Cocktail conversation at sunset in Paleochora, Crete

Five minutes before sundown, a lean man in his early fifties approached our table. Our conversation moved slowly much like the sun before it touched the earth. Until it actually skimmed the top of the mountain, the sunset seemed to take forever. The pace quickened as soon as it intersected the dark silhouette of the distant slope.

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Five minutes before sundown, a lean man in his early fifties approached our table in the corner cafe at the far southeastern end of the sandy beach of Paleochora. [Note: sometimes the village is spelled without a c, i.e. Paleohora.]

“Hello, do you mind if I sit here?”

Paleochora, Crete at sunset
Paleochora, Crete at sunset

The evenly tanned man gently pulled out the empty plastic chair next to Robert.

“I just want to see the sunset for a few minutes,” he added politely.

“Sure, please go ahead,” gestured Robert. “We saw you yesterday. We were sitting over there. But all the tables on that side have been taken.”

The fair haired man nodded and explained that he was here with his girlfriend and her family. “It’s open evening tonight, so we’re free to do as we please. She is with her sister, and I am alone.”

He ordered a glass of fresh orange juice while I sipped the special house cocktail containing creme de cacao, Bailey’s, and some exotic ingredients.

“Orange juice is so cheap here. Squeeze two oranges and it’s only two euros! But cappucino is the same price as in Germany.” He gave the waiter two euro fifty.

“Where are you from in Germany?” I asked.

“Freiburg.” It sounded vaguely familiar though I had not been there in any of my dozen visits to his country.

Our casual conversation moved slowly, much like the sun before it touched the earth. Until it actually skimmed the top of the mountain, the sunset seemed to take forever. The pace quickened as soon as it intersected the dark silhouette of the distant slope.

The German had come to Paleochora (pronounced with a silent “c”) some 30 years ago when it was full of hippies living in wooden huts. “You can still run into a few of those ageing hippies.  There weren’t apartments or hotels dotting the landscape then.”

He was here on a two week holiday, and sunset was a precious moment.

“Where are you from?” he asked us.

“I’m from Holland,” said Robert and turned to me. “Well, Anne is sort of also. But she can explain.”

As usual, to avoid a difficult question, I  tried to summarise it all in one sentence. “I consider myself Chinese although I grew up on an American air base in Okinawa.”

Robert introduced ourselves as a piano guitar duo from the Netherlands.

“Oh?” he seemed interested. “And which instrument do you play?”

“Guitar,” said Robert. “Anne plays the piano. But there’s no piano here.”

“So I didn’t bring my music.”

“Nor your piano, I see. Was it too heavy to carry?”

Robert chuckled.  “She would have to be Horowitz to get her piano here!”

The man smiled and volunteered, “I used to play the piano when I was young and then I studied to become a professional violinist.”

He grimaced, “I had to stop because it was hurting my ears. Thankfully I was forced to discontinue. I wouldn’t want to work so hard for so little pay.”

He complained that traveling in a string quartet got boring and playing in an orchestra grew tedious.

“So did you switch to something else that was easy but more rewarding?” I asked.

“Yes,” he leaned back in his chair. “I became a psychologist.”

“How interesting!” I told him about my busy teenage years on Okinawa. I accompanied choirs in school and church, played keyboards in bands, played organ for five weekly church services, and taught 20 private piano students, all before I turned 18. “It was too easy to earn money in music. That’s why I went to study engineering at college.”

“But you’re a professional musician now?” he was puzzled.

“Yes, after working in various non-music fields in different countries, I returned to music, lured by the idea of being paid to do what I loved and not having to follow other people’s agenda or operate to tight deadlines like my previous job as magazine editor.”

Sunset at Paleochora, Crete
Sunset at Paleochora, Crete

The sun had nearly disappeared by then. But we had only just begun the interesting part of our conversation. What kind of psychologist was he? Why did he choose to return to Paleochora after such a long time? Why didn’t he visit other parts of Crete?

We told him that we were actually jealous of musicians who could audition and play in an orchestra. 

“It’s hard to get hired as a guitarist,” said Robert. “Even harder as a classical guitarist.”

