On 14th November, my League of Expat Writers (LEW) featured Sara Alexi, author of The Greek Village series. I have just finished reading the first book, ‘The Illegal Gardener’ and was so moved by the tale, I felt compelled to interview Sara.
Sara, you are a British lady who’s chosen a life in Greece. I am sure you are asked this a lot, but are there any elements of the book that ring true to your own life experiences? A small example: the main character chooses to work from home, translating Greek texts to English. Have you ever undertaken translation work?
I wish I was fluent enough in Greek to do translation work! My Greek gets me by but it is easy to say so much without words with people who have the time.
It is obvious from the book that the main character, Juliet, loves Greece. There are sporadic comments throughout ‘The Illegal Gardener’ such as on Page 13 when speaking to her best friend on the telephone, she tells her “…I still feel the same about this country the way I did back then.” What is it about Greece‘back then’ that drew you? What made you choose to come to Greece to settle? Did you have a good holiday in your 20’s with a good friend [like the main character did] and Greece’s magic started to infiltrate you?
Some months before I first stepped on Greek soil I went to Majorca. It was a nice holiday and that was all. The moment I stepped on Greek soil it felt as if I had come home, a real sense of belonging, to the land, the people, the sea. The holiday was not even planned.
Some university friends came for a two-week package holiday to Crete. I took the last minute cheaper version with the flight only, arriving a day later and slept on their floor, in true student style…
I also only took one week instead of two and left them sitting smugly on the beach. In England the bus from the airport travelled at ten miles an hour, due to the lashing rain, before grinding to a halt in my asphalt-grey hometown. The doors hissed open to a chilling wind and I climbed down onto the wet pavement.
It took as long as it took to walk the travel-agent to decide to take the first flight back. I had no choice, I felt compelled. I reappeared, next to my sunbathing friends one day later, my tent in my rucksack, my bank balance in my back pocket, and a week later it was I who waved them off.
I have lived in Greece off and on ever since.
Michelle, Juliet’s friend, is a constant anchor to Juliet throughout this book and Michelle makes a comment on P.14 that really resonated with me: “…you have done what you thought was right [by getting married and having kids.] But Mick [the ex-husband] just put off the inevitable. You’ve got to dig a bit deeper if you’re looking for any amount of contentment.”Contentment comes from within, yet I feel that since my time in Greece, the country and her people have helped me find this contentment. What about you? Have your experiences helped shape Juliet’s character?
I think there are many expats in Greece who are there because they do not want to be who they are somewhere else. They all seek the fun and happiness that they found on their holiday ,but when the reality of life hits them, they find they are just as discontented as they were in their home country.
For myself I was running a successful psychotherapy business in England before I left for the most permanent move to Greece, when we bought a house and shipped all our belongings. I moved to give my daughter a positive childhood. Greeceis a country where everyone adores children. We lived in rented accommodation for the first year. Consequently our belongings stayed boxed. So I was stripped of all the outward affirmations that I thought were me. I received no kudos from work, no feedback from clients, no interaction with co-workers, no support from familiar surrounding or things, my wardrobe changed to accommodate the heat. There was nothing left of the ‘me’ I knew. I felt bare to the bone. It was a very interesting experience which quickly taught me how superficial our perceptions of self are.
Juliet was clearly running from her previous life hoping to find her contentment so Michelle’s comment of ‘You’ve got to dig a bit deeper’ came from my own experience of who is left once you take all the outer layers away. When you truly see your self and come to terms with that, you can find contentment.
Added to this, I think it is also fair to say that Greek people are very accepting of people just as they are, flaws and warts are all part of life. Their acceptance of you makes it much easier to accept yourself. There is not the same culture out there that emulates celebrities and so not the same dissatisfaction with themselves. That is contagious!
P.127: “The laid back ease that attracted her to Greece is now the very thing that frustrates her.” Once again, I can relate. Is there any particular example from your own life you can share?
Actually, there isn’t! I think I am one of the rare/lucky people in Greece who has not become frustrated with the system. From that point of view the Buddhist philosophy of ‘Life is a struggle, and once you accept it is a struggle them it is no longer a struggle’ is the only way to live in Greece. I think I realised very quickly that things are just the way they are and if it isn’t the way you want them to be, then it is you that must change. This need to be flexible has, without doubt, made me a better person, and has widened my view of life and understanding of human relationships.
The book is a work of fiction, and yet I wonder how much of Juliet’s character is similar to your own. I ask this because I can relate so well and it could only be written by a foreigner living in Greece, who has first hand knowledge and experience.
Do you know, I am not sure. When I craft a character I find their characteristics, whatever they are, within myself so I can write from the heart, so, obviously there are elements of me in her. But I do not think we are similar characters. I think Juliet is harder than me. I am probably more a mix of Aaman [the Gardener] and Michelle. But my experience as a foreigner in Greece is bound to come across through her, however similar or dissimilar we are as that is the only experience I have had!
When I wrote The Illegal Gardener I had no plan to write a follow-up novel, but the process of writing the book made me dwell on so many aspects of Greece that I love, that the follow up books almost wrote themselves. Book two in The Greek Village Series – “The Consequences of an Arranged Marriage” (Original released as “Black Butterflies”) has a very different feel in that it is about a woman, Marina the shop keeper, who has spent her life keeping busy to avoid doing what Juliet is trying to do.
This is something I have come across a great deal in Greece. Woman involved in hours of cooking, cups of coffee, meals out, phone calls and so on, all designed to keep them endlessly busy.
Marina keeps herself busy to avoid finding herself, feeling what she feels, and coming to terms with her emotions.
But life is seldom that kind and, consequently, she is forced to face all her emotion. When it gets too tough she turns to Juliet (from Book 1) for advice. The book explores many aspects of why people can feel alone-whether from sexual orientation, wealth, geography, age, other peoples’ expectations.
Book three, which will be published in December 2012, is called The Explosive Nature of Friendship, This was inspired by the many lovely older men in the village I live in who are always philosophising. It follows the soul-searching of a man trying to decide if he has lead a good life or not and what, therefore, does he deserve in the autumn of his life. It romps through his tangled past, focusing on his lifelong friendship with Manolis and his love of Manolis’s wife Marina (the shop keeper from Book 2) whilst causing him angst in the present. It is a book that very much reflects the nature of Greek men in their dealings with life, as well as exploring how we all tend to judge ourselves harshly. Juliet. again, plays a pivoting role at a crucial moment.
The Explosive Nature of Friendship ends with some unanswered question, a cliff hanger as they say and these are resolved in the book I am currently working on.
I hope the answers to these questions give some insight into what a wonderful and inspiring place Greece is.
As you can see, Sara’s answers are very soul searching. This will give you an indication as to the nature of the book, the characters and the fact that Sara cleverly weaves the Greek psyche into her story. Unputdownable, I would recommend to everyone.