“My mom and I have a better relationship when we’re apart,” I used to say.
And I wasn’t just saying it–I really believed it.
I left home at 18 to attend university in California, and with each subsequent move landed farther and farther away. First, it was New York City. Then Thailand. Later, I moved on to South America, followed by Europe.
During my travels, my mom and I communicated regularly, but not to excess. Once a week, sometimes less. Our conversations were light and easy and as loving as mother and daughter could be.
But it seemed that every time we were in close quarters, old wounds would inevitably split open and claws would be drawn. We were both at fault for instigating and escalating such encounters; we’ve been through a lot of shit together, my mother and I, and we care for one another so deeply it hurts. We probably thought, deep down, we were somehow doing the other one a favor.
You see, my mom and I can both be pretty stubborn. We often like to be right. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, as it turns out, and our relationship suffered as a result. I can see now that any defensiveness that arose was simply a way to avoid taking responsibility for the hurtful things we said or did.
When life got in the way and my mom was never able to visit me during the several years I lived overseas, I took it personally and I made it about me. I was the hurt one–nevermind what she had going on in her life at the time (spoiler alert: it was a lot, and I was a total jerk for not recognizing that).
These last few years, though, things have been different. Things have been kind. Easy. Forgiving.
Chalk it up to maturity, chalk it up to deep soul-searching, chalk it up to the passage of time and the realization that we are only allotted a finite amount of it with the people we hold most dear.
Whatever the reason–and I’m in no rush to figure it out–our relationship is better than ever.
Slowly but surely we outgrew those old, destructive tendencies. Slowly but surely, we learned how to love each other more gently. Slowly but surely, we learned that we’ll never change each other, so we should focus on changing ourselves instead.
The result is that I no longer believe that being apart from my mom is the answer to healing our relationship. What used to push us away from one another now only draws us closer.
In fact, I chose to move back to Washington precisely because the idea of only seeing her once or twice a year was more than my heart could bear.
Time together is precious, and we no longer waste ours by taking things personally or fighting over who’s right.
A Mother-Daughter Trip to Remember
Without this evolution, our trip to Greece never would have come to fruition, much less given us some of our most cherished mother-daughter memories yet.
I’ll never forget my mother’s look of utter indifference every time someone asked if she was getting excited for her trip to Greece in the weeks leading up to our departure.
“Uhh, yeah, I guess?” she would shrug, her voice trailing upward at the end of her statement-slash-question.
It was hilarious and confusing all at once. “Why wasn’t she as excited as I am?” I thought.
Looking back, she was probably just nervous, and she admitted more than once she still didn’t believe it was really happening. In all fairness, it was her first time traveling overseas, a trip that was able to happen naturally only once a certain stubborn someone (me) stopped pushing the idea.
In my mind, though, this trip had been years in the making. Naturally, I had no trouble believing it was real.
Again, in my mom’s defense, most of the planning was left to me, the seasoned traveler; perhaps this made things a little harder to visualize on her end.
I saw our hotel rooms, I saw the views, I read the blog posts and listicles and TripAdvisor reviews–not to mention the minor detail of having been to both Athens and Santorini already, two years before.
My mom, on the other hand, saw the few photos I showed her here and there and chose to leave the rest a surprise.
We’d also planned the trip to coincide with her 63rd birthday–this was the primary reason we traveled to Greece in low season instead of a warmer time of year. We thought my mom’s first international trip deserved to be extra special, so we made it a birthday getaway, too.
First Stop: London
En route to Athens, we had a long layover in London, so it wound up being a two-for-one deal. We were thrilled! It involved one expensive set of train tickets and a lot of walking, but seeing the excitement in her eyes and that extra stamp in her passport made it all worthwhile.
The Heathrow Express dropped us at Paddington Station and we made our way through Hyde Park in search of something to eat. The weather was pleasantly sunny by London standards which made our choice to travel by foot all the more perfect.
We passed a few hours padding around Westminster, taking in all those towering, iconic British sights. Buckingham Palace. Westminster Abbey. Big Ben. The London Eye.
We encountered all those challenges you’d expect, such as navigating a new city’s streets, dodging traffic from unexpected directions, and fending off aggressive hawkers.
Slightly crabby though we were from the red-eye flight and subsequent poor sleep, our first attempt at coexisting in a new country went swimmingly.
It certainly boded well for the rest of the trip and gave us confidence that we’d both make it out alive.
Arrival in Athens
Of all the major cities I’ve been privileged enough to visit, Athens is undoubtedly among my favorites–I couldn’t wait to show my mom, who is decidedly NOT a city person, what this mighty metropolis had to offer.
I’d booked us a fairly no-frills room in the neighborhood of Monastiraki, my one and only stipulation being that it had to have its own private balcony, a feature which is surprisingly easy to come by in Athens.
