Are places like people? Maybe if we are lucky we stumble across The One, the village that fills some space inside us
THE YEAR I WAS 23, my mother’s friend backed out of a holiday in Crete at the last minute and she took me instead. I was expecting to spend a fortnight pining for my boyfriend. I wasn’t expecting to start a love affair that would last a lifetime.
But when I stepped out of the plane, it hit me – the rush of heat, the glitter of the sea beyond the jumble of the terminal, the ripple of high mountains on the horizon. And with it came a jolt of recognition so strong I had to hang on to the handrail. I fell for Greece before I even set foot in it.
Our apartment in Agios Nikolaos was pokey and dark and damp and already occupied by a family of huge cockroaches that scattered whenever we turned on the lights, but it had a sliver of balcony. After my mother had gone to bed, I lay on my back on the dusty tiles in the warm night, grinning up at the vast river of the Milky Way that is hidden even on the darkest Irish night. I felt as if I’d finally come home.
I’ve thought about it a lot since then, that feeling, and wondered if places are like people. Maybe if we are lucky, we stumble across The One, the village or town or country that fills some space inside us, that makes us happy just because it exists.
I loved everything about Crete. The blazing light and cool pools of shade in the whitewashed streets. The voice of the vegetable seller, bellowing through the microphone on top of his van. The rocky cove where we spent our days, my mother reading, me staring love-struck at the sea, trying to find words for all those shade of blue.
I couldn’t shake the feeling of deja vu. The sense that I’d lived a whole lifetime there before. I hatched plans to stay for the summer, to work in a bar or a restaurant, but my mother refused point blank to let me. My heart broke as I climbed back up the steps of the plane. I’d had my holiday romance and now, I thought bleakly, it was over, but really, it was just beginning.
I’ve been lucky enough to see some breath-taking places since my 20s – the Seychelles, Bali, Mauritius, Mexico, North Africa – but none of them have ever held a candle to Greece.
I’ve been back every year since that first time, sometimes twice. I’ve gone with friends and boyfriends and I’ve gone alone. I couldn’t keep away. You know it’s the real thing when reality kicks in. When the infatuation wears off and you see past the curtain of beauty to the character of a place or a person. The nitty and the gritty and the quirky, even the downright scary.
These things might make others run a mile, but they become the things you love most.
Crete has beautiful resorts with manicured gardens and icing sugar beaches, but I am drawn, over and over to the rugged, rocky, untidy south coast. I love the tiny villages with their small, cool white churches. And the dusty industrial towns where farmers wearing army fatigues gather in the tavernas and battered pick-up trucks full of goats wait outside the supermarkets.
There are lots of archaeological sites to see but I prefer the remote ones scattered across the island where sometimes it’s just you and an orchestra of rowdy cicadas sharing a 3,000-year-old mosaic or the scattered white bones of an ancient temple.
I would swap the most luxurious hotel suite in the world for a simple village room with a big balcony, a couple of plastic chairs, a wonky sun umbrella and a tumble of red geraniums growing out of a whitewashed olive oil can.
Sometimes being in love can be risky. The paths are steep and crumbly. The sea can turn wild on a sixpence. The roads wind around steep gorges and every signpost is riddled with bullet holes. The guns come out on celebration days and you can forget about health and safety.
Two years ago, I huddled with gaggle of tourists in the churchyard of a small village to watch a wedding. A dozen groomsmen with semi-automatics fired off live rounds between shots of raki. It was absolutely terrifying but exhilarating too. Another unforgettable memory.
Adding them up, calculating the days and weeks and the months I’ve spent in Greece, I realise that I’ve spent two entire years of my life there.
So maybe that feeling I had that very first time wasn’t deja vu at all. Maybe I wasn’t just remembering the past, but glimpsing the future. All the times in Greece I had yet to live and to love, especially the summer I met my husband on the island of Skyros.
But that’s another love story...