Literary Yard

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Falling for Corfu – Lessons from the Land of the Gods

By: Simon Heathcote

‘I don’t mind what happens. That is the essence of inner freedom. It is a timeless spiritual truth: release attachment to outcomes and – deep inside yourself – you’ll feel good no matter what.’ Krishnamurti

And so there it was – as I crash-landed on my own footprint like a collapsing 9/11 tower – the ultimate lesson presented itself one more time, as if just for emphasis.

That’s the problem with holidays on magical Greek isles. Anything can happen including the unexpected and unforeseen.

Perhaps it was because I was wearing sunglasses, or perhaps because I had just changed my shoes, but I didn’t see the step, and so – watched only by vast colonnades of silent pines – I went down in slow motion and just lay on the ground while a small coterie of hotel workers gathered, not quite as quiet as the pines, though definitely more embarrassed, as I levered myself up, accepting the help on offer.

Failing eyesight might also have something to do with it.

Soon, Balies, was on the scene.

Balies is Moraitika’s wildly unphlegmatic doctor, a year away from a triple heart bypass, and full of vim and vinegar to mask a tender, and infinitely generous heart.

At nearly 70, his womanizing days and the flamboyant escapades with Sandinistas in south America, and helping children in south India are behind him, as he settles for banter with visiting Englishmen and the odd wink to women, which tells you he has still got it.

I liked him immediately though my partner warmed a little more slowly, at first unsure what to make of his jokes and his constant reference to Viagra.

Yveta, his partner of 16 years, would pick us up in their car – for my initial X-ray, and later to travel to their clinic in the village, after we both contracted bronchitis. They were friends of the hotel, in the way most people are friendly and helpful here.

And so, a strange friendship began to develop, with Balies (this is how he prefers to be known) turning up regularly to check on me while I stayed bound to the hotel as everyone else came and went in their hire cars, touring Corfu’s highlights, there for experience, while I found myself surrendering to what is, as I had been pressed to do since early childhood.

As some sort of proxy, I pulled up my audiobook, The Magus, and listened to a much younger man’s adventure on a Greek isle and his meeting with the mysterious Conchis (or Conscious) who teaches the novel’s protagonist to love through a series of unsettling experiences, which bring the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Greece, into fresh relief.

As a companion piece, I listened to The Seasons of the Soul by Herman Hesse, who recommends the marriage of the timeless self to the surrendered ego. Even then, nearly 100 years ago, he tells of an age which recognises ‘only money and numbers’:

‘Let others have goals and ambitions; for me, living is enough,’ he tells us.

I understood him exactly, even as he boldly declares, ‘I do not believe in the idea of progress,’ but instead claims an ‘infinite reverence’ for all nature.

Both Hesse and John Fowles, author of the first book, are in the business of stopping time, halting the reader from moving like a conquering hero in their own life, to give pause to the timeless present and to question the assumptions drilled into all of us since birth.

I was also being stopped, forced even, to examine my own ‘missed step,’ which soon became clear. Simply put, I have spent almost my entire life pursuing essential mysteries and meaning and paid almost no attention to the physical vessel that has supported my quest.

Balies was clear: I had to get back to my daily walks, long abandoned, and take more interest in proper nutrition. I knew he was right and this little shock was a warning.

Besides, the cockerel in the olive grove was insistent that I rise each morning early, whether I wanted to or not.

I couldn’t do much, but at least I could reflect.

As I cast my mind back before the fall when we had walked from our hotel down the sharp hill to the beach with its view of the mainland, I recalled the vast phalanx of clifftops, each hosting a small cloud as a cake endures icing, and the lovely swim in the shallow waters when all seemed well.

Later, we had toured the village to discover a universal welcome, as if the constant sun had penetrated each mind and glowed through them to warm the hearts of others. And so, by the time we reached the vertiginous S-bend back to the Corfu Pelagos Hotel, we had braced ourselves for a stiff – thought short – walk, only to be met by the owners who threw their shopping in the back seat and offered us a lift.

Surely, it was a good omen.

Nicoli and George provide home-cooked Greek food, authentic Greek hospitality and even a philosophy borne of hard-won wisdom through both their personal and business challenges (Covid, health scares and a bureaucracy that sometimes feels designed to defeat).

And so, instead of adventures, we made friends; instead of action, there was contemplation; in place of resentment, there was acceptance.

Like Krishnamurti, we might all consider the constant parade of people, places and experiences that cross the screen of our lives as what they are – passing phenomena. They are not here to get attached to, but simply to remind us that we are the screen on which all appears, as well as the light that projects the images.

Everything comes and goes. I am no longer on crutches.

It is all just a passing show and outcomes belong to the mysterious which, on a good day, I can remember to trust.

As Conchis says in The Magus: ‘The human race is unimportant. It is the self that must not be betrayed.’

Quite right although many will choose to differ, rooting themselves not in ineffable entities or concepts like ‘Self’ but in the more mundane challenges of life on Earth.

In a similar fashion, I had wanted to track the Durrells north to Katari Bay and follow elder statesman Gerald through his series of autobiographies about island life on Corfu.

But it wasn’t to be.

My Family and Other Animals describes a hallowed time in Greece in direct contrast to the experiences of other emigres from Britain to Greek island life; to Hydra for instance, colony for artists and writers, where at least one family found themselves pitched into archetypal experiences ending in death and destruction.

When straying into the territory of the gods, it is always good to bow and recognise it is easy to invite exigent and powerful forces into one’s orbit, perhaps, with hindsight, just as I had done.

Leaving civilisation for the wilds – the Durrells set out from Bournemouth – can expose the soul to massive, yet unseen forces we are wise to honour.

With more foresight, I might have asked our airport taxi driver Julian how he imagined navigating the gods after arriving as a baby from Newcastle, England. His English mother and Corfiot father had clearly chosen the more interesting path.

But perhaps birth, or at least an early arrival, is enough to offer immunity from the gamut of archetypal happenings Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks do so well.

Nicoli, a native of Moraitika, reminded me tragedies can happen to anyone, but to keep putting out good energy no matter what.

Laughing, she told me she is a Leo, full of risk taking propensities, which occasionally alarms others but always keeps things interesting.

She spent three years studying childcare in Athens but was always heading home to build a life and raise her children. But with the collapse of the economy in 2011 and a reduction in George’s government salary, her inventiveness came in useful.

‘A crazy idea came in my mind one day,’ she says laughing – to create a second hotel which they own rather than rent, to see them into their old age.

That project, supported by a travel agency, is well underway. In the meantime, Thomas Cook collapsed offering a further challenge for Corfu Pelagos.

Then came Covid shortly after the bankruptcy of Thomas Cook in 2019 and further devastation.

‘We never give up,’ she tells me, despite the pressures. The new hotel, planned to open next year, once again has the well-being of people at its centre.

‘If you do nothing you get nothing. This is a very special place, Corfu is linked to the Venetians and the English. It is very emotional for me. I want people who come here to get to know us. We have to show to our guests who we are from our culture and food and unique olive trees with all their healing properties. This is a blessed tree.’

Perhaps its health and healing properties can counteract any mischief from the gods.

Then it occurred to that Nicoli may be a goddess herself, but which one?

Surely Demeter with all that promise of bounty, but as a traveller clearly in need of protection, I may take St Christopher along, just for the ride.

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