The Green Bus boomed down Corfu’s major north-south artery, the Ionian Sea on one side and the mountains on the other, whipping past now-clichèd scenes of COVID-era desolation: lounge bars with no patrons, lone swimmers in otherwise deserted pools, white terra-cotta holiday homes left unbooked, shutters closed.
The coach finally swerved into Kavos, and I stepped through the evening heat into what looked like a bespoke theater set for a morality play about Western decline. Pop-up bars, clubs and restaurants, all eerily two-dimensional and exactly alike, lined a single, mile-long beachside strip, around which hundreds of British holidaymakers (there as if delivered directly through a wormhole from Swansea), were cavorting in dumbfounded ecstasy, swilling all manner of chemicals, huffing balloons filled with nitrous oxide and staggering with arms round one another. “I ripped me arse in Kavo!” a young lady sang as she waltzed down the street, trampling over crumpled beer cans and discarded NOS canisters. Over a loudspeaker, a DJ at a club urged revelers to comply, however briefly, with anti-coronavirus measures. “All right, boys and girls, it’s 11:20 now,” he said, in Breakfast Radio-style, BBC English, “so please take a seat because if the police come, we’re going to need everyone in their seats and socially distanced, prontoooooooooo!”
Strolling into the first bar I came across, which gave the impression of having been assembled from a flat-pack, I introduced myself to two twentysomething lads from Bristol who were drinking at a small round table. “Hello there, gentleman,” I began, smiling benignly. “How are you enjoying your time here?”
The dark-haired one regarded me with suspicion, then, nonetheless, opened up. “Not bad. My mate here” — he gestured at the other lad, a redhead who at that moment was obscured by darkness — “he had two birds last night.” I gawped, unbelieving. At once? “Nah,” the dark-haired one said, beaming. “One after the other.”
When I asked how he did it, he quickly responded, “Well — just look at him.” I squinted through the haze and made out a pale, goat-like face set upon a squat, flabby frame, and agreed he was indeed a fine specimen.
I began to explain why I was in Kavos, a town at Corfu’s southern tip and a Mecca for young, dumb, spring-break-style British partygoers. I had come here, I told him and the redhead, for one reason and one reason only: to find out how the legendary Himbo was surviving with coronavirus travel restrictions threatening his natural habitat.
“Himbo,” a contraction of “him” and “bimbo,” is the word used to describe a certain type of attractive, warm-hearted, vacuous man — think Kronk from the Emperor’s New Groove, or Joey from Friends. More importantly, the Himbo is enjoying something of a revival as of late, with people clinging onto the archetype in a sort of frenzied escapist yearning for the long-lost Good Man. I wanted to know if that sort of innocence was still possible in the real world of plagues and political turmoil — or if it was just a silly dream of the Extremely Online. I added, to the lads, that Kavos, a cornerstone of Britain’s party island holiday culture, made the perfect setting for a report on the Himbo’s whereabouts: If he wasn’t here, I figured, he wouldn’t be anywhere.
After my spiel, the redhead looked at me with mild puzzlement. “You’re looking for a hippo?”
“No,” I laughed, knowingly. “I’m looking for a Himbo.”
“Well, hippos are very dangerous.”
“I’m not looking for a hippo!”
I began to reiterate in some detail what a Himbo is but they grew visibly bored, and I left to look for a cash machine so I could treat myself to some local cuisine — a gyros kebab, specifically, which is a mush of onion, rotisserie chicken, tzatziki, tomatoes and fries shoved into a sleeve of pita. A local from a nearby town, who owned the convenience store next door (offering the standard array of knockoff Ray-Bans, cheap Prosecco and nitrous oxide), described an existential threat faced not just by Himbos, but by party resorts nationwide. In the early days of the pandemic, Greece had registered fewer than 500 COVID cases, but the holiday season was proving calamitous. Days before my arrival, an entire plane’s worth of Welsh tourists returning home from the island of Zakynthos, a major party destination, was quarantined after many on the flight tested positive for the virus. A curfew was imposed and gatherings of over nine people were banned.
Foreign governments began to impose their own restrictions. Scotland subjected travelers from Greece to quarantine, Italy required them to COVID test upon arrival and the Greeks themselves were making it more difficult for people flying in from Malta, Bulgaria and Romania. Tourists from the U.S., obviously, were completely off-limits. Only the English faced few restrictions, and the thousands pouring into towns like Kavos (in previous years it was hundreds of thousands) proved a lifeline.
Pointing across the road at a packed bar in which a good few drunkards were literally rolling on the ground, I suggested that the shopkeeper must despise the English (and, to an extent, the Welsh). I noted how they left the streets cluttered with waste, eschewed masks — only the locals wore them — and ignored the midnight curfew, simply heading to the beach to continue drinking until the wee hours. The shopkeeper, however, was indifferent. “We only work three months a year,” he said. “The rest of the year, this is closed, so we’re happy for the English to be here. If we don’t die from coronavirus, we’ll die from starvation.”
