British author Jani Tully Chaplin, whose family lived on a catamaran off the shores of Corfu for years, has penned a new memoir that tells the riveting story of the construction of their dream home on the island and what can happen when your dreams come true.
Tully Chaplin and her husband and two children lived an idyllic life aboard their sailboat, the “Sarava,” off Corfu for years as the children were being raised. Fulfilling her dreams of sailing along the Greek isles and painting the flowers and wildlife she encountered around her, she wrote the book The Butterflies Fly Backwards as a bittersweet memoir of those years.
One would say it was sweet because of the many friendships the family established during that time period, becoming part of the lives of the local Corfiots, but also bitter because of how their first dream ended with the horrifying explosion that destroyed the Sarava; her husband and daughter barely escaped the inferno.
The author spoke recently to Greek Reporter in an exclusive interview about the family’s sometimes harrowing, and other times idyllic, lives in Corfu.
The dream home on Corfu
Undaunted after the fire, the family decided to go on with the construction of a permanent home for themselves on Corfu, one which would be called “The Lion House” and overlook the peaceful valley and the sea beyond.
With The Butterflies Fly Backwards ending with the cataclysmic event of the loss of their boat, including the incineration of a bag of cash that was to be their down payment on the new property, Chaplin felt it was time to write the much-anticipated follow-up to the story.
Her forthcoming new book, called The Swallows Fly Back, recounts the nearly unending difficulties of those years along with the many moments of beauty and epiphany, as they grew close to their Corfiot friends after the loss of their beloved boat.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Greek Reporter, Tully Chaplin relates the dramatic events that the family lived through at the time.
“After losing Sarava we had found ourselves homeless on Corfu—and in England,” she explains.
“Always intending to live onboard Sarava during the summers in the Ionian, as we had done for the last 8 years, and expecting to be happily established in our newly built Corfiot home in the wintertime, we had sold our home in South Devon,” she adds.
“We rented various small houses on the island that had been built for summer holiday use only, which meant during the winter months they were excessively damp and very cold,” she concludes.
British family on Corfu endures multiple disasters to forge new life
Meanwhile, as the costs for the construction of the Lion House began to soar, she says, they had to fall back on their knowledge gained through a previous calamity when their first home in South Devon burned to the ground, leaving nothing but ashes behind.
Undaunted, the British author and her family rebuilt that home from the ground up. “We had to rely on Jeremy’s knowledge of building, gained when he rebuilt our home, (with no previous experience and books borrowed from the local library) after the devastating fire that razed it to the ground in 1983,” Tully Chaplin states matter-of-factly. However, she notes that “of course everything on Greek soil was different and the rules and regulations took some deciphering.”
“From my point of view, those years were perhaps the most challenging and worrying we had ever experienced in our married life,” she admits. “Despite previous disasters, we had managed to overcome them and move ahead with the confidence of youth and a stable financial crutch to lean on.”
“This was so different, our life savings were invested in building The Lion House and there was no turning back. Not only were we not as young as we used to be, but we were both still suffering from the shock and trauma of losing Sarava in such a ghastly way,” adds Chaplin.
Although they deeply loved Corfu and Greece, they had to deal with ongoing issues in the reconstruction that tested their patience and fortitude. “We were dealing with an architect/supervisor/building manager who would disappear without warning for months at a time, leaving us to manage his team of apprentice builders who spoke little Greek and no English; they too were prone to vanish for weeks on end,” Tully Chaplin states.
“An essential visit to England coincided with the moment ‘Team Albania’ began to dig the foundations; unfortunately they kept digging, in order to sell off as much valuable topsoil as they could, until all possibility of building our original tryptich design became unviable,” she adds wryly.
“Hugely expensive reinforced concrete foundations two stories high needed to be built (and buried) in order to restore the levels; suddenly our three long, low structures had to be condensed into a single house of the same overall size,” Chaplin explains.
“So The Lion House ended up with foundations suitable for a skyscraper; moreover our unobtrusive design, nestling into the land, turned into something far too conventional for our liking. There were many other stupidities that appear in the book,” she adds with her characteristically good humor.
British author “still shakes” when recalling loss of beloved catamaran, their home off Corfu
“Our lives changed overnight when we lost Sarava; we were committed to finishing The Lion House but the project went on for over four years when we had been promised it would be completed in 18 months. So much was lost on board Sarava, including crucial documents,” the author added, emphasizing that it made the completion of the house nearly impossible and its sale extraordinarily complicated.
Readers of her previous book, The Butterflies Fly Backwards, may have found the chapter that dealt with the sinking of her family’s houseboat, the Sarava, to be quite disturbing. Asked how that traumatic loss affected her and her family, Tully Chaplin says that she could barely bring herself to speak of the events of that day, even to this day.
