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Expats report about living in Greece: Story by Rob Johnson

Can visiting or permanently living in Greece change your life? Do you feel at home here or have problems with the different way of Greek culture? What are the biggest challenges a foreigner has to deal with when on short or long term visit? KTG asked its readers to submit their own stories. Here is the story by Rob Johnson.

When my partner Penny and I moved to Greece fourteen years ago, the biggest challenge we faced was our inability to communicate in Greek as well as we would have liked. This was despite the fact that we’d already put in a lot of effort to learn the language, and as I’m a bit of a chatterer by nature, I found this incredibly frustrating.

During our first few months in Greece, I also developed the rather bad habit of pretending to understand almost everything that was said to me  even though I barely understood more than one word in ten. I’ve absolutely no idea why I did this unless it was for some subconscious notion that it would be impolite not to understand, but whatever the reason, I’d nod sagely and throw in the odd word I did know like naι (yes) and entáxeι (okay) and even katalavaíno (I understand) while someone rattled on incomprehensibly at us in Greek.

Penny pointed out that this wasn’t very sensible since I could possibly have been agreeing to all kinds of things that we really wouldn’t want to agree to. I knew she was right, of course, but it didn’t stop me repeating the same sort of charade on several subsequent occasions. The only difference now was that Penny would wander off after my first couple of nods and an entáxeι and leave me to it. And that’s exactly what she did seconds after we bumped into Pavlos in a local supermarket.

This was about six months after he’d come to tow away a dead tractor from our land soon after we’d moved in, and we had quite a lengthy – if very one-sided – “conversation” in Greek. From the odd few words I was able to pick up, it was something about the tractor, although admittedly this wasn’t especially difficult since the Greek word for tractor is traktér.

I caught up with Penny after Pavlos and I had finished our little chat, and she inevitably asked me what he’d been saying.

‘I’m not entirely sure,’ I said sheepishly, ‘but there’s ever such a slight possibility that he was asking if we wanted to buy our old tractor back.’

‘Oh please don’t tell me you stood there nodding and saying naι and entáxei like you usually do.’

Well, I couldn’t deny it, and it didn’t do a lot to sweeten the pill when I mumbled, ‘Um, it’s also possible that two thousand euros might have been mentioned.’

This is genuinely what I believed had been the gist of what Pavlos had said to me, and for the next two weeks or so, I winced visibly every time I heard any kind of vehicle coming up the track to our house. Mercifully, though, Pavlos never did show up with our old tractor, but I’d certainly learnt my lesson, and from that day to this, I haven’t once pretended to understand when I didn’t.

As for living in Greece changing our lives, neither Penny nor I ever expected we’d be becoming olive farmers when we decided to move here, so that’s been a pretty big change from our lives in England where the only olives come in jars or bottles.

The house that we eventually bought on the west coast of the Peloponnese came with a 20,000 square metre plot of land, and I was in a state of shock when I realised that it also included 420 olive trees.

‘But we don’t know the first thing about growing olives,’ I said to the estate agent when she first showed us round the place.

‘It’s not exactly rocket science,’ she said – or words to that effect. ‘You’ll soon pick it up.’

In hindsight, and with fourteen years’ experience as an olive farmer, I have to grudgingly admit that she was telling the truth. There really isn’t anything complicated about growing olives, but the dread of the impending harvest causes me night sweats for several months in advance. Of the various injuries I’ve sustained, I’ve been half blinded for several days after a fragment of olive leaf lodged itself in my eye, I’ve almost taken my leg off with a chainsaw, and it’s sometimes taken me up to eight months to recover from olive harvesters’ elbow. I’ve had numerous cuts, grazes and bruises from falling out of the trees, and I’ve suffered mild concussion on several occasions from bashing my head on an overhanging branch. Is it any wonder that I believe that olive harvesting is an activity which should be registered with the Dangerous Sports Association?

Olive harvesting aside, we’re sometimes asked if we ever think about leaving Greece and moving back to the UK, but our answer is always a very definite ‘No.’ We love the sιgá-sιgá approach to life, and despite the appalling effects of the austerity measures introduced since the beginning of the economic crisis, most Greeks still retain their well deserved reputation for hospitality and generosity. They also know how to have fun and to celebrate the very act of being alive, which is best summed up by a word which we Brits don’t have an equivalent for – “kefi”.

*Rob Johnson is a writer and reluctant olive farmer whose books include two comedy thrillers (one of which is mainly set in Greece) and a comedy time travel adventure (mainly set in Ancient Greece).

His latest book, ‘A Kilo of String’, is all about his and Penny’s experiences of living in Greece for the past fourteen years and is loosely based on his podcast series of the same name: https://rob-johnson.org.uk/podcasts/a-kilo-of-string/.

Has Greece changed your life? What was the biggest challenge? Read article and see poll results: “Visiting Greece can change your life,” says expat after 25 years on a Greek island

If you want to submit your own experience from visiting or permanently living in Greece, send your story at:

keeptalkinggreeceATgmail.com

Email ref title:Greece life expats

Some 500 words would do fine. Shorter or longer make no difference. KTG will only have problems if a text is above 800-1000 words. It i sup to you to decide whether the experience is published with your real name or nickname – just mention this on your e-mail.

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9 comments

  1. Hi there, I enjoyed reading your story.

    I am from the UK originally but I have lived in Rhodes for many years now.

