Matala Interview - Evelyn von Almassy

by Evelyn von Almassy
JoniMitchell.com
May 20, 2008

When did you first arrive in Matala?

I first arrived in Matala in mid April of 1970. I was eighteen years old, and I had lived and traveled in Europe since September of 1969.

Europe at that time was full of hitchhikers from all over the world. I met Canadians, Americans, British, French, Malyasian, Irish and African people while traveling on the road, and staying in youth hostels.

How was it that you decided to go to Matala?

Believe it or not, I first decided to go to Matala in 1964, ~ when I was twelve years old. I had read a LIFE magazine article about this little Cretan village called Matala, where a small colony of French artists lived in caves. There was no rent, and it was warm. I planned to leave home immediately after completing my high school education, and go to Europe, so I put Matala on my mental map route.

Originally I had planned to stay for a year in Europe, but as life would have it, it turned out to be eight years. As I was born in England and had a British passport as well as a Canadian one, living in Europe was no problem. I traveled around the northeast and eastern coast of Crete with a person from Washington State for a couple of weeks. We stayed on a beach near Katro Zakros before it was excavated. When I returned to Iraklion, I met Abraham, an exuberant young man from Malaysia, at the Youth Hostel. When he learned that I was on my way to Matala, he invited me to stay in his four room cave. What happened when I did arrive had a huge impact on my life.

What happened?

Two weeks or so later, I did indeed meet up with Abraham again in Matala. I had traveled from the north coast of Crete, overland with two young men who were originally from Turkey. It seems as though I was always meeting men and then going on adventures with them! Hah hah! I remember that we hitch-hiked and then walked the last few miles to Matala. When I found Abraham, his entire four room cave was already full of people. So, for a couple of nights I shared one of the cave rooms with Tom, a U.S. Navy enlisted man who had gone a.w.o.l. (absent without leave) in Naples, Italy. This was a cave sharing that was purely platonic.

A few days later, I moved out to my own cave when a young woman vacated her little cave a couple of levels down. That was how we established residency in the caves ~ to be at the right time and place when a cave became vacant. (Sort of like finding the perfect house or apartment nowadays ~ the best ones are not advertised, but rather found by word-of mouth!)

What was significant about my meeting with Abraham, was that in another of his cave rooms was another American man living with a French woman.

This woman, Anne Marie was a reporter from PARIS MATCH magazine. It is amazing to me, that thirty-three years later, I can still remember her name! Perhaps it is because I spent two nights alone with her live-in guy on Red Beach His name was Art Lloyd and we soon became romantically involved. Four years and a few countries later, he and I were married. (But that is another exciting tale to be told elsewhere!)

Describe the village at that time.

The village of Matala was the summer village of the villages of Pitsitia and Mires, as it had been for probably thousands of years prior to this time. There were only three restaurants, one of which was the Mermaid Cafe, owned by a man named Stellios, and made famous by the Canadian musician Joni Mitchell in her song Carey. I sometimes worked there in the evenings, helping to serve coffee to Greek soldiers, visiting tourists and resident Cretans and hippies. There was no electricity, just a generator, which produced That scratchy rock n roll beneath the Matala moon (Lyrics from Carey).

I remember watching a movie shown on a sheet beside the trees at the end of the beach, across from where the modern day bakery is today. Mama and her husband Manolis, whom I visited during my stay in July 2003 ran the bakery. Their daughter- in- law now runs the modern bakery and their son owns the bakery in Pitsitia.

One could live in those days on only $5.00 Canadian per day. Mama, as all the people called her, made these huge sandwiches for 100 drachmas.

I recall her son running around with his spear gun, chasing cats and teasing the girls. He has grown up to be a successful businessperson, by the sounds of it! Mama is always thrilled when people from old Matala return and visit her.

In those days, the bus came into Matala only twice a day ~ leaving at around 7:00 a.m. for Iraklion, and arriving at 5:30 p.m. from Iraklion.

I did not know anyone at that time that had traveled with his or her own vehicle. Most people arrived in Matala by walking, hitchhiking or bus.

A usual day in the life of a cave-dweller was pretty laid back. Some would spend their time visiting neighbours, cleaning or decorating their caves, making music or preparing the evening meal. Never did I see any public love making, though this was supposed to be the time of free love. I think it was probably too hot for love making during the day, and at night, there was of course the privacy of your cave!

Most of the cave dwellers spent their days swimming in Matala Bay, right beside the main caves in front of the village. A few of them would shed part or all of their clothing, upsetting some of the Cretans in the village. However, I assure you, it was nothing like some of the topless and even totally nude people that I saw on the main beach in Matala in July 2003! I was embarrassed at some of the nudity now.

