Winter in Corfu
Throughout 2012, Greece endured one of the worst recessions known to the global economy, after international investors lost faith in the government’s ability to repay loans. As a result, unemployment tripled, the GDP shriveled by a sixth and borrowing costs skyrocketed for the Greek people. Overall, government spending was cut by 34%. The media painted a picture of a country in bedlam, filling screens with images of smoke bombs and riotous protests, as violence ravaged through the streets of this once glorious nation, now reduced to financial ruin.
Despite the economic turmoil, I landed a job managing The Comfy Hostel, a two story concrete shack – painted pink 20 years ago. The owners’ names were Vera and Markos, and why they came to employ me was a story I learned not long after Vera collected me from the airport.
I met her just outside the entrance, where she was waiting for me in a velvet pink tracksuit. She waved and smiled at me with her crooked teeth and I, unsure about the cultural protocol, wrapped my arms around her in a bear hug. She exclaimed something in Greek I couldn’t fully understand. She was small and fragile, but laughed at the end of most of her sentences, which were spoken in a bizarre amalgamation of the Irish and Greek accents – Grirish, if you will.
We made our way to Ipsos, the small fishing village half an hour from the main town, where The Comfy Hostel was tucked away inside the olive trees that populated Corfu’s inland. The work here would come to be fairly routine: checking guests in, storing their bond money and doing the odd spot of handy-man chores – painting rusted handrails and the like. Nevertheless, I was curious as to why they had employed me, a relatively inexperienced youngen from Australia. When I asked her this, she said, “Just look around.”
We were stopped by a red light at a pedestrian crossing, the traffic banked up for 20 or 30 metres behind us, but not a pedestrian in sight. She sighed. “When they put all these pedestrian crossings in, they just put them on timers, rather than by buttons which pedestrians can push. They just turn the lights red every 3 minutes whether there are people there or not,” she told me, “and these goddamn lazy Greeks have never done a job properly in 150 years and now they suddenly wonder why there’s no work for them in the country.”
“Oh, forgive me,” she said, realising her blasphemy and grabbing the wooden cross that hung across her chest. As we waited at the red light, a plump bearded man in a tight t-shirt bounced a soccer ball up and down on his forehead. He moved between the cars, unfazed by the light drizzle that had begun to patter down, asking drivers to donate what little shrapnel they had to his burgeoning career in the circus. “I’ll tell you why we employed an Australian: if we employed a Greek, the whole place would turn to shit.”
As we drove into Ipsos, I looked at the stark concrete shells that punctuated the beautiful coastline. Here, the financial crisis of 2012 was manifesting itself most aggressively. What would have once been holiday homes had been left to rot, no one with any money to finish what they had started. Some had been half painted in bright shades of yellow and orange, but most were left grey. Dreams of grandchildren coming in from a day at the beach had been abandoned, left for the weeds. The majestic coastline offered no solace. Its rocks, seemingly made for diving off, and its crystal blue waters, asking to be swum in, just mocked the struggles of the Greek people.
When I accepted the job, I had recalled stories of Corfu being a party planet for Australian backpackers and English school leavers alike. I had anticipated my role to be taken up mostly by responsibilities that would involve holding back the hair of Cornwall teenagers with names like “Kelly” while they vomited up their insecurities.
But the nature of the tourist off-season meant that my guests were far less predictable. There was Italian Lady and her mother, who taught me the basics of their language. Ahmed, who was visiting for a conference on chemical engineering and Phil, an Athenian local who had come over looking for a sunny escape but had been met with everyday rain. And of course Mark, the recent divorcee from Brisbane who had gone to visit his daughter in Paris, but had been asked to leave. He spent most of his time alone, but would come out and talk to me when I was making the beds in the morning, running me through each of the stations on his brand new digital radio. Perhaps the most memorable of the guests was Maria, the esteemed actress from Amsterdam who had left her husband, nursed her mother to death and was now travelling through the Mediterranean alone, aged 70. “Why must they say my life is over,” she said through her spectacles, the butt of her cigarette hanging on by a limb, “I say it’s only just beginning.”
Then there was Rodney and Pete. Rodney was fat and Pete was skinny and they were both football mad. When they moved in, they had obnoxiously hung an enormous “Chelsea FC” over their window. Every morning, I would hear them roaring at repeats of games from 10 years ago. They were a peculiar little duo on a peculiar little island. They spent most of their time completely wasted.
