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Greece

Capital Athens
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 30
Mobile Codes 690,693,694,695,697,698,699
ccTLD .gr
Currency Euro
Land Area 131,990 sq km
Population 11.3 million
Language Greek
Major Religion Orthodox Christianity

Outside Views on Life in Athens: An Interview with Female Expats in Greece’s Capital City

Interviews conducted by Ioannis Michaletos in Athens

Athens is often called the “New York of the Balkans.” It’s a large urban area, with a permanent population of over 5 million inhabitants, and culturally in the midst of three worlds- Western Europe, the Eastern Med and the Balkans.

There is plenty of action in the city- literally thousands of bars, clubs, restaurants, theaters, museums and exhibitions. Yet most of these positives go unnoticed by the so-called global mainstream media, which tends to take a closer glance at the Greek capital only when a demonstration takes place or when a bomb goes off (albeit with no victims, most of the time).

Athens is mostly known as a tourist destination, visited by some 4 million people annually, and as a place where good weather and the charms of the seaside contrast constantly with the traffic jams and heinous Greek bureaucracy that turns off any sensible expatriate seeking to establish a business or continue a professional career in the city.

Athens is definitely the quintessential Greek city, with a history spanning over 5,000 years. But at the same time, it can be one of Europe’s most frustrating urban centers in which to live.

An expatriate’s life in London may often revolve around his or her career, while Paris is known for a fashionable lifestyle, Berlin, a trendy one, or Rome with a laid-back one. Although it is not widely known, Athens currently hosts a large number of expatriate professionals from dozens of countries, with Germans, British, Americans and French numbering several thousands. Other nationalities represented are of a diverse nature, and include expats from places like Korea, New Zealand, Brazil and Finland in significant numbers.

But what is the real expat experience today? Is Athens the new hot spot for expatriate life in Europe, a gem yet to be discovered and promoted accordingly? Or is it a corner of the Balkans where all experience an idiosyncratic way of life, full of opportunities and hurdles alike?

Several up-and-coming female expats in Athens were more than happy to respond to all the above questions for Balkanalysis.com. Although they come from different backgrounds, have different motivations and interests, they all share in common a passion for life, culture and of course, for Athens! Here are their opinions of life in the Greek capital, at a time when the country is experiencing the worst economic crisis of the past 30 years along with a host of other issues.

Adrianna Cahova, Photographer

Adriana Cahova is a Czech art photographer, based in Athens. She is actually thrilled by the aforementioned contrasts of the city, which according to her have a lot to provide for any aspiring “Athenian expatriate.” She has traveled to various locations around the globe, such as India, Mexico, Morocco, China, and as such certainly has a taste for exploring and observing cultures and cities. She has exhibited her art work in Prague and Belgrade, and currently is preparing for Athens, having first been able to appreciate life in the city.

An elegant and highly professional photographer, Adriana took her time to answer a few questions on how she views life in this corner of the Balkans, and what makes her tick when living the daily Athenian life.

Ioannis Michaletos: First… why Athens?

Adriana Cahova: That’s a question easy to answer since the main reason for coming here was my relationship with a Greek man. I really love Greece in general, the weather is great, I love the sun and all the seasons here, which are much different than my hometown of Prague.

But there is more to it, and that made me decide ultimately to establish myself here and move my business interests here as well. In my line of work, noticing and examining the emotions of people, which are intense in Athens, is absolutely great! The people here are mostly temperamental, spontaneous, and in a sense it’s a very interesting experience to live in the city from all points of view.

IM: What about the cultural scene in Athens? Is there something interesting for someone from abroad in living here?

AC: That’s a good question, since there are many different things to speak about. For instance, although there is an extensive theatrical scene here in Athens and countless clubs with music, performances and so on, I kind of feel like there is a lot of talent wasted in the arts field.

I mean, there are many Greek art people who don’t really produce original art and culture, regardless of the great tradition this city has offered in the past. In some sort there is a decadent feeling. The arts should be a part of daily life; instead I feel that there is not a lot happening actually.

IM: What’s the biggest challenge in living here?

AC: There are quite a few actually! First of all a word of notice to all newcomers in Athens- it’s rather difficult to find one stable, well-paid job, taking into account the financial situation nowadays in Greece.

On a more mundane level, if you don’t speak Greek, like me, there are sometimes difficulties in the “little things in life,” such as going to your local market and ordering cooking items, vegetables or asking for directions in areas were people don’t speak English.

Also, you get the feeling that if you are not able to speak the language a lot of locals will not really try to hold a conversation with you and in some cases an expatriate may feel he is out of touch with the daily lives of the Greeks. I think these are the biggest challenges for anyone arriving here in the beginning.

