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My home town of Sitia is routinely described as a sleepy kind of place, and sleepy it is.
Sleepy enough that I couldn’t write about my time there, until after I’d left it behind, three weeks on: its lazy cafes and brandy bars encouraged nothing so much as more brandy and more coffee. A town of 10k souls, that never sought to amount to much, and the windy slow road here from Agios Nikolaos guarantees for now it won’t—and that the locals will have something external to blame for it. Sitia is bigger than Ag Nik, but Ag Nik gets all the tourists and the bustle; Sitia is proud to be a hub for its farmers, but Ierapetra has grown far richer from its greenhouses, and it gets the population too.
This was the first time I’d heard the locals complain that they were in the middle of nowhere, disconnected from the rest of the country. In truth, the only difference now is that they are unusual as a Greek regional town for being cut off. And at least they have an airport now.
But it is a small, cozy place, Sitia, and it’s very hard to put out of mind when you’re there, how small and cozy it is. (Or seen differently, claustrophobic.) One of the many regional brutalist towns of Greece, clinging to a hill, all the more precariously as you get closer to the hilltop, with streets no wider than when the town was rebuilt under the name of Avniye in 1870. (The short lifespan of Ottoman Sitia made it all the easier to get rid of all traces of it.) I dare not imagine how claustrophobic a place it was in Venetian Crete, when it was a mere landing strip under the long-since ruined fort of Kazarma (Casa di Arma). The Kazarma still stands out over the city as the only well-ordered construction, the only hint of something monumental and spacious, amidst the improvised brutalist apartment blocks, and the half-hearted domes of the three parish churches. The mediaeval maze you still see in Old Rethymnon or Old Chania did not survive the town being razed; but the way the Ottomans rebuilt the town, it might as well have.
The results are something the locals are used to. Pickup trucks, scooters and pedestrians interlacing, none of them in any particular hurry. Shop owners treating their enterprises as a front for the tapas bars they open up to their friend the quiet part of the workday (including, so help me, a service station, the owner and a friend knocking back brandy). Melancholy stray dogs moseying from shopfront to shopfront, ignored. Everyone knowing everyone else, and lots of backslapping in the promenade. An average Greek country town, in other words. And people making their way around the neo-mediaeval alleys of the town, with not much friction.
Not none, mind:
2 PM, Venizelos St. One of the main thoroughfares of the town, and where my family used to stroll in our Sunday best when I was a child. It looked a lot wider when I was a child. The street is clearly not wide enough for two cars side by side.
The street is empty, people have gone home for lunch—and the older and idler for siesta. A truck stops in front of a clothing store, to pick up some shirts.
The car behind him discovers that Venizelos St. is not wide enough for two cars side by side. And its driver communicates that very clearly to the truck driver.
As the truck driver emerges with his first load of clothes, the car driver exclaims:
I’LL HAVE YOU KNOW I’M CALLING THE POLICE.
The reply comes from the unfussed truck driver:
BUDDY, YOU SHOULD BE CALLING THE MAYOR.
No, it is not clear that a call to the driver’s testicles would be any more effective. But irate Greek has its own internal logic.
I used to have an oppressive feeling when I’d come back here on visits. “Not this shit again.” That feeling is quite gone now. All that I had this time around was the vaguest of recognition, and “well, this is a pleasant resort town”. It’s a fine place to retire, I guess. I didn’t feel it was a place for me, which means that I’m not quite ready to retire. And if I no longer felt that old feeling of oppression there, then my bonds to the place have been severed as well.
It is a delight for me to be somewhere where there is no question of getting an ice cream or a crepe at 11 pm, and where you can be walking around at that time of night with no concern. (Being on the receiving arm of that lack of concern, as drunks walked home from the bar that time of night—not so much.) There is good food to be had, and if you’re into that kind of thing, there is a hell of a lot of brandy on offer.
But as the old couplet recognised, the capital of Sitia is its people.
“Chania is for arms; Rethymno for learning;
Iraklio is for drinking.”
τα Χανιά για τ’ άρματα, το Ρέθεμνος για τα γράμματα,
το Κάστρο για το ποτήρι…
… Oddly enough, it was decades after I learned that incomplete couplet, while living in Sitia, that I learned its ending, far from Sitia:
“Sitia are pure swine.”
Στειακοί καθάριοι χοίροι.
(Attestations in https://sarantakos.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/manolios/.)
No depending on externalities to define the people of Sitia. A generous testimony from the other towns of the island…
I was saddened my first week in Sitia, because the café I defaulted to to work from, Café Corner, did not feature much of interest in its crowd. There was a pleasant group of English retirees, familiar enough with local ways that they knew how Greeks tell age (“I’m closing 79 years of age, as they say here”), and they were puzzled over the local enduring custom of burning Judas in effigy (“but that’s nowhere in the Bible!”There was creative latitude in the celebrating of Guy Fawkes too.) That aside, busy young and middle-aged people, in and out. The only consolation there was the barista, who would grumble to himself, like a gravelly Brian Blessed, couplets and insults and stories in dialect, to keep himself entertained. As his particular way of inflecting “piece of shit” gave away (κοπρέ), he wasn’t even a local, his phonology was West Cretan.
