It was 1983, when in a school gymnasium in Queens, New York I learned the difference a smile makes between winning and losing. We had practiced for months. Our team of fifteen or so teenage cheerleaders could perform all sorts of back-flips, cart-wheels, somersaults and acrobatics, but it was going to be a difficult competition that afternoon. We were up against the prior year’s champions when our coach asked me to change my position at the end of our performance and land in a split front and center with the biggest smile on my face as if my life depended on it. My life did depend on it. It wasn’t just the trophy I won that day, but the lesson that a positive attitude, a smile, can take you places where skills and knowledge alone just can’t.
As a daughter of Greek immigrants, I realized early on in life that risk is a close cousin of hope. By only hoping something will happen, you’re just stuck with a day-dream unless you actually put in the work and take the risk for change to occur. For a better life, people have closed doors to their past, travelled the seas and miles on foot, cried rivers of tears along the way and held hope in their hearts for a better future while risking everything they knew and possessed.
I have spent as many years in New York as I have in Greece, often wondering where home might actually be. Now that I’m a wife and mom, that question is easier to answer since my response no longer involves a location but rather a feeling. That feeling is love. Love should always be our home, our destination and our path.
In 1993, I was in New York for a reason, and that was to pursue a career in financial services. So I did exactly that. With an MBA from a prestigious school and a grand list of brand-name employers, I arrived in Greece a decade later. As I continued to work at what I had believed was my dream job, I kept on feeling as if something wasn’t exactly right. I was missing the “personal” touch, the impact I could make on society and how I would finally create positive change in the world.
Without fully comprehending it at the time, my decision to leave corporate America, end my then long-term relationship, abandon New York for Athens to create a better life, was taken for me by an extraordinary event, a “seed” planted deep in my subconscious, on the only day I’ve ever questioned whether I would still be alive on the next. My awakening took place on a day as historical as they get. On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, while attempting to cross the World Trade Plaza to reach my office, I was stopped by a police officer who looked me straight in the eyes and with all the sincerity of fear asked me “What more do you need to happen to understand that you are not making it into work today?” A few minutes later, the Towers fell. For the next few months, New York was not a place full of strangers. Posters of missing people were everywhere. Unfamiliar faces of someone’s husband, wife, dad, mom, son, daughter, lover, and friend would become people you knew on a first-name basis. Paul from Bayside, Suzanne from Westchester, Richard from Yonkers. All of a sudden, anonymity gave way to unity, and distance to compassion. Things and people mattered to me in a very personal way from that day on.
I had grown up with the teachings of two Spartan women, my mom and grandmother, who had seemed to be placed on Earth to help people heal wounds and overcome obstacles, both physical and emotional. This privileged heritage of mine had shown me that one’s hands and heart had the ability to improve another’s life. At just about the right time, I came across the Academy of Ancient Greek and Traditional Chinese Medicine in the northern suburbs of Athens. I balanced my acupuncture classes at night with my financial career during the day. From that point on, my evenings, weekends and summers for the next 3 years were a bridge between the past and the future, as I would further pursue my studies and practice in therapeutic techniques. I also felt that the greatest vehicle to better health was prevention, mainly based on proper nutrition and a positive mindset. As a certified Health Coach of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York, my holistic approach combines the concepts of primary and secondary food. Only the latter is about what actually goes into your stomach, while the former refers to other aspects of your life not associated with food for the body but rather food for the soul.
What I enjoy most about having left the banking sector and working with people directly to create a healthier lifestyle is that it truly matters on a personal level. Both they and I are having fun at it. Wellbeing is a process and it requires participation. You’ve got to walk the talk. Pills don’t get you motivated, pleasure does. I train people to benefit from new flavors, ingredients and ideas that lead to achieving their own personal wellness goals. Often, I combine acupuncture, therapeutic massage or herbal recommendations along with nutritional coaching as an enhanced wellness approach.
Currently living in the Peloponnese with my husband and twin preschoolers, I’ve created Ontos Health & Wellness, offering private Health Coaching and Acupuncture sessions as well as Nutritional Wellness workshops throughout Greece. My events include a bit of theory and a lot of flavor. My philosophy is to introduce food as fuel for fun, and nutrition as a lifestyle choice instead of diets based on deprivation. Participants discuss and learn about topics ranging from weight loss and detox to sugar addiction and the energy of food. My workshops and cooking classes are always followed by full-scale tastings. There’s a Greek expression about how “affection starts in the belly”. Well, that’s how I feel after my talks and tastings. People come up to thank me with a hug – that’s how I know I’m making a difference.
My dream is to build wellness menus and detox programs for the hospitality sector. Resorts and restaurants could easily incorporate more energy-packed, health-conscious options for their guests. Greece remains a country that believes in pleasure and philosophy. The work I do enables people to experience both, and live with a positive attitude. Really, all it takes to get started is a smile ☺