Growing up, Greece was our promised land. My parents were reluctant emigrants to Australia who never really came to terms with leaving Greece. The devastation wreaked by World War II followed by the Civil War and then the ruinous earthquake of 1953 ensured that there was no future for them at home. My brothers and I were raised on stories of the beauty of their island, Zakynthos, the generosity of village life and of living with and being part of the seasons. It seems that time and nostalgia had softened my parents’ memories of the poverty and loss of their childhoods. Despite their intentions to work and save for a few years and then return to Greece, it actually took forty years before they saw their island again. Family obligations, then children and schooling got in the way.
“When you learn to roll your R’s”, was Mum’s response to our constant childhood questions of when we would visit Greece. I used to practice constantly in the back seat of the car, irritating all the other occupants. When I finally managed to wrap my wooden Aussie tongue around that sound and triumphantly trilled my R’s to anyone who would listen, or couldn’t escape in time, my parents changed the goal posts. “When you learn to speak Greek properly.” That was a much harder proposition; in fact I still haven’t managed it.
It was 1985 when we arrived in Zakynthos and drove off the ferry in a burst of permed hair, pastel-coloured shorts, and white shoes. I’m not quite sure what the islanders thought of us and our fashion sense. They obviously hadn’t been watching Wham! videos like we had. For Mum and Dad this was the longed-for homecoming. Decades of mind-numbing hard work had allowed them to buy their own home and go on their first overseas holiday.
“Γειά σου, ρε Νιόνο!” Hello Nionio! (a local nickname for Dionysios, my father’s name). Dad looked around and slowly recognised a childhood friend. Two greying men who’d last seen each other as hopeful boys. The meeting brought home to Dad the forty years and lost youth he’d spent away from this island that would always be his home, even though he’d left when he was just nineteen and would never live there permanently again.
But at the time, aged twelve, I was totally oblivious to all the misunderstandings and regrets running under the surface. To me the trip was an unforgettable escape from our closeted life in Brisbane. I was young enough not to overly mind sharing a room with my parents and two older brothers for three months. I didn’t even mind sleeping on a mattress on the floor which we had to pack away each morning. Eventually I even became accustomed to using a bucket to flush the toilet and having to shower in my togs with the outside water hose. There was always a rush back from the beach to be first in line and benefit from the sun warmed water before it ran out and turned cold. Our days were filled with swimming, snorkelling and the occasional octopus fishing. My feisty, brown limbed cousins showed us how to spot an octopus hiding in its rocky home.
“Bite it here, between the eyes to kill it.” They quickly demonstrated. “Do it fast otherwise you will get red marks on your arm from the suckers on their tentacles”, they helpfully explained, just in case one day we cared to do a spot of octopus fishing in the Brisbane river and were unsure how to dispatch our catch. We were amazed by their boldness and lack of city-kid squeamishness.
Lazy, hot afternoons passed by playing card games with the kids next door and climbing fig trees to pick the ripe, sticky fruit. Languid evenings were spent eating outdoors with assorted uncles, great aunts and cousins two or three times removed. Skinny kittens lured by the promise of food would invariably tiptoe around the shadows, darting into the light when feeling brave.
We ate communally and with the seasons. When my aunt’s apricot trees were in fruit the apricots were shared amongst family and neighbours. Likewise with our neighbours’ fig trees and plums. We feasted on each fruit for a week or two and then it was gone till next season. My grandparents had always been small scale farmers eating mostly what they grew themselves. As well as their kitchen garden and fruit trees they grew and made their own wine and olive oil.
When my grandparents died my mother inherited that summer shack near the beach at Koukla where we had spent our blissful summer. Traditionally, families spent the winter in their village and in summer they camped down by their vegetable fields to save themselves the long daily walk and to escape the heat of the village. My grandparents’ fields and vineyards are located near to the sea in an area called Koukla, belonging to the village of Lithakia which is two and a half kilometres inland. Koukla literally means “doll” but is used colloquially to refer to a pretty girl or cute object. My mother told me stories of how beautiful Koukla was when she was a girl with its neatly tended little fields and vineyards overlooking the turquoise waters of Laganas Bay.
By the time I finally returned alone in 1998, Koukla was looking a little ramshackle. Our little house was neglected and sagging. The climbing vine that had shielded us that halcyon summer had gone wild and was strangling the house like a python. The well-tended vineyards that used to provide my grandparents with their yearly supply of wine were overgrown and the fruit left to rot on the vine. My vision of living there alone and spending my days swimming and sleeping disappeared on the overgrown driveway and I headed back to Lithakia town and my elderly aunt’s sweltering little house to spend the summer. When the heat became too suffocating I’d pack a bag and start walking towards Koukla eager to escape to the cool water and breezes. Down the windy road through the deserted village where everyone was hiding indoors and then crossing the main road to Zakynthos town. On the other side I came to the tiny lane that meandered through the olive groves towards the sea. Here the trees provided some shade for me under their silver-backed leaves. After about one and a half kilometres under the dreamy olive groves I’d once again burst into sunlight with Koukla before me and beyond that the heavenly sea. The relief of the swim after the long, dusty walk was sublime. After the beach I’d visit one of the neighbours who would invariably offer to drive me home, horrified at the thought of me having to walk in the heat. How different life had become in one generation since my father routinely walked the eleven kilometres into Zakynthos town and back again.
When the provincial pleasures of Lithakia and Koukla began to bore I’d make my way to the nearby tourist resort of Laganas where my parents’ koumbari, Dionysios and Gerasimoula, had a hotel. A koumbaros or koumbara is a special relationship in Greece and is considered almost one of the family. My father was best man at Dionysios and Gerasimoula’s wedding, and so they were our koumbari. As such I took advantage of their generosity and spent a few weeks in a spare staff bed in the hotel basement. There was a little window in the wall of the room that was at pavement height outside. I’d lie on the bed during the afternoon siesta and watch the parade of legs go by. You could tell how long the tourists had been in Zakynthos by the shade of their legs. Newcomers were milky white as these were the days before fake tans. A few days later the imprudent ranged from pink to a painful red. By the end of their two weeks golden tanned legs walked by, ready to gloat over their still-pale friends when they got home.
Here I was part of a parea, a group of friends, consisting mainly of the sons and daughters of various hotel and apartment owners usually back from Athens or university for the summer. Our evenings were spent hanging out on the beach playing guitars and having tavli, backgammon tournaments. Occasionally we’d brave the Laganas nightclubs full of rowdy British and northern Europeans. I remember being shocked by the behaviour of the English. My plan was to move to London after my time in Greece in the time-honoured young, travelling Aussie tradition. However, when confronted with the behaviour of the English in Laganas I imagined London to be a heaving morass of sunburnt chavs vomiting in gutters and indiscriminately flashing their knockers.
Since then I’ve been back to Zakynthos another seven times, first with my Irish husband Ralph and then as a family with our two children, Alexander and Eoin. Over the years my parents have built a house where the summer shack used to be. Sleepy Koukla now has two hotels, a few holiday apartments and a restaurant, though it still manages to retain its rural charm. Yet these visits are always fleeting, two or three weeks usually, barely enough time to fall into the rhythms of the mediterranean summer, before we fly back home. We have the enviable situation of having a house on a Greek island yet we’ve never had the opportunity to spend an extended period of time there. I still feel like a tourist, barely scratching the surface, never having the time to experience the island in the off-season when the tourists go home. I long to spend the spring there, enjoy Easter and the Venetian-influenced Carnival. To watch the wildflowers bloom on the mountains and explore them without the punishing summer heat and to sit with the locals during the off-season when they have time away from their tourist businesses.