Monday, February 1, 2010

The Light There

The Venetian section of the city, the old quarter, was exactly what I had hoped it would be. Passing through a light-filled archway, I came upon a crescent shaped harbor lined with hotels, taverns and shops in a harmonious balance of shapes and colors—the waterfront in Chania on the island of Crete. Picturesque locations are never without their racks of postcards displaying scenes usually distant cousin to the real thing, but postcards like any captured image, can be only half the picture. The deception is that appealing postcards result from several rolls of film used in an expensive camera by a professional photographer who sometimes goes overboard with filters and Photoshop. Exaggeration was not so obvious in Greek postcards. I had seen hundreds and bought dozens in past days and I was surprised at how accurately they reflected the actual scene. Could it be that the photographer working in Greece has the advantage of good light?

In The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller’s hymn to Greece, he wrote enthusiastically of Greek light, saying more than once that it was a quality of light incomparable to any other. During a stay in Crete he expressed it this way:

‘The happiest man on earth is the man with fewest

needs. And I also believe that if you have light,

such as you have here, all ugliness is obliterated.’

I didn’t always agree with Miller on things Greek, but it wasn’t too difficult to see that the Aegean sun has blessed Greece with a bounty of serene light. As well, the landscape seems to bend that light in a purer form. Colors, line, the edges of shapes are recast by the sweep of that light, and appear to be enhanced. Still, despite the sunny vista, sunglasses at this time of year are a soothing balm.

For lunch I sought out a cool and shadowed patio overlooking the old Venetian harbor. Under the shade of a blue and orange striped awning, I found a retreat, temporary at least, from the power of that Greek light. The food was good, but too much for a hot afternoon. It was a combination plate heaped with four different casseroles and served with two side dishes. Most of the time I enjoy a healthy appetite, but I couldn’t finish a lunch of such hearty proportions.

Back to the hotel for a shower and nap. I now had a shower curtain, my first in this country. I had gradually grown accustomed to turning bathrooms into wading pools, but this time I stepped from the shower onto a dry floor.

After the nap I strolled out and wandered once more down to the old harbor, hoping I might find the sun just as it began its descent into the sea. I sat on a wooden bench in a cool breeze blowing off the water, a spot from where I could see the old lighthouse and its shadow twin reflected in the water. A handful of people fished from the stone walls and steps at its base. It was a peaceful half hour I sat there, absently watching a young woman paint a complicated design onto the hand and wrist of another woman. Not my first time to see henna tattoos, but my first experience of seeing the artist at work.

A dark woman appearing to be Indian handed me a small printed card as I passed her corner, winding an aimless path through narrow streets.

‘This small palace was built in the 15th century by

the Venetian family, Renier. It was a two-storied

building with a courtyard and a Catholic family

chapel dedicated to St Nicolas. It is the only existing

chapel in Chania. In 1608 the Renier family coat of

arms, bearing a Latin inscription was added to the

building. In 1695 the palace was occupied by a Turk,

a high government official, who separated the courtyard

from the road. This was done to prevent passersby from

looking in at the women of his harem. For this reason the

palace came to be known as Sultana’s House.’

This curious description was on the back of a restaurant card pointing to a small house tucked into the next turn ahead. It was a restaurant hidden in a maze of streets and alleys not far from the waterfront, and likely one of the simplest and most beautiful garden settings I had ever seen. Large terracotta urns sat about the courtyard, some upright, others tilted on their sides, spilling out clusters of red geraniums. Moonlight shone through wooden beams entangled in grape vines, casting filigree shadows on the marble tabletops. I sat at a small table, three small cats at my feet begging for scraps. A glass of white wine, a plate of calamari, Greek salad and broiled swordfish, all excellent, but I couldn’t help feeling that it played only a supporting role to the atmosphere of the old sultan’s moonlit courtyard. Like the sun, this moon too spilled its light in a glow less ordinary.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America