It Takes A Day To Pay For Water
Updated: Jul 29, 2021
It did. It took a day. In Crete. In the storm of the century. Read on.
2018 I rented a house on Crete. Winter that year was a nightmare. Three powerful hurricanes, severe flooding, roads washed out, animals, cars and humans washed away. I was told there had not been such a storm in over 300 years. It was being called “biblical”.
In the midst of it all, my neighbors told me it was time to pay the annual water bill. What? In person. In the next village. I had to pay by the end of the month. It was the law. I decided I’d better go the next day. . . December 28th.
Peeking out a shutter that morning, I saw that the storm had abated, although it was still raining. . .in a biblical way. . . and the wind was a monster. Roads were still rivers. I decided to go anyway. It was the law. I was a foreigner trying super hard to be a local.
This water bill mission was my first outing in over 2 weeks. Though roads were still dangerous, I was glad for a reason to escape my little concrete house. Seriously ill-fitting windows made closing the old, wooden shutters a necessity. Otherwise, water cascaded down the walls in sheets. I learned this, early on, from sad wet, frustrating experience. With shutters “shuttered”, I was sequestered, and not in a good way. I could see nothing outside, only hear. Screaming wind banging who-knows-what, the metallic whir and screech of the spinning chimney cap, thumps, bangs, and water pouring, pounding, dripping. My imagination went crazy. We lost power often. I lost sleep. At those times, I lived inside a chunk of coal. Backpacking headlamp the only light source.
I went out happily. An ancient, 3-story building, in a neighboring village, housed the water company. I knew the building. It stood out. Roughly ochre in color, one side covered with vibrant red bougainvillea vines…stunning in summer. This was not summer.
I parked my teeny rental up the road from the building, among a jumble of. . .originally-red-but-now-pink-from-oxidizing-sun. . .pickup trucks. I was learning to park like a local. Willy-Nilly. Helter-Skelter. Any angle. In ways I would never, even for 30 seconds, consider doing in the U.S.A. Fun stuff.
Head bent, water streaming, I pushed through the downpour and minced down the slick, hilly ground on the building’s south side. No entrance. Then trudged through mud and ankle-deep water to the back side and spied an aluminum storm door (aptly named) with blackened glass. Hands cupped to cheeks, nose to glass, I peeked in and saw…black. “This can’t be it,” said self to self. Head down, I fought my way through the wet hell of sodden bushes, slimy goo, and uneven ground all the way around the building and ended up at “THE BLACK DOOR”. I walked up to it, saw myself reflected, in the glass. Good Lord! Pause. The door was unlocked. I stepped inside.
Heat from an old stand-up furnace, in the middle of the room, nearly blew me back out the door. A 1950’s plastic, turquoise radio, played Greek music at an alarming volume. Two men sat at two desks, in a tiny space with a super high ceiling. Eyeball-melting fluorescent lights hung low from long cords. I knew looked dazed, drenched and quite possibly dangerous. One man stood and turned the radio down, without looking at me. Thank-you-baby-Jesus. He (the man, not Jesus) returned to his desk. The other simply stared, eyebrows raised, in my general direction. I’d been in Crete long enough to know that meant: “what do you want?” I cleverly held up my bill for him to see, since I “spoke” Greek like an 18 month-old.
He motioned me to his desk, where there was one chair. His. I stood and gazed up at the bigger-than-life photo of a much younger and “fitter” him. In the photo he was wearing old fashioned wrestling gear. Multiple muscles flexing in a way to show them off. It was clear he’d become older and wider than the “him” on the wall.
Slowly, using the arms of his chair, he pushed himself to standing, cleared off his desk, picked up an old-fashioned ledger book from a shelf and thunked it down. Sitting gingerly back onto his spindly chair, he opened the book, oh-so-carefully. Opened, it was more than 3 feet across. I am not making this up.
He placed a straight edge just below the top line of one-half of the ledger page and slowly ran it down to the bottom, peering over the top of his glasses all the way. Next, he moved to the other half of the open book, which required a scoot and screech from his long-suffering chair. He repeated the slow downward slide to page bottom. Then a thumb lick, delicate turning of page, and repeat…over and over and, oh so slowly, over again.
I stood. . .sighed, shivered and dripped on the floor. Unfortunately, the only unused chair in the room was right next to the “winds of hell” furnace. I began, with dread, to wonder if the book was in alphabetical order. My landlord’s name began with “S”.
Just as I decided I would die here, on this spot, he looked up. From somewhere deep in a drawer, he brought out a little tablet and pencil and…with intense concentration, bent head, pencil pressing firmly down through both layers of carbon paper…he wrote out the new bill. Finishing at last, he held it out to me. The total was 46 euros for the year. I was so grateful to be almost finished, I would have celebrated had it been 4,600! I began to envision myself in front of my own sweet stove, sipping tea…or maybe wine…after all this. My American “hurry up gene” had been seriously challenged.
