I left Greece running, without looking back. I didn't even spare a thought on coming back. It was my little rebellion and attempt to travel the world.
Back in 2006, there was not a hint of cloud in the horizon to suggest how bad things will turn out for Greece. A few days ago, I had my first anniversary of being, well, an in-pat, settling back in Athens and dealing with a very different Greek reality. But Greece is Greece and England is England and no matter how much I love Athens, I will always have a soft spot for London where I spent the best part of these 8 years away.
I first arrived in the UK mid-August, in an attempt to get myself acclimatized before the Master's I came to do. Fresh British summer days greeted me, a relief after the baking 40oC of Athens. There was a bit of a drizzle to add a note of originality. I was tanned and completely out of place. I was longing for that fog, cup of tea at hand, sitting behind net curtains gazing at the purple grey clouds, solving the mysteries of the new city I was about to call home; a bit like Agatha's Poirot I liked to think. Well, Poirot was on the background, on telly, and the mystical fog took a while to come, both literally and metaphorically.
When I just moved to the UK, everything was a little bit too exciting. Life seemed like snippets taken out of a film. Strangers crossing their gaze and immediately turning away. Popping red phone booths breaking through the grey. Obedient red bricks standing ageless next to each other, pubs with smoked fireplaces long out of use, a boat cutting across the Thames. The first restaurant meal was at a candle lit basement in Goodge Street. I had little to say to my companions, but share my enthusiasm about the move in the new city. Somewhat shy, somewhat overwhelmed I was content to sit back, overhearing whispers from here and there. From tube network to ordering etiquette, everything was a mystery. The outing was paired with a couple of pints at a pub round the corner. Pints? Why on earth would anyone drink out of a bucket I silently wondered. Of course, I spent the best part of that beer tasting visiting the ladies. And just before 12, everyone was swiftly running to the last tube, as if we were about to be turned into pumpkins when the clock struck midnight.
I must have done the rounds of the major museums and parks within the first 3 weeks. From waxy celebrities, to theater costumes and dinosaurs skeletons, from a trip to the moon, to Dutch still lifes and stiff royal portraits, London museums are an inexhaustible source of entertainment, especially when you are broke and as a student you can expect little more than that. There is more treasure, it comes for free in the form of lush green parks. Pockets of oxygen in the metropolis, lest it rains, they become muddy nightmares. Ideally, parks are covered with fog too, and this is how London envelops you, in a thin sheet of drizzly fog. No matter where you are coming from or where you are going, the city has this ability to integrate you so smoothly, you will not even notice it. You start building a life from scratch, but you are not alone. You join some hundreds of other people that, just like you, are not from around there. In London, you are never really an ex-pat, no one is looking at you weird or cares what language you speak. If so, people are either too polite to show or too busy to care. You are allowed to be yourself, but please do not jump that queue and do share a cup of tea. You become part of that amasing fabric of people, a Londoner.
And you join the rat race. Once settled in your 9 to 5, you realise you live for the weekend. A crude awakening, but with a bit more money in the pocket, you are officially entitled to enjoy a few more of the dazzling treats London has to offer. You go to gigs, you manage to grasp some cheap tickets for the theatre, throw in a bit of clubbing and these Indian take aways. And did I mention shopping? Of course you stop by to browse at the shops after work on the way home and end up with a loaded credit-card and things you really have no clue why you bought in the first place. All hail consumerism.
So, did I miss home? Hmm, sorry, no, I didn't. I was too busy to realise there was no sunshine. I had a couple of good old friends from Greece and the Elgin marbles agelessly waiting for me at the British museum. I could always get my dose of Greekiness at a restaurant and the ubiquitous Turkish kebab was always larking round the corner. Food was becoming a bit of an issue, but hey, one learns to cook their favourites. I was visiting often enough for supplies (yes I was loading my suitcase with olive oil and pies from grand-ma). I got a chance to recharge these batteries, too.
