#9. Taverna manners
As I have remarked before, Cretans are generally a law abiding lot, at least until it comes to paying tax and smoking in non smoking areas.* The tax issue is one that’s been around since the Dead Sea was first taken ill, the general view here being that since the ‘Turks,’ who effectively left in Crete 1898, imposed discriminatory taxation on Cretan Christians, over 100 years later it’s still ones patriotic duty to avoid paying tax of any kind if at all possible. However, the smoking ban in shops and restaurants is relatively new matter. For the most part the ban works, although it’s nowhere near as effective as in the UK. In general most taverna owners will allow smoking inside as long as no one objects, assuming of course that anyone is daft brave enough to object to very large men dressed head to toe in black and with interesting bulges in their pockets, smoking as they and their forefathers have done for time immemorial. However, if you think smokers in Crete are being discriminated against and picked on, think of the poor vegetarians.
I was sat on the veranda in the front of my favourite restaurant one evening earlier in the year, content underneath a canopy of vines and looking out at the sea. The interior was open but Spiros the owner was expecting a small German wedding party (small in the sense that it was going to be for 30 people, not small in the sense that the guests were of limited stature and German in the sense that it wasn’t a Greek wedding which would be considered small if there were only 300 present, irrespective of their stature) and was trying, and generally succeeding, to empty the inside dining room to prepare for the wedding bash. His wife, Maria, had the kitchen under control and his son was grilling food on an open air barbeque when along come a pair of Antipodeans who sat down not far from the grill. Within a few minutes, having had their table laid and having ordered their food, they proclaimed loudly to Spiros and anyone within earshot, that they were vegetarians and, as vegetarians, they were offended by the smell of grilling meat and fish. So upset were they at their close proximity to grilling flesh that they therefore demanded to have their table moved away from the offensive odours. By now the outside of the taverna was full and the only place to relocate them was to a table just inside the main area. Clearly Spiros wasn’t happy with this but ever mindful that the customer is always right, even if they are vegetarians, moved them. The wedding party arrived within a few minutes of the move and settled in, ignoring the veggies.
Ignoring them that is until the veggies, waiting to have their starter delivered (a Cretan salad without the cheese, naturally since they appeared to be of the Vegan wing of the Vegetable Liberation Front) both lit up large cigars. On seeing this, Spiros, who I know for an absolute fact always has a lit cigarette smouldering by the till, came forward with an evil grin on his face and pointing to the fading ‘No Smoking’ sign, told them to put out the cigars or leave. To no one’s surprise, they left. Two minutes later Spiros came out to start to take the orders from the wedding guests and, as usual, he was smoking a cigarette.
That was in the summer. In the winter the restaurant reverts to being a taverna with a much more limited, but still excellent, menu and as such is one of the more popular eating places in the village. So popular is it that it’s difficult at times to get a table, which possibly explained the sight, the other evening, of Spiros and Maria’s youngest daughter, sat at the till at the back, ignoring the Cretan food available to her and eating take-away gyros (think doner kebab without the taste but with added processed chips, yoghurt and tomato ketchup) from the fast food shop around the corner.
Mind you, the only reason I’d seen this was that we’d decamped from our usual bar because of the possibility of an outbreak of violence occurring between the mothers in the infant school PTA trying to run their Christmas bizarre (yes, I know) in the local community centre and those who had booked the said centre for an anti government/anti IMF protest meeting. Both the bazaar and the protest meeting were very well attended but the very noisy debate between the various political and non political factions, debate which spilled out into the street and to the local bars, was not made any calmer or more rational by the fact that the PTA bazaar carried on behind the top table throughout the meeting. One consequence of this was that the person chairing the meeting was never sure if those walking up the centre of the room towards her were coming to use the microphone, or to visit the PTA stalls to buy their last minute Christmas presents. I knew we’d made the correct decision to move the 200 or so metres when on arriving at Spiros’ establishment, we spotted, hidden away out of view from the street, the mayor; the man who is, naturally, held responsible for everything in the village that goes pear shaped, including double bookings in the community centre. Not sure if he was hiding from the PTA or the protestors, but my money’s on the former.
* Some might also consider that the possession of unlicensed guns and similarly unlicensed tsikoudia stills demonstrate something about one type of Cretan approach to the law, but I would never suggest such a thing.