Monday, 16 June 2014

People I've Met On The Road – John 2

In Greece With No Shorts – Part 2
Click here to view Part 1
The author aged 21 on Matala beach campsite with long-suffering girlfriend

This man's name was 'Sporran'. He came from Bristol. I wish I knew him now.

Following on from the previous blog, John and I found ourselves in the back of a police car being driven along small mountainous roads on our way to prison (or so we were told) in Heraklion, the capital of Crete. During this uncomfortable and laboriously slow trip I heard how John and his new wife had found themselves there.

"We decided to have an extended honeymoon in Europe," John explained. "Laura's family are from the Alps and she had this kinda Heidi fixation with shepherding in Switzerland. So one way and another we end up with a job in the Swiss Alps, shepherding a large flock down from the high pastures at the start of winter, to the lowlands, living in a basic hut and then back up again in spring. It was hellishly tough but to be honest Laura is tougher. I mean I knew that before I married her but in reality... well I had no idea! She's small and gently spoken but she's almost psychotically determined. Anyhow one day in spring, traversing just above a valley, there was an avalanche. We'd had a few near misses over the winter but this was a big one. We were swept over a cliff edge but lucky enough to land in a snow drift. Laura, however, was buried. In a daze, I hunted for her desperately but I just couldn't find her. I was
looking for her shepherd's crook – we'd been taught how to keep it pointing up if this happened so you could be found more easily. I dug for an hour and just when I was about to collapse with exhaustion a rescue party arrived. After fifteen minutes we found her. She'd fallen onto a big boulder and was badly injured. They radioed for a chopper which came and airlifted us to hospital. We were both bruised and concussed but she'd broken her back. They were worried she might be paralysed. As it was, after a month and a half in intensive care, she recovered. She has to wear this brace thing for at least a year, otherwise I think she'd have wanted to go back and finish the job. That's why we came to Crete – for her to recuperate. Then this happens."

John seemed to be feeling the world had turned against them. It was a wild story and it kind of stunned me. My problem felt minor next to his.

After about an hour, the police car pulled over again as we entered a village. We were waved to follow and were led to a small cafe. The cafe owner and the customers seemed to know them well. They asked the policemen what was happening with us. They laughed a little at first, which seemed like a good sign. We laughed too and they all became more serious. They sat there studying us as they sipped their glasses of Retsina wine and Metaxa brandy.

"For why you are swimming my country no shorts?" demanded one man. His English was slow and deliberate.

That same question again. We began to feel like we were a part of a comedy... but a tragicomedy nonetheless.

"We did not understand," I said. "Other people were naked so we thought it was normal."

"Normal?" he replied, indignantly. "Do you do this in your country?"

"Yes," John and I replied in unison.

"But it is not true!" replied the man, "I have been there, I have seen.

"When have you been there?" I asked.

"In 1932!" he said, seeming to see no irony in his statement.

"For why you are swimming my country no shorts?"

There were three or four similar cafe stops on our way to Heraklion. In each we were asked again why we had come to their country without shorts. What a pleasant life these policemen seemed to heave, we thought. Eventually though, we arrived at the police station in Heraklion. There they studied our passports. We asked to see the British / American consul.

"Closed on Sunday," we were told.

They seemed very casual, despite their serious attitude about our crime. More serious-faced enquiries
about why we felt the need to swim in their country without shorts. We had run out of explanations. Exasperated we now began to answer, that it was simply because we liked it that way. They began to look upon us more as people with a psychiatric problem. We needed to be fingerprinted. This was a comedy show in itself. They had little idea how to do it, but between them they managed. Photographing us was more problematic. They were unable to work their equipment. They argued between them until a more pragmatic officer had an idea. We were put in a car and taken to the central post office. Here we were put into a photo-booth. Did we have coins? No we did not, we said, chuckling to ourselves. They had a whip-round and put in the coins but the machine was broken. Irritated we returned to the police station where they were about to cut our photos out of our passports. I pointed to the section that says the British Queen requires, without let or hindrance etc. They put the scissors away and one officer did a passport photo-sized sketch of each of us.

