I started dipping into the book over dinner at the enchanting Thoukididis Guest House in Kapesovo, one of the 46 villages of the remote, mountainous area of Zagoria in north-west Greece, close to the Albanian border.
I had started my trip in Corfu. So had the author.
I was seduced by Zagoria. So was the author.
I was hooked by his story. He by the village of Koukouli.
Roy Hounsell had run out of advertising ideas. Disillusioned, he and his wife Effie had left England for Corfu in 1980, with no plan and in search of adventure. Several years later, having fallen into a swimming pool business, they thought Corfu was being over-developed.
By chance, they visited Zagoria on the mainland, and were immediately attracted by its remoteness, traditions and serenity. After many challenges finding and buying a property to restore, they moved to the village of Koukouli in 1991.
The engaging, sometimes wryly cynical, always acutely observed story – The Papas and the Englishman – ends with Roy and Effie about to rent out a couple of rooms in their extended home, but firmly embedded in village life and accepted into the friendly community.
As chance would have it, my own journey – 25 years later – would take me to their village. On a July morning as sizzling as a Greek souvlaki skewer, I left Kapesovo and walked way down through forested hillsides, to the ancient stone bridge of Kokkori just below Kipi, and onwards to Koukouli.
At a traditional taverna under the welcoming shade of a vast plane tree, I guzzled an icily cold bottle of water and asked the owner if he had heard of Roy Hounsell.
“I’ll show you the house if you like, once you’ve finished your drink.”
“You mean he still lives here?”
“Yes. But his wife Effie….she is kaput. Two years ago.”
Refreshed – and intrigued – I followed him through the traditional stone alleyways of a Zagorian village, terraced and climbing the natural contours of the Ottoman settlement. He pulled on the rope dangling down in front of some elegant, solid wooden gates, releasing the rustic lock mechanism and allowing us into the spacious hidden courtyard.
“Roy“, he called.
A woman appeared. “Go up“, she said.
The bar owner nodded in the direction of some stone steps leading to the right hand one of two similar, handsome, traditional Zagorian houses.
I looked tentatively into the doorway and there, to my left, down a few steps in a slightly sunken room, was Roy Hounsell, author of The Papas and the Englishman.
“Come in, come in“, he said, as though welcoming an old friend.
He was propped up in bed, cigarette in hand, whisky bottle on the cluttered bedside table, wearing pyjamas and a slightly louche look. Rather like Peter O’Toole after a night out with Oliver Reed.
I tried to shake his hand. He offered me the other one, awkwardly. “Had a stroke. About 4 years ago.”
The woman – his housekeeper, I think – appeared. “What would you like? Coffee? Tea? Whisky?”
“A Greek coffee would be lovely. Thank you.”
A few minutes later, she brought a small tray laden with coffee as strong as the EU position on Greek debt, a glass of iced water and 2 slices of homemade cake, as I chatted to Roy.
For close to an hour, this charming and entertaining man regaled me with stories about his life, the book, his contacts, his health and his love of the village he and Effie had made home.
He answered a stranger’s direct – and often personal – questions unflinchingly.
“Do you get back to England?”
“Not any more. What’s the point? Nothing there for me.”
He gave me his publisher’s contact details so that I could get a copy of the book and read it properly.
He gave me his own phone number so that I could contact him again.
But most of all, he gave me a warm glow. Roy is obviously no longer in the best of health, is without his beloved Effie and unable to drive, but even now – propped up in bed, coughing and uncomfortable – he exuded a lust for life and for language.
“Have you read Bill Bryson? Funny writer.”
I thanked Roy for his spontaneous hospitality, wished him luck and headed back to the taverna, under the shade of a vast plane tree.