An emotional encounter with a hotel owner born in ruthless communist Albania

The Greek island of Paros

Stafford Mortimer wins £200 for her account of a dramatic story of receptionist at a Greek hotel 

When we arrive at our hotel on the Greek island of Paros, Gilda, the receptionist, welcomes us in fluent English. We discover that her native tongue is Albanian and she speaks Greek, but the language she treasures most is Italian, because as a child she had to learn it secretly.

She explains to my wife, Catherine, and me that she was born in Tirana, Albania’s capital, during its ruthless communist era. Virtually the only foreign-language lessons were Russian and Chinese. At nine years old, Gilda had other ideas.

“I knew that a neighbour could speak Italian because I had heard her using a few words when talking to a friend,” she says. “Two or three times every week my father gave me 10 leke [7p] to buy ice creams or drinks. I paid the lady to teach me.”

Paros is a popular holiday destination in the Aegean Sea

Our hotel is in the delightful, historic fishing port of Naoussa, near the green-domed Orthodox cathedral, from which a tangle of paved lanes wriggle between little white houses down to the harbour. There we catch buses that wind across a rolling landscape scattered with blue and white chapels to reach villages and beaches where sky and sea are painted in the same bright blue. Sometimes we use a taxi. Gilda tells us her father was a taxi driver too, after his job driving state lorries vanished when Albania’s communist regime collapsed. The new liberal times were often lawless: once, with a priest as passenger, his taxi was waved down by armed robbers. As he accelerated away, bullets thudded into the black Alfa Romeo. “My father keeps the rusting car in our garden as a memento,” she says. “We are grateful that God has kept us safe.”

We tell Gilda how happy she seems. “I like to be busy, I like to work,” she smiles. But adds: “I don’t like to be at home because there I have to face the reality. It’s difficult for me, it breaks my heart.”

She lives in a fishing village on Paros with her husband, a chef and restaurant co-owner. They have a son, 14, and daughter, nine, who was born with serious internal malformations. “It was a great shock,” Gilda says. “I wanted to die.”

The 19 best Greek islands

Her daughter now has a near-normal life after six operations. The last two were in Geneva, paid for by the charitable arm of Rolex. A lawyer for the luxury watchmaker had met Gilda when holidaying on Paros.

She and her husband give their daughter daily medical attention, fitted into Gilda’s hectic schedule: up at 6am, at work 7.15am-4pm, serving at his restaurant 7pm-2am, for seven days a week from June until October. Outside the tourist season the family return to Tirana, where the children go to school.

Smiling, chatty Gilda is one of many friendly people we met on Paros. It deepens our appreciation of them to be reminded that their lives stretch beyond making our holidays memorable.

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