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The People's Party

Updated on September 12, 2012

IF EVER you overhear a teenager bragging on the beach that he stayed out all night drinking and dancing with friends, tell him that Cretans have been doing it for hundreds of years – and they bring their kids with them.

The tradition of “glendy”, or village gathering, celebrates the joy of eating, drinking and dancing to live music, and loosely translates as “any excuse for a party”. And the further into the night it goes the better. In fact, going home before sunrise may stave off a groggy, morning-after feeling but could leave you with a lot of explaining to do the following day. Anyway, the Cretans have learned that to appreciate the simple things in life offers greater health benefits. Either that, or they just love doing it.

We decided to enhance our sense of well-being by joining 200 or so locals at one of the twice-weekly festivities at Koumos, near Kalives, celebrating the safe arrival of another Wednesday evening. I say evening, it was nearly over by the time we arrived at 10pm when most of you would have been trying desperately to attract the waiter’s attention and be thinking about bed. Our mission, on the other hand, had only just begun. And being “glendy” virgins we had arrived early and had the pick of the tables. Still, at least we could order our food before the fun started, which it did an hour later when four disperate looking characters wandered on to the stage and began tuning their instruments – a lyre, two lutes and a bass guitar.

I must confess, I wasn’t convinced. That was until Nikos Manias, a thick-set guy in his sixties with white hair, filled the night air with a haunting rizitiko, a slow, voice solo traditionally sung at the meal table, never accompanied by dancing and which is usually about love and marriage or past heroic struggles and death. Rizitika are named after the villages on the riza or foothills of the White Mountains and are linked with an historical tradition of passing down tales about village life, or heroic acts such as the self-sacrificial surrender to the Turks of 1771 rebel leader Daskaloyiannis. His particular rizitiko runs to 1,034 verses. Manias’s rendition was somewhat shorter, although no less moving for all that.

Then the night’s main attraction, the Iraklion lyre player Nikos Zoithakis, propped his instrument on his lap, gripped his bow between his thumb and forefinger – carefully managing to hold a lighted cigarette between two of his other fingers – and off he went on his seven-hour marathon. His opening number began with the words: “I love my dead grandmother.” After that, how could the night fail?

Zoithakis’s speciallity, though, was the four-line mantinada, or improvised life poem, which is often satirical and teasing and directed at some unfortunate member of the audience. A group of ex-pat Cretans, who had returned from Pensylvannia in the United States for an engagement party, bore the brunt of the friendly banter with lyrics about them not being able to buy tickets for Hania at their local bus station. That said, the bride to be was told that “God ran out of clay when he made your eyes, so he used diamonds instead”. Luckily for us he failed to spot our motley crew of interlopers behind the stone-clad lights.
Anyway, by now the dance floor had been happily vibrating for about 30 minutes, first from the precise steps of a local quartet dressed in traditional Cretan costume, the two men complete with a dagger-filled cumberbund, then from the less polished approach of the gathered hordes.

The professionals set the pace with a sousta, or love dance, before the two men showed off their agility with a maleviziotikos, a sort of mix between Tyrolean and cossack dancing, by leaping in the air and slapping their boots. I had some sympathy for the engagement party, who were obliged to complete their sintos or circle dance while drinking champagne. At least most of them could rest between songs. Tradition said the “lucky” couple had to stay on the dance floor for at least the first hour.

And while all this was going one the waiters and waitresses were competiting in their own night-long marathon, carrying huge trays laden with grilled chicken or litres of “black” wine, all trying to satisfy the fickle tastes of the “glendy”, which was still growing despite it being past midnight. What was most surprising for our “foreign” gaze was the sight of children as young as two arriving happily with their parents and joining in the festivities; the fringes of the dance floor were filled with five and six year olds practising their steps in between frequent visits to the table for handfuls of chips or kaltsounia.
Some of the children did start to yawn, but their parents simply pushed a couple of chairs together to form a make-shift bed and let the music work its magic.

We, however, decided to run the risk of being ridiculed in the village the following day by leaving early… at 2.30am. And as we did, we heard the sound of gunfire behind us. It was a relief to hear the lyre continue on its merry way and to know that a witty Nikos Zoithakis mantinada had not pushed his “victim” over the edge. We later discovered that the party wound up at about 6am. Just another happy Wednesday in Crete.

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