Country no. 5 on my World Karaoke Tour: Greece

As previously discussed in this blog, through August 1993, I’d sung karaoke in four countries. As the calendar flipped to August 2004, I’d still sung karaoke in a total of . . . four countries. The biggest reason for this stagnation in my World Karaoke Tour was that for much of the intervening period I’d been trapped in a horrible job in which I was severely underpaid relative to my qualifications as an attorney and the work I was doing, and which therefore did not enable me to afford vacations to foreign lands (That job also sucked for additional reasons beyond the paltry compensation, but those reasons are beyond the scope of this blog). In the summer of 2004 I was still languishing in that dismal job, although I was only a few months away from finally quitting it. But I’d accumulated enough American Express Membership Rewards miles to qualify for a free round-trip flight to Europe; and by staying in cheap hotels I was able to cobble together my first overseas trip since 1996.

The itinerary for my new voyage included the Greek island of Crete; Rome; Pompeii; Venice; Amsterdam; and Brussels. The focus in the present article will be on the initial stop of Crete; the next installment of this series continues the narrative of my late-summer 2004 romp through Europe, during which the concept of my World Karaoke Tour finally began to reach critical mass.

Prologue: Terror on the high seas in 1996

I’d been to Greece once before — during the aforementioned 1996 journey that had marked my most recent foray outside the United States. On that trip, taken at the end of the summer, my law school friend Dave and I visited Athens and Delphi on the Greek mainland, as well as the Aegean islands of Ios and Santorini. Although Greece boasts a musical tradition dating back to ancient times, I didn’t find any karaoke during my 1996 visit. To be honest, I didn’t really seek it out; while I’d been singing karaoke Stateside for nearly five years at that point, karaoke had not yet become one of the defining activities of my life.

Despite the lack of any H-Bomb performances, my 1996 Greek holiday was memorable for a certain boat ride that occurred towards the end. Dave and I were on a ferry, returning from Santorini to Athens before flying back to New York. The ferry made an unscheduled stop at some random island. An announcement came over the public address system in Greek, and about two-thirds of the people on the boat immediately disembarked. Dave and I wondered why.

Some 5 or 10 minutes later, we heard an English translation of the announcement. It informed us of the reason for the stop: Someone had phoned in a warning that there was a bomb on board the boat. At that point, Dave and I evacuated the ferry as quickly as we could. 🙂

Everyone then just waited around for a while at the port. Curiously, no authorities searched the boat for explosives. I didn’t see any bomb-sniffing dogs or anything of that nature. Then, after about 45 minutes had elapsed, the personnel from the ferry line asked the passengers to get back on board.

I asked one of the people in charge why they would let passengers back on without having searched the boat for the bomb that was the subject of the threat. He replied, “Well, they said the bomb would go off at 3:30, and it’s now 3:45, so it must have been a hoax. This happens every now and then.”

Needless to say, I didn’t find those words very comforting. 🙂

So I was hesitant to take a ride on a vessel that still might be wired with explosives. Dave said, “Come on, Harv, get on! Think of the story value!” I responded to the effect that it’s hard to tell stories when you’ve found permanent repose at the bottom of the Aegean Sea.

Ultimately, Dave and I did board the boat. I was nervous the whole way to Athens. What if there’d been a misunderstanding and the caller had given the detonation hour in Greenwich Mean Time (which was two hours behind Greek time) rather than local time? Fortunately, however, the ferry’s laissez-faire methods seemed to work this time . . .

And so I lived to fight another day; and eight years later I returned to Greece. Unlike during my previous visit, I was now in World Karaoke Tour mode. As discussed here, I’d been singing karaoke regularly in New York City since the summer of 2001, and so it seemed natural for me to continue performing as the H-Bomb when I traveled to other locations.

August 2004: Knossos and karaoke

I was a man on a mission. On my flight from Athens to the Cretan city of Heraklion (the largest city on the island, with a population of roughly 150,000, and the metropolis in which I would be lodging for my first two nights), I chatted up a Greek local who was relatively young (and thus the type of person I would expect to be attuned to the hot nightspots). I asked him if he knew of any karaoke venues on Crete. He responded that I was sure to find karaoke in a town called Malia. Although he couldn’t identify any specific establishments there, he was quite confident that I would find somewhere to sing in Malia.

The front desk staff at my Heraklion hotel confirmed the presence of karaoke bars in Malia, and noted that the town attracted boisterous young tourists from the United Kingdom (a type of people that an English friend of mine refers to as “lager louts”). A coastal town, Malia is basically a resort destination for those young Brits (It also features some important excavation sites, but no one goes there to see the archaeological stuff). So it sounded like a fun atmosphere. I was convinced.

But before attempting to make my Greek karaoke debut, I had an afternoon to kill. I spent that afternoon by stepping into the distant past. I visited the remains of Knossos Palace, on the outskirts of Heraklion. To stroll that site is to make a direct connection with antiquity; the first palace stood on those sprawling grounds as early as 4,000 years ago, and was the focal point of the legendary Minoan civilisation. At left you can see a reconstruction (based on the imagination of Sir Arthur Evans, the British archaeologist who unearthed the palace) of the pillars that once stood at the north entrance. The stones that are visible at the bottom of this photo are remnants of the original four-millennium-old construction.

