Did they finally shock the donkeys, or not?
I am sure that most of us share a secret desire that is getting more intense and thornier on stressful winter days: God, wish I could leave anything and go stay in a small Greek island... James Collins (right) and Neil Gosling (left) are two people who dared to make their dream come true. Both British, they left their businesses in the UK and bought one-way tickets to Simi, this lovely small island next to Rhodes. Why Simi? "We did try a couple of other islands on our way to Simi, and we had visited many others on holidays in the past. But there is something about Simi that captures you, and to be honest, it is very hard to say what that is. It is something I explore in my latest book Carry on up the Kali Strata, a collection of stories and articles, about living on Simi", said James, who abandoned his theatre company in London to come and live in this peaceful island of the Dodecanese. "The special thing of Simi? It is a combination of things: the scenery and weather yes, the people for sure and the way of life- calm and quiet, mainly. But for us, it is also the fact that the island somehow inspires creativity. It is a great place for photography and James has written several books since living here. James is now working on a slightly controversial film script Shocking The Donkeys about a gay wedding in Greece, and some of the people and places in it are inspired by Simi. The production company who will produce the film hope that it will be filmed on Simi too, which would be great for local tourism. Then, the world can see what is so special about the island", confessed Neil, who opened a photo shop in Horio, the capital of Simi. They call the photo shop SymiDream. James, how difficult was the decision to move permanently on the island? It wasn't a difficult decision at all, though the timing was strange. Neil's photography was taking off and doing well in England, and I was running a theatre company and writing musicals. But we didn't want to wake up one morning and think "I wish I'd done that..." We didn't want to get too old and realize that we really wanted to live in Greece. We both wanted to try it and so we worked hard for a year to save up enough money to last a winter on the island (in case there was no work in the winter, and there wasn't), then bought one way tickets to Athens and came down by boat. Once we had decided that we could make the move, we wanted to do nothing else. When was your first time in Simi? I first came to Simi in 1996 for a two week holiday. It was here I started writing my first novel, while on that holiday. I met Neil in 1997 and came to Simi together for a holiday in 1998. We then visited again three times before moving here in 2002. So, you live in Simi for 8 years so far... Neil, what were the problems you faced at the beginning? Issues with Greek bureaucracy, the locals, the work? As long as you ride along with things and keep a positive attitude, then you shouldn't suffer from problems here. There were times when we had to get paperwork organized at the police station, for example, for "green (immigration) cards", so we could work; someone said they were needed, someone else said they were not and so on. But otherwise, no great problems. Setting up the Symi Dream shop was easy. We found a good accountant who did everything for us very quickly and we've not had any problems with bureaucracy since. We now work closely with the police to produce ID card photos and so on. Learning the language is an on-going challenge as many people on Simi speak Simiaka (a local dialect), which is not exactly the same Greek as you learn from the text books! That can be frustrating, but we battle on. You have opened a photo shop in Simi and an art gallery. What exactly includes your job, Neil? Does it have the results you were hoping for? The shop and gallery have worked out better than we expected. Originally, it was just going to be a small place from where I could sell my limited edition photos. Now we sell our own hand made cards, prints, books and photos. We also photograph weddings and baptisms, events and people. We produce ID photos and those small pictures for all the paperwork everyone needs. And we photograph buildings for the cultural offices and for people when they are renovating buildings. We give a year-round service to Simi people and we also have products that appeal to tourists in the summer, so the shop never stops working. The gallery has been a big success. We have worked with local artists and art groups, holding exhibitions through the summer. These are art, painting, photography, sculpture. We have been part of the famous Simi Festival with local artists displaying work too, and there is always something to see in the gallery. As you live on Simi all year round, how is winter there? The Symi Dream shop is open all year round, though for fewer hours in the winter, so we keep busy. And winter is the time for James to write, me to photograph and for us both to meet up with friends and socialize a bit more. In the summer, everyone is working and there is less time. The winters can be cold and damp of course, but they are not unbearable. The clear sunny days come along and so do the dramatic thunderstorms and rainy days, which can also be fun. You get very wet sometimes, but we like the change in the weather at this time of year. There are parties and dinners, we meet with fiends regularly, watch DVDs, hold quizzes, have Greek lessons, James plays the piano in the taverna and bars sometimes, there are all kinds of festivals to attend as well. So, sometimes winter can be as busy as the summer. Do you think you have adapted well in the everyday life of a small Greek island, James? We like to think that we are now accepted in the village where we live, and on the island generally. And not just within the expat community. We are godparents to children, we attend festivals, I have been asked to play music at the taverns and kafeneion and Neil is always in demand with his photography. We have a business now and so we are part of the island's business community. I used to write for the island's newspaper, and our website and blog attracts many visitors each day and gives a positive side to Simi. Many people have told us that this is how they keep in touch with the island (Greek people living abroad included) and many others have said they came to Simi because of our website, so we like to think we are putting something back into the island, too. This summer season, on every Monday night, we had a wine evening at our shop and gallery and we estimate that around 1,000 people visited the gallery on Mondays through the summer. That means 1,000 people came to the village and then went on to use the taverns and bars, so we hope we are also doing some good for other businesses and local trade. And if our film Shocking the Donkeys does get made on Simi next year, then hopefully the whole island economy will benefit from an increase in tourism. As for adapting: we will never get used to the 350 steps up from the harbour to the village or to the heat of summer, but we have adapted as best we can. We are fine with the winter weather, we know there will be delays on boats and we know that the nearest hospital is away in Rhodes- though the island's two medical centers are very good. So we put up with the inconveniences, smiling as we go and we think we've adapted well. It's all about keeping a positive attitude, being friendly and polite to others, expats and local Greek people, not writing bad things about people or Simi online and becoming part of the community through having a business, attending festivals, learning the language, and all that while simply being ourselves. A big thank you to Neil Gosling for the photographs To contact James and Neil, have a look at their lovely website SymiDream