Living Like a Local on Spetses

We made a split-second decision. Should we choose the house for ten days in Greece? Or should we spend a week in Italy? The school auction had the most amazing items to bid on, so it was tough to decide. We had spent our honeymoon in Italy and wanted to go back, but the idea of traveling to Greece was appealing because we had never visited there before. We decided to put our names down for Greece and hoped for the best. As an elementary school teacher, the only chance to have a family vacation was over the summer break. My husband and I loved to travel and fortunately, so did our ten-year-old twin girls. To our surprise, our bid was the winner, and in a flash, our summer plans were set. Our family was going to Greece.

When the plane wheels touched down in Athens, I knew that our family was going to experience a transformation. The girls and I didn’t sleep a wink on the plane, but we looked past the jet-lag and focused on the palpable feeling of excitement for the adventure that was about to unfold. I had high hopes for this family trip, as it was the first one we had taken outside of the United States with our girls, Emma and Katie. For my husband Tony and I, it was the first one we had made abroad since before the twins were born. We landed in Athens that steamy, July morning and headed to an island called Spetses.

Our driver, Michele, picked us up at the airport and drove us two hours to the port in Costa, where we could catch a water taxi to the island. After traveling over an hour by car on the windy roads past Corinth, I stopped marveling at the scenery and began to regret drinking the orange juice served on the plane that morning. He drove those switchbacks like a professional racer, chatting in perfect English about his country and his friendship with Robert, whose home we were about to occupy for ten days. Robert and I were coworkers at school. He generously offered his house as an auction item at the annual fundraiser. After we won, Robert spent an hour on the phone with me helping sort out details, arranging for transportation (Michele) and explaining logistics about how to get to Spetses. He was my personal concierge, and I was in for something incredible.

Michele drove us to the port where we boarded a water taxi that gently motored across the sapphire blue waters of the Saronic Gulf. The shimmer of the gulf was sparkling in the morning light. I breathed deeply and let the feeling of anticipation begin to swell. I surveyed the coastline, and I remarked that Spetses looked lovely but extremely hilly. We all looked over at the island and studied the houses dotting all the way up to the top. We wondered aloud how the people got up to their homes. The journey we started twenty-four hours earlier was about to come to an end; we had reached our destination.

Stepping off the water taxi onto the dock, I noticed that the downtown area was teeming with people. It was joyfully noisy and hectic as boats arrived and departed from the landing. The fact that I didn’t speak Greek occurred to me, but I ignored it. I felt dizzy with excitement about setting foot on the island that Athenians loved but few tourists had taken the time to explore. Robert arranged for his house-sitter to meet us on the waterfront promenade, dotted with street vendors, shops, and café’s where the locals sipped coffee and observed the daily arrivals at the dock. A tall blond woman and her young daughter waved to us from the street. She introduced herself as Robert’s contact, Sophie, and she welcomed us with open arms. I noticed that she had an English accent. She explained that she immigrated from England to Spetses after marrying her husband who had grown up on the island. I thought her story was romantic and I was enchanted and comforted by her ease and warmth. Emma and Katie thought her daughter Anna was adorable. They spoke to her as the adults chatted about the flight and the drive. Sophie spoke fluent Greek and swiftly made arrangements for our luggage to be brought up to the house. We took a taxi up the steep hillside and finally stopped at a white-walled compound that surrounded two homes.

Robert’s house faced the gulf and was about as high on the island as you could get. His sister owned the second home on the property, and both places shared a small courtyard filled with flourishing lemon trees and potted plants brimming with bright fuchsia flowers. A tiny, but deep plunging pool was situated right off the stone patio beside the house. My girls, hot and tired from travel, ran upstairs with Anna to change into swimsuits. They couldn’t wait to splash in their very own pool. Sophie gave us detailed instructions about the house and the activities that we could experience locally. We toured the rooms, and the girls picked their favorites. Our master bedroom had a patio that we could access through the French doors. We stepped outside and saw more of those dazzling flowers whose vines crawled up the trellis and across a wooden pergola. The view of the gulf was astounding from that vantage point; almost dreamlike in its perfection. She made sure that we had some small provisions and let us know about “siesta,” the time when the locals shuttered their shops from 2:00pm to 6:00pm. They would return home to enjoy a long lunch with family and an afternoon nap. After a siesta, the shop owners would return to work until 9:00pm and then close for the evening and head out for dinner. She gently suggested that since we were living among the locals, we should be respectful neighbors and be as quiet as possible during that time. She left us with hugs and an offer to help again with any questions or problems. Then she was on her way, wishing us a relaxing and restorative vacation. I was thrilled with the house, but the wealth of information Sophie shared left me reeling.

That first day we unpacked and sat by “our” pool. We weren’t sure what to do, and of course, we were exhausted. The pool was so deep, and the water was so frigid that the girls shrieked when they jumped in, leading to a fit of giggles. I noticed that one of the neighbors peered out her window and closed her shutters. I remembered what Sophie said and realized it was siesta. I reminded the girls to keep their voices down, but it became clear that we should head inside. We stayed close to home for the day and decided to go out for an early dinner. We started walking down toward the town not exactly sure of where to go. We noticed a simple restaurant that had their menu posted on a sandwich board. It reminded Tony and I of those out-of-the-way places we visited while traveling through Tuscany. We were all hungry, so we decided to go in and have an early meal. We were the only patrons there. We managed to get our orders in with the waitress through hand gestures—she didn’t seem very friendly. We were starting to wonder what ten days would feel like there, especially with the language barrier. The food was rustic and authentic, which Tony and I enjoyed, but my girls were picky eaters and found it difficult to finish what they had ordered. They settled for bread and butter, and we decided it would be best to explore in the morning.

