It seemed fitting that right before we left, we were gifted wild Greek sage.
I was in Italy with my traveling companion, a colleague, and we had both quit our shared workplace and bought one-way tickets to the land of our dreams. I had lived in Italy before and had friends in various towns and that was the only plan we had.
This night, two days before we left for Athens, we were sitting on the porch of my old roommate’s family home outside of Verona. An enormous sea-toned ceramic bowl sat in front of us, boasting cherries and a tray of beverages was passed around, offering bubbly water with mint syrup to stave off the early June heat. My friends passed the two of us presents that they had prepared for our arrival. It came in a sturdy bag, in the shape of a house, tented at the top. Inside mine I found a small frame, a recipe book with a few family favorites printed inside, a tiny container of olive oil that they had made from the two olive trees in their yard and various spices. The mother had made her own aromatized salt, the daughter had brought back Masala and Pepperoncino from her recent visit to Kenya, oregano from their own garden, and wild sage that they had cultivated on one of their most recent trips to Greece.
Oh, how they loved Greece. They had been over 10 times, and visited close to 30 islands over the years. They regaled us with stories, showered us with books and magazines featuring their favorite places and proudly displayed their clear vases that housed Greek sand and shells pirated from white and turquoise beaches.
When we first met him, he extended his hand and said,
“Panos. Or for English, call me Peter.”
The first thought, oh! Peter Pan(os). It’s him.
The actual realization came later that we had found our lost boy, living on an island where it seems like he wouldn’t have to grow up, subsisting on a youthful spirit that was the only way he could exist in an exhausting reality.
But he was a grownup. He was an older man. Probably in his 50s, skin darkened across the bridge of his nose, along his receding hairline, the back of his neck from all the times he would stand outside the restaurant in the sun, squinting up towards the sun and life and looking around, waiting for people to come in.
When we first met him, I thought he was a manager. He was wearing both a purple striped buttoned up shirt and a confidence with which he beckoned our giggles down the stairs and into the waterfront dining area, an ease associated with that wafted through the air.
We had just arrived in Crete, after flying from Athens, a night of no sleep, and stressful travel arrangements. We were staying in Crete for six days, because we heard the beach was incredible and it was a place where we could figure out ours lives.
Because all that you need for that is the right location, no?
We spent many euros driving around with our taxi driver because he had overlooked the house number, under a grey sky that was crying out for some impending rain. We found the apartment, flopped on top of our beds, tired and sticky, and spent four minutes unsuccessfully finding an internet router. To our horror, we discovered we would be in the one room mini rental for a week with no internet.
While this is both an extremely privileged problem to have and truly not a problem, we were expecting this time to be able to plan the rest of our trip, and required some bandwidth.
So, off we went, loopy with our own ridiculousness of needing internet, slightly annoyed, hungry, tired, and giggly. We found the first wifi sticker on a restaurant window after three minutes of walking, and upon entering, we found Panos.
We couldn’t believe we were going into a restaurant within our first half hour in Crete, solely because the international symbol for internet was pasted on the window facing the street. Our shame manifested itself in delusional giggling.
Panos reached for our elbows as we came down the ramp, “come, come, what’s happening?” and led us to a table and sat us down. “what’s wrong?”
And somehow, he was able to see that our hyperventilating giggles was really just a cork for some strange tears that were soon to start flowing any minute. Who knows why, really, things not going as planned? My own personal questioning of what I was doing in general, there in Greece, and in life, presenting itself during a cloudy beach day in a very deserted part of a Greek island. Somehow, he just knew. And somehow, both of us wanted to tell him.
We started to explain to who we were and what we were doing there.
He waved his hand like we were mildly crazy, but that it was also okay to be crazy, and then he beckoned us over to eat.
He then put on the white polo, changing into the position of server, and he fed us Cretan salad and finished with homemade chocolate cookie sticks, ouzo and raiki.
And somehow, my traveling partner got incredibly sick from whatever it is that we both ate and I had many of the following days on my own, while she stayed in our one solitary room, blackout drapes shut.
It was raining and the only alternative to the pitch black room with a moaning inhabitant was a balcony that was pelted with insistent rain. I had to remind myself that I was still in Greece and had to use my feet, my mind, my eyes to feel and experience more. So I wandered down to the two restaurants at the water, just minutes from our place.
And somehow Panos and I became friends.
I didn’t know what else to do with myself in those days other than sit, write, think, and talk to Panos.
I would come around the time the restaurant opened. Some days, I would be walking out of the large café that existed next to the restaurant at the same time he was getting off of the bus to start to get ready for work. I would often walk in with him, or I would wave and pretend to busy myself for 20 minutes before following him in and taking a seat by the plastic flaps that protected the customers from the rainy winds lifting off the sea just beyond it.
We shared conversation, one night we shared dinner, and we shared an easy friendship.
One day he pointed to a small peninsula, jutting out into a darkened sea. Brown bulbous pines dotted the path, out at the Greek Orthodox church, white, strong, at the end.
“Do you believe in something?” he asked me
“I believe in a lot of things” I told him
He let out a breath of laugh as he looked down, smiling, shaking his head.
“But mostly, I believe in people.”
“I believe in love, I believe in peace, in doing kind things. I believe in people above all. Then God comes after that.”
Panos, our very own Greek sage.