Wednesday, May 7, 2008

BACK TO THE FUTURE: PART 2

Dear Friends,

I must say that I was pleased with my surrogate apartment, but I was also totally exhausted, both mentally and physically. Since getting up early Wednesday morning at 4:00 AM, I had slept very little – in fact, I didn’t sleep at all on the flight from Nashville to New York, and at best only a couple of hours on the flight from New York to Athens, and Thursday evening I only dozed sporadically at the Athens International Airport as I tried to remain awake and alert enough to hold onto my luggage, camera bag, and computer bag while awaiting my departure flight to Crete at 1:30 AM Friday morning. So, here I was, finally in my apartment, it was Friday morning and since Wednesday morning I had slept not more than about four hours. I tried to stay up, but by 11:00 AM, I went to bed, totally spent! I awoke on May 3, Saturday morning at about 3:00 AM, but forced myself to stay in bed until just after 6:00 AM. I got up, showered, dressed, threw my camera backpack over my shoulder and decided that it was time to find out if the Iraklion I once knew and loved even still existed. I walked to the bus stop that was located about 100 yards from my apartment and waited. As I did not have a bus schedule, I had no idea when the bus would arrive, which bus would take me to Iraklion, what the bus fare would be, or if there was even a bus that went to Iraklion. After waiting about 20 minutes I saw a bus coming up the road toward me, swaying back and forth like a tired, overweight, aging hog. It stopped in front of the bus stop, its door opened wide; I took one step up through the door and asked, ”Heraklion?” The bus driver nodded and I handed him a 5 Euro note. He mumbled something as he gave me change and a ticket. I didn’t know it at the time, but riders are supposed to purchase tickets in advance, so that as they board, the driver tears the ticket in half, and off they go. The very next time that I boarded a bus with no advance ticket, the driver stopped at the first bus stop where there was a kiosk selling tickets, made me leave the bus, purchase a ticket, and then re-board the bus...now I knew! As the bus approached Iraklion, I became nervous, anxious, afraid...it was the kind of anxiety and fear that you experience when you are about to meet an old friend whom you haven’t seen in almost forty years. Will the two of you recognize each other? Will you remember each other? Will either of you even care? Over the years I have come to realize that most of our fears are unfounded, self-induced. We are usually more afraid of what might be, than the reality of what is - so it was with me. The bus made its way through narrow, winding streets filled with people, honking horns, and more stores and little shops than I remembered. I looked for recognizable landmarks and then passed a church on the left that looked familiar – it was St. Minas Church. I knew that I was not far from Elefterias Square, which had been the main stopping point for the Iraklion Air Station shuttle bus...directly in front of the Astoria Hotel, and one of my most memorable landmarks. Suddenly we came out of a side street and opening before me was Elefterias Square...or was it? Everything looked so different. As we went round the square, I looked for the Astoria Hotel. The bus came to a stop and everyone got off, including me. There, across the way and a little to the left was the Astoria Hotel...but even it somehow looked different. I walked toward the Astoria, crossed the street and stood in front of the hotel. I knew there used to be a small park with lots of trees, shrubs and bushes just across the street and directly in front of the Astoria. I turned and where the park used to be there was now a giant plaza of sorts – a great expanse of smooth marble and giant, towering aluminum polls leaning at about a thirty degree angle. Oh, the statue with the soldier holding his rifle was still there, but only the largest of the trees remained, and all other bushes, shrubs and greenery were gone. Somehow it looked cold and harsh, almost desolate...no longer with personality or character. I turned a full 360 degrees...looking...standing in awe and amazement. I thought to myself, “Where has my Iraklion gone? What have they done to my Iraklion?” I felt my heart sink and the air go out of my lungs as if I had been tossed inside of a great vacuum. Without really intending to do so, I entered the lobby of the Astoria Hotel. Hanging in the center of the lobby was a huge chandelier, glistening and sparkling from the rays of the morning sun. To the left was the reception desk. I walked over to the desk clerk and told him that I used to come here forty years ago to have a drink in the bar or dinner in the restaurant when I was a young man in the Air Force. I asked him where the bar was, and he said, “It is in the back – where it has always been”. “No”, I said, politely, “forty years ago it used to be right over there”, pointing to the right side of the lobby. He appeared obviously agitated that I had corrected him. “Well, forty years ago, I wasn’t even here”, he snapped. I turned and as I walked away, I muttered, “No. But I was”. I left the lobby of the Astoria Hotel and stepped back out onto the busy streets and sidewalks of the “new” Iraklion. I felt a little numb. I decided to try to find some of the other landmarks that I remembered, but first I needed to orient myself...if I could. The streets around Elefterias Square radiate outward like skinny, twisted fingers winding their way through Iraklion, and from those streets, even smaller passageways and narrow alleyways continue their twists and turns. I began walking. I wanted to find Morosini Fountain (better known to us Airmen as Lions Square), Market Street, and St. Titus Church. I was also hungry – it occurred to me that I had not eaten since Thursday evening at the airport in Athens, and here it was, almost midday Saturday. I found a little bakery and bought something that looked like a cross between a bagel and a donut. I don’t know what it was, but it was good. I was hungrier than I realized. I think that I could have eaten the south end out of a north bound mule! After looking for the previously mentioned landmarks, and not finding them, and getting lost several times along the way, I finally made my way back to Elefterias Square. I stopped a waiter at one of the sidewalk cafes that line one side of the Square and asked for directions to Market Street. He told me, and off I was. Following his directions, I found Market Street with little difficulty, but even Market Street was different. The tiny, narrow shops with sagging awnings that once lined either side of Market Street had now given way to more permanent stores and shops, some with glass doors and glitzy showcases displaying their wares. Even the butcher shops that used to have fly-covered goat carcasses hanging in front of their shops like Christmas hams, have now been replaced by little meat markets with coolers out front displaying freshly cut and neatly trimmed meats. Before, you could scarcely pass a shop without the proprietor coming out, taking you by the arm, and firmly guiding you into his little store with promises of a good deal on any item...just because he liked you. And, heaven forbid if you should pay the asking price for any item; that was like an insult. You could bargain, argue, cajole, and then stomp out of a shop with the owner on your heels begging you to return, pulling at your sleeve, just so that he could give you his special price! Today, the prices are marked on the items and that is what you pay...in Euros, of course; even the Greek Drachmae has disappeared!

