2015 started with many promising advanced bookings. The hotel was finally at its best; we had managed to establish a good reputation throughout the years, the rooms were renewed, properly equipped and decorated more than what is expected from a two star hotel and our home-made breakfast-buffet had already become very popular. As far as I was concerned, I was very relaxed.I started practising yoga in the winter and I found that it helped calm my nerves. We, at Bella Vista, were all expecting a perfect season that would repay all our efforts. You wish…
Once again, dark clouds were starting to spread in a sky that seemed to be announcing a sunny day just a few minutes before. At the beginning of the year a new government was elected and its leaders soon started to stir up rebellion against the EU bureaucrats and to dupe the Greek people, promising prosperity for the country. But what happened instead was that their policies brought most of our banks close to declaring bankruptcy.
The situation collapsed so fast that soon questions arose about whether Greece should abandon the Euro and go back to Drachma. To make things even worse, in June capital controls were introduced throwing the population into panic. Greece and its islands started to be perceived as unsafe tourist destinations. The result was that the season started and our hotel was half empty. Not just ours, everybody was once again struggling to make ends meet. The ‘slashing prices policy’ didn’t work this time, because European tourists were staying away from Greece regardless. Firstly, because of its financial turmoil and secondly, because of its political orientation.
That was the first time in twelve years that I had no other choice than hanging out the white flag. As hard as we try, sometimes there are things we cannot control and storms we cannot weather, simply because they are bigger than us. I could do my best in business but obviously, there was nothing I could possibly do about the economic and political environment. I managed to change the image of Benitses in a time when the economy was stable, but how could I now persuade our guests to go to a country that was being portrayed by the media as a third world country: unsafe and in turmoil?
I felt completely lost and powerless. The only “certainty” I had was that I had a foreign currency mortgage to pay, which was fluctuating almost daily, and most of the time it was going up, whereas the value of properties was constantly decreasing. Since selling would have meant losing up to 50% of the original value, I decided that that was not an option. Actually, it would have been the perfect moment to buy a property. But firstly, I had no money to invest and secondly, given the questionable political and economic environment, it would have been like jumping without having anywhere safe to land.
I couldn’t believe that I came back to Greece for this. I was angry, because I ended up having less free-time than I used to have in England, and less free-time meant having almost no social life. When I had some free-time I was too exhausted to go out and see people and even if I did, my head was always at work. I was too concerned to relax even when I wasn’t working.
It was in that moment that I realised that trying to control everything is useless, in business as well as in personal life. I was unhappy and fed up because I was expecting too much from myself: I wanted to be able to influence the environment but that is too big a task for only one person. On the one hand, the political, cultural, economic and social environment has a strong influence on people’s lives, opportunities, and on their way of thinking. On the other hand, it is influenced by people’s choices and their way of life. It’s almost like a catch 22 situation, a vicious cycle that only changes over a long and steady period of time due to the actions of many people.
So, this revelation brought me back to the words of my professors in Surrey — “The importance of location”. Yes, I had chosen this location. I chose Corfu for a reason: Greece is MY country, the place where MY life started, it’s where MY people live and where I feel I was destined to be. I knew well that I came back not only because of my own family, but also because of the bigger family, made up of the people of this nation. Even if I travelled the whole world, Greece would forever be in my thoughts, because Greece is my mother, the soil that nourished me and made me grow. I came back because, in spite of all the things I couldn’t accept (the patriarchal mentality, for instance), I was thankful to Greece for many other things that contributed to make me who I am. So I had made a choice and even if the situation wasn’t promising at all, I had to accept that and be happy with it.
It was the moment that I finally let go and accepted things as they were, that the clouds started to dissolve and let the sunshine through. Despite the capital controls, the summer season of 2015 revealed itself less disastrous than we had expected. This result was mainly due to the fact that we had many loyal customers who kept coming in spite of the ‘bad news’. Once again our adorable guests saved us and….I didn’t have to sell my flat!
But there is more to it. Do you remember the macho Corfu travel agents who were undermining me and always standing in my way? Like in the parable of the prodigal son, many of them were now coming to me and asking to do business together. I suspect that the word had spread that the rebellious and disobedient woman from London was having success. Had they read the enthusiastic reviews on TripAdvisor?
It was a moment of pride: they had finally changed their minds about my way of making business. For sure, it would have been easier for me to collaborate with them right from the start, but I needed to keep my stubborn attitude in order to prove that sometimes alternative ways give better results.
2016 to 2018 were record-breaking years. Finally, the years that rewarded us for all our hard work had arrived. The guest-satisfaction survey’s scores were high and the positive reviews kept coming and warming up my heart like the summer sun. The kind words of appreciation and encouragement for what we were doing filled my eyes with tears of joy. The positive vibrations coming from my guests were and always will be my main source of inspiration because the pure satisfaction that comes from making someone happy is something no amount of money can buy.