IM: What’s fascinating to you about life in Athens, though?

AC: Many things! I would say first of all, the amazing scenery that includes the long sea coast and the balmy sea air, the old center of Athens, the Acropolis region in the city and countless other little corners of pure beauty that exist despite the urbanization and bad-taste architecture of many modern Athenian buildings. I would also say that Greek people are very handsome and look amazingly like their ancestors, something which I find very…fascinating!

The city has a lot to offer to expatriates if they are patient and well prepared before the come here, I believe.

IM: What are the clichés regarding Athens, if there are any?

AC: There are many from where I come! Greek people are thought to be lazy, chaotic, and they like to eat a lot- meaning they prefer actually to spend their time preparing and eating rather than working, and they like to relax. There is also the cliché that Greek men in particular are violent in the form of domestic violence, and there are many stories of an unverified nature that Greeks are violent towards women.

There’s a broader stereotype in my home country that includes the notion that Greek men are against emancipated women to a great extent. Other clichés include that Greeks like to dance (which they don’t, actually), and that they are continuously hot-blooded and looking for fights.

In a way all of the above are clichés that may have value in the particular experiences of some people, but I don’t think they hold a value to a great extent.

IM: What would you recommend to potential newcomers? What seems ‘worth it’ for you, so far?

AC: It is important to learn Greek! As soon as possible! That’s my first and basic advice. Also, I would say that foreign people arriving in Greece should not be afraid, and should try to get accustomed to the “Mediterranean way of life”- they should try to get in tune with society as a whole, and not to be isolated from what’s going on.

I have no regrets for being here, although I must say that I miss friends and family back in the Czech Republic and many other small things from the daily life I had there.

On the other hand, the distance from the homeland is short, just a few hours flight, and all can be combined- this means I can live here and keep in touch [with friends] back home. In short, living in Athens is definitely an experience to welcome and there are so many things to do here and learn. I especially like to listen and to observe old people sitting in cafes and talking about politics….its really amazing for me, and rather odd, but certainly something you can only get to see here.

Elisabeth Maragoula, Entrepreneur/communications consultant, Euro Editing

Elisabeth is an American entrepreneur and a specialized communications consultant based in Athens. She has worked for a number of leading publications in the city and has a wide range of experience in similar fields in New York and Rome. Elisabeth was born and raised in the state of California before moving to Europe in 2000 for studies in France.

This classy, dynamic and highly proficient communications specialist, took some time to reveal her experiences of living in Athens and establishing her business here, which strives to make use of Athens as a European hub for cross-border cultural communications- a difficult task which only a few dare to attempt. Elisabeth certainly deserves a closer look, judging by her determination to achieve her aims in that field on a global level.

Ioannis Michaletos: What are the best things about Athens compared to other cities..? Why Athens?

Elisabeth Maragoula: The sense of freedom, stark contrasts, distinct light, first of all!

Athens is a seductive city of stark contrasts – sea and mountains, urban density and greenery, chaos and calm, avant-garde and tradition, complexities and simplicity. The dichotomy of these seems to create an extraordinarily unique sense of freedom.

It makes sense, then, that people follow the concept of working to live, whereby passing their weekends in cafes with friends makes up for stressful, underpaid work-weeks.

The physical beauty of the city also plays a key role in making Athens stand apart. The white sunlight, perhaps Greece’s most outstanding attribute, allows Athenians to take advantage of the outdoors, whether it is in street cafes and restaurants, on the seaside or along mountain trails. Best of all, the sun shines year-round, making the lifestyle quite lively.

IM: Does Athens have a cultural scene worth exploring?

EM: Yes. Athens is no longer a part of Europe’s cultural/artistic periphery. Instead, it is making a name for itself in the contemporary arts scene.

Among others, the Acropolis Museum, Deste Foundation, Benaki Museum and Athens Biennale have put Athens on Europe’s arts map.

But there is also a refreshing cultural scene inspired by a grassroots movement led by Athens’ professional thirty-somethings. They are coming into the spotlight by organizing events, promoting friends’ artistic initiatives and creating forums to generate fresh concepts.

It’s interesting because although times are tough, especially for young Greeks who are facing an uphill battle in the next decade, their keffe (enthusiastic spirit), for many, is unwavering.

True, a lot of talent is pushed by the wayside in this country, but in times of crisis there is room for new blood and innovation – something of which these young Athenians seem to be taking full advantage.

IM: Are the clichés about Athens true, or does living here provide a whole new concept for someone from abroad?