After exploring the Bronze Age ruins of Knossos Palace, as well as some additional artifacts in the National Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, it was time to make some history of my own. I got into my rental car and set off into the night, in search of karaoke adventure.

Just getting to Malia was a challenge; I got lost several times (Needless to say, this was in the days before GPS units became ubiquitous in rental cars). And driving on Crete’s National Highway, at least in the darkness of night, was scary for me. Parts of the road were shrouded in pitch blackness, and I had trouble seeing very far ahead of me, so I didn’t want to drive too fast. I took advantage of the local custom that slower drivers pull over to the shoulder of the road and permit other vehicles to zoom past them. You know those video games where the object is to pass as many cars as possible? I was trying to permit as many drivers as possible to pass me. I was also somewhat terrified at the high speeds of many of my fellow motorists on this Mediterranean autobahn; using my speedometer to gauge their pace, many of the local drivers seemed to be whizzing along at 90 miles per hour. Later I realized a crucial error I’d made in calculating this figure: I’d neglected to realize that my speedometer was measuring kilometers per hour. So in fact, the speed of the other drivers was a relatively unremarkable 55 or so miles per hour.

Eventually I overcame my navigational difficulties and found Malia. The town centre consisted of a profusion of pubs, restaurants and nightclubs, with numerous young people milling around; the scene was reminiscent of places where American university students travel for spring break. As I’d been promised, I had no trouble locating a karaoke bar (However, I neglected to record for posterity the name of that watering hole). Curiously, the only photo that I took (or had taken) in this venue shows the bartenders lighting the bar on fire (see photo at left). And, not anticipating that one day I would start blogging about my World Karaoke Tour, I regrettably failed to document my complete set list from that night. An email that I sent to a friend a week or so later does reflect that I sang Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” which elicited a strong crowd response; and I also specifically remember singing “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. And just as anticipated, I met many British tourists in the bar, and had a great time. Then I got back on the National Highway for a white-knuckle drive back to my hotel in Heraklion.

And, that is how, on Friday night, August 20, 2004, Greece became country no. 5 on my World Karaoke Tour — and the first new country in which I’d sung in over 11 years.

The charms of Chania, and a road trip gone awry

The following afternoon, I drove to Chania, where I would be staying for the next couple of nights. Chania is an absolutely gorgeous city on a harbour, with Venetian architecture. While there, I was privileged to witness a stunning sunset against the backdrop of Chania’s picturesque lighthouse (see the photo at the top of this article). I enjoyed just walking around the harbour, as well as wandering the town’s labyrinthine streets. And while I didn’t find any karaoke in Chania, music played an important role in my nighttime entertainment there. I attended a performance of traditional Cretan music performed on lyras; and I partied at a Scandinavian nightclub.

On my last full day in Chania, I planned a day trip, but it didn’t work out so well. The object of my ill-fated excursion was the Samaria Gorge — a spectacular natural formation, kind of a poor man’s Grand Canyon. You drive down from Chania (which is situated at the top of the island and towards the west) to a place called Hora Sfakion at the bottom of the island; and from there you take a ferry to a town called Agia Roumeli in which you can find the southern entrance to the gorge.

This time, my difficulties arose not from navigation, but from the harrowing nature of the expedition. I drove the 35 or so kilometers on the dreaded National Highway (allowing a multitude of cars to pass me, of course), and then I reached the point where you continue south on a non-major highway. I figured it would just be a typical two-lane road; no big deal. And it started out that way. But then all of a sudden the route turned into one of those horrifying narrow roads through a mountain pass, with no shoulder, a steep and almost straight vertical drop right beside the road, and no guardrail. And there was no relief in sight; gazing across the valley, I could see that the road went on and on like that for miles. So I was driving really slow (not wanting to lose control, careen off the mountain, land at the bottom and burst into flames). But there were other cars behind me attempting to go faster than I was (What can I say? The locals are used to driving on those scary alpine roads). And unlike on the National Highway, there usually wasn’t room to pull over to the side to let other vehicles pass me. So I felt pressure to increase my own speed, although I resisted that pressure. But, not being a mountain goat, I couldn’t deal with driving on the edge of a precipice sans guardrail, even at my plodding pace. I just couldn’t do it. So when I got the chance, I made a U-turn and drove back to Chania. No gorge for me. So I’ll admit it; I was a coward. But I think it was a respectable cowardice under the circumstances. At least my car didn’t end up taking a Thelma & Louise-type trajectory off the mountain. Still, I was sad that I didn’t end up seeing the gorge (Normally when I’m on vacation and want to visit a tourist attraction that isn’t accessible by mass transit or a reasonably priced taxi ride, I register for a group tour with a company such as Gray Line. If I’m traversing a vertiginous mountain road on a bus, at least I have the option of not looking out the window. But Crete is off the beaten path as compared to the Greek mainland, and my recollection is that there were no commercial tours that could have taken me from Chania to Samaria Gorge).

The next day, I flew to Rome.

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The lighthouse in Chania’s harbour at dusk.

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