From 1996 to 2012 a guy named Chris Bilson ran Youth Hostel Plakias in Crete. He was a guest at the original hostel in the village of Mythios nearby. The owner Federicos needed a manager when the premises moved from the reasonably inaccessible heights of M (at least by foot anyway!) to the recently flattened olive grove that would become the legend that was YHP.
Chris was a strange guy. He had his little quirks and odd habits. He loved the dice game Perudo, he liked a drink or two. His laugh was legendary and sounded like a donkey hit with knockout gas. I once heard his laugh from Raki Mike’s house (my Dad) a good 2 minutes walk from the hostel. Brian McManus told me that he even heard Chris’s laugh waft up the hill to Mythios while he was tucking into a plate of pork in honey sauce in a taverna. That’s a 25 minute walk uphill from the hostel! Obviously the wind was blowing the right way that day.
But I digress…
Chris loved the hostel and he loved making people feel good about being there. He would always welcome new guests with a speech about why the hostel was special and why so many people kept coming back. He’d tell them about the babies that had sprung from summer romances (or even drunken fumbles) in the hostel. He’d wax lyrical about the marriages (10 last I heard) from people who’d met there. The speech didn’t vary from year to year and those of us who’d heard it before knew it virtually word for word.
While we sniggered at the repetitiveness of Chris’s speech and some people expressed frustration at hearing it (one girl said to me “I know he meant well, but I was jet lagged to hell and just wanted to go to bed”) he did this because he CARED about the hostel and he cared about the guests. When an Irish lad named Ger Cashin tried to sneak off at 5am to catch the bus to the airport (feeling down at leaving and not wanting to say goodbye) Chris followed him to the bus stop on his motorbike with a bottle of raki and two shot glasses. He apparently caught up with him and said "you can't go without your farewell raki!"
Returnees would be welcomed with a shot of raki (think Italian grappa’s bastard son) and called by their first name, regardless of how many months or even years since they’d been to the hostel. Chris would always find a bed for a returnee who turned up unexpectedly and one day, when I was working for him in the kitchen cooking breakfasts he beckoned me over silently. Pointing to the tables outside as if we were bird watchers in a blind, about to cop a view of a rare migratory species he whispered “Lance, look. The new guests are getting on with the old crowd. They’re really mingling. Isn’t it brilliant!”
Chris liked a drink and there were a several occasions over the years, where he went face first over the flower bed nearest the reception door, on the way to his apartment after knocking off. I was never privileged to see this phenomenon, but I heard it once. A thud and cursing as he went arse over tit in the foliage. I whirled round to find he’d already sprung to his feet and was walking off with a cat’s sense of pride, pretending nothing had happened.
No matter how pissed he got, he never forgot to lock the beer fridge. Well, apart from once in the late 1990s when he came down next day to find it like something from Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. No one owned up and he bit the bullet, smiled and said “OK, you got me. Have to make sure I lock it next time.”
Chris loved the river walk and one day he told me that years ago a young woman had decided to do the walk in November, when it was getting dark a lot earlier. Chris warned her it was dangerous, especially alone but she insisted and set off at 2pm. By 6 o’clock she hadn’t come back and Chris guessed she was in trouble. He set off with a torch and an hour or so later found her in the pitch darkness, sat on a rock and crying her eyes out. He escorted her back to the hostel.
Chris used to be a carpenter and would work on the hostel in the winters when it was closed, making tables, ceilings, bed frames and even little boxes that he bolted to the sides of the bunk beds just for people to put nick nacks in.
He encouraged people to go out and socialise in town. The hostel lights went out at 10.30pm and that basically meant “piss off and have fun.”
Joe’s Bar/ Nufaro was the mainstay of the hostel crowd. My Dad said that in the early 2000s you couldn’t fit a credit card between the people in there and drunken dudes were dancing on the tables till 5 or 6am and staggering back completely wasted.
Room 7 (the roof above reception where there’s a mattress where people go for a shag) originally had FOUR mattresses on it. One on each compass point.
People sat and played Perudo, or King’s Cup or Fuck the Dealer or Poker…or any other number of silly games. Someone even INVENTED a board game for the hostel.
Chris made the hostel into one of the most popular back packer resorts in the world.
Then in 2012 he retired.
Then a few months later he died.
The replacement manager had been chosen by Chris and his name was…Chris. So we called him New Chris. He did a good job but being chucked in at the deep end of 7 days a week for 7 months wasn’t his cup of tea and he threw in the towel after one season.
Now we have Uli Schit as manager.
Me and Chris Bilson weren’t really friends, we weren’t really enemies. But you really don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Draw your own conclusions.