* * * * *
The next day, I started anew at an all-day boat party. It was a grim old schooner divided into two decks. Below were the guys of 16 to 18, and above was a throng of middle-aged men from Manchester, as well as a couple Irishmen from Dublin. They were on a weeks-long bender, some five grand between them for the trip. I quickly identified one of the Irishmen as a potential Himbo. He was a real happy-go-lucky sort with a big wide grin who responded to almost everything with a spirited “Yessir!” and “Let’s go!” like he had some sort of tragic programming glitch.
Before I approached him, though, I went about ingratiating myself with the rest of his gang, particularly a sand-encrusted man of indeterminate age, who somewhat resembled a mole rat. He seemed kind and charmingly vacuous, but looks-wise, alas, he was no Himbo. (Of course, very few are.) He identified himself only as “Midge,” explaining he’d been called that for years on account of his hanging out with older lads at school. “Ah, so like a midget,” I laughed. “I thought you meant midge like a bloodsucking insect!”
“FOCK OFF!” Midge replied in a real nasal foghorn of a voice, borderline unintelligible.
“Ha, ha,” I said, enjoying the horseplay.
But the mood would soon sharply sour.
A large, avuncular fellow was dancing heartily and wearing a bright pink bikini he’d “just found.” I pointed it out to the strapping Irish lad I’d identified as a potential Himbo. “I love that,” he began. “That’s what you wanna see in the midst of a pandemic: guys wearing bras, living their best life.”
Taking that as my cue, I began to ask him what he thought of all this depravity, whether it was irresponsible and what the socio-geopolitical ramifications could be, expecting some sort of trite “I just live for the party, bro” nonsense. But by the time he’d reached the conclusion of his extraordinarily insightful, balanced and most un-Himbo-like response — he was due to start his second year of political science at university in the autumn, and he had a stirringly nuanced take on the need to understand voters’ frustration with immigration while not conceding ground to the far right — the others had begun to grow suspicious of me.
“Are you police, mate?” one of them asked.
“He’s a sponge, he is,” said another, noting how I’d mostly sat silent and alone for the whole boat party. “Absorbin’ everything.”
Meanwhile, the boat continued to jerk around. Spilt beer swished and lapped at ankles. Pallid English complexions seared on the upper deck. Everyone was sweating, dancing, yelling. Loudspeakers alternated between bastardized Romantic classics — EDM versions of Bella Ciao and Tu Vuo’ Fa’ l’Americano — and grimly lighthearted seafaring advice: “Don’t jump into the sea, you’ll get sucked into the propeller and shredded into a million pieces — that’s a lot of paperwork!”
Save for a few stray police boats — at whose presence the entire party would be ordered to briefly don masks to ward off the authorities — the open waters made the perfect setting for an exercise in pre-corona-style decadence. Even with the 75-person upper-limit, the boys — and few girls — made merry as best they could, chanting their vile chants (“Who shagged in the bushes,” to the tune of “Seven Nation Army”) and chugging their foul blue beverages (gin, I think, heavily diluted with something vaguely antiseptic).
I felt trapped, alone and depressed. “And to think Corfu, a major naval power in Ancient Greece, has been reduced to this…,” I thought, profoundly. Was I not a true Englishman? My mind flitted to my wasted youth, and the culture I grew up in, the drinking, the drugs, a 20-pack of cigarettes and a kebab on the way home. How, transplanted to the Mediterranean and exposed to a hotter, brighter sun, that culture took on a grotesque hue. Here, sunlight doesn’t disinfect, it putrefies.
* * * * *
When exactly the English began their annual migration to Kavos is a matter of some dispute among the locals. Some grunt dismissively, saying “Kavos has no history,” but it does, albeit a rather torrid one. While there has always been a British presence in Corfu, which fell under imperial rule after the Napoleonic Wars and was used as a bulwark against the Ottomans, Kavos itself is barely 30 years old. The prevailing narrative of its origin, which has been scarcely documented online but is on the lips, in some form, of half the bartenders, shopkeepers and waiters in the town, is one of opportunism, lurid marketing, and ultimately, the boom and eventual tragic bust that befalls every major trend.
It goes thusly: In the 1970s, Kavos was a sleepy fishing village on the southern tip of the Corfu coast with “only two traditional restaurants waiting desperately for a few visitors from the tourist cruising boats that made a stop there for a couple of hours mainly for lunch at noon.” The “party island” was a growing phenomenon — with the rise of packaged holidays in the 1960s, according to historian David Broder, authoritarian governments in Spain and Greece had begun to displace many of their own citizens to build super-resorts for British tourists. But it would be some time before Greece would become much of a party destination.
