May 19, 2006

Chania, Crete

So many details get lost in the rush from town to town, island to island, Internet cafe to Internetcafe. The other day I would have told you more about our last day on Santorini -- a prolonged stay there, partly because of overenthusiastic on my part, partly because of uncooperative ferry scheduling. I would have described wandering the same paths over and over, cimbing up an down the same hundreds of steps to the tiny port and back, stopping for dessert or coffee in the same couple of cafes -- modern, stylish, quiet, with a wittily idiomatic English-speaking waitress and a jazz-loving owner -- that we made our own. And about our disagreeable hotel owner, who cheated us out of half a day's fee which we could have saved by leaving earlier. Oh well. It's the travel tax, as a friend says: the extra you always end up paying for things you wouldn't have if you'd planned perfectly and people were always honest.

Then yesterday I would have told you about Herakleion, the capital of Crete -- a real pit, notable only for proximity to Knossos. This morning we rented our second little Hyundai and drove the short distance out of town to Knossos, and I'll say right away it was a big disappointment. Last time, they allowed tourists into the main rooms. Still on the walls were the two greatest Minoan frescos: the dolphins and the bull-leapers, chipped but largely intact, inspiring to see in the place they'd been painted 3,500 years ago; and there was Ariadne's dance floor, or so it was called: how inspiring to imagine a civilization where one of the main royal structures was a dance floor. Now, though, because of incremental damage from tourists' feet, the main rooms have been blocked off; I don't know whether the frescos are still there or not -- there are no signs explaining -- the only frescos left are copies. We saw two women in surgical masks working carefully at restoring a wall, and that was nice. We saw some two-meter-high pottery vessels, and a few crimson columns trimmed in black, and a lot of paving stones, some of which were dug into channels as water conduits. But no frescos to make me take in my breath and well up. A second time -- this time privately, just for me -- Minoan civilization disappeared.

Today we drove west along the north shore (Crete is the size and shape of Long Island, NY)to the lovely old city of Chania,a port from the time when Venetians owned it, and after that, Turks. We've got a hotel right on the U-shaped old harbor, with a semiprivate terrace over which swallows circle and twitter, and below which we can watch the crowds of bedraggled tourists trusging. At lunch the crowd was so thick it was demoralizing, but it lightened up between meals. We sat at an outdoor terrace and exhcnagd bleak thoughts about our fellow beings -- I wondered what it might be like to be a physician, able to glance at each person and tell the ways they'd lived badly, knowing on the basis of bad teeth or a pot belly or a bent back or a blotchy complexion that they'd drunk and smoked and worked at such and such a wretched job, knowing what their life expectancy might be. Not excepting ourselves; feeling too keenly that we were part of the crowd, when for so long we'd strained not to be. Maybe a doctor, looking at us, could see that particular strain.
Knossos, too, had aroused thoughts of mortality: how beautiful those people had been, and how they'd chosen to live in a place so ridden with volcanoes and earthquaks it had destroyed them en masse. I wish I'd known Ariadne. There are Ariadnes enough in our civilization, and someday they'll be wherever she is. All that's left are a few short stumps of columns, a few paving stones. The rest has to be constructed out of imagination, and for the most part inaccurately. And the buses full of imperfection keep driving up for that. Beautiful imperfection, it's all we have.