EAST HAMPTON, NY — Every day, the social media posts appear: Messages from longtime friends, neighbors and colleagues on the East End echo with the news that they are packing up — moving on. They are leaving childhood homes and towns shaped by the generations before them as an escalating cost of living, burgeoning traffic, and the changing face of small towns due to an influx of newcomers leaves many searching for home in a place that’s no longer familiar.
Michael Heller reached out on social media this week with a post he said he wished he didn’t have to write. As of April 30, he said, he is retiring from his position as a photographer for the Express News Group — and moving with his girlfriend, Jacqueline, to Rhodes, Greece on May 3.
“After a lengthy period of study, reflection and consideration, I came to the conclusion that I can no longer afford to live in East Hampton — or the East End of Long Island, for that matter — with any decent degree of financial security, stability or quality of life. This should come as a surprise to no one; speaking as a third-generation resident of East Hampton, the changes that have happened here in recent years have made my dream of living out the remainder of my years here an impossibility, a fact which grieves me no end,” he said.
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Things have changed on the East End, Heller said. He posted a photo of Tiananmen Square in China as a metaphor: “Replace the tanks with Range Rovers, and the lone protester with any one of the locals who have lived here for generations, and you’ll get a pretty good sense of what has happened to the place that I call home.”
Photography is not a big money-making profession to begin with, he said. Couple that with soaring prices, and Heller said he’s had to work seven days a week just to simply get by. “At 64 years old, I just don’t want to do that anymore,” he said.
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And so, he began pursuing options — and it was a trip to Greece in September on vacation that changed the course of his destiny.
Heller had never been to Greece before, and since that trip, he has not returned. But Heller is busy making plans, calling shipping companies, learning about long-term visas, travel insurance and permanent residency — and signing up for Facebook groups about ex-pats abroad, to learn the proverbial ropes.
“We actually had no idea we wanted to live there before we visited,” Heller said. “We knew we were thinking of moving away, but didn’t know where to. Oddly enough, when we booked our vacation there we hadn’t even considered it as an option, but when we arrived and had been there a few days — bam, it was amazing.”
Heller has been looking for a change, wondering how to continue to afford to live on the East End and still have a lifestyle worth savoring.
The search for a new home began. Heller tossed around ideas, considering the Hudson Valley and then, Maine.
And then came a trip to Greece and the dawning certainty that a new chapter was set to be written.
Heller is not Greek and does not speak Greek. But in Greece, almost immediately, he felt that he’d found his place.
The trip began with a stop in Athens. “We spent two days looking at the Parthenon, because you’ve got to,” Heller said.
Then they flew to Rhodes, where they’d booked a small and charming B & B, just 12 rooms, and an owner who instantly offered a wealth of information and an ally in a new dream.
Rhodes, one of Greece’s larger islands, is a modern city with a walled medieval city and a castle. The two explored the island’s rich history.
“Our taxi pulled up to the castle wall and we went over the bridge, over a moat, into the medieval city,” he said.
They explored the historic town, hired a historian to share the highlights, spent idyllic days on beaches with coves of crystal clear blue water, sunbathing and snorkeling, soaking up the postcard-worthy vistas. For the more adventurous, Heller said, Rhodes is known as a windsurfing mecca.
And then, there was the food. “We went to the same restaurant five times,” Heller said. “We couldn’t get over it, the food was incredible.”
And a far cry from bloated Hamptons prices: “A full meal with appetizers, entrees, dessert, coffee, soup to nuts for us both — $40. And it was healthy, incredibly good, food.”
Falling in love with Greece is about more than just its history and sparkling beaches, the platters of Mediterranean food and stunning sunsets. It’s a feeling, a different way of life, where people put down their phones and focus on those they’re dining with, at tavernas where minutes become hours and memories are made.
“Every day was getting better than the last,” Heller said.
The goal is to return to the B & B and then, rent while looking for a new home in Greece, he said.
There is nothing to hold him back, Heller said. “I live alone,” he said. “I rent a one-bedroom apartment; I have no family.”
And, with social media, East End friends and neighbors are always close, Heller said.
Once in Greece, Heller plans to retire; the cost of living in Greece is dramatically lower for basic expenses.
When asked, why Greece, Heller said Greece offered a way of life that nowhere else he’d considered had; a place where a two-hour nap in the sunny afternoons is the norm and the pace and pressure of East End living dissipates in the lull of the surf and the sounds of footsteps on cobble-stoned streets.
Heller admits there is much to learn; he’s been doing his homework, asking questions, learning something new about the process every day. “We’re doing what we have to do and we’ve given ourselves plenty of time to do it,” he said.
Already, Heller has introduced himself to the local firefighters, who don’t speak much English, just as he speaks no Greek. But as a man who has spent 32 years with the East Hampton Fire Department, the language of service is universal, and the brotherhood can be found on any soil.
As the news has spread about his adventure, Heller said everyone has reacted similarly: “They’ve all said we are very brave — and they are very envious — and while they say they will miss us terribly, they understand. They say, ‘We’re happy for you.'”
And all have told Heller that he can expect a sea of visitors.
Also, many on the East End are pondering their own futures, wondering if they can continue on, eke out a survival plan at a time when their own children can’t afford to stay and the quality of life elsewhere is a siren song.
The choice was not an easy one, Heller said. “What I will miss: Everything and everyone,” he said.
He said he will miss his work as a photojournalist for the Express News Group, where he has spent 16 year and won 38 First Place awards from the New York Press Association, including three times as Photographer of the Year.
“I will miss being a member of the fire service. In my 32 years as a firefighter in the East Hampton Fire Department, the EHFD has been a second family to me, and having to give up my involvement in the fire service is probably the most difficult part of having to leave,” Heller said. “The experiences I have had, and the friendships I have made, are invaluable to me; it has truly been an honor to be part of this organization, and to be of service to the East Hampton community.”
He added: “There are a million other things I will greatly miss here as well, in this place I call home. For me, it is a tragedy of epic proportions that my homeland, and my way of life for so many years, has been savaged, abused and taken advantage of” by those who have come to his hometown with no respect for its history and sense of tradition and place, he said.
Moving across the world is a leap of faith, Heller acknowledges.
But there is an entire world to explore, he said. One of the greatest benefits of living in Greece is that from Athens, almost any destination in Europe is a short flight away.
Heller looks forward to days free from financial and work-driven pressure. “If I want to go for a walk for two hours without having to worry about getting back, I can,” he said.
And as a photographer, Greece is a veritable visual feast. “I’m definitely going to keep doing photography,” he said.
There will be a cultural immersion, a chance to learn the language, meet new people, and embrace a country that captured their hearts in an instant.
“This may be a cliche but you only live once,” Heller said. “You may as well do whatever you can, while you can.”
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