Monday, September 19, 2016

A Kiss of Oranges and Myrtle on Crete by Mihaela Lica Butler

Ah, Crete, the Minoan cradle, that place of legend, where Basils of the world still hope for Zorba to teach them how to dance the sirtaki at Stavros. That iconic tune of “Zorba the Greek” still echoes here, with every kefi, for Cretans are born to dance, and they couldn’t care less that before 1964 there was no Zorba dance: they made it tradition, because – and any Cretan will tell you – it frees your inhibitions, and renders you happy from the opening gentle tunes, till your feet move so fast and so high that you feel like you could touch the skies with the hopping that seems to lift not only body, but the whole of your spirit. Oh, how I wanted to dance Zorba at Stavros! But my Cretan experience didn’t take me there.


Crete was a lot of things to me that March – we visited off-season, since that’s when you can truly take in the soul of the island. Cretans have something most people don’t have – they call it filoxenia, the love for strangers, and it’s real, overwhelming a powerful sentiment that brightness your day, from the first kaliméra. Filoxenia cannot be explained: it’s felt in their dance, it shines on their faces when they smile so openly welcoming you in their homes, treating you like family from the moment you arrive, till you leave and they part with a glitter of sadness in their eyes: “come back soon.”

We arrived on Crete on a stormy evening. The clouds raptured over Koules in Heraklion like impossible swarms of raging raindrops opening the heavens above with the light of Zeus’s mighty thunderbolts. The storm scared my little boy, Paul-Jules, and I remember telling him how the king of the gods was born on the island, and he watched me fascinated to learn how Zeus grew up in a cave, raised by a goat. Then we arrived at Lato Boutique Hotel, and we watched the storm raising the waves of the sea as high as the walls of the fortress from our windows. Paul-Jules was tired after the long trip, but, this being his first encounter with the sea, he watched the storm spellbound, holding an aromatic orange in the cup of his hands: “Mommy, this smells so pretty.” Funny what children seem to notice when no one else pays attention.

The second day, after the storm, we continued our journey: destination Metochi Villas in Platanias, not far from Chania. This was about to become our home-away-from-home, for the whole three weeks we had planned on the island. The ride to Platanias is the fondest recollection I have of Crete. The memory of the fragrant orange was still fresh in Paul-Jules’s mind, so as we drove, he exclaimed “Oranges!” every time he saw a vendor waiting patiently on the side of the road for a car to bring the next customer. “Mommy, please, can I have some?”

So we stopped – at random, as such things normally happen. A short, elderly woman, dressed in dark colors, with a black kerchief covering her head, was waiting patiently in the shade, by her improvised fruit stall. She promptly stood up when she saw me approaching. I wanted to buy a couple of oranges, but she only sold by the bag. I don’t know how many were supposed to be in a bag, but I quickly assessed about 20 big and bright organic oranges at 5 € quite a bargain.

All I had in cash was a 10 € bill, and she had no small change – I was her first customers that day. I got a bag of oranges, and a couple of lemons, and handed her the bill, with a poorly pronounced efharistó, to let her know that I didn’t care for change. For a short while afterwards we spent time pushing the bill back and forth: she didn’t want to take the money, it was too much, she was trying to tell me, showing me that for 10 € I could buy two bags. I would have, gladly, but our rental car was already full, and there was simply no more room for so many oranges. So I insisted, with parakalo and efharistó, till she gave up, and accepted the bill.

Then, something strange happened. The old lady wept – tears in her kind eyes, and the feelings that enveloped my heart in the mystic of the moment are still strong today. Her expression, as she thanked me, was humble and gentle, reminding me of the look in my grandma’s eyes when she returned home with flowers and basil from the church: I believed that those offerings were sacred.

So I gave that old lady a hug, and the moment I embraced her, I felt her scent: she smelled holy, like myrtle and oranges, and also like olive oil, just like my own grandmother once. Without thinking, I gave her a kiss on her cheek, and I wiped her tears, smiling, repeating efharistó – the only word I knew, which seemed appropriate.

Then I walked to the car, opened the back door, took an orange out of the bag, and handed it to Paul-Jules, whose cheerful voice welcomed the gift with a loud “yay!” The old lady heard him, and waved. She followed me quickly, and as she approached, I saw she was holding as many mandarines as she could carry in her hands. She came to the back door, where Paul-Jules was busy sniffing the orange, and spoke softly, offering him the fruit. None of us could understand what she said, and I was too overwhelmed to say anything but “thank you.”

Then we drove away, leaving her there, alone by her oranges, and she watched us waving goodbye for a while, till we couldn’t see her anymore. Her scent of myrtle and oranges rubbed on my clothes, and I took it with me – in a sense it still follows me, and I feel that, in meeting her, I experienced the very essence of what filoxenia is supposed to be.

Meeting her triggered emotions that I had not expected: Crete felt familiar, safe, and warm, just like home. The look in her eyes reminded me of my childhood, a happy-go-lucky time under the loving care of my grandma. These feelings were so strong that for the next three weeks I didn’t feel like a tourist: I belonged there, I was supposed to make Crete my home.

Crete is today more than a cherished memory and a page in a travel diary: I left a bit of my heart in a kiss of oranges and myrtle, and I weep when I recall the scent of the woman whose kindness was the prelude of the best vacation of my life.

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Journalist Mihaela Lica Butler has built a career while chiming in on many topics, from relating the trials of the people of Kosovo, to experiencing first-hand the heroics of the soldiers serving for the UN. But she thrives in conveying her love for travel, cuisine, and places, in written word. 

Judge's Comment: Here the writer builds a strong, instinctive bond with a stranger a fruit seller and shows us a first-hand instance of 'filoxenia', the inexplicable Cretan 'love for strangers' which is touchingly contagious. The story brings tears to my eyes each time I read it.