The summer wind blows on Crete, hot, dry, and clean. I always felt it when I climbed on the terrace of our cottage east of Knossos to look at the mountains, the focus of my nostalgia when I am away. Close up, their hills are brown, scorched and pitifully dotted with dusty shrubs and ancient olive trees. In the distance, their heights form ethereal lines drawn against the sky.
We had been accustomed to walking to the coastline, and from there, tripping on the rocks, we would reach the beach. But soon, only the pleasure of the lovely cove remained. We became upset at what we saw on the beach.
The Greek girls had disappeared, protected by their parents from the influence of foreign mores. At the same time, in the modern dilemma of people in poor countries, they recognized that the tourists were their livelihood. This they admitted to me because of my Greekness. Yet, they could not protect their sons who, desperate for jobs, have to wait on tables and often to accommodate the pleasure of their customers. Sometimes, these pleasures are harmful beyond repair. I ached for them.
What was happening to my Greece?How will these youngsters grow with the ancient Greek graces if they discard the strict moral code of their elders which has helped them survive so much national tragedy and want?
What disturbed my daughters and me the most was the bitter twist in which everything foreign became equated with America. We determined to explain ourm America to the people, but after awhile we decided these could not be representatives of Crete and we set out for the hills.
I needed to renew my spirit.
A high village we had spotted from the terrace intrigued us. We climbed in utter quiet amidst the rich smells of the carobs and apricots. Memories of my childhood summers filled me, and I told stories to my two girls I thought were long forgotten.
Suddenly, Maria called from her perch on the carob tree. "Someone is coming."
An old man was riding on his donkey. He stopped when I called out, "Khereteh!" the lovely greeting which means, "Be joyful."
Sunburnt wrinkles crinkled his face as he smiled. The children drew close to him and his animal and showed off their Greek. He looked at me with open-faced, native curiousity. "You have not been long in America."
"Oh, only twenty-three years," I smiled.
He was enchanted. "How nice of you not to forget."
How could I forget? Everything Greek had shaped my life.
"Come meet my wife," he offered. "Let us give you our hospitality." The refrain of the people of Crete, hospitality their creed.
We accepted. As we walked the few narrow streets -- the odor of the animals close at every turn -- we marvelled as always in Greece that poverty has nothing to do with dirt. The cleanliness of the houses is worn like luxury. The girls and I stood in the quiet, looked at the hills, and thought of the ancient myths as he went ahead to his wife.
He called us soon, and we climbed to their yard. It was whitewashed and tiny. His wife was dressed in the usual black. She wore her dignity like an ornament on her perfect Minoan frame; small, delicate and dark. She immediately offered me hospitality, and I relaxed in her presence.
As we talked about America and my life there, she kept disappearing into the cool darkness of the house, returning with her apron full of offerings -- almonds, figs, even fresh eggs for the children.
I asked questions about the war and we found common ground. My brother-in-law was born nearby and they remembered his mother. "Ah, a noble lady. A teacher." They remembered the German officer who had killed her husband and the day the mine exploded which severed her leg. As with my beloved brother-in-law, the bitterness of the war had faded.
Unaware of their own wisdom, they felt honored that I, "an educated teacher," was asking questions of them. Their sing-song voices, the unique Cretan pronunciation of some consonants, touched me like folk music.
Their neighbors came in to meet us. We chatted with all of them. The sunset left its lingering pink-gold on their faces. I sat content and looked at them. They admired my Greek, the beauty of my children. And I loved them for everything in them that had remained graceful, Minoan, civilized, the continuation of native nobility.
This was Greece. This was Crete. They had survived centuries of suffering. What I had observed at the beach, the insipid corruption of materialism, would pass. The qualities these villagers personified -- warmth, endurance, hospitality -- were ancient and unending.
I had renewed my spirit.