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Pick an Island, Any Island
I am looking for a Greek island.
If I were going on my own, maybe I'd just take a backpack and trust to serendipity. I've fallen in love with so many islands over the years just by hopping on the next ferry: islands that smelled of herbs and pine trees, whose villages had whitewashed alleys overhung with magenta bougainvillea, stalked by cats and chickens. Islands where pigs roamed on the wild beaches and cows wandered through the ruins of ancient hilltop castles; where people gathered in the village square at least once a day to gossip and play backgammon; where the hills were filled with olive trees and thyme and dropped away to a deep sparkling blue.
Once, island-hopping with another traveler, we'd arrived on the night of a big local festival. All the rooms were booked up, but sometimes you could sleep on someone's rooftop. It had been too late to ask permission, and I was slightly nervous the next morning when I heard a window opening by our heads, expecting a sharp telling off. Instead, we got an amused "Kalimera!" or good morning, and a coffee and biscuits.
Later, we found a room to rent at the back of someone's house; our landlady, Eleni, gave us plates heaped with ripe fresh fruit from her garden every day. In the mornings I had a coffee and homemade biscuits on the balcony with her, and one day we went to help the family with the grape harvest. We followed stony tracks all over the island, accompanied by the sound of birds and crickets, but mostly to the empty beach where Eleni's mother used to go when she was courting. As the sun was going down, we sometimes stopped at a farm where a jolly man would fill up our water bottle with slightly fizzy homemade wine that we sipped on the way back to the pretty port, and we sat on the quayside watching brightly painted fishing boats bobbing in deep blue water, their nets laid out to dry.
The spontaneous hospitality, the color, the traditional, rural island life, the shimmering blue sea, the sheer, sunny beauty of it all-that's what I'm looking for again.
This time John and I are going together, so I've offered to book somewhere in advance. It feels like the grown-up thing to do, and a good compromise. I want him to get hooked on Greece too. I want to find somewhere new so that we can discover it together.
Guidebook nearby, I look at some beautiful places to rent on various websites, but keep going back to a big villa with a swimming pool available for a reasonable last-minute deal on Tilos, halfway between Rhodes and Kos. It's an island I've somehow missed before, even though I've traveled up and down the Dodecanese. The villa looks fantastic. It's within walking distance of a village and two beaches.
"Hey, Jen," mumbles John, who's been dozing in front of the Grand Prix in his sunny, cozy flat; he's been working some crazy shifts. Nestling into the couch for a while with him, I sift through the options, tell him about the villa and what little I've managed to find out about Tilos.
"Book it! It's huge. We can bring Kate and Chris over. I owe her a birthday present-I'll pay for her flight."
I smile. What a lovely, generous idea. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, why not? I'll leave the decision to you-you're the expert on Greece, Jen! But it sounds great to me. Let's do it."
I go back to book the villa with a big smile on my face, remembering how I met John and his sister Kate the first time.
Almost a year ago, I was sitting at the bar of the Park Tavern one evening with a glass of wine and got into conversation with Kate, who was visiting from Vancouver. That's the kind of place the Park Tavern is. When I first moved to this town near the south coast of England for my work, the Park was a welcoming place to stop on my way home, look over some paperwork, and eat a sandwich. Soon, I got to know the landlord and he'd introduce me to people. I might end up talking to the local judge, a builder, a city planning officer, or a sausage maker. When John took on managing a local restaurant, he was welcomed into the special club of the Park Tavern too. He and his sister Kate were half English and half Canadian; I knew Vancouver, had stayed there with friends and visited the islands. We all swapped notes on favorite places. Kate wore vintage clothes, was a music producer, and had a mischievous grin. John looked very clean-cut with his suit and tie and baby-blond hair, but there was much more than met the eye; he had a wicked sense of humor, and the more I learned about him, the more I was fascinated. There was good chemistry between us. Before long, we started seeing each other.
I don't mind that John's job involves working long and unusual hours. I happily spend the early parts of the evenings seeing friends or reading or catching up at the office; it's good having a bit of downtime for myself. I go for challenging bike rides or walks on the weekends while he works. I don't have to faff around in supermarkets making sure we have something for dinner; if we're hungry, he'll make us something later. When he finishes work, he comes to meet me wherever I am and we exchange news of our days on his sofa over a good bottle of wine or listen to music. We talk about our experiences and our dreams. I'm drawn to his passion for his work, the way he throws himself into what he loves doing, the way I do; I'm inspired by the way he nurtures his staff. And finally he's found a way to take a week away from work in the summer, a super-busy time of year for him, and spend it with me in the place I love, Greece.
