MY BIG FAT GREEK DATE What hap­pened when Voula Plagakis flew all the way to Greece for a first date. #se­ri­ously

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When my 75-year-old aunt, Dina, set me up on a blind date half­way around the world, I thought it was a crazy idea. I had never been on a blind date be­fore, let alone a long-dis­tance one. Yet, in July of 2004, I found my­self fly­ing from Mon­treal to Greece to meet a man I knew only as Mano.

Aunt Dina had been pes­ter­ing me over the phone for three months about this man on her is­land. “He’s a mu­si­cian, a lover of life,” she would say. “All he’s miss­ing is a woman to sing to!”

“Oh, Aunt Dina,” I would ex­claim as I laughed and rolled my eyes and dis­missed her idea as too far-fetched.

But she wouldn’t let up. “He owns a ho­tel and takes tourists for rides on his sail­boat,” she would con­tinue. “But that’s just an ex­cuse to make a liv­ing.” At­tempt­ing to really seal the deal, she’d say that he “could pass for 25” and had long wavy hair, just like mine. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.

But her per­sis­tence paid off. “Okay,” I fi­nally said to her one day. “Let’s do this.” Af­ter all, I was 35, and, since my di­vorce, dat­ing had been rel­e­gated to an item on my to-do list. I was tired of the “stare at each other across the room but never ap­proach” scene and of meet­ing in­ter­est­ing men who just weren’t ready to com­mit to me—and my young son. I had shut my­self off, dis­miss­ing any pos­si­bil­i­ties that came my way even be­fore I gave them a chance. But my aunt made Mano—this care­free mu­sic-play­ing is­lan­der—sound so dif­fer­ent from the men around me in Canada. And she is such an in­spi­ra­tion her­self: Wid­owed at 63, she is still a hope­less ro­man­tic who be­lieves that she will fall in love again.

So that’s how, af­ter an eight-and-a-half-hour flight and a six-hour ferry ride, I found my­self in a cab in Crete on a hot July evening, hurtling along nar­row wind­ing roads to­ward a tiny vil­lage called Agia Galini, or “Saint Seren­ity,” close to where my aunt lived—and Mano

awaited me. (My son was off hav­ing his own ad­ven­tures with his dad in the United States.)

Around 10 p.m., the cab­bie dropped me off at the vil­lage café, which dou­bled as the is­land’s un­of­fi­cial cus­toms depart­ment since no new ar­rival passed un­no­ticed or un­ques­tioned. Sud­denly, I was swarmed by vil­lagers, ques­tions com­ing at me rapid-fire style. “How was your trip?” “What did the cab­bie charge?” “Did he make a pass at you?” “Get her some wa­ter!” Be­fore I could faint, my aunt the blind-date bro­ker res­cued me from the crowd.

Less than an hour later, she an­nounced that Mano was ready to meet me. I pleaded ex­haus­tion as she rum­maged through my lug­gage for a slinky some­thing—but I in­sisted on go­ing ca­sual in jeans and a yel­low sum­mery blouse. Then, much to my hor­ror, my aunt and a car­load of vil­lagers ac­com­pa­nied me.

First-date nerves kicked in as I sat with my en­tourage at a café in the neigh­bour­ing vil­lage. While they did shots of raki (the lo­cal clear grape spirit), I thought back to the brief phone con­ver­sa­tion I’d had with Mano be­fore I came out here and how, in his soft, ac­cented voice, he’d said my aunt spoke so highly of me and that he was look­ing for­ward to meet­ing me.

As I waited awk­wardly in my wicker chair, al­ter­nately cross­ing and un­cross­ing my legs, Mano ap­peared, wear­ing cot­ton pants and his shoul­der-length hair loose. He greeted ev­ery­one with a wide smile and then reached for my hand and kissed it. All the vil­lagers swooned. He wasn’t text­book hand­some, but he had an easy, self-as­sured way about him that in­trigued me. Af­ter 10 min­utes, we ditched the au­di­ence and headed to­ward the pier, where we sat with our legs dan­gling over the edge. We chat­ted about his child­hood on the is­land and tried to push past the awk­ward­ness. He apol­o­gized about hav­ing to meet with an au­di­ence and ex­plained how he dis­liked ev­ery­one know­ing ev­ery­one’s busi­ness and called the lack of pri­vacy “a lux­ury of is­land liv­ing.” He half-joked about es­cap­ing on his sail­boat when he needed to get away, giv­ing me a hint that he might be a wan­der­ing spirit. I strug­gled to com­pare him to other men I had known. He was smooth and light­hearted, an easy con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist. There were no in­stant sparks, yet a small voice in­side my head whis­pered that I should stay open—maybe it was a slow sim­mer, like onions carameliz­ing over low heat. Our date ended with a kiss on both cheeks and a prom­ise to see each other the next day.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, he in­vited me for a sail­boat ride. As I lay un­der the masts soak­ing up the sun, I was able to ob­serve him from the shade of my hat. When I fussed with my windswept hair, he reached over to help me tie it back, and we com­pared tips on how to un­tan­gle hair in the shower. The blow­ing wind cou­pled with his low voice forced us to lean in closer, like two chil­dren shar­ing a se­cret. A few hours later, we re­turned to shore, in­vig­o­rated from a day at sea, but I was still un­sure of where this was go­ing.

