‘Eat! Eat! Come on Anna!’ Magdalena insists waving her hand at the various platters of deliciously tempting food on the table.
‘But I’ve already eaten.’ I protest
‘It doesn’t matter! Here, take some more potato’, she says, thrusting the platter of crisply fried potato slices at me. ‘You know you like them!’
It’s true. I do like them – a lot! But I have just finished stuffing myself on a meze of food platters in the restaurant across the square…
But it would be rude not to. So I eat.
It is late evening, and I am sitting with my new friends, Magdalena, Selia and Toula round a table in the open front of a restaurant. The other Toula owns the restaurant and is bringing more food to the table.
I keep pinching myself. This can’t be happening!
I’ve read every inspirational book written by the others who have done it, and I’ve dreamed the dream for longer than I can remember.
I’ve threatened to abandon everything to do it when things got tough. I promised to do it if only things would get better.
It became my catchphrase:
‘I’m going to move to a Greek Island, live in a shack in a mountain village and write my book.’
Friends would roll their eyes. ‘Here she goes again.’
But I have done it!
I have only been here three days and already feel a part of the community. Maria, the owner of the studio I am renting picked me up at the airport. By now we had exchanged so many emails, it already felt like we were friends. My plane’s arrival time was late evening, so Maria invited me to stay overnight at her apartment in Rhodes Town before taking me to my mountain village studio the following day.
Soon after arriving we were sitting on her balcony eating souvlaki and exchanging life stories. Maria is a musician and artist. She loves to travel, and with much in common conversation flowed easily.
Despite my excited trepidation I slept well in her pretty, eclectically decorated guest room and was spoilt for choice when her mother who lives in the apartment below brought me a tray of pastries and biscuits with Greek coffee for breakfast.
Maria’s generous hospitality is overwhelming. She took me all around Rhodes Town on my first day, helping me organise my ferry ticket for my onward travel when I leave, helping me buy groceries and even took me to a couple of art supply shops so that I could stock up on paint.
Back at her mother’s apartment, lunch was waiting for us, a tasty lentil stew with meatballs and Greek salad.
As we packed the car in readiness for our journey to my new home, Maria’s mother thrust a carrier bag filled with homegrown fruit and vegetables, and a jar of freshly made apricot jam into my hand.
I had found it just a few weeks ago on the internet, a studio apartment, located behind the square in a mountain village not far from Rhodes Town. The studio looked adorably rustic, and the walled garden cried out for me to join it. The hammock hung empty and forlorn, awaiting my company and the whole setting looked perfect to inspire creative writing.
Now that I was in Rhodes I couldn’t wait to see the real thing.
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived. I had already looked on google earth before I left home, using the satellite and street view to explore the village. Nonetheless, I was astonished by how familiar it looked when we drove into the square.
I immediately recognised the huge plane tree with its white painted trunk, the hallmark of so many Greek villages, in the centre of the square next to the fountain. We turned down a narrow street next to the village shop, passing only a few little houses, before parking up, Maria announcing that we had arrived.
The little studio is everything its internet pictures promised. I am in love with it and its little walled-garden. They are just perfect.
But it is the people who are making me want to pinch myself.
That first night Maria took me to the square and introduced me to her friends, Melania and Stellos who have one of the restaurants. A cheery couple, they welcomed me warmly and soon the ouzo was flowing. Later I was introduced to Magdelena, who owns the shop.
Now the square is my home. Melania greets me with open arms and hugs, pecking me on each cheek as we talk about our day. Stellos smiles and brings me little treats to try with my coffee. Yesterday it was a sweet lemon jelly, like Turkish delight. The day before I was sent home with a lush ripe lemon, bread and a jar of apricot jam. The jam was still warm from Melania’s pot.
Today I visit Magdalena’s shop, buying a few essentials for the studio.
‘Tonight I might be at the square with some friends after I close the shop.’ She tells me. ‘Join us if you want to.’
I come to the square early and settle in my favourite seat outside Melania and Stello’s restaurant.
‘I didn’t see you today.’ Melania says as we kiss. ‘I was worried about you.’
Their restaurant is the hub of the community where the men come to play backgammon, drink coffee and watch the world pass by.
