Beware of sharks!

As you grow older, the colors fade. Rage, anger, fear, anxiety. It all gains entry into our life, there is space for it all. Successes, joy, losses. Yet, if there is one period I recall that was thoroughly focused and single-minded, a period in which it felt like we were about to leap over the ditch onto the side of happiness, from “was” to “will be”, that was the period of the entry exams for Uni.

I don’t know if it was because I was growing up in rural Greece, I don’t know if my parents thought of University as a one-way street and, so, had brought us up with the dream of a graduate degree.

I don’t know if it was because all the cool guys in town were the University students who arrived back during the holidays and livened up the place.

I don’t know what the reason was, but there was no doubt in my mind that there was a red dividing line that ran through everything: University exams. The time before and the time after. I looked with sadness on the kids that didn’t make it and had to take on extra tutorials for one more year, and then another; and then? Personally, I couldn’t imagine anything past that. Thinking back on it, it seems that ever since primary school, I toiled for when I get into to University, leave the city of Larisa, become independent, become myself, know what it is I want and where I’m heading. For when I will be able to plan trips, be able to do what I want, pick and choose among all the different life-scripts.

We had loaded so many expectations onto this passage to University life! It was the passport for exiting the restrictions of the birthplace for the challenges of a big city, where poetry, revolution and love were waiting. There, at university, we would live at full throttle.

Maybe that is why I still get slightly panicky at the mention of University exams. I remember I used to study out on the balcony, breaking all promises to myself that I would sleep, relax, spend some stress-free time. The small table full of notes and Alcazar park across the street, a summer night full of sounds and smells and promises, and me hanging my whole life on the day coming up. What if I don’t go well, if I don’t get admitted, if I don’t get to leave. Next day I was to take the exam at a building on the other side of town. On arrival, I realized I had left my ID card behind. We drove back, the car shooting every single traffic light indiscriminately, and I returned just as the doors were closing but, in the face of my desperation, they opened again. For years afterwards, I would have the same nightmare, that the doors will not open, that life will sail off without me on board. Only later, much later, did I get it. The last thing life’s going to do, is wait behind closed doors.

I wouldn’t want for my children to go through the same agony. I would like to teach them that happiness is made of different stuff. That, no matter what they choose, they need to really want it a great deal. I remember a friend wanting to study dance, “And she won’t go to University?”, aunt Lillian had said. Dance, music, were activities to do in parallel to academic studies, not an end in themselves. How very small the world was I was dreaming of. No, this isn’t not how I would like my children to think. “And if your son says he wants to be a cyclist or a mountaineer or a dolphin trainer, will you let him?” a friend had asked.

Yes, and I will even pump up his sails as much as I can, for him to dream bigger. Because I now know that no door holds happiness, unless we learn early on to appreciate life. To wage battle. To smile at small, everyday miracles.

The one thing I will tell my son is what I, too, was told by a young friend of mine, when I confided my childhood dream of going round the world on a bicycle. “Ma’am, you need to watch out for sharks. I mean, when you have the bike on the raft or boat, you need to watch out that the sharks don’t puncture the tires.”

And one other thing that fairytales taught me. Many roads open up before us. One leads to the mountain, another to the sea, one to university, another to the village. It’s a shame not to follow your own road. Then again, if you come across sharks along the way, beware that they don’t puncture your tires.