I gave it an­other week and sev­eral more out­ings—din­ner, snorkelling and a night when I stayed at his ho­tel, al­beit in my own room—but the elu­sive “siz­zle” still did not ma­te­ri­al­ize, al­though I did enjoy his com­pany.

It was time to pack up and con­grat­u­late my­self for step­ping out of my dat­ing com­fort zone. My aunt said she un­der­stood, but when I said my good­byes to the other vil­lagers—well, they had opin­ions! Some said they never saw us to­gether any­way; oth­ers said they thought we were meant for each other.

On my last night, Mano and I sat on the ve­randa at his ho­tel over­look­ing the Libyan Sea. We drank raki, and the con­ver­sa­tion flowed more eas­ily now that I knew how this story ended: I was leav­ing; he was stay­ing. We talked about how dif­fer­ent our lives were and how im­prob­a­ble it was that I would be able to pick up and move to h

Crete. Now that the pres­sure of some­thing hap­pen­ing be­tween us was gone, I was fi­nally fully re­laxed in his com­pany. As we chat­ted, he paused ev­ery so of­ten to point out stars, feed me wa­ter­melon or slide his hand down my arm. Sud­denly, I felt it: the slow sim­mer. I could al­most smell the aroma of those sweet onions siz­zling over a low fire, beg­ging to be stirred.

I fol­lowed that scent into the ho­tel room he called home. It was sparsely fur­nished, with just a bed and a scarflike wall hang­ing. When his body leaned over mine, his long hair fanned against my face and teased my nose. In that mo­ment, I imag­ined that this is what it must feel like to make love with me. I smiled at the rev­e­la­tion and de­lighted at the chance to know it. I let go of my need to scroll to the end of the story be­fore it had even started.

The next morn­ing I left as planned for an­other is­land. But five days later, in­stead of head­ing home, I re­turned to Crete, and that caused a lot of ex­cite­ment in the vil­lage. My aunt was es­pe­cially giddy be­cause it proved her skill as a match­maker. One vil­lager even asked me if Mano was a good lover. I just smiled and po­litely de­clined to an­swer. I tried not to over­think it as I just wanted to get to know Mano bet­ter.

For two more weeks that sum­mer, we hung out on the deck of his boat and in his ho­tel. Then I re­turned to Canada, and, for six months, we tried to make a longdis­tance re­la­tion­ship work. Ul­ti­mately, he didn’t want to risk us fall­ing in love and me mov­ing to Crete only to re­al­ize that I couldn’t live on the is­land—and then break his heart. Al­though I was dis­ap­pointed (as were my aunt and the whole vil­lage), in time, I came to understand that the ex­pe­ri­ence wasn’t only about the prospect of love. The crazi­ness of that long-dis­tance blind date reignited my de­sire for new ex­pe­ri­ences. It helped me open the door to feel­ing more and fil­ter­ing less.

Be­cause Mano was so un­like any of the men I had known, I learned that I could be at­tracted to some­one even if the chem­istry wasn’t there at the be­gin­ning. This re­la­tion­ship was also the first step in dis­cov­er­ing how to open up in­ti­mately while still keep­ing a piece of me for my­self—it trans­formed my post-di­vorce view­point from think­ing in terms of “us” to “me.”

Af­ter things ended with Mano, an­other (lo­cal!) blind date led to a three-year re­la­tion­ship. To­day, I’m hap­pily sin­gle—with oc­ca­sional mo­ments of achy long­ing for a deeper in­ti­mate con­nec­tion—but I’m al­ways on the look­out for new ways to flex my go-for-it side. One ex­am­ple: my mom-son bucket list. We re­cently checked off “Take a road trip to see an Ea­gles game in Philadel­phia,” and we’re hop­ing to strike “Cook­ing class at the Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica” off soon.

And I con­tinue to take in­spi­ra­tion from Aunt Dina. At 85, she is won­der­fully alive and full of zest. She spends half the year in Mon­treal and the other half in Crete, where she still wears a bikini and gives the vil­lagers an ear­ful if they have any­thing to say about it. She has never re­mar­ried, but she’s still open to fall­ing in love.

About two years ago, she met a man in Crete (who also splits his time be­tween there and Mon­treal). They hit it off, and he told her he would call her when they were both back in Canada. Well, he never called. A month af­ter she re­turned to Mon­treal, she asked me to take her to the break­fast place he goes to on Sun­days so she could ask him why. So we went to stake out the restau­rant be­cause she said he had pre­sented him­self as a gen­tle­man and she wanted to call him on it! He wasn’t there, but she later got him on the phone and gave him a piece of her mind. She’s a classy, straight­for­ward, doesn’t-mess-around woman. She’s my men­tor for grow­ing with grace and guts—and the gifts she has given me linger well be­yond that far-flung first date.

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