Did you have a good holiday? a friend asked after I returned from a 16-day trip to Chania in Crete. I paused, unsure how to answer. Yes, I spent a couple of hours on a beach, soaking up the sun. Yes I drank wine watching the sun turn the sea into colours I couldn’t name. Yes, I ate lingering meals in bustling tavernas, but ‘holiday’ didn’t feel like the right word.
The trip was, in fact, part funded by an Arts Council travel grant to work on a new project, but I can’t say I did much of that either. I did talk all things writing with my travelling partner, author Robin McLean. I kept a diary. But actually sit down and work on a project? No. My days were so intense and full at times I felt if I had one more emotionally affecting experience or interaction I might simply explode onto the Venetian cobblestones of Chania’s old town.
You were on a pilgrimage, my friend said after listening to my attempts to answer her question. A good word. I had in fact returned to the scene of events that changed the course of my family’s life.
I was born in South Africa in the early 60s. My mother, Berrell Jensen, was a famous artist and sculptor, and my father, Tony Jensen, was studying for his PhD and embarking on his own career as an artist. Apartheid was at its height. When I was seven, my parents decided to immigrate to Europe.
In the autumn of 1968, while my father was finishing up selling our house in Johannesburg, my mother and I took my brother to boarding school in Scotland and then travelled through Europe to Chania, in western Crete. My mother was interested in Classical sculpture, and Chania was known for its community of artists and bohemians.
Thanks to Manolis Anitsakis, a Cretan man who befriended us, we settled in quickly. Our small apartment was on the harbour, an apartment Alan Bates apparently lived in during the filming of Zorba the Greek. I remember burly men on the port, cleaning spiny black sea urchins and holding them out to me to wrinkle my nose at. I remember seeing an elderly woman dressed in black, scars ripped across her face (Cretans were brutally treated during the Nazi occupation).
By mid December my father had completed what he needed to do in South Africa. He picked up my brother at the end of the school term and they arrived in Chania to join me and my mother. On the 5th of January 1969, to celebrate my brother’s 10th birthday, we drove to a taverna just outside of Chania. With us in our car was a local Greek man and an American couple my parents had met. Manolis drove separately to meet us at the taverna. I remember bouzouki music and dancing and plate smashing and laughter. I danced with Manolis: he was not tall, I felt like a grown up. The night seemed endless and wild and wonderful.
During the drive home, in the early hours of January 6th, my father lost control of the car, swerved off the road and crashed into a tree. My brother and the American man pulled me out of the car, telling me not to look back. I saw blood on the American man’s arm as he held me. The full moon shone down. I heard the sound of crickets, the hiss of the car’s engine.
In my ears I could still hear the song everyone had been singing before we crashed: Σιγά σιγά. Slowly, slowly.
What I remember next was Manolis with me at the hospital, asking me if I was hurting as he walked me down some stairs.
My father died in the accident from head trauma, although I only found this out later. My brother and I were uninjured apart from bruises. The American man’s girlfriend had a broken leg and collarbone. My mother had chipped vertebrae. I don’t know what happened to the Greek man who was in the car with us.
My brother and I lived with Manolis and his family. When my mother was released from the hospital, she told me my father had died. Everyone in the house was wailing. I was not even sure I was sad. I did not know what I was feeling. I felt nothing. I rubbed my eyes and made noises as if I too were weeping, but I was not. I wanted everyone else’s weeping to stop.
I am sure as I stood there that terrible night trying to look back at the car smashed into the tree, something in me closed down, and I became disconnected from a deep part of myself.
Well, the story is a long one. But we ended up living in Chania for nearly a year, with trips back and forth to South Africa. My memories from that time are confused. We went on to live in Athens for a few years, before moving to England when I was twelve.
Although I went on to study Ancient Greek and Classical history and culture at university, and although I made two ‘holiday’ trips to mainland Greece, I did not return to Crete, I did not contact anyone from my past (including my Athenian ex-step father). I did not have their phone numbers or addresses. I never knew what happened to the American couple. My mother never wanted to talk about what happened in Chania or her second marriage. She blamed herself for the car accident, saying she should have been the one driving as my father had bad “hand-eye coordination” (my mother was in fact a skilled driver, having learned from a man who raced cars).
Last year I returned to Chania for the first time since 1969. I’d booked just two and a half days, primarily to spread my mother’s ashes in the sea. I knew she loved the Mediterranean. I did not think I would need to spend longer. I might try to find out where my father was buried, perhaps. What else was there to do? I’d spend a week ‘holidaying’ in the Peleponnese instead.
