On Monday I returned from a 10-night holiday in Crete and I found it to be a pretty life-changing experience. Not for the endless sunshine and cocktails, or for the beautiful sunsets. Not even for the many stray cats that I managed to feed during my trip.
It was life-changing because I met an elderly chap called Ken.
Ken (pictured above with my boyfriend Dan) was staying at the same hotel in Crete as us.
He turned up two-thirds of the way through our holiday and had literally just got off the coach from the airport when we passed him and overheard him telling a rep that he'd been married twice throughout his life but both of his wives had died.
As such, he was staying in the hotel on his own.
Over the next couple of days following his arrival, we spotted Ken every now and then.
He was shuffling around the hotel and nobody really seemed to talk to him or acknowledge him. The staff did, of course, but I was astounded that all of the other guests either just point blank ignored him or didn't even realise he was there.
Seeing him going about his daily business alone made me feel sad and I desperately wanted to speak to him, but I also thought he might think I was a weirdo if I just walked on up to him and introduced myself.
After we spotted him in the hotel restaurant one evening, eating alone, I became seriously overwhelmed with sadness. We'd just finished eating our dinner and my boyfriend could see me watching him with welling eyes.
It was at this point that Dan told me to just go and speak to him, otherwise I'd hugely regret it.
During this time, Ken had got up to go and get himself an orange juice. We were about to leave anyway so I figured that I might as well just go over and say hello, if nothing else.
He was pouring himself an orange juice when I walked over and asked him how his holiday was going. He looked up, a huge smile on his face, and it made me feel instantly at ease.
I introduced myself and mentioned that Dan and I would be in the bar afterwards if he'd like to come for a drink. Another huge beam appeared across his face, he chuckled a bit and then said "yes dear, that'd be lovely".
That evening we sat in the bar, drinking away, and spent three hours hearing about his life - which was fascinating.
We heard of how he'd grown up in Hackney and had moved out of London in the early 1930s, aged seven. (From this, we deduced that he must now be in his nineties).
We also heard of how he'd left school for a job in the sugar export trade and that was the company he had stayed with right on up until retirement.
We found out that Ken's first wife had died suddenly in the home they shared while they were sat together in the living room. It was tough to hear, but you could see and hear just how much he loved her in the way he spoke of her.
Ken explained that after a few years of being alone, he met his second wife via the pen pals section in Saga magazine - a publication for the over-50s. He said he spotted her picture and thought she looked nice so he decided to write to her.
They met up after exchanging a few letters and that was that, it was love and they moved in together shortly afterwards. They were together for more than 20 years, but sadly a few years back she was struck down with illness after illness. She later died.
His stories made me realise just how lucky I was in life to have people around me who I loved, and who loved me back. I couldn't imagine losing two people like that. It was a very sobering experience.
After three hours of chit chat, we walked Ken back to his hotel room and vowed to see him again before we left. Two days later (on our last evening there) we all had dinner together in the hotel's restaurant, which was lovely.
We sat, ate and chatted about what foods we liked, as well as what plans he had for the rest of his trip (he was staying for a fortnight).
We spoke about his daughter who used to play piano and how he met both of his wives through letter writing. We talked about where he'd travelled in the world and what he was up to now in his retirement.
Ken explained that he liked going on holiday but, after the death of his second wife, he found it could be really lonely - especially as a lot of people keep themselves to themselves. He was so appreciative of our company.
It was nice to not be so completely and utterly wrapped up in my own life and invite someone else in for a change. Especially with someone as interesting and lovely as Ken.
I learned many things from my short time spent with him, but I guess what the whole experience really made me realise is that there are a lot of Kens out there. And if we all looked up from our phones, were more aware of those around us and endeavoured to be friendlier and chat a bit more, then it would probably make a lot of people feel way less alone in the world.
N.B. I posted a shorter version of Ken's story on my Facebook page and was surprised to see that more than 1,200 people liked it and more than 150 people shared it.
I'm glad it resonated with a lot of people and if it makes just one more person invite a stranger like Ken into their lives then my work here is done.
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