“You say you’re cursed? So what? So is the whole damn world” – Jigo to Ashitaka, Princess Mononoke (Studio Ghibli, 1997)
I love Studio Ghibli films, mostly because they are not based on the usual good-wins-over-evil formula. The characters in these films are neither good nor bad – they are far more complex than that. And more importantly, they actually shift between being good and evil as the story unfolds. How can you be both at the same time? I’m still trying to embrace contradictions of this sort in my life, but it’s not easy. It’s hard for me to grasp that we are so complex, so many things at once – that we are not one, monolithic, perfect thing. When I think about how chaotic and utterly random life is, the fact that we can actually make sense out of it all seems like a miracle.
I’m 29, and I’m pretty much clueless about my life. My name roughly translates as “Sunday man”, which is rather misleading because I’m a helpless workaholic. I was born in July 1984 in Limassol, Cyprus, where I grew up, and what I remember most from my teenage years is summer beaches, playing video games, writing poems and being secretly in love all the time.
I’m 20, and I move to Athens to study. I arrive on the last day of the 2004 Olympics, and I can see the fireworks of the closing ceremony while on the bus going from the airport to the city centre. A celebration of closure and ending – what an appropriate welcome for someone who is away from home for the very first time… Number of break-ups: one.
I’m 24, and I have just passed my piano diploma exams. I had decided to throw a party and celebrate, but I end up sitting on the balcony weeping while my friends are holding their drinks in awkward silence. I have been playing the piano for 14 years nonstop and for some reason I regret every day of it. I realise that I’ve been doing this because others told me I’m good at it, without even thinking whether I actually like it. A few weeks later I muster all my courage and ask for a job at a ballet school as an accompanist – I somehow get the job as a trainee. Eventually, and unexpectedly, playing music for dance classes makes me fall in love with being a musician again. Number of break-ups: two.
I’m 27, and I have a degree in musicology, a cat and a job as a pianist at the ballet school of the Greek National Opera in Athens. However, I’m packing my things to leave, because I have been accepted on a Masters course on music composition in the Netherlands. My flat is a mess because I’m trying to pack everything on time and ship them to my parents. Ten days later, I’m at the airport waiting for the flight to Amsterdam. I text my best friend: “Everything is possible. I can create the life I want.” I don’t actually believe that. I don’t want to leave. Yet doing a Masters seems like a good excuse to leave a country that is sinking deeper and deeper into crisis. From the airplane window, I look at the frozen Alps towering in crystal-clear weather. There will be no mountains where I’m going. Number of break-ups: three.
Half a year later, I’m sitting in my little Dutch room in my little Dutch neighbourhood, feeling miserable about myself. I’m still not sure why I’m doing this Masters. During my days in the Neverlands, my thoughts are an intoxicating mixture of nostalgia and fear. What am I afraid of? I’m not sure. Maybe that’s what wrong choices feel like. At my first (and last) meeting with my director of studies I am reminded that I am a “Southerner”, and that I should forget the “dreamy mentality that we Southerners have” and “become more pragmatic, like the Dutch”. In the following months I gradually become “brown”, “Club Med”, a foreigner – and my everyday life slowly transforms into a hysterical theme-park ride revolving around First World, white-man privilege. Is this what civilisation is all about? I miss the filthy chaos of Athens. I miss my cat. I miss home.
I’m 28, and I’m completely disenchanted with the idea of making art as a profession. I’m halfway through the second year of my Masters and I don’t see me belonging anywhere. On top of it all, the banking crisis hits Cyprus and my parents are terrified. Looking for a job in the Neverlands is not getting me anywhere. So I hit my early-life crisis head on. I decide to stop whatever I’m doing and try something else. One by one I complete my musical projects and I don’t engage with new ones. I volunteer for an independent queer festival in Amsterdam and I help them out with administration. I take part in a critical-writing workshop and write a few blog posts for Sonic Acts, a new-media art festival in Amsterdam. I am asked to write reviews for a music magazine called Gonzo Circus. I simply give in to writing as a way of escaping the confusion and paralysis I found myself in, and I slowly discover that this is actually giving me great joy, like embracing a long-suppressed desire. I decide to pursue this further, and I pitch my articles at various magazines – admittedly, with little success, but I don’t really mind. And after a few months, the urge to write poems comes back to me for the first time in years.
I’m sitting in the kitchen of a young Italian guy I like. He came to Amsterdam to study and never left. It’s way past midnight and I’ve missed the last train home. We’re smoking one last cigarette before going to sleep while having the clichéd discussion about leaving our countries, living abroad, the prospect of going back… He tells me he would never go back, but he would like to go away someday. I tell him that probably there’s nowhere to go away to. “That’s a terrible thought,” he replies. He hands me a single blanket and lets me sleep on the couch. The next morning I get up and leave before he wakes up.
I’m 29, and I’m at Schiphol airport’s Terminal 3 again, with all my belongings in a suitcase. I graduated from my Masters a week ago. Once more, all furniture was sold, all lovers were kissed goodbye and I’m just sitting here with a boarding pass in my hand. When there’s nowhere to go away to, you can always go to your parents’ place. One of my romantic affairs – a sensitive fortysomething, tall Dutchman – is worried about my career moves. “Okay, move to a warm country and heal your wounds,” he says, “but come back and do things! You have an opera to write!” Yes, it’s true that I’ve always wanted to write an opera, but I’ve also been wanting to become a chef, an architect, a magazine editor, a tailor, a hotel owner, a choreographer and a poet. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my Masters is that I’m probably too much of an introvert and too reluctant to become pretty much of anything. Maybe I should just get used to the idea that, for now, I’ll just be floating around, doing many things. An airport announcement rings. The gate is now open. Number of break-ups: five.
A few months later, and I’m staying at a friend’s apartment in Athens. I’m now writing regularly for an amazing online magazine called Yatzer, and I’ve also found a part-time job as an accompanist for a small dance school in the north of town. I haven’t felt so good about myself for a long time. Greece is still in a mess though, especially socially and politically; it’s not a money issue any more, but a cultural and personal thing. I wonder whether some people just don’t want to solve their crises because they want to avoid responsibility and facing some hard truths about themselves. Meanwhile, I’m still getting used to the fact that there is so much violence in this city now, sometimes even sheer hate. For me, being happy, angry and worried at the same time is a bit difficult to handle – but again, I was never very good with contradictions to begin with.
I know there are thousands of young people like me who have experienced a life crisis right in the middle of the surreal madhouse parade that’s been marching across Europe for the past few years. And like the rest of the people out there, I’m still clueless. I’m not sure if I have found happiness by coming back to my favourite place. What I do know, however, is that my coming back is not merely geographical. I came back to a state of mind, back to writing, back to being able to choose what I like. Am I confusing happiness with pleasure? I’m not very certain. Sometimes I think – and that’s another terrible thought – that happiness is a steady flow of pleasure and nothing more. Someday I will stop being so uncertain about so many things. Until that happens, I’ll explore what it means to be a vagabond, and make sure I don’t get lost in the storm.
Words: Kiriakos Spirou
Photography: Petros Koublis