As she’s made an honorary citizen, bestselling novelist Victoria Hislop raises a glass of ouzo to the country that stole her heart 40 years ago
She had scarcely travelled anywhere at all. Yet, recently separated from my father and keen for adventure, my mother, Mary, decided to whisk my sister and me to Athens.
It was the late 1970s. I was 17 years old — and promptly fell in love at first sight.
Not with a dark-eyed local boy, but with Greece itself. That first experience of clear, bright Aegean light and delicious warmth from the Mediterranean sun has remained with me ever since.
My mother approached that first visit with her usual energy. We ticked off with appreciation every archaeological site in the guidebook, going round on buses, frequently getting lost, trying to decipher street signs in an unfamiliar alphabet and almost melting in the August heat. It was hot, confusing and noisy, but I adored everything about it.
After we’d unpicked what we could of Athens, we took a ferry to the island of Paros, which was all whitewashed villages and blue-domed churches. Having spent most previous summer holidays on the pebbly beach at Bognor Regis, the soft white sand was a revelation.
My mother lit the spark which ignited my lifelong Greek passion and inspired my bestselling novel, The Island, set on Spinalonga, a tiny island off the coast of Crete, which was the last leper colony in Europe.
I thought of Mum last week when my phone rang at 10am on a quiet Thursday morning. I answered the unknown number that flashed up on my screen and heard the unexpected words: ‘I have the Prime Minister for you.’
The person on the line was speaking Greek so I knew it wasn’t going to be Boris Johnson. Then I heard what, for me, has become a familiar voice: that of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek PM (I know his authoritative tones from the Greek equivalent of the Today programme which I tune into each morning).
Mr Mitsotakis was calling to offer me Honorary Citizenship of Greece for promoting modern Greek history and culture through my writings.
To say I was thrilled is an understatement. But it was a pity that I couldn’t share it with my mother. The call came in July, almost precisely four months after she died in a care home, aged 92.
Mum was there at the very beginning of my connection with Greece and years later accompanied me on my research trips to Crete. It was a huge pleasure when I had finished writing The Island to dedicate it to her, and I love to think there are at least five million copies of the book around the world dedicated ‘To my mother, Mary’ …