Despite a year of evening classes, and a love of the country and its people, I never quite make the same progress with Greek as with my other languages. My central London class is mainly middle-class arty types. One lady complains that she doesn’t want to learn how to say “bacon and eggs” in Greek, that she wants to learn about traditional Greek breakfasts. “What do YOU have, for instance?” she asks the teacher. “An espresso and a cigarette, while doing my make-up,” she replies.
Somehow, in quick succession, I resign from the European Commission, buy a flat in London, start teaching at the universities of Leeds, Bath and Westminster, and take on freelance assignments around Europe. Somehow it is when I am furthest from my roots that I most grieve for my mother.
Thessaloniki’s horizon starts with a dull dark blue band, beyond which the dying sun lurks, painfully orange. The sea is at rest, but orange hues glint through the blue like an hallucination, the trick of an over-strained iris.
I am right at the water’s edge, and look over my shoulder, afraid that at any moment they could be coming to take me away- away from this pastel ocean and freshly grilled squid and back to the rainy campsite, and Mum’s tinned soup. But then I realise what a fool I’m being- it is actually the other way round. While I sit here, the campsite and soup have been taken away, and beyond them the house to go back to, with its red-and-white pillars, the garden for pottering about in, the crossword and word puzzle book.
Under the first cluster of trees at Ormos Beach sit some cheerful, bare-chested, dark-skinned men, possibly labourers, with bottles of cold beer. Next are two fat olive-skinned men in shirt and cream jacket, with retsina, water, coke, ice and a just-started bottle of Ballantine’s. Beyond are the changing rooms, and a gaggle of dark beauties in bikinis, followed by the wallowing pale hulks of what I assume to be elderly German tourists, but also turn out to be locals.
Mum loved people-watching, and I can hear her say “They come in all shapes and sizes, the Greeks, don’t they?” Embarrassed by her lack of political correctness, I find myself mumbling something about the “Macedonian melting pot” in reply.
Then come the assorted families, all ages and sizes, frantically applying sun cream behind bushes. It is clearly a family-orientated beach, but not in the depressing, over-eating, end-of-the-pier way this means in England (or those foreign beaches we colonise), rather it is relaxed, sensual, and cheerful.
At the end of the tree-lined path is an improvised football pitch, and a periptero where I buy a drink, and sit in the shade to think.
Imagine two weeks, a month here. Freshly grilled fish every afternoon, casual friendliness on the verge of nudity with your family, friends and flirts, the feeling that all day long the sun is somehow worshipping your own tired, stressed, repressed frame, rejuvenating you and giving you release, the embrace of the warm sea, the tinkle of the ice in the ouzo, the zing of the lemon on the octopus tentacle… And beneath it all, the conviction that this is somehow your rightful place in the world.
On the walk back to the car, this timeless scene no longer has the same appeal, perhaps because of its very timelessness. The football continues (but must surely stop soon to let the players watch today’s Greece-Portugal European Cup Final on big screens?), families play, a hippo showers, pulling the skimpy bikini in all directions to cleanse every fold of flesh. It is an arresting sight; but a hippo is an animal of innate grace and beauty. It could never look out of place here; its place is the potamo, the streaming torrent.
The delphine beauties are now in the sea, teasing each other, and shaking their long hair. I leave the idyllic sun-struck path of the seafront to head back under the trees towards my driver. The cream-jacketed men are still there. They have tiny beads of sweat just above their eyebrows, but the whisky has not gone down. The workmen are equally frozen- the same conversation appears to continue, before what must by now be warm beers. Two new groups have arrived- a family, all in white shorts, the paterfamilias triumphantly brandishing a pack of cards, and the teenage girl, with flashing eyes, and braces on her teeth, letting out a howl of laughter. Mum would like them. An elderly couple tuck into a block of aubergine and spinach.
Imagine being here two weeks, a month. I think of Daisy’s frantic words at a time of confrontation in The Great Gatsby: “What shall we do for the rest of the afternoon, tomorrow, until we die?”
I’m glad I came, though- that patch of fertile grass and reeds, as you cut inland from the Thermaïkos Gulf to reach the south-facing beaches, that village with its tiny church and huge casino- I wouldn’t have seen any of that if I hadn’t come out here today. Of course I’d love to stay, I say; but my feet lead me back to the waiting car.
The driver is sitting under a tree, staring into space and dust. He appears not to have moved for the hour I’ve been away.
As we leave for the airport, he looks at me pityingly: “So now you know. Next time, you need more time.”