That all changed when an industrious Kavos resident, identified to me as “Spiros,” began offering a few of the rooms in his home to tourists. He was inspired by the surging popularity of a nearby town, Benitses, many of whose hotels and resorts had begun to strike lucrative deals for cheap packaged holidays with an upstart British travel agent named Club 18-30. Based in the North of England, Club 18-30 had great success marketing holidays of cheap booze, sun and sex to bored young British men and women looking for something beyond their lowly provincial dreams (a controversial billboard read: “Be up at the crack of Dawn… or Julie… or…”). Identifying barren Kavos as potential new business, the travel agent contacted Spiros, who by then had named his business “Trabukos,” and they struck a deal. For a commission, Club 18-30 would send thousands of British tourists Spiros’ way.
And so, they came, Spiros expanded, other clubs and restaurants materialized and Kavos slowly transformed into the absurd hellscape it is today: A town devoid of culture or real history, a long, sweaty thoroughfare surrounded by fly-by-night clubs and joints that stay open only between May and October and then disappear as if struck by a virus, their staff either moving abroad for different work or simply hoarding their winnings and doing nothing for the rest of the year.
The future looks still grimmer. Some years ago, Club 18-30 was absorbed into Thomas Cook, a major British travel agent, which went bust in 2018. A hotelier near Trabukos noted that even before the pandemic, the number of arrivals was lower. “Party islands are dying,” she told me. “People want places that are Instagrammable now, like Marbella and Thailand, where they can have one cheap cocktail, against a nice background, and take a few snaps. Here it isn’t so picturesque.”
That’s hard to stomach. There are few rites of passage in British culture that are quite so revered as the Party Island Lads’ Holiday — its appeal is enshrined forever, for instance, in the 2011 Inbetweeners Movie, in which a group of semi-losers go to Crete and realize, “Here, unlike at home, we’re players” — and doing away with it would deprive a generation of its necessary, if awful, excesses.
I had an intimate vision of that dark future when I visited Trabukos in person. The resort, a gleaming white complex overlooking the sea, was largely empty. A few weeks back it had been crowded with Italians, but they had since left, in response to strict travel restrictions imposed by the Italian government. The still-chaotic nightlife belied painful difficulties and collapsing business. The only person present was a receptionist idling in an empty foyer. The pool was drained to prevent contamination, leaving a thin film of green sludge in which a few birds and insects had settled. Cautious though it may have been, Trabukos needed English tourists, even if it didn’t want them.
“English people come because they aren’t afraid to travel,” said Spiros’ daughter, Maria, a dark-haired businesswoman in her 40s who met me later in Trabukos’ in-house bar. “They were slow to react to the virus initially, and it’s the same with coming here. Greeks, on the other hand, are more scared. I’m staying in the same house with my parents, and I’m scared about my father and mother.”
Depressed about the looming fate of this tragic town, I returned to my resort, a tranquil poolside affair set into a field of scrub five minutes from the town center. I took a seat at the bar next to a middle-aged trucker from Manchester. He wore only swim trunks and was completely red. Coronavirus had scarcely dented his business — he wasn’t convinced it was real — and he had come to Kavos for the same reason he always had, to seek that nutrient in which all English are deficient.
But he, too, had his concerns. In grave tones, he explained to me that Grant Shapps, the U.K.’s Minister of Transport, was reviewing the list of countries every Thursday to determine which would remain on the list of “travel corridors” — those for which returning tourists wouldn’t have to undergo a two-week quarantine. “Kavos will close soon,” he predicted, ominously. “There are only a few days left.”
I explained to him my predicament — that I was here to locate a Himbo, which I was beginning to think was as likely as finding a manticore, spread-eagled on a sun lounger. He laughed dully, bemused, saying he had no idea what a Himbo was. But then he leaned in close and put a fatherly hand on my shoulder. “You’ll be all right, mate,” he said, his eyes twinkling sadly, as if, having imparted some great, final counsel, he was ready to pass on right there. “I’m sure you’ll find what you came here for.”
* * * * *
It was by way of a somewhat circuitous route that I came across the first Himbo (well, semi-Himbo) of my trip, although by that time I was starting to wonder whether using that term — and then, by God, asking people whether they identified with it — was actually incredibly insulting. (“Why hello there, sport, I’m looking for a vacuous idiot — and you seem just the type!”)
It was 3 a.m., and I was sitting on a raised, slatted wooden platform on the moonlit beach with another of the fellas from the boat party, a tall, built Northerner with a shaved back and sides. My old pal Midge was there, too. The Northerner was whispering sweet nothings into the ear of a bored mother of two, and eventually she left. An awkward silence settled, then the guy looked me dead in the eye and flipped. “You need to fuck off now, mate,” he said, twisting his features into a conspicuous frown.
“I’m not joking. I won’t be insulted like that.”
