Last night right before bed, wife and I started laughing. Not just a chuckle, but a two or three minute stint that almost caused me to pass out.
(I’m still battling a cold.)
I could not catch my breath. And just about the time things started to settle down/ something else would pop into my head, that I would then blurt out/ and cause another round of raucous laughter.
Which brings me to the following true story.
I have to warn you- it may be a little coarse for some of you.
I didn’t write it, but it’s one of those stories that made me laugh so hard the first time I read it, I decided to share it.
One of our favorite activities around the home is to read out loud to each other, especially in the winter . If you were visiting our home tonight and you were one of those people in my life I can be 100% myself around, I might pick up one of Robert Fulghum’s books and read you a story . This one comes from his book What On Earth Have I Done.
My Cretan connection began the summer I was wandering around Europe alone while waiting for my wife to finish her medical residency. No particular agenda just doing what came next. I went to Crete to see the famous archaeological digs at Knossos and to look in on a graduate school program at the Orthodox Academy of Crete. When I was ready to step off the paths beaten down by tourists, I went to a small village at the western end of the island- a fishing village at the end of the road: Kolymbari.
I found a room for the night and rose before the sun the next morning to go running. The day was already hot, so I dressed only in black running briefs and shoes. (It’s relevant to the story to note there that my hair and beard were white even then.) My route took me past the main kofeneion (coffeehouse) of the village where men sat outside socializing. They ignored me. I was surprised. They seemed surly, hostile, and unwelcoming.
Later, when I mentioned this to my landlord, he said, “Oh no, Cretans are very welcoming to strangers- it is an old tradition – philoxenia. But in your case the men at the kofeneion did not know what to make of you. For one thing, your hair and beard make you look like a priest, but they have never seen a half-naked priest running through the village in what looks like his underwear at that hour of the morning.”
“No problem. Smile, wave, say good morning in Greek: Kalimera- kah-lee-mare-ha. You will find them friendly.”
” See this from the point of view of the men at the Kofeneion. They have been gathering here at dawn for years without disturbance or distraction. Suddenly, without warning, a white-bearded, half-naked priest flashes by.”
“What the hell was that, Yorgos?”
“Darned if I know.”
“Tourists get weirder every year.”
The next morning I set off running with goodwill toward men in my heart. Ready to greet the villagers. The men at the Kofeneion see me.
” Yorgos, Look, here he comes again.”
Hold that moment.
As I said, my appearance was a bit of a surprise in the first place. Then there is the fact of my miserable language skills. During the night, my brain changed Kilmera (good morning) to calamari, which means “Squid.”
And then there was the problem of waving. I did not know that Cretans wave with a gentle gesture of an upheld, closed-fingered hand, backside out, palm in. I didn’t know that the All-American hearty wave- arm extended, fingers open- is equivalent to giving Cretans the finger– “Up your!” in other words.
To continue: Here I come. Running by the Kofeneion, I shouted, “Calamari, Calamari, Calamari,” and gave my most enthusiastic open-handed wave to all.
The Cretans heard, “Squid, Squid, Squid” and saw “Up yours!” from the priest in the underpants.
Well, They fell out of their chairs laughing. And shouted “Calamari, Calamari, Calamari” and enthusiastically waved “Up yours!” back at me. More than pleased, I ran on- thinking that these are truly friendly people after all- my kind of guys.
The men in the kofeneion could hardly believe what had happened. “What planet did he fall off of?” they wondered.
And of course they did what you and I would do next. During the day they told their friends about the bizarre stranger’s dawn appearance. And when their friends didn’t believe them, they said, “It’s true. come see. Have coffee in the morning.”
And sure enough, here I come again. I did notice that there were quite a few more men having coffee than yesterday.
“Look Demetri. I told you. Here he comes. Shout “squid” at him and give him the finger and see what he does.”
So they did and I did and so on. Funny, rowdy laughter all around.
As I ran on by, I turned and gave them the All- American sign for “OK” thumb and forefinger forming a circle. They laughed even harder and gave me the “OK” sign back.
