Chilling in Chamonix

Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France • January 2019 • Length of Read: 8 Minutes

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It was only going to be a matter of time before it happened, I could sense it, and as we pulled into our mid-way stop of the 90-minute bus journey from Geneva Airport to Chamonix that’s when he made his move.

“Do you know if I’ve got enough time to grab a bottle of water?” asked the larger-than-life, middle-aged American sat behind us; his question thankfully directed to the young Frenchman across the aisle as opposed to my girlfriend Eva and me.

“Probably not,” replied the well-spoken local; his perfect English only given away by the sustained accent on the ‘y’. “We’ll be leaving as soon as those people have taken their luggage off the coach,” he politely explained, reaching over and pointing out the window. Conversation over, or so you would have thought.

“Where are you travelling from?” asked the American, deciding that there was more information to be obtained out of the discussion. “I’m from Colorado myself,” he proudly beamed. “That’s in the United States. Have you heard of it?”

“I live in Barcelona, but am travelling home to Chamonix to see my parents,” he replied, deciding to ignore the second part of the question. “I was born up here in the mountains.”

“The mountains back in Colorado are much higher than here,” announced the American, his pompous drawl echoing around the bus and already getting on my nerves. “And our tunnels are longer. A daily ski pass in Aspen can set you back $200, however, so I prefer to fly over to Europe as it’s less expensive. What do you do in Barcelona?”

“I work for a start-up with a few of my close friends. We forage rare, gourmet mushrooms that we then package and sell to high-end restaurants and kitchens.”

 “For drugs?” was the ignorant exclamation.

“No, to cook with,” laughed the Frenchman, miraculously managing to keep his composure.

 “Well, the French do love their food,” chuckled the American, unfazed by his blunder, and the fact that Barcelona is in Spain. “You can get a train through the valley here, can’t you?” he then asked, changing his track. “I missed a flight once in Zurich because the train was too prompt. It left the airport station before I had time to get my things together and disembark onto the platform. So, is Chamonix-Sud far from Chamonix? I have a lot of stuff and am hoping that it’s not too far to go once the coach terminates.”

“Chamonix-Sud just means South Chamonix,” explained the Frenchman. “And the town is so small that you can get anywhere in less than ten minutes walking.”

“Perfect. I’m old and decrepit, you see, so can’t be doing too much lugging around of heavy cases. Well, that’s the joke I tell people. You know what this word ‘decrepit’ means?”

Unable to take any more of this barrage of ignorance, I plugged in my iPod, pressed play on a Ricky Gervais XFM podcast and, giving a teething glance towards Eva, closed my eyes and pretended to sleep for the rest of the journey.

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As we pulled into Chamonix bus station, the windscreen wipers of the coach brushed away the fluttering snow that has started to fall. I changed into my hiking boots at the first opportunity and, leaving the American behind with a sign of relief, Eva and I trudged along the narrow pavement in the direction of our rented apartment; the snow crunching underfoot as a disjointed trail of suitcase wheels was left in our wake.

The town had a beautiful, antiquated feel, with the white rooftops of the high-end shops, hotels, and restaurants a pleasant contrast to the heated patio seating that sprawled out of entranceways into the babbling streets. Thirsty skiers huddled around the flames, wrapped in blankets and with glasses of beer clenched between their gloved hands. It was like looking back to the campfire communities of old. Fantastic, commissioned graffiti covered the bare sides of buildings, putting a modern twist on the history of the town, and the omnipresent backdrop of the Alps sent a shudder of excitement down my spine every time I glanced skywards.

We were starving after the journey, and I had a particular location in mind. Whilst reading the autobiography of Kenton Cool, a mountaineer who has summited Everest 14-times and counting, he recalls one summer when he guided the legendary Sir Ranulph Fiennes to the top of the Matterhorn, one of Europe’s most famous peak. The pair had met in Chamonix during one of their briefing sessions, and Cool raves about, ‘a great little place called Munchie, tucked away down a small cobbled street called Rue des Moulins. The staff are all beautiful Swedish girls, the atmosphere is nice, and they serve the best starter in Chamonix: a basket of Greenlandic grilled shrimp’.

