19 years old and looking for luck. So I jumped ship. It seemed the most natural thing to do. I knew I was an illegal immigrant, and for the next 18 months, I feared the sight of any figure of authority that got in my way. In those days, there was a lot of work available in America. I had spent many years working in the sea, and this was my first job working on firm ground. I landed work in the textile industry, with a Jewish employer who had a clothing factory. I worked 16 to 23 hours a day. It sounds like a lot of work, but I was young, and I had no idea how hard I was working then. Everything seems so easy when you're young.

Feidias and his wife

"I worked and worked, saving money and avoiding the police. I was always worried about the police. I came so close to them one day when I was in a shop buying food. Some people came into the shop and attacked the cashier. I was caught up in the robbery. The shop owner tried to close the doors quickly but the mechanism didn't work. If the doors had closed, I would have been stuck inside the shop when the police arrived. I could hear the sirens of the police cars. Luckily, I managed to slip out the door just in time.

Feidias' wife is cleaning salty sea greens, Cretan seaweed, which is pickled and served in salads.

"The robbery made me think about going back to the safety of my island home. I had travelled to so many countries around the world in such a short time, but I never came across a country I wanted to live in. Eventually I found a passage on a ship, and left New York. My first job back home was to find a wife. I married a fellow villager at the age of 22 and had six children, 4 sons and 2 daughters. I opened the taverna 40 years ago. My children love their homeland in the same way that I do, even though they never took to the high seas in the way I did. They've never felt the need to leave. Things are different now - in my youth, the need to get away from our background of poverty was great. But my greatest desire all those years away was to return to my homeland. I may not have made as much money as I could have, but I have a better quality of life here. My family continues to live off the sea."

Octopus, sun-dried and grilled, slightly chewy with a soft interior
Marida Spicara smaris, a kind of sardine, lightly fried
Cuttlefish, grilled
Cod (European hake), fried
(plus the usual fried potatoes and fresh seasonal salad)
All the fish were caught by Feidias and his sons. The reason why we didn't order any calamari or shrimp is because they hadn't caught any at this time.

Feidias' story of his travels over the sea, his desire for self-improvement, and his eventual return home have a certain resonance with the major crisis that Greece is living through at this very moment. Whether the human convoy of moving people are refugees, economic migrants, or opportunists, they all share a common desire to live a better life, which may be found in another country far from their own. At the same time, we can't underestimate the yearning of most people in the world to live a quality life in their own homeland.

Most of Feidias' family still live in Sfinari. The ones that don't have gone as far as Kissamos town. They all fish for a living. Whatever fish are not needed for the taverna continue to be sold in the villages of the region by car. They will soon be moving to the premises of the summer taverna by the sea, once the summer tourist season kicks off. They will definitely be seeing us again some time soon.

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