Tuesday, 28 June 2011

My Big Fat Greek Package Holiday

It's 6am and the two hour drive to Gatwick Airport in heavy early morning traffic awaits.

My big fat Greek package holiday is underway, a ritual enjoyed by thousands of Brits and their European neighbours every year and a tradition that this expat couldn't resist on a return to the 'motherland' from the land down under during this year's English summer.

Upon arrival in England's second largest and arguably ugliest airport, all such negative thoughts are put to one side as the adventure kicks off with a turn on the 'self-service' check-in stations... which don't work and which don't check us in. The extended Ward family will now be dispersed across the fully-booked flight as a result.

Greece beckons.

Onwards and upwards as we head to the duty free to stack up on copious amounts of cheap alcohol and large numbers of trashy books - essential ingredients for a hard-earned package holiday. As I sit in the departure lounge crammed in beside my fellow travellers, the airport tanoy blaring out every few minutes, I take stock of how different this experience is to a remote Australian beach getaway or to a retreat to some far-flung tip of the Canadian mainland. I've missed Europe and it's hustle and bustle but it will take me some time to get used to the high volume of people holidaying in a relatively small region.

We take our seats on the plane which resembles a booze bus, not a flight to a pretty Greek island. There is growing anticipation at the summery delights waiting for us at our destination and the plane is pulsing with nervous excitement and flowing with over-priced alcohol. Less than twenty minutes into the flight and somebody is already smoking in the non-smoking toilets. The school teacher reprimand is made to all passengers, including the guilty culprit, and then we're back on our way.

My father has treated my wife and I to this unexpected holiday and has also kindly ordered a meal for each of us on the four-hour flight and I am famished by the time it arrives. And so are my travelling neighbours who have taken to staring at my 'optional' meal with the intensity of starved wild animals. I'm sat alone at the rear of the plane, which just so happens to be where the 'cheapskates' are seated, the type that refuse to purchase a meal, any non-complimentary drinks, or anything else for that matter.

In a sea of English pikeys, I sit guarding my meal as if it were my last.

Typically Greek scenes like these await us.

We land at Kos Airport. Actually, we land at the world's smallest airport. It has one customs officer, one baggage reclaim stand, and one undeniably attractive but obviously adolescent travel rep who directs us to our 'ride' to the hotel. Boarding the bus, we are told it is a fifteen minute transfer from airport to hotel. Alarm bells start to ring. Only fifteen minutes to the hotel. That makes the airport mighty close to the hotel. That makes the airport mighty close to the beach. That makes for some interesting scenarios. I put my fears to one side as the bus heads off.

The hotel is beautiful. It's been a while since I last 'package holidayed' with the best of them but this one is a beauty. It has thirteen swimming pools, three bars, five restaurants, a gym, private beach, tennis and football courts, even a theatre. And our rooms are lovely. They are clean, of a decent size, air conditioned, and they have the most divine views of the water not one hundred metres from where we stand. My parents join us on the shared balcony and we congratulate each other on a great find.

In the distance over the water, a light shines brightly in the sky and I remark that there must be mountains on the islands opposite Kos. We could even be gazing at a traditional Greek village on top of one of those mountains. As we look out over the sea, the light grows larger in size, then splits into a number of smaller lights - three to be exact. These lights start to illuminate the water near the beach, then light up the beach itself, the hotel, the swimming pools, our bedrooms, us. As we watch, the intensity of the lights change angle, a familiar shape forms in the sky, and a roar splits the sky as a plane with the words 'Air Berlin' written on its underbelly screams over the top of our heads.

It looks like the Germans have arrived.

In the morning, we head to the beach, neatly laid out with beach umbrellas, sun loungers and the obligatory tight-short-wearing Italian or five. Swimming in the warm Aegean sea is divine. There are no killer sharks here or deadly tropical stingers. The ocean rips are non-existent and I float on my back with not a care in the world. The occasional topless Euro chick swims past accompanied by an overweight Euro man and his moobs.

Aircraft incoming

I leave the water and settle down to the task at hand. The goal of my big fat Greek package holiday is to fry under the blistering Greek sun. Third degree burns are the order of the day, as I 'slip slop slap' my zero-factor coconut oil over, and into, every crevice of my anatomy. My plan is to burn, peel, and re-fry over the next seven days with the intention of returning to England the brownest man in the land.  And to then spend subsequent weeks glowing in the belief that I am the brownest man in the land.

By lunchtime, most beach dwellers are close to being half-cut. This is an all-inclusive resort which means everything is free, including the alcohol. The tragic northern English couple behind us totter over to the beach bar for another 'sex on the beach' and one more 'shag in the bag'. The Americans of Europe, the Italians, bleat incessantly on the sand with prego-this and prego-that, managing to drown out the sound of the planes as they pass overhead at fifteen minute intervals. It's more than I can take so I skulk off to my room for a quiet afternoon siesta and another five chapters of my book.

The evening arrives and I'm red-faced and sorry-assed, wishing I had eased off on that coconut oil. Nonetheless, I happily gorge on my all-inclusive buffet and drown my sorrows in free house wine. No big fat Greek package holiday would be complete without the hotel staff putting on a display of traditional dancing and singing, which takes place next to the restaurant and very close to the main swimming pool. My wife, parents and sister are dragged up to partake in a little of this Greek dancing, putting them precariously close to the pool. And my father is fairly well lubricated on the house red and quite definitely on his way. I have my camera at the ready just in case.