Dumping our bags at the apartment, we wrapped up and got to the restaurant bang on time for our 8pm dinner reservation. Munchie did indeed have an inviting and quaint vibe, providing a relaxing setting for Eva and myself to cheers our holiday with a glass of white wine and pinch our chopsticks around a selection of Asian-infused tapas dishes, including salmon sushi rolls, steamed pork dumplings and grilled aubergine. The next day was my girlfriend’s 24th birthday and Chamonix was proving to be a joyous place to spend it.

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“Happy birthday,” I cheered as Eva rubbed her bleary, big, brown eyes. “Look out the window.”

From our apartment bed, we could see the towering presence of Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest mountain. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the snowy peak that rises to 4,808m stood proudly in all its glory. Having visited Everest Base Camp last year, I’ve gained a newfound understanding as to why our distant ancestors worshipped mountains as gods. There is something omniscient and omnipotent about them that makes you put faith in their grandiosity. As Eva opened her gifts, I prepared some avocado and eggs on toast for breakfast, and we sat on the balcony inhaling the food almost as quickly as the crisp, morning air. It was the perfect altitude adjustment.

We had a morning of health and wellbeing ahead of us, so after breakfast we layered up and shuffled our way through the snow in the direction of the QC Terme Spa. With Google Maps as our trusted navigator we started off in the right direction, but soon the tech became a bit dizzy and dysfunctional as the mountains disoriented the satellite signal. Having crossed an active ski route, we were then instructed to ‘turn left’ into a builders’ yard before ‘continuing straight for 400m’ past signs warning us to wear hard hats and take cation of the heavy machinery. Hopping a chain-linked fence, we then proceeded off-piste through a small forest, guided only by animal tracks, before eventually finding ourselves in the rear of the spa’s car park. It could have been a children’s pool from a local leisure centre waiting for us and I would have been happy enough to pay the €52 entrance fee just sit down and chill for a moment. Perhaps that was their business plan after all?

As it turned out, the Italian-owned thermal baths were pure tranquillity, and Eva and I spend the entire morning floating in the outdoor heated springs, clearing our pores in the tartan-themed sauna, meditating under waterfalls, and relaxing next to the fireplace as the sun poured through the slits in the wooden blinds. We then freshened up with a selection of creams and salts before slipping on bathrobes and enjoying some salad and champagne in the restaurant. It was complete bliss.

I could have stayed there all day, but we had a second activity to fit in, so getting changed we exited out through the main gate and followed the well-ploughed path back into town, giving Google Maps the afternoon off. After a quick pit-stop for a hot chocolate and a cake, we then joined the queue for the Aiguille du Midi cable car.

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From an altitude of 1,035m in Chamonix, the cable car swung its way securely up over the white forest and rocky outcrops of the needle-shaped spire until we reached the 3,842m peak. Eva, still dressed for a fashionable pampering session as opposed to a mountaineering expedition, almost froze her ankles off as the -21°C wind-chill swirled around the viewing gallery at the top. Some serious skiers and harnessed climbers chatted nervously as they prepared themselves for their respective doses of adrenaline, and despite having hiked up to 5,600m during my Everest Base Camp trek I began to feel light-headed.

In addition to staring in awe at the panoramic vista, the cable car station also boasted an exhibit dedicated to altitude sickness, a restaurant, and a tube that had been burrowed through the rock in a remarkable feat of engineering. This grants access for tourist to Step Into the Void®, a glass box that hangs off the side of Aiguille du Midi and gives you the opportunity to overcome vertigo by sky-walking with over 1,000m of emptiness beneath your feet. Mont Blanc looked perilously close for my adventurous mind, and the thought of coming back to attempt a summit played on my brain for the remainder of the time we spent up there.

