My Travels (Guardian, 21 May 2011)

Manoli Foundoulakis, Victoria HislopVictoria Hislop visits a former leprosy colony off Crete

I met Manoli Foundoulakis on 20 January 2007, in a hotel in Crete. It was at exactly six o’clock in the evening. His punctuality was only one of the many differences between Manoli and every other Greek I had ever encountered. We met because I had written a novel set on Spinalonga, a small island off Crete, which was a leprosy colony from 1903 until 1957, and Manoli had been asked to write a foreword to the Greek edition. He was a former leprosy sufferer, and still lived in the village opposite the island.

When I wrote The Island, my complete lack of Greek meant that I had not been able to do any research about the people who had lived on Spinalonga. Everything about the island itself, the patients and the doctors came from my imagination as I sat at my desk back in England. Indeed, Manoli was the first European with leprosy that I had ever met. I had always maintained a firm conviction that those who suffered from this disease would be as funny, clever, charming and wise as anyone else. Why would they not? And in Manoli, I saw how close to the truth my instinct had taken me.

When he emerged from the shadows of the hotel foyer to shake my hand, I was shocked. This was not because of the way he looked as, in spite of the very obvious damage that had been done to his face by the disease, Manoli was still a handsome man. It was more the feeling that a character in my novel had come to life.

I was anxious that Manoli might be critical of the assumptions I had made about the lives of people with leprosy. Instead he thanked me for lifting the stigma that had blighted his life for so many years. However, at that first meeting, someone had to translate every sentence we spoke to each other. I decided there and then that I would find time to learn Greek in order to talk to Manoli. I began my lessons in London shortly afterwards and gradually realised my ambition. (read more)