Who are you?
James Collins, a 54-year-old British-born writer, now living in Symi, Dodecanese, Greece.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
I moved to Greece in 2002.I had always wanted to live and work abroad and decided that it was something I should do before I got too tied down back in the UK – not that I wasn’t already, I had a mortgage, and was working freelance in theatre and writing, and a few other things which were going well. But I didn’t want to wake up one day and think, ‘I wish I’d done that earlier.’
We (my partner and I) decided on Greece as we loved the country and so set about trying to decide where to go to. After visiting a couple of islands during the first two weeks of our move, we decided to come back to Symi as we had been here before, knew people, liked the island and also because it just kind of drew us here.
What challenges did you face during the move?
There were no real challenges because we didn’t know what to expect, so everything was more of an adventure than a challenge. We kept our house back in the UK, rented it out, and decided we would give it a year and then decide what we were going to do. We arrived with two rucksacks, one laptop and some hand luggage, so that was easy. We had also saved enough money for a winter, living off a budget of around €600 per month. We thought that if we could cope with a winter first, we would then have the more familiar summer to look forward to.
The following year, 2003, we found jobs on the island, and that was probably the biggest challenge. Working eight hours per day, seven days per week for seven months. That and living at the top of the village which was about 600 steps up from our workplace, walking between the two each day. (I lost about three stone without trying.)
The second winter, we were in a position where we either had to return home and pick up where we left off, or sell the house and make Symi our permanent home. The discussion took about three minutes, and I booked a flight back to go and sell the house.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Here on Symi, we have expats from all over the world. I estimate there are around 70 British people, some married to Greeks, some who have lived here for centuries, I mean, many years, and others who come for six months of the year (which doesn’t really count, in my book, more like temp-expats).
But there are also French, Albanian, Afghan, Canadian, German, Cypriot, Dutch, Swedish, Danish… and many other nationalities living here among the population of 3,000. It’s a very diverse community.
What do you like about life where you are?
In a nutshell, what I like most is the lifestyle.
Living here has given me the opportunity to write full time. The rent for the house (we couldn’t afford to buy) is reasonable, and so are living costs if you shop around. There is a good social life, the café society you might call it, and plenty of opportunities to do new things, like take up tap dancing, or Greek dancing, or to play music. There are also free Greek lessons organised by the local council. Most of all, though, there is a great sense of community. It’s not just that it’s a small island and a lot of people know a lot of other people’s business, but there are many opportunities to get involved in activities, and one is always made welcome.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
When I see what’s going on back in the UK, particularly at the moment (Brexit, etc.) I count myself very lucky to be living away from it all. Therefore, I find it hard to find anything I dislike about living here. I think that when you decide to make a move a permanent one, as we did, you have to accept what’s going to come at you.
For example, you can’t always hop on a plane and jet off for a funeral, or other crisis; you may have to wait days for a boat, especially in the winter. It’s not cheap to travel. I was, for example, recently invited to attend a film festival to present a film I had worked on that was shot on Symi. This entailed going to Cyprus. It’s cheaper to get there and back from the UK than it is from where I am. You have to cost in the ferry, a night in Rhodes (as there is no airport on Symi), taxis to and from, the flights via Athens, staying there and then returning which also involves another night in Rhodes, depending on boats. We have in the past, been away for a holiday and been forced, by bad weather, to spend four days on Rhodes. Lovely though it is, it’s frustrating when you can see your home island and not get there due to the weather.
As long as one accepts the challenges that rural island life brings, then you don’t have problems. You get used to leaky windows, cold winters, no central heating, baking hot summers, disrupted ferries and occasional lack of supplies in the shops. It’s all part of the fun.
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
I don’t consider the UK my home, but I know what you mean. It’s the place I was born in, but I’ve not lived there for 15 years. From what I read and hear about, things here on our small island could not be further removed from those on that other small island, the not so United Kingdom.
Just walking down to the harbour (300 steps from our new house), I encounter at last 15 hellos, good mornings, kali meras, and how are yous? People are either friendly, or they keep themselves to themselves. There is virtually no crime, no graffiti, there are people from many cultures who are friends, there are lots of opportunities to learn about others and other people take the time to know and learn about you.
