TABUCCHI’S MARMALADE IN THE HOTEL DOMA
Research for a novel about an Australian soldier in World War II leads Gregory Day to a memorable encounter on Crete
ON Monday, May 15 last year, as the people of Europe watched anxiously to see if one or the other of the leaders of Greece’s political parties could cobble a coalition government from the chaos of the May 7 elections, I sat in a very friendly and productive meeting on the terrace of the Historical Museum of Crete in Heraklion with Costas Mamalakis, the curator of modern history at the museum. I was in Crete researching a novel, the main character of which is a soldier from Colac, Victoria, left behind on the island, as many were, when the Germans occupied Crete after the notoriously ad hoc, bloody, and non-linear battle in the spring of 1941. I’d heard a lot about Mamalakis beforehand, with respect to his encyclopedic mind and his enormous collection of remnant military hardware — the ‘‘ cutlery of war’’ — that was strewn across Crete by both Axis and Allied troops during the battle and its long aftermath.
Costas is a man of youthful energy, not just for his specialist subject but for life in general. We got on well, and after our initial conversation on the terrace of the museum, he did me the honour of introducing me to an elderly man, thin and tanned and with a fabulously svelte moustache, the son of one of the most important resistance leaders, or andartes, of the war. This gentleman had been only a boy when his father was executed in front of his eyes by a German firing squad for assisting leftover Allied troops at large on Crete. He remembers well his dad’s distress as he shouted for the soldiers to take his little boy away so that his future would not be scarred by witnessing the execution. Alas, to no avail.
The three of us had a long meeting on the outdoor terrace of the museum, with Costas translating for me, until eventually, after the older gentleman had departed with lots of handshaking and good humour (especially when I complimented him on his moustache), I told Costas that I was leaving Heraklion the next day to head high up to the Lasithi plateau in the Dikti ranges, following the footsteps of my fictional soldier, and then across to Chania, where I planned to visit the Allied military cemetery at Souda Bay, particularly to see the grave of John Pendlebury, the British archeologist who helped orchestrate the Cretan resistance networks and who has captured my imagination for the past two years.
I asked Costas if there was anything else I should see in Chania, the city where the first German paratroopers descended on the island. I wasn’t interested in monuments as such, I told him, but something that would best give me a taste of the atmosphere in that sector of the island during 1941.
He thought about it for a long time and then suggested I visit Hotel Doma, an old building east of the town centre that had been commandeered first by the English as the British consulate in 1939, and then by the
ANTONIO TABUCCHI, IT TURNS OUT, WAS ONE OF THEIR FAVOURITE GUESTS
Nazis immediately after they took control following their dramatic and unparalleled paratrooper invasion.
After a rather intrepid few days among the vultured heaths above the Lasithi plateau, the following Sunday, May 20, I woke up in my 600-year-old Venetian hotel room on the harbour in Chania and set out with Costas’s mud-map in search of the place. It was a long Sunday morning walk through deserted and unglamorous parts of the town, until eventually, just beyond the local soccer stadium, I spied a large, worn-out neo-classical building looking out over the water on Eleftherios Venizelos Street. Mounting the circular sweep of stairs up off the street, I was immediately confronted in the hotel foyer with the large and now rather battered oval insignia of the British consulate on the facing wall.
A young woman greeted me from the concierge desk, and also an impeccably turned out elderly woman, who I presumed to be a hotel guest. I was asked if I wanted a room but explained I had come only to look at the building for historical reasons. Both women seemed bemused by this but then I mentioned some of the details Costas had told me about the British consulate, how it was comandeered by the Germans as their headquarters on the island, and the older woman nodded and said, ‘‘ I know, I know’’, or some such.
‘‘ And,’’ I went on, ‘‘ this morning is the anniversary of the invasion, when hundreds of Fallschirmjager parachutes suddenly appeared like a multicoloured nightmare, dropping out of the dawn sky . . .’’
‘‘ Yes, yes,’’ the older woman replied with a very kind smile, ‘‘ I was here. On that day. You see, this is my house.’’ It turned out Hotel Doma was indeed her family house, the house in fact where she was born, and that she was a young teenager on that spring day in 1941 when all hell broke loose.
I leapt back into my box, of course, blushing to the soles of my feet. Then, remarkably enough, she asked if I’d like to join her upstairs for a coffee. She could tell me all about it, she said. But first she would show me the garden.
I followed her through the small foyer and out into the sunshine of a small walled garden, which, she explained, used to be considerably larger, incorporating a vineyard and extensive grounds. Even so it was a beautiful space in the classic Mediterranean style, with gypsum stonework and vivid flowers, plenty of shade and dapple, and a limpid, deciduous air.
Off to my right I noticed a grey-haired woman pulling at weeds by the back wall of the house. I presumed her to be staff, until Irene (we had introduced ourselves back in the foyer) ushered me across the garden to meet her sister. Ioanna stood up from her weeds, less neat and tidy than Irene, her hair undyed and longer, and not so carefully arranged, but