My interest in travel has definitely been shaped by the periods I spent in Corfu as a child. I was introduced to a country, a way of life and to people that were culturally distinct to the surrounds of the UK. These periods are captured in my mind’s eye by a hazy mixture of memories.
Lawrence Durrell wrote that if you get as still as a needle your memories will take you back to that place in time, a place where you tuned in with real inward reflection. If I close my eyes I am taken back to my experiences of and in Corfu, absorbed without even realising at the time.
Corfu is my father’s island. It’s an island that belongs to my grandparents. It’s a magical island where the romanticism and mysticism of Prospero is found conjuring Tempests across the deep blue Ionian Sea. An island where Homer’s Odysseus is washed ashore. It’s also an island where I would sit with my Nona and her friends at the front of the house on long hot afternoons.
Falling under the Venetian Empire in the 14th Century and for nearly 400 years thereafter, the Italian influence pervading through the veins of Corfu is tangible. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you are strolling around Venice (minus the canals) as you find yourself lost in the maze of neo-classical Venetian townhouses locked together in a labyrinth of narrow streets or as you stroll down the marbled square (platiere) in the Old Town, stopping to drink coffee and people watch at the many cafes that sit under the arches. The Italian influence is also notable in the Greek language spoken in Corfu which is dotted with Italian words like ‘nona‘ used in the Italian manner of ‘grandma’.
We would sit under the awning, on the front terrace of the house. I would deliberately drop crumbs of bread and watch ants march their stolen treasures away. Scooters would buzz past the house. The awning would exhale under the afternoon heat, bowing under the heavy knotted vines that were laden and overflowing with grapes. The burbling sound of crickets would bleat in waves cascading around us.
The elderly ladies sitting with us were often clad in black tunic dresses. They wore black as a sign of mourning for the death of their husbands every day until the end of their lives.
I would sit, listening to them chattering the long and hot afternoons away whilst we snacked on sweet breads and they tutted and shook their heads at inappropriately dressed girls walking past the house or as they reminded me about the many dangers that I could fall foul of (for instance: ‘Aylaia be careful, you might fall down the well‘, ‘Aylaia be careful, don’t stray from the path into the fields there are dangerous snakes‘ , ‘Aylaia be careful, don’t swim too far from the shore there are waves which will carry you out to Albania‘, ‘Aylaia be careful, don’t eat the ice-cream you will get salmonella‘ etc. etc…).
The bitter smell of coffee hung in the air as miniature cup after miniature cup of strong sugary Greek coffee was brought out from the busy kitchen on plastic trays. I wasn’t allowed a coffee (it would stunt my growth apparently) so I would sit sipping from a tin of chocolate carnation milk.
Getting too hot, I’d follow Nona back into the house and down the corridor, the door grate slamming shut after us, to the kitchen at the rear of the house. Her sandals making a swish-swish sound against the tiled floor. The green wooden shutters would be closed during the day, banishing the heat, and the house was left cool and dark. We would boil water with Greek coffee and a splash of sugar in a small silver pot. The pot was just big enough to make 2 tiny cups of this classically bitter drink.
Shouts of ‘yassas’ and ‘ti kanis’ echoed from our garden as people walking past the house would stop outside the iron gates to say hello. Nona would invite them in and the group of people sat chatting would swell in numbers as the afternoon/evening wore on. The swish swish sound of shoes echoing as she marched to and from the house returning with little cups of coffee.
Corfu, or Kerkyra as it is known in Greek, is quite unlike other Greek islands. Aside from the uniquely Italian flavour, Corfu is green. In fact, it is the greenest of all the Greek Islands. Nigh on every spare spot of this beautiful land is taken up with lush greenery, and carpets of olive trees which reflect like emeralds glimmering green against the deep blue sea that surrounds the island.
Slowly, the chatting would quieten. ‘Kaliniktas’ spoken. Hugs and kisses exchanged. Visitors would trail away from the house into the darkness of the jasmine scented evening. The moon gradually ascending. The swish swish sound of sandals would be heard carrying the coffee cups inside as the crickets continued to sing late into the night.