Finding a Home in Greece
Back when I was twenty, I went to Greece as a lost graduate, having seen a newspaper ad for English teachers in private language schools. I thought of warm sunshine and blue sea, dancing and ancient amphitheatres. My dad sometimes says his happiest memories are of family holidays we took when my brother and I were young. After holidays amid quaint Greek villages, vines and olive trees, I’d started studying Ancient Greek at school. So it’s no surprise that I was drawn back.
When I first arrived in Athens that autumn, it was not much like those dreamy holidays. My new home as a teacher was amid an endless stretch of grey concrete, beside a six-lane highway that never seemed to sleep. But in the afternoons I went up to the roof of my apartment building where people hung their laundry, and I marked papers or read books in the sun, looking towards the gleaming silver sea in the distance. On Saturday mornings I’d hurry to the port of Piraeus and catch a ferry to an island for the weekend.
On islands like Hydra, Aegina, Mykonos and Crete, I started having adventures while searching for what my life was supposed to be about. And over the course of the year, Greece began to feel like home. I liked the orange trees lining the dusty streets; it was a joy to listen to men in the bakery having detailed discussions about different types of bread, or to brave the busy local market to buy bags of vegetables. I would be reading a sign, and an old man would offer assistance; I would end up with incomprehensible instructions in Greek and a foolish smile on my face. I’d go up to the roof in the evening, see the mountains all smoky blue, Athens a hazy white jumble of crystals. One evening, a man from Crete started talking to me out of the blue as we were walking; he liked Athens, he said, because he didn’t need to buy cigarettes any more—he could breathe bad air for free. “I like the pollution. I like the rubbish. I like fighting people for my position on the bus.” I laughed. I knew what he meant. I liked the random, bizarre excitement of my new life too.
Finding a Greek boyfriend immersed me in local life more. But then in the summer, after being devastatingly ditched, I found myself a job cleaning hotel rooms in Santorini. When the morning’s work was done, I’d sit in the shade of the terrace and listen to donkeys scrambling up and down the steps, and look at that perfect view—the flat blue sea far below like a rippled lake, the boats with their faint chug and hum as they’d glide across the water. A new friend I met who ran a local bar said, “Happiness is easy sometimes.” So I was learning. I felt serene. The beauty of the place had brought me back to life again.
How long could a girl do this? I thought about staying but there would be no work in the winter, and cleaning rooms wasn’t an option forever; that wasn’t what my parents or teachers had in mind when they got me a place at Oxford. I needed to think about a proper career.
But years later, working in publishing in Canada, I moved from one neighborhood of Toronto to another until I ended up on the Danforth—the Greek district. I liked just standing in the shops and listening to the language I missed.
I was forty when I decided to take a good, hard look at my life.
There was a breakup. But I was suffering from more than just heartbreak. I hadn’t been completely happy with my work and home situations for a while. Now that there was only myself to consider, what did I want to do and where did I want to be? Only I could make myself happier. I needed to think some things through—to reflect on where I wanted to go next. That’s how the Gifts to Self began.
I enjoyed my role as an editorial and rights director at a publishing company; but as with many interesting jobs, the problem was its intensity, the tendency of the years to roll around fast in a never-ending cycle. So the first Gift to Self would be giving myself Freelance Fridays. The second Gift to Self was the vow of celibacy. Refusing to consider getting romantically involved with anyone for half a year gave me a positive power, a force field of protection. Suddenly I felt like a warrior princess.
The third Gift was about taking myself to a place that made me happy: I wanted a month in Greece. I found an apartment to rent on the remote, wild island of Tilos. I’d have a terrace covered with vines, a mountain view, and a table where I could picture myself working, just minutes from the sea. Swims at lunchtime. I explained my idea to my boss.
‘I can take two weeks’ holiday and work from there for the other two weeks. Easy! I’ll take a laptop, and there’s wireless internet and Skype…’
I wonder if he could already foresee where it would lead. In any case, he agreed.
Halfway through that month, a friend found a red starfish when we were out snorkeling, and put it in my hand. I dropped it and watched it float slowly down to the sandy sea bed, where it landed upside down. A while later, I swam back to see that it was still slowly turning itself back the right way up. I wondered if that was happening to me.
I found the happiness I was looking for in very simple things: yogurt and honey, tomatoes and thyme, the sea and the mountains and the people.
I went back as a different person. The happiness I gave myself in Tilos would be waiting for me, whether I went back for a month, or for longer. I thought of it as a beginning.
Two years later, I moved into a house on the tiny Greek island of Tilos. The full story of how I got there is in my book Falling in Honey, and the story of my first years of living there – working from my home office – will be in my next book, An Octopus in my Ouzo, to be published in 2016.
‘What makes Falling in Honey so gripping is the clear adoration that Jennifer feels for the country she now calls home. Through exquisite descriptions and very honest revelations soon she’s not the only one falling head over heels. One way ticket to Greece anyone?’ (Wanderlust)
‘Jennifer never expected to find love when she followed her dream… love was the last thing she was looking for… Her remarkable story, about which she has written a moving book, has more than an echo of Shirley Valentine about it.’ (The Daily Express)