As the days unfolded, we walked up and down the hillside. Like the locals, we hiked up that steep mountain daily. Only a few lucky townspeople owned cars or drove small motorbikes to reach their destinations. As we trudged up the incline, we gained a respite by stopping in the fruit stall, local grocery, and the bakery along the way. At first, we pointed to the items we wanted to purchase, but after a few days, we exchanged smiles and simple greetings with the proprietors. I attempted to learn some phrases, and when I shopped, I asked about the Greek names of the fruits and vegetables. By the end of our trip, I was able to ask for the items in Greek. The shop owners and my family shared our languages back and forth as we started to feel like a part of the community. We adopted the culture and the rhythm of the island. We strolled downtown and ate dinner at 9:00pm with the rest of the local people. Our kids didn’t love the food, but they loved dessert. We allowed them to eat ice cream at 10:30pm every night. Sugared up and raring to go, we all stayed up late playing board games or cuddling on the comfortable sofa, watching VCR movies on the TV. We had no set schedule so, we woke up when we felt like it. We abandoned our regular routines from home.

Our days consisted of coffee and breakfast by the pool in our bathing suits and then down to town to catch a local boat which would stop at various beaches along the coast of “our” island. Each day we made plans to explore a different beach, which were all unique in mood and offerings. Many locations filled the entire stretch of sand with people. Most of the beaches had shacks where you could rent a lounge chair and a much-needed umbrella. Some had stalls where you could order food, buy beach toys or hire a motorboat for tube rides. Others were deserted and natural. My favorite swimming area was blissfully empty. Ligoneri Beach with its diving board bolted into the cliff, and the deep blue water lapping the white sand below it stole my heart. The dive off the board and the gigantic splash that followed was refreshing. It was the perfect antidote after hiking from the beach up the cliff to climb the ladder of the board. By one o’clock, the afternoon sun was blazing, so we went back to the comfort of our house, high up on the hill. We dined on the patio overlooking the gulf, munching on our lunch of softball-sized peaches, tomatoes, bread, and cheese. After a quick swim in the icy pool, we adopted the custom of taking a siesta. When we got sleepy, we either grabbed a book and found a nook to crawl into or lounged on our beds with the windows open, letting the breezes billow the gauzy curtains in a melodic dance. The lack of chores or appointments was heaven. The hustle and bustle of our life back home, the carpool, the work day, the after-school activities were just a blur.

One day we rented quads to cruise around the town. Tony’s quad was blue, and mine was red. We consulted our trusty map and planned a route to some of the out of the way places we couldn’t reach by foot or by boat. The kids hopped on the back, and we hit the road. We found a beachside restaurant that was off the beaten path. It had an upscale feel, with couches grouped on the grass and pop music playing on speakers. The crowd of people there seemed extraordinarily modern and young. The music and the energy intrigued us, and we made a group decision to check it out. We dined in the restaurant just off the beach underneath a pergola draped with white cotton fabric. The kids ordered burgers, but Tony and I had the most delicious grilled salmon skewered on sprigs of fresh rosemary. The smell of the rosemary that had been charred by the grill was earthy and gave the fish a smoky flavor. Both of the girls decided to try a bite, and the next thing I knew, my lunch was devoured.

Another day we jumped on a hydrofoil and sailed to a neighboring island called Hydra. Hydra was unique because there were no cars on the island. If you wanted to get to the top, you had to hire a donkey. We all rode them to the top, and the sight of us atop the mules made us laugh until our sides split. After walking around, having lunch and stopping in the local stores, we came upon a cliff where adults and children were jumping off into the water below.  We hadn’t anticipated a swim, so we didn’t have suits. We noticed that plenty of people just jumped in with their clothes on, so we figured why not? The cliff had different levels, so the kids and I chose the lower cliff and Tony climbed up to the top to the cheers of the other bathers. We splashed and laughed the day away.

After ten days, our idyllic vacation ended too soon. We planned to visit Athens before we left for home, to see the Acropolis and tour the city. We arranged to travel by high-speed ferry to the Port of Piraeus. We were sad to go. It had begun to feel like we were a part of the island that seemed so foreign when we first arrived. We made connections with the local people. As we passed each other on the street, we wished each other good morning or good evening (in Greek of course). We gave each other huge smiles and shared pleasantries. We adopted the practice of taking naps during the sweltering heat of the afternoon. The siestas gave us the energy to walk into town to enjoy the cooler evenings and nightlife of the island. My children began to appreciate the culture of a new place, and as the vacation progressed, I observed how much they had grown. The girls, who were such picky eaters, wanted to taste the local cuisine. They came away with a new appreciation for seafood because it was so prevalent and delicious. We couldn’t wait to start our daily adventures by reading maps and selecting what beach to visit, making detailed plans and explorations. They began to absorb the notion that experiences are more significant than material gifts and that pieces of destinations stay with you long after your return home to regular routines.

As the wheels retracted into the plane and soared through the air back to home, I recalled how travel helps you form new perspectives. I was nervous about taking my children out of their comfort zone, and the country, but it was worth it. Our trip strengthened our family bond because we worked together to design our daily excursions and formed unforgettable memories. We grew closer because of our shared experience marveling at the beauty and the history of Greece. Living in Spetses for ten days changed us like I hoped it would.


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