The Taverna Paphos lay wedged in an old Venetian block up from the Chania harbour, more grotto than cave, for on a wall in the hollow of intersecting arches stood an ikon of the Virgin holding her man-child, Byzantine style. In one corner grandmother, mother, and daughter busied themselves with preparations, a pan of potatoes their present concern. In another corner the father, the son, and the shadowy host of the Athens Television News in his evening descent upon Crete —universal issues in black and white, love, hate, reprisals.
At the large table close by, three young women, one wearing a white tam, and two young men sat full of savvy and lamb chops from the spit. I opened up to heroism and human interest, half tuned to the television, half to their lilting banter, their round-the-table affability and democratic good cheer. All were so intricately and amicably together.
The father sent over the son, his little winter waiter in a large spotless apron, no more than eight and very proud, learning the lingo of serving, from whom I ordered lamb stew and bottled water. Service was good.
The young woman in the tam had sparkling, clear blue eyes.
After watching images of rough seas shot from the deck of a naval ship and of anti-NATO demonstrations somewhere on the Peloponese, I tried to determine which of the women was unattached, the one with freckles on the back of her neck, the one with the infectious laugh, or the one wearing the tam.
Then came pictures of sand dunes, black robes, and camels, followed by scenes of the North African Coast, maybe Libya, maybe Morocco. At the table: an outburst of opinion, a giddy laugh, and then a call for another bottle of retsina.
My interest in the next table must have become obvious, for after a friendly nod, a glass raised in salute, I was asked if I liked retsina, and if I would be pleased to join them.
“Join you, sure.”
“We all together come from Sweden. We know English, but speak by the book. As with Greek. In the meantime, please, I am called Mats.”
“Steven Spire. Skol. Volvo. ABBA. IKEA. That’s it for my Swedish, Mats. And my Greek, well, it’s all finger pointing and parakalo. Very mechanical. Your English is fine.”
“Come, Steven, please, sit yourself down,” Mats said, continuing his role as voice for the group. He placed me between Elsa, the laugh, and Ingrid, the tam and bright blue eyes.
“Good evening, Steven, I am called Birgit.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir, I am called Gunnar.”
“How are you? They call me Elsa. Thank you very much.”
“Hello, Steven, my name is Ingrid.”
“Ingrid is my little cousin,” Mats pointed out. “Her English is not so good. But now with us she argues, debates, yes, what is called the white slave trade. Gunnar takes her side. Do you know it? Do you believe it?”
“Well, I don’t know that it doesn’t exist.”
My saying this sparked an extension to their debate, in Swedish, full of words that bent brows.
“We do not all together understand what you mean,” Mats said.
“Okay, yes, I believe the white slave trade exists.”
“Sure, I tell you,” Mats exclaimed to the table, Ingrid specifically, and to the taverna as a whole. He then filled a glass with retsina, lifted it in the general direction of the ikon of the Virgin, said Skol with unrestrained exuberance, and handed the glass to me.
They all watched as I drank. Then they drank.
“You come from America?”
“From New York City is more like it.”
“Is the same, no?” And when Gunnar said that, Elsa nodded her head, Birgit shook hers, Ingrid smiled, and Mats looked out the window.
“There are more than subtle differences, Gunnar, although a camel driver in the Sahara might not know of them.”
On this their last night in Chania, Mats went on to explain, they were out “to raise a little hell.” He invited me, they all invited me, to come along to the early showing of Women Of Sparta playing at a local cinema.
Birgit said she had seen it before and in so many words assured me that it was not a cult film, avant-garde, or anything like that, just a simply told story of love.
I, too, had seen it before, in Piraeus while waiting with Patti Lockhart for the night sailing to Crete. Women Of Sparta — heroics, and the hegemony of the hearth: a rather simplistic Italian fantasy on a bit of ancient Hellenic lore, dubbed in English with Greek subtitles, the most memorable parts being littoral sunsets and leggy slit skirts.
“Sure, I’m game.”
And so, I got to know Ingrid. I also got to know Elsa, Birgit, Gunnar, and Mats, but mostly I got to know Ingrid.
Filmed in Tunisia, Gunnar said after it was all over, when we sat down in a cozy spot for coffee and critique. Elsa agreed with him.
Birgit thought it looked like coastal Morocco. Near Casablanca.
In Spain, Mats said, because two school friends of his hitchhiking about the Iberian Peninsula had been paid in US currency to be part of the large-crowd-panicking-in-the-streets scene, and part of the slave-drive-down-to-the-ships scene that opened the action where the Spartan heroines were subjected to the sarcasm of their captors.
As a story of liberated women in a fascist state, very good, according to Elsa.
Anti-feminist, argued Mats, and not so good, because the women were depicted as fanatically pro state and just as dedicated to fascist principles.
Anti-Aristotle, countered Birgit.
Pornographic, in the best European tradition, Gunnar suggested. Nudity in exercising, nudity in choral song and dance, nudity in athletic competitions, nudity in battle, loves scenes in the dark.
