The Bird Lady of Crete
We only had a few hours in port, and although it wasn’t possible for us to see a great deal of Crete,…the largest Greek island in the Aegean Sea,…we decided seeing as much of the capital Heraklion, would be worth our time.
Instead of taking the official tour we thought it best to hire a taxi for the morning, and view the sites with our driver as tour guide. After negotiating a price and itinerary with a nearby taxi driver, my wife Margaret, her brother Arthur, his wife Carmen and I with excitement hopped aboard his vehicle and away we went.
Margaret and I had visited this island nine years earlier on our first Greek islands cruise, but didn’t get the chance to see much of it apart from the waterfront. This time around we were determined to see much more, though not sure what there was of note to see, since the immediate Port area was rather drab and uninspiring.
George, our taxi driver first drove us through the old walled city taking great pains to explain the history of invasions that took place; many of which were resisted by the tall ramparts. While he waited, we climbed the steep steps to a lookout point where the gravesite of Kazantzakis, the famous Greek writer was prominently located. Our climb was well rewarded by a panoramic view of the city below framed by the distant mountains, some of its snowcapped summits glistening in the brilliant sunshine, contrasting the blue Aegean Sea lapping at its shores.
George tried his best in his halting English, to impress us with the attractiveness and vitality of his ancient city, but sorry to say, for me the drabness of Heraklion was a far stretch in terms of charm. It left me wondering how it could ever compete with the splendour of Mykonos, Rhodes, and Santorini. Never the less, I knew there must be more to this big island than presently met the eye, though I still questioned where the hidden beauty of Crete really lay. Little did George know how disappointed I felt about his island so far, but I was still hopeful.
A few more twists and turns around the bustling city streets, and in short time we found ourselves on the outskirts of town. With spirits lifting, we meandered through country lanes fashioned by lush greenery on both sides, with the brilliance of colourful wild spring flowers interspersing. This is more like what I expected I thought, as my senses took in the new surroundings.
Our path took us past the former Palace of Knossos which we were informed, is now a historic ruin. Before long, we entered a mountainous highway en-route to the city centre. And as we rapidly descended, sprawled below was the bustling city all the way to the edge of the glistening blue Sea. It was a wonderful site indeed, highlighted by the silhouettes of many cargo ships in Port shimmering on the water. Drawing closer, we passed on our right the international airport; not too far situated from the nearby busy harbour, uniquely providing both air and sea transportation for this major island.
We were reminded how Crete played a significant role in the Second World War, when the German navy took control of the harbour, thereby enjoying a strategic advantage against the allied forces. Realizing this, I tried imagining how it might’ve been, with the German troops steadfastly standing guard at the gates of the ancient walled city.
In time we found ourselves in the newer section of Heracklion, where George pointed out ‘Fountain Square’; a local people-watching venue. Traffic was almost at a standstill as multiple cars, taxis and tourist buses all vied for space along the narrow streets. Despite my desire to videotape and photograph more of the changing scenes, we were always conscious of our limited time on the island, and the need to get back to our ship the ‘Perla,’ before sailing time; fearing being stranded here of course, if we missed the boat.
George then asked if we’d like to visit any stores. But the thought of another shopping spree on the part of Margaret and Carmen only left poor Arthur and me nervous. As a compromise, we all agreed we’d prefer visiting a church instead as is our travel custom; since I certainly needed all the blessings I could get.
The imposing Cathedral of Agios Minas stood just off one of the main thoroughfares with its sandstone Byzantine façade commanding our attention; and located just to the left of this Greek Orthodox Church is the smaller Gothic-designed St. Catharine’s Church. George waited for us again while we paid a visit to these beautiful houses of warship.
Approaching the church, we walked a few short flights up leading to a large public square in front. In passing, we were quite surprised to see a dark-brown Hearst parked near the bottom of the steps; leading me to remark that perhaps a funeral was taking place, and visiting the church at this time wouldn’t be appropriate. We decided to go ahead anyhow, and to our surprise soon realized, there was no funeral.
Walking through the large wooden doors into the darkened foyer, our eyes were at once drawn upward to the massive bejeweled chandelier slinging high from the domed ceiling, which for the main part was decorated in gold leaf. And attracting our attention at the opposite end of the foyer stood the large ornamented altar situated behind a brass-railed portico. No wall was left undecorated it seemed, as all the Saints appeared to be represented with their iconic portraits prominently displayed.
Venturing further along the side aisle where smaller altars were located; soon revealed a beautiful white-marbled spiral staircase, its shiny brass railing ascending towards a prominent pulpit. Standing there in awe, I could almost visualize the many powerful sermons preached to the faithful throughout the ages from that perch.
The sweet aroma of incense permeated the air, as Margaret and I purchased, and later lit the wicks of small beige wax candles in solemn offerings. We then placed them in brass candleholders nearby, in acknowledgement of our many blessings. Looking around, we observed with admiration a steady stream of solemn and devout worshipers, making the sign of the cross while kissing the framed icons of their favourite saints hanging on the walls.
After a while, we couldn’t help but feel comforted by the sanctity and serenity therein, which seemed so far away from the hustle and bustle of the frantic world outside. It was with some reluctance we eventually left this sanctuary; our eyes straight away confronted by the harshness of the midday sun.
