Back in the present day, a warm, dry wind met us as we descended the steps to the tarmac, our feet touched the ground, and it felt like we’d come home. Carrying only hand luggage, we passed through passport control and customs, making our way to the front of the building, to be met by our Hire Car company rep. I’d booked on-line, and we were looking forward to touring the island in comfort, with a nice, air-conditioned vehicle. He was an older, Greek man, who drove us the short journey, in a minibus, to the compound.
“We have problem” said the younger man at the reception desk, looking a little harassed. Here we go, I thought. “It’s ok, we give you upgrade, no extra.” He carried on, grabbing a set of keys.
It was dark and my concern was missing some damage on the vehicle, which we could be charged for on our return. Crossing the parking lot, heading to a large, black, 4x4 beast of a thing, my spirits lifted. This would be fun on the mountain tracks. My optimism was short lived. As we approached, the young man carried on, and behind the 4x4 hid a tiny, yellow Fiat 500. I glared at the man as he shifted uneasily. I doubted if we could even fit inside, never mind our luggage. It had been a long time since I’d spoken any Greek, but I knew enough to let him know what he could do with his car.
I was lining up the phrasing in my mind, just about to let rip, when Jenny piped up. “It’s lovely; I’ve always wanted to try one of these. A little yellow bean, it’ll be a laugh”
SUMMER ’92 - My First Day
I threw my rucksack down on the second bed of the twin room and threw myself on the first. A ceiling fan spun warm air and although the brown wooden shutters kept out the light, they didn’t keep out the sounds from the street. I closed my eyes and listened to the hypnotic chatter of foreign voices, and donkey’s hooves. Music from the bars reached my ears and as I drifted away, I could smell garlic and herbs and charcoal grills.
The rasping sound of a motorbike woke me with a start the next morning. It took a moment to remember where I was. Breakfasting on some cornflakes which had been provided, I brewed a cup of dodgy tea with suspicious tea bags and planned my trip to the beach. Nervous about leaving my passport and cash in the room, and not wanting to take it in my bum-bag, I hid everything in the cereal box, the only place I could think of.
Making my way out, through the maze of little streets, the closed restaurants and bars and the open mini markets and tourist shops, I dodged noisy, little 3 wheeled delivery vehicles carrying piles of fresh vegetables and crates of drinks. The square wasn’t as busy as before, and I stopped again to look out over the bay, before taking the road leading downhill.
Following a turn off, through olive trees and dry scrub, cicadas chirping, the noise of the traffic receded and the sounds of the beach, splashing and laughing, grew. Above a stone opening in what may have once been the wall in a house, now long gone, in hand painted letters was the word “BEACH”. I crossed the worn threshold, not knowing if this doorway was fifty or five hundred years old. The path then passed through more olive trees and opened out to a wide shoreline stretching both ways. Rows of sunbeds were arranged neatly on the fine-grained sand, beneath large, tall umbrellas, canopies made from reeds and cane. I could see pedalos chugging slowly around the turquoise bay, swimmers, and boats at anchor. Light from the sun, already hot, and high, reflected off the water, highlighting the contrast of the shaded sunbeds.
“Sunbed, Umbrella.” An old Greek man, wearing trousers and a long sleeved, collared shirt, appeared from a seat under an umbrella at the back.
“One. Sunbed. Please.” I said, holding my index finger up.
A slightly rusting, metal framed, stripy clothed sunbed from was dragged from under the shade of an umbrella and I paid him from the notes in my pocket. As the old man trudged off, I tossed my towel onto the bed and slid it back into the shade. Wow, he moved quickly! The old man had shot back and pulled my bed back into the sun.
“Two bed, Umbrella. One bed, no umbrella.”
What I didn’t know at the time was the community divided the beach, allocating sections for sunbed rental, to the poorest in the village, those who were elderly, infirm or had no other income. This would be the only money they would earn all year and if they rented out one sunbed per umbrella, they would lose money.
At that moment I thought it was a scam, making me pay double, and I wasn’t falling for it. Pulling the backrest up, I lay down my towel, cursing the man as he shuffled back up the sand. Anyway, I didn’t come all the way to Greece to sit in the shade. Off came the T-shirt, socks and sandals parked neatly below the bed. Stretching out, with my hat over my face, I relaxed and let the heat soak into my Vitamin D deficient body.
The sun warmed my bones as I took in the aroma of grilled meat and wood smoke. The scent of trees behind me filtered into my consciousness and I grasped grains of fine sand, running them through my fingers. Listening to the voices of people chattering and laughing, I could hear the noise of boats and footsteps splashing in shallow water.
A loud ship’s horn blasted three times. I sat up from my meditation, squinting. A large boat, full of passengers, had come into the bay, another not far behind it. As they moored at the jetty on the far side of the bay, I noticed the other, smaller beach, across the water, a strip of bars and cafés running its length.
Walking past me, a girl reached the waterline, dropped her sarong to the sand, stepped out of her sandals, strolled into the sea, and began to swim, all without breaking step and I couldn’t help but follow her progress.
Right, I was going in. Having been brought up on the east coast of Scotland, swimming in the sea meant inching in, till you get to the point of no return, and then throwing yourself into freezing water, gasping in shock, swimming quickly to warm up. As we said, it’s ok once you’re in. I stood up, and as the sand burnt the soles of my feet, I ran and hopped to the water which lapped round my ankles, feeling warm and pleasant. Getting deeper, I dived under, immersing myself. It was not only much warmer, but a lot saltier than the North Sea. I could taste the difference and feel the buoyancy.
