‘Grecia no!’ A border policemen lifts his chin in that peculiarly dismissive way the Greeks have of signifying a negative – in this case that there is something wrong with the bewildered Italian backpacker’s passport and he’s not going to be allowed in. A great deal of shouting and gesticulating ensues.
The ferry from Brindisi has just arrived and the port of Patras is hot, crowded and chaotic. In the opposite queue, my friend and I file past the hapless Italian and walk up the boarding ramp. It’s summer 1967, just a few months after the military coup. I’ve come to the end of my first visit to Greece and, colonels notwithstanding, I’ve already fallen in love with the place.
At this distance I only remember fragments of that trip and I can’t, alas, call on my friend James to swap memories. I lost contact with him after university, only to learn many years later that he had died in a drowning accident. He was a sensitive young man whose father was serving a prison sentence for fraud while we were at boarding school. He lived with his mother and sister in a large flat in Queen’s Gate and he was one of the most gifted musicians I’ve ever met, a brilliant self-taught pianist and left-handed bass player. A year later we spent several months in London, playing in a band together. That summer in Greece he was the easiest of travelling companions. I was very fond of him.
If the intensity of the light and the colour of the stone are two of the clichés of Greek travel, there’s a good reason for it. I particularly remember the great amphitheatre at Epidauros, a perfect bite out of a wooded hillside, the fanned tiers of limestone seats a warm ivory in the afternoon sun. I found the acoustic sweet-spot in the centre of the stage and spoke a few lines of Aristophanes in my execrable schoolboy Greek, while James listened from thirty rows back – there was no one else about – and heard every word perfectly. Later we saw a production of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, which I had read for A-level, in the Roman theatre of Herod Atticus in central Athens. As the actors moved about the proscenium below, night fell over the city which hummed faintly around us.
We stayed in a noisy youth hostel somewhere near the centre of town. James’s family had a friend who was the manager, or possibly even one of the directors, of a smart hotel. He received us in his office overlooking Syntagma Square. He parked us in a corner where we sat and drank beer and ate sandwiches while he got on with the day’s business. Heaven knows what we talked to him about, but he probably thought we needed feeding. Later that day we climbed the Acropolis and spent the evening getting lost in the labyrinthine alleys of the Plaka.
One day we took a ferry from Piraeus to Aegina, the closest of the islands. We sat on deck in the blazing heat, puffing on Papastratos, the exotically oval cigarettes packed with dark Turkish tobacco, as we chugged through a glittering Aegean to the smell of diesel and cooking. Grizzled men in striped trousers and collarless shirts played backgammon while their black-clad women clutched sprigs of rosemary against sea-sickness. That first crossing set the scene for the many other short voyages I would make to the Greek islands over the next few years. The gentle shudder of the ship and the hot wind on our faces is a memory that has never left me.
For reasons I don’t remember, our return itinerary was by sea from Patras to Brindisi, on the heel of Italy, and then by train up the length of the country to Milan where we caught a flight home. But first we broke the voyage in Corfu. I can still picture it materialising out of the haze as we steamed through a flat calm sea in the first light of dawn. Odysseus, finally returning to Ithaca, would have seen something very similar. In those days Greece and Albania were still technically at war and there were stories of people who drifted to the wrong side of the Straits of Corfu being shot at.
Agalis was a Greek girl I had met in Scotland. Her family lived in Corfu where her father ran the island’s biggest, or perhaps only, motor dealership. We stayed with them in their house in Corfu town and watched from their wisteria-covered balcony as the effigy of Saint Spiridion, the island’s patron, was carried through the street below on his feast day. I saw Agalis once more on a subsequent trip to Corfu and a couple of times later on in London, then lost touch.
While writing this I Googled the name Agalis (though not the family name) to check the spelling and, lo and behold, she appeared on the very first page. She makes beautiful ceramics and lives and exhibits in the UK. It seems that the best of our experiences continue to resonate in unexpected ways.