My big fat Greek experience or the time I won the lottery

Greek islands image
Stuart McLennan
Sun 20 Oct

Back in June 2016 I won the lottery. Well not literally. It felt like I had won something special. Let’s just call it the ‘lifestyle lottery.’ 

Just over three years ago I left Canberra and my job in sports media to start a life in Greece after my partner was posted to Athens. 

Early thoughts turned to sun, sand, sea and souvlaki. A leisurely sojourn hopping between Mykonos, Santorini, Paros and Corfu, soaking up the island life and just kicking back.

 Fantasies and reality never match up 100 percent and while I can happily report some island hopping, the majority of my life in the past few years was spent in Athens. 

 Athens, at first glance is a concrete jungle, surrounded by chaos, and a furnace in the summer months of June to August. 

 Taxi drivers ask when you are leaving for the islands once the “where are you from?” question is out of the way. 

 Lift the lid and immerse yourself and you will find a metropolis that comes alive at night, where locals live each day to the max. Greeks prioritise their social circles above all else. 

 After feeling lost, slightly confused and most definitely isolated in the first six months, the world turned for me when I worked out how to be part of the Athens community. 

 Without the required Greek language skills, work options consisted of lowly paid call centre shifts. Not exactly what I had envisaged before leaving Australia.

 Sport has played a major role in my life from the day I could walk and again it proved to be my path to fulfilment in Greece.

 Writing began to fill my days. Telling stories about sports, food, wine, people and places gave me a sense of purpose and a bit of pocket money to enjoy the food and coffee that enriches the Athens lifestyle. 

 Beginning with throwing out a few freebies to launch my freelance writing career, it soon transformed into regular paid columns for sporting websites, magazines and Greek Australian newspapers. 

 Along the way I met sports people, actors, photographers, celebrity chefs, historians and writers. In fact a myriad of famous or not so famous people with fascinating stories. 

 I began a love affair with coaching after being asked to help out with rugby union and rugby league teams in Athens. The joy of taking young men and women from little knowledge of a sport to accomplished players is one of the most satisfying things I have ever done. The honour of coaching the first ever Greek women’s rugby league team in an international match against Turkey is a life memory that fills me with happiness. 

 Sport provides a sense of purpose and identity for Greeks in an economic environment where youth unemployment is around 45 per cent and players are out of work, underemployed or under pressure to achieve exceptional results at university.

 Coaching teams granted me a place in a small but strong community in Greece. I could at the very least pass on the knowledge I have gained in Australia playing and watching rugby codes over many years.

 The social connection that sport provides was clearly evident before my first coaching assignment. After travelling from Athens to Larissa for a tournament we stepped off the bus and into a lively conversation with the organisers. We had taken a couple of misguided turns on our journey and had arrived late so I assumed that the animated discussion was about getting the draw sorted and commencing the competition as soon as possible. During a slight pause in the conversation I enquired as to what the story was and whether we needed to get changed into our uniforms straight away? “Just sorting the souvlaki and salads for afterwards," our captain replied without a hint of a smile.

 Training sessions are just the beginning of the night time itinerary for the players in Athens. When we finished training around 10pm,  I was ready to go home to bed while the night is still young for a nation of people that seem to survive on minimal sleep.

 Communication with the team was interesting at times. Regrettably my Greek language skills are at a low level. My advice and instructions were often conveyed to the team by the captain acting as an interpreter. 

 So what did I learn over the three years? 

 Top of the list is leave the baggage in Australia. Embrace the culture and philosophies of your new home without judgement. 

 No one wants to hear comparisons or how your own country does things so much better. Finding the positives, and believe me there were plenty, helped me to break down barriers and increase my network of friends. 

 Leave a legacy behind and be generous with your offerings. A self audit of talent, skills and experience allowed me to add value to the community.

 Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself a little bit. What worked or felt comfortable in Australia may not translate in the same way in another country so give yourself permission to move in a different direction.

 Throw yourself into the community and don’t limit yourself to expat networks. 

 Travel locally as much as you can. 

 I feel like a hypocrite because this was a fail for me but learn the language. I fell short and it hampered my ability to have deeper conversations at times. 

 Most of all if the opportunity comes your way to work and live overseas, grab it, hug it and nurture it and have no regrets. I would jump at the chance to relive the experience faster than you can say yia sou!

Stuart McLennan - Stuart is a media and communications professional with a love of sport, travel, coffee, food and wine and a passion for storytelling. He recently returned from a three year life-changing stint in Athens, Greece where he soaked up the sun, sand, sea and souvlaki mixed up with lots of sport and a little bit of Santorini wine.