Not everything was positive, of course. Here is what I learned in all these years: the moment you think your path is clear, a stone will appear out of nowhere making it once again difficult to walk. But the truth is, everything depends on the way we look at things. The stone that prevents you from moving on is in your mind. Of course, the stone is real but nobody ever said that you have to stop because of it. Stopping is your choice alone.
There was a thing that happened in June 2017 that took my mind back to the horrible years when I was a teenager. One of the bars down the street was having a so-called ‘Greek night’, an exhibition of Zorba combined with Arabic Belly dance, something I personally find ridiculous and not traditionally Corfiot at all, but okay, that may be my opinion. What, however, turned that night into a nightmare, was the fact that, despite having already asked them to keep it quiet, which they clearly ignored, I was woken up at four in the morning (as were many of my guests, I presume) because of drunk people shouting.
It felt like having gone back in time, back to the 80’s. A subconscious fear that history would repeat itself brought me to put on a pair of shoes and go to the bar, only to discover that the people waking me up were people my own age. Therefore, it was even more shocking when I received, “We are on holiday,” as an answer to my complaining. I was blinded with rage, but as soon as I started raising my voice, some of the people started saying, “We’re sorry.” But the truth is, they weren’t. They were saying it because they didn’t want to fight, not because they really felt it. They didn’t really care about how they were imposing their behaviour and damaging the tranquillity of the place and its inhabitants. It was in that moment that, for the first time, I realized how Africans or Indians must have felt in front of the colonizers.
The next day, I managed to find that very group of people on Facebook, because they had been invited to another ‘fun night’ in another local club. I couldn’t help it and decided to write a message on that page asking them to show some respect for the local people. The result was a long series of insults and comments about how grateful we should be for their presence, because we live on their money.
However, some group members texted me privately, telling me that they could understand and apologised for their behaviour. I still don’t know if they really understood and, of course, I wish that they had the courage to speak up publicly and write their apologies on the post instead of just texting me. But I know I changed some people’s mind, and If I get to change one, just one, person’s mind it’s already a victory. My speaking up was not in vain, and even If it was, I would have done it, because sometimes silence is too big a price to pay.
I know today that only with courage and love you can keep the demons away.
Love has won
Bella Vista was a bet for me, both personally and professionally speaking. I came back in 2003 with a head full of dreams and lots of love for what my parents had built in their lives. Sometimes, in these fifteen years, my ideas collided with reality and my love transformed itself into sacrifice. Sometimes people ask me whether I would make the same choice, if I knew before what would come. Of course, the answer is “I don’t know”. But seeing so many young and brilliant people leaving Greece breaks my heart, and at the same time, makes me somehow feel proud that I came back. I was one of them, but living abroad made me realise how much I love Corfu and how invested I am in my country. We can only look at the things surrounding us through the eyes we have now.
I had to leave Greece and live fourteen years away from Corfu before I could see the uniqueness of the Greek culture and appreciate the traits that characterise my people. Coming back was like opening an old box containing the pieces I needed to complete my puzzle. During my years abroad, I collected some very important pieces but at some point I realised that I was missing the most important ones. Who would have thought that those pieces where in Corfu? In that old box belonging to my childhood spent in a small village called Benitses? It was a surprise even for me who had hated this place quite a lot when I was a teenager. I feel lucky, because somehow in this journey called life I managed to ‘make home a better place’ than it was when I left.
I hope you didn’t get bored with my story, but above all, I hope that this fifteen-year journey can mean something to you. As Socrates once said, “All I know is that I know nothing.” I might not know anything but there are some things I feel, and I deeply trust my instinct. Following my heart, I went down a road full of challenges, obstacles and disappointments, but it was also a road full of creativity, full of funny yet meaningful encounters and most of all, full of love. Knowledge and love for what you do are the key ingredients for success, and this is what I try to teach my interns every year. I try to encourage them to dream and work hard to make that dream become a reality. In order to make it real, you have to dream it first. So never, ever, be afraid of dreaming too big.
I do not know where and when my personal journey will end, but I hope that Bella Vista’s journey will continue. As small as this place might be, it meant everything to my family and means everything to me. My hope is that no matter what the circumstances are, this hotel will forever be a place of kindness, of introspection and of peace for everybody staying here: for my interns, for my staff and for my guests. And I hope I will be around for a long time to see all of that.
2019 has arrived, and I’ll be soon moving into my flat which is finally ready to welcome me and to welcome a new chapter of my life. New challenges lie ahead, and I know I need them, because it’s in my nature to constantly set new targets. Every year I see my interns having fun here. I watch them falling in love: with their dreams, with Corfu and with each other. For some of them, it became impossible to leave and decided to stay and live here. Others come back to work, or just to visit me and tell me about their lives, their hardships, their successes. Others got married after they met here. Can you believe it? It is thanks to Bella Vista that they came together!
As I sit in the hall surrounded by the silence of January, a smile appears on my face and a soft tear runs slowly down my cheek, “Love has won.”
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