Take me to Greece #BlogFive #AlysiaHelming #RealLifeStory
During the Summer of 2015, I was totally inspired and every day, I woke up with an important mission: write Protogenesis. In order to maintain consistency with my descriptions of the characters while I wrote, I followed a technique that I learned from screenwriting which was to use Google to randomly search and select one photo for each character from the internet that represented to me a visual snapshot of not only the “look” of the character, but also the “feeling” that I got from that particular photo. After some deliberation with Hannah, I finally settled on my ‘dream cast’ of characters.
These photos included some well-known celebrities, as well as some that I had never heard of before. I purposely did not look up the people behind the photos, as I didn’t want their real life influencing my writing too much. Interestingly enough, the people in the photos that I selected for my main characters of Helene, Ever and Nick were all names that I didn’t know or recognize. In fact, the spelling of the names indicated to me that some were likely living in other countries, but for all I knew, they could be from Russia or Brazil...I had no idea, and it wasn’t important to me.
By early August, I had finished the first half of the book, but something was missing in my writing. Since I had only visited Athens once before – and only for one day while on a multi-city cruise - I had written almost all of my descriptions about Helene’s experience in Greece utilizing information that I gleaned from various websites and from watching any movie I could find about Greeks, like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. But the back story of my novel felt fake...and hollow.
The information available about the crisis in Greece from the United States seemed skewed and sensationalized. I read a lot about the Greek Mafia, so my story and my character Sarantos were a part of it. Additionally, my characters Nick and Ever – both Greek boys – were fairly boring. I had no insight into what life in Greece would be like for a ridiculously wealthy person versus a struggling poor person, or about the non-existent middle class, or about what school is like in Greece, or about what cultural differences exist there in dating and relationships.
I knew that I had to go to Greece...and I needed to do it soon! As a mother of a young son, it was a rare occasion for me to travel anywhere without him. In fact, it had been many years since I had done this, so it was a really big deal for me to schedule five days to go to Athens. I didn’t want to go alone, so I begged my sister, Jenny, to go with me. She has a family, too, so it had been many years since she and I had taken a trip together alone...a sisters’ trip. Luckily, she said yes!
I had randomly selected a 5-star family-owned hotel, the Margi, located west of Athens in the coastal Riviera community called Vouliagmeni. Not that I had any idea of where that was! The pictures on Expedia looked amazing, so even if the intel portion of our trip was less than ideal, at least we could relax on some amazing beaches, sip cocktails and enjoy a true girls’ trip.
I had a lot of ‘research’ to do in the span of five days, so I sent a long email to Guest Services with a lot of unusual requests. For example, I wanted to find and visit a statue of the Greek god Hermes with the private parts either missing or covered located outside in Athens with a view of the Parthenon! I was sure that the people at the Margi were going to think I was crazy, but the only way to cover all the topics I needed for the book in five days was to ask now.
This is how I met Desi B., who runs Guest Services at the Margi. I did not know this then, but she also happens to be a VIP Hospitality and Destination Consultant, previously arranging logistics in Greece for the rich and famous, such as Paul Allen, one of the Founders of Microsoft. She, along with her associate, Afroditi Sol, worked very hard before my trip to arrange a driver and tourist guide that could accommodate my bizarre requests! And as it turned out, through my many journeys to Greece, both Desi and Afroditi have become good friends to me.
We arrived in Athens during the first weekend of September; and little did I know it, but as the Summer season was winding down there, most Greeks were starting to go back to work after their August holidays, so it was the perfect time for us to be there for book research.
From the moment that we first stepped off the plane, I was both excited and nervous, as outside of writing, this was my first big investment in the book. It was just then that the book started to feel ‘real’ to me, as if I could actually finish it and see it sitting up on my bookshelf. This was the very first time that I said the words: “Let the magic begin…” And it truly did.
Our friends at the Margi had really set us up well. We were greeted at the airport by our driver, Nikos, who had a very smooth Greek accent, but spoke perfect English. And there waiting for us was this black, luxurious Mercedes S Class. It looked like it could be bullet proof; and since I had requested that this driver take me to the worst neighborhood in Athens during our trip, I was hoping this was the case. I had seen the photos in the US press with bombed out buildings, violence and graffiti everywhere, so my husband, Troy, was pretty worried about me.
