The pushy manager asks me several times if I want a table and what I feel like eating. I walk on, do a lap of the street and circle back, now entering the eatery on my terms.
Before finding a seat, I announce to the manager I need the bathroom and if I can leave my bag somewhere while I attend to my burgeoning bladder. A plump Greek lady emerges, maybe the manager’s wife, to take my bag as I head for the loo – which is across the road in the house where the restaurant kitchen is. I suppose I’m taking my leak in the residential-cum-patron toilet where the manager and his plump wife must also relieve themselves.
The restaurant is in the small town of Ierapetra on the southern coast of Crete, the southernmost Greek island.
Back at the table, overlooking the sea that would take you to Libya or Egypt, I wait for the waiter to come with a menu and ask what I want to drink. Ten minutes go by. In protest, I stand up and get a menu from a table near the entrance. The manager soon strolls over and I politely order a Greek salad and the shrimps, along with a Greek beer. The waiter, who’s attention must have been elsewhere for the past 20 minutes, now arrives with a menu and asks what I’d like. I tell him I’ve just ordered from his boss but I forgot to say I don’t want onion in my Greek salad. The waiter assures me he would relay the message and so walks across the road to pass on my revised order to the chef.
I look out to my right and stare at the ocean that carries southward to the tip of Africa. A man in faded red bathers is swimming a clunky freestyle; his technique hasn’t much improved from the lessons likely given to him by his father in the same pool of bluey-grey water when he was a kid. He’s swimming in a big circle, out towards Egypt and looping back toward the Cretan coast where the old Venetian fortress sits idle, waiting for the next batch of tourists to file in once the slow autumn and slower winter are over.
An agreeable breeze brushes my burnt forehead and I take notice of the wind’s path through my hair, making an unpleasant impression upon my gradually and noticeably balding scone.
A little girl in a pram, maybe three-years-old, starts crying softly and cutely coughing. It’s not a shout for attention, it’s a genuine, fruity cough. I look around to see where the commotion is coming from. She’s been parked in the back corner of the restaurant, facing the wall. An older man in a faded pink polo shirt that barely covers his mountain belly — perhaps the manager’s dad, judging by the lopsided gait — trundles over to the child to see what’s what. He calls to the woman — the manager’s wife and the fat man’s daughter-in-law, I suppose — to come and inspect the child, who looks too young to be the product of the woman and the manager. A granddaughter, surely. She talks lovingly to the kid, reassuringly. The woman grabs the blanket from the child’s lap and re-wraps it around the little girl’s shoulders and, after a kiss and cuddle, the crying and coughing subsides.
Behind the restaurant, about 50 metres into the winding blue and white and terracotta backstreets, is a small two-story lodging where it is said Napoleon stayed for one night in 1798 when travelling to his Egyptian campaign.
It’s a pleasant thought to linger on as I take a small bite of bread, then a larger one. Mr Bonaparte would not have had to contend with desperate restaurateurs, struggling for business at the end of the tourist season. The seafaring Frenchman would have had other matters on his mind. Namely, the capture of Egypt in the hope of undermining Britain’s access to trade in India. I sip on my beer, which has remained cold despite the afternoon sun’s best efforts.
An extended German family arrive and sit at the table next to me. I quip that they’re more than welcome to join me but there’s not enough room at the table. The younger members of the German family understand my attempted humour and don’t laugh. The older members of the clan didn’t comprehend my wit; they puzzle over me for a second before shuffling to their table. I crunch into a shrimp and sip on my lager, before delving back into the oily Greek salad that I’m picking through with something nearing contentment.
The German family also includes a little girl, blonde, tired, and only wearing shorts. The 24 degrees Celsius of mid-October makes the tourists sweat as the locals reach for the jacket.
Within minutes of sitting down, a row erupts between the German toddler and her mum, a stocky blonde woman who would make a decent rugby player: no neck, all head and shoulders. Low centre of gravity. A kartoffel of a lady, or ‘potato’ in her native tongue. And she had the mouth to match her severe, flat face. The poor kid. Her tantrum continues until the restaurant manager’s wife, full of Mediterranean emotional intelligence, brings over the Greek toddler to meet the German one. The kids look at each other and a curious silence falls over the formerly-hysterical German child. As she looks at her Greek counterpart she wonders what this similar-heighted creature is. Perhaps a look of mutual acknowledgment is exchanged between the youngsters, both wordlessly conveying to each other how absurd their current predicaments are. ‘I’m coughing in a pram that’s facing a wall,’ our Greek child might say. ‘I’m arguing with a pale heifer,’ the German child might respond.
But at this moment, the German kid – having been re-directed from the misery and pity of her own mind – is now reflective, contemplative. Melancholic, but quiet, and still. The German family can now resume their conversation and their late lunch, despite the odd cough from the Greek kid who is now parked behind their table.
I call for the bill and finish off the last of my feta from the salad, which by now is swimming in oregano-infused olive oil. The last of the beer I tip down my throat. I re-use a serviette with enough clean space on it, wiping my hands and mouth. I refrain from licking the plate upon which the shrimps were served: a compliment to the chef it would have been but I didn’t want to further trouble the Germans.
I walk off but within a few minutes I realise I didn’t leave a tip. After all, the food was good, and the service did improve. I dive into my pocket for some coins and head back. The manager, his wife and the waiter aren’t on the restaurant floor. They must be across the street in the residence-cum-kitchen. Surely enough, there’s the manager, perched across three chairs, fast asleep. I thought about leaving the coins on his belly but thankfully his wife – always appearing at just the right time – spots me and I hand the coins to her. The waiter emerges from the kitchen and she hands the coins to him. I’m relieved. I shout a thank you to the chef, who either didn’t hear me or thought it strange that I shouted thank you from some distance and therefore decided not to respond.
I make in direction of the water and I’m soon stepping over the shoreline rocks and pebbles, smoothed over by tide after tide. The same rocks and pebbles that Napoleon would have crunched over as he jumped into his boat, small waves crashing into his boots, departing for his next destination.
For me, though, it’s time for a swim in the buoyant water before laying on the shoreline to write this postcard.