EM: Again, contrasts play a major role in shaping Athenian lifestyle. There is a unique concept of living a free life within the parameters of ancient history, religious tradition and Greek culture. Locals may party ‘til 7AM, but they’re sure to arrive in top form later that day to work events or family functions.

Athens truly is a city at a crossroads, between modernity and antiquity – a fantastic “mess.” And out of this mess, a love-hate relationship is born… it’s not abnormal to hear an Athenian or expat rattle off an excessive list of complaints about the city’s traffic, inefficiency, high prices and poor service- as well as compliments about its weather, nightlife, food and history, all in one breath.

Logically, from afar, this makes little sense, but this inexplicable contrast is what  keeps many Greeks from leaving, many foreigners coming and a whole other group of people confused in balancing a “fight or flight” trade-off.

IM: What can an expatriate expect from Athens when trying to establish a business here? What are the pros and cons?

EM: Greeks are known for their entrepreneurial skills in turning ideas into goods and businesses. For Greek emigrants this innovation is not simply found through individualism, but much more so through networking and combining forces to gain a market share. Just take New York City’s restaurant scene as an example.

Working together and promoting each other is a necessity for foreign entrepreneurs to get ahead in Athens, especially now due to the current insecure economic environment.

Establishing a business here has additional challenges such as high costs for collateral materials, nearly incomprehensible legal guidelines, ingrained bureaucracy and a lackluster attitude towards unconventional business ideas.

These challenges combined with the city’s vastness make it even more important and difficult to find out who’s who. Greeks work significantly through friend and family referrals. Connections here are everything, and without them, just finding the right printer can seem an impossible task.

But again, in times of crisis, opportunity does exist through collaboration. Gaps can be filled and silos can be integrated when resources and skill sets are pooled. It is essential to know the right people, to find a niche that fills a void or creates a demand, and to allow negativity to roll off one’s back. With the right know-how, perseverance and networking skills, expat entrepreneurs stand a chance at finding their market here.

Sonja Mijailovic, Organization manager, Serbian Ministry for Diaspora

Sonja is the delegate for Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria of the Serbian Diaspora Parliament, an organization established by the Serbian Ministry for the Diaspora.

She is based in Athens and manages the activities of the Serbian Diaspora members in the above countries, as well as informing the other Serbian community members on educational, business and social issues.

The energetic and dynamic Sonja answered a few questions about her “Athens experience” for Balkanalysis.com. Being from Serbia, which is rather close to Greece, it is interesting to note the range of differences between those two “Balkan countries” and how everyday life in Athens is indeed a special one, and distinct from any other city in the region.

Ioannis Michaletos: What is the best thing about living in Athens compared to other cities for an expatriate? What are the main differences between Athens and Belgrade?

Sonja Mijailovic Athens is a sun-soaked city with a long coastline. These factors, together with its rich history and archaeological sites at every corner, are the main attractions that leave no one indifferent.

Add to this the busy streets lined with cafés swarming with people and its famous night life, and one has the impression of good, easygoing life.

However, since it covers a large area, one can find Athens a frustrating city in which to commute. It can be as bad as needing one and a half hours to get from one place to another. If those two places are your home and a workplace, do the math…

Comparing Athens to Belgrade, one will love the weather, but hate the lack of natural shade, since Athens has very little green, very few parks, and a scarcity of big, prominent trees.

Athens is three times the size of Belgrade, and I would say that both its advantages and drawbacks similarly can be multiplied by three.

IM: Does Athens have a cultural scene worth exploring?

SM: Athens has a very rich cultural heritage which is appropriately nourished. There are globally significant historical sites and museums, both large and small private ones. There are numerous art galleries with ever-changing exhibitions.

Athens also has over 150 theatres with an array of types of plays. Knowledge of Greek is imperative though, because it is rarely performed in any other language.

Also, the music scene is well covered, especially classical and Greek. International rock and pop bands do visit, but rarely the biggest names.

Foreign newspapers and magazines can be found at bigger kiosks. In bookstores one can find sections of books in foreign languages, in a reasonable number of titles covering various subjects.

IM: Are the typical clichés or stereotypes about Athens true, or does living here provide a whole new concept for someone from abroad?

SM: I’m not quite sure about which you are referring to, and if there is any. I would say that this matter would depend on personal and subjective views on things.

IM: What can an expatriate expect from Athens when trying to establish a business or get in touch with the wider business organizations/state environment?

SM: A foreigner must be armed with infinite patience, since one will face an overwhelming bureaucratic apparatus which can not be dealt with successfully without hiring a competent lawyer and an accountant.

If this is what you considered by cliché in your previous question, then it is very true.

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