Crete is a country within a country. Similar to the way Sicilians feel in Italy, Cretans often say they are Cretan before they say they are Greek. Their pride runs deep, their traditions run even deeper. Being half-Cretan, on my mom’s side, I’ve had the privilege and true pleasure of experiencing this pride first-hand. My family in Crete hails from Chania, on the western side of the island. A city in a municipality of about 110,000 people, the community is tight-knit but overwhelmingly warm and welcoming to non-locals. I have been going back to Crete every single summer my whole life with the lone exception being the summer of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. I have been blessed beyond measure to have a large family, many of whom still reside on the island.
In the summer of 2014 I was in Crete enjoying time with the family. My Uncle Nikos – I know, a very common name in Greece – didn't really leave much room for negotiation when he told my cousin Gianni and I that even if we had plans for the evening and for the next morning, they are to be scrapped and we would be going with him. At first, he didn't even say where but we realized without being told that we would need our rest for the evening – it was going to be a long day the next day. My uncle is a mountain of a man, and like many Cretan men, he loves to wear black button-down shirts even with blistering heat in the summertime and he can be found attending 3-4 social events per day, a real force in the community there. Unbeknownst to me at the time, a critical seasonal social gathering (that to my knowledge is done in Crete and not many other places in Greece, if any) is what is known as a ‘Koura’. A Koura is a social gathering of friends and prominent locals who shear a herd of sheep and then feast on some of the animals afterwards, oftentimes going into the night telling tales of old over a meal coupled with local wine and raki. It was a fascinating experience to learn the proper techniques for shearing sheep, a skill I admittedly never thought I would need to know, and how to properly carry a sheep with ease but without hurting it. After a trial period of a few minutes, I was pleased that the local ranchers and locals generally paid no mind to the fact that I was Greek-American. They actually inquired whether it was my cousin or I that was actually ‘the American’. The Koura was a turning point for me in my understanding of how important is the connection between the Earth beneath them and the Cretans. To be in the mountains, using one’s hands as we Greeks have been doing for thousands of years, instead of doing the typical beach and leisure things one associates with Crete in summer was immensely rewarding.