Thursday, 23 March 2017



In Sfakia: Passing Time in the Wilds of Crete (2008) | By Peter Trudgill



Text by Chris Deliso*   
Crete has long been acknowledged as one of the most singular and unique parts of Greece. Its people keep a fierce hold on their traditions, customs and history. Practically a country of its own, this vast island looms over all others in Greece. Nevertheless, as In Sfakia author Peter Trudgill aptly notes in his preface, “some parts of Crete are more special than others, and Sfakia, on the remote south coast, is certainly one of those.”

While Crete receives around a quarter of Greece’s annual tourists, most of them are sequestered in the north coast’s package-tour resorts. Still, some find their way to the strongholds of the south coast for extended periods of time, and it is not surprising that such folk tend to develop strong and lasting relationships with this serene, unspoiled region where the cliffs meet the sea. Having lived there myself, I can testify that barely a day goes by during which I am not reminded of it in one way or another (even though that period was some ten years ago now). The landscape, the people, the food and drink, the traditional music and so on- all of these cumulatively create the conditions for clarity of mind, for pure experience, making southern Crete an unforgettable place indeed, and one that has an irresistible, almost inexplicable pull, urging you to return again and again.

And this is precisely what happened to the author of this lovingly told, frequently humorous account. In Sfakia tells the story of decades of local experiences and anecdotes amassed by the author, a British academic, and his American wife, Jean, who have returned again and again, in all seasons and all weather to seek the solitude of the south. In essence, the book combines aspects of travelogue with memoir and light academia, weaving in linguistic, social and historical details of importance to the identity and traditions of the Sfakians. These facts and the author’s astute observations reinforce the sense of a unique people and place reflected also in the lively dialogue with local characters, people who over the course of years become good friends of the Trudgills.’

For any author having to tell a story of experiences going back four decades in a limited number of pages, issues of structure and presentation constitute the major challenge. Faced with this problem, author Trudgill chooses the approach of organizing each chapter more or less according to a key historical tale or essential concept, with a generally chronological thrust driving the book forward.

This method has its strengths and its weaknesses. From the point of view of a publisher, particularly, it is certainly necessary to find a way to introduce a varied readership, much of which may presumably be ‘beginners’ when it comes to things Cretan, to topics such as the 18th-century Daskaloyannis revolt against the Turks, the beachfront Venetian fortress of Frangokastello, the Samaria Gorge hike, Sfakian customs concerning marriage, traditional dance and so on; these and others are all essential aspects of the experience that have to be covered.

However, in presenting information to readers who may have little or no knowledge of the place within a generally chronological narrative structure, the author is forced to make a sacrifice- essentially, to ‘flatten’ himself as a character, obscuring the true level of experience he has gained over time, a process that likewise affects the presented interaction of himself with the book’s other characters, and their depicted perceptions of him. In parts, this introduces an aspect of improbability to the account. Indeed, it would not seem likely that the well-read author would remain uninformed about certain major local historical events for many years, though it’s necessitated by the exigencies of chapter structure. And, though he is unfailingly modest as a rule, one suspects that Mr. Trudgill’s knowledge of the Greek language is far better than he lets on.

But this tone is in any case also in keeping with the gentleness and humility special to In Sfakia, a tale that derives much of its insight from interactions with local Cretans, as they become closer to the author and his wife over the years. These local anecdotes are both humorous and enlightening. For example, when questioned about the limited public role of women in this traditional society, Sfakian local Yorghos retorts: “of course, it’s true that men appear to make most of the decisions in public. But don’t you realise that most of them have been told exactly what to say by their wives and mothers!” (p. 161). Long years of local interaction also allow the author to make some keen insights into the nature of society. He notes that a Sfakian restaurant owner might consider it an insult to their honour and perceived honesty if a patron methodically counts out his change, or how communication is often more subtle and unstated than in the West, something that can also lead to misunderstandings.

The great span of the author’s experience in Crete is remarkable, and represents perhaps the most valuable aspect of this book as a testament to future travelers and future generations. He remembers, for example, a time when the north-coast resort of Bali was a ‘fishing village’ and details precarious travels along rocky roads that have long been well paved (though other routes, like the bridge over the Aradhena Gorge, remain just as rickety and nerve-wracking now as they were when the author describes them).

Most intriguing from the point of view of living history, some of the locals who go on to be great friends of the author were encountered so long ago that they recalled the dark days of the Second World War, when Crete was under German occupation. Indeed, one of the most interesting sections of the book comes when the author recounts his presence at a 50th-anniversary ceremony for the evacuation of Allied forces from the island. Witnessing elderly British veterans come to revisit the island they had fought for a half-century earlier, searching for the caves where they had hid, is a touching moment.

On that note, In Sfakia does have one odd omission, which would seem, given the cast of characters with whom the author interacts over the years, a natural subject for discussion: Patrick Leigh Fermor, the great travel writer and former leader of the covert resistance to the Nazis on the island. While he is mentioned, there are unfortunately no great tales of his lesser-known exploits presented from the point of view of Cretans who may have actually known him. Since there is no acknowledgment of this omission, it is unclear whether the author never actually came across any such individual (which would seem rather unlikely), or whether they simply had no tales to tell.

All things considered, however, In Sfakia does succeed on a number of levels, and is especially good for those who have never been, and who seek a fundamental introduction to the area, its people and its customs. The book certainly does constitute a helpful guide, from the cultural point of view especially, to Sfakia. Yet even for those who already know the region well, but who have not been there in a while, the descriptions and dialogues conveyed on each page do make one feel homesick indeed for the greatness of the south.

*Balkantravellers.com contributor Chris Deliso is an American travel writer and journalist who has written considerably about Crete, most recently having covered the island for the 2010 Lonely Planet travel guide to Greece.

Read more about Greece on BalkanTravellers.com
Use BalkanTravellers.com's
tips to organize your trip to Greece

 

 

Epicure


Greece
Mount Athos Area KOUZINA 2014

The most famous Greek culinary event!
With the signature of the famous Greek chef Dina Nikolaou


Mount Athos Area Kouzina is a month long annual food festival which takes place from the 15th of May till the 15th of June, attracting foodies from all over the world.
Full Story



Curiosity Chest


Balkans
Greece and Albania: In the Kingdom of Ali Pasha

While travelling through the Balkans, Morelle Smith gets to know the infamous Ali Pasha, the “Lion of Ioannina.” First through the eyes of nineteenth-century writer Dora d'Istria and then through the impressive architectural heritage he left in Albania and Northern Greece. And she falls for his charms. And how could she not, knowing how fiercely Ali Pasha treated the women who turned him down? Full Story



Useful Reads


Greece
In Sfakia: Passing Time in the Wilds of Crete (2008) | By Peter Trudgill

Crete has long been acknowledged as one of the most singular and unique parts of Greece. Its people keep a fierce hold on their traditions, customs and history. Practically a country of its own, this vast island looms over all others in Greece. Nevertheless, as In Sfakia author Peter Trudgill aptly notes in his preface, “some parts of Crete are more special than others, and Sfakia, on the remote south coast, is certainly one of those.” Full Story




Music


Greece
Unbearable Nostalgia, After Theo Angelopoulos

Eleni Karaindrou | Elegy of the Uprooting |Crammed/Dyukyan Meloman, 2006
Full Story