"You will go to the court this afternoon!" the senior officer told us.
"We need a lawyer," said John.
"We will provide police lawyer," he replied.

Nothing we said seemed to make a difference. They were not aggressive, quite the opposite, but they simply shrugged and our objections. We were taken to the court. It was a large, grand and foreboding building. Inside at the top of a long arching sweep of marble staircase we were ushered into the enormous office of The Prosecutor General. There was no doubting this man's importance. He was dwarfed by his desk. Educated at The Sorbonne, he spoke only Greek and French. He studied the police report and asked us to explain our behaviour. John spoke no French or Greek. I spoke a little of each but it was improving rapidly. One way or another I encouraged this pleasant, educated man to take
pity upon us. He explained that Crete's laws were ancient and strict – far more old-fashioned than the rest of Greece. He hunted through the numerous leather-bound volumes of Cretan law on his towering shelves. He wanted to help us, he told us. In return we told him how much we loved his country. Eventually in frustration he returned to his desk, where we had been given milky coffee. It would be impossible to exonerate us, he explained. We had best put our faith in his explanation of our otherwise good character and hope the court would be merciful. How merciful might that be, we asked? He felt that two years in prison for this crime might be possible, but four was more likely. We would also have to pay a big fine and pay for our keep in prison. We were horrified. He apologised but reiterated that Crete was a very conservative country with ancient laws still in force.

The Prosecutor General called the policeman back in. We would hopefully be tried in court that night, he told us. We could go down to the courtrooms and watch other cases if we liked, while we waited. It would be good to understand how our trials operate, he explained. We did as advised. The police seemed surprised that the Prosecutor General had been so lenient not to have said we should be kept in the cells.

Seating ourselves at the back of the court, John and I watched carefully. My Greek was improving by the hour. In the first court the case seemed to be one of a local family who had been running some kind of protection racket. Demanding money with menaces. Looking at the men, one could see they were just petty criminals living in poverty. Their ageing grandmothers, dressed in widow's black, pleaded with the judges from the sidelines. They were ignored or waved away. The judges whispered to each other behind their papers. The men were sentenced. Ten years, fifteen years. It seemed unbelievable. We left the court so I could relate it to John. He looked horrified. In the next court, similarly draconian sentences were handed out for seemingly petty crimes. We had seen enough. Now we were scared. We returned to the Prosecutor General's office to express our horror and ask for a deferment until we had representation from our consulates. It was not possible, he said, we had to be tried today. Besides the consuls were not usually helpful to foreigners who broke the law. We needed to trust in the fairness of their system. He looked at us with pitying eyes. We waited while again he searched his books, then the phone rang. They could not fit us in tonight, we would be tried tomorrow. We were at least relieved that we could contact our consuls.

"I should by rights, have you kept in the cells tonight," he said in French, "but I am embarrassed about the conditions. They are very poor. I am going to tell the police that you can be trusted to stay in a hotel and that you will return in the morning."
We thanked him. We were scared now. He had also explained to us what the conditions in the prison were like and it had all started to seem rather reminiscent of the film Midnight Express (a major film of the time). The Prosecutor General argued with several policemen on the phone, to the extent of desk banging, and eventually secured an agreement. We were taken to a hotel nearby, from where we immediately phoned the hotel where Laura was staying back in Matala. She and my girlfriend would take the bus in the morning, they said.

Courthouse Heraklion (detainees' entrance)

The following morning the two girls arrived at the courthouse where we again waited to be tried. Watching a further case, the girls were horrified that we might receive such harsh justice for sunbathing naked on a secluded beach. My girlfriend spoke fluent French and discussed things with the Prosecutor General for some time. Outside the office she gave us her opinion.

"Look, this guy is doing his best to help you without actually breaking the law himself. I believe he is trying to help you to escape but he can't actually tell you that. He knows you will get rough justice and he is just hoping that you will decide to run. That's my opinion."

John and Laura looked at her open mouthed. Surely she could not be serious? To escape like fugitives?

