Chandra Athanasia shares about dreams, bicycles, cruiseships and raising a family in a new homeland. It’s a story of determination, wanderlust and courage.
My name is Chandra Athanasiadi and I grew up in Bogor, West Java, Indonesia as the fourth of five children. We didn’t have much, but we did have family. My aunts and uncles lived next door and we lived with my grandparents. My cousins and I played with everything we found.
Every day after school I would go to my father’s shop and tell him about my day and all the things I was interested in. It wasn’t long before I began asking him for a new bicycle - my own. My father would always ignore my pleas but I just kept on asking. On Christmas, I usually got a lollipop from a bag of candy, but that year my mom told me, “Go look outside, there’s a surprise for you.” And there it was, my own bicycle! It was rusty and small but it worked and it gave me my first taste of freedom.
“Stay close! Play close to home!” my father would say to me as I rode around our street on my new bicycle. One day, I left my father’s boundaries and rode farther than I ever had before. I found a long stretch of road with rice fields on each side, and the further I rode, the more I felt the rising of a new feeling–an amazing feeling of exploration and discovery. This was my first experience as an explorer and I couldn’t get enough.
In college, I studied tourism and hotel management and wanted to get a job on a cruise ship. Working on a cruise ship sounded exciting to me because I would make new friends, travel to new places and expand my experiences. However, in order to work on a cruise ship, I needed a passport which cost a lot of money. Fortunately, my grandfather and father loaned me the money I needed to get a passport, and I was able to begin training to work on a cruise ship.
The three months of training were very fun. At first I only made friends with other Indonesians on the crew, but eventually I made friends with people from Russia, Greece, Ukraine and Hungary. I learned that my friends’ work ethic was the same as mine, and once I really got to know them, we created a strong team that could depend on each other. We would spend a lot of time travelling and cleaning the ship, but the real work would begin when the cruises actually started. That was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life.
I was a waitress on the ship and it was exhausting work. I am a small woman and this job required me to carry heavy dishes and clear and lug around large trays of food. Sometimes I couldn’t wake up on time for my job because my body was so sore from yesterday’s work. I prayed that I wouldn’t lose my job and that I could get some reprieve. The waitressing job became so difficult that I considered quitting and going back to Indonesia but I hadn’t made enough money to pay my grandfather and father back yet.
One day, I heard some coworkers mention that a cashier position was opening up in one of the ship’s restaurants. I expressed my interest in the position to my boss but he thought I was too young for it and offered it to other people. I was tired and discouraged but I kept praying. Growing up in Indonesia, my family made up a small group of Christians in a sea of Muslims. I was used to relying on God in challenging times and the Gospel had always been a pillar of strength in my life. Despite my discouragement, I kept praying for help and finally, God answered me. My boss had multiple people available to fill the cashier role but every single one of them turned it down, so they finally came to me. I gladly accepted the new job! I knew in my heart that God was taking care of me. I retrained as a cashier and worked there for several years before transferring to a bigger cruise ship.
Even as an adult, my father’s advice, “Play close to home,” stuck with me, so I never thought I’d marry someone from the other side of the world. While working on my second cruise ship, I met a man from Greece. He was tall, shy and had a beard and moustache. I am a very small woman, so it’s funny to me that we connect when we are so physically opposite. He was easygoing and we always saw the best in each other. It wasn’t long before I knew that I wanted to marry him. I was 21 when we decided to get married and move to Greece. But before that, I insisted he follow Indonesian tradition and ask for my father’s permission to marry me, so we went back to Indonesia first.
When my father met him he said, “Are you sure this is your choice?” I assured my father that despite his huge physique and beard, my fiance was a good man with a golden heart. My father always respected my decisions and knew that I had a strong will and was able to make things happen. I had chosen a different life than my cousins and family; none of them had left Indonesia or wanted to make a big leap. But love is about evolving. I’d found love and didn’t want to stay the same. I did not want to feel the same or be the same. I wanted to feel, and do something different. I was eager to go to a new place and experience new things. My father understood my determination and said, “If this is what you want, okay!” With my father’s blessing, we got married and set off for Greece.
The first six months in Greece were very hard. I considered giving up and going home. When I arrived in Greece, it was June or July. The summer had already started and it was too hot for me. The weather, the climate, it really bothered me. I could not stand being outside. I could not stand being inside. It was a very difficult adjustment for me. I didn’t understand the language, and their way of life was very different. But I’ve never been a quitter, so I decided to try and get to know people and take life one day at a time. It took courage for me to stay and learn how to accept them, and for them to accept me.
There is also more freedom for women here in Greece. I see women celebrate International Women’s Day, and I did not even know that day existed when I lived in Indonesia. And the Greeks, and all Europeans, celebrate it joyfully.
I worked hard to learn the language and raised two sons and a daughter here. They are healthy, studying and learning. I’ve taken my children back to Indonesia to visit. I’ve also tried to get my mother to move to Greece but since most of her children are in Indonesia, she says she can’t leave them. I’ve raised my children in the Gospel, and it has taken many years but my husband has now finally joined my church. It took 17 years of marriage for my husband to join the Church. I have been living in Greece for almost 25 years now and am very happy to continue my adventure here.
I’ve come a long way from sitting on the broken bicycle pretending to be flying down the streets. My father told me that a few of my nieces want to work on a cruise ship and start exploring the world like me. I would tell them, and anyone who wants to experience new things to use their time wisely and learn something useful for the future. Life is full of many seasons. Seasons to be happy, to be sad, to learn and to harvest. You cannot get through the seasons of life without getting hurt, but don’t be afraid. Times will change and things will get better. I would tell them, you must understand that this is your life. You should live your life, not someone else’s.
Pre-production: Clare Hamn
Interview: Louise Paulsen
Transcription: Amy Epps
Writing: Megan Mcnanama
Editing: Amy Epps
Audio: Emma Reyelts
Photography: Nicholas Athanasiadis