by Serena Nathan
Greece is a place to love. The buildings make your eyes sting and water when you look at them in full sun, the glare is so fierce. When your eyes are not watering from the whitewashed buildings, they are filled with the dust swirling from the streets. Dirty children scratch beautiful masterpieces with sticks. Flowers and people and dogs reproduced as art in the dirt. You smile broadly at the little crouching bodies huddled together comparing earthy pictures and try not to scatter their precious artworks with your sandals.In the taverna you sit and scrape sweat from your brow as you wait for cold wine. When the owner, plump and cheerful, brings it to you and remembers that you were there just three months ago he seizes your arms, plucking you out of your chair and hugs you in a way that reminds you of your father. All the while he is yelling for his wife, who walks out wiping her fat hands on her apron. She doesn’t wait for her husband to let go, but joins the embrace. You’re hot and tired from hours of walking, but with their sweaty bodies pressed close to you, you feel as if you have come home. The taverna owner’s name is Granni and he swears he has saved your old room for you. You know this is a sugary lie, but you are relieved that the room is available. You finish your wine and climb the few steps behind the taverna to change into a light dress and put your bag away. The room looks the same -- a little bed in the corner (Granni has taken the mattress outside to air in the Greek sun), a jug and bowl for face and hand washing, and your favourite piece of furniture in all of Europe; the creaky old rocking chair that had belonged to Granni’s mother-in-law.
After putting your few belongings in the tiny drawers and your walking shoes under the bed you head back down the steps to the taverna. By now the sun is setting over the ocean below you and the bright white houses have taken on a mustard glow. The children are gone and the drawings they scratched in the dirt, scattered. As Granni’s wife sees you come back and sit at a table overlooking the sea, she brings a fresh carafe of cold white retsina and some cheese and bread. You tell her you only have a few days before you sail for Israel and another three months on the kibbutz and she shakes her head like the mother you miss so suddenly and so terribly. Then, looking around, you notice him.
He lifts his glass, grinning. Cheers. You raise your glass back and look away to the glistening green ocean under the raw, chalky cliffs below. Closing tired eyes you picture him at the far table. In that one glance you could tell he wasn’t tall or particularly handsome, but his eyes were iridescent little pools of blue.
"Can I join you?" He is standing over you, so close you can smell the fresh cotton of his loose white shirt. He has his wine with him.
"Sure," you say. You’re nervous for the first time since returning to Greece. Granni looks over as the man sits down, not opposite, but next to you, and refusing to catch Granni’s eye, you can see him tilt his chin skyward and wink.
"Isn’t it magic here? I’m Ben." He says this looking out at the sea, but when he tells you his name he looks directly at you.
"Hello Ben, I’m Julia. Have you been here long?"
"No, my brother should be here but he’s stood me up. I’m at a bit of a loose end at the moment. I noticed you spoke Greek with the owner of this place and his wife, and as I don’t speak a word of it myself I was hoping you might help me negotiate a ticket to Israel. There’s a boat leaving in about four days, I think."
This man, Mike, has a mellow voice. You are trained to trust very few people and your rational mind tells you to say you can’t help him. Instead, these are the words that flow like molten lava from your mouth:
"I’m heading to Israel later this week to work on a kibbutz, so I’m at a loose end ‘till Friday, myself. No one has stood me up, but I’m up for some company if you don’t have any plans for the next few days," you say, as you will yourself to just shut up.
He regards you studiously for a moment and then laughs. You order more wine with a wave to Granni, and for the rest of the evening you plot the first part of your journey together. By the early hours of the morning you are friends. He knows about the doctor in London who wants to marry you. You know he is hoping to set up his own landscape design business back in Australia one day. You part with a kiss and a promise to climb the Acropolis together in the morning and return to your little room at the back of the taverna. Granni has put the mattress back and his wife has put on clean crisp linen sheets - there is even a little wine jar of wild flowers next to the bowl and jug.
You sit back in the rocking chair and close your eyes, breathing slowly and evenly.
Serena Nathan is a wife, mother of three small children and sometime communication consultant, journalist and writer. Living on the Western Australian coast in Perth, she tries to spend as much time as possible at the beach. Contact Serena.