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.

____________________________________________

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.  

52 comments:

  1. Lovely story, brings it all to life! She writes as if she is talking to you and you alone. Would love to read more!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Loved this post so much! And yes, I have tears in my eyes right now :) This only makes me want to visit Crete even more.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This story makes me want to go to Crete! I wanted to read more!

    ReplyDelete
  4. While the writer expresses a touching experience of 'feloxina' in her well-written entry, she invites us to share a piece of what I recognize to be her unconditionally loving soul. Being a writer myself, I often find it a challenge to bring my most intimate feelings during life-changing experiences to a head in a way to approach an open audience. Here, she absolutely nails it! She lets us in and forces us to pause and naturally accept our own memories and sentiments by reminding us of how we can appreciate the little things, bridge the gap between generations and focus on the good things the world has to offer. I will never look at an orange in the same way again.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Beautiful story!! I could smell the oranges and feel the warmth as I read it!

    ReplyDelete
  6. What a touching story. The author makes you feel what filoxenia really is. We should all open our amrs and embrace this Cretan art.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Mihaela, your words draw me to a country I'd given little thought to before reading your beautiful description of it. Crete! I want to go there...to dance and take in the sea and eat oranges. I want to meet the people and experience their warmth and love for strangers, filoxenia.

    ReplyDelete
  8. So sweet. Now I want to visit Crete even more.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Lovely - and moving

    ReplyDelete
  10. It's a talent indeed, to write so that you just feel the smell of a place.
    I wish I had possibility to visit all the interesting places. Anyhow, sometimes such reading helps to see and feel what you have missed or not visited yet.
    Thank you, Mihaela, for the smell of Crete.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Wonderfully written and so atmospheric!

    ReplyDelete
  12. What a great vivid story, that not only masterfully brings the audience to that beautiful atmospheric March day in their imagination, but makes one want to visit Crete in real life! All travel writing should be like this!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'm so touched, my eyes are still filled with tears. Just two days ago I met an elderly woman sitting lonely in front of an empty table. She was longing for some coke and my friend bought her one. I talked to the lady, she told me her husband has died long ago. She had no children and so she felt very lonely. I asked her to join us at our table but she didn't want to disturb. She was very sad, cried a lot. Not one other person took notice of her and that made ME feel sad, too. When my friend gave her that coke she was crying again. Can't tell how often she said "thank you" - I guess not only for the coke. But for some strangers listening to her. Seeing her. Our world is getting colder and colder each day. Reading such a great story so full of love and warmth brings back hope!!!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Thank you for this touching oasis of philoxenia in a growing desert of xenophobia! There is something eternal about it, and I was reminded of the return of Odysseus to Ithaca and his meeting, unrecognised, with Eumaus.

    ‘ξεῖν᾽, οὔ μοι θέμις ἔστ᾽, οὐδ᾽ εἰ κακίων σέθεν ἔλθοι,
    ξεῖνον ἀτιμῆσαι: πρὸς γὰρ Διός εἰσιν ἅπαντες
    ξεῖνοί τε πτωχοί τε: δόσις δ᾽ ὀλίγη τε φίλη τε
    γίγνεται ἡμετέρη
    —Homer, Odyssey XIV

    Stranger, it would be wrong for me to turn a guest away,
    even one in a worse state than you,
    since every beggar and stranger is from Zeus,
    and a gift, though small, from such folk as us is welcome.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Say, this is the kind of writings that make us a little bit better people, words have the power to extract the best of ourselves. Thanks Mihaela!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Great piece, Mihaela! Anthropologists say that climate affects the nation's nature. I guess Crete perfectly proves this! Relaxing atmisphere and sunny westher-these are what makes people'd hearts kinder (Olga Malik)

    ReplyDelete
  17. Well, I was lucky enough to be driving the car that day. No one could have described this section of life better. What Mihaela did not reflect is what she told me as we drove off. "Baby, do what you have to do, but make sure we move here", she said out loud.

    The rest of the time on Crete we were blessed by this christening, this prayer, this heartfelt genuineness... there is something pure and indescribable about Crete. We met many there who had come to visit, and who never left.

    Great job Mig, people can feel what you felt, and this is what all writers strive for.

    ReplyDelete
  18. When you've lived almost the whole of your life on an island like Crete you know you've had a good quality of life but it's hard to say why. Only when you read or listen to the feelings and the memories this place and its people generates to its guests or when you travel away of it, you start seeing the little details of your everyday life that you think as granted that make the difference. Thanks a lot Mihaela for making me appreciate once more my way of living!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Thank you for this sunny story! But hey... Now i want to go to Crete :)))

    ReplyDelete
  20. Beautiful and touching story! As I was reading it felt like I was there myself! Crete is such a beautiful island and Mihaela describes it wonderfully.

    ReplyDelete
  21. The story becomes a video in front of my eyes. Actually more than that because it triggers ALL my senses and a wide range of feelings. Mihaela even manged to create fear into this beautiful essay by adding the "weather report" in the beginning.
    Even blind people will "see" the story when read for them. Thanks Mihaela, for taking me to back to Crete!

    ReplyDelete
  22. Mig, you could not have written a more descriptive story of Crete and the joys of experiencing it first-hand! Absolutely beautiful mesmerizing writing!!