Some cave dwellers would play music and visit their neighbours during the days and evenings. In the big cave, which is now cemented over because of a huge find of ancient bones in the middle of the floor, there was the nightly evening meal. Art would do most of the cooking for the group. The meal would be simple: a huge bowl of rice or pasta with a sauce, often of tuna (bought in a can at Mamas.) Fish was rare and expensive, probably because of the practise of dynamiting fish at that time.

After dinner there would be music played in the big cave. One German guy named Andreas was really good on the bouzouki. He practised most of the day and presented us with excellent music at night. There would, as this was the 70s, remember, be pipes of hash passed around the cave.

Not everyone smoked drugs, (Art did not) but it was certainly a norm among us. It was not though, a focal point of our existence; it just happened to have been brought to this little village by the travellers, and enjoyed like a glass of Metaxa after the evening meal.

In 1970, people would spend their days hiking in the hills, often going over the hills to Red Beach, where nudity was very acceptable and the norm. There were never more than about twenty people at a time at Red Beach, no Cretan villagers to offend, and it was a very private place.

One had to hike about thirty minutes in order to get there. There were of course, no umbrellas there for rent at that time. There was actually another little bay off to the west side, which has now disappeared due to an avalanche of rocks above it.

Swimming, chatting, sun tanning and napping were the activities at Red Beach. I saw that these were the same things that were happening there now. It is a very spectacular place, and out to sea there is only the island of Paximadia, and beyond that, Africa just ninety miles south.

Who were the inhabitants of Matala at that time?

The inhabitants were the Cretans, 95% of whom moved to Pitsitia and Mires in the winter months. If my memory serves me right, I think that there were about fifty at the most. Then there were about three hundred hippies living in the caves and some of the rented houses. There were Turks, Irish, Swedes, Canadians, Americans, French, British, Italians, and one Scots-Burmese man. I remember him, because when Art and I moved out of the main caves of the village he moved with us. He later lived in London the same time that we were there, in late 1971.

Most of the foreigners in Matala were people between the ages of eighteen and forty. They included the entire spectrum of humanity: shy retiring people, outrageous exhibitionists, alternative life seeking people, political refuges, shell-shocked people who had been drafted and served time in Vietnam. There were people who believed in peace, and those who just wanted to get out of their everyday lives and decided to travel the world. The man that later became my husband, had spent four years in the U.S. army;, and had been stationed in Turkey and Ethiopia. He had just traveled through the Sudan up the Nile, and had arrived in Matala for a rest. I had just spent six months living in Vienna, Austria, working in a furniture accessory store and going to German language classes in the evening. After a winter of snow and cold in the Alps, the warm Cretan sun was very welcome!

Describe your life in Matala.

My life in Matala during that time, was the most wonderful period of my entire life. It was my first taste of freedom; I had grown up in Canada, the eldest daughter of European immigrants from Austria and Hungary; the work ethic was very strong in my family. I had been working summers and weekends since I was twelve years old with my father, who had a house painting/contracting business. Indeed, I had been saving for my European adventure since I was twelve years old. My parents very strict and quite emotionally and physically repressive towards me, and I had been planning my escape from their control for five years.

Arriving in Greece was like arriving to a place where I felt immediately at home ~ at least to a home that I had hoped for during my growing up years. The people of Greece were then, and still are so hospitable, especially the Cretan people. I have lived in various parts of the Mediterranean and Europe, and traveled in some other parts of the world, but in no place that I have been, have I experienced the sincere hospitality and kindness as I have here on Crete, and especially in the village of Matala.

Remember also, that the man that I was living with would soon be working for a Cretan farmer, Michealis Spitakis, father of Angelinika and Yiannis. Art was the only foreigner in Matala who was employed by a Cretan. This meant that our relationship with Michealis and Rhodetie was of friendship, and it also influenced how we were viewed by the other villagers. We became not just one of the hippies, but rather a more permanent and integral fixture of the village. He lived there eleven months, and I lived there a total of eight months, so we were also not just temporary visitors.

After I left Matala for three months, (I went to live on a kibbutz in Israel beside the Gaza Strip) and returned in December of 1971, I no longer lived in a cave, but in a little house in Matala which we shared with two other people. A couple of weeks later, we moved to Komos to a small house, which is now a restaurant. Michealis organized for us to rent it and I remember him helping us move, with our small amount of worldly goods on his mule. That was also a very special time for me ~ the only house on a beach, which ran for miles, and a little church on the hill above us. Art and I were the only people between Matala and Timbaki. I loved our solitude and though we sometimes had guests, we could have been the only people on the planet during that time. When I think of it now, I realize that not many people ever have such an opportunity like that in their lives. It was paradise, even in January.

