I arrived last week on Corfu, the largest Greek island in the Ionian Sea, Many Americans know it as the setting for books and movies about the Durrells. Some — and you know who you are– know it as a great place for skinny-dipping on the western beaches, circa 1973. The Greeks call the island “Kerkira” after the nymph who spent her honeymoon here with Poseidon. Poseidon’s decision to name the island after his bride isn’t so romantic, however, considering Poseidon kidnapped Kerkira, but pfft, Greek gods.
I am staying in beautiful Corfu Town (also called “Kerkira,”) the largest community on the island and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The streets in Old Town are as unpredictable as cow paths and closed to cars. The architecture is mostly Venetian because Venice ruled the island for 400 years until Britain made it part of the empire in 1815. Britain returned the island to Greece in 1864, but a lot of Brits are still here, especially in the summers. Ferries travel between Corfu Town and several other ports, including Venice and Bari in Italy, several Greek Islands, and Saranda, Albania. Hmmm….never been to Albania…..
My apartment in Old Town is comfortable and quiet, with a view of red tiled roofs and a church steeple. The sea is practically out my front door, and the streets near my apartment are lined with tavernas and cafes where locals get together in the evenings at outside tables. So far, I feel welcome here. Most of the locals can speak English and the Greeks are famous for their hospitality, called “filoxenia.”
I go out walking a lot. One of the things I’ve noticed is how, when the weather is cold and rainy, a lot of the the shops close down and I’m one of the only people on the street. When the sun comes out, the shops are open and the streets are packed with walkers, diners, and coffee drinkers. If that sounds obvious, I associate rain with traffic jams in the Bay Area, where retail never takes a break. The Mexicans of San Miguel never seem deterred by rain. They are out there with plastic bags over their heads or waiting it out in a door way. “Todo bien.” Or maybe I am just going out in the mid-afternoons when Corfu is on “siesta.”
Like the Greeks of Athens and Lesvos, Corfu Greeks love to talk and laugh over coffee or ouzo. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but, the way I know Greeks, they are more likely to be talking about Greek myths or history than new cars or side hustles. The town’s economy reflects the priorities of the community here as well. The locally-owned cafes, shoe stores, and bakeries are doing a brisk business. Closed for the pandemic? Starbucks, United Colors of Benetton, and Haagen Dazs. And one pottery shop I want to visit!
The island has several good museums, including one that’s celebrating the 200 year anniversary of Greek unification. My favorite painting in the exhibit depicts refugees from the Greek City of Parga, who were exiled to Corfu from the mainland after the Brits “gave” Parga to the Turks in 1819.
And here is some more recent local art that expresses some similar concerns.
I was happy to find my favorite Greek wines in a local wine shop. Greece has been producing some excellent wines in recent years. I learned about Nemea region wines when I was living in the Peloponnese for a few months in 2017. Fragrant and fruity but not overpowering. Corfu produces wine as well, although I haven’t tried them yet.
From what I’ve been able to figure out at this point, Corfu cuisine is typical Greek. Moussaka, spanokopita, fish, lamb, and Greek salads are staples, but there is more Italian influence here than, for example, Lesvos, with its Turkish influences. Like so much of Greece, the interior of the island is mostly olive groves, small farms, and vineyards. I hope to see some other parts of the island before I leave, maybe some hiking or horseback riding….
Why am I here of all places? I love Greece and I came to write, believing I wouldn’t have any distractions or excuses. I don’t know anyone on Corfu and there is not much going on in the winter. So far, I’m not sure it’s working out. I have spent a little time writing and a little more time fretting about whether my draft is a word salad or a train wreck, or something worse. Anyway, as the Greeks would say, I’ll just wait for “kyros,” that special moment in time where everything comes together. In the meantime, I do love Corfu.