When my 75-year-old aunt, Dina, set me up on a blind date halfway around the world, I thought it was a crazy idea. I had never been on a blind date before, let alone a long-distance one. Yet, in July of 2004, I found myself flying from Montreal to Greece to meet a man I knew only as Mano.
Aunt Dina had been pestering me over the phone for three months about this man on her island. “He’s a musician, a lover of life,” she would say. “All he’s missing is a woman to sing to!” “Oh, Aunt Dina,” I would exclaim as I laughed and rolled my eyes and dismissed her idea as too far-fetched.
But she wouldn’t let up. “He owns a hotel and takes tourists for rides on his sailboat,” she would continue. “But that’s just an excuse to make a living.” Attempting to really seal the deal, she’d say that he “could pass for 25” and had long wavy hair, just like mine. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.
But her persistence paid off. “Okay,” I finally said to her one day. “Let’s do this.” After all, I was 35, and, since my divorce, dating had been relegated to an item on my to-do list. I was tired of the “stare at each other across the room but never approach” scene and of meeting interesting men who just weren’t ready to commit to me—and my young son. I had shut myself off, dismissing any possibilities that came my way even before I gave them a chance. But my aunt made Mano—this carefree music-playing islander—sound so different from the men around me in Canada. And she is such an inspiration herself: Widowed at 63, she is still a hopeless romantic who believes that she will fall in love again.
So that’s how, after an eight-and-a-half-hour flight and a six-hour ferry ride, I found myself in a cab in Crete on a hot July evening, hurtling along narrow winding roads toward a tiny village called Agia Galini, or “Saint Serenity,” close to where my aunt lived—and Mano awaited me. (My son was off having his own adventures with his dad in the United States.)
Around 10 p.m., the cabbie dropped me off at the village café, which doubled as the island’s unofficial customs department since no new arrival passed unnoticed or unquestioned. Suddenly, I was swarmed by villagers, questions coming at me rapid-fire style. “How was your trip?” “What did the cabbie charge?” “Did he make a pass at you?” “Get her some water!” Before I could faint, my aunt the blind-date broker rescued me from the crowd.
Less than an hour later, she announced that Mano was ready to meet me. I pleaded exhaustion as she rummaged through my luggage for a slinky something—but I insisted on going casual in jeans and a yellow summery blouse. Then, much to my horror, my aunt and a carload of villagers accompanied me.
First-date nerves kicked in as I sat with my entourage at a café in the neighbouring village. While they did shots of raki (the local clear grape spirit), I thought back to the brief phone conversation I’d had with Mano before I came out here and how, in his soft, accented voice, he’d said my aunt spoke so highly of me and that he was looking forward to meeting me.
As I waited awkwardly in my wicker chair, alternately crossing and uncrossing my legs, Mano appeared, wearing cotton pants and his shoulder-length hair loose. He greeted everyone with a wide smile and then reached for my hand and kissed it. All the villagers swooned. He wasn’t textbook handsome, but he had an easy, self-assured way about him that intrigued me. After 10 minutes, we ditched the audience and headed toward the pier, where we sat with our legs dangling over the edge.
We chatted about his childhood on the island and tried to push past the awkwardness. He apologized about having to meet with an audience and explained how he disliked everyone knowing everyone’s business and called the lack of privacy “a luxury of island living.” He half-joked about escaping on his sailboat when he needed to get away, giving me a hint that he might be a wandering spirit.
I struggled to compare him to other men I had known. He was smooth and lighthearted, an easy conversationalist. There were no instant sparks, yet a small voice inside my head whispered that I should stay open—maybe it was a slow simmer, like onions caramelizing over low heat. Our date ended with a kiss on both cheeks and a promise to see each other the next day.
The following morning, he invited me for a sailboat ride. As I lay under the masts soaking up the sun, I was able to observe him from the shade of my hat. When I fussed with my windswept hair, he reached over to help me tie it back, and we compared tips on how to untangle hair in the shower. The blowing wind coupled with his low voice forced us to lean in closer, like two children sharing a secret. A few hours later, we returned to shore, invigorated from a day at sea, but I was still unsure of where this was going.
