It’s all Greek to me…

Written by on 23 Νοεμβρίου 2019

It has been nearly four years since I moved to Thessaloniki, Greece. Moving abroad had been on my mind occasionally, but it was my time to shine in February 2016.

Mainly millennials from southern European countries have been moving to north west European countries either temporarily or permanently since the peak of the European crisis in 2012, by estimation around three times more than before that period. For work, family or studies, in any case for a better life for either themselves or the ones they left behind.

For several years back home in Utrecht, the Netherlands, I had been moving around in Greek circles as a result of being in a relationship with a Greek woman, as well as musical success around southeast Europe, starting with Greece. In 2012, I had my first booking abroad, in Thessaloniki, where I got bitten by the Greek bug.

When I decided to move to Thessaloniki in February 2016, I thought I knew something about the language and the culture and that I could already feel at home in my new city. I had visited several times and I already had a small circle of friends and connections. I learned so much about the culture from my Greek friends and girlfriend, so of course I knew what I was getting myself into.

One month after my move, I started feeling like a stranger instead. I got confused with my prior image of Greek people and the country, and on top of that everybody was speaking discouragingly fast. I seemed to be the only foreigner around, which was strange for me since I come from a city full of internationals. Moving abroad myself, I expected to be one of “the internationals” abroad like I had experienced in Utrecht. On the contrary, I felt like I was the only one and most people did not seem to be used to it. It did not bother me for the most part, and even though it was somehow my expectation since I was used to having multiethnic surroundings from back home, I still preferred the experience of immersion in the Greek culture. After all that was why I came.

After going through my first few months, it was difficult for me to uniquely define Thessaloniki as a city and the Greeks as a nation. Being from northwest Europe, the only image I had was that Greeks are south Europeans, such as the Spanish and the Italians. That comes with cliché’s such as the “singing” accent, excessive hand gestures while speaking, having a temper and tables full of food in the afternoon. I had learned something from spending time with the Greeks back home, but soon enough I found out that this was only the beginning.

It is easy to take for granted how big the differences can be between cultures below the surface, when you never experienced them long enough from up close. As obvious as that may sound, it has blown my mind how much one underestimates the fundamental differences in the details. I started learning about many habits and approaches that are typically Dutch that I never realised before, such as strict planning, blunt expression, emotional introversion, putting work and study before anything, the way we behave in traffic and how our public sector works to name a few examples. It is typical to take such things for granted and simply considering them “normal”, taking them as common courtesy, or to not even notice them at all. In our own country, we as people seem to look strangely at the habits of people from other cultures and we tend to interpret them as strange or even rude. We seem to feel a natural sense of resistance to certain approaches when living abroad, and we get vocal about it. We might not even recognise some of those things as local culture and people often respond defensive when you mention them.

While generally having a great experience in Greece, I must admit that I found myself puzzled numerous times as well and I have needed to take my time to get used to or to understand typical habits such as social nuances, the way the public sector works, how to interpret people’s intentions and the mentality overall. Until one learns about a culture more in debt, some things can be difficult to embrace. In my country, I see Greek friends experiencing the same about things I generally believe to be common and efficient, however that is not quite the case to many. It is common to be uncomfortable with daily matters that concern one’s lifestyle, the public sector and the daily habits of one’s direct social surroundings when living abroad, and getting used to these things take an awful lot of time. During the process, we talk to those around us about how things are different back home (suggestively better), no matter how pointless this is.

By the time I go back home for good, and I will have to adapt again, I will be back in my city referring back to how things are done in Greece. And I will just have to take satisfaction out of the same logical response: “Joost, it is all Greek to me”.

Joost is a Dutch DJ, part-time language teacher, overthinker, and currently living in Thessaloniki, Greece.

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