There must have been a well, though I do not recall how we got fresh water there. There was a gun bunker built by the Germans in World War II in the caves by the water, in which a friend of ours stayed in at nights for a while. The presence of the past was very strong in the bunker-cave that was realized one morning. Ann (who we eight years later bumped into in Oakland, California!) came knocking loudly on our door, and crying early one morning. She had heard what seemed like a man, addressing a huge crowd in a foreign language. It sounded like an officer, addressing his men before a military exercise, we surmised.

I believe that certain places can hold memories and events from the past so clearly that we can connect with them years later. Matala seems to be one of those places.

What do you think is so special about Matala?

There are places that I have come across in my travels on this little planet, that have a power that almost jumps out at you. It can manifest itself as the experience that I had when we lived in the little cave to the east in the hills to the east of Matala, and above Red Beach. It was a moonless night, with a strong dry wind out of Africa ~ again from Carey The wind is in from Africa, last night, I couldn't sleep.

That was not unusual, but it was the message that all of us somehow received that night: to stay in our caves and not to venture out into the hills. It sends chills down my spine even now, to think of that very dark night, thirty- three years later. There were four of us in the little cave that night, and about six other people in the larger cave about fifty steps away. We spoke of what strangeness was in the air and did not even question the message that we were all receiving. We just knew that it was a powerful message, and we would stay inside. To this day I do not know what was happening outside on the hills, but I will believe to my dying days, that something certainly was. What force or entity that was, I do not know, but it was terribly real. It was not an evil force, but it was a mighty powerful one, no questions!

There is also the reality when in the hills surrounding Matala ~ that there was once a strong civilization here in the past. You can see it in the remains of the buildings and pottery shards strewn in the thyme-scented hills. Again, there are the remains of a strong presence ~ when you stand in the midst of these ruins; it is almost as though you can communicate with the inhabitants that once called this place home.

What was your relationship with the Greek villagers like?

When I returned to Matala in July of 2003, I had faint hope that Michealis and Rhoditi would still be alive. I had visited them twenty-eight years ago when my husband and I lived in Naples, Italy.

What happened was when I asked the first person in the market stalls if they knew them, that person turned out to be their daughter. Now, what are the chances of that happening?!?!?!?! I interpreted it on the continuum of the power of the Matala ~ that something was guiding me to that person. I of course, could not believe my luck, and at first thought that this person had misunderstood my terrible Greek. However no, this really was the daughter. When I told her that I knew her father, I was introduced to her brother. From then on, throughout the remainder of my ten- day visit in Matala, I would visit them every couple of days and talk about the past, or just sit in comfortable silence. They were very hospitable, and of course generous.

During my visits with them, I think that I also became able to see the other tourists from the perspective (I think) of the villagers owners.

I looked at tourists differently and did not always feel comfortable with their behaviour. Not all of them bothered to greet the Greeks and I heard very little of please and thank you in Greek from them.

They dressed inappropriately I felt - (skimpy bathing suits in a shopping area) spoke loudly and amongst themselves in their native tongues, sometimes despairingly of the goods that were being sold in the market. As I grew up speaking German, and knowing some French, Italian and Spanish, I could often understand what they were saying. It often embarrassed me. Throughout this tourist barrage however, my Cretan friends kept their dignity.

I was surprised indeed, to hear that they were disappointed with the low number of tourists that were there so far this summer. They said it was because people had less money than in previous years. Since Greece had joined the European Union, I heard over and over again from many shopkeepers, and others in the tourism business, that all costs of living had increased by twenty percent ~ everything except their wages!

How did Matala impact your life?

It was the first time that I had lived so closely in a culture other than my own. (My experiences were more physically and emotionally removed from the people in Austria.) In Matala I met young people from all over the world, and learned how to get along with them in a semi-communal setting there were always those who worked hard for the good of the whole community, and others who presented little and took all just like in the rest of the world. This was clear to me when I was often the only one cleaning the dishes the next morning after the communal meal the evening before!

What was also crucial was the experience of living in a military dictatorship. I have not mentioned this, and you have not asked Stellios, but that alone changed my life. Since that time, I have always been an advocate for the underdog. I saw first hand how a government could turn against its own people, but the simple factor of power corrupting those in control.

Stellios, the owner of the Mermaid Cafe was one night thrown into the back seat of a police car, and questioned as to why there were so many foreigners in his restaurant. He was warned that these foreigners would have an unhealthy influence on him, through thoughts of freedom and revolution. I believe that the Cretans were less affected by the reign of the colonels, but even here, miles away from Athens, there was some repression. It laid the foundation for my social justice work later in life ~ with Amnesty International, and my student union work in prisons when I went to university. I saw first hand how honest, hard working decent people could be controlled by corrupt, ignorant people who were attempting to curtail freedom.