So I was all nice and settled, and one day I decided to come back home. Truth is, I was not all that settled, my bum was itchy for something else. Something didn't agree with me, it felt as if London was sucking the life out of me. I was always short of time. I had to schedule a coffee with a friend across the vastness of the city 3 weeks ahead, if lucky. The frenzy of London eventually got the best of me, it pushed me to the leafy suburbs. In retrospect, I think this made things even worse. The commute took 1/3 of my day and wages. It also left this metallic taste, I was becoming a machine. What with the rolling hills, serene canals and farmers markets around. There was not a hint of the blue, blue sea around. I think I became homesick with 8 years delay.
So here I am, back in Athens, taking in the blue horizon and trying to build up that tan. I was aware I came back to a very changed Greece. You live and breathe crisis these days, it has become second nature. Over here you don't go shopping to entertain yourself as in London. You do go out for a drink, perhaps an inexpensive meal at your local, but more often you will get these beers and enjoy them at home, in good company. There is a thin veil of worry behind everybody's gaze, very neatly concealed and tacked away. Some go ahead and in very eloquent French shower politicians with all sort of cosmetics. That's in the laiki, the farmers market. Some people pass by these outbursts grinding their teeth, others nod and join in, most of them laugh. We are rich, in spirit.
My return surely raised more than a few eyebrows. People are overjoyed to have you back but are looking at you weird. There is always this question: why on earth did you come back now, of all times now? Well, thankfully they do not expect the answer, they know it is home. There is one greeting from a good old friend that stayed with me and still puts a smile on my face: So Gen, did you finally realise where paradise is?
I guess I did. Paradise has some very awkward habits I struggle to swallow though. It's these moments when car drivers whistle at you in the middle of the road, I must be too sexy for my own good. Then you have to walk in the middle of the road, the pavements have become parking slots, because let's face it, no one needs a pavement. And to top it all off, you have to fight with grandpas and grandmas for they are jumping the queue, be it at the bakery or tickets hall. No angry letter will save you. You actually learn to laugh at it, something I had admittedly forgotten.
Still, there are slightly more important things one has to deal with daily. It can all be summed up in one word: survival. Within the chaos of the crisis, you actually see people reaching out for each other. Not just family, it's strangers becoming friends over a coffee and keeping in touch. Neighbours exchanging pots of homemade jams. The cava owner insisting on you trying every single barrel of wine he has, before you buy a humble bottle of liquor It's people actually being human. In London, you might have to dig for this sort of connection. Here, even amidst the craziness of Athens, people open up and spare a moment to listen. I have overheard the most interesting political debates in the Metro and exchanged the most delicious tips on wild greens with a grocers and two grand-mas whilst savouring a slice of melon at laiki. It's the little things that make Greece so special to me. Oh, and the sea breeze.
And I am going to let you in in a little secret: I am not the only one who came back to Greece. There are 3 more good friends who braved it, after being abroad for years and are getting themselves settled back home. A few more friends left London for more exotic lands. It's by no means an easy thing to do, but not impossible. We all weighed the odds and decided to give it a go.
As for me, I have my pet project going. I get things cooking in a little blog that goes by the name Eat Yourself Greek. I love the simplicity of Greek cooking, fresh veggies and fragrant thyme. But what I like more is sharing good, honest, everyday food. So, I set up cookery workshops. You can find more about me on the blog and why not, come and share a meal. All things are best enjoyed when you share them, especially a meal.
She moved back to Athens at the height of Greece’s economic crisis in 2014. At that time, she decided to take up another craft along with that of wordsmith, and she now embraces and shares the cuisine of her homeland on her blog, http://EatYourselfGreek.com. It's also her online refuge for her Greek cooking intelligence and travel adventures.
For good or bad, Athens won her over London and she now lives in a little place between the city centre and Piraeus, from where I can get to the sea or Down Town in less than 15 minutes.