Daydreaming of Chania

Greece,Islands June 27, 2012 3:03 am

It’s been 2 months since we left, and still I daydream about Hania.

Yes, that’s the same Hania where I shattered my elbow. The same Hania where I spent 2 days in hospital. The same Hania where a confident surgeon botched my operation and at least doubled the time it will take me to recover from an already serious injury.

And yet the scenes of those quiet old streets still glisten in my memory. Hania is spellbinding. I’m not sure a place has ever had such an effect on me.

From the moment we arrived, we knew there was something special about it.

We couldn’t find our hotel, so a random old man from the main square walked us around 5 different blocks and enlisted the help of at least 10 strangers as he guided us right to the front door. For nothing. Then he smiled and went back to his day. He’d done that before.

The cobblestoned streets of the old town are peaceful. A type of serene. It’s buildings are of old stones, but most are beautifully redone. New inside. Windows with antique shutters, and planter boxes on window sills overflowing with radiant pink bougainvilleas. With the kind of touches you only make when you know that this house isn’t just for you to enjoy; it effects the look of your street, and eventually, the very character of the town itself.

Our hotel was such a building. But when we arrived, we couldn’t get inside. The owner had left a “Back Soon” on the door, with a phone number to call. Perplexed, we took a seat on a nearby bench and pondered our options.

Another passer by, a small middle aged lady, saw the situation we were in. She walked up to the door, pulled out her cell phone, and called the number on the door. She communicated in broken English that the owner would be here soon. We thanked her profusely. She shook off our thanks like what she’d done was nothing, and she carried on, disappearing around a narrow corridor with her shopping bags and her cell phone still in hand. Sure enough, the owner was there within 2 minutes to let us in.

That was our first contact with Mike… the sweetest man we’ve ever met on our travels. But more on Mike later.

We took our first day in Hania to explore the harbour front. It’s an old structure against a beautiful seascape. A WWII bombing survivor as well, the effects of which you can see as you wander. We had espresso in a waterfront cafe, we circumnavigated the old port, and we soaked up the sunshine. It’s a happy place. If you live in Hania, you’ve got plenty to be happy about. If you’re visiting, you can quickly tell that you’re lucky to be here.

Then in the eve began the food. Oh, the food of Hania.

The first thing you have to know is that Crete is a big island, and on it they produce everything. I’m talking meats, vegetables, cheeses, breads, beers, wines, liquors… the lot. One Cretan lady told me that in Hania they don’t much fear Greece’s recession; They make everything it’s inhabitants need to survive, and even if cut off from the rest of the world financially, Cretans will never go hungry. Pride.

Our first meal was one of many plates, from deep fried eggplants with mint yoghurt sauce, to out of the oven filo pastries filled with herbs and local cheese, to meticulously prepared lamb and goat tagines, all assisted by a whopping jug of house wine (delicious at 3 euros 50), and topped off by a lavender scented baklava for desert. Oh and the desert was free. So was the ubiquitous complimentary bottle of Raki to finish.

Most meals we had in Hania were like this. High on freshness, big on freebies, and everything served with a smile. Cheap too.

Our time there was off to a blinding start. Then disaster struck.

We were relaxing on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Elafonisi, when I fell and broke my arm. Fast forward 24 hours and I’m in a hospital waiting room with Elysia and Mike. You know Mike the hotel owner? Him. Why was Mike there? Oh, because he drove us there in his car. And he waited for 3 hours with us until I’d been seen. 3 hours out of his day. We said “Oh Mike, you don’t need to stay, you’ve done so much already”. He didn’t get it. He ignored us.

Mike was in his 50s, grew up in Hania, and had a son who was about to leave to study abroad. This upset Mike. He told us how he’d hoped his son would return after finishing study. “It’s a good life here.” he said. “Maybe he will make a little less money, but he has his friends, his family, the sunshine…” Pride.

Mike also went to school with the doctor who was to operate on my arm. That’s Hania in more ways than one. Finally we schedule an operation, and Mike takes us home.

Fast forward 48 hours and I’m waking up from surgery. Elysia’s badly concerned for me. I’m on a drip. Not talking much. We ride out the afternoon sleeping and eating hospital food. Mike comes to visit again. Came from the hotel. To the hospital. Just to make sure everything’s ok. No big deal.

In the days afterward, as I recovered at the hotel, we had to make multiple trips to the hospital. For new prescriptions, for follow ups, for xrays. Mike refused to let us take a taxi. He’d drop what he was doing every day to chauffeur us around the town. Mike treated us like his own children.

The days recovering were tough. But Hania was bigger than my tragedy. We passed the time sampling more foods at more restaurants, with more bottles of wine, and more Raki. More pastry, more cheese, more meatballs, more roasted lamb, more fresh peppers, and onions, and tomatoes, and olives. We tried 6 or 7 different restaurants and no meal was bad.

More food and more conversations with friendly locals. Because the sight of a broken limb rekindles memories from many a lifetime, I heard about motorbike accidents, and diving accidents, and car accidents in a historic litany of personal injury. Each person with their own advice for me on what I should do to recover as quickly as possible too. Always with the help. And at 6 or 7 places, no one was unfriendly. It almost became eerie.

One afternoon we got chatting to a cafe owner and his wife – Two Cretans who divided their time between Hania and Florida. They told stories of horror from the USA. They ranted against an aggressive individualism that forsook common decency and love of thy neighbour. The lady recounted falling over on her rollerblades on a busy walkway, and watching people stroll on by, cold and uncaring. “This would never happen in Hania”, she said.

Finally, rested and recovered, it was that time. Leaving the town was an emotional goodbye. We had another 3 Greek islands to visit, but we didn’t want to leave.

Mike of course drove us to the bus station and wished us goodbye. We got him a bottle of wine to try and express our thanks. He accepted it with genuine discomfort. It had become clear to me that his culture and mine looked on “helping people” in ways so different as to make mutual understanding difficult.

And for this, I will never forget Hania. For it’s people, for it’s attitude; For it’s atmosphere, and it’s beauty; For it’s pride and it’s warmth. For these I long to return.

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