With the others making their way to our waiting taxi, I decided to take a few last minute photos and videos of the scenery in the main square outside the churches. I’d noticed a number of pigeons perched on the roof of St. Catharine’s Church, which made for a good photo opportunity; and was just about to film them when to my surprise, on queue they all flew off together.
In a hurry I followed the flock with my camera, dozens now flying in from all directions towards the edge of the main square; settling just nearby the mysterious parked Hearst. It was then I realized what the attraction was all about; for there she stood clutching her bag, broadcasting seeds and breadcrumbs by the handful onto the pavement, among the multitude of her frenzied feathered friends.
I never knew her name nor from where she came, this mysterious –‘Bird lady of Crete’; - she just appeared in broad daylight as in a vision. Grey haired middle-aged and conservative in dress, she fetched a handsome figure despite the heat, in her black suit-jacket partly buttoned up the front over a matching skirt and striped grey blouse.
As she continued feeding the birds, I was attracted right away to her warm smile, which was quite welcoming. She radiated a particular sparkle in her persona that spoke of a life well lived; one in which hard times were stoically endured and happy events passionately celebrated.
I soon found myself being draw closer to the feeding frenzy, filming all the while as more pigeons arrived to jostle their way nearer to the feast. Then through my lens the ‘Bird Lady’ approached. At first I was concerned, fearing she may’ve objected to my filming without her permission. But her warm smile and the twinkle in her eyes soon allayed my fears. In fact her alluring presence only served to heighten my consciousness as she neared.
I clearly heard her speak, but only Greek words reached my ears. Despite my ignorance of the language, her angelic face spoke volumes, connecting me in a special way with this charming lady. “Kalispera.” I greeted in my halting Greek, smiling with pride from ear to ear. Coming closer she continued to speak, leaving me with a permanent grin on my face and uncertainty as to what she was in fact saying. And as I stood there bewildered and feeling quite stupid, she smiled again reaching into her little black purse.
For a moment there I was a bit concerned, wondering what a strange situation I was getting myself into, and looked around anxious for Margaret to share in my predicament. She and the others were nearby observing my interaction with this mysterious lady, and no doubt were just as curious.
I continued to stand there apprehensive and vulnerable, totally at her mercy, when this woman with the smile withdrew her delicate hand from her purse, speaking in soft tones all the while. I stiffened when she opened her childlike palm, and much to my surprise revealed a small brown wooden crucifix cradled in it. I was humbled and at a loss for words as she took my hand in hers, gently placing the cross in it. Just then a sudden chill went down my spine; and my feet felt rubbery as I stood there dumbfounded with the crucifix tingling in my palm.
It was then I realized what a special blessing she’d bestowed on this stranger. And being so overwhelmed with her genuine gift of faith and love, I immediately shouted “Efkharisto” to show my gratitude. But for a moment there I wasn’t sure whether this was a gift or was for sale, and reached into my pocket to retrieve a Euro coin, placing it in her hands. Still smiling, she politely refused, explaining I’m sure, that it was meant as a gift. Right away I felt embarrassed knowing my misguided gesture had somehow cheapened her generosity. But she wasn’t offended; the kind smile of this angelic woman soon reassured me otherwise.
For a while I just stood there speechless and emotionally flushed, caught up in the euphoria of this blessed event when Margaret joined me to see what I’d received. The ‘Bird Lady’ realizing we were together, reached into her purse again presenting another crucifix. And before Margaret could recover from the surprise of her heartwarming gift, Carmen and Arthur also arrived and were suitably gifted with special blessings.
We found it interesting how languages and cultural barriers are soon rendered obsolete at magic moments like these, when collectively caught up in the rapture of such chance meeting. I couldn’t let a golden opportunity such as this end without taking photos to mark the occasion, and asked her permission. Carmen in turn was so emotionally moved by this special lady, she reached out and gave her a heartfelt hug and kiss, which was well received. And not to be outdone, I in turn felt free to share my sentiments as well, leaning over to give her a peck on the cheek.
That done; then came an awkward moment, as the ‘Bird Lady’ kept holding on with her arm tightly wrapped around my waist. It was as if she wanted to savour every minute of the love, blessings and human bond we strangers from different worlds were privileged to share. I too wanted to continue embracing this special angel, for we felt so much as one, but we had a boat to catch and our time was running short.
It’s still a mystery to us, for on reflection I can’t recall what in actual fact transpired. It seemed in our heightened state of blessedness we didn’t quite notice when she all of a sudden slipped away. Looking around, she was nowhere to be seen; but in her conspicuous absence, the pigeons like us, continued to enjoy her priceless gifts.
Hurrying back to the port with George taking every back street available, the four of us remained quietly lost in our wonderful thoughts. The question remained whether she was an eccentric old lady who fed the pigeons daily, or was she in fact an angel especially sent to bestow blessings upon strangers like us? And furthermore what’s with that mysterious Hearse parked outside the church?
We sailed away that afternoon, never knowing the answers to these mysteries; but knowing for sure the true beauty of the Island of Crete lay not in the city or beaches, nor even its verdant countryside. Where it’s truly found is in the blessed heart of the ‘Bird Lady of Crete’, who in spirit lovingly portrays the warmth and friendliness of all its people.
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