Back on terra firma, however, and the safety of our cosy apartment, this thought dissipated as I cuddled down with Eva to watch a movie. Lighting some birthday candles, I surprised her with a chocolate cake and, making a wish, she blew out the lights on what had been a lovely couple of days.

 

Bibliography:

One Man’s Everest: The Autobiography of Kenton Cool (Arrow; Reprint edition, 2016)

Geriatric Geneva

Geneva, Switzerland • January 2019 • Length of Read: 4 Minutes  

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The ice-cold wind blowing across Lake Geneva cut right through us as we strolled along the harbour, piercing my jacket and rattling my bones. It was a crisp winter’s day in the Swiss municipality, and my girlfriend Eva and I were exploring the city for a few hours before heading to the airport; having made our way down from the French alpine town of Chamonix that morning.

Not that there’s much in the way to uncover in Geneva, as we quickly discovered. I usually relish in the opportunity to pull back the skin of a city and find out what makes its heart beat, but it was as if the winter chills had caused the blood flow of Switzerland’s second-largest city to stop. The ‘old town’ was barren, a mass exodus of people leaving only a handful of grey-haired veterans braving the conditions as they played chess in the park. The internationally-famed financial district bore a striking character resemblance to the graveyard that lay across the street, a mortician’s dream. The myriad clothing boutiques and top brand watchmakers appeared devoid of the usual upper-class gentry, world-class window shopping gone to waste.

According to the guidebooks, one of the city’s must-see tourist attractions is the Jet d’Eau; a ‘tremendous fountain’ and Geneva’s ‘most prominent landmark’. In reality, however, it’s nothing special. Expecting a Las Vegas-style production of lights and sound, or captivating Disneyland-esque performance, we were greeted at the pier by a solitary water cannon spraying a single continuous jet of murky water 150m into the sky. All boats and barges were moored up, and the only activity on the lake was a few confused cygnets prancing about the shore. As one TripAdvisor review poetically puts it, ‘only worth visiting as there are hardly any other things to do in Geneva.’

Having exhausted all possibilities in this abandoned theme park of excitement, we found a little café, warmed ourselves up with a couple of cappuccinos and slice of apple pie, then paid the €17 bill and hopped on a train to the airport two hours early.

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“How was your holiday?” asked one of my colleagues at work the next morning as I yawned my way into the office. Our flight had landed twenty minutes early but the unfavourable Edinburgh Airport bus timetable had prevented me from getting to sleep before midnight. “Did you pass through Geneva at all? I worked out there for seven months at the turn of the century.”

“We did, actually. It was eh…” I replied, pausing for an instance to measure up how she’d react to my unenthusiastic tone. “Historic,” I punted for. “Geneva was quite historic.”

“I found it such a boring place to live,” she unloaded as I exhaled a sharp breath. “There’s really nothing to do.”

“Perhaps it comes to life in the summer,” I conservatively suggested. “The cold weather really didn’t aid its cause. I couldn’t help but notice the distinct lack of artistic attraction, student population, or restaurants, however.”

“I was there right through the depths of winter,” my colleague laughed. “From October to April. It was back when video rental stores were still a thing and my Blockbuster membership card quickly became my best friend. In the typical French way, there wasn’t a massive English-language selection, so I found myself renting Friends box-sets and binge-watching them to get me through the weekends.”

“I don’t envy the individual charged with spearheading the city’s tourism board,” I quipped.

“This is a bit sad to admit,” she continued, “but when I got fed up of being confined indoors I used to find an Irish Pub and just sit there like a barfly until someone interesting came along to have a conversation with.”

“There are worse ways to pass the time,” I consoled.

“But worst of all was the supermarkets. There seemed to be a blanket ban against imported goods, so everything was locally sourced and branded. It seemed nice at first, but when you’re wandering around the aisles trying to figure out what anything actually is, it gets really tiring. Like, ‘is this cottage cheese or semi-skimmed milk?’ Who knows, let’s take a guess.”

