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That Greek Cottage!

By Ashleylister @ashleylister
This is the story of the  cottage that got away! It was the late summer of 1974, the year ABBA won Eurovision, Nixon resigned as US President, Harold Wilson's Labour Party came back to power and blockbusters from John le Carre ('Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy') and Robert Pirsig ('Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance') hit the bookshops. Bob Dylan was touring for the first time since his motorcycle accident of eight years previous, the Moody Blues had just disbanded, Cat Stevens released 'Buddha and the Chocolate Box' and everyone seemed to be 'Kung Fu Fighting'.
It also happened that in July of that year, the military junta which had been ruling Greece since a coup d'état in 1967 was finally replaced by an interim civilian government. For some of us who had been longing to visit Greece, but felt it unethical to do so while the Generals were in power, the timing was almost perfect - three months of summer vacation from university stretched ahead. The only problems were the cost of getting there and the small matter of a war in the region: Turkish troops had recently invaded Cyprus and Greeks and Turks had resumed their age-old hostilities in the eastern Mediterranean.
The first problem was solved fairly easily. I got a holiday job with some fellow students from Warwick university as part of a contract team going in to steam-clean industrial plant in Birmingham factories during their two-week annual shut-down. It was a filthy job hosing down rolling mills and heavy machinery but it paid fantastically well, enough to cover a couple of months back-packing around Greece. The second problem actually played into our hands, for the Cyprus war put off thousands of would-be holiday-makers to the region, flights emptied and ticket prices fell.
My girlfriend and I decided that Crete would be our destination, well out of trouble's way; and so armed with tent, drachmas, books that we had to read in advance of the next university term, a camera and some light clothing, off we jetted, courtesy of Dan-Air (anyone remember them?). The flight was delayed by several hours but it meant that we flew down across the long string of Greek islands just as the sky was turning from black to rose and we landed in Irakleion at sunrise. Magical.
To say that it was like a coming home would be an exaggeration - but I certainly felt an extraordinary affinity with the place that has abided down the years.  It is why I've been to Greece more times than any other country and why I did once seriously contemplate retiring to live there (before austerity and Brexit reared their complicating heads).
As I've said, there were almost no tourists visiting Greece that year because of the war and we were welcomed with open arms wherever we went as soon as it was established that we were English and not American. (The Greeks blamed most things at the time on the Americans. They thought US foreign policy was behind the rise of the Generals. They didn't like the fact that Turkey was armed with American weapons and warplanes and that American forces were stationed on Turkish soil.)
Greek people are so friendly and generous. We were given - literally gifted - so much food everywhere we went, especially fresh fruit and vegetables grown for the summer tourists who never materialised; figs, oranges, tomatoes and watermelon to die for! I could enthuse at length about that holiday - Knossos, Aghios Nikolaos, Vai (close to heaven on earth) but I must cut to the chase.
We made a leisurely tour along the north coast of dusty Crete and in one place we decided to stay in a pension for a few days as a break from rough camping - a proper bed with clean sheets, hot shower, luxury. It was in the coastal town of Siteia, quite small in 1974 - now a center of the island's wine industry and a bustling tourist resort with its own international airport. There we met some young Americans. They were quite pleased to find non-Americans who didn't treat them disdainfully. Most of them were just hanging out there for the summer but one of them, a young woman, was - or had been - working in Siteia as a teacher.
Unfortunately for her, she was in the process of being expelled from the country for having told her pupils that the returning prime minister, Konstantinous Karamanlis, was a shit of the first order. Such a fervently expressed opinion was unlikely to go unreported and it found no favour with her employers or the new Greek government with its anti-American bias. It was probably the excuse they had been looking for to move her on.
She was devastated to be leaving and was desperate to recoup the $1,000 dollars (or its drachma equivalent) she had spent on buying her little cottage in Siteia. We were asked if we were interested.

That Greek Cottage!

$1,000 or near offer in 1974!

The cottage was small, simple, sturdy and beautiful; cool inside in the summer because the walls were thick, warm in the winter for the same reason. There was a grapevine in the tiny yard.
$1,000 was about £450 at 1974 exchange rates. That was about triple what our holiday to dusty Crete cost (and was comparable to the price of a new Mini Cooper)! I should have gone straight to the main post office in Siteia and wired my parents to lend me the funds. I didn't do so. To a poor student, it seemed like a lot of money at the time. We said our goodbyes and continued on our tour. With the benefit of hindsight, it was an absolute bargain. Of course we laughed ruefully afterwards and I harbor a mild regret about it to this day.
Quite by coincidence, the song 'If I Laugh' by Cat Stevens (born Steven Demetre Georgiou to a Greek Cypriot father and Swedish mother) from his album 'Teaser And The Firecat'  seems remarkably apposite in its sentiments, given the story of the cottage that got away...
If I Laugh
If I laugh just a little bit
maybe I can forget the chance
that I didn't have to know you
and live in peace, in peace
If I laugh just a little bit
maybe I can forget the plans that
I didn't use to get you
at home - with me - alone
If I laugh just a little bit
maybe I can recall the way
that I used to be , before you
and sleep at night - and dream
If I laugh, baby if I laugh
just a little bit...
   Cat Stevens (1971)
If you'd like to listen to it, for it is very beautiful, I've included a hyperlink here: Cat Stevens playing If I Laugh live
I'll sign off this week with a new poem of my own. I hope it pleases.
Late September Grecian sun,
given latitude, still strikes me
as warming to the bones,
to the sleepy spirits
that invest these olive groves,
to the white-washed
stone-wall cottage clusters
with their fragrant, dark interiors
of homely mystery
and cats the color of molasses
rolling lazy in the dust,
quite unprovoked
by dancing end-of-season butterflies.
Before me, the epic story
of Odysseus lies open to the page
where Hermes bids divine Calypso
let our captive hero go, but I,
fuelled by a lunch
of cool retsina and dolmades,
cease reading and allow my gaze
to fold to Homeric sightlessness.
Sunlight licks my eyelids
like the charming snake of old,
cicadas drone, a hint of oregano
spices up this timeless afternoon
and I drowse
happy to the very soul, thinking
that unlike our bold adventurer
I might prove fickle and be tempted
not to risk another sinking
in the wine-dark sea.
I might elect to stay a while
on this idyllic isle...
but then I never knew Penelope!
Thanks for reading. Have a good week, S ;-) Email ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to Facebook


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