Sunday, December 16, 2012

Zorba The Greek


Call me Basil.

Basil is the character in the book (and subsequent movie) Zorba the Greek. Basil is a bookish type. When we meet him at the beginning of the story he wants to start reading Dante’s Divine Comedy but he is interrupted by Zorba, his opposite in so many ways. Though the story is intentionally vague on the exact place, it takes place somewhere close to where we are right here in Crete.

A few days after we arrived on Crete, I met Vasilis, a Zorba of sorts.

Vasilis with his son Peter. (From the internet.)
Vasilis told me this story:

Some decades ago, before WWII, a fisherman went out every night in his boat. If the catch was good, if the nets were full, he would scoop up a large kettle of seawater at dawn and motor back to the old Venetian harbor of Rethymno.

The old Venetian harbor of Rethymno, Crete. (From the internet.)
There, he would be greeted by Cretan farmers. The farmers would barter potatoes for fish. And then they would wait around while the seawater was heated, right there on the boat. (I’m vague on the details of how that happened.) The potatoes would be boiled, a few more ingredients would be added, the filleted fish thrown in, and voila: fish stew.

Surrounding the harbor wall is a row of buildings and inside one of those buildings, a young boy would wake up, look out his second story window, see his father making the fish stew and be so excited that he would run downstairs in his pajamas and bare feet, across the broad walkway and onto the boat to eat fish stew for breakfast.

During the war, the Cretans presented one of the strongest resistance movements to Germany. (Look up “Cretan Resistance” in Wikipedia.) And for that, they paid heavily with massacres and destruction of their cars and boats. Including the boats of the fishermen from Rethymno.

Following the war, the Americans stepped in and provided Rethymno’s fishermen with a boat. A large communal fishing boat and once again, they could go out and provision for themselves and make their famous fish stew.

That fish stew is made today in the building of that little boy who enjoyed it so much. It is made by the little boy who is now a man. That man who told this story is Vasilis. It was his father who taught him how to make fish stew. But these days, Vasilis told me, he has to add salt, because he doesn’t make it with seawater.

I met Vasilis because I was wandering around town looking for a space to use for writing. I’m writing a book about what role sailing has played in my life. I wrote some of it in 2005 and a large chunk of the book last winter while we lived in that old stone house in Bodrum, Turkey. I wandered by Vasilis’s restaurant in the old Venetian harbor.

“I was born in this house,” he said after we got to talking over coffee. “Upstairs.”

And then he proceeded to tell me the whole story I just told you. Half of it he told me while we at the harbor. The other half, he told over his shoulder, while I was on the back of his scooter on the way to the place he would offer me for writing.

I had been looking for a writing space all over town. I eyed the empty buildings and thought I could “squat.” But they were locked. I asked in some “rooms for let” places but they were too expensive. I asked someone I met in my search and she suggest I could write in a cafe. But she suggested I find a different cafe every day.

“Because if you go to same cafe every day, they will want to be friends and offer you Raki, and in Greece, it is very bad to refuse. So it will be hard to be writing if you are drinking Raki.”

When I first walked by the Cavo d’Oro, Vasilis’s restaurant, that is exactly what happened: He offered I write in his restaurant every day. I told him I start at 7:30 every morning.

“Oh no, that’s no good. We open maybe 11.”

So he told me to hop on the back of his scooter and we drove along the waterfront of the new town where the concrete buildings stand shoulder-to-shoulder with apartments above and restaurants and cafes on the first floor. Across the street is the sandy – and in summer -- tourist-laden beaches.

One of those buildings is the Palm Beach.

The Palm Beach Cafe in Rethymno, Crete.
He brought me into an empty cafe and extended his arm in a sweeping motion of the room and said,

“Here you write.”

My writing place.
It was a command more than anything else. I told him I would pay the same I would pay for one coffee at a cafe: Three Euros a day.

“Yes, that’s okay,” Vasilis said.

And so it has been. I wake up at six while it is still dark. Jennifer and I go to bed early enough that I wake up on my own sometime just before six. I sneak out of bed and try to be quiet while I make myself coffee and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then I am off to my writing place: An empty cafe with a view of the Aegean.

The writer writing away by the muse of a young nymph wrapped ever so coincidentally modestly in flowery fabric.
Every now and then, I stand up and walk over to the plateglass windows and check to see what boats are coming and going into the harbor. 
When I say I am on a Greek island, writing a book in room with a view of the Aegean, it sounds so incredibly romantic. The details are more quirky but I still experience the romance of it all.

Since then, Vasilis has regaled me with stories of when he worked on ships taking immigrants to the Americas. He made enough money to come back in the late 1980s to Crete and start his restaurant in the old Venetian harbor in the same building he was born. A few years later, he was able to buy the building.

Jennifer and I have walked by Vasilis’s Cavo d’Oro in the evenings and he won’t let us pass without pulling us in, pouring glasses of wine and telling us more stories, introducing his children and discussing the ever-present topic in Greece these days: the economy.

My Dad introduced me to Zorba the Greek. One night while we were sitting in his den trying to decide what to watch on TV, he came across the black and white 1964 movie with Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates.

“You’ve never seen Zorba the Greek?” he asked, astounded. “You have to see this. This movie made me cry,” he said in a rare admission of emotional vulnerability.

I remember the movie as a juxtaposition of two archetypes: the intellectual versus the visceral; the plodding versus the spontaneous; the tight versus the flexible.

The final scene of the movie is one of the most well-known. In it, Zorba teaches Basil how to dance.

Zorba the Greek teaches Basil how to dance.
It is a scene that greets me every morning. Is it a reminder to write more like Zorba than Basil?

Or to read the original story written by the Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis and first published in 1946?

1 comment:

Steve Garlick said...

fish stew lives on, now Jennifer has some competition!!