Excellent costuming, Elsa added as an after-thought, and got agreement from all but Ingrid who insisted that there had not been enough costuming in evidence to adequately judge.
After this debate concluded, Mats with a strong second from Gunnar wanted to continue their “hell raising” at the Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar. We ambled back in pairs along the sea walk, gaining access to the east basin of the Old Port near the Venetian arsenals.
Ingrid and I gradually fell behind the others. I explained to her that I did not have the energy to “boogie up” as Mats had put it, having had a hell of night the night before, and suggested we continue strolling, out along the mole to Faros. She agreed, and this we did.
With a change of pace came a change of mood. We dallied on the brink, linked by desires we had no words for, unable in our groping to transcend the lingua franca of sighs. Totally new and yet familiar, these foam-borne feelings that scroll out of the sea.
Upon our return, we counted steps along the mole, then fishing boats, then people wearing hats. No sign of Mats and the others in the crowded Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar. Ingrid figured they had moved on to Disco Aphrodite. The Socratic Bar sounded lively as we passed. I decided against taking Ingrid in lest matters got too complicated to explain away. Who was I kidding? What could I possibly explain? Again.
When we neared the Taverna Trident, Kostas, the waiter, descended upon us. No menu thrust at us, just a handshake, a slap on the back, and ambiguous smiling. I could not determine if such apparent popularity impressed Ingrid; it certainly amused her. Last night’s excesses might have been behind it all. Repeating Skol in little rhythmic patterns as we walked on proved adequate explanation. She pulled on my sleeve and then leaned into the night, laughing.
We entered a small cellar bar called The Stone and Thread. I had learned previously that the name reflected elements of the Theseus myth. The Pension Ariadne, not surprisingly, was a few paces up the lane.
We sipped Metaxa Seven Star brandy while listening to the songs of Leonard Cohen. Not surprisingly, Ingrid knew all the tunes, all the words. Perfectly within character, or as much of it that circumstances allowed me to know, exclusive of our being one with the flame that burns atop the candle dripping wax tears down the neck of the rustic Chianti bottle on a rococo induced dark night of the soul in a second year university kitchen. The right sensibility, perhaps. A European phenomenon as well, a cultural thing, part sophisticated appreciation of the aesthetics of torment, part popular appeal of troubadour wit. The language the poet had developed for lovers exceeded our needs for that night, but not by very much.
Ingrid: she escaped becoming one of Cohen’s heroines even in this light. What living mortal could be so beautifully drawn and quartered by love, and never miss a beat? Ingrid was beautiful, but she was not damned, just a little bit wistful when not smiling or pulling my leg.
Ingrid: the tam like something Byzantine aslant her head, hearth light playing lyrically on her cheek, her lips parted in the name of perfect but impossible tomorrows. She was absolute in my mind, creating with golden edges, and past all concern, the mythology of her own here and now. And then across the tableau, the amusement in her eyes when she reached for the blue bowl of pistachios.
The absurd idea grew that you could easily be tempted to whisk her away, to steal her the way people make off with works of art, the way religions abduct virgins and enshrine them in private Botticelli grottos.
When I spoke of these things, Ingrid took my hand in hers, and finger by finger in lilting exaggeration gave me the Nordic version of the Three Little Pigs.
Under the central clock of the Chania Market next morning, Ingrid stood for a moment with tears in her eyes. When I asked what troubled her, she could not tell me. In a shop she bought a scarf to match her tam. In another shop, I got her an Aphrodite shell and statuette. A memento, I suppose. By noon we reached her hotel.
A note at the desk from Mats contained some scribbled lines that made her laugh, and an address on Eolou Street in Athens.
But that same somebody still waited faithfully, and she collected all her things.
We took the bus out to Souda, where we connected with the group and enjoyed a slow, gregarious meal at the Port Taverna. Mats referred to his note, and joked: “We think you might capture Ingrid and take her to a disco in Alexandria.”
In the camera eye of memory: on the one side Mats and Birgit, on the other Elsa and Gunnar, and in the middle, her tam and scarf perfectly so, Ingrid. All wave madly. On the funnel of the ferry behind them, the map of Crete, like a piece of broken shell.
In front of the little ouzo joint I frequented, old Mitsos fanned the charcoals in his smoking brazier. Behind him, fishing boats returned one by one around the lighthouse, drawn in by a red magnetism pulsing on the frail edge of human understanding. Impressions of Ingrid scrolled out of the obdurate northern sky like prow lamps weaving through dark waters, safe now, but less absolute, in the private harbour of memory. Yet proof enough that something spiritual in our nature served in the name of all tomorrows, something more significant than the here and now of how well ouzo tastes with olives, tomatoes, and small cheese pies. Ingrid, tam and all, gone.
I found certain things hard to let go of some nights, and one of those nights had obviously come over me. I headed back over to The Stone And Thread. The mood picked up when a group of ebullient students tumbled in; it picked up even more when the Cohen song they wanted blasted out of the corner.
Before going home, I skipped into The Socratic Bar. Patti Lockhart had gone. But then, by that time, so had most of the guilt.