I swam, and swam, further in a straight line than I had ever swum before, feeling the sun on my back, the water flowing over my body. The deeper it got, the darker it got and the cooler it became. Rolling on my back I looked up at the little white houses of village surrounding the castle on the hilltop and the pure blue sky. I also wondered what may be swimming about beneath me, and carried on to the jetty where the tourist boats had moored, I tried to read their names. Written in the Greek alphabet, some letters familiar, others, alien. It must be like dyslexia, I thought, trying to make out this strange alphabet. Turning, I made my way back to the big beach, looking up to the village and the castle, stroke after stroke. Water was my element.
Nearing the beach, trying to make out my spot, I saw the girl, floating on her back. As I swam past, she rolled over in the water, opened her olive eyes and smiled.
“Nice here”, I said. It was the first thing that came into my head. Her long, dark, straight, wet hair framed her oval features and she nodded.
“How long are you here for?” I asked, assuming she was on holiday. I’ve got to stop making assumptions. I’m normally wrong.
“Oh, I live here” she replied, in a soft American drawl.
“Really, in the village? Must be great?”
“No, over there.”
Nodding with her head up to the hillside between the path to the beach and the main road was a big banner strung up in the trees. XENOMANIA. A restaurant. We floated for a bit, chatting. Her name was Juliette. There were some drawbacks to living here, she told me, but mainly it was pretty good. And then, all too soon, she had to go. I watched her walk out of the water and slip her sarong back over her wet swimsuit and step into her sandals. Then she turned.
“Why don’t you come up tonight?” and smiled before disappearing past the sunbeds and into the trees behind the beach.
Was that a date, with a beautiful, random, woman from out of the sea, on my first day on the beach? Well, luck was changing for me. I showered on the beach, rinsing the salty water off, before settling back down on my sunbed for the afternoon, sleeping a half sleep in the sun, dreaming of waves and boats and mermaids.
Waking from my slumber, my skin felt stiff and taught. I looked down at the reddest, angriest legs and body you’ve ever seen. My pale, blue veined, Scottish skin had been flayed. The tops of my feet were so sore I couldn’t put my sandals on, and there was no way I’d get my Tee shirt over my head. Hobbling over the stony track, along the hot tarmac road and up the cobbled lanes in my bare feet, I winced all the way. In the village I stopped at a mini market. It was heavenly, cool, and air-conditioned, a respite. The man at the counter looked at me. I pointed to my flame grilled front; he gasped, sucking in air over his teeth, long and slow.
“After Sun?” I asked, but he went to one of the fridges and came back with something that looked like a pot of yogurt.
“It’s the best.”
It was indeed a pot of yogurt. Back at the apartment, I slathered it all over, and lay flat on the bed. The burning in my skin dissipated on contact and I let the air from the ceiling fan swirl around me. Idiot. I’d been in the sun for a couple of hours, never imagining its strength.
I found my way to XENOMANIA later in the evening. Assuming she was waitressing, I thought I’d arrive later, near the end of her shift, and it would give my freshly slapped skin a chance to cool down. Before leaving I smeared another layer of yogurt over the worst bits, before gingerly donning my baggiest shirt, my skin screaming wherever it made contact.
Ambling through the streets, everything was now open. Greeters stood at the entrances to the bars, but they weren’t noisy or rowdy, all more civilised than I had expected.
The square in the evening was illuminated by strings of lightbulbs and the castle on the rock was lit by the moon against a black night sky. I passed the empty donkey station, the slumbering tourist office, and the row of motorbikes, parked next to the fountain. I reached the track which led to my destination where I found tables and chairs haphazardly scattered around olive trees, lanterns twinkling from the branches. Juliette’s face broke out into a wide smile as she saw me coming, and taking me to a seat, she asked if I wanted a drink. Sitting there, watching the lights on the yachts in the bay, the edge of the village twinkling, and the moonlit castle dominating the view. Cicadas strummed and the burning on my body became almost bearable.
Bringing a beer, she asked if I wanted anything to eat. There were only a couple of other tables occupied, people seemed to be well into their meals, so I asked for something small, a salad, while she was finishing up.
An older looking, unkempt Greek man, with a huge straggly beard and wild hair carried some pots across the back of the grove. I wondered if he was the boss. This is alright, I thought to myself, nibbling on my first ever Greek salad, which seemed to consist of a sliced cabbage, some tomatoes, and a slab of cheese with olives and cucumbers. It was still my first full day, and as I waited, and munched, and drank, my mind began to wander. There seemed to be lots of English speakers working there and there was plenty of night life. Juliette came by and we chatted, I asked her what time she finished.
“After the last table has gone” she said which made sense. The other tables were taking their time and I had a couple more drinks, until eventually the last group got up and made their way out. I’d noticed the hairy, unkempt Greek man a couple of times, looking up, and over at me.
As Juliette picked up my empty glass I said “Who’s that miserable sod? Is he your gaffer?”
She looked puzzled for a moment. I thought she was confused, being American she might not understand what I meant. About to clarify, she burst into laughter.
“Gaffer, ha-ha, that’s Manolis, my husband. It’s our restaurant”
Thank God for sunburn. I have never felt so embarrassed in my entire life. I would have gone red from top to toe, if I hadn’t already been glowing like the coals in a night-time fire. Leaving more than enough notes for my salad and beers, I said goodnight and made my lonely, pathetic, crestfallen way back to the village, the yogurt on my skin smelling like yesterday’s sick, my ego crushed.
The maze of streets and alleys in the village lend themselves to a technique called the Lindos Swerve, whereby, if you’re avoiding someone, for whatever reason, a timely detour is always at hand. In the five summers and two winters I was to stay, our paths never crossed again.