We were even more pleasantly surprised to find that we’d been given a 9th-floor room that was not only within spitting distance of Monastiraki Square but had an Acropolis view that could best be described as stunning. The quirky old Attalos Hotel served as the perfect base for a few days of exploring Athens.
Long-time readers will know I’m far from a planner when it comes to travel. I prefer to have a general idea of what to do and leave the rest up to fate. This plan worked well for our rainy stay in Athens when plans (i.e. weather) could change in an instant–and it often did.
I’d always known my mom to be easy-going and so I knew she’d go along with whatever idea we dreamed up each day (even if we were just getting lost somewhere new).
We began each day with a stroll to a nearby bakery for coffee and some Greek pastries for breakfast, which was enjoyed on our balcony when the sun was shining (and in our beds when it wasn’t).
Dutifully playing the role of tourist, we made ample time for things like the changing of the guard at Syntagma Square…
…followed by a history lesson at the Acropolis and accompanying museum.
My mom, ever the jokester, nearly gave me a goddamn heart attack when she pretended to fall off the cliff’s edge as I took her photo. It’s now her favorite photo from the trip.
I made sure to photobomb her in return.
We strolled the pedestrian walkways of Monastiraki many times over, stopping in for a meal if the timing allowed or the weather dictated. We made some wonderful discoveries this way, being forced into the nearest restaurant due to rain, cold, or hangry outbursts (sorry, mom).
We shopped for pretty trinkets in the local jewelry shops, even making a new friend while searching for rings to commemorate our mother-daughter-inaugural-overseas-birthday trip. Hello to our lovely Adonis, if you are reading this.
We marveled at the sheer number of cats wandering the city and felt our hearts ache as we wondered if they were looked after.
We stumbled upon beautiful, hidden cafes. We ate and drank to our hearts’ content–Greek food, oh how I love you.
We enjoyed every last moment of Athens, the living art gallery, even when things weren’t quite going our way.
Among the Athens blunders were a slow-walking stalker who just wouldn’t take the hint, a bus that had no interest in stopping for us as we crossed the street, forcing us to do a mad backward dash, and that time we struggled to find a public restroom after a few too many afternoon glasses of wine.
Minor blips compared to what could have gone wrong, and stories we can readily laugh at in hindsight.
When the moment finally came to say goodbye to Athens, it was bittersweet. We’d fallen quickly in love with the city, my mom for the first time, and me anew. But we also knew we’d be back for one last night and that the splendor of Santorini was just a quick plane ride away.
A Santorini Dream
My mom loves the sea–being near it, looking at it, swimming in it–so it was only natural that our trip to Greece included a short jaunt to the Greek Islands where we’d be surrounded by the cerulean Aegean.
A quick metro ride to the airport and an even shorter flight was all it took to transport us to another world. Volcanic, dry, and surprisingly sunny, Santorini was the cure we needed for our gray moods after leaving our beloved Athens.
I’d gone out of my way to find the perfect lodging for this stay because it would be the place where my mom would wake up on her birthday, and to give her the gift of a breathtaking caldera view was not just ideal, but imperative.
I’d arranged a hotel pick-up and we were instantly whisked away from Santorini’s tiny airport in a private car bound for Blue Dolphins Apartments. My mom had still never even seen photos of Santorini, so I could hardly contain my excitement as we drew closer to her birthday surprise.
After the initial shock of our hotel’s steep staircase wore off…
…I think it’s safe to say my mom was in heaven on our suite’s private balcony.
Over the course of the next four days, we would take approximately 5,000 photos of this view from every imaginable angle. It never got old, I have to be honest. Especially when I had a glass of wine in my hand.
The weather gods were only slightly more kind in Santorini than they had been in Athens. The overcast skies and occasional lightning storms added a certain broodiness that I had never experienced on the island before–typically it’s all cheery blue skies and blooming bougainvillea. This time, Santorini had sass.
Whipping winds and light rain cut our sightseeing short the first few days (including my mom’s birthday), despite having a rented car to get around in. We managed to see much of the island anyway, driving south to Perissa Beach, Akrotiri, Red Beach, and an ancient Byzantine Castle before retreating to our outpost in Firostefani (just north of the main town of Fira).
Inclement weather was just one of the problems low season presented; some of the others were not so easily circumnavigated.
The evening of my mom’s birthday celebration, we went out on foot in search of dinner only to come up empty-handed (many businesses are closed during the winter months). Just as we were about to resign ourselves to driving into Fira, we stumbled upon an Italian restaurant that had just opened its doors for the season.
The night was lovely anyhow, but the severe lack of options we encountered that night was a recurring obstacle during the trip.
Construction was another one.
Islanders were obviously gearing up for high season, meaning roads were being paved, people were drilling, sawing, and hammering, and we frequently had to sidestep workers on the walking paths. We didn’t mind this so much, but it certainly made driving the island’s narrow roads an adventure!
Our third day in Santorini, the sun finally decided to show itself. All at once, the island seemed to come alive.