One of the men talks to me. ‘Call me Johnny’ he says with a grin. He tells me that he lives in Melbourne, Australia but this mountain village is his childhood home. Now he is retired and comes back for six months each year during the Greek summer, returning to Australia in November when the first of the winter weather strikes.
He picks up his ouzo and joins me, and soon we are talking about Australia. He lost his wife several years ago but is a jolly old man with a sense of humour. He orders some meze from Melania, and soon we are picking our way through Greek salad, fried potato slices, herring, stewed lamb and pickled caper leaves. Everything is delicious, and I am gorging on it.
His friends tease him. ‘You have a girlfriend, Johnny! Watch out for him Anna!’
He teases back. ‘Hey, don’t talk to my girlfriend!’
We all laugh.
I am trying to find a cheap car to rent. The car rental places charge too much for my budget, so the word is out in the village. Melania’s son and I have talked about the possibility of renting his car while he is away on holiday, but that is not until next month, and we both think getting the insurance will be a problem.
The man who has one of the other restaurants also rents cars, so Johnny goes across the square to talk to him about a special price. It is still too expensive, but Johnny’s efforts and kindness touches me, especially when he insists on paying for my meal as well.
Later I leave him to play backgammon with his friends. I don’t see Magdalena in the square and think she has gone home, so I go back to my studio.
A moment later there is a knock on my door. I am startled. Who would be knocking on my door? Especially at this time of night!
‘Anna, it is Magdalena.’
I open the door to her.
‘Come on back to the square, my friends and I are there having a drink.’
I grab my bag and follow her. She introduces me to Selia, Toula and Toula.
Selia is Greek but was brought up in Australia. She came to live in the village when she met her husband, Theo, forty years ago. The other Toula is the village hairdresser.
They all look youthful, and I am astounded to discover they all have grown up children. Selia and Restaurant Toula even have grandchildren.
‘It must be the fountain of youth!’ I joke, pointing at the fountain in the middle of the square.
‘When you said to come for a drink, I didn’t expect food as well.’ I say ‘Otherwise I wouldn’t have eaten earlier.’
‘There is always food.’ Selia tells me. ‘This is what we do. Eat good food and enjoy good company. It is all we need to be happy.’
As we drink ouzo and graze on the meze, we talk about many topics.
It is apricot season now, and everyone swaps recipes for desserts. We talk about Botox and reality TV, and I am surprised to find everyone watched Harry and Meghan’s wedding. They love the Royals and thought the wedding was enchanting, but we are all in agreement that Camilla’s hat wasn’t very flattering.
We talk about the Greek crisis. Things still aren’t improving, and many people have lost their businesses and jobs. I can relate to their plight, but they all insist again that family, friends and good food are all they need to be happy.
Selia’s husband joins us after a while, bringing an omelette which he has prepared.
‘Eat Anna, Eat!’ they all say when the omelette arrives.
‘Try the popara.’ Theo insists
It is traditional fried bread that he has mixed in with the olive oil of the salad.
‘Taste the rénga.’ Selia tells me. It is smoked herring also mixed in with the salad.
I think I’m going to burst!
The mosquitos are out in force, and they are devouring me. I am constantly scratching my legs as we talk.
Theo is concerned and picks an aloe vera frond from a nearby pot plant for me to rub on my bites.
Restaurant Toula has prepared most of the food and supplied the ouzo. Everyone chips in to pay her. She insists on only a very small donation towards the cost, even then, she is reluctant to take it. My offer to chip in as well is met with loud protests from everyone. I am their guest.
Later, I walk home with Selia. Theo has gone ahead.
Selia and Theo, as it turns out, are my neighbours and as we stop to say good night at her door, Selia says.
‘Knock on my door any time Anna. If you need anything, anything at all, just come to me.’
I walk the few more steps from the square and Selia’s house to my little studio home and let myself in.
The first few days of my Greek adventure has been the most amazing experience of true hospitality, kindness and genuine friendliness. My dream is everything I could have hoped for – and much more, and I am bubbling over with happiness.
In order to protect the privacy of the people I write about I have changed some details including their names. However their warm generosity and my stories are real.
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