I have been living in Santorini for three years now. 36 months ago exactly today I was arriving at the Athinios Port with my big suitcase packed with my clothes, hopes and dreams.
I vividly remember the time waiting for my friends Juliana and Arsenio to come and pick me up at the port, and I can still see their happy faces (and their dog Negrito’s with his head out of the window) welcoming me with that happy noise that only laughs full of love can make. I regret that I don’t have a video of that precise moment, besides my studies and jobs related to photojournalism, I was not ready to catch the moment. As I will discover years later, I prefer to re-elaborate time with words rather than a proof picture.
I can’t tell if these three years passed fast or slow, it simply looks to me that I have always been here.
Every now and then I picture myself, in my thoughts, in another place and time, usually in London. It’s like a déjà vu, it’s more like having the impression of having lived that life before, rather than actually having done it.
I feel that I belong to the island, especially to the village where I live, Akrotiri. This is the place that has meant Santorini for me for many years when I was only a tourist, this is the place that I call home today. Quite often, as a serious-hilarious joke, when I am asked where I am from, I’ve started answering: ‘From Akrotiri’.
I have been questioned so many times what it means to live in Santorini.
I had some conversations in the past couple of days with people like me, who chose to live in Santorini for different reasons that helped me a lot to clarify the matter.
Living in Santorini is tough, you have to have strong reasons or willpower to stay and adjust to the island.
Besides all the practical issues (it’s an island, not a lot of entertainment or arty life, lack of services, …) what looks like to be the most common problem is the social life, relations.
I am the first one who recently complained a bit about it.
The economic power of Santorini is a double-edged sword. It gives a lot of opportunities to many people, including myself, and whereas Greece is still facing so many issues, Santorini is, however, a place where you can find work (not a house though but this is another theme). It’s true that many businessmen have jumped on this train without respecting the environment, the heritage and the local community. This means that very often people, both for entrepreneurs and employees, come to the island with one goal: money.
So if you come here with this one goal in mind, you often end up trying to make as much money as possible (I don’t judge that) but you will feel like in a gold cage: you are in a place that you don’t care about, making some money as fast as you can, and the only thing you look forward to is to leave as soon as the touristic season ends. This means they are not interested in building any relations.
The success of Santorini has also a side effect on locals, the people who are from the island. If you read a bit about the island, you will discover that Santorini, until the ’70, was a very underprivileged place: the volcano, the aridity of the soil, the distance from everything and the earthquake of 1956, just to name a few, have always made the life very hard.
Locals found themselves suddenly with an exceptional unexpected opportunity: tourism. I fancy thinking about it as a second impressive volcano explosion. This translates on some behaviours that are not very far from the ones mentioned in the previous paragraphs.
To be honest, the consequences of high mass tourism have an effect even on big cities, I quite understand why they are having a bit of a catastrophic result on such a small island.
So the ‘social’ fight is in between locals accusing people from outside coming here to exploit the island and, vice-versa, ‘strangers’ pointing their fingers against Santorinians.
In addition to that, I believe there is a lack of honest understanding and expectations from the side of people like me, coming here, choosing, for whatever reason, to live on this island.
I also disagree often on some matters and the way things are run but complaining and not doing anything won’t change a thing.
When I grumbled about things I don’t like, my sister always, wisely, says: ‘Next time you should move to Switzerland!’.
In the beginning, I laughed at this quote, but now I feel it is the heart of the problem.
You can’t move to Santorini or any small community and looking for the things that a city (even just a small town) has to offer you: concerts, theatres, several schools, lots of services.
Life on an island like Santorini is a hard pill to swallow: if you choose to live here you have to sacrifice things that all the rest of the world takes for granted.
You cannot also move to Santorini expecting that local people will have your mentality, that they will be interested in the same matters. What is critical for you who are coming from a more progressive and privileged environment, could not be crucial in a small community. This doesn’t mean it won’t be useful.
It needs a bigger effort from ‘our’ side into showing what could be better done in some situations. But this can only be done after having a deep understanding of the heritage and history of the local life. You have somehow to blend in first and shake it after.
Places like this offer you an opportunity to look into yourself and make you understand what is that really matters to you: once probably they were fancy shoes or expensive cool meals, today is sitting on your terrace and watching the sunrise or walk on the beach anytime you need to ‘breathe’.
I often explain my love for living on the island as follows: the island gives me limits that I cannot overcome, but it gives me the opportunity, the freedom, to go and search within them.
The same has to apply to the community, to the people, to what the island has to offer: you could probably find them in a small number but it does not mean they don’t exist.
After all it was our choice to move here: stop mumbling and use your creativity to shape your new reality.
©Nicoletta Barbata/One Quarter Greek