Geoff Mead - writer

A Month in the Country[1]

Go deeper my friend,

Find the living heart of Crete –

Mountains of pure gold.

Courtesy of my good friend and storytelling buddy, Stella Kassimati, I have just spent a month in Crete.  Most of that time I stayed in the village of Amari, going out each day to walk around the valley.  On the weekends I went further afield – to Heraklion, Rethymnon, Phaestos, Chania, Agios Pavlos and the Samaria Gorge.  But wherever I travelled, I felt a thrill of welcome familiarity as I drove back over the mountain passes to park near the village square and walk along the alley way to the double-doors leading to my “home” in Amari.

It was here that each morning I sat at my laptop, writing stories; from here that on many evenings I strolled up to the neighbouring village to share a glass or two of raki with the Men of Meronas (as I came to call the regulars at my favourite taverna); here that I sat up in bed with a mug of tea watching the sun come up over Psilioritis; here that I listened each evening to recordings of Ian McKellen reading the Odyssey; here that on hot afternoons I would plunge into the cool blue waters of the swimming pool, swallows swooping down low over the water; here that one day I counted over thirty varieties of wild flowers in the hedgerow; here that I saw eagles wheeling high above me on the warm air; close to here that I surprised two snakes mating in the road; here that I cooked my supper, did my washing by hand and hung it out to dry in the sun; here that poetry so often came unbidden into my head and onto the page.

So, when people ask me about the magic of Amari, I say; “You really have to go there, to let yourself be there to discover for yourself.  This was my magic, yours will be different.  All I can promise you is that the place is full of magic and that it nourishes your creativity like no other place I’ve been.”

I am a storyteller and writer and, in Crete, stories of all kinds call out to be written and told.  Inhabited since about 6,000 years B.C.E., this island was in many ways the cradle of European civilisation.  A peaceable, artistic and sophisticated culture developed here, its wealth dependent not on military conquest but on trade and the superiority of its ships and navigators.  Minoan society may indeed have been the model for Plato’s description of Atlantis.  Eventually it came to be ruled by the more war-like Myceneans (Homer’s hero-culture of Agamemnon, Achilles and Odysseus), half-destroyed by the cataclysmic explosion of the volcanic island of Thera (Santorin), then conquered and laid low by the incoming Dorians with their weapons of iron.  All this, many centuries before the influence of classical Greece and Rome and long, long before its conquest in modern times by the Ottoman Empire and then by the Germans during the Second World War.

The very landscape is soaked in the stories of these great events.  Here the soul of the people is embedded and embodied in the land.  Perhaps that explains (or is even the result of) the deep sense of spirituality that permeates the landscape.  There are few places left in the world where the human and the more-than-human worlds are so  closely linked.  This island was the nursery and playground for the Olympian Gods: Zeus, Pan, Hermes, Dionysius all have special connections with Crete – and indeed with the Amari valley.  And long before them, the Great Mother was worshipped and the nature gods revered.  Now the hills and valleys are dotted with tiny white churches, chapels and roadside shrines dedicated to the myriad saints of the orthodox church.  And out in the fields, one still finds the skulls of rams displayed on fence posts to keep the flocks safe and to ward off the evil eye.

Today, while there are many parts of Crete that have succumbed to the temptations of a tourist economy and in truth are scarcely distinguishable from many other holiday destinations, there are still unspoiled places both by the sea and in the mountains – particularly in the mountains where, because life is hard, it is to be treasured. Time is shared with one’s neighbours, there is no hurry to be anywhere else, and strangers are greeted as friends.  Amari, thank goodness, is not a picture-postcard village; there are some semi-derelict buildings alongside well-kept traditional homes, a rather (to my mind) forlorn village square, a satisfactorily seedy taverna and a mini-market that may or may not re-open.  Its overriding quality is its “real-ness”: it is a place to live in and to love, not to pass through and gawp at.  It’s a place that lodges itself in your heart.

Just yesterday, I bumped into two women in the street, both late-middle aged and with a certain similarity of features. “Excuse me,” one said in an accent I could not place at first. “Are you staying there?” She pointed to my temporary residence.  When I told her that I was indeed staying there and that it belonged to Stella Kassimati, she replied; “I’m a Kassimati too.  We’re cousins.  I’ve been in Australia forty years. I’ve come back to Amari for the first time in twenty years to visit my sister here.”  She walked a bit closer and stood directly in front of me, tears in her eyes. “I love this place,” she said. “My husband’s not from Amari.  He likes life in Melbourne.  It’s a good city – but I’d give anything to be back here.”  Even after only one month in the village, I understood exactly what she meant.

Geoff Mead
Writer in Residence, May 2010

During his month as Writer in Residence, Geoff wrote the following:

A daily journal of his experiences

A collection of Sixty Haiku

A longer poem On Seeing a Cretan Shepherd

An ending for Italo Calvino’s story Harun al-Rashid

A version of The Nixie of the Mill Pond (Brothers Grimm)

A contemporary fable Meeting at Meronas

Two stories in a historico-mythical cycle (The Ring of Minos)

-       The Priest and his Wife

-       The Priestess and her Lover

And a postcard to his mum!

Haiku Journal

Each day during my month-long stay in Crete, I wrote haiku about experiences, sights and moments that caught my imagination.  Here is a small selection from the whole collection of sixty poems.

Day Three

Goatless, the goatherd
Asleep in his truck. Dreaming
Of motorised goats.

Day Seven

Perfect Sunday stroll –
Up the hill to Meronas.
Ice-cold glass of beer.

Day Nine

The Saints intercede
For the price of a candle.
Each village, a church.

Day Twelve

The old stories call.
Centuries before Homer –
And yet to be told.

Day Fourteen

I’m here, says the sea.
Why are you always elsewhere?
Come now, swim naked!

Day Twenty

While you walk on Earth,
Live each season to the full,
Welcome what each brings.

Day Twenty One

Go deeper my friend,
Find the living heart of Crete –
Mountains of pure gold.

Day Twenty Six

Flying back from Crete,
To the world I left behind –
At home with myself.

Geoff Mead
Writer in Residence
Amari, May 2010

On Seeing a Cretan Shepherd

Too small for these men now
Who wear the hero’s mantle.
Time has not withered them
But the world in which they live.

Rosy-fingered dawn and the wine-dark sea,
Reduced to topless tourist traffic.
What quests can they dream of now,
These men of deeds – goats, sheep?

Once there was a larger world
Of monsters and of boundless seas.
Something worthy of their souls
To pit themselves against.

But now they are passed by.
A world too busy to see truth,
Sees only business opportunity,
Unworthy of a hero’s life.

And so they spend their days
Pretending to be small.  Men
Of bronze in a post-industrial age.
Heroes in disguise. Odysseuses all.

Geoff Mead
Amari Valley, May 2010



[1] Apologies to E.M Forster