200 metres up the road was the only watering hole in the village,Martin’s. Returning home after a night walk, I spotted Rodney and Pete inside, waving their hands about at the television and booming at the top of their lungs, “OPEN YER FUKIN’ EYES REF!” much to the dismay of the small collection of elderly Greek men who frequented the pub. I went in and joined them for a drink. The owner, Martin, enjoying the unexpected revenue Rodney and Pete were bringing in, had taught them to say “yammas”, Greek for “cheers”, without fully realising what this would lead to. Every time one of the disgruntled patrons had asked them to shut up, they just shouted, “YAMMAS!” and bought a round of ouzo shots for everyone in the bar. The old Greek men clasped their hands together, shrugged their shoulders and mumbled beneath their breath.
Rodney and Pete stayed three days more. It was the only holiday they were going to enjoy for a while. Rodney’s Mum had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and he was leaving his job at the train station to be her full-time caregiver.
While it seems, as I recount, that the guests provided me with a handful to deal with, I spent most of my time on Corfu alone. It’s easy to get nostalgic about the experiences we shared, but the truth is, I remained an outsider to these people. A fly on the wall who told them the Wi-Fi password, made small talk and listened to their stories.
On a lonelier day, I walked to the end of end of the jetty at a local beach, looked down, and could see the ocean floor. The water was blue in a way that made me feel whole. Like I was and always had been, somehow a part of it. To the left of me, I saw a couple giggling as they played on the pebbled beach, pushing each other into the shallows, as it was far too cold to swim. I wondered what my friends were doing and why I wasn’t laughing.
As I trekked further up the coastline, jumping between rocky shallows without getting my Vans wet, I came across beaches that had been claimed by enormous resorts. Mammoth white buildings that sported faded signs, reminding its guests that “Breakfast is Free” and “Don’t buy fruit from people on the beach. The prices might be uncomfortable.” Along the beach sat hundreds of empty umbrellas, one after the other, little islands in themselves.
There was only me, alone on a beach made for one thousand. It began to pour. I pulled my jumper over my head in a last ditch effort to remain dry and walked back to the main road. A helmeted man stopped his motorbike and offered me a lift. I hopped on and, as we drove up the mountainside, I looked back to the beach. The beach was alone, not even the empty holiday homes were offering their company.
Maria had taken her cigarettes and gone to Albania, Rodney had returned home to take care of his mother and Mike was unwilling to come out and share his digital radio. I had little to do other than walk. What distinguishes Corfu from its island counter-parts closer to the Mediterranean is the wealth of olive trees that crowd the inward landscape. The olives are harvested by way of enormous metal netting which lids the greenery but the most value they provide comes through the trees themselves. Lush and smelling just as you imagine, they shade the stretches of dirt roads that villagers commute up and down. Absorbed by their beauty, I would spend hours trekking the inland from village to village, stopping at local bakeries for a cheap slice of baklava, if I was lucky enough to catch them within the single hour they were open. It was on one of these afternoon hikes that I stumbled across another forgotten holiday home. Other than the fact it overlooked most of the island’s west coast, it presented as nothing special. Equally as dull and entrenched in sadness as they all were. Still, the lure of a top-notch Instagram picture proved too much and I climbed the concrete stairs to the top platform, where a spectacular sunset view was awaiting me.
What I hadn’t noticed until I reached the top, was that directly beside the house, was a tiny cottage. Almost as soon as I acknowledged it was there, a frail old Greek woman, dressed entirely in black walked out from inside. She spotted me almost straight away. I realised, given the proximity of the two houses, that this must have been her holiday home. I was standing on the roof of her forgotten dream. Unsure of what to do, I smiled and waved. She began waddling toward me and given her skeletal frame, marched up the concrete stairs with impressive speed. As she reached the top, she put her hand to her chest and smiled with a toothless grin. Without saying a word, she came and sat beside me.
Unable to communicate in English, she simply began pointing to each of the villages we could see over the horizon. “San Marko,” she would say and then look at me, waiting for it to be repeated back. “San Marko,” I said, fumbling with the accent. She shook her head and said it again. She said it again and again until I got it right and then she moved onto the next village, “San Erko.”
As I sat on the roof of that building, being given a lesson on geography and linguistics by an old Greek woman whose name I still do not know, the futility of my loneliness became clear. The sun set over Corfu and I was neither alone nor together – I just was.