This week I am a long long way from The Village, on the other side of Europe. Quite a long way from home, in some ways, but then coming to Greece always feels like a bit of a home-coming too.
The Greek Islands were the first place I experienced Proper Abroad, and I spent many happy weeks island-hopping in the early 1990s.
One thing I have never done before, though, is visit the marine sanctuary on Zakynthos, breeding grounds of the endangered Loggerhead Turtle.
This afternoon we took a boat trip across the ludicrously turquoise waters and we were lucky enough to see some turtles; at the sight of one of the adults surfacing to breathe I made a noise that I have never made before, which is hard therefore to reproduce faithfully in any phonetic way but was something like: ‘Squeeeeaaahhhhh!’
The fact that Loggerheads, dangerously cute as they are, find themselves on the endangered list is frankly unsurprising, given that their methods of reproduction are nothing short of ludicrously complicated.
In very simplified terms, this is what happens: a lady and the gentleman turtle love each other very much and have a very special cuddle in the bay.
The pregnant females swim to shore and then dig their nests in the sand of the beaches along this heavily populated part of the island – but obviously only if the sand is JUST RIGHT. The female then buggers off to sea and a few weeks later, but only if all the conditions JUST RIGHT AGAIN, the eggs hatch and the matchbox sized hatchlings stagger precariously towards sea, dodging predatory birds and tanked-up tourists along the way – for LO in an extraordinary twist of bad luck, the Loggerhead turtles have evolved to carry out their mating activity on a bit of coastline that can only be described as tourist-heaven. They only know the way because they are programmed to head for the strongest light source, which used to be the reflections of the moon and stars on the ocean, right up until that was overtaken by the neon lights of the Moulin Rouge Nite Spot.
The story of the Loggerheads, though, did more than make me shell out a few Euros for a t-shirt that Sparkly Daughter proudly sported for the rest of the day, even though, as she whispered to me later, ‘it really doesn’t go with this skirt AT ALL.’
It wasn’t so much the narrative of those little hatchlings struggling valiantly across the beach with only a one in a thousand chance of surviving to adulthood, even if they dodge the shoreline predators – touching though that is, that still didn’t set me off.
It’s what happens next that moved me. The hatchlings that make it into the sea, they swim away until they are adults. They go somewhere else for the next 25 or so years. Where do they go in all that time? Here’s the thing – no-one knows. These are called The Lost Years. (Maybe they are finding themselves on a beach in Goa; maybe they are hanging out with some really dodgy sea-going types, like porpoises, or perhaps enjoying their freedom working the cruise ships.)
And – here’s the bit that REALLY made my eyes go all misty and my throat all lumpy – after those Lost Years, the turtles are programmed to return to the beach where they hatched. Something in their brains remembers, something about the angles of the stars and the moon or magnetic North or something – and they come home, even they were only ever here for half an hour, the memory is not forgotten over the long intervening years.
Of course, a lot can happen in 25 years whether you are a turtle or not. That empty beach that you struggled along can sprout beach cafes, a rash of sunbeds and a scattering of vomiting Brits. It doesn’t matter – it’s home, and that’s where your brain, and your instinct, will take you.
I know it is horribly sentimental, but this powerful draw to home, for better or worse, is what I see all around me. At times of crisis, or at turning points in our lives, I think we are often drawn back to the place, or the time, or the person imprinted on us in our early, impressionable years. It needn’t be part of your childhood, but the first times seem to be the ones that stick, that you can’t shift.
All the collected experiences and memories of the years that follow – they can seem pale and unimportant in comparison. As middle age approaches, it seems that nothing shines as bright, cuts as deep, holds the heart so much as the things, the places and the people that first did.
I have innumerable examples of this – contemporaries of mine suddenly desperate to find their first lost love, twenty years after they last said goodbye. Broken friendships renewed and patched up, two decades on. And the ceaseless pull to childhood haunts, adolescent passions.
The song “Going Home’ from the wonderful film Local Hero sums this feeling up for me – poignant, sweet, ambivalent. At the end of the film, Macintyre returns home to Texas but is already longing for the Highland fishing village where he has left his heart. (Despite his name, this isn’t even an ancestral pull – his grandparents in the film are Hungarian and chose the name Macintyre because ‘it sounded American’. It’s a beautiful film and one that talks, to me at least, about the search for our home.
Which is partly why I’m here in Zakynthos in the first place, trying to show my daughters why a place that first made my heartbeart quicken as an undergraduate, is still where my mind goes to in quiet moments twenty-mumble years later, and will always be part of the landscape of my heart.