My dad sometimes says his happiest memories are of family holidays we took when my brother and I were young. I'm pretty sure he's not thinking of the holidays when we drove to the south of France and he swore a lot trying to put up a seventies-style three-bedroom tent made of scaffolding and canvas during a torrential thunderstorm; or of the holiday where the old station wagon broke down carrying that tent through the Alps, and all my mum's clothes were stolen at a campsite in Italy while Hare Krishnas chanted next door. I expect he's mainly thinking about the later holidays when we ditched the tent and started going to Greece.
I still have a diary from when we first went to Corfu-I was eleven:
After a few seconds of waking up I literally jumped out of bed and dressed immediately.
Apparently I enjoyed every minute of the three-hour flight (including the meal, described in great detail right down to the sachets). Then arrival in Corfu: the heat, the drive through quaint villages, the Greek folk songs, the vines and olive trees, washing hanging outside the whitewashed or stone houses.
We step off the coach and the holiday really begins. We were on the beach after 15 minutes. The sea was blue and warm and the sand hot, white, and soft, even if it was a bit dirty with sticks and seaweed.
I ate souvlaki and chips and Greek salad, and drank Greek lemonade, "which is more like fruit juice, and much nicer than English."
If the first day is anything to go by, I think the holiday is going to be wonderful. Already by two o'clock we have sunbathed, swum, played in the dinghy... The sweets like Turkish delight are so cheap and sesame bars are only 8.50 dmx which is the same as 8½ p. We did some Greek dancing at a hotel.
I'm afraid we did bring back a record of Greek dance music. I remember all of us dancing around our house in Saddleworth to "Zorba."
In case you're not familiar with it, you hold your left arm around the shoulders of the person to the left of you, and your right arm around the shoulders of the person to the right; you kick one leg out gently in front, then the other, then take steps to the side and repeat, slowly at first, but getting faster in time with the music until you think you can't keep going another minute and collapse, laughing, at the end (at least in our house we did).
But I also remember the solo dances by the men: shows of grace, agility, and strength to slow songs about pain and heartache that were utterly mesmerizing.
Miss Hatch, Hulme Grammar School for Girls' most eccentric teacher, with a passion for playing the violin and tending her tropical fish, scared most students off the classics during first-year Latin by making us all jump around the edges of the classroom carrying a ruler and shouting, "Um, am, em-object," a lesson most of us will never forget. But a few of us who were also perhaps eccentric went on to do Ancient Greek and memorized long monologues from classical plays, to be rewarded with powdery Greek coffee brewed in a metal jug and biscuits made from sesame seeds and honey. It's partly Miss Hatch's fault, too, that Greece got under my skin.
By the time I was seventeen, I was the only student at my school still studying Ancient Greek, and Miss Hatch gave me extra lessons in my free periods if I wanted to finish reading and translating a text. She taught me how the ancient roots were reflected in Modern Greek, instilling in me a fascination with words. Over my teenage years, there were holidays to Rhodes and Crete, Cephalonia and Ithaca, and then with a university friend around the Greek mainland.
After graduation from university, I'd had no idea what to do. I'd been applying for all sorts of graduate jobs, but with no clear goals (just big dreams), I wasn't getting very far at all. Then I saw an ad in the paper: an agency looking for graduates to be English teachers in private language schools in Athens. I thought of warm sunshine and blue sea, dancing and ancient amphitheaters. Maybe it was time to stay for longer. So I went to Greece.
Athens, when I first arrived that autumn, was not much like those dreamy holidays I'd been on before. My new home as an English teacher-it came with the job that the agency assigned to me in a frontistirion, or language school, in the district of Galatsi-was beside a six-lane highway that never seemed to sleep, among an endless stretch of gray concrete apartment buildings. But in the afternoons, I went up to the roof of my building where people hung their laundry, and high above the noise of street level I marked papers or read books in the sun, looking beyond the jumble of faded apartments to the gleaming silver sea. On Saturday mornings I'd hurry to the port of Piraeus. The clocks on the back of each ferry showed what time they would leave for which islands, and that would determine my adventure for the weekend.
On the island of Hydra, with houses clinging to rugged hillsides, there were no cars allowed and no real roads. I followed a footpath to the other, emptier side of the island, past a monastery and fields where mules and goats wandered, until the huge expanse of sea opened out before me. I found a flat rock on a hillside and lay barefoot on it, feeling like an Arcadian shepherdess as I ate my bread and cheese, basking in the warmth of the sun and the gentle breeze.
