This year, I’ll turn thirty-six while I’m holidaying on the Greek island of Zakynthos. And it’s dawned on me that twenty years ago, I was also about to have a birthday in Greece – my sixteenth. It was the first trip I’d ever taken to what has become such a beloved country to me. Twenty years, eh? Where did it go?
Well, there was my party holiday hey day and the years I spent in places like Malia and Kavos. But then there were places like the peaceful green landscapes of Thassos, the thermal springs in Kos, the palace of Knossos in Crete. There’ve been countless moments and memories over those twenty years of holidays to Greece. But it all started when I turned sixteen.
I remember arriving on the package holiday transfer bus in Halkidiki with my mum, dad and sister late at night. We were told that the keys to our room would just be left in the door and someone would check us in the next day. It all felt a bit haphazard. It wasn’t the type of arrival we’d been used to when visiting bigger hotels in Spain when I was younger. And when we entered the room which would be ours for the holiday, we found the entire kitchen in a tiny wardrobe. Self catering? Hmmm. Straight away, I knew holidays would be different here and I didn’t know if I liked it.
Soon, though. I’d be smitten. And honestly it was all down to a man we called “Pops”.
It transpired that our apartment overlooked the bungalow in the grounds of our accommodation where the Greek family who owned and ran the complex all lived. And at the centre of their world was Pops. He looked about a hundred and never had a single tooth in his mouth, or hair on his head.
Every day I’d watch from our balcony as he sat in his chair surrounded by playing grandkids. Sometimes he’d wander round the pool, shuffling along in his shell suit and flip flops, gummy grin shining, waving at the guests. He didn’t speak, instead his lips just sort of pop, pop, popped, like a fish, as he tried to mouth a greeting.
His family were always around – hugging him, fetching him drinks and preparing snacks. On the evening of the hotel Greek night I saw him sitting in his usual spot, towel wrapped around his shoulders, as one of his granddaughters gently shaved the random prickly whiskers from his chin while Pops beamed proudly at everyone who looked his way.
The night itself was like a family party, and I remember welling up with happy tears as his clan all clustered around him, dancing their Greek dance. Pops stretched his arms up as much as he could, bobbing along to the music, like a hero.
At that moment, I knew there was something about Greece that would stay with me forever. It felt like this family of Greeks had let us completely in to their lives, even if just for a couple of weeks. Greece was nothing like home yet I felt more at home than ever.
Over the years, I’ve felt loved by many a Greek family, even though I barely got to know them. We were most recently adopted in Gouves on the island of Crete, which is the only place I’ve ever returned to two years on the run.
Fresh bananas brought to our door from Grandad George’s garden gave us our get up and go in the mornings, and gifts of local honey and olive oil gave my meals back at home a taste of that Cretan sunshine for months afterward. The family who run the Pella Taverna will occupy a space in my heart forever. And we’ll see them again, I know. I feel almost guilty that I’m not returning for a third stay. Yet…
But it all started with Pops from Halkidiki, who I’m sadly sure is long gone now twenty years have passed. Mind you, like all the Greek legends, I guess he lives on now I’ve given his memory a home on this page.
Greece, se agapo.