Greece is calling – three more years and then I move south

The beaches of my childhood have a fresh attraction, for all the lousy politics that comes with them

Greece is calling – three more years and then I move south
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Porto Cheli

I have been thinking about my children and my own strange boyhood as I gaze up at the clear blue skies of summer. Summers lasted an eternity back then, and by the time one got back to school there were new friends, new loves and new discoveries of things unknown the previous May. For example, I had seen my father kiss a very pretty woman whose name, Raimonde, was French. She was a blonde beauty who was engaged to dad’s closest friend, Paris. It gave one a strange feeling, knowing something no one else did — certainly not my mother or Paris.

Paris Kyriakopoulos was the son of the governor of the Bank of Greece, an extremely powerful position. But Paris also had something else going for him. He was by far the best-looking man in Athens, so handsome that a German general lost his head over him and had him arrested and brought to his quarters until sanity prevailed. He apologised, bowed and sent Paris home in his Mercedes. The general’s name was Rosenberg, and 30 years later, when I was dating Paris’s daughter, Paris and his wife came on board my boat and we spent an evening talking about old times. Rosenberg lost his life in Russia and Paris had lost all his silken hair by then, but he was still among the most attractive men ever.

Paris did not marry Raimonde and I think she was dad’s close friend for a while but then I lost track of her. Paris and my father stayed friends until the end. It was during a bombing raid by the Allies when the lights went out that I saw Daddy kissing her and it has stayed in my mind for ever. The war years were interminable, as were the summers that followed, in America. There were more discoveries, things like country clubs full of young women and men wearing Bermuda shorts. This was bliss, even better than Greece: three months of looking at beautiful girls, some of them even smiling and saying hello to a 12-year-old. But then came tennis and summers turned into a grind. Swimming was a no-no, as was everything else that was fun in life. It was non-stop travel and going from the hotel to the tennis club and then back to the hotel. After ten years exactly — ten whole summers down the tube — I went back to my childhood haunts on the French Riviera, Vouliagmeni beach, and even the Hamptons.

Now, one week before my birthday, it is hard not to feel a certain pang on a summer day. When my little girl was tiny, I used to take her to meet one of the 40 French immortals, Michel Déon, the great novelist back then living on the isle of Spetsai. I have pictures of Michel cuddling Lolly, who had no idea that the arms that enfolded her had written some 50-odd wonderful novels. (Michel Déon is now 95 and lives and works in Ireland, and we even correspond.) All this week I’ve been struggling to find the young person within the old body as I look at my son’s children, Taki and Maria, eight and six, and try to imagine what it would be like for them if they saw their father kissing a blonde beauty who belonged to someone else. Probably it wouldn’t even register. No one can shock children any more.

Something strange happened the day after I arrived on the Peloponnese. I woke up with no pain in either hip, or either ankle. As if someone had shot me full of cortisone while I was asleep. I began gingerly, kicking waist-high, then ‘Jodan’, up high. No pain. Low kicks don’t impress an audience, high ones do, but the latter is a sucker’s move on the street. Even the left shoulder, arthritic as hell as I fight lefty in judo, felt good. What is going on here, I asked myself. Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m getting bloody old and living up high in the mountains makes the old body creak and hurt. I give it three more years and then I’ll move south. I’ll quit judo competition at 80 because there is no category after that age, and keep training in both judo and karate as long as the pain doesn’t get too much. In the meantime, Greece during the summer is a marvel. The soft, rose-tinted light of the Aegean, the cool breeze that starts promptly at four in the afternoon, such things block out the horrors of modern life.

Greeks are basically a good people, but the corrupt civil service and the kleptocrats who have enriched themselves these past 40 years by stealing the country blind and who are still in power make it very hard to live here. The very rich are immune, the middle class has been wiped out — 6,000 doctors have left to work elsewhere — and nine democratically elected members of parliament have been jailed by the crooks of the ruling centre-left coalition in an illegal step that undermines the rule of law and increases the power of the executive. The third most popular party in Greece, Golden Dawn, has been declared a neo-Nazi party by the very crooks that have brought the country to its knees, and with only a majority vote in parliament a ukase was issued bypassing the judiciary and imprisoning democratically elected members on trumped-up charges. If this is democracy, I am General Rosenberg reincarnated and in love with Paris.