How a Greek Escape Helped Megan Nolan Finish Her Debut Novel ‘Acts of Desperation’

Self-imposed solitude among the ancient beauty of Athens’ squares and the glittering glamour of the islands gave the writer the focus she needed.

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By Megan Nolan

6 March 2021

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hen I chose to come to Greece in 2016, it was for one reason: I needed to be alone. After a frantic year of temping and transitional London house-shares, it was what I wanted above all things. I knew nobody in Greece at all, barring friends of friends I vaguely promised to meet up with but never did, and, crucially, I could afford to live by myself.

I had been given a small bursary from an arts trust in my home town to help me write a book, and I knew if I used it to remain in London it would be gone in weeks, nothing to show in return, evaporated into the ether of harried Pret salad boxes and £5.60 Transport for London charges. There was a sublet in Athens that would afford me three months, and I took off for an autumn. I so loved the place and the quality of my aloneness there that I returned every year since for similar stints, until Covid halted such things.

I have never felt more peaceful and glad to be alive than when I was in Athens and the islands. I am not a solitary person by nature – my self-imposed exile from friendship and community was a measure to make sure I got some work done, rather than a personal preference. And yet I found I was glad of my situation, even when it had time enough to mature into actual loneliness. Athens seemed to me to have the powerful combination of constant conversation and movement with an elegiac melancholy. This melancholy wasn’t negative. Instead it was simply a natural feeling which arose from the awe one feels about beauty which has lasted a very long time. It could and often did bring me to tears just to walk around Plaka at dusk. Filled with tourists though it mostly is, it still had an underpinning peace to it.

‘I have never felt more peaceful and glad to be alive than when I am in Athens and the islands’

I found it more relaxing than most other cities I had spent time in as a woman alone. The late night café and bar culture meant I was rarely walking anywhere too dark or too quiet. Certain neighbourhoods, like the traditionally anarchist area Exarcheia, are known to be vocally anti-tourist, though I lived there for two months and experienced no backlash or discomfort. Locals and staff both tolerated my appalling Greek or lack thereof with good-natured bemusement before telling me what I meant or really wanted. Because of my work, I kept strange hours and luxuriated in my ability to leave the house at midnight and be able to sit outside in the warm breeze eating octopus and drinking small glasses of very cold, cheap, good white wine for hours yet.

Over dinner one evening in 2017 with my then boyfriend and some colleagues of his, a man who came from Greece but who we knew from London insisted that there was no beach in Athens. I had mentioned in passing that I had been to one, but that was impossible, he said. It became clear eventually that what he meant was that the beach I had been to was so worthless compared to what it was like on the beaches of the islands that it did not count as a beach at all. But it is there, 30 minutes from Syntagma Square on a tram, and for the non-native Greek, perfectly wonderful. He was right, though, that the astonishingly clear and beautiful waters of the islands are bewitching and unforgettable. I take ferries to Agistri and Hydra and stay for a week or so at a time. In 2019, I sat at the harbour in Hydra, having recently completed the book I had come to Greece to begin three years earlier, and for many hours I sat there, no phone, no book, just looking at the water and the hills and feeling the lucky weight of my solitude.

Megan Nolan’s debut novel, Acts of Desperation, is out now.

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