If there are two things that the Greeks love- one is an exciting game (be it football, chess or backgammon) and the other of course is their afternoon siesta. They are very religious about these two things. One Greek even told us that the afternoon siesta was the law of the land. It seemed very much like that. Mondays and Thursdays, all establishments including the very American Citibank downed their shutters at exactly 2.30p.m and did not open for the rest of the day. (If you ever get a posting in Greece. Take it. For that’s the place to be!) The rest of the week they take shorter naps and open at 5.30 in the evening and work till eight at night. However the bars and pubs are warmly welcoming till the wee hours of the morning. Its in these places that you can watch almost the entire Greek population play chess or backgammon, and the sports bars have huge television screens to get them excited over twenty brave men ridiculously chasing one small ball.
How much the Greeks love football is a little hard to quantify, but I was witness to some great exuberances that confirmed to my small mind that this love was on a very high plane. The first was on the train from Patras to Athena, a woman next to me was teaching her child to say “dada”, then the very next thing she asked her child to say was “goal”. The child stretched out his hands, pointed out his index fingers and with rounded lips he efforted a “goaal”. All he needed to do now was run through the field. The woman seemed amply proud of her skilful tutoring and her son’s progression in milestones. However, that was summarily dismissed from my mind as a stray incident, but there was more to come.
That night on the ferry crossing from Pireaus to Irakalion in Crete we were in the company of football fans returning from club matches in Athena. Only able to afford deck seats, we settled down to sleep in upright chairs in the salon. The football fans, all dressed in black jackets and black T-shirts with messages crawled over them that declared their love for their beloved teams, trooped in gang after gang till they occupied the entire salon. The few families and us (my sister and I) were practically marooned in the midst of a cheering and singing football crowd. Then the musical wave started and it is astonishing that these giant sized grown up men will actually keep quiet and let their leader, who is no good in singing, lead them to a crescendo. The football choir seemed to be happy just singing, but somewhere in the middle of the night they decided to play kick bottle with empty beer bottles.
The captain came down, but his very stern words fell on deaf ears and some of them actually decided to play shove captain- they shoved him around. The petit liveried captain lived through some uncomfortable moments as we alarmingly wondered how best to get out of the place if a fight broke out in the middle of the sea. There seemed no place to run to, unless one found jumping into the icy Aegean as the best alternative. But the moment passed when the leaders took control and quietened their boys.
I had read about fan hooliganism but was lucky not to have witnessed anything more. Post analyses of Franklin Foer’s book “How soccer explains the World” reveal that it deals with the way football is partly responsible for international violence, the power exercised by club owners and the mad action of football fans. Having been with a crowd that could have gone crazy at a moment’s notice I can vouch it was very palpable that some one was in control. And that is some management! So one can kind of assume that the action of unruly crowds that one sees on TV is probably managed to the very last detail.
Skip the next para if you must: Some dull history about the world's most beautiful woman. Ever.
We disembarked at Iraklion, Crete early in the morning. Homer the blind poet described Crete as hospitable, handsome and fertile and according to the Homeric legends the King of Crete Idomeneas had contributed a hundred ships to the war against Troy to rescue Helen. Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, wife of Menelaus, had run away with the Prince of Troy. What ensued was a ten - year war against Troy by the Greek Kings. A glimpse of Helen’s face must have been the dream of every warrior. We could see the ancient Iraklion fort and a walk along its embankments will take you right into the sea. One could almost imagine the warriors setting out for Troy from there. With heroic legends churning in our heads we boarded the bus to Hersonissons.
The road wound through a cliffy terrain and far below the inky waters licked gently the brown earth. The bus dropped us off at Hersonissons. There was only a stray dog at the bus stop, which immediately adopted us by barking and watching over us. The Koutouloufari Holiday Village where we were to stay was three kilometers away and there was no bus to that village, which sat upon a hill. We took a taxi the first day to escape the dog, but walked thereafter- taking a taxi in Europe is not cheap.
When we reached the village to our surprise we found the entire village deserted- they had closed for winter and it was only the two of us, the receptionist, two cleaners and few villagers still left in Koutouloufari. The laidback villagers were more than curious to see us - they were outright amused. “It’s off season here.” They said. We could see that clearly- barring a few, almost every shop window was neatly pasted with newspapers and the doors padlocked. The nearest washing machine was way back in Hersonissons and the nearest supermarket was in the next village! When we demanded of the receptionist why he had not closed for winter instead of advertising sun and fun in Koutouloufari. He just shot back in his sardonic Greek manner, “Do you all just want to wash clothes and visit super markets? There is more to Crete than that!” Well he could lecture -he had his wife and his mother to wash his clothes (the Greek men are male chauvinistic) while we lugged our dirty clothes for three kilometers!! Downhill and Uphill.
But we went on to stay in that beautiful village for almost a week. Koutouloufari is separated from the next village by a well in the middle of the road and its narrow winding streets all lead to the sea. Though we explored the other parts of Crete everyday, it is Koutouloufari that we loved most. I like to think Uderzo and Gosciny, the creators of Asterix and Obelix must have been inspired by this little village. Magically it seemed to have popped out of one of their comic books. We learnt how to drink Greek coffee, eat Greek pastries and generally enjoy Greek music in this village. By the way drink frappe: it is heady and bitter. And you will spend hours over one drink topping it up with almost two bottles of water. Drink it slowly or it hits you hard.
Looking back it was beautiful time in a beautiful place. And we never asked the NAME of the receptionist though we constantly pestered him- even blaming him for the foul weather. This year I am sure he will probably think it wiser to close up early for winter.