“The effect of losing Sarava to fire had a devastating effect; Miranda and Jeremy suffered from what is now termed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—and still do to this day, 16 years later,” Chaplin says.
“Miranda still cannot talk about the accident and Jeremy no longer sleeps easily; he feels responsible in some way for putting us all though it,” she reveals, adding that “I was not on board but I saw Sarava from the coast road, engulfed in flames and finally sinking, as I was driving to get Jeremy and Miranda from the beach after they had been rescued from the sea, where they had been clinging to a fender for about half an hour.”
“I still shake when I recount the story of the accident. The sadness of losing our beloved catamaran and the way of life it afforded will be with us always,” the author says with great emotion.
“Only happy memories” of living on catamaran Sarava
However, the trauma of that day and the many difficulties the family faced afterwards didn’t change their feelings about Corfu and the Ionian Islands as a whole, which, she says “we always loved dearly, and had only happy memories of our years there with Sarava.”
“Our intention had always been to live on Sarava for nine months of the year and only use The Lion House for the winter months. As The Lion House could easily accommodate 12 people, we planned to let the house for the three months of high season, (when we would be on Sarava anyway) and the considerable income would keep us all and Sarava very comfortably for the rest of the year,” she added.
“However, living on land brought a new dimension to our lives; we became aware of things we would never have known or seen whilst living on board Sarava,” the intrepid adventurer states. In her new book, she recalls with wonder “adopting three stray kittens, rescuing baby swallows, discovering all kinds of wild flowers, plants and fascinating natural objects, avoiding snakes, and watching fireflies.”
She adds that the book also follows the family as they try to “educate our builders about not dropping litter, the joys of buying a large RIB in England and a motorbike in Greece, a flood in one of our our rented villas, and making friends with Greek shepherds and fishermen.”
“There are also two ‘Big Fat Greek Weddings’ in which we were intricately involved and the birth of a baby son to my Greek goddaughter, Antonia,” Tully Chaplin says happily.
She adds that “Our genuine affection for the Corfiot people increased greatly after the accident; we were truly overwhelmed by their compassion, kindness, understanding and extraordinary generosity to us in our hour of need. We are still in touch with them to this day and cannot wait to see them all again.”
Although certainly, not all went according to plan in the years the family spent in attempting to build their dream home on the idyllic Greek island, the author states that she has “found it very therapeutic and cathartic writing about these years in Corfu, even though I had to summon up all my courage to write about the accident.”
“I feel as if I have been” in Corfu again
“As I write I can see the joyful incidents replaying in my head as clear and bright as watching a film in technicolor; it transports me back to those glorious days and to the Greek friends we met and loved. The hours fly by when I am writing and I am once again reliving such a happy period in our lives. I feel as if I have been there again and am relaxed and happy when I stop writing,” says the author.
She says that equally therapeutic were her observations of Greek flowers and birds over the years and painting them with painstaking detail, which was all worthwhile when her previous book A Greek Island Nature Diary was published this year.
“All the years of painting and making notes on the flora and fauna of the Greek Islands, firstly on Sarava and then on land during the difficult years we were building the house, have finally come to fruition,” she says, adding that “Painting and my passion for Nature was a life-saver for me during the last years we spent on Corfu.”
Since her first book “The Butterflies Fly Backwards” was published in November of 2020, she reveals to Greek Reporter that she has learned that “an American couple with a 10-year-old son have now bought a catamaran, had it transported to the marina in Corfu where we kept Sarava, and are planning to cruise the Ionian Islands next summer to visit the places I described in ‘Butterflies!'”
The author adds that she feels a huge sense of responsibility for giving them the idea for their own adventure but that the woman has promised to keep in touch with her as to how her family’s own Greek island idyll progresses.
Tully Chaplin’s many fans can also read the twelve books she has penned and illustrated as part of The Manor House Stories series and even purchase tapestry pillows that bear images that she has painted with her signature style.
She tells Greek Reporter that above all, “my greatest wish is that my books, in some small way, may help to promote Corfu by encouraging people to visit. I also hope the books will raise awareness and support for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the invaluable work they do worldwide.”
She feels strongly about the development of the Eremitis coast on northeastern Corfu, adding a personal plea to readers to support the Save Erimitis Campaign. The area, rich in wildlife and rare native plant species, has been sold to international developers.
In the end, Tully Chaplin says, “We would go back to Corfu in a heartbeat…My ideal would be to buy back The Lion House and use it for extended holidays for all of us—but I may have to win the Lottery first!”