Expats in Greece: an artistic odyssey
Meet British expats James and Neil, who gave up a life in theatre to set up a photography shop and art gallery on the “inspirational” Greek island of Symi.
By Leah Hyslop
Published: 10:43AM BST 07 Jul 2010
Neil and James have settled into life on Symi. Here, local people gather to celebrate the hanging of the shop's new sign. Photo: Neil Gosling
When James Collins and his partner Neil Gosling landed on the Greek island of Symi, they had no idea that it was going to be a permanent move. “We decided, back in 2000, that we wanted to try living abroad, and wanted to do it before we got old – we didn’t want to wake up one morning and think ‘I wish I’d done that’,” says James. So the pair saved up, bought two tickets to Athens, and crossed their fingers that they had “enough money in the bank to see us through for a year out".
Then they found Symi.
“We’d been to a couple of other islands first and had a holiday really,” says James,”but when we arrived on Symi, we knew that was where the heart was. It’s very hard to say what it is about it that made us want to live here, and it’s not one thing. It's a mixture of the people, the landscape, and the slow and steady life here. It’s somehow inspirational.”
In some ways, it was a strange time for the pair to move. James was busy writing and staging successful musicals, as well as writing and starring in his own cabaret. Neil, with whom James owned a theatre company, was an on-the-side photographer whose art was finally starting to attract attention. Having packed all this into just five years, however, they felt that they “needed a break” – and, having fallen in love with Symi, decided to make that break permanent.
“It was New Year’s Day when Neil and I asked each other the question 'Shall we stay or go?'” James remembers. “It took about a minute to decide, and I was back in England on January 8 selling our house.”
Back on Symi, Neil had the idea of opening a photography shop to showcase his art, and provide photography services for the local community: “We called it Symi Dream – based on the fact that we were ‘living the dream’ as they say.” For some time, the upper floor of the building remained un-used, whilst the pair tried to think of a better use for it than “storing boxes that should have really been thrown away".
Eventually, they decided to turn the floor into a gallery for Neil’s photographs and those of other local artists – and in the process, opened Symi’s only permanent art gallery space.
Once the shop and gallery were up and running, James says that they found it surprisingly easy to settle into Greek life. “Until the business was sorted, we worked for local people, and I still cover a local bar during siesta time in the summer. It’s helped us make a lot of Greek friends, and we’ve become really involved in the local community.
“Attending church for a baptism is a good way of ‘being seen’ if you like, and we also attend festivals and special occasions when we can. Neil joins in with dances in the square when he's not photographing them – he’s known as being a little bit crazy, but fun. The Greeks seem to like that; people who are not afraid to be themselves.”
He says that when Neil broke his heel a few years ago, three of their expat friends decided to cook for them on a rota each week, while local people constantly phoned or called round to see how he was. “One Greek lady even made us a special dinner around Easter time and her husband came to deliver it. That kind of thing really makes you feel accepted.”
Being a gay couple has not posed many problems for the pair either. “I reckon that most people know we are a couple. It’s not spoken about, and we don’t flaunt it. Those who don’t like the idea seem to think of us as brothers (which, when you think about it, is worse), or simply as a couple of friends.”
Neil spends his days running his shop and gallery, while James concentrates on his writing. “We do still keep regular hours, and we do commute, but it’s like being in a rat race which is not a rat race at all. The commute to work involves a stroll through the lanes and the village, saying good morning to everyone, and the commute back often involves a coffee or a beer at the kafeneion. Sometimes in the evenings it can be very hard to get home as visitors and friends are always asking you to stop for a drink on your way.”
A lot of the tourist trade has dropped off since the recession hit Symi, and James says it has been noticeably quiet. “But the atmosphere is what you make it and we stay positive and ‘up’ especially when talking to visitors. These days you have to think of new ways to attract customers. We’ve been holding a ‘wine night’ as we call it on a Monday evening, inviting visitors to sit on the steps and chat and have a glass - well, a plastic cup - of wine on us. It’s proved very successful so far with up to 50 people coming along.
“We took the decision when moving here that we would rather be poor on Symi that well off in England – we are, but that’s fine. We pay our bills and our taxes and whatever is left over we enjoy.”
James’s writing has clearly been inspired by his new home. He has written two books about life on the island, and is working on a screenplay about a gay civil partnership on a small Greek island, “kind of based on an uproar that happened on nearby Tilos a few years ago.” He pauses, then jokes: “The synopsis has been registered so the plot can’t be nicked, by the way….”
There have been a few aspects of life on the island which have proved difficult to adjust to. On windy days, it can be impossible to get a boat on or off the island, meaning it is possible to be trapped on nearby Rhodes for days if they've been unfortunate enough to go on a shopping trip. Either that, or it means that the local shop ( “extremely small, I haven’t pushed a trolley for years") runs out of food, and “you’re scratching about for the last carrot".
The other main inconvenience is medical provision. “There are two good medical clinics on the island but if you need a specialist or a hospital you have to go to Rhodes,“ says James. “That means ferries and often overnight stays in a hotel, so it can be costly.”
Disadvantages aside, James says neither he or Neil regret their move. He would like to see more theatre, but says what he feels towards Britain isn’t “really a ‘missing’ thing”. “It’s more that you have to face that there are some inconveniences – like if there was a wedding or a funeral, you might not get back in time.”
Particularly, one imagines, if it happens to be a windy day.
Visit James’s blog about life on the island at Symi Dream.