Word gets around.
“You’re kidding. No, come see.” The next morning even women and children were there to greet me.
But that same morning, just after I passed the coffee house, a middle-school English teacher stopped me in the street. Serious young man, visibly upset.
“Excuse me,” mister, you are making a jackass of yourself, and those idiots at the kofeneion are helping you. You should all be ashamed. You are setting a bad example. What will the children think?”
“What’s wrong? What have I done?”
“In the first place, he said, no self-respecting Cretan man would ever go out of his house and into the village dressed as you are. Immodest.”
He went on to distinguish between calamari and Kalimera, and explained the fine points of correct waving.
Finally, he wanted me to know that the sign for “OK” in America was the sign Cretans use for telling someone to stick their head up their own rear end. The road-rage gesture in Crete. A serious provocation that could lead to shots being fired. He conceded that good friends might use it as a perverse joke. But strangers? Never!
I felt bad. I glanced back at the men at the kofeneion. Sheepish grins. Now they knew I knew. And I knew they knew. And so, now what? I walked away puzzled: Should I leave the village, find another running route, apologize, what?
But I couldn’t ignore one unambiguous fact: the laughter.
What had happened was funny. The laughter was real.
Actually my best American friends and I would have reacted in the same way. These Cretans still seemed like my kind of guys.
During the night my brain sorted out the problem.
At first light I was clear in my mind what to do.
I donned my running shorts and added to my costume a T-shirt with the blue and white Greek flag on it. Here I come.
Solemnly, the coffee drinkers watched me approach. No gestures. As Impassive as the first morning.
“Look, here he is again, Yorgos. What do you think he will do now?”
Is he angry with us?”
To prepare for this occasion, I had asked my landlord how to insult Cretan men in a way that’s permissible only among good friends- the grossest thing- trusting they know you are kidding…..
“Call them malackos….it is shall I say, a suggestion of masculine inadequacy….”
As I got to the kofeneion, I slowed down.
I stopped. Faced them.
A tense moment. Friend or Foe?
I smiled. “Calamari.” Then I waved, American style: “Up your!” and growled “malackos” at them, while slapping my palm against my wrist…. and stood there grinning, but with heart pounding- afraid I just might get the hell beat out of me.
The kofeneion erupted with laughter and applause. A chair was provided.
“Come, come. Sit.”
Coffee, brandy, and a cigarette were offered. And with their minimal English and my feeble Greek we retold and reenacted the joke we had made together- from their point of view as well as mine. Above all, they thought my way of handling the situation- the in-your-face-with-humor- had Cretan style. Arrogant. Only a true friend would be so audacious.
I was, after all, their kind of guy- and they were mine.
It seems there was an opening for the Village Idiot, and I filled it.
That was the beginning.
For a long time they knew little about me except that I was a fool and a laugher who understood something about the humor and social courage of Cretan men. To me they became friends with names like Yorgos, Manolis, Kostas, Nikos, Demetri, and Ioannis.
To them I became the Americanos, Kyrios Calamari- the American, the honorable Mr. Squid.
As I say, I have been going back for more than twenty years. They have included me in the life of the village- feasts, weddings, gossip, baptisms, wine-making, and olive harvest. My clumsy Greek amuses them still.
I return each year in part because I expect laughter- from their timeless jokes and stories that are often raw and reckless and wicked. Jokes about old age, and sex and war and stupidity jokes that mask fear and failure and foolishness Their laughter is not cautious. Without this laughter the Cretans would hot have survived their travails and tragedies across the centuries.
Cretan laughter is fierce, defiant laughter an “Up your!” to the forces of death and mystery and evil.
They have a word for this laughter: Asbestos Gelos.
(As-bes-tos yay-lohs) A term used by Homer actually.
It literally means “Fireproof laughter.”
Unquenchable laugher. Invincible laugher.
And the Cretans say that he who laughs, lasts.
And they have been around for a long, long time.