The dialect is indeed dying, and is a lot worse off than it was in the 1980s. In much of the town, all that survives is the sing-song intonation (even that unevenly), and a couple of words; I’m surprised that epae “here” has outlived ida “what?”, as the only dialectal word I heard with any regularity.
But I was set aright by my cousin: the place to hang out was Café Drosoulites, named after yearly ghosts reported from Sfakia, out West. The owners there are out-of-towners, but they were the eye-rolling outsiders this time; the Brian Blessed performances were being given by the customers, all of whom were older than me, nursed coffees for hours and brandy shot glasses for a lot less time, and sang love hymns to their tractors. I actually got to look on as two women commandeered a table to clean vine leaves, to make dolmades with at home.
(Women did in fact turn up in the café, albeit not in great numbers: that is a change from the traditional division in Greece, where men dominated the public space, and women the private. A generation ago, those women would only go out to visit each other at home.)
Plenty of dialect to be heard there. Rarely to be heard with people’s inside voice. Often still in rhyming couplets, as an earworm form of proverbial wisdom.
The youngest and loudest regular I saw in Café Drosoulites (not by much) appears to be a former mayor, who is still pursuing office. It being elections season, he showed up a few times, brandy carafe in hand, to ensure the cafe regulars were electorally well-disposed towards him.
AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A CITY COUNCILLOR! DAMN ILLITERATE!
WHY? YOU RECKON MY COLLEAGUES ARE ANY MORE LITERATE THAN ME?
That session got me the phrase that made my entire stay in Sitia worthwhile:
The former mayor’s brandy carafe flows freely, and one of the customers that had received the former mayor’s liquid bounty appears to have been insufficiently fawning in his response.
… MAY YOU BURN AND ROAST! YOU DO NOT HONOUR THE MAN WHO BRINGS YOU DRINK!
(Απού να καείς και να φουρναρίσεις! Δεν τιμάς τον άθρωπο απού σε κερνά!)
Who knew there were Klingons hiding in plain site in my home town.
I envy the Brian Blessed types who walk this country and perform their party pieces. I wish I was as έξω καρδιά “hearts out!” (as the locals say) as they are, and able to put on such a performance. In a good enough mood, and with enough exposure, I can essay an impersonation; and I’ve been building up dialect competence in my three weeks here, like learning to ride a bike again. I enjoy it when I start speaking Greek fluently again, and building the confidence to come up with linguistically interesting errors. There’s been enough attrition here, that the bits of dialect I recall have brought out smiles of recognition from relatives, rather than cringe. kodo “d’you think”, ksa su “never you mind”, ʝi “or what?”
It’s a matter of time till those little signposts of identity are extinguished; just as the turns of phrase I was reading about in January, that Contossopoulos had recorded in the 60s, are long forgotten. Like the obligation to make an exception, if you disparaged a town—”Iraklio is a complete dive! (Excepting any monasteries that might be there.)” “Agios Nikolaos is full of layabouts! (Excepting the Manousakis clan, those are fine upstanding folk)”—traditional society welcomed you putting on a Brian Blessed performance of bigotry, but you had to make at least some gesture of fair-mindedness to make up for it.
I had the whiff of death that first week I was in Sitia, as I could see what had gone. I found enough survivals in the second week, that had not died yet, that took me back to my childhood, to get me through.
Including a dish I’d quite forgotten, and ordered on my last night in town, at random. Skioufichta makaronia [skjufixta makaronja], “twisted macaroni”. Small twisted penne, cooked in broth and butter, topped with an immoderate heaping of anthotyros—grated salty white cheese. And nothing else (despite what the Internet tells you): no mushrooms, no pork sausage, no sun-dried tomatoes.
Resulting in a brothy mac-and-cheese, that goes down light, but suffuses you with gooey brine. And that took me right back to my great-aunt Despina’s kitchen.
(Closest I could get: https://www.cretangastronomy.gr/2011/04/skioufixta-makaronia/. Consumed at Cretan House taverna, Sitia, because culinary authenticity is now marketable.)
These things all perish in time; that was my sadness of the first week. These things are to be celebrated while they yet endure: that was my contentment of the last week.
And my shot in the arm half way through my stay was my lightning visit to Iraklio and Chania, cities of 60k and of 100k. I am someone of the city, and I need a city around me to feel alive.
Which is why my next stop in Karpathos (population: 6k, dialect zones: 4) is an interesting choice of destination…