“The secret of Crete is deep. He who sets foot on the island feels a strange strength penetrating through his veins and his soul widens.” —Nikos Kazantzakis
Go ahead and think of Greek islands as sun-baked bliss in blue and white. I had fallen into the habit of hopping to Athens and hightailing to Crete, accustomed to the way the light, the culture, and a skin-tight friend brightened my year. But, from the first hours I spent there, the mysteries lurking in the shadows beckoned me in a way the beaches never could. For all of Crete’s sunshine, its heart resides in darkness, in its starlit nights, its mountain shadows and chilly caves. And so, I finally managed to schedule my tenth trip to coincide with the onset of winter, in a way, to join Persephone, on her annual excursion into the nether regions.
As the reputed birthplace of Zeus and Western culture, Crete lived up to its standing in a sneaky way for me. For years, my wife, Robbie, and I had bypassed Knossos and other commonly seen sights, rushing straight into the arms of Debb Papadinoff, our long time friend. Stylish, intriguing, erudite, worldly and determined, she sashays past the ordinary, but misses nothing in life. Following her lead, we entered the island through a back door, where I felt the people and the landscape of Crete had thrown a gauntlet at my feet, challenging me to look deeper.
I found tsikoudia (tsick-oo-thee-ah), the Cretan version of grappa, served to me within three hours of first setting foot there, to embody that gauntlet. Distilled from must, the skins and stems leftover from winemaking, it flows inexpensively from the mountain villages. Cretans drink it throughout the night, and some drink it throughout the day. A clear and assertive brandy, flavored with ingredients close at hand – herbs, commonly thyme, or citrus rinds – my first sip knocked my head back and goaded me toward a masochistic second, but from then on, it has given me pure pleasure. Debb described the ritual of its making, throughout the long nights in one of the darkest times of year, as a portal into the Cretan underworld.
She convinced John, an old acquaintance and fellow American expatriate, to take us to a kazani, one of the legal stills that are licensed for a day or however long it takes for a villager to distill a supply of wine must. John balked, disinterested in acting as a tour guide. The Brooklyn native bolted to Crete in the 1970’s, a time when American kids flocked to the island. He stayed, working as a carpenter, learning the language and slowly gaining entry into the culture. Debb must have guaranteed that our behavior wouldn’t get him shunned for eternity, because he agreed. But he insisted that we go to a kazani in a nearby village, not his own. And he warned us that he would keep the location secret.
We took a bus to Drapanias, not far from Hania, and stepped into the main intersection, dusty and blinding in mid-afternoon. Debb knew the way, up the hill, past the armory, the church, and down a lane hemmed in by ruined walls and rusty chicken wire. We found John’s house and he greeted us with a spatula in hand, and then introduced us to his teenage daughters who were giggling and teasing each other at the kitchen table. Giorgina, an electrifying Greek woman who was raised in South Africa, worked to clear the mess John left behind as he commandeered an angry wok full of boiling oil and a pile of sliced potatoes. The half-English, half-American, Crete-residing daughters waited for daddy’s chips.
With baking mittens on both hands, John kept loading the table with fortifications for the night ahead, spinach and cheese pies, chips, sausages, pork chops, frittata. By cooking madly, he escaped questions about what we should expect. His own hospitality overtook him as the evening wore on, and his long arms and workman’s hands flew as he slowly revealed stories of living more than thirty years in Crete.
Long after dark, John guided his rickety hatchback through labyrinth olive groves, the headlights sweeping over their pale leaves, a low forest without landmarks. I could have driven forever without finding my way through.
He had wedged his daughter into the boot where she braced herself against a half-barrel of wine must that had been left to ferment for three months. He lashed the barrel to the hatch, giving it some stability, but the skinny kid held it upright through every switchback.
A full moon greeted us as we entered a village along a hillside, and pulled over to a house on the side of the road. Beneath its terrace, halfway down the hill, in a pit big enough to hold twice their number, a dozen Cretans tended the kazani fire. An outside corner of the dug-out room accommodated a fireplace with an opening five feet square. All eyes rose to us as John untied the barrel and hoisted his daughter, hollering in Greek, “I brought dancing girls!”
In the middle of the pit, a bare light bulb hung over a plastic dining table, where men and women sat and drank, smoked, and nibbled on the most basic and rustic foods in the Cretan diet. Chestnuts fall at this time of year, and they were roasting in hot coals. The fire consumed vine cuttings and heavy, twisted olive limbs that were at least a century old.
At ground level above us, a copper kettle boiled over the fire, its tapered beak running off to the side. The man in charge, in his fifties, covered with grime and wearing shorts and flip-flops, stood over the kettle, the whites of his bulging eyes and his teeth picking up the moonlight. His left hand, missing two fingers, cleaved to the handle of a pitchfork. He speaks no English, and issued orders to a younger man who had signed on to help him through the night.
