(Editor’s note: This post on moving to Greece is the fourth in a continuing series looking at the best places in Europe for American expats. You can read the introductory post here. Here are the posts on France, Spain and the Netherlands.)
A good number of Americans (and other expats) live in Greece. Some are here for work, others for love. Some came to escape political frustrations and others just wanted more sea and sun than they could ever have at home.
Whatever the reasons for your interest in the land of gods and olives, I am here to tell you a bit about the good, the great, the bad and the ugly.
Is it quiet? Is it busy? Is there a lot to see and do in and around the capital? Yes, yes and yes!
A country of diverse experiences
Greece is a relatively small country (a bit smaller than Alabama, actually!) but its nearly 14,000 square kilometers of coastline and its countless islands make it very appealing to many would-be expats, including many senior citizens looking for a slower pace and a warmer climate.
While one-third of the population lives in the Athens area, the rest is scattered around the country with a few smaller urban centers here and there. But wherever you want to go in Greece, it’s really not that far, especially compared to the scale of North America.
Barely a hop, skip and a jump from the capital, there are green mountains to hike and super-charming Saronic Gulf islands (such as Hydra or Poros) to explore. Yes, Athens is a big, bustling capital city which can be very exciting and has lots to offer. We have art, music, theater, restaurants and shops galore. We have lively main streets and quiet suburban lanes. While mainstream is the dominating cultural and political force, there are also some interesting alternatives to be found if one is so inclined.
One major downside of Athens is that for starters, it happens to be in dire need of a good cleaning as well as a revamped and expanded public transportation system. While the city definitely has a lot of (often hidden) gems, it can be a tough town. It is densely-populated, polluted and noisy and isn’t known to be the friendliest metropolis on the planet.
It’s not so much that it is unfriendly per se; rather, it is indifferent in many ways.
What about the people?
A beloved family member who was visiting me from the U.S. described his experience to me one day, after having spent several days wandering around Athens and exploring it on his own: “Yo know,Christina, this is an amazing city. There’s a lot to see and do but wow, you can go a whole day without anyone, literally anyone, looking you in the eyes .…”
He went on to say how he could see the appeal for young people – the energy, the anonymity – but said that, as an older man, he thought he would find the city’s aloofness hard to cope with if he were to live here long term, which he was actually considering at the time.
Different strokes for different folks, as they say.
Is it important to be around other expats?
Yes, I really think it is, especially when you first move here. Yes, Greeks can be friendly and welcoming, but not always in the same way a North American might expect. It will take time to have a set of friends you can call to help you move house or who will trust you enough to drop their child off at your home if they have an unexpected need for childcare.
Many expats complain it takes far too long to get really close to locals and some say they rarely manage. Once you get in the “inner circle” it will probably be forever, but it can take time to get there. You might easily make a new friend for a chat at the local coffee shop or enjoy fun banter with the assistant at your local bakery, but, be aware that to a significant extent, the extended family still dominates in Greece.
That means that many locals’ social lives will be filled with events involving family and/or very close family friends (such as godmothers and godfathers, who are often important in the social structure). Yes, you can make friends here but, unlike in many parts of North America, friends do not become “chosen family” as easily or as often.
Do I need to learn Greek?
If you just want to manage and to get around, Greece, especially Athens, is actually very English-friendly. You can find people with a decent level of English in many places and a lot of menus and signs are also provided in English. However, if you plan to live here long term and truly be part of Greek society, you really should make the effort.
Yes, of course locals will appreciate your attempts to communicate in Greek but even more importantly, you won’t feel left out of conversations and miss out on opportunities for deeper connection.
I recently had a North American friend tell me that she was feeling sad and frustrated because she felt the “real” conversations among Greeks pretty much stop when she is around because:
One, people become self-conscious about speaking in their non-native language and two, some really try to include her and, as sweet as that is, that means that nuance and complexity can often get lost as they try to convey more complicated feelings or ideas in a language they might not use very much or very often.
Of course, that works both ways as she feels stilted in trying to convey her own thoughts, knowing that some people might find it hard to follow more complex English words or structures. Moreover, if you plan to work in a Greek environment, even if your actual job is in English, I think you will miss out on a lot of the Greek-style camaraderie and jokes that can only be conveyed in … Greek, of course.
This is the case in many places, but Greeks are especially proud of their language and culture (sometimes to a fault, truth be told), but jokes and chit-chat can help you get a clearer picture of the Greek workplace as well as Greek reality, in general.
Speaking of work …
Sadly, Greek salaries are, on average, very low and the cost of living in Athens has been rising for years, made worse of course by recent developments on the global stage. Greek unemployment rates are shockingly high, especially among younger people and since our latest economic crisis started more than a decade ago, we have had more of a brain drain than ever.
Yes there are some jobs to be had but working conditions, compensation and opportunities leave a lot to be desired for many people, especially the highly skilled and/or highly educated. So, if you have a decent source of income from abroad, you can live reasonably well here, for now at least. The situation is actually changing by the minute, even with things which used to be more affordable here, such as housing and utilities.
But surely I can thrive in Greece as a digital nomad, yes?
A resounding “maybe” is my best answer to that.
Athens just ranked No. 91 out of 100 of the best cities for Digital Nomads. So that is a pretty odd position, no? We made the list of 100 best cities for living, working, investing and visiting as a digital nomad, which is great, but we’re also nearly last on that list. Apparently lots of other cities outdo us in terms of things such as internet speed, cost of living, healthcare, safety and weather (yes, for some there is such a thing as too hot or too sunny!)
Apparently, the rankings were done using official stats plus feedback from remote workers in each country. Also, they are frequently updated so rankings can change according to user feedback.
Now what? I’m confused …
My recommendation is: Come and see us over here! Visit Greece in the off season to get a real feel for the place. There are cities in the north for those of you who prefer distinct seasons. There are endless islands for the beach bums and lots of mountains for the hikers among you. We get enough warm weather that you can enjoy the sunny outdoors beyond the classic summer months .(Climate change has really extended the season.)
Archaeological ruins abound, as does the promise of an unforgettable experience. Some fall in love with the place (understandable) and others say it didn’t kill them but made then stronger (also understandable, as you might need to get a bit scrappy at times to survive).
Let’s see where you fall in the mix!