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Landfall on Mykonos > memories of the Seventies July 14, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Testimonials.

The crush at the Piraeus ferry port took your breath away. Not just because of the 38-degree-Celsius heat, nor the toxic pong of Athenian lunch debris decanted straight from restaurant bin into harbour.

No, what was shocking was the fact that everyone doing the pushing and jostling for position looked just like us: students in long hair and blue jeans, with pasty white cheeks and sand-coloured shorts, all carrying Greece on £5 a Day and copies of John Fowles’s Hellenic phantasmagoria, The Magus. It was like boarding a ferry with 399 clones of yourself.

It was 1973, and my first holiday to Greece; also my first holiday (at 19) without my parents and sister: my first leap into freedom. I knew the Greek word for it: eleutheria. But all I knew of the islands was second-hand. The back cover of Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room, with a grainy photo from the old groaner’s Hydra love nest, with his beloved Marianne sitting in a towel before his typewriter. The mysterious island where Nicholas Urfe gets a sentimental education in The Magus. Dim memories of Zorba the Greek, with the Englishman Alan Bates becoming de-stiffed by Anthony Quinn’s noisy island hedonist. And the speeded-up bouzouki dance we used to perform with the neighbours every New Year’s Eve, at the end of which we collapsed in a heap. That was all I knew of Greece. It was enough.

Just look, I thought distastefully, at all the clones (the clowns) thronging the SS Aegean ferry, the weekend groovers, the suburban hippies with their bleached-blonde hair (both sexes) and naked white shoulders under dungarees. As the boat surged through the grey choppy water, leaving the baked wasteland of Athens behind, one of them swigged from a bottle of Teachers, and handed it round. His every gesture said: “Christ, I am so Bohemian”. Another strummed a bashed-up Yamaha to some birdbrained London girls (he sang “Starman”, it was all David Bowie that summer).

I muttered to my girlfriend, Gail, how I couldn’t stand being among these “terrestrials”. “Don’t be such a snob,” she said. “They’re probably thinking, ‘What an Oxbridge prat in his bellbottoms and sandals’.”

The journey took hours. Spiky rocks stuck out of the water like broken milestones, failing to tell us how far we’d come. The Scotch-swigger was violently sick over the side. The strummer switched to Cat Stevens’ gloopy “Moonshadow”. Gail and I ate the last of our sandwiches. Night came down, and she slept on my shoulder. It was too dark to read, so I dozed off as well and …

Suddenly we were jolted awake. Lights were shining in my eyes, hurtfully bright, like Klieg lights at a film studio. “Mykonos!” shouted voices. “Mykonos tickets, you are here!” I don’t remember how we got to the beach, some rowing boats must have come out to meet us, but it too seemed floodlit. All the studenty clones on the ferry seemed to have melted away. I was flooded with a sensory joy I’ve seldom encountered, like a returned exile, as if, like Ulysses, I were arriving home to Ithaca: the white breakers in the dark night, the frond-strewn path from the jetty, the way the whitewashed walls curved at the bottom to become pathways, as if made of the same material like white silk drapery, pulling you further into town, wide-eyed and dreamy like cattle in the dusk. In the distance was music, the cries of dancers. “It’s a film set,” breathed Gail. ” It’s completely unreal. All these whitewashed houses and streets.” But it was real. A whiff of roadside souvlaki hit my nostrils. I was starving, just two minutes away from trying the first of a hundred of the world’s most delicious savoury snack …

It was a fab holiday. I could tell you about a thousand things: meeting university friends (everyone went to Mykonos that summer, before it became almost exclusively gay), acquiring a taste for Ouzo-and-Coke, marvelling at how my friend Rob could bisect wasps in mid-air with his breakfast knife, reading Tristram Shandy (the worst-ever beach read) on the rocks, finding new tavernas, learning to snorkel, spinning round, shockingly drunk, under the stars, travelling to Ios and other islands.

Sure, I could tell you about it all, as if I were showing you holiday snaps. But nothing bettered that first moment when I stepped on to the beach at Mykonos, miles from home, family, university, all the baggage of being 19, English, bourgeois and uptight; and discovering, beyond the beach, the kebab-scented paradise of the Cyclades, the music on the night air, a sense of infinite possibilities at the end of the white path. A whiff of true freedom. Nothing bettered it when I was 19. In a way, nothing ever has.

Article by John Walsh. Copyright The Independent > Sunshine, swimming costumes and the Seventies: Three writers share their seaside memories

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