We returned to one of the courtroom to watch another case. Ours would be next. The defendant was a
woman who had worked in a bakers shop and had "borrowed" the equivalent of around ten few dollars from the cash register to give her son money for a school trip. Her husband was to arrive later with the money to replace in the till, but the owner had a spot-check and the woman admitted what she had done. She was given a year in jail. We looked at each other and headed for the doors. Unfortunately the police must have read our minds because they were waiting at the door. They were armed, we noticed and one of them began fingering his sub-machine gun nervously as we were ushered along the corridor. We needed to see the Prosecutor General one more time before our case, I explained. They refused but were eventually persuaded. The PG looked up from his desk with the same pitying eyes. Could he just make one last check of his books, my girlfriend asked him. He sent the policemen away. The girls left too, explaining that they needed to try again to contact the British and American Consuls (who were one and the same, he told us).

"You know what to do, don't you?" said my girlfriend (incidentally I have not had her permission to print her name so I am avoiding that). I nodded uncomfortably. "See you at the parrot cafe."

As subtly as I could, I explained to John. The monkey cafe was somewhere by a small, out of the way

B&B where we had previously stayed. He looked down, adjusting his thick glasses. Our passports still sat there on the PG's desk, where they had remained all morning. Could he please see if he hd any other books that might help, I asked? He sighed and went to the other side of the room. Unfolding a step ladder he climbed to one of the high shelves. This was it. Stepping forward I grabbed the two passports and pushed John towards the heavy wooden door. Half expecting to find it locked, I pushed it. The two policemen with sub-machine guns were stood on the landing smoking. Trying to act casually we began walking down the marble stairs, quickening our steps as we descended. Just as we reached about the half way point, the policemen shouted and everyone turned. For a second we stopped and looked up as one of them fumbled with his weapon. The next moment I felt the heat of mid-day hit us as we leaped out of the front doors, down the stone steps and into the crowded street. Both of us waited for the sound of gunfire, which thankfully never came. Along the street we tore, pushing shocked pedestrians aside. Shouts came from behind and we turned as we ran, immediately seeing the police. There were now at least three of them and the two with the sub-machine guns were too close for comfort.

"Next street left, John!" I shouted.

Skidding around the corner we found ourselves in a street market. Looking back it seemed like a scene
from an Indiana Jones movie. Women dropped baskets of fruit and vegetables as we barged our way through. Fortunately the locals were too slow in their manner to clear the way for the police and in no time we were in a labyrinth of side street where we felt safe enough to walk and avoid drawing attention to ourselves. Not much more than ten minutes later we were sitting with the girls at a table in the parrot cafe. They had checked the ferries and flights. There was a flight that evening to Athens and one later to Rome. Laura was for getting flights to Rome despite the high price. Down to the last of our money before we would have to return to UK, I balked at the flight idea, reminding them that airport security was far stricter than at an internal ferry port, but there was no ferry until the next morning at 11am and that went to Piraeus, which still left us in Greece. John was for getting a flight too. In the end we agreed it would probably be safer to separate anyway. Fifteen minutes later, John and Laura hurried off for the airport. We didn't even exchange addresses. I have never known whether or not they escaped. We stayed a night at the small B&B before getting the ferry the next morning. In fact the nightmare was prolonged for us. About quarter of an hour before the ferry was due to sail, two police cars screeched onto the dock and boarded the ferry. In a panic my girlfriend found an open lifejacket locker with a lock clasp. Taking the small padlock from her rucksack she padlocked me inside. The police searched the boat. Thankfully they could not find anyone with a key to the padlock. They left and the boat sailed.

In Piraeus we thought again I would be detained as we were taken aside and searched. I got to the point
of saying goodbye to her in fact. How we laughed when we discovered they were looking for stolen ship's cutlery from the cafe. I must have looked guilty.

After a few day in Athens to recuperate from the stress, we bought tickets on a bus back to London. The Greek - Yugoslav border was a heart-stopping affair where they kept us waiting for nearly an hour scrutinising passengers' passports, but eventually the bus drove away, and with me on it. I was free!

It may be unsurprising for you to know that in the 36 years since this event, I have never returned to Crete. I do not know if their laws or attitudes have been modernised. But let this be a warning to you. Never swim in someone else's country without shorts!

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