Living somewhere always provides a completely different experience than simply traveling through. The longer you stay in a place, the more you learn about the culture, the people, the food, and the customs. I have been in Thessaloniki for just two and a half months, but I have noticed and learned many things about Greece and Greeks, at least in the northern part of the country. Living with a Greek has helped, as we’ve had many discussions about the culture and the state of the country. Here are some of my findings:
Biggest recession in recent history? That won’t stop Greeks from having fun
Even though Greece is in the worst shape it has been in for many, many years, people have taken it head-on. The number of cafes and bars in Thessaloniki is astounding; even more surprising is how many people frequent cafes and bars when the country’s unemployment is 30%. I’ve even seen several new cafes and restaurants being built and starting up. Greeks are very proud of this part of their people. They know how to have fun, and a recession isn’t going to stop them from going out.
From a foreigner’s standpoint, I would never think this was a bad time for their economy. However, I often wonder if that’s just on a superficial level. Maybe the typical person is going through hardships that I’m not aware of. There are very few homeless people in the city of 1.2 million, but I’ve heard this is because families will always take in their relatives in need. It’s not uncommon to find a 40 year old male living with his parents; it’s very well accepted. I’ve been told that Greeks don’t travel as much as before, and they use their little money to go out for a coffee to enjoy the day.
Comparing wages and the cost of living, I’m not sure how Greeks do it
From what I’ve learned, a normal Greek job after graduated with a bachelor or master’s degree may be 1,000 euros per month, or about $1,250 monthly ($15,000 yearly). Rent is pretty low here, as I was able to find a furnished room in an apartment for about $250 per month. However, a meal at a restaurant will cost at least $10, a beer at a decent bar will cost around $4, and ordering a coffee at a café can range between $2 and $5. Clothes seem to be a bit more expensive than in the US. Fruits and vegetables from a market are cheaper here, but packaged foods, eggs, and milk are more expensive. When you add all these expenses together, I am unsure how Greeks are able to save any money on a monthly basis. I think this shows how fortunate we are in the US, where it’s very possible to save a good chunk of your income on a monthly basis.
Greeks are very well-educated to the point where this is an oversupply of skilled workers
Higher education is free in Greece. If you pass your high school exams and get into a university, the only thing you will pay is your rent and food; tuition, books, and other fees are all paid for by the government. This means that the average 20-something Greek is either studying or has already finished college, and competition is fierce for the small number of jobs available. Because they have a great education and speak English very well, many Greeks are leaving the country in search of jobs. What happens when a lot of your best talent is leaving and possibly never coming back? You’re educating the youth but do not see better results for your country. This same thing is happening in Puerto Rico, as young people move to mainland USA for economic reasons, leaving Puerto Rico in an unfavorable position.
One would hate to say that a country is overeducated, but with most millennials having college degrees, times are tough to find work. The country is exporting more human capital than it is exporting goods, and this is a long-term problem that the country needs to solve in order to get back on its feet in the long-run.
The Greek language is not as difficult as it seems
The Greek language, when you see it at first, is incredibly intimidating. You have probably only seen the language’s letters in math class or on frat row. Delta, pi, sigma…the list goes on. It turns out that these spell out words in the Greek language. Get past this new alphabet, however, and you’ll find a language that is similar to learning Spanish or French. It is said that about 25% of the English language is derived from Greek, so you already know quite a few words coming from the language!
I haven’t formally studied the language, but I have picked up on the letters and can now sound out most words that I see written. Surprisingly, I can oftentimes figure out what is written by sounding it out in Greek. So although it seems like a tough language to learn, it’s not as complicated as it seems.
When traveling for leisure, Greeks choose to stay within Greece
Through all of my travels, I cannot remember one Greek who was traveling for fun in a country that is not named Greece. I’ve met people from pretty much every other country in Europe, but never a Greek. After talking more with people here in Thessaloniki, it turns out that Greeks much prefer to travel to islands for their vacations. They’ll go to Santorini, Corfu, Rhoads, Mykonos, and others to get their fill of sun and sand. In a way, I can’t blame them. Greece has over 9,000 miles of coastline, and much of it with crystal clear waters and sandy beaches. Many of the islands have interesting cities with unique architecture and a vibe that cannot be matched on the mainland.
I get it. However, there is something different and special about traveling to a different country. The culture, the food, the people, they’re all very different. Learning about the culture and the history of another country can be such a growing experience as you open up your mind. There are so many unique and interesting places within a two-hour flight of Greece. From Berlin to Istanbul to Barcelona, they’re all within reach for even a just a long weekend. Greeks are very proud people, so I think this is a big reason why they stay within their country. Either way, I hope to meet more Greeks while traveling outside of Greece in the future!