    ReplyDelete
  23. I was there that March, with my husband and my baby. I know this story is true... Is it OK to leave a comment when Mig is my friend? I hope it is. If it is not, please, don't hold it against her!

    ReplyDelete
  24. It requires many great gifts - not only that of writing but also of observation, awareness, empathy, love and compassion - to write such an evocative and beautiful portrayal. I too shared the emotions felt by other readers. Masterful Mihaela!

    ReplyDelete
  25. Beautiful place, not only because of the nature, but also because of people- open, honest, welcoming. I had a pleasure to visit Crete this summer, and Mihaela's story perfectly mirrors my experience and feelings. I am going to read it again with a glass of raki this evening. Raki, which I got from the man I met for the first time there, and he made an effort to drive to his father's farm and back to bring the bottle of "home-made" traditional Cretan drink. I asked him "why?", and his answer was "Because we are like that"- thank you Minas. And thank you Mihaela for taking me back to this great moments.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Thanks for your story! It's hard to find the words to convey what I have felt while reading

    ReplyDelete
  27. What a beautiful story - thanks for taking us along with you. I was captivated by your description of "filoxenia, the love for strangers" - it really touched my heart and mind. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  28. Have never been to Crete but your story has convinced me that I most definitely need to go there. Thanks a lot for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Enjoyed learning so much from our article, Mihaela, including, "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." Crete was never on my leap List, and thanks to you, it now is!

    ReplyDelete
  30. What an inspiring story as I felt as if I were there with you. Spent my 50th birthday on Santorini and loved the island. Time for me to go back and visit Crete!

    ReplyDelete
  31. Oh Mihaela, you took me there with you, I could feel the sea spray through the thunder, smell the sweetness of the oranges and meet that wonderful old lady as I wept with her. I have never been to Crete even though it was always close to home (Israel) and would love to stop there on one of my future visits.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Mihaela, thank you for such a vivid picture of your experience in Crete. You brought tears to my eyes, along with the tears of the woman you met. It's simple acts of kindness like yours that bring people together in any country, regardless of language barriers. I believe you made a friend for life. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  33. Wonderful story Mihaela. You wrote it from the heart and you could express much more than words. Those places became very alive in your article, the reader could feel the nature, the weather and the kind old lady. We are looking forward for new alive storys from you. Greetings Daniel & Inna

    ReplyDelete
  34. What a lovely trip. Thank you for taking us all with you!

    ReplyDelete
  35. A marvellous gift for conjuring up the atmosphere of a place and the wonderful bond that suddenly springs up between the Cretan orange vendor and the tourist narrator! A feast for the senses, the story makes me want to visit Crete myself!

    ReplyDelete
  36. A marvellous gift for conjuring up the atmosphere of a place and the wonderful bond that suddenly springs up between the Cretan orange vendor and the tourist narrator! A feast for the senses, the story makes me want to visit Crete myself!

    ReplyDelete
  37. The story of the soul! A trip to the Crete - my dream. Thanks to the author! Wonderful story!

    ReplyDelete
  38. What a beautiful story Mihaela!Your vivid descriptions made the experience come alive for me. It is so true that scents and sights have the ability to trigger special memories. Thanks for sharing your wonderful vacation on Crete.

    ReplyDelete
  39. What a beautiful and inspiring story!! I felt like if I was there with you! Great post! :) Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  40. Really enjoyed reading this wonderful story. I love Crete and it is the best when you are there off season.

    ReplyDelete
  41. Love your beautiful story....so touching! I'm tempted to travel the Crete like NOW! :)
    xoxo,Z~

    ReplyDelete
  42. Nice article! Crete is really good!its the places there all stories begin...

    ReplyDelete
  43. Incredible story! Crete is truly mesmerizing! thank you very much for your emotions, feelings and story! All dreams come true in Crete!

    ReplyDelete
  44. Thank you so much for this lovely report. Makes me want to stop by on my way back from Crimea, which, by your account, seems to be the Sister Island of Crete. And since I hate to fly, the trip could be even made by boat. Perfect!

    ReplyDelete
  45. Nice story, Mig. I gives me good memories of a nice holiday in Crete in 2002 :-)

    ReplyDelete
  46. What a beautiful and soulful report.
    I hope I have the chance to visit Crete one day.
    Thank you Phil for the link. :)

    ReplyDelete
  47. Such a lovely experience Mihaela. If that is filoxenia, I love it already. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    ReplyDelete
  48. A work of art. Throughout the narrative, Ms Butler draws the reader in, almost as a part of the family, and we actually experience the beauty and feelings of this enchanted place. "... The old lady wept..." told with an artistic beauty that is only exceed by the emotions evoked. As is the entire piece.
    -Paul Payer

    ReplyDelete
  49. Great article, Mihaela. Inspirational
    story🌸

    ReplyDelete

INSTRUCTIONS FOR LEAVING A COMMENT: To leave a comment, first choose how you would like to do so by clicking on the drop-down menu Comment As and select your provider. In many cases this will be Google if you have a gmail account. The quickest way to leave a comment is to choose Anonymous. Then write your comment and click on Publish. Then the blog will ask you to confirm that you are not a robot. Do this. You might have to click on some rivers or dogs, but it takes only a moment or two. Then click on publish again. You're all set. This should work.