Matala is a small fishing village on the very southern coast of Crete, between Africa and Greece. It is famous among travellers like the route from Australia to Europe is famous. By the time it is listed in the travellers’ books, it is old and well known.
I was staying with Rob, a friend from Canada, who lived in Finsbury Park, worked at the London zoo. He mentioned that ”beneath the Matala moon” was in the lyrics of ‘Carey’, that he’d had a good time there when he’d gone in the past. This was all the direction I needed. I had always liked Joni Mitchell’s songs.
My first memory of Matala was waking up, hung over, a dog barking near the fence. I felt around my sleeping bag, couldn’t find my passport or traveller’s cheques. There was a guy cowering by the fence. He had them. His name was George.
George was frozen to the spot, quaking in fear, confronted by a big, hostile German Shepherd named Cello. Harry was Cello’s owner. He was a big Dutchman with a mullet, a FREE SONNY BARGER sleeveless t-shirt, big muscles. He liked to push people around.
Harry had seen Cello trap George as he ripped off my stuff. He was up early, making a coffee in his trailer, just outside the wire fence of the camp grounds. He lived there for the summer before travelling with Cello, his two boys and wife, back to Holland, for the winter. He knew Manoli who had, by this time, responded to the barking. He stood, sleepy, beside George, smiling resignedly. I tried to look serious and angry, thrashing around in my sleeping bag.
We had a meeting in Manoli’s office, where he had a cot and some coffee making utensils. Everybody in the campground left their valuables there when they went to the beach. I slapped George once, settled for my passport and Traveller’s cheques back. I found out later that George could have killed me in a fight, nothing short of a gun was going to stop him.
As we talked, George quiet because of Cello’s presence at the door, Harry and Manoli believed that what I said was true: I wasn’t a rich tourist, I dug ditches at home. All I wanted was a coffee, some boiled eggs at the taverna. I told them to tell George not to do it again, to let him go. There was no harm done, no cops for miles.
Harry gave me a tarp, to put up between two trees, for a tent. I joined the other tourists at the taverna. We sat, guys from three or four countries, rock and Marley turned up loud, at the taverna across the road from the campground. We’d welcome, with quarts of German beer, the buses which showed up from Iraklion, four or five times a day. They would stop, disgorge passengers in front of the taverna, refill themselves, before heading back to Iraklion with their load of tourists.
The departing tourists had done their time in Greece, were moving on. The visitors in the summer months were two or three weekers. Some, were on package excursions from Australia, some, on two week vacations from their jobs in England or Germany or Norway. They were all replaceable to the Greeks. They were all replaced.
I didn’t notice the Greeks at that time. I had the same attitude toward the locals as most of the tourists. They were there for my needs, but they weren’t important. The other tourists and travellers were interesting to me, the Cretans, who I call Greeks, were in the background.
Matala was crawling with women. Every bus disgorged more who only stayed around for a few weeks. I didn’t see the Greeks, but they were there. Sipping quietly on a Coke or coffee, they were, like us, watching the girls.
There were caves in the cliffs at Matala. Some said the early Christians used them to hide from the Romans. Someone in Joni’s crowd discovered them. Probably hippies looking for a Journey to the East. But they shat in them. They were, according to tourists and Greeks, too gross to be worth looking at. I saw the Matala moon many nights, but I passed on the caves.
The Greeks approached me after I stuck up for a Greek, in a fight with some Germans, over a woman in the disco. They had been watching me since the incident with George. They knew, through the staff at the taverna, that I would be out of money soon.
My first job was with Janni’s crew of woodcutters. He owned a dump truck and a few chain saws. He employed some older Greek guys and an Austrian also named Janni. The Austrian Janni spoke only Greek, lived with his wife, in a quiet village, away from tourists. I accepted him as he accepted me, neither of us asked the other why they were there.
They were all amused by me. I was as blond as they were dark but I could work like them, withstand the heat and bugs, put up with the cuts and scratches I received on the job without complaining. I was satisfied, if not happy, with the wages they paid me.
I felt better getting home to the campground, having a shower, getting drunk, eating in the taverna at night, than just crawling off the beach, drunk by three in the afternoon. After roughnecking in the bush of Alberta, there wasn’t much one couldn’t make one’s self do. Every year the Greeks took some tourists or young locals to work with them, every year most quit.
