Some three years ago, I realised I was constantly tired – physically, mentally and spiritually. I couldn't quite put my finger on when it had started, but I couldn't remember the last time I had lots of energy.
I was always busy, running around after my teenaged kids, managing a household and running a small business from home, and I felt like I was running on empty. By the end of each day, I’d slump in front of the TV, exhausted. It was hard to fit in anything else that gave me pleasure or joy.
It was when I read an old diary entry written two years earlier, one month after my closest friend Katerina passed away, that I realised that my malaise had been going on for some time without my really realising it.
I went to the doctor for a blood test, which revealed I was low in iron and vitamin D and that my blood sugar was high. I realised that I needed to follow the doctor’s advice to lose weight – cut down on alcohol, avoid excessive carbs, don’t eat after 8pm. I’ve always tried to eat well, but I was taking a lot of shortcuts. I’d grab a jar of tomato sauce or snacks for the kids from the supermarket instead of cooking from scratch.
One morning I stumbled across a New York Times article, ‘The Island Where People Forget to Die’. A photo caught my eye of an elderly man standing in his orchard with a spade in his hand. He reminded me very much of my grandparents and an uncle I had in Greece. The accompanying story – about living simply and doing things that gave you joy, like connecting with people, working your land, eating well, drinking with your neighbours – really resonated with me at a deeper level.
I cleared the pantry and fridge of foods that my grandmother might not recognise – what I call the yiayia test
I learned that in Ikaria people are ten times more likely to reach the age of ninety than in most other places in Europe. Ikaria’s elderly are almost entirely free of dementia and have incredibly low rates of depression and chronic disease.
That was the beginning of the journey. I thought that if I went to this island, it would reinvigorate my spirit. It took me a very long time to get there and, in many ways, I reinvigorated my spirit well before I arrived.
I started by making a list of the things in my life that were most important to me: family, health, creativity.
I cleared the pantry and fridge of foods that my grandmother might not recognise – what I call the yiayia test. Now, every time I go into a supermarket, I look at the food and I think ‘would my yiayia recognise this?’ If there's lots of ingredients in it, would she recognise all the ingredients? More often than not I'll pick something up like rice crackers and I think ‘no, she wouldn't recognise half the things in this product’ and put it back.
When I decided to turn my research into a book, I finally planned a trip to Ikaria. I'd been thinking about the island so long that at Athens airport as I was about to board my flight, I thought ‘maybe it isn't even real!’ But it was real. It was incredible.
It was very rustic and quite undeveloped compared to some of the more touristy Greek islands. A lot of people in Ikaria still grow their own food. Most people keep a vegetable garden and have livestock like chickens and goats. They might even make their own yoghurt. They tend to move around the land a lot more, especially if they’re running their own farm or orchard. There were very few cars on the island until a couple of decades ago. It was hard to get around, but that was refreshing – I had to rely on other people to take me places and look after me, which they did.
A lot of people in Ikaria still grow their own food. Most people keep a vegetable garden and have livestock like chickens and goats
There’s no sense of time on Ikaria. It felt a bit magical. I went to the island hoping that I would lose track of time – and I did. I’d spend every morning writing in bed, then I’d have a coffee and meet up with a couple of friends. We'd come back 10 hours later and would've had all these adventures without having planned anything.
One lovely night I was sitting in a village square and the kids were out with their bikes, they were playing basketball, they were running around. The elders were sitting around chatting and keeping an eye on them as a group rather than individually.
Little things like that really brought home this idea that if we eat well and we move more and we connect with each other on a day-to-day basis, in a way that's natural, we’ll feel better – more connected and healthier.
Today, I feel a lot more balanced and have more physical and mental energy most of the time. I eat a lot more plant food. I try not to overeat – sometimes I don't succeed, especially when we go out.
I move as much as I can every day. That means walking to the train – I hardly drive my car to work anymore. I go to dance classes with my daughter and I walk with my husband whenever I can on the weekend. There wouldn't be a day where I felt ‘oh my goodness, I’ve spent eight hours in front of my computer and I haven't moved at all’. I don’t do that anymore.
I ring my mum every single day and I try and see her once a week. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s a ritual I've put in place. If my kids want me to be there for them, I try and do that as best I can. My kids and family are my top priority. And if some things don't get done, they just don't get done.
My Ikaria: How the people from a small Mediterranean island inspired me to live a happier, healthier and longer life by Spiri Tsintziras is available through Nero, $29.99.