Greek drivers are some of the worst
Unpredictable, out of control, too fast. That’s how I would describe Greek drivers. Most cars have at least a few dings on them, as they try to fit into the smallest parking spaces. And if there is no parking space, why not just double park on the road? Or just park on the corner? You never really know what a Greek driver is going to do, so it’s best to play it safe. In general, they seem to have no sense for people around their cars. If I’m ever walking behind a parked car that is on, I am extra cautious since I know they could start backing up with no notice. Bus drivers are no better, as they cruise down the city streets in a huge piece of steel. “Nice and easy” does not seem to be part of the Greek language when it comes to driving.
Balconies are a part of life in Greece like backyards are a part of life in the US
In Thessaloniki, almost every single apartment has a balcony. You look down the street and up at the 7-story buildings, and rarely will you see an apartment without a balcony. It’s just part of life here. There aren’t too many green spaces in the cities here, so balconies become their green space. Many are full of plants and flowers along with the standard tables and chairs. People hang their clothes to dry on their balconies. And many people keep their dogs and cats on their balconies.
I have been fortunate to live in an apartment with an extra-large balcony. Once a week, I have invited people over, and Chika and I have cooked for them. Whenever it’s warm enough, we sit outside on the balcony with a table and chairs and enjoy the company. It has gotten cold now, typically in the 50s and 60s, so it has been less common than before. The balcony is something that I’ve definitely enjoyed about life in Greece.
Greeks have rejected foreign fast food joints
Whereas many countries accept and love American fast food joints, Greece has pretty much said “No” to these. Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, used to have a McDonalds; however, it closed down after a lack of customers. Goody’s, a fast-food joint from Greece, has outperformed McDonalds and has taken the market. Many café chains, mostly Mikel and TodayLicious, have dominated Starbucks.
However, Greece’s favorite fast food is the gyro, which consists of a pita filled with pork or chicken, tomatoes, onions, French fries, and a sauce. They’re filling, quick, and pretty natural in terms of fast food ingredients. They’re also cheap, ranging from $1.25 to $3.50. Local places and chains around the city serve these day and night, and it has been my favorite cheap eat.
House wine is the best way to save money while going out
Many small wine shops around the city make their own house wines and sell them at very cheap prices. One can usually get a liter of red or white wine for 3 euros, or about $4 for a bottle and a half of wine. Many restaurants and bars also sell house wine for great prices compared to other drinks. Usually, they’ll be about double the price of the shops, so you’ll be 3 euros for a half a liter of wine to split between friends. I think the wine is good quality, as well, and of course locally made.
Greeks speak English very well, definitely in the top half of all countries in Europe
If I talk to someone who is under the age of 40, I can pretty much assume that they speak English. If I ask if they speak English, sometimes they’ll respond with a silly look and, “Of course!” This makes it easier to live here than countries like France or Italy where a decent percent of people speak just basic English. Greeks are proud of their English and are very happy to use it. Compare this to France where you’ll be shunned for even trying to order a coffee in English.
I’ve had a good experience living in Thessaloniki. At first, the city doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to offer. However, I have ended up really enjoyed life here. It’s easy to walk to most places, it’s a young city with a lot of students, and there is always something going on, whether it’s a honey festival or a theater.
Where I have lived has been the most convenient places I’ve ever lived. Within one block, I have access to two supermarkets, a local produce store, a gyro fast food, a cafe, a pharmacy, a bakery, and a stop for three different buses. I’ve enjoyed going to a large open air market on Saturdays, where vendors sell everything from fruits and vegetables to clothes and kitchen supplies. We’ve made it a habit of going every Saturday to stock up on food for the week. The boardwalk is a short walk away, where the path leading north and south along the sea is full of people walking and on bicycles.
I’ve had the chance to attend a few shows, including Carmen (French Opera), Alexander the Great Rock Opera (Greek show), and Beauty and the Beast (American traveling theater). In order to save money, I haven’t eaten out much, unless you count the 1 euro gyros a few blocks away.
I’ve met a small group of friends made up of a few Couchsurfers, my Greek roommate (Eliza), and a few of Chika’s coworkers. We typically go out for a drink or coffee and sometimes have them to my apartment for breakfast or dinner.
It’s been another nice experience and has been different from any other I have had. I never had any intentions of visiting Greece, let alone living in Greece, but I’m happy to have had the chance to come here and learn about the history, the people, and the culture. Now I’m off for a short trip around the Balkans!