“At least the train ran like clockwork,” I concluded. “I wouldn’t have wanted to stay there any longer than necessary.”

“Swiss efficiency to the rescue.”

Top 5 of 2018 - A Crobs Abroad Year in Review

Glasgow, Scotland, UK • December 2018 • Length of Read: 4 Minutes

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If 2017 was a banner year for my writing, bucket list, and travelling, then 2018 will go down as being a springboard for my career and relationships. In the past twelve months, I’ve gone on crazy European trips with new friends, bolstered my CV and professional experience, gone on an epic Himalayan expedition with my dad, and laughed non-stop when around my oldest pals. More meaningful than any of that, however, was meeting the girl of my dreams. As we spend the Christmas period together, I’m more head-over-heels in love with her than ever, and can’t wait to see what’s in store for us down the road. From visiting Harry Potter Warner Bros. Studios in London, to exploring Scotland, to having the absolute pleasure of spending a week on the Greek island where she was born and raised, it’s been a dream ride. Even as a writer, if I wanted to put into words just how much she means to me, I don’t think I could.

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Elsewhere, I’m still as rugby-obsessed as ever, and, thanks to Jay, you can add the Marvel Cinematic Universe to my couch-potato viewing. Far from being a lazy year, however, I’ve taken my fitness and nutrition to the next level. My CrossFit journey is still in its nascent stages, but I’ve been welcomed into the community with open arms. On the learning front, social psychology is a topic which I’ve dived heavily into in 2018, as well as making an increased effort to read some of the ‘classics’. Three books I couldn’t put down were Bounce by Mathew Syed, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis.

In a nutshell, 2018 has been a year of pleasant, unexpected change. And is that not what life’s all about? The excitement of the unknown. How boring would it be if we knew exactly how the next ten, twenty, or thirty years will pan out? All I can control is what happens in the present, and at the moment it’s going pretty damn good. But this blog post isn’t about that, it’s a reflection on the past. So here they are, my top five moments of 2018:  

  • Relaxing with my beautiful girlfriend in her hometown in Greece

  • Trekking to Everest Base Camp in Nepal

  • Winning the Anglo-Celtic Cup golf tour in Portugal

  • Catching up with friends in Denmark

  • Visiting the Taj Mahal in India

Taj Mahal (Bucket List #57)

Agra, India • November 2018 • Length of Read: 6 Minutes

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I perused the breakfast buffet with a disgruntled look on my face, the smell of spices splitting my nostrils as I lifted the silver hot plate covers one by one to be faced with a spectrum of colourful curries; a welcome sight had I been spending a Saturday night out with the lads and there were beers involved, but less desirable at 8am on a muggy Sunday morning in a polluted country with questionable plumbing and hygiene standards. People visit Agra for one thing and one thing only, and it’s most definitely not for ‘brunch’.

Cobbling together an assortment of vegetarian and savoury snacks, I took first pick of the twenty empty tables in the restaurant, put down my plate, and left to get some fruit juice and a coffee. When I returned about seventeen seconds later, there was a pot-bellied Indian man slumped in a chair at the very place setting I’d reserved. This wasn’t on.

“Eh, can I help you?” I scowled as I approached him, noticing that my own breakfast had been brushed to the other end of the table.

“Hello,” he smiled, bobbing his head. “Oh, where you sitting here?”

I slowly and deliberately looked around, the restaurant deserted apart from the twice-as-many-as-necessary number of waiters each doing the job of half a man to compensate for the over-employment. “Yes,” I answered in somewhat disbelief. “If I’m interrupting something, however,” I continued, sarcasm dripping from every syllable, “I can move elsewhere?”

“Thanks very much,” he said with no hint of irony before handing me my plate.

“Cheeky bastard,” I muttered under my breath as Dad appeared from the room upstairs.