There is much more of a community atmosphere here than I remember from back there, a sense of everyone working together to get through the trials of the current economic climate. There is also a big church culture, which foreigners are invited to join in with even if not Greek Orthodox – we are godfathers to two children now. There is also a culture of pride in the country which, back in the UK, is often mistaken for nationalism. Here it’s just how it is: you hear the soldiers sing the national anthem each Sunday as they raise and lower the Greek flag at the war memorial; there are parade days, feast days and celebrations. The sense of filoxenia is everywhere, the welcoming of strangers, and, although there are those with extreme political views, the general feeling is of liberalism and acceptance. That was very hard to find in certain parts of the UK, and it seems that back there, things are getting worse.
What do you think of the food and drink in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
I have to be honest, I do hanker for a good curry or something different at least. It’s not so bad during the summer when there are more tavernas open that do different dishes, but through the winter, one can tire of chips with everything and traditional Greek food. Not because it’s not good, it is, but simply because everyone needs variety and that can be hard to come by at times. Having said that, you’re able to buy just about everything you need to cook at home, and so good old bangers and mash are possible, and there is an excellent curry house on Rhodes, a few in fact.
Drinking is cheaper too. I mean, €2.00 for an enormous glass of table wine in a kafenion, compared to the extortionate prices charged abroad, can’t be argued with. €3.00 for a half litre of beer, €2.00 for a coffee – and a simple coffee at that, none of that ‘half-fat-double-latte-semi-skimmed-mocha-chocha-decaf-with sprinkles- and oops I forgot the coffee’ nonsense (though such things are available too; there is plenty of choice.) On the downside, the availability of good but cheap alcohol and the café lifestyle can attach itself to some, and we’ve seen several expats fall into the trap of dinking away their life savings and wages. You just have to be canny about it and exercise self-control.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
I’m full of advice, me. I would say: plan it, research it, do it. But, consider all the downsides, like the travel situation, the long cold winters, the fact that you’re not going to find a two-up two-down semi with carpets and central heating. Consider the paperwork involved in even the simplest things like residency cards and tax returns. (Here, not having an address can be a pain when dealing with things like banks and passports. We, like many others, live on a street with no name.)
But most of all, after you’ve decided to make the change, have something to do. We’re back to those who have no plans, no hobbies and a lot of money that is gradually whittled away in the café economy, sometimes out of boredom. There is a lot to do; walking, swimming in the summer and… the kafenion, but my advice to anyone who asks, is always to have something to do. I write, my partner, now my fiancé, ran a photo business for 11 years but now he works in a bar in the summer (so very tempting for an afternoon €2.00 glass of wine, or several, each day), but we also have other hobbies to keep us occupied and out of the bars.
I guess I also have to warn any Brits thinking of making the move to consider the hideous Brexit and what it could mean. I can’t imagine Greece refusing entry or full time living to British folk in the future, but when Brexit happens (if it happens, there is always hope) then I can see the red tape and paperwork becoming even more complicated than it currently is.
I think the way we moved here was the best way, certainly for us, but it depends on your circumstances. We kept the house in the UK until we were sure about a permanent move because we didn’t know what to expect. But the very bottom line is, just do it before it’s too late, and see what happens. Hope for the best, expect the worst and accept whatever comes at you.
What are your plans for the future?
This year, 2017, has already been a good one for us. I have published a new novel, we have seen the film we worked on win awards at the London Greek Film Festival, and it has now been accepted into the Cyprus film festival. It’s under consideration for the New York Greek Film Festival too and should be tying up a distribution deal shortly. We are also planning our civil partnership here in Greece later in the year, and my Irish fiancé has just taken a GCSE exam (he is 49 by the way, I wouldn’t want you to think there was anything ‘age-gap’ going on here), and may go on to take an A Level. Remember, always have something to do.
So, my plans for the future are to carry on writing, carry on enjoying life on this wonderfully quirky island, continue with my almost daily blog about Symi life, learn a bit more Greek, get married, lose the three stone that I put back on after finishing work in the harbour in 2003 – that’s an on-going project – and follow the only ‘commandment’ I really follow, which is to be nice.
You can keep up to date with James' adventures and find out about his books on his website, Symi Dream.
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