Later, I was able to find Morosini Fountain, or Lions Square as we called it. There was a blue vinyl tarpaulin encircling the entire fountain, but I pulled it down just far enough to take a peek. There was no water running in the fountain, and it looked as if they were preparing to perform some type of restorative work. There are still shops and little cafes surrounding Lions Square, however, traffic is no longer permitted around the fountain. As I stood there, I remembered a little shop that sold trinkets, jewelry and other souvenirs, owned by a man named Helmut Grimm. I recalled he was German. I looked around, and saw a small shop with the name, “Eva Grimm”, stenciled on the window. I walked inside from the bright sunlight; it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dimness inside. A rather husky looking fellow with dark hair and bushy eyebrows stood behind the counter. I told him who I was and then asked if the “Eva Grimm” whose name was on the plate glass window of his shop was related to Helmut Grimm. He explained that Eva Grimm had been the wife of Helmut Grimm, but that both Helmut and Eva Grimm were now deceased. He then went on to say that his name was Errick Grimm, and that he was their son. I told him that I remembered his father very well, and that I used to visit his shop almost every time that I came to Lions Square. I also shared with Errick what a pleasant man his father had been, and how he always seemed to have plenty of time to talk with me. Errick seemed genuinely moved that someone who remembered his father from nearly forty years before would take the time to come by his shop and inquire about his father. Before leaving, we shook hands and as I walked out, he said something that reminded me of his father; “Come back...anytime. You are always welcome here.”

I returned to Elefterias Square and stood just a little ways down from the Astoria Hotel and waited for the bus back to Amoudara. When I arrived back at my apartment, I lay down on the bed, stared at the ceiling and tried to place into perspective the events of the day. Then, quite suddenly, I had an epiphany, a realization, an awakening. I got up from the bed and stood in front of the mirror that was above the dresser. That young man who had just turned twenty years old barely two weeks before arriving on Crete had been replaced with the image of a man, with thinning, graying hair, lines beneath his eyes, and with a blonde mustache and goatee that were fast becoming white. I smiled at the reflection and began to laugh: If I could change so dramatically in forty years, then how could I reasonably expect Iraklion not to do the same? I think at that point, I, Iraklion, and my past had become reconciled. Now, I can start to really enjoy Crete!

*NOTE: I should probably mention that Heraklion and Iraklion are one and the same city. The Greeks usually spell it Heraklion, while most Americans often spell it Iraklion.

5 comments:

William said...

Good show Bobby! Keep em coming. I went back to Crete for a second tour, from 74-78. I had changed alot in the 2 and half years I was gone. I can just imagine how much it has changed since then. I think everyone is getting hungry. Give us a taste of maybe Souvlaki......Bill Simmons

mac said...

Bob,If you are at Lyons Sq again walk about 300 ft toward the water and you will see a couple of Gyro shops.One is George's.Stop in and ask for Peter.He is one of my Greek nephews who works there.Speaks very good english.Also across from the old caprice you will see small food shops on the other side of the sq .One is run by the son of one of the Mikes who worked in the Clubs on base.You might go to the banks to exchange your money as I found it cheaper the the ATM machines.

shirley said...

Bob,

I began reading your blog today. You are doing a great job of bringing Crete to those of us who had the pleasure of working at Iraklion AS...back in the day!
I was stationed there (one of the first of the enlisted women on the island) from Jan 1969 through Jul 1970. I worked at Base Supply. I married Mike Bergman (from AFRTS) at the base chapel in June 1970. Keep the memories and adventures coming! Shirley Smith Bergman

mac said...

Shirley,I also worked in supply.When you were there I was in research.I went to AFRTS in Tokyo after Crete.You can reach me at ..papou1939@comcast.net..Like to hear from you.Mac

Anonymous said...

Bob, you are doing what my husband and I have dreamed of doing.  We met at Iraklion AS in 1990.  He was the Shirt for the Pound Puppies, and I worked at the Base Hospital.  You descriptions of what Crete is today is one of the reasons we haven't gone back.  We remember how it was . . .Karen Rein