I have never celebrated the spirit of Christmas but as my birthday falls the day before New Year on the 30th, I have always wanted to be somewhere special.
Three winters ago I took myself off to the Hotel Myers in Prenzlauerberg, Berlin in the cold for an uneventful Christmas as all the shops and restaurants legally have to close for two days before my best friend Pauline arrived to celebrate New Year at my favourite local restaurant the Russian 'Pasternak'.
But was it uneventful? No way! I spent every evening with the attractive sex obsessed Turkish night receptionist sipping posh German tea in the hidden back lounge while he watched pornography on his mobile phone! Of course he wanted to share the erotica with me. Why me? Did he know I had dealt in erotica in Paris? Did he know that Australia's number one Madam, Mariane had been in my house in London? Did he know that I knew Brighton's number one lady of the night? How could he guess? He certainly aroused my curiosity. By the time Pauline arrived to celebrate my birthday a week later, I had 'woken up' from years of slumber. I felt like an adventurous naughty young girl again but I had also made a new decision. To become a snow bird. Never to spend another cold damp winter in Brighton the city of grey skies and darkness. I wanted sunshine, light, warmth and energy. I wanted to be reborn!
I found myself in Chania, West Crete for three weeks in September 2013. A chance encounter at the Jewish New Year dinner at Ella's restaurant put me in touch with the woman who later became my Greek 'sister', Georgia. Through her I went to view a traditional Cretan flat to rent. Before I could blink, I had paid a month's deposit. It was a three bed apartment in a Turkish house around the corner from my adopted synagogue in what had been the old Jewish ghetto. My life was about to change. A new chapter was about to begin. An interfaith international meeting place to be penetrated. A small community on my doorstep on a Friday night. The feeling took me back to my childhood in Liverpool where I grew up within the Jewish community. I regained my hidden Jewish identity buried for decades.
I improved my conversational Greek. I found time to think and write. I made new friends and felt a sense of belonging. I eventually found an English speaking winter writing group in Souda, the town with the international naval base and even received applause for the first time in my life after performing one of my humorous vignettes. Humour being the theme that evening. Later the same pieces would be published on a humorous website with my permission.
I was torn between two cities. Chania and the university city of Rethymnon where I also had new friends and connections. I stayed in the international 'Olga's Pension' owned by 82 year old vital George who had worked on skyscrapers in Manhattan and proudly told me he had worked for the Mafia. Stella, his younger wife, cooked all day long in her kitchen adjoining the pension called 'Stella's Kitchen' serving copious amounts of home made daily dishes to locals, students and resident foreigners.
Which city would I return to the following winter? I was so sure it would be Chania that I left a big carrier bag, a winter coat and two suitcases bulging with clothes. They were deposited wiith a French Greek friend called Anna with an enchanting dress shop called Octopus. I would go there daily to get my French conversation fix and to stroke all the resident cats in her shop nestling amongst the hanging dresses and on top of all the available surfaces.The crazy cat lady of Chania. I even found a hanging plaque in English saying 'crazy cat lady' to hang on the wall of her lovely shop.
But at the back of my mind was Salonica - The Jerusalem of The Balkans. I had read the informative book 'Salonica - city of ghosts'. How to get Jewish contacts in the city? The answer came unexpectedly from Shoreham near Brighton at a tabletop fair in the community centre. A chance meeting with a beautiful colour therapist who turned out to be Jewish Greek from Salonica started the ball rolling. I eventually spent a month in the city of my dreams in September 2014, birthplace of Ataturk the father of modern day Turkey. I was en route to volunteering at a Transpersonal psychology conference in Crete in October which in turn had a snowball effect and I learned a lot from the fascinating therapists I encountered.
However before this exotic cultural journey, I spent a month in Portugal. A chance meeting in Oporto changed my direction. I met a charming mature 22 year old Romanian academic called Elena. By chance she would also be studying in Salonica for a month on an Erasmus programme when I was there. Not only that but we turned out to be living close to each other in Papafi near the university and so were able to spend quite some time together. We adored each other. She was like the grand daughter I never had!
When I asked my new friend where she would be next, she replied Antalya, Southern Turkey for 6 months teaching at the university. Why not come? She suggested. Well why not? The choice to go on exciting journeys into the unknown. The power of travel in territories with languages I did not speak. The challenge of the unknown path and the encounters on the road into the sunset of the ageing process. But I was becoming and looking younger! Yes, I would change my direction once again.
I had met a hotelier from Side, near Antalya, earlier that year and he had described the climate which was similar in winter to Crete. The island had been united with Turkey under the Ottoman rule and so some of the architecture was the same as Crete.Also the difficult Turkish language was not unfamiliar to my ear because I had attempted a course in Brighton two years earlier because there was no demand for Greek classes at the college.
In February 2015 I sped off to Turkey desperate for the sun and a new beginning in unchartered waters. I found it in Kaleici, the old part of Antalya, with its enchanting balconies and patios. I opened another sesame door and entered a world with biblical history and ancient civilisation that I was unaware of. I encountered another breed of travellers, historians, researchers, photographers, academics and archeologists.
By the time I left two months later, I had new friends, new names like Lady Gaga, Margaret Thatcher and the one I loved best, Sultana Jilliana. I had always been called The Queen but never the Sultana before. The name fitted my personality and new look. I had reinvented myself once more. I had previously worn exotic Israeli head dresses which my husband hated and banned! Now he was dead and gone so I gravitated to a religious shop where I espied lovely turbans for the modern Moslem woman without the veil called bone. After that I was called the Sultana and I looked and felt younger.
I vaguely thought of going back to Istanbul the following year but I also had to return to Chania to see my 'sister' and pick up my suitcases. I felt more connected to the sensual textures and colours of Turkey but preferred the Greek language. What to do? Where to base myself?
The decision came out of the blue. One fine day marvelling the panorama sipping my daily nar cay, events changed the course of my direction because of a black and white cat!
To be continued.....