I had set aside the morning for my final surprise of the trip, a private yoga class at Caveland. But because my mom hates surprises, she had forced me to spill the beans the night before over dinner. So, it wasn’t much of a surprise after all, but it was an uplifting way to start the day…and talk about a gorgeous setting!
Caveland, as the name suggests, is a former cave winery that has since been converted into a hostel. Co-owner Veronika offers private and group yoga classes on a covered veranda overlooking Santorini’s eastern coastline–it was an experience I knew my mom and I had to share.
You see, my mom and I had begun practicing yoga together at home in recent months. It was another one of those things that I finally realized she had to warm up to in her own time, so I was beside myself with joy when she finally agreed. And not only that, but I could tell she very much enjoyed our little home practice.
Now, I don’t have kids and I likely never will, but watching my mother try new things and gain new confidence gives me those same proud feelings I’m sure she felt while watching me grow into a confident, independent woman.
As her comfort zone expands and she becomes more willing to try new things, that comfort zone will continue to grow and expand on its own (and you can bet I’ll be right there with the camera to document it all).
So, we enjoyed an early-morning yoga practice, just the two of us and the lovely Veronika, stretching out some of the aches and pains that had accumulated from a week of wandering (and getting lost) on foot.
Perhaps my mom didn’t feel the gravity of the experience in the same way that I did, but I was glowing before we even stepped onto our mats.
Veronika kindly allowed us to tour Caveland after our class, and even in low season, I could see why it’s known as one of the best hostels in all of Europe.
Our afternoon that sunny day was dedicated to finally visiting the most visually stunning town on Santorini, Oia (pronounced EE-uh). It’s also the hotspot for sunset watching on the island and what some might consider a tourist trap in the high season.
In the low season, however, Oia was loaded with perks. The narrow pedestrian streets that are typically jam-packed with tourists were virtually empty, with a few exceptions.
The few restaurants that were open not only had plenty of available seating, but we were able to waltz right in and get the best view in the house.
We never had to fight for elbow room or wait patiently for a great photo opportunity. It was, in a word, delightful.
We took our sweet time and savored every last drop of sunshine, every last sweeping vista.
We explored the maze of staircases that snake up and down the hillside, putting our twin cameras to good use.
After a few hours, a leisurely lunch, and a few souvenir purchases, we decided we’d rather enjoy sunset from our own private perch and made haste back to Firostefani in our trusty little Kia Picanto.
We could feel our time dwindling, not just in Santorini but on our trip as a whole. Before too long, we’d be back on that long-haul flight across the Atlantic. The end was approaching.
We weren’t ready.
The Final Goodbyes
Our final day in Santorini flew by in a flash. It was gloriously sunny as the previous day had been, yet we had even less on the agenda.
We started the day off right with breakfast at our hotel with that view we just couldn’t get enough of.
We chatted with a vacationing Californian couple about their boat trip around the island; we gave the idea fleeting consideration before deciding it sounded like too much work (and money).
We opted instead for a trip to the Koutsoyannopoulis Wine Museum as originally planned. This cave museum dives deep below the earth’s surface to teach you all about wine production in the harsh growing environment that Santorini provides.
It’s a fascinating tour complete with kitschy and outdated animatronic displays, rounded out by a complimentary wine tasting at the end. It was a nice note to finish on (wine puns, anyone?).
Later that day, my mom and I found ourselves back at our suite, quietly enjoying the sunset. Tired and probably suffering from early onset nostalgia, we took no more photos that day–we just looked.
The following night would be our last stay in Athens, at the same hotel as before. We’d grown fond of our little neighborhood and passing by the same street vendors every day. After so much new, it was nice to have a little familiar.
One last time, we wandered the few blocks from our hotel to Monastiraki Square. One last time, the Monastiraki Flea Market drew us in to review its offerings. One last time, a hangry disaster was narrowly avoided by ducking into the nearest restaurant on our favorite pedestrian street, Adrianou.
All that was left at that point was to make sure my mom tried some local ouzo, which she had deftly side-stepped at every opportunity. She couldn’t get enough of the sweet mastiha, but she had yet to cut her teeth with ouzo, which is a lot like going to Germany and not trying the local beer.
Luckily, the friendly gents seated next to us at dinner took it upon themselves to ensure that it happened. They were successful where I had failed all week. A little too successful, actually.
Crawling out of bed disgruntled and hungover at 4 am the next morning, at least we were able to say we’d made the most of every last minute of our first overseas mother-daughter trip.
Our time in Greece can hardly be summed up in a few words, or even a few thousand. And I can’t say with any certainty when my mom and I will get another chance to have adventures abroad.
What I can say is that this new shared experience has only led to great things for us–as individuals and as mother and daughter.
We understand each other a little bit more, work together a little bit better, and love each other all the more deeply.
I’m not sure that traveling together will have the same effect on just any familial relationship, but it was the perfect time for us to take this step together.
I can’t wait for our next adventure.
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