Austrian Janni was a hard worker. He and Greek Janni, a large, jolly man with curly brown hair and a bushy moustache, kept three of us busy picking up the old branches, throwing them into the dump truck. At the end of each tree, we combined to throw the bigger logs into the truck.
They were old olive trees, eighty to one hundred years, which didn’t produce any more. So every day with Janni’s crew was, for the most part, in an olive grove.
By tradition and custom, the boss supplied the food for lunch. Sometimes we’d all clamber into the dump truck, Janni would head for the nearest restaurant. It wasn’t a tourist place, more for Greeks like these woodcutters. There was nothing fancy out front, just a couple of tables and chairs where the old men could drink their coffee.
I rubbed a cold quart of Henninger over my forehead in the shady back of one of these places, watched Greek Janni bargain with the owner over our lunch. He inspected the carcasses of freshly killed rabbits, they reached an agreement.
The parts were fried, in a pan, there in front of us. I started to understand, a little, the Greek, the communication between the men. I stuck to the large parts of the rabbit, those that looked familiar. The Greeks and Janni the Austrian popped the lemon shaped rabbit skulls into their mouths, crushed them with their teeth, devoured the contents. They laughed at my look.
I took two buses, to meet Janni, in the morning. I changed buses on a hill where students in uniform waited, buses and cars full of people went to work. There was a cement plaque by the side of the road which I couldn’t read. People had been waiting in that spot for thousands of years. The cliffs fell to the Mediterranean Sea, beside the road. Before the heat of the day descended, the sea breeze blew across Crete.
When we were on the job, in the olive groves, we had the best lunch. The two Jannis shut down their screaming chain saws, the crew made itself comfortable in the shade of a big olive tree. The Greek Janni supplied the wine and feta from his house. The tomatoes, onions and cucumbers were cut into the big bowl with a generous slug of olive oil, to soak them. The bread, from the bakery, that morning, and an occasional can of mackerel pieces were bought. The rest of the meal was grown at home.
The best of the olive oil was kept for the family, the rest, sold. Janni’s olive oil was smooth, golden. You could eat it with just a piece of bread from the loaf. All of the Greeks seemed to have another side, a hidden side, which you could only see if they trusted you.
My next job was for Georgio who called me “Stefanos”. He had a farm in the mountains, drove a little Toyota pickup. He showed up one day at the taverna, offered me a job. I agreed, he picked me up every morning until the job finished. He and his compadres squeezed me into the cab of the pickup, talked to me all the way to the job. They wanted me to hear their illegal Partisan songs on the cassette tape.
Georgio owned a huge field, maybe many fields. All I knew was that he needed wire to be strung across hundreds of the concrete posts which we had planted, so that his usual crop of tomatoes would climb, avoiding spoilage on the ground.
Costa had seen me in action, by now, with the tourists, the travellers and the Greeks. He knew I was ok. He checked me out in the campground, taverna and disco and knew I was no threat to his position as godfather of the surrounding valley. He knew that I could do the Greeks a lot of good. He gave me a job working with his crews on construction and, then, in the new disco he was building, in Matala.
Costa picked me up each morning at six am on his Yamaha 750, at the campground. We roared off into the hills to one of the many construction jobs he had going. Sometimes he walked through the campground to survey the sleeping women. If I slept in, he approached my tent, moved my sleeping bag, with a toe, to see if it was empty. If it wasn’t, he looked over the woman I had slept with. He turned up his nose or gave me an approving smile, depending on what he saw.
One hot day, the tourist police showed up on a job. The guy, with a uniform, gun and a belt that went over his shoulder, talked to someone on the other side of the site. Costa left the forming he was doing beside me, touched my shoulder as he passed, confronted the policeman. His brother George, a big guy who spoke no English and wore a carpenter’s belt, like everybody else, stopped work, stood beside the policeman. The other guys told me that George was a champion boxer. He was built like a weight lifter.
They looked over at me a few times but the outcome never was in doubt: Costa had a job to do, there were houses standing half finished all over Crete. If a man was willing to work and he was productive, why stop him? Because the young locals won’t do it for the wages? Bah! The policeman walked away, smiling at George. Costa gave me a wink and a smile when he returned to our forming.
At Costa’s mother’s, we sat beneath the grape vine filled pergola, drank iced tea, his mother bringing us glasses. He said that he’d been to London, checked it out. His sour look was tempered by understanding, but I had no inclination to defend London while I sat there with Costa and his mother on their family farm.