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We were on a father and son tour of India’s Golden Triangle; a three-city round trip taking in the sights and tourist attractions from Delhi to Agra to Jaipur. And despite the hostilities at breakfast, as soon as we got in our driver’s lemon-scented Toyota and met our guide for the day, I began to feel rather zestful. We were on our way to visit the Taj Mahal, a palatial mausoleum and one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

Commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the ‘Crown of the Palace’ was built to house the tomb of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Dominating the hazy skyline from the south bank of the Yamuna River, the Taj Mahal complex covers an area of 42 acres and took in excess of 20,000 employees approximately 21 years to complete. In addition to the ivory-white backdrop of Princess Diana’s iconic bench photograph, there are gardens, a guesthouse, secondary tombs, and four ginormous minaret towers. Present day cost adjusted for inflation: circa $1billion.

Passing through the ticket inspection gate of my third ‘wonder’ was like entering a portal to another dimension. I’d already trekked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru and taken in the same vista of Rio de Janeiro as Christ the Redeemer, but both of them had rightfully felt like cultural extensions of the countries in which they were constructed. The bubble of tranquillity and serenity that housed the Taj Mahal, on the other hand, felt somewhat eerie in comparison to the chaos and poverty that laid outside of its high, guarding walls. The sounds of car horns and beggars were muted, instead replaced by the chitter chatter of excited tourists, all trigger-happy with their camera phones and DSLR lenses in the hope of getting that perfect social media snap.  Even our guide was in on the action, more concerned about getting us an album of holiday pictures as opposed to providing informative historic dialogue. #India #Culture.

The couple of hours we spent wandering around the grounds in the early-morning heat, however, were extremely pleasant, and I was in awe of the intricate details encased in the brickwork of the domed mausoleum; everything impeccably symmetrical and thought-out to the nth degree.  Visiting the Taj certainly hasn’t inspired me to give any additional thought just yet to the funeral care of my loved ones, but has instilled in me a greater desire to leave something of value behind on this Earth, or elsewhere in the Universe, that will benefit others when I’ve moved on to the afterlife.

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As soon as we exited the complex, the bubble well and truly burst. Dodging dehydrated and slouch-humped camels, motorbikes with entire families perched on the back like amateur trapeze artists, and health-and-safety rulebook breaking construction works, we made it to our lunch stop. The tour briefing had stated that lunch could be eaten at our ‘own preferred place of choice’, but nepotism wasn’t going to go into hiding that easily. As Dad and I sat down and tucked into our curries, our guide left with the restaurant owner, the pair chatting away like old school buddies.

“Are you finished, Sir?” the waiter asked Dad when he returned to replenish our drinks. “May I clear your plate?”

With a mouth full of food, knife and fork in each hand, and a substantial amount of curry and rice still left on his plate, Dad looked up at the waiter like he was from another planet and almost spat out his lunch. “Eh, no.”

Neither of us could get our head around the immense contrast to Western culture that is India was proving to be; none more blatantly stark than when it came to manners or tipping. From personal experience, it felt that a staggeringly large percentage of locals we met during our trip were just trying to get money out of us. Bellboy rips your bag out your hands and carries it 5 metres – wants a tip. Hotelier holds the door for you upon arrival – wants a tip. Toilet attendant hides paper and then tears it off strip by strip for your use –wants a tip. Guide takes you to his friend’s souvenir shop and demos marble-shaping techniques – wants a tip. It really did start to drain my patience very quickly.

“What’s there to see in Delhi?” I asked our driver when he dropped up back off at the hotel that night, having spent the afternoon dodging the crowds at the spectacular Agra Fort and the underwhelming Baby Taj; as impressive as a Lego construction when compared to its big brother.

“Traffic,” he replied bluntly.

I couldn’t help but let out a chuckle. That was the most honest answer anyone had given us all day.

