Greek engineer Nancy Karampoulas shares her experience navigating life as a working mother, finding love after loss, and how her piano has been her safe haven through it all.
My favourite object is my piano. I love music and ever since I can remember, I always dreamed of playing the well-known masterpieces on the piano. I started piano lessons at the age of seven, but soon realised that I was not particularly talented, so I didn't make it into a career. I only play for myself, and for my family on certain occasions, but I play regularly for many reasons. I feel it's good for the brain. It keeps my mind sharp, and I feel it improves my memory. I also feel it's good for the soul. When I play, I feel like fireworks are exploding in my head. I tend to play different pieces of music depending on the mood I am in. In fact, my family has come to recognise how I’m feeling–happy, sad, stressed or scared–from the music I play. I never run out of pieces to play, and that's another reason why I just love this instrument. The possibilities the piano offers are endless.
My name is Nancy Karampoulas. I was born and raised in Athens, Greece, but presently I live with my family in Bournemouth by the sea in the beautiful south of England.
Growing up, we had lots of music at home and always played records the old way. I was very impressed by the classical instruments and thought that the piano was the king of them all. That's why I started asking for a piano at a very early age, probably three or four years old. My parents managed to fool me for a few years with toy pianos–any small-sized kind they could find in the market–up until the age of seven. By then, I really insisted. I cried, begged and even promised to behave if they bought a real piano for me. Finally, they agreed, and they took me to a teacher to be formally taught.
I have had three pianos over the course of my life. That first real piano was an old black German upright piano with ivory keys and a very sweet mellow sound. It was my best friend and kept me company for many, many years, especially during my time at university. When I was young, I was a very good student at school. When I took the entrance exams for university, my scores were very good, but not excellent. Because of that, I was assigned to study marine engineering and naval architecture, which is still very competitive, but is a completely different field from chemical engineering. In the beginning, I didn't know how to feel about it. But I decided that I would try to understand the field before giving it up. Well, I didn't know it back then, but when you put years of effort and time into studying something, you come to appreciate and like your subject no matter what. This career path was a good fit for me–I was never unemployed, I met interesting people and I feel like I contributed to shipping, a very vibrant and traditional sector in Greece. However, my fear of failure was not easy to overcome. It took me a long time to accept the reality of failure–it is an inevitable part of life. It can be very painful, but in the end, many of my biggest failures opened my eyes to new possibilities and gave me the courage to start something new. Sometimes regretting not trying can be more painful than the fear of trying itself.
My second piano came into my life when I met my first husband, who was was Irish. We got married when I was 23 and moved to Nicosia, Cyprus. Imagine my surprise when I found out he owned a piano too! He was very musical and that counted for a lot in my decision to marry him. His piano was English, and it was shinier and lighter than my old German with a crisp, clear sound. I still own this lovely piano, and right now it sits in the living room of my house in Athens.
I ended up returning to Athens when I lost my husband. That was a turning point in my life. I was 32 years old and he was 39 when I lost him to kidney cancer. It was truly terrible, and I felt it was very unfair because we were so happy together and we had a beautiful family. I ended up having to sell everything in Cyprus: our business, the house, the cars, etc and I moved our family back to Greece to be with my parents. I was devastated and it felt as though my life was over.
However, life went on and I was eventually able to find happiness again. In Athens, I unexpectedly reconnected with an old school friend who was recently divorced, and over time we created a new family. We now have four children: two from my first marriage, one from his, and a boy we had together. From this and other such experiences, I've learned that when life takes you left, right and centre–don't resist. Accept the past and the events that led to your current situation and use them as a foundation on which you can build the life you're dreaming of. It doesn't help to resist change because change is part of life–maybe the best part of it.
I also believe that we need to spend more time doing things that we truly love with the people we cherish. We need to value each moment and recognise that life is a gift. We never know how much time we have left. I don't want to say that in a negative sense, but we have to know that we have certain limits as human beings. That's all. So, in my opinion, we’re better off spending the life we have on earth feeling happy and grateful rather than sorry and bitter.
