I was one of those people who did everything right growing up. I studied, got good grades, got better jobs, and kept out of trouble. I never wanted to disappoint my immigrant parents, who had sacrificed and scrimped so that my siblings and I could graduate from college debt-free.
When friends and roommates were gallivanting across Europe, running with the bulls in Pamplona, hooking up with Greek gods at outdoor discos, or trekking the Great Wall, I worked and studied. I spent college summers working in a grassroots organization, a political lobbying group, or as an intern at the Virginia General Assembly.
One summer in college, I secured an internship on a remote island in the Mediterranean. That summer in Cyprus changed my life. I returned to the University of Virginia smitten with this ancient island, the gorgeous natives, and their relaxed, healthy lifestyle. It didn’t hurt that I was also smitten with a guy. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had met my future husband.
Years later, this dashing young Cypriot and I married. We lived in Atlanta, where I had earned a respectable MBA in finance and a high-paying but (for me) unsatisfying corporate existence.
I spent hours on the road or chained to my cubicle. Although our bankroll grew and we had two beautiful children, I felt there was something missing. That distant summer in Cyprus was an ever-present reminder of how life should be: healthier, more relaxed, and more balanced between work and play.
With two babies in tow, my husband and I decided to pack up our Atlanta home and move east . . . to Cyprus for what was originally planned to be only for a couple of years (“until Ella goes to school” was our mantra). However, life took over; we got addicted to the Mediterranean sun and remained on the Island of Aphrodite.
Over the years, I learned a thing or two about how to relax, relish life, and live like a Mediterranean goddess.
1. My cupboards are bare but my fridge is full.
In my corporate days, locked 10-plus hours in a cubicle or traveling to multiple cities weekly, I munched on granola bars, sipped on Diet Coke, and snacked on dry Fruity Pebbles late at night.
Processed foods usurp our American grocery aisles. On the island, we eat three proper meals. Snacks are whole fruit or nuts.
Today my meals are centered round seasonal, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Condiments, cookies, and crackers (if they exist in my kitchen) are small boxes and enjoyed sparingly (bye, bye Costco-size!).
2. Everyone eats fat, but no one gets fat.
I used to obsess over eating low-fat pretzels, low-fat muffins, low-fat yogurt, and the like. In the Mediterranean, full-fat yogurt and milk, lamb, fatty fish, nuts, olive oil, and whole grains comprise our diets.
It’s considered far better (and more tasty) to savor a half-cup of full-fat yogurt than to eat a container of flavorless nonfat yogurt, sweetened with syrup and fake fruit.
3. I skipped the gym and started a garden.
I loved my old boot camp classes, but in the absence of an ex-Marine screaming his head off at overweight, overprivileged office workers, I learned to take long walks through the hills or down by the seashore with my family and dog.
Tilling my own land; planting cilantro, cucumbers, and tomatoes, weeding, and watering until the fruit grew ripe: This is one of the simple ways in which Mediterranean people live healthfully. Less stress, more living outdoors.
4. Adopt a giving nature.
I grew up in Virginia, so I mean no disrespect to the notion of Southern hospitality, but there is no comparison to Mediterranean hospitality.
We all love getting stuff—free gifts, swag bags, birthday or Christmas presents. It is always fun to receive. In the Mediterranean, there is an expectation to always give. So if most people are giving, then most people are also receiving. It’s a giant circle of being nice.
We show up at someone’s home with a bottle of wine, some slices of homemade cake, or fruit from the garden. Whatever is on hand, a simple token of thanks goes a long way.
And if you have nothing to give, a smile and a compliment will brighten anyone’s day.
5. I stopped being a jack-of-all-trades and stuck with (and profited from) a single one.
I studied business. I should know my core strengths. Should. Through my 20s, I flitted from one job to another, with the excuse that I was making vertical jumps. In truth, I had a hard time settling down and developing core competencies.
Although I earned a finance degree, my natural inclination was in the arts. I studied drama, theater, and screenwriting. These technical skills were what allowed me to eventually take a chance and work for myself.
In Cyprus, my American accent was in demand. I had my own radio show and worked heavily in TV. Eventually, I launched a children’s theater school, teaching local and expat kids the love of drama.
Bottom line: Find out what makes you happy. Pick a trade and make money from it.
6. Learn the language—or at least some choice phrases.
Americans are really proud people. We believe we have the best nation in the world. But guess what? Many other people feel the same way about their country.
In under two years, I could speak the local language. Expats marveled at how I had picked up the language so quickly. (Turkish is not an intuitive language to learn as a native English speaker.)
But guess what? Locals loved it! Although English is widely spoken all over this fine planet, don’t be the rude traveler. Learn their language, their customs, and their culture. We are guests in their country.
7. The world is smaller than you think.
When we lived in Atlanta, my husband and I had exactly three visitors: an old friend from New York City who came down for a girls’ weekend and my parents the week after my daughter was born.
Strangely enough (note: This is sarcasm), living on a Mediterranean island elicited friends and family from far and wide to visit. They seemed in awe of our ability to pack up and move across the world.
High school, college, and grad school friends; distant cousins; siblings; and more all came in droves to visit. We even had a newlywed couple spend part of their honeymoon with us.
Communication and technology has been a lifeboat for me. Keep up with your old friends! You never know who may need a hand or a pillow to lay their head on for a few nights.
Originally posted on Mind Body Green on 5-27-16.