Since then I have educated myself more on the history of Crete (the book the Cretan Runner is one the more fascinating accounts of WWII) and I understand that the colonels were probably peanuts compared to the occupying German forces.

I was influenced by the feeling that the world needed to change. I remember being outside of Mama s bakery when people received letters about the Kent State shooting of students by U.S. troops. I believed that it influenced me in my thinking that Europe had something extra to offer me in terms of openness and life experiences. Some of the most important relationships of my life began in Matala ~ both with my husband and the Cretan friends that I made.

I think that seeing life as it truly is, was one of the gifts that Matala gave me: to look beyond the surface of situations and to learn how to observe and make my own interpretations of what was actually happening. Early training for my anthropology and sociology studies that I would later partake in at university.

How is Matala different today?

(Laughing) Well, when you come to a place that used to have no electricity, and then find ATM machines, that is certainly a shock! (Of course, these machines were very handy to me this year!) Where there used to be three restaurants, there are now what - fifteen? The umbrellas and beach cots on the beach are an eyesore to me, and charging me two Euros to explore the fenced-in main caves where I used to live was quite an affront. How dare they charge me to see what used to be my home?!

It did take me back to the memory when Greek tourists used to come to Matala in buses on Sunday, to look at, and take photos of the hippies living in the caves. I was young, blond, and wore short dresses in 1970. I would charge 100 drachmas for the tourists to take a picture of me beside my little cave. I remember a Greek man laughing at my demand for money in exchange for a photograph,, but he willingly gave me my fee. Perhaps somewhere out there, there is a Greek family that has a picture of a blond young woman standing next to their father. It would be funny if that man would be reading this article! But in the mysterious ways of Matala and Crete, I would not be in the least surprised!

Even though the external physical face of Matala has changed considerably, the spirit of Matala remains strong. The Cretans remain proud, hospitable and always willing to share their warmth and joy of life. Manolis, the present town Casanova and cook at one of the restaurants, was lamenting the loss of a friend of his in the village up the road, just a week ago. When I asked how old his friend was, he said 105 ! That strength of spirit remains strong in Matala, both in the people and the land. I think and hope that it will always remain so.

Do you think that you will return to Matala?

Absolutely! Only this time I will not wait another thirty-three years! (Laughing) I do not think that I am as long-lived as many of the Cretans are, so I cannot risk waiting that long again! I hope to return within three years. I am also investigating perhaps buying or renting a house here for two or three months of the year, when I retire in nine years from my teaching life. Matala is definitely a place in my future as well in my past.

For instance, I want to keep in touch with Aphrodite and her family (Manolis and Georgina who own Matala View Pension ) and see how this young woman of sixteen will make her way in her life. When we went walking in the hills the last day I was there, she was amazed at all the hidden places that I knew about. I kidded her with the fact that a Canadian had to show her the beauty of the land around Matala! She said that she loved it, and would definitely be doing some walking in the hills soon. It is the people that give a place its strength and spirit, and I will be staying in contact by mail, and by visiting, those people who are dear to me in Matala. That of course includes the children of the couple that I knew when I was eighteen.

What else would you like to say about Matala? Crete? Greece?

When I hear the tinkling of the bells on the sheep and goats in the dry early mornings, I know that I feel that I am exactly where I should be.

It is as though I have waited my whole life to return where I have felt most at home. It is a feeling of comfort. I don t know if perhaps I was a Cretan in a past life, but I am more me in this little place of huge power, than I am anywhere in the world. Perhaps because of its uniqueness, I become more authentic there. I do not know. Certainly, the people that live here are very real and sincere. The way that they interact with someone who attempts to learn their language and become part of their culture is definitely a warm welcome. As well, the people who are drawn to this place and who take the time to see beyond the tourist props of present Matala are not your usual tourists. They become part of the history of this village and imbue the soil with more memories. I believe this. I think that a part of my being will always be a part of Matala. I am sorry that I do not have any children to share this with, though I have had friends who have visited Matala.

For me Matala is one of the most significant places on the planet, in its history, its power, and its hospitality. I think that it will continue to be important to those who stop and listen to it. Matala is so much more than sand and umbrellas on the beach.

I know that I fell in love again with Greece this summer. It was a visceral sensation. It reminded me of how life can be full of emotion and memory and energy! Go and walk in the hills and sit down and smell and feel what is around you. You might be surprised as to what experiences you have. They might even change your life to the point where thirty-four years later, someone is interviewing you about them!


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