“What did I do?”
“Seriously, mate — if you don’t fuck off, I’ll bottle you!”
That gave me pause. A bottling, or glassing, is a storied English tradition in which the instigator smashes a bottle or pint glass — after downing its contents, of course — into the head of somebody whom he doesn’t like, known colloquially as a “cunt.” That’s not very Himbo-like of him, I thought, alarmed.
“What, why?” I asked.
The Northerner remained steadfast, clutching his bottle more tightly. “I said if you don’t fuck off, I’ll bottle you!”
Midge, showing me zero loyalty whatsoever, chipped in: “Yeah fock off, mate, he’s told you to fuck off, so fock off.”
After a bit more of this awkward exchange, I took Midge’s advice and did indeed fock off. It’s a good thing, too. Because not only did I avoid a bottling, but as luck would have it, I wound up meeting two potential Himbos within the next 20 minutes. The first was a tall, strapping, twentysomething named Chris Henderson (nickname: Chris Benderson). By God, he seemed to bear all the hallmarks of Himbodom: an easy way with children and animals alike, an invigoratingly unpretentious worldview, and, it must be said, a physique that was surely wrought in the furnace of Hephaestus himself. I told him I wanted the whole scoop on Himboism in the Era of Coronavirus.
“Well,” he began, “I had 23 days of holiday free. Originally, we were going to go to Blackpool” — a popular seaside destination in Northern England — “but it was, like, 25 degrees. So we looked at Ayia Napa [in Cyprus] and Ibiza, but they closed the borders. Fortunately, the U.K. government said Greece wasn’t on the list.”
There was, however, little of that Kronkish innocence in his reasoning. He had calculated the risks of his trip with a resigned pragmatism, having felt entitled to a holiday after back-breaking months in a dead-end job. “I’m here for relaxation,” he explained. “At home I work 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days a week. I get one day off, Sunday roast, sleep all day. We deserve a holiday. I haven’t had a day off since May 1st. I’m worried about the virus, yeah. But I also don’t… because I’m an idiot.”
“At the same time,” he continued, gesturing at the crowds, the drunks, the general mise-en-scène, “this is bad. It’s a lovely place, but the people who come here make it awful. You can’t come to the beach without kicking NOS canisters about. But the U.K. is only just better. It’s more or less exactly the same. In the U.K., you go out to the local town, nobody’s wearing a mask, you can’t dance, yet they still have bars that shut at 4 a.m. — the U.K. stays out later than Kavos.” (October update: With rising cases, U.K. nightlife is now under a 10 p.m. curfew.)
“But the people at home,” he told me, “are jealous. They weren’t willing to take the risk or spend the money. We’ve got away with no quarantine, the ability to have a good time. You get a cheap holiday, drink, lots of fun and a fair bit of sex. There are students here who went to college, got five A-levels and are starting online courses at university next year. Why not come to Kavos? It’s the capital of Shaggos!”
Having made his point, Henderson drifted off. But within minutes, sacré bleu, I found yet another Himbo, or, again, something close enough. He was standing, bleary-eyed and swaying softly, before the waves as they broke gently against the shore. I had spoken to him briefly at the boat party while he was hungover. He was addled now as he was then, but gave off a certain tranquility. He had a swept-back, Disney-prince haircut, and stood a few inches over me, beaming a vast Joey Tribbiani smile and warmly acceding to an interview.
I saved his name on my phone — “Hsrvey Nebdin,” later corrected to Harvey Henson — and he told me that, like Henderson, he had planned originally to go to Ayia Napa. He went as far as to pay for a flight, but had to cancel. It was the last free summer before college for him, and the choice was either to “stay home and be bored,” or come to Kavos. “We knew it was risky coming out during coronavirus,” he told me. “All my friends back home split off and went ‘round the country.”
But he had a sense that the finals days of party island culture were upon him, and “wanted to experience Kavos for what it’s known for now.” The town’s soullessness, he said, made it a dependable substitute for England. It was a place where he could indulge his hometown excesses in a kinder climate, and without the sort of sneering judgement he’d get in, say, Toulouse. “Being here,” he explained, “is an escape from the boringness and bleakness of England, coastal towns where there’s nothing to do, where the same people go to the same place every day. Here everyone does drugs, nitrous oxide or something else — a lot of people do, because no one’s satisfied — and I can imagine myself being a top shagger.”
Not long afterward, it occurred to me that the Himbo, in its relation to actual men, is what Kavos is to England. I would never be able to find one because the very idea was illusory, a callback to a world that no longer exists, to which a newly lost generation of young men cling hopelessly — a vision of water to a man dying of thirst. “Life has changed so instantly,” Henson reflected, looking out on the horizon, his eyes glimmering, entranced, in the light of the full moon. “Being here — it brings a sense of normality.”