by Lucy Whetman
From the moment I arrived in Greece I felt that I had come to the right place.
My cheap night flight to Athens reached Ellinikon Airport at dawn. It was overdue by several hours. Though ship lights had marked the distance to a black Aegean as the plane descended, by the time I walked across the tarmac I could see Mount Hymettos. The mountain’s wide-angle outlines ranged out against a warming sky: a horizon that seemed open with expanded possibilities and the freedom to learn. I had launched myself into a new life as an English teacher and now on this luminous September morning it was to start.
In the arrivals terminal I found George, the bleary, soft-eyed son of my soon-to-be employer.
“I’m sorry I’m so late,” I told him.
George bridled. “Why? It’s not your fault. It was the flight.”
“No, but…” I laughed. “I suppose it isn’t. You look tired though.”
He shrugged. “I will sleep later, it is not a problem. My father was here but he went home when we heard there was a delay. He has to work today.”
“Later when the school is open I will do something, but now no. I am the youngest son so I get to stay at home and do nothing.”
George’s smile said he was aware he was a Benjamin: the best-loved (and loveable) baby boy. Chubby and round-cheeked he may have been, but his swept-back hair held waves of grey.
“How old are you?” he asked, as if he read my thought.
“I’m 28. You?”
“Twenty-four. You look younger.”
“Yes? I probably act that way too.”
We reached a white saloon in the car park and stowed my luggage.
“Do you have brothers and sisters?” George asked.
“Two younger brothers. I’m the oldest but I’m not the grown-up and responsible one.”
“The black sheep of the family?” His eyes gleamed.
“Perhaps. I have to do things my own way.”
In the car George offered me a cigarette: Karelia, a Greek brand, and we cruised along the empty coastal highway past showrooms of illuminated chandeliers. I had not slept much either but it felt as if I was coming home after a very late night out. I felt buoyed up by excitement, hedonistic, liberated by the perspective on a new day from the other side.
The sun grew brighter and people began to move about the hilly suburbs, setting off from neat houses to commute. Towards the centre we passed through rows of still-closed shops with signs in unfamiliar script and high neoclassical facades of faded elegance, fronded mouldings and wrought iron. We came to Kallithea, the southern district where I was to live.
George halted the Alfa Romeo in a narrow street of balconied buildings, lined with bitter orange trees. We heaved my suitcases up marble steps and shuffled into the confines of the lift. Winding upwards a few floors, we stopped at George’s family apartment.
George knocked before we entered and I waited in the hall. After an interval of shuffling sounds and low voices his father appeared.
“Good morning,” he growled. “I am Mr Antonis Papidis, owner and Director of Studies of the Papidis School of Foreign Languages. This is my wife Vasso. We hope that you will perform your duties here in a professional and conscientious manner.”
“I’ll do my best,” I assured him.
Mr Papidis was small and puffy-faced. A sticky-looking wisp of his hair stood up like a wilted crest. Vasso stood behind him, primly coiffured in a peach towelling robe. We shook hands formally.
“I was at the airport with George for some hours,” Mr Papidis rasped. “But it was too late so I, urrrgh,” he waved a hand, “George brought me back. The other teacher Emma will not be here until the 20th so you will stay in our guest flat until she comes.”
“I thought that you needed us straight away.” Mr Papidis had been insistent when I spoke to him on the telephone that I should be in Athens by September the 10th.
“Commencement of lessons will be on the 21st,” he intoned, “Until then you may rest and make preparations. Call here after 9.30 this evening and we will go for dinner with my family.”
He held up some keys. “George, take her to the flat.”
Thus dismissed, George and I proceeded to the tiny garçonnière flat on the rooftop. It was as high and light as a mountain eyrie. Sun streamed in from the balcony through glass doors. George demonstrated how to switch on the hot water, ignite the cooker and haul the roller shutter. A bagful of essentials sat in the kitchen: tinned Nescafe and evaporated milk, sugar, bread rusks, foil-wrapped cheese and jammy biscuits.
“My sister Maria bought these. Maybe there is something you will like,” said George.
“This is everything I need.”
George left and I made coffee, boiling water in a slim briki pot on the gas ring. I drank it creamy and sweet. I floated in a pleasant limbo, removed from my old life in England and content to know that different experiences were coming. I looked out at the stacked-up homes of my newly acquired neighbours. Their balconies were bright with drying laundry and vibrant pink geraniums.
Mr Papidis might be a challenge but I had met slyer dogs than him. At least he barked to warn that he might bite. I was lucky. Native English-speaking teachers were in demand in Greece. By the fortune of my birth I could bring Mr Papidis valuable students. My future boss needed me as much as I needed him.
Before sleeping I meandered into the bathroom and peered through its window at the far Athens skyline. Above the concrete cubes floated a pale, flat rock crowned by a temple. I was astonished once again that I was living within view of the Acropolis.