Upon hearing our driver’s name, I smiled in a big way, which made him ask, “What...? Is there something funny about my name?” That is when I explained to him that one of the main characters in my book was named Nikos, but we called him “Nick” for short. He was intrigued, so we spent the long drive from the Athens Airport to our hotel explaining the book project to him and getting to know more about our driver, Nikos.
I did not know this then, but drivers are not tourist guides and they aren’t paid to talk that much to you, so many are quiet, only saying a few words here and there. But Nikos was different...he was only a driver during the summer months, but his true passion and profession was a high school math teacher. Since my book is about kids in high school, this was so perfect for my research!
Of course, what I really wanted to know was about the Greek Mafia, so without really thinking about it, the subject just flew out of my mouth, “What I really want to know about is the Mafia...what can you tell me...?"
My sister elbowed me, mouthing the words to me with narrowed eyes, “Really...?”
Nikos’ mouth fell open in shock, but then he started chuckling, which then turned into a big, hearty laugh. After this, he grew silent and looked almost scared as he whispered, “We don’t have the Mafia here.”
I could tell he was lying. The look in his eyes said it all. This subject would be off Iimit for him. He seemed nervous, so I took this as a sign that I would need to be more careful in broaching this subject with any Greeks.
Just then, his boss called and being a responsible driver, Nikos, put the call on hands-free speaker. His manager was named Dimitris. After they spoke for only a few minutes, the call was over. To me and my overly imaginative mind, I envisioned Dimitris to be something like the mysterious Charlie from Charlie’s Angels...the boss that no one ever sees. Even his name – Dimitris - sounded like it could be a great Mafia Boss name, so in an attempt to be funny and lighten the mood, I made a joke that Dimitris must be Nikos’ mafia boss.
A moment of awkward silence ensued as my sister glared at me. Good God, could I do anything right...?
Luckily, Nikos did find this funny; and in fact, he wouldn’t stop laughing, so this joke continued with us throughout the trip. Later, Nikos explained that he found this particularly hilarious because Dimitris is a really good guy and treats his employees well, even during the crisis, when so many other employers do not.
Of course, it was then that Nikos gave me a stern warning, “you probably shouldn’t go around asking about the Mafia, nor should you write much about it...”
This was when I decided that I probably needed to change the profession of my character Georgios Sarantos to something besides Mafia boss, but I wasn’t sure what it would be yet...All I knew was that it had to be something exciting and relevant there.
Jenny and I were so totally exhausted from our eighteen-hour flight, that after chatting a bit more with Nikos, I grew quiet and gazed out the window as I took in the sights of Athens. I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t a war zone...no bombed out buildings and only a little graffiti.
But then, something incredible caught my eye. I spotted a series of banners that lined the street which advertised what looked like a famous Greek performer of some sort. Every ten feet or so, the banner would appear again, so I saw the image of this incredibly gorgeous young star over and over again.
My breath caught in my chest at the sight...there was something familiar about this guy. Wait a second...Oh my God! His photo is taped up on my wall at home. I stare at him almost every day when I write. Of course I know him!
He was one of the random people whose photographs I had selected so many months ago to be the inspiration for my main character Ever Sarantos. But the guy up on the banners looks older, like maybe he’s in his late twenties…a man, not a teenage boy like my character. The photo I had up on my office wall was of a much younger person. I wondered if this was really the same guy? So, I looked again…and yes, it most definitely was him. Ever is now all grown up? Ummm...this was totally surreal.
So, of course I had to ask our driver-who-was-also-a-teacher, Nikos, “Who the heck is this guy? Is he famous?”
Nikos grinned widely, “Oh yeah, he’s a pop singer...and yeah, he’s famous. The girls go crazy about him. They even camp out in front of his house. It’s nuts.”
I had to pause for a moment. Just breathe.
What blew my mind was not only that the real life guy who inspired my character was Greek, but that he was so obviously a well-known singer here in Athens. In Protogenesis, Ever Sarantos also lives here in Athens, he is the lead singer for his high school band, and his dream is to be...a famous pop star! Seriously, how could this be happening...?
But the real serendipity began when Nikos looked through the rear view mirror at me and with a wink said, “Oh, and he lives close to your hotel...I hear that he likes the Margi. It’s possible that you might just run into him.”
Whoa...what the...?! No way.
It was then and there that I created a little game in my mind. All of this was so random so far, that I decided that if I should see this Greek pop star, who is really Ever Sarantos in my mind, then this was a sign from the Heavens above that I was going to continue writing this book, all the way to the end … that this was my destiny. Let the games begin!
But...who is this ‘Mystery Man’...?