When the time came to refill the kettle, the men worked a story above those of us in the pit. After lifting the lid, they used the pitchforks to scoop out steaming, sodden loads of stems, skins, and sheaves of thyme placed in the bottom of the kettle to prevent scorching. These dark burly men, swaddled in steam against the night, the inferno crackling and blistering in my face, smoke hugging the dirt and rock walls and the fresh tsikoudia all tugged me toward an underworld.
From the lid of the kettle, a coil of copper tubing spiraled down the length of an oil drum filled with cold water, allowing the brew to cool and condense. At the bottom of the coil, from a crooked spout, dribbled the clear object of our desire. That’s where the women took over. Below the spout, they had set a pail with a sheet of muslin stretched over it, and a clean kitchen sponge to serve as a filter. They checked specific gravity, monitoring the alcohol content.
The warm brew cast its spell on the gathering. John picked chestnuts out of the coals with his bare hands, juggling them to the table. Neighbors and relatives showed up with cheese pies, more chestnuts, and freshly gathered snails, abundant as winter settles in. A cousin set a skillet of olive oil and garlic near the fire, and then dropped in handfuls of snails. When they were done, we splashed them with vinegar and set upon them with jacknives and sharp sticks, yanking out and slurping down the mollusks.
Any time I’m raising toasts with greasy fingers, I’m a happy man. Feasts like this seem to erupt right out of the earth in Crete. But this time, we had fallen in, as if the ground had given way under us, fallen into the islanders’ legendary generosity and spontaneity.
The tsikoudia supply will last a year. They will drink it daily, sometimes judiciously, sometimes not. Home distillation of the last pressing takes place all over the Mediterranean, but it had its roots here, in Minoan life. Archaeologists have scraped residue of tsikoudia off pottery that’s 3,000 years old. The myth of Hades could well have been spun under its influence. Scholars describe tsikoudia-soaked bacchanals that gave rise to mantinades, ancient Cretan verses:
The love I love is one
My God is one as well
with others I simply laugh and play
just to flirt with hell.
We caught the scent of kazani fires while driving along the road from Rethymno, on the north coast, to Spili, a mountain village tucked into the island’s spine. It was late Sunday afternoon, and Niko had invited us to join him at the village kazani.
Smiling as he entered the inn, Niko hugged and kissed the mother and son who ran the place. We could tell that he had already been to the kazani (in fact, he’d been to two) for several hours. He told us the whole village had been there, but the party had moved to a café just a short walk away.
We followed him to a backstreet where a couple of cafés faced a bluff, along which is a linear fountain, a trough catching spring water that gushes from the mouths of nineteen lion heads, sculpted into the mountainside. The café hummed with young villagers, laughing and flirting, several sheets to the wind. When the waiter finished setting down our ouzo, he crossed the street to the lions’ heads, and returned with tumblers filled with frigid water. For all the drinking of spirits and wine, Cretans love their water most. It plunges from the snowy peaks through deep gorges, gushing from subterranean springs and into ubiquitous glass pitchers, always sweating against the heat, as if the transition from dark and cold to bright and warm had been too sudden.
Niko led us out of the village, a half-hour walk along a ridge, to a roadside taverna where another family stood to welcome him. The father and sons set us a table with extra chairs (for themselves, eventually) on the terrace, overlooking a black chasm, miles wide, dotted with lights twinkling from shepherds’ cabins. I scoured the valley for kazani fires.
The sons brought snails, in heaps, and pitchers of the family’s wine, and grilled rabbit, and octopus, more water, more wine, and sliced beets atop their greens anointed with oil and the vinegar. Everything on that table had pushed its way through earth or waves, through careful hands and stretches of time. We made a mess of shells and dishes, but we had the taverna and the family to ourselves. Finally stanching the flow of wine, we hit the road, over which a late harvest moon had risen, lighting our way. Niko wove down the ridge, singing and dancing, still determined to take us to the kazani.
A quarter mile outside the village, we heard singing and clapping. As we stumbled into town, it grew louder, until there we were, passing an old style kafeneion, flooded with cruel fluorescent light, decorated with fading political posters and spartan tables, laid open to the street through glass sliders. Usually, places like this buzz quietly with soft voices and the clicking of worry beads or dominoes echoing off the terrazzo floors. But that night, all hell had broken loose. Young men in leather jackets sat at a long table with old men in cardigans and one young village woman, all singing at the top of their lungs, thumping tables, and drinking tsikoudia. Seeing Niko, they called to us and leapt up to add another table.
