A New Friend Up an Alley in Heraklion

heraklion-alleyWe were tired, frazzled, and packed full of adrenaline from the driving in Heraklion. We were hungry. We asked the night manager to recommend a place for beer, wine, and food. He looked at us for a second and said: “You’re not wanting touristic places are you? You’re wanting locals place, I can tell.”

We both nodded. This has happened numerous times. We are obviously “not from around here” but total strangers seem to know we are seeking out the local life more than the tourist scene. He directed us to a place at the end of an alley a few blocks away.

We walked past it, because it looked too quiet, or too dark on the way to the lights, or too something. Nothing much seemed to be happening. We went uphill a ways, thinking we hadn’t gone far enough, and realized that must have been the correct alley.

We took deep breaths, held hands, and entered the darkness. There were two places across from each other at the dead end of the alley. One was more restaurant than taverna, and one was more taverna than restaurant.

As we approached it became like one of those moments in an old cowboy movie when “the stranger walks into the bar.” I felt like there was a film director in the editing room saying, “cue the ominous music.” There were three tables full of families at the restaurant, a table of kids in their twenties at the taverna and, in the darkness deep at the dead end of the alley, a table of five or six men.

The first family noticed us and they all turned to look at us. They stopped talking. Then the second table stopped talking and stared at us. Then the third table. Parents and elders all stopped to stare. Then the kids realized something was up, turned at the lack of noise to see what was going on, and saw us. They stopped talking and stared. I wanted to laugh because it suddenly seemed hilarious, except for one thing. The men at the dark table had noticed us first, I’m sure. I could feel their eyes upon us, in a not-at-all-friendly way. The biggest man was a hulk and clearly the boss.

I made a little nod of respect in his direction and lifted my hand palm-up toward an empty table, asking for permission to sit. His pals turned to him, waiting for his decision. The families turned to him, waiting for his decision. Even the little kids looked at him. There was a moment of the classic paused tableau: strangers stand in the swinging door of the saloon, waiting for the cattle-ranching empire-builder to decide their fate. He gave the slightest of nods.

The families broke their stares and returned to eating, drinking, and chatting as if we were no different than any other couple walking into their neighborhood bar.

We smiled and nodded. We approached our designated table at Retro Estiatorio, the taverna, and pulled out chairs, hoping they hadn’t stopped service for the night. One of the kids at the next table stood up and rushed over with a panicked look on his face. He said something in Greek. Probably “How may I help you?”

We said: “Are you serving food? Do you have wine? Beer?”

The look of panic turned to terror. “One moment, one moment.” He rushed to that table of men in the back darkness. The youngest of them stood up after being given an invisible okay and came to our table. He was Nikos Vlasakis, the cook and manager, and he had a huge smile on his face. He welcomed us to his restaurant. He made no mention of the spaghetti-Western scene of a moment before apologized for the fact that this was his young waiter’s first few days of work and the boy didn’t speak English. But he would be happy to speak English with us. He had lived in London for several years but that was long ago.

He explained the menu, told the waiter what we wanted, and then sat with us for two hours. We talked about Crete, Oregon, London, our kids, his friends, and much more. Nikos was a great host. After a while we noticed that we were the only ones left in the alley and the waiter was yawning. It was 1 am and Nikos introduced us to a Cretan custom: two shots of Raki and a small dessert. Raki is a form of white lightning made from wine. Nikos explained that there are many different types of Raki. With a big smile and thrust-back shoulders, he explained why his Raki is the best.

He wasn’t lying. It was very smooth and light. Not what we’d expected. It had that white lightning bite, but not the burn and the pain. The custom is to shoot the first shot, then sip the second. The dessert was a delicious flan.

(Update: I can now confirm that Nikos’ raki is the best in the land. We had raki at almost twenty other restaurants and bars during the remainder of our trip. It was never as good as Nikos’.)

Nikos hopes to move to San Diego someday to learn new techniques for cooking. He is especially hoping to learn Asian styles. I’m sorry I don’t have photos, but we forgot to bring our cameras out with us that night. So I grabbed a screenshot of Google Street view, looking up toward Nikos’ restaurant. If you look through that skinny opening between the foreground light pole and the building to the left, you will see the trees at the end of the alley. The tables with families and the cattle ranching boss-man are under those trees.

About How We Handle Scary Situations in Foreign Territory

I look for the most open, curious face and direct a question that way. Questions, by bringing logic into an emotional moment, tend to turn a mind, even slightly, from anger. That person’s answer sometimes, but not always, dissipates the group vibe.

Or find the oldest person in the group and nod with respect and ask permission, even if it’s a silent facial expression and body language, to enter or be there as if you’ve accidentally walked in their front door and have no idea how you ended up there but you mean no harm and you’re really nice people.

Or, if my neck is crawling, I don’t hesitate; I turn and leave without looking anyone in the eye, but in a stroll so it looks like I’m unconcerned. Eye-to-eye is an invitation to abrupt interaction and obvious hustling shows your fear. Showing fear can make things worse. I ain’t big and I have no interest in going toe-to-toe with people that enjoy violence.

Or, go straight up to the scariest, most obvious Alpha and, with a big smile, ask if they want their picture taken. That one worked perfect when we were suddenly face-to-face with two Russian mobsters on a street in Sparta, Greece. Prison tattoos, huge bodies and massive heads and thick big hands. Track suits, gold chains, and undeniable predators looking at us like meat in a Guy Ritchie movie. I was a toy to be broken in long, painful ways and my wife was to be their plaything. I got hit with a shock of adrenaline but didn’t hesitate to use my favorite way to diffuse a situation. They happened to be standing under the famous statue of Sparta in front of the futbol stadium. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in an ancient Greek city and I wanted to take a picture of that statue. So I walked straight up to their predatory grins and asked them if they wanted me to take their picture with the statue. They were astounded. They went from predator to pal in a heartbeat. Only someone awesome would have the balls to approach them like that. They got kid-like and handed both their cell phones to me. Then, in a true test of universal delight, I handed them my $800 iPhone and asked them to take a picture of Geni and I. They did so and we shook hands all around and went on with our travels. I still kick myself for not taking their picture with my phone. My nerves were jangling the whole time, worried that they would finish our meeting with a quick switch back to predatory mode and violence. I wonder what those two guys are doing right now . . .


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