Crete, the taka-taka syndrome

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You may have found . . . how shall I put this tactfully? . . . that it can take rather a long time to get anything done here in Crete. That delays, and waiting, are part of life. That any foreigner’s vocabulary must soon include ypomoni, patience. That every resident is legally obliged to use the phrase siga siga a minimum of five times every day. (As a fed-up friend once put it: “Siga siga? That’s like manana but without the sense of urgency”.)

But maybe you haven’t yet encountered that other, converse phenomenon, the taka-taka syndrome. Taka-taka as in chop-chop! Get a move on!

Every now and then our native Cretan friends and neighbours explode into activity, inevitably without thought, planning or preparation and certainly without any clearing up after. You have a sudden yen to do something? Let’s do it now! Amesos! Taka-taka! Let’s paint the fence, never mind the washing hanging on it! Let’s decide to lock up the taverna for the winter, no matter there are still dirty plates on the tables! Let’s build an extension for the kitchen; we’ve got the breezeblocks. Who needs foundations, we want it today!

There is always an impressive, frenzied period of exhausting effort before everyone abruptly loses interest and wanders off, and quite often the job then stays at the half-cock or nearly-finished stage, for months or even years. To the boringly methodical British mind this impulsiveness is at first alien and unnerving. But let yourself go along with it, and life is a cabaret.

One morning I was happily making a traditional Cretan quiche Loraine for lunch and singing along a Xylouri, when o Dimitris appeared in the open doorway, bellowing. “Where’s Vassili? Come quickly, both of you! Come down to my workshop!!”

“Why, Dimitri, what has happened? Have you had an accident?”

“No no, come come! Taka-taka!”

On the way, he explained breathlessly: “You know you were asking about wood for the fire for the winter? Well I just decided to empty out my woodstore and I have put a load for you outside the workshop”.

We arrived at a tottering wooden mountain composed of assorted off cuts, logs, sticks, boards, splinters and planks, enough to see a large family through several winters. A handsome and generous gift. “Quickly! You must take it! Now!”

“Thank you so very much Dimitri, but how are we to take it?”

“Run! Go and hire one of the Albanian labourers. And get him to put it in sacks, and borrow a carroza and take it up the hill to your veranta. Don’t leave it lying here or it will get stolen! Besides, it is now impossible for me to get back into my workshop!”

“But Dimitri, you know all the Albanians have gone back to Albania for the baptism of Lefteris’ baby. And we have no sacks”.

“I have sacks in my stavlos. Come, hurry, follow me!” Back the way we’d come, yomping at the double. He produced eight holey old feed bags. “Entaksi, Alexandra, you had better do the job yourself. Vassili, don’t you even think about lifting anything, with you just over your operation. Alexandra, get busy! Taka-taka!”

So that was how I came to be standing atop the wood mountain, sweat dripping into the eyes, hurling logs into goaty old bags and feeling like Psyche with the mound never getting any smaller.

The workshop opens on to a busy alley and so I was Cabaret of the Day. The young mothers on their way back from kindergarten told their tots to say “bravo” to Mrs Alexandra. Senior Priest made a dignified quip about Winter Draws On. Ioanna the baker on her way from the health centre flumped onto one of the full bags and acted out the dramatic story of her root-canal job while I tried to say “there there”, without breaking stride. A lost party of tourists stared in bewilderment at this dishevelled Wood Woman in a Habitat apron and sawdusty hair, frantically shifting kindling in the midday sun.

Fired by Dimitri’s urgency, I had obediently filled the eight bags almost before I knew it. Now what? I ran back home, panting. “I’ve done as much as I can. What shall I do now?”

There they were, Dimitris and Vassilis, sharing a beer on the veranta with their feet up. “Tomorrow I will find some more sacks” said Dimitris. Siga siga said Vassilis.

By Alexandra Smithies

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