I have to explain something about me and birthdays.
The first thing I want to say is that I love the idea of birthdays, of having one day a year where it’s your day, where friends and family and retail businesses acknowledge: “Hey, we’re glad you’re alive and with us. Here’s a discount code.”
And obviously, it’s not the gifts that matter (though I am so appreciative whenever anyone does anything) as much as the time and the thought, of having people go out of their way to make you feel special.
This is particularly true for me because I come from a small family. Just Mom, Dad, and me. And don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with my parents because I am blessed with the best parents in the world, but because I grew up alone, the thing I most desire for my birthday is being surrounded by people. (This is similar to my feelings on Thanksgiving and why I love spending Thanksgiving with huge families and lots of chaos–it’s out of the norm for me.)
Back in elementary school, every time it was someone’s birthday, there would be a cake and the entire class would sing to this person and we’d wear party hats–it was an exciting experience for an 8 year old. But I never had that. My birthday is in the summer, and by the time July came around, everyone was gone. My birthdays would usually involve inviting one friend out to dinner with me and my parents.
(Although there was the night of murder mysteries, and that was really cool.)
Add to that the fact that I was bullied pretty badly as a kid, so I grew up thinking no one liked me. I always felt like my birthdays were emptier than most because no one wanted to celebrate with me. No one liked me that much.
Fast forward to adulthood.
I still carry around all of those insecurities meshed with the desire to be around all of my friends at once.
Last year, when I attempted to move to Greece, I adopted as my mantra “Thirty on Thassos” because I was excited to be in Greece. But the truth of the matter is, I turned 30 on Thassos because I was afraid to turn 30 in Rhode Island.
There was a period of time when many of my grad school friends were turning 30, and I saw one after another receive a surprise party (this, by the way, is my dream. I’ve told friends to throw me a surprise party before, but I think that defeats the purpose.) I wanted the kind of 30th birthday I saw my friends having, the birthdays in New Hampshire that I drove up to attend, the backyards full of people showing up to surprise the birthday guy/girl.
My parents couldn’t throw something like that for me, living on the other side of the country and all. I didn’t want to plan it myself (I’m really bad at party planning), and I was afraid of inviting everyone I knew only to have a handful of people show up. In an effort to avoid the disappointment of lonely birthdays, I chose to leave.
It was easier to be in another country, where the expectation is to be alone, than to have the opportunity to be surrounded by people you know and still be alone.
Thus, celebrating birthdays overseas is not new. I spent my 28th birthday in Scotland (Scotland was my first love), and of course, I turned Thirty on Thassos. Both of these nights were wonderful, and I loved them.
But I would have loved the big backyard party, too.
The reason I keep returning to Thassos, however, is this.
I was struck immediately by the island when I arrived for the the writing workshop in 2015. It felt like I’d been there my whole life, from the first morning I drank coffee on my balcony. I was so overcome by longing for a place I’d never known that I wrote only one blog while in Greece about getting to Greece, and I think it’s the last time I was ever funny in a blog. Greece ruined me in that respect, too.
Thassos infused our days with life abundant. I thought I was living before, but everything was much more pronounced in Greece, with the people we met, the mountains we climbed, the waters we swam in. I didn’t think I could ever come back, to be honest, because nothing would ever live up to the memory of that first year. It was perfect.
There was one day, the day we ate sea urchins I believe, when I met Tassos of Thassos officially (until then, he thought my name was Jane), and as one does upon officially meeting someone, I mentioned that my birthday was a couple of days after we’d be leaving–we should have a cake!
I say things like that fairly often, joking of course. And particularly in this case, I’d forgotten I’d even said it.
Come our last night on Thassos: there’s live music. There’s dancing. I end up on a karekla while everyone is throwing napkins. Earlier that night we’d had a reading where I shared the story about sea urchins, and we ate a huge dinner. All of the wonderful workshop students wanted to have photos taken with me, which made me feel popular for the first time in my life. We stayed up late, past the point of all other patrons going home, and there, in the darkness amid the acoustic strings of Paris’ bouzouki and the impromptu singing of the Greeks, there was a trail of light coming from the kitchen, and people started to sing happy birthday. There were two cakes (one for me and one for another girl whose birthday fell just after the workshop), and they were celebrating our birthdays.
The entire night was the epitome of what the best birthday in the world should be like. Friends. Laughter. Joy. Music. Surprise. Generosity. Before I watched the sun rise, I sat back in my chair thinking, “Is everyone this happy? I hope everyone is this happy. I. Am. So. Happy.” I will never forget that night. It was my best birthday of all time, and one of the best nights of my life.
I wasn’t planning to be in Thassos this year for my birthday.
But when my plans to visit Greece in Sept/Oct deteriorated outside of my control, and when one friend after another told me they were going to be out of town for my birthday, I thought, No friends? No Greece? How will I ever survive the summer?
Therefore, “Thirty-One on Thassos” was born.
I will never relive the summer of 2015. But I thought that going back to the place I love, surrounded by those who made it special that first year, would be the next best thing.
For my first Thassian friends, and for my new friends, thank you for celebrating 31 years with me.