Through all of these ups and downs, my pianos have been my one constant. I have always been able to sit down in front of one and play, no matter what I have on my mind. This is because when I play, I have to concentrate on the music and all my troubles are forced to take a backseat. For example, when I feel angry, I often play Baroque music because it requires strict counting and can distract me from my anger. Playing the piano also makes me feel better by reminding me that there is a lot of beauty in the world. It always changes my mood to be more positive, and I'm really grateful for that. I've come to realise that for a long time I have used the piano as my private therapist and safe haven. This was especially the case when my children were young because when I played the piano no one could come to me and say, "Mum, I want this,” or "Mum, come here." Even now, my family knows that when I play the piano, I want to be left alone. It's my special place and time–just what I need.
This therapeutic time with my piano was especially crucial as I navigated my career and motherhood. Naval architecture and marine engineering is a very male-dominated field, and I have to admit that my time working in it has been both sweet and sour. I belong to a generation that demanded that women manage it all: children, marriage, career, social life, certain appearances, etc. We tried to balance everything, but for many, it was not possible. You cannot be perfect at everything. You just can’t. So you have to cut corners. In my case, this was a hard-learned lesson.
In trying to balance all of these expectations, I had to make a lot of concessions during my career. Without consistent child care assistance, I often had to prioritise my family over my career in order to be present in their lives. I had to choose to let go of promotions and stay behind at the office instead of travelling to shipyards and ports, like all my other male colleagues. I also often had to be satisfied with less responsibility and a lower salary because of gender inequalities in the workplace.
However, the bottom line is that I don't feel bitter at all. I don't feel second-best as an engineer or as a mother. I know that I honoured my mind and abilities as much as my circumstances allowed me to, and I support all of the choices I have made. This is largely due to my mother, who has always been my role model. She came from an island in Greece and insisted on studying in Athens after the Second World War. This was wild for that time, but she managed to do it. She got a university degree and then went on to have a fulfilling career working at a water company in Athens. At the same time, she was the only working mother I knew. So I remember that she was often struggling, without help, to manage her career and bring up her children at the same time. My mother was also divorced, which was another stigma back in the seventies. It was practically unheard of in Athens. But she held her head up high and was always looking forward.
Once I became a mother myself, I thought that if she managed it, I could too. It was tiring at times and often really difficult. However, I knew what my priorities were because of my mother’s example. I knew that you could prioritise both your family and yourself. They are not mutually exclusive. Like all women, my approach to womanhood is unique. No two paths are the same. Each of us travels with different privileges, challenges and perspectives. Sometimes they can be limiting, but other times they can be illuminating. I think I was very, very lucky to have been surrounded by strong women as I was growing up. They loved me a lot, but they also asked me to work hard, to think for myself, to take risks, to learn from my mistakes and to exceed expectations if possible. They also taught me not to feel limited by my gender–to have dreams. It is the girls who dream that become women with vision later on in life.
It's my strong belief that women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world. I like to say that the biggest revolution in history was when women, finally after ages of oppression, were able to gain an education, to work, to vote and to be elected into positions of power– to have a voice. This changed the world. Personally, I'm very proud to be a woman, and this fact has shaped my actions and the way I think. I especially realise how privileged I was to become a mother. I consider motherhood my most important achievement, and I believe that bringing up good, kind, ethical and responsible human beings is the biggest job there is.
These days, I work as an engineer in the British ballast water department. It sounds like a very dry profession, but engineering works to make life better and easier and has a lot more value than just practicality. Plus, when my creative juices are flowing, I can always come home and play on my piano. I acquired my third and current piano only a few years ago when my second husband and I decided to move our family from Greece to England. Before I bought any furniture or appliances for our new home, I bought a piano. It might sound like an exaggeration, but it's true. It's another upright piano and it's a dark brown colour. Both my youngest son and I play it, and our house is always full of music. All three of my pianos have been so important to me. They’ve been both my refuge and my entertainment. Through playing, I have found my way to express my feelings–to find balance, reduce my anxiety, and regulate my emotions. It's my personal way to heal, and at the end of the day, my pianos are the most precious objects I own.
Pre-production: Clare Hamn
Interview: Louise Paulsen
Assistant interviewer: Clare Hamn
Transcription: Ryan Cook & Clare Hamn
Writing: Clare Hamn
Editing: Martsie Webb & Amy Epps
Audio: Emma Reyelts
Photography: Patrick J. Hurley