Saints, fines and elections

The narrow, old highway that runs along Crete’s northern coast can no longer cope with the traffic. Most hours it is jammed with convoys of cars, trucks and buses headed in both directions. This does not mean that the local authorities do anything to help ease the situation nor that drivers take care to avoid accidents. Last week, driving from Hania to Rethymno shortly after sunset, I was startled to see a group of people walking along the side of the highway, in the emergency lane which serves as a second lane for slower moving traffic. Cars were shooting past at high speed. A little later we saw more people, then some more. «They must be tourists whose bus broke down or perhaps they were tricked into getting off far from their destination,» I said, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. Many kilometers down the road I discovered what was happening: Suddenly we found ourselves in a traffic jam, with cars parked along either side of the highway. It was the day before the feast day of Saint Fanourios, who is highly revered and in whose name a small church has been built near the tourist resort of Georgioupoli. The parked cars stretched for kilometers in each direction. Next to them – on the highway – walked families of the faithful, carrying fanouropites (cakes dedicated to the saint) and candles taller than a tall man, pushing baby strollers or wheelchairs, all hoping that the saint would give them what they sought, would reveal what they had lost. That’s why so many had started out from so far away, placing themselves and their children in mortal danger, walking to honor the martyr and miracle-working saint – giving something to have their prayers answered. Along the roadside near the church, a carnival had been set up, with peddlers selling souvlakia, African arts and crafts, toys, curtains, incense from Mount Athos and so on. There was even a lottery for a super motorcycle. The highway itself was the scene of the carnival. We resigned ourselves to the delay and sat back to enjoy the spectacle, like protagonists in a Fellini film with a soundtrack provided by the mellow meandering of a Cretan lyre. The faithful kept coming, some barefoot – with women holding high-heeled sandals in their hands – or in luxury SUVs. A little later, once our convoy had passed the church of Aghios Fanourios and we were approaching Rethymno, on a tight curve above a seaside cliff, a black car forced itself ahead of us with an aggressive swerve and the loud revving of its engine. «What was that?» my son asked. «That’s the sound of a fool,» I said. «Whenever you hear that you know you’re near a fool.» My elder daughter chipped in: «And the police, of course, do nothing.» «Why?» I asked. «Where did you see the police?» «On the other side of the road. A patrol car was parked.» «I see,» I said. «They couldn’t be bothered.» We continued on our way, watching the tail lights of the black coupe as it wedged itself between the cars ahead. Suddenly – lights flashing red and blue – a patrol car swept past us. «I don’t believe it!» I cried. «If he’s chasing that halfwit I’ll regain my faith in the police, in the state. I’ve been driving for so many years and I have never seen anyone pulled over for dangerous driving.» And yet, a little way down the road, we saw the patrol car forcing the black coupe off to the side. A cheer went up in our car; we pumped our fists in the air, as if our team had scored the winning goal in a final, as if we had each achieved a personal victory… Later, though, I thought to myself that the officers in the patrol car would probably find themselves in trouble for having the temerity to stop the driver. He would do what so many in Rethymno do – he would go to his MP and get the ticket annulled. The province is infamous for the way its politicians pander to criminals to the point that it is difficult to control them anymore. Last Friday, when we were back in Athens, we got another reminder of how the system that covers up crimes manages to succeed: Michalis Christoforakos, the former head of Siemens Hellas and the prime suspect in a bribery scandal in Greece, will not be extradited from Germany. Whether through the Greek authorities’ negligence, devious political expediency or through his own legal maneuverings, he will not be tried for the greatest scandal of illegal political funding that we know of – nor (more probably) will any Greek politicians. And so we head for the October 4 national elections with 42 percent of the electorate in a national opinion poll saying neither major party is capable of solving the problems caused by the global economic crisis. The lack of confidence is evident everywhere – not just in the economy and political sphere. We can only place our faith in Saint Fanourios.