Back To My Roots
By Stella Vaccaro
It had been ten years since my last visit. Armed with a few memories, lots of stories passed down from generations and no expectations the plane touched down on the tarmac. Disembarking the humidity hit me like a blanket been thrown over me in a sauna and I had to take a moment to catch my breath.
The Island of Crete, my place of birth, with it’s central position in the Aegean, is the largest of the islands in the eastern Mediterranean and flying in over her it looks so lush and green and so accommodating. I was amazed at how much it had changed. The two main changes that hit me first were that the airport itself had grown to accommodate the hoards of people now coming and going and the main single lane streets had now turned to major roads.
It might have been ten years since my last visit but the moment I saw my family waiting for me behind the airport barrier it was like I had never left. After the bear like hugs, that were more like a vice around your neck, typical Greek greetings, and the tears were all exchanged, we made off to the village where I was born. Arriving in the middle of August I was not prepared for the weather. It was only 10am and the heat was already unbearable. I was told that it was an extremely hot summer this year and was predicted to continue for another month or so.
Driving an hour out of the main city of Hania, we travelled south to the town of Palia Roumata. The winding roads that were once wide enough to accommodate only a single car at any one time, (god help you if you had a bus coming in the other direction) had now turned into a dual lane road and made the viewing amazing. Chestnut and olive trees lined the road and could also be seen for miles into the distance. If you were lucky enough you could also get a rare sighting of a Kri-kri (a wild goat that is found in Crete but resides in the peaks of the mountains and is rarely seen this time of the year) Also scattered along the mountain side are the common sheep or goats and as we pasted through all the different villages greetings of “Gia sou” were shouted out by all the old men sitting outside the ‘kafenia’ (cafes) as they sat and played cards, caught up on the village gossip and enjoyed their Greek coffees.
Finally arriving at Palia Roumata I was overcome with emotion as we stopped at the house where I spent the first six years of my life. The nostalgia was overwhelming and tears poured down my face. As poor as it was, only consisting of two rooms, it brought back many happy memories. We were not there long when word had gotten around that I had arrived back in town and there were ‘bear grip vices’ all round. This was definitely something I had to get used to again.
Having little time and a million things that I wanted to see again the days were jam packed with activities and the nights were spent reminiscing about the days of old. It was tradition that a lamb, goat or a pig be slain for a big event as a homecoming, so of course all hands were on deck for this. I was a little hesitant (being a vegetarian) to have to witness this so I volunteered to stay in the kitchen with the women and prepare the other main dishes and left the ‘bloody’ work to the men. As the whole village was coming to join in the festivities we had our work cut out for us. The traditional rice dish was a must (Pilafi) and the ricotta and mint filled pastries (Kalitsounia, which was my personal favourite) made an appearance at the dinner table.
As the aromas filled the air so did the laughter and talk of tales of old. As Greek people are never in a rush to get anywhere fast, things don’t seem to start until late and never end before the sun starts to come up! Now I know why they sit in the café’s all day drinking coffee - to combat the hangovers!
One of the things that I had definitely planned on seeing was the Samaria Gorge. Spanning 18km long the gorge is one of the most visited sites in Europe. Starting early to beat the heat, we descended into the gorge enthusiastic and eager to explore. Only an hour into it you find yourself surrounded by 1000 feet of sweeping cliffs. This was even more spectacular that I had anticipated. Three hours into the trek I was finding it difficult to keep up with my party.
I was surprised at the amount of people that were taking this journey along with us. The most amazing one was a blind woman that was being led by her daughter. No small feat by any means for a normal person; the trek was not a smooth one. Full of boulders, uneven ground and running water she gave me inspiration to keep going. The sweat pouring from all pours and every part of my body aching I was more determined than ever to finish. Finally after six hours we sighted the exit and the most beautiful view I had ever seen. The rock wall rose 300 meters on either side of the passage and was only 3 meters wide. Beyond this was the black sand beach and the crystal-clear waters of the Libyan Sea. The water was warm and very welcoming as we donned our bathers and made a dash for it. Soaking away all my aches and pains in the warm water I was elated that I had made it. It was a long day that neither my feet nor I will forget - but well worth the effort.
As the week progressed I managed to see things that the average traveller wouldn’t. The locals were determined to see that I got reacquainted of real Greek life. Up at the crack of dawn, awoken by nature’s trusty alarm clock, one very loud rooster outside my bedroom window. So it was up to collect the eggs for breakfast, to milk the goats and try not to kill the rooster! Milking was done twice daily other wise I was advised the goats would burst!!!
Not something that I wanted to visualise or be responsible for.
Coming from a Greek family it was a given that you grew up eating roasted chestnuts until you exploded. Nobody ever told you where or how they came to be on your dinner table. This particular time I found out the hard way! Collecting them was one backbreaking thing but trying to avoid the damn invisible prickles they came with was another! I don’t think that there was apart of my body that was not ‘pricked’. I will forever appreciate them and never be able to look at them the same way again.
All too quickly my visit came to an end and the tears and ‘bear grip vices’ were embraced again. Leaving with a heavy heart, but full of fabulous memories of my own, I promised to visit again soon.
Greek people are one of the most hospitable and accommodating you can ever meet, making it easier to come back again and again.
Copyright © Stella Vaccaro 2005