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Our man in Iraklion
By Jim Sack
Fort Wayne Reader
For almost a month I have been in Europe, and for most of that time on Crete, a Greek island in the middle of the Mediterranean not even five times the size of Allen County and it has offered a chance to make comparisons.
The capital of Crete, Iraklion, is about half the population and physical size of Fort Wayne, but with an archeological record that goes back 5,000 years. The fabled ruins of Knossos (1,900BC) are a short bus ride to the south, and Iraklion herself is fairly littered with archeological sites where young diggers sift through soil for more clues to the past.
The Iraklian coast is long and rugged with a frothy aqua sea, and everywhere there are fragrant bushes flowering in white and pink, yellow and purple.
Unlike Fort Wayne garbage is everywhere in Iraklio. It is as if the Cretans are trying balance the exquisite natural beauty of their island with a veneer of consumer detritus and social indifference. Their garbage collection system fails miserably. In a town of narrow, winding streets where mopeds sometimes barely squeeze through, everyone puts out small plastic bags of garbage nightly…which hungry cats and lonely dogs tear open and spread about the streets. The twice weekly recycling is a novelty observed only by a minority of the more socially conscious citizens.
Meanwhile, the majority of the population seems quite content to drop trash where they stand. Plastic is everywhere along the beautiful coast. Because tap water is suspect everyone buys bottled water and, true to form, the plastic ends up on the ground or floating on the surf. Plastic bags decorate those splendidly flowering oleanders like so much Christmas tinsel.
Stray dogs and cats are everywhere. I watched a street-smart little dog work a long line of tourists awaiting a ferry. He went from German to Englishman to Russian, optimistically whipping his tail. Many of the animals walk about in a torpid depression; more than a few of the strays limp suggesting a very close call with four-wheels. A friend told me the animals are prized for their rat-killing skills in the port community, so there is little attempt to build husbandry skills among the humans.
But, what Iraklion has is her squares: they are the hubs and gathering places in the neighborhoods. Often they are the plaza in front of the church, or just a large open space where Venetian planners or urban renewal yielded space in this dense city.
Consequently, downtown businesses thrive well into the night. Cafes abound where two narrow alleys cross and enterprising shop owners put out a few tables, turns on soft jazz and fires up an espresso machine. A few streets have been pedestrianized to add to the casual atmosphere and that is where tourism, shops and cafés thrive best.
And, it is good that some areas are pedestrianized because the drivers here are quite aggressive. Even in the small, narrow back streets mopeds and motorcycles whoosh through as if death were no matter. Pedestrians hone keen senses.
If you hate the smoking ban in Fort Wayne then come to Iraklion. You can smoke almost anywhere, even where prohibited. My bus journey to sunny, tranquil Agios Nikolaos featured a raspy-voiced, chain-smoking driver. We all shared in his addiction. Smoking is supposedly banned in closed spaces, such as restaurants, but a distant open window suffices to provide the excuse. Consequently, butts and discarded packs are always under foot.
Oh, and graffiti! It mars nearly every building, wall, memorial, road sign; literally anything some vandal can paint. Posters are ubiquitous as well, just another source of debris. Most tumble to the cobblestone within a day or two, adding to the general disheveled look of the city. Given the Greeks depend upon tourism the trashy look of their cities seems counter productive. The societal self-abnegation drives some tourists to Malta or Santorini or Rhodes, instead. But, as one fellow told me, “Athens is worse.” Small consolation.
Perhaps it is a deep religious ethos that keeps Greeks on the straight and narrow. Churches are filled frequently during the week and they dot the countryside, as do roadside memorials to untimely deaths or shrines to some divine intervention. That raspy bus driver crossed himself enthusiastically each of the many times we passed a monastery, church of a recent crash site. Bells ring frequently, it is a deeply religious nation.
What we could learn from the Iraklians concerns their downtown and ours. Their center is awash with young people meeting, relaxing, talking, playing. Shops are busy. Sidewalks are full. Iraklians would see opportunity on Fort Wayne’s ill-conceived Court House Green, or on the moribund Landing, Calhoun Street and around the ballpark. Umbrella tables would sprout and cappuccino would flow, people would stop to admire the Court House and others would join, because people go to where other people are. Iraklians would find better uses for our oh-too-many parking lots and would see opportunity that we overlook.
Downtown Fort Wayne is still dead during most of the day and all night because planners and leaders have failed to make it people friendly. Car friendly it is, people friendly it is not.