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Something in the air on Athens adventure

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Flying into Athens, I was brought to tears at the aerial view of this city I had no connection to, no history with, had never been to before. I intentionally cued up a song that made me emotional – Cat Stevens, I think – to play as we began the descent.

often find flying makes me feel cinematic and theatrical and I like to lean into that impulse, indulging the grandiosity, staring out the window, crying in a way which is neither sad nor happy exactly, just from the intensity of how it feels to move freely about the earth.

Travelling to Greece for three months in that autumn of 2016, I felt this sensation of lucky freedom more than ever, arriving as I was with a new purpose. I was going to write a book.

I had lived in London for a little over a year and was making very little money scraping together stints of temp work and remote admin jobs, but this did seem to mean I was seeing more of the world than I had when I lived a comparatively steady and regularly-waged life back in Dublin.

As long as you didn’t mind occupying whatever storage space your long-suffering friends could spare you and living mainly out of a suitcase, there were lots of places you could go to live for free or very cheaply.

I looked after cats, mainly, or just the houses themselves, in Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, Amsterdam, and found that it suited my open-ended confusion about how to live. It felt less desperate, more directional, than doing the same thing stuck in London, unable to afford most of the things which make it an appealing place.

When I was awarded a grant to work on a book from a foundation in my hometown of Waterford, the Ted and Mary O’Regan Arts Bursary, I knew I could use it to its best advantage outside the UK. The grant was enough to live comfortably in London for perhaps four or six weeks at a push, but there were many places it would last three times that.

I chose Athens more or less at random, having chatted to a friend weeks earlier, an Athenian who divided her time between there and London. I sourced a well-priced sublet in a not especially desirable area, gave up my room in London and packed a bag. I packed 10 books I hoped would serve as inspiration and influence on my own writing and a thin blue rug which I brought everywhere I went, inspired by a Jeanette Winterson quote which reads: “When I left home at 16, I bought a small rug. It was my roll-up world. Whatever room, whatever temporary place I had, I unrolled the rug. It was a map of myself. Invisible to others, but held in the rug, were all the places I had stayed – for a few weeks, for a few months. On the first night anywhere new, I liked to lie in bed and look at the rug to remind myself that I had what I needed even though what I had was so little.”

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A street in the Plaka district in Athens A street in the Plaka district in Athens

A street in the Plaka district in Athens

A street in the Plaka district in Athens

Immediately, stepping out of the airport into the midnight heat, I loved Athens. I loved that the quality of even the actual air felt different and denser than any I had known elsewhere in Europe. I loved my neighbourhood, rundown and lacking in remarkable attractions as it was – my heart sang gently at the sight of elderly men sitting on the pavements outside their homes playing checkers and drinking and smoking.

Finally, a place whose temperament and schedule suited my own, where I could wake up at 10am without feeling I had wasted the day, and sit out reading and writing until the early hours of the morning.

And I loved that I did not know anything here, not even the language beyond the most basic of necessities, so that I had to pay attention and be present, so that I couldn’t retire within myself in public places as I was able to do elsewhere.

I spent much of my spare time walking the city over and back, becoming misty- eyed and sentimental at the ruins as the sun was setting, trying to learn the patterns of meandering neighbourhoods. Even the most absolutely touristic areas and moments – the square in Monastiraki packed with vendors of hot nuts and squeaky toys and postcards and flags, all illuminated by the lights of the Acropolis above – still felt relaxed and worth being around.

Usually areas of highly concentrated tourism make me feel a little strung out and eager to pass through them, but here I felt no animosity towards the crowds. Why wouldn’t they want to be here? I did, too. One night, inside my apartment, I heard the sound of film dialogue bouncing in a courtyard somewhere nearby and went to investigate.

I found an outdoor cinema and waited for its second showing of the night, stepping into what felt like a large family garden to watch The Champ. I bought popcorn and a beer and lit a cigarette and thought, “I am perfectly happy”.

I was learning to be on my own, which was a part of learning how to sustain the momentum of writing a whole novel. I had some friends visit over the three months, but for the most part, I was by myself.

Being by myself was a concept I had previously found alarming, borderline unbearable even, and that was one reason I’d decided to come here where there was no real chance to socialise even if I wished to. My need to be out and seeing people all the time stopped me from writing in a material sense, taking my time and energy, but it also made it mentally more difficult. Trying to keep distracted and in constant momentum prevented the sort of slow-burning contemplation and insight I knew I needed to access to write the book I wanted.

Now, with nobody else to see, I spent time with myself and the work. I didn’t beat myself up if I didn’t get out the desired number of words in a day. I sat with what was there and tried not to demand too much of it. I woke in the mornings and ate yoghurt on the balcony and read and made notes and got an hour or two of writing in before my walking would begin. I would return to my work in the long, lazy evening, sometimes taking it with me to a cafe down the street where they served an outrageously generous array of complementary sandwiches and fruit with your coffee.

A few days a week I made my way to an inconveniently located little English language bookshop on a dusty street in the middle of empty office blocks and loaded up on reading material. I brought that with me on the tram that went to the coast and alighted on a beach which was unremarkable to locals, nothing compared to the islands, but which was beautiful to me. It made me feel peaceful and content, the cheap food and beers at the snack stand, how much light there was and how it fell so wonderfully, the swimming and the low murmur of sunbathers chatting to each other across deck chairs.

It had given me so much this place – the solitude I needed to work well, but also the happiness that I needed to be strong enough to write what I was writing, to reflect on past mistakes and suffering.

It meant so much to me that I wanted to give my narrator some of what I was experiencing too, and on the beach one day I had a thought and began to write, saying to myself, “I think she ends up in Athens”.

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'Acts of Desperation' by Megan Nolan 'Acts of Desperation' by Megan Nolan

‘Acts of Desperation’ by Megan Nolan

‘Acts of Desperation’ by Megan Nolan

‘Acts of Desperation’ by Megan Nolan is published by Jonathan Cape and is available to order from bookshops now

Sunday Independent

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