Wednesday, May 7, 2014

My Big Fat Greek Summer


The day after I graduated from college, my friend Lisa and I got on a plane headed for Athens. Greece, not Georgia. It was a decision that changed my life forever, and I owe it all to my mom.

To tell this story the right way, we should go back a few months, to the day Lisa - who was also my college roommate - got a letter from our mutual friend Hilary. Hilary had moved to Japan with her mom at 15, made  a crapload of money teaching English, and 4 years later decided to see the rest of the world, and ended up on the island of Crete. She wrote to Lisa, suggesting that we join her in the village of Παλιόχωρα (that's Paleochora to you), on the southwest tip of the island. She told us that she could help us find a place to live and jobs for the summer. She said she could even find us boyfriends. We could spend our days swimming in the Aegean Sea and our nights dancing at the Paleochora Club.

Lisa was up for it immediately, but I waffled.

I worked my way through college, usually holding down 2 or 3 part time radio and waitressing jobs while taking a full load of classes. But in my senior year, I started to get busy applying for public radio careers throughout the country.  I was a finalist for a reporter position in Massachusetts, and another news job in Alaska. I was afraid to commit to the Greece trip, because I thought I might miss the opportunity to land my dream job.

This drove Lisa nuts.

She was ready to go. Ready to quit her job, leave school, and move to Greece indefinitely. The only thing holding her back was her fear of traveling all the way to the other side of the earth by herself. If I didn't go, she didn't want to go. It was a lot of pressure on me, because I didn't want to let Lisa down, and I was excited about the idea of going to Greece, but I kept putting off giving her an answer because I was waiting to hear back from the radio stations I'd interviewed with.

Finally, mom stepped in and saved the day.

She told me these four words: You. Have. To Go.

Then she told me why.

When my mom and dad married in 1959, my father had a bitter ex-wife and two young daughters in Texas who didn't get to spend much time with their dad. Although he was supposed to get the girls every summer, many times their trips out to California were suddenly and inexplicably cancelled at the last minute. My mom and dad would make elaborate plans with the girls that never materialized, and they would suddenly find themselves with a whole, lonely summer with nothing to do and nobody to do it with. You can imagine how devastating it was for them to put all their eggs in one basket, and none of them hatched.

So instead they hatched a plan. It was the ultimate revenge on loneliness and ruined summer vacations. Every year they made two sets of plans: one if Diana & Vicki did show up, and another if they didn't. If the girls showed up, they'd head off to Catalina for a week on the beach. If they didn't show up, it was something else just as exciting and fun to look forward to. Something that ensured my parents that if the  girls trip was cancelled, that they didn't spend all summer moping around, crying in their beer; they had something else almost as fun waiting in the wings. Obviously, they would rather have the girls. But they knew that to protect their hearts, they had to come up with Plan B, just in case Plan A didn't work out.

My mother had already done a lot of thinking about my situation, and told me she'd figured there were several possible outcomes:

  • I could sit at home and wait to hear from my potential employers. I might hear back from them tomorrow….and then again, I might not hear back from them for months (it was months, by the way).
  • When I did hear back, it could be good news, or it could be bad. If it was good, then I could pack up my already packed up stuff and move to wherever it was I'd been hired. If word came quickly, then the only one who lost out on a cool opportunity was my roommate Lisa. If word took months, then we both lost out on an amazing summer.
  • If, however, I sat and waited the whole summer and the news was not good, then not only did Lisa miss out on the opportunity to go to Greece, but so had I. And I would be miserable, jobless AND without an amazing tan. And probably minus one lifelong friend.


My mom said there was only one real path to follow, and it was to buy an open ended round trip ticket to Greece immediately.

She said that if word came soon, then I could come back. Even if I only spent a few weeks in Greece, it would be a great way to relax and get a tan before starting a new job. If it took months to hear back, then I would probably have the summer of my life, she said.

But most importantly, she said that if I didn't take the opportunity to go to Greece and stayed home instead, and didn't land any of the jobs I was a finalist for, that I would be the most miserable, pathetic 22 year old in the county. But if I went to Greece and later found out that I didn't land any of the jobs I'd applied for, my mother assured me that I absolutely positively wouldn't give a shit.

And there you have it. Mom's final word.  So what the heck. I did it. We flew to Athens, took a ferry to Crete, then a 2 hour drive to the other end of the island, courtesy of Hilary's boyfriend Manos Savas.

Pretty soon I was sharing an efficiency apartment in Paleochora with Lisa, spending my days on the beach getting an almost all-over tan and spending my nights working at the Fortezza Bar until midnight, then dancing until 3am at the Paleochora Club with my Greek boyfriend Haris. I would borrow his Honda scooter to tool around the village, and eat greek salads every day, with locally grown tomatoes and huge chunks of feta cheese. I caught up on my reading. I learned to speak Greek like a 4 year old who could cuss like a sailor.
Paleochora at night
One evening a few months later, as I was walking through the village to work, Mrs. Savas ran out of her restaurant and flagged me down to let me know that my mother had called. I had a job!

As it turned out, I hadn't gotten any of the jobs I'd been a finalist for. Future NPR darling Elizabeth Arnold landed the job in Massachusetts. NPR's future Middle East correspondent Peter Kenyon, already in Alaska, got the other job I'd applied for in Anchorage.

Mom was right. I didn't care. Not one bit. I was so happy living on an island, in a little village of a few thousand people with nothing but fishing boats and tourists. It was an amazing life.

Then she told me that in Alaska, a domino effect had taken place. When one position opened up and it was filled by another Alaskan, it opened up another position. Which was filled by another Alaskan. Which opened up yet another position. And so on and so forth. My resume was passed down from Anchorage to Juneau to Petersburg. And Petersburg, as it turned out, wanted to hire me.

I was so content that I almost didn't take the job, even though I was running out of money in Greece. But I stood in the pantry of Mrs. Savas' restaurant to shut out the kitchen noise while my mom executed a conference call with the radio station in Alaska, where my future boss told me that if I took the job, I'd be moving across the world, to an island of a few thousand people, where the main industries were fishing and tourism.

And I thought...what the heck. I'd have a Big Fat Alaskan Adventure!

Today I was thinking about all the things to thank my mother for (besides giving birth to me) on Mother's Day. Of all the things on the list (which includes blessing me with her rich and beautiful voice, and for her decision to not only go into the public radio business herself, but for taking me to work with her when I was just a kid), her advice on the matter of Greece is still at the top.

Thanks mom. Today's playlist (a Best Of from a few years ago) is for you.

I'm interested in hearing from you: What's the best advice you've ever gotten from your mom?

You can check out the Mother's Day playlist directly from the Grooveshark website, or click on the play arrow in the colorful box below:
Mother's Day by Valerie Ing-Miller on Grooveshark




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