“And there are so many great pianists out there,” I added. “So here we are — a piano and guitar duo, possibly one of the hardest combinations of instruments. Unlike the violin, the piano and the guitar can’t ease into each other to gradually blend into a single sound. The piano hammers. The guitar plucks. We don’t sustain easily on a single note, like string, wind, or brass instruments.”

“Once we play our note, there’s no turning back,” said Robert. “We have to be exactly synchronised if we’re playing the same note otherwise you’ll hear two instead of one.”

The German psychologist shook his head. It did not make sense anyone would invest in such an impossible feat: to play such seemingly incompatible instruments with steep acoustical challenges and actively having to arrange and commission new music for the duo. Like so many others before him, he was skeptical.

“Perhaps we can continue this conversation tomorrow at sunset?” he suggested.

Yes, of course, we replied.

Meanwhile, he has 24 hours to figure out how we could afford to miss a week of teaching, rehearsing, and performing to come to this island.

Panoramic preview in Paleochora, Crete

Any mention of the Greek islands conjures up unforgettable images of clear blue skies, deep Mediterranean waters, and sunbathing on the sandy beaches. Half a lifetime later, I return to Greece once again, no longer alone but with a Dutch guitarist, an American photographer, and an American film maker to the largest of all Greek islands: Crete. Joining us from Belgium is a Norwegian artist, also curious and brave enough to make something creative in the one week we have together. The theme of this year’s project is WIND. What can you do with an acoustic classical guitar without amplification?

Any mention of the Greek islands conjures up unforgettable images of clear blue skies,  deep Mediterranean waters, and sunbathing on the sandy beaches. That was my memory of Mykonos, Naxos, and Corfu when I first ventured here as a college student.

Half a lifetime later, I return to Greece once again, no longer alone but with a Dutch guitarist, an American photographer, and an American film maker to the largest of all Greek islands: Crete. Joining us from Belgium is a Norwegian artist, also curious and brave enough to create something in the one week we have together for a possible exhibition in a museum in Brugges early next year.

Panoramic view from top of Paleochora Crete
Panoramic view from top of Paleochora Crete

Months ago when we as a duo first decided to participate in the Levka Ori project, we had sought in vain to find a venue with a piano in the ancient village of Paleochora, sometimes spelled Paleohora. Without it, any concert (if at all) would be solo guitar. And so I left my music behind in Utrecht but brought my laptop to record this journey and enjoy the last days of summer with the 2,000 inhabitants of this peninsular paradise.

On Saturday 22 August 2009, Fernand, the founder of the Levka Ori project in its 14th continuous year, introduced us to several high altitude areas in this southwestern part of Crete. We scaled various mountain tops to embrace the breathtaking panoramic views and test the acoustics only to be blown away by the strong and deafening Cretan wind. [For current conditions of temperature, wind direction and speed, check the real-time updates.]

The theme of this year’s project is WIND. What can you do with an acoustic classical guitar without amplification? We brainstormed numerous ideas: concert for guitar and wind, mosaic of guitar with wind, the wind playing the guitar, and fantasia for guitar with wind. While the other participants walked around the “Magnesia” site formulating their plans for the rest of the week, the guitarist walked from stone to stone, peak to peak, experimenting with his guitar and that fierce and unpredictable entity called the Cretan wind.

By late afternoon, we conceded that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to compete against the wind. We drove downhill and stopped at a lone Cretan church for a rest.

Cretan church above Paleochora, Crete
Cretan church above Paleochora, Crete

While inhaling the 360-degree view from this plateau, I heard the beautiful sound of solo guitar floating from the church. I posed for a memory and joined the others in the small white-washed building.

Anne Ku next to church above Paleochora, Crete
Anne Ku next to church above Paleochora, Crete

The romantic sound of nylon strings plucked against wood free from the wind welcomed us into that small space. Natural light acted as spot lights on the old mosaic floor. The guitarist stopped. He was only experimenting with chords and harmonics.

“Please play something I like,” I requested.

Outside the wind continued its roar. But inside the clean space of the Cretan church, I enjoyed a private concert of solo guitar.

Robert Bekkers in a Cretan church above Paleochora, Crete
Robert Bekkers in a Cretan church above Paleochora, Crete