THE FALL OF EMPIRES


On the manicured corniche between Elounda

and Plaka – before the balconied hotels

that rise up the mountainside tier by

expensive tier – is the Turkish Governor’s house,

abandoned for nearly a century.

We venture up the steep, pitted drive

but sudden howling from unseen dogs

deters. On the opposite side of the bay,

where only widows on donkeys go,

the shore is festooned with plastic bags

shredded by the tides and bleached by the sun.

The foundations of the antique city

of Olous shimmer beneath the water.

 

The French dug a canal, near the salt pans

the Venetians laid out, between the bay

and Mirabello Gulf. The Canal Bar,

ruined now – the owner’s wife died, his daughters

left to work in gift shops in Heraklion –

was popular with tourists, mostly Brits.

Elounda is populous with ex-pats.

Imperial Airways’ Short Brothers’

flying boats, en route from Southampton

to erstwhile Bombay, would refuel nearby

and passengers overnight at an hotel

in the town – among them Churchill, Ghandi.

 

From our table at Plaka’s Giorgos

Taverna, we are fanned by zephyrus airs

and see the deep blue of the bay and the isle

of Spinalonga – first a Venetian

then Ottoman fortress, then lazaret

(in effect, a leper prison) and now

a heritage site. Inmates sometimes

would swim for freedom across the bay.

The Werhmacht was stationed here. For sport,

soldiers would shoot, night or day, at fugitives.

 

We are eating grilled kefalos – mullet –

with aubergine au gratin and frites,

and drinking bottles of Mythos beer.

The couple at the next table are French. They are

treating their Spinalonga guide to lunch.

He speaks English. They do not. They ask us

if we speak French. We reply haltingly.

The young waiter, who is Albanian,

steps forward, deferentially. He informs us,

modestly, in the relevant languages –

that he speaks some English, French and Greek.

Emboldened by our immediate respect,

he tells us he is a first class graduate

of the modern language faculty

of the University of Tirana.

‘Balkans is no good now!’ he exclaims.

So exiles become polyglots. A youngish

Israeli family – father, mother,

twin girls – arrive. We hear the children’s

bubbling Hebrew while they all study

the menu outside. As they enter,

the waiter greets them in English. They respond.

 

 

 

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  1. #1 by John Huddart - October 29th, 2013 at 22:49

    The way Crete serves as the backdrop of European history is well described. As is the way, as earthly powers are seen to rise and fall, the subtle and invasive hegemony of the English language asserts an empire of its own.

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