In some ways, my childhood wasn’t dissimilar to Gerald Durrell’s. When I was ten, I lived on the Greek island of Lesvos for six months while my mother was doing academic research there.
Being home-schooled, I was brought up with the luxury of having the freedom to learn outside a classroom. And while my textbooks accompanied us to Greece, I spent a lot of time — like Durrell — observing the animals on the island.
I watched the colonies of red ants that scurried to and fro, carefully noting their habits; fed the masses of stray cats curled up lethargically in the shade; and painstakingly recorded my very own wildlife ‘documentary’ on a dictaphone.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the Durrells and their background, Gerald Durrell was a pioneering conservationist and celebrated author. In 1935, the family (Mother, Larry, Leslie, Margo and, of course, Gerry) decamped en masse to the Greek island of Corfu, spurred on by the English climate.
‘…we sold the house and fled from the gloom of the English summer, like a flock of migrating swallows’ (The Corfu Trilogy, 2006, p. 13, published by Penguin Books)
On the island, eight-year-old Gerry spent his days exploring, swimming in the crystal clear sea, wandering through olive groves, and gathering a motley assortment of animals, from gulls to tortoises.
My Family and Other Animals is his enchanting account of his time in Corfu, and for me, it captures the essence of idyllic Greek life. I first read it when I was about nine or ten, and since then I’ve turned its pages countless times.
Gerry’s anecdotes are hilariously funny (the other members of the family weren’t always happy with his menagerie of creatures taking up residence in the villa), and the descriptions of Greece remind me of my time there.
‘Each day had a tranquility, a timelessness about it, so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of the night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us glossy and colorful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.’ (The Corfu Trilogy, p. 38)
“Chairete,” he called in his deep voice, the beautiful Greek greeting, “Chairete, kyrioi . . . be happy” . . . The island was drenched with dew, radiant with early morning sun, full of stirring life. Be happy. How could one be anything else in such a season?’ (The Corfu Trilogy, p. 91)
Although we were only there for a few months, in my memory it feels like much longer. I still treasure the memories of the months I spent in Greece — the smell of baked earth and dry Mediterranean heat under a cloudless sky. Dark squares of halva — a traditional post-dinner sweet — and the sweetest, juiciest watermelons delivered by a man driving the cobbled streets in a dusty pick-up truck, the back piled high with melons.
In the morning, we would walk to the bakery to buy delicious currant buns, down the cobbled streets, past the jewellers with their displays of hand-crafted jewelry and Orthodox crosses.
Elderly Greek ladies, dressed in black, would proffer endless amounts of fresh figs as welcome and greeting. After a while, I remember getting rather tired of having to eat yet another fig, but it was rude to refuse their hospitality.
In the afternoons, when the sun was at its hottest, the air was filled with the ceaseless thrum of cicadas — siesta time.
And then, as the air grew cooler, we would get ready to go out and spend evenings at the tavernas by the harbour. Memories of the wonderful food — olives, spanakopita (spinach and feta filo pies), dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), gigantes plaki (beans in tomato sauce), tzatziki, and baklava — still make my mouth water.
For me, it was an idyllic time, and I have no doubt that if we had stayed longer, or moved there permanently, I would have ended up speaking Greek. Perhaps my interest in the natural history and wildlife on the island would have led me to become a conservationist.
It was truly a formative experience, and it taught me the value of living in and experiencing another culture. Plus, Greek food is still my favourite!
Have you ever lived abroad? Did it change your outlook on life or give you a new perspective on your home country?