Every summer, I spend a month alone in Greece – and rediscover the joys of a less crowded life

I first came to Greece in September 2016, burned out from my life of temping and sub-letting in London, with nothing but a small amount of money I wanted to force a long way and a book to write.

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There is a quote by the poet Kenneth Koch about the Greek island of Hydra, sometimes misattributed to his friend Leonard Cohen. The quote appears in different versions, but one I like best, accurate or not, is: “Once you’ve lived on Hydra you can’t live anywhere else – including Hydra.”

I travelled to Hydra last week from Athens, where I’m spending July. I wanted to be near water, and I was seduced by the notion of a vehicle-free haven, of winding craggy hill paths, of hot white houses much older than any I have ever lived in. I was seduced, too, by the Hydra of Koch and Cohen’s time, though I was not naive enough to think I would find anything resembling it. The Nick Broomfield film Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love – a portrait of Cohen, his long-time love Marianne Ihlen and Hydra in the early 1960s, lousy with artists and expats and readily available affairs – was released on 26 July.

Hydra is very different now, thanks to affordable air travel, but it seemed to me that the resulting alterations were largely cosmetic. Along the harbour are the tourist traps that can be found in any equivalent European location, but just beyond it, not more than ten minutes’ walk away, there are haphazard streets and tavernas and squares with an air of permanence.

This sense of the enduring is part of why I love Greece so much. On a long walk one evening as the sun was setting, I passed a decrepit green farmhouse that I took to be abandoned, until I glanced at a shirtless man emerging from its upper window, thoughtfully drawing on a cigarette and regarding the sky. I felt – as I sometimes do at home in Ireland, outside of the cities – the peace of a place that isn’t obsessed with building, expanding. These places make me believe in the existence of constants – unlike in London, where eyes are fixed on the future, construction is perennial and profit takes supreme precedence.

I first came to Greece in September 2016, burned out from my life of temping and sub-letting in London, with nothing but a small amount of money I wanted to force a long way and a book to write. I knew nothing about Athens, except that I could afford to be there for 12 weeks and the weather was good. (Cohen knew as little when he moved to Hydra; he walked in from the cold London street one March to the Bank of Greece, asked a tanned teller what the weather was like there and upon hearing it was hot, set off.) I loved it immediately: the endless, dreamy evenings, the generosity, and even the dead heat which made me sweat, beet-red, through my make-up.

I loved walking here, and drinking here, and the strange schedule my solitude allowed me: swimming and reading detective novels all day, working at my bedroom desk all night. Perhaps most of all, I loved to go to outside cinemas and sit through two showings. There seeming nothing so romantic to me as smoking a cigarette while watching The Godfather, the lit-up Acropolis visible just beyond the screen.

Seeing films was a good way to temper my loneliness. But loneliness is also something I come to Greece for. My need for other people has always been knotty and chaotic. I never seem to be able to strike a balance. I need company too much, and then, in defiant fury at myself, need to be absolutely alone. To be with other people does feel to me to be more or less the whole point of life, but I have learned that needing them too much, or needing the wrong ones, can ruin whole years, if not whole lives.

When I first came here, I felt desperately, wildly alone in my ordinary life, still recovering from a year-old break-up. Forcing myself to be alone for three months was a kind of cruel test of myself, like rubbing salt in an ulcer hoping it will heal, but enjoying the pain of it too.

Today I am not alone in my life. I am in love, and have been for some time, and to keep coming back here for a month each year is another kind of test, to reassure myself I am still up for the job of solitude in case I am tasked with it again. It works for me to live this way: to enjoy loneliness in bursts; to decamp to a country where being alone feels meaningful and luxurious, then return to my ordinary life, ready to be with others as much as I naturally desire to.

On Hydra, Leonard Cohen wrote the song “Bird on a Wire” after waking one morning to see telephone wires being installed: “I would stare out the window at these telephone wires and think how civilisation had caught up with me and I wasn’t going to be able to escape after all.”

When I was about to leave for Hydra, I suddenly wanted to leave my phone behind, not to need or be needed by anyone for those five days. I couldn’t do it in the end. I had work emails to think about, and I panicked about directions and emergencies. I felt furious at the phone, and at myself for needing it. My phone has become wrapped up in all these difficult feelings I have about company and solitude: I can’t be without it, but I hate it too, and hate what it’s done to me. I was angry that I couldn’t go to one of the most beautiful places on Earth without leaving myself available to others at all times. It remained in the damp of my bag beneath my towel and bikini and ripped paperbacks.

When I returned to Athens, there was an earthquake. It shook the wall of my apartment like a washing machine gone wild. My brain was too slow to grasp what was happening for a full 30 seconds. My father called, panicked, offering me a flight home.

I was glad for my phone then. There are good things in availability too, like speaking to the person you love most, assuring them you are not just alive, not just safe, but in the best place in the world, even when the ground is moving beneath your feet. 

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction based in London. Her column appears fortnightly

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special