“Bag down!” “Bag DOWN!!” “BAG DOWN!!! “DOOOOOWWWWWN!!!!!!!!!!!”
The bus driver stood over me yelling aggressively and insistently that I hand over the bag that sat neatly between my feet on the bus floor. I lifted the bag to my knees, offering to keep it there instead. This drove him wild with fury and he yelled and leaned over me even more. Sensing a battle I wasn’t going to win with this bad-tempered brute, I extracted my valuables and handed my bag over for placement in the luggage compartment under the bus. For some reason, this bag – my 6 or 7kg hand luggage – which had sat happily under my seat on our Ryanair flight, was not allowed on the bus from the airport to the centre of Chania, Crete. No matter that others had their bags on the bus, including Daniel’s right beside me. I could overlook his taking my bag, but his manner and tone were shocking, and disconcerting.
We had just landed in Crete, having booked a one-way ticket. While pondering where to go for our remaining 5 weeks in Greece, we asked Greeks where would they go. Crete was so highly recommended to us, almost as the ultimate in all Greece had to offer, that we booked a flight unquestioningly. We chose the Venetian city of Chania, in western Crete, and were looking forward to exploring it. But first we had to take the bus to the centre, and this bus wasn’t going anywhere. Another explosive argument had broken out, this time between the driver and a different passenger. My altercation with the driver was child’s play compared to this. Nose to nose they roared for several minutes, with the passenger furiously thumping the nearby seats. We considered jumping ship and making our own way to town, but unsure as to whether any taxis still remained long after the last flight of the day had landed, and possibly facing a long walk on a dark and rainy night, we hunkered low in our seats until it blew over.
While waiting on the bus, we read that earlier that day a boat load of Cretans had arrived in Athens to protest austerity cuts, torching rubbish bins, smashing cars, and clashing with the riot police. After less than an hour on the island we were already, regrettably, better understanding the pysche behind that.
Arriving in Chania town, our host Giorgos collected us and brought us to the house we had rented for 3 nights. It was a gorgeous house, he was a lovely man, and we began to feel better. And then he showed us the kitchen, where the table was laden with gifts for us: eggs from their hens, bread, olive oil and a dozen oranges from their trees, home-made marmalade, a plate of home-made spinach pies, and crowning it all off, a portokalopita, otherwise known as my favourite cake, Greek orange cake! The fridge also had a bottle of raki, the local hooch. Never a better night for it!
With solid rain and thunderstorms forecast for the next few days, we decided on the spot to stay for longer and ended up spending 6 nights in Chania. Over the following days, we had just the odd dry window to walk to the famed Venetian harbour of Chania, or view the hulking mountains behind the city. But on our last day there, in glorious sunshine, we explored the city proper.
We found a pretty town, but an unwelcoming one. Apart from our lovely hosts, we didn’t see a single smile in our time there, and we noticed in the streets and cafes that they don’t greet each other. Or us. On the contrary, in the supermarkets and bakeries, change was slammed on the counter without even a “thank-you”. Typical behaviour maybe in a large-ish city (about 100,000 people live here), but we felt an undercurrent of something else.
Maybe we were spoiled by the extraordinary welcome we have met elsewhere. Or maybe our experience that first evening stayed with us and coloured our view. Or maybe it’s an attitude born of a millenium of resisting domination by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Venetians, the Ottoman empire and horrific abuse by the Germans in WWII. Whatever the reason, we were looking forward to exploring the rest of Crete, and hopefully seeing another side to the Cretans on our week long tour of the island.