7.Travel Hazards

# 7 Travel hazards.

I have reason to believe that Cretans and Greeks in general are nervous travellers. I know this because I was once on an Olympic Airlines flight to Crete when the rather large steward strapped himself into the jump seat opposite me and began blessing himself, praying and kissing a gold cross around his neck, and all this as the plane taxied out to the runway for takeoff from Heathrow. On the same flight, on landing at Athens the Greek passengers spontaneously burst into applause…clearly they knew something I didn’t. I was reminded of this the other day when sat in the bus station waiting for the bus to take me back down south from the dreaded north of the island, I noticed a priest sat at a table with a lit candle and a crucifix (for the record, the crucifix wasn’t lit) and people coming up to him, kissing his hand and receiving what I assume was some kind of blessing before boarding their busses. Fortunately he didn’t get on my bus so I assume we were considered to be safe from whatever it was they were all worried about. 

Those of you who have been on holiday in Crete in the summer will be well aware of the hazards attendant on travelling around the island; narrow roads, goats, Cretan vehicles, goats, and Cretan drivers. Those who have driven at night will also be aware of the added complication of badgers, and more goats. However, if you’ve only been here in the summer you will have missed what is potentially the most dangerous hazard, dangerous both to health and pocket. I refer as you’ve no doubt already concluded, to olives.

Cretan olive oil is probably the best in the world, which is why they, allegedly, ship most of it to Italy where it is blended with inferior Italian oil and then sold as Italian oil, and it is produced by gathering olives in November to January; washing them and then crushing them to extract the oil: a simple enough process which, though physically demanding on those carrying it out, constitutes no obvious risk to travellers. However, nobody has yet managed to develop a way of informing the olive trees, of which there are more than a few on the island, that it is not a good idea to shed their olives on the road where, with the passing of every car or lorry, the olives get crushed and produce, you’ve guessed it, olive oil. Now it’s a long time since I did any physics but I can assure you that the coefficient of friction or whatever it is, of a tarmaced road surface is greatly increased (or is it reduced?) by the application of olive oil. The resulting loss of grip to the wheels of the car when travelling downhill can be quite alarming and there always seems to be another olive tree just in the place where you and your, now out of control, car, are heading. (There also appears to be some unwritten rule that on every tight bend you encounter when coming down a steep mountainside with a sheer drop on one side, there will sit the most productive olive tree in the municipality. Furthermore the same law apparently states that this particular tree will overhang the road to such an extent that there is no way to avoid the oil it’s so liberally producing.) While driving on an olive oil covered road is no great fun, it’s even less fun if it’s been sunny for a few days…have you any idea what rancid olive oil smells like? Not as bad as a rancid goat but not much better.

As if the threat to life and limb from the olive trees is not bad enough, there is the little problem of olive nets, an item I frequently encounter on the many narrow and winding roads I travel on up in the hills. Olives are collected from the trees in large, fine mesh, nylon nets which, to assist with efficient gathering of the olives, are kept off the ground by stakes; usually steel reinforcing bars about 1 metre long, driven into the ground at an angle. Olive trees grow over the roads (see above), to maximise the harvest, the nets come out into the road, and, as mentioned above, the nets are held up by 1 metre long steel reinforcing bars set at such an angle. The result of all this is that the reinforcing bars are projecting into the road; steel reinforcing bars and the side panels of hired cars do not go together that well . You have been warned.

The steel reinforcing bars previously mentioned and which are such a ubiquitous feature of the Cretan landscape, making everything for net supports to fences, gates and frames for goat shelters, are more often seen in the UK on construction sites where they are used to strengthen concrete. I suspect that their popularity, or at least availability, might however be on the decline here over the next few months. Many of the buildings in the village were put up in the 1960s and 1970s as the tourist boom started and most if not all featured balconies of some sort. These balconies were supposedly made of concrete reinforced with the above mentioned bars. I say supposedly because last month one of these balconies collapsed, writing off half a dozen hire bikes parked beneath it. On inspection it was apparent to all that the number of reinforcing bars used in the construction of the balcony was minimal and the few that were there were almost all rusted through. There has been a sudden demand for scaffolding as everybody with a balcony from that era suddenly realises that it could be their balcony next and that it may not just be pushbikes underneath if it falls. Romeo and Juliet would currently find it hard to locate a balcony from which to operate.

