Travel writing as a genre has experienced a massive resurgence in the last decade, powered by international bestsellers like Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. While some criticize such volumes for over-romanticizing their subjects, most readers enjoy indulging in an outsider's descriptions of exotic scenic views and foreign populations in all their idiosyncratic glory. Anthony Cox, author of Still Life in Crete, followed a path similar to Mayle's. The opportunity presented by an early retirement package was too attractive to pass up, so Cox and his wife Susan decided to ditch their dreary digs in England and find a place in the sun on Greece's largest island. A former
college lecturer and journalist for The Sunday Times, Cox relates their adventures and misadventures on the road to becoming homeowners on Crete with a delightfully droll and understated British air.
Pooh-poohing the more obvious expatriate destinations of Provence or Tuscany, the couple opted for the warm and spontaneous company of the Greeks living in the tiny village of Afrata in western Crete. The hilarious push-and-pull of Cretan property negotiations, including outrageously overpriced offers, ridiculously underpriced counteroffers and the threat of imaginary Germans ever-prepared to pay more, makes the stressful process of homebuying in the U.S. look like a walk in the park. Juggling their attempts to buy the perfect property on Crete with the difficult task of offloading their cottage in Kent, Anthony and Susan despair of ever making their Grecian dreams reality. Their eventual neighbors in Afrata accept the two Brits easily and affably, inviting them to their homes, their coffeehouses (kafeneons) and their grape-stompings. While some of the local food leaves Cox feeling a little gray (a neighbor's boiled fatty mutton, for instance), most is hearty and satisfying -- fava bean soup, pork stifado, octopus-in-vinegar. And never mind those vaunted Italian vintages -- Cretan wine and tschikoudia are tastes not to be beaten, once they've been acquired.
Cox describes sundry native topics sure to interest armchair travellers: Cretan drivers (carefree and dangerous); the ubiquitous little religious shrines (shunned as declasse by more cosmopolitan Greeks) dotting the precipitous roadways; the island's heavy-handed bureaucracy and its denizens' casual disregard for it; the feeling of grapes being squished under your toes; the surprisingly strong odor of pug farts; the ambiguous feeling of owning a beautiful mountain-and-ocean view but having only a donkey stable floored in ancient manure to live in; and the delightful acquaintance of Afrata's small-town dwellers. Cox is not immune to noticing some of the less-than-idyllic aspects of the island. Attempts at architectural "modernization" have often resulted in simple ugliness. The author also encounters in some of these mainly easygoing islandfolk a surprisingly vehement prejudice, mostly against Jews, Turks and Albanians.
Despite these not-insignificant downsides, Cox ultimately answers the Cretan siren song. As much an "off the beaten track" travel guide as lifestyle-change memoir, Still Life in Crete easily earns its berth alongside Mayle's Provence and Mayes' Tuscany. Occasional sketches of various Afratan characters, a few well-chosen and hearty recipes and an authorial postscript round out an already satisfying volume. If your vacation plans for the foreseeable future don't include a European tour (but even if they do!), take this literary side trip with Anthony Cox to unforgettable Crete.