Yati Oxi - Why not?
Many moons ago I had the privilege to meet the British artist John Craxton at an art exhibition in London in the 1980s. He told me he lived in a beautiful Venetian Ottoman city called Chania in Crete, the island of light, winds and myths. I listen carefully when people recommend an enchanting place in the world, research it and then decide, after studying photographs, if it will be added to my destination list. Thus I saw a photograph of the Venetian harbour and the oldest lighthouse in the world. “I'll go there one day” I promised myself since I had been a Philhellenic since the early 70s loving the people, the language and being interested in the Hellenic Diaspora.
That day came in August 2006. My magical husband Martin Breese of 25 years told me, out of the blue, that he no longer loved me, had been unfaithful with the Cuban housekeeper, was obsessed with the Argentinian neighbour who he had loaned a considerable amount of our joint money to (and subsequently got conned) and that he was going to leave me! My reaction was to buy a ticket to Chania and run away to my dream destination with blue skies, sunshine, warmth and the sound of the waves.
I stayed at Lena'’s pension in an old Turkish house in Topanas, the Old Town. Most important I discovered the ancient synagogue with its unconventional interfaith community. I am a non-religious curious Jew but something drew me to this intimate atmospheric place of worship with a resident grey cat. The Friday evening service gave me a sense of my lost heritage even though I was not Sephardic. The founder and leader was Nikos Stavroulakis and I was to keep in touch with him on and off over the coming years receiving a Jewish New Year card designed by him every year since 2006. He had resurrected the synagogue twelve years earlier by raising international funds. This revered scholar and historian, half Cretan and half Jewish Turkish had also set up the Jewish museums in Athens and Salonica, I decided this was to be my synagogue and made arrangements to become a benefactor in my Will on my return back to England.
I had thought my destiny was to be Salonica "The Jerusalem of the Balkans and City of Refugees", a city with a fascinating history but through a series of mishaps last September, instead of following my calling to Salonica, I rented a studio again in Topanas to improve my basic Greek and to spend Jewish New Year in the synagogue. I enjoyed meeting the small international community and eventually made friends with a woman on the committee. I told her my travelling companion was so impressed with Chania that she wanted to rent a flat to escape the cold British winters. There and then we went to view a three bedroom Cretan style apartment crammed with Bric-a-Brac in a Turkish house, right around the corner from the synagogue! I saw an escape from the life in Brighton I had outgrown. It was a golden opportunity I was not going to miss. I thought of sunny mild winters by the sea instead of cold, damp grey Brighton nicknamed London-on-sea. I forgot all about my friend's request and immediately paid a deposit for a three months winter rental in my beloved Chania - my new spiritual home replacing Paris and Havana! Yati oxi?
What was to keep me in Brighton apart from my lovely period flat in a private park, close friends and my beautiful black and white cat called Neko (Japanese for cat)? I was excited as a new phase of my life was about to unfold. Back in Brighton one week before I was due to come back, I met a Greek American from San Francisco by accident whose family came from Chania. Synchronicity was at work yet again with its snowballing consequences.
When I got on the plane just before Christmas 2013, I knew immediately I had opened a new chapter of my colourful life. On Christmas Eve at a dinner party, a South African resident told me that I would come to live in Chania after five minutes of meeting me. How did she know? I never saw her again! Since then I have not stopped meeting people and making new friends. When I walk around the city, I am recognised in the streets by local Greeks who welcome me as a foreign resident. Everyone has time to stop and talk in English or Greek. I even speak French every day to one shop owner who has four resident cats nestling amongst the clothes for sale! The city is full of adorable stray cats and dogs. I am visually stimulated and this has also inspired me to take more photographs of people, markets, food, window displays and merchandise. I also continue to interview and video interesting characters in English and French.
I have met interesting individuals, not only in Chania and Rethymno but international returning visitors and residents even with links to Israel. The foreign residents are all here with a past life and a new beginning. The city draws us like a magnet. The life to come is unknown but all I know is that when I see the clear blue skies, the sea, the Venetian and Otttoman architecture surrounding me, the brightness of the day and the warmth of the sun, I feel excited and happy. When I open the front door I have no idea how the day will turn out. I certainly do not feel this back in England. Why not choose to live in a beautiful magical place with a friendly community? Chania is like a big incestuous international village with a synagogue where I feel I am part of the community. Even stranger, the other week I mysteriously fell to the ground outside the threshold of the Synagogue’s courtyard, like a fallen bird.
Why was I drawn to the Friday night services at the synagogue? The ambience reminded me of my teenage years back in Liverpool, when I was part of the middle class Jewish community and forced by my parents to go to their beautiful Victorian class I architecturally renowned Princes Road synagogue where my father was its treasurer. It was known for its wonderful choir and acoustics and even admired by the famous British composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber. The singing in Hebrew was so familiar to me on those Friday nights in the synagogue, stirring past nostalgic memories.
I have yet to come to terms with how I feel about Chania. People ask me why I am here, to which I reply “I am just here - after all you have to be somewhere!
I will be spending time in Salonica, which is calling me for an unknown reason after having been inspired by the book "The ghosts of Salonica" which took twenty years to compile! Then onto my beloved Crete on a one way ticket where I will be volunteering at the 16th Eurotas Conference in the autumn. This happened because I accidentally saw an out-of-date leaflet on a bookshop door in Vamos that last year's co-ordinator had forgotten to take down! All by accident but was it? Time will tell. I have to return to my new dear friends and the synagogue with its community. Since leaving Liverpool at the age of nineteen all those decades ago, I have always been an Outsider traveling the world like the "Wandering Jew" living mainly in Paris and London where there have been no village-like communities. Here in Chania at last I feel a sense of belonging. Carpe Diem!
Chania, Crete February 2014 Jilliana Ranicar-Breese