Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Visitors (Επισκέπτες)

My most recent visitors came from far away, not just from another country, but from another continent. Students from the University of Arkansas, headed by Leslie Edgar, they flew directly into Hania, straight from that other continent. Understandably, they were very tired from the long journey and jet lag complicated matters, making it quite a challenge to keep up with my introductory lecture on the environmental basis of the sustainability of Crete. To really get to grips with a topic of this kind, you mustn't be in a lecture room - you need to take to the streets. After a restful evening, we set off the next morning in search of tangible signs of Hania's survival over the centuries that would create lasting impressions for our visitors from the University of Arkansas.

We started off our walk at the Agora, a traditional 'fresh' market in the town centre, based on the site of the main open-air market of older times, making its existence on this site not at all coincidental. The Agora has nowadays become a glorified Cretan souvenir shopping mall, and it doesn't sell just fresh produce but it's a good start to getting acquainted with the fruits of this good earth.
Before entering the Agora, I asked my group to take a quick look around the square which revealed an interesting array of sight: some senior citizens sitting on the benches watching the world go by, the down-and-outs of the town debating the latest political events, a constant stream of tourists offloading from their coaches wearing number badges on their shirts. A lot of action in one small space, with a real community feel. But the people's chatter combined with the noise of the traffic roaring past the main square of the town can give the initial impression of chaos to the uninitiated. Where does this chaos lead?

My visitors were well informed about the subjects of their interest: sustainability, environment, local/organic food production. They bombarded me with questions, many questions. The sights they were about to encounter were wholly new to them and required explanations. So I tried to put it all into perspective for them:

  • Are all the products sold in the Agora from the island? (No. The Agora has taken on both supermarket and touristic dimensions over the years. So while there may be many local fruits and vegetables being sold in the Agora, there will also be Himalayan pink salt and made-in-China souvenirs)
  • So many cured olive varieties! Do you eat them all? (No. Many of the curing techniques are relatively recent developments, as technology becomes more advanced. We prefer the traditional varieites of cured olives, but people are diversifying their tastes which is why a wide variety of cured olives are now found all over the island.)
  • Does that dry bread go mouldy? (My visitors are referring to παξιμάδι (Cretan dry rusk). No. It never goes mouldy. It will last forever. It may not taste so good a couple of years from now, but it will still be edible, as long as moisture never gets close to it.) 
  • Oh... I just saw the butcher handling meat without wearing gloves. Aren't there health and safety regulations here governing this kind of thing?  (Yes, there are. But this kind of thing, while not uncommon, is not really frowned upon. If you really think about it, the meat that the butcher is displaying has been handled very few times by humans. It doesn't necessarily go through a long chain. Health and safety regulations probably do require the butcher to wear gloves... but it's not that policed. Kind of like smoking. Look at the staff member in the butcher's in the neighbouring stall - she's smoking. It's a Greek thing... not necessarily a good thing, but just a Greek thing. 
  • Do you buy your meat supply here? (No.)
  • Er... what's with the phallic symbol-shaped souvenirs? (No idea... I think tourists like them... They're from the north... It's dark there... Really, it's anybody's guess.)

We must have spent a good hour of our time in the Agora, as there was so much to take in, in such a short space of time there. Some things do not make sense in the global world; but they seem to make perfect sense in a small town on a Mediterranean island. 

On exiting the Agora, we were faced with the sun above our heads. It was going to get hot. May had been a very dry month, so unnaturally dry, that we were already parched and summer had not even started. We made our way through the town's jumble of narrow streets, doing our best to avoid crashing into the crowds of other tourists. Every now and then, we would catch a glimpse of the sea through the streets we passed. But there was still more to see before we got to the water's edge: the lone minaret that resembles Rapunzel's tower, the church that used to be a mosque and now houses both a bell tower and a minaret, the Byzantine walls, the Venetian walls, ancient Kydonia.

Noting that my visitors were getting tired and were probably feeling rather hungry as they passed by the various food outlets with their delicious smells wafting in the air, I announced the final stop of the tour before they could appease their stomachs with a souvlaki. We were at this point walking along Kanevaro St, away from the Minoan ruins of the original town, and the busy Santrivani square with its cafes and souvenir shops had just come into view. 

"OK, guys," I said, "I'll let you walk to the corner fot he street on your own, because I think you will want to savour the next few seconds privately, without my explanations." They looked at me puzzled, and kept on walking. I slowed down to a complete halt a few metres behind them as they rounded the corner. I could hear their gasps as the view of the Venetian harbour hit their faces full on.

At that moment, they probably forgot all about the questions they had been asking me earlier in the day, let alone the answers I gave them. That first sight of the Venetian harbour will probably remain embedded in their memories for the rest of their lives, summarising their visit to Hania, as they leave with the hope that they will return one day.

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More youthful visitors with inquiring minds, this time from the University of Nebraska, headed by Tala Awada.

I took this bunch through Nea Hora, ending up at the laiki (street market), where they all bought vegetables that they would use the next day in a culinary lesson, with the MAICh chef. A nice way to not only try something new and unfamiliar to you, but also to see how it is prepared for enjoyment.

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