In the winter, on a ferry to the island of Aegina, I ran into my friend Yiannis, who I'd first met in Hydra. He had just bought a new artist's studio outside the town, and invited me to come and stay. It was a converted stone barn, with thick walls and wooden beams. French doors opened out onto a patio where bougainvillea trailed from a wooden trellis, the fallen leaves and petals swept by the wind into a pretty drift against the wall. The bedroom window looked out across an orchard of frost-covered fig trees and vines. Yiannis looked perfectly at home, transformed in his potter's apron and woolen hat, his bushy black mustache peeping out over the top of a scarf. Unfortunately my attempts at getting a fire going while he got absorbed in his work were useless. So he taught me instead to help him shape the clay and we drank ouzo, the strong Greek aniseed liqueur, to keep warm.
For the Easter holidays, I took the overnight ferry to the huge island of Crete. After another term's teaching in Athens in winter, I needed solitude and the rugged beauty of the wild, west coast. I found a room on a farm, whose big window looked out onto a deserted beach and a clear, pale blue sea. I scrambled high up rocks to vast views of wild scrub and mountains whose tops were enveloped in clouds. I tired myself out and then retreated under the quilts to fall asleep to the sound of birds and waves. Dinner was tomatoes stuffed with rice and herbs, or stews of potatoes, aubergines, broad beans, tomato, and more fresh herbs, with lots of fresh crusty bread. In the evening, I drank brandy and had live music played for me on the bouzouki, a Greek stringed instrument like a lute. The simple physical pleasures of sea and fresh air made me feel alive.
The island of Mykonos in early summer was completely different, with its exquisite whitewashed dovecotes, the town a jumble of baffling alleys and painted balconies. Wending my way toward the harbor, I turned a corner and there was a huge bird strutting up toward me: Petros, the resident friendly pelican, with a soft pink quiff that he let me stroke. You couldn't help liking a town that had its own pelican. Later, I made friends with someone who made a living by performing Greek dancing and catching fish; he taught me a few steps of syrtaki and directed me to where I could watch locals dancing to traditional music, holding hands together in never-ending lines that snaked around the room, the steps far more complex than they looked to the observer. I danced and I swam at Paradise Beach and soaked up the infectiously free-love atmosphere of the bars and cafés. A beautiful stranger said, "How do you say good-bye in England-kissing? On the lips? Like this?"
Even Athens began to feel like home. I liked the orange trees lining the streets, even if they were straggly and dusty. It was a joy to listen to men standing in the bakery having detailed discussions about different types of bread, or to brave the busy queues in the local market to buy heavy bags of vegetables. Good things happened out of the blue. I would be reading a sign, and an old man would offer assistance; I would end up with incomprehensible instructions in Greek and a foolish smile on my face. I'd go up to the roof of my apartment building in the evening, see the mountains all smoky blue, Athens a hazy white jumble of crystals, and off Piraeus, tankers lying motionless in the sea. One evening, a man from Crete started talking to me as we were walking the same way; he liked Athens, he said, because he didn't need to buy cigarettes anymore-he could breathe bad air for free. "I like the pollution. I like the rubbish. I like fighting people for my position on the bus." I laughed. I knew what he meant. I liked the random, bizarre excitement of my new life too.
It wasn't exactly clear what would happen next. Sometimes I thought I'd stay. Coming to Greece was not just about a job, I knew that. I was having the adventures that life should be about, searching out what my life was supposed to be.
A few years later, I found myself living in Canada. I moved from one neighborhood of Toronto to another until I ended up on the Danforth-the Greek district. The street signs were in both English and Greek, there was a Greek butcher who sold marinated souvlaki, and travel agents catering mostly to Greeks going back home, plus Greek restaurants and a Greek nightclub. I liked just standing in the shops and listening to people speaking the language I missed.
Now I've returned to England, and here I am, heading to a Greek island again.
At the start of June, John's sister Kate and her boyfriend Chris arrive in England from Vancouver, then a few days later the four of us fly to Rhodes, and from there later in the day we take the ferry to Tilos. There isn't a boat every day, so it isn't the easiest place to get to, but maybe it will be all the better for it.
We arrive on the small island at night. The owners of the villa I booked meet us off the boat and take us for a welcoming drink at their bar in the port of Livadia. Then they drive us across the island to the village of Megalo Horio. We sit out on the roof terrace of the villa and look up, amazed, at thousands of bright stars. In the morning, awake before anyone else, I sneak outside to see deep blue sky, rugged gray mountains, and a pool fringed with pink and white oleander; there's a vague aroma of honey.
I'm in love.