Still, as my friend Spiros said, for no apparent reason since we were discussing the Euro crisis at the time:

“Do you know Mick, hermits tend not to breed.”

That’s Crete for you.

5. Lore and Disorder

#5  Lore and disorder

Sat here shaving my pastruma* and blessing the person who thought up that particular use for a camel, I got to considering how Greeks, and Cretans, are essentially a law abiding, religious, people.

According to the very well held local belief, Greek law concerning motor cycle helmets requires that each person on the motorbike be in possession of a helmet  while the bike is moving…it doesn’t require the persons on the bike to wear the helmet, just to have one in their possession**. This explains the common sight around the village of a motorbike/scooter/moped rider proceeding on his or her way at high speed with their helmet carried in the crook of their arm. In fact the only people who appear to wear them are the local motorbike cop (sometimes) and touring German and Austrian bikers (always).

Cretan religiosity is often observed if one sees people passing an Orthodox church; as often as not they will make a sign of the cross on their chest, using the three fingers of their right hand and going from right to left to distinguish them from those western heretics who use other than three fingers and go left to right (atheist, Presbyterian, Jewish and readers who aren’t as intrigued as I am by this sort on minutiae don’t need to bother about this particular detail).

Thus last week: a young couple i.e. younger than me but, as it happens, well out of their teenage years, driving along the road on a totally clapped out Honda 90 moped, both the man on the front and the woman on the pillion seat with their helmets over their arms. They are clearly not that used to this mode of transport and the woman in particular is looking less than happy at the breakneck speed (about 15kph) they are travelling at. As they approach the corner opposite the kafenion in which I was sat, the woman spots that there is a church on the bend and, just as the driver leans the bike into the corner, proceeds to attempt to change the helmet from on hand to the other in order to cross herself. Now, even at 15kph on a gentle corner, the act of transferring a helmet from her right hand to her left hand while simultaneously attempting to cross herself, produced an alarming effect on the stability of the moped which proceeded to wobble alarmingly as the driver struggled to retain control. He eventually managed to get round the corner, thankfully there was no other traffic around, and they continued down the road, the woman still crossing herself but this time with her eyes firmly shut. While I have no doubt her act of piety will reward her in her heaven, I couldn’t help thinking that another one like that would guarantee her arrival there somewhat earlier than planned.

As some of you may have noticed, there is a minor problemette with the Greek finances, an issue that was summed up for me by a room owner who, swearing at the fact that she now had to put the money for my overnight stay through the till rather than in the biscuit tin on the bar of the kafenion, explained it all with the immortal, and highly indignant words;

 “Greece has no money left so now I have to pay my taxes!” 

While this is undoubtedly an interesting approach to taxation, it was also one which took on a different complexion in the light of my experience with the same landlady the previous evening. (Don’t panic…it’s nothing like that.) I had need of an ironing board, I know it’s not what you expected to hear but it is nevertheless, true, and I knocked on the door of her room to ask for one. As it happens there was one just inside her apartment with a pile of clothes on the top of it and she readily agreed to allow me the use of it. I started to remove the clothes from the ironing board when she gave a shriek and jumped in to stop me moving any more. There, under the top layer of yet to be ironed clothes, lay a 9mm hand gun and a spare clip of ammunition.  Now I know that there are those who practice ‘Extreme Ironing,’ doing it on the tops of mountains, while parachuting etc. and I know one person who would probably even attempt to do his ironing at 40 metres under the Red Sea if he thought he could get away with it, and if he knew what an iron was, but this was the first time I realised that ‘Cretan Extreme Ironing, requires the participants to be armed. It also made me realise that I wouldn’t fancy being the tax collector in that particular village.


*This is an act that’s perfectly legal in Greece provided one is prepared to put up with the consequences when one ventures out in public after having done so. I recommend using a very sharp knife; the battery driven devices just aren’t up to the job.

**I’ve no idea whether this is correct….as a matter of course, being acquainted with both Cretan roads and Cretan drivers, on the rare occasion I ride a motor bike I always wear at least one helmet, two if I can get away with it.