We’ve been going to Melissi, near Corinth, since we were kids. Every summer, beginning in 1978, we’d load up the Renault with board games, Mickey Mouse comic books and Dr. Scholl’s sandals and drive off for an amazing three months.
My father would come on the weekends, tired and cranky from the heat, not to mention the two jobs he had to work in order to pay for our seaside summer home. Back then, cars had no air conditioning. He’d arrive bathed in sweat, his shirt clinging to his back, a newspaper under his arm and his aviator Ray-Bans on his eyes, with the green lenses all the dads wore back then – an army of imitation Robert Redfords.
While I’m not very forgiving about seaside architecture – all those hideous vacation villas and maisonettes, offspring of predatory building practices (one of which was within sight of our place) – I have to admit that my parents got extremely lucky. Our compound had been built by a French architect whose love for Greece kept him from making the familiar mistakes of the time.
For the walls, he did choose that textured stucco that was all the rage, but he also picked dark wood for the kitchen and the balcony railings, and diamond-shaped dark-red terracotta tiles for the floor. My mother, of course, being a typical Greek housewife, destroyed those tiles. She couldn’t get used to the matte finish and scrubbed them in vain for years, until finally she gave up and had them varnished a garish red.
My sister and I spent summers of undisturbed joy at that compound beside the waves. The architect had baptized the two buildings Artemis and Leto – and like the mother and daughter of ancient myth, we too spent legendary summers with our invincible parents, then in their fifties, and our aunts and uncles, grandparents, and friends.
At some point, of course, we discovered the Cyclades and never looked back until, eventually, we returned, heads bowed and tails between our legs. We were parents now, too, and wanted a safe, familiar place where our children could roam; and thus our quirky little summer community came into being.
The oldest generation began to die off, the young parents got older, and the children became teenagers and then college students. The cycle of life is more eloquent when you measure it in summers. I have a strong memory, for instance, of our summer neighbors arriving at my father’s funeral. It was the first time I’d ever seen them in winter clothes and shoes. In my mind, they were forever walking around in flip-flops and bathing suits, rinsing off the saltwater with a garden hose at the entrance to the building.
A summer home shelters not just people, but memories, too. I remember Argyris’ general store, which later became a hair salon. I remember Pefkia Beach in Xylokastro before they added sun loungers, and the elevator we got into two at a time to check our Farrah Fawcett hairdos in the full-length mirror.
I can picture the bunk beds, and feel the cool dark of the room when the shutters were closed. I see the Brooke Shields poster on the wall opposite the beds (was it an orange wall?) as well as the amber worry beads and the carved wooden Bulgarian sculptures over the fireplace. There were the collected works of Kundera, too, that I read on the daybed in the living room, during the years of Greek “Kunderamania.”
And there were all those other manias, too, like the obsession with making us nap in the afternoon, which always seemed nonsensical, or the obsession with windsurfing, with the souvlakia from Maxoutis, with loukoumades – delicious fried dough balls, and with the open-air cinema in Xylokastro.
Sometimes all that comes to mind are the sounds. Not of cicadas, but of the violin. Our neighbor made his daughters practice every morning. Years later, they both became accomplished soloists, thanks to all that squeaking and sawing of the bow.
We had other hardworking neighbors, too, who let off steam in the evenings with dance music, who had mothers who read Harlequin romances on the beach, who held parties on fishing boats tied up on the dock. From our balcony, we watched women with wide-brimmed hats swim like adorable puppies, caressing the water, exchanging recipes.
Some kept tabs on who came and went and some, including me, were endlessly oblivious. We were, it seemed, in a novel by Karagatsis, full of characters who gave us, like it or not, our first lessons in both class consciousness and aesthetics. But that made sense, too; after all, the Greek poet Sikelianos had lived down the road in Sykia, and the novelist Menis Koumandareas not only summered on Xylokastro Beach, he wrote about it, too.
Later on came the first evening outings to the clubs in Corinth, where we danced to Boney M. and Blondie. Nadina the Cloud won the title of Miss Diminio (or was it Miss Kiato?) back when it seemed entirely natural for us to cheer and clap for girls in bikinis and skin-colored stockings on a makeshift runway. The dads stared open-mouthed at the 18-year-old beauty queens, while we secretly drank the first beers of our lives.
Lots of things happened there for the first time: our first cigarette, our first flirting in the dark. “I want you, no, never mind, yes, I want you again.” There was souvlaki on the beach, incredible water fights, squabbles as to whether or not we’d cut down the tamarisk trees, and the eternal dashes along the pebbles on the shore – before the water came up and swallowed the better part of the bay and the entire shoreline had to be lined with boulders they brought in with cranes so the sea wouldn’t come right into our homes.
It was an all-purpose home: from hide-and-seek in the parking lot under the building to a winter getaway (the apartments, with their damp blankets and electric heaters, groaned for the eighteen-year-olds of our generation). And, on the horizon, a sea for all seasons: sometimes as calm as a lake, sometimes choppy, tossing up seaweed, sometimes full of jellyfish that the kids would hunt with nets.
In September, just before we’d head home for the beginning of the school year, a sense of melancholy always prevailed: the last swim, this time in the rain, with the smell of wet earth.
When I was very young, I used to be ashamed to invite friends to our humble summer home. Plenty of them had summer homes with swimming pools, high walls and fences covered in bougainvillea. Today, I know that our summer home is in fact my center, my hard core. It’s a time capsule of my personal history, where I still unearth old comics and discover dresses that became dust rags, and where my mother still fries meatballs in the kitchen.