Exploring Athens

Athens, Greece • August 2018 • Length of Read: 9 Minutes

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I took a sip of wine and a warm smile broke out across my face. The muffled sounds of Athens on a Saturday night rose up from the street below, hot young millennials decked in their finest wears making their way across the plaza to the trendiest bars and clubs where overzealous bartenders awaited to pour hastily-made cocktails and slip in a couple of pick-up lines in the hope of stealing a phone number. From our rooftop restaurant, we had an unrestricted view of the Acropolis; the ancient citadel sat in all its glory atop the rocky outcrop and lighting up the metropolis that it has proudly lorded over for centuries. It was a stunning setting, but I really only had eyes for the girl sitting opposite me. We’d been together for four sweet months and she’d invited me to Greece so that we could explore her homeland together. As she blew me a kiss from across the table I melted a little inside; the luckiest man in the world.

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Eva’s friend had kindly given us the keys to her apartment whilst she was out of town, and after a back-breaking night’s sleep on the fold-out sofa, the place so small that it didn’t even have a bedroom, we casually woke up the next morning, hopped in our rental car, and set the sat-nav for the city centre. Air-conditioning at full-blast and the sun hanging high in the hazy blue sky, a day of history and culture lay head.

Now, I’m a nervous driver as it is; the pressure of having to park outside my school gates under the watchful gaze of my peers just hours after the L-plates had been ripped off my car only the first in long line of moments that I’ve found myself sweating behind the wheel. Put me on the opposite side of the road, however, with a pounding headache, unfamiliar Highway Code, and the navigation of Stevie Wonder, and I’ll begin to panic. As the weather approached mid-thirties, I started to get very hot and bothered indeed.

“You want to take a right here, then go left,” said Eva as we approached a roundabout, having turned off Google’s perfectly adequate automated driving assistant and taken it upon herself to dictate the directions. As I flicked the indicator and pulled out into the junction, however, narrowly avoiding a rampant local and getting an earful of aggressive honking for my troubles, Eva began to question my ability to understand basic instructions.

“I said to go over there,” she pointed, no help at all for someone with their sight set firmly on the chaos of capital city traffic. “Right, then left.”

“You mean straight ahead?” I corrected her, somewhat bemused, but more irritated. “Even, ‘take the second exit’ would have been suitable.”

“Whatever,” she dismissively scowled before returning to her duties. “It’s re-routed us so you’ll need to turn left in 200m.”

As the narrow streets passed by I tried to calculate based on sight and sense when 200m might be, not bothering to question why Eva couldn’t have just told me that it was the fourth on the left. Having to project distances in my head really wasn’t helping the migraine going on inside my skull but considering that she didn’t even have a license I was willing to concede to ignorance. All things considered, Eva had the patience of a saint, and as I pulled into the parking garage at our destination she even hopped out to get me some painkillers and water from a nearby pharmacy. We’re such a great match.

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Of all the buildings in the Acropolis of Athens, the most famous and iconic is The Parthenon, a former temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patron of the city that bears her name. With Eva taking on the role of personal tour guide, we made our way hand-in-hand around the heritage site as she mustered up stories and facts from Greek history that she’d been taught in school. Off the back of my visit, I read Stephen Fry’s quite-brilliant book Mythos, an accessible re-telling of the Greek myths for a wider audience. If you wish to learn a bit more about Greek history, it’s an ideal starting point.

Steering our way through the selfie stick-waving crowds, dozens of photos stored in our own camera phones, we came down the winding hill from the citadel and got lost in the bustling cobbled streets before re-appearing at Eva’s favourite restaurant. I let my moro mou order away, proud to be the privileged guest of a local among throngs of confused faces. The feast that duly turned up was fit for a king and queen and we tucked into the tzatziki, kebabs, salad and grilled cheese with the appetite of famine-struck villagers; the captivating conversation put on pause as the chewing began.

