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The gentle pace of Crete


By Marianne Kunnen-Jones

Photographs by Lisa Ventre

Headed down the sloping twist of a road,
the bus stopped. The driver turned off the lights and pointed to the moon. Just about full, it glowed in a cloudless sky above the mountains looming on either side of us. A faculty member in the back thought we had stopped for someone or something to cross the road.

But no, this is Crete. Motorists here, known worldwide for their harrowing driving habits, don't brake for other vehicles or pedestrians; they brake to watch the moon beaming over hills of olive groves.

I joined in as riders "oohed" and "aahed" at the breathtaking scene. I had been in Crete for 10 days last summer, and I had been Cretan-ized. I went there to work, but I learned that this hospitable Greek island won't always cooperate if you try to rush as we Americans tend to do.

It was a little before 2 a.m, and I might have gotten to bed sooner if the bus would have just hurried, but then I would have missed this moment. I began to understand the words that a Greek mayor spoke earlier that evening: "Nobody sleeps in Crete."

I had an article to write before calling it a night, and I needed to e-mail it across the Atlantic back to the University of Cincinnati for use on our Web site. Senior photojournalist Lisa Ventre and I were on a two-week assignment to cover the work of planning professor Michael Romanos and his 24-member team of researchers and students. The group was there to advise local authorities in Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, on ways to combat overdevelopment and tourism problems.

Romanos led a six-week study of his native land and tried to address its traffic congestion, pollution, potable-water shortages, dilution of native traditions and loss of economic diversity. There were many stories to tell.

We learned, however, after 10 days of struggling, that "pushing" to get the job done in the uniquely American spirit of rushing would not get us anywhere. I knew that no matter how much Lisa and I planned to get done, we would be thwarted by the gentle pace of Cretan life or some other adventure or obstacle. Now I think that maybe the mythical Greek gods found our compulsion to work amusing and decided to sit back and laugh at us.

Thirty years ago, the coastal city of Hersonissos was a fishing village with fruit warehouses. Today it is jammed with hotels, shops, restaurants and other services aimed at the tourists who now dominate the region's economy.

Thirty years ago, the coastal city of Hersonissos was a fishing village with fruit warehouses. Today it is jammed with hotels, shops, restaurants and other services aimed at the tourists who now dominate the region's economy.

The electronic glitches started in Crete when I tried to e-mail my first story home. We soon discovered Internet connections were not working at our town-hall headquarters or the faculty members' hotel.

The same problem arose throughout our assignment. Hotel personnel told us Internet Café hours were from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., but every time we went during those hours, the café was closed. Another Internet Café looked promising, but had no place to connect a Zip drive, which carried Lisa's photos, or insert a floppy disk, which carried my text.\

As I typed away on my second story, the mouse stopped working on our only portable computer. Nothing, not even the expertise of the UC team's computer whiz, could revive it. Using the touch-pad greatly slowed the writing process and made using PhotoShop nearly impossible for Lisa. And borrowing computer time at UC's city-hall headquarters became highly competitive as 24 team members scrambled to meet their deadlines relying on only two computers with printing and Internet connections.

Working at 2 a.m. one morning (this was not a vacation as my husband at home often called it), Lisa plugged the portable Zip drive into an outlet with no converter. The drive survived unharmed, but the plug was fried. Student team members also working late that night laughed with us because they had done the same thing at least once.

Days later, everyone assured Lisa that a nearby photo lab would be able to develop film within an hour. We needed photos to reach a newspaper in Athens overnight. When she dropped off the film, however, the lab announced it was not running any equipment because of the heat. The temperature had once again exceeded 100 degrees, with Crete in the midst of a two-week heat wave. At 7:30 p.m. that night, we got the photos to the courier service seconds before it closed.

Not even the cash machines seemed willing to cooperate with our tendency to hurry. After a week of living off the cash I brought, I tried to make a quick stop at an ATM before the tourist crowds hit.

The first one was out of money and would have taken a half-hour to reload. The second one I walked to also refused to dispense. I went back to the first, waited in a long line of vacationers, inserted my card and again left empty handed. After two hours, I still couldn't find an ATM that would accept my card, despite my bank's prior assurances it would work overseas.

Later when I consulted a Greek doctor for a sinus ailment that was slowing me down, he fortunately agreed to let me pay part of my bill with a credit card. (He had lived in the United States for a while and enjoyed practicing his English. "How about those Cincinnati Redskins?" he asked.)

Adjusting to a Mediterranean culture proved as challenging as the technology, but much more enjoyable. On our first morning in Crete, a Greek-speaking taxi driver tried to drop us in the middle of downtown Hersonissos, amid the hoards of tourists, even though we showed him a business card, written in Greek, with our workplace destination, the Hersonissos town hall. Fortunately, an English-speaking cabby intervened and pointed the way.

Days later, however, it happened again. "Where are you going?" another taxi driver asked in deep-felt disbelief, when I pointed the way up the hill to town hall. He doubted me and stopped the car.

After all, no tourist shops or attractions awaited up there. Only after speaking to headquarters over his radio, all in Greek except for his repetition of my English syllables "town hall," did he finally agree to follow my gestures.

Most meals stretched to two, three and four hours of leisurely talking and eating, prepared and consumed one course at a time. Even lunch took a minimum of two hours.

On the drive up to Lassithi Plateau to shoot photos and video for ABCnews.com, Lisa and I stopped at a roadside vista to get what we hoped would be a quick picture. A villager holding a mule by a rope approached.

First we got hugs and big wet kisses on each cheek. Then he motioned for one of us to climb into the saddle.

"No, we don't have time," we tried to insist. Yet he wouldn't give up. ABC had asked for 100 images, so we felt a bit pressed for time. We decided taking some photos might be quicker than riding on the donkey, so we each took a turn snapping each others' pictures. Lisa offered a few hundred drachma as a courtesy. No, the man shook his head. Our little schedule delay cost 1,500 drachma (about $5).

Convinced our delays and difficulties were behind us, Lisa and I headed back to city hall to send our final package of text and photos to Cincinnati. But my notebook was missing. I emptied the bag I was carrying, but the notes were gone.

After nearly two weeks, I should have known. Crete would not let us work too hard. My notebook was sitting back at the taverna, half an hour's drive away. My story had to wait until morning when my notepad, with pen attached, would reappear, thanks to an anonymous city hall worker.

Lisa and I headed back to the hotel for a couple of hours of sleep. As we got into the car, we paused again to savor a heavenward sight. This time it was a purple-orange sunrise.

Next page | Crete photo gallery