Nearly a decade ago, I met a girl on a staircase while I was a student in Leeds. I assumed that we lived in the same building because we had passed each other several times and on this one particular occasion, she stopped me and asked, “Who are you?” I replied by asking, “Who are you?” and that was the end of our conversation.
Several months later, we still weren’t friends, but knew vaguely of each other. As chance would have it, we both signed up to do a charity hitchhike to Morocco and ended up going together – it came about completely by accident. The night before we were due to leave, my friend came into my flat to see if I had packed and found me asleep on a bean bag in the kitchen, a video game controller fallen by my side. She cried and phoned her mother to tell her that she didn’t want to travel with me. She didn’t know how little I plan things in advance back then.
During the hitchhike however, we became good friends. Except for one particular evening when we found ourselves at a motorway service station after dark. It was February and cold out, but I wanted to continue while she did not. The cold overcame me and I resolved to spending the night in the service station. My friend slept on the floor of the motorway services. I sat there, stoutly resolute that I absolutely would not sleep on the floor of a motorway service station.
How things change!
After the hitchhike, we ended up living together for almost three years.
Fast forward a decade. It is now I who sleeps anywhere, eats from bins, and regularly lives a vagabond life while my friend has worked hard and developed a good career. Yet a lot has not changed – we are the same people underneath, friends for a decade. When we met, I thought decades were things that you read about in history books.
This summer we decided to head to Greece together and I asked if it would be OK for us to go without plans and hitchhike until we found somewhere we liked, then sleep outside. Unlike most people, she was fully game (for which I am very grateful).
From Athens airport, we hitched a ride with a lovely young couple who toured us around the centre of Athens, ate dinner with us, then dropped us at the ferry terminal. There we sat all night with a can of beer, waiting for morning to come. When it did, we boarded a ferry and headed to the island of Naxos.
At the time, I knew nothing of Naxos. I now know that the vast majority of people on the beaches are completely naked, most of them over seventy. It is very possible to walk a mile along a fully loaded beach without seeing an item of clothing, other than sunglasses.
We hitched a few rides south until we were far from the main town and then began to walk along the beaches. As night fell, we slung up our hammocks in the wooden shelter of a resort that had a big sign saying, ‘Private Property.’ As ever, you only get in trouble if you get caught.
The next day we walked south until we found a collection of part-built villas that were for sale. “Let me just have a look,” I said. One had a fully tiled room with a balcony that overlooked the sea. “This is it.”
We had found our home, our big free Greek villa. For the next two weeks, we lived in this abandoned property, paying nothing (my favourite price), enjoying the sunsets, drinking local wine on our balcony, and cooking dinner on our beer can stove. There was an almost private beach two minutes walk away, a toilet five minutes walk away, and we hung our hammocks in the trees by the villa and slept there comfortably each night. By the door of the villa was a running tap. It started cold, which I drank, then ran warm, which we could shower in if we so chose.
Showering is overrated.
So there we were, nearly ten years on, having a new adventure. It all started from a little hitchhike.