Stomach’s bulging, we headed in the opposite direction of the Acropolis Museum for approximately half-an-hour before the chief navigator of this disoriented operation discovered that we were actually walking in the completely wrong direction. Had Eva been the captain of a historic fleet setting sail to discover a new world there would have been a mutiny on-board before the lead vessel had even disappeared from view of the port.

Once eventually in the air-conditioned paradise of the museum, an impromptu subway journey required to get us back on track, we took a journey through the ages, three floors of meticulously restored artefacts, paintings and sculptures bringing to life the ancient civilisation that gifted the world so much in terms of language, science, philosophy, and religion.

“Hey, look at that,” said Eva, pointing upwards to the Perspex walkway of the second floor that ran above. I had no clue what she was indicating towards, but it couldn’t have been the view that immediately caught my attention.

“Are you looking up that woman’s skirt?” she gasped, noticeably and hypocritically holding her gaze for a moment too long.

“You told me to,” I argued in a rock-solid defence as strong as the columns holding up the classical order.

“At the statue, yes,” she laughed. “Maybe I should get you out of here before you cause any more trouble.”

“The statues are all naked anyway,” I persisted as we stopped to throw pennies in the wishing well at the museum entrance. “At least that person had clothes on.”

“Very good, very good. Come on, I want us to be on time for dinner with my parents. Feeling nervous yet?”

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Eva grew up in Nea Artaki, a small port town on the island of Evia, the country’s second-largest after the better-known Crete. Connected to the mainland by a bridge, we made the journey in just over an hour, my palms getting sweatier each mile we drew closer to our destination. I love this girl and really wanted to make a good impression with her mother and father. Thankfully, we weren’t actually going to be staying with them, just popping round for dinner. Instead, we’d been given access to Eva’s countryside summer home twenty minutes further north. A shower, a pressed shirt, and a dash of cologne later, I was as ready as I ever would be to face the music. As the doorbell went, I took a big gulp.

“Hello Crobs,” beamed her dad as I crossed the threshold and handed him the bottle of mass-produced Johnnie Walker whisky I’d picked up in the airport. Not quite the Hebridean malt he would have preferred, but at the bargain price of €18, I couldn’t complain. I wanted to see how our initial meeting went before introducing him to the good stuff. A kiss on each cheek was the traditional welcome, and that’s all I had for Eva’s mum after Eva had realised too late that the flower shop I was going to pick up a bouquet from had shut down months prior.

“Thank you very much for inviting me,” I smiled before pausing to take in the manic around me. Far from meeting just her parents, Eva’s sister, uncle, grandmother, sister’s boyfriend, and sister’s boyfriend’s brother had all made themselves present for the occasion. You wouldn’t be seeing so many of my family members together outside of Christmas Day. My arrival was seemingly quite the event.

“It’s our pleasure,” answered Eva’s dad, who was slightly more apt in the English language. “Would you like a beer? Greek beer is much better than Scottish beer.”

“I won’t argue with that,” I laughed, perhaps a bit too loudly for the situation. “Yes, please.”

Handing me a Heineken, a symbol of everything Dutch, I was more than a little confused as I took a seat at the dinner table. ‘It must be the language barrier,’ I pondered to myself as my eyes and nose took in the succulent buffet spread out before us. Eva had encouraged me that all I needed to do was nod and say ‘yes’ whenever food was offered my way and everything would be ola kala, OK.

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And it was. Eva’s extended family were welcoming in such a homely and generous way that I immediately felt ingrained as a new member of the clan. Every ounce of dread and apprehension quickly left my body as I tucked into the mountain of food in front of me. Eva switched from tour guide to translator, and we laughed and joked away for the rest of the evening. A delicious homemade dessert was accompanied by a trip down memory lane as we peered through albums of old family photos, and, in return, I told silly anecdotes about growing up in Scotland. They could see how much I meant to their youngest daughter… and how much she meant to me.

“Thanks so much for inviting me here,” I whispered to Eva as we lay in bed that night.

“Thanks so much for agreeing to come,” she whispered back, a warm smile breaking out across her face.