Sunday, September 20, 2009

Selling Up, Scaling Down: The joys of living smaller in Greece

The trend seems to have no end: families dreaming of buying property and permanently relocating to the tiniest communities of sunnier, warmer, smaller countries are younger and younger. Radical life changes are no longer held off until retirement.

Working with Property Greece, a Greece-based real estate firm catering to international clientele, I have encountered a growing number of young people pursuing the dream of simplifying their lives. Really simplifying them. A recent example is that of a very likeable British couple with 2 young children, looking for property in Paros or some other smaller Greek island. They both hold stable, well-paying jobs, they own a UK home and, by all accounts, they are not missing out on anything. Yet they have decided their family would be happiest on a Greek island, operating a B & B or teaching English, sending their kids to a small school and not worrying about violence and drugs, learning another language and, ultimately, becoming part of a community. They seem well aware of the difficulties and adjustment required and they know their plan is not foolproof. For them, however, it is all worthwhile.

Are they out of their minds?

Not in my opinion.

My family is one of many having done so. They moved to Greece from the U.S. in the early seventies – a time when Athens was light years away from today’s modern, fusion city. Back then the move seemed devoid of all logic. Let’s face it: transitioning from a suburban house complete with yard, pool and 2 TV sets to a cramped flat with no TV, no telephone for 2 years and a tiny balcony is nobody’s idea of fun. Strangely, though, there was no harm done. In fact, we reminisce about those days with nostalgia. Life felt so simple. It was the first time us kids played on the streets with no curfew, walked to school instead of being bussed over, learnt how to swim and fish and felt free and loved it. Going to Greek school without knowing the language could not have been easy at first but, in retrospect, I think we caught up in no time. We were kids, after all: tough, resilient and absorbent like sponges.

Last winter, while living and working on a small island in the northern Aegean, I crossed paths with yet another family that inspired me. I befriended a small boy of about 4, who was always running around looking happy and playing with the older kids after school, and came to know his mother, Suzanne. Originally from Switzerland, she had come to the island on holiday about 8 years prior, with her small daughter, following a nasty divorce. She fell in love with the place and decided it was as good a time as any to make a radical change— so she gave up an enviable job in a lucrative family business and moved to Greece with her daughter. She knew nobody and only spoke German and English. The first thing she did was to enroll her daughter in local school and ask some of the adults to be her own Greek tutor; in return, she started teaching their children English. Fast-forward to today and Suzanne is still in the village, happily married, has a second child, speaks fluent Greek and operates a small boutique. Her children are bilingual. They are just like everybody else, only different somehow – in a good way. They have used their differences to their advantage and fit in perfectly.

The remarkable thing, for me, is that they live what can only be described as an uneventful life. Suzanne’s favourite part of a day in the village (mine as well) is the evening: as everybody lingers around the house after dinner, people start to casually trickle in unannounced. Keys are left outside the door of most houses in the village, so there is no need to keep going to the door and letting visitors in; naturally, they could knock if they wanted to. I was there in the winter, and evenings were chilly. More often than not we just stayed in and huddled around the fireplace drinking a mouth-watering concoction of local liquor, warmed and sweetened with honey. There was no better way to end the day – or to make friends with the entire village. Each person had a story; some were hilarious, some were sad, some were ordinary, but they could all make their way into the pages of a good book.

To avoid being carried away, however, let us end on a realistic note: downsizing is not for everybody. Living small can be frightening and frustrating. It means having to let go of so many creature comforts we are accustomed to. Add to that the inherent difficulties of adjusting to a foreign culture, which takes patience, stubbornness and a certain amount of attitude. Multiply all this to the nth degree when relocating to a small village community, where all anonymity is relinquished and people come to know in the blink of an eye who you are, where you come from and why. But when your kids start mingling with the other kids, when you begin understanding the language, when you get rid of stress, stop racing against the clock and start spontaneous socializing on a daily basis… you know you have made the right move. Irrational? Perhaps. Difficult? No doubt. Worthwhile? Absolutely.

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