I gave it another week and several more outings—dinner, snorkelling and a night when I stayed at his hotel, albeit in my own room—but the elusive “sizzle” still did not materialize, although I did enjoy his company.
It was time to pack up and congratulate myself for stepping out of my dating comfort zone. My aunt said she understood, but when I said my goodbyes to the other villagers—well, they had opinions! Some said they never saw us together anyway; others said they thought we were meant for each other.
On my last night, Mano and I sat on the veranda at his hotel overlooking the Libyan Sea. We drank raki, and the conversation flowed more easily now that I knew how this story ended: I was leaving; he was staying. We talked about how different our lives were and how improbable it was that I would be able to pick up and move to Crete. Now that the pressure of something happening between us was gone, I was finally fully relaxed in his company. As we chatted, he paused every so often to point out stars, feed me watermelon or slide his hand down my arm. Suddenly, I felt it: the slow simmer. I could almost smell the aroma of those sweet onions sizzling over a low fire, begging to be stirred.
I followed that scent into the hotel room he called home. It was sparsely furnished, with just a bed and a scarflike wall hanging. When his body leaned over mine, his long hair fanned against my face and teased my nose. In that moment, I imagined that this is what it must feel like to make love with me. I smiled at the revelation and delighted at the chance to know it. I let go of my need to scroll to the end of the story before it had even started.
The next morning I left as planned for another island. But five days later, instead of heading home, I returned to Crete, and that caused a lot of excitement in the village. My aunt was especially giddy because it proved her skill as a matchmaker. One villager even asked me if Mano was a good lover. I just smiled and politely declined to answer. I tried not to overthink it as I just wanted to get to know Mano better.
For two more weeks that summer, we hung out on the deck of his boat and in his hotel. Then I returned to Canada, and, for six months, we tried to make a long-distance relationship work. Ultimately, he didn’t want to risk us falling in love and me moving to Crete only to realize that I couldn’t live on the island—and then break his heart. Although I was disappointed (as were my aunt and the whole village), in time, I came to understand that the experience wasn’t only about the prospect of love. The craziness of that long-distance blind date reignited my desire for new experiences. It helped me open the door to feeling more and filtering less. Because Mano was so unlike any of the men I had known, I learned that I could be attracted to someone even if the chemistry wasn’t there at the beginning. This relationship was also the first step in discovering how to open up intimately while still keeping a piece of me for myself—it transformed my post-divorce viewpoint from thinking in terms of “us” to “me.”
After things ended with Mano, another (local!) blind date led to a three-year relationship. Today, I’m happily single—with occasional moments of achy longing for a deeper intimate connection—but I’m always on the lookout for new ways to flex my go-for-it side. One example: my mom-son bucket list. We recently checked off “Take a road trip to see an Eagles game in Philadelphia,” and we’re hoping to strike “Cooking class at the Culinary Institute of America” off soon.
And I continue to take inspiration from Aunt Dina. At 85, she is wonderfully alive and full of zest. She spends half the year in Montreal and the other half in Crete, where she still wears a bikini and gives the villagers an earful if they have anything to say about it. She has never remarried, but she’s still open to falling in love.
About two years ago, she met a man in Crete (who also splits his time between there and Montreal). They hit it off, and he told her he would call her when they were both back in Canada. Well, he never called. A month after she returned to Montreal, she asked me to take her to the breakfast place he goes to on Sundays so she could ask him why.
So we went to stake out the restaurant because she said he had presented himself as a gentleman and she wanted to call him on it! He wasn’t there, but she later got him on the phone and gave him a piece of her mind. She’s a classy, straightforward, doesn’t-mess-around woman. She’s my mentor for growing with grace and guts—and the gifts she has given me linger well beyond that far-flung first date.