“Do the words ‘ella sphinx-a-tinkath-yassu’ mean anything to you?,” I ask Terry, my new Greek friend, over dinner on the waterfront in Koroni. I’m embarrassed by the words I’m saying, which sound like nonsense to my ears, something about a sphinx and tinkerbell.
“Yes,” he answers immediately, surprising me. “It means…” he pauses, trying to think of the correct words in English, “Come, make your heart tight.”
“Tight? Are you sure?”, I ask, needing clarification. He looks out to sea, and rephrases:
“More like strong. Come, make your heart strong,” he says, clenching his fist emphatically. His action makes me feel more confident that what he is saying is closer to a true translation of my Yiayia’s words.
One week after the Greek lesson in Koroni, I’m still thinking about the words of my Yiayia. ‘Ella sphinx-a-tinkath-yassu’. Richie and I are hanging over the rails of a Blue Star Ferry. It’s the 24th hour of our voyage from Piraeus, and the tiny island of Castellorizo is coming into view.
The island has its back to us, a collar of rocky mountains turned up against the heat and glare of the afternoon sun. A deep scar runs across its shoulders, a road purpose-built for army vehicles. The boat is enormous, and Castellorizo, less than 12 square kilometres, is tiny! We wonder how the captain is going to bring the ship into port.
When Giovanni deposits us at the train station in Campobasso, huge clods of clay are stuck to the underside of my boots. I feel like a bunyip. “Look at the state of you,” Richie laughs, as passersby and early-bird commuters gaze in horror at the state of my boots. No self-respecting Italian would be caught dead looking like this.
“Take a photo of me with the train for Julian,” I demand, posing in my grungy boots. The train is a tiny one-carriage affair. It’s a fun ride. I wish my nephew was with me to enjoy the journey, chugging across the mountains of Molise on our way to the sea.
In Termoli there’s enough time to grab some bread, fruit and cheese before jumping back on the train, bound for Brindisi via Foggia. Richie listens to his new Smokey Tentacles mix as the train trundles through a flat landscape of wheat fields and wind turbines. We spot the first trullis – Puglia.
The man who drives the complimentary shuttle bus from the centre of Brindisi to the port customs office looks unimpressed when I press a postcard into his hands.
“Will you post it for me? I ran out of time,” I say, smiling apologetically. He takes the card begrudgingly from my hands. Before he can say ‘no’ we bolt for the ship. We’re late and we only just make it in time.
The boat sets sail from Brindisi at 7pm. I’m elated. In seven hours we’ll be pulling in to the port at Igoumenitsa – my first taste of Greek life.