I was sleeping half at the campground, half at the new disco, when Rob came to visit me from London. He brought a forty ouncer of Johnny Walker Black which he called “mother’s milk”. Thomas was a German who made friends with Rob the second he saw the Johnny Walker. I was working, only saw George and a band of young guys from the area heading up the hill. George, who I met when I first arrived, liked ultraviolence. He had a determined frown, a long, lethal looking flashlight in his fist, as he started up the hill.
The young men of the village took care of business. They had recently kicked a whole tent of Frenchmen out for attacking the other guests, especially the females ones. They had, just last week, shot an Italian dead on a nearby beach, for selling heroin to the kids. The legal inquiry had just finished. Nobody knew anything, therefore, no one was guilty. There were no cops in Matala. Rob had, long ago, given Thomas the bottle to drink. The German was getting violent, challenging the whole campground and the Greeks, to knock him off the hill. Rob was protecting himself as well as getting away from Thomas’ aggravating bleating. He had to see a Swedish girl, anyway. Why hang around Thomas?
Thomas, I saw the next morning, as I waited for a lift, suffered a lot of cuts from some bats around the head. He was unceremoniously trundled onto the first bus leaving Matala in a near catatonic state. He had big clumps of hair missing beneath the bandage on his head.
As the season went on, the disco neared completion. I was living day to day, Costa holding back some of my week’s drachma so I’d have something to leave with.
There were women from all over the world there. Some women were there for the weather, some because Greece was Greece, but these Greeks believed, and it seemed to be so, that women were there, to be with them. One girl told me that a Greek propositioned her on the beach, saying, “Maybe you’re with Stevie, but he’s not a Greek”
The Greek men had a heart sworn assumption that the tourist women should pay for everything. If I, in my goofy, chivalrous way, paid for the drinks or the snack for myself and a woman, I was the butt of a lot of jokes the next day or considered a sad case, to be pitied. They spoke of a man as “poly mafia” when he was seen night after night with a tourist girl but didn’t pay for anything. The “Papa” (Pope) was the greatest Godfather of them all, the Catholic church was the greatest mafia body.
I was constantly getting called from the disco or my tent to come settle disputes. An Australian or Dutch girl would be trying to explain to Manoli, in a headlit scene, that just because she danced with a Greek guy or let him buy her a drink, that she wasn’t giving herself for the night or marriage. The Greeks loved the drama of it. Manoli would console the Greek guy, I would shoo the tourists to their tent. The guy would look mad for a while, then, after making sure that the girl wasn’t with anyone else, go back to the disco to see if he had time to pick out another. I don’t know what the married Greek guys told their wives. All of the tourist women agreed that the Italians were worse than the Greeks at aggressive come ons. The women said that if they slapped a rude man in Italy, they got slapped back.
I stuffed myself at the snail feast. The snails grew on everything below a foot. I saw women and children out gathering them off of rocks and plants in the fields. We gathered in a shack near Matala, ate our way through many pounds of the little shelled creatures. They were served by the men, to the other men, from a big, boiling pot. More were boiled while we ate. We sucked the little critters out of their shells by windpower alone. Until I got the hang of it, I had to use the fork on the table to loosen that last little piece of flesh stuck to the shell. After a while, I could get the last piece by using, as the Greeks did, the shell from the one before. We ate them for hours.
One morning, on Costa’s bike, we stopped at a crossroads, in a sleepy village, where an old man with a net hat, baggy jodhpur pants, big, black, leather boots, stood under a tree. He had a grey, bushy moustache. The dappled sunlight glistened on his knife. Costa and he exchanged greetings and information. He had hanging, in front of him, the carcass of a goat, half skinned. He told Costa something, looked over for confirmation to two young boys who were sitting in the shade of neighbouring tree. Above them, two goats, which had grazed on the lower branches of the tree, were standing on the thick, lower limbs to get at the leaves above them.
Tourist season was ending, regulars who had been there all summer, were thinning out. Some of us got drunk on the raki they made from the dregs of the wine harvest. We finished the disco. Prospects for the winter narrowed. I could leave Matala to work at a tomato canning factory, in Crete, or hitch north. It was time to go. Costa paid me off, one night, at the disco. He told me
“To work in Greece, Stevie, takes some grease” and pocketed a percentage of my savings.
I hitched back to London where Rob and I found a pub with ‘Carey’ on the jukebox.