    I can appreciate what you are saying when it comes to communicating though. The Greeks can speak quite fast, and if you are not ready for it, it can lose you pretty quick.

    I made the same mistake one time of pretending I knew what my friend was saying to me. I suppose I did not want to look stupid, or appear rude. He knew I had no clue though, he could see it in my face.

    He shot me down for that, and told me never to pretend you know. If you do this, you will never learn.

    From this, he refused to speak English to me again. He made me learn. Now I speak Greek very well, so I am happy I made that mistake in the beginning. I payed a good price 🙂

    Great to meet you here. Nice website. I enjoyed reading.

    Thanks

    Chris

  2. Language is a very interesting topic for expats.
    I’ve read several blogs in the past few months by people who had similar thoughts.
    In the end they stopped learning Greek since it was a lot more easy for them to speak English (or German and sometimes even Dutch)
    Accents are the biggest hurdle from what I heard.
    One false pronounciation and you say something completely different from what you intended to say.
    I’m sure that the average thought about people speaking their language is about the same worldwide.
    So I realize the importance.

    Not being able to small talk with friends is going to be a very big issue if you want to mingle in Greek society.
    I can’t see myself going to a party where people need to translate every word for you.

    Personally I’m going to use a great idea I have seen in the internet. Someone suggested to stick Post-It’s on EVERYTHING. With the written greek word for the item and the correct pronounciation (and translation of course)
    Numbers, days of the week etc. the most basic forms of communication (enables you to do shopping for groceries in stressless way for instance)

    Probably going to look for a private tutor (for me and my partner).
    It’s going to be a challenge.
    But luckily there are plenty of people who want to help out a fellow expat with the complicated issues like permits and different adminnistrative requirements.
    As long as we don’t lose sight of how everything takes patience in Greece, we will probably manage quite allright.

    Thank you for your insights Mr Johnson.

  3. @ Chris Towers

    Coming oktober, I will move to Rhodes with my partner (and our dog).
    Ialysos/Trianda will be our base of operations/starting point in our search for some place to settle.
    I love the island and the people I have met sofar.
    (My mom is a personal friend with the owners of a “big” car rental firm in Ialysos).

  4. Oh how much of all of this rings the bell of truth with me! :-).

    In 15 years of having a home in Greece my funniest experience, language fun aside, was dealing with my street security system, also known as the Yiayias.

    A couple of years after I settled in and the yiayias were satisfied I wasn’t an axe murderer or something equally bad one of my neighbours came to say that the street light was being blocked by a a big tree beside it and she was afraid of falling in the dark now that it. Now, both the tree and the light were NOT on my lland but in my usual helpful way I offered to go ask the council to trim the tree but much to my surprise she said not to do that. The following morning I woke to find her standing at my front door with a hand saw and a ladder propped against the tree. To be honest my Greek ain’t that good but I got the idea. So, armed with the saw I set off up the tree and, following very precise instructions comprising of Nai, afta etc I amputated several branches. After 15 minutes of my lumberjack activity the voice of my instructor drifted up to me from below “Stamata”. Somewhat slowly and carefullly I worked my way down the tree to the relative safety of terra firma to find her standing with a fully laden wheelbarrow of the off-cuts which she trundled of to her yard to store for the coming winter.

    It subsequently transpired that when the council did the work they took the off-cuts away and my neigbour had to pay for wood for the winter. She ommitted to tell me I could be fined for interfering with public property (the tree). We are great friends and she never stops teasing the naive Mal**a foreigner about the day she suckered him :-). YIAYIAS, you got to just love them and that twinkle in their eye when the play the old helpless woman card.

  5. keeptalkinggreece

    lol nice story.

  6. @ Chris Towers

    Hi, Chris.

    Thanks for commenting and great to meet you too.

    It sounds like you learned your lesson much sooner than I did, but it obviously paid dividends in helping to improve your Greek.

    After fourteen years, it’s become clear that Penny is much better at understanding Greek than I am, whereas I probably speak it rather better than she does. Perhaps this indicates something about our personalities – that Penny’s a much better listener than I am, and I’m just a chatterer. Or is that simply a difference between men and women generally?

    Thanks for taking a look at my website, and I’m glad you enjoyed what you read.

    All the best, Rob

  7. @ Costarring

    Hi, Costarring.

    It’s interesting what you say about there being quite a few pairs of words in Greek that mean something completely different, depending on where you put the stress, which can lead to some embarrassing situations. Malak-A and Mal-A-ka being prime examples, of course.

    Similarly, there are the Greek words for tomato/room and pine marten/sister-in-law which can be easily confused, so you need to be careful when booking a hotel room or you might end up asking for “a double tomato for my wife and I, and a separate tomato for my pine marten.”

    Best of luck with your language learning.

    All the best, Rob

    P.S. Since you’re moving to Rhodes, there’s a very good website/blog by John Manuel that might interest you at https://ramblingsfromrhodes.blogspot.gr/

  8. @ Hugh O’Donnell

    Hi, Hugh.

    That’s a brilliant story, and I love the way she “omitted” to tell you that you could have been fined for what you did to the tree!

    I’m sure you must have plenty of other stories like that, so perhaps you should consider putting them together in a book. I, for one, would certainly be interested to read more.

    All the best, Rob

  9. @ Rob

    Thanks for your kind words!
    I’ll be taking a look at that blog you linked.
    Also bookmarked your page for a look later on (preparing all my walls for paint right now…busy busy…selling a house is stressfull)