They gave me a chair on the end, with my back against an old sewing machine. The proprietor plunked down carafes of tsikoudia and dishes of sliced cucumbers, peanuts, feta, olives and tomatoes. Debb sat next to me, translating lyrics, and Robbie sat at her other arm, wearing a full blown smile for all to see.
The din of laughter, singing, clapping, and banging shot glasses on tables cut my tethers to past or future, throwing all my senses into the scene before me. Suddenly, I heard Debb say to Robbie: “He wants you to open your hand.” One of the men reached a closed hand over the table. The women stretched out their palms, and the man said nothing while he dribbled pomegranate seeds into their hands. The sight of those ruby-red seeds struck me, knowing, as did everyone in the room, that they expressed a profound welcome and a certain kind of claiming that goes back to Persephone. By consuming them, she bound herself to return to Hades every winter. Debb pitched them into her mouth and Robbie ate them one by one, to the applause of the giver and the old man sitting next to her.
One man gathered himself, got up to leave and was caught by the coat and thrown right back into his chair. He shrugged and put his hat back on the table. A stout guy in his thirties barely entered when a seated friend grabbed him around the middle. Half tackled, he bent over his friend’s shoulder, snatched a glass off the table, drank it down, and smashed the glass on the floor, causing an even greater uproar.
He laughed and squeezed in next to me. Throwing money on the table, he poured tsikoudia for everyone with reach. At the other end, the young village woman, to the delight of her husband, hopped onto the tables in mid-step of a dance with another man. We dove to clear tottering carafes and glasses, as the man’s workboots pounded out the beat and the woman egged him on. Raised hands, a kind of clapping wave, surrounded the dancers, who barely kept their balance. But at our end, the wild man next to me grabbed the corner and shook the tables under them. Somehow, they stayed on their feet until they could get back on the floor, yanking the old men near them into their dance.
Such exuberance often leads to plate-smashing, but in this place, metal ashtrays and a few shot glasses were swept to the feet of the dancers, then a pomegranate went spinning to the center of the circle and they all danced around it. An elderly man lost his balance and fell backwards, into a pile of chairs, but found safety. So the song spontaneously shifted to a cheerful wail about a shepherd who had broken his back. The wild man next to me poured me another drink, and toasted. Cretans never take a sip from a fresh glass without saluting, “yamas.” In broken English, he yelled “What is your name?”
“Pavlos,” I said. (It appears I had gone native.)
He straightened his back, narrowed his eyes, touched his sternum with his fingertips and said, “You are Pavlos?” Uh-oh, I thought, as his friends took notice. Then he shouted, “I am Pavlos!” Surprised, we toasted again, drank again, and this time he took my glass and lobbed it onto the floor near the dancers. He beckoned Christos, who once lived in Chicago, and who immediately said, “All his life, living in this village, he has never met another Pavlos.” Just when I thought I had reached the limit of camraderie, I suddenly had eight more comrades.
He asked why I wasn’t dancing. And, I asked why he wasn’t. But before Christos translated that question, he explained that Pavlos had worked for the power company and had lost both legs, below the knees, to a high voltage wire. Insisting on hearing my question, though, Pavlos laughed and supplied an answer: “the last time I danced, it was the ultimate; I danced with lightning.”
Anything could happen. Fear was a joke, injury a song, and death a dance partner. Half in the bag and surrounded by madmen and my favorite women, I privately saluted the mysteries remaining in my own life.
I dreamt that night of the Cretan winter sky, blinding sun eclipsed by angry clouds. To the sun, I closed my eyes and sought darkness, and with the clouds overhead, I searched for rays of light. In dark corners of Crete, where the secrets are stashed, Zorba can be found, celebrating “that this life and the next are but one.”
On the way out of town in the morning, I spotted Pavlos by his smoke shop, leaning on an ice cream chest. I got out to say goodbye. He hugged me hard. “I love you,” he said. A lump clenched in my throat. I avoid empty promises, but blurted, “We’ll come back.” And, like the king of the underworld himself, he waved and said, “I know you will.”
The pomegranate seeds and Persephone prove that we have no choice but to go back and forth, from dark to light. With tsikoudia as my ferryman, I found a vibrant spirit in an underworld, one that dispels fear and defines life. Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis defines enlightenment as “gazing with undimmed eyes upon all darkness.”
Crete won’t look the same again. Nothing does. Shadows fall on me like mercy. I toast the demons at my table. The unknown cools my quest for answers. And if I go into the darkness, I must be ready to find secrets that defy the light of understanding, that lie there for reasons all their own.
Causes Paul Hertneky Supports
Monadock Area Transitional Shelter
Monadnock Humane Society
The Harris Center for Outdoor Education