Many years ago, when we were young and free, my then love T and I picked grapes in France, camping in the peach orchards near Argeliers, in the Languedoc. The local cafe was like a ballroom with old black and white tiled floors and a faded elegance with ornate details and vast carved doors; the old men playing cards, drinking Pastis and smoking Gitanes. After a day’s work we would get a lift back in the truck laden with grapes, to the orchard. We stood up in the back of the truck, no thought of health and safety and we were saturated in grape juice and sunshine.
After the vendange, we hitch-hiked to the Cognac area, armed with a scribbled phone number on a piece of paper and a bar somewhere where we should find a farmer, but we failed to find more work so decided to go to Greece to pick oranges. On the train journey through Italy there was a thunderstorm outside Rome and we had no seats, so sat in the corridor of the train carriage and I was overwhelmed with emotion and wept. An Italian mother saw me crying and gave us large chunks of chocolate. We got the boat from Brindisi to Pireaus, sleeping on the deck in our sleeping bags, having strung up damp washing that hadn’t fully dried from the day before. When we awoke in the morning, seagulls were following the ferry and we were passing between lands or islands. We were approaching Greece. Athens was dirty and chaotic, full of traffic and street food and we slept in a dirty bedsit. We went to Mycenae, where we had heard that there was work to be found picking oranges. Unfortunately there, I encountered a Greek farmer and his cousin who got us drunk on Raki and abused me, outside the tomb of Agamemnon in a dark cave, and although I broke free it left me reeling, and my boyfriend so incensed, we left in a hurry, but not before telling him what we thought of him.
We went back to Athens and stayed with T’s uncle and French aunt Ghyslaine. Ghyslaine was glamorous and bohemian and wore see-through skirts that moved with her body and she seemed such a romantic, erotic figure to me. I think I paint her still. She told me stories by the fire at night about her past lovers and how Leonard Cohen had fallen in love with her when they lived on Hydra. She said we must visit Hydra and find Leonard in the bar he frequented. I remember every night we listened to his album Recent Songs and would talk and drink wine together. T and I would go on long walks in the mountains above Ekali where they lived. There had been vast forest fires the year before and we found large white tortoise shells from the remains of tortoises that didn’t survive the fires. We climbed higher and found an abandoned shepherd’s hut with an altar and religious objects and artefacts from the 1950’s. The shepherd’s hut was hand-built from mountain stone and we felt that nobody else had found it except us as it as it was untouched and only weather had dismantled the roof which had been made from the shepherd’s own hand. It was a beautiful place. A place of refuge, hermitage and solitude. I loved that place and it has stayed in my consciousness ever since. It reminds me that wherever we are we can create beauty and sacred spaces for ourselves.
We took a boat out to the islands, specifically Hydra and Spetses. An old man met us from the boat on Spetses in a horse and cart and took us to a pink room where we slept and the next day we walked around the island and the scent of hot pines filled the air. We made a fire on the beach and cooked sausages. It was winter, but the sun was warm and the sea cerulean. On Hydra we found Leonard Cohen’s bar, but he wasn’t there. We stayed on the island a while and I became the subject of the attention of a strange man, which moved us on again. I learned to stop drinking raki with locals. We went back to Athens and I got various English teaching jobs and continued to explore the mountains above Ekali.
It feels like the world has changed irrevocably since then. Places like the shepherd’s hut are permanently etched in my mind and I feel that since that time I have been searching for the romanticism of such abandoned beauty and sacred contemplation.