Last August, having visited the Greek island of Kefalonia for over twenty years, I was seriously assessing the pros and cons of running off in pursuit of the Greek dream. The stress of failing to grasp a sustainable work-life balance and the chaos of life in my mid-twenties had made Greece seem like an attractive escape route. For years many of the locals had watched me grow up as I laughed, danced and cried my summers away on the island, and part of me had always believed that it was where I was destined to end up. I was eager, then, to catch up with Sophia, a friend who had sacrificed all in her quest to follow the dream. She'd made the move, married a Greek and produced two kids, completing her set. Noticing her one morning sitting alone on one of the island's private beaches, I walked over, expecting to hear her gush over how life in paradise really had become her idyllic Greek reality.
The dream, it turns out, had fast become a nightmare. "Don't come to Greece," she warned, blindly unaware of my latest plans, "...and don't marry a Greek!" Clocking my expression, she exclaimed: "My God, you're thinking about it, aren't you?!" I admitted that it had crossed my mind. If not the marriage part then certainly the move. It didn't take long for her to delve into her problems, of which there were many. The technicalities of marriage once land becomes shared, the unending troubles or non-existence of Greek healthcare, the loneliness of winters absent from family... She really appeared to have been through the mill. Yet she had seemed so happy in previous years, the epitome of content as she watched her youngest paddling by the shore, basking in the summer heat. It was a wake up call if ever I needed one.
However, there are others who have managed to make it work. Louise, who married a local restaurateur 15 years ago, couldn't be happier with island life. After working as a rep touring the Ionian Islands during her twenties, she rocked up at a bar in Kefalonia's capital one year, gazed into the eyes of a charismatic barman and the rest is history. The difference is that, unlike Sophia, she speaks fluent Greek and has made the effort to immerse herself in the local life. In doing so she has been accepted and credited in her efforts to create a family who have grown up recognising the importance of Greek traditions. Her children have the best of both worlds (as does she) - summers in Greece, Christmas in country - it has all worked out, for her at least.
And so the thought stayed with me. You cannot visit a place every year for two decades for it not to have an impact on your life. The beauty of Kefalonia goes beyond the clichés of paradise, though it is the warmth of the locals who have made the island what it is to my family and I. I could turn up unannounced on Christmas Eve and be welcomed into the arms of Nicholas and Elini. I could waltz into the island's well know hotspot, 'The Bees Knees', in late August and put the world to rights downing cocktails with Giannis. I could even arrive with no accommodation planned, only to have found a home within hours. I have yet to meet a Kefalonian who has not made me feel welcome.
A year on from Sophia's warning, after the longest summer I have spent on the island, I'm still undecided. "I know you love it, but... It's very different from this when you're living it," Makis, a waiter at our favourite restaurant, cautioned one night after spotting a potential catastrophe in the making as I spent the evening being charmed by a local I'd instantly fallen for. Turns out the womaniser in question was equally skeptical over making drastic decisions: "Wait until next summer... Things will have changed and it will be far easier for you over here in the spring." That said, he'd also added: "Live your life, do what you want and follow your heart, not the heads of others..." As I left the restaurant alone, Makis held my gaze - 'Don't do it' - his eyes warned again, though he could see that I was less than convinced. Back home, my mind buzzed with all possibilities. Could it work? Could I find work? Where would be best to stay long-term? And then Sophia's words come back to haunt me, and I'm left with the memory of her revealing all that had gone wrong. The tears on that private beach. The desperate attempts to find a way out. Is life really greener on the other side? Not always.