Ah, Greece… A land replete with historical treasures, as well as magnificent natural beauty. A land “chosen by the Gods”, as a campaign by the Greek Tourism Organisation aptly puts it. But visiting a country for a short period of time as a tourist is one thing, and moving to Greece for a longer stay is entirely another. Life in Greece involves challenges – some of them affecting even locals, and certainly someone who has not lived in the country before: and might not even know the language.
Indeed, not speaking Greek will probably be the biggest obstacle for an expat οn most occasions. Greece being an international tourist magnet, most Greeks – especially younger ones – do speak English adequately. However, this is sadly not a given when dealing with the public sector.
That is not to say that there aren’t any English-speaking employees; only that one should not count on the fact. As in most countries, being accompanied by a local friend or acquaintance when visiting the police station, the town hall, or some other public sector office, will greatly increase the chance of a trouble-free visit.
The public sector in Greece has been traditionally dysfunctional and bureaucracy-ridden, and the situation has only worsened in recent years, as a result of austerity measures leading to understaffing and other issues. One should be armed with a lot of patience – it isn’t unthinkable that taking care of such business might require many hours of queuing, or having to go from one department to the other.
Nonetheless, ordinary Greeks are generally polite and willing to help, and they are usually happy to offer assistance and information to an expat in need – sometimes going far beyond the expected confines of common courtesy. It isn’t out of the question that Greeks might postpone their own business in order to help someone else.
In some cases this can even feel overwhelming or awkward, especially to someone from northern latitudes who is used to a more strictly defined personal space. Though of course this is only a generalisation, sometimes Greeks might appear a bit pushy as a result of their eagerness to help. It is also worth noting that Greek speech is often animated and accompanied by sudden gestures that, to a person relocating from abroad, might give the impression of an argument unfolding. Rest assured, these friendly people just want to look after you!
As in other Mediterranean cultures, the Greek attitude to time and schedules is more lax than in England or northern Europe. If a Greek comes to a meeting that is scheduled for 5PM at quarter past, that is still not enough of a reason to apologise and offer an excuse. Similarly, even though an office or a store might be expected to be open at a certain time, this isn’t set in stone. Furthermore, it isn’t always the case that such changes are announced.
One thing to keep in mind when moving to Greece, is that although it is not a particularly large country, it is very diverse in terms of geography. Almost half the population lives in and around Athens, but there are literally thousands of islands as well as important mainland towns – Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, being the second largest city.
To an extent, issues related to bureaucracy can be also related to location. Generally speaking, Athens, Thessaloniki, and a few large towns will have plenty of services but also a greater amount of bureaucracy. Conversely, small islands will often have the bare essentials in terms of services. However, in small towns and islands – particularly those that rely on tourism – one can expect help more readily, by people who might be friendlier and more relaxed compared to those living in big cities.
Still, certain official business will require a trip to the municipal centre, which might mean a several-hour long ferry journey, and perhaps also a stay overnight. During wintertime, connection might be suspended for several days due to bad weather.
Furthermore, although many of the services can be found online, full digitisation has not yet occurred in Greece. In other words, there are still plenty of official business matters that will require physically going to an office and queuing. Moreover, the issue of language is unfortunately an obstacle on the internet as well, as many public-sector webpages are offered only in Greek. Make use of specialist translation software where possible.
One notable exception is the Greek Ombudsman site, https://www.synigoros.gr/?i=stp.en, that offers some basic information on social issues and rights, and can also act as a mediator. Still, when seeking information and advice, answers will be much easier to acquire from private initiatives such as, for example, from other expats living in Greece: https://www.internations.org/greece-expats. There are also similar groups on Facebook, for instance: https://www.facebook.com/groups/foreigngreece/.
Having said all of the above, one should not feel intimidated by all the concerns of moving to Greece. Our world is not a perfect one, and every country poses its own kinds of challenges and issues which a person has to deal with. In Greece’s case, bureaucracy and the language barrier might at first appear intimidating, but whereas the hassle is temporary, the experience of living in a country of unique cultural and natural beauty lasts forever.
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