My stomach is grumbling, so after I’ve bought my shopping for the next few days and dropped it into my backpack, I head to my favourite restaurant for something to eat.
It isn’t there.
The building is shut up, the outside seating has all gone, and when I peer in the window, the place has been stripped almost bare.
“Uh…kalimera. Did Mythos restaurant go out of business?”
The shopkeeper’s face crinkles with a smile. He lifts one hand, fingers splayed, and for a horrible second I think he’s giving me a moutza, the Greek equivalent of the middle finger. But no – it’s an exploding gesture, of something flying apart.
“It’s the end of the season. Everything is going away, closed down. Don’t worry, we are a family business, you not starve, we stay open.”
As I discover over the next few days, they’re just about the only ones that do. The rest of this sleepy-bordering-on-exhausted Corfu coastal village is dragging away tables, bolting gates and closing shutters.
The big supermarket with five aisles of alcohol and the alarmingly wizened “fresh” fruit gets loaded into a van one night, and then it’s gone. The place I buy five-gallon tubs of bottled water closes the next day (the tap water in Corfu is drinkable but heavy with minerals, so you’re best mixing it with something softer until your innards grow accustomed).
The beach empties, a little more each day, until I’m only hearing Greek being spoken when I go for a swim.
The sky is changing too. When I arrived at the end of September, struggling up the mountain with my bulging backpack until I reached my Airbnb apartment, the sunshine pressed down like an electric blanket, and the sweat poured down the backs of my legs.
I arrived, said hello to my landlord living on the second floor, got the keys, lurched inside, stepped out of my bags like Iron Man becoming Tony Stark, and collapsed under the aircon for an hour until the world stopped spinning.
A month later the sky is grey, the air is cool, and the sea sends cold gusts across your nethers when you swim out far enough.
(As I write this, a thunderstorm just roared through, and lightning punched out the power with a distant clang, leaving me sat by the window enjoying the lightshow and writing this on my phone.)
This shutting-up-shop happens every year. But other changes seem underway in Benitses, my home for the last month and home for the next.
There’s the enormous hotel-resort being built a short walk away, biting a huge divot out of the mountainside and filling it with half-built apartments. Once finished, I’m sure it will look fine. Right now it’s like something out of a Fallout game.
One afternoon I decide to follow the road through it, hoping to discover where it winds right over the mountain into inner Corfu, as Google Maps tells me it does.
But I haven’t a hope. Everything is plastic netting and concrete blocks and diggers and chain fences, and I can’t find my way through. I scramble back down, trying to look worldly and sophisticated as I skid my way down a slope strewn with girders and pancakes of spilled concrete. Half a dozen builders on their teabreak watch me descend, making comments I don’t need to speak Greek to understand.
This is the Angsana Hotel, formerly the San Stefano. It was due to be completed in 2017, and wasn’t – and this happened again in 2018, and once more in May of this year. I have no idea why the delays, but it’s hard not to imagine the usual story: foolish budgeting, missed deadlines, poorly managed reality.
But it also suggests change on a wider scale. In my Rough Guide To Greece, Benitses is listed as a “popular boozing & bonking resort from the ’80s”, originally aimed at the Club 18-30 type of tourists. Now we’re a different sort of visitor: older, slower, our knees trembling for different reasons, carrying more money, and in much less of a hurry to do anything. The kind of visitors that could collapse Thomas Cook because that’s just not how we travel these days, thank you very much.
But – how many of us come here? Enough to fill a colossal 5-star hotel all year round?
To me, Benitses has the air of a former coastal resort trying to work out what its future looks like – rather like my former home-town in East Yorkshire, in fact. It’s clearly a slow process. Plenty of time to pivot in a new direction, but also slow enough to convince you that nothing’s really changing, not really.
Right now, though, the changes are coming thick and fast. The power just thumped out again. The rain is pulsing against the window, and a mighty gust of wind sends something flapping in the garden, which turns out to be my boxer shorts, because I forgot to bring my laundry in. Damn. Too late now.
All this is hammering home why I came here.
After selling the house and spending a few weeks in Barcelona, I needed somewhere to retreat into, somewhere to sit and think and think some more and think about what I’ve just thought, until it’s finally sinking in that everything has moved forward, and I now have the opportunity to write the things I want to write.
I also needed somewhere to make a new plan for the next 12 months, and to write the first draft of my first book.
The plan is done, and feels the right mixture of scary, life-affirming and completely absurd for a man in his late 40s. In a few days I’m starting that book, and that’ll continue until December 1st, when I head back to Barcelona and then the UK for Christmas.
But another reason I came here was to get used to change again.
It’s been a crazy summer, and until I sold the family home, I think I’d forgotten how welcome change feels when it’s things you set in motion.
When change is unwelcomly sprung upon you, that’s usually another thing – say, when half of your country votes in a referendum in a way that seems completely and utterly bonkers to you.
But when you reassess and choose to shake things up in a radical way, you start to learn what’s actually possible in your life – instead of assuming you know what isn’t.
I don’t think this process requires anyone to book a place in Corfu halfway up a mountain for a couple of months, watching in horror as all the shops close and the lightning bangs down closer and closer every day, but in my case, it seems to be working out nicely – and the fact that every day here is a little different is keeping my thoughts moving forward.
It’s fun seeing where I’ll end up.
Images: Mike Sowden