I opened my purse, grabbed some cash and held it out to him. He shook his head and said something that sounded distressed or maybe frustrated. Since it was obvious, I didn’t understand a thing he was saying, he kept repeating it, louder each time, until he was yelling at the top of his voice. You know how you can understand things better when someone yells them at you? Right? No? Me neither. But somehow, maybe it was the yelling, I understood that the invoice was written here…NOT paid here. The invoice had to be paid at a bank, at the other end of the village. Lord!
He kindly wrote the name of the bank, in Greek, on a torn piece of paper, and handed it over. I didn’t recognize the name. It was in Greek after all. But okay. It’s not Seattle. It’s a village. How hard could it be? Out I went into the deluge, freezing now since I’d just come from the third ring of hell…dripping sweat.
To my car and into the center of the village I went. The road was a two-way street, the width of a one-way street. Cars approaching from opposite directions ever-so-carefully edged by one another, sometimes requiring the flattening of side mirrors. Did I mention there are no sidewalks in this village? Pedestrians had to be super aware…ready to leap into the nearest café, butcher shop or stranger’s home in a nanosecond.
Although I’d gotten used to it, driving through this village was always stressful for me. Add rain, wind and my own frustration, and this was definitely not a good day for bank hunting. Committed, however, I drove all the way through the village both ways…4 times. This meant I passed the Platia (town square) 8 times. As usual, it was full of old men hunched over tiny tables, just barely under cover, with their café, raki and worry beads, sharing gossip and political views. Each time I passed, a dozen heads slowly, in sync, followed my progress, back and forth...over and over, again and again.
On the eighth and final (I hoped) “lap” through town, the rain stopped. A shopkeeper putting racks of clothes outside her store, looked up and smiled. I stopped and told her my story, in English. Slowly, in loud Greek, she said to go to a doctor’s office…I think. You see my dilemma. There was pointing involved. Again I drove past the Platia. I’m pretty sure I felt some recognition and, perhaps concern from the old men as I went by for the umpteenth time. I parked Greek style and ventured into several businesses, asking questions in my lame “toddler” Greek. No one knew what I was taking about until, finally at the post office, a woman told me the name of the bank, in English, and pointed east. Off I went. I drove down the narrow lane yet again. No bank.
Then I remembered a woman in the village garden shop spoke English. I went there. No Platia-passing necessary. Holding out the torn, damp, dirty piece of paper, I told her about my day. She grinned. Her English turned out to be as good as my Greek. She did tell me where to find “mystery bank,” though, and even included a landmark: The Platia. Oh God. I’m pretty sure I heard laughing as I cleared the door.
Back I went, through the village and, still not seeing a bank, decided to walk. As I passed the Platia on foot, the old men (who were still there of course!) happily waved at me. I’m sure I was the source of speculation and laughter in this village for days: “…and then, you never believe, soooo many times she pass by. . .her car sooo slow. . .then walking, her head going…side to side…unbelievable!”
BUT…just when I had lost all hope...there it was! I almost walked right past it. No wonder I’d missed it. Seriously. An extremely narrow door and a teeny sign were the only indications that a bank lived there. The entrance though, was definitely, totally: “big bank.”
Push button, wait for green light, open skinny door.
Step into cubicle so small…20 pounds heavier or bent arms wouldn’t have fit. Bending would NOT be an option.
Outer door closes, pressing face and breasts firmly to glass in front, arms down tight to sides, butt smashed from behind.
Wedge hand up to press button. Shallow breaths. Fight claustrophobic panic attack.
Wait for green light.
Push inner door. . .enter!!!!!!! Inhale.
I stepped into a room as large as 3 desks. Seriously. One in front of me and one on each side. I stood in a tiny square space the desks created. There was a man in a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, at each desk. They looked up. In sync.
Let me just say that by now my patience, questionable at best, had jumped ship. So had my stumbling, well-intended attempts at Greek, as had any semblance of calm. In clear, loud English I yelled: “Does anyone in this place speak English!?!?” I am proud that I did not swear or make bodily contact of a violent nature. We were less than arms distance from each other. I am sure I am going to heaven.
The man facing me was calm: “We all do, madam.” Oh god. I’m an idiot. I told them I wanted to pay a water bill. Yes, I had an invoice…holding it out like a child. “Who do I pay?” Please, PLEASE could this mission be completed?. The man to my right held out his hand. I spun in place to my right and paid!
Stepping out to the street (no sidewalks remember) clutching my receipt, felt almost anti-climactic. Walking by the Platia, I made eye contact and smiled. All the men laughed or smiled and waved. Some invited me to sit for café! My dream to be Greek felt within reach. I had paid my water bill, all by myself and I was alive…In Crete!
At home, I toweled my hair, changed into warm clothes, started a fire and poured a rather largish glass of red wine. It was almost 5PM. I left the house at 9AM. I’m pretty sure it was the same day. No matter. I have great stories and memories to share.
Today I miss kind, patient people who helped and didn’t shame me. In Crete I learned what it’s like to be alive: present without pretense, no expectations or rigid plans, open to adventure, spontaneous, without the impatience that inspires and inflicts us in the West. And always, always with a fully loaded sense of humor. I have never felt more alive, challenged or grateful, than during my year in Crete.
Even if it does take a day to pay a water bill.