The moment I stepped onto the streets of Chania it became clear I needed to find out everything, explore everything. In the short time I had I did what I could to re-trace steps I’d taken as a child. I wanted to find out what happened to Manolis, I wanted to find people who might remember us. I wanted to stand in the exact spot the car crashed. I wanted to know the names of the American couple and the Greek man who’d been in the car.
I did manage to find my father’s grave: he is in Agios Loukas cemetery, his bones in a pillowcase in another man’s grave.
Finding the grave changed me. As I stood there, white marble shimmering everywhere, the smell of beeswax candles and the red Bougainvillea growing near, my father came into focus. For the first time in my life I felt he actually existed. Before this moment he’d been a person in story, not even my own story.
Also, for the first time I felt how tragic it was for him to have lost his life so young. He was only 33.
I have virtually no memories of him.
I tried to find Manolis, or at least his family, to thank him for taking such good care of us. Two and a half days was not enough time. Several people said I should contact the Greek TV show “Pame Paketo” (Πάμε Πακέτο), as they help connect one with ‘lost’ people from the past. I did contact them on return home, and in mid-September this year was flown to Athens to record a section for their show to discover who they’d found. The show will be aired on November 1st at 22:00 EEST (also archived on YouTube, I’ll post a link in a new blog when its up! – Edit, 5th November: here it is – the YouTube is edited, full version of the show is here).
In Chania, when I showed people – anyone, random shop owners, policemen, waiters – photographs taken by mother, their eyes would well up, seeing how their town used to look. And when I told them story of my childhood, their eyes would well up again. I was so moved by this response, their concern, their questions. It was as if what I told them had happened to someone in their own family.
So, of course, I had to return to Chania. I’d been considering writing a linked story cycle called ‘Labyrinth’, involving myth, prose poetry, fictionalised memoir – a literary attempt to “story,” or make sense of the often dreadful and meaningless events of existence, reconfiguring them as something more real and transformative. I applied for a travel grant, received one, and so I arrived in late October.
Again, I walked the streets with the old photographs in my bag (and cat food for the strays), and I’d talk to anyone willing to talk back. No one refused, in fact quite the opposite. My experience of last year was only a dip in the water compared to what happened this time. People pored over the obituary Manolis had written in a local newspaper which I’d recently found. They looked at the photographs, they wanted the photographs. We met for coffee, for wine, for more talking.
I continued my ‘research’. I did not find the names of the others in the car accident – hospital records are lost. A lawyer is looking into court records, but I have not heard back. I managed to walk up the stairs of the apartment where we used to live, but got no further. It’s been turned into small hotel and there was no one there to show me the rooms. I did not find the spot where the accident happened. I did not find Mihalis, the son of a fisherman who used to play with my brother.
But as a Greek man I met said to me: You may not find everything from your past story, but you will find new things. You will make new beginnings. You will start a new story.
So. Holiday. Pilgrimage. A step into the labyrinth of my past, reconnecting with the self that I lost on that Cretan road in January of 1969. The beginning of a new story.
And although I will continue to develop the writing project mentioned above, I think I’ll begin a novel. The Greek novel, is how I’m referring to it.
Robin McLean and I are considering running a writing workshop in Chania next October, so I am returning there again. How can I not? Chania can be your home town, someone said to me when I’d told her I never felt I had a home. I do now.
English translation of the obituary of my father, written by Manolis Anitsakis (translation and notes by Nicolas Sampson):
It’s been one month since the tragic moment a ‘foreigner’ passed away in this land.
We know a few things about this foreigner. He was a psychology professor and an amazing artist from Johannesburg, South Africa.
And this ‘foreigner,’ he made us love him so much in the short time we knew him. It doesn’t take long to evaluate the worth of a person, and Tony Jensen was an outstanding one. [Here the author uses the term ‘anthropos,’ playing with the double meaning of ‘person’ and an ‘outstanding human individual’.]
Earnest, dignified, modest, leventis [a ‘fine man’ — this is one of the best compliments a Cretan can offer] and in control. He never bragged, even though he had every reason to boast on account of his superb education and his brilliant career.
He loved life and he loved perhaps even more to learn things. He loved the world and its people. He loved Crete, too, turning it into his chosen spot for his vacation, but Crete seems to have loved him in turn, perhaps more so, keeping the 37-year-old forever with her.
We will be denied from now on his noble figure and his leventi-style poise as he made his way down the Chania streets alongside his wife and his two children, whom he adored.
Yet we still see him in our minds and will never forget the beauty of his soul, and wish him with all our heart that the soil that covers him, the Cretan soil that now keeps him, to be light and gentle on him.
We offer his venerable mother and his beloved wife and children our warmest [deepest] condolences.