Taking the bus home in Crete
I have just finished Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and, as I was reading the short Conclusion section, an image of a bus journey from many years ago flashed into my head. So I’m going to share that.
I was living on Crete. My girlfriend and I had both taken courses back in the UK to give us the certificates needed to teach English. It was my girlfriend who landed the job in Crete and we travelled by Magic Bus to Athens and then on to Crete by overnight boat from Piraeus.
The woman who ran the language school in Heraklion had a friend with a school in a village in the hills near the Lasithi Plateau. It was decided I would visit there once a week and teach the children in her school.
It was a bus journey of well over an hour to Arkalochori. The road started to climb not far outside Heraklion and then the bus groaned and strained its way round bends and up ever more steeper inclines. This was over thirty years ago and the buses were old even then. I was usually one of only a few passengers on the trip into the hills.
The return trip at the end of day was very different.
It was often recently dark when the bus stopped on its way down from even further south and I climbed aboard. Often, some of the children from the school would walk me to the stop outside one of the village tavernas.
On the more sedate morning climb there was a silence in the bus. By evening, the driver was determined to turn the trip into a party. He played Greek music loudly and let the bus hurtle down the steep roads. The party never happened because his passengers tended to be black-clad women wearing scowls in silence. They were often accompanied by chickens in wicker cages or even the odd, strangely docile goat. I had to fight past this menagerie guarded by indifferent women to take a seat at the back of the bus. I knew from experience that I would be the only passenger going all the way back into Heraklion.
I said the bus hurtled down the hill. It careened. But only for short bursts at a time because at every village — and often at vague and unmarked spots between — one black clad woman would descend from the bus or another black clad woman would hail the bus, climb aboard, and add her own animals to the collection. The music continued all the way, the volume high and the song apparently interminable.
I had been teaching at the school for most of an academic year and the start of summer was near. it was my last trip down from the hills in a bus that always seemed to be the same. Only the drivers changed from one week to the next. They all played the same music, though.
I had, for that year, found teaching at the school both stressful and unrewarding but I loved this journey down to the coast. I loved everything that was different to bus journeys at home in Britain. I loved the music and the way the warm air filtered through the windows of the bus, carrying the scent of wild flowers and herbs. I loved everything that was alien to me on that bus and, at the same time, loved the fact that it was now so familiar. This has always been the deepest joy of traveling and living in places that are not my home. Staying long enough for the disconcerting to become almost comfortable. To embrace the unfamiliar and to be able to remember places and food and people and bus journeys that are simply not possible to replicate elsewhere.
On that final trip down from Arkalochori, I felt relieved that I would not be teaching at the small school in Arkalochori again but a high sadness that I would have no reason to take this noisy, animal-filled, rattling, harum-scarum trip on an ageing spluttering bus again. When the bus pulled into the small bus terminus at Heraklion, I knew that I would soon be taking the ferry back across the Aegean to Athens and then making my way back to London.
It was time, therefore, to plan a new adventure.