A Conversation with a Village Priest

We'd been staying a few days with our friends, George and Jean and their son Pavlo, in the mountainous heart of Crete, helping out where ever we could. One morning George asked if I'd like to go with him to a neighboring village to get his newly pressed olive oil.

George is sincere about his high quality oil that's sold only in gourmet shops in America. He insists on the best treatment of this valuable resource, including using only the "fat olives, none of those new turbo tree olives, nothing but the old trees" he explained, pointing to the fields as ancient as the Parthenon.

As we bounced along the dirt trail to the bottom of the valley, forded the river and headed up the opposite side he told me about his refining process, as well as about the new agricultural methods and technology that had also come to Crete. But he and a few other farmers insisted upon keeping with the "old ways," of cold pressing the oil from the olive. This results in a finer and better oil. And in his valley there were only two such presses left. The one we were headed to was owned and run by the village priest who served several of the villages in the valley.

We all gather around to admire the simple and elegant grave of the famous Cretain writer, Nikos Kazantzakis.

Before long we pulled into the twisting narrow lanes of the mountain side village. These lanes were built long ago, before cars and trucks, when donkey and leg power was the rule. We rounded a few sharp corners in the village labyrinth and pulled up to a freshly white washed structure with large wooden doors painted green.

George got out and pounded on the doors. A young man stepped out, sized up the barrel in the back of our truck and called out something to a man standing in the shadows of the inner courtyard. He emerged into the Cretan sunlight, graceful, earthy, powerfully passionate. Short, dressed in older army issue fatigues with the exception of his typical Cretan black head scarf and black leather knee boots. He looked to be in his 40s, and it was a real surprise to learn later he was 62. He was clearly very healthy and solid, and like most men of Crete had the eyes of a hawk--clear, focused, intense, missing nothing.

Immediately he and the younger man, his son, went to work hoisting small vats of oil and draining them into the barrel in George's truck. The work went by quickly, little was said, and soon they were done, sealing the barrel and tying it down securely in the bed of George's truck.

It was then that something was said to George, and I picked up a few words of his answer, "America, family, world." The priest looked me over, then motioned us to follow him through the large doors into his inner courtyard. It was immaculate, avocado, orange and fig trees mixed with flowers and vines everywhere. In the far corner, sheltered from the sun was a simple table with fresh cut flowers and four chairs. He motioned for us to sit while he disappeared into his house.

Returning to the courtyard he carried a bottle of raki, the traditional "white lightening" of Crete, and bowls of nuts which he placed on the table. Despite the early morning hour he poured a round, smiled and toasted. We all lifted our glasses to life and sipped Crete's most famous home made fire water.

George paid him the money that was due, business was handled in a few moments and I settled back as he and the priest talked in Greek. Soon I began to hear those familiar words again, and as the priest poured another round of raki George translated for him.

He wanted to know about my family, where we were from (he could place that Alaska was next to Canada), what had I done before we went on this journey, and where we'd been. Each time I answered his eyes looked me over closely.

And then came the real questions.

"Americans are all very rich. Not like Greek people."

I sipped my raki and put the glass down. "Not true. Americans have a way of acting rich but really being poor; whereas Greeks act poor but are actually quite rich."

He seemed impatient and waved his hand at me spurting something to George. George listened attentively, after all this was his priest, the man who had married he and Jean and baptized their son.

George turned to me and said, "He says you are playing with him. That you must be a very rich man to make a trip like this."

I looked at the priest directly, our eyes locking on each other up. "Tell him that I'm not at all a rich man, nor am I poor." As George translated we continued to size each other up, and as soon as George stopped I interjected, "... and tell him that to make this trip we did something he and every other man in this valley could do. To be able to afford this trip, we sold all our family's olive trees, and the land they grow on."

George laughed, and clearly seemed nervous as he translated. At the punch line the priest's eyes lit up and he bellowed out the most hearty laugh, a Zorba laugh. His entire expression softened as he poured another raki, set the bottle down and talked through George.

"Then you and your family will now harvest the gift of your travel stories rather than the gift of your olives.... Am I right?"

Raising my glass in salute I answered, "You are absolutely right, and hopefully this will be a good year's harvest for both of us."

He toasted that with a smile and a laugh, relaxed back and began talking to George again. He wanted to know what we had learned in our travels, and I told him we had met many good people in the world, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews.

He was particularly interested in hearing about good Muslims, after all it is the religion still outlawed in Greece. Yes, all we had met were good people, and in India the Muslims were most often the people we sought to eat with since their food and food preparations were so clean.

Was I a Christian? I told him no, I believed that God has many faces for all to see, and that a wise old Greek monk had taught me that 20 years earlier. But he wasn't particularly interested in this line of discussion, and instead he returned to his previous questions, wanting to know if it was true that all I had met were good people.

"Well, actually no, not all. There was one very, very bad one, one with no soul that we met on our travels." This got his attention and he leaned forward, his expression growing severe again.

"In India we had the great misfortune to cross paths with an evil and pernicious thief who cared not a drachma for the welfare of me or my family." This was serious, and he looked at his son across the table and said something the rest of us didn't catch.

I continued, "... yes, this little bugger was a monkey, and he stole our breakfast one sunny morning." I hoisted my raki glass and polished it off, ".... but other than that monkey, everyone else we've met on this trip has been wonderful."

The priest leaped from his chair. Was I playing with him? Was this true? A monkey? And when I assured him it was true, and showed him a picture of the beast he laughed so hard I was sure you could have heard him across the valley back to George's village. He poured yet another round as he insisted I tell him the details to the monkey theft story.

I related the events of that encounter, and then told him about turning 50 on elephant back in Thailand, how Cassidy turned 8 crossing the International Dateline, and a few other tales of our travels. Each story brought a wide smile to him, the kind of trusting and patronly smile only a well practiced village priest could produce.

"What is it that is different about you and me," he asked.

I explained that we were really the same, only our focus was different. His way was to examine the depths of the world, to know the souls of his people and the rocks of his villages--the atoms. Mine was to see a bigger, but not deeper picture--our globe and the stars. He thought about this and said, "Yes, we are both like the olive tree. Strong. Long lasting. Only I am like the roots that take hold of the soil, and you are like the high branches that grab for the sun and air."

"So, what have you learned in this journey?" he asked.

"I've learned about villages like this and people like you. If I had stayed at home, going to work every day, coming home and watching the evening news, the only way I'd ever know about his village and his people would be if one of them went nuts and murdered a dozen other villagers. That would make CNN, I'd see it, and I'd know the village was a bad place, maybe something evil in the water."

I raised my glass and toasted him, "But traveling like this, I've come to your village and have seen it is wonderful and healthy, and your water is good. I would never have known this if we weren't on our journey."

Again he laughed, and was about to pour another round when I declined. After all, it was still early in the morning and we had much still to do. He nodded in understanding and agreed, "Even here in the mountain villages of Crete now," he said, "the people learn about the world around us through the evil deeds of those who make the evening television news. It's a loss on all our souls."

We parted as friends, and when we ran into each other a few days later in another village, it was just as if we were old soul mates, even without our translator.

Our journey is like that. We've had the chance in this year to meet wonderful, endearing, intelligent and caring people. People who'd never make it on to CNN, but the kind of people who make up our world.

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