After landing at Heraklion airport in the north, a quick tour of the harbor there, we drove down the middle of the (huge) Island of Crete. The interior of the Island is incredibly mountainous, at times having elevations on par with the Alps.
Despite being warned that there were "no rules" to driving here, I found it incredibly pleasant and easy compared to the US, let alone Los Angeles. If you were gaining on the car in front of you, they would deftly slide right over to the shoulder and let you pass. This was shocking to me.
After about a two-hour drive, we made it to the small seaside town of Agia Gallini.
I had rented a little villa and had been instructed to check-in at the hotel in the middle of town, which owned the unit we'd be staying in.
Enter the super friendly Caretaker, a gray-haired man probably in his 60s, who had us follow his jeep up a steep, windy road to our villa, where he helped us unload our bags into our surprisingly stunning location.
If you're not a musician, you may not relate, but one of my biggest issues traveling is not being able to play music. So on this trip, I had decided to bring a small ukulele.
While unloading the car, the man saw the instrument and got really excited, "My son; he plays something like this!" I said, "Oh? The ukulele?"
"He plays the mand.." "mandolin?" I said, "I play that too. " "No, bigger." "a Mandola," I asked, "yes! this is it". He bragged about his son for a minute and told us he worked in a fish restaurant in the town. And that we should visit said fish restaurant. And so we did.
As we weaved through the pedestrian walkways of Agia Gallini, leading to the waterfront, past other restaurants and markets and small tourist shops, we spotted the fish restaurant.
Once the hostess had seated us, our waiter approached, and I knew immediately he was our guy. He had long hair, wore a perfectly fitting t-shirt, and somehow carried that air of cool that only musicians carry. He was cool. At first, I kept quiet. We just ordered some wine and discussed the fish options.
He went on in detail about one particular fish and mentioned that it had been caught that morning by his friend ( a legit fisherman, I asked). It was a little expensive, and other options sounded good, but we went with it.
I think it was sea bass, but I truly can't recall. He seemed excited that someone would get to enjoy this beautiful thing. He brought it out, filleted it for us, and served it. It was terribly good.
After a few drinks, feeling a little more comfortable, I went for it since we hadn't yet confirmed my suspicion. He came by asking if everything was alright. We said yes, but then I stopped him. "Hey, Are you a musician?" I asked straight up. He perked up delightfully, wondering how I could possibly know this. "You just look like one," I said.
I couldn't keep up the charade long though, I laughed and let him in on our secret. His dad had told us he had seen my instrument and told us all about him. He was embarrassed in that way everyone gets when a parent spills some beans about you to a perfect stranger.
We started to talk about music, and he told me of his fondness for traditional Greek music and that he sometimes played with a local group at the pub just across the street, in fact.
He had initially gotten the instrument for his young son, but the son hadn't shown any interest, so he took it up himself. Admirable, I thought. As he was on the job, he would come and go, picking up the conversation where we had left off.
I had noticed he was also juggling conversation with a man sitting alone nearby; they were clearly friends. I noticed the man listening in on our conversation, and at some point, he called out to me, "excuse me, can I ask you a question?".
He didn't seem angry or agitated, but he didn't really seem friendly either. "Sure," I said, a little hesitantly. "you're American?" he asked. "um, yes…" he cut me off, immediately seeming friendlier, "no, it's ok, I'm just wondering, why are you here?". Puzzled by this question, I answered something like, "It's a beautiful place, there's lots of history…".
Not satisfied with the answer, he went on to question me more about how I even knew about the Island of Crete. Eventually, he got to the point. "we never see Americans here, so I'm just wondering, maybe there is some sort of bad PR or something."
I didn't have an answer but have thought about this a lot since. And it's true. We never encountered another American the entire time. Brits, Russians, Swedes, definitely, but as far as we could tell, nary another American to be seen.
He went on to tell how the town had been a popular party destination in previous decades, and an economy had built up around that, but in a flash, for no apparent reason, that changed, people still came, but the scene that had existed was all but gone.
At a certain point, our guy finally came and sat down with us and what followed turned out to be truly one of the best conversations I've ever had with a stranger. He told us that he had grown up in the town but a few years back had moved to Athens with his girlfriend, now wife, so she could study at the university there.
He had been fine with the city, there were fun things to do, no real complaints, but when he lost his job, and she finished her degree, they moved back. He told me he was happy to be living in his hometown to raise his son. He didn't miss the city at all.
We talked a lot about happiness in life and love and family. It was existential and beautiful. I have tried to imagine a scenario or character akin to this in the US, and I simply can't.
He eventually brought out his mandola, which he kept at the restaurant, and he let me play it. I play a tiny bit of mandolin, which is effectively a shrunken mandola, so I can eke something out. I strummed three chords for a few minutes and sheepishly said, "It's all I really know," and handed his baby back.
He smiled and said very genuinely, "it's enough." His friend came and joined us, and we all had shots of Ouzo, more than the obligatory single shot every restaurant gives you, many more.
Before we said our goodbyes, he gave us some tips on what else to see and what beach to visit the next day. Little did he know he was sending us directly into a massive raging wildfire, but that is another story entirely. I said thank you and Good night in Greek (unlike the French, they seem to love this). He hugged me, and we were off.
I fully intended to go back and see him, and as it worked out, it wasn't possible. I felt like I had truly made a friend, and it may sound silly, being a grown-ass man and whatnot, but to this day, I am still sad we didn't exchange any information, and I wonder what our fish guy mandola player is up to.
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