Later, we head to the amphitheatre and this season's holiday anthem is blasting out from the main stage. For the second time in one night, my wife is dragged onto the stage - this time by a Scandinavian midget with bad hair. I cringe. She cringes. The whole audience cringes.

This is a big fat Greek package holiday at its finest - embarrassing yet necessary, relaxing yet almost always over-the-top.

My big fat Greek package holiday has been a blast from the past, a renewed adventure on the European continent, and a much needed dose of time with my England-based family. As with all big fat Greek package holidays, the evening inevitably draws to a close and the end of the holiday always nears.

Things in my life have now changed and of course I live on the other side of the world yet, after all this time, old habits die hard and I still find myself wondering on the journey back whether it will be raining in England upon our return...

Are you off on a vacation away from your 'home away from home' this year?  Have you ever been on a European package holiday?

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Friday, 17 June 2011

Filming Our Search for a Life Less Ordinary

It's 8am on a Friday morning and a TV crew from the US has just turned up at our rented house on Sydney's Northern Beaches. They are here to record our every move over the next three days as we go in search for a new home in this harbour city. We have a particular budget in mind, a good sense of the 'must haves' and ‘do not wants’, and a decent enough understanding of the local house market. By the end of the scheduled filming, we should also have a new house, which we’ll be sharing with a possible US television audience of about 20 million people.

Our adventure in ‘TV land’ began simply enough after I received an email asking if we would consider appearing on a US reality television show known as House Hunters International, a half-hour weekly programme watched across the US, Canada and Europe.

The TV crew in action in the kitchen.

This hugely popular lifestyle show, a spin-off of the domestic House Hunters version, follows individuals, couples, or families searching for a new home with the assistance of a real estate agent. Each broadcast features three properties, one of which is selected by the prospective buyer, whose offer generally is accepted by the seller. In the final moments of the show, the new owner provides a tour of the house, revealing what changes and/or improvements, if any, were made after moving in. The show focuses on properties around the world, particularly in Europe, the Caribbean, Central America, Japan and South America.

I had attracted the attention of the show's producers through this expat blog, which follows my move from the UK to Canada and on to Australia. The producers were keen to highlight the challenges in moving from one country to another, and were intrigued by our relocation from Canada to Australia, given the obvious similarities between Vancouver and Sydney, and the resultant difficult decisions we faced in opting to make such a move.

My wife's desire to return to her Australian homeland had played a key part in that decision, as had our desire for lots of sun, sea and sand, combined with an improved economic outlook Down Under. The House Hunters team jumped on our story and, before we knew it, casting videos and lengthy questionnaires were the order of the day before we were told we would be appearing in Season 25 of the series to be shown in late June/early July 2011 on America's HGTV channel (further details can be found at http://www.hgtv.com/house-hunters-international/settling-down-on-the-northern-beaches-of-sydney-australia/index.php).

Within a matter of weeks, we flew out to Vancouver to film the back story to our eventual move - why we wanted to leave Canada, what was driving us to become expats for the second time, and what we would be leaving behind. The Canadian film crew toured Vancouver’s downtown hub, interviewed our relatives located in the city, and recreated some of those tough decision moments that every expat will ultimately experience.

In Sydney, we filmed over a long weekend, capturing a selection of experiences that make our life on the Northern Beaches so special. We kayaked on one of the many saltwater lagoons, strolled along the ocean boardwalks, rode pillion on a Harley Davidson trike along the length of the Beaches, and enjoyed a selection of delicious seafood with friends at a favourite local restaurant of ours.

More importantly, the search for a new home was filmed for the television show. Our real estate agent showed us three comparable properties that we had indicated could each be a potential home for us. In front of the cameras, we assessed the pros and cons of each property, from the suburb to the garden size to the proximity to the beach. Faced with a tough final choice between two of the three properties, we walked the length of a local beach and agreed upon the house of our dreams. The cameras kept rolling as we directed our real estate agent over the telephone to make the purchase and finally achieved our goal of buying and owning property on Sydney's Northern Beaches.

Taking direction.

Our episode will air sometime in late June/early July 2011 and who knows how the audience will react to our desire to leave one of the most desirable cities in the world only to settle down in an equally desirable city. I can only hope that the show will prove to be interesting and insightful, revealing the reality of making an expat move to a new country and the challenges of purchasing property in a place you will come to call home.

My expat journey over the past eight years has thrown up untold opportunities and unusual experiences. Filming my search for a life less ordinary on US television will surely rank as one of the more intriguing episodes of this continually unfolding adventure.

More pictures of us filming the Sydney episode of House Hunters International can be found at this blog's Facebook fan page at www.facebook.com/mylifelessordinary.

In your new expat life, have you had any unusual experiences or opportunities come your way? Would filming your journey for an American audience appeal to you or is it something you'd much rather pass up? 
This appeared in The Telegraph's Expat Property section on 24 June 2011 - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/expatproperty/8589719/Filming-our-expat-search-for-a-life-less-ordinary.php

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